Friday, April 29, 2016

The WINTER'S TALE at Covent Garden - Don't Send In The Clowns...

For the third time in four months we saw Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE only this time dancers peopled the gloomy court of King Leontes in Sicillia and the sunny fields of neighbouring Bohemia as we saw Christopher Wheeldon's Royal Ballet production.

Shakespeare's tragi-comedy is one that I enjoy a lot but how can a production of it be a success with the loss of his words?  Quite easily. Constant Reader, when you have a choreographer of Wheeldon's talent who, rather than doing a scene-for-scene transposing, instead conjures up the mood and the feelings behind the words.

By turn thrilling and emotional, Wheeldon is to be applauded for dropping the lengthy rude mechanicals comedy characters from the Bohemia scenes, instead the second act concentrates on a lengthy pas-de-deux between the young lovers Perdita and Florizel. As I said, what is remarkable about the production is that with no words to concentrate on, Wheeldon can instead focus on the emotions that drive Shakespeare's story and can linger on certain moments that are overlooked in the rush of words.

Christopher Wheeldon provides a prologue showing Leontes and Polixenis as young friends, separated when they become the rulers of Sicillia and Bohemia only to be reunited as adults with Leontes' wife Hermione.  When Polixenes cancels his return to Bohemia because Hermione asks him to, Leontes is thrown into a jealous rage suspecting them of having an affair, which Wheeldon choreographs in a fascinating scene where Leontes clambers over the court sculptures to spy on the couple, who he imagines making love.

Polixenes flees but Leontes has Hermione arrested and put on trial. Witnessing his mother's trial, Prince Mamillius collapses and dies which causes Hermione to collapse too. Her chief supporter Paulina announces the Queen is dead and Leontes finally is confronted by the disastrous consequences of his misguided jealousy. Paulina's husband Antigonus is killed when he leaves Hermione's recently-born baby daughter to die on the shores of Bohemia and the baby is adopted by a shepherd - and all of that in the first half!

Wheeldon's choreography was remarkably involving and he was also helped enormously by the ominous design of Sicillia's court by Bob Crowley and the atmospheric lighting of Natasha Katz. Joby Talbot's score was also very fine, particularly stark and sombre as Leontes' jealous madness takes hold only to blossom into lyricism for the second act when we see the grown-up daughter Perdita falling in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes.  Again Bob Crowley's setting of a large tree was quite marvellous.

Most of the conclusion in Shakespeare's play frustratingly happens offstage but Wheeldon has the reunion between Leontes and Perdita happen onstage when he recognizes his wife's pendant that was left with her as a baby.  Of course what was lost in the climax was Shakespeare's wonderful poetry when Leontes is confronted with a statue of Hermione 'coming to life' - one line that always gets me is Leontes' "O she's warm" when he touches his wife's arm - but the gentle lyricism of Wheeldon's choreography went some way to making up for this.

In fact Wheldon's final moments provided a touching coda that is not found in the original play: Crowley's design for Hermione's plinth has her standing with a figure of her son Mamillius and, as Hermione and Perdita left the stage to get to know each other after their lives apart, Leontes eagerly touched the statue of his son hoping for 'magic' to happen twice... only to be led away by Paulina as if to say "No your son *is* dead" and as the King left with his thoughts, Paulina bowed down in memory of the lost Prince.  Quite lovely and enhancing Shakespeare's plot rather than ruining it.

The lead dancers all gave excellent performances while never losing the feel of a dedicated company: Bennet Gartside as Leontes, Marianela Nunez (so good previously in Wheeldon's AFTER THE RAIN and GISELLE) as a noble Hermione and, in, particular Itziar Mendizabel was wonderful as Paulina, expressing aching grief with every movement.  It was good to see her again so quickly after her impressive featured role in GISELLE. Special mention too for Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov as Perdita and Florizel in their lengthy second act pas-de-deux.

A worthy addition to any ballet fan's repertoire and a credible choice as the nearest related-production seen before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Monday, April 25, 2016

150 word review: M TRAIN by Patti Smith

Smith's latest memoir offers an insightful if not necessarily gripping account of her peripatetic life since the death of husband Fred.

It is always fascinating spending time with Smith but here her worst traits sometimes appear especially that peculiarly American one of an almost gushing juvenile devotion to certain artists which seems odd in a 69 year-old who has achieved so much herself.

There is also an unintentionally funny moment when, asked to deliver a speech to a private society of arctic exploration (don't ask), she just wings it and leaves her audience confused with her garbled speech. Well, we've all been there with Patti.

With hardly any mention of her music, she coasts along, buying her dinner from local eateries or coffee from her local café, watching marathons of her beloved tv detective shows and linking in the impermanence of things with her own loss of Fred.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

SHOW BOAT - Another visit now it is docked in London!

When I had to decide what show should be my birthday night event it was an easy choice - a return visit to Daniel Evans' revival of the game-changing 1927 musical SHOW BOAT, which has now slowly steamed into dock at the New London Theatre.

Finally!  A production has appeared at the New London Theatre that I want to see.  Since I became a 'proper' theatre fan in 1982 - apart from the transfer from the National Theatre of WAR HORSE - the New London Theatre has been home to a run of shows that I would walk a mile in tight shoes to avoid, but now I could visit safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't be seeing a dud.  To be honest the New London reminds me of any number of regional theatres I have been in - definitely a cross between Chichester and Sheffield with a similar 1970s feel of carpet and concrete.  Nice big bar area though!

We saw and loved SHOW BOAT back in January in it's Sheffield home but now it is gracing the West End with it's glorious score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and Evans' elegant production that guides you through the plot's decades.  In the journey from Sheffield to London, the production has lost it's two male leads but this has not sunk the ship, in fact it has made it a smoother journey.

In Sheffield Michael Xavier played Gaylord, the raffish gambler who falls for heroine Magnolia, while Allan Corduner was the affable Cap'n Andy, owner of the Cotton Blossom Showboat but these they have been replaced by Broadway import Chris Peluso and the always-dependable Malcolm Sinclair respectively.

Xavier was better than the role to be honest - it gave him very little chance to shine as it is quite a strait-jacketed role but it suited Chris Peluso but dear God... all through the show, through whatever decade, the tab at the back of his boots stuck out from under his trouser hems - It was profoundly irritating!  No such problems with Malcolm Sinclair who was a total delight as the hen-pecked but tender-hearted owner of the Cotton Blossom.

The strength of Evans' production is in the casting of the three central female roles: a majestic triumvirate of Gina Beck's sweet-natured Magnolia, Rebecca Trehearn's tragic Julie and Sandra Marvin's imperious Queenie with Trehearne coming out on top of them all thanks to having the two best songs in the score: "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill".

Lucy Briers has grown in the role of Parthy Ann Hawks, the battle-axe of the Cotton Blossom and the good news is that Emmanuel Kojo is still toting barges and lifting bales as he belts out a passionate and emotive "Old Man River".  I was particularly happy to see again the bendy dancing of Danny Collins as Frank Schultz who turns choreographer Alistair David's routines into something quite thrilling.

It was a huge delight to see this production again to enjoy Lez Brotherston's spare but evocative designs, David's physical choreography and Evans' direction that spills out into the auditorium at times.

SHOW BOAT was the show that in 1927 proved that a musical could be more than just a string of numbers and comedy scenes, it could actually tell a through story with characters you care for while also dealing with serious themes.  If you have never seen it now is your chance to - and if you have, then see it again!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Dvd/150: WIFE VERSUS SECRETARY (Clarence Brown, 1936)

By the mid-1930s the prohibitive production code made it difficult for Jean Harlow to play the tart-with-a-heart roles that made her famous so MGM subverted her persona in WIFE VERSUS SECRETARY - accused by others of being a homewrecker she is in fact just a devoted secretary.

Magazine publisher Clark Gable is happily married to Myrna Loy but, when she hears rumours of his relationship with secretary Harlow, Loy's suspicions overtake her.  This is not helped when Harlow secretly flies with Gable to Havana suddenly but we know it's all innocent as he is secretly trying to acquire a newspaper and only Harlow knows the plan.

Although billed as a comedy drama, director Clarence Brown concentrates more on the marital drama with Harlow standing glumly by, realizing her actual feelings for her boss when boyfriend James Stewart suggests she give up her job when they get married.

Shelf or charity shop?  As it's on the same disc as CHINA SEAS I will hang on to this one...

Dvd/150: CHINA SEAS (Tay Garnett, 1935)

Pure MGM adventure-hokum that races along with little character development as the stars are all playing their personas to the hilt.

Clark Gable is the gruff captain of a boat carrying passengers and cargo between Singapore and Hong Kong.  His voyage is complicated by the appearance on board of old flame and newly-widowed Sybil (Rosalind Russell) as well as 'China' Doll (Jean Harlow), a gregarious good-time-girl who is besotted with him.

To make Gable jealous, Harlow pals up with old friend Jamesy (Wallace Beery) but discovers he has secretly plotted with vicious Malay pirates to steal gold hidden on board.  As the ship sails into a violent storm, the action explodes...

Akim Tamaroff, Robert Benchley and Lewis Stone wander about as Harlow dazzles in her wonderful Adrian-designed gowns that cling where they touch.  An added delight is uncredited Hattie McDaniel as Harlow's cheeky maid Isabel.

Shelf or charity shop?  Braving the elements on the shelf...

Sunday, April 03, 2016

THE TEMPEST at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: it's going to be a bumpy night...

So here we are, the final production in the Globe's staging of the last four plays of William Shakespeare which have laid bare the hidden and not-so-hidden links within them.  Fathers lose daughters, mothers vanish or are never present, love is discovered by chance, physical journeys are bound upon and safe havens sought while coincidence exists alongside magic...

Oddly enough I have only seen THE TEMPEST once before on stage, I seem to have seen filmed or tv versions more often.  The only stage version seen was Sam Mendes' dreary production at the Old Vic in 2010 with an under-whelming Stephen Dillaine as Prospero and the mixed UK and US cast turning the text into a right fugue for tinhorns.

No such problems for Dominic Dromgoole's production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which despite it's spartan, fixed-design stage, still managed to be infused with the right amount of mystery and imagination to suggest the more magical moments of the play.

If I have a criticism of the production it would be that it seemed a little too benign at times - moments such as the two murder plots to kill both Alonso and Prospero seemed to come and go without causing too many ripples of alarm.

Tim McMullan is not usually an actor I warm to - his sonorous voice can be too distracting - but I enjoyed his performance as Prospero, the Duke of Milan who, 12 years before the start of the play, was overthrown by his jealous brother and bundled aboard an unsafe boat with his three year-old daughter Miranda and set loose on the sea.  McMullan had the right commanding presence and was a believable magus, capable of bending the elements to shipwreck his brother and retinue of lords onto the strange island where he himself was washed up with his daughter.  He also spoke Prospero's last two famous speeches - "Our revels now are ended..." and "Now my charms are all o'erthrown..." with great simplicity.

Phoebe Pryce - daughter of Jonathan who we saw as Jessica in the Globe's MERCHANT OF VENICE last year - was good as Miranda, a dutiful daughter but eager to fall in love with the King of Naples' son Ferdinand when he is separated from the others during the shipwreck and there was also an interesting performance from Pippa Nixon as Ariel, Prospero's spirit servant who also is aching to be free.

Fisayo Akinade was a bit too obvious and one-note as Prospero's subjugated native slave Caliban but there was better fun to be found in the low comedy antics of Trevor Fox as the permanently soused Stephano and the flamboyant Trinculo of Dominic Rowan, his comedy 'business' at times threatened to capsize his scenes but he is such an engaging actor that they were great fun.

Another reason for the success of the production was the sympathetic performance of Joseph Marcell as Gonzalo, Prospero's friend who came to his aid when he was deposed by filling his boat into exile with provisions and, more importantly, with books on magic which Prospero has used to his advantage.

Jonathan Fensom, although constrained by the afore-mentioned playing space, made good use of the stage and made necessity a virtue by having a large flat rock in the middle of the stage which was turned around for each scene giving the actors something to clamber over and around, simple but effective.  Stephen Warbeck's music was ever-present and engaging throughout.  Needless to say, Prospero's lovely parting words asking for the audience's applause to free him from the island were undercut by the usual end-of-play meaningless jig about.

The Globe is to be applauded - and I did! - for staging these last four plays so one can make connections with their recurring themes of love and reconciliation, now bring on the events to honour the 400 years since Shakespeare's "little life was rounded with a sleep".