Tag: drama

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Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid.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.

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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.)

Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

This review contains spoilers.

It feels impossible to review Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without first acknowledging the downright strangeness of the fact that it’s a play at all.

This is, after all, Harry Potter. It could have been any damn thing it wanted to be.

The franchise may have been born in Britain, but at this stage it’s basically an international phenomenon, with an international following. The Potter fandom is definitely one of the largest and most significant anywhere.

And only a tiny fraction of that fandom will ever be able to experience what’s being called “the eighth instalment” – part of the canon – in the Potter franchise as it’s supposed to be experienced.

There is a book, of course. (Inevitably.) But let’s be honest: Cursed Child is not Shakespeare. It is not Pinter. It is not even Noel Coward. In short, it’s not the sort of play whose strength lies in its dialogue, or its insights into the human condition. It’s more like Chicago, or Les Miserables: its strength lies in spectacle, its ability to conjure emotion through stagecraft. To read Cursed Child is to miss out on what actually makes it good.

And yet: theatre is uniquely expensive. Actually going to see Cursed Child, for most people, will involve not just the ticket cost (I think the cheapest tickets are £30 each for both parts) but also travel expenses, food and at least one night’s stay in London. And that’s if you get the Saturday tickets, which allow you to see both parts on the same day, but which are also the most in-demand. If you can only get weekday tickets, you’re looking at probably two days off work and two nights in London.*

There are families with Potterhead children – or, indeed, Potterhead parents – for whom the cost of a hardback book is beyond them.

Creators are free to do whatever they like, of course (especially if they are gazillionaires), but this particular creative decision does seem to have its roots in generating hype through exclusivity (the team behind the show are even running a patronising #KeepTheSecrets campaign). Why else make something that most of your fanbase are never going to see?

Let’s move on to the show itself, for we cannot rant all night.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about fathers and sons. It begins with the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, as you probably remember, Harry sent his son Albus off to Hogwarts worrying about which house he would get into at school. This, then, is Albus’ story: son of the famous Harry Potter, always unable to live up to that legacy; sorted into Slytherin, a rubbish flier, almost friendless. A disappointment (so he thinks) to his famous father.

It’s also Scorpius’ story: son of Draco Malfoy, and unable to escape that legacy; friends with Harry Potter’s son, much to his father’s contempt.

Scorpius and Albus feel like losers. As a result, they’re manipulated into going back in time using a stolen Time-Turner to rescue Cedric Diggory, who they see as another “spare”, someone who didn’t need to die.

Their meddling with time has predictably disastrous results. In one alternative future, Albus got sorted into Gryffindor and is forced to break up his friendship with Scorpius; in another, Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, killed Harry Potter and took over the school. Meanwhile, the boys’ parents are going out of their minds looking for them, and trying at the same time to deal with the unexplained resurgence of dark creatures across the wizarding world.

Cursed Child has quite a lot in common with the later Potter books: it has no discernible structure – being more a succession of “and then”s – and, seemingly, no particular project beyond the fannish question of “what would Harry/Draco be like as a father?” The plot, specifically, becomes ever more byzantine as we wade into Part 2, throwing in an unnecessary extra twist in the form of the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (instantly distracting everyone in the audience with the entirely unwanted image of Voldemort having sex, because really?), who wants to bring back Voldemort by going back in time and stopping him attacking the Potters. Which means the entire cast – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Albus and Scorpius – all have to go back in time too and make sure that he does kill the Potters. My question is: doesn’t this radically alter the moral universe of the series? Doesn’t it mean that every time we read about Godric’s Hollow, we now have to imagine everyone there watching it happen – and doing nothing?

The play doesn’t really answer these questions, because it doesn’t seem terribly interested in thinking about how the mechanics of its time travel works. In Prisoner of Azkaban, everything that happened stayed happened: that’s how Harry survived the Dementor attack, casting the Patronus on his second time round the loop to save the version of himself that was going round the loop the first time. We can argue about whether or not time travel actually works like that (as the Resident Grammarian likes to), but at least it’s consistent. Whereas Cursed Child treats time travel as much more like a McGuffin that lets us perform various fanfic-type thought experiments with the franchise: what if Ron and Hermione never got together? What if Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts? And so on. Albus and Scorpius hop between timelines like alternative universes, with no particular regard for causality – except in the one case where it’s plot-convenient for something clever to happen with time travel. (It involves a blanket and some spilled potion, for readers who have seen the play.) Using time travel but skirting the thorny issues it raises seems like a) a waste, and b) cheating.

I’ve now bitched about Cursed Child for almost a thousand words. And yet, in all honesty, I loved it. Because it is very good – certainly better than the later Potter books – at being a fanwork. It’s aware, at a fundamental level, that for a huge majority of its audience Harry Potter isn’t just a fantasy series they happened to enjoy: it’s a narrative whose symbols are, for better or for worse, embedded deep in our psyches. It deploys those symbols as myth to press its audience’s buttons, so to speak. It doesn’t need to explain why stumbling upon Dementors at Hogwarts is bad, beyond bad; it just needs to put those Dementors there, with a suitably menacing soundtrack, to evoke fear and horror and suspense. The audience – including me – gasped when beloved characters’ names were mentioned in unexpected contexts; laughed at franchise in-jokes; cried at emotional bits that got their force not from any particular brilliance in the script-writing but because of the history we have with the characters. For example: Snape sacrificing himself in one of the alternative pasts to bring about the “correct” one again, and Scorpius telling him that he’ll be remembered as a hero. For example: Harry’s awful recurring nightmares about Voldemort and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason the play doesn’t have a single coherent project or structure is that it is, instead, a collection of resonant moments, continually reaching back to the original series for their emotional force. And its power in doing so is increased exponentially by the fact that it’s a shared experience: all those fans, having all those emotions at the same time – it’s like an emotional amplifier. This is something only theatre can do.

I haven’t yet mentioned the acting or the stagecraft, on the principle of saving the best till last. Because it’s really these things that bring the production alive. Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is easily the standout performance: weird, hunched and often a little scary – and full of pathos, too. Jamie Parker as Harry Potter is also fantastic – what a change it makes to have a decent actor playing Harry, bringing the full force of the character’s angst and trauma right to the fore. (This is hands-down one of the best things about the play, too: that we see Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, struggling with his traumatic past, and struggling with being a father; that he’s still able to make strong decisions despite it. It’s OK not to be OK.)

Music and dance are important to the play, too, holding those emotional moments and amplifying them further. My favourite scene (out of many contenders) was one in which Scorpius and Albus, forbidden to be friends, climb up and down and over staircases being shunted around on wheels by other members of the cast, to the soundtrack of a bass-led Imogen Heap instrumental track. It’s a beautiful sequence, one that really brought home to me that I was watching a love story of sorts. (Incidentally, I will forgive J.K. Rowling practically everything if Scorpius and Albus turn out to be bisexual and become boyfriends.) Scene transitions are made with much cloak-swishing; Albus’ confusion in a Charms lesson is rendered by students dancing gracefully around him while he flails clumsily. It’s a show constantly on the move, accentuating its lead characters’ isolation. And the magic! The production team have used every resource at their disposal to make objects fly, portraits move, people turn into other people. There’s one particular effect that neither I nor my friend could work out, and for all I know it could have been actual magic: whenever the characters used the Time-Turner the whole theatre seemed to vibrate, the air distorting like a bubble. It was astonishing, and wonderful.

I felt utterly heartsick for a while after seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reluctant to leave its enchantment despite its very real problems. And that makes me angry: because this is not something that any Potterhead should miss. And so many will. If you can, go and see it.

*I’m lucky enough to live and work in central London, and I saw the shows on a Thursday and a Friday night. It cost me about £50 to see the two parts: £30 for one ticket, about £10 for four Underground fares, about £10 for two dinners at Wasabi. £50 is not necessarily a bank-breaking sum, but nor is it a trivial amount.

Theatre Review: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, from theatre company Mischief Theatre, at the Criterion Theatre in London last Saturday (although actually it was yesterday as I write this; such is the time travel magic of scheduled posting). It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a Wodehousian farce about a motley gang of crooks of various kinds, led by just-out-of-jail Mitch Ruscitti, trying to break into a 1950s Minneapolis bank to steal a large and very shiny diamond.

Is it funny? Yes; but not unqualifiedly so. Bearing in mind that I am not someone who laughs at a lot of things, there are gags here that are tedious and unfunny, and wordplay about as amusing as the puns that fathers make when they’ve had one or two to drink. Having said that, there are also a couple of set-pieces (one of them involving a fold-up bed and a serial case of mistaken identity) that made me cry with laughter. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

At the heart of the comedy is something a little more serious, a well-judged vein of sincerity that grounds the cast’s more outrageous antics, especially towards the end of the play. Here we find desperation, and loneliness, and revenge, and a little romance, and some betrayal. All of this registers a vague kind of malaise – the human condition, perhaps – which is too undefined to do anything interesting, but renders the heart of the play slightly…absurdist, I suppose, nihilist in its rejection of stability and meaning.

But comedy’s the most conservative of modes, and despite its refusal to provide some of the consolations of its genre The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is steeped in nostalgia for the fifties, accompanied by self-consciously vintage barbershop melodies sung by the cast which sort of undermine its more deconstructionist gestures. The problem, I think, is that the nostalgic mood this soundtrack generates expresses a yearning for a simpler time – viz., the fifties – when the kind of lines that the play draws between stealing from the rich and murdering the innocent, between petty crooks and dangerous criminals, were somehow more visible and more real.

As is always the case with nostalgia, there never was such a time.

Still, there’s no denying the slickness of the play: it relies heavily on comic timing, on props working properly, on everyone being in the right place on stage at the right time, and it comes together beautifully, a comic dance. Visually and technically, it’s extremely well done (as you might expect from a West End production). Ideologically? Well, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

Theatre Review: Les Miserables

So I finally went to see Les Miserables live on stage.

Chances are, if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you know what happens in Les Mis, but just in case: it’s a musical, set in France, that follows an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he tries to escape the life of poverty and crime which is the lot of freed prisoners, running from the ultra-dedicated police inspector Javert through a broken parole, a mayoralty, and perhaps most famously a failed revolution (the June Rebellion of 1832, to be precise).

I keep being asked if the production was everything I thought and hoped it would be (being a long-time fan of Les Mis). The answer is complicated, I think: I found it impossible to get away from the preconceptions of already knowing both the story and the music (which are one and the same thing) intimately, anticipating every note and comparing it to what I’ve heard and seen before. I suppose I wasn’t quite expecting to feel like that.

At the same time, though, I think knowing the story so well opened my eyes to what this particular production (at the Queen’s Theatre in London) is highlighting about the base “text”, as it were. Unlike most musicals, which, although a lot of fun, do tend to be rather one-note, Les Mis has a decent amount of depth and nuance to play with; and I think in particular the Queen’s Theatre version brought home to me just how religious the musical is. This is a story in which the answer to the question “Is my immortal soul worth more than the worldly wellbeing of hundreds of workers?” is “Yes”. The doomed June Rebellion forms the heart of the story in many ways – musically and structurally – but ultimately the musical is more interested in Jean Valjean’s arc of religious redemption than in the fate of the students on the barricades. There’s an overwhelming sense of futility to the efforts of the revolutionaries, their defiance becoming no more than an irrelevancy in the face of the grinding forces of poverty; and though their song (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”) is transmuted by the end into a rousing chorus of affirmation, it’s a specifically religious affirmation: “For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies/Even the darkest night must end and the sun will rise.” Ultimately, salvation for the people “here below” comes only after death, in the form of divine intervention; and all our human efforts are futile.

There’s more I’d like to write and think about here, which is remarkable in itself, that something I’ve known for so long can possibly offer up more meaning. At the moment, though, I’ve got WriMoing to do.

Theatre Review: La Boheme

So about a month ago, thanks to a work friend with a spare ticket, I went to see Ellen Kent’s staging of Puccini’s La Boheme at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre on a weeknight.

I should probably be clear that I know virtually nothing about opera, despite the Resident Grammarian’s best efforts. I have seen some Gilbert and Sullivan and I have watched Jesus Christ Superstar on TV, but neither of these really count in my mind since they are sung in English and you can hear what the words are.

Sung in Italian and set in Paris, La Boheme first premiered in 1896, which is (I think) interestingly late for opera. Our Protagonist is bohemian Rodolfo, who along with his bohemian pals is romantically poor owing to the fact that he cannot sell any of his writing. One evening, he meets the meek and retiring Mimi, who has lost her key, and is instantly smitten. The subsequent three acts follow various romantic reversals as it becomes gradually apparent that Mimi has that insidiously romanticised disease, consumption (Victorian culture being obsessed with female consumptive bodies), and Rodolfo struggles with the fact that a wealthier suitor will have more money to buy her medicine.

I feel like the word that best sums up my thoughts about La Boheme is “quotidian”; and this means both good and bad things. My favourite parts of it were those that celebrated the often-vibrant life of the city: the choruses of milkmaids, the bohemians carousing in their lodgings, the lively crowd scene featuring peddlers and children and townsfolk. It’s a story about the ordinary people (Mimi, for example, is a seamstress), raised into importance by the lavishness of opera.

By the same token, though, I felt that the emphasis of the narrative was actually on the wrong characters: Mimi is a typically colourless Victorian “angel-in-the-house”, and though Rodolfo has slightly rakish qualities he is in general the least interesting bohemian. Much more interesting is Musetta, the girlfriend of another of the bohemians, who is flirtatious, cheerfully interested in sex with multiple partners, loyal, empathetic and never judged by the narrative for any of these things; but she gets short shrift as a supporting character.

Partly the production’s general feeling of unremarkableness is, I suspect, down to the staging: certainly there’s little chemistry between the two leads, and as a whole the production feels conventional (perhaps necessarily, given the fact that it’s effectively touring the provinces). But partly it’s because the music is not terribly interesting; as the Resident Grammarian pointed out, there’s not much in the way of tunes in the scoring, no rousing numbers or clever melodies. The fact that there’s very little romantic tension in the story doesn’t help either.

It’s a perfectly nice evening out at a local theatre (next showing is in Richmond on Wednesday), perhaps with some ice cream and a glass of wine; just not, perhaps, the theatrical event of the season.