Anna at the National Theatre review ****

Anna

National Theatre Dorfman, 11th June 2019

After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.

I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).

Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.

The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.

A German Life at the Bridge Theatre review ****

A German Life

Bridge Theatre, 15th April 2019

It is pretty easy when you spend as much time consuming theatre as the Tourist to go full on luvvie and get well carried away with the “genius” of playwrights, directors, creatives and, especially, actors. So you would probably be wise to ignore all of what follows and the gushing that generally ensues whenever acting royalty treads the boards. But, just for once, this was the real deal.

I see, for example, in today’s Guardian that there is a ranked list of Dame Judi Dench’s film roles. It’s pretty thin pickings, with the exception of some big screen Shakespeare, Iris, Philomena and, especially, Notes on a Scandal. This is not because Dame JD is a poor actress. Nonsense. It is because most films are rubbish. But when a proper text is given to her she is peerless. Which, for anyone who has ever seen her on stage, should be self-evident. I only know her from the recent collaborations with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage, an RSC Mother Courage, Madame de Sade and the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose. Too young and too stupid to have seen her in any major Shakespeare roles unfortunately.

Mind you I had never seen, until now, Dame Maggie Smith, on stage. Never saw The Lady in the Van at the NT or in the West End. Or earlier West End triumphs like Albee’s Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, or David Hare’s The Breath of Life. All in the fallow period for the Tourist’s theatre going. So it’s just the film and telly stuff. More often than not DMS stamps her mark on these screen roles so completely that you cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Sardonic, trenchant, caustic, acerbic, take your pick of adjectives, you know what I mean. Yet always something far more profound, revealing and empathetic beyond the natural comic timing.

So I wasn’t going to miss this. Whatever it was. Even if she had read out the telephone directory. As it happens a play based on the testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, was always going to be right up my street. Ms Pomsel died in 2017, aged 106, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, having given a series of interviews, aged 102, that formed the basis for a documentary film A German Life, produced and directed by Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. This script in turn formed the basis for a subsequent biography and for Christopher’s Hampton’s translation and adaptation for the Bridge stage.

Ms Pomsel had a relatively unremarkable upbringing, despite the remarkable times, as a child in WWI and in 1920s Germany, and went to work as a stenographer in the late 1920’s for a Jewish lawyer and, soon after, simultaneously, for a right wing insurance broker. In 1933 she moved to a a job in the news department of the Third Reich’s broadcasting department, (having taken up Nazi Party membership), and eventually was posted in 1942 to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment where she was a shorthand writer. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, and Goebbels’s suicide, she was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD for 5 years in various concentration camps, escaping to West Germany after her release and working for state broadcasters until her retirement, living in Munich.

Now it is pretty easy to see why the German documentary makers alighted on Brunhilde Pomsel. Yes, her proximity to Goebbels, but also the clarity and honesty of her recollection. Her apparent apolitical stance, she joined the party to get the job and couldn’t quite remember if she voted for the Nazis or the DNVP (the Nationalist party) in the early 1930s, but liked the colours and the meetings, and refusal, even in retrospect to utterly condemn the system she found herself at the heart of, made her a more authentic commentator on what happened to Germany than many others with more pointed conviction in their stories. Her testimony is not concerned with her own personal guilt or innocence and can therefore more credibly get to the heart of the question: what would you have done differently in the same situation?

I am not sure if Mr Hampton had Maggie Smith in mind when he began the process of translating and editing the material from the documentary, though I gather she had plenty of input to the final outcome. I assume that an unbroken monologue, in line with the film, was the only feasible option but I would guess again that Mr Hampton, and the creative team here, Jonathan Kent as director, Anna Fleischle (designer), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound), must have had some trepidation at presenting a talking head for near two hours. The set, a naturalistic representation of Ms Pomsel’s apartment, moves gradually towards the front of the thrust stage, Mr Clark’s lighting subtly rings changes and there are a handful of crucial sound interventions, (not least of which is subtle amplification – the Bridge is a brilliant space but not intimate), but otherwise it is just DMS sat in chair.

They shouldn’t have worried (in fact they probably didn’t). From the opening knowing aside “let’s see how this goes”, through Ms Pomsel’s strict childhood, her delight in Weimar Berlin society, the reckoning of Kristallnacht, the fear in Hitler’s bunker, disgust at the Soviets and the search for her Jewish friend post-war (she died in a camp in 1943), DMS is, and this is no exaggeration, spell-binding. You don’t hear and see a German centenarian on stage, it’s still DMS, but this is the vivid, animated story of a real person, conveyed in an entirely naturalistic way, with just hesitant voice, mobile hands and febrile face. Leaving you ample opportunity, as the details build, to reflect on the core question posed above. For it seems to me that any guilt than Ms Pomsel may have carried was actually more the guilt at not feeling guilt, despite all that had happened, and not the guilt of complicity, ignorance or indifference. The banality that lies behind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil personified. The contradictions about what she did and didn’t know about the concentration camps, or more actually cared to remember about what she knew, especially when contrasted with her own experience in these same camps after the war, are the most pointed passages of testimony and play. “We didn’t want to know about them, we really didn’t”.

This I suppose is why this “evil” is a constant in human history. It’s not lack of resistance or evasive denial that lets this continue. Just “ordinary” people not understanding or caring enough to stop it. This story will never be irrelevant.

I would assume that this will proved to be Dame Maggie’s stage swan song. If so it is a remarkable demonstration of her skill. But beyond that this is a vital story. Powerfully told. It looks like Blackbox Film and Media, the documentary makers, have told, and are telling, other such vital stories. I need to find out more. Not least of which is to see the A German Life documentary. As should you perhaps given the play is sold out.

Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre review *****

Betrayal

Harold Pinter Theatre, 1st April 2019

The Tourist never had a great deal of confidence in his ability in his chosen career. Unfortunate in a world where self-belief is everything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was misplaced. Still many of those he had cause to interact with seemed to disagree for which he is eternally grateful.

I would be surprised if Tom Hiddleston has this problem. With good reason. He is a mighty fine actor. And I think he knows it. And he is a gorgeous looking fella. And I see he went out with Susannah Fielding, herself a brilliant stage actor, to wit her turns in American Psycho, The Merchant of Venice, The Beaux Stratagem and Bull, and, most recently giving Steve Coogan lessons in comic timing in the uneven, though still often brilliant, This Time with Alan Partridge.

Until now I had only seen TH on stage in Cheek By Jowl’s The Changeling years ago, missing his award winning outings in Cymbeline, Othello, Coriolanus and the limited edition RADA Hamlet. And since I can’t be doing with all that super-hero gibberish the only film I know him from is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, which is the very definition of pretentious, art-house cinema. Obviously I quite liked it. So it is his TV roles in Wallander, The Hollow Crown and The Night Manager which I know best. He shines. And it is not like he isn’t up against some pretty stiff competition here.

So we come to Betrayal, the conclusion of Jamie Lloyd’s stupendous Pinter season. At first glance taking the role of the cuckold publisher Robert, rather than literary agent Jerry, his mate who has the affair with his wife Emma, seems a surprising decision. Yet he doesn’t even have to open his mouth, just lurking at the back of Soutra Gilmour’s revolve set, for this to immediately make sense. I have said before that there have been a handful of actors in this season who just seem get Harold Pinter’s language. By which I mean they turn it into something natural whilst still retaining that rhythm, whether it is passive or aggressive, that makes it unique to him. Tamsin Greig, Rupert Graves, Al Weaver, Brid Brennan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Danny Dyer, John Heffernan, Ron Cook. Not always who you might expect but these where the ones who nailed it. To which we can now add Tom H. But Mr H also captures an inner emotional rhythm which makes him very, very special.

It helps that Betrayal, beyond its “going back in time” conceit, is one of HP’s least tricksy plays, indeed it can almost be delivered as the kind of naturalistic melodramas that HP first appeared in as an actor. And that Charlie Cox, an actor whose work is entirely new to me, and Zawe Ashton, who I remember from Jamie Lloyd’s persuasive, if sometimes wayward, production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studios, are similarly impressive. And that Jamie Lloyd has pretty much turned himself into the best director of HP since HP himself, (The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios still ranks as his best). I expect a definitive Caretaker to appear in the not too distinct future given the box office success here.

Betrayal, as I am sure you know, first appeared in 1978, with the affair which it dramatises beginning in 1968 when the play ends, and ending in 1977 when the play begins, with scenes from 1975, 1974, 1971, and proceeding chronologically within the other pivotal year of 1973. I am sure you also know that it is loosely based on HP’s own affair in the 1960’s with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. HP was simultaneously working on his great, unfinished, paean to Proust, a very clear influence. The structure means we already know the what, so that HP can focus on the how, and, especially get to the core of the deceptions to learn the why, of the betrayals. With the sparse plain set, few props and having all three actors always on stage the tripartite relationship is emphasised. What they know and don’t know. What they hide from each other and from themselves. The hurt they cause each other. The victories, defeats and compromises, for there is calculation here entwined with the passions. The key moments, the memories, of the affair, the marriage and the friendship, leap out with uncanny resonance from Mr Lloyd’s minimalist treatment. Robert’s attempts to intimidate Jerry in the restaurant scene and the pain when he finds out on the holiday in Venice, the best single scene of this entire season. Jerry’s needy, self-centredness. Emma’s ill-fated desire for both men. The dependence of the men on each other and on Emma. The truculence of the end of the affair the as mundane mechanics of break up are thrashed out.

As in the rest of the season Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham brother’s sound is impeccably delivered. Yet if I had to pick one thing that elevated this Betrayal into something very, very special it is the on stage movement of the three actors – the invisible link between them made visible. The silences are made part of the language and therefore the drama. That’s where Jamie Lloyd has the edge.

One example. The scene where TH is sitting on a chair cuddling Robert and Emma’s child. Whilst she and Jerry are languishing in bed on a stolen afternoon in the flat in Kilburn. Old TH managed to conjure up real tears in the Venice scene but this scene nearly had the Tourist blubbing. In Pinter. WTF.

What next for Tom Hiddleston. Other than the twenty fifth incarnation of this Loki bloke. I can’t wait.

Alys, Always at the Bridge Theatre review ****

Books HD

Alys, Always

Bridge Theatre, 25th February 2019

Said it before and I’ll say it again. You have to be careful with adaptations of novels and/or films on stage. There may be enough in character and plot to justify the transfer but there may not always, (no pun intended), be enough in the form of drama, spectacle and movement to make it a resounding success. So it proved here. There is plenty to enjoy here, and Nicholas Hytner’s direction wrings as much colour as its possible out of the material, especially against the backdrop of a crisp design concept from Bob Crowley, and it is, no doubt, a good story, but as theatre, well not quite.

I don’t know the Harriet Lane novel from 2012 on which Lucinda Coxon, (whose work for stage and screen I have also contrived to miss bar The Crimson Petal and the White adaptation), has created the text. But I can see the temptation. It would make a terrific mini-series. As would, I suspect, Her, Ms Lane’s second novel from the sound of it. Harriet Lane began as a journalist herself, I remember her Guardian column, before becoming a novelist when her eyesight was unfortunately imperilled.

Frances Thorpe is a humble millennial sub-editor cum factotum for a Sunday supplement, the Questioner, who, by a twist of fate, finds her life and career catapulted into a new, gilded league. How she plays the circumstances is the nub of the tale. Gold-digging schemer or realistic opportunist? Becky S, Brideshead, Ripley (without the sociopathic tendencies), Eve Harrington, Holly Golightly, those who find, or position, themselves amongst their “betters” are a cultural staple and these are only the most interesting ones. And, as it happens, in one of those serendipitous coincidences which punctuate the life of the idle Cultur-tarian, the Tourist has subsequently seen two of these iconic parvenus in the guise of stage versions of The Talented Mr Ripley and All About Eve. (More to follow, informed, as these comments are, by the far greater literary intelligence of the SO, my carer for all these entertainments).

The tale of Frances is more subtle than many of these comparators, being more contemporary, set in the rarefied world of publishing, but there isn’t too much that will come as a surprise here. Psychological thriller? That is probably a bit of a stretch. Wry comedy of manners? In parts yes, there is plenty to laugh at, but this doesn’t go all out to skewer the manners, pretensions and behaviour of its characters. We need Frances to present a conundrum, difficult to pin down, but not a total blank, and we do need the dimensions of her character to be explored. Which, by and large, they are not.

Frances’s journey is sufficiently supple though to require a convincing lead performance and, in Joanne Froggatt, (made famous by Downton Abbey I gather), that is what it gets. Whilst the narrative of put upon mouse at work rising to the top and dumping on former colleagues along the way is a little cumbersome it is, in parts, a treat. The relationship that develops with Alys’s family and specifically her grieving husband, Laurence Kyte, (not giving much away here you can’t read elsewhere), also provides an opportunity for some sparkling dialogue. However Robert Glenister has to work awfully hard to bring the overweening, prize winning author to life and the knife-edge of Frances’s conflicted motives starts to blunt in the later two-hander scenes.

Leah Gayer as vacuous daughter Polly has a lot more fun. This is her stage debut. She’ll be back. Polly verges on “poor little rich girl” cliche but Ms Gayer somehow manages to elicit some sympathy for the position her character finds herself in. Her brother Teddy (Sam Woolf) is initially on to Frances but fizzles out thereafter. Sylvestra Le Touzel has a lot of fun with Mary, Frances’s long-serving, frayed boss, as does Simon Manyonda as her condescending, partying colleague, Oliver. The rest of the cast don’t get much opportunity to delve beneath the lines with the exception of Joanna David as Charlotte, the family friend who alone seems to penetrate Frances’s feelings and actions.

If directing is all about moving actors from A to B then there is n0-one better than Mr Hytner, who creates forward momentum and some suspense, from what are quite static scenes. The set, with its thrust stage, sliding room configuration and generous use of video (Luke Halls), is likewise silky smooth. As is sound (Gareth Fry) and lighting (Jon Clark). But the impeccable presentation is part of the problem. The play’s two acts clock in at just over two hours but it doesn’t outstay its welcome nor feel rushed. I was intrigued and entertained but never really challenged. Nor was Frances. Her progress is untroubled by doubt, from self, the other protagonists or audience. I remember only one knowing aside from Frances and one killer line from Charlotte.

I gather the book is altogether darker and Frances a far sharper piece of work, and less reliable narrator, than we see here. Translating that tone, that voice, to stage is always challenging. By taking the safe route Mr Hytner, in the first play he has directed written by a woman, will deservedly get bums on the superb Bridge seats, which is after all his purpose, but I hope his next outing, a new Dream will be something more memorable. Mind you it’s Shakespeare so he is off to a head start. After all when it comes to stage tales of self-advancers big Will served up the very best. Richard III. Now that’s how to do it.

Pinter at Pinter 3 review ****

Pinter at the Pinter Three

Harold Pinter Theatre, 19th November 2018

  • Tess
  • Landscape
  • Apart From That
  • Girls
  • That’s All
  • God’s District
  • Monologue
  • That’s Your Trouble
  • Special Offer
  • Trouble In The Works
  • Night
  • A Kind Of Alaska

Just to be clear I am a fan of the work of Harold Pinter. And now it seems is MS, after he joined me at this, the third instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s season devoted to all of Pinter’s one act plays, and all manner of sketches and fragments besides.

If you not a fan, and actually occasionally even if you are, they will be times when the patience is tested by HP’s particular dissection of the psyche, but this is more than compensated by those times when the combination of mood, language and meaning, or lack thereof since the one thing you can depend on with HP is that you can’t depend on anything, leave you stunned at just how someone managed to right this stuff. 

Of course you need the right actors for the job. Here we had Penelope Wilton, a late addition kicking off with Tess a monologue about a posh lady who had experienced better times, Tom Edden, Meera Syal, Keith Allen, Lee Evans, and the now plainly incomparable, Tamsin Grieg. They were, all, unquestionably, the right actors for this job.

Apart From That saw Lee Evans and Meera Syal riffing on asking “how they were”, as simple and effective as comedy gets, Girls is a slightly uncomfortable monologue, (from Tom Edden), about spanking, That’s All is straight out of the Les Dawson school of comedy, God’s District, one of these weak, one joke (Hammersmith) , anti-religion sketches that HP was prone to, Monologue, one man’s nostalgic conversation with an imagined friend, brilliantly captured by Lee Evans, That’s Your Trouble, verbal sparring from two blokes in a pub, Special Offer a curious short sketch about “men for sale” that Meera Syal got saddled with, Trouble In The Works, a Pythonesque word-play on products in a factory (Lee Evans again hilarious) and Night, a tender duet from an old married couple reminiscing about when they fell in love, which is genuinely moving and had no right to be here.

Now it is really hard not to rave about the Lee Evans when he turns his physical comic genius on full beam as he did here. Especially as he came out of retirement especially for this run. He has form with Pinter, having played Gus in The Dumb Waiter in 2007, and has even successfully tried his hand at Beckett.  But the star of the night for me was Tamsin Greig in the two major works on show Landscape and A Kind of Alaska.

In Landscape, from 1968, she plays Beth who is reliving her past life and loves (specifically an affair (?) consummated on a sunny beach), presumably in her mind, whilst her vulgar, frustrated husband, Keith Allen, bothers her and chats about the everyday before, briefly, losing his temper. The deliberate contrast, and what it says about gender, power and the inability to communicate, is brilliant. This is Pinter as Beckett. Nothing much happens, we end abruptly, and there is deliberate repetition. It originally failed to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly for its swearing, but probably because the LC didn’t like HP, but when censorship was finally consigned to the dustbin of history, Peggy Ashcroft and David Waller brought it to the RSC stage. There are squillions of other playwrights who explore this territory but don’t even get close to Pinter’s insight, in half an hour or so, in a lifetime of trying. 

Keith Allen, and in this respect this is meant as a compliment, has a natural mansplaining air about him. His waspish manner, which, based on previous stage, film, TV and interview performances, fits the role here of Duff perfectly. I am trying to avoid saying he is grumpy and slightly bellicose, but he is. I last say him playing the older Hogarth in Nick Dear’s The Taste of the Town at the Rose Kingston where he similarly fitted the part like a glove, albeit there as an older man riddled with pain and regret. (And he has the look of the older Hogarth if we believe the artist’s self portrait – not always a given). 

In contrast Tamsin Greig spoke her lines, in a soft Irish lilt, through a microphone, presumably to highlight the contrast between the two “monologues”, but it also ensured we could her every breath as she gave voice to the interior thoughts of the plainly damaged Beth. Enthralling.

Then in A Kind of Alaska (1982) she played Deborah, the woman on a hospital bed who wakes from a coma after 29 years to meet the stiff doctor who has “cared” for her, Keith Allen again, and her bemused sister Pauline, (Meera Syal in a role that finally gave her a chance to shine). AKOA is one of HP’s less cryptic offerings, (though the relationship between siblings and between doctor and patient might now be as straightforward as it seems), but it is still fascinating to see how, with an economic text, the bewilderment of a “child” who has become an “adult” without knowing how or what this means. Once again TG was terrific, confused, guilty, emotional, often in the same line. Two women then, locked in the past, but they could scarcely be more dissimilar.

Once again Soutra Gilmour’s set, here a rotating cube containing “period” interiors redolent of the period when many of these works were written, the 1960s, as well as the lighting of Jon Clark and sound of the Ringham brothers is sublime, and cleverly pulls the disparate strands, and writing styles, together. Jamie Lloyd once again proves he is pretty much peerless when it comes to Pinter. With no “guest” directors the contrast between the comic and the tragic in these works was well balanced and the pacing ideal. I don’t know how much rehearsal time the cast had but this really had the feel of a seasoned ensemble. 

Bring on No. 4. Moonlight from 1993 and Nightschool from 1960 where Mr Lloyd has passed over the reins to Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. I don’t know either play and it sounds like these might be more muted than 1 and 3 but no matter, there will be something to take away. And the Tourist, and hopefully new fan MS, are primed and ready for the recently announced Betrayal. 

The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre review *****

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The Lehman Trilogy

National Theatre Lyttleton, 18th September 2018

So I gather this staging of Stefano Massimi’s play The Lehman Trilogy is a very different take from that lauded across Europe after its premiere in 2015 in Italy. No cast of thousands here. Just three amazing actors in Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, and a minimalist set bearing all the usual hallmarks, (revolving glass cube, neon lights, monochrome, simple props to be shuffled around by the cast), of its designer Es Devlin, with symbiotic and effective video panoramas courtesy of Luke Halls, and thrilling sound and lighting design from Nick Powell and Jon Clark . All this from a director Sam Mendes, who is normally master of the maximalist, last seen in The Ferryman.

Of course no matter how good the production it all starts with the text. Here the Deputy Artistic Director of the NT, and dramaturg maestro, Ben Power has condensed the original play into the sprightliest 3 hours (ex intervals) imaginable. Of course there is a history lesson, but Mr Power, I assume reflecting the Italian original, draws out the themes and repeated motifs, and the key characters, the original three brothers, Henry, Emmanuel and Mayer, and the next generations, Herbert, Philip and then scion Bobbie. The final chapters, as the family cedes control to “outsiders”, and the collapse presided over by the hubristic bully Richard Fuld is, as many others have observed, a bit of a rush, but I don’t think that really matters. This is a story of the founding roots, expansion and degradation of American capitalism and, specifically, how a family of Bavarian Jewish emigres went from a farm supplies shop in Montgomery, Alabama to become one of the most powerful global financial dynasties ever seen. Lehman Bros is fascinating, yes because it is no longer there, but also because it was, to all intents and purposes, the first of its kind.

Our generation knows the importance of these institutions thanks to the crisis of 2008, still impacting the global economy a decade later. Lehman Bros, on that fateful 15th September, was the sacrifice made pour encourager les autres. The biggest bankruptcy in US history, (though the US, European and Japanese “franchises” largely ended up with Barclays and Nomura), Lehmmn was the catalyst for the intervention which we all all still paying for with, at root, the “wrong” cost of capital. The play though resolutely shows that cyclical crises are endemic to financial capitalism, and not just in the events of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. 1857 and 1873 also get a look in. The mis-pricing of complex risk is built into the system. It won’t go away.

We start at the end though with the iconic boxes, which staff used to carry out belongings after Chapter 11 was declared, piled up on the modern office set. These boxes in various configurations, with a few chairs, tables, a spot of graffiti and our imaginations, go on to signify the humble one room shop, the expansion into cotton-broking, the office in New York set up in 1860, the homes of the great and good in the story, particularly the families the three brothers marry in to, a synagogue, the boardrooms and trading floors of the palaces of the post WW II years.

And all the supporting characters, wives, children, business associates, rabbis, friends, even a tightrope-artiste, all are played by our three actors. Throughout they wear the formal frock coat attire from the mid C19. So all these “extras” are conjured up with accent, movement, stance, attitude. Now Simon Russell Beale relishes this sort of caper but Adam Godley near matched him, especially when it came to squeezing humour out of his impersonations. All three of these actors have been at the top of their game for years. Whether on stage, large or small screen, it is a fair bet that they will steal the show in whatever they appear in. To have them all together was revelatory. This is an abstracted story. With a narrative arc of this scale, across this much time and space, intricately juxtaposing the familial with the social, political and economic, it couldn’t be anything else. So everything we see, hear and learn is formed from the basic building blocks of acting and direction. Yet it is so, so rich, symphonic if you will. Look out for the recurring nightmare scenes. Just one example. Simply stunning.

Oh and there was one other genius involved. Candida Caldicot. The soundtrack to this odyssey conjured up live with one piano.

With this story, this cast, this director, this text and this creative team this was always likely to be a winner. No surprise it was an early sell out. This play in this adaptation will re-appear. No question. Whether you get acting of this quality again I am not so sure.

 

The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

britten_-_the_turn_of_the_screw_twelve-tone_theme_tetrachords

The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.