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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Russell Beale’

The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

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We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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Previous productions of this play, by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, have lasted five hours and had huge casts. Ben Power’s adaptation has a playing time of just under three hours, and director Sam Mendes has chosen to use just three actors to tell this epic story spanning 175 years. An inspired idea which delivers a captivating story of a dynasty, but also the history of capitalism and immigration to the USA.

The Lehman brothers are the sons of a German Jewish cattle merchant, the first brother Henry arriving in the US in 1844, Emanuel and Mayer following in the subsequent six years. Their business starts as a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, before they become cotton traders. After Henry dies, they move to New York City, where they expand into coffee trading, invest in railways and the Panama Canal, and eventually everything from airlines, cigarettes, films & armaments to banking.

It was not until 1965 that they move into trading investments, the business that killed them in 2008, something that the 1857, 1873 and 1929 financial crises, the American Civil War, two world wars and 9/11 didn’t. By then, there were no Lehman brothers left in the business that kept their name, the last dying in 1969. In the previous 125 years, six brothers from three generations had led the business, two for sixty years each.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley remain in the cloths in which they arrive in the mid-eighteenth century, but all play multiple roles of all generations & ages and both sexes absolutely brilliantly. It all takes place in Es Devlin’s glass-walled offices, representing where the company meets its demise in 2008, which revolve in front of a giant screen on which Luke Hall projects locations. The 2008 box files are used to create everything from shop counters to steps. It’s all in monochrome. Mendes’ staging is simple, enthralling storytelling, with the role-switching lightening it, providing some very funny moments. Live piano accompaniment at the side of the stage is also inspired, and brilliantly played by Candida Caldicot.

It all combines to create a wonderful unmissable theatrical feast.

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Much has been made of the use of cutting edge technology in this production – ‘The ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY in collaboration with INTEL, in association with THE IMAGINARIUM STUDIOS’ – that I was concerned it would swamp Shakespeare’s play, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the contrast between spectacle and quiet reflection brought something very fresh and unique.

It’s set inside the wreck of a giant ship’s hull, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Prospero, Miranda and the shipwrecked royals and their staff are normal humans. Caliban is a Shrek-like monster, brilliantly realised by Joe Dixon. Ariel is both an onstage character and multiple digital projections using performance capture (think Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes), also brilliantly realised by Mark Quartley, as are the seven spirits that he sometimes conjures up. The characterisation of Stephano and Trinculo by James Hayes and especially Simon Trinder are also superb, and their scenes with Caliban are amongst the best I’ve ever seen.

With giant projections on the back wall and the ship’s hull, it does create truly spectacular scenes, but only when they’re needed. Much of the time we spend with Prospero feels even more introspective, thoughtful and restrained than usual, and the verse shines through. At first I thought Simon Russell Beale’s characterisation was too gentle, but then you realise you’re hanging on to every word in a theatre where you couldn’t hear a pin drop (despite the presence of many school parties!).  In addition to the technological partners, the projections of Finn Ross, Simon Spencer’s superb lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music add much to the magical cocktail.

Who’d have thought a 400-year-old play and state-of-the-art technology could feel as if they belong together.

 

 

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Samuel Foote, an eighteenth century actor, the subject of Ian Kelly’s play, may well be the most fascinating person you’ve never heard of – well, I hadn’t. He was a friend of David Garrick and Peg Woffington, the most famous actors of their day, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and King George III. He appears to have invented a new form of theatre – improv! – getting around the stringent restrictions of the day by having no script to be approved and charging for the tea rather than the entertainment. The play is as enthralling as it is entertaining.

We meet Foote as a well-established member of London society. He’s moved on from acting to semi-improvised prologues and epilogues and on again to create comic and satirical one-man ‘entertainments’ and impersonations of infamous brothel madam ‘Mrs Cole’. He runs the second largest theatre company in the land, but after a riding accident he has to have his leg amputated, which of course impacts his career (and may have affected his mental condition). He does get a prosthetic leg, something that was being pioneered by John Hunter, the father of modern surgery, at that time, but he never really recovers. The sympathetic George III grants him a Theatre Royal license for the Haymarket Theatre, but his fortunes begin to decline when he satirises a Duchess who responds with accusations of sodomy which ultimately bring him down. Why have I never heard of this man or his plays!

Richard Eyre’s production is uproariously funny, though it does get darker as it progresses. Tim Hatley seems to have designed an intentionally small set which is both faithful to the period and rather intimate. Simon Russell Beale’s towering performance is amongst his best, showcasing his brilliant comic timing and ability to raise a laugh without speaking a word. He is as extraordinary as a large eighteenth century society lady as he was as a Carmen Miranda impersonator in Privates on Parade. He’s surrounded by a host of other lovely performances, with Joseph Millson as Garrick and Dervla Kirwan as Woffington and the writer himself as Prince / King George. I was hugely impressed by Micah Balfour as his ‘blackamoor’ servant and Jenny Galloway was a delight as his other help, Mrs Garner.

It was another co-incidence that this play about 18th century theatre folk followed the previous day’s play about 17th century theatre folk, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. It is unthinkable that this doesn’t transfer, and it would be particularly wonderful if it were to be to the Theatre Royal Haymarket which he took over 250 years ago next year!

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You might not expect 100 minutes real time set entirely in a church office to be enthralling theatre, but it is. Steve Waters intelligent play about the dilemma facing the Dean of St. Paul’s when the Occupy protesters are driven to his church steps captivates from beginning to end and Simon Russell Beale gives us yet another master-class in acting.

The 100 minutes are those immediately before the church is re-opened for services after a two-week closure. The protesters had been driven there away from the target of their ire. The Corporation of London wants the Dean’s support in driving them away altogether by an injunction. The church hierarchy, through the Bishop of London, has no direct authority over St. Paul’s but still seeks to influence it. Some of the Dean’s senior staff feel strongly, at least one to the point of resignation. His PA has gone sick with stress and her cover is seemingly incompetent. The Dean is in an impossible situation and struggles to find a solution and to show leadership.

So much is covered in this short period of time. We learn of the special status of St. Paul’s and the history that puts it there. We see the differing views within the church, varying from logic to pragmatism to principled to passive. The debate that is played out covers the moral and ethical and the practical and expedient. Surrounded by those giving advice, The Dean is in a very lonely place. The Bishop makes it clear what the Archbishop wants, the City Lawyer uses her legalistic jargon to spell out where the Corporation sits. His staff think they know what Jesus would do and the PA proves to be wiser than it seemed at first.

Though its a fiction it feels very real and I kept wondering how much research Waters had done. Howard Davies direction is impeccable, allowing the writing and performances to shine, and Tim Hatley’s realistic design and the Donmar’s intimacy make you voyeurs peering into the room. Simon Russell Beale is perfect casting as the Dean, a very sympathetically written character, and he gives a beautiful, nuanced portrait of a man under pressure, on an emotional roller-coaster, struggling as his conscience and his brain battle within him.

I loved Malcolm Sinclair’s rather pompous Bishop of London who’d taken advice ‘from his communications people’ and was very much in tune with ‘the modern world’ and I thought Rebecca Humphries was superb as the PA Lizzie, moving from dippy temp to show wisdom and passion as she too tries to influence The Dean. There’s also a terrific cameo from Shereen Martin, who perfectly captures the legal eagle blinded by logic but so lacking in emotional intelligence that she would know a moral dilemma if she fell over one.

I was entranced by this gentle, often funny, thought-provoking play and have been reflecting on it ever since. A candidate for Best New Play I’d say. Off you go…..

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Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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