21 February 2009

Madama Butterfly - Surrey Opera at The E. M. Forster Theatre, Tonbridge School, Kent - Saturday 21st February 2009


On a hillside overlooking Nagasaki, a young geisha, Ciochio San, marries Pinkerton, an American naval lieutentant, stationed in the area. Three years later, abandoned and renounced, she still awaits his return.

CioCho San – Rebecca Cooper
Pinkerton – Stephen Brown
Sharpless – Tim Baldwin
Suzuki – Rebecca Stockland
Goro – Christopher Ovenden
Kate Pinkerton – Elaine Hayward
Bonze – Paul Hancock
Yamadori – Alexander Walford

Anyone who knows me knows that "I Don’t Do Opera”. Its an art form that I’ve never really got into. But when a nice lady from Surrey Opera emailed me and offered me two free tickets in return for an ad on this site and a review, I thought “There’s a credit crunch on, after all” and looked up the times of the trains to Tonbridge. Unfortunately, Him Indoors had got wind of the fact that Tonbridge High Street is Charity Shop Heaven so, once we’d paid the bus and train fares, purchased 3 bags full of assorted junk, and been fleeced in Wetherspoons (never, ever eat in a chain pub if you can avoid it), I don’t think we saved that much. Particularly as the free tickets didn’t include a free programme. Still, it was a very good night out and made a nice change from slobbing in front of the TV watching Total Wipeout and eating monkey nuts. Speaking of which,

“How are the monkeys?”

“Oh, they’re fine, but we had to put the kangaroo down this morning. Arthritis, you know”.

is not something I suspect is often heard in the hallowed precincts of the E. M. Forster Theatre, or indeed anywhere, but the group of upper class yobs sitting, and standing, and lying, and kneeling all over the seats immediately behind us carried on their conversations at such a high decibel level that I’m sure the entire audience heard it. The entire audience also probably heard them coughing, rattling their bags, changing seats with each other during the performance, talking during the orchestral intermezzo and hawhawhawing loudly at anything that their smutty little minds could twist into a sexual reference.

The day before, while attending a rehearsal for La Cenerentola (being performed at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington next week by Oyster Opera – book your tickets now and no, they haven’t offered me a freebie in return for a review, which is a shame because its Bloody Good), and discussing Butterfly it was mooted that “You can’t really do anything wrong with Puccini. It's so good it stages itself”. This clearly was not the view of the director, who “updated” the Nagasaki setting from the late 19th century to 1950 – even though Nagasaki was practically bombed out of all existence in 1945. Would, therefore, the residents be quite so pleased to welcome an American warship into the harbour and carry on with “their incessant and enthusiastic experimentation with American style and fashion”? I think not. This updating also meant that Pinkerton wore a modern suit and therefore totally lost his identity as an American naval officer, that CioCioSan wore a 50s “New Look” dress for Act II and that the chorus wore a strange mix of kimonos and modern dress. Very odd, both in concept and the overall look, as was the fact that, although CioCioSan is referred to as a geisha and therefore rightly dressed and made up as one, the entire chorus (and the minor Japanese characters) all wore white face makeup, which brings the whole thing down to the level of The Mikado. And if you are going to do this, for pity’s sake get a responsible member of the chorus to check everyone’s make up and ensure its all the same degree of whiteness – some of the chorus looked like Marcel Marceau and others looked like they were merely in the process of recovering from a dose of flu. A good Oriental base make up and a bit of eye shadow would have been far more effective and far more realistic.

“This is SUCH a contrast for us. We went to see He’s Really Not That Into You this afternoon hawhawhaw. How many bits are there in this thing? I didn’t really get the bit with the tie.”

I did. It’s a symbol of Western dress and therefore of Westernisation. But by golly was it used to the point of overkill – to the point where Acts II and III seemed to be becoming “The Tie Acts”. First it was hanging with Pinkerton’s shirt on the inside of the door of the fridge (don’t ask). Then it was used as a blindfold, then a sash. Then Sorrow got to wear it. Then it was a blindfold again. I did begin to wonder whether the ending had been rewritten to have CioCioSan hang herself with it. Thankfully we were spared this. But not before it had been used to point up every conceivable metaphor and I was sick of it. It even turned up as part of the picture on the front of the programme. Overkill!

Lighting, the bete noire of the touring company, was a little shaky at the start, with a few nasty dark spots on the stage, but improved considerably throughout the performance. Him Indoors has asked me to mention that the cyc (backcloth to you and me) was particularly competently lit for the entire evening.

"I live in Oxford. Well, that’s not really true. I’m studying to be a vicar at Oxford. Gosh, the acoustic in here is really dry”.

If it was (can an acoustic be dry?), this didn’t seem to bother either the orchestra pit or the stage. A relatively huge orchestra of 25 (two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets but, regrettably, no second trombone) gave it considerable welly for the entire evening under the very capable baton of Jonathan Butcher. Pit and stage only parted company once all night, but was quickly rescued. Male chorus, surprisingly, noticeably better than female chorus. Among the supporting cast, the gong goes to Christopher Ovenden for an outstandingly sung and acted Goro, with Honourable Mention to Tim Baldwin as Sharpless. Apologies to Elaine Howard who took the very small role of Kate Pinkerton; vocally adequate she may have been but was far too old to be convincing. Although on for only minutes, she was left awkwardly and completely abandoned on the side of the stage by the director, who should also have vetoed the Posh Spice sunglasses.

In the principal stable I thought Rebecca Stockland sung the role of Suzuki much better than she acted it. I know it’s a difficult and often thankless part - Butterfly gets all the big tunes and all the emoting whereas Suzuki just gets to be solid and dependable – but more could have been made of the part, particularly in the closing scenes. Admittedly, her costume looked odd, uncomfortable and neither fish nor fowl in aesthetic terms which cannot have helped; it would have been better, I think, to have dressed her in a black kimono like most of the ladies chorus. Stephen Brown threw out top notes confidently, without any apparent effort and like they were going out of fashion, damn his hide (sorry, bit of tenor jealousy there!) but, again, was not best served by his costumes. Rebecca Cooper pulled out all the stops vocally in the incredibly demanding title role and was Pretty Darned Impressive, although I personally think One Fine Day needs more vocal light and shade than it was given at this performance. Mind you, she still managed to pull my heart up into my throat and squeeze a couple of tears out of these cynical old eyes while performing it. And that’s pretty good going for someone who “Doesn’t Do Opera”.

Thank you, Surrey Opera, for the very enjoyable evening. Shame the audience wasn't as enjoyable - but at least the kangaroo is spared the misery of being brayed at any more.

13 February 2009

The Taming of the Shrew - Novello Theatre, Friday 13th February 2009


Lucentio and his servant Tranio (both from Paris) stroll while Lucentio ponders that he has come to Padua to pursue knowledge. Tranio points out that he should pursue pleasures, as well. Then, Baptista and his daughters Katherine (older, the shrew) and Bianca (younger) appear with Bianca's suitors Gremio and Hortensio. Baptista tells them they cannot pursue Bianca until Katherine is married. Privately, Gremio and Hortensio agree to find her a husband so they can both resume wooing Bianca. While looking on, Lucentio falls in love with Bianca. He decides to let his servant Tranio pretend to be Lucentio, so that Lucentio can be a school teacher to Bianca. Biondello (another servant of Lucentio) is told to act as a servant to Tranio. Petruchio of Verona arrives in Padua with his servant Grumio to see his friend Hortensio. Upon meeting, Hortensio mentions Katherine in passing and Petruchio vows to woo and marry her (for her large dowry). Hortensio then decides to pretend to be a school master and instruct Bianca in music. Gremio arrives with Lucentio (disguised as a school master, Cambio) and tells Hortensio of his plants to let Lucentio school Bianca and speak highly of Gremio. Tranio then arrives and announces that he (as Lucentio) will be a suitor to Bianca.

At Baptista's house, Petruchio arrives with Hortensio (as Litio) and Gremio arrives with Lucentio (as Cambio). Tranio (as Lucentio) is also there, proclaiming his suit for Bianca. Petruchio meets Kate and the two spar wits, making Petruchio more determined than ever to marry Kate, which he announces to all; they are to be married on Sunday, though Kate obviously protests. Baptista, upon hearing this, tells Tranio (as Lucentio) and Gremio that the one with the highest dowry will get Bianca.. Tranio bluffs to have more wealth and possessions than Gremio, but Baptista declares Lucentio's father Vincentio must personally assure he has the wealth and will give it to Lucentio.

At Bianca's room, Lucentio (as Cambio) and Hortensio (as Litio) school Bianca. Both reveal their intentions for her love, but they also begin to suspect the other of amorous intentions. On the wedding day, Petruchio arrives late, and is dressed in a fool's clothes. He acts irrationally at the wedding, then immediately leaves town with Kate. Baptista, although flabbergasted, is happy to be rid of her.

At Petruchio's country home, he and Kate arrive, exhausted from the journey, since, throughout, Petruchio has been giving Kate a taste of her own medicine. He continues to berate her and his servants continually. Back in Padua, Tranio and Hortensio spy on Lucentio (as Cambio) courting Bianca. Hortensio, in defeat/despair, swears with Tranio (as Lucentio) not to pursue Bianca anymore. In fact, Hortensio plans to marry a widow who has long loved him. Biondello then appears and tells Tranio and Lucentio he's found a man from Mantua (a Pedant) to impersonate Lucentio's father Vincentio. They trick him to do this by saying people from Mantua are despised in Padua. At Petruchio's house, he further tries to tame Kate by starving her, refusing her to have new clothes, and refusing to visit her father's house since she continues to disagree with him, even though both know he is wrong. Back at Padua, Tranio (as Lucentio) introduces the Pedant (as Vincentio) to Baptista, and all agree to sup together. Meanwhile, Biondello instructs Lucentio to bring Bianca to the church to be married. Elsewhere, Petruchio and Kate travel on the road to Padua where they meet the real Vincentio (Lucentio's Father). Petruchio has Kate so much under his control that he gets her to declare Vincentio is a female to his face, then to apologize and admit that he is truly a man. Petruchio informs Vincentio of his son's marriage
to Bianca, and all travel to Padua.

At Padua, Vincentio arrives and asks to see Baptista, though the Pedant (as Vincentio) and Tranio (as Lucentio) deny Vincentio is who he says he is and call for him to be arrested. Lucentio himself and Bianca arrive and set things straight, then announce that they've been married, causing Baptista and the real Vincentio to fume even more. At length, Baptista, Vincentio, and Lucentio come to agreement and all celebrate the three marriages: Petruchio and Kate, Lucentio and Bianca, and Hortensio and the widow. At supper, Petruchio wins a wager by demonstrating that Katherine is now more obedient than Bianca or the widow. He celebrates by saying, "Kiss me Kate," and they do.


Arsher Ali - 1st Huntsman
Jade Anouka - 4th Servant
Will Beck - Grumio
Stephen Boxer - Christopher Sly/Petruchio
Keir Charles - Tranio
John Paul Connolly - Tailor
Simon Darwen - 3rd Servant
Adrian Decosta - 2nd Huntsman
Leonard Fenton - Vincentio
James Garnon - Curtis
Amanda Hadingue - Lady/Widow
David Hargreaves - Baptista
Amara Karan - Bianca
Sean Kearns - Hortensio
Jack Laskey - Biondello
Patrick Moy - Lucentio
Will Sharpe - Bartholomew (Page)
Peter Shorey - Gremio
Larrington Walker - Pedant

From the Novello Theatre website: "Please note this production contains sexual references" What, Shakespeare? Sexual references? Really? Well, that's fucking disgraceful, if y0u ask me. I'm shocked to my middle class core. To think, for all those years, I've been reading or watching Shakespeare, only to find that its got sexual references in it.

Honestly, this got my hackles up even before I had seen the show. As if we need to be warned about this kind of thing. I suppose, in our litigatious times, the theatre management feel the need to cover themselves in case anyone is offended. Soon they'll be announcing "Please note this production contains scenes of gratuitous coffee-drinking. We in no way condone the drinking of hot coffee on health and safety grounds. In addition, coffee contains caffiene, which is a drug. It also contains sugar, which is bad for your health, and which used to be grown by slaves. Slavery was a BAD THING."

As the curtain went up, the floppy-haired fool in front of me leant forward in his seat, completely blocking my view of the stage. Retrospectively, I made a mistake by asking him to sit back - had he stayed leant forward I would have been spared the sight of this utter trash.

This production includes the prologue (called the Induction for some odd reason), which is usually omitted as its crap, totally gratuitous and doesnt fit with the rest of the story. For those of you unfamilar with it, it involves a chap called Christopher Sly, a drunk, who falls asleep after one pot of beer too many. A passing lady decides (for some reason never really explained) to trick him - she orders him carried home to her mansion, dressed in fine clothes and laid on a luxurious bed. When he wakes, he is treated like the lord of the manor, and convinced that his former life was, in fact, merely a dream. A troupe of strolling players arrive at the manor and proceed to act out a play - which turns out to be the play we know as The Taming of the Shrew, presented as a play within a play; however, as the "play" gets under way, Christopher Sly and all reference to the action of the Induction vanish and are never seen, heard of or referred to again. Would that this had happened this evening.

This Induction took place outside a seedy modern nightclub, with possibly the laziest and most incompetent pole dancer ever seen, who squirmed embarrassingly round her pole for all of 5 seconds. Sly's friends, lager louts to a man, wearing the kind of hats that straight men buy when they're completely wrecked (you know, ones that look like jester's hats or pints of Guinness with a furry shamrock stuck on the side) do a rugby-style chant and Sly then falls into a roadsweeper's cart and falls asleep. He's wheeled to the mansion, where a truck with "The Players" painted on the back in a typeface which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the RSC logo backs onto the stage (licence plate XME K8, if you're interested) and disgorges a troupe of actors, who then proceed to dress in vaguely period costume and present "The Play". Christopher Sly sits on the side of the stage watching for a while, then bizarrely gets up, joins in the action and becomes Petruchio, shedding his impenetrable Mancunian accent yet managing to lose the power to project his voice and, seemingly, to act at all. Around him, the rest of "The Players" act out The Taming of the Shrew in a fashion bearing more resemblance to Carry On Shakespeare than the hallowed precints of the RSC. Oh, how witty, we think, - "The Players" are all really bad actors. But no, this goes deeper than that. The terrifying realisation sinks in that its the cast who are all really bad actors, and they think they can do Shakespeare. Not a single one of them are able to act their way out of a paper bag. They mug. They wave their hands about. They declaim. They stalk around the stage doing all three at the same time, making Frankie Howerd look like Johnny Gielgud. Very few of them can be heard properly. Quite a lot of them are so irritating that it comes as a relief to find that most of this production is set so far forward on the stage that, from our seats, nothing of the front 4 feet of the stage can be seen - with or without Mr. Floppy Hair in front who, incredibly, starts falling asleep after about 10 minutes, in that noddy-head-drooly kind of way that you see on the last train home on a Friday night. Even more incredibly, the chap in the seat to my right ALSO dozes off. I suddenly become acutely aware of the individual ticks of my watch as the drivel on stage progresses.

There are some cringeworthy attempts at humour - as if the first rule of Badly Directed Shakespeare is "If your direction is crap, some regional accents will make the audience laugh". One of the characters keeps his glasses on the whole time. In 17th century Padua? The text mentions a lute lesson - and then a character comes on stage holding a guitar. Hello? The famous fight between Petruchio and Katherine passes almost unnoticed. Then Katherine appears at the wedding wearing a 20th century wedding dress. Petruchio appears, his outlandish costume having been described at length prior to his arrival on stage. Strangely, what he is actually wearing bears no relation to this - he looks like a cross between Lucia di Lammamoor and Herne the Hunter as he's wearing a blood-spattered flouncy crinoline and a pair of antlers on his head. The expected (by the director) gales of laughter fail to materialise - there is simply a baffled silence from the audience. The end of the first half arrives so unexpectedly that the applause has to be prompted by clapping from backstage. Him Indoors looks at me. I look back. We gather our coats and scarves and leave the theatre, having decided that going home for a bowl of stewed pears in evaporated milk and the last episode of The Victorian Farm on BBC2 is preferable to staying for the second half of this tragic mess.

Reading the programme on the train during the escape (sorry - I should have said ""on the way home") reveals that, shockingly, Amara Karan, playing Bianca (a principal role and quite an important one at that) is making her professional debut in this production. That's appalling. To paraphrase Him Indoors "In my day, you had to do 20 years in Rep in the provinces before the RSC would even give you an audition - and even then you'd only be carrying a spear", yet this girl is playing a major role in Shakespeare with the RSC and its the first time she's ever appeared on a professional stage. I know that colourblind casting is all the rage these days, but is the director trying to make some sort of point by casting an Indian actress in the role of Bianca? Apparently, (according to reviews rather than my personal experience), another black actor in the cast plays his minor role with the kind of Jamaican accent usually utilised by the likes of Lenny Henry. Not funny, not necessary. Same actor then apparently (in one of this play's many, many tedious "mistaken identities" subplots), assumes the role of a caucasian actor's father. Huh? This determined policy of blindness is, in its way, as subtly racist as - well, Carol Thatcher.

Michelle Gomez, playing Katherine, has The Vagina Monologues as her principal stage experience. Perhaps this explains why she can't act for toffee, or be heard further back than row 4 of the stalls. But hey, at least she's been in Green Wing on the telly. Perhaps the fact that Tamsin Greig, also from Green Wing, won a gong (undeserved, in my opinion) for her portrayal of Beatrice for the RSC a couple of years back, inspired the casting director to try this tactic again in the hope of luring fans from their sofas into theatre seats - if so, its completely misguided. Will Sharpe, playing Bartholomew, doesn't appear to have had any formal theatrical training at all - but hey, he is "22 years old and graduated from Cambridge University where he studied Classics and was President of Footlights", so thats all right then. His "credits" encompass one play on BBC3 and something called WhamBham at Footlights..... where he happened to be President. Apparently he's also a stand-up comedian - from the look of his picture in the programme, the comedy element of his stand-up consists of people laughing at his stupid hair style. Getcheraircut, you 'orrible little man.

C'mon, RSC, what's going on here? Where are the professionals who have honed their craft for many years? In fact, where are the people who can actually perform Shakespeare? Or even act? And what does it say about directing standards at the RSC that this crud, critically lambasted while at Stratford upon Avon, gets a London season when they could have brought the David Tennant Loves Labours Lost and packed the place out for months, rather than leave the production languishing in the sticks?

The one thing I like about this production is the furniture. There are several pieces dotted about the stage that look like they were made by a very clever architectural designer - a classical domed basilica opens up and becomes a table, and its dome becomes a dish cover with a cake underneath. A chest of drawers opens out from a clocktower - when this trash finishes its run, I intend to have this in my living room its so beautiful. Backless stools are designed to resemble arcaded buildings, with arches connecting the legs. Even these beautiful bits of working scenery are misused and under-used, either left lying about the stage in odd corners or completely in the way of everything. The backdrop is a series of pivoting panels which, closed, feature a evocative panorama of the city. Opened individually, they provide extra exits from the stage (handy, I suppose, if you realise that the production you're in is so dreadful that you need to exit the stage in hurried shame).

And so, Ladies and Germs, the evening ends (half way through) with the sound of an exceedingly damp squib falling splat onto the stage, to the eternal discredit of Conall Morrison, the "Director" (who couldn't direct his own piss into a bucket if this production is anything to go by) and to the RSC for allowing this crud to get past the first rehearsal. It joins the Hall of Fame of productions that I've left at the interval for the sake of my mental health and a bowl of stewed pears with evaporated milk.