Wednesday, May 31, 2017

SALOMÉ at the Olivier Theatre - Cooch Dancers of the World Unite...

... you have nothing to lose but your veils... or the Baptist's head!

So here we are, another co-production between the National Theatre and Oy Gevalt Productions.  They really do make it too easy sometimes...

Here's a little-known fact for you Constant Reader... did you know that the National Theatre seats are light purple because it was Sir Laurence's favourite colour?  Well, he would have had a jolly old time last Monday as the Olivier had rows and rows of empty seats so he could have had his fill of it.  Of course that is never a sign that the play is at fault, there are countless examples of great plays that were flops on their first time out.  SALOMÉ ain't one of them.

The play is written and directed by Yael Farber who is a hot name to drop these days.  She's a South African female version of Ivo van Hove; a director who concentrates more on mood and visual effect above all else.  She scored big with her Old Vic production of THE CRUCIBLE in 2014 and LES BLANCS at the Olivier last year and I have a vision of Rufus Norris saying "We'd love to give you the Olivier stage again if you can think of anything suitable?" and Farber opening her bag and pulling out her Best Play and Best Director Helen Hayes awards for the Washington DC production of SALOMÉ and saying "Well..."   It must have been a thin year for plays in Washington DC last year. 

There is no escaping it once you are in... Middle Eastern wailing women erupt every few minutes, the set slowly revolving, a large cast from various ethnicities bellowing out their lines... although twice there was an arresting stage image which was remarkable - the heavy showers of sand that falls from the flies quite early on and Salomé going all Les Misérables and waving huge curtains about to spark a revolution.  However the striving to achieve memorable stage images above all else also led to some crashing clangers...

John The Baptist - here called Iokanaan - was tortured by having his head plunged continuously into a large bowl of water but after the nth time I thought "you are only doing that so when his head is yanked up it makes a huge spray of water across the stage" - use the sinks backstage if you want to play with water eh?.  Farber also came up with the whizzer idea to having The Baptist speak in Hebrew with his words translated in English on a screen at the back of the stage.  Again all well and good, but in a key moment, a light is shone from the top of the backdrop as Salomé climbs down a ladder to Iokanaan's prison cell where he recites passages from the Song Of Songs (allegedly - it could have been the Hebraic translation of WE ARE THE CHEEKY GIRLS for all I know) - either way the light shining in the audience's eyes and the obstruction of the ladder and Salomé made the translation unviewable.

But the ultimate "Oh Do Fuck Off" moment came just after that moment... so Farber wants to reclaim Salomé from the sexual being that patriarchal history has made her... so guess who is the only actor on the stage to strip off for a lengthy 'ritual' bathing?  Yep you guessed.. Isabella Nefar as Salomé.  Not Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan who gets to keep his funky loincloth on, but the young Nefar.  Now if the actor can keep his loincloth on why can't the actress be covered as well?  It's still tits and ass Yael, you obviously need to re-read the lyrics to DANCE 10, LOOKS 3 from A CHORUS LINE.

So yes, there is the crux of the interval-less 90 minutes running time... patriarchal history has passed down that a young girl possibly called Salomé danced for her lascivious step-father Herod Antipas and when he told her she could have whatever her heart desired, she asked for the head of John The Baptist.  So Farber rewrites history and has Salomé won over by Iokanaan's revolutionary doctrine - and thank you Owen for explaining this to me - demands his head to provoke his followers into finally rising up against the Roman occupiers of Judea.  I bet Iokanaan was a bit pissed off when this was sprung on him.  Like, cheers bitch.

But here is what made me do a biblical facepalm...  the story handed down to us is that Herodias, Herod's domineering second wife, told her daughter Salomé to make her fateful choice as she knew that her husband did not want to kill The Baptist.  So where is this larger-than-life figure in the play?  Simple... she is written out, she doesn't exist.  Which flies right in the face of Farber's thinking that whoever Salomé was in actuality, once she demands the head of The Baptist she vanishes from the story.

She even goes to great - and dull - lengths to have the young Salomé represented as 'Salomé So-called" and the narrator to be called 'Nameless' but who is in fact the spirit of Salomé, returned from the sandy grave where she was buried alive after her tongue was cut out for becoming a revolutionary (are you still with me?)  Her belaboured point being that women have vanished from history and story-telling... yes Yael, like you have ditched Herodias because she does not fit into your Milly Tant cookie cutter as woman as victim.  Not wishing to come on all Camille Paglia, but conniving women like Queen Herodias or young women who could drive older men to promise them anything they desired like Salomé are to be championed too.

So there you go, 90 minutes where the occasional memorable stage image made you pound the sand that the script was as clunky and anachronistic as the titles for a poe-faced biblical silent screen epic.

Apart from Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan, no other performances made any impression - indeed Paul Chahidi as Herod and Lloyd Hutchinson as Pilate both deserved Iokanaan's biblical water-boarding.  Olwen Fouéré as the older Salomé seemed to think she was speaking Beckett's lines.  If only.

Susan Hilferty's set -  but not the naff costumes - and Tim Lutkin's lighting gave the production what few moments of interest there were.  What annoys me most is that such arse-achingly and obvious woolly liberal revisionism like this is taking up space on the main National Theatre stage when major works of the theatrical canon are crying out to be seen.

And yes Owen you are right... Farber's contention that a young girl had a tiny moment in history but has vanished nameless into the sands of time is defeated by what's written on the front on the programme... SALOMÉ. If you have tickets for it I suggest you bring your bucket and spade to make your own entertainment.

Monday, May 29, 2017


It's just over 2 years since we discovered through Wayne McGregor's wonderful WOOLF WORKS how the Royal Ballet are adept at contemporary as well as classical ballet and this has been demonstrated a few times by their scheduling of memorable triple bills based on choreographers or themes.  So, Constant Reader, what can be better than a triple bill?  A quadruple bill of course!

Last Saturday we took our amphitheatre seats for an evening of four one-act ballets, only one of which we had seen before.  The first of the four was choreographer William Forsythe's THE VERTIGINOUS THRILL OF EXACTITUDE - the title is almost as long as the ballet itself being only 15 minutes!

Forsythe's choreography uses the majestic finale of Shubert's 9th Symphony and it's constant flurry of movement - using classic moves but with wonky angles and straggly arms and legs - must be a trial for the three female and two male dancers, all vividly colourful against a black background, the men in bright purple and the women in bright lime-green.

The dancers mix and merge, coming and going, dancing in groups, trios, duets and solos all at a frenetic pace - a bit too frenetic for Itziar Mendizabel who came racing from the wings into the middle of a group and went down on her tutu to an intake of breath from the audience.  But she recovered well and found her way back into the music after a beat or two... well done Itziar.

After a pause we had Balanchine's cheeky TARANTELLA, a duet of great charm and character which allows it's male and female to really stamp personalities on the roles.  Capering around the stage and around each other, Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Alexander Campbell were delightful.

Next was the first revival of Christopher Wheeldon's narrative ballet STRAPLESS which we first saw last year as part of a Wheeldon triple bill; in my blog for that production I hoped that it would be revived sometime but I didn't expect it to be so soon!  Oddly enough, the jitters which might have explained Itziar's stumble in VERTIGINOUS THRILL... also affected STRAPLESS when, during the scenery change for the second act, one of the ballerinas positioning a panelled column for the Café L'Avenue set, pushed too hard and the column went BANG across the stage only for it to be dragged off ignominiously!  The ballerina I hasten to add just wandered off and left it!

It has been slightly reworked to focus more on the main characters of Amélie Gautreau and John Singer Sergeant - the model and artist of the notorious MADAME X painting which scandalized Paris in 1884 - but again I felt that the story proves too elusive when reduced down to just ballet.  But Lauren Cuthbertson captured the skittish society beauty Amélie very well and her haunting of her now-famous portrait remains a powerful moment; the modern-day gallery visitors blind to the real woman whose image they admire.

The last ballet was Liam Scarlett's new production SYMPHONIC DANCES based on Rachmaninoff's last composition.  Written in 1940, the composer had asked Mikhail Fokine if he would be interested in using the music for a three-part ballet but Fokine's death in 1942 ended the possibility of it happening in Rachmaninoff's lifetime.  Since then ballet productions have been mounted but Liam Scarlett's is the first in the UK.

STRAPLESS sits well with SYMPHONIC DANCES as it too is centred around the central figure of a statuesque diva, and for good reason... This season will be the last danced by Principal Ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky and Liam Scarlett in SYMPHONIC DANCES has choreographed a production in which she remains the centre of attention at all times.

Yanowsky looked every inch the diva in her opening costume, a strapless black bodice and huge, multi-layered skirt which became almost a character in itself as it whipped and swirled around her.  Red and black also ruled in Jon Morrell's stage design, a stark and empty Opera House stage glowed with red lighting amidst the onstage mist while a large metal lighting grid hanging above the stage cast ominous black shadows beneath it.

The second part of the first movement featured Yanowsky seemingly unmoved by the sinuous capering of James Hay; in the second scene she reappeared in a black and red tuxedo while it was the turn of the men in the ensemble to wear the full skirts - indeed there was a noticeable wobble from one of the men proving that the Devil works in threes after the Itziar and column incidents.

The final movement saw the metal grid horizontal to the stage with Yanowsky losing the tuxedo to appear in just a bodysuit, this time duetting with Reece Clarke, before Rachmaninoff's dramatic, oppressive score built to a devastating climax.  As Wayne McGregor says, an abstract ballet cannot help but have some sort of narrative because of the human element and Yanowsky and the ensemble made me think of an imperious Empress slowly thawing and allowing emotion into her life through her adoring acolytes.

Zenaida Yanowsky was cheered to the Opera House's Fabergé egg-like roof and rightly so; she was astonishingly powerful and totally in command of her stage; Laura Morera is playing the role too so it would be interesting to see it with another energy, another persona doing those moves.

All together, it was an evening of passionate performance and thrilling choreography.  I am still wondering about those three errors however, could it be that this company - who were different from the opening night apart from Yanowsky - had been under-rehearsed?  Ah well, I suppose it goes to show that they are human underneath all that well-drilled skill.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

MAYERLING at Covent Garden: Kenneth MacMillan's Obsessional Classic...

Mystery still hangs over the deaths in 1889 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in the Imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling.  He was 30 and she was 17, and as soon as their bodies were found a cover-up started to protect both the Hapsburg Empire and the image of the happily-married Prince.  The story has been told several times on film but Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet MAYERLING for the Royal Ballet casts a gripping spell.

Needless to say the reality in 1889 was anything but what was reported at the time.  History has revealed Rudolf to be a morbid death-obsessed womanizer who at the time of his death was riddled with syphilis and addicted to morphine.  His politically expedient marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium left both miserable but his request that they separate was refused by his father Emperor Franz Josef - an act of gross hypocrisy as his father and mother, the Empress Elizabeth, lived fairly separate lives with their own lovers.

A former mistress of Rudolf was Empress Elizabeth's niece and lady-in-waiting Countess Marie Larisch who was a friend of Mary Vetsera's mother, and these two women who both craved advancement at court, actively promoted Rudolf's attraction to young Mary.  She was a wilful, highly-strung teenager passionately in love with her Prince Charming (as she saw him) and would do anything for The Grand Gesture.  That came on 31st January, three months after their meeting, when they were both found dead in his bedroom.

Marie left a letter full of fateful talk of them going into an uncertain beyond but they were going together.  Needless to say, this was the last thought on the Hapsburg Empire's collective mind after their bodies were found: Mary's uncles were summoned to Mayerling and, propping her up between them in a carriage, was buried immediately in a nearby monastery cemetery, while Rudolf was mourned as having died from a heart rupture. Eventually a version of the murder/suicide was released but with the emphasis that the Prince's mind was deranged so the church allowed for his body to be buried in the Hapsburg burial crypt.

Kenneth MacMillan's brooding masterpiece opens with a moonlit burial, only when it is repeated at the end do we know this is the hasty funeral of pathetic Mary Vetsera.  The ballet flashbacks to the wedding of Rudolf and Princess Stephanie but unsettling undercurrents swirl around the court as Stephanie is terrorized by the crazed Rudolf in their room.  The second act has Rudolf making his wife accompany him as he tours the taverns drinking and womanizing, Stephanie leaving in distress when he dances with his ex-lover Mitzi Caspar who eventually hides him from a police raid; meanwhile Countess Larisch visits Mary and her mother and tricks the girl into believing that her destiny is to be Rudolf's lover.  The act ends with the first tumultuous lovemaking of Rudolf and Mary.

The third act opens with a shooting party where Rudolf shoots a courtier dead who is standing near the Emperor (an incident that happened in reality) and while the Empress discerns the hand of Countess Larisch in the relationship, Mary and Rudolf decide on their fate.  At Mayerling, the Prince's servant tries to entertain the couple as he has done before but stops when he realizes the couple are totally self-absorbed, fatally leaving the couple alone...

39 years after it's debut performance MacMillan's ballet is a darkly glittering masterwork; a driven, haunting work of tortured sexuality that leads inexorably to the grave.  It's fascinating that MacMillan ends the first and second acts with Rudolf having violent sex but whereas the first act has Stephanie manhandled by Rudolf and cowering as he brandishes a revolver, in the second act Rudolf finds Mary a match for him, a match made in a dangerously out-of-control place.  MacMillan's extraordinary choreography is still a hypnotic, thrilling thing to see.

The ballet, which is based on a scenario by Gillian Freeman, has been re-staged by Christopher Saunders, Grant Coyle and Karl Burnett and uses the original designs by the late Nicholas Georgiades.  The lead roles of Rudolf and Mary were danced by Thiago Soares and Lauren Cuthbertson, and while Cuthbertson brought the wildly passionate teenager to vivid and thrilling life I found Soares to be quite uncharismatic and almost lumpen, I can only imagine the electric quality that more live-wire performers like Edward Watson and Steven McRae would bring to the role.

There was much more to be enjoyed in the supporting roles: Yuhui Choe played the distressed Stephanie well while Claire Calvert was a vibrantly sensual Mitzi Caspar, the real-life mistress of Rudolf who reported him to the authorities when he suggested a suicide pact.  I enjoyed Tristan Dyer as the Prince's servant Bratfisch who has a delightful solo in the tavern and whose faltering repeat of it at Mayerling was very touching.  However they were all outshone by the always watchable Itziar Mendizabal as the devious Countess Marie Larisch, the go-between for the lovers. 

In real life, Countess Marie was ostracized by Empress Elizabeth when her involvement in the deaths was revealed and she led a peripatetic life, marrying often and living in various countries, always trying to make money off of her involvement with the Hapsburg royalty.

MAYERLING was wonderful to see and stands as a tribute to the remarkable choreographic genius of Kenneth MacMillan, who tragically died of a heart-attack backstage at Covent Garden during a revival performance of the ballet in 1992.

Monday, May 15, 2017

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre: Let battle commence...

There is no stopping Imelda Staunton; where other leading ladies will play one of the big stonking parts then have some time off to recuperate, Imelda is knocking them out of the park one after the other.

Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD at Chichester and the Adelphi and Margie in David Lindsay-Abaire's GOOD PEOPLE at Hampstead and the Noel Coward Theatre was followed by her titanic Mama Rose in GYPSY at both Chichester and the Savoy.  That's enough to make any other actress sit back in the relative peace of a film or tv studio but Imelda simply squared her shoulders again for battle and has now taken on the corrosive Martha in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Not that Martha will make Imelda take a rest as when it closes she jumps straight into the National's production of FOLLIES as Sally, another woman on the edge.  Because if there is something that links Nellie Lovett, Margie, Mama Rose and Martha is the fact that they are all women who are just hanging on, racing against time to find some kind of fulfillment or peace.

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? finally confirmed Edward Albee as one of America's leading playwrights in 1962 when it premiered on Broadway but even it's huge success could not win it the Pulitzer Prize that year as it was judged "too filthy"!  He was later to go on and win three of them for A DELICATE BALANCE, SEASCAPE and THREE TALL WOMEN. Of course the intense screen version of VIRGINIA WOOLF only confirmed it's status along with winning a second Academy Award for Elizabeth Taylor and launching the career of director Mike Nichols.

I last saw it on stage in Anthony Page's 2007 production which transferred from Broadway with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as Martha and George but it is good to see it again to be reminded of the explosive nature of Albee's writing and the stagecraft involved in keeping us hooked on the lives of four people over it's relatively real-time length.

It's a play where the balance of power tips drunkenly between it's two main protagonists: George and Martha are a married couple living on the campus of a college which is run by Martha's father and where George is an associate professor in the history department.  Their life together has settled into one of weary recriminations and barely-hidden resentments.

In the small hours of the night following a party to welcome the new intake of teachers, Martha invites a new couple back for a drink much to George's exasperation.  Nick, who is due to start teaching biology, arrives with his gauche wife Honey and the scene is set for George and Martha to slowly draw the new couple into their private hell.  Honey is a pushover but Nick rises to the challenge until he too shows his true nature.  As the new day dawns, a line is crossed and life will never be the same for George and Martha...

What one forgets is how funny the play is - one remembers the vicious insults but George's barbed needled comments and Martha's gimlet-eyed insults are there in abundance too.  Of course there are occasional longueurs during the three hour running time but Albee needs to sometimes bring it down to a simmering level for the explosions to pay off later.

Director James Macdonald - to keep the cooking analogy just a bit further - has the pressure cooker atmosphere going throughout as George the turtle outpaces Martha the hare; she might have knocked him out in a pretend boxing-match in front of her father but George now knows that in a war of attrition it's who's left standing at the end of all the battles that claims victory. 

But what victory is there to be won in this match?  Both George and Martha face an uncertain future at the end of the play with their once-secret prop now gone, but Albee does suggest that in the cold grey dawn there might just be a chance of a new life together.  The third act is called The Exorcism after all...

Macdonald has Imelda matched perfectly by Coneth Hill, his hangdog expression and sagging-sofa posture hiding a gladiator tried and tested in the field of marital combat.  Although they both have their moments I was less impressed with Luke Treadaway's Nick or Imogen Poots as Honey.  Her lack of stage experience showed up opposite her three colleagues and Treadaway felt too lightweight to convince us of Nick's hidden nasty streak. 

But the night belongs to Conleth Hill and the unstoppable Staunton, her ability to go to the extremes of her character are a wonder to behold, and in the final nerve-shredding moments of the play she draws you to Martha in her loneliness and despair.  "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I am, George. I am"