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The very lovely Joyce DiDonato, who I saw play Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni last year, slipped during a performance of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House on the weekend and broke her leg.

DiDonato proved herself quite the trooper and finished the performance, first limping, then shuffling about with the help of a walking stick.  It wasn’t until after the show anyone realised the severity of the injury.  She’ll be singing the rest of the run from a wheelchair.

Orange

On Monday night I was lucky enough to see Patrick Wolf’s London show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.  Most of the songs he played were from his new album The Bachelor, but he did play a few songs from his last album The Magic Position; the title track and ‘Accident and Emergency’.

Wolf and crowd

I’m a big fan of Patrick Wolf. He’s one of a few pop/indie musicians around at the moment who write really interesting music

Patrick Wolf and violin

This quite interesting article goes into Wolf’s background in performance art collectives and electronic instrument construction.  In it he is compared to my favourite pop musician David Bowie.

I’m not entirely sure that you can compare the two.  The 1970s had a very different musical landscape, and Bowie’s experimental approach to performance was ground breaking at the time.  But the more I think about it the more the comparison makes sense.

For one thing look at this –

Bowie’s first dabble with electronic music Earthling (released in 1997):
bowie-earthling

And a better view of Wolf’s flag outfit on Monday night:
Union jack

The lyrics for Bowie’s ‘Battle for Britain’:

Don’t be so forlorn, it’s just the payoff
It’s the rain before the storm
Don’t you let my letter get you down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you

Don’t you let my letter get you down, down, down, down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you
Don’t you let my letter get you down, down, down, down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you

Down, down, down, down, down, down
Down, down, down, down, down, down
Down, down, down, down, down, down

And Patrick’s ‘Battle’:

Battle the Patriarch
Battle for equal rights

Battle, battle, battle
Battle back your liberty
Battle the long night
Come on
Battle battle battle
It’s your time

So I suppose even if Wolf isn’t the new Bowie, they certainly both have a penchant for union flag clothing and defiant British electronica.

What is great about Partrick Wolf isn’t really his outlandish outfits or confident stage presence, but his musical talent.  Wolf has the confidence to try different styles of music and write songs about different emotional, political and fictional themes.  Listening to Wolf you can really feel his passion for sound.  And I can never resist a fellow harpist.

Patrick Wolf is touring the US for the rest of June, heading back to the UK for the beginning of festival season.  Highly recommended.

Patrick Wolf

02/05/09
The Electric Ballroom, Camden.

Quick edit to add:

Here is a post from Style Bubble about Wolf’s clothes and costumes.  And here is a more recent post on his Battle costumes, including a very Saint Sebastian-esque speared jacket.

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Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes tells the story of a misunderstood fisherman who just doesn’t seem to be able to keep hold of a decent apprentice.  The boys keep dying on him.  But Grimes is not really about fishermen or child abuse – it’s a story about the persecuted outsider, and music for the sea.

I saw the last show of the opera’s run, and so unfortunately missed out on seeing Stuart Skelton’s reportedly brilliant take on the title roll.  I’ve been lucky enough to spot Skelton in real life (backstage at a rehearsal of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney) and he is a very amiable man.  It’s great to see an Australian performer achieving such success overseas.  I doubt John Daszak was as strong as Skelton in the role – but I didn’t find that this interfered much with my enjoyment of the piece.  The role after all was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who didn’t have great Wagnerian range like Skelton. The Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, apparently written on Pears’ only good note (E-natural a third above middle C) – was very beautifully performed by Daszak.

I have slight reservations about the ENO production.  Captain Balstrode (sung by the fantastic Gerald Finley of Doctor Atomic) was inexplicitly missing an arm.  Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) cross-dresses in a vaudevillian tux.  Her two ‘nieces’ are dressed as identical school girls, who alternately pound the heads of their dolls into the ground and stroke each other’s thighs.  These drag and sideshow elements are intended to draw attention to the dance hall-esque parts of the score and evoke Kurt Weill.

This works to some extent, but it also interferes somewhat with the subtle way that more restrained productions of Grimes can make a very ordinary seaside village seethe with menace.  By making all the townspeople a little odd, the idea that  regular people are just as likely to be evil as those who stand out (like Grimes) is lost.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better minimal staging of an opera.  The main set pieces where three large benches, used to best effect piled up on each other to suggest Grimes’ cliff top hut.  The boy’s accidental death was brilliantly staged. A very strong production overall.


Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten

30/05/09
ENO at the London Coliseum

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It can be disconcerting when you feel rather lukewarm about a play that ends up getting generally positive reviews.  But I’ll stick with my original assessment.  All’s Well That Ends Well is the National’s new Shakespeare production, directed by Marianne Elliott.  All’s Well is one of the ‘problem plays’ and not very frequently performed.  It’s a bit of a challenge; not a story audiences are familiar with, or one that has a great recent history of interpretations to respond to.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a well regarded daughter, cures the King of France of a fistula.  As a reward the King promises her any man in the kingdom as her husband.  She chooses the son of her Lady, Bertram, who isn’t too keen on marrying a common lass.  He declares he can not be called her husband until she is carrying his child with his ring on her finger.  So with the help of a young lady in Florence, a blindfold, and lingerie with a fox tail attached (in this production), she tricks Bertram into consummating their union.

Here Elliot decided to frame the story as a dark fairytale; with moving castles, animated owls and wolves.  I imagine this was a strategy to introduce the unfamiliar play to the audience without confusing or boring them.  It wasn’t a bad idea, but was probably taken a tad too far.   Helene leaves her sparkling pink slippers centre stage just before interval, with a spot was trained tightly on them as the house went dark – she’s both a lost Dorothy and an abandoned Cinderella.  The rings the two mismatched lovers exchange are fitted with little light bulbs, fairy lights adorn Florence on the soldiers arrival. Ninox would have cringed to see the 1940’s camera flash cliché is still going strong on stage.

The performance I saw was a preview and there were a couple of teething problems.  The lights in the rings kept switching off unexpectedly.  Janet Henfrey (playing the widow) took a tumble on the slippery paper petals carpeting the stage at the end of the play.

I particularly disliked the sound direction – not only did the first half suffer from electronic wind syndrome, wolves howled and owls whooped over almost every softly spoken line.

As I said at the start, the play has otherwise been very well received, and all of the actors’ performances were very satisfactory.  It just seems that theatrical restraint is passé.

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare

National Theatre London
26/05/09

ETA.  The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig isn’t too keen on it either.

Arcadia

I saw a few days ago in The Independent that Johann Hari had declared Arcadia to be the greatest play of our age (whatever that age is). It’s a big call. It’s also a very nice play. While I’m quite a Stoppard fan I hadn’t seen it before yesterday – when I was visiting London in 2006 I saw Rock n’ Roll in its première season and had tickets to see it again in New York in 2007, but Broadway was shut down by industrial action.

Like many of Stoppard’s plays, Arcadia is decorated with intellectual in-jokes and mechanical tortoises.  Ok.  It’s probably the only one that requires a remote control tortoise, but I haven’t read Jumpers in a while and I wouldn’t bet any money on it not featuring one at some point.

Arcadia jumps between two points in time in the history of Sidley Park: the tutoring of young genius Thomasina by a contemporary of Byron’s at Cambridge and the preparations for a garden party in the present day. In the modern scenes the books and objects of Renascence Sidley Park remain on the table, to be discovered by a pair of literary historians: Bernard Nightingale (Neil Pearson), investigating Byron’s stay at the property and Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) investigating the man who lived until his death in the garden’s hermitage.

This production was really well performed. I particularly enjoyed seeing Dan Stevens (who played Septimus) after seeing him in the BBC’s adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Ed Stoppard (son of Tom), playing Valentine. Ed Stoppard appeared in last year’s film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, adding extra humour to Nightingale’s dismissal of his character as “Brideshead Regurgitated”.  Direction was by David Levaux. In London in 2006 I saw his Glass Menagerie staring Jessica Lange and found it very moving, so it was lovely to have another chance to see his work.

Leaving the theatre we saw at least six autograph hunters standing with folders of posters and DVD covers, some already signed by other celebrities. Most of the posters seemed to be from the Harry Potter films. This gives you some idea of how intense the attention actors in these blockbusters get – Hugh Mitchell (who plays Gus/Augustus) had appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Jessie Cave (Thomasina) is in the film to be released later this year, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Arcadia
By Tom Stoppard

27/05/09
Duke of York’s Theatre London.

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

As you can see here and here, I spend a bit of time thinking about conceptual art, and particularly enjoy looking at work by female artists.  When I was down in London recently I was interested to see the new turbine hall commission by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at the Tate modern.   The Independent has a profile of Gonzalez-Foerster here.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058 looks 50 years into the future, as the inhabitants of London take shelter from a never-ending rain. Filled with bunk beds scattered with books, the animal forms of gargantuan sculptures, a massive LED screen playing edited extracts from science-fiction and experimental films, and piercing lights that suggest some unseen surveillance, the Turbine Hall has taken on the attributes of an epic film set.

at Tate modern

The piece has a futuristic noir atmosphere, with the flickering of the film and a thick green and red curtain shielding the main exhibit from the light of the entrance. The sound of dripping and persistent rain is amplified around the hall.

Tate modern

What I particularly liked about the instillation was that people seemed to enjoy interacting with it, standing around pondering, watching the film excerpts and climbing over the bunks. Like these children here:

Children and bunks

That is good art.

Atomic

I’ve just spent two hours transcribing a fifteen minute segment of Newsnight Review featuring an interview with John Adams and a roundtable discussion with Jeanette Winterson, Tom Service and Paul Morley. Frenzied argument is not easy to decipher at speed.

Doctor Atomic just seems to get people worked up.

Quoth the composer:

“I often say that next to abortion and gun control, there’s no better way to get people shouting at each other than opinions of opera. You know, all you have to do if you want a dose of toxicity is to go on the blogs and read what people’s opinions are of Doctor Atomic.”

I’ll be spewing no toxicity here.  I enjoy Adams’ musical style and I find Doctor Atomic really moving.

The opera is set in Los Alamos, during the Trinity test of the atom bomb in 1945. It particularly focuses on the inner turmoil of Robert Oppenheimer, ‘father of the atomic bomb’. He was a very interesting man. Aside from being a talented physicist he also had a keen interest in poetry and may have once tried to kill one of his tutors at university with a poisoned apple.

From the Newsnight segment I also discovered that my arch nemesis Jeanette Winterson* cried three times in Doctor Atomic.  I did not cry three times.  But I was very moved by Gerald Finley’s stunning aria at the end of the first act ‘Batter my Heart’ (probably the best known piece in the opera) and the last fifteen minutes of the second act where Adams drags out the final countdown to the test explosion.

I was lucky enough to see Doctor Atomic in its first season in San Francisco in 2005.  I believe that the piece has been revised since then, but I didn’t notice any substantial changes.

This was a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and aside from Gerald Finley (who according to something I read recently has played Oppenheimer in every staging of this opera to date), Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita) and Sasha Cooke (Kitty) are also continuing their roles from the Met.  You can read about how John Adams hid from Ninox behind a hedge at the Met here.

Doctor Atomic
John Adams

London Coliseum
28/02/2009.

*Winterson is not really my arch nemesis, I’m sure her novels are very good. But her quasi political rants about the transformative power of words are a bit earnest. I heckled one once. Very quietly.

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

He kneels, grasps; and with strain slowly raises the chair higher and higher, getting to his feet now. RODOLPHO and CATHERINE have stopped dancing as MARCO raises the chair over his head.
MARCO is face to face with EDDIE, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over EDDIE’s head – and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning to a smile of triumph, and EDDIE’s grin vanishes as he absorbs his look.

A view from the Bridge

A View from the Bridge has a very interesting production history.  Miller based the play on the real-life story of a longshoreman who reported the refugees he was sheltering in his own home to the immigration authority when one of them proposed to his niece.

Miller had also spent time around the Mediterranean and wanted to create an American epic drama, avoiding conventions of realist theatre. The first draft of the play was written in verse, but was revised to prose on the advice of Peter Brook.  Surviving elements of Miller’s original epic structure can be seen in the use of the lawyer Alfieri as a semi-omniscient narrator.

I would love to get my hands on the original verse version.  I’ve only seen Bolcom’s opera adaptation before, and his musical production preserves the tone of the play very well.  But it would be great to compare the Bolcom’s libretto to the first version of the play.

The play in its current form was performed for the first time in London on the 11th of October 1956, at a Comedy theatre masquerading as a nightclub.  Due to the kiss between Eddie and Rodolpho in the second act public performance of the play in England had been banned.

This was a very good production.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Hayley Atwell play Catherine after seeing her in last year’s Brideshead Revisited film and the BBC’s ‘modern costume’ adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

A View from the Bridge is playing at Duke of York’s Theatre until the 16th of May.

A View from the Bridge
Arthur Miller.

Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
27/02/09

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