Archive for December, 2010

Russian Theatre in London 2011

December 26, 2010

That's a good poster...

Note that updates to this posting will now be found here.

Russian plays in Russian

See the posting below about Sovremennik’s visit in January.  You also get the occasional production in Russian at the Shaw Theatre.

Russian plays in English

The Overcoat (Gogol’) Brockley Jack Theatre, 19-29 January; details here; and my reactions here.

Naughty Chekhov (‘The most funniest collection of Chekhov’s farces and comedy sketches’) Lord Stanley Pub NW1, Jan 10 – Feb 6; details here.  I have a feeling a Lord Stanley pub  was a famous gay haunt in the days I worked in HIV/AIDS and knew about such things.  There are more Russian plays promised here, but it’s not clear which and when.

The Seagull (Chekhov) Baron’s Court Theatre 22 Feb – 6 Mar; details here.  ‘…uses a new translation which attempts to be the most accurate ever written.’

Meanwhile, the Arcola have written from their new base at 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston London E8 3DL to say that their new season will include Anna Karenina by Helen Edmundson, adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy (details here); Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Helena Kaut-Howson & Jon Strickland; and  Seagull by Anton Chekhov in a new translation by John Kerr, Joseph Blatchley & Charlotte Pyke.

I am a seagull.  No, that’s not right…I am two seagulls.

Along the same lines (but perhaps more so) ,  one can find various listings for live relays of The Cherry Orchard from the National in June.  They might even announce details of the play itself sometime…

Non-Russian plays in Russian

The Tempest (Shakespeare) Barbican 7-16 April 2011; details here.

Greek Drama in London 2011

December 25, 2010

Information from this posting has now been movd to an updated page here.


“A Dog’s Heart” at ENO: Selected Passages From Correspondence With My Friends

December 24, 2010

Not a doggy dog

This was certainly a good Theatre de Complicite show, and managed to avoid any unfortunate accidents with foreign alphabets.  As an adaptation of Bulgakov, it focused on making effective stage effects and moments out of the action, and so rather skated over the *meaning* of the action.  As an opera, the first half wasn’t, while the second was  more encouraging.

The production was spectacular, the music mostly just mildly irritating and irrelevant to the action – although I do keep thinking of the ‘rough’ dog voice.  As for the meaning, it seemed pretty objectionable to me.  But not having read the original, I can’t say whether that was due to a loss of nuance in the production.

Maybe ‘meaning’ isn’t the right word.  If you want a take-home message then you’d probably object more to the original, since it’s more sympathetic to Prof Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharik and totally hostile to the newly-created Sharikov.

But nuance is what is missing.   As is typical for Bulgakov, the precision of the language creates a very clear and ‘realistic’ picture of the main characters and their relationships, which provides a solid basis or framework for the grotesque elements.  Here the normal is missing–in Bulgakov, Sharik is a very doggy dog, while here he’s something strange from the beginning.

If Bulgakov’s text  had ever been published, part of the interest for a contemporary readership would have been in the detailed evocation of a settled, prosperous way of life–‘The Russia we have lost’.  But again we didn’t get much normality here. Then again, positive themes such as the devotion that Sharik and Bormental feel for Preobrazhensky, and his paternal care for the members of his household, are discarded

They also threw away the theme of inside v outside, which is very typical of Bulgakov (and Russian literature in general).  Think of ‘The White Guard’ at the National for instance.  Since B. was essentially a dramatist, and only took to writing stories because he couldn’t get his plays performed, the fact that once the dog is in the flat all the action takes place there must mean something.  In principle, the action was ‘inside’ here, but with people coming in through the wallpaper and a chorus of doctors appearing the ‘inside’ effect was lost.

Spectacular, but is it ‘inside’?

Janacek would have made a bloody good opera out of this text, but I’m afraid it was rather beyond Aleksandr Raskatov.  Although this is an opera by a Russian composer on a Russian text it hasn’t (as yet) been put on there, and I don’t think it would go down very well.

You might say that this show does for Bulgakov what the Bolshoi’s recent  Eugene Onegin did for Tchaikovsky–the difference is that Bulgakov, and in particular how to interpret the present situation in the light of his texts, is still very much a live issue.  Still a long time to go before ceremonial pissing on his corpse is a popular option!

… I don’t think they entirely lost the inside/outside thing.  The invasion of the safe, comfortable inside world seemed quite effective to me.  And I thought the dog was surprisingly doggy – I think that’s why I liked the voice.

The  idea of Sharik having two voices is interesting, since he’s the only character whose thoughts figure in the text–the rest are seen from the outside.  This is more my idea of Sharik (from the 1988 film):

That’s a nice dog…

Both the essay by James Meek and my Bulgakov Encyclopedia want to make someone stand for Lenin/Trotsky but they can’t agree on who–for Meek it’s Preobrazhensky when he decides to operate on the dog while for the BE it’s Sharikov when he pulls the revolver on Bormental and declares he’s going to show everyone what’s what.

The text dates from the height of the New Economic Policy in 1925 which allowed private enterprise and led to some strange consequences (which are satirised in Preobrazhensky having an operating theatre in his flat–that is in itself a joke, like the sex strike in Lysistrata say).  Also at that time the Communist government didn’t seem particularly united or likely to survive.  But the opera sets the action in the Stalin period–presumably because that’s all the stupid Dutch/English are thought able to recognise–which makes nonsense of Preobrazhensky threatening to emigrate or being able to play one faction off against another.

I think if I had to give an interpretation it would be in terms of two parallel actions.  Firstly Preobrazhensky (representing let’s say the Russian educated classes, who were firmly opposed to the Tsarist regime) introduces alien elements into the starving but good-hearted masses (Sharik), with the result that they turn into something nasty.  But Sharikov swiftly rises to an important position in the Moscow feline elimination hierarchy and acquires a leather jacket as well, while his donor Chugunkin was merely a scrote who scraped a living playing the balalaika  in low dives.  The difference is that Sharikov has also had alien elements implanted by Shvonder in the form of the Engels-Kautsky correspondence and suchlike.  He is–the revolutionary proletariat are–low-lives further spolied by having half-digested ideas above their station.

So the educated classes need to shoulder their responsibilities and undo the harm they have caused.  (If you want to be properly offended, note that names ending in -er as in Shvonder are regarded as Jewish in Russia.) Still, Bulgakov practised what he preached–he stayed in Russia while the rest of his family emigrated…

Sovremennik in London

December 22, 2010

The poster above advertising performances of ‘Into The Whirlwind’, ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ in January 2011 does look  interesting!  Not inexpensive, of course, even with support from Roman Abramovich.  There are some more details and booking options here.  And now you can read about my visit to ‘Into The Whirlwind’ here.

What is more, I’ve been informed that the recent (unrelated) appearance of Gogol’s The Wedding at the Shaw Theatre was wonderful, when I’d always taken the Russian things staged there from time to time as examples of cynical profiteering.

Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous.

The White Woman On The Green Bicycle (Monique Roffey)

December 22, 2010


Another book club book and, to me, a lot of it was like another course in a meal of boiled string.  The first part of the book describes the disillusioned life of Sabine and George, a pair of expatriates on Trinidad in the present day, while the first part deals with the period from their arrival in 1956 to their failure to leave during a period of social unrest in 1970.  Sabine also writes obsessively to Eric Williams, the first leader of independent Trinidad.

And I found a lot of it incompetent and consequently unbelievable.  There are many occasions where a simple point is dragged out over a page of banal dialogue.  Shortly before George dies in the swimming pool, we are treated to a long description of how Sabine cuts his hair and (we may suppose) ritually castrates him.  Then the description of his corpse makes great play of the long white hair waving round his face.

George is described as ‘an extrovert, a bookish English eccentric’.  On the one hand, this is a chain of cliches and on the other ‘extrovert’ and ‘bookish’ are hardly consistent. Then again we have Sabine–she says at one point that she’s seen life having lived through WWII in Antibes.  As far as I know, Antibes was occupied by the Italians and nothing much happened there by way of a war.  But with this experience behind her she’s supposed to be nonplussed by the sight of a poorly-stocked grocer’s, but which has cliched mangoes exploding like cliched hand-grenades (in which case the interior of the shop would have contained a mass of broken flesh if nothing else).  This nugatory  wartime experience (she would have been I guess ten at the time) does indeed help her at the end of the first part when she finds the gun that George has hidden in the basket of the green bicycle and when she goes to shoot Bobby Camacho the corrupt police superintendent it miraculously turns out to be functioning and loaded and with the safety catch off and her experience as a pre-pubescent resistante means that she doesn’t break her wrist instead of killing him.


There were some more acceptable moments.  I found the various Trinidadian words and realia introduced into the text quite interesting, and I thought the idea of making George do interviews for the newspaper in his retirement so that we got to meet famous people like Brian Lara, Patrick Manning and Mighty Sparrow was effective.  Maybe not necessary, since Trinidad’s not a large place, but effective anyway.

Roffey quotes the first line of the following poem by Phyllis Shand Allfrey as the epigraph to the book:

Love for an island is the sternest passion:
pulsing beyond the blood through roots and loam
it overflows the boundary of bedrooms
and courses past the fragile walls of home.

Those nourished on the sap and milk of beauty
(born in its landsight) tremble like a tree
at the first footfall of the dread usurper-
a carpet-bagging mediocrity.

Theirs is no mild attachment, but rapacious
craving for a possession rude and whole;
lovers of islands drive their stake, prospecting
to run the flag of ego up the pole,

sink on the tented ground, hot under azure,
plunge in the heat of earth and smell the stars
of the incredible vales. At night, triumphant,
they lift their eyes to Venus and to Mars.

Their passion drives them to perpetuation:
they dig, they plant, they build and they aspire
to the eternal landmark; when they die
the forest covers up their set desire.

Salesmen and termites occupy their dwellings,
their legendary politics decay.
Yet they achieve an ultimate memorial:
they blend their flesh with the beloved clay.

If I was going to be kind, and could somehow resist the famous quote from Else Lasker-Schuler that A true poet does not say ‘azure, a true poet says ‘blue’, I suppose you could see Roffey’s book as a commentary on this poem.  Both Eric Williams and Patrick Manning describe George as a carpet-bagging mediocrity and he certainly craves possession in buying a substantial tract of Trinidad and runs the flag of ego up the pole (to attract women, perhaps?)  At the end of the book, George’s house is certainly of the termite-ridden type, and the legendary politics of Eric Williams in his early days have quite decayed.

A more realistic view would be that this book is what we would have had from Jean Rhys if she’d been deprived of her talent, difficult life experiences, impossible character and knowledge of French but had received an education in recompense.

It has been put to me that only a man could be so stupid, so insensitive, so male as not to take this book at its own valuation.  Well, maybe that is indeed so…

A macaronic (or portmanteau) House of Atreus at GSMD

December 22, 2010

The Guilhall School of Music and Drama have this on their website for the end of March.  For some reason, I feel quite hopeful about it, and £ 8 for three plays (one of which has two authors and at least one adaptor) must be good value for money!

The House of Atreus

Wednesday 30 March at 7:30pm

A radical re-interpretation of a tragic cycle of family conflict, power and revenge

Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides
Agamemnon by Aeschylus
Electra by Euripides/Sophocles

adapted by Paul O’Mahony and Richard Twyman

Monday 28, Tuesday 29, Wednesday 30, Thursday 31 March at 7.30pm
Tuesday 29, Thursday 31 March at 2pm

Richard Twyman director
Simon Daw designer

A vital story of war and retribution in a thrilling new fusion of three of the greatest plays of the ancient world. The family of Atreus crumbles under the pressure of a seemingly endless war and the impossible demands placed on one family.

Unreserved tickets: £8 (£4 concessions, Guildhall staff & students, Equity) available from the Barbican Box Office 020 7638 8891 ( from 28 February.

Tannhäuser Royal Opera House 15 December

December 18, 2010


Another black-themed brothel (from

There were some entertaining points to this production.  When the curtain rose on the first act, to reveal another ROH curtain in another proscenium arch, the audience–at least, the stalls audience–laughed, which made a difference from the groan that greated the reappearing table here in the Bolshoi’s Eugene Onegin.  Then during the first interval my companion was able to espy the bottle of Campari that the barman said didn’t exist.

But otherwise I found myself deeply out of sympathy with the piece–in this case, Wagner’s music wasn’t good enough to disguise the insane solipsistic paucity of the story.  If there is a dramatic point, it occurs when the dead Elisabeth persuades God to forgive Tannhäuser–that happened securely offstage, and showing it would have needed too much chutzpah even for Wagner.  And of course first of all Elisabeth and then Tannhäuser die spontaneously when the plot demands it–there isn’t any cause in the action.

I did hear Semyon Bychkov (the excellent conductor here) on the radio describing Tannhäuser as the model of the artist scorned and despised for being different, when murderers and rapists were pardoned.  But from the admittedly idiosyncratic perspective of the Pope of Rome, having sexual relations with a pagan deity is quite a severe breach of bon ton, and  different from the things that mere humans do to each other.  The cynical expedience with which Wagner deployed the  drivelling about God and holiness here leads me to believe that he was as much an atheist as I am, but I can’t give him any credit for it.  I had the feeling that on this occasion the giant’s robes had failed to cover the dwarfish thief Wagner, and you were all too aware of him gesticulating frantically and crying Look at me, Look at me.

Johan Botha as Tannhäuser (from

The production rehashed many of the cliches that irritate me in the theatre:  the Malevich-styled brothel, the men with guns and general war-torn ruination (but at least they weren’t covered in oil this time), the crowds standing around in no particular shape for no particular reason.

I can’t say I was worried by the commanding presence of Johan Botha sitting on a chair downstage for most of the evening–he put his part across with commendable strength and clarity and even infused the Rome Narrative with genuine fatigue and disillusion.  In fact, apart from the tired errors of the production concept, I thought the Royal Opera did this about as well as one could–the problems were down to Wagner.

Pictures from the Westminster disturbances

December 9, 2010



Mild rioting

Night in Whitehall (1)

Night in Whitehall (2)

From what I saw, I would agree with the Met line that some scrotes had come along intent on causing trouble, and managed to do so.  One of the strangest things was that both sides spent a lot of their time photographing each other, so with all the flashes going off it was like a strange mixture of a pitched battle from the age of hoplite warfare and film stars arriving for a premiere.

Bookmooch ‘Meet and Mooch’ 04 December

December 5, 2010

John Buckman and some young enthusiasts

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend a ‘Meet and Mooch’ event very kindly hosted by John Buckman, the founder of Bookmooch.  BookMooch is an online bookswapping community, and is a Very Good Thing in my opinion.

John said that he regarded BookMooch as a Wikipedia for dead trees, and that he was presently working 60 hours a week on enhancing it.  At the moment, it was experiencing a plateau in its expansion.  He was keen to encourage the faster circulation of in-demand books.  I felt it was important to keep it simple, and also not put too many demands on users (or else they would just leave).

I would certainly encourage my readers to have a go on BookMooch if they feel at all interested–it’s really not at all frightening.  I think I’d give the following pieces of advice:

i)  don’t put too many books on at once (or you could be overwhelmed);

ii)  start off with ‘ask me first’ for sending overseas–you can always change it depending on how things pan out;

iii)  if something goes wrong (like sending the wrong book to the wrong person–I’ve done that)  it can normally be sorted out with a bit of communication and goodwill;

iv)  it’s much nicer if you add a message instead of just pressing the ‘mooch this book’ button;

v)  it’s a good idea to get into the habit of adding a few phrases to describe the condition of every book you list–another good reason for not adding too many at once;

vi)  I think the easiest way of dealing with the postage is to use the Royal Mail online service.  I personally started off by using the sub-post-office near my home and gradually worked my way up to the main Post Office off Trafalgar Square before deciding this was the best option;

vii)  it’s best to use padded envelopes for sending books out–they don’t have to be new padded envelopes of course;

viii)  if (as very occasionally happens) you have a bad experience with a discourteous or unhelpful person, don’t take it to heart and just walk away–it’s really not worth obsessing about!