28 September 2009

ENRON, Royal Court Theatre, Wednesday 30th September 2009

Synopsis: Based on true events, ENRON goes from a relatively small gas and oil company to one of the most successful companies in the world. Its dramatic expansion and ever-increasing stock price hide the fact that the coffers are empty and that something nasty is lurking in the basement....

Creative Team:
Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Rupert Goold
Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Movement: Scott Ambler
Video Design: Jon Driscoll

Samuel West - Jeff Skilling, President of ENRON
Tim Pigott-Smith - Ken Lay, Chair of the ENRON board
Tom Goodman-Hill - AndyFalstow, ENRON Chief Finance Officer
Amanda Drew - Claudia Roe
With: Gillian Budd, Peter Caulfield, Howard Charles, Andrew Corbett, Cleo Demetriou, Amanda Drew, Susannah Fellows, Stephen Fewell, Tom Godwin, Ellie Hopkins, Orion Lee, Eleanor Matsuura, Ashley Rolfe and Trevor White

You get on a plane, you don't understand exactly how it works, but you believe it'll fly. And if you got out of your seat and said "I'm not flying, I don't understand how it works", you'd look crazy. Well, its like that. Except, imagine if the belief that the plane could fly was all that was keeping it up in the air. It'd be fine. If everybody believed. If nobody got scared. As long as people didn't ask stupid questions about what it is that keeps planes in the air"

To Sloon Skwyare, to the Royal Court Theatre, somewhere I’d never been before. Ironically, as this is the theatre where lots of plays about kitchen sinks were first performed and is thus the birthplace of “Theatre for the common man”, the place was heaving with Henrys, Caspians and Jamies – the kind of brayers who have first-hand experience of ENRON-type companies on a daily basis and for whom “kitchen sink” means the place under which Anna, their Taiwanese cleaner (in the country without a work permit, but happy to work like a dog for 17p an hour and eat plate-scrapings, such a find) sleeps during her few off-duty hours.

In fact, Anna probably has more room among the spare toilet rolls and bottles of Fairy Liquid than there is available for your legs in this theatre. I spent nearly three hours crammed into a seat so tiny that my chiropractor has had to cancel his golf on Sunday in order to unbend me. But, dear Reader, such is my devotion to the dwama that I will undergo any trial in order to tell you about the hottest show in town this autumn. Sold out, full house, returns only but don’t get your hopes up, get one of the West End Whingers to donate their ticket because they’re in Jordan and can’t go (no jokes about Peter Andre, please).

Him Indoors had rolled his eyes and muttered “Obsessed” when I expressed an interest in going to see this. Yes, I’ve followed the ENRON story but no, not obsessed – I just take an inordinate delight in seeing a certain kind of person get their comeuppance. Politicians, bankers, corporate fat cats, particular hospital managers – I do like to see a calling card from Nemesis on the silver tray on their hall table. And these particular corporate fat cats had practically cornered all the markets in hubris, so it was a great delight to sit and watch their downfall. And what a downfall. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all out of place to compare this play with Greek Tragedy, so expertly does it depict the rise and fall of those who would equate themselves with the Gods.

If presented as an ordinary play, this would be unbearable to watch. But with Light Sabre-wielding brokers, twisted accountants portrayed as ventriloquists dummies and Jurassic Park raptors stalking the basement (to say nothing of the Lehman Brothers portrayed as Siamese Twins, both inside the same enormous jacket and "the market" personified as the Three Blind Mice) its still unbearable – but in a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-stage-but-have-to-look-through-your-fingers way. What is essentially a multi-media presentation with a play woven through it becomes immediate, powerful and an utterly compelling lesson on the evils of capitalism, how it devours the morals of those falling under its spell and how it can ruin the lives of innocent people (no, please don't bother leaving pro-capitalist comments because I won't publish them).

Tim Piggott-Smith gave a terrific performance as Ken Lay, Chair of the ENRON board; paternalistic yet creepy, overlaid with all the cigar-waving insincerity and false bonhomie of Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard. Sam West (Member of the "They Who Can Do No Wrong" club) actually managed to make Jeff Skilling a strangely sympathetic character, progressing from uber-geek with comb-over and Joe 90 glasses to sharp-suited, slicked back lizard in a $1500 dollar suit and handmade shoes. There was more than a touch of Hannibal Lecter about his performance towards the end (those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad), particularly in the chilling closing speech in which he expresses his continued belief in (and almost worship of) "the market". Tom Goodman-Hill was completely credible as Andy Falstow, evil architect of ENRON's continued rise and keeper of the raptors in the basement

I think it was the raptors that really made this production for me. City-suited men with head-covering dinosaur masks (complete with creepy red-light eyes), they personified the companies-within-companies that ENRON "fed" with the debts they wanted to keep off their balance sheets, giving those of us in the audience with little or no knowledge of how financial markets work an easy way of understanding the complex procedures involved by turning the abstract ideas involved into something concrete and almost visceral. The play is full of clever ideas like this, which inform the audience without going into tedious detail. Lighting and choreography were excellent, blending seamlessly into the production - and incidentally providing much-needed light relief at times. And it was a masterstroke to have an electronic ticker-tape display showing share prices (with ENRON's highlighted in yellow each time) constantly flickering across the back of the set - as the price edged higher each time, it really became the focus of everybody in the audience's attention (exactly how this had been in real life for the ENRON executives) and I certainly couldn't tear my eyes away each time the display lit up. It was perhaps only right at the very end that the play ran out of steam - as it was put to my by Him Indoors "Once Julius Caesar is dead, the rest is a bit boring and you want to go home". Perhaps if it had ended with the incredibly moving scene in which two of the "ordinary people" ruined by the ENRON crash explain just how their lives had been changed, rather with than a long, rather dull speech by Skilling in which he tries to justify his actions, the evening might not have felt as if it ended with a whimper.
I was only just prevented from marching on Canary Wharf with a flaming torch and a pitchfork on the way home. This is a "must see" - but it might be a good idea to invest in some leg-room.

What the critics said:


http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jameshall/100000989/enron-play-is-gripping-allegory-for-our-times/ - what I particularly like about this review is that it has obviously upset some Capitalist Suit who felt the need to ridicule it in a comment at the end – which is even more entertaining than the review itself and goes to show a) how closely this play has hit home and b)what a blinkered world these people live in.



22 September 2009

Guest Review - Surrey Opera@ Chequer Mead, East Grinstead - The Barber of Seville - Saturday 12th September 2009


Count Almaviva, a Grandee of Spain, is desperately in love with Rosina, the ward of Doctor Bartolo. Figaro is Bartolo’s barber, and, learning from the Count of his heart’s desire, immediately plots with him to bring about his introduction to Rosina.

She is strictly watched by her guardian, who himself plans to marry his ward, since she has both beauty and money. In this he is assisted by Basilio, a music-master. Rosina, however, returns the affection of the Count, and, in spite of the watchfulness of her guardian, she contrives to drop a letter from the balcony to Almaviva, who is still with Figaro below, declaring her passion, and at the same time requesting to know her lover’s name. Figaro tells her that the man is Signor Lindor, claims him as cousin, and adds that the young man is deeply in love with her. Rosina is delighted. She gives him a note to convey to the supposed Signor Lindor. Meanwhile Bartolo has
made known to Basilio his suspicions that Count Almaviva is in love with Rosina. Basilio advises to start a scandal about the Count.

To obtain an interview with Rosina, the Count disguises himself as a drunken soldier,and forces his way into Bartolo’s house. The disguise of Almaviva is penetrated by the guardian, and the pretended solider is placed under arrest, but is at once released upon secretly showing the officer his order as a Grandee of Spain

The Count again enters Bartolo’s house. He is now disguised as a music-teacher, and pretends that he has been sent by Basilio to give a lesson in music, on account of the illness of the latter. He obtains the confidence of Bartolo by producing Rosina’s letter to himself, and offering to persuade Rosina that the letter has been given him by a mistress of the Count. In this manner he obtains the desired opportunity, under the guise of a music lesson Figaro also manages to obtain the keys of the balcony, an escape is determined on at midnight, and a private marriage arranged. Now, however, Basilio makes his appearance. The lovers are disconcerted, but manage, by persuading the music master that he really is ill -- an illness accelerated by a full purse slipped into his hand by Almaviva -- to get rid of him.

When the Count and Figaro have gone, Bartolo, who possesses the letter Rosina wrote to Almaviva, succeeds, by producing it, and telling her he secured it from another lady-love of the Count, in exciting the jealousy of his ward. In her anger she disclosed the plan of escape and agrees to marry her guardian. At the appointed time,
however, Figaro and the Count make their appearance-the lovers are reconciled, and a notary, procured by Bartolo for his own marriage to Rosina, celebrates the marriage of the loving pair. When the guardian enters, with officers of justice, into whose hands he is about to consign Figaro and the Count, he is too late, but is reconciled by a promise that he shall receive the equivalent of his ward’s dower.

Rosina - Kelly Sharp
Count Almaviva - Yuri Sabatini
Figaro - Jeremy Vinogradov
Bartolo- Gabriel Gottlieb
Basilio -Leon Berger
Berta - Katherine Price
Fiorello -Samuel Queen

Creative Team:
Director - Mark Hathaway
Design team: Susan Beattie, Francesca Branch
Conductor - Jonathon Butcher

The lovely people at Surrey Opera once again provided me with free tickets for this production. Unfortunately I was going to be away on holiday when this was on. I was sad to miss the opportunity to see the show but, rather than waste the tickets, passed them to a friend and asked her to attend on my behalf. This review was kindly provided in my absence by Vanessa C.

Lovely little theatre. The Set got the first applause – even if it was only three people. It was very simple and effective, quite bare and hard, but gave an excellent platform for the show with the balcony providing a second level for action and with the arches below making it a super space for all the sneakings in and out and busy-ness of the Barber.

I was dreading the orchestra – but what a delight! They were the best thing about the whole evening. A fabulous start (despite the backstage banging) to what turned out to be a rather weak show vocally. Neatly held together by Jonathan Butcher, the band made an excellent sound in what can be such a mess of an overture, and they continued throughout the show with some great solo playing from all of the sections.

I personally favour operas performed in the original language. One of the reasons being that singers too often forget about their technique when singing in English (because, I guess, they are trying to enunciate too much) and so the vocal line together with the support totally disappear. Surrey Opera’s performance was a complete example of this, particularly with Kelly Sharp, who proved to be a good actress, but who is not, in my mind, an opera singer – very pretty, but inaccurate, unsupported, no vocal line, singing, particularly in her oh SO well-known aria, she should have known better!

The selection of voices for the performance was disappointing – with so many thousands of singers around, why is it not possible to find singers who look good, can act AND who have a technique and most importantly, who have a ‘voice’. It is all very well having people running around and being funny but what about the voices? The actual quality of sound made by these singers was dismal. The inability to colour the sound, the lack of control – the inability to sing quietly but still with focus, the obviously lack of training to support the voice – particularly with Rossini – underneath all the runs – was evident throughout. Shaking the head violently whenever they are supposed to sing a grace note, or strutting around the stage from left to right at the beginning of each run thrusting an arm out like a sword, is just irritating.

Which brings me to Yuri Sabatini. I was excited when I read in the programme about an Italian singer, etc., etc. But after a couple of minutes my bubble was burst when Count Almaviva started to sing, and even more so when he forgot his lines and asked for a prompt (was it three times) instead of just singing anything…I mean WHO is going to know that he has got the translation wrong…and for him to have come right out of character (his whole body did a kind of “oh damn it of COURSE that’s what the stupid word was how silly of me, thanks Jonathan) – dreadful dreadful.

The worse thing for Sabatini was that his first entrance was to sing after the best vocal instrument in the show – Samuel Queen. He has a lovely fresh, baritone, evenly placed and free, and his voice made a stark contrast to the pinched, nasal, laboured vocal production of the Count.

The Chorus however were excellent. They had delightful costumes and made many pleasing pictures – all the maids with their numerous duties and up-and-downing of stairs and sweeping looked great. And the chaps in the band at the beginning sang and acted well, with nicely understated humour. I don’t quite understand the costumes for the soloists however. The Count (sorry to get at him again) at the beginning had a very weird tabard-thing going on that was way too big for him, and Bartolo had a massively distracting wig, so much so that one couldn’t really see his face – which is always disappointing. Figaro, who was very dashing, wore boots with metal tips that made a lot of unnecessary noise.

Overall the production was visually pleasing and entertaining and the orchestra really excellent. I can quite understand how an audience would have found the show an extremely enjoyable night out – the humour and of course the story come across so well particularly with the Holden translation. For me, however, I was disappointed by the solo voices.

Final comment: Hoorah for Jonathan Butcher!

The Barber of Seville is a “prequel” to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro (or “Figaro” is a sequel to “Barber” depending on your pov).

The overture is played during the end credits of the Beatles film Help! “Largo et Factotum” (arguably the most well-known piece of music from the opera) has been parodied by Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry and Homer Simpson, among many others.

Rossini composed the opera in little more than 2 weeks. Time to prepare for the first performance was limited so he borrowed the plot of a story that had earlier been used in an opera by Giovanni Paisiello. Paisiello was quite angry at this so he sent a group of loyal friends to disrupt the opening night of the opera. They booed and hissed and threw things on the stage. This made the singers nervous and caused one to trip on his robe; another broke a guitar string; and a third fell through a trapdoor. Someone even let a cat loose on the stage. The opera ended up even funnier than Rossini had intended.

During a performance in Cincinnati in 1952, four audience members died during Act II.