All entries for May 2008

May 24, 2008

Roméo et Juliette, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds

Shakespeare in song has never been so powerful

4 stars

Opera North should be making the likes of the Royal Opera House sweat. Gone are the days when you had to pay an arm and a leg to access quality opera. With this has gone the contract that, to pay a reasonable price, meant not being able to see one third of the stage and using binoculars for the two thirds you could see. Today, touring and regional companies like Opera North are offering audiences exquisite productions of the operatic canon for half the price and, often, in my opinion, double the quality. Opera North’s revival of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the third production of their Shakespeare-inspired season, is no exception, combining sophisticated theatrical vision and verisimilitude, and the highest calibre of singers – both in chorus and principal roles – with a top-notch orchestra.

With his densely orchestrated score, Gounod’s opera is passionate, dramatic and, at times, indulgently lush, all of which the orchestra, under the expert baton of Martin André, does magnificently. The young voices of Leonardo Capalbo and Bernarda Bobro in the title roles, which I had thought may struggle, cope impressively against such full orchestration, mixing piercing sweetness with sometimes desperate intensity. Henry Waddington gives a touching performance as the gentle and bumbling Friar Lawrence, although we crave a rounder voice at times when set alongside the lighter voices of the lovers. Also of particular note is Frances Bourne’s role as Stéphano. Dressed as a male punk and graffitiing the wall (to which the elderly lady next to me reacted with vocal disapproval) Bourne glides on wheeled boots and gyrates her hips as she impeccably delivers one of the most hauntingly beautiful arias of the opera.

In what is an unobtrusively wacky interpretation of the piece, the Montagues are rowdy punks, while the Capulets are swottish, well-turned-out toffs. A central suspended platform is raised and lowered from the flies, serving multiple purposes as Juliette’s balcony, Friar Lawarence’s garden – sprouting what looks to be radioactive grass – and, finally, the lovers’ tomb. Though I sometimes find Gounod’s alterations to Shakespeare’s text verging on the tasteless (he has Juliette go through a second wedding ceremony to Paris, and also has her awaken just after Romeo has taken the poison to sing a couple of arias before they both go on to die) Opera North have nevertheless managed to make this an emotionally taut production. The fierceness of the lovers’ passion and the principals’ commitment to their singing, consolidated by a robust chorus of drunk party guests, street gangs, and mourners, make this an exceptional production of a flawed but, at times, stunning piece. The warm audience reception only goes to prove that quality opera doesn’t have to come at a cost.


May 12, 2008

Uncle Vanya, York Theatre Royal

Hall Plays for Laughs

3 stars

In Peter Hall’s recent high-acclaimed production of Pygmalion soon transferring to the West End, Tim Piggott-Smith’s Professor Henry Higgins had a chronic case of ADHD. Now, in Hall’s latest production with English Touring Theatre of Uncle Vanya, fine actor Nicholas Le Prevost seems encumbered with a similar affliction. Why does Peter Hall feel the need to make his productions so gratuitously jaunty?

As a result of the director’s “light” touch, this Vanya doesn’t possess the fraught atmosphere, frayed nerves or hopeless stasis that is so fundamental to Chekhov. In what is a charmingly quaint interpretation conveying rural life in late nineteenth-century Russia, Hall has neglected to tease out the multiple sexual and emotional frictions growing from spatial isolation. Vanya’s idolatry of Yelena (Michelle Dockery), for example, and his poignant recognition that he should have made his move years ago, comes across here as just playfully flirtatious on his part with some mild regret mixed in. Likewise, while Dockery gives a beautifully regal performance, her Sonya is lacking in the spoken of “weasel-like” qualities, instead being characterised by a porcelain stillness which doesn’t tally with her affair with the doctor.

This must be Hall’s attempt to illuminate what Chekhov so insistently referred to as the “comedy” in his plays. But the central scene in which the household servants are dismissed from their work after years of loyalty to Serebryakov (Ronald Pickup) is turned by Hall into a mini-farce. Prevost, with flamboyant gestures, warbles his way through a speech of apparent despair before we start a game of cat-and-mouse around the garden as he pursues Serebryakov with a gun that he does not know how to fire.

It’s a shame that, like Vanya with his gun, this production just misses. It’s undoubtedly enjoyable with some appealing performances, but it lacks the pathos and the simmering tensions that lurk beneath Chekhov’s deceptively still surface.


That Face, Duke of York's Theatre

A Face to Watch For

4 stars

While London theatre marks the beginning of Harold Pinter’s career in London fifty years ago, there is also cause for celebration in the emergence of 21 year-old writer, Polly Stenham, into the West End. Stenham’s play That Face is showing at the Duke of York’s theatre after its highly successful spell at the Royal Court. The play shows Stenham, certainly, to be an exciting talent in British theatre. Her ear for powerful dialogue is generally rare amongst young writers, and her imagination is unstoppable. Stenham sets her play in the squalid, middle-class home of an alcoholic mother, Martha (Lindsay Duncan) and her devoted, but emotionally crippled, son Henry (Matt Smith). The play looks at Henry and his rebellious teenage sister Mia (Hannah Murray) who gets into trouble whilst away at boarding school, only to be bought out by their wealthy father (Julian Wadham).

A stark white bed in the middle of a neon blue-lit stage gets steadily soiled as the play progresses; wine is spilt, cigarettes are dropped, and clothes are shredded. Yet this is not just a teenager’s tale of domestic decline. In amongst the rubble, there is a study of human dependence which defies rationality. Henry, though repulsed by and despairing at his drunken, unbalanced mother, clings to Martha in the face of her departure with the desperation of a powerless child. Similarly, Henry’s day out with Mia provokes a fierce reaction from his mother who simply cannot do without her handsome “Russian soldier” son. Stenham highlights, then, that maybe, just maybe, even in the worst situations, people are well intentioned. In the first scene, Mia and her friend Izzy interrogate a girl new to their school in what they regard as a light-hearted initiation ceremony. The seriousness of the consequences is not something they’d planned or wished for. Similarly, Mia’s father’s attempts to help his son and daughter by tossing money at them is not heartless, but, rather, all he knows of love and parental care. So, while Stenham’s play is stiflingly oppressive, there is nevertheless a fascinating study of human goodness going on, too.

Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith lie at the heart of this production, owing to their admirable capturing of unstable personalities. Duncan makes Martha at once hilarious and destructive – a Blanche DuBois of twenty-first century London – adorned with jewels and sporting a vampish cocktail dress. Smith makes Henry frantic, bordering on hysterical, in his desire to help his mother whatever. If Smith is, at times, a little too chaotic in his mannerisms, this is compensated for by a sensitivity and sincerity that shine through his performance.

The ending of the play descends into what may be simply too much chaos, as old grudges are resurrected and hurtful confessions made. Henry, dressed as his mother requests, in her slip and jewellery, undergoes a mental breakdown, grovelling on the floor and pounding the bed. It is a point at which you might say Stenham has gone a bit too far, but it is the only place where you feel so, the remainder of the play being spared by effectively placed humour and a compelling story line.

Whether Stenham’s next play that is being commissioned by the Royal Court will turn to a completely fresh subject, or whether family breakdowns will be her idée fixe, is unclear. But what we can be certain of is that this young writer has a promising theatrical future ahead of her, and That Face should enjoy revival after revival.


The Birthday Party, Lyric Hammersmith

The Birthday Party’s Birthday Party

3 stars

Fifty years ago, a young upstart writer named Harold Pinter was suffering the consequences of his poorly reviewed second ever play, branded a disaster. The reality was that The Birthday Party stepped into theatrical territory where no writer in 1958 had ever trod, and people just didn’t know how to take it. Today, when Pinter’s play is confidently considered one of the great hallmarks of British drama, David Farr directs The Birthday Party at the Lyric Hammersmith where it played back in 1958. Farr, now, can be much more certain of a positive response.

The Birthday Party is, perhaps, Pinter’s most elusive play. The young Stanley, who is either villain or victim (we are never sure) is visited at Meg and Petey’s seaside guesthouse by two shady figures calling themselves Goldberg and McCann. Farr’s production successfully captures the multiple layers of intrigue that the play throws up, but, at times, is a little too far on the slapstick side to really convey Pinter’s intended menace.

Sheila Hancock’s Meg is rather sweet, quite simple, and very silly. But her whiny intonation and habit of drawing out her lines into the same upward pattern makes us feel bored by her character by the end. Of course, Meg isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but there are darker sides to her character that the Nora Battyesque Meg we see here seems to neglect. Unfortunately, Sian Brooke as Lulu is a clone of Hancock’s Meg – clearly deliberately so since she looks fated for the same future as her older peer – but with this come the same screechy mannerisms and caricature acting. Justin Salinger also is susceptible to over-acting, frequently trying to convey Stanley’s gauche personality by poking out his chin and hunching his shoulders forward, making him look like a rather grumpy monkey.

Alan Williams, however, is excellent as Petey, embracing his character’s northern stoicism, and having a gravitas from the fact that he understands what’s going on. Goldberg and McCann, played by Nicholas Woodeson and Lloyd Hutchinson, make a classic duo. Woodeson compensates for his diminished height through the enthusiasm of his smile and the puffing out of his chest; Hutchinson apologises for his large stature by a sheepish expression and self-deprecating body language. Yet, even as Goldberg’s endearingly red-faced, big-pawed apprentice, Hutchinson points to the sinister side of McCann, as he fastidiously tears newspapers into strips and occasionally employs his physical size to dangerous ends.

There are some strong performances in the production, but they are compromised by a taste for satiric acting in other actors which diverts from Pinter’s verisimilitude. There is also a fundamental directorial confusion in the use of entrances and exists. New characters appear through what we had understood to be the backyard, later re-appearing through the front door, detracting from our total belief in this play.

As an anniversary piece though, it’s a landmark production by definition with many things to recommend it – particularly its excellent bringing to life of the play’s humour. But I’m still waiting for a really iconic production of Pinter’s play – one that leaves us feeling bruised, sad, puzzled – and downright scared.


May 2008

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