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Posts Tagged ‘Katie Mitchell’

I’ve not seen an Alice Birch play before, but I have seen a lot of Katie Mitchell’s productions, which is why I didn’t book for this until after the reviews and after an invitation from friends; in short, I’ve grown to dislike her directorial dominance. However, I very much admired her work here, though it is challenging and bleak – we were given Samaritans contact details on the way out!

There are three scenes running in parallel throughout the play, the first in the seventies / eighties, the second c.25 years after and the third c.35 years later again, in the future. The years appear above every scene, but it is like a jigsaw, and it takes a while to work out that we’re with three generations of women. Carol, her daughter Anna, whose mother committed suicide in her teens and who herself commits suicide soon after giving birth to Bonnie, who is trying to avoid the same happening to her. It hints that this may be genetic, or that a mother’s suicide damages the child, however young, and later that even the house in which they all lived may play a part.

The overlapping dialogue is challenging, particularly at first. The scene changes, where other actors change the three protagonists’ clothes, are initially riveting but do become repetitive. The biggest problem though is the two-hour length – in my view, it would have been a better play if they had cut 20-30 minutes, and there are scenes, like an altercation between A&E doctor Bonnie and a patient’s relative, that seem unnecessary. Hattie Morahan as Carol and Adelle Leonce as Bonnie are terrific, but I felt Kate O’Flynn as Anna over-acted, particularly during her troubled late teens, as she did in The Glass Menagerie in the West End earlier in the year.

An intelligent and cleverly structured play that I admired rather than enjoyed, but glad I saw.

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This is a Royal Court audience, so it’s likely that a significant proportion of them are aware of and convinced that climate change is a real threat to the planet. Those in the audience who aren’t are not going to be converted by an inert and dull 65 minute lecture. So what exactly is the point?

I’m sure Professor Chris Rapley is a thoroughly knowledgable expert on the subject. He spends the 65 minutes in a chair sharing some of it with us. The B&W projections behind him don’t add, illustrate or illuminate, they’re just moving wallpaper. Though the issues are dramatic, the telling is anything but. His delivery is slow, dispassionate and dry. It would reach more people as a pamphlet or newspaper article. Putting it on stage just annoys the converts like me who feel cheated and risks turning off the unconverted. In an ironic twist, the Royal Court contributes to climate change by setting the temperature in the theatre too high, which also results in outbreaks of dozing. There’s more than a whiff of Katie Mitchell self-indulgence about it all.

This is the 3rd disappointment in a row and the 4th this year at the Royal Court. Methinks there may be quality control issues…..

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Githa Sowerby is an early 20th century female playwright you may never have heard of, but two of her plays have just opened. The first, Rutherford & Son was produced at the NT in 1994 (directed by Katie Mitchell, before she became a born again deconstructionist) and it was brilliant. It has just been revived by Northern Broadsides and is on tour, coming to The Rose in Kingston in March. When it was produced at The Royal Court in 1912 it was credited to K G Sowerby as they thought it would be panned if it was known to be by a woman. It was a big success, but for some reason she wasn’t very prolific (4 plays?) and this play came twelve years later. Based on the two plays, she seems to me to have been streets ahead of contemporaries like Shaw. This is a superb play.

The beginning of the story is unusual, even unlikely. When a woman dies, her 17-year old companion Lois is taken in by the woman’s brother and aunt. Lois proves to be the beneficiary of the will and brother Eustace goes about taking financial control and indeed marrying her, so she becomes stepmother to his two daughters. He’s a real loser and Lois ends up as wife, mother and breadwinner, though the marriage is far from happy. She sets up a successful dressmaking business and develops a relationship with neighbour Peter.

The second act moves us forward ten years. Monica, one of her stepdaughters, wants to marry, but her intended’s father (a family friend with whom Eustace has clashed) insists on a dowry. At this point, the true financial picture emerges and Eustace is revealed as devious, manipulative and heartless. A complex series of events unfolds as the futures of Eustace, Lois and Monica are determined.

This is such a cleverly structured, well written play. It must have been very brave to tackle these issues at that time. It’s brilliant storytelling and it’s never predictable. Acts 2 & 3 (the fast-paced second half) are dramatic masterpieces. The audience was gasping and audibly commenting in outrage as facts are revealed, such is the intensity of the drama. Sam Walters staging is masterly. It’s a while since I was at the Orange Tree Theatre and I’d almost forgotten how involved you become in this in-the-round (well, square) space in such close proximity to the action.

Christopher Ravenscroft was simply brilliant as Eustace; I was half expecting someone to leave the audience and give him a slap, such was the realism of his interpretation. Katie McGuinness was just as good as Lois, handling the emotionality of the role with great delicacy. There were lovely performances in the smaller roles of the adult stepdaughters from Jennifer Higham and Emily Tucker and a delightful cameo from Alan Morrisey as Monica’s intended, Cyril.

This is a deeply satisfying and unmissable evening. It’s such a good play, you will be astonished that it had only one performance when it was written and has not been seen again until this production. Now I can’t wait to revisit Rutherford & Son in five weeks time. Please tell me there are more Sowerby plays to be unearthed.

You have only three weeks left to see this neglected masterpiece.

 

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With eight days at the paralympics at the beginning of the month, five days housebound at the end of the month and seven shows in-between, there wasn’t much room for ‘the rest’.

Opera

We’d seen both productions in our autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff before – Handel’s Jeptha some years back and Puccini’s La Boheme just 3 months ago. Neither were quite up to their earlier incarnation, but both were well worth re-visiting. Jeptha was never meant to be staged and it is directed by my bête noire Katie Mitchell, but despite that I like the modern war-time staging and the music is simply gorgeous. Robert Murray was excellent in the title role. The La Boheme staging is one of the best, but the new Mimi, Giselle Allen, wasn’t really believable. This was a ‘safe’ visit – the next one is Janacek and Berg and the one after Wagner and a modern one about Wagner, so they should be more challenging!

Ballet

I was persuaded to go to San Francisco Ballet by some visitors, but came out glad I was. The very diverse third mixed programme was a veritable feast. It started with a quirky and camp Mark Morris piece (not his best), then we got a more classical piece (to a lovely Prokofiev symphony), a captivating Japanese dance drama and some more modern dance with a blend of early and contemporary music. It seemed like a very young company which is probably why it all felt exuberant and fresh.

Art 

Another London at Tate Britain was both a superb idea and a brilliantly curated exhibition of B&W photos of London taken by foreign photographers. It included most of the 20th century’s iconic photographers and though it focused a bit too much on ‘grimy poor London’ it was unmissable.

At the Photographers’ Gallery, the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition was the best ever, in particular the images of Ghanaian scavengers and the arty Japanese selection. The new galleries have been improved since they moved in and now provide an excellent space to show these works.

The Korean Eye exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery was one of the best of their recent overseas contemporary art exhibitions with a nice combination of sculpture, installation and painting (yes, painting!). An excellent bonus during this visit was a small but hugely creative exhibition of chess sets by British artists (the usual suspects such as Hirst and Emin). How does this gallery survive without subsidy?

At the ICA, I liked Bruce Nauman’s soundwork Days – you walked through a space where speakers on both sides projected people speaking. Sadly, the rest of the soundworks ‘exhibited’ at the same time were hugely disappointing.

A brilliant trio of exhibitions at the NPG this month with the BP Portrait Prize living up to its reputation, photos of people associated with London 2012 (not just athletes) all over the building and a surprisingly interesting exhibition of pictures and photos of the queen  I’m no monarchist, so enjoyment of the latter was a bit of a shock!

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When this turned up in the latest Royal Court programme, it presented me with a dilemma. I’m very fond of playwright Simon Stephens work, but I’ve come to loathe the (recent) work of director Katie Mitchell. I decided to trust the playwright, but in the end it was he who disappointed.

For me, these three short plays with a somewhat contrived connection went nowhere and left me with nothing. The first is slight but touching as a foster mother says goodbye to her latest charge who is leaving for Canada. The second presents us with an edgy sexual encounter between a teacher and a policewoman in a hotel room. The third concerns the rather distasteful trafficking of a child. The content of the second and third is rather obtuse and the connection between the three somewhat nebulous.

The best things about the evening is Lizzie Clachan’s designs, which move from house to hotel bedroom to warehouse extraordinarily quickly (perhaps to avoid a gap long enough for runners?!) and the performances of Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge in the first play.

Why they are named after a lake in Cumbria is also beyond me – it’s apparently Britain’s deepest – but these plays certainly aren’t. Much ado about nothing, I’m afraid.

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Laden with superlative reviews, I suppose it was going to be difficult to live up to them – and so it proved. Perhaps I was a little over-excited. Tennessee Williams is one of my top ten playwrights. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is new to be but I was bowled over by his Beauty Queen of Leenane earlier in the year in the same theatre. Deborah Findlay is a favourite actress who we don’t get to see anywhere near often enough.

There was a little too much of deconstructionist Katie Mitchell’s influence in the staging, like musicians and ‘backstage’ on view throughout, which I’m not convinced suits an intense drama where it seems to me realism is crucial. As much as I Love Deborah Findlay, I felt she was OTT, turning Amanda into too much of a comic creation. The concept, and Jeremy Herbert’s design, distanced the audience from the play and the characters where I feel you need to be on top of it – maybe I just can’t get the Donmar’s terrific staging out of my head.

The only scene which gripped fully was the ‘courting’ of Laura (a little over-acted by Sinead Matthews) & Jim (an excellent Kyle Soller), where a back curtain brought the scene nearer to the audience and blocked out the backstage distractions. Otherwise, the acting honours mostly belonged to Leo Bill, who brought the sort of light and shade TW needs – passion where the role needs passion, diffidence where necessary etc. The music / soundscape was very atmospheric but I think would have been more so had it not been given such visual prominence.

There was much to enjoy, but it wasn’t the exciting re-invention I was led to expect. I didn’t read the reviews, but caught the stars in passing – maybe I should avoid this in future lest it makes me expect too much (or too little!).

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A collaboration between South African puppeteers Handspring and innovative British theatre director Neil Bartlett seemed irresistible, and what they’ve produced is a pretty unique show with five puppets and eight performers on a bare stage in the round.

An old gay man close to death looks back on the early stages of his 67-year partnership in flashbacks. Narration is provided by the excellent Adjoa Andoh as nurse, housekeeper, solicitor and some sort of psychiatrist / psychologist giving a lecture. Puppets Mr A and Mr B have young and old versions ‘manipulated’ by the same performers, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, with four bare-footed puppeteer / actor ‘assistants’ dressed in black suits.

This all takes place on a bare stage with props stored underneath, handed up and down to and from actors by two visible stage managers. There are six entrances, four steps and two walkways, one through a giant rusting wall and one through double-doors.

There is some extraordinarily effective staging – swimming, a party, a squash game and a car journey – during the uninterrupted 100 minutes, but I found myself admiring the stagecraft and the creativity more than I engaged with the storytelling. It’s original and intriguing, but didn’t have as much emotional depth as I was expecting; it was as if I was a student of theatre studying it from a technical perspective.

That said, I don’t regret going and its a worthy experiment – much more so that Katie Mitchell’s pointless deconstructions. Go to admire rather than enjoy.

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I’d love to report that Ed Hall’s first production as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre is a stonking success. His appointment at this beleaguered venue, which has never truly arrived in its new building,  is very welcome indeed, but I can’t lie – Enlightenment is at best OK.

Shelagh Stephenson isn’t a very prolific playwright but she has written some interesting plays, notably The Memory of Water. Her subject this time is the disappearance of a son whilst back-packing, using this story to explore themes of connectedness and unease in the post-09/11 world. What you get is a tale which is part thriller part mystery which doesn’t really go anywhere but passes a couple of hours you don’t necessarily regret but you won’t be talking about soon after leaving the theatre.

It’s fairly intriguing and occasionally funny, though a lot of the dialogue seems forced and clumsy, as if she really hadn’t believed in her own characters. Francis O’Connor’s design is outstanding – a minimalist home which easily morphs into other locations like an airport and a park with a few props and excellent projections on the walls and ceiling.  

The acting honours belong to newcomer Tom Weston-Jones, though he’s lucky to have the most interesting character. Julie Graham and Richard Clothier were unconvincing as the parents and Polly Kemp’s psychic and Daisy Beaumont’s documentary maker were mere caricatures. Paul Freeman makes a very believable politician / grandfather.

The rest of Hall’s  first season looks promising, though allowing three writers to direct their own work and letting Katie Mitchell, the queen of pretension, loose in the new studio may prove foolhardy!

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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