Category Archives: Two Mice

VIOLETTA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WATCHES VERDI’S MASTERPIECE WILT LIKE A CRUSHED CAMELLIA 

Violetta is a reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, using only three characters: the doomed courtesan Violetta, her idealistic yet immature lover Alfredo, and – surprise! Alfredo’s mother. Yes, Germont père is exchanged by Opera Allegra for Germont mère; an eyecatching decision with a potential cascade of interesting effects on the all-important gender dynamics of this piece at Grimeborn. I set off to the Arcola full of excitement. What new things would I see? I was a little confused when I saw the librettist was still Piave – so, we weren’t getting any new words. Well, what would they do, then, to bring out those fresh and fascinating nuances from the inclusion of Alfredo’s mother?

The answer was: nothing. The part was unchanged (“Giorgio” simply became “Giorgia”), sadly miscast, and kept on stage pointlessly for most of the action. Our gruff, proud Provençal gent who learns humanity the hard way was transmuted into a weak, querulous irritating-mother-in-law figure with no influence over proceedings, and no presence to match her fellow principals. In La traviata, the clashing pressures of public versus private life should pound our protagonists towards misery and emotional enlightenment, via lust, gambling and consumption, but as this chamber version only shows three characters, we completely miss the glittering whirl of the convivial, cruel world which exploits and abandons Violetta. We are left with a rather flat story of an unwise love affair, paused briefly by the interference of a small-minded mother. If you know this opera well, you’ll enjoy Ben Leonard’s clean, springy tenor as Alfredo, but you will be amazed how poorly the opera functions as a dramatic piece when cut so savagely. If the opera is new to you, you get barely a sniff of the real thing, and if you find it long, boring and confusing, I’d sympathise: please don’t judge Verdi on this, as it’s not his fault. Worst of all, the much-vaunted ‘contemporary twist’ of the production never lands – the work simply hasn’t gone in to back it up.

Ashley Pearson’s revival direction feels remarkably outdated: characters sing in lumpen stillness, often without making eye contact with one another when confessing deep emotion, with only faint glimmers of natural expression occasionally breaking through their patchy acting, because his singers are left stranded by Pearson’s lack of ideas. Compounding the problem, Martin Berry’s staging is heavy-handed Merchant Ivory, with elaborate Alphonse Mucha-esque costumes, and no distinction made between gracious apartment, country hideaway or death scene garret. The narrative, already maimed, thus has no way left to express itself on stage. Opera Allegra only get away with it at all thanks to Verdi’s superb writing, which does all the hard work for them whenever they let it. Still, it is astonishing to find La traviata – the world’s most-performed opera – not functioning dramatically, or moving us emotionally. Uneven casting adds a brutal congé; Leonard’s pleasingly agile Alfredo doesn’t pair well with Loretta Hopkins’ vocally unwieldy Violetta, while Alison Thorman is completely, and unfairly, out of her depth on all fronts. As she approached “Di Provenza il mar,” I crossed my fingers – meanwhile, my toes curled.

I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to watch Violetta’s interview with Germont without crying; but, with such poor direction, it definitely is.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (29-31 July only, run now finished)

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

2 meece rating

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DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

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A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER Bridge, SE1

NOT SO VERY

 

  A wooden box swings, pendulum-regular, in a peerlessly spooky attic of Halloween horror,  designed with glee by Anna Fleischle .   It is inhabited. Difficult, says its captive (using the unaccountable cowboy tones of Tom Waits)  to hang yourself when you are shut in a 10 ft box with one foot sawn off and no rope or laces.   Hans Christian Andersen, downstairs,  receives plaudits for  reading aloud – with some unfamiliar stumbles – The Little Mermaid.  He comes up to tell the captive – a Congolese female pygmy he calls Marjorie – to make the next story she gives him upbeat.  No  more “cripples dying in the snow”. Otherwise he might saw off her other foot.   Every other word in their conversation is ‘fucking’ or “cunt”, though she at least is crisply intelligent ,whereas Hans is a stumblebum (who does stumblebums better than Jim Broadbent , eh ?  OK, he is sometimes genuinely funny despite the text’s  lazy limitations).  

 

 

 Hans is under stress  because two bloodstained time-travelling Belgians from the future are trying to prevent themselves being killed in that future by “Marjorie” , whose family they slew during King Leopold II’s appalling 1880s genocide.   Luckily she has a haunted concertina with a hidden machine gun,  in case they come for her while Hans is visiting Charles Dickens.  Who he confuses with CharlesDarwin, but who also got his tales from a captive but creative Congolese pygmy.  Dickens’ wife and small children, by the way,  also eff and blind a lot, which may be lazy dialogue but  is handy because it proves that -in defiance of increasingly compelling suspicion on my part  -Martin  McDonagh’s new absurdist play  is not just a string of dated Monty- Python sketches.   Its more modern: a sweary  gross-out horror fantasy , a cheese-dream for intellectual literati.

 

 

         You might enjoy it.  Matter of taste.   Dress it up  perhaps as a solemn metaphor about colonial guilt and exploitation.  Or go Freudian and decide that Marjorie is the dark  inner side of any tormented artist.  Alternatively just shrug. I did.  It felt lazy and silly in equal parts.    The brightest aspect   , though, should be celebrated:   it is a remarkable, assured, tough and sharpwitted professional debut for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles playing the Congolese captive. She even gives it edges of proper emotion,  despite occasionally having to mime to that unaccountable cowboy Waits  voice. 

 

 

    So OK, glad she got the gig.  And mirth matters, wherever it is found, so glad too that quite a few of the audience laughed.  Though rather tellingly,  they never laughed never as heavily  as at a theatreworld  in-joke about German directors.   By the way, McDonagh in his Mr McNasty mood adds a really  unpleasant, and wholly gratuitous, little tale of a conjoined twin who dies slowly, deaf and blind,  of rigor mortis when his sibling’s throat is cut.  But hey, it’s dark comedy, innit?  Sick, man!

 

box office  www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 6 Jan

rating two  2 meece rating

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PINTER AT THE PINTER –    ONE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

STEEL CELLS AND SADISM

 

     Settling in, you’d think you were at the Cenotaph or the Tattoo.   A military soundtrack booms out Imperial Echoes and Jupiter (I Vow To Thee My Country).  The forecurtain has a single word in brutalist stone-grey letters  and as it goes up there’s a deafening Rule Britannia.  Oh,  and a shower of tickertape.

 

 The stony word is PINTER,  and this launches a short season marking his death ten years ago by assembling, in seven sets,  all his short playlets, sketches and poems, with starry casts including (in this first set)  Paapa Essiedu, Maggie Steed and Antony Sher.     This opener is themed on atrocity, repression, dictatorship and state torture.  

 

          It is no secret that Harold Pinter’s gift was for evoking threat, emotional cruelty and downright bullying, whether official or familial. The first half, directed by Jamie Lloyd, starts with the brief “Press Conference”  in which a suave“Minister of Culture” speaks of annihilating subversive children. Next a bufferish caricature of two politicians dismissing millions of deaths, and an audio clip of the author himself about  “putting my finger on the body politic of the world”.  Next a naked figure sits on a chair while two torturers in shades gleefully discuss without detail how much they will do to him: there’s a playfulness which the author is enjoying worryingly much.  The glee continues in the next one, as two thuggish soldiers ask impossible questions of cowering women trying to visit a bloodstained prisoner in a steel cell and the voice of Michael Gambon forbids them to use their language.   In between these imagined atrocities the music blasts out Zadok The Priest, presumably  to suggest that monarchy causes such things.

 

         And on we go to Kate O’Flynn as an American Football cheerleader shrieking one of PInter’s favourite tropes about how “we blew the shit outa them, they’re suffocating in their shit, praise the Lord”.   Oh, and a jejune joke  “undiscovered” sketch in which a bad-wig Trump (a different guest star each time) orders “Nuke London”. 

      

        There is brief relief as Maggie Steed beautifully speaks his gentle poem about death,  and then a longer, quite remarkable performance by Antony Sher interrogating,  in a nightmare of suggestive bullying,  a silent dissident. Then, really nastily,   the man’s raped wife and small child. Sher is of course brilliant.   And of course drama should reflect the existence of torture, fascist dictatorships, bleak cells,  sadism and the banning of free speech (something which the ever-lionized Pinter never suffered).   But the danger of  anthologising like this is the lack of any specificity.   Without relating it  to the realities of Nazi Germany, Guantanamo, Syria ,Russia, China, wherever,  or even and without even declaring it a dystopia –   it can decline into mere sadistic fantasy.  Wallowing. 

Pinter does wallow, no question about it, and the director Jamie Lloyd’s belief that it is amusingly satirical to suggest with his Cenotaph-music that we’re in a fascist state here,   is not only silly but an insult to those who really are in one.   So the lack of context in that sequence bothered me. 

 As for the second half, where Lia Williams directs  Ashes to Ashes with Kate O”Flynn and Essiedu, it is again well-executed. But  dripping with sexual sado-masochism of the kiss-my-fist variety and,   in the woman’s final words, rather disgustingly hijacking  images of the Holocaust trains.   Still, we were spared another blast of Zadok the Priest.    Look, if you love this aspect of Pinter – the wallowing threat –  you’ll not find it better evoked than in Pinter One.   For the other six in the series, watch this space. 

 

www.atgtickets.com   to February

rating  two   2 meece rating

   

 

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EMILIA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

DARK LADY DEMANDING LIMELIGHT

 

     The Globe has had some tremendous new-writing about history, for which it is nicely suited.  Remember Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and  Dr Scroggy’s War, or Jessica Swayle’s fine Nell Gwyn and Bluestockings.    This latest one, commissioned by Michelle Terry from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is not in that class.  Which is a great pity, because the theme is intriguing and useful:  the too-long-tolerated invisibility of women as writers and thinkers.  

 

 

       It deals with Emilia Bassano Lanier (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady  of the sonnets, unless that was a bloke, as others opine).   What we know of her is scarce:  daughter of a Italian court musician,  mistress and protegée of a Lord Chamberlain and later married for convenience, she published a religious text aimed at women – Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum – with strong and laudable attitudes to her sex.  She may conceivably have met Shakespeare.  The astrologer Simon Forman was rude about her.   And that’s about it. 

     

But the author, and director Nicole Charles, regard this lack of facts as freeing  and make the most of it. Their Emilia is played by three women, Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson, with Perkins a declamatory, narrating old-woman version and the others as younger selves.  Their Emilia speaks her mind from childhood onwards, defies the ludicrously caricatured capering men of the court to their faces,  as she does the more conventional, crinolined court ladies.  She meets the young Shakespeare (a spirited Charity Wakefield), becomes his lover and tells him about women.  He offers to ‘pour you into my work and immortalize your soul” and she snarls “I don ’t want your platform, I want mine”.    She  utters lines like “ I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” which he promptly nicks,  so she gets furious.  When  his Emilia-and-Desdemona scene is on stage she rampages amid the groundlings shouting for her rights of authorhood.  She berates him when he tries to “mansplain” the craft of writing (hoots and cheers from a very ‘woke’ audience at all these points). 

 

  She befriends the poor washerwomen and prostitutes of Bankside after they rescue her from drowning (in a still very clean bra-slip)  and decides to educate them.   She runs a risk of being burnt at a witch, and one  friend is.   She finally gets her pamphlets about women’s equality published by disguising them as religious works.  

         

     The play creaks beneath  its burden of feminist ideology , underlined in the programme by Shami Chakrabarti and an excitable essay by Deborah Frances-White,  who feels familiar enough with the eluxive historical Emilia to call her “a poet, a class warrior and champion of women – but she knew how to party..shagged loads of people”) .   And as if  the feminist line was not enough, as the three Emilias are women of colour  we get another theme of the plight of immigrants.  The heroine embraces modern victimhood-identification  language and complains about “not belonging” due to being Italian by ancestry.  She   demands to be judged by virtues not inheritance,  and mourns over an exotic seed-pod on the riverbank which will never grow in “a land unforgiving”.  Though in fact Elizabethan London was more than open –  to Europeans like her at least – and awash with active and successful immigrants .   The paranoia is underlined as Lady Katherine Howard tells her that her sort take jobs from English workers.  Clunking?   Very.   

  

     It’s an undercooked, issue-driven play.  The Emilias in particular are fine performers,   but mainly given only shouty rants as lines;  the language is banal and plodding,   veering between brief archaisms like “I care not”  and Blackadderish slang and “That’s a bit weird innit?”.   Thus whenever the odd real line from Shakespeare crops up,   it is like an unexpected orchid in an arid lawn.  Everyone is encouraged to caper cartoonishly, a la Horrible histories.  There is little light and shade,  no sense of real interaction with men except once with Shakespeare,  and just whenever you start to identify with the two younger Emilias,  the older one powers in to interrupt with another diatribe. Concluding, in the final moments, with a ranting  paean to all female anger and hostility towards men responsible for our ongoing slavery. Her final injunction is “burn the whole fucking house down!”.  

  

      Look, I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be good, embrace some subtlety, open doors on the past.  It is perfectly true that women have been sidelined and silenced over centuries, and  I liked stage-Emilia’s view  (in one of the few good lines) that to succeed we have needed to be “tricksters, shape-shifters,  upstream swimmers” .   But  to my real dismay,  as the evening went on all shouty and furious and improbable,   despite the first-night laughs and acclamations I felt less and less sympathetic towards the cause.    

to 1 Sept

rating two  2 meece rating

    

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THE PROMETHEUS REVOLUTION Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS REVOLUTION NOT GOING FAR IN A WORLD PREMIERE AT GRIMEBORN

Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to ensure human progress, and met with a grisly eternal punishment as a reward: Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver daily. Keith Burstein’s new opera The Prometheus Revolution attempts to engage with this Greek myth through a story of modern-day capitalism and revolt. Peter (Alex Haigh) redirects two trillion pounds from the City to the Prometheus Peace Movement, revivifying a socially rebellious organisation which he founded, but left to become a successful banker or deep undercover rebel agent: his erstwhile partner in the Prometheus Movement, Aaron (Robert Garland), can’t be sure which, as the (mainly sexual) tensions of their youth threaten to break the Movement apart just as civil war finally gets going. Fulham Opera field a dazzlingly strong young cast to give Burstein’s opera its world premiere; singing is lyrical and compelling throughout, piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward richly expressive, direction from Sophie Gilpin clear and clever. Sunny Smith’s pared-down, efficient design uses a grid of steel ropes on a platform in the centre of the playing space to suggest the glass and steel of a City office, or a prison cell; the addition of blinds, swags or banners suggests meeting rooms, hotel balconies and Movement HQ. However, despite music, design and direction all being on point, The Prometheus Revolution is a severe test of performance, and ultimately only the strength, charm and skill of Fulham Opera’s company carries us through this piece. The opera is unfortunately stymied by its weak, derivative and repetitive libretto, which loses sight of its myth early on: the point of Prometheus’ rebellion was the foundation of human technology, a revolutionary achievement enhancing life for billions and possibly worth an eternity of pain for one. We never hear of Peter’s trillions accomplishing anything useful or tangible for anybody. Nor is his punishment permanent (a quick death, stabbed by a spurned lover and a political rival).

This is an opera which constantly tells you what it is doing without ever actually doing it, nor showing you why it needs doing. Though we get endless sloganising about peace, love, truth, equality and so on, we never quite understand what the Movement truly entails. It certainly includes universal love, mainly focused in Peter: everyone (it seems) is passionately jealous of Peter’s sexual favours, and his relationship history is trotted endlessly around the stage like a tired beach pony. Nor can we perceive what social evil they are fighting, beyond generalised comments about the State not respecting the individual. The libretto lurches from cliché to cliché, repeating characters’ names endlessly without establishing any credible inner life, indeed repeating itself generally. Gender dynamics are exceptionally dated, with men making all key decisions while women coo admiringly, smoulder tactically or plot jealous revenge. The plot is so dense that no action can find any emotional context, bashing ever onward with all the subtlety of handwritten capitals in thick black permanent pen, despite a cast who can act their socks off and cope magnificently with its leanest opportunities for expression, even when Burstein (regularly) sets text of one mood to music of quite another. Caroline Carragher’s Wona is outstanding; James Schouten’s Des, brilliantly vivid; Nick Dwyer’s oily Zapruder, eye-catchingly charismatic. Burstein’s inconsistent, lumpily quote-laden score (the ghost of “Nessun Dorma” becoming ever more curiously insistent as we reach the underwhelming finale) doesn’t honestly deserve them.

Fulham Opera’s upcoming Grimeborn Lucia di Lammermoor (already sold out) is the hotter ticket. But what they achieve with this piece is seriously impressive, given its flaws.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 10 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: two 2 meece rating

 

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THE WRITER Almeida, N1

REBEL WITHOUT AN ARGUMENT

 

It is a curiosity of the age that young British women seem to be far angrier about The Patriarchy than their mothers , even though law, language, women’s accomplishments, education, and domestic social conventions are infinitely more on their side , and their struggle is far less. None of our ‘60s victories counts: one wrong pass or incautious phrase and they cry outrage. Every global cruelty and disaster from war and capitalism to environmental disaster is men’s fault too – even when a woman sends the bombers, runs the shops or uses the microbead lotions. Odd

 

In this show the bastards are also in charge of the arts: ruining creative women’s holy myths by mentioning squalid things like the need to sell tickets for the Sacred Space that is Theatre. Ella Hickson’s meta-theatrical play opens with a bracing encounter between a male director (Sam West,) and a truculent, furious young woman (Lara Rossi, brilliant at it) . She has seen a play and informs him that it was unreal,“saying lines..fake hair and new shoes and famous people doing things badly”, that he’s just a “good night out sort of guy” (ugh!) and that old men with flaking skin “tell THEIR truth” and don’t change the world with holy fire. So he offers her a writing commission, but it turns out that when they met before he tried to kiss her, so that invalidates everything, hashtag MeToo !

 

 

The patriarchal idea of logical narrative is obviously out of the question, so it jerks on to a quite funny sketch of a panel – adding Romola Garai and Michael Gould to the first two – discussing a work in progress. There’s one great exchange where the elder man sneers that drama can’t be “just one person’s self-involved perspective on their own anguish” and the woman writer replies “Hamlet!”.

 

Hence to a half-finished playlet (Anna Fleischle’s set nicely built in moments onstage) in which Garai and West are a couple. He (after a quick shag) serves her supper and wishes she would accept a £ 40K film offer for her play. She says it would be like mutilating an unborn child, that she is “broken” in agonizing pain by his love of sofas and Waitrose, and that Picasso didn’t do anything he didn’t want to , so why should she? A real baby is briefly brought on, to prove she doesn’t want one, and next thing we know the set has vanished and she is having an IUD fitted. Which brings on a mythic monologue about being in a tribe with the goddess Semele and having lesbian sex under rippling lighting effects, which is better than the “semi devastated feeling that follows sex with men” because you negotiate your own sameness…
The producer comes on and mutters that though she is frighteningly gifted the play would be better without this “tribal shit” and with an actual ending. So despite her affront (“writers need to be safe”) we move to that ending. Which consists of a ritzier set, the two women eating a takeaway and having sex, once without a huge vivid purple dildo and once with it. Which upsets them, because just as in the end of Animal Farm. the power-game panting of the topmost one means that she has become one of the oppressive pigs. Dicks are evil, see?

 

I get it. I see why this means to break boundaries and change the world, know why the real male boss-class put it on, and why some uneasy middle-aged men – with and without flaky skin – will give it an approving nod. And the cast are all excellent. But I’m a woman, and a fiction writer, and frankly, if this is feminism and a plea for creativity I am a banana. It speaks only for the narrowest of demographics: a notional angry , unloving, sexually militant mythoholic 24-year-old riddled with humourless artistic vanity and self-pity. That Ella Hickson gives her male characters occasional sharp funny lines to puncture this monstrous kid’s balloon is to her credit. But as a play, it is pretty awful.

 

box office almeida.co.uk to 26 May
rating two   2 meece rating

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