Tuesday, February 28, 2017

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY at Covent Garden - Awake again...

The Royal Ballet's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY was the third in an unconsciously-booked ballet triple bill and found us back in the front row of the amphitheatre circle at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  After the Royal Ballet's own haunting WOOLF WORKS and Matthew Bourne's entertaining EARLY ADVENTURES it was time for something a bit more classical, and they don't come more classic than Marius Petipa's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Again I was struck by the actual history behind the production: in 1947 it was decided that Ninette De Valois' Sadler's Wells Ballet company would be the permanent dance company at Covent Garden - which had been turned into a dance hall during WWII! - and she decided that, to match the building coming back to life, her first production would be THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. 

It was largely based on a 1939 production by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled Bolshevik Russia in 1919, bringing with him the Imperial Ballet 'bibles' for the productions of the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.  Thanks to his actions, these classic productions have lived on through the years so, bearing in mind Petipa created his SLEEPING BEAUTY choreography in 1890, in essence we were watching moves that were 127 years old!

De Valois' production stayed in the repertoire for over 20 years but different productions came and went until the hers was brought back in 2006 to celebrate the Royal Ballet's 75th Anniversary and it has stayed ever since, using the original stage designs of Oliver Messell (revised for changes in the size of the stage and in new costume techniques).  Certain sections of Petipa's choreography have been added to down the years by Sir Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon.

As I have said previously, it is quite odd to bear all this in mind when watching the ballet; we don't go to the theatre to see Michael Elliot's production of AS YOU LIKE IT which catapulted Vanessa Redgrave to fame in 1961 or Michel Saint-Denis's 1936 production of THREE SISTERS, let alone Peter Brook's 1956 TITUS ANDRONICUS - no matter how acclaimed a theatre production, they are rarely revived after more than a year.

Of course, The Royal Ballet can be accused of running a museum theatre but thanks to the consistent quality of their dancers, the ballet always triumphs - one had only to witness the stolid Bolshoi productions from last year to see The Royal Ballet's quality.  The most glaringly old-fashioned part of the production was the over-the-top miming that passes for performance when they are not dancing: circling around the face to show how beautiful Aurora is, gesturing to objects, resting a head on outstretched arms to show sleep... it eventually suggested dancing for the deaf.

There was added drama just as the lights went down when Director of the Royal Ballet Kevin O'Hare stepped out from the famous red curtains to announce that due to the illness of Lauren Cuthbertson, the role of Aurora would be danced by Yasmine Naghdi and the Prince would be danced by Matthew Ball who had both debuted in the roles the previous Saturday.  Both were fine, Naghdi was a bit under-whelming at the start but she shone in the famous Rose Adagio in which Aurora dances a dazzling solo of movement and balanced stillness.

If I am honest, I wasn't ever emotionally swept away by the story; all the pantomime acting and the odd pacing of the story - our hero finally appears an hour and 50 minutes after kick-off - and any ensemble number where the women have floral bowers to wave about always set my teeth on edge, but the quality of the performance was so high that there was plenty to enjoy.

There were fine supporting performances from Hayley Forskitt as the evil Carabosse and Tierney Heap as her good nemesis The Lilac Fairy while there was also exquisite work from Helen Crawford as a skittish Fairy of The Golden Vine and James Hay as the scene-stealing Bluebird in the final wedding scene.  Tchaikovsky's score sounded sumptuous under the baton of Koen Kessels.

 I am glad to have finally seen this important work in the Royal Ballet's repertoire but as the piece has occasionally been added to over the years maybe it is time to have a look at maybe making the non-dance moments not so archaic?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

EARLY ADVENTURES at Richmond Theatre - Matthew Bourne goes back to before...

Happy Anniversary to Matthew Bourne who has been choreographing and leading his own dance companies for 30 years - a remarkable achievement for a choreographer.  To celebrate this anniversary, we have had the new and thrilling new production THE RED SHOES and his WWII spin on Prokofiev's CINDERELLA will be revived at Christmas but in the meantime we have a tour of three early works which show the genesis of the Bourne style EARLY ADVENTURES.

It was a bit of a culture shock seeing it, coming so soon after being immersed in the stage and screen representations of the Royal Ballet's profound WOOLF WORKS, at first it seemed a bit too lightweight and throwaway, but it won over with it's abundance of cheeky irreverence and winning style.  The patrons at Richmond seemed a bit thrown by the brevity of the works - the whole triple bill was over in two hours - but they were just the right length.

It is proof that Bourne's style arrived fairly well fully-formed; there are moves in these early pieces which would not have looked out of place in 2016's THE RED SHOES.  His whole style can be traced to his Laban training: the principal tenets of body - effort - shape - space could almost describe his choreography.  But Bourne infuses his choreography with a delicious sense of fun and character; sometimes this can overtip productions - EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is all character and very little actual dance - but when the balance is right it's wonderful.

First up was the only one of the three I had not seen, WATCH WITH MOTHER from 1991, Bourne's take on a 1950s "music and movement" primary school class.  Danced to music arranged by Percy Grainger and featuring moments from Joyce Grenfell's school teacher sketch, the company of nine dancers, 3 female and 6 male, had great fun with their skipping, leaping and stretched movements.  This was one of the first pieces that Bourne worked on and it shows the youthful zest of Bourne finding his visual language.

The second (and third as it was broken up by an unnecessary interval) was TOWN AND COUNTRY, Bourne's hymn of praise to all things English.  By far the more interesting of the two sections TOWN gave a particular spotlight to the ever-dependable Danny Collins as a ukulele-playing butler and a sneering waiter in a tea-room which features in Bourne's loving tribute to BRIEF ENCOUNTER only this time there were two pairs of Alec and Laura's!  Meanwhile a posh couple get undressed and bathed by their stoic servants, a male gay couple slowly express their love and the whole company whiz around the stage on scooters - see hipsters, you didn't invent them.  The soundtrack is delicious with, among others, Noel Coward, Rachmaninoff, Eric Coates and Jack Strachey's glorious IN PARTY MOOD (aka the 'Housewives' Choice' theme).

The COUNTRY section is my least favourite, I find it outstays it's welcome but there was still nice moments including clog-dancing yokels right out of LA FILLE MAL GARDE, indeed their galumphing about cause the death of a cute hedgehog - don't panic he's a glove-puppet.

The final section was my favourite, THE INFERNAL GALOP from 1989.  Bourne's tribute to all-things Parisian includes the mer-man (dressed in silk dressing gown and socks) assisted by three matelots and the fabulous routine of two men attempting to have a rendezvous in a pissoir who are frequently interrupted by a mariachi band!  Although played for comedy, Bourne's choreography for the two men is outstanding and very sexy, the pay-off is also a surprise!

It was lovely to see these three works onstage, the company were full of character and great fun, Bourne's regular stage designer Lez Brotherston provided a simple canopied set which finally paid off in the final section and Andrew Murrell was responsible for the atmospheric lighting - although whoever was in charge of the dry-ice might think twice about swamping the stage so much for the start of THE INFERNAL GALOP.

The EARLY ADVENTURES tour continues in Oxford, Poole, Madrid, Blackpool, York, Liverpool, Sadler's Wells (the company's regular home in London), Northampton and Beverly Hills - if you are in the area do see this delightful, frothy production.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

WOOLF WORKS Works On Stage, Screen And CD... Living the past again

Nearly two years ago, we took the plunge - in the year of trying new things artistically - and went to Covent Garden to see WOOLF WORKS, a new Royal Ballet production choreographed by Wayne McGregor.  I remember feeling some trepidation... Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors for whom language is the key so how can you silence that but still make it relevant?  Two words... Wayne McGregor.

As you can see from my blog it had a profound effect on us both and it did indeed start a continuing exploration of ballet which has been very rewarding.  But how would the first revival of WOOLF WORKS compare - and would it have the same impact?

I am happy to be able to say that it led to a deeper, richer understanding of the work but also there was the added bonus this year of seeing it on the big screen at the Curzon Mayfair and also being able to appreciate the depth of Max Richter's music with it's release on cd.

Onstage we were blessed with practically the same cast as in 2015, the only major replacement being Calvin Richardson and his breathtaking pirouettes dancing the role of 'Evans' for the unwell Tristan Dyer in the MRS. DALLOWAY-inspired 'I Now, I Then'.  The impact of seeing the company onstage was made even more exciting by seeing the same dancers a few days later on the live cinema screening, giving an opportunity to experience their talent closer than possible at the Opera House although there was some loss too, in particular the glorious digital stage image of the garden of Clarissa's imagined youth flooding the set.

McGregor has choreographed three ballets in distinct styles: 'I Now, I Then' is the most narrative; based on MRS DALLOWAY - and introduced with the only known recording of Virginia Woolf musing on the difficulty of using old English words in new ways - we see Clarissa Dalloway (sublime Alessandra Ferri) meeting old flame Peter Walsh (Gary Aves) and relives the glorious summer she spent as a teenager with Peter and her best friend, the free spirited Sally Seton, and how life seemed full of possibility and choice.  The younger selves were danced wonderfully by Francesca Hayward, Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell.

As Clarissa is lost in memories of what could have been we also see Septimus Smith (the astonishing Edward Watson) who is tortured with the lasting trauma of shell-shock from his experience in the WWI trenches.  His wife Rezia (Akana Takada) tries to keep him engaged in life but he is lost in memories of his friend Evans (Richardson) who was killed before him.  It is a perfect fusion of performance, choreography, design by Cigué, lighting by Lucy Carter - the moment the stage was suffused with glowing red when Septimus danced with Evans was glorious - and, almost a character of it's own, Max Richter's heartbreaking, longing music.

The second act 'Becomings' takes ORLANDO as it's inspiration and is the most abstract of the pieces although during one of the intervals for the screened event Wayne McGregor was interviewed by hosts Darcey Bussell and Clemency Burton-Hill and said he believed that no dance can be truly abstract as the human element will always lend a dance a narrative sense.  Again Lucy Carter's lighting is thrilling: an overhead beam roams the dark stage picking out 12 dancers in varying degrees of glittering gold Elizabethan costumes before a cold laser beam illuminates two of them and we launch into McGregor's take on Woolf's exploration of gender fluidity.

As Richter's music roams from bone-crunching electro beats to minimal keyboard runs so McGregor's choreography changes from solos to duets to triple routines for his remarkable dancers - pushing their limbs into even more challenging shapes and attitudes; the exhilaration is in seeing male and female dancers fusing into just pure dance.  With each segment, they slowly lose their Elizabethan costumes until they are in shades of grey, all dancing in and out of four overhead spotlights, all individual but all unified, until the lights cut out and the auditorium is criss-crossed with shafts of laserlight.  Again the live screening was wonderful to showcase in detail the astonishing work of, among others, Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Steven McRae and Watson.

The final act is TUESDAY and takes it inspiration from THE WAVES but also references Woolf's suicide note written on Tuesday 25th March 1941, three days before she actually drowned in the River Ouse.  McGregor has the inspired choice of Gillian Anderson reading the wrenching suicide note while a slow-motion film of crashing waves shows on a stage-wide screen all but dwarfing the stationary figure of Ferri beneath.  Anderson's measured, hypnotic delivery leads you in to McGregor's slow meditation on love and loss, beautifully danced by Ferri and Federico Bonelli who are later joined by Sarah Lamb and an ensemble which also includes young students from the Royal Ballet School.

Ferri is astonishing in her poetry and control as she becomes the embodiment of Richter's dreamlike, ethereal music, solitary notes slowly coming together with Anush Hovhannisyan's soprano to wash over you with waves of strings and brass.  There was one moment that haunts me: Alessandra Ferri starts a solo movement against the ensemble's choreography who slowly, three or four at a time, echo her until they are all bending and stretching as one, it's breathtakingly beautiful.  Slowly the ensemble ebb away into the darkness at the back of the stage, as Bonelli lowers a prone Ferri onto the stage as the music slowly vanishes note by note...

As I have said, the live screening was a wonderful opportunity to see the dancers closer than possible in the theatre and there were the added extras of interviews with Wayne McGregor and Max Richter as well as Maggie Smith reading passages from THE WAVES as well as Virginia's memoir MOMENTS OF BEING.

As I have written this I have been able to relive the experience by playing the cd THREE WORLDS of Richter's score; I wondered if it would work separately from the experience of seeing it with the dancers but it works beautifully.  It has been great to be able to explore this work in depth for the past two weeks - I would love the opportunity to see it again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

HEDDA GABLER at the Lyttelton, National Theatre - Ruth Wilson Scores With A Hedda....

I really wrestled with seeing Ivo van Hove's production of Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER, his first for the National Theatre.  Yes I loved his revival of Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE with it's bold performances and pressure-cooker atmosphere but I had squirmed through his production of the David Bowie musical LAZARUS.

However word of mouth that this was one to see had me scouring the sold-out seating plans on the National website until I found two returns in the stalls.  I was glad I changed my mind because for all his obvious Director Theatre tropes, van Hove delivered a scorching revival.  

As with his VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, van Hove has stripped the play down to the bare bones and shone a bright, white searchlight on the characters leaving them mercilessly exposed to our view.  Luckily, van Hove has still allowed for Patrick Marber's sardonic, sarcastic humour in his translation to pierce the action but as Ibsen's plot gathers momentum then his trademark high-level tension starts to ratchet up.

As usual the production is designed and lit by van Hove's partner Jan Versweyveld - I wonder if their home matches their theatrical aesthetic?  Minimalist spaces and the odd chair or couch... it would be fun if the van Hove home is actually packed with kitsch.  Versweyveld gives the production a soulless room with cold whitewashed walls, empty apart from a couch and chair, a table, an overly-designed table lamp, a large piano and incongruous buckets of fresh-cut flowers.  Oddly enough it works, suggesting not only the new home that Hedda is trapped in now she is married to the loving but petulant academic Tesman but also the emptiness she feels in the relationship. 

Six months married and finally back from their honeymoon, it is clear to Hedda that she has miscalculated; the spoilt daughter of a domineering General who panicked at his death and, not getting any younger, agreed to marry Tesman in the belief that he would be successful and keep her in the style she is accustomed to.  To her disgust she finds he is already suggesting economies in their lifestyle and that he has been supported while growing up by his Aunt Julie whom Hedda finds a bore.  Even their dream home is built on a lie - Hedda had told Tesman she would love to live there when they walked past it as she had run out of things to say!

In denial that she might be pregnant, Hedda turns her attention to manipulating the lives of those around her namely Thea Elvstead and Ejlert Lovborg.  Hedda had tormented Thea while growing up but pretends to be a friend after learning that she has left her husband to help Hedda's one-time suitor Ejlert Lovborg to stop drinking and finish his academic masterpiece that could win him a coveted job over Tesman.  The only person immune to Hedda's manipulations is the cynical Judge Brack, another longtime friend of hers who can match her deceptions easily.

To Thea's dismay, Lovborg gives in to Hedda's taunts and starts drinking before joining Tesman at Judge Brack's house for a lad's night out.  In the early hours Tesman arrives home and tells Hedda that Brack moved his guest to the local brothel and on the way Lovborg drunkenly dropped his manuscript but Tesman found it and gives it to Hedda for safekeeping.  Like her father's pistols which are never far from her side, Hedda has been handed a loaded gun but her shot ricochets back on her...

In a constant state of ferocious intensity, Ruth Wilson was magnificent as Hedda; crackling like an overhead train cable in the rain, she roamed the stage like a trapped panther, dripping scorn even when attempting to compliment others - only quiet finally when trapped by Brack in the trap of her own making.  Wilson has always been a strong stage actress but this was a particular triumph.

There were strong supporting performances too from Sinead Matthews as Thea Elvstead (nasty frock though), Kate Duchene as Aunt Juliana and Éva Magyar as the ever-watchful maid Berthe.  The men proved a bit more uneven: Rafe Spall was a snide, loutish Judge Brack - although he was effective against Wilson a little more shade would have been welcome, Kyle Soller's Tesman was less of a puppy-dog than usual but Chukwudi Iwuji as Lovborg was two-dimensional.

As I said van Hove's direction was watertight but for each good directorial touch - Hedda 'decorating' with handfuls of flowers and a nailgun - there were ones that stuck out as too distracting: the supporting cast took forever to board up a large onstage window before the last act for no particular reason while Brack's pouring and spitting the contents of a can of tomato juice over Hedda as a visual illustration of his final power over her was just heavy-handed.  I could also have done without the blasts of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' between scenes...  how 60s.

These clumpy moments apart, van Hove's HEDDA GABLER blew the clutter off the usual Ibsenisms away to deliver a thrilling, highly-strung experience.

HEDDA GABLER will screen in cinemas in the UK, Europe and the US as part of National Theatre Live on 9th March - to find a cinema near you, click on the picture below:


Sunday, February 05, 2017

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY at Charing Cross Theatre - Time Out Of Life...

Thom Southerland's latest production as artistic director of the Charing Cross Theatre is the hitherto unseen 2011 musical DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY with a score by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan.  This follows on from Southerland's past success with Yeston's musicals GRAND HOTEL and TITANIC but sadly DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY is one of diminished returns.

After the success of TITANIC Yeston and bookwriter Peter Stone wanted a smaller canvas to work on and the release of the Brad Pitt turkey MEET JOE BLACK drove them back to that film's source material, LA MORTE IN VACANZA a 1924 Italian play which later became the Broadway success DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY and subsequent film starring Fredric March.

The musical took an astonishing 14 years from initial idea to stage and ironically one of the hold-ups was Peter Stone's death in 2003.  Yeston chose Broadway writer Thomas Meehan to complete the work but I felt this is reflected in the script which refuses to - um... - come to life.  Meehan's natural style is in musical comedy - ANNIE, THE PRODUCERS, HAIRSPRAY - so the existential drama of Death observing human reactions to him are an uncomfortable fit.

A rich Italian family are returning to their villa after celebrating their daughter's engagement but she is thrown from one of the cars as it spins out of the control, she is surprisingly unharmed from this accident.  A shadowy figure had been seen before the accident and the man later appears at the villa and reveals to the father that he is Death, still recovering from the exhaustion of his labours during the First World War and wishing to spend time with humans wanting to understand his effect on them and their dreams.

Disguised as a Russian prince, Death spends time with the family and guests but feels an unmistakable attraction for the daughter Grazia who is drawn to the mysterious stranger too, much to the anger of her fiancee Corrado.  Among the guests are the widow and best friend of Grazia's brother who was killed in the war and they both feel uneasy in the stranger's presence.  Nothing can stop Grazia's attraction to Death however, and as news filters through that no-one has died in the world since the week before, Grazia must decide where her future lies...

The allegorical source material is so unique that the chamber musical must hit the right tone and it is this that the production struggles with.  Southerland's direction and the cast are certainly po-faced but despite Matt Daw's atmospheric lighting and Morgan Large's economical but persuasive crumbling Italian villa, the production is let down by several ungainly performances and the downbeat, thin book.

Maury Yeston's score is certainly awash with doomy romance but too often it sounded like his TITANIC score: the solo number "Roberto's Eyes" sung by the dead son's friend as he describes a fatal plane crash was an almost note-for-note copy of TITANIC's "Mr Andrew's Vision" where the last moments of the ship are recounted.  The romantic ballads were too interchangeable and again a duet for an elderly loving couple only reminded one of the similar song for TITANIC'S Mr and Mrs Strauss.  Yeston is a good composer but bearing in mind how long the show took to write one would have hoped for more originality.

The cast with their cut-glass, stage school accents did little to suggest a Venetian family - Henley-On-Thames yes, Venice no.  There was also too little variety of performance across the quite large cast of 14, when they all crowded onto the set at times it made me think that a few characters could easily have been dropped to concentrate the attention more on the lead roles.

American actor Chris Peluso was a bit too lightweight to convince as Death as he hung around like a lovesick teenager at an ex's wedding but it was the performance of Zoe Doano as Grazia which made the production so earthbound, her shrill singing and showroom dummy performance did nothing to suggest Grazia's conflict in choosing life or death - she barely suggested if the choice was between red or clear nail varnish.  There were nice performances from James Gant as the butler Fidele, fearful of the new guest after finding out his secret, and Scarlett Courtney as a guest quietly in love with Grazia's fiancee but they shone only occasionally

There is a musical lurking within DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY but I suspect a few more years might be needed to get it exactly right, and certainly a new writer revisiting the source play.

Nice poster though...