Archive for March, 2012

A Warsaw Melody, Arcola Theatre 28 March

March 28, 2012


Arcola Studio 2 was about half-full for this opening night; but since the play only had two characters we were in no danger of being outnumbered.  The story is essentially Russian boy meets Polish girl and then they can’t marry after being silly and in love and then they meet a couple of times as the decades pass but there’s no going back.

The play is apparently very popular in Russia, and I think the reason must be it gives an opportunity for an actress like the young Alisa Freindlikh or that Lithuanian girl who isn’t Ingeborga Dapkunaite to show what she can do:  laugh, cry, speak Polish, sing, dance, fill the stage.  And Emily Tucker did pretty well at all of these, though I think Helya is supposed to be more of your Polish princess at the beginning.  I found her Polish more convincing than her Polish accent, but never mind.

Erm.  The Victor of Oliver King.  The thing went best when he was either asleep or absent.  He was far too wooden and far too English–Received Pronunciation English at that.  With the posh accent and the bomber jacket he just struck me as an RAF type from the off, which really wasn’t very helpful.  I think there’s supposed to be rather more to Victor than we ever saw here–charm for one thing and humour for another…

I really wanted to like this show and I’m sorry I couldn’t manage to.  Maybe someone will write in and explain how I’ve got it all wrong.  Failing that, you can see what I know about other Russian plays in London here.

Toryboy (with Q and A), Greenwich Picturehouse 15 March

March 16, 2012


This documentary followed film-maker  John Walsh as he abandoned his lifelong Labour affiliations after working on a Gordon Brown vanity project, then went through the new open selection process for Conservative candidates and stood in Middlesbrough and tried to confront Stuart Bell the sitting and inactive Labour MP.  There were also some animated sections explaining how UK elections work, depicting Stuart Bell reading from a self-penned pornographic novel, and we saw how John and his sidekick Other John came to terms with Middlesbrough and being Tories.

I think the film just about stayed away from bash-the-working-class deprivation tourism, but it’s not clear that anyone would have gained any impression of Middlesbrough other than Featureless Northern Shithole.  It’s also not clear that it had any argument put forward other than ‘Desperately Seeking Stuart’.  John Walsh was certainly extremely engaging–both in person and on film–and you could see why selection panels would have gone for him.

It was also hard to see what kind of a Tory he was in the post-film discussion.  He said quite rightly that what Middlesbrough needed was a good Labour MP.  When asked whether there were not equally useless Tory MPs in the shires, he answered that there if people had problems they could afford to hire someone to sort it out, while in Middlesbrough they couldn’t now that Government grants had been whittled away and so they relied upon their MP doing things for them.  So Middlesbrough needs an active Labour MP and  lots of public money–nothing to argue about there.

Actually I don’t think anyone had a kind word to say Middlesbrough or its inhabitants during the course of the film, unless 15 seconds of Chris Rea were meant to provide the positive side…

People in the audience were quite shocked to learn that John Walsh had spent £ 15,000 of his own money seeking election, and it would have been £ 30,000 if it had been a winnable seat.  I don’t remember him having a convincing answer to how normal people could become Conservative MPs, or indeed how he was doing anything other than aping Michael Moore.

You can buy a download of the film for iTunes here.

Thesmophoriazusae, Classics@Kent/Gulbenkian Theatre 14 March

March 14, 2012


As everyone knows, Thesmophoriazusae involves Euripides persuading his relative Mnesilochus to infiltrate the women who are assembled at the festival of the Thesmophoria and dissuade them from taking their revenge on him for the negative portrayal of women in his tragedies.  So Mnesilochus is first of all disguised as a woman and then uncovered.  With hilarious consequences.

This was the most successful production of a Greek play I’d seen for some time.  I especially enjoyed the brilliant combination of the hero’s giant phallus becoming erect at the most inappropriate moments with the traditional British bra-on-over-dress.  The sexually explicit disco episodes were also highly effective, and some of the scenes where Euripides and Mnesilochus aped the heroes from Euripides’ plays as Euripides tried to rescue Mnesilochus came off.  Some is a great deal better than you normally get.

The scene where Euripides entered suspended from a machina and found himself helplessly facing the wrong way at the critical moments reduced the audience to helpless laughter as well.  And the appearance of Echo, whited-up and dressed in purple to dispute with the Scythian archer was also extremely well handled.

Since this was a student production, we should pay tribute to the effectiveness of the chorus in not appearing young and good-looking.  The usual and forgivable faults of waving arms about and not allowing sufficient pauses can be passed over in silence.  What you need for Greek drama is a director who knows what the play is meant to say and how to put it across, and in this case we had three directors who had certainly worked things out pretty well between them.

Well done everybody, and especially Tom Wright for his very wide-ranging performance as Mnesilochus the Aristophanic Everyman.

(See here for Greek plays I know about in London.)

Norma, Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 10 March

March 11, 2012


This time the comment was there are no springs in these seats.

The production featured a chorus of grubby proletarians (surely they should have been peasants) in a large wooden shed (surely they should have been outside) oppressed by top-hatted capitalists in the form of Pollione and Flavio.  There was a lot of random stage business to distract from the action, and equally distracting was the presence of characters who shouldn’t really be there dramatically.

Often the programme will give a clue to the production concept in these cases, but this time it only offered some enigmatic b/w photos without captions or picture credits (which might have given some clue).  Whatever it was, the concept did involve Norma and Adalgisa doing a lot of grovelling around on the floor, presumably so as not to make things too easy for them in singing.  That levitating log played an important parrt, and also reminded me unpleasantly of the giant ‘Nartish’ turdgods from the Mariinsky Ring a couple of years back.

As Norma, Annemarie Kramer sometimes gave the impression she felt she had already done enough in previous performances and now she wanted to go home.  Pollione (Luis Chapa) started off loud, coarse and uncertain in intonation but improved as the evening went on–it helped that he was figuring more in ensembles as well.  I thought Oroveso was well sung by James Creswell, although he was on stage many times when he should not have been.  Keri Alkema was very good as Adalgisa.

I had two main problems with this evening.  Annemarie Kramer didn’t really come to terms with the vast range of emotion demanded by the role–from psychotic rage to beatific self-sacrifice–probably she was just tired.  Also the storyline of heroic impossible love and sacrifice really made no sense in this dingy depressing overcrowded setting.

Giulio Cesare, Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 09 March

March 10, 2012


To start with the important things:  this time round, the view on the seats was that they were too narrow and too uncomfortable, the rake was wrong or the pitch or both.  A fortune had been spent to no effect.  I can’t say I can really offer an opinion–in my Newcastle days, I remember meeting a girl at a party who worked in the box office here, and someone with a job and a regular income was definitely on a different socio-economic planet.

After that introduction, we got a very good performance of Giulio Cesare, where the revolving Egyptian pyramid constrained by Roman concrete did duty for all kinds of things and the production was fresh and inventive.  Pamela Helen Stephenson was suitably mannish as Giulio Cesare in a battle-weary greatcoat while the countertenor James Laing was camply evil and perverted as Tolomeo.  Sarah Tynan was very lovely–also clearly a very good actress–as Cleopatra and sang very accurately.  She didn’t really suggest a woman who could dispose of her husband-brother and several other rival claimants to the throne without any bother at all, but that’s not in the piece either so not her fault. But perhaps the partt needs someone to wallow more lushly.

I thought the best singing (and performances) came from Kathryn Rudge as Sesto and Ann Taylor as Cornelia, both of whom were extremely affecting.  The orchestral playing (conductor Robert Howarth) was jolly good too.

Well done everybody!  Well done Opera North!

Madama Butterfly Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 08 March

March 8, 2012


Picture from

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  This must be about the worst playing I’ve ever heard from an orchestra at the opera .  It was far too loud and too crude and any exposed woodwind passages were a source of deep anxiety.  In the first half at least, the orchestra was also often out of synchronisation with the singers.  Caught up in the general spirit of things , Anne-Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) spent her whited-up first half mugging at an audience apparently located somewhere around Scotswood.  She also seemed to be finding this part far too spinto for  her, and was having difficulties with uncontrolled vibrato in a second half when a nice page-boy cut had restored her to the essence of Frenchness.  All this is a pity, since in my opinion she’s usually marvellous.

I think that the production would have been condemned as outright racist if it had applied to any people other than the Japanese.  But we nuked them and they employ half of Sunderland as well, so that’s all right.  (Anyway this is largely the fault of Puccini and his librettists I suppose.)  I also found a lot of the direction in naively doubling music with movement simply simple-minded.

As to the good points of the evening, I quite enjoyed the portrayal of Pinkerton as a fat oaf with no redeeming qualities at all, and rather well sung by Rafael Rojas.  Ann Taylor’s Suzuki was certainly the best performance on view, though Wyn Davies also did himself a big favour by not being the conductor this time round.

As we were left the theatre, the person behind me was complaining about the seats being far too hard.  While true, this was about the least of our problems…

Oresteia, Riverside Studios 03 March

March 4, 2012


Picture from

Another evening, another set of fingernails scrabbling on the marble surface of Greek tragedy and finding no purchase.  To be fair, this was technically much better than yesterday evening’s Bacchae–you could make out almost all that was said–but there was really no sign that the director had got on terms with the work.

One of the main problems–which is of course very common–was the reduction in scale as against the original that took up a pretty hefty proportion of the Athenian state’s disposable surplus.  I think the Furies are supposed to be frightening in their multitudinous indistinguishability, but here there were three of them.  Similarly, we had a rather tokenistic piece of net that would have made a nice shawl for Agamemnon instead of fatally entangling him and killings were carried out with dagger rather than sword and axe.  Agamemnon was also wearing modesty-preserving black trunks to have his bath, so obviously he suspected something.  If Clytemnestra kills him with a dagger, which can be a woman’s weapon to us, then it’s not transgressive the way it ought to be.

The version by Ted Hughes showed poetic promise (and a keen interest in the harsher aspects of the natural world), but perhaps the process of abridgement prevented it from reaching full power.  Either he or the chorus fluffed one of the crucial lines, about Agamemnon putting on the harness of necessity, which explains both him and Orestes.  The performance ran from 1930 to 2150 with an interval of twenty minutes or so, which is not long for a whole trilogy.  The lack of time showed in the trial of Orestes, who stood around for a couple of minutes while arguments were exchanged–and then he was free.  Some waiting and suspense while the votes were counted would have been a good idea.  I think that Athena is supposed to be young, calm and virginal–here she resembled a harassed Tessa Jowell and she seemed to have a wedding ring as well.

The lack of grovelling deference shown to gods and other superiors worried me as making the whole basis of the work incomprehensible, and casting each part with a different actor as though it was a modern play meant a lot of actors had rather little to do and it became very episodic.

I thought that George Siena as Apollo was good: otherworldly and imposing as he ought to be.  Clare Porter (Clytemnestra),Tobias Deacon (Orestes) and Laura Morgan (Electra) looked like a family–but why did Electra have such a nice dress if she’s the local Cinderella?–and the fatal scene between Orestes and Clytemnestra was promising but vitiated by misapplied modest naturalism.

Oh well, better luck next time…In fact, we did have better luck last time!  And see here for other Greek plays I know about in London.

Purge, Arcola Theatre 29 February

March 3, 2012


Aliida manages to get close to Hans

A full and expectant house was pressed up close against the set as Aliida Truu read her newspaper and then going about her evening tasks found a runaway prostute Zara unconscious in her yard.

The action in this play went on in two periods simultaneously: the period after the Second World War when the Soviet Union consolidated its hold over Estonia, and that after the fall of the Soviet Union, when hustlers and criminals prepared to make a killing.  The theme of sexual violence against women–first of all by the security services, then by pimps–was a constant.

The most effective scenes were those where the young Aliida struggled to make her way in the postwar world and to get the concealed fugitive Hans to notice her while the old Aliida looked on and seemed to understand.  Some of the present-day scenes were a lot weaker, especially since the world of Russian hustlers and whores is regrettably familiar to me, and I didn’t find the reprentations of them in Pasha (Benjamin Way) and Zara (Elicia Daly) at all convincing.

While each half of the evening ended with an effective theatrical coup, there was quite a lot of plodding novelistic exposition in between (I think this text was first of all a play, then a novel, then a play again).  You were reminded that themes like the psychological effect of defeat and concealment had been done a lot better elsewhere.

I think that Sofi Oksanen’s presentation of what she was trying to say here strayed too far towards the naturalistic.  It might even have been better to do it in the style of Greek tragedy, with Aliida starting off by describing her weary old life in the village and then recounting the myth of the Soviet invasion and subsequent oppression of Estonia and what happened to her family then questioning Zara in stichomythia.  The old Aliida could be the chorus following and commenting on the action, then bringing matters to a close.

One thing that was puzzling me got explained on the way out, when the woman in front of me turned and said to her friend, Oh, he was an undercover policeman.

Rusalka again

March 3, 2012

There is of course more to life than hopeless melancholy yearning followed by suicidal despair.  Desiccated joyless pedantry for one thing.  So let’s turn our attention to a couple of things that people have been a bit confused about.

The origin of the story

Rusalka is of course a water-spirit from Slavic mythology.  But a story in which the supernatural figure is the victim rather than the predator is unlikely to have unmediated folk-story origins, and so I would think that it derives from a romanticised reworking like de la Motte Fouque’s Undine.

In fact in the programme Sergio Morabito sets this out with exemplary completeness:

Dvorak’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil names his sources in his preface to Rusalka:  Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s novella Undine and its operatic version by Lortzing, Franz Grillparzer’s libretto Melusine and Gerhart Hauptmann’s ‘German fairytale drama’ Die versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell).  Indeed, his Rusalka is a European literary ‘fairytale’ that has no precise parallels in either Czech or Slovakian folklore.  Even the name and character of Rusalka are borrowed from elsewhere, this time from Eastern Slavic literature.

The origin of the word

Mark Ronan wants to derive this from Indo-European rus meaning ‘dew’.  There *is* a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *ros- meaning something like ‘dew’, but that leaves the question of how the initial vowel ended up being different.

If we think about Russian, dew is roSA and rusalka is ruSALka.  If we want to derive both of these from an original *ros- we need a good story as to why exactly the initial vowel is different.  The environment is the same in both cases (initial position, followed by stressed a) and it’s a general rule that sounds that start off the same and have the same surroundings should end up the same.

Vasmer’s etymological dictionary derives ‘rusalka’ from the name of a pagan festival, ultimately from the Latin ‘rosalia’ (see here and ignore the anti-Semitic adverts).  Again in the programme, Morabito wants to derive it from rusa ‘river’ or rusa ‘reddish-brown’ and sees the connection with ‘rosalia’ as a later conflation.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t say where he gets these words or roots from…

Rusalka, ROH Covent Garden 01 March

March 3, 2012


Once again, everyone has seen and and commented on this production and once again Intermezzo has proved to be inerrant.

To my surprise, I was completely captivated by Dvorak’s music here, especially when it got into the hopeless melancholy yearning vein–hopeless melancholy yearning followed by suicidal despair: you don’t have to be a water-nymph to realise these are the eternal verities.  There were some passages of undemanding ineffectuality that were more what I expected from this composer, but who cares?

In the amphitheatre with the kind of view shown above we didn’t care about the shock-horror production either.  It seemed to me the typical kind of modern opera production, especially of Wagner, where what you see on stage contradicts what’s coming up from the pit and in the end the music wins.  My companion pointed out that we couldn’t see the allegedly-offensive details from our distance and it would be very difficult to take take seriously a literal representation of a fairyland-and-castle setting.  The production didn’t get in the way of putting the story across, which must be the main thing.

Talking of Wagner, we enjoyed what must be about the best orchestral playing (under conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin) that I’ve ever heard in an opera house.  And we had a tenor in Bryan Hymel who had completely mastered his part.

What do these complainers want?  Are they listening to the music at all?