Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

Macbeth at the National Theatre review ***

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Macbeth

National Theatre Olivier, 14th April 2018

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

This was frustrating. No way of hiding it. It promised so much. A Macbeth. With Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, both of whom, when furnished with optimal texts, directing and designs, are as good as it gets. Since we know the text cannot be at fault, though Macbeth productions do have a habit of disappointing, then we have to look to design and direction. It really pains me to say this, since I don’t think Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the NT is anything like as disappointing as some would have you believe, but here, as director, the ideas just don’t really work.

Most of the proper reviews have alighted on the cul de sac that is the design of Rae Smith. Now Ms Smith is a rare talent. I offer you St George and the Dragon, Girl From the North Country, This House, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, and, of course, War Horse in support of that contention, and that’s just what I know. Here though we have a backdrop of black plastic sheeting strips, like an explosion in a bin bag factory, which seems a very tentative way to solve the challenge offered by the Olivier stage. A steep ramp initially takes centre stage though this gets shunted to one side for most of the proceedings leaving a pair of ramshackle sheds to do most of the visual heavy lifting. It is pretty dark, though with harsh accents, courtesy of James Farncombe’s lighting design, and Dunsinane here put me in mind of nothing more than a camp of homeless people under some arches. There are some poles on which the witches have some fun later on, and which provide a foil to some back to front, shrunken head shenanigans, but generally this is not an insightful concept.

Nothing wrong with the idea, just maybe not in Macbeth, for, as the critics have indicated, this foul is foul visual starting point gives little room for the plot to develop. What exactly is it that Macbeth and the Lady are prepared to commit murder for? Untrammelled ambition and the pursuit of power over this rabble hardly seems worth it. Macbeth is dark, for sure, and gloomy certainly worked for the benchmark RSC Nunn/McKellen/Dench production from 1976, with its minimalist circle. This left everything to our imagination: in this latest NT production we are steered too aggressively towards a composite post apocalyptic dystopia and never get out.

The hackneyed Jarmanesque vision extends to Moritz Junge’s costumes. Back in the day, when the Tourist was a devoted Bunnymen fan, and camouflage gear and ripped jeans were de rigeur, he dressed like this. The witches are properly bonkers, weird sisters indeed, but their aesthetic is similarly post-punkish. This means the supernatural world is firmly tethered to the “real” world, which may respect contemporary Jacobean reality, (remember James I was an “expert” on witchcraft), but doesn’t help when it comes to ratcheting up the atmospherics. The visual brutality smothers the action as well with plenty of stage blood and fake beheadings. Personally I don’t have a problem with the visceral approach to Shakespearean violence but think it is better employed against a more minimalist design or potboilers like Titus Andronicus.

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other

The design distractions marred Paul Arditti’s soundscapes and Orlando Gough’s composition. As with the lighting, in isolation, this might have worked, but taken together with the look of the production, it was all just a bit too much. This left the cast with just too much to do to draw us into Shakespeare’s sinewy text, so fraught with development and repetition. Every word counts with Macbeth, even more so than the other tragedies, if the couple’s psychological horrors are to be fully realised. There were occasions when the bleak poetry captivated. Rory Kinnear and, especially here, Anne-Marie Duff are both too good as actors not to convince in many key scenes; when they plot the murder, in the immediate aftermath (a real sense of panic here), the Lady’s sleepwalking madness, her “unsex me here” soliloquy, Macbeth realising he has misinterpreted the prophecy.

Yet other scenes are less compelling, Macbeth’s “tomorrow” soliloquy, Banquo’s ghost, (drunken zombie and Lidl barbecue is not a winning formula), and the shock-horror apparitions. Mr Kinnear once again lays on the blokish estuarine, which worked so well for Iago, but which here gets distracting. I think he is an actor who shrinks just a little when the production has flaws, his Macheath on this stage and, as good as he was, his K in the Young Vic Trial, both revealed hesitations. It felt like that here at times. It is a shame as I think that in another Macbeth, shorn of all this overtly macho militarism, RK and AMD’s ability to show the couple’s brittle dissolution could have worked. The religiosity of the text, the childlessness, the notion of “evil” the inability to act, all get lost here.

Patrick O’Kane offered up a Macduff who contains his grief on hearing of the murders, which worked well, and Amaka Okafor impressed as a dignified Lady Macduff. Stephen Boxer, as is his wont, was perhaps a little too fruity as Duncan in this grimy world. On the other hand he has the measure of the language in contrast to Kevin Harvey’s Banquo and Parth Thakerar’s Malcolm who both chomped a bit at their lines. Trevor Fox’s comic Porter had plenty of stage time, though I am not entirely sure what point was being made by this, his warnings on “equivocations” were lost, and his look bore an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain from Mad Max, though this may been my unconscious reaction to the look of the play.

Mr Norris has made some cuts to the text, (notably for Malcolm and Macduff in England) excised Duncan’s other son Donalban, and asked his cast to err too much on the side of dramatic caution. In a production which prized the visual over the textural, Birnam Wood, the battle scenes, the apparitions, the witches truncated first appearance, all were underwhelming. A weird paradox indeed that a production that set out to impress the eye, in a played seeped in the supernatural, conjured so few memorable images to highlight text and action.

This may well work better in some of the smaller spaces which the production will tour at the end of this year and beginning of next. Macbeth is a play where proximity to the actors helps. That is maybe why the film versions, and I include the film of the 1976 RSC production, as well as the 2015 Justin Kurzel version, Polanski’s classic and Kurosawa’s Theatre of Blood, work so well: close-ups allow us to see deep inside the characters, in a way that this production, with this set in the Oliver space, could not emulate. The lo-fi design, redolent of theatres with much less money to play with, may come into its own. Despite my comments and the rather sharp reviews, this is still well worth seeing. It is Macbeth after all.

There is an essay in the programme which takes us through the many ways Macbeth has been adapted through the centuries. It references the classic Ninagawa production which shows that a robust, definitive vision can work for Macbeth (Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****). But it also, just maybe in retropsect, reads as a bit of an apology.

Something wicked this way comes.