Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Visceral theatre, bloodless opera

An extremely long culture-vulturey post here, with so much to catch up on: three plays, two musicals, two operas (and passing reiterated paeans of praise for an opera-oratorio and an early Wagner rarity). Still reeling from the welter of emotions stirred up by South African playwright Yael Farber's Strindberg adaptation Mies Julie at the Riverside Studios, I was happy to recollect her stunning production in relative tranquillity by reading the text, published by the admirable Oberon Books (cover illustrated above).

The stage directions of the play, set on a farm out on the bleak, storm-plagued plains of the Karoo, confirm the elusive tenderness that punctuates the recriminations and the violence of a couple who would be right for each other in different circumstances. The human is always to the fore in Bongile Mantsai's angry boot-polisher John and Hilde Cronje as a bewilderingly multi-faceted Julie (if this performance doesn't win her a couple of Best Actress awards, there's no justice; but then there wasn't for Tracie Bennett's Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow). Yet Farber's subtitle - Restitutions of body & soil since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913 & the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927 - suggests that socio-political concerns dominate.

They don't, but the play makes it clear that they totally blight these fractured lives. 'What are we staying for?,' asks Julie. 'A pair of boots to polish and an ancestor beneath the floor?...Graves and soil?' Ultimately, familial Xhosa ties precipitate the tragedy. By making Christine not the servant John may or may not marry but his mother, Farber tilts the scales in his favour; he's a much more sympathetic character than Strindberg's arrogant monster Jean. But miraculously we feel even more desperately for Julie (Cronje pictured above with Mantsai by William Burdett-Coutts).

Enough; the rest is in the Arts Desk review. Another high drama of individual stature I knew I had to see at the new, purpose built St. James Theatre in Victoria was Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good (hurry - you only have four days left to catch it). Premiered at the Royal Court in a production by the same director, Max Stafford-Clark in 1988 - J saw it then, I didn't - it originally alternated in rep with  Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, the play which Wertenbaker's Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark gets selected prisoners from his shipful of convicts to act in when they arrive in Australia.

The debates about the transformative possibility of theatre and art in a hostile landscape, and among an initially hostile underclass who've had no exposure to this sort of thing, offers even more insights today, as the programme article about drama in prisons unpretentiously underlines. Stafford-Clark has assembled a magnificent line-up of Dickensian (or, more in keeping with the period, Hogarthian) faces. The production starts with a hint of student theatre in group speaking, but while among the performers the men are mostly more consistently good than the women, all tap into the emotions.

Dominic Thorburn's Ralph is a handsome presence and a good lines-man; Kathryn O'Reilly charts the huge change in violent Liz Morden movingly; there's comedy from Matthew Needham's stagestruck wide-boy Sideways (pictured above with Thorburn by Robert Workman; further up, Thorburn and Laura Dos Santos; below, Dos Santos playreading with Helen Bradbury and O'Reilly); and Ciaran Owens zips convincingly between soft-spoken Irish hangman and bullying major. The adaptable designs by Tim Shortall, originally for the Octagon Theatre Bolton where this Out of Joint production opened, fit the fine new St James's theatre space like an appropriately holey glove.

More creativity in hostile confines appears in Romanian-based Hungarian poet and playwright András Visky's I Killed My Mother, which on the invitation of J's colleague, the play's director Natalia Gleason (nee Nagy), we went to see in the Rosemary Branch pub theatre on - you've guessed it - Mother's Day. I have to point out what a different world we entered - not least at the end of the play, when fellow audience members showed Eastern European politeness by ushering me politely out of my row instead of shoving towards the exit. At the Royal Opera or the Royal Opera House British middle- and upper-class feral behaviour would stampede you flat if you didn't put up a fight.

Orsolya Csiki's Bernadette is a girl left to the mercy of a state orphanage after abandonment by a Roma mother. She forges a friendship with a boy who calls himself Clip, after the steel clips placed on their tongues for 'bad' behaviour. They share 'Clippish' as a secret language and his influence never wanes through Bernadette's later vicissitudes, including a sexual relationship with a woman who turns out to be her sister.

Based on Visky's real-life encounters with the model for Bernadette, the play has a poetic fluidity and the production captures a vivid sense of place (especially the horrifying scene, based on another true incident, in which a busload of would-be Romanian escapees is gunned down by police at the border). It's tough for Hungarian actors to speak in English, and the endings of Csiki's lines were sometimes lost. But she had intensity in spades, and so did the superb Antal Nagy as Clip (pictured with Csiki above), a charismatic actor. Here are director Natalia and author András downstairs after the play.

Hardly visceral in the same way, Dear World still moved me to tears on a second visit - as clearly it did its star, Betty Buckley (pictured below by Eric Richmond), at the curtain calls. I wanted J to see it, and he was delighted, above all with the consummate music-theatre of the three 'madwomen' and their triple-counterpoint scene. This, like so much else, derives closely from the source, Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot; indeed, having now got hold of the play text, I'd say that at least 75 per cent of the lines go into the latest version of the musical. All the more pity that it didn't plunge straight into the skullduggery of the capitalist fat cats and their prospector planning to blow up a cafe to get at oil beneath the streets of Paris. I love the whimsy of both Giraudoux and Jerry Herman; this is a fantasy with its heart very much in the right place, all the more remarkable for both 1943 and 1969.

Sadly, if you want to catch the show, you can't; it finished a week and a half before the official end of the run. Rumour suggests that the American backer who was going to take it to New York pulled the plugs, and director Gillian Lynne ended up having to finance at least a week of performances herself. An undeserving fate for this excellent show, as for the equally wrongly maligned Lend Me a Tenor last year.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical, on the other hand, could run and run. I love the film, of course, had forgotten about its stronger meat and so took my mother on her 82nd birthday last Friday to see it on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. The circumstances were not promising: over lunch, ma told me that the cab driver she'd booked to drive us from Banstead to Wimbledon and back had said 'you'll recognise me when you see me: I'm your local UKIP councillor'.

An odd introduction: does anyone recognise ANY local councillors anywhere, unless they've fought a special cause? I certainly don't. He'd then gone on to harrass her about voting, and tried to pick up on this the minute we got in the car. 'I don't want to discuss politics' said my mother firmly, which didn't stop him sounding off about global warming as a conspiracy of 'those leftie scumbags', large-scale housebuilding on country land as a cure for unemployment and 'disgusting' minarets (as mum opened her mouth about the Morden mosque, I waited for the predictable blow to fall). We sat silently through all this as there was no point arguing with a maniac and it was supposed to be a fun birthday. Still, it was quite good for ma to see the vicious skull beneath the skin of 'friendly' UKIP - not that she'd vote for them, or I hope not anyway, though she doesn't even seem to know why she votes Tory.

All was at last well inside the theatre. The audience? The large majority middle-aged to elderly women (in contrast with the middle-aged to elderly men for the Wagner opera on Sunday, among which group I suppose I must be counted, though I'm not your Wagnerian 'strange single'). The musical? Disco songs subject to coarse amplification that made the dialogue incomprehensible (though some of the attempts at Aussie accents may not have helped). The drag frocks? Sublime, outclassing even the film in that respect. Performances? Not bad, led by Jason Donovan who turned out to be a good crooner and quite a touching actor. I loved the understatement of Richard Grieve's transsexual Bernadette, though Terence Stamp in the film is not to be equalled. Cue a still of the three 'cocks in frocks on a rock' scene (Stamp centre) which is its emotional climax.

Blushed a little for the parental in the scene where an angry Aussie outbacker threatening rape orders Grieve's elegant dame to 'fuck me!'. She sashays over, kicks him in the balls and says 'Now you're fucked'. Mum said she could never quite get used to the f-word, but that it was all good fun. Which indeed it was.

That was the light start to a heavy four days' theatre and opera going. We caught the last, Saturday matinee performance of Charpentier's Medea at English National Opera. It was clearly sold as a star vehicle for mezzo Sarah Connolly, a token of esteem from the director who adores her, David McVicar ('what's up with the mother complex?' said a colleague who shall remain nameless at the interval, adding even more waspishly that McVicar is 'the John Copley de nos jours'. Not a compliment). She was, of course, truly magnificent, pulling out vocal resources I hadn't thought even her capable of in the hellish invocation of Act Three (preceded by a rarity in any of the court operas for Louis XIV, a huge set-piece lament).

Even so, there wasn't as much original stuff here as I found, to my surprise, in the concert performance of Lully's Phaëton the other week. Within unerringly handsome sets by Bunny Christie, beautifully lit by Paule Constable, three of the four divertissements to mostly formulaic music were well enough done, though the breathy witch-nurses were alarmingly close to the zombie nuns of the Royal Opera Robert le Diable, while the second and campest ballet made one long for Glenn Miller and a swing band, not these courtly platitudes. Roderick Williams acted and sang his socks off as a decent, deceived warrior, and true bass Brindley Sherratt is always dependable, but none of the others came close to la Connolly (all production images by Clive Barda for ENO).

I got very irritated with the last act: absolutely no pity and terror here from Charpentier's score. Medea's love rival, Creusa (as a Grace Kelly clone reduplicated in creepy daddy Creon's Act Three deception) was seared to death by her poisoned ball gown with not an inch of 'ouch' in the music. Here are the oddly-cast, rather strenuous American tenor Jeffrey Francis as Jason and Katherine Manley, who came to life as the evening wore on, as Creusa.

Fine: this all left me clear-headed for what I suspected would be a real harrowing from John Adams in his new opera-oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican in the evening. And it was, despite the Born Again hysteria of Lazarus's raising (I'm a bit disconcerted to read that Peter Sellars, restrained in his production here, is a fervent Christian). But the Passion plumbed the depths and the meeting of Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden at the end left me speechless: chapter and verse here on The Arts Desk. Photo with the searing Kelley O'Connor by Keith Sheriff.

Sunday evening was suck-it-and-see time with good old Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of the 20-year-old Wagner's Die Feen: read about it here on The Arts Desk. Last night I vowed to attend Benjamin's much-vaunted Written on Skin at the Royal Opera last night with an open mind, in spite of the fact that this composer's irreproachably well scored orchestral works have never spoken to me in any way. But very early on it was clear this wasn't going to either.

How strange to approach a horrid story - which hardly has much to offer to us today, surely? - of lust, murder and cannibalism with such ice-cold restraint. Is this the 'cold fascination with disaster' mentioned towards the opera's close? The beginning promised something, though what started out as - we thought- tension-building in long single and double lines just turned to glue after the several stormbreaks (for which Benjamin has only one mode, cliched modernist brass discords; at least the frantic woodwind trills in the killing began to say something for a moment). Photos of Vicki Mortimer's well-lit sets for Katie Mitchell's business-as-usual production by Stephen Cummiskey for the Royal Opera House.

They say there's a strong feminist streak here; but the rebellious woman still ends up killing herself; plus ca change for operatic heroines. The cast were strong and clear of diction, and at least Benjamin mostly lets them be heard; but their roles are hardly clear even as archetypes and as for the music-drama, apart from a moment's haunting in glass harmonica-led sounds towards the end, I was left interested but unstirred. Good production? Yes, though I like the 'angel' clinic no more than Martin Crimp's cringeworthy 21st century framework for the medieval tale. Fine singing? Absolutely, especially from Christopher Purves - despite suffering from uncharacteristic hoarseness last night - and Barbara Hannigan, though her hardly rock-solid soprano wasn't quite as amazing as the hype suggested it ought to be.

Great opera, though? Certainly not. I'm in a minority here, though friend Debbie York, hotfoot from Berlin for more Messiaenic coaching in London, agreed vehemently with me and we echo every word about the score written by my pal Igor on The Arts Desk. Still, it had to be seen, and those £4 standing places were worth every penny.


Piala said...

Hi David,

I totally agree about "Written on Skin" - it was such a pointless empty experience for me, and had nothing to say. If anything, during it, when I was longing for it to end, all I could think of was how at least Chaucer had more humanity and understanding of people's aggressions and folly in a dictatorial age: with his gift of seeing how life survives with humour and wit - and so heroines escape, and (even if with great difficulty) do not die; and the men have lessons to learn which hit you to the very heart. Or, there was even that TV episode of Cadfael once I saw which came to mind, "The Rose Rent" where the woman (of similar class) takes on the men of the community vying to possess her - and her wealth - staves off the threat of violence, goes with the man of her own final (quiet)choice - and wins. So, for an audience with free and ample modern access to these stories (from the simple to the richly poetic - in fact I was even thinking how what if the poorest community in an African dictator state saw this? how would they respond? - they'd might ask, "where are all the other women who the wife would most certainly know?) what exactly are Crimp and Benjamin's claims then to be writing a modern opera? From a land of no rights, and where the predator holds sway (eg: as in the opera, with even babies on sticks) presented to a land of mixed complexities...in fact, by the time Agnes is eating the heart, I couldn't care less because her husband was so stock vilain to me, nothing now was unbelievable, as the dramatic buid-up had all been used up, and now had no power to turn. It had that yukky bourgeoise thing of a stage, pantomine-like bloodless "murder" too - where if you really want to show proper, real violence - then it's horrible, and the blood doesn't stop. So if you don't want to show it maybe come in after covered in a lot of blood? it can be really chilling and effective (ie, eg, Shakespeare!!)

I agree with you, that I don't think such effort could have been put into a dry and dead-end story like this unless it had given to its makers a kind of enjoyment. So, HELP - if this is the kind of thing which is being supported today, I'm at a loss. The music was neat - but uninspiring - at a deep and fundamental level I felt both it and opera just failed. As a woman, I'd also like to know what to take away from it - bad dreams the night after, for a start - of the numb and disassociated kind; and it's certainly not feminist even in very the least - that is really upping the pretentious scale to the super-highway and beyond. What it said to me was, "You're a woman: speak up, but it's dangerous, and you will be killed". And maybe that's also fear of each of the makers'own feminine SELF? I thought. I'd argue a lot of composers might have confused a plea for modernism with somehow a new inner fear of the "feminine": or, blokes who just haven't thought outside the box,ever - when it's the artists who DO who have actually something interesting, modern, and modernist,to say.
Opera I know,, relies on high emotional drama, but finding out how to do it and be modern is the big big gauntlet. Even when Benjamin, interviewed, said how everything else had to go and he could only focus on this opera for two and a half years: it's like, well done luv, and WELCOME to the profession. Hard work inn'it? And how it takes a good few tries even after that to get it right.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Piala, and again, I agree with every well-argued point. I, too, couldn't have cared less by the time of the heart-eating. And I, too, think that the best way to deal with horrific times is to show how humanity coped, even - for goodness' sake - with a bit of humour. Which neither Crimp nor Benjamin seem to possess.

'You're a woman: speak up, but it's dangerous, and you will be killed': brilliant.

Susan Scheid said...

Given past exchanges we've had, particularly, I was enormously struck by this in your colleague's review: "Fear pervaded this first attempt at a full-scale opera from Benjamin. Fear of realism. Fear of the audience. Fear of quotation. Fear of modern opera's ability to sustain interest." Makes me think a bit of Ades' The Tempest, in fact.The Edu-Mate & I were listening tonight to El Niño, and both struck repeatedly by its beauty. Adams is neither afraid nor ashamed of beauty, is he? And yet, time after time, he extends himself to create something truly new. Interesting, too, that Alex Ross had such a different reaction to Written on the Skin (I've now read his review, which glows).

As for the rest of your jam-packed post, I am breathless just reading it. I don't know how you're able to take it all in and on top of that comment cogently on each thing you saw!

A little side note: it seems Nagy must be a common Hungarian name. And a common name for talented folk, judging from reports your way and mine, eh?

David said...

Last night three of us watched the new Adams documentary screened on BBC 4 (someone made me a DVD, but I think it's on iPlayer for a while). It mostly lets him talk, and everything he says, especially about opera and not being afraid to be eclectic in a large-scale work, is a kind of manual for what Benjamin shouldn't have done.

Everyone liked our John, though he comes over very seriously, when we know he can be playful in conversation as well as in his music. Sure, it was a beginner's guide, but with lots of lovely nature footage and photos by Debbie O'Grady, the soulmate. Made by a colleague on The Arts Desk, Mark Kidel.

I mistrust AR on quite a few things, eloquently as he writes, and this is one of them. Head not heart?

I was thinking that about Nagy too, of course. I like its slightly comical (to us) sound, 'Nodge': is that how David pronounces it?

Susan Scheid said...

Interesting--I was thinking heart, not head, but I think you are likely right. I'm influenced here by his admiration for Radiohead, which I thought must be heart over head. Showing my trousers rolled, here, but Radiohead does nothing for me, heart or head. Nice to have a documentary on Adams. It looked as if it was very well done.

Bruce MacRae said...

Hi David - I'd best refrain from commenting on WOS due to (a) having totally failed to see it yet (though planning to do so Vienna or Munich this summer) and (b) working as I do for the publisher. Also (c) being a bit numb to opera, in general, said condition having "set in" about five years ago. Doctors despair and tell me there's nothing I can do except let it take its course. B.t.w. yes "nodge" is about as close as you can get using Anglo sounds and it is a very common word and name both, translating as "big". So he's "Mr Big" then.

Susan Scheid said...

Tonight was my turn to see and hear Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Your Arts Desk review captures my experience the best of any I've read. Astonishing, transcendent, one for the ages.

Toubab said...

is all I can say to the incomparable energy of my favourite culture-vulture. You are amazing. Need to lie down under a fan. 37 degrees C here in my bedroom.
Big kiss from Djenne

David said...

Greetings, all, and apologies for mostly unadvertised silence - now reeling from the wonders of Palermo and the Madonie mountains.

Bruce - I'm sure it's politic for Colin to let me know what you (both) think about WoS when you see it in Vienna...

Sue - What a wonderful (musical) world where you and I can both experience what I'm sure will turn out to be a masterpiece in two different places a couple of weeks apart. Roll on the recording.

Sophie - Well, I can't say we sweltered; mostly it was pleasant spring weather in Sicily, sun and brilliant blue skies, tho' with one day of humidity (sirocco they said) and one day of 'horrific winds and rain' - as the godson once said aged five - when we arrived in the mountains. Now we freeze back in Blighty. Glad all your fashion efforts and brushes with the Aussies went well.

Buona Pasqua a tutti if I don't get round to writing here in the next couple of days.