14 January 2009

La Bayadere - Royal Ballet@ The Royal Opera House - Monday 19th Januarh 2009


A bayadère (temple dancer), Nikiya is an innocent and beautiful girl. She is in love with Solor, a young captain serving the Rajah. The High Brahmin, who is also in love with Nikiya, is seeking a chance to make her his own. The Rajah's daughter Gamzatti, loves Solor, and they are betrothed. When Gamzatti finds out that Solor loves not her but Nikiya, she sends the bayadere a basket of flowers containing a poisonous snake, which bites her. The High Brahmin offers Nikiaya the antidote in return for an admission of love from her but she refuses and dies. Her spirit descends to the Kingdom of the Shades. Solor takes opium and follows her but, awakened from the dream, goes to the temple in search of her - only to find that Gamzatti, the Rajah and the High Brahmin are waiting for him as the wedding ceremony starts. A vision of Nikiya appears to Solor and he pledges true love to her. The gods are angered and destroy the temple, killing all within. Nikiya's spirit leads Solor's spirit to the Abode of the Blessed, where they are reunited.

Interviews with the principal dancers and Natalia Makarova (Choreographer, hamming it up in deliciously fruity Russian tones) plus stills from the production and short extracts. Trivia note for balletomanes (which I never knew) - the dancers in the famous "Entrance of the Shades" in act 3 represent the coils of smoke coming from Solor's opium pipe.

Nikiya – Tamara Rojo
Solor – Carlos Acosta
Gamzatti – Marianela Nunez
High Brahmin – Gary Avis
Rajah – Christopher Saunders
Magadyeva [“Mags” to his mates] the Fakir – Kenta Kuro
Ayah – Genesia Rosato
Golden Idol – Jose Martin
First Shade – Yuhui Choe
Second Shade – Helen Crawford
Third Shade – Hikrau Kobashi

Forget your over-conceptualised Swan Lakes and buggered-about with Nutcrackers. Give me a good Bayadere - as long as its the "proper" version that rounds the story off with the roof of the temple falling in and everyone dying - and I'm a happy man. If there are dancing women with parrots, an elephant and a "spesh act"* in the wedding procession, so much the better but I can live without them as long as I get plenty of death at the end.

What I like about this ballet is its spectacle – there’s lots of colour and pageantry and sparkly costumes. I’m easily pleased. This production has lots of all of it (but unfortunately no parrots).

There were some fairly acid reviews of this on the opening night, and I’m pleased to report that most of the problems seem to have been sorted out. Marianela Nunez was back this evening in the role of Gamzatti, and some of the staging problems reported didn’t appear that obvious. I did notice, however, that several of the pas de huit dancers seemed to have trouble in finding the middle line of the stage, making a couple of their dances extremely wonky and off-centre. Nothing major though.

I have to agree with some of the criticism of Carlos Acosta. I’ve never really rated him as a classical dancer; OK, he’s been excellent in some of the non-classical stuff I’ve seen him in, but a lot of his lines seemed unfinished in this production and it looked a lazy performance in consequence. He came across as being rather emotionally absent as well – while Nikiya and Gamzatti are emoting all over the shop, all he seems to be able to manage is a somewhat smug blankness. OK, Solor isn’t Hamlet, but I don’t think his face broke into a smile once the entire evening. Tamara Rojo was born to play the title role – she’s tiny and lithe and capable of expressing great emotion on stage, and she’s a fantastic technician. Everything looks so easy when she does it, which is the mark of greatness. Marianela Nunez is also excellently cast as the proud Princess Gamzatti, stalking about the stage like a haughty panther in Act 1, then confident and shimmering in the garden scene when she does all her variations. Come Act 3, however, her sudden transition from sex-kitten to bewildered, spoilt child, taking refuge in Daddy’s arms when things go AWOL, is a joy to watch.

Lovely, lovely scenery and costumes throughout, although I do often wonder why its necessary for Nikiya to change her outfit at every conceivable opportunity. Gamzatti can get away with wearing a different frock for different appearances (she is a Rajah’s daughter, after all, and a wet dream for the likes of Gok Wan) but a humble bayadere wouldn’t have that many togs, surely? The Ayah costume, however, needs a bit of a rethink in my opinion, as it makes the poor bitch wearing it look like a wet crow, basically, particularly as the role is one of those awful “non-roles” meted out to clapped out members of the company to give them something to do as they approach retirement.

The opening of The Kingdom of the Shades act was sublime – there is no other word for it. I’ve put a YouTube clip of it at the bottom of this entry so that you can indulge yourself – be warned that its 8 minutes or so long. I could watch it for ever. There was a Silence** in the House as the scene progressed – one of the few of the evening as otherwise the place sounded like a TB ward with people coughing and hacking their lungs out. But politely. This is the ROH, you know.

The evening wasn’t entirely without incident. We were a few seats away from a completely mad woman who had not only seen another performance of this ballet about four days ago, but who had booked herself two seats for this one; in case the view from one of them wasn’t good enough, she could go and sit in the other one, she announced. There was an awful crash backstage at one point – loud enough to be heard clearly by us sitting in the cheap seats about ¾ of a mile from the stage, so it must have been deafening from the stalls. Maybe it was the ROH Chief Executive’s wallet falling on the floor. In Act 2, during one of the Shade Variations, some idiot's phone went off loudly (now, a rant. I know that people get obsessed with their phones and cannot live without them. But announcements are made at the start of each performance asking people to turn them off – and anyway, how effing slow do you have to be to remember to turn them off in the theatre anyway??) and, later, during a big pas de deux, something came off Ms Rojo’s tutu and went tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle across the floor, making a heck of a lot of noise for something so tiny. At the end, the collapsing temple failed to collapse (extremely disappointing as I do like the odd polystyrene boulder crashing to the floor every now and again). And just as I was settling down for a damn good clap at the very end as the principals came on for their solo calls, Him Indoors starts scrabbling for his coat and making “come on, let’s be off” gruntings. This is exactly what happens when we’re watching a film – as soon as the credits start to roll, off goes the DVD player, and by heck is it irritating. Next time I get dragged to something pompous, I’ll be trying the same trick and watching the effect.
And no parrots. Damn

* Spesh Act - Luvvie-speak for "Speciality Act" - essentially outsiders shipped into a theatre company to perform something outside the capability of the rest of the cast. For instance, in The Boyfriend (a musical comedy), the "Spesh" are a pair of dancers who perform in a scene in the last act. Its a longstanding joke that the "Spesh" in Bayadere perform the wild "Native Dance" which appears as part of the entertainment for guests arriving for the betrothal ceremony. Of course, they are not strictly "spesh" as they are company members, but the fact that they are gyrating all over the stage dressed in very little, in contrast to the rest of the company who are doing classical ballet and togged up accordingly is enough to qualify them as "spesh". Unfortunately, this version does without this particular dance. It also does without the parrots, which I believe I have already mentioned elsewhere.

** Silence – not the absence of noise, which is merely silence. A Silence is when the entire audience is concentrating furiously to the extent that people forget to cough or fidget about and are totally immersed on what is happening on stage. Rarely experienced. Previously defined as “the sound that black velvet would make if it could”, but Him Indoors seems to find this definition extremely funny and worthy of Zippy from Rainbow.

What the critics said:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/jan/18/la-bayadere-royal-opera-house (I love the last paragraph of this describing Nikiya's last scene!)




Couldn't resist the opportunity to include a clip of my favourite ballet scene ever -the Entrance of the Shades - performed here by the Bolshoi Ballet

God bless YouTube - Parrots, the elephant AND the spesh act!

10 January 2009

Mandy Patinkin in Concert - Duke of Yorks Theatre - Friday 9th January 2009

"In Mandy Patinkin Concert"??


Mr. Patinkin gets self-indulgent on stage for two hours.

Cast: Mandy Patinkin - Mandy Patinkin.

To the Duke of York's Theatre, very recently vacated by Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. The venerable Mr. P. popped his clogs late in the run, and apparently the lights on Broadway dimmed in tribute. On stage at the Duke of Yorks, the cast stood in tribute for ten minutes' silence, although the audience apparently thought that this was just part of the play.

Shoved on in its place is Mandy Patinkin in Concert (not, as Him Indoor's mother, Pat Malaprop, thought "Amanda Tinkin? Never 'eard of 'er!). It was a bitterly cold evening, and there was much entertainment to be had from admiring the range of vastly inappropriate hats sported by the audience in the foyer, from those knitted jobbies with the long swinging plaits that make the wearer - often male, for some reason - look like Pippi Longstocking, through the pale blue leatherette "Nanook of the North" look to a fantastic fur hat/coat combination that made the female (I think) wearer look like a tall furry pepper grinder. The aspect of the hat which made all other contenders pale into sartorial insignificance was a real racoon tail hanging from the back, making the wearer appear like the bastard offspring of pepper grinder and Davy Crockett. Alas, this outfit was real fur, not fake. And doubly alas, I missed my chance to hiss my usual rejoinder at the wearers of such articles: "Excuse me, Madam, I think you'll find there's blood dripping from your coat", which always embarrasses the shit out of such people and makes me cackle with glee for at least an hour every time I use it. Try it sometime - its fun.

Anyway, Mr. Patinkin strides on the stage, which is artfully designed and lit to look like "Backstage". His pianist is "off" and the replacement, apparently, has been "flown in". What? Flown in? In London's West End there is apparently no spare pianist? Mr. P, despite his self-laudatory I Love Barack Obama/Fuck George Bush stance, is so environmentally arrogant that he jets a spare pianist in? Obviously it was a rush job, as the poor man sits there all night playing the pedals with unshod feet, displaying an incredibly manky pair of black socks that look as if they've seen much better days. Mr. P. then makes another "joke" about bottles of Evian water that makes my green hackles rise, and this revew starts to write itself in my head.

What I thought we might be getting was an evening of the Elaine Stritch - At Liberty kind of thing. You know, a bit of personal background, a few shocking revelations, some self-deprecating humour, a bit of angst, some nice songs, a few jokes - him being a bit of a raconteur, in fact, showing the audience a side of him that they don't know. Instead, we get two hours (without interval, please note) of I'm a starry luvvie self-indulgence. Oh, granted, the man can sing, and sing well. But there's a big gap between his chest voice and his head voice, and when he goes falsetto (which he does regularly), he sounds like Tweety-Pie and screws up his eyes like he's straining on the toilet.

And his diction is awful. Not for the entire two hours does he manage to end any of his sung words with a T or a D. Not once does he put any of the stuff he sings into any kind of context (what show it comes from, what's happening during the number etc). Presumably, of course, we are all such luvvies in the audience that we know Mr. P's entire back-catalogue. - sometimes, during the first few bars of a number, there is a whoop from some sad sap in the stalls which is intended to inform the rest of the audience "Oooh, I know this!" And not once does Mr. P. actually stand up straight while he sings, prefering to hold the "Deformed Crane" tai chi position throughout.

One song, "Bring him Home" (complete with shocking vibrato on all the held notes) from Les Mis, is dedicated to "All the Israelis and all the Palestinians". Mr. P. then launches into a speech from The Tempest. "It's from The Tempest", he says, "by Shakespeare. Well, this is England, you all know it, so I won't have to tell you what the plot is!" This is met by a stony silence - this is indeed England, and we don't appreciate being stereotyped as Shakespeare-ites, thank you. Half way through the big "I'll break my staff in two" speech - damn, I just stereotyped myself - he "dries". Everybody sits there silently hugging themselves in glee. Oh, how I wish at this point I knew the play well enough to shout out the next lines and wipe the smile off his smug face.

Anyway, it was an OK two hours. I could have done with an interval. I could have done with a lot more of Mandy The Raconteur and a lot less of Mandy The Luvvie. I could have done without the "God bless you, Shakespeare" and the bowler hat and waistcoat covered in Vote Obama badges. I could have done without the Deformed Crane position, and I could have done with a lot less of the smug self-indulgence and a little more of the "I'm here to entertain you" over the "You're here to listen to me" attitude. Perhaps I should drop Mr. P a short note telling him that the house was significantly papered last night. And ask him to buy his accompianist a pair of shoes, poor sod.

What the critics said:

03 January 2009

Twelfth Night - Donmar Theatre @ Wyndhams - Friday 2nd January 2009

What Act 1, scene 1 should look like - but didnt.


Viola has been shipwrecked in a violent storm off the coast of Illyria; in the process she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. She disguises herself as a boy and assumes the name Cesario for protection. Thus disguised, Viola becomes a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. It seems that Orsino is having little luck courting Olivia, who is in mourning for the deaths of her father and brother. As Orsino's proxy, Viola is sent to Olivia with love letters. Viola refuses to budge until she is let in to see Olivia; Olivia, intrigued by the impudent young "boy," contrives to get "Cesario" to return by sending her steward, Malvolio, after her with one of Olivia's rings. Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen for her – Cesario - rather than Duke Orsino—further complicated by the fact that Viola has had stirrings herself for Orsino.

Sebastian (Viola's twin, presumed dead) comes ashore in Illyria thinking that Viola has drowned in the shipwreck. A man named Antonio rescued him from the surf, and continues to aid him—at some risk to himself, as Antonio fought against the Duke at one time. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, Sir Toby Belch (her uncle) has hoodwinked foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek into supporting him by convincing him that he could be a suitor to Olivia. There is a running feud between Malvolio and Belch; with the help of Maria, Olivia's maid, and Feste, a clown, Belch plots to make a buffoon of the steward. Maria writes a love letter to Malvolio that will make him think Olivia has fallen for him.

Malvolio falls entirely for the sport, which eventually leads to his confinement as a madman. All the while, Belch is egging Sir Andrew into a duel with Viola's "Cesario" character as she departs from Olivia; Olivia is now entirely smitten with Cesario, even though Viola continues to press Orsino's cause. As Viola and Sir Andrew prepare for a duel that neither one wants, Antonio happens upon the scene. Believing Viola to be Sebastian, he intervenes and is arrested. Viola, of course, does not recognize Antonio. Later, Belch and Sir Andrew encounter Sebastian, who doesn't back down from Aguecheek when challenged and resoundingly beats him. Olivia intervenes in the matter, and—mistaking Sebastian for Viola/Cesario—presses her suit for him. A bemused Sebastian agrees to marry her.

Antonio is brought before the Duke for questioning, and Viola relates the events of the duel. Antonio tells everyone how he dragged "this man" from the surf, saving his life. Then Olivia enters, searching for her new husband—which she thinks is Viola (as Cesario). Adding to this confusion, Belch and Aguecheek enter claiming that Viola/Cesario has violently assaulted them. In the midst of Viola's denials, Sebastian appears. The brother and sister recognize one another and are reunited; Sebastian helps to clear the confusion as to who fought who and who married who. At the end, Orsino and Viola pledge their love, Olivia and Sebastian will remain satisfactorily wed, and Olivia rebukes Belch and Maria for their abuse of Malvolio, who vows his revenge upon the whole lot. Belch agrees to wed Maria to make up for getting her in trouble, and all—except the disgruntled Malvolio—will apparently live happily ever after.


Mark Bonnar - Orsino
Norman Bowman - Curio
Ron Cook - Sir Toby Belch
Ian Drysdale- Sea Captain / Dancing Master / Priest
Victoria Hamilton - Viola
Guy Henry- Sir Andrew Aguecheek
James Howard - Valentine
Lloyd Hutchinson - Antonio
Derek Jacobi - Malvolio
Samantha Spiro - Maria
Zubin Varla - Feste
Indira Varma - Olivia

I couldnt find anything on the web about this particular production, so here's the opening sequence from a very visually engaging film version. No idea who is playing the Captain, but he's VERY cute and I certainly wouldn't mind going down with all hands on him.

Right - let's put some benchmarks up here. Twelfth Night is my favourite, favourite Shakespeare play. Ever. Not only was I once in a production playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (which allows me to feel somewhat proprietorial about the whole thing), but back in the mid-1990s I was privileged to see a production by the RSC at the Barbican which was so completely and utterly wonderful in every way that it remains, for me at least, the definitive production. It was visually stunning, perfectly directed and incredibly well acted. Desmond Barrett was Malvolio, Hadyn Gwynne was Olivia, and Derek Griffiths was Feste. So any subsequent production I see has to overcome many hurdles - and this version cleared several, but not all of them.

The first hurdle is that I do enjoy traditional productions; my heart sinks when I find out that a director has decided to give a modern dress production. I think its lazy. I did see a DVD about the recent Donmar Othello which presumed that modern directors panic somewhat about period sets and costumes as they don't think these "resonate down through the centuries" with modern audiences. But they're wrong. They do. Shakespeare wrote about character types and emotions that we all recognise. This particular Twelfth Night falls between two stools - its not "modern", its not of any recognisable "period"; at first it appeared to be set during the British Raj, then moved on to the 30's. It's very non-specific about time and location, which irked me somewhat. I suppose the director was going for an "anywhere, anytime" feel by paring sets and costumes down to the very basics. Half of the production takes place in front of a row of very Donmar-esque wooden shutters, the other half on a featureless, windswept beach. I suppose this concentrates one's attention on the actors, but its sometimes nice to allow the eye to wander. The RSC production was so pretty and detailed that there was always plenty to look at if you found your attention flagging.

The second hurdle is that Twelfth Night is a very dark and cruel play in places, focussing on class distinction, social position, the pain of unrequited love and malicious revenge, and I like to see these aspects preserved, as they throw the rest of the play into contrast. Light and shade is what is needed. But this production is very much played for laughs all the way through - like the National Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing that I have reviewed elsewhere, which soft-pedalled the darker aspects in favour of the fun. To play Twelfth Night as a bright and breezy romp all the way through is to miss quite a lot, I think. At some points, this felt like a P.G. Wodehouse version of the story.

Another problem I had was that the entire show was played so bloody fast. I know that anything which speeds up some of Shakespeare's more dreary speechifying is a good thing - but there are times when the language is so beautiful and the emotions so true that it can pay to take time over them. Certainly, I thought at a couple of points, if you weren't already familiar with what is a very complicated plot, a lot of it could very easily be missed completely in the rush.

All this, of course, makes it sound like I sat there with a frown and crossed arms all night. But there were things that I hugely enjoyed along the way. Zubin Varla was, quite possibly, the best Feste I've ever seen. Great singing voice, able to play his own guitar, perfect diction, the ability to do cartwheels and, most importantly, the ability to deliver his lines wittily and make them sound "off the cuff" rather than "rehearsed and parrotted", which so many actors who get saddled with Shakespeare's "clowns" just can't manage. Guy Henry's Sir Andrew was possibly even better than my own (cough) and has great comedy legs, prancing about the stage like a distracted stork. The part could have been written especially for him. Derek Jacobi's Malvolio was a masterclass performance, with touches of Jeeves, the snotty butler from The Remains of the Day and, oddly enough, Ratty from The Wind in the Willows. - particularly in his yachting get up. Victoria Hamilton was a feisty Viola, and reminded me visually of a girl I was at school with who was mistaken for a boy by a short-sighted teacher, who demanded to know why "he" wasn't wearing a tie. Her outraged response - "I'm a girl!" - would have fitted very nicely into the text of the play! And Samantha Spiro was pert and saucy as Maria - a difficult part to pull off successfully. I didn't think Ron Cook bought much to the role of Sir Toby (but then I don't like Ron Cook anyway) and, I thought, didn't explore Sir Toby's parasitic relationship with Sir Andrew anywhere near enough. And Indira Varma was a ravishingly beautiful Olivia, all bone structure and poise, although I did think playing it all for laughs was wrong. There are times when Olivia should be the calm centre of the storm of madness that is sweeping through her household, and a little more gravitas would have been better. Mark Bonnar seemed a rather indifferent Orsino - but I have to tell you this; the man is a real Silver Fox with an impressive body and, visually at least, perfect for the role.

The music was practically perfect - all the songs were tuneful and full of musical light and shade where necessary, and the incidental music excellent and unobtrusive, highlighting what was taking place on stage extremely well. And the lighting was excellent as well - its often said that, if you notice the lighting, the Lighting Designer hasn't done their job properly - but this was all properly sourced and correct (although there was a bit of a dark patch in the middle of the stage sometimes).

It was also nice to hear people laughing at lines that don't normally get a laugh in this play. However, like the waves crashing on the shore of Illyria, there was sometimes too much foam and not enough fathoms to make this a truly wonderful evening.