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Absorbing, Reflective, Immaculate: Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs

by Jennifer Haley

Teddington Theatre Club at The Coward Room, Hampton Hill Theatre until 24th June

Review by Thomas Forsythe

There are illness that take away the strength of the body; there are illness that take away the strength of the mind; and then there is dementia, and that takes away the soul.   This is what makes dementia, in all its forms, so terrifying to contemplate and so destroying for the victim and those around the victim.   But why do we say “victim”?  Each one suffers and each is human.

However, we all die and we are all born.  It’s the bit in the middle that matters.  The skill of acclaimed Texan writer, Jennifer Haley, in her sensitively-handled play Breadcrumbs, is to examine the value of the bit in the middle from a dementia ravaged viewpoint.  Nevertheless, this is not a maudlin examination of personal disintegration.  The effects of dementia are the springboard for a much wider exploration of relationships, trust, worth, truth, reality and need.

There is a complexity in Haley’s script and, in the wrong hands, it could go uncomfortably awry in production.   Co-directors, Andy Smith and Jane Marcus, are both well-known as being amongst the best of local actors, but, for both, Breadcrumbs represents their directorial débuts, so here is a hard call.  However, with their small but talented company, Smith and Marcus have created a memorable theatrical moment; absorbing, reflective, artistically immaculate.

Alida is a writer who is undergoing medical investigations for a rapidly progressing form of dementia.  Her self-imposed therapy is to try to write a story in her own style (think folksy but dark fairy tale) that is strongly autobiographical.  The breadcrumbs in the title allude to the Hansel and Gretel tale, in which their wayfinding trail of breadcrumbs is eaten by birds and they are lost in a dark wood.   Alida’s breadcrumbs are her own memories and she is constantly saying that she wants to be “out of the woods”.

 

Set designer, Fiona Auty, has created a sinuously claustrophobic set in The Coward Room studio space at Hampton Hill, into which audience winds its way through overgrown woodland into a mysterious forest, set within the studio, to discover the interior of Alida’s flat in New York.   Already we are symbolically probing the interior of Alida’s mind, the woods that she wants to be out of.

The atmospheric nature of this set further enhanced by the lighting and sound design.   Steph Pang really knows how to light the Coward Room studio, her economic design follows the nuances of the time changes and the mood changes, sculpting the scene-scape.  The soundscape is an interpolation of Will Williams’ music and John Pyle’s sound, which make the jarring inconsistencies of Alida’s mind symbolically audible to the audience.

Into Alida’s disintegrating world comes Beth, an auxiliary at the hospital that is examining Alida.  Beth takes a proprietorial interest in Alida, and becomes engrossed in the biography that Alida is trying to write.  Beth encourages her to publish the work, but Alida is adamant that it is “only for myself”.  Beth even gives up her hospital job to become Alida’s part-time researcher, although Alida presciently insists that “there is no end”, and furthermore stubbornly stipulates that none of the research should be on computer, for she “loves the smell of ink on paper” (a nostalgia that your reviewer shares, particularly when the electronics assert their own freewill).  Eventually, Beth moves into Alida’s flat, temporarily … or is it?

You see, we only know this world through the eyes of the suspicious Alida, whose sense of time is erratic, but the writing leaves ambiguous the possibility that Beth may be taking advantage of the vulnerable patient.  She may equally be a benevolent self-appointed carer.  What is certain however, is that both are lonely, both are adrift emotionally and that both have “a past”.    And within the conceit of the poetic writing of the play, the characters gradually begin to mirror each other.

So Beth represents Alida’s mother, Alida her own juvenile self, and the half-remembered (or misremembered) events in Alida’s life mirror (or become) events in Beth’s (real?) life.  The ambience of the play becomes dreamlike as we enter Alida’s failing mind.  And the words become more poetic.  Alida, realising that that the veins on the back of her hand look like those on an autumnal leaf, reminisces “a yellow leaf: I thought I should write my memoirs before my brain turned brown!”

The intricate involutions of this play demands acting of the highest standard, and TTC’s company delivers it.

TTC_Breadcrumbs_For BOARD-6

Joolz Connery is simply outstanding as Alida.  She precisely pictures the stubbornness that can be ingrained in the self-reliant, the tetchiness that can follow the failing elderly, and the anxiety that always torments those with dementia.  Connery has obviously studied the mannerisms of dementia sufferers and has these to a tee.  The Alida of now and the child Alida in her mind is accurately and clearly differentiated.   The pervasive urgency of Alida’s quest is palpable, a quest to race against her failing memory, before she becomes Gretel, lost in “an infinite indifferent darkness.”

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Beth is a rootless young woman seeking roots.  Lara Parker portrays Beth as a directionless drifter, all at sea but wanting to put down an anchor.  She cannot make lasting relationships and has had a string of loveless encounters with different men.  Parker skilfully depicts this shrugging aimlessness with a measured empathy, and she also clearly differentiates the real Beth and the Beth as a personification of Alida’s mother.

Both Alida and Beth are seeking what Alida calls “points of reference” in their lives.  For Beth these include a black bin-bag of stuffed toys, her comfort blanket that she moves to each new abode; for Alida they include stick-it notes to label things before she forgets their names.  As a writer, words are important to Alida and she becomes obsessed with the etymology of words that are obviously significant to her.  She asks Beth to research “femur” and “witch”.   The symbolic allusion is back to Hansel and Gretel : the gingerbread house becomes one of body parts and she sees it roofed in mucus.  We can infer that Alida’s mind transfuses the witch with her mother and the house with the Californian villa of her mother’s lover, an exploitative pornographer, covered in muckiness.  This villa is the subject of a pair of concatenated traumatic events, which are burnt into Alida’s mind.  Maybe they foretell the direction of Beth’s life.

TTC_Breadcrumbs_For BOARD-20

The bit in the middle is still real for Beth, but for Alida the bit in the middle has itself bits missing, such is the nature of dementia.  However, another trick of dementia, rather than to hide, is to reveal.  Layers of the past can be peeled away to uncover more layers, like the bulb of an onion, releasing long-forgotten flavours.

But, as Alida says, “we create dreams, but they can never be true”.

Thomas Forsythe

June 2017

Photography by Sarah Carter

 

Improvisation of Genius: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

by Claudio Monteverdi, libretto Giacomo Badoaro

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 2nd July

Review by Mark Aspen

The Modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy says in his poem, Ithaca,  “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage,  Without her you would never have taken the road…”

Odysseus’ road to home may have been two decades long, but certainly the most touching human episode described by Homer in The Odyssey is his homecoming and his reuniting with his wife Penelope.  Ulisse’s (Odysseus’) landfall on a deserted Ithacan beach is the starting point for Monteverdi’s majestic opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.

Claudio Monteverdi, maestro di capella at St Mark’s Venice, was 74 years old when he composed this remarkable work.  That was in 1641, four years after opening of Teatro San Cassiano, regarded as the first opera house.   Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has been described as “an improvisation of genius, a vast sketch in which certain parts have been worked out, and others scarcely outlined”.  2017 marks the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, and the Grange Festival’s production is a fitting celebration of this “improvisation of genius”.

The journey to Cavafy’s Ithaca “… is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge”.  Homer certainly ascribes a series of human weaknesses to Odysseus’ protracted return journey, a point that Monteverdi, and his librettist Badoaro, clearly remind us in the Prologue to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, in which L’umana fragilità (Human Frailty) is mocked by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore (the gods of Time, Fortune and Love).  Man is slave to their every whim.  

In this production, L’umana fragilità is (ostensibly) a hapless member of the audience, a latecomer, who is pulled onto the stage to be stripped of his dinner suit and subjected to all sorts of indignities.  The vocal tormenting by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore comes from three singers (Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman and Lorneza Paz Nieto), whereas their “physicalisations” are by a stilt-walking grim reaper, a pretty young girl riding a bicycle, and a blindfolded cupid mounted on sprung powerbocks.  These gods remind us that every human is assaulted by Time, is Fortune’s toy, and that Love is a god that even hurts gods.  Countertenor, Robin Blaze, creates a picture of L’umana fragilità helpless against the ravages of these forces of life and, when he is exposed spread-eagled on circular table, an analysed and proportioned human, referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano, we feel his plaintive cry “misero sono mio!”.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

This outré setting characterises a presentation of imaginative invention.  And so the quirky gods continue with Nettuno (Neptune) jetting up through a stage-trap in a wetsuit with flak-jacket, harpoon gun and oversize harpoons, all jet-black; whereas Giove (Jupiter) is a rigger from an industrial plant, atop an hydraulic “cherry-picker” platform and carrying an angle-grinder (which subsumes the role of thunder-bolt).  Minerva first appears disguised as a shepherd boy, gathering a flock of sheep made from bicycle saddles and coiled springs all painted white.  When she resumes her own identity, it is as the Owl of Minerva with blue silky wings and huge myopic spectacles.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The fertile mind of designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, together with Jackie Shemesh and Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, his lighting and video co-designers, has provided a fine foil for the controlled clarity of Monteverdi’s music.   With a bare revolve stage and strong colours as the base, lighting and video are back-projected onto translucent panels, which are reassembled for the different settings and onto which the surtitles appear in a typeface that varies between characters.  Ulisse and Telemaco wear battle-stained twenty-first century combat fatigues and inspired designs also extend to Penelope’s costumes. Penelope is wrapped in a white girdle by Melanto, her lady-in-waiting, a wide and endlessly long tape that could be a swaddling band or could be a chastity belt.  In either case it is unwrapped by Ulisse in the final scene.  However, to meet the suitors, Penelope wears a magnificently sculptured pannier dress, almost like her personal castle walls surrounding her.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Director, Tim Supple, former artistic director of the Young Vic, has a wide-ranging vision for this opera that encompasses all this idiosyncratic symbolism, and more.  Although this blend of post-modernistic design and early Baroque music could seem self-indulgent, it works brilliantly … and largely (and maybe surprisingly) unobtrusively.

Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s artistic director, is himself an opera singer (probably a unique situation in Britain) and indeed is internationally renowned as a foremost counter-tenor.  One feels that The Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is Chance’s brainchild, and he has personally adopted the role of musical director.   The opera is in good hands, for Chance clearly understands Monteverdi, with its fluid and lively scoring, its descriptive purity and its emotional intensity.  Chance, lucky man, gets two groups of musicians, two sets of instruments for the Baroque period, each with its own pit.  One is The Division Lobby, of plucked instruments, which provides the continuo.    The other is The Academy of Ancient Music Resident Orchestra, which plays the ritornello on bowed instruments.

However, as Chance himself says, “Strip away the non-essentials of opera and what are you left with?  Singing.  Singing is the core of opera …”.  Nevertheless, to bring the characters to life requires good acting as well as good singing, and in this production the cast excels in both aspects.

Ulisse 3

As Ulisse, Paul Nilon portrays a man who is heroic but astute, noble but patient, the man to be shipwrecked with if you wish to survive.  His strong lyrical tenor voice encapsulates Ulisse’s anguish at being at his goal, but not quite.   (And how can he hold that bent pose for so long in his disguise as the decrepit down-and-out?)   Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus is outstanding as a regal, resolute and contained Penelope, her fine voice interpreting the baroque score with an expressive simplicity.  Her opening, “di misera regina” captures the emotion of the piece in a moving and dignified manner.  The final duet when the torments of Ulisse and Penelope have ceased and the reunion is complete, “O delle mie fatiche meta dolce e soave”, the sweet and gentle ending, was extremely touching.

The clean tenor voice of Thomas Elwin brings a vigour and a vibrancy to Telemaco, the son of Ulisse and Penelope, and the emotion journey from doubt to acceptance of his long-lost father is very convincing.  Telemaco’s ill-judged praise to the beauty of Helen, the cause of all their woes, is itself beautifully rendered by Elwin.

One of most sympathetic characters is that of Eumente, the elderly swineherd and faithful retainer at Ulisse’s household, and this part is acted with great poignancy by established tenor Nigel Robson, who sings with a resonance that allows the emotions in the character to show through. Equally Fiona Kimm bringst to life Penelope’s elderly nurse, the knowing and wise Ericlea, with her mature mezzo singing.  Soprano Donna Bateman is a flirtatious Melanto, who suggests to Penelope that no one loses the game of love and that she should yield to the suitors.

Monteverdi, for the purposes of the opera, reduces the number of Homer’s a whole generation of suitors to a more economical three, but these are widely drawn and from across the full male register: Pisandro (baroque countertenor Robin Blaze), Anfinomo (character tenor Harry Nicoll) and Antinoo (bass Paul Whelan).  Vibrant in solo, they are vivid in trio, creating a richly multi-layered sound, as in “Compagni, udiste?” (Friends, do you hear?).

 

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The suitors have been predatory with Penelope, the palace and the patrimony of Ulisse.   When they hear that Telemaco has returned with a beggar in tow, they plan to kill him, and they up the ante with Penelope, offering titles, gold and power.  Penelope’s challenge to them to show that they are as good as Ulisse by drawing his archer’s bow gives them hope, but none can succeed.  In this production, the competition involves passing the bowstring around Penelope.  The movement choreography, by Debbie Fionn Barr, in this sequence was visually very pleasing (as it was generally) and true to the score.  Clearly she is meant to be a “tug-of-love” woman, but is this stretching the visual pun a bit too far?  (Excuse the verbal pun.)  With the help of Minerva, all three suitors fail in their quest, but when the beggar, the disguised Ulisse, asks to try and then succeeds, this is the cue for the suitors’ massacre.   The dramatic tension at this point is as tight as Ulisse’s bowstring, and it is an accolade to the acting that a lady, one of the staid members of the Grange audience, sitting behind your reviewer, involuntarily let out, through clenched teeth, an audible “Yesss!”.

As the ubiquitous Minerva, the wise owl goddess, mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard gives a charming and animated performance.  The other principal god, Nettuno, he of the black wetsuit and harpoons, is the very imposing and impressive figure of the tall bass singer, Paul Whelan.  Whelan also plays Tempo and Antinoo, the suitor, and is able to extend easily into the baritone range without losing any of the rich fullness of his voice.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Another memorable performance was that of Ronald Samm as the parasitic slob Iro, the glutton and drunken hanger-on with the suitors.  His voice is superb and rounded, and he has imposing stage presence.   The solo, “O dolor, o martir che l’alma attrista”, sung after the demise of the suitors, when he decides to kill himself as he can no longer indulge his gluttony (O grief, O torment that saddens the soul) is pure bathos, but one cannot help but feel sympathy.

Such is the contrary nature of the Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.   Remarkable, quirky, intellectually stimulating and beautiful, it takes us from Homer’s “wine-dark seas” to Ithaca and on to Monteverdi’s “improvisation of genius”.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Bob Workman

 

Butcher and Friends Hit Eel Pie for Six: The Boom Band

The Boom Band

The Eel Pie Club,

The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 15th June

Review by Cliff Tapstand.

It’s very rare to find a renowned performer in one form of entertainment playing a leading role in another totally different and unrelated pursuit.  But, there we were, at The Eel Pie Club greeting The Boom Band, who were making their first appearance at the venue with former Surrey and England Cricketer, Mark Butcher playing lead guitar.  But the surprise didn’t stop there.  Most groups have one lead guitarist, some will have two and very infrequently there may be three, but, The Boom Band have four, and every one of them highly talented musicians.    To complete the front line of the stage there was a stand-in bass player.   But, this was no ordinary stand-in, his name is Malcolm Bruce, son of the late, great Jack Bruce of “supergroup”, Cream.  The full line up was completed by Paddy Milner on keyboards and Wayne Proctor on drums.

the boom band-12

Photographs by Pat Stancliffe 

It’s easy to think that four guitarists on stage at the same time could get a bit competitive, or even confusing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s obvious from the moment they walk on stage that they enjoy playing together and are having just as good a time as their audience.  Their play list for the gig was drawn almost entirely from their excellent album, The Moon Goes Boom: Live in London, which is a well balanced mix of their own compositions and blues standards.

The Four Guitarists

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First up on the playlist was Terraplane Blues, a song by the American blues legend, Robert Johnson.  We’re then into the first two album tracks, Diamonds in the Rust, and Under the Skin.  Next up is Junko Partner, a song written by Bob Shad, and first released by James Waynes in 1951, later to be covered by The Clash, Dr. John and many others.  Some great keyboard playing on this by Paddy Milner, twice winner of the Best Keyboard Player in The British Blues Award.  Two more ‘home produced’ songs, Moonshine and Red Eye of the Devil follow,  Before, Get Outta My Life Woman, first recorded by Lee Dorsey in the early 1920’s  and subsequently covered by Gerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, and The Byrds.  Monty’s Theme is next, an instrumental that really shows the musical skills of this talented outfit.  Space doesn’t allow me to cover every song, but both When You Come Home, and Can’t Find My Way Home are well worth a mention, the latter written by Steve Windward and released during the short life of “superband” Blind Faith.  The penultimate song returns to the blues with Lightnin’ Slim’s, Rooster Blues,  before a rousing final ‘anthem’ We can Work Together, with plenty of audience  participation, all of whom, I’m sure, hope it won’t be too long before The Boom Band  are back at The Eel Pie again.

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Wayne Proctor and Paddy Milner 

 

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Malcolm Bruce 

A little more about the band: Matt Taylor played in The Snowy White Blues Project, and the late Long John Baldry said he was the best guitarist he ever shared a stage with!  Jon Amor was a founder member of The Hoax, one of the top rhythm ‘n’ blues bands in the country. Marcus Bonfanti, toured with and opened shows for Robert Cray, Chuck Berry, Jack Bruce, Beth Hart and many others. Paddy Milner, founder member of Ronnie Scott’s Blues explosion, played for years with Jack Bruce and is Sir Tom Jones piano player of choice.

Mark Butcher hit 8 centuries playing for England, the highest being 173 not out against Australia at Leeds in 2001.  He hit just the one 6, but he and the band hit us all for 6 at this gig.

Cliff Tapstand

June 2017

Photography by Pat Stancliffe

Sincerity with Sensuality and Sinew: Carmen

Carmen

by Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 8th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Spitting and stabbings and incendiary sex-drives were not the sort of thing that one could entertain one’s proverbial maiden aunts with in 1875, even in Paris, and the first Parisian audiences had to at least pretend that they didn’t like it.  So poor Georges Bizet may have died thinking that Carmen had flopped and that it was the least popular of his works, but history has shown it to be the world’s most popular and most performed opera.

With its hummable tunes and bold colourful characters, Carmen has also become a popular opera in the sniffy sense of “pop op”.  However, that mould of the pastiche is well and truly smashed with The Grange Festival’s current production of Bizet’s Andalusian sizzler.  Here is a production that has depth, that has sinew and that has veracity.  This is the only production of Carmen that has moved me to really feel for the characters and genuinely to care about their plight.

The plot of Carmen is driven by two themes: jealousy, which here doesn’t just bubble under the surface, but rushes along in an overwhelming torrent; and of course, that sex-drive, which in this production motors at full revs with twin turbos.  However, what is firmly established is that it is the women who take the driving seat.   The opening scene in the square in Seville has the soldiers harassing the innocent Micaëla in a darkly menacing way.  She is only rescued from the threatening “gang-bang”, by the changing of the guard and the subsequent shift-change at the nearby tobacco factory, when the tobacco girls show them who really call the shots.  The softened soldiers sing “les paroles d’amour”, but the girls tell them “peut-être demain”.  Then they call for Carmen.   “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle …”, the famous habanera, establishes Carmen, for whom it would be an understatement to say that she is her own woman.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival has created the world of Carmen (in the only just refurbished theatre building at The Grange) as a beautifully simple visual metaphor, initially seen as an empty stage backed by an immense cyclorama of quilted silk, reminiscent of birds’ wings, onto which projected images of various birds emerge and dissolve in the different moods of “l’oiseau rebelle”.   These images, created by acclaimed video designer, Dick Straker, enhance the atmospheric lighting of established opera lighting designer, Peter Mumford, and form part of an integrated fluid set design by the versatile Joanna Parker.  The set re-creates itself openly between acts using a series of trucked angled platforms brought on by the chorus to become variously the tobacco factory, Lillas Pasta’s blue-light clubrooms, the mountains or the Seville bullfighting arena.  Parker has collaborated with director Annabel Arden in the movement chorography, which again is integrated into the design such that surging groups: factory shifts, platoons of soldiers, arguing mobs, bands of brigands or bullfight spectators become part of the setting and of the music.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The concept of integration is taken up by The Grange Festival Chorus, its ensemble engaging the multi-layered musical perspective effortlessly into the opera.  The   Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Jean Luc Tingaud is musically faultless and take Bizet’s score with the energetic attack that it deserves, whilst still savouring all of the lyrical nuances of the piece.  (Remarkably, Tingaud studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Manuel Rosenthal, then of advanced years, who in turn had worked with some of the original artists from Carmen’s 1875 Paris premiere.)   Whilst Carmen is popularly famous for its forte passages, BSO greatly enhance the lyrical passages and, at the beginning of Act III, bring the flute soloist onto the stage for the crystal clear Prelude, which interweaves a harp accompaniment and clarinet response: beautiful.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

However, Carmen’s fire is sparked by its eponymous free-spirted anti-heroine.  Carmen    flits through the interstices of society with a vixen-like agility, sharp, sensual, seductive, but skilful, shrewd and perceptive.   Israeli mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman excels as Carmen, her luscious velvety voice speaking in fiery song for the character, and inhabiting Carmen’s restless soul.  Carmen sings “toujours l’amour”, but her conflicting impulsive instinct, “je veux être libree” is the cause of the downfall of the hapless Don José, who becomes obsessively infatuated with Carmen.  American-Italian tenor Leonardo Capalbo is totally convincing in this role, a man hopelessly smitten in spite of his own better council, and that of Micaëla his child-hood sweetheart.  Carmen dances her habanera, which presciently finishes “prends garde á toi”, throws the flower and José is irredeemably snared.  Capalbo’s rendering of José’s response,  “la fleur que tu m’avais jetée’” is reflective and lyrical.  But as José slides down a spiral of total enthrallment, Capalbo shifts his tone into the realm of the dramatic tenor, exploring José’s anguish and conflicting emotions.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

Silly man, we say, he should have stayed with Micaëla, his sweetheart from back home in Navarre, who truly loves him and has sought him out to bring a messages from his ailing mother, coming vicariously with “un baiser de ma mère”.  Shelley Jackson, much acclaimed internationally as in the USA, gives a beautiful portrayal of Micaëla, of her sweet innocence and her devotion.  Jackson sings with great charm and grace bringing all the skills of the lyrical soprano to the role. We are frequently led to glimpse Micaëla as a Madonna, embodying both young virgin and mother.  (Indeed costume co-designer Ilona Karas drapes her in Madonna blue.)

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The toreador, Escamillo, glorious but arrogant, courageous but full of bravado, needs a singer with great aplomb, and Phillip Rhodes is impressive in this role.  The well-known Toreador’s song is delivered with great attack and Rhodes effortlessly fills the full range of the baritone voice demanded by the piece.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Sopranos Marianne Croux and Filipa van Eck are very spirited as Carmen’s companions Frasquita and Mercédès and are a joy to watch.   In Act II, Lillas Pasta’s becomes a glitzy late twentieth century nightclub, complete with silver slit-drape and roll-along glitter-balls, which make a stylish sparkling setting for Frasquita and Mercédès to perform with Carmen, and here we also see Croux and van Eck’s dancing skills.  The smugglers, Le Dancaire and le Remendado appear, played by Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet de Solages as a pair of wide-boys.  Mutually supportive, they catch just that right amount of vaudeville humour, and with Frasquita and Mercédès they form a well-differentiated foursome.   Together they explode with ensemble energy for the quintet,”nous avons en tête une affaire”.

The lowest registers are in fine hands with Russian-American bass Grigory Soloviov as Captain of the Guard, Zuniga, acted as slow on the uptake, whilst sung with rich resonance.

The Grange Festival’s Carmen is undoubtedly an outstanding production, but for this reviewer has one irritating flaw.  Bizet’s score with Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto has much spoken dialogue which is often cut.  Here, having cut most of the dialogue and some recitative, it is replaced by an extraneous commentary, delivered by two narrators, La Commère and Le Compère (the gossip and her crony?).  They explain what is happening, seemingly for any six-year olds who may be watching.  They are forever pulling the focus and breaking the musical continuity and emotional momentum.   (The nadir comes with a mimed description of the bull-fighting arena.  Draw out a circle, ah, it’s a ring; flap a cloak, ah, it’s for bull-fighting; bring in a plate of oranges, ah, it’s in Seville … geddit?).  All the production’s exemplary acting and dancing, the beautiful singing and Bizet’s brilliantly crafted music speak for themselves.  Why not let them speak?

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Nevertheless, this is a Carmen that is truly exceptional.  It puts aside the superficial of a rollicking good story to probe its darker depths, and examine the powerful human emotions, the irresistible strength of the animal sensuality that is Carmen, and her allure, an allure that gathers all around in her thrall.  This is an allure that leaves Don José pitifully consumed and helplessly deluded, a fatal delusion that leads the opera to its climactic conclusion.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photographs by Robert Workman

Dangerous Liaisons in Trying Times: The English Heart

The English Heart

by Matthew Campling  

Etcetera Theatre, Camden, until 2nd July

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Actors are great.   It’s probably fair to say that even now, when most people think of actors they tend not to focus on the thankless work in fringe theatre that underpins the wide and varied performing arts scene in this city that we tend to take for granted.   No-one pays great attention to the particular skills required to bring new work convincingly to life in a tiny theatre over a Camden pub on one of the hottest days of the year and after the fourth major national tragedy in three months.   The fact that actors, playwrights and producers continue to produce and perform with only the most basic facilities, is something greatly to be valued in these trying times.

Trying times, specifically Brexit, being the subject of Matthew Campling’s latest play, The English Heart.   Shortly after the 2016 Referendum, in Lincolnshire, married couple Marie and Jake sell the family farm that Marie grew up on to Andre, a mildly mysterious character back from South Africa, nursing a broken heart and developing an aversion to close relationships of any kind.   Marie and Jake don’t like talking about Brexit to the point of fingers in ears and tuneless singing whenever the subject is mentioned, but they do want to enjoy themselves … separately, with Andre.   Both begin secret sexual relationships with him and these proceed splendidly – in fact Marie hasn’t had sex this great for quite some time – until Andre begins to resent their neediness, and ultimately their liaisons are revealed.  At which point a small apocalypse occurs and husband Jake attempts to shoot himself.

613mariewantsandrejakedefendsThe analogy is clear if you want it: Britain throws in its lot with the EU and enjoys the bounty therefrom for quite a while until things begin to get a little less simple and demands and responsibilities seem to overtake the advantages.  Jake, Marie and Andre find their own solution to their European union of dangerous liaisons and the play (which, according to the press release, was being written right up to the fallout from the latest election), takes the three characters forward in possibly the only way from the impasse they find themselves in, spoilers preventing further elaboration.

This work is more than an animated metaphor though and classier than a dramatized illustration of the state we’re all now in.   The three characters and their interactions are believable and well-played by the actors, and their creator ultimately treats them with kindness.   They are weak and funny, but dignified.   Once humiliated by their failings, their strengths bring them together to rescue the situation.

Husband Jake, the most challenging of the three roles, is a boy-man struggling with his true gay identity, over-excited once he embraces it and then extremely vulnerable.  Not the easiest character journey to convey convincingly, but managed to good effect with a very efficient performance from Jake Williams.   Marie (Anya Williams) embraces the relationship with Andre behind her husband’s back but reacts with a self-righteous indignation, that she’s oblivious to, to the revelation that Andre is also pandering to her husband’s needs.  Andrew Jardine plays Andre as a morose, directionless character, cash rich but emotionally void.  All three are deluded in some way, all three draw you into their deluded worlds but make you want to forgive them.

613andremarievacuum1

The work as it was performed would have benefited greatly from just a little bit more of a suggested set, it would have brought another worthwhile dimension to the piece.  It’s clear that the possibilities for set design, or even construction, within the small confines of the Etcetera are limited, but I think there is potential for more than mainly moving chairs around.

The English Heart is funny (though it’s probably funnier on a non-press night in a more relaxed atmosphere) but there is a comforting feeling of vindication about it too.   You feel for its creator and his characters the kind of private sympathy you felt for the teacher when you were ten and your class was told off for collective misbehaviour that you were involved in, and quite enjoyed, but knew would end in tears.   Matthew Campling’s work is new to this reviewer, but I will seek out more of it.

Eleanor Lewis

June 2017

Photography by Matthew House

Striking in Simplicity as in Beauty: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

from the novel by Charlotte Brontë, devised for the stage by the company

National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic Co-production at the Richmond Theatre, until 17th June

Review by Melissa Syversen

On my bookshelf, you will find several beautiful hardback editions of literary classics from the Western cannon.  Alongside my copies of Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights you’ll find a particularly lovely, leather-bound edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  All masterful works of literature.  All collectively giving me the side-eye for not having read them yet.  The guilt is real, I tell you.  Now, having seen the National Theatre-Bristol Old Vic co-production currently touring the nation, the guilt has tipped over that fine line and turned into outright shame.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) in Haworth, photos by Ellie Kurttz (3)

Though, of course, I am very familiar with the story of Jane Eyre.  How can one not be, with all the countless adaptations for film, TV and theatre over the years?  The BBC alone have multiple adaptations available, finding it mandatory it seems, to put out a new version almost every decade since the 1950s.  (I am quite partial to the Timothy Dalton 1983 version myself.)  You can’t really blame them.  The story of Jane Eyre was ahead of its time and, since its publication in 1847, it has continued to resonate with people over the world.  Hers is a story of overcoming emotional, physical and moral hardships from a young age, fighting to retain her own sense of self, her independence and her passionate, intelligent spirit.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (13)

Director Sally Cookson and dramaturg (Yes, a dramaturg!) Mike Akers have rightly decided to focus wholly in on Jane in this production.  It is easy to get lost in the infamous love story between her and Mr Rochester.  Their story is indeed a large part of Jane and her journey but it isn’t the main event.  The casting structure of the ten-part ensemble reflects this.  Every member doubles at least two roles, be it as different major and minor characters or as musicians and vocalists with the exception for Nadia Clifford.  As our strong-willed heroine, Jane, Clifford never leaves the stage and she portrays Jane with a fiery sense of agency throughout.

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (19)

This production was originally devised by its original company at the Bristol Old Vic in 2014 as a two-part piece.  When it transferred to the National Theatre, it was worked down to one 210-minute play.  Know this: this production of Jane Eyre is not your average piece of period drama.  We are not trapped in cramped gothic castles or bound by excessive period costumes.  Just as the qualities of the wild birds Jane so admires, there is a sense of freedom and air to this production, silly as that may sound.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the phrase ‘less is more’ so aptly put to work.  The set, designed by Michael Vale, is a simple wooden structure of three levels with different black ladders spread around.  Around the playing space hangs white curtains.  Within this frame, there is an impressive flexibility for everyone to create and play using levels, choreography, music and sound.  And I must say the lighting design by Aideen Malone is particularly exceptional.  This production is as striking in its simplicity as it is in its beauty.  I really can’t heap enough praises upon the entire production team.

NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017 ensemble. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg (9)
And of course, then there is the ensemble.  Although the touring version that I saw at Richmond Theatre does not feature the original cast, I was struck by the strong sense of unity between the actors.  Director Sally Cookson has guided her cast splendidly.  Together they have found wonderfully imaginative and often playful ways of moving the action forward, utilising movement, breath and voice.  I have already mentioned Nadia Clifford and her solid performance as Jane.  Equally good is Tim Delap as Mr Rochester.  Delap has tapped more into Mr Rochester’s eccentric side than other actors I have seen earlier and honestly the man is all the better for it.  In a quite surprising way it helps bring out the hurt behind the man’s domineering exterior and it make his emotional connection to Jane all the more potent and moving.  The entire ensemble is strong and together they bring to life the large gallery of people flowing in and out of Jane’s life.  But, I think for those of us who have seen the show will agree: the one role will remain in the audiences’ memory is Paul Mundell as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s trusted hound.  I am not even joking, he steals every scene he is in.

You can tell that this production of Jane Eyre is a labour of love for those who created it.  It really is one of the most visually stunning pieces of theatre I have ever seen.  Even if you have seen every BBC series or film adaptation of Jane Eyre, you will never have seen her story told like this.   If you love Jane Eyre or just even just beautiful and inventive theatre, I would urge you to see this production.  You will not be disappointed.

Melissa Syversen

June 2017

Photography by Ellie Kurttz and Brinkhoff Mögenburg

 

 

Theatrical Marmite? Attempts on Her Life

Attempts on Her Life

by Martin Crimp

YAT at Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre, 7th to 9th June

 Review by Georgia Renwick

 ALTERNATIVE TITLE: Love it or hate it, you’ll want to talk about it – Attempts on Her Life

 I never fail to be impressed by YAT’s choice of material and from where I’m sitting, this is their most challenging, daring and confrontational production yet.  In her production notes young director Lucy Hanneghan describes the play as theatrical “Marmite”, “you may love it, you may hate it, but either way you’ll definitely want to talk about it”.  So which camp do I fall into?  She was right in that there is certainly a lot to talk about and it is undoubtedly a strong and impassioned production, but a “love” or “hate” response is not so easily settled upon.

Martin Crimp’s play debuted at The Royal Court in 1997, to a mixed reaction.  “Is it even a play?” was a question readily up for debate among the critics, by both those who loved it and those on the other side of the Marmite debate.  Attempts on Her Life has no cast list, no stage directions, and conventional “acts” and “scenes” are substituted with seventeen short “scenarios”, each with their own titles.  Well, sixteen titled and one “Untitled”, to be exact, although you could reasonably argue that “Untitled” is a conscious title in itself.

The elusiveness of a title, of defining what is and is not there is the central theme that forms the invisible spine of the scenarios.  Crimp presents us with graphic imagery: genocide, violence, suicide, pornography, terrorism – the short warning on the back of the programme of “adult themes and content” is rather an understatement – but invites us to question, what are we really seeing?  What is outside our field of view?  What is shown and what is hidden from us?  The end of the twentieth century saw the eye of the media being scrutinised in a new way, and twenty years on in this age of “fake news” and the news feed “bubble”, a piece of theatre questioning its bias – whether you call it a play or not – couldn’t be more pertinent.

With no cast list, the play’s lines are free to be divided as the director sees fit among as many actors as they choose to cast, unrestricted by age or gender; a “director’s dream” Hanneghan calls it in her notes.  In the wrong hands, its lack of prescription could easily turn it into a directionless mess, a director’s nightmare.

Hanneghan however proves herself more than capable of handling this challenging and mature text.  As YAT are justifiably renowned for, the pace and energy never drop.  Set is minimal, a few pieces of furniture wrapped in crime scene tape, with physical theatre and quick costume changes to convey the revolving door of scene changes.  Each change is slick, everyone where they need to be when they need to be there, and the resulting pace is relentless.

Hannagan’s ensemble cast of twelve are well balanced throughout the eighty-minute piece, and each given their moment to show us what they’re made of.  Each actor is faced with the challenge of multiroling, and every one of them handles it with aplomb.

 

Attempts 5

There is one central character in this characterless play, the “her” to which the title refers, but she remains elusive, described from the outside but never pinned down, which Hannegan reflects in her casting decisions.  In one scene she is a lover, played with doe-like eyes by Emily Coates, in another a terrorist, played with devil-may-care attitude by Lena Kheroua, in yet another she is a car…  “The sun gleams on the aerodynamic body.  The aerodynamic body of the new Anny…  now available in diesel“.  Even the spelling and pronunciation of her name is not fixed (Anne, Annie, Anny, Anushka) and what is “attempted”, by her “on her life” or by Crimp in the context of this play is similarly never clearly defined.  Hanneghan isn’t giving any hints either, “I’m not going to explain my interpretation…  I’d like the audience to question what they are watching”, she revealed tantalisingly on the YAT Twitter feed, prior to the opening of the show, quite rightly leaving it ripe for audience conjecture.  Was Annie a real character at all, or just a product of our – or the media’s – conjecture?

Attempts 3

The cast of YAT proved in their performances that even without defined characters they could deliver memorable performances.  Gracie Moss’s emotional performance was captivating, delivered with cries of fury and tears of rage, whilst another expressive actor was able to draws roars of laughter from the audience with nothing but a suggestive flick of the eyebrows and a balloon pump.  Timmy King’s impressive accent work had him hailing convincingly from at least three different regions, whilst Freddie Haberfellner and Vilde Valerie performed with guts and gusto almost entirely in alternative languages, one of Crimp’s few production notes with Hanneghan was able to utilise to its full disorientating effect.

As if the continuous scene changes and role-swapping weren’t enough bedazzlement, scenes are punctuated by exemplary technicals.  Deliberately over-stimulating video inserts form an appropriately arresting introduction.  Well considered sound design is also used to heighten the head-spinning effect of the piece, with voice-overs, voicemail messages, pumping music and even a full-on musical number contributing to the chaotic sequence of events.

Attempts 1

The intimacy of the Coward Studio at HHT suited the material and this technical articulation of it.  In a space this intimate, the sound can envelope you, the video and visuals are “In-Yer-Face” – as the programme promises – there is nowhere to hide.  At times this could be (although I respect that this was almost certainly deliberate) a little too over-stimulating and intense.  A little more audience care would have been appropriate, given the inflammatory and potentially trigger-inducing nature of the material.

Although there are some outrageously funny moments, overall Attempts…  makes for uncomfortable, even unpleasant viewing.  I wonder at how many of those squirming in their seats around me were aware of what they were letting themselves in for!  Why do we, whether by choice or unintentionally, go and sit through performances that make our toes curl?  Performances that play out the ugliness of the world, that hold up the worst in our world for us to see in full and uncensored detail?  Performances that get up in our faces, and point their metaphorical fingers directly at us?

Because, we think.  And thinking leads to…  well, that’s precisely the point.  Who knows where?  New thoughts, new ideas.  By not pinning down the subject matter, Crimp has not limited the interpretive possibilities.  This is what makes it such a gift to creative young directors like Hanneghan, who can shape the material any which way they see fit to speak to audiences now.  She has excelled at making a production that is current, without being gimmicky.

So to return to the question of Marmite, of love or hate and the desire to talk about it.  I love the daring of this production, because it exposes, my hate of the ugly truths I see within it, the unspoken truths that we as a society, twenty years on from the original, are still subject to.  So in truth, I feel both love and hate in response.  The interpretive possibilities however ascertain that no two audience members will see eye to eye, making this production something we don’t just want to but need to talk about.

Georgia Renwick

June 2017

Photography by Handwritten Photography.