30 August 2010

Danton's Death - National Theatre, Wednesday 11th August 2010


Three revolutionary groups are presented at the start of the play - Danton's supporters, Robespierre's supporters, and those who do not agree with how the Revolution has evolved. Danton and Robespierre have different views on how to pursue the revolution - Danton's supporters back the end of Robespierre's repressive measures, which have already caused great suffering among the people, and they dod not find in the Revolution the answer to the material and moral questions facing mankind. One citizen deplores the fact that his daughter has been forced into prostitution to support her family. Danton accepts his friends' proposal to meet Robespierre but this meeting proves to be fruitless and Robespierre resolves that Danton must be killed, though he still doubts that this decision is just.

Danton's friends press him to fight or flee Robespierre's supporters, but Danton does not see any need to do so and does not believe that the French National Convention will dare to act against him. Danton confides the guilt he feels for the September Massacres in his wife Julie. Danton is imprisoned and led before the National Assembly, which is divided - it feels it has no choice but to acquit him. However, Robespierre and Saint-Just reverse its opinion.
The prisoners discuss the existence of God and life, and an attempt to prove that God does not exist fails. Danton's supporters are transferred to the Conciergerie. During this time the revolutionary tribunal arranges for its jury to be made up of honest and faithful men. Danton appears confidently before the tribunal, impressing the public with his willingness for justice to be done. Seeing the hearers' sympathy for Danton, the court is adjourned. The tribunal's members invent a plot to change the public's mind. At the tribunal's second sitting, the people stop supporting Danton, due to his lifestyle. Danton's liberal programme is revealed as unacceptable to the masses.

Danton and his supporters are condemned to death. Danton and his friend Camille Desmoulins exchange thoughts on life and death. Danton's wife Julie, to whom he has pledged to be loyal beyond death, posions herself at their home. The people show themselves to be curious and ironic on Danton's way to the scaffold. When Lucile Desmoulins sees her husband Camille mount the scaffold, she goes mad and resolves to die too, crying "Long live the king!" and thus guaranteeing her own death sentence.
Danton: Toby Stevens
Legendre: Ashley Zhangazha
Desmoulins: Barnaby Kay
Lacroix (sweetie!): Gwilym Lee
Julie: Kirsty Bushell
Lucille: Rebecca O'Mara
Marion: Eleanor Matsuura
Robespierre: Eliot Levey

Creative Team:
Adapted by Howard Brenton from Georg Buchner
Director: Michael Grandage
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Paule Constable.

Yes, yes, this is three weeks or so late, I know.  Its been hell around Castle TheatreReviews of late, and all my spare time recently has been taken up playing Farmville on Facebook and writing outraged Emails to my local branch of Sainbury's about their new Self Service tills.  Such is life. 

Even if I hadn't had to go to the dentists and have two fillings on the morning of this show, I don't think I would have enjoyed this very much; in fact I can best describe it as "fucking dreary".  To paraphrase Victoria Wood's sketch about Othello:  "I don't think its got a plot; its just various people talking - and sometimes they do things in brackets".  Fortunately, there was no interval so the agony was over within an hour and a half.  The set was just as dreary as the play itself , evoking the interior of the Donmar Warehouse and circled with enormous shutters that required constant opening and closing by a couple of "Citizens" who had nothing else to do but walk round and open them, wait for a couple of minutes while a couple of lines got spouted by various people standing on tables declaiming to the downtrodden masses metaphorically waving their pitchforks and making outraged "rhubarbe rhubarbe" noises in French accents, and then go round and close them all again.  One of the problems of this type of play, much like January's The White Guard, is that you have to have a very good grounding in all the historical comings and goings to fully understand what is going on and why, and who everybody is, and why everyone is getting in such a flap about things.  If you don't, then you spend much of the time trying to sort out the good guys from the bad and trying to decide who's side you are on and why.  Once you start to realise that you've set yourself an impossible task, you eventually start to tune out and stop caring, particularly when the lead character is played as an arrogant c*nt.  And so it was here - I know some odds and ends about the French Revolution, but my interest rather peters out once Marie Antoinette's head has fallen in the bucket; my understanding about the political upheaval in the years which followed this event is - to put it bluntly - nil points.  Until the bloke playing Robespierre was addressed as "Citizen Robespierre", I thought he was Talleyrand, ffs. 

The only thing worthwhile in this production, which seemed to go on all night even though it was very short (there's only so much declaiming and rhubarbe that you can take in one go) was the final couple of minutes in which we were mercifully rid of Dreary Monsieur Danton and his equally Dreary Amis with the aid of Madame Guillotine's hairdressing device ("Just a little bit more off the top, I think") - even though the machine itself was woefully small, it was so spectacularly cleverly done that real heads appeared to be falling into the basket It even seems to have shut Les Madames Defarge up for five minutes or so (which is always a Very Good Thing).   In fact, Danton's Death was the most interesting bit of his entire life. 
What the critics thought:

17 August 2010

Le Corsaire [The Pirate] - Bolshoi Ballet @ The Royal Opera House, Wednesday 4th August 2010

Synopsis (pay attention, this is long and complicated!):
A crowd of Turks, Greeks and Armenians throng a square where slaves girls are for sale. A band of pirates appears, led by Conrad. Medora, the ward of Lankendem, throws a bouquet to Conrad, who realises she loves him. The Pasha arrives to buy slaves but none please him. He sees Medora and wants her but Lankendem says that she is not for sale. But the Pasha is determined and offers a price that Lankendem is unable to resist. The Pasha orders Medora be bought to his harem; she is distraught. Conrad swears he will save her. The pirates “kidnap” all the slave girls including Medora, with Lankendem in hot pursuit.

The pirates arrive at their hideout. Medora pleads for the release of the other slave girls and Conrad agrees, but Birbanto (another pirate) protests and tries to raise a mutiny. Meanwhile, Lankendem is caught by the pirates, and he suggests a plot to retrieve Medora. Birbanto sprays a flower with poison and tells Lankendem to give it to Conrad who, overcome with the poison, collapses. Medora is frightened by this and manages to stab Birbanto in the arm. She then faints and is carried away by Birbanto’s friends, followed again by Lankendem Birbanto is about to kill Conrad when he wakes. Hearing that Medora has been abducted for real he and his loyal pirates give chase.

Back at the harem, the Pasha’s harem girls are amusing themselves. Zulma, the Sultana, demands respect but Gulnara (the chief Odalisque) and her friends mock her. Lankendem arrives to deliver Medora to the Pasha. She begs for her freedom, complaining that Lankendem has treated her cruelly. He is banished by the Pasha. Pilgrims arrive, asking for lodgings for the night. Medora discovers that they are really Conrad and his friends in disguise. There is an entertainment, after which the pirates throw off their disguises. Conrad and Medora are reunited. Gulnare pleads for help to escape the harem. Birbanto and his friends arrive at the harem and try to capture Gulnare. Medora recognises Birbanto and tells Conrad of their treachery, identifying him by the wound on his arm. He and Conrad fight and Birbanto runs off. The Pasha’s guard arrive; Conrad’s band is routed and he is sentenced to death.

During the preparations for the Pasha’s wedding to Medora, Conrad is prepared for his execution. She begs the Pasha to spare him, and he agrees on the condition that she marries him. Medora tells Conrad of the Pasha’s conditions and the two lovers decide to take their own lives. However, they are overheard by Gulnare who suggests a plan.

The wedding procession arrives, with the bride veiled and the ceremony takes place. Medora dances for the Pasha and is given an ornamental dagger by him. He begs for her love, also giving her a handkerchief. Threatening the Pasha with the dagger and tying him to a chair with the handkerchief, Medora and Conrad escape the harem. Gulnare runs in and unties the Pasha. It is announced by a guard that the pirate ship, with Conrad and Medora aboard, has left the harbour. The Pasha is outraged at the escape of Medora, believing her to be his wife. Gulnare produces the ring used at the ceremony; it was not Medora who was veiled, but her!

A storm overtakes the pirate ship, on which Birbanto has hidden. He tries to stir up a mutiny and is thrown overboard by Conrad. The ship hits a rock and sinks, but Conrad and Medora climb onto the rock and are saved.

Medora: Ekaterina Krysanova
Conrad: Ruslan Skvortsov
Gulnare: Marianna Ryzhkina
Birbanto: Vitaly Biktimorov
The Pasha: Alexei Loparevich
Zulna, the Sultana: Irina Zibrovna

Creative Team:
Music: Adolphe Adam (with additions by Delibes, Pugni, von Oldenburg, Drigo, Zabel and Gerber – and probably Drooper, Snorky, Fleegle and Bingo, for all I know)
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka (after Petipa)
Design: Boris Kaminsky
Costumes: Yelena Zaytseva

Well, I have to say that I spent a great deal of time being confused (and with a running time of over three hours, there was plenty of time for me to do it in) being confused and at times downright bloody mystified as to what exactly was going on and who the feck certain people were during this performance. The synopsis given above is a cut-down version from the one given in the programme, which was so confusing as to bring on brain stem death in anyone trying to make sense of it. I wasn’t helped by several things; the principals used every opportunity to change their costumes, often appearing in two or three different ones in the course of a single act; various characters mentioned in the cast list didn’t appear in the synopsis (who the hell was Mufti when he was at home?); several times an unidentified person in an important-looking costume would rush onto the stage, do a big solo and then rush off again, never to be seen or heard of again; and this version bore only a passing resemblance to other productions of Corsair that I’ve seen. I was therefore reduced to soliciting help with what was going on from various other audience members during the intervals along the lines of “Who was the woman wearing the green dress?” and “Was the woman on the balcony wearing the white dress the same woman who did a dance in the red spangly one?” and “Do YOU understand what’s going on?” Fortunately a lady in the row in front took pity on me and said “One should never worry about the plot of Corsair – one should just enjoy the dancing” (they speak like that at Covent Garden). So I took her advice and just sat back and let it wash over me. Unfortunately, there was so much washing over me that I thought I was going to drown at several points in the evening. By heck, this was a long night. I can do no better than to paraphrase one of the reviews below and say “It was so lovely that I hoped it would go on for ever – and then some time later began to fear that it might”.

Quite why the Bolshoi perform this version is beyond me – it was all so glitzy and overstuffed that I can only compare it to eating an entire box of liqueur chocolates in one go; one is nice as a treat, and having a second one makes you feel wickedly self-indulgent. After the fourth you’re starting to regret the entire thing, and when you realise that there’s another layer underneath, you begin to wonder about the availability of plastic buckets in the immediate vicinity. It was all so piled on that I began to lose the ability to be discriminating about what was good and what was merely indifferent, and there seemed to be plenty of indifferent being presented on the stage, with lots of very strained “ballet acting” by any poor bugger not actually involved in the dancing -  You want to buy a rug? Very nice rug, Effendi, cheap cheap. You no want to buy good rug? May the fleas of a thousand camels infect your armpits, Infidel!  The sets didn’t help – in the main they seemed designed for a much wider stage, and seriously cramped a lot of the action, particularly the set for the Pasha’s palace, which suffered from looking like a bizarre hybrid of Old Peking (Its behiiiiiind you!) and Carry On Follow That Camel with leftover bits of Chu Chin Chow thrown in just in case there was any unused space (which there invariably wasn’t). This on occasion meant that there was an odd column whack bang in the middle of where people needed to dance on the left, which wasn’t then mirrored by another one on the right, forcing those on the left to dance round the column and those on the right to wonder where their column was. In the jardin anime section, there were so many tutu’d and turbaned bodies trying to pick their way through the forests of vaguely horticultural scenery while maintaining a fixed rictus smile and worrying about whether Zvetlana on the opposite side could manage her watering can what with her dodgy elbow and all that that I seriously began to long for Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock to stroll on, spray the entire scene with RoundUp and put York stone paving down. Corsair can be done with a (relatively) coherent plot without truckloads of unnecessary stuff – but this wasn’t it. The final hair on this particularly overladen camel’s back was an entire animatronic pirate ship going down with all hands behind a front-projected curtain of crashing waves at the very end. Interesting to see – but it didn’t add anything to the plot, was practically unnecessary and just slowed the climax down to a complete crawl.

Strangest of all was the complete excision of the role of the Slave (a famous Nureyv role) and the resultant section of Act 3 in which it appears, leading to more head scratching. Perhaps it was the fleas from that camel.

To paraphrase a well-known saying: over-long, over-done and over ‘ere.

What the critics thought:

American Ballet Theatre's version with the deleted role of the slave (played by a guy with gorgeous hair):

15 August 2010

The Tempest - The Old Vic, Monday 2nd August 2010

The magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero's jealous brother Antonio—helped by Alonso, the King of Naples—deposed him and set him adrift with the then three-year-old Miranda. Gonzalo, the King's counsellor, had secretly supplied their boat with plenty of food, water, clothes and the most-prized books from Prospero's library. Possessing magic powers due to his great learning, Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from a tree in which he had been trapped by the witch Sycorax.  Her son, Caliban,  taught Prospero how to survive on the island, while Prospero . Following Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda, he had been compelled by Prospero to serve as the sorcerer's slave. In slavery, Caliban has come to view Prospero as a usurper and has grown to resent him and his daughter.

The play opens as Prospero, having divined that his brother, Antonio, is on a ship passing close by the island, has raised a tempest which causes the ship to run aground. Also on the ship are King Alonso of Naples, Alonso's brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and advisor, Gonzalo. All these passengers are returning from the wedding of Alonso's daughter Claribel with the King of Tunis. Prospero, by his spells, contrives to separate the survivors of the wreck into several groups. Alonso and Ferdinand are separated and believe one another to be dead.

Caliban falls in with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards, whom he believes to have come from the moon. They attempt to raise a rebellion against Prospero, which ultimately fails.  Prospero works to establish a romantic relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda; the two fall immediately in love, but Prospero worries that "too light winning [may] make the prize light", and compels Ferdinand to become his servant, pretending that he regards him as a spy. In the third subplot, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become King. They are thwarted by Ariel, at Prospero's command. Ariel appears to Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian as a harpy, reprimanding them for their betrayal of Prospero. Prospero manipulates the course of his enemies' path through the island, drawing them closer and closer to him.
In the conclusion, all the main characters are brought together before Prospero, who forgives Alonso. He also forgives Antonio and Sebastian, but warns them against further betrayal. Ariel is charged to prepare the proper sailing weather to guide Alonso and his entourage (including Prospero and Miranda) back to the Royal fleet and then to Naples, where Ferdinand and Miranda will be married. After discharging this task, Ariel will finally be free. Prospero pardons Caliban, who is sent to prepare Prospero's cell, to which Alonso and his party are invited for a final night before their departure  Prospero has resolved to break and bury his wizard's staff and  book of magic. In his epilogue, shorn of his magic powers, he invites the audience to set him free from the island with their applause.
Prospero: Stephen Dillane
Ariel: Christian Camargo
Caliban: Ron Cephas Jones
Boatswain: Ross Waiton
Alonso: Jonathan Lincoln Fried
Gonzalo: Alvin Epstein
Sebastian: Richard Hansell
Antonio: Michael Thomas
Miranda: Juliet Rylance
Ferdinand: Edward Bennett
Trinculo: Anthony O’Donnell
Stephano: Thomas Sadowski

I wasn’t quite so sleepy this time round as I was when I saw this company’s production of As You Like It – but honestly, the pace they took it at was enough to cure anyone’s insomnia. Obviously the Director had given them all the instruction “The best way to do Shakespeare so that everyone understands what is going on Is. To. Speak. Very. Very. Slowly. And. Pause. Between. Each. Word”. During the opening scene, everybody thankfully ignored this, but remembered in time for the next one, so that by the (non-existent) interval, I was glancing at my watch every couple of minutes and making strenuous “Get ON with it!” movements with both my hands. There were places where the pace mercifully picked up but the average pace could kindly be described as “stately” or rudely as “bloody slow”. Still, at least most of the cast were audible this time round. Mr. Dillane, playing Prospero, had been roundly criticised by the press for his lack of projection in As You Like It, and for the most part managed to rev this up several notches, until about half an hour before the end when decided to inject a bit of variety into his rather bland performance by playing about with the sound levels:
We. Are. Such. Things. As. Dreams. Are. Made On. And.
Our. Little. Life. Is. Rounded. Off. With. A. Sleep”
which made the last act appear like the sound technician was buggering about with his knob (steady!) in his little booth and twisting it left and then right and then back again to keep himself from dropping off through hypnotic speech pattern overload. No such problems from Juliet Rylance who gave her performance by megaphone again – any louder and she could have saved the director of a production some 15 miles away the expense of having a Miranda on stage, merely having to open the theatre doors so that Miss Rylance’s performance could be heard from afar. Alvin Epstein, as Gonzalo, had either switched his throat mike off completely, was making sure that the bats in the rafters got their fill of Shakespeare or was just inaudible.

Rather than present Prospero’s Island with any attempt at realism, the set designer had tried to be tricksy and cute by having no set other than a large, round circle of sand in the middle of the stage. There was a large, shallow trough across the width of the stage at the back, filled with water and enough wooden chairs to start a small furniture store (“Hello? DFS Prospero’s Island branch. How may we help you?”) on which any member of the cast not currently performing had to go and sit and await their next entrance. Pity the poor bugger playing the Boatswain who gets about 10 lines in the first act and then nothing until 2 pages from the very end who had to sit there all night in full view, rather than being able to return to the dressing room, take his sea boots off, catch up with Coronation Street for two hours and have a good scratch. I hope that everyone had been issued with waterproof footwear, or there will be a run on treatment for Foot Rot at Boots in Waterloo Road by the end of the run. The casting director had also seemingly balked at using the full company – when the Goddesses conjured up the Nymphs and Shepherds for the wedding masque, nary a Nymph nor indeed Shepherd responded to their call and so they had to do the best they could with assorted castaways, which made for a rather rum pastoral sequence, especially as a lot of it was accompanied by back-projected old home movies of what I think we were meant to understand to be Miranda's early childhood.

On the subject of rum, this being a tropical island (that's a joke btw), the other inhabitants were extremely odd indeed. Ariel was played as a very fey, palefaced cross between Edward Scissorhands and one of the sparkly vampires from the Twilight series – less Ariel than Emo  (still, I suppose we were lucky it wasn't Elmo). Quite why, when commanded to disguise himself as a water sprite, he decided to don a long green sleeveless cocktail dress is beyond me, and I found the characterisation of Caliban somewhat tasteless; yes, OK, have Caliban played by a black actor in order to emphasise his difference from the rest of the characters (and make a political point about slavery), but is it not somewhat crass to then have him “white up” in Caucasian-toned body paint? Other characters seemed to have grabbed their costumes from the nearest hamper marked “Dressing Up” and were representative of no particular era or location. Whether this was making about point about the “timeless” quality of Shakepeare’s play I don’t know but I do know that having no interval makes you very aware of every passing minute when you need to go to the toilet.

What the critics thought: