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Posts Tagged ‘Nina Dunn’

A thrilling production of a world première of a stage adaptation of a 1951 unproduced Arthur Miller screenplay at the lovely Royal Theatre in Northampton. Wow!

Miller took the screenplay to Hollywood with his girlfriend Marilyn Monroe and friend / collaborator director Elia Kazan, who shortly after named him to McCarthy and lost his friendship for good (he also went on to make his own film about longshoremen – On the Waterfront). Miller was faced with demands for radical changes which would make the dockers less sympathetic and whitewash the employers and the union hierarchy, something he would not do. Even the FBI became involved because they thought it might lead to social unrest, and in one of those deeply ironic ‘life imitates art’ moments, the unions said that if it was made they would stop every projectionist in America from showing it!

We’re back in A View from the Bridge territory, with the longshoremen of Red Hook, New York (Miller’s birthplace) but a very different story, inspired by real life events. The dockers are mostly US born rather than illegal immigrants, but they’re still exploited. The corrupt union president is in cahoots with their employers and the Mafia, taking enough of a cut for unheard of 50’s luxuries like holidays in Florida. After the accidental death of colleague Barney under pressure to work faster, Marty Ferrera leads a revolt, only to be faced with an assassination attempt, rigged ballots and even the fears of reprisals felt by his colleagues and supporters. It’s a series of short, fast-moving scenes which makes it feel like a screenplay and it soon grabs you and has you on the edge of your seat. Playwright Ron Hutchison, now virtually lost to film & TV in the US, has created a gripping drama.

James Dacre’s production is stunning, with a brilliant set by Patrick Connellan, terrific video by Nina Dunn, atmospheric lighting from Charles Balfour and a superb soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge that combine to create an evocative picture of both the location and period. Jamie Sives conveys the determination, commitment and passion of Marty wonderfully. Joseph Alessi is excellent as defiant union president Louis, determined not to lose his grip on power and to stay on his gravy train. Susie Trayling plays Marty’s wife, supportive but fearful, with great sensitivity and feeling. The other eight members of this great ensemble are supplemented by fifteen from the community who make the big scenes like dockside gatherings and union meetings tense and gripping.

This was such a treat for a Miller fan like me and it was great to see so many of the matinee audience give it a standing ovation (unheard of in my experience of regional theatre). If only Miller had lived to see his work come alive like this over sixty years on, in his centenary year, resonating still in a world of zero hour contracts and corporate corruption.

One more week, then Liverpool. Not to be missed.

 

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Contemporary Music

I must have seen almost all of John Hiatt’s London concerts in the last 30 years or so – solo and with a lot of different bands, including the solo-duo show with Lyle Lovett and the short-lived ‘supergroup’ Little Village with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. His sound blends country, rock and blues in different combinations depending on the configuration of the band (if there is a band) and the style of the latest album. This incarnation is more rocky, but boy is it a great band. Three-quarters of the set was made up of material prior to the recent album, often re-worked to give a fresh spin. The intimate Under the Bridge (actually under Chelsea’s ground Stamford Bridge, but fortunately without any players or WAGS in sight!) proved an excellent venue (much like The Borderline some years ago and The Half Moon Putney way back when) and it was a cracking night. By the last encore, Riding With the King, they were on fire.

Opera

Our summer visit to WNO in Cardiff only involved one opera, La Boheme, but it was a brilliant production which we enjoyed so much we’ve booked to see again in September. Annabel Arden’s simple new staging, with an excellent design from Stephen Brimston Lewis featuring brilliant projections by Nina Dunn at Knifedge, was pitch perfect and Anita Hartig and Alex Vicens as Mimi and Rodolfo sang beautifully. The supporting cast were excellent and, as ever, Carlo Rizzi made the orchestra and chorus soar. Gorgeous.

Caligula at ENO won’t go down as a great new opera (the music isn’t good enough for that) but it was a brilliantly dramatic and inventive staging which got to the heart of its subject’s madness. This was mostly owing to a stunning performance in the title role from Peter Coleman-Wright and two great supporting performances from Yvonne Howard as his wife and Christopher Ainslie as his servant. Modern opera is often challenging; this one was no exception, but it was worth the ride.

Classical

St. Paul’s Cathedral has an acoustic which makes performing anything there a huge risk; I particularly recall a disastrous Britten’s War Requiem some years ago. The LSO made a better choice of Berlioz Requiem because it was big enough for the space and indeed the space added something to the music. When there were four trumpet sections in four spaces all around you, it sent shivers up your spine. Berlioz specialist Sir Colin Davies was in charge and the combination of orchestra and two choirs and crystal clear tenor Barry Banks – 385 singers and players – was as powerful as it gets.

The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has got a lot older whilst they’ve been evading me; they’re now all between 18 and 28. I’d seen (and been underwhelmed) by their conductor Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil, but had not seen him with his main band. It didn’t take long before I realised it wasn’t all hype. Sitting in the front row of the Royal Festival Hall, from the first notes of Argentinean Esteban Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindios the sound was exciting; by the time they had finished Strauss’ Alpine Symphony they were thrilling. As if we hadn’t had enough of a treat, they gave us an encore (not so common these days). An odd man came on wearing an animal skin, horn helmet and eye patch, carrying a spear. I thought he might have been one of Benzecry’s Latin American Indians and we were about to get one of that triptych again, but then the helmet came off and it was Bryn Terfel. Somewhat unbelievably, they chose the final part of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (this orchestra’s first stab at Wagner!) – it soared and I cried. The icing on a delicious cake.

Art

I popped into a mercifully quiet Tate Modern after an early dinner on the last Saturday of the month to check out Damien Hirst and Edward Munch and what a pair of horrors they turned out to be. I’d seen (and not liked) most of the Hirst works before but having them all in one place – spot paintings, preserved animals, flies and butterflies (dead and alive) – was a depressing experience. I still think he’s an innovative and clever man who’s made a lot of money, but not really an artist of much merit. The Munch proves he was a bit of a one trick pony, and that trick – The Scream – isn’t part of this exhibition! His early work showed great skill as a portrait painter, and some that followed was interesting (and colourful), but his compulsions and obsessions, coupled with the loss of ability to paint a face, meant the body of work is uninspiring.

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When you watch X-Factor on the weekend, remember there was once a time when pop groups learned their craft by hard slog and trial & error. The Beatles would never have been the greatest band the world has ever seen if they hadn’t spent the best part of two years playing lengthy sets in the Cavern in Liverpool and in much seedier clubs in Hamburg.

What Backbeat does by focusing on this brief but intense and important period is show us how it all began. The fact that it uses young actors who have recently learnt, and are still learning, to sing and play gives it an authenticity which brings the story alive. It’s not a musical; it’s a play – but the musical sequences are crucial and become increasingly competent and exciting as the story develops. They’d sound a lot better played by professional musicians, but that would miss the point and be a lot less true to the story. I loved the rawness and raggedness of the music because it felt so real.

In this period, of course, original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe looms large. Lennon’s art school mate who can’t play a note but is super-cool joins the band, falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr & steals her from fellow artist Klaus Voorman, leaves the band for Hamburg Art School (under Edward Paolozzi no less – even this Beatles obsessive didn’t know that!) and dies tragically. Paul switches to bass and Pete Best is dumped for Ringo and the rest is history. When they put on Astrid’s jackets and strike the first chords of Love Me Do, there was a shiver up my spine and a tear in my eye. This is where the musical soundtrack of my life really began.

It really does tell the story well. Comparisons with Jersey Boys are unfair –  this is not a biographical retrospective on a spectacular scale with a band’s entire back catalogue; it’s a play focusing in more depth on a short formative period. Both are great, but completely different.

They actors don’t impersonate the fab four (five) but they brilliantly convey the essence if the people. Andrew Knott has Lennon’s attitude, power and influence and Daniel Healy’s McCartney is the more serious, and seriously ambitious, musician (with spot-on nodding!). Will Payne captures the much younger George, quietly in awe of the others, growing up before your eyes. There’s less pressure on Oliver Bennett as Pete Best and Nick Blood as Sutcliffe as we know less of their characters, but they’re both excellent. Adam Sopp’s Ringo only arrives in the final scene, but his inimitable grin made me smile.

There isn’t a moment wasted in David Leveaux’s staging and the design team of Christopher Oram, Andrew D Edwards, Howard Harrison, David Holmes, Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn have created an environment which allows a fluid flow from scene to scene and location to location.

I loved this show, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of how much The Beatles meant to me. It’s a great story well told. They don’t even get to use that extraordinary back catalogue – we never get beyond Love Me Do – yet you can hear the beginnings of that sound that has not been equalled in the fifty years that have passed since. Give X-Factor a miss and find out how real talent develops.

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It’s not often you get to see the British premiere of a 138-year old play by a world-famous dramatist. In this case, it’s probably because few theatres have the resources (or the balls) to put on such an epic. Fortunately, we have the National Theatre.

It’s a fascinating 12-year slice of history, from the beginning of soon-to-be emperor Julian’s crisis of faith in AD 351 to his death in AD 363, soon after becoming Emperor. The 20-year old goes from Constantinople to Athens where he dumps christianity for paganism. He returns briefly, to Ephesus, before he’s despatched for a sortie in Gaul (France) from where he returns to become Emperor. Though he claims to champion religious freedom, in actuality he suppresses christianity. He heads off to war with Persia, where he meets his maker on the battlefield.

Ben Power’s adaptation makes all of this very clear and lucid, with modern dialogue peppered with wit. Jonathan Kent’s epic production makes full use of the Olivier drum & revolve with giant projections from Nina Dunn adding to the impact (though the inclusion of helicopters jarred with me). Paul Brown’s design is timeless and classic and allows the drama to unfold without smothering it with concept or detail and slowing it down. Jonathan Dove’s music, using four percussionists, adds atmosphere but I found Mark Henderson’s lighting occasionally too dark. Though there is real pace, a few judicious cuts to the early years in Constantinople and Athens would have sharpened it further and cut the running time by 10 to 20 minutes to a more accessible 3 hours.

The role of Julian is a real challenge but fortunately Andrew Scott is more than a match for it. He’s hardly ever off the stage and speaking most of the time he’s on it. He acts with great passion and evolves believably and seamlessly from troubled youth to troubled tyrant. There’s a fine supporting cast of 49 (half of them from drama schools getting an early shot at the Olivier stage) plus 4 musicians – the largest I think I’ve seen on this stage – which includes the excellent Ian McDiarmid in what I think is only his second National performance.

It’s not a great play, but I’d be surprised if it has ever had such a good adaptation and production and I think it’s part of the NT’s role to stage work that would never otherwise be staged. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.

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What would we do without NBT? They produce at least one new ballet / dance drama almost every year (this year we saw Covent Garden’s first new full evening work for 15 years – 20 years since once with a new score). With an Arts Council grant of c.£2.5m, they take their work to the taxpayers of 16 British cities against Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 4 cities (£7.5m grant) and the Royal Ballet’s 1 city (they rarely get off their arses and leave London) for its share of Covent Garden’s £28m. Oh, and NBT’s tickets cost half those at Covent Garden, so they are also significantly more accessible. If taking a brand new ballet danced by a talented young company with excellent production values and a brand new score from a titan of musical theatre to 11 cities in England, Scotland and Wales isn’t value for taxpayers money, I’ll eat my tutu – well, if I had one…..End of rant!

The life of Cleopatra is perfect for dance, though covering her whole life in two hours is rather ambitious. It takes us from her joint rule of Egypt with her brother (following the death of her father) to her murder of her brother, her marriage to Caesar, birth of their child, moving to Rome, death of Caesar (Interval!) return to Egypt, the arrival of Anthony, fighting Octavia for him, invasion by Rome and the death of them both. Phew! You can’t expect a detailed story, but what you do get is a clear dramatic flow through time and events, good characterisation of people and countries and, in the second half, the emotional journey of this iconic relationship.

The second half works better than the first. The duet (I know that’s not the ballet term!) between Cleopatra and Anthony is very sexy, the battle scene is very muscular and the deaths poignant. The idea of Wadjet the snake-god as Cleopatra’s protector is excellent and provides an elegant framing for the story. Some of David Nixon’s choreography was a bit quirky for me, but when it mattered it was good. The simple set, designed by the director and Christopher Giles with great projections by Nina Dunn, looked beautiful and allowed the work to breathe unencumbered. There were one or two odd costume choices (my companion thought the Roman’s were a bit off -kilter, as it were!) but these were also mostly appropriate and elegant. Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score is lovely – even better than the one he wrote for Wuthering Heights – particularly in the second act love and death scenes.

I’m sure we didn’t get the first cast, but they were all excellent anyway. Julie Charlet made a lovely Cleopatra – assertive and sensuous in equal measure. Ashley Dixon was every bit the handsome soldier lover, at home dancing the love scenes and the fight scenes. Darren Goldsmith’s snake god glided and slithered with grace. This is a very young good-looking company who are always a pleasure to watch.

I think I’ve seen seven or eight of their dance dramas, and this is one of the best they’ve done…..and fantastic value for tax-payers!

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