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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Mumford’

Theatre owes a lot to The Restoration, the fifty-year period from 1660 to 1710 that followed an eighteen-year theatre ban. Playwrights, including the first women playwrights like Aphra Behn, wrote meaty roles for women who could at last play them themselves. Many of these ‘comedies of manners’, like this, have survived. I’ve seen around a dozenn and the last one, The Beaux Stratagem at the NT, sparkled. So I was looking forward to William Congreve’s last play, returning home to Covent Garden.

It’s a convoluted plot revolving around the relationship between Mirabell (an excellent Geoffrey Streatfield) and Millamant (wonderfully played by Justine Mitchell, hotfooting it over from Beginning at the Ambassadors around the corner). They need Lady Wishforth’s blessing to marry, but she wants Millamant’s hand for her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Mirabell’s friend Fainall is having an affair with Mrs Marwood, who once had an affair with him. Mirabell’s servant secretly marries Lady Wishforth’s servant and they plot to help Mirabell by deceiving Lady Wishforth.  As with all restoration comedy, it’s flowery character names, social satire that’s a bit lost on us three-hundred years on and much wordplay. The production is beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle, whose costumes are simply gorgeous, and it’s atmospherically lit by Peter Mumford.

For a comedy there are nowhere near enough laughs, particularly in the first half, which is one long, dull set-up. It picks up after the interval, with some particularly good scenes, notably the ‘proviso’ scene where Mirabell and Milamant negotiate the terms of their marriage, but it’s too late (particularly for the significant number who didn’t return!). It’s an excellent ensemble, with great performances from Jenny Jules as Mrs Marwood and Tom Mison as Fainall, both cold and calculating, and Christian Patterson as a very hearty and funny Sir Wilfull. There are lovely cameos from Fisayao Akinade and Simon Manyonda as Witwoud and Petulant and Alex Beckett and Sarah Hadland as the pair of plotting servants.

I came to the conclusion that the play is of its time and has nothing to say to a contemporary audience. If it was entertaining, it might still be worth reviving, but it isn’t – at 3 hours 15 minutes, it’s a long, dull evening. So much talent, but a play not worthy of it today.

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American playwright Annie Baker seems to have invented her own genre – ‘slow theatre’, as it’s being called. This isn’t as successful as The Flick (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/the-flick), in the same theatre two years ago, as it doesn’t sustain its length as well, but I think its still worth catching – though not everyone does slow, it seems.

It’s set in a B&B run by a lady called Mertis in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Her husband apparently also lives there, but we don’t meet him. Visitors Elias and Jenny have broken a journey there to explore the area’s historical significance. Their relationship is troubled. The only other character is Mertis’ friend Genevieve who pays a couple of visits. She is blind and obsessed by her dead husband’s ongoing presence. The fifth character is the design – Chloe Lamford, with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Christopher Shutt – which sometimes performs.

It plays out, slowly, over 3 hours 20 mins, with a forensic attention to detail. It’s intriguing, sometimes funny, but mostly just mysterious. You feel as if you’re peering into the sitting / dining area and hall, which we’re invited into when Mertis pulls back the curtains at the beginning of each act. When characters go upstairs, to the bedrooms named after historical figures, you still hear them talking and moving. Mertis has a lot of stuff, particularly dolls, which are absolutely everywhere. There’s a Christmas tree, so we assume its seasonally appropriate. Elias & Jenny’s relationship, Genevieve’s ‘possession’ and Mertis’ home interweave as the three strands unfold.

There’s a lot to like in the design and performances, but not enough happens at too slow a pace in James Macdonald’s staging. Annie Baker is an original writer, but I do hope she doesn’t trap herself in this slow theatre mode.

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Ibsen is the second most performed playwright in the world (no guessing who’s first) but this late play is one of his least performed. In Richard Eyre’s new version, it’s a devastating but brilliant eighty minutes. I left the theatre emotionally drained.

Alfred and Rita’s relationship is very rocky. Rita feels Alfred’s sister Asta and their son Eyolf somehow come between them. Alfred comes back from a spot of self-imposed solitude determined to devote more time and energy to Eyolf, but before he even begins the boy drowns and all three adults, plus Bjarne who is desperately wooing Asta, are plunged into deep grief during which the complex web of their relationships unravels.

It packs so much into eighty minutes and doesn’t feel anything like a 120-year-old play. It has great psychological depth and unfolds like a thriller. The intimacy of the Almeida increases the intensity of the drama whilst Tim Hatley’s elegantly, simple design (with superb projections by Jon Driscoll, beautiful lighting by Peter Mumford and an atmospheric soundscape by John Leonard) provides a window to the world around them.

Though I’ve seen all of the actors before, they blew me away last night, especially Lydia Leonard and Eve Ponsonby as Rita and Asta respectively, who invested so much emotional energy into their performances.

I’ve only seen the play once before but this definitive production was a revelation, placing it up there with Ibsen’s masterpieces. Unmissable. 

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The Almeida Greeks season goes from strength to strength with this second revelatory and intelligent production of Euripides last play, in a version by Anne Carson. It certainly does the god of theatre proud. I thought it was spellbinding.

It’s a battle between the gods, in this case Dionysos god of theatre and wine (my god!), and the mortals, in this case Pentheus, King of Thebes, whose grandfather Kadmos has passed him the throne whilst still alive as he has no son. Dionysos in human form as Bakkhos presides over all things hedonistic, with a retinue of female followers, including Pentheus’ mother Agave, partying up a nearby mountain. Pentheus foolishly decides to take him on and it all ends in a lot more than tears. It is of course playing out the conflict of human nature between rationality and instinct, with characters often describing events happening off-stage.

All of the roles are played by just three actors, as was the convention in the theatre festival where it was first performed 2420 years ago. Ben Wishaw is Bakkhos, the blind seer Tiresius and Pentheus’ servant who witnesses his demise, Bertie Carvel plays Pentheus and his mother Agave, and Kevin Harvey plays Kadmos and messengers. They all undertake brilliant transformations and they’re all terrific. The superb chorus of ten women perform with an extraordinary cocktail of speech, singing, chanting and sounds, dressed in skins and fur with headdresses of greenery and painted faces, moving and sounding as one. They are much more a part of the play than is usual in Greek tragedy.

There’s atmospheric music by Orlando Gough no less and unusual and highly effective lighting by Peter Mumford. It’s played out on a bare stage surrounded by and on top of what look like black slag heaps, which provide challenging entrances for the actors. I thought James Macdonald’s staging was masterly and it gripped me from Ben Wishaw’s prologue and never let me go for the next 110 minutes.

With the first two stunners, Almeida AD Rupert Goold has set the bar high for his own Medea in September!

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I’ve been critical of ENO’s recruitment of film directors. These opera virgins – the late Anthony Minghella, Sally Potter, Mike Figgis and now Terry Gilliam – have had limited success, but it seems to me the real point of recruiting them is not what they bring to the art form but to generate a hype which sells seats. The best part of Figgis’ Lucrezia Borgia was in fact the films slotted into the action. The hype for Gilliam’s effort has been relentless; at one point the opera was billed as ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’, demoting Berlioz to a bit part in his own creation.

It’s an unusual opera – is it an opera? – with surprisingly little singing, but it does have some lovely music and the Faust legend is of course made for opera – Gounod, Busoni and Boito also had a go. Gilliam’s concept is to ‘follow the trajectory of German art and history from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century’ and it’s a perfectly valid concept. The opening Caspar David Friedrich image is spellbinding. Then his imagination runs riot and he downloads so many ideas it’s difficult to keep up. It does slow down in the second half, which allows the story to breathe, but it is an extraordinary flight of the imagination. The trouble is, this swamps the story and overpowers Berlioz’ music, so it really is ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’.

The more experienced design team of Hildegard Bechtler, Katrina Lindsay and Peter Mumford do extraordinary work converting these ideas into stunning visual imagery, assisted by Finn Ross’ giant projections. Things aren’t so good in the music department, despite the fact that Edward Gardner is at the helm. The chorus was often ragged, Peter Hoare started well as Faust but in the second half was no match for Christine Rice’s gorgeous Marguerite and Christopher Purves continued his long journey from Harvey & The Wallbangers to give us a respectable Mephistopheles. Musically it wasn’t a patch on the LSO under Sir Colin Davies in concert or even Met Live at the cinema.

If you want to see Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacle as spectacular as anything you’ve seen before in an opera house. If you want to see Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust, you might be better giving it a miss.

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