28 February 2010

Henry V - Southwark Playhouse, Saturday 27th February 2010

The political situation in England is tense: King Henry IV has died, and his son, the young King Henry V, has just assumed the throne. Several bitter civil wars have left the people of England restless and dissatisfied. Furthermore, in order to gain the respect of the English people and the court, Henry must live down his wild adolescent past, when he used to consort with thieves and drunkards at the Boar’s Head Tavern on the seedy side of London.

Henry lays claim to certain parts of France, based on his distant roots in the French royal family and on a very technical interpretation of ancient land laws. When the  Dauphin of France sends Henry an insulting message in response to these claims, Henry decides to invade France. Supported by the English noblemen and clergy, Henry gathers his troops for war.

Henry’s decision to invade France trickles down to affect the common people he rules. In the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, some of the king’s former friends—whom he rejected when he rose to the throne—prepare to leave their homes and families. Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim are common lowlifes and part-time criminals, on the opposite end of the social spectrum from their royal former companion. As they prepare for the war, they remark on the death of Falstaff, an elderly knight who was once King Henry’s closest friend.

Just before his fleet sets sail, King Henry learns of a conspiracy against his life. The three traitors working for the French beg for mercy, but Henry denies their request. He orders that the trio, which includes a former friend named Scrope, be executed. The English sail for France, where they fight their way across the country. Against incredible odds, they continue to win after conquering the town of Harfleur, where Henry gives an impassioned speech to motivate his soldiers to victory.  As the English advance, Nim and Bardolph are caught looting and are hanged at King Henry’s command.

The climax of the war comes at the famous Battle of Agincourt, at which the English are outnumbered by the French five to one. The night before the battle, King Henry disguises himself as a common soldier and talks to many of the soldiers in his camp, learning who they are and what they think of the great battle in which they have been swept up. When he is by himself, he laments his ever-present responsibilities as king. In the morning, he prays to God and gives a powerful, inspiring speech to his soldiers. Miraculously, the English win the battle, and the proud French must surrender at last. Some time later, peace negotiations are finally worked out: Henry will marry Catherine, the daughter of the French king. Henry’s son will be the king of France, and the marriage will unite the two kingdoms.
Henry - Tom Greaves
Pistol/King Charles/Warwick - Tunji Falana
Canterbury/Gloucester/Fluellen/Orleans - Eric MacLennan
Ely/Nim/Gower/Constable/Burgundy - Michael Bryher
Exeter/Bardolph/Dauphin/Williams - Simon Tierney
Chorus/Catherine - Anna McSweeney
Hostess/Mountjoy/Ambassador/Alice/Governor of Harfleur - Fiona Watson
Creative Team:
Director - Emily Lim
Designer - Chris Gylee
Movement - Leon Smith
Lighting - Christopher Nairn
Sound - Sebastian Willan
Well, hats off to Southwark Playhouse for the most enjoyable production of Shakespeare I have seen in a long time, partly because what is usually a  3 1/2 hour play full of wordy speechifying occasionally enlivened by a bit of showing the Frogs what for is condensed here into a taut 100 minutes or so with all the essentials of the plot present and correct.  Shakespeare does go on so sometimes, to its considerable detriment, but here there simply isn't the time to get bored as scene follows scene with the very minimum of padding.  Everything that is necessary to tell the story crisply and fluently remains, all the great sabre-rattling speeches are there, the vast majority of the play's characters present, the bare bones of the story clad in just enough flesh to make it coherent.  Yet within the skeletonic structure there is time for imaginative imagery and the opportunity for exercising the mind.  Shakespeare knew all about the limitations of theatre 
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts
...Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
and here imagination has been used to brilliant effect, both to strip away the trappings and to present what remains.  There is no scenery; the play takes place in a large bare room surrounded by benches and high stools for the audience (3/4 of whom become "French" for the duration and the remainder "English", cleverly representing the relative sizes of the two armies). The floor is painted with a huge map depticting the two countries and this becomes the "board" on which the game of war will be contested. A large foam dice and a pile of "Chance Cards" are stacked up in the middle, representing the whims of Fate and Destiny.  The cards are particularly cleverly used - just like their counterparts in Monopoly, they bring messages and give directions which may (or may not) affect the outcome of the "game".  There are no costumes other than knee-length white shorts, tennis shoes and white polo shirts topped off with red or blue tabards depending on the nationality of the actor at any given point.  Helpfully, the name of the character is printed on the back, and you need this to keep track sometimes as there are only 7 people in the cast and all but one play at least four named parts.  Occasionally someone will don a woolly hat or baseball cap; the two opposing Kings wear sweatbands.  Sleeping bags, water pistols, skittles, plastic storage crates and golf flags, all colour-coded blue or red as necessary are the only props used.  On the fields of France, war is a game, and may the best team win.  The walls of Harfleur are blue stacked up plastic crates, knocked over by a siege catapult made of three people, a volleyball and your imagination. The rumbling of the dice across the board becomes the rumble of horses hooves across the battlefields  and the great battle of Agincourt is a heavily stylised, slow motion ten-pin bowling match danced to a rock soundtrack.  I thought it was wonderful; inventive, accessible and an amzing antidote to traditional productions. Something completely fresh and new, and a great way of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience. 

It wasn't perfect by a long shot - I could have done without a lot of the background music which obscured great chunks of mumbled dialogue.  Even with no music, Tunji Falana was barely audible, and barely comprehensible even when you could hear him.  I would have welcomed a rather more muscular performance in the title role - Tom Greaves' Henry is an awfully likeable chap, keeping all his emotions a little too firmly in check and not giving the great rabble-rousing speeches anything like enough wellie. If the tabards had had the character's names on the back and front it would have helped,  and I certainly could have done with a more comfortable stool.  In retrospect, I think the audience could have been involved more - I would have liked to have waved a French flag or booed the English (note: get there early if you want to be English) but otherwise I had a fun and enlightening time, and certainly won't ever look at Shakespeare in quite the same way again. 

Our audio-visual presentation today is the rousing "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Kenneth Branagh's film version of Henry V.  Its difficult to appreciate Branagh as Henry; I think he bears more than a passing facial resemblance to a young Eddie Izzard and he seems to gurn a lot during this,  but his version makes Olivier's look horribly mannered.  Enjoy!

21 February 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Rose Theatre, Kingston - Friday 19th February 2010


Lysander loves Hermia, and Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius; Demetrius used to love Helena but now loves Hermia. Egeus, Hermia's father, prefers Demetrius as a suitor, and enlists the aid of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to enforce his wishes upon his daughter. According to Athenian law, Hermia is given four days to choose between Demetrius, life in a nunnery, or a death sentence. Hermia, ever defiant, chooses to escape with Lysander into the surrounding forest.

Complications arise in the forest. Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of Fairies, are locked in a dispute over a boy whom Titania has adopted. Oberon instructs his servant Puck to bring him magic love drops, which Oberon will sprinkle on the Queen's eyelids as she sleeps, whereupon Titania will fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening. Meanwhile, Helena and Demetrius have also fled into the woods after Lysander and Hermia. Oberon, overhearing Demetrius's denouncement of Helena, takes pity upon her and tells Puck to place the magic drops upon the eyelids of Demetrius as well, so that Demetrius may fall in love with Helena. Puck, however, makes the mistake of putting the drops on the eyelids of Lysander instead. Helena stumbles over Lysander in the forest, and the spell is cast; Lysander now desires Helena and renounces a stunned Hermia.

In the midst of this chaos, a group of craftsmen are rehearsing for a production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," to be played for the Duke at his wedding. Puck impishly casts a spell on Bottom to give him the head of a donkey. Bottom, as luck would have it, is the first thing Titania sees when she awakens; hence, Bottom ends up being lavishly kept by the Queen. Oberon enjoys this sport, but is less amused when it becomes apparent that Puck has botched up the attempt to unite Demetrius and Helena. Oberon himself anoints Demetrius with the love potion and ensures that Helena is the first person he sees; however, Helena understandably feels that she is now being mocked by both Demetrius and Lysander (who is still magically enamored of her).

Finally, Oberon decides that all good sports must come to an end. He puts the four lovers to sleep and gives Lysander the antidote for the love potion so that he will love Hermia again when they all wake up. Next, Oberon gives Titania the antidote, and the King and Queen reconcile. Theseus and Hippolyta then discover Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius asleep in the forest. All return to Athens to make sense of what they think is a strange dream. Likewise, Bottom returns to his players, and they perform "Pyramus and Thisbe" at the wedding feast (which has since become a wedding of three couples). As everyone retires, fairies perform their blessings and Puck delivers a tender epilogue soliloquy
Thesus, Duke of Athens – Julian Wadham

Hippolita, Queen of the Amazons – Susan Salmon
Egeus, father of Hermia – William Chubb
Hermia, in love with Lysander – Annabel Scholey
Helena, in love with Demetrius – Rachel Stirling
Demetrius – Ben Mansfield
Lysander – Tam Williams
Oberon, King of the Fairies – Charles Edwards
Titania, his Queen – Judi Dench
Puck, a Sprite – Reece Ritchie
Fairy – Sophie Scott
Bottom, a Weaver – Oliver Chris
Flute, a bellows-mender – Leon Williams
Snug, a joiner – Timothy Speyer
Quince, a carpenter – James Laurenson
Starveling, a Tailor – William Chubb
Snout, a Tinker – Simon Scott
Creative Team:
Director - Peter Hall
Associate Director - Cordelia Monsey
Set & Costume Design - Elizabeth Bury
Lighting Design - Peter Mumford
Sound Design - Gregory Clarke
Music - Mick Sands
Movement - Laila Diallo
Fight Director - Kate Waters

Programme: £5.00

Yes, alright, alright, Judi Dench is in this. Now will the pro reviewers please stop falling over themselves in their efforts to load her with superlatives and review the rest of the play? Honestly, you’d think that La Dench was performing the entire bloody play on her own with the aid of a hamper full of costumes and a few props. Yes, I fully admit that she is the best thing in it by a very long way and that the superlatives are well deserved, but this and her status as National Treasure does throw the rest of the cast and indeed the entire production into fairly sharp relief. What should be a play full of dark sparkle, mischievous glitter and fairy magic (as well as humour) is here a fairly workaday production with little feeling for the darker undertones of the play which constantly lurk in the shadows just out of sight. Without the presence of La Dench, it probably wouldn’t register at all. As it is, it feels as if she is merely here to do a big favour for her Luvvie chum Peter Hall as he attempts to haul The Rose Theatre out of financial crisis and to the attention of the big London guns.

The Rose is, anyway, a fairly soulless place, plonked in a slightly naff suburb of London that has pretensions of grandeur, so it’s the perfect home for this fairly soulless production. Two years after opening, the building still looks unfinished – there are some nice unplastered walls covered in pockmarks dotted around the foyer for you to look at when you’ve finished gazing up at the heating and lighting ducts hanging unconcealed from the ceiling. There is no proper counter space, so programmes and odd bits of production-related detritus are sold from a wobbly table. There are obviously no staff lockers as one of the usherettes still had her shopping with her. The suspended staircase, framed in what looks like luxury-version chicken wire, sways disconcertingly when used simultaneously by more than three people. Inside the shockingly cold auditorium, sightlines for the poor sod who happens to be sitting in the end seat of a row (me) are partially blocked by the staircase newel posts and the safety bars at the bottom. Those in the upper circle are so near the roof that you can hear the electronic spotlights hanging from it moving or focussing – although I admit that the first couple of times it happened, I thought it was a sound effect bumblebee flying through the wood. Anyway, I digress.

The production is quite basic, and feels slightly cheap. There’s no scenery, unless you count some cut-out trees which appear from behind the columns of a black, three-tier gallery-cum-gantry honeycombed with staircases (which seems to be a permanent part of the building structure). Titania’s “bank, where the wild thyme blows” is a little hummock of moulded plastic, just big enough to accommodate a reclining Dame, which can be wheeled around where necessary (the bank, not the Dame). If the Queen of the Fairies does indeed slumber here sometime of the night, then she’s in for a pretty cramped, undignified forty winks. She’s going to get wet, too, for its not “over-canopied with luscious woodbine” or indeed over-canopied with anything. It’s distinctly under-canopied, in fact.

Costumes too, in the main, look a bit skimped. La Dench, as befits her status, comes off quite well, but the designer misses a trick by not incorporating the great circular collar-pieces that you see in portraits of Elizabeth I and which look so much like enormous lace wings. Dench’s Elizabeth/Titania doesn’t sprout these until her final scene, and even then they’re pretty tame. Oberon, however, gets the full Gay Walter Raleigh treatment in an amazing high collar, black jerkin and trunks encrusted with glittery spiders webs and black floor length cloak striped with midnight and mist. The four lovers and the mechanicals look like they have been costumed from a big hamper labelled “generic Shakespeare”. There is a song in The Shakespeare Review about the complaints of three actors who specialise in playing Titania’s fairies which is about all the naff costumes they have been given over the years; the refrain runs “We wish we had wings, how we wish we had wings”, and I can imagine the fairies in this production feeling exactly the same way – by dressing them (both males and females) as Elizabeth’s male courtiers, their presence in the play is considerably diminished and they remain resolutely earthbound. If it were me, I would feel short-changed.

Performance-wise, it’s a distinctly uneven romp through the woods. Dench is, of course, as wonderful as you would expect. Her rendition of the Titania’s great speech about the aberrant weather conditions which the discord between her and Oberon have spawned was so beautifully and sensitively handled that it was worthy of its own round of applause. Charles Edwards, however, seemed to be playing Oberon as a slightly faded, somewhat camp matinee idol. Julian Wadham plays Thesus without an ounce of characterisation; this Duke is an affable, slightly tweedy English gentleman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Julian Wadham. Reece Ritchie was so overbearingly manic as Puck that I itched to make a fairy ring with my hands and girdle them about his neck for forty minutes. The rest of the fairies, to quote somebody else’s review "seem to have fallen in thrall to their celebrity monarch and take on the same, stagnant devotion to the text: stand still, wear your traditional dress, and e-nun-ci-ate".

To quote my own review of Much Ado About Nothing at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park of last year, "Ben Mansfield was everything you want in a Shakespearan prince [although in Dream he’s not playing a prince, obviously] - floppy haired, doe-eyed. lean, hairy and gorgeous ; the kind of man that makes me want to rack up a gram and shout to my obedient flunkies "Have him stripped, washed, handcuffed and sent to my tent. Actually, no - don't strip him; I'll do it myself. With my teeth". Quite honestly I was enjoying watching him too much to actually take much note of his acting (pauses to wipe dribble off the keyboard)." And this holds. Rachel Stirling looks, sounds and acts like a younger version of Diana Rigg, which is handy, because she’s Diana Rigg’s daughter. She displays a fine sense of the absurdity and comedy in the role of Helena, but also a strangely butch haircut.

A relative unknown, Oliver Chris, takes on the pivotal role of Bottom, and I can imagine his initial disbelief (turning to abject horror and then near-hysterical self-doubt) when told “Oh, you’ve got to show Judi Dench your Bottom eight times a week”. Amazingly, however, he takes on this Grande Dame of the Stage and comes within an ass’s whisker of matching her performance. He’s a much younger Bottom than usual, full of a young man’s braggadocio and with a great sense of comedy timing. In fact, apart from Dench herself, he’s the best thing in the entire play. His Pyramus in the “play within a play” is the funniest I’ve ever seen.

So don’t believe all the hype you’ve heard about this production. It may be good enough for the people of Kingston but its by no means a landmark production. Like Bottom, Flute, Starveling and their friends, its all a bit mechanical.

In 1935, A Midsummer Night's Dream got the Hollywood treatment; the wonderful Olivia de Havilland played Hermia, Dick Powell was her Lysander, James Cagney made an unlikely Bottom and Mickey Rooney was Puck.  Although most of the film was awful, there are moments of true Hollywood magic, particularly this section which pulled out all the stops in showing the wood outside Athens as a dark, enchanted and possibly dangerous place, peopled by all sorts of strange creatures - just as Shakespeare intended. And not as Peter Hall depicts it.

What the critics thought: (somewhat predictably, most of the reviews read like a complete Judi-fest, with the pro critics reviewing The Dame practically to the exclusion of the remainder of the cast.  I find this sort of fawning quite embarrassing, and have taken particular care to select a good balance of reviews from various sources)






15 February 2010

A Man of No Importance, Arts Theatre, Wednesday 10th February 2010

In 1964 in Dublin, Ireland, Alfie Byrne is the director of an amateur theatre troupe that has been shut down by Father Kenny. The group, The St. Imelda's Players, is based at the church. Alfie, a bus conductor, wants to stage a production of Oscar Wildes Salome at his church, despite the objections of church authorities.

As he reflects on events, the actors in the troup become, in effect, a Greek chorus and take him through a typical day of "A Man of No Importance", in the form of a play in which he is not the director but the star. As the "play" unfolds, the people in Alfie's life appear: his sister Lily, a handsome bus driver Robbie Fay, and newcomer Adele Rice. Alfie "performs" by speaking Wilde's words to Adele, impressing the bus passengers (who are members of the acting group). As Alfie prepares dinner for himself and Lily, he tells her that he has met a woman. Lily has delayed marriage with her boyfriend Mr. Carney to take care of Alfie until he marries, and is happy for him. Alfie explains that he is not interested in marriage to Adele--he wants her to act in Salome. Frustrated, Lily castigates Alfie for wasting his time in amateur theatre. After an evening in a pub, Alfie returns home, confused about his true identity. As he gazes at himself in the mirror, he sees Oscar Wilde in a dream, and admits that he loves Robbie. After a rehearsal of Salome, Lily invites Adele for Sunday dinner, saying that Alfie is hesitant to speak for himself. As Alfie is walking her home, Adele tells him that she has a boyfriend, John, in her home town and starts crying. Alfie, understanding about secrets, advises "Love Who You Love".

Breton Beret propositions Alfie, and Alfie is trapped between his own shame and desire, but Oscar Wilde again advises him that the way to eliminate temptation is by giving in.

Alfie is confessing to Father Kenny his minor sins. He hears Robbie in a disembodied voice, but he cannot confess to his feelings. The troup is rehearsing, when Adele suddenly cries and tells Alfie that she is pregnant, then leaves. At an emergency church meeting the play Salome is deemed "blasphemous". Monsignor cancels it and orders that the St. Imelda's Players be ended. Alfie, feeling sad, goes to the pub and propositions Breton Beret. Breton takes Alfie's hand, caresses him, but next punches Alfie. Others beat him and he asks for Robbie. Lily and Carney take Alfie home, but the news spreads that Alfie is gay. Finally, Alfie is alone at St. Imelda's hall and thinks back on his life, coming to know that he can no longer hide. A ray of sunlight enters the dimly lit room as Robbie walks in. A passage from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol is read by Robbie as a member of the new acting troup.

Alfie – Paul Clarkson
Carney – Paul Monaghan
Robbie – Patrick Kelliher
Adele – Roisin Sullivan
Lily – Joanna Nevin
Baldy – Anthony Cable
Father Kenny – Anthony Cable
Breton Beret – Dieter Thomas
and Barra Collins, Nicola Redman, Jamie Honeybourne, Emily Juler, Daniel Magure, Ruth Berkeley, Niall Sheehy, Kimberley Ensor and Adam Davenport

Creative Team:
Book: Terence McNally
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Director: Ben De Wynter
Musical Director: Chris Peak
Designer: James Turner
Lighting: Steve Miller

Feeling somewhat like an Irish version of The Baker’s Wife in its portrayal of close-knit community life and featuring a play-quoting bus conductor and his devoted spinster sister, a stage-struck butcher quoting Wilde to his pork chops and the various misfits, frustrated Juliets, inept leading men and the general flotsam and jetsam that comprise any amateur dramatics group you might care to mention, this was a happy little show well suited to the shabby, rather amateurish surroundings of The Arts Theatre, a rather neglected little outpost of the theatrical arts just off Charing Cross Road. Him Indoors was practically frothing at the mouth with excitement as in all his many, many years of theatre-going (his collection of playscripts and programmes is so enormous that it could be used to insulate the loft of the Houses of Parliament and I deeply regret the day he found that he could buy them on Ebay) he’d never heard of it or seen it; as we eased ourselves into possibly the most uncomfortable theatre seats in London save those at the Royal Court, he was almost incoherent with anticipation, bless him. There was a general studenty feel to the rest of the audience, with quite a high PPSI ratio (regular readers of this blog won’t need this acronym expanding, and if you aren’t a regular reader, why not?). The plot pootled along merrily just like the bus that Alfie spends his working life on until it hit a very dark pothole in the road about four-fifths of the way into the second half, causing the entire play to come to an unexpected, shuddering halt. By the time the engine was running again, the show was nearly over and it was almost too late to repair the damage. This, I think, is a major fault of the book itself rather than of the obviously happy band of people in this production, and one of the reasons that the show has never really found an enormous audience.

There were some excellent central performances here – notably Paul Clarkson, Roisin Sullivan and Paul Monaghan, although I do question the wisdom of having the latter double the small, shadowy role of Oscar Wilde; I’m sure that another member of the cast without such a large role could have taken this on – it confused me briefly until I realised exactly what was happening. Special mention must go to Jamie Honeybourne for his portrayal of Ernie; why is it that knitted bobble-hats are so funny, particularly when they are worn with glasses?

It’s a shame about that pothole though; if it had arrived earlier then there would have been scope to turn the play into a different, darker journey.  As it was, it seems a slightly uncomfortable, unfinished piece.

What the critics thought:

12 February 2010

Lucia di Lammermoor - ENO, Thursday 4th February 2010

Synopsis: (c) John Grace of The Guardian:
Act 1, Scene I: A hall in Ravenswood Castle, Somewhere in Scotland

Chorus: Out and about in inclement weather / Skipping through the bogs and heather/ We've lost the intruder, he must be clever!
Normanno: You seem quite jumpy ...
Enrico: I am, you numpty / I'm losing my clout / While Edgardo's about / A deal with Arturo / Would be hunkydoro / But Lucia's acting the clown / By turning him down.
Raymondo: Be kind to your sis / She's been hit and miss / Since your mum croaked.
Chorus: The mists have cleared / And just as you feared / The man on the loose is the well-hardo / Edgardo.
Enrico: Feel my pain / Through the driving rain / I hate this man / Almost as much as I hate midges.

Act 1, Scene 2: A park
Lucia: My first song / Is predictably long / With plenty of trills / And high vocal thrills / I've been dreaming for years / It will all end in tears / But my heart won't be at rest / Till Edgardo is pressed to my breast.
Edgardo: Here I am in a trance / For I must flee to France / But our love is strong / And I will be back ere long / To make peace with your bro / Who treats you like his ho / For though he is low life / I want to make you my wife.
Lucia: Did I ever tell you you're my hero? / You're everything, everything I wish I could be / Oh, and I, I could fly higher than an eagle / 'Cause you are the wind beneath my wings / But it could be an idea / Not to mention any of this to Enrico / Cos he is a psychoooooooo.
Edgardo: I will do as you say / Though my heart I betray / But let's exchange rings / To show how our love sings.

Act 2: A drawing room in Ravenswood Castle
Enrico: The silly old cow / Is on her way now / She'd better not kick off / For today she plights her troth.
Normanno: There will be no problem / From that little madam / I've forged a letter in Edgardo's hand / That makes it appear he's shagging half the land.
Enrico: You are a star / Now piss off to the bar.
Lucia: This is the day I've been dreading / The day of my wedding / To Arturo the loser / Who you want to schmooze.
Enrico: Don't be so morose / Things could be much worse / You could have been married to Edgardo the Cad / Who is shagging around, like Iacopo the Lad.
Lucia: As I am not very bright / I must assume you are right / I will go to my grave / A lover betrayed.
Enrico: Do give it a rest / Carry out my behest.
Lucia: Oh what shall I do / Och aye the noo.
Raymondo: You don't have a choice / So try to rejoice / Because God loves you / Even if He's got a funny way of showing it.
Lucia: Very well, I will wed ...
Arturo: ... Now let's go to bed.
Edgardo: I'm back somewhat sooner than everyone thought / And in flagrante delicto you seem to be caught.
Enrico: Now that you're here, we might as well duel ...
Edgardo: I'll cut out the heart of one so wantonly cruel.
Raymondo: Come, come now. You chaps / There's no need for that.
Lucia: It's all a bit much / I'm such a soft touch / Now I've finished my tune / I must lie down and swoon.
Edgardo: Have back your ring / May unhappiness it bring.

Act 3, Scene 1: The tower of Wolf's Crag
Edgardo: I am not asleep / I'm just being deep.
Enrico: There you are, you creep ...
Edgardo: As you sow shall you reap / Let us fight at dawn / When the guests have all gawn.

Act 3, Scene 2: The castle
Raymondo: Try not to laugh / As it does seem quite daft / But Lucia's lost her head / And topped Arturo in bed.
Lucia: My soul is in torment / This is my biggest moment / Sopranos' careers have been built / By wearing a kilt / And seeing how long / They can string out the Mad Song / So I make no excuse / For singing fast and loose / With several cadenzas / All achingly tender / That will leave you breathless and crying / Till my pianissimo dying.
Enrico: Ooh, hark at that / I've been a complete twat.

Act 3, Scene 3: The tower of Wolf's Crag
Edgardo: Where is the fool? / It's time for the duel.
Raymondo: Oh dear, oh dear / Here's Lucia's bier.
Edgardo: I take this knife / To end my life.
Lucia - Anna Christie
Enrico - Brian Mulligan
Edgardo - Barry Banks
Lord Arturo - Dwayne Jones
Raimondo - Clive Bayley
Alisa - Sarah Pring
Normmano - Philip Daggett

Creative Team:
Music: Donizetti
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano
Translation: Amanda Holden
Director: David Alden
Set Design: Charles Edwards
Costume Design: Briggite Reiffenstuel
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Chorus Master: Martin Merry
Conductor: Anthony Walker

OK, first things first.  Why is it that the ENO, whose avowed policy is to perform opera in English, persist in calling this opera Lucia di Lammermoor and not The Bride of Lammermoor after Scott's original novel?  And why is it described on the title page of the programme as Dramma tragico?

Here's a little quote from the lovely Richard Gere in Pretty Woman: "Your first reaction to opera is very important. If you love it, you will always love it.  If you don't love it, you may learn to appreciate it but it will never become part of your soul"  Or near enough, anyway.    The scene is here and the quote comes about 3 1/2 minutes in (its also what opera should look like):

Well, sorry, but I don't love opera.  I can appreciate the technical skill required to sing it, and I enjoy listening to a good voice.  I am often secretly delighted at just how laughable some of the "plots" are.  I enjoy looking at a well designed bit of scenery or a great costume, and I have been known to come over all goosebumps during a coluratura aria.  But really, I could live without all the pretentious squawking that goes on about it, and I could do without wanky, minimalist productions all done in black and white (so 1990s) and I could do without all the waiting around for something to actually happen during all those long half-hours between the good bits.  And I could certainly have done without Lucia di bloody Lammermoor.  OK, call me a Philistine if you must, but I think this nonsense really confirmed (as if confirmation were really needed by this point) that opera and me are never really going to be on anything more than a nodding acquaintance. 

If I'm going to sit in the dark for three hours listening to people not recognising their wife of 30 years because she happens to be wearing a tiny mask or an 85 year old, 30 stone Dame Nelli Timpani trying to be a 19 year old with galloping consumption then I at least want something decent to look at on the stage during it.  I really did hope that this type of "pared down to the essentials" production had died its final death in the 1990s when people finally realised that opera isn't about realism but about people squawking at each other at the top of their voices in improbable situations so damn the expense and lets have elephants on the stage and all the spare scenery we can lay our hands on and incredibly OTT costumes with glittery bits on.  But here, Castle Ravenswood is a peeling, crumbling Victorian mansion (or possibly a lunatic assylum, who knows) which consists of white walls and empty windowframes and creaky doors and the odd brass bedstead in the nursery, and everyone wears black dresses and black frockcoats and black hats and gloves and black everybluddything else. And very boring it is to look at too.  And I know exactly why everything in this production was black and white - so that when Lucia murders her husband and staggers into the wedding reception covered in blood then all the red will have extra dramatic impact, dahling.  If the director was trying to focus on the realism of the piece, then setting the "mad aria" on a stage within a stage robbed it of all credibility, particularly when the chorus are miming applause in slow motion and being "an audience". 

In fact, the only thing I found remotely interesting was the appearance of the glass harmonica in the pit during the interval.  Apparently the original score for Lucia di Lammermoor featured one of these, but Donizetti wrote it out and substituted a flute instead when he realised that the only glass harmonica player in Naples was a freelance musician who would have needed paying considerably more than the normal orchestra members in the pit.  Of course, the director of this production thought he could score (no musical pun intended) Brownie points by having one of these actually in the scene, but of course when the moment came for it to be used in the pit, nobody was playing it on the stage, so its inclusion seemed absolutely pointless. Interestingly,  one of the reasons that the instrument fell out of fashion musically was a  rumour that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go mad - which is possibly a reason why Donizetti used it in Lucia's mad scene. There, don't say you don't learn interesting things by reading this blog. 

There were some fine voices in this production, but Anna Christy is vocally far too small and light to be able to pull off a big coluratura role successfully.  OK, she sung it amazingly, but she lacked the vocal punch that the role really needs.  Physically, as well, she is diminutive (and dressing her up to look not unlike Alice in Wonderland didn't really help).  Barry Banks is a fine dramatic tenor but unfortunately is about 5 foot 2 and looked like a hairy Nac Mac Feegle in a muddy kilt.  Sarah Pring as Alisa, Lucia's companion, gibbered about the stage as if it were she who was on the edge of lunacy rather than her mistress  and I could have sung the role of Normanno better myself than Phillip Daggett's thin wailings.  Honestly, I ask you, if you need any indication of just how lunatic the world of opera is, you need go no further than trying to Italianise the name "Norman".

What the critics thought: