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Celebrity excitement on Friday was bumping into Amanda Palmer, (formerly of The Dresden Dolls, now touring solo) outside the Bowery.  A friend and I were in line waiting for Die Roten Punkte, and she was picking up her guest pass for the show.  We’ve got tickets to see her in concert next Saturday, so we were quite excited and a bit flustered.  We were even more flustered when she sat directly in front of us in the audience.  We didn’t say hello (after much deliberation) because we didn’t want to disturb her, but my friend did take very blurry picture of the back of Amanda’s head with her phone (which is possibly more disturbing and stalker-ish now I come to think about it):

Amanda Palmer

That shadow is a rock star.

I also managed to continue my largely unintentional spree of violence against the famous by whacking her in the shoulder with my bag. I’m sorry Ms Palmer.

Die Roten Punkte sounds like a really good name for a punk rock band if you don’t know what it means in German – “The Red Dots” –  the translation gives the game away.  They’re essentially a White Stripes parody band in clown make-up, but save some comedic energy to send up Nick Cave, The Cure and Kraftwerk as well.

More a comedy performance than a concert, the duo mix slapstick with dance, stand-up, improv and audience participation.  Songs like “Straight edge girl” and”Ich Bin Nicht Ein Roberter (I am a Lion)” are hilarious, but also pleasantly poppy.

otto-sitting-photo-credit-lst063435

The Robot Lion Tour
Die Roten Punkte

Pleasance OVER THE ROAD
Until the 31st of August (not the 17th)

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The Manchester Report

Back in January when I bought my tickets to see the world première of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera at the Manchester International Festival I was expecting to see a pretty piece of music.  Something that blended Wainwright’s distinctively melodic pop styling with (what I hoped to be) a competent homage to his favourite nineteenth century composers.  I was sceptical about the dramatic possibilities of his ‘day in the life of an opera singer’ concept, but hoped he could pull it all together.

Primma Donna

Prima Donna jumped a few hurdles to get on stage at Manchester this year – originally commissioned as part of a new talent project by the New York Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, Wainwright and Met general manager Peter Gelb had a few disagreements about the piece.  Gelb wanted an American opera in English for a vacancy in the 2012 season, Wainwright’s Parisian diva couldn’t wait to get on stage.

Luckily Manchester International Festival, Sadler’s Wells, Luminato (Toronto Festival of the Arts and Creativity) and Melbourne International Festival took on the commission: it’ll be produced at Sadler’s Wells and Luminato again next year (I haven’t found dates for Melbourne quite yet).

Prima Donna was surprising. In parts the music was the sort of grand romantic reminiscence I had expected, in parts quite modern and minimal.  Dramatically I was impressed.  What could have turned out quite silly and dull – the reflections of a grand dame in the twilight of her career – just wasn’t.  This is Puccini gone PoMo.

Postmodernism worries opera critics.  It tends to only rear its mangled head in production design  – cameras on stage, characters dressed as famous historical figures, photos of recent military conflict projected behind Giulio Ceseare – more than it is intentionally embraced in modern compositions.

But Prima Donna would fill almost all the rows of Ihab Hassan’s definitive table of the postmodern.  Ageing diva Régine (Janis Kelly) is kept company by a Rossini worthy slapstick posse: Her butler Philippe (Jonathan Summers), maid Marie (Rebecca Bottone) and doorman Francois (movement artist Steve Kirkham).  She is visited by a journalist (William Joyner), and together they sing a duet from her most famous role, Alienor d’Aquitaine, then share a passionate kiss.  In the company of Marie the next day, Regine reflects on her career, romantic life and time as a student at the conservatory, accompanied by some very lovely deconstructed arpeggios dragging out a fantastically sinister tone.

But it is not just the opera-within-an-opera metafiction that makes Prima Donna dramatically interesting.  Toward the end of the second half Andre the journalist returns, explaining to Régine he cannot stay because he has plans with his fiancée Sophie  – who then appears silhouetted in the doorway dressed as Madame Butterfly.  Régine dismisses Andre and her staff, and after signing one last record for Marie, climbs through the window, prepared to plunge to her death like Tosca.  In the light of the Bastille day festivities she sings her last aria, and decides not to jump.  Accepting that her career, like the fireworks, could be both brief and spectacular.

I really enjoyed it, and judging from the number of curtain calls, so did most of the audience.  Parts were Janis Kelly and Rebecca Bottone sung together were particularly beautiful, Summers and Joyner both suited their roles very well.  Daniel Kramer’s direction and Anthony McDonald’s design worked really well in highlighting the vibrancy of the opera. We waited around for a little while outside after the performance to see Rufus who, resplendent in top had and madras tail-coat, also seemed quite happy with the show.

Rufus in hat

Rufus, mingling with fans after the performance.

Prima Donna
By Rufus Wainwright

Palace Theatre, Manchester
12/07/09

Performances 14, 17 & 19 July, some tickets remaining (Edit:  all gone!).

Godot

More odd celebrity sightings. I stopped by King’s Theatre to return a couple of extra tickets I had enthusiastically snapped up when the tour of Waiting for Godot was announced last year. There was a huge queue of people waiting for return tickets for that night’s performance, and as the box office hadn’t yet opened I stood in the line and had a chat with an interesting man in a large hat and two drama students who had travelled up from London for the chance to see Sir Ian on stage. Waiting there in the line I was suddenly whacked in the leg as a man with long white hair, wearing oversized tracksuit pants tucked into his socks and a hairy camel overcoat pushed by.

He was carrying a bright orange Sainsbury’s bag containing a few pointy objects. A few professional autograph hunters crowded around him. I gather Sir Ian was doing the prop run, picking up turnips for that night, and saw his opportunity to take revenge on behalf of British celebrities everywhere.

It was great seeing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Godot. It’s easy to forget when reading Beckett that his plays are not just depressing post-apocalyptic commentaries, but often very funny too. However, the highlight of the performance for me was Lucky’s monologue near the end of Act 1:

…I resume the skull to shrink and wast and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara…

Having recently read quite a bit of Beckett, including the soul destroying trilogy Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnamable, for me this monologue really evokes the sort of gut wrenching panic that hides just under the surface in Beckett’s prose and drama.

Lucky was played brilliantly by Ronald Pickup – from his biography it seems he’s been in every play performed in Britain in the past forty years, but most recognisably for people of my generation, he is the voice of this guy:

Roar!

Roar!

Aslan in the BBC adaptation of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe! (As I child I was convinced that they had trained up a real lion for that show, and am now devastated at how obviously it is a puppet.) Simon Callow, who plays Pozzo, has also had a very interesting career, rising from a box office job to stage (as the front end of a stage horse) to the west end, to director and critic.

Sometimes it is difficult to fully enjoy something with such famous actors so aggressively promoted, but this Godot is certainly worth the hype.

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett

King’s Theatre Edinburgh
18 /04/2009

Unusually, this production has toured prior to its London run – it is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
See http://www.waitingforgodottheplay.com

Eye and ben

I dropped round to the National Theatre on my way to Borough Markets and the Tate Modern on Saturday to try and grab a day ticket for a matinee.  Given the choice between Mrs Affleck and the controversial England People Very Nice, I went for the later, thinking that I could compare perspectives on immigration in this contemporary play and Miller’s 1956 New York.

The National holds back about fifty seats for each performance for sale on the day.  They go for ten pounds (limited to two per person).  I arrived at about ten to nine and there were already about twenty five people waiting in line.
Line for day tickets

They sold out by ten.  I imagine on weekdays it would be a bit less busy.  I grabbed a ticket and headed off for a morning of venison burgers and chai, stopping to marvel at a great instillation piece at the Tate Modern.

The National Theatre has a great book shop.  I went back a bit before the play to manhandle the McDonagh section and see if they had the verse edition of A View from the Bridge.

So there I was, minding my own dorky drama business, when I hear a very familiar voice behind me.  I turn half around and find Alan Rickman striding towards the DVD section.  I don’t often recognise celebrities, so I thought I should mark the occasion, and surreptitiously sent a text message to a friend back in Edinburgh.  Just as I pressed send on “I’m standing next to Alan Rickman!” I noticed that Rickman was now actually standing right next to me.  I dropped my phone in my pocket and hid in a copy of Meyerhold: A Life.

In the biography section Meyerhold sits right next to Miller.  I got distracted by all the Miller books  looking for possible clues as to where I could find copies of his working drafts.

Five minutes passed.

Suddenly the shop’s anti-theft alarm went off.  Startled, I flailed my arms ridiculously (somewhat out-of-character for me as I’m not usually afraid of loud noises) and hit the person standing to my left in the stomach with The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller.  I turned to apologise.  Rickman again.

I squeaked.

He said “I’m sorry” (in his deep and distinctive Alan Rickman voice) .

For those unfamiliar with yoof culture, Alan Rickman plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies. This is what he looks like:

Snape

Snape

Scary.

We didn’t have wizard duel. But I reckon I could have taken him out.

England People Very Nice is a terrible play.  It has been criticised as racist, and it is, but that was only the start of my problems with it.  It was also overly didactic (quite an accomplishment for a play that also relied so heavily on bad racial jokes), too long, repetitive and not at all funny.

It’s a great pity, because it is unusual to have a play written for such a large multi-racial cast.  And it was generally well acted, as far as the performances were able to transcend the material.  I recognised some familiar faces – like her and this guy.

Richard Bean builds England People Very Nice from a basic play-within-a-play format – a group of asylum seekers writing and acting about immigration to Bethnal Green through the ages.  This allows the cast to take breaks to make glaringly obvious meta-diegetic comments about the narrative.

“Is this a play about immigration or a play about love?”
“Intermarriage is the first sign of cultural integration.”

The influence of  Caryl Churchill is clearly identifiable in the work, with the director character in the dentention centre flouncing about saying things like “Our characters are children and their playground is time!”  But rather than the archetypal characters exploring changes in attitudes to gender and sexuality like in Churchill’s Cloud Nine, they just behave the same way in each time period they inhabit.  It’s a sad vision.

I wasn’t the only person that didn’t enjoy it.  I overheard two gentlemen talking as we shuffled out:

“I guess it just shows how racist we all are.”
“I don’t think so.  I think that’s the last time June recommends a play to us.  There should be a number we can call that issues a statement letting us know whether or not she’s still sane.”

The play operates under the assumption that if you mock every race and culture you can get away with making stupid jibes like “As Jewish as the hole in the sheet” and “For Jewish people, there’s no smoke without salmon”.

What was particularly disturbing was not the content of the play itself but noticing how and when the audience actually laughed at the poor taste jokes.  I guess it’s my fault for going to see a play described as “A riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today.”
But then again, to quote the play:
“Only a liberal blames himself for getting mugged.”

England People Very Nice
Richard Bean

National Theatre
28/02/2009

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