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Posts Tagged ‘Ian McKellen’

Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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American playwright Martin Sherman rose to fame with the play Bent, about the treatment of homosexuals in the holocaust, which starred Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere on Broadway, then became a major film. He settled in London, where he had five high profile premieres over fifteen years in the 80’s and 90’s, attracting actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Olympia Dukakis to star in them, but he hasn’t been particularly prolific. It’s taken ten years since Onassis to get this new play, though in all fairness he is now 80!

It’s a reflection on the changes that have impacted the gay community over the years, told through the life of Beau, an American cocktail pianist who’s moved from New Orleans to San Fransisco and Paris, settling in London. In a series of monologues, we learn about the changes in gay life through his life, over forty or fifty years. These are interspersed with contemporary scenes, over another twelve years, from when he meets his much younger partner Rufus to when Rufus has left for a new life with his new younger partner Harry and Beau becomes a father, and grandfather, figure.

It’s a warm, gentle, understated piece, even when its reflecting on tough, challenging times. Rufus is somewhat conservative and loves all things retro, including his lovers it seems, so we get references to films and music from the middle of the 20th century when Beau’s career was in full swing but Rufus wasn’t even born. In particular, we hear about a British singer called Mabel Mercer, apparently a real life character, who’s career took her in the opposite direction to Beau, to cocktail bars in NYC, where Beau played for her.

Jonathan Hyde is excellent as Beau, with fine support from Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. Sean Mathias’ sympathetic staging brings you slowly into these lives. It perhaps lacks some bite, but it tells its story well and really does make you realise how much things have changed in a relatively short time.

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Most 80-year-olds would celebrate such a milestone birthday with a meal, maybe a party, perhaps a holiday. Ian McKellen is celebrating his with a tour of a one-man show to 80 theatres the length and breadth of the UK, for more than 80 shows as they’ve been adding at some places due to the extraordinary demand, many in venues significant in his career, and all to fund projects of the theatres’ choice. From national treasure to hero in 80 steps.

At the Old Vic, a significant venue, they’re using the money to double the number of ladies loos and improve disabled access, and if you needed proof, you have to enter via temporary entrances and use portable loos. It would be enough just to offer support for such an initiative, but in return you get an enthralling evening of biography, anecdotes, and performance that made this vast theatre seem as intimate as a living room, such is the great man’s ability to engage and connect with an audience.

The first half is mostly biographical, from childhood through school and university, to his professional stage career. There are some nods to the big and small screen, indeed we open with the wizard himself, but its mostly stage. He brings things out of his travelling prop box to illustrate his stories. It’s often very funny, always interesting.

The second half is mostly Shakespeare, as he removes the plays from the box and takes them to a table as we shout out titles, stopping to perform scenes and tell tales of his experiences with some of them, acknowledging important people along the way. At one point he movingly names some recently departed colleagues, ending with Albert Finney, who died just ten days earlier, a few miles away, just three years older. There were many moments of rapt silence as we hang on every word of the bard spoken by a master.

As he finished, his eyes swept all three levels of the audience in a great arc, so we all left feeling a personal connection. Few people can communicate and captivate so well.

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I’ve seen some amazing actors play Lear, seven of them knights of the realm, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same actor play him twice, only ten years apart (though I’ve seen five more Lear’s since the last time, not counting the one from Belarus and the one with sheep!). With Ian McKellen in his eightieth year, he’s the oldest, and the closest to the character’s age. I regret not booking to see this in Chichester. My thinking was that I’d seen McKellen’s Lear. I suspect it would have been better (and cheaper!), but it’s still a must-see in the West End, and I now realise how flawed my thinking had been.

They’ve put a platform through the centre of the stalls, leading to an entrance / exit at the rear, losing a handful of rows and quite a few other seats in the process. They also use the side aisles as entrances / exits. I don’t know the impact of this in the upper tiers, but it made the stalls space more intimate. On stage there’s floor-to-ceiling wood panelling with doors and entrances within it. The floor covering changes with the location, starting as red carpet as the royal family enter for Lear’s announcement that he is to divide the country between his daughters. I thought Paul Wills design was excellent.

Though it’s something like my 14th Lear, there were things about this one that changed my response to the story. I still think there’s more than a touch of implausibility in him falling for the sycophancy of two daughters rather than the sincerity of the third, but here there’s an ageism in Goneril and Regan, in addition to to my normal feelings of spoilt children and inheritance ruins, and Regan in particular becomes completely self-obsessed and self-centred. The Duke of Kent has become the Countess of Kent, and this subtly changes, softens, the character. Edmund seems more machiavellian in contrast to an even more empathetic Edgar. Lear’s madness at first seems eccentricity, before it becomes tragic. I thought Jonathan Munby’s production was very fresh and intelligent.

From the original Chichester cast, Sinead Cusak and Danny Webb are both excellent as Kent and Gloucester respectively, and Kirsty Bushell is simply terrific as Regan. Michael Matus makes much more of the role of Oswald. There are some great performances from new cast members too, not least a superb Edgar from Luke Thompson and an outstanding Edmund in James Corrigan. Lloyd Hutchison is a particularly good Fool. I felt privileged to be seeing Ian McKellen in this role again, a gentler, sadder reading. At the curtain call, memories of more than twenty earlier performances by this fine actor swept over me as I rose to my feet in tribute.

The programme is way better than normal flimsy West End fare and in one of its four essay’s, historian David Starkey suggests that Shakespeare may have been having a dialogue with his patron, King James, even sending him messages about the consequences of dividing a kingdom. Four hundred years later, it’s sending messages still, and I suspect will continue to do so for a long time to come.

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When I saw Patrick Stewart in Anthony & Cleopatra some time ago he had a throat infection but went on like a real pro. He was clearly suffering at Thursday’s performance of this play too, but he continued gallantly. It was inspirational to see two theatrical knights with a combined age of 153 still at the top of their game, and in Stewart’s case, determined not to disappoint his fans with an understudy.

I’m slowly reappraising Pinter, one of my problem playwrights, aided by recent revelatory productions by Jamie Lloyd and Matthew Warchus, and Sean Mathias now does for No Man’s Land what Lloyd did for The Hothouse and The Homecoming and Warchus did for The Caretaker. I don’t profess to understand it, but I do find it captivating, fascinating and funny.

Successful writer Hirst brings the less successful and somewhat scruffy Spooner home from the pub and they drink and chat (well, Spooner rather hogs the conversation). Hirst’s staff, Foster and Briggs, archetypal menacing Pinter characters, are introduced. In the second half, the following morning, Hirst does more of the talking as Spooner tries to get himself hired as his secretary. Foster and Briggs continue their intimidation and ambiguity.

It’s back in Wyndhams, the same theatre it transferred to (from the NT at the Old Vic) 41 years ago. Lancastrian McKellen plays Spooner, named after a Lancastrian cricketer, the role originally played by John Gielgud. Yorkshireman Stewart plays Hirst, named after a Yorkshire cricketer, first played by Ralph Richardson. They are both superb. Owen Teale and Damien Molony provide fine support as Briggs and Foster, also named after cricketers.

I thought the personal, first person programme bio’s were a nice touch and gave two of the actors the opportunity to make a point about access to training today by comparing their experience with the more difficult climate today.

It was a privilege to watch such a masterclass in acting, as I continue to warm to Pinter.

 

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Based on the two Rupert Goold Shakespeare productions I’ve seen – the exciting Stalinist Macbeth and the brilliant Las Vegas Merchant of Venice – I was expecting something a lot more radical. This is a relatively conventional take on Richard III, which is no bad thing, but it surprised me by being so.

There’s a superb contemporary preface, which I won’t spoil, references to which recur throughout. This tells you at the outset that this is history not fiction (though no doubt fictionalised history). Though it’s not that radical, it’s in modern dress, virtually the whole think in black, with comparatively low lighting levels. This contributes to its sinister atmosphere, but also made the long 100 minute first half a bit dull. After the interval, though, the production (like the play) ratchets up several notches and it’s a thrilling second half ride, with an excellent coronation scene, an emotional confrontation between Richard & Elizabeth over his proposal to marry her daughter and a well staged final battle scene. I liked the way they marked the deaths, but I thought they went too far with a violent assault in Richard’s scene with Elizabeth.

It’s superbly well cast, particularly the female roles. Joanna Vanderham is a brilliantly passionate and angry Anne, Aislin McGuckin is exceptional as Elizabeth and Susan Engel is outstanding as Richard’s mother. I’m not sure why Vanessa Redgrave is wearing a camouflage boiler suit and carrying a doll, but her performance is less stagey than her norm. Amongst the men, I was particularly impressed by Tom Canton as Richmond. Once you get over the fact he appears to be channelling Rising Damp’s Rigsby, Ralph Fiennes is a very good Richard, though he doesn’t reach the highs of my all-time favourites – Anthony Sher’s spider and Ian McKellen’s 20th century dictator.

Perhaps not a milestone Richard III, but definitely one to catch if you can.

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I was so excited about two of my favourite actors cast as Othello (Adrian Lester) and Iago (Rory Kinnear), heightened by seeing Lester play Ira Aldridge play Othello in Red Velvet at the Tricycle last year, there was a big risk of disappointment. The surprise turns out to be  how much else I loved about Nicholas Hytner’s production and how the exciting casting didn’t overshadow it at all. This is one of the best Othello’s I’ve ever seen, and one of the best modern settings of Shakespeare.

After the initial scenes in Venice, we are propelled to a hyper-realistic army camp in Cyprus, brilliantly designed by Vicki Mortimer. As soon as you get into the rhythm of the verse, this is a contemporary thriller, not a 400-year-old play. It builds brilliantly and draws you in to the story of power, jealousy and revenge. About the only implausibility in a contemporary world is that it all rests on a handkerchief!

The racism Othello is subjected to struck me more than ever. Iago seems much more complex here than I’ve ever felt before. The scene where the authorities decide to send Othello to Cyprus could be a cabinet meeting at the outset of the Iraq war. In the barrack room, the soldiers play drinking games and get drunk, as they would. Ludovico arriving by helicopter rather than ship makes complete sense. This is intelligent rather than gimmicky, though perhaps Roderigo as Prince William is a little tongue in cheek! From the moment that Othello takes Iago’s bait (in the gents!) it unfolds like the best thrillers.

Neither Lester nor Kinnear disappoint and compare favourably with my other Othello’s, from Ben Kingsley (when it was acceptable!) to Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Iago’s, from Ian McKellen to Ewan McGregor. Lyndsey Marshall as a soldier Emilia is the best interpretation of this role I’ve ever seen. In a distinctly unstarry company, there is fine support from William Chubb as Brabantio and Nick Sampson as Ludovico, amongst others.

I think I enjoyed this even more than any of the other Hytner Olivier Shakespeare’s and at the end I was desperately hoping his departure as AD won’t mean its the last.

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