Monday, December 04, 2017

SYLVIA at Covent Garden - Ashton's Arcadia

For my last visit to Covent Garden in 2017, we stepped back in time to see Sir Frederick Ashton's 1952 version of Léo Delibes' ballet SYLVIA, which was first seen at Paris' Palais Garnier in 1876, in fact the first ever ballet to be staged there.

The actual ballet had a checkered history down the years and Ashton primarily restructured it for the Royal Ballet for his muse Margot Fonteyn to have a whacking big star role in.  He tinkered with it through the years and his lack of confidence in it resulted in only Sylvia's third act solo still being performed, although the score has always been liked in concert.

Ashton's production got a full restaging in 2004 by the Royal Ballet for Ashton's centenary celebrations and, although still not in the first flight of ballets, the lead role has been personal successes for Darcey Bussell (who coached the lead ballerinas for this revival), Zenaida Yanowsky and Marianela Nunez in subsequent years.  Christopher Newton, who staged the 2004 revival, almost had to start from scratch as very little archive material remained from Ashton's 1952 production.  Maybe that is what accounts for the slightly flimsy feel to the ballet?  However that said, it was a perfectly pleasant diversion with many opportunities for our Sylvia to shine and as it was danced by Lauren Cuthbertson, shine she did!

The plot is fairly paper-thin - Sylvia is one of the goddess Diana's huntress nymphs and she is loved from afar by the shepherd Aminta who at a shrine to Eros strays too far and is shot by the angry Sylvia.  The statue of Eros turns into the real god and he too shoots an arrow at the huntress, slightly wounding her but making her realize her mistake in hurting someone who loved her.  Unknown to her, another hunter Orion has also been stalking her and before she can revive Aminta, Orion carries her off to his lair.  But fear not!  Eros revives Aminta to help bring her back.

At Orion's lair, he attempts to win Sylvia over with jewels but she pines for Aminta, cradling the arrow she received from the gods which proves his love.  When Orion steals it from her she pretends to carouse with the hunter and his minions until they are all passed out drunk and after a quick prayer to Eros he rescues her in his magical boat!

Back at the temple of Diana, Aminta is reunited with Sylvia during a festival for Bacchus but Orion catches up with them and when Sylvia flees into the temple he attempts to follow her.  Angered by his actions, Diana appears and fells him with another arrow.  But Diana then refuses Sylvia to love Aminta as she is one of her huntresses...  luckily Eros is on hand to remind her that she too loved a human once and all ends happily.

The scenario is real wing-and-a-prayer stuff but was danced with such conviction and mounted in such a simple way that you could not help but like it, helped in part by Delibes' music - even Tchaikovsky said his own SWAN LAKE score paled into insignificance in comparison.  I think Tchaikovsky was overstating the issue but it is a delightful work and includes a genuine entry in Ballet's Greatest Hits, the Pizzicato solo...

Lauren Cuthbertson was marvellous in the lead role - there always seem to be hidden depths to this dancer so her strength in the first act, her cunning in the second act and her loving in the third all seem to come from a very genuine source, like the best ballerinas she is an actress as well as a dancer.

None of the other roles really allow for much investigation but Reece Clarke was very nice in his tiny Hellenic skirt and made the most of his solo in the last act.  As said before, Ashton really just wanted to show off the lead ballerina so Aminta spends most of the first act lying wounded on the floor, disappears for the second, and is lovestruck in the third!

All in all, a nice way to end a year of productions from the Royal Ballet.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

YOUNG MARX at the Bridge Theatre - Carry On Comrade...

Two weeks ago we visited London's latest performing space, the rather clunky-named Bridge Theatre, which is situated between London and Tower Bridges.  I find it a frankly ghastly part of town, soulless and ugly, but the theatre space should give it a bit more promise.  The theatre is the brainchild of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr who made such a success at the National Theatre when they were artistic director and executive director.

It will take a while to "warm up": the main foyer is fairly drab and oddly-lit from fashionable single bulbs hanging from the ceiling. the security staff out front were hardly welcoming and the trendy menu/bar doesn't inspire confidence.  However the loos are plentiful and there is a very handy stalls foyer space by the auditorium, which in itself reminded me of an enlarged Cottesloe/Dorfman apace.  The side stalls, where we were seated, were angled towards the stage but at the cost of leg-room.

The auditorium was about three-quarters full for the Bridge Theatre's launch production, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman's anachronistic YOUNG MARX which gives a whacking star part to Rory Kinnear as the struggling Karl Marx and is directed by - yes you guessed - Nicholas Hytner.

The thought "Blackadder does Marx" settled into my head very early on and I could not shake that through it's running time.  It gives a comic spin to Marx in his refugee years in Soho and uses many instances from his real life to comic effect - his regular visits to the cupboard to hide from creditors and sponging fellow-refugees, the near-poverty that he and his family struggled through, the attempts to pawn the incongruously expensive possessions of his high-born wife Jenny, and the friendship with fellow political thinker Friedrich Engels is turned into a comedy double-act.

The trouble is, it's just not funny enough.  There are a couple of humorous moments and set-ups but they don't quite land - to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, it aims to soar but agrees to perch.  Bean and Coleman's gags keep coming but arrives at a skidding halt when a death happens in the young family but we are being asked to be sorry for an under-written child role and you wonder why the people are so upset when the dead boy has been such an offstage presence.

Rory Kinnear certainly gives a barn-storming performance but it's also a charmless one and you really cannot understand why his egotistical Karl is seen to be the life and soul of the party.  He is also settling into a shtick where he hits consonants like a man hitting a cow's arse with a banjo - a single line that has words beginning with p, b or d are verbal explosions which become very wearing.

Against his bells and smells performance, Oliver Chris was delightfully witty and wry as Engels, frustrated by Marx's inability to settle down and write his long-promised manifesto.  The usually-dependable Nancy Carroll is wasted as Jenny Marx, forever on the verge of leaving her unreliable husband and being noble, and Laura Elphinstone - while giving a good performance as the Marx's maid Nym - again is making bricks from the straw supplied by Bean and Coleman, the women roles are just cyphers.

There was a nice performance by Eben Figueiredo as the excitable Konrad Schramm, a committed revolutionary who hero worships Marx to the extent that he takes his hero's place in a duel - yet another actual incident - and Miltos Yerolemou makes an impression as the explosively angry French political activist Emmanuel Barthélmey but otherwise the supporting cast hide behind wigs and hats, giving hardly noticeable performances.

The revolving set by Mark Thompson was fun as it quickly changed from hovel to reading room to pub backroom but it's distance from the audience made the play again seem too remote and the production benefited from Mark Henderson's moody lighting.

The play ends on almost a Chekhovian note with Marx finally sitting down to write his great work surrounded by his family and close friends which was a nice way to end but I suspect the writers had just blown themselves out.  Nicholas Hytner directs at a frenetic pace but it eventually reflects the slightly desperate air of the writing to be more than it is.

Monday, November 27, 2017


Time for another triple bill from the Royal Ballet, they do come round with some regularity and I know there is another due in April.  Although these all had individual moments, they did not hang together as a whole.

On reflection the one I enjoyed most was Twyla Tharp's THE ILLUSTRATED "FAREWELL" which builds on an earlier ballet she choreographed in 1973 set to Haydn's 'Farewell' symphony.  That work was called AS TIME GOES BY but only used the final movements of the symphony; when invited to work for the Royal Ballet for the first time since 1995, Tharp leaped at the opportunity to choreograph the first two movements of 'Farewell' to flow into the older ballet.

The ballet was, for me, the most thrilling as the opening was danced by the marvellous partnership of Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb whose dancing flows and complements each other beautifully.  Gravity-defying leaps, standing pivots and intricate 'pop' movements that showed their effortless synchronicity well.  As well as being excellent dancers, they also convey real personalities and connect perfectly with the audience.

The older work is introduced soundlessly by the whirling, swirling Mayara Magri who is partnered by Joseph Sissons (who we saw as the tapping Mad Hatter in ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND), and later groupings of five then ten dancers - with occasional appearances by Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb high above the stage, almost ghostly visions of the earlier music.  As I said, for the quality of pure dance, this was my favourite of the three.

Arthur Pita has only choreographed for the Royal Ballet's studio space so for his main stage debut he has gone for an "intimate epic" THE WIND.  Based in part on the original novel by Dorothy Scarborough and the Victor Sjostrom classic silent film which starred Lillian Gish, it certainly grabbed the attention but was over far too soon.  There was no character development and the plot climax was too garbled.  However I enjoyed it while I was watching it for Pita's stagecraft.

The ballet opened with the arresting image of billowing plastic sheeting blowing across the stage from massive jukebox-like fans which kept up the gale all through the act.  A ghostly-pale native American dances with and against the wind before ushering in the plot: young Letty arrives in a dust bowl western town - where the men are men and the sheep are frightened - and marries the taciturn and unemotional Lige. Letty was danced by the always extraordinary Natalya Osipova and she captured the uncertainty of a woman unable to fit into her environment.

Left alone by Lige, Letty is terrorized and later raped by the boo-worthy Wirt (the always-dependable Thomas Whitehead) and as she exacts her revenge on him, the constant howling wind finally snaps her grasp on reality and, watched by the mysterious figures of the native American and a bone-bleached frontier woman, walks into the howling night unafraid.

As I said, Osipova was enthralling as was Edward Watson as the ominous native American, but the piece was just far too short to get much involvement going and the large wind machines were just too modern and clunky for the period setting.  However special shout-out have to go to to the costumes by Yann Seabra which fluttered and whipped around in the constant gale and the lighting by Adam Silverman.

I certainly think I could take another chance to see THE WIND at some later date but hopefully they can find maybe 15 more minutes to allow for some engagement with the main role - maybe they could have trimmed some off Hofesh Shechter's interminable UNTOUCHABLE.  I am amazed it only ran 30 minutes, it seemed so much longer.  One cannot deny the talented 20 dancers onstage who moved in strict rhythm either en mass, as smaller groups or alone but, if truth be told, if I want to see a fascistic, militarist troupe go through their motions, I will watch Janet Jackson's video for RHYTHM NATION.

So there we are - one winner, one curiosity and one dud.  I don't suppose that's a bad batting average but I have seen more cohesive triple bills on the same stage, these three pieces simply didn't coalesce.  Maybe they need to roll the dice again and match them with other ballets?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dvd/150: HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

Peter Sasdy's Hammer film is packed with stock characters - rhubarbing cockneys,  ratty brasses shouting "'ere darlin' want a good time", nasty toffs and Hansom cabs clattering over cobbles - and dead bodies. But it also has a rare starring role for the marvellous Eric Porter and is a very guilty pleasure.

Jack The Ripper murders her wife in front of their daughter then kisses her goodbye.  Anna grows into a meek girl working for a fake medium but she turns into a deranged killer when kissed!

When she murders the medium, a psychiatrist Dr Pritchard takes pity on her and invites her into his home but her murderous fugues make him realize his error too late...

Eric Porter brings a warm gravitas to the lead role but Angharad Rees doesn't bring much to the murderous Anna.

The script races through to an operatic ending but to the detriment of character development.

Shelf or charity shop? The bodies can pile up on the shelf for a while yet...

Dvd/150: SASOM I EN SPEGEL (Through A Glass Darkly) (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

The first in Bergman's Faith Trilogy, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY won the 1961 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and retains an unsettling clarity of vision.

A family of four gather on an austere island: David has returned from finishing a novel abroad but the atmosphere is unsettled, his daughter Karin is recovering from a mental breakdown which involved shock therapy.

Karin's doctor husband Martin watches her closely and reveals to David that she will suffer continued breakdowns.  Also present is Karin's younger brother Minus, unhappy with their father's remoteness.

Karin is already hearing voices telling her people are waiting within the walls for the arrival of God.  She finds in David's diary his confession that he will probably use her breakdowns for a book.

The atmosphere of emotional distrust helps fracture Karen's mental state again...

Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Lars Passgard all give raw, memorable performances.

Shelf or charity shop?  I can see myself revisiting Ingmar Bergman's devastating reflection on the loss of faith again so shelf...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dvd/150: 45 YEARS (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

A week before Geoff and Kate's 45th anniversary celebration, he receives a letter from Switzerland: a body has been found preserved in a glacier, a woman called Katya who was Geoff's lover in the early 60s who vanished while climbing with him.

Kate is surprised when Geoff reveals he is Katya's next of kin because they pretended to be married while travelling.  As the week goes on, Geoff seems preoccupied with the dead woman, while Kate attempts to keep him focused on their life together.

One afternoon, Kate explores the attic - which Geoff has been visiting - and finds a bedsheet hung on which to show old slides of Katya.  Confronting the ghost haunting their life, Kate is shocked to see that Katya was pregnant...  Now plagued with doubts, Kate must face the celebration of her life with Geoff.

Andrew Haigh's emotionally devastating film showcases excellent performances from Courtenay and Rampling.

Shelf or charity shop?  Will certainly be revisiting this... there is a moment in the film when Kate wistfully mentions it's a shame they never took more photos together - just for her, here they are in 1969 when they would have met...

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NETWORK at the Lyttelton, National Theatre: Fake news....

Sidney Lumet's 1976 film NETWORK was a success when released, going on to win four top Academy Awards - but when was the last time you ever saw it on tv or re-released in cinemas?  I suspect it has not aged as well as some other 'classics' although in 2007 it was ranked 64th in a list of 100 Great American Films by the AFI.  I admired it at the time for the barnstorming performances of Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway and the savage satire of Paddy Chayevsky's script but now I suspect I would find it's underlying misogyny a pain.

However here we are, 40 years beyond Chayevsky's ideas on the state of television and the vision  seems all too real - the race-to-the-bottom of tv planners chasing an ever dwindling audience, reality shows of every description and, in particular, the movement from straight news to 'opinion news'.  The pin-up boy of high-concept, director theatre Ivo van Hove now brings us his take on it - and a fairly maddening experience it is.

Okay let's get the most annoying thing out of the way first, what's a bloody restaurant doing onstage?  Van Hove and his partner-cum-designer Jan Versweyveld have taken over all of the massive Lyttelton stage and turned it into a vast television studio with a glass production booth, mirrored make-up desks glimpsed at the back, the now-standard shiny mirrored studio floor and dwarfing all else, a huge video screen to get you up close and personal to the characters thanks to the prowling stedicam operators.

All well and good I guess, all within the world of the piece... so why make one third of the stage into an onstage restaurant with punters having a three-course meal within the running time of the show?  Van Hove would no doubt say because there are a few bar/restaurant scenes.. but there are also about the same amount set in Max's apartment so why not have that there instead?  It was profoundly irritating to be distracted from the play by kitchen porters wandering at the back or waiters walking around dispensing drinks.  NETWORK runs 2 hours with no interval - is it just a cunning ploy to make up for what they lose in the bars between acts?  If they were so keen to make it an immersive experience within the world of the play, why not have the Gogglebox alumni sat at the side of the stage commenting on Howard Beale's onscreen rants?  Oh and don't get me started on the four dj blokes sitting like Kraftwerk high above the large screen...

Oh and another thing Mr van Hove... was all the filmed footage projected onto the large screen meant to be about 2 seconds delayed so the close-ups didn't match what was being said?  Profoundly annoying and unnecessary.

Apart from all the distractions there was an actual play going on, but what on screen worked as a concerted satirical pummelling of the television world, scaled down to human form onstage it all just seemed a little obvious, a little forced, and definitely preaching to the converted about the heartless bastards who run television networks.

Howard Beale has been a tv news anchorman for many years but his audience is dwindling and he is eventually told by his old friend Max Schumacher that he is to be replaced, which Howard appears to be resigned to.  However when he announces this on the air the following evening, he also says that he will blow his brains out on his last day on-air.  The network bosses go ballistic but Max manages to persuade them to let Howard atone for his outburst but when next-on-air Howard again goes into a meltdown resulting in a huge jump in the viewing figures.

This arouses the attention of Diana Christensen, a TV producer who is in charge of programming, who offers to take the news department under her wing, and make "The Howard Beale Show" an even bigger audience favourite with shock-opinion reporting and Howard as it's centre-piece.  The execs override Max's protests of dumbing-down the news and replace him with Diana; despite this they start an extra-marital affair.  Howard does not disappoint and becomes a ratings smash with such direct appeals to his audience to open their windows and scream "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore".

However Howard oversteps the mark when he urges his viewers to write to the White House to stop a secret take-over of the network by an Arab conglomerate.  Despite the huge reaction, the head of the network reveals to Howard that without the Arab's cash the network will go under and that he views television as just a commodity to channel the views of politicians and capitalism.

Howard tries to preach this to his audience but his new message alienates the viewers and he faces rating disaster.  Diana also realizes that she needs a new controversy to kick-start the show's ratings - and to get interest in her new tv show: a reality programme 'starring' a terrorist organization...

Ok I will admit that I was never bored during NETWORK but mostly that was down to the charismatic performance by Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale.  Unlike Peter Finch's scenery-chewing in the film, Cranston played the character as a man who dares to say what he feels and what he sees in the mad world around him, his Howard knows all too well what he is saying and what the desired effect will be; which makes him a truly tragic figure at the end of the piece when he gets lost in the machinations of the powers that he once tried to put an end to.

Cranston's magnetic, seductive performance was not matched by the surprisingly dour performances from Douglas Henshall as Max and Michelle Dockery as Diana.  Lee Hall's adaptation seems to pull it's punches in making his Diana the icy villainess that won Faye Dunaway her Best Actress Academy Award so the role seems to have no inner conviction nor does Henshall who is possibly too young for the role.  For you van Hove fans, Dochery does get to fly into a rage and throw papers around for no better reason that Ruth Wilson did it in HEDDA GABLER.

The supporting performances are all fairly one-note; NETWORK famously won Beatrice Straight a Supporting Actress Academy Award even though she only appeared on screen for just over 5 minutes. However those 5 minutes are magnificent as she reacts with shock, anger, hysteria then a rueful knowingness when William Holden's Max tells her he is leaving her for Diana (you can see the whole scene on YouTube).  The role was played here by Caroline Faber on a very low-light.

I will briefly mention Tunji Kasim who, as the venal network boss Frank Hackett, gave such a laughably 2-dimensional 'baddie' performance I expected every new appearance to be accompanied by a swirling cape and a twirled moustache.

The amusing thing was to see the audience being used as much as Howard Beale's unseen tv audience - during the scenes involving his crass news show the audience are exhorted to shout out three times "I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Going To Take It Anymore" and clap wildly, and at the end of the show, in an outrageous moment of preaching to the converted Pavlovian dogs, van Hove has video footage played on the big screen of the US presidential inaugerations from Gerald Ford to this day... cue mad cheering in the audience when Barrack Obama appeared, cue mad booing when Donald Trump appeared...

Thanks to Bryan Cranston, NETWORK is sold out for it's entire run but the National Theatre always has a number of seats sold on the day as well as it's Friday Rush for tickets on sale for the following weeks performances, see the website for more details.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Dvd/150: 21 DAYS (Basil Dean, 1940)

Larry Durrant has failed in business but made good with his girlfriend Wanda, but one night her past reappears in the shape of her slimy husband.  He pulls a knife on them and in the struggle Larry accidentally kills him. 

Larry dumps the body but loses incriminating gloves which are found by a tramp, a lapsed priest. Larry visits his older brother Keith, a successful barrister, who is shocked at Larry's dilemma but reveals that the tramp has been arrested for the murder.

Larry is consumed with guilt but, at Keith's suggestion, enjoys the three weeks until the trial and marries Wanda.  Larry decides that he will confess his guilt when the trial ends - but the priest is found guilty...

The hero's guilt shows Graham Greene's involvement and Basil Dean's taut direction just survives the vicissitudes of time.  Of the leads, Leslie Banks outshines stagey Olivier and under-used Vivien.

Shelf or charity shop?  One for the Vivien archive - by the way, the film was shot in 1937 but was held back from distribution until 1940 to capitalize on Vivien's sudden star power thanks to GONE WITH THE WIND...