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Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Branagh’

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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Apparently Laurence Olivier, the first Archie Rice, only took an interest in playwright John Osborne, asking him to write a play for him, because Arthur Miller told him he was good – he was working with his wife Marilyn Monroe on a Terence Rattigan screenplay at the time! I first saw John Osborne’s angry middle-aged man play (a follow on from his angry young man play Look Back in Anger the year before) when it was 30 years old (with Peter Bowles), then again when it was 50 (Robert Lindsay) and now on the eve of it’s 60th birthday with Kenneth Branagh. It’s one of only a handful, a third of his solo original plays that have been produced, that I’ve seen. Each time it has had less impact and today seems even more like a museum piece.

Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice is declining and failing, as is Musical Hall itself. His career has followed in the footsteps of his dad Billy, now an archetypal grumpy old man. His wife Phoebe works on the electrical counter at Woolworths and tolerates his infidelities. His daughter (not Phoebe’s) lives in London, has become an independent, politicised woman and left her fiancé Graham. Son Mick is away fighting in the Middle East (it’s 1956, the Suez crisis), a bit of a hero it seems. In contrast, his other son Frank was imprisoned for draft-dodging. A dysfunctional family and a metaphor for the decline of a nation.

The scenes in the cramped family digs are interspersed with Archie’s act, now a comic song & dance man in shows where nudity is the real attraction. They sit around talking, sometimes affectionately, sometimes angrily, drinking an awful lot of neat gin. Tragedy hits twice when Mikey doesn’t make it back from the war, then Billy goes to meet the great song & dance man in the sky. In 2016 it’s hard to swallow the racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia, however ironic it was intended.

I found myself admiring the production but not really engaging with the play. Christopher Oram has designed a superb crumbling music hall within which the family living room sits. The performances are fine, particularly Gawn Grainger as granddad. Kenneth Branagh shows us again, as he did in Harlequinade and The Painkiller, that he has excellent comic timing and physical acting skills (his dancing here is excellent), but I’m not sure he captured all of the complexity of Archie Rice, and I’m not sure the camp touches fitted the character.

The Branagh season’s disappointment for me has been the choice of plays. Neither Harlequinade nor this were, in my view, worthy of revival, and The Painkiller, though enjoyable, was hardly ground-breaking. I didn’t see the two Shakespeare’s and had already seen the ‘afterthought’, Red Velvet, at The Tricycle. Both this, and the season, were a bit of a disappointment for me.

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This is a real love or hate show, though based on the audience reaction last night there’ll be a lot more in the former category. Farce has become somewhat unfashionable (notwithstanding the subversions of the form in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Mischief Theatre’s ‘goes wrong’ series) and I’m not sure the West End has seen a farce as frenetic as this for a very long time, if ever. After some initial misgivings, I succumbed to it’s profound silliness but consummate skill.

An assassin and a press photographer, unknown to each other, have adjoining rooms on the sixth floor of a hotel overlooking a court building where a well-known gangster is appearing. The assassin just wants to get the job done and get out of there. The photographer is spiralling into depression following his wife’s departure to live with her psychiatrist. Their situations become as linked as the rooms, as the hotel porter, a policeman, the wife and her psychiatrist get involved in the events unfolding, until the tables are turned.

Francis Veber’s play, adapted by director Sean Foley, is extraordinarily physical, exhausting to watch let alone play, and Foley’s production is very slick. Kenneth Branagh proved his comic timing credentials in Harlequinade earlier in this season, now he proves a master of physical comedy too. We’ve seen Rob Brydon play the hapless Welshman before, but here he adds physical comedy to great effect. Mark Hadfield has a great track record in comedy and here, without the physical demands of the others, he relies on body language, facial expressions and the odd movement to bring the house down. Alex Macqueen, Claudie Blakley and Marcus Fraser provide fine support. Alice Power’s excellent set also performs, as sets often do in farce.

Don’t go expecting culture, but do go prepared for and open to a thoroughly daft but thoroughly skilful example of a once popular but now endangered theatrical genre.

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Well, the panto season has started early, and what a stellar cast this one has. Terence Rattigan’s 1948 one-act comedy, usually paired with the more serious and earnest The Browning Version, is a clever curtain raiser for Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick Theatre season and has a curtain raiser of its own with the very odd monologue All On Her Own. Though I enjoyed the evening, it doesn’t really add up to enough to launch this venture, particularly at West End prices, though it does, somewhat appropriately, have a real theatre company feel.

Rattigan’s play features a company rehearsing Romeo & Juliet for a tour for the newly formed CEMA (which evolved into the Arts Council). Archetypal actor-manager Gosport is playing Romeo way over his age against his wife Edna’s Juliet. The rest of his cast are a combination of old pros and newbies keen to make their mark. Whilst in the first venue, Gosport is visited by someone who’s a product of his last visit some twenty years before and this forms the basis of the farce amongst theatre folk.

Rattigan had a small part in a university production of Romeo & Juliet directed by John Gielgud and his character is featured here having the same problems with his one line that Rattigan had. Branagh’s new venture is an actor-manger led company like the play’s so it’s a good show to launch such a venture. Rattigan’s views on arts funding, and in particular taking culture ‘to the people’, still resonate today. Despite these pleasing convergences, it still isn’t quite enough to carry the evening, though it does whet your appetite for the season.

The quirky 20-minute monologue which precedes it was written as a BBC TV commission. It features a widow returning from a party where she has met a woman who talks to her dead husband at the same time he died every evening. She proceeds to do the same as she drinks heavily, imitating or perhaps channeling him. Zoe Wanamaker performs it well, but it’s a slight and odd piece nonetheless.

Branagh has put together a fine company. In Harlequinade, Wanamaker shines as a theatrical Dame. Branagh himself reminds us what a good comic actor he can be. Miranda Raison is great pairing as Edna and Tom Bateman is excellent as company manger Jack Wakefield. There are so many good supporting performances, but it’s worth singling out John Shrapnel’s fine turn as George Chudleigh.

 

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The original leads of the 1982 West End premiere of Julian Mitchell’s play have done rather well for themselves. Rupert Everett was the first Bennett, followed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Frith, and Kenneth Branagh was the original Judd! The class of 2014, who seem a lot younger, are excellent (and include an Attenborough!) so it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.

It’s particularly fascinating seeing one’s reaction to the play in three productions over 32 years. In 1982, Thatcher was challenging the old boy network in her own party and this grammar school / polytechnic / manufacturing industry boy felt like he was peering into some mysterious other world. In 2000, New Labour had caught our imagination and this seemed like distant history. Today, it’s like seeing the formative years of our current rulers, helping you understand where all the hypocrisy and duplicitousness comes from and realising that nothing has actually changed. I found that annoying and profoundly irritating.

It’s a 30’s British public school, breeding ground for leaders and spies. Bennett is openly gay, behaving like a child in a toyshop. Judd is a Marxist revolutionary, all idealism and rebellion. Their bond is that they won’t play the conservative game and conform with the absurd traditions. The rest are chips off the old blocks, clones of their dads, being brainwashed into following in their footsteps. The suicide of a boy caught inflagrante delicto with another and the visit of an old boy, uncle of a present one, are used to stimulate the debate about what these places actually breed.

It is an extremely well written play, superbly staged by Jeremy Herrin within Peter McKintosh’s simple wood-panelled world, and it’s beautifully performed by nine young actors and Julian Wadham as the old boy, who appeared as one of the boys in the original production. Somehow, though, it made me frustrated, hopeless and angry and I couldn’t shake that off.

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Contemporary Music

It’s hard to write about the Paul McCartney concert at the O2 without downloading a complete thesaurus of superlatives. It was the sixth time I’d seen him in the 21 years he’s been performing live with Wings or solo, and the third in as many years. It was at least as good as all the others – amazing visuals, brilliant sound, 2.75 unbroken hours containing 41 songs (including 27 Beatles songs, two getting their UK live premiere 46 years after their recording!). I sang, swayed, danced and cried. Absolute magic.

Opera, Dance & Classical Music

The ENO’s Castor & Pollux sounded as good as it looked dreadful. Rameau’s music is different to his contemporaries – just as crisp and clean, but with less frilly stuff! Sadly, the white box-modern dress-piles of earth-running around-inexplicable nudity production meant it was a lot better with your eyes closed. The singing of Allan Clayton, Roderick Williams, Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu was lovely though – and the orchestra under Christian Curnyn sounded gorgeous.

Undance at Sadler’s Wells was an intriguing prospect – a double-bill of opera and dance as a collaboration between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, artist Mark Wallinger and choreographer Wayne McGregor. The opera, Twice Through the Heart, was in fact a monodrama / song cycle about an abused woman who murders her husband. Favourite Sarah Connolly sang beautifully ‘inside’ 3D projections (we were given glasses on the way in!). It was a bit inaccessible on first hearing, but interesting and well executed nonetheless. Undance itself was based on the 19th century ‘motion photography’ of Eadweard Muybridge with projections behind the dancers, one mirroring the other. It was clever and intriguing, but felt like it should be a third of a triple bill rather than a pairing with a mini-opera. I didn’t dislike the evening, but somehow it felt like a couple of snacks rather than a full meal.

The Bizet Double-Bill at The Royal College of Music was a fascinating affair. Djamileh, an ‘opera comique’ had few laughs and inexplicably lost its happy ending to a murder, but the sound was unquestionably Bizet. Chinese tenor Lei Xu and British soprano Katherine Crompton sounded beautiful, as did the orchestra under Michael Rosewell. Le Docteur Miracle was certainly played for laughs, but also ended with a death Bizet didn’t (I think) write. In a veritable United Nations of casting, the singing of the girls – South African Filipa van Eck and Anastasia Prokofieva (guess where she’s from!)  – was great and the acting of Israeli  Pnini Grubner and homegrown Oliver Clarke equally good. A delightful evening.

Offenbach operettas are hardly subtle, but Scottish Opera’s touring production at the Young Vic removed any subtlety Orpheus in the Underworld did have. Everyone was trying so hard, particularly Rory Bremner’s libretto, squeezing in as many contemporary satirical references as he could think of, and the performers exaggerating every move and expression until it seems Am Dram. There was some good singing and the solitary pianist played the score well, but I felt like they were relentlessly beating me on the head with a newspaper (as one character did actually do to another at one point). Having said that, I admire them for touring small-scale opera to 33 venues in Scotland and Northern Ireland including artistic black holes like Stornoway and Lerwick, but why come to London with this? It made me yearn for a revival of ENO’s production with Gerald Scarfe’s extraordinary designs.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican was terrific. They combined Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast with Sibelius’ suite from the music of a play on the same subject and added in some Sibelius songs and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Edward Gardner is now in the conducting premiere league and his interpretations here were thrilling. The chorus sounded great in the Walton and soloist Gerald Finlay great in both the Walton and the Sibelius sons. For once, the audience didn’t hold back the cheers; a cracker.

The LSO is an orchestra at the height of its powers. The Monteverdi Choir is one of the world’s best. Sir John Elliott Gardiner is in the premiere league of conducting. Even so, their concert of Beethoven’s 1st and 9th Symphonies was even more of a treat than I was expecting. The soloists don’t get to do much in the 9th, but they did it well. The chorus soared and the orchestra thrilled. Possibly the best in a lifetime of 9th’s

Back at Wigmore Hall there was a lovely concert pairing the 16th century songs of John Dowland with those of the 20th century composers he influenced – Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney – with singers Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone accompanied by lute, piano, flute, cor anglais & string quartet in various combinations. I could have done without the cheesy German Christmas encore with children’s pageant that followed a rather lovely evening of English song.

Magical Night at the Linbury Studio was the British premiere of a Kurt Weil ‘kinderpantomime’ choreographed by Aletta Collins, who has created a simple story of toys that come alive in the kid’s bedroom at night (heard that before?!). It was the Weill that was the attraction for me and it was interesting but hardly thrilling. The dance was OK, but the whole show was a bit of a disappointment overall.

Art

I was drawn to Painting Canada at Dulwich Gallery by its poster, as I often am by poster images. Sometimes the poster doesn’t properly represent the content of the exhibition (take note, Tate!) but on this occasion it does. It’s a beautiful exhibition of 122 paintings and oil sketches by the ‘Group of Seven’ Canadian artists from the early 20th Century. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a cohesive and consistently good exhibition of paintings. They’re virtually all landscapes, the colours are vivid and they show off (probably flatter) Canada brilliantly. Gorgeous.

Glass-maker Dale Chihuly is best known in the UK for the enormous ‘chandelier’ which dominates the V&A entrance. We were lucky to have a major exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens some years ago, but that’s about my only exposure to his work. Halcyon Gallery now has a brilliant selling exhibition which is surprisingly large and has a long 3-month run. The 57 works are well exhibited and beautifully lit. The only downside was the prices – from £11.5k to £700k; just a little beyond my art budget!

The annual Landscape Photography exhibition in the NT Lyttleton circle foyer is as good as ever; though guarantee to make mere mortal photographers like me feel totally inadequate! There are so many lovely photos here, I had to go round twice to take them all in.

I was initially disappointed by the V&A Friends visit to William Morris’ former home – Kelmscott House in Hammersmith – when I discovered we were only going to see the small basement museum (the rest is now a family home again). However, the curator brought out a lot of fascinating items, like original artwork for wallpaper and fabrics, and added some interesting historical facts to make it worthwhile in the end.

Down in Surrey, a feast of the work of another Arts & Crafts couple – George & Mary Watts – was to be had at the Watts Gallery and nearby chapel. He’s an underrated player in this movement’s game and it was great to see so many of his paintings in one place. The beautifully decorated round chapel (inside and out) by his wife on a nearby hill was an unexpected bonus despite the fading light.

It has taken me 21 months to get round to seeing WildWorks ‘Enchanted Palace’, which is occupying 15 rooms of Kensington Palace during their renovations. There were only 4 days to go, so off I went and boy was I glad I did. They tell the story of seven of the princesses who lived there by installations, light, sound, story books and cards and actors. it’s sometimes mysterious, sometimes playful, often beautiful and always captivating. I now can’t wait for their Babel in Battersea Park in 2012. 

Film

I adored My Week With Marilyn. It was funny and moving, littered with a who’s who of great British actors. Kenneth Branagh does a terrific turn as Laurence Olivier and Michelle Williams is uncanny as Marilyn, but for me it was Eddie Redmayne’s movie – he’s as mesmerizing on film as he is on stage, proven yet again by his Richard II less than 2 weeks later.

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I’m fond of Shakespeare but not that fond of Hamlet. It always seems overlong and ponderous and I find it hard to believe in or be moved by it. Give me a more cracking yarn like Richard III any time. Yet somehow, its hard to resist re-visiting it – maybe to find what I haven’t yet found or maybe to see how an actor rises to the challenge of that pinnacle for a leading man.

My first one was Roger Rees and my second Kenneth Branagh; both deeply introverted and neither RSC productions really did it for me. Then there was highly strung Daniel Day-Lewis on the same stage (before he had his breakdown, withdrew and was replaced by a dying Ian Charlston) and cool Adrian Lester at the Young Vic. A couple of adventures followed with Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish Hamlet and Ninagawa’s Japanese Hamlet. After a long break, I started again as I couldn’t resist Jude Law or David Tennent, both of whom turned in very good interpretations but neither production was totally satisfying. I regret not giving Simon Russell Beale and Ben Wilshaw a crack.

One of the pleasures of going to the National in recent years has been to see the range and growth of Rory Kinnear, but I thought it might be too soon for him to tackle Hamlet. Well, I was certainly wrong there, as it was the most interesting, intelligent and real Hamlet of them all – I actually cared about what this man was going through for probably the first time.

What helps is a production which creates a believable timeless police state where everyone is watching everyone else. This brings a plausibility to the story and adds an excitement which propels the play along. What also helps is a faultless supporting cast. Patrick Malahide is such a good Claudius that I became tense every time he came on stage. Dame Clare Higgins creates a highly original stilletto-heeled shallow gullible monster, drink almost always in hand. You could really believe in and were touched by Ruth Negga’s journey as Ophelia. The production didn’t seem at all imbalanced by understudy James Pearse standing in for David Calder as Polonius.

I’ve liked Nicholas Hytner’s other Olivier Shakespeares – Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V – but I liked this most of all. Vicky Mortimer’s design is important in creating this believable world and facilitates the pace, energy and excitement. I also liked the use of sound to create atmosphere.

So, the most satisfying Hamlet so far and one that will no doubt encourage me to continue exploring the play – somehow, I doubt I will be able to resist Michael Sheen at the Young Vic next year!

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