Tuesday 13 January 2015
Dazzling woods, stagnant lake
Here's what I want: to persuade as many of you as are interested that the new, Disney-backed film of Sondheim's Into the Woods is infinitely better than any of the lukewarm or downright vindictive reviews I've read of it would lead us to believe, and to urge you to go and see it. Derek Deane's assisted Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake for English National Ballet at the London Coliseum needs no such special pleading, but much as I enjoyed catching the first night as the guest of The Arts Desk's excellent chief ballet critic Hanna Weibye - who raved here - I have more than a few reservations about both the nature of the tradition and even the performance of prima ballerina Alina Cojocaru, my favourite Aurora but not on this evidence the greatest Odette. I know, I know, ENB is so lucky to have her, above all dancing with Ivan 'the Beautiful' Vasiliev (only picture of him below among the selection offered by ASH for ENB), and in the past I've found her dancing peerless, but this was odd from where I sat in a good seat towards the back of the stalls.
Why? Because I couldn't see any facial expression. It was as if she'd decided Odette has been turned into a kind of mechanical doll by Rotbart (vigorously etched by James Streeter, but our villain has nothing to do other than flap his rather splendid wings). Maybe that's one way of interpreting her, but then what about the poetry of the budding love between Prince Siegfried and the swan-into-forlorn maiden (or male swan, in Matthew Bourne's heartbreaking reinvention, which would have so moved Tchaikovsky)? As Hanna remarked, Cojocaru only let her face light up once, as the Prince pledged true love towards the end of that crucial second act.
My other problem is that I'm perhaps too fixated on a tall Odette - perhaps not an option for the small but perfectly formed Vasiliev. Still, you need to know who the Swan Queen is the minute she emerges from the gaggle. I'll never forget Svetlana Zakharova's infinite, and infinitely expressive arms at the Mariinsky. Cojocaru simply doesn't stand out from the pack, not to the non-connoisseur of dance at any rate.
Cojocaru was, though, superlative as black swan Odile (apart from the dull Drigo-arranged variation where her execution made one fear for the famous multiple fouettés to come, though as it turned out there was no need to worry). Here I could read the switch between smiles and mock-sadness towards Siegfried and craftiness towards dad Rotbart's implausible egging on (and why on earth would a court tolerate those freak-henchmen of his? I know it's not meant to be realistic, but still...)
On the other hand, I couldn't take my eyes off Vasiliev. Not just because he is indeed so beautiful - part of a trio in my books that also includes Ivan Putrov and Roberto Bolle - but also because the slightest tilt of his body suggested his pain and boredom at court, his anguish in the later stages. The trouble is that apart from the leapy-leapy in the 'Black Swan' Pas de deux, Petipa and Ivanov's Prince is a mere support act. A long way indeed from the Spartacus with which Vasiliev burst upon the London scene.
I thought the corps excellent, and the four cygnets mesmerising in their leg-work; it took Hanna to explain to me how certain angles would be more perfect from the Russians, but she was impressed too.
The real poetry comes from all those waving arms, that sea of bluish-white which for me is the real treat of an old-style Swan Lake. Otherwise, Matthew Bourne's storytelling is superior as a reflection of the music at every point, especially in Act Four, so limp here.
Thankfully ENB didn't take over wholesale the Drigo-butchered score which goes with the rehabilitation of 1895: gone were those horrid Tchaikovsky piano-piece arrangements which are so alien to the world of the composer's through-composed final act. Still, the Pas de deux pretext for a borrowing from the otherwise-cut Pas de six of Act 3 does nothing for the dancers and holds up the action just as badly as Drigo's number. The score was well enough conducted by Gavin Sutherland, but clearly hampered by ridiculously slow tempi for nearly all of Odette's music (at Cojocaru's demand? I can't tell).Star for me was an oboe hero of mine, Gareth Hulse. Can't quite make out why the London Sinfonietta's top man has ended up here, but it's a quality band if a bit thin on the violins.
No such extreme musical surgery was applied to Sondheim's masterpiece of music-theatre Into the Woods - now, for me absolutely the tops of all his work for sheer integrated, clockwork perfection - in its fortunately not too Disneyfied version by Rob Marshall. Some songs are cut, though I didn't miss any except the meaningful reprise, with a very different text, of the princes' 'Agony'. Thanks to certain insistences and the guiding presence of original 'book' writer James Lapine, kids may well be disconcerted by the especially dark turn the counterpoint of stories takes in the second half: no fairy-tale happy-ever-afters here. And though I loathed in principle the idea of Sondheim's having caved in to let Rapunzel survive and not bereave the Witch too severely, in practice her riding off with her prince was probably an OK decision; there's enough death and misery around that part of the drama as it is.
None of the stage-show's sharpness has been lost. Indeed, its brilliant first quarter of an hour is paralleled by superlative filmic cross-cutting between the characters. I didn't know the names of about half the members of the great ensemble* but I was convinced by them all.
Well, not perhaps at every point by James Corden's Baker, but he does cry convincingly and he's generally simpatico. It was going to take a lot to convince me that this Baker's Wife could match up to Imelda Staunton (in Richard Jones's original London production - revisited the soundtrack over Christmas, and it's one of the best ever) and Jenna Russell at Regent's Park, but Emily Blunt is so winningly lovely and mobile of expression, and her singing is fine. As is everyone else's, though I wonder if there was a bit of help for Daniel Huttlestone as cheeky dimwit Jack in his number 'There Are Giants In The Sky', which sounded almost too good to be true for a kid.
No doubt about it, Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood is a total star. Good lord, is that Annette Crosbie in about 40 seconds of Grandma time? Not to mention Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father and Frances de la Tour revving her contralto register as the Giantess - luxury indeed. Jonny Depp is as surprisingly good smarming up the Wolf in 'Hello, Little Girl' as he was in his off kilter Sweeney Todd (Sondheim's favourite film adaptation until now: does this take pride of place, I wonder?)
All the acerbity of the lyrics bites through, the execution of the G&S-in-black patter song 'Your Fault' is astounding and this time I bought into the possibly oversentimental music of 'No One Is Alone' - well I remember Richard Jones telling me he thought that was a disappointing lie - because the words keep it sharp. So did the fact that we were watching it with a goddaughter who'd still been in her early teens when her mum died. 'People sometimes leave you/Halfway through the woods' is a line that always gets to me.
Perhaps I'd have liked a more active segue into the return of the opening music at the end - it's used to back some of the credits - but that's my only major criticism. Jonathan Tunick is on hand, as ever, to make sure the larger-scale film orchestrations really work (it sounded good, if as ever a bit overamplified, in the Vue Cinema on Lower Regent Street). The woods look sinister-beautiful - do I see my beloved Frithsden beeches? Must check - and the film medium fully exploits the special-effects potential of exploding beans, beanstalk, whirlwind witch, etc.
So what, finally, of Meryl Streep as the Witch, referencing her age reversal in Death Becomes Her halfway through? Sensational. '[The] Last Midnight' rises dizzyingly to its 11 o'clock number status, a sinister Ravelian waltz to set aside the 3/4s of A Little Night Music, and leaves us gasping for breath. It also, incidentally, has some of the best-set lyrics: 'You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right'. So here's one musical they got as right as the cinema ever can, and if you say 'I wasn't going to go but now I shall', then my job's well done.
*Not quite as starry as the cast of the second read-through back in 1995, when Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson were interested. Sondheim lists the names in his second volume of complete lyrics and observations, Look, I Made a Hat: Robin Williams (the Baker), Goldie Hawn (the Wife), Cher (the Witch), Carrie Fisher (Ugly Sister Lucinda), Bebe Neuwirth (Ugly Sister Florinda), Moira Kelly (Cinderella), Kyle McLachlan (Cinderella's Prince), Brendan Fraser (Rapunzel's Prince), Elijah Wood (Jack), Roseanne Barr (Jack's Mother), Danny DeVito (the Giant) and Steve Martin (the Wolf).
Why did it come to nothing? According to Sondheim, 'because of one of those periodic shake-ups where a new platoon of executives replaces the old one, eager to throw out all projects begun before their arrival in order to demonstrate the freshness of their re-thinking'. Familiar story in all walks of life, alas.
Anyway, let's celebrate that it DID get made nearly 20 years later, and with more of the original material. I can't imagine the opening sequence being bettered.