Monday, August 22, 2016

150 word review: MR FOOTE'S OTHER LEG by Ian Kelly


I was interested in reading Ian Kelly's award-winning biography of the Georgian stage actor and celebrity Samuel Foote after seeing Kelly's play of the same name which starred the dazzling Simon Russell Beale.

Kelly tells the stranger-than-fiction life story well although I found the first section dealing with Foote's first burst of fame - as a true-crime writer when an uncle murdered his older brother - quite lumpy.

However Kelly excels when Foote decides on a stage career, effortlessy conjuring up the exciting, tinderbox atmosphere of being a stage performer in 18th Century London.  Kelly draws the needling friendship between Foote and David Garrick very well and handles well the wide-ranging supporting cast of nobles, artists, scientists and doctors as well as servants, lawyers, murderers and prostitutes.

Kelly navigates the quickening rapids of Foote's downfall particularly well - a celebrity seemingly destroyed by his own fame.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

INTO THE WOODS at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Into the prop cupboard?

INTO THE WOODS is not only one of my favourite Sondheim shows but holds the distinction of being the first musical I saw on Broadway in 1988.  So what treats would my sixth production hold for me at the Menier?


Actually this is not a Menier production at all, it's an import from off-Broadway where the Fiasco Theater Company opened it in 2014.  It's USP is that the show is presented by a cast of ten plus a pianist in a production that brings a new high (or low) in minimalism: a bare stage is augmented by broken innards of pianos, 2 rows of vertical ropes at the back to suggest a wood, a table, a piano... and that's it.

The costumes seem vaguely Edwardian in varying degrees of cream - or maybe just dirty white - and various props are utilized to tell James Lapine's tale of what happens to various fairy tale characters on the other side of "Happily Ever After".


Ultimately I did enjoy the show - it's INTO THE WOODS after all - but time and again I bumped up against the 'poor' theatre techniques.  It took a long time for me to relax into the show, the minimalist approach just seemed to be a gimmick, I couldn't see why it was done but to draw attention to itself.  It certainly didn't seem to grow organically out of the work.  I think I have come to the end of my patience with 'reimagined' INTO THE WOODS productions.  I want the full nine yards next time... big frocks, picture book sets, magic effects, the full deal.

This production did without a narrator, the linking dialogue delivered by other cast members.  The recent film did this too - no doubt saying that it was too much of a theatrical device - but I think the show is the poorer for the character's exclusion, especially in the second act when the characters turn on him and sacrifice him to the Giant's Wife to appease her; the characters are really on their own then after that without the one person who knows how their stories end.


The US cast were all very energetic and could obviously turn their hand to anything but not all made a real mark.  Since the show opened three lead roles have been recast with UK actors and I was very happy that Harry Hepple is The Baker.  He gave a quietly lovely performance, he first caught my eye five years ago at the Menier as PIPPIN so it was nice to see him on that stage again. 

Another UK addition was Laura Tebbutt as The Baker's Wife and she also gave a fine performance and sang the character's 'big' song "Moments In The Woods" very well.  The character's demise after this is one of the plot's great moments.


Of the American performers I liked the tart Little Red Riding Hood of Emily Young but she overplayed the secondary character of Rapunzel, Vanessa Reseland was better as the sexy Witch rather than the ugly Witch, Patrick Mulryan was effective as Jack and Claire Karpen was excellent as Cinderella, it's a role that can get almost fade away in some productions but here she was a warmly sympathetic presence.

As I said, it took a long time to focus on the piece rather than the at-times childish trappings but by the second act the plot's more stripped-down action naturally made co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld drop the cutesy shenanigans and let the story work... needless to say by the end I had a tear in my eye as Sondheim's emotional score paid off.


Now, someone, a full-on production with an orchestra please?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE BOLSHOI BALLET AT COVENT GARDEN - No Drug Testing Needed Here

Grace disguising hard-drilled athletic training, a group of fit Russian men and women arriving en masse with their extended team, bowing amid cheers... who needs the Olympics when the Bolshoi Ballet are playing a London Season at Covent Garden?


The Bolshoi... a name that conjures up visions of tutued ballerinas, languid and moving in perfect unison, rehearsed elegance, steely determination beneath layers of tulle, astonishing leaps of daring do by Nijinskyesque male dancers, the height of classical ballet.  Well that was there certainly but there was also some less-expected feelings too...

The Bolshoi (meaning 'big' in Russian) Ballet is still in the shadow of the bizarre events covered so well in the 2015 documentary BOLSHOI BABYLON.  In 2013 the Artistic Director Sergei Filin was near-blinded in an acid-throwing attack outside his home, the culprit being revealed as dancer Pavel Dimitrichenko who said he initiated the attack - but had no knowledge that acid would be used - as he was unhappy that Filin had not chosen his ballerina girlfriend for the lead in SWAN LAKE; Dimitrichenko was subsequently jailed for 12 years.  Filin returned to work but a simmering row with the new General Director Vladimir Urin led to his five-year contract not being renewed.  Urin suggested that the new Artistic Director Makhar Vaziev's role would be largely technical and he would have limited freedom in artistic policy, a charge that Vaziev denies.  Welcome to London guys...


But what of the actual work, was it truly the greatest?  Well it turned into a case of diminishing returns.  The first production was DON QUIXOTE, based on the Cervantes novel, and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the master of the classic ballet, in 1869 to a score by Ludwig Minkus.  This new version had incorporated work by other choreographers by Alexei Fadeyechev.

I had never seen the ballet before but was immediately engaged with the ensemble work, the sets and colourful costumes and the wonderful Principal ballerina Maria Alexandrova who lit up the stage as the fiery yet playful Kitri - her fouettes were dizzying as she spun her way towards the edge of the stage.  She was well partnered by Vladislav Lantratov as her lover Basil - how Spanish is that name?  Needless to say Don Quixote and Sanco Panza hardly got a look-in, mere supporting players in their own story!  Maria Zharkova, Kristina Karasyova, Yulia Stepanova and Daria Khoklova also delighted with sparky solos.



Next up was the big kahuna, SWAN LAKE.  Such a bolshoi event that we had dinner in the Opera House restaurant - which was excellent by the way - with mates Sharon and Eamonn.  Yes I had seen the Matthew Bourne version four times - and blubbed every time - but this was my first ever classical SWAN.

Again what cannot be denied was the excellence of the corps de ballet and the astonishing stage presence and technical mastery of Olga Smirnova as Odette / Odile.  I also liked the solos danced by Viktoria Yakusheva as the Russian Bride and Daria Bochkova as the Spanish Bride.  The court fool also stole every scene he was in so well done Vyacheslav Lopatin!  But... where was the emotion?  By the end of the evening I assumed I would be awash with the grand tragedy... but no, nothing.  Yes Tchaikovsky's score sounded wonderful played by the Bolshoi orchestra and while choreographer Yuri Grigorovich also adapted the libretto to change various elements of the story - and the lighting and costumes were exquisite - the production felt fairly pedestrian at times and, it has to be said, the set was quite drab.  Lantratov again starred as the Prince but here he seemed a bit anonymous.  I was thrilled to see it of course - it's the Bolshoi after all! - but left suppressing a slight feeling of disappointment.



Next was the only 20th Century Bolshoi production we saw, FLAMES OF PARIS. A bit of a curiosity this, it was premiered in 1932 with a score by Boris Asafyev.  Drawing obvious parallels with the October Revolution, the synopsis of the ballet was fairly simplistic - brother and sister join the French uprising, the sister Jeanne finding love with a dashing Marseillais Philippe while brother Jerome is followed into the melee by Adeline, the conflicted daughter of nasty Marquise Costa de Beauregard who had previously imprisoned Jerome until freed by her. Again the technical skill of the dancers could not be faulted - Alexandrova and Lantratov again were captivating as Jeanne and Philippe, while Yulia Stepanova was excellent as the actress Mireille - but it was the latter's scenes that made me realize what classical ballet actually was all about!

Ballet seems to be about what usually happens in stage directions; take the first act of FLAMES: the first scene set up Jeanne and Jerome joining the revolution but Jerome falls foul of the nasty Marquise who imprisons him, the second scene is Adeline releasing Jerome as she secretly loves him, but the third scene is maddeningly long, set in Versailles where the Court watch a ballet starring actress Mireille.  No doubt in a film or play it would say "the royal court watch a ballet" but move on to something that furthers the plot but here, no.  Thirty minutes were taken up with watching Stepanova and Artem Ovcharenko have solos and duets, broken up by dances from the ensemble within the play.  Whatever happened to our brother and sister??  The scene ended with a bizarre routine with King Louis XVI doing a weird party dance before the company all froze in terror at the sound of a distant crowd singing "Les Marseilles".  Actually that final moment *was* very effective as was the final moment when the mob advanced on the audience disregarding the grieving Jerome, but for most of the time, the ensemble numbers seemed more suited to the Irving Davies Dancers on the stage of the London Palladium in the 1970s.



Our last production was LE CORSAIRE which we had seen previously danced by English National Ballet; that production we felt was ultimately a bit ho-hum... sadly so was this one.  Again - and you might have heard all this before - there were some fine work from Anna Nikulina as the indefatigable heroine Medora, Nina Kaptsova as a spunky slave girl and Artem Ovcharenko as the slave and the Jardin Anime scene was impossibly grand with flowering bowers and limpid ballerinas en masse.

But as with all the productions, at no time were my emotions or tear ducts engaged; they were as involving as a firework display seen from miles away.  There were also some dodgy spotting of spins and if I am honest, it all seemed a bit tired.  But again it's a storyline made up of minutes of plot and hours of incidental routines.  It's like seeing a musical where all the numbers are performed by the third supporting cast members.  Not even the *dramatic* shipwreck in the last moments could rouse much interest due to the murky lighting which gave you no idea what was happening and to whom.


A final point: It's an obviously a Bolshoi thing but it really is distracting for principal and soloist dancers to step out of the action and take a bow at the end of *every* solo or pas de deux.  It just makes a fairly uninvolving production even more of so.  At times it was like going to see HAMLET and for the lead actor to take a bow after every famous speech.

I am happy to have seen this legendary company and saw some wonderful dancing - but give me the Royal Ballet anytime.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

More postcards from exhibitions and galleries...

1) UNVEILING COOKHAM WAR MEMORIAL (1922) - Stanley Spencer


I cannot remember if I bought this at the Dulwich Picture Gallery at their CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE exhibition or at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in his home town of Cookham.  That was quite a special visit as on the way there we visited the Memorial that is portrayed in his painting.

It was a bit quieter than the scene Spencer painted - his figures are squashed around the towering war memorial just after it has been unveiled with a billowing Union Jack being pushed out of the picture frame.  At the other side, young men lounge on the grass, almost deliberately ignoring the throng around the memorial, the people standing beside them look like they are in their best clothes and also seem to be ignoring the hubbub.  However Stanley draws our attention to the white-clad schoolgirls who are laying flowers at the base, doing their best to ignore the misbehaving schoolboys standing behind them although one of them is turning around to acknowledge them.  Oh and the bank of trees are in the distance?  That is now obscured by a large pub where we had our lunch!

2) LE DOCTEUR PAUL GACHET (1828-1909) (1890) - Vincent Van Gogh


This was bought at marvellous Musée D'Orsay in Paris.  Dr. Gachet not only knew a number of artists but was also an avid collector of their work.  Gachet's house was painted in a landscape by Cézanne and he numbered among his friends and clients Victor Hugo, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissaro, Auguste Renoir and Eduard Manet.

Van Gogh's vibrant but turbulent painting of his doctor was one of his last paintings, completed only a month before his suicide.  The painter thought little of his doctor and Gachet's weary expression probably reflects his relationship with his troubled patient.

3) THE ARRIVAL (1913) - CRW Nevinson


Although this is a Tate postcard I suspect I bought it at the CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which celebrated the pre-world war class at the Slade School which included Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Christopher Nevinson.  It was an unhappy time for him; he fell in love with Carrington at the same time as his friend Gertler but she favoured the latter which ended his relationship with his friend, and he left with a lifelong grudge against his professor Henry Tonks who had advised him to give up painting.

In Paris just before WWI he met the Futurist painter Marinetti and immediately allied himself with the movement as well as it's UK spokesman Wyndham Lewis.  Their constant sniping at Bloomsbury and the British art world no doubt had been provoked by Nevinson's Slade experiences.  However, as is the nature of movements, their relationship foundered when Nevinson and Marinetti published a UK Futurist manifesto without consulting Lewis who in spite set up the Vorticist movement from which Nevinson was barred!  THE ARRIVAL however is a fascinating mixture of Cubist themes - the fractured planes of view, the numbers and lettering - but also the dynamic Futurist subject of the large ship looming into harbour and the streaming steam from the two tugboats in the foreground.

4) ANNE OF CLEVES (1540) - Hans Holbein the Younger


I bought this at a Holbein exhibition at Tate Britain in 2006.  All art misleads but sometimes it misleads famously.  Anxious to be married again, Henry VIII was urged by Thomas Cromwell, his feared advisor, to consider the German Anne of Cleves as a good prospect as her father was a staunch Protestant and could be an ally against the Pope.  Along with written accounts of her provided by Cromwell, court painter Hans Holbein was sent to paint several portraits of her.  Henry liked what he saw so it was full steam ahead.  On New Year's Eve 1539 the couple finally met - and the steam disappeared.

It turns out Holbein's full-on face portrait disguised her rather protruding nose as well as her pitted skin.  Holbein was not on the end of Henry's anger but Cromwell was.  The marriage was annulled as quickly as possible.  However Anne proved herself so amenable to the agreement that she had property and gifts lavished on her and was granted status as Henry's "beloved sister".  All of which left him free to marry Anne's previous lady-in-waiting Catherine Howard - on the same day that Cromwell was executed, a fate that Catherine suffered only 19 months later.  Anne's obvious common sense and pragmatism shines out from her infamous portrait.

5) MARIE ANTOINETTE A LA ROSE (1783) - Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun


Another court-approved painter, another Queen, I bought this at the marvellous Vigée LeBrun exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris last year.  Marie Antoinette, unhappy with the portraits that had been painted of her, turned in 1778 to the popular society painter Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun to paint her portrait for her mother Empress Marie Theresa.  Both women were only 23 years old and developed a friendly working relationship; Vigée Le Brun was soon the unofficial court painter to the Queen and her family.  Skilled at downplaying any obvious failings in her sisters, Vigée Le Brun's portraits also glow with a warm-hearted humanity

In 1783, with the Queen's help, the painter was accepted into the Académie Royale and exhibited in the Salon for the first time.  It was, of course, a portrait of Marie Antoinette but it caused uproar as Vigée Le Brun had painted the Queen in a white muslin dress, holding a rose and wearing a plumed summer hat and no jewellery, a style the Queen favoured when at her own palace La Petit Trianon at Versailles.  The horrified opinion was that this was *not* how a Queen of France should be presented so it was quickly withdrawn and Vigée Le Brun painted a replacement with the Queen still holding a rose but more 'appropriately' attired in grey silk, lace and ribbons, pearls, a gold necklace, rouged and wearing a powdered wig with plumes.  Ironic isn't it that one of the charges against Marie Antoinette was that she too extravagant?  Vigée Le Brun's changing the setting from an indoor to an outdoor one also gives the portrait a more classical Romantic feel.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Dvd/150: DET REGNAR PA VAR KARLEK (It Rains On Our Love) (Ingmar Bergman, 1946)

Ingmar Bergman's second film was the gentle 1946 comedy/drama DET REGNAR PA VAR KARLEK (IT RAINS ON OUR LOVE) starring Birger Malmsten and Barbro Kollberg.


A narrator observes David and Maggi who meet at the train station when she misses the last train.  David offers to share a room and they wake up in love.  Caught in a rainstorm in the countryside, David reluctantly breaks into an empty cottage.  They are discovered by Hakansson, the owner, who offers to rent it to them.


Secrets are revealed - David was in prison for burglary, Maggi is pregnant from a one-night stand - and although David gets employment, the couple are confronted with small-minded people who thwart their attempts at happiness.


Hakansson sells the land the cottage is on; when David hits an eviction official the couple go to court where their lifestyle is on trial but then the narrator intervenes...


Shelf or charity shop?  Delightful performances make this a keeper - it's part of a box-set of early Bergman classics anyway!


Sunday, August 07, 2016

THE SEAGULL at the Olivier, National Theatre - David Hare meets Chekhov...

Can it really be 19 years since I saw one of my favourite plays?

Yep Constant Reader, it looks like I last saw Chekhov's THE SEAGULL in 1997 at the Donmar in a production by the English Touring Theatre. That is far too long bearing in mind the regularity I see other plays so the news that the acclaimed Young Chekhov season was transferring from Chichester to the National Theatre had me leaping to see it.  Would it be worth the leap however?


It didn't start well when one of my favourite lines - the downbeat Masha is asked why she always wears black and replies "I am in mourning for my life" - does not appear in David Hare's adaptation so I was thrown by that.  However Tom Pye's set design diverted me from my opening shock, a flooded Olivier stage brings the lake where Konstantin and Nina stage their avant-garde play right into the middle of the action although the walls of the country estate's rooms seemed to be causing trouble when we took our seats for the second half - always interesting to see a phalanx of stage techies and the sound of banging and drilling coming from behind a wall!

It's not often I say this but I think the Olivier was the wrong stage for the production - everyone seemed to have do an awful lot of travelling to get into position.  Once it is established that Olivia VinalI's Nina lives on the other side of the lake, her every appearance was made splashing noisily through the water.  She'll have trenchfoot by the end of the run. I think the more traditional Lyttelton would have been better fit. 


Although Hare's version is a bit colourless I still found much to enjoy in Chekhov's tale of wasted lives and lost opportunities for happiness.  I guess I was spoilt by my first exposure to the play: I saw a benefit performance for the Socialist Worker-funded Youth Training Centres in 1982 which starred Vanessa Redgrave and Ian Charleson in various readings and scenes, one of which was the final heartrending confrontation between Konstantin and Nina, both their lives shattered by others.

Vanessa was revisiting Nina - a role she had played onstage at the Queens Theatre in 1964 co-starring Peggy Ashcroft and Peter Finch as well as in Sidney Lumet's 1968 film version - and in 1985 I saw her again revisit THE SEAGULL at the Queens Theatre, only this time playing Arkadina opposite her daughter Natasha Richardson as Nina and Jonathan Pryce as Trigorin.


Jonathan Kent's direction had his usual clarity and unfussy dramatic through-line although I would have liked to have seen some more vivacity in the playing, the performers all seemed to play the ensemble card when there are roles in the play that come alive with some (controlled) barnstorming.  Mark Henderson's lighting is as excellent as ever.

Anna Chancellor was a commanding Madame Arkadina, almost unknowingly wanting to be the centre of attention at all times; her boredom at Konstantin's attempt at play writing all too palpable.  She came into her own with the morning-of-departure scene where Arkadina has to go from solicitation to anger to desperation to comedy: she starts being motherly to Konstantin as she changes the bandage of his 'accidental' head wound but they argue after he accuses her of financial and artistic greed, she then goes on the attack with Trigorin pleading for him to remain her lover when she realizes he wants an affair with Nina, then - secure in his agreement to stay with her - she resorts to type in making sure the servants are aware that the ruble she gave one of them is to be shared among them all.


The always dependable Geoffrey Streatfeild was a fine Trigorin, particularly in the scene where he tries to explain to the adoring Nina how it really feels to be a writer who probably will never be the top rank but whose life is still ruled by the need to write, it's a scene where you can really discern the hand of David Hare.

On the whole I liked the sulky petulance of Joshua James' Konstantin but Olivia Vinall was too over-the-top as Nina which left her nowhere to go at the end when Nina reappears as a broken-spirited regional actress, still mentally-scarred from the death of her child with Trigorin.  Peter Egan was surprisingly effective as Arkadina's  brother Sorin, forever bemoaning his life in the provincial backwaters.


The supporting cast were all okay but as I said earlier, none were particularly memorable which was slightly surprising as characters like Masha, Medvedenko and Doctor Dorn give you ample opportunities to shine.

Would I recommend it?  Yes I would but as I said, it could do with a bit less ensemble-performing and more actors taking advantage of the opportunities that Chekhov has given them.





Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dvd/150: SHOW BOAT (James Whale, 1936)

The year after James Whale directed BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN he made something totally different but equally memorable, his adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 landmark musical SHOW BOAT.


The musical, based on Edna Ferber's novel, was the first to mesh a plot and fully integrated score and had already been filmed in 1929 with a couple of sound scenes and music from the show included in it's prologue.


Whale cast several actors who had appeared in stage versions of the show: Irene Dunne as Magnolia, Helen Morgan as Julie, Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy, Sammy White as Frank Schultz and the mighty Paul Robeson as Joe.


Also cast were Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Helen Westley as Parthy.  They all give sparkling, memorable performances - a particular joy is to see Robeson and McDaniel effortlessly stealing the film with their larger-than-life personas. 


Shelf or charity shop?  My friend John went to such efforts to get me this Spanish dvd I have to keep it (I would anyways...)