Wednesday 25 June 2014

Lear, in tears

She moved me very much, as only Kathryn Hunter before her had on the stage (and I've seen a few King Lears. Jacobi's is probably No. 1, but his I experienced in a livescreening). Unlike Hunter, though, Ursula Mohan is not playing a man. Her Queen Lear makes sense from the start, where we see her joshing at the piano with her Fool (a male nurse as played by Joseph Taylor: and why not, said Ursula afterwards - isn't it the case with so many old people that their carers are the last to stand by them?) Phil Willmott's production is fluent, the ideas of its contemporary setting all followed through and its engagement with a tiny audience total (50, I think, the maximum in the tiny Union Theatre we love so much).

The verse speaking always makes sense, however variable the cast, and certain themes are driven home with unrelenting pungency, like early-onset dementia, drug-taking and homelessness. If that feels right-on, it never seems so as you watch. We arrive in the dark space and stand for the first 20 minutes to witness the capricious division of the kingdom (selfie before it all goes wrong, Mohan pictured in one of Scott Rylander's superb production pictures with Claire Jeater's Goneril, Daisy Ward's Cordelia and Felicity Duncan's Regan) then seats are unobtrusively set up. The last third takes place with half the audience sitting around a white-covered table on which the scenes on the way to or at Dover are acted out with unremitting vividness.

Mohan's Lear launches her downfall in chilling confrontations with her three daughters, the horror of what she says offset by the bewilderment and confusion we register so closely in her face. Is an invocation of sterility on a thankless daughter the more horrifying when it comes from a mother? I felt so. And Harriet Walter's wise words on the human predicament affecting everybody chimed with the universality of this Lear. It felt absolutely right to me, at any rate; not a false note, no meaningless histrionics from Mohan.

Our central 'act' took place mostly in darkness, with torchlight adding to the atmosphere of the scenes on the heath (Mohan below with Taylor's Fool). If only the soundtrack of thunder, wind and rain had been turned down for the arrival in the hut: the words here weren't so easy to make out above it.

Action after the second interval was raised to an almost unbearable and unremitting level of tension. The absolute highlight for me, the point at which the tears really flowed, was the emergence of Mohan's flower-crowned Lear from cardboard packing to confront the blind Gloucester on the white table.

The official Gloucester, Richard Derrington, pictured above, was sick, so Simon Purse, the Doctor in the original cast (well adapted for the Fool) took over. He did it with the script until the blinding, after which he was truly moving without a prompt.

Among the very mixed blessings of the cast, Rikki Lawton's Edmund was the spunky prankster-villain to the life, winking and nodding at the audience to keep his soliloquies vivid, showing some good in the character at the end (Edgar is not exactly likeable in this production). Super-statuesque Claire Jeater was the stylish Goneril, pictured with Lawton and Duncan below.

Catch the run, if you can get a ticket, before it ends on Saturday, We went because our dear friend Kurt Ryz, who knows Ursula well, praised it to me - and I know he wouldn't say anything insincere. Usually wary about 'backstage' visits, but I and our Berlin friend Debbie York were so moved that we had to see her. And how lovely she was, with plenty of insights which chimed with what we'd seen. The upshot of which is Debbie, always looking for new ways of presenting recital programmes, thought she might like to collaborate with Ursula on one in future. The actress willing, of course.

I wasn't sure if Ursula would remember me from our one meeting some years ago, but she'd just seen me on the telly. Which means the Glyndebourne documentary aired on BBC Four on Saturday. All of it was interesting and a lot of the details in it new to me, though inevitably it was compromised by being half about the history of Glyndebourne and half about Richard Jones's new production of Der Rosenkavalier, which was where I came in, and eventually I got used more than I'd expected. Any excuse for using more images by Bill Cooper from that extraordinary show, so let's have one from each act with the lovely Kate Royal as the Marschallin, Tara Erraught as Octavian, Lars Woldt as Ochs and Teodora Gheorghiu as Sophie

Anyway, the dovetailing was skilful and I especially loved the enthusiastic contributions of Gheorghiu and the utterly delightful Tara, a woman who clearly has enough inner strength to have weathered the recent storm in a teacup - s'ist halt vorbei - and who likes as I do to walk across the Downs from Lewes to the house.

Nice contributions from easy-going Gus Christie and David Pickard, but Jones is the king of the idiosyncratic both in what he said about the opera and about Glyndebourne, undercutting everyone else's no doubt sincere comments about the beauty of working in deepest Sussex by saying how he sometimes wanted to get away from 'Planet Opera' and smell the fumes of his native south London as he got off the train at Clapham Junction. He also described the olfactory effects he wanted from each act, stopping short of saying what pong the inn scene should conjure.

You can see the documentary on the iPlayer until this Sunday evening (UK only, friends abroad tell me). I do recommend watching the whole thing.

STOP PRESS: Don't miss the chance, via what else but The Arts Desk,  to  win two tickets to Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni.  Sounds like an ace revival of a good show that's a hell (no pun intended) of a lot better than Kent's turgidly staged (but superbly sung and conducted) Manon Lescaut.

Later: wonders will never cease. Having alerted friends to Glyndebourne having the complete production up on its website until last Sunday midnight, I now find out it can be seen on the BBCiPlayer for another three months. Watch it here.


Susan Scheid said...

Was about to go offline, but saw you had a new post up, so came over to see what was up. The Lear you describe here sounds to have been an interesting production. Your paragraph below the "selfie" photo, particularly, suggests a well-conceived and executed approach. On Der Rosenkav, such a shame BBC4 isn't available to us in the US. I would have loved to watch that documentary.

David said...

You would have admired the production's integrity. Just come back from Ariadne at the Royal Opera House, and because Karita's emotions seemed so fake, it didn't move me anywhere near as much.

Interested to know what the Edu-mate might think of the idea, as a true Shakesepearean. Maybe we should all go to see (and faint at) Titus Andronicus at the Globe when you're here.

And yes, my pals on the continent can't get it either. Shame. Copyright issues, no doubt. It may appear on DVD, of course.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, too bad about Mattila in Ariadne.

I'd be curious, too, about the Edu-Mate's take on the Lear. I suspect she'd enjoy it, based on what you say. Wouldn't you know (as it's such a wonderful, though terrifying idea), that Titus Andronicus departs the day before we arrive in London. Damnation!

If a DVD appears of the documentary, please do let us know, will you? I'm sure you're right, that it's copyright issues. I don't begrudge reasonable protections, but it's frustrating, to say the least.

David said...

Damnation, indeed, on at least half the dramatis personae despatched in that bloodiest of plays. I'll have to catch it with the godson when he descends next week (big joint 21st/18th celebrations for four of our nearest and dearest young 'uns at the Garrick coming up).

Have a wonderful time at Aionola - how could you not?

Deborah York said...

SO lovely to see you again and what an inspiring evening! You were quite right to find time to blog about it. Only didn't agree about the point that from a mother the nastiness is worse. I think you are idealizing women there. It is heartbreaking sentiment coming from either parent if they are deeply loved and trusted.

David said...

Point taken, Debbie. I don't know - for me there's something more gut-wrenching about a mother who's gone through the act of giving birth to three daughters wishing infertility on one of them. But it's an awful scene, or should be, whether played by a man or a woman.

jondrytay said...

Joe Taylor is an old pal! Lovely lad and a smashing actor.

David said...

Hero Jon, hello after so long - everyone should read his inspired rhetoric against hateful bigot soprano Iveri and why to meet hate with more was wrong (as if it needs spelling out).

What do you think of the idea, though, Jon? Does it look convincing to you? Harriet Walter is intrigued - would have gone to see it if she wasn't busy rehearsing this week.

David Damant said...

There is an aspect of the playing of men's roles by women as women which seems to me central. If it is play such as Macbeth, my point does not arise ( I think). But Hamlet is not a play of action but about the deep psycological relationship between a son and his father. That is a tremendous universal theme and why this might be the greatest of plays. Hamlet could not be played as a woman without losing that dimension and I would suggest it is a terrible mistake to try, as it entails a contortion of Hamlet's personality. I do not think I know Lear well enough to judge whether there is a similar dimension in that case ( aging man different from aging woman?) I suppose that a woman playing as a man could work with a good actress ( Richard II)But if the point of the play is inside a head one has to accept the human predicament and that men and women are different

David said...

I taken your point about Hamlet, which could be and has been played by a woman, but surely not AS a woman. But your main point is rather contradicted by Harriet's wise words about Shakespearean protagonists appealing to the universal, which is why both men and women in the audience identify with them. That's even true, surely, of the Marschallin, whose core sentiments are Hofmannsthal's.

As for the greatest of plays, I wouldn't have thought that just the father/son relationship was enough. Parents and children, yes, which is why for me, along with its depiction of society in disintegration, Lear is the greatest - and why the King as Queen seemed so acceptable from the start.

David Damant said...

Well, Shakespeare's protaganists are not all the same, and whereas Harriet's wise words apply to some of them I would certainly not apply them to Hamlet. Or rather, with a woman as a woman as Hamlet it would be a different and definitely inferior play. Of course in many arenas many things are tried and in a sense, why not? But I suppose I have a Cartesian way of thinking, and work from principles downwards, and do not like to see those principles upset.
Could one imagine the Marschallin sung by a man? If Octavian is sung by a girl, why not? But I think that is a separate point

David said...

Some principles are made to be overturned, don't you think? And of course, singing role reversal wouldn't work unless the pitch could stay the same. But I fancy our Charleston Dido, aka the diplo-mate, would not be a wholly convincing Marschallin.

David Damant said...

One could have a counter Tenor ? Gay role?

Incidentally you may be right about Lear being the greatest - I suppose I identify directly with Hamlet. But I saw the famous performance of Lear by Paul Scholfield and I really did have my emotions purged with pity and terror

David said...

Schofield was dreadful, I thought, in the deeply disappointing Peter Brook film of Lear - not a patch on the Kozintsev masterpiece. Also inadequate on stage for me were Anthony Hopkins (whispered) and Robert Stephens (when Simon Russell Beale played Edgar. And what I've heard of his Lear, or at least of the production by Sam Mendes, makes me close my mind to going to see it).

No, I don't think we'd go anywhere with the Rosenkav drag idea. Unless it was one being done on the cheap - and Strauss can never really be done on the cheap - in which case it might have novelty value.

David Damant said...

I was not clear - I meant to have the Marshallin as a gay male role ( husband of an Empress or something like that but really gay) and to open with his affair with a young man who - and this is very usual - soon leaves the gay man for a girl,. The great Marschallin music in Act III would be most appropriate

I saw Schofield as Lear on stage. Very powerful. I wonder (in general, not just in this instance) how much difference that makes as opposed to a film. Were you with me or did you see Jacobi on stage in Schiller's Don Carlos? I was at a matinee and we had planned to have tea afterwards but only a strong drink could be envisaged. One aspect is that the tragedy could evolve without applause as happens at the opera. Fancy clapping and shouting with approval after Philip's aria before the entry of the Grand Inquisitor ( as at the Don Carlo recently at the ROH)These people go to opera to enjoy themselves and not to open their hearts to the analysis of the human predicament

David said...

A real no-no still, I think. Anyway, Octavian would still have to be a girl rather than a counter-tenor, and if a counter-tenor then in that voice type there's insufficient difference between individuals. Anyway, Iestyn honourably excepted, I don't get that thrilled about counter-tenors, much as I admire their art.

Didn't we take you to Don Carlos? I seem to remember you started out rather grumpy and soon came round. Magnificent, unforgettable evening. And Jacobi's Hamlet was my first great theatre experience at 15 (Prospect Theatre Co at the Old Vic). I thought it was stunning then and I think I still would. Schofield I saw as Othello for the National, not good. I've always found him too mannered.

I think you're being a bit harsh on applause in Verdi. If he hadn't wanted it he wouldn't have let 'Ella giammai m'amo' make a decisive cadence. True, it's an intimate scene, but the aria is very clearly marked apart from the ensuing scene with the Grand Inquisitor. That's why I love the opera best of all Verdi's, for its mix of old formal styles and new through-composed drama.

David Damant said...

I think I agree with you about Don Carlos as the first of Verdi's works. But I can never agree about applause. When the audience applauds dove sono they are thinking - what lovely music! They should be thinking - poor lady. And the dilemma of Philip in the aria we are discussing is at the heart of the matter. Here was a man with absolute temporal power faced with a terrible dilemma - and realising that in making his decisions he is constrained by the church. I believe that the audience should be reflecting on that - and considering how far the particular is raised to the universal by Verdi'd genius : NOT enjoying the music without regard for its content

Was it Wagner who said that applause should only occur at the end of an opera ( possibly act). If so, and reluctant as I always am to quote Wagner, I totally agree.

David said...

With Mozart it's always possible for the performers - singer and conductor/continuo player together - to make sure there's no room for applause. A good interpreter can similarly halt the applause at the end of the third movement in Tchaikovsky 6 in its tracks. But it's important to remember that the composer can control the response, too, especially in opera (look at stretches of Idomeneo) by driving the music through. And even music-drama isn't the same as straight theatre. The music sometimes has a logic of its own. Can people also applaud between movements of a symphony or concerto? Yes, if the circumstances are appropriate.

jondrytay said...

You should unclose your mind to SRB's Lear, David- only two shows left and it's a privilege to share a stage with him!

David said...

It's the large-scale Mendes approach that bothers me, Jon. Though kudos to you for being in it. And it was screened, wasn't it, so I can catch up that way eventually.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the unrelated comment - we just hoped to get in touch with you in response to your review of 'Decade' for the arts desk. We wanted to let you know that we're producing an Edinburgh Fringe Premiere of this show in August, and hoped to discuss it with you, and invite you to attend!
We'd love to connect over this.
Annie Newman,
RIOT Productions -