At the start of the year, Owen set down a challenge that maybe we should see things this year which we might not ordinarily see. ALL THE ANGELS seemed to fit that brief: a 3-hander about Handel's writing of his Messiah oratorio with extracts sung by a professional choir. I honestly had no idea what I would experience when entering the toy theatre-like interior.
Sadly what I experienced was the audience sitting directly opposite me and the top of the actors' wigs whenever they moved to the prompt side of the stage. The only tickets Owen could nab were in the second row at the side looking down onto the stage so if you are ever planning a trip to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse do not sit in the Upper Gallery, Row DB. Yes the tickets were marked as Restricted View, but this was taking the piss! If you do have these seats, best resign yourself to treating it like listening to a radio play. However we did have an excellent view across onto the musician's gallery for the musicians and the occasional appearance of the choir.
However, this did not deter Owen from coming out of the Playhouse all a-buzz so when I got home, I decided to check the website for the following day's performance which also happened to be the last. Astonishingly there were 2 seats in the main section facing directly onto the stage! Whoever returned those tickets, thank you, as these ones allowed me to fully enjoy Nick Drake's new play. So I shall base my review on this performance where I could see all the actors (all 3 of them) all of the time!
An Irish chancer nicknamed Crazy Crow, sets the scene by placing props around the stage and telling us that we were about to see how the composer Handel premiered his Messiah oratorio in a concert hall in Dublin. During his research, Drake found an illustration of a musicians' porter called Crazy Crow - bedecked with musical instruments - and all he could find out about him was that he doubled as a 'resurrectionist' aka grave-robber. It is through this intriguing character that Drake can find a way in to the real-life backstage drama by having him as our narrator.
Proving that life is like fiction (and that art is like life) Handel's travails sound like any number of putting-on-a-show stories. In 1742, German-born composer George Handel, already a UK Citizen for 15 years and with an income from royal patronage, found himself at an artistic impasse. His operas were no longer popular and although he could compose in a variety of styles, he was out of favour.
However the reclusive writer Charles Jennens remained a devoted admirer of his work and continued to send him librettos for free. One of these was Messiah, his melding of Old and New Testament texts which he hoped would invigorate belief in religion, now being assailed by rationalist debate. To his frustration Handel let 18 months go by before he did anything with it, only dusting it off when an invitation to perform a new work in Dublin arrived to lift him out of his artistic slump.
He wrote the music for Messiah in three weeks and, stuck in Chester due to bad weather while travelling to Ireland, he rehearsed it above an inn with a local church choir who sadly did not come up to the maestro's exacting standards. Any worries about his reception in Dublin however were forgotten when he was warmly received by William Cavendish, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire who was the King's envoy.
Handel decided he needed a second soprano to complement the Italian diva he had hired and, as fortune would have it, a solution presented itself by the presence in Dublin of the English actress and singer Susannah Cibber.
Again, in a scenario straight out backstage stories, Cibber had come to Dublin to try and revive her career damaged by a recent sex-scandal trial. Her dissolute husband had attempted to pimp her to his creditors to pay his debts but she had fallen in love with one of them and they set up house together. Her husband then sued them but the judge had found against him but Susannah's reputation was in tatters. So she accepted an acting season in Dublin which is where Handel hired her for his premiere - what a perfect case of stunt casting - the sex scandal actress singing in a pious oratorio.
Handel rehearsed her continually to get her to lose her stagey mannerisms and diction and to sing his arias with a pure power. He also relentlessly rehearsed his chorus, trying to get them to appreciate that while they were 'merely' a chorus they were also the narrators of the piece, that they were the voices of "all the angels". Of course it was a huge success, re-establishing both Handel and Susannah Cibber to popularity and it has continued to be sung down the years.
Drake's play was involving and fast-moving through the various set-backs and successes of the premiere and at one point seemed to channel Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS when Crazy Crow described the physical sensation of hearing the Messiah for the first time, how profoundly he was moved but also how it angered him: that he should experience this beauty but then have to go back to a life of deprivation and squalor. The play was made better by the moments when The Portrait Choir (the resident choir of the National Portrait Gallery) sang parts of the Messiah to illustrate and counter-point the action.
Surrounded by the glow of many candles, the black and gold Playhouse stage glittered like a Restoration jewel-box. The Playhouse stage with it's close proximity to the steeply-banked audience calls for a bravura style of performance as there is nowhere to hide and we certainly got that for the cast of three actors.
David Horovitch excelled as the gruff and demanding Handel and elicited plenty of laughs while also maintaining his Hanoverian accent with skill, his unrelenting pursuit of perfection slowly being explained by a recent brush with death. Kelly Price held her own against him as Susannah Cibber, capturing well Susannah's anxiety of being upstaged by her opera singer rival while fighting her fear of performing without her usual actressy tricks.
Sean Campion was excellent in the supporting roles of the reclusive librettist Charles Jennens (even in the 18th Century the writer felt that the composer got all the glory), the effusive and urbane William Cavendish, and in particular, as narrator Crazy Crow, capturing your attention from the start with his crashing up through the stage trapdoor and drawing us into the story with his mocking view of the precious artists who have none of his struggles to survive.
Jonathan Munby follows up his recent success directing Jonathan Pryce in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Pryce was in attendance on our second visit to the show) with a delightful production that balanced the profundity of the composition with the hilarity of trying to stage a show and it also benefited from Mike Britton's costume design.
It's a shame that the production didn't have more performances in it's run but hopefully it might return at some point and it certainly deserves to be filmed for a wider audience to enjoy the play and performances.