Thursday, 31 October 2013


Canada Water Cultural Space, London
31 October 2013

The poster, from Scene Productions.
A towering dramatic masterpiece, both in text form and in this realisation.

Sometimes a small-scale, bootstrap production can be revelatory, can remind us of an aspect of theatre hardly possible with larger budgets and larger audiences. This was one of those productions. Everyone should see it.

Büchner was born 200 years ago, the same year as Wagner and Verdi, two of the pinnacles of High Romantic drama. Part of my respect for his achievement is therefore historical: how could a drama as expressionist, as proto-Brechtian as Woyzeck be written at this time, and indeed well before either of his great contemporaries reached maturity?

This is misleading: the work survives only in fragments, and is significantly incomplete. So we don’t know how the author might have wanted to present it as a finished product. We might be disappointed if we found a finished version somewhere.

All this historical information is secondary. More importantly, the drama we have now creates a powerful impact, and if the author can’t completely escape his time, so that we sympathise more with the two central characters than we are allowed to do in say Brecht, for me this is a great strength.

An important part of this impact is the ambiguity around the cause of the murder. Woyzeck has certainly been oppressed by those grotesque pillars of society, the captain and the doctor, but he is also shown to be a poetic critic of that society and possessing an acute conscience in spite of his claim to the contrary.

The painful impossibility of resolving Woyzeck’s guilt raises the work to tragedy, as we wonder whether a less callous society could prevent such crimes.

Due to its fragmentary nature, any performance of this work is an adaptation in a more extended sense than is typical with other works in the canon. Here, it is performed by three actors in around an hour without interval. This means some scenes are shortened, others necessarily dropped altogether, and there are seeming additions: inside the showman’s tent we get not only a man-turned horse but a man-turned-ape.

It succeeds, for this is a very physical, mime-influenced production. Perhaps it overstates the grotesque nature of the characters, but I can’t see that as a weakness in such an expressionist piece.

The director has unobjectionably updated the setting to the great European war of 1914-18, and has Andres die going over the top, a terror which plausibly adds to the trauma and isolation felt by Woyzeck. One of the finest scenes in this production is a simple puppet image of death looming over the character in his final descent into murderous judgement on Marie.

My only criticism is that I needed to root around Scene Production's website to work out the cast and creative team. I'll retain their anonymity by simply stating they were all magnificent.

Britten and Haydn quartets

Bishopsgate Hall, London
29 October 2013

Gresham Professor Roger Parker's lecture on Britten's third quartet. Given in August 2013. From here.

Two masterpieces played with burning conviction.

This concert was so good I have trouble accepting that it was free, provided presumably for City bankers on their lunchbreak. I noticed none of those, unsurprisingly, but I felt that the 45-minute, two-work concert needed no further justification: it worked perfectly.

No doubt it mattered that the two pieces were string quartets, a medium optimised for that convivial tension we associate with chamber music.

This programme might have been devised by the musicologist Hans Keller, combining his two enthusiasms, for Haydn’s quartets and for Britten’s music in general. Indeed Britten’s valedictory third quartet is dedicated to Keller.

Almost any Haydn quartet is a joy, giving the impression that, while we listen to them, we cannot imagine being anywhere else, or wanting to listen to anything else. Opus 54, number 2 doesn’t disappoint, though it is unusual in placing a heavy burden on the lead violinist. Here, her performance was as ecstatic as the composer must have desired.

The serious finale is also unusual, and Keller, perhaps swept away with enthusiasm, claimed that Haydn pre-empts Mahler and Tchaikovsky in ending a ‘symphonic’ piece with a slow movement. More reasonably he suggests that Haydn was introducing the ‘French overture’ style to his ‘symphonic’ quartets.

I wouldn’t deny the quartets are symphonic but the much later adoption of slow movement finales is surely better thought of as a response to the ‘finale problem’ composers faced after adopting Beethoven's model. If a slow movement is going to carry the whole gravity of a work, where can it be placed?

In this quartet, as everywhere else except his symphony 88, Haydn doesn’t aim for a profound, soul-searching slow movement. Which isn’t to say the slow finale isn’t both lovely and a beautiful surprise. So the work as a whole deserves to be placed with French overtures rather than, say, Mahler's symphonies.

Britten’s work justifies Keller’s enthusiasm, at least in this performance. It also has a sombre finale, in this case very clearly the emotional focus of the work. By the end of it I was very nearly in tears, not a reaction I typically associate with his music.

We’re very used to a narrative of Britten’s earlier warmer sounding style being pared down in the late 1950s, and though true, I hardly find his earlier works to be abundantly emotional or warm. His later astringency seems a natural consequence of the repressed approach found in almost everything he did, as if exuberance or even openness was vulgar.

It seems different in this quartet. The ascetic sound remains, but the associations with Death in Venice here seem to fulfil that earlier opera, rather than simply recycling its themes. The opera emerges as a weaker expression of the quartet, rather than the other way round.

It’s too easy to suggest that Britten found it easier to express emotions through pure music, without words getting in the way but that’s what I felt when listening to this piece. Clearly I need to listen to it further.

I clearly also need to listen to more performances by the Jubilee Quartet.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Recital: Haydn, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Fitkin piano works

Steinway Hall
23 October 2013

The Rach Bach partita transcription, played by Yoshio Hamano at this concert. 
The rest of the concert is also available from YouTube. From here.

Interesting recital bookended by classical and modern nearly-mechanical pianism, with a more expressive middle.

The small recital room in Steinway Hall – as with the equivalent in Chappell of Bond Street – ought to present a challenge to programming. Piano works intended for large concert halls are less suitable here.

For his selection, Yoshio Hamano chose promisingly intimate works by Haydn, Brahms and Bach/Rachmaninov though bucked the trend with what sounded like louder works by Graham Fitkin, a contemporary composer new to me.

Pellucid is the word for the performance of Haydn’s Andante and Variations, which was also, to my surprise, the work I enjoyed most here. I suppose this is the standard way of performing Haydn’s piano works, of making them exercises in controlled, abstract pianism derived from Glenn Gould. No doubt this misses the drama of this composer, but in any case the result was extremely charming.

Bach’s third solo violin partita, as adapted by Rachmaninov, is a curiosity. The most pressing question is why bother? The solo piano repertoire is vast; that of the violin much smaller; and if you want transcribed Bach in a romantic idiom, doesn’t Stokowski do a better job?

Perhaps Hamano wanted some baroque music, and it is perhaps more honest to play a Rach Bach than to pretend the German wrote for a piano. The performance was good, though it didn’t erase my recent memory of a performance of the original.

Between these relatively lightweight works came Brahms’ much more substantial Fantasien Op116. This ought to have been the recital’s centre of gravity but it didn't quite work. As I’m not fond of Brahms’ piano music (yet), I couldn’t say if this was inherent in the music, or a consequence of the performance.

Finally, two works by Fitkin, both in a post-minimalist idiom. From Yellow to Yellow is the shorter and more introspective, while Frenetic basically describes itself, though there are passages of subdued come-down. The latter, in particular, seemed incredibly demanding for the performer, but turned him into a machine, which is neither big nor clever. Both pieces were forgettable.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Recital: Britten songs

Bishopsgate Institute Great Hall
22 October 2013

Maureen Forrester singing the Charm of Lullabies.

A nocturnal song cycle was the highlight of this committed survey of the composer.

The City Music Society somehow arranges free lunchtime recitals of impressive quality. This one was devoted to Benjamin Britten’s songs, commemorating his upcoming hundredth birthday. It was a very useful survey of this aspect of the composer, conveying a good sense of his strengths and weaknesses.

Britten is startlingly parochial, which makes little sense, as he was drew upon non-Western influences as well as non-British ones. Yet he returned to say, Purcell, or folk songs (both illustrated here) not in the spirit of promoting them or making them relevant to a modern (international) audience, but rather in a much more personal manner, as if trying to make them part of his own oeuvre.

It's as if he were a musical version of architect John Nash, looking upon the design of Mughal buildings as a blueprint for the Brighton Pavilion. That's harsh on Britten, who does a much better job of creating something   that can be appreciated internationally from his musical tourism.

The composer's clear, chilly style is especially well-suited to folk songs. I’m not sure the warmer Purcell benefits from being adapted by Britten, but the folk songs certainly do.

The cabaret songs are only a modest success, no patch on Weill/Brecht or even Eisler/Brecht, despite the fame of some of Auden’s verse (Funeral Blues) and Britten’s music (Tell Me The Truth About Love). I doubt either artist felt more than temporarily comfortable in this idiom. Bitterness, sarcasm, lust, political anger – none of this is really present in these charming but slight works.

The greatest work in this concert was the Charm of Lullabies. Night's mystery suited Britten perfectly, and he produced several song cycle masterpieces on the subject, including this one.

The lasting impression is one of death and darkness, without a trace of sentimentality, though mixed enough with charm, in charisma and magical senses, to prevent the mood souring completely.

Anna Huntley has a powerful mezzo voice, projected with great force, which sometimes threatened to be too much for this venue. But a dramatic approach works well with these songs; Britten was a major opera composer after all.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tell Me Lies

British Film Institute
20 October 2013

Trailer. From here.

Visceral examination of the Vietnam war protests in London, examining questions still very relevant today.

It’s difficult to review this film, because watching it was something of a theatrical event – it has long been unavailable, has been restored with the involvement of its director, Peter Brook, and the director and some of the surviving cast were present for this screening as part of the London Film Festival. At the end, Brook answered audience questions, an event in itself.

So it is hard, on reflection, to distinguish between my feelings about the film and my feelings overall about the experience. Brook was already a controversial, thrilling theatre director when in 1968 at the Royal Shakespeare Company he directed US (or ‘us’, it is an intentional pun), a drama, or perhaps a ‘theatrical happening’ about the Vietnam war. That subsequently became this equally innovative film, a semi-documentary as one character puts it.

That was 45 years ago, and Brook has gone on to increase his theatre guru status through his decades in Paris, pioneering minimalist world theatre and suchlike. So part of the screening experience was religious, an audience devoted to a man and his ideas rather than his actual output.

I’ll try to focus on his output here. The film’s subtitle tells us it is ‘about London’, and this is significant because although it addresses the Vietnam War, it does so through the perspectives of various Londoners, except for a ballad celebrating a US draft objector.

There are several songs in this piece, with Brechtian lyrics by Adrian Mitchell, and the overall style owes something to Brecht, though more, I think, to Brook’s own talent with actors. A small group of actors are present throughout, visiting different events in London (an anti-war poetry reading, marches, a Buddhist teacher, etc).

When they speak, we aren’t sure if they are inhabiting a role or telling us their direct feelings, and this ambiguity is both intentional and enormously powerful. When ‘real’ people, such as Kingsley Amis or Stokely Carmichael are speaking here, their certainty seems affected, and they are trying to win an argument, present forcefully their point of view. When the actors express their doubts and anxieties, they seem more authentic, which isn’t paradoxical, though it seems so.

This matters because the narrative of the film is that of trying to navigate in a world where almost unimaginable horrors are taking place, but these are taking place far away, and any individual’s ability to influence these events seems very small.

At times, the film goes too far in creating a sense of utter confusion. It contrasts our desire for strong heroic action with more practicable but ineffectual efforts. But as the Buddhist teacher says, when asked about monks burning themselves alive, there are more effective ways of helping people than such extreme actions. The film doesn’t really accept this, though in fairness it doesn’t suggest that the accumulation of smaller actions had no effect: and subsequent history is inspiring about this.

This is a work that tries to make us question ourselves, and it seems to me very effective. Yet it also has almost never been seen, so in the end I suppose this makes it a failure. The good news is it hasn’t dated much, so perhaps it will enjoy a potent afterlife when no longer linked to the still-developing myth of its creator.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Recital for solo violin and piano

Palau de la Música Catalana
17 October 2013

The venue, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
From here.
A singing solo violin recital of precisely the right length, followed by a less impressive piano recital.

The solo violin repertoire is small, so it made sense for Sara Cubarsi i Fernández shared her concert with pianist Luis Arias; but I also tend to think lengthy solo recitals should be unusual, not the norm.

Here, both artists contrasted an early modernist work with something older, and both made sensible programming decisions. Bartók’s solo violin sonata is to my ears even more poetic than Bach’s third sonata, though less memorable and uplifting, justifying the decision to place Bach second, at the risk of offputting audience members unused to Bartók.

After the interval, Schumann’s peculiar Kreisleriania was followed by Prokofiev’s more bravura fifth piano sonata. But the highlight, for me, was the solo violin section.

The Bartók is wonderful, being both inventive and challenging in the right way, providing a jolt but sufficiently welcoming that any audience can warm to it. Perhaps Bach wasn’t placed second so as not to pose impossible ‘follow that’ expectations after all.

Bach’s work doesn’t seek to challenge the audience, except perhaps in endurance, for we’re not so used to full-sized solo violin pieces. It’s full sized in another way too, given the composer’s ability to give weight through fugal passages.

Between Bach’s time and Schumann’s, we apparently discovered sonata form, and an unprecedented opportunity to create thematically-derived musical structures. Not that I noticed this in Kreislerania, which may be my fault more than the fault of the pianist, though surely the composer must take more of the blame.

A sequence of meandering poetic fragments, sometimes interesting, mostly not; I am probably allergic to the composer, with the exception of his Fantasie. Prokofiev seems a finer composer for the piano, and underrated, or at least underperformed.

Both performers combined musicianship with the technical skill that we shockingly take for granted. But both were upstaged by the venue: it is hard for to compete with the astonishing profusion of visual delights in this hall.

Monday, 14 October 2013


British Film Institute
12 October 2013

Tiny excerpt from the film. From here.

An important rediscovered Indian film, which seems an ambitious failure on first viewing.

Indian films are in thrall to money and so harming the nation, says Uday when one of his lovers suggests he make a film of his life to raise money for his hard-pressed revolutionary cultural centre. He will never make a film, he says.

There are two ironies here. The intended irony is that he does make a film, and it’s the 1948 film we’re watching. The unintended irony is that his prediction that he is unsuited to making a commercial film is proved correct.

Uday Shankar – older brother of Ravi – clearly did not suffer from false modesty. He wrote, directed, designed, choreographed and starred in this idealised autobiography, in which his vision is presented as being vital for the cultural revival of all India, if only people would listen and support him.

His character has no head for money, but by the end of the film has succeeded in raising enormous funds for his cultural centre through a Spring Festival promoting the regional dances of India.

In reality, the cultural centre closed through lack of funds, and this film wasn’t a success either. Still, it is explicitly a fantasy, and a very charming one, so we can easily forgive this optimistic rewriting of history.

I’ve no idea how closely this film maps its creators actual biography, and whether this matters. One striking difference between the two Udays is that the film character seems not to have left India, whereas the director became a celebrated choreographer in Europe.

This is important, because one aspect of the film is its celebration of India, of Uday’s attempt to help forge a unified national identity. The film teeters on the brink of didacticism, keen to show us that differences of gender, class and caste don’t matter (and in that order).

It helps that the film has a light touch – at one point the royal audience for the festival believes it is watching African dancing. It is informed this is actually from the Naxalite region of their massive country. It’s a deft satire.

The film is surprisingly quiet about religion; to my ignorant eye Shankar seems to assume everyone is Hindu. But it didn’t seem very prominent; at other moments he appears antagonistic to religion generally.

This is an enormously ambitious work, with the idealised cultural centre attempting to revolutionise almost every aspect of human life through a greater respect for India’s heritage. The films many dance sequences are Shankar's attempt to fulfil this project, which requires India to become united and to awaken to the heritage that can transform the world.

The framing narrative is around Uday’s two lovers, one of whom is the director’s wife in ‘reality’. They oppose each other, and are perhaps best described as two sides of a single woman, in best expressionistic fashion. Shankar's direction also draws upon the expressionistic silent films of the 1920s, with exaggerated facial poses.

Unfortunately the framing device is too slender to support quite so many dances, and I found the experience increasingly dull. Repeated viewings may improve my appreciation for what is intended to be a compendium as much as a drama.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Starred Up

Odeon West End
11 October 2013

The trailer. From here.

Ignore the happy(ish) ending and this prison tragedy has much to recommend it.

At least we’re not in a US prison, opines one character here during his regular group therapy session, as they all have sex with each other. Sexual violence is mercifully one aspect of violence not depicted in this prison drama.

It’s plenty violent enough. It seems to take only a few minutes for new inmate Eric, a teenager moved to the prison after proving too aggressive for juvenile detention, to be involved in a murderous fight with the guards. The threatening mood is unrelenting.

Film – cinema or TV – is peculiarly well suited to prison drama, because it conveys a sense of actually being there that no other medium can match. Cinema is particularly effective, as the isolation we feel in a darkened auditorium heightens the impact.

Prison dramas can go at least two ways. They can choose to highlight the desolation of a long period in prison, the hopelessness. Or they can focus on the idea that a community of aggressive criminals is likely to be itself extremely volatile. The latter path would seem incompatible with suggesting the boredom of prison life, as violence, even implicit violence, is exciting, in some cases fatally so.

Redemption, or its possibility, is another feature of the genre, and it appears here. It’s the leaven in an otherwise unpalatably heavy bread, and as with other necessary features of an artform, whether it works must be judged case-by-case.

In this film it comes through group therapy, and the group’s support role for Eric, who seems to have received no support from anywhere else, especially his parents. The subtlest parts of this piece are these scenes, where violence is slowly, extremely slowly, brought under some kind of control.

Of course, there are other ways a convict can get support, and Eric is introduced to the organised crime side of prison by his father, who is implausibly a fellow convict (I don’t mean its implausible he is a convict but rather that they would end up in the same prison).

Unfortunately, despite some committed acting, the father-son dynamic greatly weakens the film. The plot turns melodramatic at the end, and at the very end becomes a version of the ‘I love you dad’ films so popular in US cinema.

The father, it should go without saying, is a 'hardened criminal'. I’m not sure repairing the father-son relationship in such circumstances is as much a sign of progress for Eric as the film-makers seem to think. Perhaps they want us to be ambivalent over the ending?

Almost every prison drama contributes to the important, thankless and depressingly unending cause of justice system reform. Such things as group therapy should hardly need defending, but it seems they do. If the film was going to defend it, some dramatic tension was needed, and that is provided by the father.

Given that unpromising artistic constraint, necessary for its broader political point, this film could have been a lot worse. The ending is a betrayal: this is really a tragedy with an almost literal deus ex machina, a throwback to earlier centuries.

There's a high standard of acting, from the central cast through to smaller speaking roles. The directing was unobtrusive, and served the story well.

Thursday, 10 October 2013


Rose theatre, Kingston
9 October 2013

A better trailer than drama usually gets. From here.

A slow progress from darkness and ghosts to light and tragedy.

A performance of Ghosts is extremely upsetting. That is too mild a term, but it conveys something of the nature of this great tragedy.

His friend and champion Edmund Gosse felt the best of Ibsen was elsewhere, which would be a staggering claim, except Gosse seems to have viewed Ibsen's work as literature more than drama, which must be experienced in the theatre.

Gosse was surely correct if he meant that none of the characters here are as compelling as some of Ibsen’s other creations; the interest is more plot-focussed, but that may also be said of Oedipus Rex and the tragedies of Racine.

To give an example of the master's theatricality, it is an incredibly painful irony that Helene’s self-realisation comes when it does. She becomes aware that she is inadvertently the cause of much of her own misery, as well as that of her husband, of Oswald and of Regina. This knowledge results in Regina’s immediate rejection, and as a result, Oswald’s terrible request of her.

In a novel, perhaps in another Ibsen drama, this self-realisation would be given greater prominence. Here it initiates the final turn of the screw of the plot, and the audience soon shares Helene’s dreadful situation, too awful to endure for long.

However, Helene (and too a lesser extent Oswald) is something of a heroic figure, and that is important. We care that she has, from the start, penetrated the veil of hypocrisy under which she was brought up. The drama is a machine moving around her struggle between outer and inner morality, a universal struggle as Ibsen makes clear.

That she cannot control the consequences is also universal, but she remains heroic, even gains in stature after her moment of self-realisation. Here, as elsewhere, Ibsen reclaims heroism for us, though he depicts a path no easier for us than say Achilles’ path was for classical Greeks.

This is the second production I’ve seen recently, and it’s hard not to compare with Richard Eyre’s gripping account.

Both productions are traditional. Stephen Unwin, like Eyre wearing both translating and directing hats, apparently honours the birth of Edvard Munch 150 years ago by basing the designs on those Munch suggested for Max Reinhardt. As a result, the set is slightly gloomier than Eyre’s, who chose a different painter (Hammershøi) for inspiration.  A back projection compensates with beautiful images of Norwegian mountains, the vast space contrasting with domestic suffering.

Unwin’s approach comes perilously close to being portentous. In a short drama, his version takes maybe 20 minutes longer than Eyre’s, and although he cuts less text, he also introduces more pauses. The slower tempo places great strain on the actors, especially Kelly Hunter’s Helene Alving, who sometimes seems to be stuck in a particular expression for a theatrical eternity, though probably just a few seconds objectively.

This weightiness is sometimes lightened by humour, especially involving Pip Donaghy’s Jakob Engstrand, a memorably rascally portrayal. The slower tempo also reveals the work’s symbolism of stifling interiors and rain-soaked exteriors gradually giving way, first to the light of a blaze, and then to the fateful dawn.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Unwin and Eyre is their realisation of Pastor Manders. Patrick Drury remains mostly calm, and so adds to the slower sense of this production. His Manders is entirely unsympathetic.

The final scene is as agonising as it must always be. For Eyre this caps a dizzying descent into tragedy, whereas for Unwin it is the climax of a gradual laying on of misery.

If in the end I prefer Eyre, this is still a masterful production of one of the most brutal depictions of the lies we need for our society.  It's touring: you should see it.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


Royal College of Music
8 October 2013

The opening sinfonia, by the English Baroque soloists, conducted by Eliot Gardiner. 
From here.

Early problematic Handel presented as zany comedy mostly rises above tedium.

In each of English Touring Opera’s Venetian Baroque operas this season, the visual aspect has been essential to bringing these scores to dramatic life, and while Handel would, on the face of it, require less work, this isn’t at all my experience. His operas may appeal musically but if anything they pose even greater dramatic challenges than earlier works.

This is one of Handel’s parody opera seria, where he and his librettist adopt a humorous stance towards the plots of the dominant form of opera of their time, though not necessarily the musical conventions.

It is not easy to know how to respond to this work, or how the creators intended us to respond. James Conway, translator and director of this production, has created a Rossinian comedy, with bright sets, daft costumes and broadly grotesque characters. Claudio, in particular, might be one of the stereotyped Turks out of Mozart or Rossini.

The music doesn’t quite support this approach, in particular the music for the hero Ottone. He is unforgivably drippy, but in a different context his sad arias might contribute to a more serious, if not tragic drama.

Unfortunately, Ottone is given prominence second only to the title character, so that each time he appeared I dreaded the possibility of an aria. That can’t have been the effect the creators intended.

Conway opts for editorialising intertitles rather than surtitles, conjuring the effect of a zany silent film, but his translation is also clear enough to need no additional help, thanks to fine diction from all performers.

That we could follow the words helped minimise the repetitive effect of each aria, so that I found dramatic flow was interrupted less than when the singing is in Italian. Which isn’t to say that each aria deserved its repeat. Perhaps some judicious cutting of the repeats might improve the overall experience.

Agrippina is not simply the central character, she is almost the only character of interest, and is given arias delineating a respectable range of moods, from anxiety through ingratiating mendacity through ambition. Gillian Webster met every challenge, giving a formidable account despite being hampered with an unflattering costume and wig.

Everyone sang well, perhaps especially Paula Sides’ Poppea being the other vocal standout, producing beautifully shaded tone. Andrew Slater’s Claudio also deserves mention for some marvellous, if broad, comic acting. The Old Street Band under Jonathan Peter Kenny played a re-orchestrated version of the original with panache.

If the production didn’t resolve the work’s tendency to induce boredom, enough of Handel in vital mode survives to make this another success for ETO.


Royal Opera House
6 October 2013

Director Charles Edwards, and some of the 2008 cast, discuss the work. From here.

Some momentum goes missing in this performance, but it brings out the beauty of the score.

Strauss seems to have felt this opera and Salome could be performed with grace and lightness of touch, which seems especially odd in this jackhammer work. Conductor Andris Nelsons came close but I found his slow, transparent direction enervating despite it also being illuminating.

The programme contains essays describing various psychological aspects of the work, the myth and hatred in general. While these are interesting, they have only tangential relevance to this piece, and are reductionist.

If Elektra hates her mother Klytämnestra, this is more than reciprocated by a woman who also knows that her son is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with her. The relationship between the heroine and her sister Chrysothemis seems more complex than sibling rivalry – in expressionistic fashion, they reflect different sides of a whole, so that their antagonism is due less to their being related and more to do with contrasting approaches to their appalling situation.

Much of the original mythic background was removed by Hofmannsthal in his libretto, but Agamemnon’s violent death, his wife’s extreme cruelty and the disturbing revenge fantasies of their children are all too vividly realised for this to refer to passions you or I might readily share. These are heroic passions.

Elektra’s sudden death is poetically right, even if implausible. From the very start of her opening monologue (even before), the Agamemnon-motif makes it clear how all-or-nothing she has become, and this obsessive sense only weakens slightly following the recognition scene with her brother Orest, when she starts falling in love with the nostalgias, to music redolent of Salome.

Which music, of course, also suggests that obsession will return, and it does. What use has Elektra of life after she achieves her revenge? The all-consuming nature of her desires, and their almost unbelievable intensity, eventually kill her, though we aren’t sure that a life has been wasted, which may preclude tragedy.

So I suspect the appropriate approach to this work is to surrender to its tremendous visceral impact. Even a relatively muted performance as this one couldn’t fully blunt that.

The singers seemed fully in line with Nelsons, generally creating beautiful sounds and exploiting a huge dynamic range. Above all, Christine Goerke in the title role gave a committed performance, and generated a remarkable variety of tones. If the role perhaps requires greater hysteria, it’s hard to expect a singer to run risks with her voice.

Charles Edwards’ production was an unobtrusive updating to the 1920s, producing a suitably expressionistic feel. Unobtrusive, that is, apart from one blunder. For some reason a corpse kept moving around the stage, a distracting and bathetic idea.

Otherwise, he obtained fine, repulsive acting from everyone,

Monday, 7 October 2013

Blue Jasmine

Ritzy Cinema Brixton
5 October 2013

This makes Blanchett's portrayal seem more scenery chewing than is evident in the film itself.

Jasmine is the overwhelming centre of this film, and as portrayed by Cate Blanchett she becomes a sympathetic depiction of a person suffering mental illness.

Director / writer Woody Allen deserves at least as much of the credit. Moments of humour are welcome respite from Jasmine’s descent into degradation and collapse.

It suspect it helps our sympathy that Jasmine is beautiful and elegant; we can be snobbish while excusing ourselves in thinking she deserves it really. This is manipulative art at its best, making the audience uneasy as we sit glued to the story.

The scenario is superficially similar to A Streetcar Named Desire, but these are very different characters. Jasmine would never ‘hang back with the dogs’ indeed she feels she has escaped them.

Though she is degraded almost as much as Blanche, there is no sexual subtext: Allen and Williams approach sexual desire from radically different perspectives.

Unlike her sister, Jasmine doesn’t work for money: she marries it. Allen shows this is still a kind of work, for Jasmine doesn’t rely only on her natural beauty but practices charm, learns to deceive, changes her name, and so on. An irony is that her name change works; and she 'catches' another deceiver, her husband.

Allen has always been acutely aware of the difficulties of dating, and in Jasmine, at last, he presents them without humour: we are aware that she must succeed in snaring a rich husband, it is a matter of the greatest urgency for her mental health.

Williams’ Blanche is different, in that we feel she has fallen from her own high ideals; it is not as simple that she is deluded in believing herself better than others, as it so clearly is with Jasmine.

An important point of contact between the two works is that the extremely unhappy endings are pathetic, not tragic. It is the pathos of watching anyone suffer, anyone at all, and it is awful, a testament here to both Allen and Blanchett.

A modest mistake in the film is that flashbacks to Jasmine’s beautiful former life create an uncritical acceptance of the class system. Some people, we feel, are destined for such riches. It makes little difference that we can see the husband is a crook and Jasmine is vacuous (and complicit). Then again, ferocious social critique isn’t necessary, and nobody expects it of Allen.

More seriously, the flashbacks gradually reveal that Jasmine is partly responsible for her destitute situation. This is hackneyed and unnecessary but it also confirms that she bears more responsibility for losing her sister’s money than she has admitted.

This is passed over without comment as if nobody involved in creating the film had noticed it. It’s odd, as a potentially intense dramatic scene, perhaps even tragic, seems to have been missed. We are left with less sympathy for Jasmine, without that being needed.

But why gripe? Jasmine sears herself into our memory. Which makes it a great film.

Sunday, 6 October 2013


Royal College of Music
4 October 2013

The second scene of a Belgian production a few years ago. From here.

The Cavalli revival has another success under English Touring Opera. 

As the director of this season of baroque Venetian operas points out, Venice was the true birthplace of opera as we typically know it: the supreme bourgeois artform. It is striking that these early audiences seem well-tuned to our current sensibilities.

What I mean is that Cavalli shows even less respect for the heroic than our modern producers of heroic opera, if that is possible. He and librettist Cicognini populate this work with characters and situations that have a vague link to the classical myths of Jason and Medea, but the story is really about a cheating and callous husband.

Quite how callous ‘mighty Jason’ is only becomes obvious at quite a late stage in this production, when he arranges the murder of his pregnant unloved wife Isiphile, and is genuinely angry when he discovers she survives.

That his conscience is finally touched, permitting a ludicrous happy ending, is not especially significant. Isiphile is an early and very successful entry in the quintessentially Italian line of suffering operatic women.

The composer is in no doubt as to where Jason’s true sympathies lie – the love music for Jason and Medea is potently erotic, though the music for Isiphile in torment is equally moving.

At this point a word about the orchestration, or lack of it. With only a double handful of instrumentalists, the effect is less of an orchestra than of a chamber ensemble. It’s a distinctive feature of seventeenth century opera, and especially the way we currently perform it.

Cavalli is a little different from his teacher Monteverdi, with a simpler emotional approach, so would seem to benefit from the greater sweep of a fuller orchestra. It’s the approach that helped revive him in the first place, under Raymond Leppard, and it is still worth hearing.

Removed from the stage picture, on recordings, Leppard’s fuller approach is surely more involving. With a good staging, as here, the original instrumentation is mightily effective.

Director Ted Huffman presents the work in a single set, a grand domestic interior that welcomes Jason’s bigamous marriage in the first act, and is depicted as decaying in the second. It makes the point clearly, but inevitably loses something of the zany grandeur that would have been present in the original productions.

He might also have given more help to the singers in their acting. Catrine Kirkman’s Isiphile was sung well, but was left with too long stretches of standing and beseeching, resulting in too much eye rolling and the like.

Clint Van der Linde’s Jason had a similar problem, though I also wasn’t enamoured of his countertenor voice. Other cast members were admirable, especially the student singing the comic stutterer Demus – I didn’t catch his name.

Actually Demus is almost a show stealer, as his stuttering allows Cavalli to parody the bleat that is otherwise used in his proto-arias to express high emotion. That this difficult feat was almost captured in Ronald Eyre’s translation is high compliment to it.

Friday, 4 October 2013

George Grosz: Berlin, prostitutes, politicians, profiteers

28 September – 2 November 2013

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt (Diese Kriegsverletzten)From here.

Engrossing (pardon the pun).

“Did he go straight to the vice, not passing go?” asked a visitor while I was there. I was surprised: I hadn’t thought the images depicted vice at all, if by that we mean a criminal underworld.

Although every image is in some way sordid, surely this is supposed to be holding a mirror to the Weimar Republic, and more indirectly, to ourselves? I thought Richard Nagy must have intentionally framed one of the entrances with mirrors, so that we could see the grotesques were also us.

The first image I saw in this small but well-stocked exhibition is of a rich couple walking past a beggar, hand outstretched. You feel their dog is better fed and treated than he is.

Again, if the curators didn’t intend this striking image to be so prominent, then it is a happy chance. Their gallery is in the heart of Mayfair; the image's topicality should be obvious enough.

It's perhaps too easy to create stories, morality tales, out of these sickly images.

Here, a man with a knife follows a woman looking nervously back. There, a possible transvestite couple stand outside a bar, ignoring the stabbed corpse behind them.

Suggestively, a man in sailor suit follows the arse of another man, whose body is leaving the picture. Another image shows a prostitute unself-conscious in front of her sailor-suited young son.

Although presumably created in berlin, Grosz is determinedly international: the French tricolour reappears on a castle in several images, and activities take place outside a ‘café’ or a ‘bar’.

A skeletal avatar of war looks cold and in need of a hug, despite standing over a pile of corpses.

As if to reject claims that Grosz lacked technique, the exhibition depicts a variety of styles. Sometimes his watercolours look like they are imitating children’s paintings. Other times, he is deftly imitating the drawing style of the Old Masters. When he does the former, I suppose we’re to wonder about the effect of our horrific society on our children’s imaginations. When he does the latter, I suppose we’re to recognise the ancient tradition of prostitution and the commodification of women’s bodies.

The only oil painting on display is influenced by cubism, though it a clear retains a political subtext, with the name of the power company AEG prominent.

Cubism attempts to dislodge the Western post-Renaissance tradition of a single perspective, but I believe the early cubists weren’t overtly political. Grosz certainly is, and all of his works seem influenced by cubism, but all his additional perspectives show the same thing: rampant inequality.

Picasso’s Guernica, much later, is a more successful example of political cubism, for its many perspectives on brutality and carnage also convey a desperate desire for things to be otherwise, a humanising aspect missing from even the best of Grosz.

If this exhibition is representative, the artist’s devastating misanthropy is a hard limit on his achievement.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Britten: concert

Dances from the Prince of the Pagodas; Suite on English Folk Songs; Nocturne; Cello Symphony
Royal Festival Hall
2 October 2013

The masterful Nocturne, sung by Jerry Hadley. From here.

The Nocturne is a masterpiece, but other late works for concert hall are much less successful.

A collection of concert works with orchestra from Britten’s ‘late period’ from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It’s the period when his sound changed, became more astringent, less appealing, though that needs qualification.

For Britten’s characteristic musical style, early or late, is something like a colder version of Debussy. His dread of sentimentality clearly went further than just a distaste of Puccini, or fear of becoming Puccini.

It’s this fear, and the underlying attraction to sentimentality that it fights against, that determines why his music sounds as it does. He attempts to combine Mahler with Debussy, which strikes me as doomed to fail, and a much worse choice than his contemporary Shostakovich, who wedded Mahler with Tchaikovsky.

Like Shostakovich, you feel a sense of kinship with the composer through his music. Britten emerges as a repressed hedonist.

The music of late Britten is not dark, contrary to the programme notes. It is etiolated, as if his earlier music had been aurally bleached or deprived of something life-giving.

I don’t mean it lacks vitality, or even interest; but we might reasonably regret, in the orchestral works at least, that the composer’s quest for refinement led to such little delight.

So unsurprisingly the most successful, and enjoyable, work here was the Nocturne song cycle. Always a great word-setter, Britten’s choice of texts fit his musical mood, and he created a magical complement to the equally fine earlier Serenade.

Mark Padmore sang beautifully, and has a fuller tone than the work’s dedicatee, Peter Pears (at least from recordings), though is equally comfortable with singing falsetto when needed.

He found more humour, I think, in the Midnight Bell central song than Pears did, but I’m not sure the variety worked – Nocturne is essentially an extended lullaby, creating a sense of delicate insomnia.

The Cello Symphony is also clearly a substantial work, but I found it uneven, and despite some very subtle quiet playing from the London philharmonic, I struggled to hear Truls Mørk’s cello, presumably intentionally recessed (repressed?) The work comes alive in the cadenza which leads to an energetic finale, almost lively.

The Suite on English Folk Songs, like Nocturne, shows off Britten’s late approach to orchestration, and like the Nocturne a series of miniature mood pieces plays to his strengths.

In contrast, I could scarcely stay awake during the excerpts from the Prince of the Pagodas ballet, which played to his weaknesses. An exotic tale, exotically orchestrated, ought to have inspired delightful music. Instead the drabness reminded me of the sea at Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Faceless + Emily Richardson shorts

Barbican cinema
1 October 2013

Trailer for Faceless, from here.

Poetry and nightmare derived from images of everyday London, with mixed success.

One of the few events in the Barbican’s Urban Wandering cinema season to not be sold-out, this was also one of just two events dominated by women.

The film-makers were keen to stress afterwards that they didn’t feel their work was gendered, and indeed I wouldn’t have known the gender of the director by watching these.

There wasn’t much else to link the two artists either, except that both used London. 

Emily Richardson’s three short films (Nocturne, Block, Memo mori) were that form of documentary we’re familiar with through the psychogeography that has dominated the season. 

Nocturne showed empty London streets at night; Block displayed images from a tower block in Bermondsey. The result was absorbing and reminded me of the Romantic dictum that our imagination can make beauty from anything. 

The other side of that belief, that our imagination plays a negative role in our life, through fear, was hinted at in the other films.

Memo mori, with a voiceover from Iain Sinclair, focussed on a few scenes around the building of London’s recent Olympic Park (doesn’t that seem ages ago now?) Gleaming computer-generated imagination is pitted against an imaginative approach to the piecemeal of old East London.

Sinclair’s narration repeats his familiar complaints against the rise of the Olympics, but at least with Richardson’s images, we can more easily sympathise. The destruction of a series of makeshift allotment sheds does indeed seem a high price, after they have been apotheosised in this way.

Transfiguring the commonplace is an important aesthetic achievement, and is not easy, despite its popularity at the moment, and I was grateful to see it done so well here.

By contrast, Faceless by Manu Luksch struck me as a failure. An ingenious idea, to compile a fairly long narrative film using footage from the CCTV cameras that dominate London, was crippled because Luksch could only obtain a very limited amount of this footage, as she revealed afterwards.

The result is that what we saw became annoyingly repetitive, as if limited to just a few locations (which I assume it was). The quality of surveillance footage is also extremely poor, making the whole experience a struggle.

Luksch and her collaborators cobbled together a zany futuristic quest fantasy from the footage, making a virtue of the need to obscure everyone’s faces except Luksch herself, who is sadly no actor. Something interesting is hidden here, about our understanding of time and space.

Nightmare quests are a staple of art, but it’s still a great pity the project couldn’t use more locations and present greater variety.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

An Enemy of the People

29 September 2013

Trailer for the film.

Sadly, this simplistic tale of truth vs belief isn't likely to lose its relevance.

Part of the British Film Institute’s season of films by director Satyajit Ray, I imagine and hope this is one of the weaker instalments, though it has some merits.

As an interpretation of Ibsen’s serious comedy, this is worthless. Ray is fully sympathetic to his hero, so removes the original’s great misanthropic speech, and completely reverse the original climax: in Ibsen Dr Stockmann claims the strongest man stands alone, in Ray Dr Gupta is delighted he does not in fact stand alone.

It also isn’t really a cinema film, as it consists mostly of domestic scenes. The budget appears to be only a little more than an average TV drama from the period (1989), and that is probably the relevant comparison.

So this was effectively a TV drama about the politics of religion and science in a small Indian town. Despite Ray’s hopeful ending, suggesting that younger people will side with science over religion, the film fairly clearly makes the case that religion will actually win this battle.

Or rather, religion can be used by those in power to enrich themselves, and in democracy a dissenting view, even if correct, can be crushed. Ray’s doctor probably stands for a wider range of dissenters; it is simply that as he can prove his claims, he can more easily stand for all that is progressive.

As in Ibsen, Ray circles his protagonist with progressive youth, who will eventually champion him, and the progressive ‘establishment’ that will be co-opted by power and money.

For such a political, public, film, the family dimension is stressed more than in Ibsen. Gupta’s wife, played by Ruma Guha Thakurta with a profound sadness, stands by her man, though in the film’s greatest moment, she turns her back is to him when she reveals that she is religious and has been unhappy that he isn’t.

It’s the film’s only moment of great subtlety. There are other striking moments, for example two separate shots of Gupta hand-in-hand with either his wife or his daughter. These images are humane and given almost the level of importance of God’s outstretched hand to Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but this serves to highlight the banal nature of the images’ surroundings.

Disease in the temple’s holy water. I can’t find a way to describe this without it forming a metaphor. In a contemporary interview in Sight & Sound, Ray himself described the film as being about pollution in the water, again a loaded phrase.

We can immediately see why this would create opposition among believers. By definition, holy water cannot be polluted, it cannot be diseased, it cannot be unclean. The potent clash inherent even in describing the situation is Ray’s single improvement on his source.

For Ibsen, there was no religious dimension in his drama – the polluted water was rather a symbol of our polluted society, in total.

Ray narrows his focus, and poorly illuminates a serious, and perhaps eternal, dilemma. While we can abstractly accept there is a gap between what we believe and what is actually true, we cannot easily live according to the truth. Indeed, as Nietzsche put it, in words Ibsen would have approved, we have art lest we perish of the truth.

King Lear

Old Vic
29 September 2013

Joss Ackland as Lear. 
Oddly humorous version of the great tragedy that was unfortunately maimed by its circumstances, but still managed to express some interesting points.

What with this and the geriatric lovers in the current Much Ado About Nothing, the Old Vic is aptly named. In a fit of naturalism that would have seemed insane even during that movement’s heyday a hundred years ago, we finally have a Lear who is significantly over 80, and a Gloucester who is about the same age.

This was a one-off reading of the text, not a full performance, to benefit the worthy Motor Neuron Disease Foundation, tackling a disease that usually afflicts people in their 60s. Quite a few of the cast appeared to be over 60 (I haven't checked).

So it seems appropriate to record a few observations about age, ungallant though that may be. Put simply, the actors nearing 90 experienced difficulties an order of magnitude greater than those nearing 70. The latter were roughly as energetic as those in their 20s, though I imagine doing a reading would help with that.

Thankfully they didn’t simply stand around reading the text. No less than Jonathan Miller directed them, though greater kudos must go to whomever cast this piece.

Given the restricted conditions, the casting took on enormous significance, and was masterful, with the exception of Lear and Gloucester. Even there, to the extent possible to disregard infirmity, the casting was strong.

Joss Ackland has an impressive voice, and has a sensitive response to the text, so that there were flashes of what might have been a great Lear had he only been a few years younger. As it was, the torrents of denunciation and rage that we associate with the King were broken up and the performance never really gripped attention as it must.

Which was not a fault only of age, but of the ‘reading’ approach. Every speech was broken by glances at the text. If a radio performance gives us the words clearly, at the expense of visual accompaniments, this was the reverse.

Of all Shakespeare, Lear benefits most from a stripped down production, as it haunts so much of modern drama, most obviously Beckett. What was curious about this production was the obvious humour Miller injected into it. Or perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but he must have known the comings and goings would generate laughs.

Even Edmund’s death, occurring offstage, raised a laugh, at a point when the tragedy is highest. This wasn’t as disruptive as you might imagine. Dark humour and tragedy are brought side-by-side in so much Shakespeare, but I haven’t noticed it working so well as here.

That said, casting Tony Robinson as the Fool was a mixed blessing. He is humorous without effort, and seemed fully on top of the role but he raised laughs from the indulgent audience at lines that either weren’t intended to be funny or were so obscure (as so much is in this drama) that I for one didn’t understand the joke.

There are so many great roles in this drama that there is not enough space to comment on everyone, though every cast member, even the bit parts, brought something interesting to their roles.

Aside from Lear himself, the other key role is Edgar, the man who will succeed him, though that wasn’t obvious in this production. The contrast between youth and age, though, can never have been more explicit, and this was fascinating in itself.

Tam Williams, in his underwear for around half his scenes, and in particular his scenes with the wheelchair-bound Ackland, could have been speaking Chinese and would still have made the greatest visual impression of youth and vitality. As it was, he handled the vocal side ably too, though true authority resides in Lear, whatever virtues Edgar has.

Everyone else was excellent. If only this had been a fully rehearsed production, it might even have overcome the central problem of old age.

To end on a high note, the drama still packed a terrible, awful punch in its final scene.