So we will have to wait for Alistair McDowall’s latest full length play The Glow at the Royal Court, postponed thanks to you know what. Mr McDowall was the pen, and brains, behind dystopian/sci-fi/mystery/thriller/social satires Brilliant Adventures, Talk Show, Captain Amazing, Pomona and X. His plays sound audaciously bonkers in synopsis but actually work, albeit with a lot of creative hard work, on page and stage. He is one of our most talented and ambitious young playwrights, influenced, as they all are by the godhead Caryl Churchill, as well as by Sarah Kane and cinema, but blessed with the skill to carry it off. The Glow, which look like it kicks off in the world of spiritualism in Victorian Britain, was one of my most looked forward to plays. I will just have to keep looking forward.
In the meantime we were treated to this. all of it. A 45 minute steam of consciousness monologue which tells the story of one unnamed woman’s life. All of it. The extraordinary Kate O’Flynn, directed by Vicky Featherstone, on a stool under a single spotlight, (easy money for lighting designer Anna Watson but exactly what was required). It starts with noises, burbles, single words, repeated. The child. The teen, self-absorbed, desperate to fit in, discovering drink. Sexual awakening. Marriage, divorce, the monotony of work, re-marriage, motherhood, child-rearing. Disease. Death. Our heroine is resolutely ordinary. I have no idea what it is to be a woman but Mr McDowall seems to get inside her head. The text is funny, warming, smart, insightful. Kate O’Flynn creates rhythm, drama and empathy from the dissociated words. Think Beckett, or, better still, an unpretentious Joyce.
I was captivated. Though I can see why some might have been underwhelmed by the experiment. That’s life.
If you are, like me, a well-to-do theatre nut, missing the real thing, trying, unlike me, to fit in the panicking, worrying, exercising, zooming, reading, binge watching, baking, eating, on-line shopping, goal-satisfying, caring, and maybe working, then you have probably already been overwhelmed by the streaming opportunities already served up in the last few weeks. This plethora is easy enough to track via the MSM and WWW but less easy to watch with certainty of satisfaction what with all these other calls on your time.
Which is where the Tourist comes in. A professional loafer, all he has had to do is swap a seat in the many London, and elsewhere, theatres for his own armchair, saving tine, and a few quid on transport, which can usefully be donated to those very theatres whose need is greatest. Of course, however well filmed, these broadcasts are no substitute for the real thing, as I am sure you will have realised. Theatre is a collective enterprise, a shared experience, which comes alive with performance.
Even so there have been, and there are set to be, some absolutely belting productions coming to a screen right next to you. (OK some some have come and gone but all the more reasons not to miss what is in store). Here are some of my favourites, (just theatre though I have been gingerly dipping into the bucketload of opera that is also available). So dump those Netflix box sets and get cultured. Oh. and don’t be shy about turning on the subtitles. Not just for the foreign stuff. This is your chance to watch Shakespeare with all the text and nail the plots so that next time you can nod or chuckle knowingly at points of verse detail and savour the Bard’s, and the creative team’s, extraordinary insight into the human condition. Thus becoming a true luvvie.
(N.B. No order implied here. Just chronological and reflecting the fact that I can’t seem to format the list in WordPress. Those who have had the misfortune to work with the Tourist will be painfully aware of his technological shortcomings, most tellingly when they are stood at his shoulder, eyes rolling, as he adopts the most inefficient strategy possible for manipulating information on screen).
Best watches so far
Fragments. Beckett by Brook. From Theatre Bouffes des Nord. Rough for Theatre I/Rockaby/Act Without Words II/Neither/Come and Go. Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s collection of Beckett miniatures, from a cast of specialists, Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni. If you thought Beckett was a load of miserable, impenetrable twaddle, think again. This is hilarious and never outstays its welcome. Well maybe not true for Rough for Theatre I. Still available on their Vimeo channel.
It’s True. It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre. So I finally had tickets for this at the Barbican with the intention of taking BD along. So very pleased to see the production popped up on line when the tour had to be cancelled. Had heard good things about it and I can confirm that it delivers on its promise. The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery has been postponed though I gather one fine day us Brits will still get our chance to survey the work of this most talented Caravaggisti/feminist icon. Her story and her influence are undeniable though the power and beauty of the paintings takes your breath away even before you get into the interpretation. Bar the Capodimonte in Naples you have to get about a bit to see many of her 60 0dd attributed works though so this UK first is set to be unmissable. Anyway you culture vultures will already know all about her. In ITx3 Breach Theatre, Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens, Ellie Claughton and Dorothy Allen-Pickard, here joined by cast members Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb, convert the verbatim Latin and Italian texts of AG’s 1612 rape trial into modern vernacular, and turn it into hard-hitting drama, complete with lessons on key paintings. It’s brilliant. It was on I Player for a bit but is now available elsewhere: try the New Diorama site. And slip the company a few quid so that they can keep making theatre of this quality.
The Crucible. Old Vic Theatre. I missed Yael Farber’s lauded production from the Old Vic in 2014 with a cast led by Richard Armitage and Anna Madeley. Ms Farber’s moody atmospherics and precise point-making don’t always work. Here they do though. faultlessly. OK so it is one of my favourite ever plays but this is the best thing I have seen in recent weeks. 8 quid to rent from Digital Theatre but worth every penny.
An Enemy of the People. Schaubuhne Berlin. And here is the second best watch. SB has been extremely generous with its offering even for those of us no German speakers. What with Beware of Pity, Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s take on Orlando which couldn’t make it to the Barbican, Thomas Ostermeier’s full on Hamlet with Lars Eidimger doing his best bonkers gurning and, most recently, TO’s Hedda Gabler, with Katharina Schuttler brilliant as a bored child-woman Hedda. Best of the lot though was the wunderkind director’s take on another Ibsen classic, An Enemy of the People. Dialogue, even in translation, utterly contemporary without missing a beat from HI’s argument. Wild Duck might just edge it for best Ibsen ever in my book but, with AEOTP, as a satire on the complexity of morality, despite, or perhaps even because of, the alarming twist in Stockman’s public positioning, few writers have come close before or since. Done properly all Ibsen should knot up stomach and mind and Ostermeier and company cut straight to the chase here. Just wish I could understand the debate between audience and cast, in character, when the fourth wall is cracked for the Act IV town meeting scene. The production was banned in China when it toured in 2018. Nuff said. Unfortunately all these SB productions are one night only affairs but I urge you to keep your eye on the programme.
Frankenstein. National Theatre. Missed this in 2011 so ecstatic when NT added it to their list. You might disagree with the balance of the themes from Mary Shelley’s original which Nick Dear’s adaptation focussed on, and with the somewhat episodic structure, but hey you have to agree that Danny Boyle can put on a show. And the lads Cumberbatch and, only marginally less so, Lee Miller, know their way round a stage. The rest of the NT At Home season, The Twelfth Night, with that performance from Tasmin Greig, Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre and One Man, Two Guvnors, (though it did lose a bit from live stage to screen I admit), all delighted, and I am about to catch up with Antony and Cleopatra, but they count for less as I had seem them all in the flesh as it were.
There have been a few other highlights. Caryl Churchill’s menacing Far Away from the Donmar which we missed live, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott with Sophie Melville available on Digital Theatre, Simon Godwin’s RSC production of Two Gentleman of Verona, (SG may just be the best Shakespearean director right now), available on that Marquee TV, Imitating the Dog’s labour of love with their Night of the Living Dead REMIX, (available on a pay what you like basis), though the filming of the filming of the acting of a film dilutes its impact a little, and the RSC Richard II with David Tennant, also on Marquee TV. Oh and last night’s revisit of Christopher Luscombe’s RSC Much Ado About Nothing, (or Love’s Labours Won as he would have it), on BBC I Player. All did the business.
On the watch-list
What next? A few recommendations first based on prior watches, so the Tourist can confirm their quality.
The Phyllida Lloyd/Harriet Walter all female Donmar Shakespeare trilogy (The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar) from the Donmar. No need to enact the kettling pre-performance that was feature of the Kings Cross version. Digital Theatre or Marquee TV take your pick.
Melly Still’s RSC Cymbeline also on both DT and MTV. Ms Still, with her heart on sleeve, gender switching, state of the nation, physical theatre remake manages to, just about, make something out of one of big Will’s more puzzling creations.
The Encounter from Complicite. The genius who is Simon McBurney takes you on a full on sensory journey into the heart of darkness. This was, literally, made for headphones so should convert well in the at-home experience. On the Complicite website from 15th May for a week.
A Doll’s House from the Lyric Hammersmith. For one night only on the 20th May on the Lyric’s YouTube channel. Tanika Gupta’s resetting of Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic to 1879 Calcutta lends depth and resonance.
Barber Shop Chronicles from the NT. All of the next 4 NT offerings look unmissable to me. If you haven’t seen Inua Ellam’s vibrant BSC you are in for a treat. On the NT YT channel from 14th May.
This House from the NT. If you liked James Graham’s Quiz on ITV recently then don’t miss what he does best. Recent(ish) political history as comedy. TH tracks the minority Labour government in the 1970s showing how our political class is doomed to repeat itself. From 28th May.
And here are the pick of the productions that are new to me and about which I am very excited.
A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic. From 21st May for a week through the NT At Home initiative this is Benedict Andrew’s sprawling interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s magnum opus from 2014 which, inexplicably, I was too late to get a ticket for and, idiotically, dismissed watching in the cinema.
Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Ditto the above. Missed out because of work and other stuff and have been desperate to see this ever since. Coriolanus is just one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare’s and Josie Rourke’s economical take has sone fella called Tom Hiddleston in the title role and a bonkers-ly luxuriant cast around him. From 4th June vis the NT again. I cannot wait.
Ghosts from the Almeida. Available on Digital Theatre. This is the Richard Eyre production with the peerless Lesley Manville, alongside Jack Lowden and Will Keen, which belts through Ibsen’s grimmest family tale in 90 minutes. That’s my happy place evening viewing sorted.
Enjoy. And donate. So that the theatre will still be there when we get out of this pickle.
Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune
Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020
Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord– 26th March 2020
Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020
Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.
Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.
Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.
Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.
Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.
And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.
Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.
All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.
On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.
I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.
Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .
In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.
As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it
Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.
Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.
Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?
Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.
I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?
Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.
Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.
Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.
So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….
Pinter at Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache/The Dumb Waiter
Harold Pinter Theatre, 7th February 2019
Daniel John Dyer, landlord of the Queen Vic, go to cinematic hardman, fan of West Ham and coke, protege of Harold Pinter and now some-time political sage. There is his youthful mug. Say what you like he’s hard to ignore.
Never haven see the fella on stage or screen before, for me he was simply the geezer who seemed to be the reason why the £15 seat I had rushed to secure for the Pinter season had been bumped up to a whopping £35 for this final instalment in the one-act series. After all, up to know the cream of British acting had been paraded at bargain basement prices to showcase HP’s genius. On this basis I reasoned that the premium wasn’t due to the unreasonable demands of Gemma Whelan, Martin Freeman or John Heffernan, though anyone of these talents might deserve it. Nope it had to be down to our Danny.
Well it turns out he was worth every penny. As, of course, were his three colleagues. But it is easy to see why HP saw something in DD. Of course as Reservoir Dogs style hit-man Ben, holed up with partner, Gus (Martin Freeman), in the basement of an eclectically menu-ed Brummie restaurant, waiting for instructions for the next job, DD is the very definition of typecast. However what bowled me over was the effortlessly easy way he delivered the dialogue. Some, for what of a better word, poncier, actors tend to deliberate over HP’s words, pausing, in actorly fashion, before the pauses, straining a bit too hard to bring meaning to the vernacular.
Not Danny Dyer. He gets stuck in. As if HP’s language were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is. Most people do not talk, even at times of stress, as if they have just swallowed a dictionary. Conversation is direct, vocabulary constrained. That doesn’t mean however that meaning is clear or simple. Far from it. Meaning, especially when visual cues are incorporated, is slippery, complex, confusing. (Remember HP leaves nothing to chance when it comes to stage directions too), Now the last thing you need, or want, is some luvvie baking on about sub-text, but honestly when a playwright puts words that say one thing but mean another into his or her characters, a whole new world of understanding can open up for you, the observer, which you might not normally reflect on in your own existence.. Art illuminating, not imitating, life.
HP takes the everyday, the colloquial, common parlance, shorthand, the idiomatic expression, often archaic, cliche, repetition, surprising syntax, and suffuses it with poetry and buckets of meaning. And not just threat and menace. Longing, yearning, disappointment, fear, anxiety, disgust, dismissal. You get the picture. If you don’t there are countless PhD theses which will explain. As HP said “one way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”.
The point is Danny Dyer speaks like a Pinter character. Even when he isn’t a Pinter character. And I don’t just mean hardpan menace. As Ben becomes more perturbed by the messages coming down from above, literally via the dumb waiter, he is just as convincing. His awkward distress may take the form of attempts to subjugate Gus, but it is still palpable. Of course, it wouldn’t work without an actor of Martin Freeman’s calibre opposite him. Gus may be the junior partner, and MF may well be the go-to when it comes to affable sidekick on screen, but here he pushes back, no keen-to-please submissive, taking the lead in responding to Wilson, the unseen, omnipotent architect of their situation. Gus questions authority, Ben conforms.
The Dumb Waiter is a bloody marvellous play but these two are equally bloody marvellous in their performance, capturing the ebb and flow before the admittedly unsurprising betrayal. The play was written in 1957, so contemporary with The Room, The Birthday Party and just before A Slight Ache and The Caretaker, though it was first performed in Frankfurt in 1959 before coming to Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960 alongside The Room. Later plays may have more depth but if you want a distillation of the Pinter form then this is it. You will have seen this set-up a million times before – echoes of gangster movie, Beckett, music hall double act – but you will never have seen any other writer or director do so much with it. Well maybe Martin McDonagh with In Bruges. I hope Mr McDonagh remembers HP in his prayers every evening (though I suspect he is an atheist), such is his debt.
From the first confounding response of Gus to Ben’s reading out of the newspaper story “who advised him to do that”, through to the last fateful instruction, we learn everything we need to know about Gus, Ben, the relationship between them, and their relationship with the “boss”, in just under an hour with the action confined to a windowless “cell”. Yet we have no biography, no definitive purpose and no apparent context. And most of the time they are babbling about tea, biscuits, crockery, football, broken toilets and the restaurant orders. That’s Pinter for you.
The Slight Ache started life as a radio play in 1958 and this is how Jamie Lloyd sets out in his direction, per Katie Mitchell’s Beckett productions, with Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan acting it out in a studio, complete with sound effects, before gradually shifting to a more “realistic” delivery. The outsider threat here initially takes the form of a wasp which Edward entreats his wife Flora to trap. It is a fine summer’s morning in the garden of the posh couple. Order is restored until Edward sees a match-seller stationed outside the lane by the house. The match-seller is old, deaf and has a glass eye but his presence annoys, angers and eventually terrifies Edward. In contrast Flora offers sympathy, affection and protection to the stranger. And thus the marriage is dissected.
Once again we descend from classic comedy set-up, here mid-period Ayckbourn-ish comedy of manners into absurd Beckettian existential angst, but all overlaid with HP’s barbed argot, albeit here the accents go beyond cut-glass to finest crystal. Once again Jamie Lloyd has found just the actors for the job. John Heffernan, who will still look fresh-faced in his seventies, lends Edward a cry-baby-ish, patronising insecurity from the start. Here is an actor who so inhabits a role that you can’t imagine anywhere else up on stage. However I thought he was actually outshone by Gemma Whelan who, IMHO, should get herself bumped off in that Game of Thrones and demand a meaty stage role tout suite. It is almost as if the ability to create sound is a metaphor for Flora’s own emergence from Edward’s control.
Yet the master-stroke is actually the third character, the match-seller. Or rather his absence. Most stage adaptations serve up an actual actor, with varying degrees of scary appearance. Not JL though. In keeping with the “radio play” conceit, the old boy is only imagined. Stops it becoming literal home invasion, “posh people’s fear of the great unwashed’. tropes and firmly centres it on the unacknowledged pain and desire at the heart of the couple’s life. Less than an hour to nail everything Martin Crimp has not quite delivered across a playwriting career.
Now I know that some will continue to find HP’s deliberate obtuseness frustrating if not annoying. I sympathise. There are times during this season when I have wondered what the point was and where this was all going. The humour sometimes isn’t funny, the politics unsubtle, the inversion of misogyny uncertain, the repetition of form turns to cliche. But across the seven instalments and twenty one-act plays, (plus all the incidental miscellany), the what, how and why of Harold Pinter’s work has gloriously emerged. It turns out that Pinteresque doesn’t just mean pauses, threatening strangers, cockneys with an odd turns of phrase, greedy toffs, confused women in beds, emasculated blokes and incipient fascism. It is about what lies within us and how that comes out.
Highlights of the season?
Soutra Gilmour’s sets and costumes. Variations on a set of themes. just like the plays.
Jamie Lloyd channeling the spirit of HP himself in his direction.
Kate O’Flynn standing firm against totalitarianism in Mountain Language and then nearly making sense of Ashes to Ashes alongside Paapa Essiedu.
Hayley Squires showing why she will be a Dame one day. Though I say this second-hand as I failed to get to Pinter Two but I know it to be true.
Lee Evans coming out of retirement to do what only he can do in Monologue.
Tamsin Greig. Beth. Landscape. Microphone. That’s all you need to know.
Brid Brennan, Janie Dee and Rupert Graves showing what is possible even when HP slips a little.
The line-up at the end of Celebration and regret at not having seen Tracy-Ann Oberman on stage often enough.
Danny Dyer looking like he has just sh*t his load when the scampi order comes through. And that from Row U.
The set-up for A Slight Ache.
I shall miss being stuck in HP’s spider web. And I shall miss revelling in acting and directing of this quality. Betrayal still to come though.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir
Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018
Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
Sam Furness – tenor
Joel Williams – tenor
Theodore Platt – baritone
Joshua Bloom – bass
Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
Stravinsky – Threni
Stravinsky – Tango
Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.
However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.
Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
Arvo Part – Fratres
Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
Steve Reich – Drumming
Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices
I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.
Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.
When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.
Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.
Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.
Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.
But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.
All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.
It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.
I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.
Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.
And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.
So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.
What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.
The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.
IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.
No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.
Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.
Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.