Tag: drama

Review: Hamilton: The Revolution

Not a review of The Real Thing in the real Victoria Palace theatre, although I will get round to doing that some day when I’ve sorted out all my Emotions about it; no, these are just some notes about the gorgeous deckle-edged hardback that is the theatrical equivalent of a making of documentary.

It’s not just a pretty coffee-table book, though it certainly is that: as well as a full libretto annotated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s got a series of thirty-two essays on everything from costumes to choreography, a whistle-stop backstage tour of how Hamilton got made, as well as full-page, full-colour illustrations of the original (American) cast doing their thing (printed on heavy matt paper rather than the usual gloss, which doesn’t affect the photographs as much as you’d think it would).

Which all means that it’s well worth reading for a Hamilton fan, in the sense that it has actual real content that people have spent time and care producing, and it’s fascinating in the way that theatre always is. If anything, I would have liked more, but then that was probably inevitable.

It can be a bit over-the-top. It talks about Hamilton as if it’s the Second Coming. Which. I mean, Hamilton is, like, amazing, and cleverer than any musical has any right to be, and very successful, but I’m sceptical of claims that it changes the face of theatre or anything like that. Race-bending was a thing before Hamilton. Gilbert and Sullivan set clever wordplay to music a century or so before Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. Hamilton misrepresents history (George Washington was a slaver and a racist, as I keep telling anyone who’ll listen), under-characterises its women and has no queer representation. And those are only the flaws that annoy me most.

But I can hardly blame the book for overlooking them. It’s a companion book, after all, not a critical study (though, I would totally read one of those). And it is very lovely. I shall stroke it, and treasure it, and look at the pretty pictures.

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(Slightly More Than) 50-Word Review: Don Giovanni

So I did the BP Big Screen thing in Trafalgar Square again in July, with a couple of friends. Don Giovanni is an 18th-century pick-up artist who sleeps with women and then abandons them, until he kills the father of one of his conquests and vengeance catches up with him. Gorgeous costumes, nice set design, lovely evening. But opera’s surely the least accessible of all art forms: no tune, to modern ears; and most people (including me) don’t have the knowledge and background any more to appreciate it. In other words: I don’t like it. And I’ve made my peace with that.

Review: 42nd Street

This review contains spoilers.

It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.

But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.

Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.

Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.

But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.

This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.

And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.

The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.

42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

Theatre Review: La Traviata

Spoiler alert, although everyone knows there is no point going to the opera if you haven’t looked up the plot first.

Back in June a friend and I went to see La Traviata in Trafalgar Square.

Sadly it was not quite an open-air performance; it was, instead, a BP Big Screen event, streamed live from the Royal Opera House for the people of London to watch for free among the lion statues. And it was a lovely evening: we had an M&S picnic and the weather was miraculously gorgeous and the top of Nelson’s Column flared red in the sunset.

However. I am not here to rate the middle-class-ness of my evening at the opera. I’d quite like to talk about the opera itself (if it’s all the same to you).

Here is a quick plot summary of La Traviata. Obviously, here be spoilers.

Our Heroine is Violetta, a courtesan who spends her life drinking, attending extravagant parties and enjoying the patronage of rich men. She’s actually pretty awesome: she has an entire aria that’s basically like, “I just want to par-TAY!” And then – she falls in love with a country gentleman called Alfredo, because obviously no woman’s life is complete without romantic love.

End of Act One.

Act Two sees Violetta and Alfredo living together in a big house in the country; Violetta has spent almost all her money supporting their lifestyle. (She won’t ask Alfredo for money. Did I mention that this nineteenth-century woman is awesome?) Alfredo being away on a contrived trip somewhere, his father arrives to ask Violetta to leave him because…he has a sister? The plot seems a bit hazy on this point, and to be honest the motivation isn’t terribly important: what’s important is that Violetta agrees (eventually) to leave him, without telling him why.

Act Three, and Violetta is dying picturesquely of consumption, alone and full of regret. But all is not lost yet! After lots of sad singing, here comes Alfredo, aware now of Violetta’s sacrifice. He arrives just in time for her to die in his arms. Curtain.

Watching this performance being beamed to thousands of people not just in London but all over the country, I found myself wondering: why? Why has this opera survived, and why are we still performing it as one of the greats?

An obvious answer is Verdi’s score, which is rich and complex and has some quite famous passages. I don’t know enough about the history of music, though, to talk about what his score is actually doing, in and of itself; I’m interested, instead, in the semantic meanings the opera ties the music to. La Traviata is pretending to be a story about (heterosexual, romantic) love – the emotion that Western society is perhaps most attached to. Which makes sense: music is above all things an art that conveys and sustains emotion. Except that – and this is the danger of opera and its modern-day descendant, the West End musical – the strong emotion evoked by La Traviata’s rich score conceals the fact that this is not a love story at all, but a hutch to trammel women in.

(It’s surprising – and also not surprising at all – how many romances do this.)

Violetta, the titular fallen woman, is in Act One a threat to the patriarchal order because she’s not married, she’s not particularly interested in marriage, and, though she’s paid by her clients, she refuses to be owned by any single one of them. Her falling in love presents an impossibility: she has so thoroughly rejected the social order that she cannot now join it; and yet, she no longer wants to live outside it. (The opera specifically presents her partying lifestyle as emotionally bankrupt, a waste of a life – that is, the only fulfilling life, for a woman, is to be found in a relationship with a man.) Alfredo’s father makes this abundantly clear to her: she is threatening the social order, Alfredo’s family. Her choice to leave him is thus – perhaps counter-intuitively – a choice to preserve the social order. And, finally, she dies, because the patriarchal social order she’s just saved has, nevertheless, no place for her. She is the fallen woman. Her sacrifice for Alfredo – of her happiness, her love and her good character – is metonymic of her sacrifice for a world that won’t permit her existence – of her spirit and her life.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Is there really anyone over, say, 18 who can relate to a “romantic” relationship that’s so clearly self-destructive and dysfunctional, that so completely denies Alfredo’s ability to make his own decisions? Do we really think that a relationship that’s so full of lies that it literally destroys one of the lovers’ lives is ideal?

I don’t think most of us do, actually. But this is why I don’t have much patience with classical opera (having seen a grand total of two on stage): it curdles and distils unhealthy emotional tropes and presents them as a consummation devoutly to be wished; it hides its reactionary messages beneath the flourishes of brilliant music.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Trafalgar Square, now. That, I’d pay to see.

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)