01 April 2011

Alice in Wonderland - Royal Ballet @ ROH - Wednesday 2nd March 2011

Alice: Lauren Cuthbertson
Jack/Knave of Hearts: Segei Polunin
Lewis Carroll/White Rabbit: Edward Watson
Queen of Hearts: Zenaida Yanowsky
King of Hearts: Christopher Saunders
Magican/Mad Hatter: Steven Mcrae
Caterpillar: Eric Underwood
Duchess: Simon Russell Beale
March Hare: Ricardo Cervera
Dormouse: James Wilkie
Cook: Kristen McNally
Frog Footman: Kenta Kura
Fish Footman: Ludovic Ondiviela

Creative Team:
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Joby Talbot
Designs: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Natasha Kutz

Yes, I know that this is a very, very late review! Blame my constant disorganisedness (is that a legitimate word?); its been sitting patiently on my WP for a couple of weeks while I’ve been trying to locate the programme in the enormous piles of paper that constitute my life at the mome in order to complete the cast list and creative team sections.  I haven't put in a synopsis because I'm sure that being a cultured and literary crowd, my readers are all familiar with the story!

On the face of it, Alice is a strange book to want to turn into a ballet (or indeed a film). Its extremely wordy, has very little plot to speak of, and apart from the opening and until the final chapters, lacks a real narrative thread, consisting almost entirely of brief, unconnected scenes which really wouldn’t suffer much if you shuffled them like a pack of cards and dealt them out in a different order. There is a multiplicity of characters who make brief appearances, not usually to return, and a lot of the book’s Edwardian charm lies in its wordplay – puns, anagrams, cultural references etc. Its not really until Alice finally reaches the Queen of Heart’s garden that things start falling into their proper places. It also requires a lot of “effects” – falling down rabbit holes, growing and shrinking etc., which are necessary to the story. So it’s quite a challenge to put on stage effectively – particularly when you are denied the medium of speech.

Mostly, it was handled very well – although often at the expense of dance. The Japanese lady I was sitting next too agreed with me in the interval that she would like to see more actual ballet content (although as it turned out there was to be plenty of this in the second act). Most of the first act was really rather like an expensively-staged “straight” show rather than ballet; the ROH technical crew were probably running round backstage like Mad March Hares. Fortunately, they seemed to be coping very well, although I am not sure that the Royal Ballet purists would really approve of so many back projections. I found myself thinking at a couple of points “look, lets get the “wow” stuff over and can we have some dancing, please?”. Some sections seemed overlong – the caucas race is dreary even in the book and would have benefited from being cut by about ½ (no dodo, I notice), but I noticed only one major omission in terms of scene and that was the Mock Turtle and Gryphon scene (I think this was a shame – it would have been lovely to have seen “The Lobster Quadrille” on stage!).

Another problem is the lack of a love interest for Alice – in the book she’s meant to be 8 or 9 or so. I felt that having Jack (the Gardener’s Boy in the prologue) turn into the Knave of Hearts really rather forced this issue into the story against its grain. It seemed a logical progression eventually, but did take rather a lot of getting used to. What I felt was completely unnecessary was the “resolution” – Edwardian Jack and Alice both appeared to have been dreaming (so that the story was effectively a dream within a dream) – they were really modern teenagers dozing on a bench outside the house which had been Alice’s in the story and which was now obviously some kind of National Trust-esque property with a “Mad Hatter’s Tea Shoppe” attached. This added an extra layer to the story and, very possibly, an extra layer of confusion.

I do wonder whether the Royal Ballet are going to get sucked into the “celebrity” vortex – I couldn’t see why Simon Russell Beale had been drafted in to play the Duchess other than the RB capitalising on his current “national treasure” status. Granted, its not really a major dancing role – SRB looked to be having to hoof with all of his puff at several points - but I’m sure that the RB could have brought in one of their “back catalogue” to play the role – possibly Monica Mason herself (Mason was a member of the company who never really rose above playing tiny roles such as various Fairies and “Friends-of-The-Heroine”; she went into administration (badly phrased - she didn't cease trading, just turned her hand to sorting out paperwork!)and is now the RB’s Director. She’s retiring soon and maybe this would have been a “farewell” role for her?).

Anyway, Act II was dominated by Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts, complete with a total piss-take of classical ballet in a cod “Rose Adagio” solo with four suitors (aping Sleeping Beauty) which even began with an identical musical phrase as the original. To those “in the know” this was a clever side-swipe. I did, however, think that making the QoH funny was a major mistake – OK, it opened up the ballet for younger members of the audience but, in the book, she is a terrifying (mostly unseen) presence and a real figure of horror when she does eventually appear. To make her a figure or fun dilutes the character considerably – even the Disney film (which I loathe) retains her status as someone to be avoided at all costs, and someone to be constantly beware of when you can’t.

Anyway, full credit must go to Bob Crowley for the clever costume designs (even though there were unexplained inconsistencies. Alice and her two sisters were wearing fancy dress costumes at curtain up, then changed into Edwardian half-crinolines quickly afterwards for no obvious reason, and the Playing Card Gardeners were dressed in costumes which suggested medieval jesters, again for no obvious reasons). I loved the flamingo and hedgehog costumes, and thought it very clever that all the playing cards were wearing white body stockings with what appeared to be foam rubber “tutus” cut into hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. Particular mention must go to the poor sods dressed as topiary cones all evening – surely the most thankless roles in the entire ballet. “I’ve got a part in Alice, mum” “Really dear? How wonderful! Your first big break! What are you playing?” “Err…. A topiary tree”. “Oh. Well, never mind. Perhaps you’ll get to be a Friend-of-the-Heroine next season”.  They did, however, get a well deserved solo bow right at the end - cue much hilarity from the audience.

Judging by the audience’s reaction, this looks like its going to be a big success for the Royal Ballet – it only ran for about 5 performances initially in order to “test the water” but I gather there are more performances scheduled for the autumn. It will probably seriously challenge The Nutcracker as something to take the grandchildren to over Christmas. It was a fun, jolly evening with lots of technical wizardry, but ultimately very low on actual ballet.

Iolanthe - Wiltons Music Hall, Wednesday 30th March 2011

Twenty-five years previous to the action of the opera, Iolanthe, a fairy, had committed the capital crime of marrying a mortal. The Queen of the Fairies had commuted the death sentence to banishment for life, on condition that Iolanthe leave her husband without explanation and never see him again. Her son, Strephon, a shepherd, has grown up as half fairy, half mortal. Strephon loves Phyllis, a shepherdess who is also a Ward in Chancery. She returns his love, and knows nothing of his mixed origin.

The Queen is prevailed upon by other Fairies to recall Iolanthe from her exile. Strephon joins the glad reunion and announces his intention of marrying Phyllis in spite of the Lord Chancellor, her guardian, who refuses permission.

Meanwhile the entire House of Lords is enamoured of Phyllis. They appeal to the Lord Chancellor to give her to whichever Peer she may select. The Lord Chancellor is also suffering the pangs of love, but feels he has no legal right to assign Phyllis to himself. Phyllis declines to marry a Peer; Strephon pleads his cause in person to the Lord Chancellor, but in vain. Iolanthe enters and tries to console her son. Since she, like all Fairies, looks like a girl of seventeen, Phyllis and the Peers misinterpret the situation; they ridicule Strephon's claim that Iolanthe is his mother. Phyllis declares that she will now marry either Lord Mountararat or Lord Tolloller. Strephon summons the Fairies to his aid, who take their revenge on the Peers by sending Strephon to Parliament and influencing both Houses to pass any bills he may introduce. His innovations culminate in a bill to throw the Peerage open to competitive examination. The Peers appeal to the Fairies to desist. The Fairies have fallen in love with the Peers and would like to oblige, but it is too late to undo the spell. The Queen reproaches her subjects for their feminine weakness. She acknowledges her own weakness for a sentry on guard outside the Houses of Parliament, Private Willis, but asserts that she has it under control.

Lords Mountararat and Tolloller discover that if either loses Phyllis to the other, family tradition requires that they fight unto death; both therefore renounce Phyllis in the name of friendship. The Lord Chancellor, after considerable struggle, pleads his own cause before himself and convinces himself that the law will allow him to marry Phyllis.

Meanwhile Strephon makes Phyllis understand that his mother is a fairy, and they are reconciled. They persuade Iolanthe to appeal to the Lord Chancellor. When he resists her appeal, she reveals that she is his wife and thus again incurs the death penalty. The other Fairies, however, have married their respective Peers, and announce to the Queen that they all have incurred the same sentence. The Lord Chancellor suggests an amendment to Fairy Law which saves the situation – it becomes law that a Fairy must die if she doesn’t marry a mortal. In order to save her life, the Queen marries Private Willis. All is resolved happily, and everyone flies off to Fairyland.
Iolanthe, a Fairy, Strephon’s mother – Christopher Finn
Lord Chancellor – Shaun McCourt
Fairy Queen – Alex Weatherhill
Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd – Louis Maskell
Phyllis, an Arcadian Shepherdess and Ward of Chancery – Alan Richardson
Lord Tolloler – Matthew Willis
Lord Mountarrarat – Luke Fredericks
Celia, a Fairy– Reuben Kaye
Leila, another Fairy – Adam Lewis Ford
Private Willis, of the Grenadier Guards – Raymond Tate

Creative Team:
Director – Sasha Regan
Choreographer – Mark Smith
Musical Director – Christopher Mundy
Design – Stewart Charlesworth
Lighting – Steve Miller

Once again, hurry along to Wilton’s Music Hall to catch another all-male version of a G&S favourite. I waxed very lyrical about their production of The Pirates of Penzance back in April last year, and now I’m going to wax very lyrical about Iolanthe, which is presented very much in the same vein. Of course, any operetta that deals with the problem of having two political parties ruled over by one leader is going to be topical at the moment, so this show is as topical today as it was back in 1881, bringing an extra level of freshness to the satire, and the jokes seem as new and funny as the day they were written. It would, of course, be just that bit too easy to go over the top and camp up a show about fairies (particularly when the entire cast are male) but that’s the genius of these productions – they are played totally (for want of a better word) straight and, frankly, are much the better for it. Gone is the archness of many G&S productions I’ve sat through (and suffered through) and in its place you find a sparkling, paint-fresh show that’s full of wit and humour, and a goodly dollop of affection for tradition. The direction and choreography are, once again, bang on, and so full of wonderful little details that you would really have to see this at least twice in order to pick up on everything. Nobody’s attention flags for a moment, everyone on stage is alert, involved and picking up and reacting to cues verbal and visual. It looks effortless (which is a clear sign that everyone is working bloody hard), sounds great and is a joy from start to finish. In fact, just like before, I started to screen out the fact that I was watching men play women’s roles. If not as revelatory as the relationship between Frederick and Ruth in Pirates, I saw several things with fresh eyes and, probably for the very first time, felt a lump well up in my throat during the final scene between Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor.

The company still lacks voices in the bass range in both chorus and principal roles – I found myself searching for some of the harmonies in the vocal lines and missing them. There are times when a bass-baritone role cannot be sung by someone with a much lighter voice and be musically convincing (or accurate). Charm and enthusiasm will get you a long way, but it won’t get you everywhere. I’m not sure whether it would be fair of me to say that there were too many “musical” voices on the stage at the expense of some trained “operetta” ones – although G&S can be technically demanding vocally, perhaps the “operetta sound” contributes to that feeling of slightly knowing archness which it was a relief not to have to deal with. The lack of archness in the dialogue, however, was a great pleasure and much to be applauded. It was delivered naturally, with simplicity and charm, which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of it (refer back to my Pirates review and the Henry Lytton quote within it); it takes considerable skill to make dialogue sound natural. The direction was extremely well done – simple and very touching where this was needed (in some of the dialogue between Strephon and Phyllis, for example, and during the Fairy Queen’s big number in Act 2), and appropriately complex and dense elsewhere.

If I have one minor criticism of the production (other than there being too few – if any – true basses in the company) then it was that the costuming of Iolanthe and Phyllis needs to be looked at. The chaps playing these roles are very, very similar physically and in terms of hair and eye colour, and as their costumes looked broadly similar, even I found myself getting slightly confused at some points over which was which. Yes, I know that this is a very minor point, but I think its justified.

Casting was (almost) perfect; Louis Maskell was the butchest, most credible Strephon I’ve seen, with great delivery, total belief in the dialogue and a wonderfully dark-chocolate voice to go with his beautiful dark-chocolate hair (the kind that you just ache to run your fingers (and possibly other body parts) through in order to muss it up. Whoever put him in that white shirt, fawn trousers and braces knows a great deal about how well-cut clothes show off the body underneath them. Lucky sheep! He made an excellent counterpoint to the smaller and slightly wispier Alan Richardson and their scenes together were very credible in an Arcadian kinda way. Alex Weatherhill was a warm yet dignified Fairy Queen, believably maternal yet remaining necessarily slightly detached from “her” troupe of dainty fairies. His vocal sound was firm and convincingly mezzo. Christopher Finn was a charming, beautiful and empathetic Iolanthe and Stuart McCourt a wonderfully “born middle-aged” Lord Chancellor. Raymond Tait was perhaps vocally miscast as Private Willis (the bass/bass-baritone role) but was funny and engaging and obviously possessed of great comic timing.

I can say without exaggeration that every single person in the audience last night went home feeling that they had been brilliantly entertained. I won’t say more – just go by yourself a ticket and see for yourself.

 The company's production of "HMS Pinafore" from 2007, which I desperately wish I had seen.

What the critics thought (these reviews are from the orignal Union Theatre run - the Wiltons run has a slightly different cast)