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.


J Vaughan said...

I came to your blog this morning, obviously hoping for thoughts on the original version of Ariadne from Salzburg that's just come out on DVD, but found instead, among other things, your review of a recent Carousel!

Until fairly recently, my only experience of what could be called a complete representation of this show was the film version as heard once or twice on television. Then I found the PBS telecast of a concert performance in New York earlier this year (or was it last?)! We were not given the complete Act II ballet, which I understand to be QUITE long, and the card game just prior to the failed robbery was omitted, but much of the rest seemed to be complete, based on the original libretto which I took out of a library. Though I think I had heard it one or more times before, I was/am rather-taken with "What's the Use of Wond'ring," sung DELIGHTFULLY, at least in my opinion, in this performance! Something that strikes me in performances of the Soliloquy associated with full-length representations of the show is how devoid of exagerated acting they seem to be, letting the music and text make their points without undue intervention.

In "You'll Never Walk Alone," do you happen to recall if they sang "keep your chin up high," as apparently-given in the material the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein Organization lets out for hire and sung in the PBS broadcast, or the more-standard "hold your head up high," as sung in a mid-60's Lincoln-Centre production directed by Rodgers himself. If I recall correctly, the printed libretto has the former.

I also have, and enjoy, the Jackman Oklahoma!, and an unofficial Massachusetts King _and I, WONDERFUL as well! Then there is what I am guessing is a recording of a rehearsal of the original London company of South Pacific, with Miss Martin as Nellie but a baritone in place of Mr. Pinza as De Beck, resulting in "This Nearly Was Mine" being transposed up into E-Flat. So that leaves only The Sound of Music among the major R&H shows, and I may take care of that via the production given on NBC this past Christmastime, largely-based on the stage version but with "Something Good" taken from the film.

Returning to Ariadne, I listened to the entire opera this morning, and the unfamiliar Ariadne reminded me of someone, and I figured that it is Miss Varnay, but without a mannerism or more, or at least not too exagerated. Yet I still prefer Miss Janowitz, though a passage in the final scene seems to be coming right out of Salome, where, of course, a heavier voice is usually heard. And Herr Kaufmann seemed more like his usual self in this complete hearing, though the higher notes of the role seem to be taxing even him, as they apparently do most tenors who undertake them. I think it is Mr. Kennedy who prefers a less-heldentenorish Bacchus, but is there such?

With yet again MANY renewed thanks and best wishes,

J. V.

David said...

Our show had absolutely everything, including a rather weak, short number for Billy which I'd never heard before. Curious to know who starred in the NY concert performance. Shirley Jones does 'What's the use of wondrin'' so beautifully in the film.

I think it was 'hold your head up high', as usual, though there's not a huge difference, is there?

Pipe Dream may not be major, but charmed when it came to our small Union Theatre and set me off on a Steinbeck binge.

You think Emily Magee sounds like Varnay? Interesting. I've only so far seen the last half hour of the DVD from Salzburg: a student brought it in for the final class. It seems to replicate the Bourgeois Gentilhomme alternative very faithfully.

As for Kaufmann, it's just a joy to me that we have a Bacchus who looks like a young(ish) god. And he can sing it, too.

wanderer said...

So London is in full summer swing and there is no other like it (London) surely, and one could do worse than dream of spending a month and leaving exhausted. The Proms programme I think looks especially wonderful this year (of anniversaries) and very vocal (don't miss Goerke).

We only managed to get to the Globe the once. It was bitterly cold, for the thin bloods, Hugh Laurie strangely cast as Iago, and, shamelessly we didn't stay it out.

David said...

I won't be missing Goerke - second time for me this year - but Herlitzius is the one I want to see. Much fuller top, and lithe (though Goerke for a big lady is a pretty good mover and actress). The one not to miss is Herlitzius in Chereau's last production, one of THE great opera DVDs of all time. With Robert Alexander as Fifth Maid you might guess you're in for something special. Get it!

As for the Proms programme, few thrills there for this jaded one. Why, oh why did they have to stick to the big three operas (Rosenkav, Salome and Elekra) when it was exactly this sort of place that could have pulled off, say, a concert Feuersnot at least?

And I shame for Sunday night, when Gergiev, on film calling Ukrainians Nazis and Fascists and explaining how Crimea had to be liberated to save mass slaughter, is conducting the World Orchestra for Peace. Strange, they've cancelled their concerts in Aix and Munich...

Anyway, last night's Kingdom was good, though the hall was hot as temperatures rocketed. Review now up on The Arts Desk.

David Damant said...

In making judgments of those who are not ( in my language) heirs of the Enlightenment, one should bear in mind the remarks of Robert Conquest ( in The Great Terror 2008 ) when referring to the rulers of Russia ( and one can add their supporters such as Gergiev) -
"The broader problem is - to this day - not primarily economic or even political. It is a certain lack of much feeling for community in the sense of a civic or plural order.Both the Western liberal element and the old traditional Christian element of Russia.....were to be crushed by a compound of a different kind, formed from an archaic brutality and an imported theoretical-terrorist tradition"[Marxism]

This does not mean that one cannot criticise Putin and his supporters but we should not see him as someone like us who
has taken decisions we believe wrong.We should deal with him as a power factor, as a player who will be self-orientated always, and I cannot say that the West has done very well in playing that game.

David said...

Agreed. But, as the old Chernyshevsky tome puts it, What Is To Be Done? Less appeasement?

David Damant said...

It may be a little late. After the collapse of communism, and especially after the arrival of Putin, Russia should have been treated with respect, as an equal, but with care. It was wrong to treat Russia as a bit of a basket case economically, even though it was for a time. And it was for example madness to suggest that Ukraine should join NATO - with the Russian fleet based in the Crimea, this was to ignore Russia and its interests. It is not surprising that they felt hostile after such a slap in the face, or, even worse, after this and other signs that Russia did not count for much in Western minds. Parallels are always somewhat dangerous as not all cases are the same but, I would suggest, we should deal with Russia rather like we deal with China, which we treat with great respect and where we are developing closer links with a tough regime, without ignoring questions such as human rights, or Tibet. This carries over to contacts of all kinds, cultural, sporting etc. Contacts have a value as they can lead to changes in mindset, but one should always be aware of the existing mindset.

Most of the thoughts expressed by Putin, or Gergiev, are genuinely the way they think. Their statements on Crimea or Ukraine are for them a natural defence of the national interest.These are not naughty boys, they are different.

David said...

Right again. One big mistake was to take Russia at its word. 'We have no intention of occupying Crimea' seemed to be believed; 'we have no part in what the rebels are doing in Eastern Ukraine' is not. This is a regime that lies and lies and has no real interest in diplomacy.

wanderer said...

Regardless of why they think what they think, I think, regardless, that Gergiev conducting a world peace orchestra is an outrage. And while the dead civilians are treated as booty and barter.

Is the Proms not a populist summer festival, and there am I not surprised that the more familiar gets programmed? Don't go and get all jaded on us now.

David said...

I don't know that I'm 'jaded', wanderer, I just expected there to be even more of a mix than there is this year. The programme two years ago really was exciting both in practice and principle. Last year's Wagner turned out to be more amazing than we could possibly have imagined. My point is that you can risk doing the bigger rarities, like Feuersnot and Guntram, when you're guaranteed an audience one way or another. My jadedness, if any, probably lies in the indecent coverage whipped up by the newspapers who are happy to ignore the equal, or greater, excitements, of the main season.

Pluses: the sight of the place as you go in; the Arena, still the best place and such a huge bargain at a fiver (same as the Globe's Groundling zone). The days when there's a main Prom and a late-nighter - now that really does feel like a festival. Acoustics for big choral works (and Parsifal!)

Minues: the heat (despite a 'water cooling system'). The tourist audience who doesn't know how to behave (this is getting much worse, with endless laptop and mobile filming). Acoustics for 90 per cent of the works performed.

More on Gergiev in the most recent post.

wanderer said...

"Jaded" was a quote! See comments above.

David said...

Hoist by muy own petard (or at least by not remembering what I'd written, mostly in jest, for I really don't think I am jaded, for the most part). Seeing the queues outside this evening, the young in groups, the general genial atmosphere I remember so well from the preliminaries, I was reminded why even a programme as run of the mill as tonight's (I'm not going, though I think it will be well done) will be new to many. And I'm all for spreading the word and keeping it alive...