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Posts Tagged ‘Harriet Walter’

After the Donmar’s second all-female prison set Shakespeare, Henry IV, I suggested it might not be wise to do a third (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/henry-iv-at-the-donmar-warehouse). Well, here’s the third, this time off-site in a purpose-built pop-up theatre in Kings Cross, in rep with revivals of Henry IV and the first in the trilogy, Julius Caesar (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/julius-caesar).

Our entrance this time is through an ante room where we are penned as prison officers lay out the rules, which I can testify is an authentic prison entrance as I’ve experienced it for real at Wandsworth Prison a few times (attending a show!). In this specially created space we have an even more authentic caged prison gym with seating on four sides. After an introduction from lifer Hannah, we launch into the prisoner’s production of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s uncanny how the dialogue takes on real meaning for incarcerated women. It’s as inventively staged as the first two, with only items you would find in such a place for props and costumes. The performances are extraordinarily committed and passionate. A grey vest, tracksuit bottom and no make-up must be the most unglamorous stage get-up any theatrical Dame has donned and here Harriet Walter as Hannah playing Prospero is the beating heart of the piece. The great Sophie Stanton as Caliban is as at home as she was as a Dagenham Ford machinist or a Thamesmead mum or a series of Spitalfields barmaids. I very much liked Jade Anouka’s Ariel and Leah Harvey’s Miranda and Karen Dunbar was a terrific Trinculo. The last time I saw Sheila Atim, in Les Blancs, she was mute but hugely charismatic, which she is here, but with dialogue as Ferdinand.

I didn’t think the play’s story and themes suit the setting as much as the power, control and revenge of the previous two plays, but it’s a great pioneering achievement which will go down in theatrical history. Oh, and the blue plastic chairs are a lot more comfortable than the grey plastic ones at the Donmar, though not as plush as the Lazarus seats next door!

 

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When I first saw this play I was about the same age as Willy Loman’s youngest son Happy. Now I’m the same age as Willy Loman. Oh dear. In between I reckon there have only been two major London revivals, which given that it’s one of the ‘big five’ by one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, and given the number of Becket, Pinter and Chekov revivals of inferior plays in the same period, seems bizarre. So it’s a big welcome to the transfer of the RSC’s production in Miller’s centenary year.

This play has so much to say about father – son relationships, the compulsion to succeed (and the lengths people go to for success) and of course the American dream. Willy’s success as a salesman isn’t anywhere near as real as he believes, but he bigs himself up for his sons and in turn bigs them up to everyone else. When elder son Biff fails, it breaks his heart, but he’s oblivious to any role he might have played in this. When Biff returns years later, he’s at it again trying to make him what he isn’t. This time it coincides with his own downfall and it all comes home to roost. Wife & mom Linda and younger son Happy are caught up in all of this.

I have to confess I was disappointed at the interval. It hadn’t really got into its stride. An early mobile ringing had visibly unsettled Anthony Sher and from there things seemed somewhat perfunctory. His performance felt like a one-note grumpy old man. I also didn’t feel Greg Doran’s production was delineating the current and flashback scenes well enough (there were a lot of puzzled faces around me). It was all a bit flat. Things looked up significantly in the second half, with the restaurant scene and the following scene back in the Loman home brilliantly staged and performed, but I still felt I was watching acting, I hadn’t lost myself in the play and the characters, and it didn’t engage me emotionally in the way it should.

There was more chemistry between Sher’s Loman and Biff and Happy than there was between Sher and Harriet Walter’s Linda, who seemed too restrained to me; I thought Alex Hassell and Sam Marks were outstanding as the sons. It’s a high quality supporting cast and its good to have live music, in this case a fine jazz quintet playing Paul Englishby’s original score. I wasn’t convinced by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ huge set though – it seemed to rob the play of much intimacy when it needed it.

Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe it was just an off night, but I’m afraid it wasn’t the evening I was expecting or hoping for. A good rather than great Salesman.

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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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Contemporary Music

In yet another senior moment, when I booked for it I’d forgotten that Maria Friedman‘s show at The Pheasantry was a repeat of the one just ten months ago at the same venue, but it hardly mattered. These Sondheim & Bernstein songs can be heard over and over again and you hear something new or the interpretation is subtly different or its just like a glorious encore. The venue is intimate and this time I was in the front and able to appreciate every nuance and every note. From the ‘overture’ – Jason Carr‘s ‘ mash-up’ of Sondheim & Bernstein melodies – it was an absolute delight.

The second ‘cabaret’ of the month paired the same Jason Carr with Janie Dee. The former, usually accompanying others or orchestrating shows, mixed his own songs with vintage musicals fare. He’s no great singer so guests Anna Francolini and Melvin Whitfield proved welcome. He does have bags of charm though and was very engaging with his audience…..as was Janie Dee, who hot-footed it over from Putting It Together for a short but perfectly formed if somewhat unpredictable set in which she invested more than a touch of acting. A very original take on the cabaret form, which I loved.

Classical Music

Flicking through those concert hall brochures, in this case St. John’s Smith Square, a series called Composers in Love took my fancy and Beloved Clara if the first of four I booked. It tells the story of the relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara and the relationship of both of them with Brahms. Actors Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman read a selection of their letters and pianist Lucy Parham played appropriate selections. When I booked it, I had no idea it was going to be such a treat. The music was gorgeous and you learn a lot about these people’s lives. I was enthralled and now can’t wait for the other three.

I don’t know the work of John Tavener very well, but everything I’ve heard I’ve liked. When I saw a ‘celebration weekend’ in the St. John’s brochure, it seemed an ideal opportunity to correct that. Four concerts, twenty-one works spanning 43 years, three UK premieres and one world premiere, five hours of music. Between booking and going he died, so it became a posthumous review of his work. There was extraordinary range, from pieces for solo instruments through string quartets, a brass ensemble and the church organ to orchestral suits and choral works, but mostly choral works. Amongst the highlights were The Hidden Treasure for string quartet, cello work The Protecting Veil, Trisagion for brass quintet and new choral work Miroir des Poemes. This was a very good idea!

Opera

During a 24-hour post-work skive in Paris, I made an impulsive first visit to Opera Bastille for Massenet’s Werther for the only opera of the month. Roberto Alagna didn’t turn up and though his cover did his best he wasn’t really up to it. The rest of the singing was good though, the orchestra under Michel Plasson was excellent and the period production imported from Covent Garden was fine. The building didn’t really impress, though the sight-lines and acoustics were good and in egalitarian France those of us at the back were invited to fill the more expensive seats further forward!

Art

Pop Art Design at the Barbican does what it says on the can – looks at how Pop Art influenced design. It’s an interesting idea and the selection is eclectic. There are Warhol works I’ve never seen before and household furniture and other items that seem ever so familiar. This is the sort of show the Barbican does well.

Paul Klee: Making Visible at Tate Modern is a fabulous exhibition. A huge collection of works showcase extraordinary variety and a sublime use of colour. Seeing it on a Saturday evening was a bonus, as the thinner attendance allows you to savour everything close up and from a distance. When I first entered the Mira Schendel exhibition two floors up, I wondered if it was a continuation of Klee, but it went off the boil very quickly as she became ever more conceptual. In fairness, it picked up towards the end with some nice installations, but there was a lot of rubbish in between.

Dulwich Picture Gallery has a huge hit on their hands with An American in London – Whistler and the Thames. Fifteen minutes to get a ticket, 30 minutes to enter the first room and too many people to fully enjoy it. It pulls all its punches in the first room with extraordinary etchings of Thames scenes done in his 20’s; the rest is fine but just doesn’t match these.

Sculptor Bill Woodrow‘s exhibition at the Royal Academy was a hit & miss but mostly miss affair. Clever but neither beautiful nor funny!

The tiny Ben Uri Gallery hosted a show of the London Group which was a who’s who of 20th century British artists and contained a high count of absolute gems amongst just 49 works. Most museums would die to show a collection like this and this is an unfunded gallery that doesn’t charge admission. Magnificent!

Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Come & See at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a lot of the same old stuff – scenes of carnage in glass cases, defaced 19th century pictures etc. – but there was new work like contraptions for brain damage and self-deprecating films with David Thewlis & Rhys Ifans (not new, but I hadn’t seen them before). It was presided over by 37 life-size Klu Klux figures wearing rainbow socks and smiley badges. An odd combination of the macabre and playful.

My 24-hour Paris skive was an art feast with three exhibitions at the Pinacotheque and another at the Centre Georges Pompidou. La Dynastie Brueghel had paintings from 12 painters spanning 6 generations from the early 16th to late 17th centuries. It focused mostly on the elder and younger Jan’s, there was a shortage of Pieter’s and there were too many flower paintings, but it was well worth the visit. Chu Teh-Chun was new to me but I rather took to his brightly coloured abstract pictures, which were a huge contrast to the etchings in Goya et la Modernite which composed most of the third Pinacotheque show. Le Surrealisme et L’Object at the Centre George Pompidou was a collection spanning most of the 20th century featuring all the usual subjects, beautifully curated by theme. As it was no. 4, I probably didn’t do it justice.

Film

I hadn’t seen the first one, so Anchorman 2 was a bit of a punt, partly selected as 3rd choice because it fitted a location and time slot. Though it’s a tad overlong, and not all of the American humour works here, it does have a lot of laughs and ends with an extraordinary number of celebrity cameos. God fun, though far from life changing!

I’m at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about with American Hustle (10 BAFTA nominations!). I liked the period look, it was sometimes funny, but it was overlong and poorly structured and, well, rather dull. Not a patch on the director’s last film – Silver Linings Playbook.

I’m puzzled by the critical indifference to Mandela: Long Road to Freedom. It compresses so much into almost 2.5 hours and does so extremely well. Idris Elba is stunning. The whole thing is captivating and moving. Go!

You would be forgiven for thinking that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t actually a new film, the second in the series, but a new version of the first one. It just seemed to be more of the same and I was hugely disappointed.

Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing, uncompromising and unsentimental story of someone kidnapped onto slavery. It may win a BAFTA, but it won’t win an Oscar because the Americans won’t be able to publicly confront something that is only 150 years ago in their short history. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. Not easy to watch, but a stunning film nonetheless.

I love the Coen brothers films, but Inside Llewyn Davies was a huge disappointment. It just didn’t go anywhere and the journey was rather dull, even if the cinematography and performances were good.

The Wolf of Wall Street ended my film-going month and was the fastest three hours I’ve ever spent in the cinema. Funny and chilling in equal measure, it’s a coruscating expose of the sort of excesses of the financial sector we’ve got used to in recent years and it’s a career defining role for Leonardo DiCaprio.

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When I first heard that the Donmar had programmed an all-female Julius Caesar, I thought it was the new (female) Artistic Director making a point. A bit of a gimmick. I nearly didn’t book. Well, gobble gobble (sound of me eating my words).

The RSC’s African version earlier in the year had me thinking how much more relevant it was in a 20th century banana republic with all the intrigue and machiavellian machinations. This one, set in a women’s prison, made me feel just the same. Somewhere where power, control and ‘politics’ loom large.

The Donmar has had another one of its extraordinary transformations. Fading painted walls, metal walkways and even authentic light switches; it’s every inch a prison – right down to the grey plastic chairs replacing the usual padded benches; not that my bum noticed – I was too engrossed. Bunny Christie’s design is superb.

Even though it is done as a play-within-a-play, its with a very light touch in Philida Lloyd’s production and Shakespeare’s play doesn’t get swamped in any way. It seemed to me perfectly plausible that Caesar would get done over by a gang of fellow prisoners, leading to tussles for control and  power games. It just worked, no better than in Mark Anthony’s great speech, which was electrifying.

It’s a great cast and the four central performances tower. Seeing Frances Barber as Julius reminds you how good an actor she is. Cush Gumbo, who I’ve only seen in a restoration comedy(!), is a revelation as Mark Anthony. Harriet Walter is a passionate, defiant yet vulnerable Brutus. Only months after welcoming Jenny Jules in her first Shakespearean role, here she is as the best Cassius I’ve ever seen.

This is as gripping and thrilling a couple of hours can get in a theatre. Don’t miss it.

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