Tuesday 15 July 2014
'O's of blood, tears and delight
As in wooden O for Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and fairground circle for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, though neither the Globe nor the splendid new(ish) Arcola Theatre in Dalston were quite as I'd seen them before.
William Dudley's splendid designs for a space I thought had thrown at us all the magic it could over the years - how could I have missed this bloody shocker first time round? - swathed the stage and its pillars in black, making characters almost ghost-like as they retreated from the incense-smoked sunbeams that pierced us Groundlings on a hot summer afternoon, and strung black banners from a kind of oculus, half Rome Pantheon, half Colosseum (which I read sometimes appeared to the ancient Roman public similarly festooned).
Further north the company Morphic Graffiti achieved the impossible: staged a spectacular musical which begins with a waltz to accompany that object of childhood wonder, the carousel, by inscribing a circle in the most intimate of spaces. They stinted neither on the choruses - doubling as circus acts - nor on the dancing: imagine it, that whole Agnes de Mille fantasy ballet in Act Two complete. It may have seemed as old fashioned to us as the 'sometimes when a man punches a woman it can feel like a kiss' line (I paraphrase), but neither was passed over. Odd of me to claim delight in both cases, too, but since Shakespeare's violence is almost as strip-cartoony as Tarantino's, there was an element of ridiculous fun to it. Production photos by Simon Kane for Shakespeare's Globe and QNQ Creative for the Arcola.
Both casts were excellent, the Titus team perhaps more variably so despite obviously superlative direction by the dependable Lucy Bailey. Obi Abili as Aaron, the dodgily black-of-face, black-of-heart Moor, didn't send shivers at first with threats of what he might do, but the whole semi-farce of saving the baby Tamara has produced with him
was powerfully undercut by his hideous murder of the Nurse to shut her mouth. I can imagine a few Groundlings swooning at that. One passed out in the first half, at the point if I remember correctly when Titus chops one of his hands off, on the afternoon we went, but there weren't as many faintings as the advertised average. Me, I just looked away when I knew violence was coming and let Django Bates's use of scary percussion do its worst. Bates's score is superb, brilliantly executed by musicians wielding a range of pagan brass instruments - stunning hunt scene - and never more original than in the weirdly off-kilter banquet music, jolly-sickly-doomy, when of course we know what, or rather who, is coming to Tamora baked in a pie.
The women (Indira Varma as Tamora, pictured above right, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as the grotesquely mutilated Lavinia) both had bags of character, and Matthew Needham carried off the feat of freezing the laughter on our lips as a capricious, half-crazed Emperor (on the left above). But William Houston dominated, as he always has ever since I saw him as a spunky young Henry V for the RSC. Dare I say he's aged rather rapidly? But then roles like Titus now become him.
He sounded at first as if he'd rasped himself out - the voice so magnificently used over several octaves had lost a bit of its cut. But the madder, or the madder-seeming, the abuser abused becomes, the more did he tickle us Groundlings and make our flesh duly creep. In this he gave Anthony Hopkins, never better in Julie Taymor''s stupendous film, a run for his thespian money.
I took godson Alexander for his first taste of the Globe, and he couldn't have had a better one as the violent hordes rampaged within and around us - 'move!!' - in the Groundling arena. I put it up there with the two other best Globe experiences I've had: the all-male Twelfth Night, which we saw three times during its first two manifestations there, and Kathryn Hunter's thrilling realisation of the near-impossible Pericles, similarly imaginative in its use of the space (I shan't forget the creation of the storm-driven ship or the harpies rampaging around the netting above us).
Carousel, of course, is a gentler experience in some ways, but its tough undertow hits as hard as (presumably) did Billy Bigelow his over-patient Julie. The crucial domestic violence issue, seemingly mishandled by Hammerstein from our perspective, was given its edge by updating the action from the 1890s to 1930 for the first stage of the drama (depression-era troubles) and 1945 for Billy's return from Up There (a time of liberation for women tainted in retrospect by the impending back to the kitchen - not for Julie, of course, at least under the thumb of another man, for she ain't going to marry after Billy).
Well, I guess we still have to take it for what it is: and still, in 1945 as the year of Carousel's premiere, that was somewhat. The through-composition of the early scenes, above all the stupendously poetic 'If I loved you' sequence, still comes across as one of the finest achievements of musical theatre (and that tune is, perhaps, only matched by Sondheim's 'Too many mornings' from Follies for sheer love-duet moonshine).
It always amazes me how talent pours out upon the current musical stage, partly due to the fabulous training in the London drama schools. Ascribe to that the note-perfect Julie of Gemma Sutton, emphasising the girl's singularity simply by her stillness and implicit strength, and Vicki Lee Taylor's lovely Carrie. And welcome a great new voice to the stage, Joel Montague's rich baritone as Enoch Snow.
Howard Keel's film performance as Billy - it was supposed to be Frank Sinatra, who even got as far as recording his songs - leads me to expect the same timbre from our lead.
Not so. Tim Rogers, looking just a bit like fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman when he swept so many of us off our feet as Oklahoma's Curly at the National, has a slightly worn tenor voice. But such was his intensity and conviction that high points like the great Soliloquy always hit the mark. Did I weep at 'You'll never walk alone'? You bet, but especially because the intimacy of the space allowed Amanda Minihan's freshly interpreted Nettie (centre below) to sing it as a soft lullaby with Julie held close.
Splendid company work, too - exceptionally good dancing, strong choruses, as I've already intimated, and everything filled with convincing business under Luke Fredericks' expert hand. Impressive how the New England coastal setting can be conjured by the evocative text alone when the imagination has to work overtime. Careful handling meant more tears for the finale: less, in the form of a cappella harmony, was more, when it came to emotional truthfulness, than the big Hollywood/Broadway treatment. The five-piece orchestra emphasised the delicacy and grace of so much in the score, dominated by the sound of Alex Thomas's harp. And look, listen, no miking: Menier Chocolate Factory and others, please pay attention. It just isn't necessary in venues like this.
Yet how amazing that there are so many of them serving musical theatre so well: the Arcola in the north, and that constellation of South Bank gems the Union, the Menier and the Southwark Playhouse. A golden age indeed for off-West End dazzle. You have until Saturday to catch this unique Carousel; my apologies, but Titus has already crept into his unholy grave, and Lucy Bailey has moved on to a very peculiar-sounding Importance of Being Earnest. I'll find out for myself how she deals with a veteran Jack and Algernon tomorrow night.