20 September 2010

Passion - Donmar Theatre, Monday 13th September 2010

Italy, 1863. Giorgio, a young soldier, is bidding farewell to his mistress, Clara. He is to join his new regiment in the outposts of northern Italy . She, already being married, cannot accompany him, but they agree to write to each other regularly. Giorgio is a man going places; he has the confidence of his commanding officer, Colonel Ricci and is well-liked by his fellow officers.

Doctor Tambourri, the regimental doctor, is caring for a special patient, Fosca, the cousin of the garrison commander. She is ugly, ungainly and a recluse, seeking seclusion in books, which are her only passion and which are in short supply in the garrison. Giorgio lends her some of his. He is somewhat a dreamer but Fosca craves intellectual stimulus, and though frail and with an illness that manifests itself in hysterical convulsions, she clings to him.

In letters, Clara warns Giorgio to keep Fosca at arm's length but she becomes increasingly dependent on him, passing him surreptitious notes. Giorgio, realising the deep involvement Fosca has with him, asks for leave which is reluctantly granted. As he departs, Fosca asks him to write to her. When she finds out that Clara is already married, she becomes even more of a recluse shunning all contact with anyone except the doctor, who believes that her condition will only improve if, and when, Giorgio returns. When he does, Fosca dictates a letter that turns out to be a love letter from her to him.

Colonel Ricci tells Giorgio about Fosca's marriage to a worthless count, whose profligate ways and harsh treatment made her ill and left her penniless. They visit an overgrown garden and are caught in a rainstorm which affects Fosca so much that she faints and has to be carried back to camp by Giorgio. He too falls ill and is granted sick leave to recuperate in Milan. Fosca follows him to the train which will take him away from her. He begs her to give him up and return to the camp where she can receive medical attention.

Clara, meanwhile, has made a decision; she will stay with her husband and bring up her family - the affair with Giorgio is over.

Back at the camp, a transfer notice organised by the doctor arrives for Giorgio. This devastates Fosca who once again repairs to her room in much distress. The colonel discovers the love-letter, written by Giorgio although dictated by Fosca, and challenges him to a duel. That night Giorgio visits Fosca's room and acknowledges his love for her. The following morning, both he and the colonel are injured in the duel.. Months later a letter from the doctor informs Giorgio of Fosca's death just three days after the duel - which she knew nothing about. Having lost both the women who loved him, he is alone.

Clara: Scarlett Strallen
Giorgio: David Thaxton
Colonel Ricci: David Birrel
Lt. Torasso: Simon Bailey
Dr. Tambouri: Allun Corduner
Sgt. Lombardi: Hadyn Oakley
Lt. Barri: Ross Dawes
Major Rizzoli: Tim Morgan
Pvt. Augenti: Iwan Lewis
Signora Fosca: Elena Roger

Creative Team:
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Choreography: Scott Ambler

Passion is not Sondheim’s most immediately accessible work, there are some (initially) unsympathetic characters, and there’s not a lot  from the score that you can hum during the walk back to the station afterwards. Its all too easy to get it all wrong, particularly when its on a relatively small scale. But in this production, everything is very well judged and done with just the right amount of reserve, so that later in the show when stops need to be pulled out a bit, there’s room to spare for the full histrionics to come to the fore (things do get a bit – well – operatic towards the end). Indeed, the character who banged his chair down just that bit too emphatically in one of the opening scenes probably learned his lesson as the entire back came off and there followed a few sticky moments during which he struggled to regain his hold on both his composure and his furniture. As the chair had to remain on stage for several minutes afterwards, the audience – or possibly just me - then had a great deal of pleasure watching various people sit on said chair and wondering if they were going to fall off it. Alas no – a quick slop of wood glue and the application of a rubber hammer to the joints backstage and all seemed to be well.

Scarlett Strallen looked ravishing (both in and out of her crinolines), like a cross between Anna Leonowens and a Botticelli angel, but it was difficult to imagine her falling for David Thaxton’s rather anaemic Giorgio. Somehow, he seemed just that bit too dull and ordinary to inspire Clara’s passion. Elena Roger, however, proceeded to wipe not just the floor but the walls and the ceiling as well with both of them as the embittered and ugly Fosca. Although standing at least a head shorter than anyone else in the cast, she wrestled with the inherent absurdity of her role like a prize-fighter and quickly subdued any misgivings that the audience might have had about how this ugly duckling could possibly tempt her prize away from Strallen’s gorgeous swan. In the bar beforehand, I’d said to a fellow audience member who had never seen the show before that, if she wasn’t in tears by the end, it meant that she had no soul; fortunately for me, there were several points when my own eyes began to prickle as the story reached a climax – although personally I could have done without the thunderstorm at this point.. Having had my English Literature teacher drum into my head constantly that “thunderstorms are a device which indicate a breakdown in society or relationships” (Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy are full of them), and having endured many operas with Him Indoors in which dramatic moments are underscored by someone backstage rattling a metal sheet like buggery while rapidly flicking switches on the lighting desk, (Rossini never wrote anything that didn’t contain at least one Force 8 gale), I’m now on constant “Thunderstorm alert” at the theatre, rather like a taller and prettier version of Michael Fish, and I find them hackneyed and rather OTT.
This was a preview performance and I hope that the professional critics will give this revival all the plaudits and superlatives it well deserves.
Full marks to the set designer for clever use of the restricted space – a wall pierced with three arches and covered in crumbling frescoes of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; I spotted Leda and the Swan, Daphne and Apollo and (possibly) Diana and Acteon, subtly and cleverly highlighting not only the gradual crumbling away of the three central characters’ happiness, but also the idea that love given or received is capable of transforming even the ugliest duckling into something beautiful. Clever also was the incorporation of the Donmar’s upper balcony into the set design. Not so clever were the two idiots sitting next to me who sat cackling like a pair of ugly and demented ducklings through all the dramatic bits near the end and ruining things for those sitting around them. I shot one of them with a pointed comment in the hope that they might transform into adults who know how to conduct themselves at the theatre. But I don’t hold out much hope. Some ugly ducklings merely become big, ugly, noisy ducks.

(24th September - pro reviews are just in - and I wrote my review before the one mentioning ugly ducklings was published online or in the paper)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/reviews/article-1314694/PASSION-review-Stephen-Sondheims-steamy-tale-desire-rejection.html?ito=feeds-newsxml (four star rating)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8017873/Passion-Donmar-Warehouse-review.html (four star rating)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8017873/Passion-Donmar-Warehouse-review.html (four star rating)

The Times gives it 5 stars but, because of their naff "subscription only" policy, I'm unable to provide you with a link to this.

05 September 2010

Into The Woods - Open Air Theatre@Regents Park, Thursday 2nd September 2010 (Matinee)

When a Baker and his wife learn they've been cursed with childlessness by the Witch next door, they embark on a quest for the special objects required to break the spell - a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold-  variously swindling, lying to and stealing from Cinderella (attending the Royal Ball wearing the slipper) Little Red Riding Hood (wearing a cape as red as blood), Rapunzel (who has hair as yellow as corn) and Jack (who has exchanged his white cow for a sack of magic beans). By the end of act 1, the spell has been lifted and everyone seems happy - the baker's wife is expecting a child, Cinderella has married her Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Granny have been rescued from the wolf and Jack has killed the giant and solved his mother's financial problems with the aid of a stolen hen which lays golden eggs.  Even the witch is now young and beautiful, having been cursed with age and ugliness in return for losing the magic beans from her garden and locking Rapunzel up in a doorless tower -  but the consequences of everyone's actions return to haunt them later, with disastrous results. 

The baker doesn't cope well with fatherhood, Cinderella discovers that her Prince is a serial womaniser, Rapunzel loses her sanity after being locked up for so long, the Witch has lost her magical powers, Red Riding Hood has lost her childish innocence and trust of strangers and the Giant's wife comes to take her revenge on Jack.  The narrator of the story becomes embroiled in the plot itself as it shakes free from convention and starts to spiral wildly out of his control. Lives are lost before the survivors realize that they have to act together in order to overcome the problems they created by wishing.  In fact, it becomes obvious that "Happy Ever After" isn't where the story ends, but only where the problems really start.   

Narrator: Ethan Beer/Eddie Manning/Joshua Swinney

Cinderella: Helen Dallimore
Jack: Ben Stott
Baker: Mark Hadfield
Baker’s wife: Jenna Russell
Stepmother: Gaye Brown
Stepsisters: Amy Richardson and Amy Griffiths
Jack’s mother: Marilyn Cutts
Little Red Riding Hood: Beverley Rudd
Witch: Hannah Waddington
Mysterious Man: Billy Boyle
Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Michael Xavier
Rapunzel: Alice Fearn
Rapunzel’s Prince: Simon Thomas
Voice of the Giantess: Judi Dench
Creative Team:
Book: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Timothy Sheader
Movement: Liam Steel
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Puppet Designer: Rachael Canning

You can hide in the woods, certainly. But you can’t hide in Into the Woods – this is very much an ensemble piece and shortcomings can be brutally exposed. Just like the ingredients bubbling away in a cauldron, occasionally something appears which brings delight, sometimes its wiser not to look too closely. Some of the performances here are very bad, some others are merely badly served by the production. And overall, I would say that the darker aspects of the show are those which lose out – perhaps literally because this isn’t a show best seen by bright daylight. The bosky darkness of the Open Air Theatre by night may well bring added depth – but hey, we could only get tickets for a matinee.

The set is fantastic – a maze of walkways, stairs and ladders, punctuated by trees. Its used inventively to suggest the disorientation of being alone in the woods, yet by its very nature this makes it very hard to zoom in on individuals or small groups when there are other things happening elsewhere. And far too much takes place in the space underneath the structure, where only those in the really expensive seats at the front can see clearly. But when its good, its really really good – a group of characters standing on a spiral staircase and opening green umbrellas becomes a beanstalk both credible and incredible, a saddle on the seat of a swing makes a horse (just add imagination) and a huge birds nest perched on top does double duty as Rapunzel’s tower and the baker’s hideout for the finale. And elsewhere there are wonderful visual jokes to enjoy – never before have I seen the Three Little Pigs appear in Into the Woods, but their presence carrying straw, sticks and a hod full of bricks is funny and welcome and feels entirely natural, as does that of birds made of branches, a puppet cow a la War Horse and a chicken (one that lays golden eggs) made out of a push-along lawnmower. It’s a shame that the costumes didn’t match up – there was far too much of the “Swampy” eco-warrior look for my liking. Where Cinderella’s sisters should don silks and satins to go to the ball, here they just go in the tweed knickerbockers outfits they’ve worn all along. Rapunzel’s Prince was wearing a boring suit that looked like it had been donated by one of his peasants. Again, on the flip side, some costumes were wonderful – the Witch was decked out in shiny “mould green”, the skirt of which had been pleated at the back to fall into cobweb shapes.

One thing that was disappointing throughout was the lack of singing talent; everyone seemed to be a singing actor, rather than an acting singer – apart from Cinderella, who could neither sing nor act. She wowed everyone with her creation of the role of Glinda in the original production of Wicked, but there was nothing of her sparkle on show this afternoon The Mysterious Man’s “phoned-in” performance was mirrored by Beverley Rudd’s practically faultless Little Red Riding Hood, who lit up and practically walked away with every scene she was in. Congratulations to the casting director for picking up on the clues in the next about LRRH’s physical appearance and engaging Rudd for the part. Those in the “chorus” parts (people like the Wolf and Steward, who otherwise have very little to do) were kept busy and useful on stage and there was excellent group choreography, although generally the “chorus” were on the opposite side of the set from the principals and it was nearly impossible to pay attention to both at the same time.

What shocked me to my theatre-going core was the dreadful “performance” by Judi Dench, who voiced the Giant’s wife (fantastic enormous “puppet” – just hands, eyes and mouth made of bits of “junk” – which “peered over the trees”). I know that the role consists of less than 20 lines, but really Judi, I do think you could have put a lot more than your very bland reading of them. Even if you are a “Giantess” of the Stage. Tsk, its enough to put you completely off your Capri-Sun.