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Posts Tagged ‘Geraldine James’

It’s an odd experience seeing a historical drama referencing places we’re now used to seeing regularly on the news. It’s a century since the Arab Revolt for which T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is famous and we appear to be witnessing the very real consequences of the West’s actions at its conclusion.

Howard Brenton’s play is set upon Lawrence’s return. He enlisted in the RAF under a false name in search of anonymity and when he was found out he did the same back in the army where he was once a Colonel. During this time he visited his friends G B and Charlotte Shaw who, with GB’s secretary, was editing his major tome on the Revolt. This is where most of the play is set, with three flashbacks to the Middle East at the inception of the Revolt and at its conclusion. 

He was being pursued by Lowell Thomas, the American journalist and photographer who had accompanied him for much of his time in the Middle East and was now cashing in with a lecture tour, and his former boss Field Marshall Allenby who wanted him back, but he was disillusioned with the politicians’ duplicitous actions (he’d turned down a knighthood, telling the King face to face), failing to deliver on his promise of Arab freedom to Prince Feisal.

It’s a quiet and surprisingly light staging by John Dove. Designer Michael Taylor’s drawing room slides gently and effectively into the wings for the other scenes. I was impressed by Jack Laskey’s enthusiasm and passion as Lawrence. It’s lovely to see Geraldine James again in the pivotal role of Charlotte. There are excellent performances in supporting roles from William Chubb as Allenby, Khalid Laith as Prince Feisal and Rosalind March as GB’s secretary Blanch. 

He was clearly a complex and enigmatic person, loved and admired by many, particularly by Charlotte it seems. I found it a fascinating insight into something and someone I knew little about (my O and A level History syllabus ended in 1914!). I am so enjoying Brenton’s late flowering – historical dramas on apostle Paul, Anne Boleyn, Charles I, the 1st World War, the partition of India, Macmillan and (more topical than historical) Ai WeiWei. Long may it continue.

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This is a bit like going to two linked plays, such is the difference between the two halves.

The First Half

Tom Scutt’s extraordinary giant moving cube dominates the Olivier stage after a smaller cube has disappeared into the flys. A series of interlocking scenes are played out in and around this as it changes shape. There are protests and riots; an ‘osbornesque’ defence solicitor; an advisor to the American president, his wife and daughter and an atheist academic. We have a woman again as (Conservative) PM, her dead son’s friend has returned from his travels as some sort of Messiah (Welsh, obviously) and everyone appears to be having the same dream. Oh, and we’re about to declare war on Iran.

There’s no doubting the inventiveness and stagecraft of this first half – but it comes at the expense of clarity, coherence and obvious purpose. You’re left thinking ‘ well, that was clever, but what are you really getting at here?’.

The Second Half

That question is answered soon in the second half, which is a debate between the PM, the academic and the new messiah, who now seemingly controls a crowd of 500,000 in Trafalgar Square. New politics (the public rising up with the help of social media and the charismatic messiah John, who has now become an almost supernatural being) meets old politics in the form of a liberal Tory about to do what she thinks is right, encouraged by the islamophobic academic who is dying of cancer. We end with the cast stage front each with a monologue; the last of whom is a soldier in recently invaded Iran.

Simply staged, the second half allows the narrative to breath and the debate is rather compelling….but it does feel like another play involving some of the same characters, pulling in some of the narrative threads of the first. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not, but for me it led to an ultimately unsatisfying experience and left me thinking it was more work in progress than finsihed article. There’s a great play there waiting to be let loose, hampered by a sometimes thrillingly theatrical but relentless & confusing first half and a more intimate second half that’s a bit lost in this giant space.

The three central performances – Geraldine James as a very believable PM, Danny Webb as the angry academic and Trystan Gravelle as a charismatic John are all excellent, and there’s fine support from a cast of 19, including Nick Sidi & Genevieve O’Reilly as the American diplomat and his wife and Adam James as the solicitor.

Playwright Mike Bartlett seems to be struggling as his work scales up from minimalist gems like Cock to epics like this. If director Thea Sharrock had created a cohesive whole from this material it could have been very special indeed, but it frustratingly falls short. Worth the ride, though.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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