Wednesday, March 30, 2016

GISELLE at Covent Garden - dead on point...

Constant Reader, as you know I have been seeing quite a few ballets at Covent Garden since last year but I had dipped my toe-shoe into ballet before.  That it didn't 'take' as it did last year is odd however I think seeing so many productions choreographed by Matthew Bourne possibly left me more open to accepting more traditional dance.

One of my rare outings before was to see Sylvie Guillem dance GISELLE at Covent Garden in 2001 so how odd to be seeing it again in the same venue, only now with more understanding of the art.

There was no star ballerina this time but as we saw the 571st performance of Peter Wright's production I guess this was the production I saw Guillem dance in.

GISELLE was an immediate success when it was first staged in 1841 and has been constantly staged ever since.  First choreographed by Jean Corrali and Jules Perrot, the choreography seen today is largely based on the work of Marius Petipa - as it seems most of the classical repertoire is - who staged it for the Russian Imperial Ballet at the end of the 19th Century.

Giselle is a country girl in love with a man who is actually Count Albrecht in disguise, he ventures into the countryside to escape his life of privilege and also his fiancee Countess Bathilde.  A jealous woodsman Hilarion discovers the Count's identity and when Albrecht's father, the Duke, and the Countess appear in the village during a hunting trip, he unmasks the pretense.  Seeing Albrecht and the Countess together sends Giselle into a mad frenzy and she stabs herself, dying in her mother's arms. And that's just Act I!

In Act II the grieving Albrecht and Hilarion separately visit Giselle's woodland grave but her spirit has been claimed by the Wilis - stop sniggering at the back - who are the unquiet spirits of maidens who have died due to being jilted before their wedding day.  The Wilis, led by their imperious Queen Myrtha, find Hilarion and drive him to suicide by drowning him in a lake but Giselle finds love transcends death and fights her ghostly sisters over Albrecht.

Peter Wright's production - here staged by Christopher Carr - has been running off and on since 1985 and one can see why as it was a visually stunning production with excellent choreography and, in particular, a fine showcase for the female corps with their appearance as the ghostly Wilis in the second act - a real endurance test that our ladies triumphed at.

All the performers gave good performances: Elizabeth McGorian as Giselle's mother Berthe, Christina Arestis as the regally cold Bathilde and Eric Underwood as the quicksilver master of the Duke's hunt were all eye-catching.

Marianela Nunez was a spirited - no pun intended - Giselle, full of youthful life alive and with a luminous stillness in death while Albrecht was well danced by Vadim Muntagirov.  I also liked the icy and deadly Queen Myrtha as danced by Itziar Mendizabel whose sideways entrances and exits were all stupendous, hovering on point quickly with little discernible movement!

John Macfarlane's set design was very good especially the second act's ghostly forest which seemed to go on forever and Adolphe Adam's score sounded marvellously lush under the baton of Barry Wordsworth.  The production will be screened on 6th April in cinemas and, believe me, you could do a lot worse than see this at your local fleapit.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dvd/150: Les DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (Robert Bresson, 1945)

A French woman sets out to ruin an ex-lover - no, it's not LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (although at times it suggests it) but auteur Robert Bresson's last film to use professional actors.

Hélene tests her lover Jean when warned by a friend that he is false: she tells him her love has gone cold but is devastated when he confirms that his has too and suggests - yawn - they be friends instead.  Hélene immediately plots revenge...

Hélene seeks out a slight acquaintance whose dancer daughter Agnes has been reduced to prostitution.  She sets them up in new surroundings then arranges for them to 'accidently' bump into her and Jean, setting in motion her plan for Jean to fall in love and marry Agnes, only to become a laughing stock when her past is revealed.

Bresson's unemotional handling of Jean Cocteau's script cannot diffuse the arctic intensity of Maria Casares' icy Hélene.

Shelf or charity shop?  Happy to have seen it but can let this one go...

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Dvd/150: LIBELED LADY (Jack Conway, 1936)

An example of the seamless Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, LIBELED LADY features the frequently-paired sophistication of William Powell and Myrna Loy and the more blue collar style of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.

The situation-heavy comedy starts when newspaper editor Spencer Tracy leaves his long-suffering fiancee Jean Harlow at the altar when he learns his paper has falsely accused socialite Myrna Loy of being a homewrecker.  When she sues them for $5 million, Tracy concocts a plot with a former reporter William Powell.

If Powell marries Harlow, he can then meet and romance Loy before being 'discovered' by Harlow proving Loy is a homewrecker after all.  But the best-laid plans of mice and newspaper men...

It is a sad irony that Harlow and Powell were actually off-screen lovers but his reluctance to marry was still an issue when she suddenly died the following year.

Shelf or charity shop?  As it's on the same disc as DINNER AT EIGHT it's a keeper...

Monday, March 21, 2016

Dvd/150: DINNER AT EIGHT (George Cukor, 1933)

Made the year after MGM's similarly all-star GRAND HOTEL but far more enjoyable!

Based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's play, George Cukor's deft direction melds the different styles of the cast into a seamless treasure.

Ailing Lionel Barrymore secretly faces financial ruin but his snobbish wife Billie Burke insists on hosting a dinner for a British lord. Barrymore's former amour, actress Marie Dressler needs to sell her stock in his company and competitor Wallace Beery is eager to buy them to shut the business down.  However his scheming wife Jean Harlow is determined he won't ruin her chance of entering society.

Burke invites drunken actor John Barrymore - art imitating life - unaware that her daughter is his lover.  But when his agent Lee Tracy makes him face reality, everything changes for the worse.

Stars and supporting cast deliver 100% but Harlow is iridescent in her satin and fur.

Shelf or charity shop? Whoever heard of a society dinner in a charity shop??

Sunday, March 20, 2016

AKHNATEN at English National Opera - Egyptian Glass Work...

29 years ago, Andrew - in another attempt to introduce me to opera - got me a standing ticket for Philip Glass' AKHNATEN which was receiving it's UK debut at the Coliseum by the English National Opera.  He had praised it to the skies and, well, there was nothing on the telly... and it *was* a free ticket!  I had no idea what I was going to see as the lights went down...

About three hours later I literally staggered out of the Coliseum with my mind spun-round by Glass' swirling, repetitive, hypnotic score which has looped and re-looped in my mind down the years.  This hit it's apogee when, visiting the Temple at Karnak in the 2000s, we found we were practically the only ones in the awesome Hypostyle Hall during the intense mid-day sun.  I parked myself at the foot of one of the massive pillars in the shade and, while Owen wandered about taking photos, I sat quite happily listening to the AKHNATEN finale on my mini-disc.  To this day I am sure I saw shadows dancing....

And now, 29 years after that premiere, English National Opera have staged a new production, well I had to go didn't I?

Sadly whereas the first production directed by Keith Warner did everything it could to frame the music, Phelim McDermott's production does all it can to stand in it's way.

Tom Pye's design was an immediate cause for concern - I could see he was probably going for the tiered design of a wall of hieroglyphics but sadly more often that not it looked like the rebel Pharaoh's story was being acted out on the scaffolding of a building site.  The palace which featured on the stage level did not so much suggest the palace of a King as a pop-up Hoxton bar with it's clear corrugated walls and strip-lighting.

Only once did we get a break from this set-up which was when the set split in two for Akhnaten's Hymn to his beloved Sun or Aten.  Sadly this reminded me more of a mash-up of WEST SIDE STORY's tenements splitting aside for the "Somewhere" dream ballet and revisiting Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at Tate Modern - maybe they should have asked Eliasson to do it? !  I did like Bruno Poet's lighting however.

Again and again, one was distracted by the LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME design choices: the daughters of Nefertiti and Akhnaten resembled a Divine tribute act while, as Andrew has suggested, it was intriguing that the inspiration for Nefertiti's look was Marge Simpson.  Oh and Queen Tye, Akhnaten's supportive mother, was modeled on Queen Mary.  Go fuckin' figure..  Akhnaten death is still shrouded in mystery but I - no Egyptian scholar admittedly - don't believe he met his death in a volumous plastic tarpaulin.  I am happy to be pursuaded otherwise...

McDermott's biggest artistic choice was to include his company Improbable in the production... this meant that every scene involved most of the company juggling.  McDermott is happy to show in the programme an Egyptian tomb painting of a troupe of girls juggling to justify this but again it distratcted attention from the score as you waited in each act for the juggling to begin.  Don't get me wrong, sometimes it made for interesting viewing but if it went on for too long it just felt like being in the audience for BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT.  I have to report getting an attack of the church giggles when the acrobats came running out with large beach ball-type sphericals... I was so hoping they would break into "Sur Le Plage" from THE BOYFRIEND.

Not so much Improbable as Inevitable.

The lead performances were by Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the Pharoah who attempted to jolt Ancient Egypt into having a monotheistic religion and failed disasterously, Emma Carrington as Queen Nefertiti, Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye and Zachary James as the narrator Scribe but to be honest, their performances seemed to take second place to being careful not to be whonged over the head by a flying candlestick or ball.

Luckily the evening was saved by the ENO chorus who sounded quite wonderful - and well done on the resolution of their pay dispute - and the orchestra under the baton of Karen Kamensek who made Philip Glass' monumental score the real star of the show.  Hypnotic threads of repetitive music swirled around the auditorium and swept me away again to a different headspace.

Despite the clunking production I am glad to have experienced AKHNATEN again - now where the HELL has my cd of it gone?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

ESCAPED ALONE at Royal Court - Churchill's women...

Is it really 20 years since I sat in the famous Royal Court auditorium?  You know Constant Reader, I think it is.  Why the extraordinary space of time?  I usually find that Royal Court shows that I might want to see have no tickets available having all sold previously on the mailing list, plays that don't interest me, any number of things...

But I was intrigued about their latest production, a new play by veteran playwright Caryl Churchill, mainly because it had a cast of four cracking actresses which whetted my appetite to see them all onstage together.

Caryl Churchill doesn't do easy and after last year's disastrous National Theatre production of LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE it was remarkable that I wanted to expose myself to her again - as t'were.  But as I said, the opportunity to see Linda Bassett, Kika Markham, Deborah Findlay and June Watson onstage together was something I could not pass up... and oddly enough there were seats available.

A sunny afternoon, one of several.  Mrs Jarrett stands outside a garden gate and is invited in by Sally and her two friends who are chatting on their chairs, probably after a lunch.  Mrs Jarrett joins them in their aimless chatter about nephews and grandchildren, about the shops on the high street, about life in the summer, about nothing in particular as they start and finish each other's sentences.

But the odd occasional word seemingly triggers off fears or unsettled thoughts in each of the women: the seemingly-together Sally has a phobia of cats getting into her home, the thoughtful Lena reveals a crippling depression that leaves her trapped in her house sometimes, and outwardly-practical ex-hairdresser Vi reveals how life changed since being imprisoned for stabbing her husband.

But it's the seemingly benign Mrs Jarrett who seethes with an inward terrible rage which she repeats like a mantra to herself and - in startling abrupt changes of scene - seemingly steps out of the normal world of Sally's garden into a black neon-bordered hinterland where she calmly tells us of the dystopian nightmare of a man-made apocalypse which is where Churchill gives vent to so many obvious peeves: villages are crushed deliberately under rocks where survivors live on rats until drowned by rainfall, floods devastate the land, 80% of all food is given to TV companies for cookery programmes and those dying of starvation are given smart phones to look at rice.

These short, intense monologues are both funny and haunting as Churchill goes into microscopic detail about the horror the world will inflict on itself... but for now Mrs Jarrett, Sally, Vi and Lena can happily sit and sing "Da Doo Ron Ron" together.

At only 50 minutes there is no chance of Churchill's play outstaying it's welcome and although I will admit to some trepidation when the lights went down, by the end I found I had enjoyed the play and the production much more than I thought I would.  James Macdonald's production was tight as a drum although some of the actresses were better at seamlessly topping and tailing the constantly flowing chat between the characters.  Miriam Buether's set and Peter Mumford's also set the scene well enough to be shocked by the sudden wrench into limbo.

Be that as it may, what a joy to see such accomplished actresses all on the one stage in a new challenging play.  Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson all usually play supporting roles so it was a particular pleasure to see them all having a chance to support each other.  I probably didn't understand all that Churchill was actually saying but I enjoyed what I saw and heard while certain phrases and moments have stayed with me, which is what it's all about.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dvd/150: A PICTURE OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD (Alan Cooke. 1973, tv)

An oddity: a 1973 BBC series that combines the life of writer Katherine Mansfield with two dramatizations of her short stories per episode.

The studio-set Mansfield scenes jar with the (mostly) filmed short story segments which all have insistant music and some over-wrought performances.

The main interest is a rare 70s tv role for Vanessa Redgrave who is luminously vibrant as Katherine - one longs to see more of her than the clunky short dramas.  A passing reference to Mansfield being from New Zealand does not warrant Redgrave attempting an accent (luckily).

Jeremy Brett struggles to make the ghastly John Middleton Murry interesting and also cast are Annette Crosbie as Katherine's adoring doormat/friend and Michael Williams as DH Lawrence.

What the series sadly dodges is Katherine's complicated relationship with Virginia Woolf: part admiration, part rivalry.  Michael Gambon and Phyllida Law are among the casts of the intrusive dramatizations.

Shelf or charity shop? Shelf if only for Vanessa's compelling performance...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The WINTER'S TALE at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In April I will be seeing the Royal Ballet's production of THE WINTER'S TALE at Covent Garden.  It's nice to know that I will not have to speed read the synopsis before it starts as I am now a bit familiar with the story having seen it twice in four months!  First Kenneth Branagh's production at the Garrick before Christmas and now the new production at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Theatre.

As usual with the Wanamaker Playhouse, it's intimate space made the play more involving and allowed for a more subtle playing style from some of the actors.  Our 2nd tier seats were facing the stage so nothing was missed apart from when they lowered the six candle chandeliers above the stage so all you could mostly see was the actors legs.

However the biggest literal pain was the bench seating... it absolutely beggars belief that this theatre that opened only two years ago was built with such uncomfortable seating,  No doubt the Playhouse would say they were keeping to the Jacobean style of theatre. But then I am sure the Jacobean back stage area did not have showers and toilets.  Think on...

So, here I was again in the court of the King of Sicilia Leontes and his wife Hermione who have both enjoyed a lengthy visit from his childhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia.  One night Leontes is overcome with an irrational jealousy and accuses Hermoine and Polixenes of adultery much to their astonishment which results in Hermione arrested and Polixenes fleeing with the courtier who Leontes sent to kill him. Despite the pleadings of Paulina on her behalf, Hermione is put on trial and is not allowed to see either her young son or the baby girl she has just given birth to. Leontes has sent word to the Oracle to judge Hermione's guilt but is angered when his messengers return with the news that the Oracle has declared his Queen is innocent.

As Leontes remonstrates against the Oracle's decision, word arrives that his young son has died and Hermione collapses with grief.  Leontes slowly realizes his jealousy was wrong and this is compounded when Paulina announces that Hermione is died.  Too late too for Antigonous, Paulina's husband, who had been told by Leontes to take his baby daughter to a far-off shore and lose her there.  Antigonus does this but is killed by a bear while carrying it out.  The baby girl is found by an old shepherd and his son who adopt her.

It all makes for a fast-paced and claustrophobic first act as Leontes irrational feelings bring disaster to his court.  Sadly the second act moves 16 years later and relocates the action to Bohemia and the lost daughter now named Perdita who has caught the eye of Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes.  No matter what production I see of this play, this is usually where I check out mentally: after the delicious sturm und drang of Leontes' festering jealousy, the bucolic hey-nonny-nonny of Perdita and Florizel's simpering allied to the extended laborious comedy of Autolycus the pickpocket stealing from the shepherds just goes on and on and on. And on.

Luckily it's Polixenes' turn to spit his royal dummy and forbids Florizel from marrying Perdita.  They high-tail it to Sicilia but are pursued by Polixenes who arrives just as they are presented to Leontes.  What follows s a scene of such staggering literary cheek that Shakespeare has the good grace to do it all offstage - Perdita's real identity is discovered, the shepherds are rewarded, and father and daughter are reunited... but Paulina still has an ace to play which gives the play it's famous denouement.

After the fussiness of Branagh's production, Michael Longhurst's production was refreshingly direct and concentrated, the Wanamaker's stage design was also the perfect setting for the reveal of Hermione's statue, its centre doors proving a natural grotto.  The candlelight was very effective as usual, especially after the death of Antigonus when the auditorium was plunged into complete darkness for a few moments before the shepherd's lanterns were seen.

After Branagh's rather showy Leontes, John Light was suitably moody and tormented which felt more of an ensemble performance as did Niamh Cusack's Paulina, suitably impassioned when she needed to be but not as barnstorming as Judi Dench or Deborah Findlay at the National Theatre in 2001.  For me the performance of the evening was Rachael Stirling's Hermione, a role usually played as a trembling twit but Stirling was marvelously resolute and strong.  Her playing of the final scene was also beautifully pitched and all the more moving for that.  Echoes of her mum Diana Rigg were very strong!

There was also good support from Dennis Herdman as the dim younger shepherd, and Steffan Donnelly & Tia Bannon as the young lovers Florizel and Perdita.  I had wondered aloud if Owen thought that there might be a jig at the end of the show and, sure enough, there was, a courtly pavane with waggly hands that added precious little to the show.  Along with the benches, the after-show dance is something the Wanamaker could possibly 86...

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

La TRAVIATA at Covent Garden - last chance opera?

Constant Reader, as you know last year was my year of doing New Cultural Things - e.g. we went to the opera and ballet!  The outright winner was the ballet productions but we decided before we put the chill on opera for good, maybe we should see one of the classics at Covent Garden so last week found us there again, clutching tickets to see Verdi's LA TRAVIATA.

One of the reasons I chose this opera was that Covent Garden were reviving Richard Eyre's production from 1994 and if there was a director I would trust with guiding me through the operatic terrain it was him. 

Again I am surprised at how productions can be kept for years in a classical company's repertoire - in the 22 years since this production debuted, there have only been 7 years when it did not appear in a season.  Two years after he directed this, Richard Eyre directed a magnificent production of Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN with Paul Schofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins.  But this production has not been revived year after year, it lives only in memory.  Strange...  So, apart from that Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?


I must admit I was slightly worried that after a stressful day at work I might just go zonk in the dark but - stop the press - I stayed awake!  Not only awake but I enjoyed it too.  Yes I still have difficulty with the old problem of two people singing their love for each other endlessly while staring out into the auditorium - but I guess countless musicals are guilty of that too.

In 1847, Marie Duplessis, a courtesan who numbered Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas fils among her lovers, died aged only 23 from TB. Within a year, Dumas had published the roman a clef LE DAME AUX CAMELIAS and, as if to atone for the misogyny of that novel, he adapted it for the stage four years later.  Giuseppe Verdi saw the play and was immediately taken with it's tale of the tart with the heart and the dashing but dull hero whose love is ruined by his father and her dodgy lungs.  A year later Verdi's LA TRAVIATA premiered - they didn't waste time back then - and despite a disastrous premiere the opera has become one of the greats of the classical stage while the play has inspired countless versions, the most famous being George Cukor's 1936 film CAMILLE with the luminous Greta Garbo as Marguerite.

Told in only four scenes, the opera's libretto alternates between large ensemble set-pieces to more intimate confrontations between the characters and is, of course, borne along on Verdi's sweeping and romantic score.  Eyre's production moves between these scenes with ease and in the two intimate ones - Violetta being forced to give up her lover by his disapproving father and the final scene as she struggles for one minute more - they were played with intense directness with no scenic distractions.  This revival has been re-directed by Rodula Gaitanou.

Bob Crowley's design ranges from the opulent to the more intimate and in the final scene - in a nod to his design for the original LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES - Violetta's shadowy and stripped-down bedroom is surrounded by slatted windows which also showcases Jean Kalman's exquisite lighting.

Violetta was played by Italian soprano Maria Agresta and she certainly gave a fine performance, the last scene was heart-rending as she briefly rallied at the sight of her estranged lover and the tragic final flutter of life before dying.  As I said, she was very good but sadly we were a few rows in front of a mega-fan who bellowed "B R A V A" repeatedly at her every curtain call.  I suspect even she would have told him to pipe the fuck down.  

I must admit to a couple of surprises: I didn't know that you actually clapped the arias as I thought you sat in dutiful silence till the curtain and - who knew they still did this - Agresta took a bow at the first interval!  It threw me completely - it's like if Imelda Staunton took a bow after singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" before the interval of GYPSY.  Suffice to say, method acting has not arrived at the opera yet.

Piero Pretti was an equally impassioned Alfredo but the character is such a twit that it is hard to sympathise with him - Robert Taylor was exactly the same in CAMILLE.  However I did enjoy some of the supporting performances: Quinn Kelsey's stern father M. Germont who realises too late the depth of Violetta's love for his son, Gaynor Keeble's devoted maid Annina and James Platt's sympathetic Doctor Grenvil.

So there we go.. the first opera I think I have really enjoyed since the mid-80s double whammy of English National Opera productions CARMEN and AKHNATEN - both of which were free as Andrew was working there at the time!

Could this finally be me getting into opera?  Watch this space... I am seeing AKHNATEN again at English National Opera this Saturday.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

150 word review: BFI FILM CLASSICS: GONE WITH THE WIND by Helen Taylor

When I saw GONE WITH THE WIND at the NFT last November, it was introduced by Professor Helen Taylor so I was interested to read her book on the film.

Well illustrated, it is quite brief (the text is 104 pages) and over it's four chapters Taylor puts an excellent case, arguing that it's tag of being a "woman's picture" has ruled it out from the perennial Best Films lists which always reflect a male critic bias.

Taylor, who has written a book on the the film's appeal for women viewers, touches on the thorny subject of how the film treated it's black characters but ultimately recognises the futility of judging a film released in 1939 by the political correctness of today.

Most welcome is Taylor's championing of Vivien Leigh's magnificent Scarlett O'Hara, one of the largest-ever female roles in film, played with a steely grace and sly humour.