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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Jones’

I’m fond of a bit of Beckett, something to fire your imagination and stretch your brain. I enjoy my regular trips to the Old Vic Theatre, one of London’s truly great theatre spaces. Director Richard Jones has long been a favourite, though he’s done more opera of late. I’ve much admired how Daniel Radcliffe has managed his post-Potter stage career and liked the three performances I’d seen before this – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Yet I left the Old Vic disappointed.

The double-bill opens with Rough For Theatre II, a rarely performed and arguably unfinished 25-minute piece where two suited men are at desks in a room where a man is standing on the window ledge poised to commit suicide. B (Alan Cumming) reads about his life from files, as if they are justifying or judging whether the act should proceed. A (Radcliffe) comments, smirks, appears to be in charge. They have come from other suicides and will continue to more. It’s intriguing, if slight, but my biggest problem with it was the contrast between A and B, or Radcliffe and Cumming, I’m not sure which. The difference between them didn’t really make sense to me.

The main event, Endgame, isn’t a long play, but it is three times the length of the curtain-raiser, and at 75 minutes outstayed its welcome; I hadn’t felt that on the two previous occasions I’d seen it. Hamm (Cumming) is confined to a chair, waited on by his servant Clov (Radcliffe). They have a seemingly endless repetitive ritual that involves Clov climbing ladders to look out of the high windows and commenting on the world outside and fetching and carrying for Hamm. Their relationship is brittle, Hamm waiting to die, Clov waiting to be free. Hamm’s parents occasionally make an appearance, popping up from their place in adjacent dustbins. Radcliffe brings an expert physicality to his role, but his youth seemed at odds with the character.

Despite both being end-of-life plays, to me they didn’t belong together, and the theatre was too big for both. I liked Cumming’s two characterisations and the casting of Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks was luxurious indeed. On the three previous occasions, I felt Radcliffe had chosen roles that suited him, but here they don’t, which does slightly derail his otherwise impressive short stage career.

This was my second Beckett this year and I’m afraid the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, home of the first, upstaged the Old Vic.

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Well, I think its unseasonal seasonal entertainment. It felt like travelling back in time to my childhood, being given the Twilight Zone Annual and flicking through it on Boxing Day, consumed by its tales of mystery (even though it wasn’t actually part if my youth!). I rather liked it.

Anne Washburn has taken stories from eight episodes of the TV show from four series between 1959 and 1964 and created a mash-up. There are tales of aliens landing, people disappearing, space travel and other dimensions. At first the interweaving is a bit irritating, but you soon go with it. It only jarred once for me, in a scene of racism amongst neighbours during an alien invasion scare. Otherwise, it’s all very tongue-in-cheek and there’s a lot to make you smile, some to make you laugh and it somehow feels nostalgic.

It takes place inside a giant TV whose walls are covered in stars. Props enter from everywhere, brought in by cast members in camouflage that matches the walls; a lovely touch. It’s very 60’s in style and monochrome in design – a palette of black, grey and silver with a touch of blue. Paul Steinberg’s design and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are terrific, there are great illusions from Richard Wiseman & Will Houstoun, superbly atmospheric and authentic TZ music by Sarah Angliss and its quirky in a way only director Richard Jones can do.

Ten actors play forty-two roles plus narrator and there are four supernumeraries, and there are some delightful performances amongst them, pitched somewhere between retro, mystery, comic book and B movie.

It’s not really a play, more a selection box, but I greatly admired it’s execution and thought it was something different and jolly good fun.

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Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

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The cast list for the 1979 Trevor Nunn production for the RSC reads like a who’s who of British actors, including Zoe Wanamaker, David Suchet, Juliet Stevenson and the now departed Richard Griffiths and Ian Charleston. Suchet also featured in Edward Hall’s 2001 NT revival. It’s no co-incidence that it’s the RSC & NT that have staged this 1930 Kauffman & Hart comedy, the first of their eight collaborations, in London – it requires big resources. The RSC production famously ended with 15 minutes of song and dance by the full ensemble plus band, which sent you home hopping and skipping. This is a scaled-down, shorter adaptation by Hart’s son for 13 actors playing 22 roles. Mind you, it still needs 8 costume makers and 5 wig technicians!

So here we are another 15 years on, and its the turn of contemporary powerhouse The Young Vic in a fine production by Richard Jones with designs by Hyemi Shin, featuring Harry Enfield’s stage debut. He play’s silent film mogul Glogauer, who finds himself competing with the talkies which he first turned down. As soon as he sees the first talkie, Vaudevillian Jerry Hyland is inspired to sell his act with May Daniels and George Lewis to head West for part of the new action, initially running an elocution school (to teach the formerly silent to talk), until Glogauer comes under the spell of George, who ends up running the studios, himself under the spell of the pretty but talentless Susan Walker, who becomes an unlikley star.

It’s a satire on Hollywood and it’s great fun. Enfield is very good, as indeed is fellow comedian Kevin Bishop as Jerry (though he does have stage acting experience). Favourites Claudie Blakley and John Marquez are on fine form as May and George. Amanda Lawrence gives us another of her show stealing turns as Glogauer’s secretary Miss Leighton and there’s great work from Lucy Cohu as columnist Helen Hobart, Lizzy Connolly as Susan and Adrian Der Gregorian in no less than four roles. The star of the show, though, is Nicky Gillibrand’s magnificent costumes and Cynthia De La Rosa’s wigs, hair and make-up!

Huge seasonal fun.

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Opera

It’s baffling why Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera May Night is hardly ever staged, so a gold star to Royal Academy Opera for a production with musical standards that any professional opera company would be proud of. Their theatre is being rebuilt, so it took place in the former testing hall of the University of Westminster across the road, which was just as well as it would never have fitted on their own stage / in their own pit! A real treat.

The London Handel Festival’s annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre was Ariodante, one of his best, and it was another operatic treat, with gorgeous playing by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a set of very fine performances from RCM students. I even liked the grungy set, even though it wasn’t exactly evocative of Edinburgh, where the opera is set!

I wasn’t expecting to be as bowled over by George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Barbican Centre as I was. I can’t say I entirely understood the story, but I was mesmerised by the music, brilliantly played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin with three stunning lead soloists – Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever heard.

Popup Opera’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi in The Vaults at Waterloo was their first foray into tragedy and it was a huge success. Stripped down to five singers, an electric piano, a few props and some strip lights, the music shone through. Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett were terrific as the star-crossed lovers (Bellini wrote Romeo as a trouser role), though I wished they hadn’t done the final death scene standing up!

The original version of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House was 130 unbroken minutes but it kept me in its grip throughout. Richard Jones production was as masterly and fresh as his Meistersingers and the musical standards under Antonio Pappano were sky high. Bryn Terfel can act as well as he can sing and the rest of the leads were just as good. Terrific stuff.

Dance

The revival of Akram Khan’s Kaash at Sadler’s Wells was an exhausting hour, such was the physicality of the five dancers. There’s no narrative as such, but the combination of Anish Kapoor’s hypnotic design, Nitin Sawhney’s percussive music and the organic, acrobatic choreography of Kahn was rather mesmerising.

At the Staatsoper in Hannover, I caught a ballet of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Was Ihr Wollt (the play’s subtitle, What You Will), with a mash-up of music by Prokofiev Shostakovich and Dvorak, and it was a treat, particularly good at the comedy, with some lovely performances from an international cast. I do love catching opera and ballet on my travels, especially when it’s half the cost at Covent Garden, as it was here!

Film

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby was clever and often very funny, but also often gross and in the end more gross than funny.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but I was a bit underwhelmed by Hail Caesar! And I’m not sure why. It was a great idea, but it didn’t fully satisfy me.

Though Anomalisa didn’t live up to its five star reviews, it was a very original film, an animation using life-size puppets and the voice of only one actor for all parts expect the two leads, and a clever way of showing a man spiralling into depression.

High Rise was another film that didn’t live up to the hype. It’s a very odd affair that I didn’t really think went anywhere, though it held my attention and the performances were good.

Art

Nikolai Astrup is the best painter I’d never heard of, and Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply gorgeous. The vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes made you want to get on a plane there and then.

I caught the Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain in its last weekend. I liked about half of the pictures and was indifferent to the rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that about an artist’s work. Whilst there, I caught the Artist & Empire exhibition, examining Britain’s Imperial past through art, which seemed to me to be one of those exhibitions created to make some money, though it was very well curated. Between the two was Susan Philipsz clever sound installation featuring samples from The Last Post played on brass and woodwind instruments damaged during the Second World War; very moving.

I was rather chuffed with my photographs of my recent safaris to South Africa, Namibia and Kenya……until I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and that was just the under-18’s! They benefit, of course, from scale and back-lighting, but it was the compositions which I envied most. Lovely. Next door at the Science Museum, I very much enjoyed the American documentary photography of Alec Soth and the stunning mid-19th century portraits of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron and the juxtaposition of the two was in itself brilliant. Another diverse afternoon immersion in photography.

Strange & Familiar at the Barbican was a social history of 20th century Britain through an extraordinary collection of photographs by those who don’t live here. There was a bias towards the 50’s and 60’s (my first two decades!), probably the birth of such documentary photography, and many of them seemed attracted to my homeland – South Wales mining communities – so it may have been particularly moving for me.

Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Over one hundred paintings from the impressionist and post-impressionist period and a riot of colour. The three Monet-only rooms were a joy to behold. I’ll have to go back. Upstairs, In the Age of Giorgione was a superb collection of early sixteenth century Venetian art. Technically very accomplished, but not really my thing. The one-room collection of Ann Christopher’s ‘Lines of Time’ was a little treat on the way out.

At the Photographers Gallery, a trio of small exhibitions starting with a lovely varied retrospective of American photographer Saul Leiter, another master of documentary photography. On the floor below Rio-Montevideo was a brilliant exhibition of Uruguayan protest photographs which had been hidden during the prolonged period of military dictatorships and were now presented by a Rio photographer and projected by vintage machines picked up in flea markets and second-hand stores (a lot of which were out of order!). Finally, an exhibition commemorating the Easter Rising on its 100th anniversary, something I found it hard to engage with for some reason.

The 100th Anniversary of Vogue was celebrated at the NPG in huge style by an exhibition which took over almost the entire ground floor, containing pictures from each decade. A simply stunning collection which had me rushing to buy the catalogue (again!). Whilst there, I popped into Russia & the Arts, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, writers etc, but failed to get enthused after the wonders of the Vogue collection.

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….and 1st March!

Opera

Seven operas in nine days, starting with the Guildhall School’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as good as any I’ve seen (and that includes Glyndebourne and Covent Garden). I particularly liked the design in a re-configured Silk Street Theatre, with the audience on three sides, and the singing was terrific.

Chabrier’s L’Etoile is more operetta than opera and has a preposterous plot, but I did enjoy it. The playful production at The Royal Opera House had a few too many cheap gimmicks, but it was fun overall. Vocal honours belonged to Kate Lindsey and Helene Guilmette.

WNO’s themed season of three operas that feature Figaro as a character, in chronological order, was a triumph. I’m not a big fan of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but this production was frothy and fun. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was one of the best I’ve ever seen (probably helped by my intentional rest from Mozart operas) and Elena Langer’s new piece, Figaro Gets a Divorce, was one of the best modern operas of the many I’ve experienced. It was great to see veteran design team Ralph Koltai and Sue Blane at the top of their game with beautiful sets and costumes respectively, and the playing and singing in all three (with Rhian Lois a terrific cover for Susanna in the Mozart) was outstanding…..and all of this for less than £100 in the best seats in the house!

Back at the Royal Opera House, it was great to see Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico as it was intended. I’d seen this Gianni Schicchi paired with a Ravel opera, but not the others. The diversity proves to be its strength – a revenge tragedy, a spiritual piece and a comedy! – and Richard Jones’ use of three different designers proved a clever way of emphasising their individuality. One of the best evenings at this venue in a while.

Perhaps the best was saved until last (at least, musically) with the English Concert’s concert version of Handel’s Orlando at the Barbican Hall. Five superb, and brilliantly matched, soloists, led by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, complimented the crisp clean playing of the small orchestra and made the sort of heavenly uplifting sounds that Handel operas can make. A musical feast.

Comedy

Stand-up’s Elis James and John Robbins took a huge risk with their show at Cardiff’s Glee Club. Sitting at a table with microphones and two rows of their chosen beers, the less well-known Robbins read from his self-published autobiography while James listened and commented between chapters, and both got slowly drunk – for almost 2.5 hours. It sounds like an unlikely hoot, but it was very funny indeed!

Art

The Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House was a real treat. Lots of colourful tableau along a walking route through the gardens. I think this was a first, but hope it’s a regular feature.

Big Bang Data at Somerset House was an interesting exhibition, but maybe a touch over-ambitious. It tried to cover so much ground, it felt like little of it was in enough depth. Some interesting, thought-provoking facts, though.

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I can’t begin to imagine what the audience thought of this early expressionistic Eugene O’Neill play when it was first staged on Broadway 93 years ago. It probably wouldn’t make it to Broadway or the West End today (unless it had a Hollywood star, obviously). It’s only been done here in English once in my 35 years of London theatregoing, in 2012 at Southwark Playhouse – a terrific production. So here we are just three years later in the much bigger Old Vic.

It starts in the testosterone fuelled engine house of a transatlantic liner with Yank, the central character, ruling the roost as they drink heavily. A rich girl who we first see on deck turns up in the engine house as if visiting a zoo. This has a profound impact on Yank and when he’s back in New York he’s railing against the upper class and gets arrested. Prison confirms his beliefs and he joins a union upon release, but is thrown out on suspicion of being a spy, ending up in a zoo where he talks to and releases an ape, who kills him.

It’s not a great play, but it is fascinating (as is O’Neill’s previous expressionistic piece, Emperor Jones) and way ahead of its time. A review at the time apparently said ‘before The Hairy Ape we had plays, now we have drama’. Left-wing drama on Broadway almost 100 years ago! I can’t think of a better director than Richard Jones and his use here of stylised movement (choreographer Aletta Collins!) is particularly effective. Stewart Laing’s striking design creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in the below deck scenes, with stunning and occasionally blinding lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin.

Bertie Carvel seems taller and bigger and larger than life, with huge presence as Yank. He’s surrounded by a fine cast of twelve actors and two actresses, but its really Yank’s play and Carvel gives a towering performance.

It doesn’t have the intensity and intimacy of the Southwark Playhouse production, but its good to see it on a major stage, if a little too soon after the last outing. 

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Though it wasn’t published until 1925, after his death, Kafka wrote his novel exactly 100 years ago. It has been named second and third in lists of the best novels of the 20th century (in France & Germany!) and has that dark, bleak quality that German works often do. It’s no less dark and bleak in Nick Gill’s new stage adaptation, but the production and performances give it new life, if not meaning, for a 21st century non-German audience, starting with a dis-orientating walk to your jury seat in front of an orange platform with a giant keyhole cut-out, which soon rises to reveal the playing space.

Joseph K is arrested on his 30th birthday and what follows is a personal nightmare, as he struggles to understand why, and how to navigate the faceless system that has chosen to torment him. The authorities never specify an offence. He could be in a totalitarian state, a giant bureaucracy, an impersonal corporation, indeed anywhere where it’s possible to get lost in the confusing world around you. In two unbroken hours we move speedily through this nightmare, confronting figures representing various authorities and the legal system. We also meet his neighbours, his work colleagues, his Uncle Albert and others along the way.

Director Richard Jones and designer Miriam Buether always have big ideas and this time it’s to stage the play on a conveyor belt in a traverse setting (think Generation Game – if you’re old enough!). The sparse sets and characters enter, ride along and stop to play their scene before it quickly moves us to the next. Playwright Nick Gill’s big idea is for Joseph K to have an inner language, a sort or pidgin English / shorthand, when he’s alone. This cleverly emphasises his personal nightmare. The closing scene is a particularly modern take on Joseph’s end which I won’t give away.

Rory Kinnear lives this life (and the entire play!) on this conveyor and it’s a real tour de force performance, laying bare his psychological torture and helplessness throughout a challenging physical journey. Kate O’Flynn has to transform into six different characters, and she does so remarkably. I liked Sian Thomas’ characterisations of both lawyer and doctor and though I struggled to shake off Hugh Skinner’s last characterisation as Will in W1A (cool, yeh, no worries), his two roles were very well played. This is a real ensemble piece with only 11 actors (it seemed like a lot more) playing 29 roles.

It’s not the easiest of rides, it pushes it’s luck a bit at 120 minutes and its not what you’d choose for a ‘good night out’, but it somehow resonates a century on as a picture of how we can so easily be lost in the system – whatever system it is. I suspect it will mean different things to different people, like a mirror to their own experiences and phobias. A challenging evening for people who like to be challenged.

 

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Somehow, using the title Public Enemy rather than the usual Enemy of the People for an adaptation of Ibsen’s 130-year-old play makes a difference to a modern audience. Playwright & adapter David Harrower has moved it forward c.100 years. Designer Miriam Buether has built a bloody great big Norwegian chalet. Director Richard Jones has applied his extraordinary imagination……and there you have it – a bang up-to-date morality play.

A Norwegian coastal town (with its own smart new logo!) has begun to exploit its spa waters and built fancy new baths. Medical Advisor Thomas Stockmann discovers the waters are toxic and potentially lethal and when he has proof he sends his report to the Mayor, his employer and his brother, which sets him on a collision course with him and the community, and eventually with his wife and father.

The campaigning local paper and the leader of local small business support him and he is convinced the community will do so too, but when the full implications and costs are realised they all turn and the cover-up begins. In the fourth act, the audience becomes the community at a public meeting and issues of truth and morality are debated and politicians, the press and even democracy itself come under scrutiny.

Similar issues have become commonplace in recent years (we are confronted daily with the dubious morals of politicians, business, the media….well, just about everyone!) which makes the play contemporary and topical. In its day, it was a response to the reaction to his earlier play Ghosts. Arthur Miller’s 1950’s adaptation took on a new meaning. Here it comes alive again as a fresh play for our times.

The width of the stage is sometimes challenging and it is a little stilted at the outset, but it soon gets into its stride and it packs a lot of punch in just 100 minutes. A very welcome revival and adaptation and another feather in the Young Vic’s feather-covered cap!

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