Thursday, 30 October 2008

Trouble and strife

'Take my wife. Go on, take her.' Well, you'd have thought we were at a performance of When Did You Last See Your Trousers (or 'Ding, Dong' - see below), to gauge from the raucous laughter of the half-cut Donmar Warehouse audience at Strindberg's Creditors on Monday night. Indeed, this is an absurd and occasionally farcical take on married hell, one which I'd only read about in Michael Meyer's Strindberg biography and never experienced on stage: odd, bearing in mind how much I love all the Bergman contretemps, which are so obviously modelled on his dramatic idol. My God, though, can you imagine a man talking about a woman as a chubby boy with breasts and no muscles in 1888? It was weird enough to hear it now. And this bizarre triangle of former-husband-incognito seeking revenge on the neurotic artist for whom his wife betrayed him could only come from real life (it did - from Strindberg's own 13-year marriage to Siri Von Essen - though I assume Siri's Baron didn't behave in the extraordinarily manipulative fashion of the play's Gustav, acted with great authority by Owen Teale,). By the way, the woman, when she finally appears, doesn't come across quite as black as she's been painted, least of all in the Donmar version - predatory and honest, yes, but despicable, no.

The production, by Alan Rickman, set in a beautifully lit hotel garret,served the play well enough to give a vivid sense of how modern it still is. But I'd like to see it with truly searing actors like Janet McTeer and Alex Jennings. I like Anna Chancellor's quirkiness a lot in comedy, but felt even she was rather low-key - and Tom Burke as her craven 'Little Brother' husband, was too much the jerky juve lead to be plausible. It's a tough role for credibility, though - especially having to deal with the notion that sexual frustration leads to epilepsy. What funny ideas there were floating around at the end of the 19th century - and, of course, how much of this was grist to Freud's psychological mill, as he acknowledged. Anyway, the below photo and the one above were taken for the Donmar by Hugo Glendinning.

Rather more appealing lovers caught in dire circumstances called for our attention three times, Groundhog Day fashion, the following evening. Jurowski's most challenging concert programme for the Revealing Tchaikovsky series was to begin with the original 1869 version of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, continuing with the soprano-tenor duet derived from its love theme as part of an uncompleted opera and concluding the concert's first half with the 1881 Overture we all know and love. Part of the point was to show that genius doesn't always flow untrammelled but puts its various ideas through the crucible before coming up with the perfect work of art. Sir Frank Dicksee's famous painting, a little better than the lumpy one by Ford Madox Brown, is only here as both an interlude and a counterpoint to our not so happy pair above.

The result of Jurowski's daring programming came across as cleverly-paced work in progress. Bringing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment into the festival, Jurowski put it through bright and businesslike paces for Romeo No. 1; after all, not much is to be made of the original Friar Laurence theme, which sounds like the verse of 'Ol'Man River' and simply doesn't go anywhere. This was the main idea that Balakirev persuaded Tchaikovsky to throw out as, in VJ's words, 'crap' in 1870. Real fire and sweep came only in Overture No. 2 (actually No. 3, as there's also an interim version). In between, back came the ineffable Monogarova and Shapovalov, who seemed less inside his music this time. Probably they'd had thrown at them at the very last moment the 'surprise': the love duet from the early opera Tchaikovsky consigned to the flames, Undine, best known as the Pas d'action in Swan Lake. It gave Monogarova her only chance of the evening to soar in Straussian line, and very impressive that was too.

She returned, very much in character, as Ophelia in Tchaikovsky's 1891 incidental music to a French troupe's production of Hamlet. This is what Jurowski had called on me to join him in discussing before the concert, though our talk went off in all sorts of interesting directions and the audience was, of course, captivated by him. I'd been a bit doubtful about what I'd heard: a truncated version of the splendid 1888 Hamlet Overture, entr'actes drawn from earlier works (an exquisite Snow Maiden Melodrama, the alla tedesca of the Third Symphony and the Elegy for the actor Samarin), and just a few more bits and pieces, and wondered how on earth they could end with the jaunty march of Fortinbras.

In fact, as VJ intimated in the talk, they found a better solution - to bring on extra brass players to give us the coda of the original overture. The whole made a good performing version, speeches selected (and not just from Hamlet's monologues) by Gerard McBurney and here directed by Tim Carroll, but there was one fatal flaw especially apparent to those of us who'd been to Friday's BBCSO concert: Rhys Meredith as Hamlet wasn't a patch in terms of vocal richness, thoughtful delivery of the text or sheer charisma on the superb Ray Fearon (Friday's Hamlet for the Benet Casablancas Seven Scenes - see below). A shame, because the speeches fitted well - except perhaps Claudius's monologue to the Samarin Elegy - and Jurowski drew typically clean and focused playing from the OAE.


Anonymous said...

I broadly agree with your comments about Jurowski/OAE Tchaikovsky, with two exceptions. Rhys Meredith may not be everyone's favourite speaker of Shakespeare, but he was on top of the task, which, in that situation, was by no means easy. Most actors would probably have opted for using a script, especially with all those music cues to memorise, but Meredith was brave, mobile and clear - one must give him that.

By contrast, the tenor, whom you let off very lightly, seemed to think it would be alright to stand next to the marvellous Tatiana with only the slightest familiarity with the score. He struggled throughout, vocally and musically, and gave no sort of performance. Meredith was, at least, professional.

David said...

OK, I'll agree with you in part. Had we not been spoiled by Ray Fearon the previous Friday, many of us would have been more generous to Mr. Meredith.

It was also recent history which inclined me to be kind to Shapovalov. He did a fantastic job in Iolanta (still with the music in front of him, admittedly), filling the late Sergey Larin's shoes pretty indefatigably. On Tuesday he was no more than serviceable, but at least both were game to take on the Undine duet, which I'm assuming was thrown at them at the last minute. How wonderful to hear that, and to get the 'Swan Lake version' in last night's much more mixed bag. More on that anon. I'm off to talk on Tchaik at the RFH now.

Unknown said...


Would you mind me using the creditors photos on my website please? Am happy to link back. My site is

Many thanks

Angie :)

David said...

I'm perfectly happy, Angie, but I think the copyright rests with the Donmar and Hugo Glendinning. If you refer to all three, that should do the trick.

All best, and apologies it's taken so long to reply - unable to access the blog down in deepest Wiltshire.