IDOMENEO Buxton Opera House

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS SAND, SEA AND SERIOUSNESS AT BUXTON

On his way home from victory at Troy, Cretan king Idomeneo’s ship is caught in a dreadful storm. In desperation, he vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first thing he sees if he reaches dry land safely. Tragically, that turns out to be Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante, who has fallen in love with captured Trojan princess Ilia, herself secretly smitten with Idamante but hostile to all Greeks since the destruction of her city. Idomeneo spends the rest of his opera trying work out how not to kill Idamante without bringing the wrath of Neptune on his Cretans: he fails spectacularly, alienating his bewildered son in the process and exposing Crete to the rampages of a terrible seamonster. Here, in Stephen Medcalf’s vision, the ‘monster’ is Idomeneo’s own guilt, which possesses him physically, turning him into a gurning, rampaging menace on stage. Eventually, Neptune relents on the condition that Idomeneo hands his crown over to Idamante, with Ilia as queen. Varesco’s plot contains several problems, not least of which is Neptune’s volte face from requiring human sacrifice to ordaining just and sensible rule over Crete – a scarcely credible cop out for an ancient deity. But the bashed, hashed version of Apollodorus’ myth is merely a jumping off point, for this is an opera about Enlightenment leadership, nobility and personal sacrifice, in which duty and love are placed in dramatic conflict.

Stephen Medcalf’s thoughtful direction, and Isabella Bywater’s glorious design of a room choked by tidal waves of sand looking out to a distant sea, which magically transforms into a beleaguered ship during a terrifying storm scene, make Buxton’s unquestionably the best Idomeneo I’ve yet seen. In military uniforms and puttees, the Greeks seem to have just got home from the First World War, good cultural shorthand for the level of psychological devastation wreaked on all sides by the fall of Troy. Paul Nilon is compellingly vulnerable and haunted as Idomeneo, his seasoned tenor sometimes almost raw with emotion. Heather Lowe’s stylish, freshly voiced and dramatically focused Idamante is brilliantly boyish and affecting, nicely paired with Rebecca Bottone’s steely, determined Ilia, a princess riven with horror at her own love for the enemy. Madeleine Pierard’s sassy, charismatic Elettra, a Greek princess who wants Idamante for herself, is a show-stopping sensation, bristling with passion and bitterness. The chorus scenes are magnificent, and conductor Nicholas Kok produces a clean, majestic sound from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and though timing can fall a little oddly, it’s a satisfying, often stunning listen.

Visually powerful, psychologically compelling, and superbly well sung, Buxton’s production effectively masks Idomeneo’s inherent drawbacks. But they still remain: Idomeneo is no sprightly Da Ponte human drama, but a long, serious and inward-looking piece, carefully unpicking its moral dilemmas with Baroque beauty and grandeur, but without any sense of urgency or narrative thrust, which is why it so often falls flat. This Idomeneo works because it is seriously well acted within a clear directoral vision: Lowe, Bottone, Pierard and Nilon deliver intense, deeply felt characters driven to actions we can comprehend by emotions we can feel.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

Until 19 July at Buxton Opera House, as part of Buxton International Festival

Production supported by Friends of Buxton Festival; Buxton International Festival sponsored by Arts Council England and the University of Derby

Box office: 01298 72190

Rating: five

5 Meece Rating

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ALZIRA Buxton Opera House

CHARLOTTE VALORI UNCOVERS FORGOTTEN INCA GOLD WITH VERDI IN BUXTON

Verdi’s little-known opera about Peruvian Incas and Spanish conquistadors, Alzira, has finally received its UK premiere at Buxton International Festival. It is 173 years since its whirlwind composition, completed in a scant month during Verdi’s “galley years”, when he was churning out operas at extraordinary speed, a period about which he would grumble endlessly. Cammarano’s libretto is based on Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, an iconoclastic play which sought to poke holes in religion (and problematise European cultural pre-eminence) by showing harshness and nobility on both sides in Latin America, with both conquerors and conquered equally capable of mercy and vice, generosity and greed. Ideas of honour, faith and love become explosive in conflict as psychotic Spanish governor Gusmano (velvet-voiced baritone James Cleverton) fights with Inca warrior Zamoro (brooding, vocally dextrous tenor Yung Soo Jun) over who gets to marry the beautiful Inca princess Alzira (a frankly stupendous Kate Ladner).

Although Cammarano excised much of Voltaire’s revolutionary firepower in order to get past the censors, director Elijah Moshinsky reinvigorates those political dynamics by placing Alzira in a troubled Peru of the 1980s, where an imaginary Spanish government struggle to quell native guerrillas (and Verdi’s echoes of Italian Risorgimento stay clear). Grainy CNN footage during the overture suggests a pattern of failed coup, renewed control, increased injustice, street violence and coup; a lurching, familiar cycle. Designer Russell Craig dresses the stage simply with grimy floor tiles and vast sliding panels to evoke the faded grandeur of Latin America, while stage flotsam – fuel cans, packing cases, an old red leather couch – suggests post-coup chaos. Dynamic lighting and video projections give the stage a hallucinogenic edge. The Spanish are power-dressed in sober black suits or black military fatigues, their women all wearing nationalistic red; the Incas, with ponchos or scarves slung over their crumpled mufti, look desperate as they skulk in a digitally projected jungle (complete with flying parrots) plotting rebellion. Alzira is clearly a treasured princess, with a lavishly embroidered belt around her peasant skirt and Frida Kahlo flowers in her hair, while her final wedding costume is a breathtaking vision of blue and gold, powerfully channelling the iconography of the Virgin Mary. As with Moshinsky’s previous two instalments of his trilogy of early Verdi for Buxton (Giovanna d’Arco, 2015 and Macbeth, 2017), we get imported sound effects of guns and bombs across the story, but not so as to disrupt the score.

And what a score it is. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, revel in it. The opera cracks along at whip-like pace, its moods and colours changing with lightning brevity. Alzira has often been dismissed as ‘just another love triangle’, but this triangle is skewed by two complex father-child relationships, another key Verdi hallmark: Alzira is being forced into marriage with the enemy by her harassed father Ataliba, while Gusmano’s gentler, urbane father Alvaro (Graeme Danby) is horrified that his son’s lust pushes him past the reach of compassion or Christian restraint. When Gusmano is fatally wounded by Zamoro, his climactic final repentance, and acceptance that Alzira and Zamoro should at last be together, is as sudden as it is unexpectedly sublime.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Until 20 July at Buxton Opera House, as part of Buxton International Festival

Production supported by Longcliffe and The Old Hall Hotel, Buxton; Buxton International Festival sponsored by Arts Council England and the University of Derby

Box office: 01298 72190

Rating: five

5 Meece Rating

 

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JERUSALEM Watermill, Nr Newbury

A REVIVAL CRASHING WITH NEW LIFE AND ANCIENT DARKNESS

 

A heatwave in  festival season, everyone’s muzzy yearning for  greenwood misrule:  it’s perfect timing for the dangerous, beguiling Rooster Byron  to slam out of his shabby caravan once more,  douse his head in the water-butt and revel in disruption and disobedience.   A perfect setting too:  the play born at the Royal Court, West End and Broadway  nearly a decade ago finds a perfect home in the rustic-beamed Watermill.  There’s bunting overhead and maypole ribbons round the pillars.  Pretty and civilized though this theatre may be,  when Rooster’s scruffy band enter running up the side- aisles you can believe they came from a darker, wilder, poorer  rural scene.

       

   At the end  of its epic London run with the peerless Mark Rylance creating the part, I went back to decide whether – without him at its core – Jez Butterworth’s play would really last. This first revival proves it can: thanks to Lisa Blair’s unfussy direction but above all to an extraordinarily powerful, utterly complete performance by Jasper Britton.   His Rooster Byron is rough,  dangerous, fascinating but never fey.   He is both   credible as a former daredevil biker and disgraceful provider of booze and drugs to bored rural teenagers ,  but shows us with finesse that beneath the grey-haired, ragged, tattooed and filthy exterior lie are edges of intellectual depth , battered personal sorrow, and the curious consoling sense of underlying virtue which made Butterworth’s play so memorable.    

 

And there is extra fascination in seeing the author’s tough, mystical-disreputable take on rural England from the far side of his extraordinary Irish-set Ferryman, with its parallel sense  (remember Aunt Maggie Far-Away.) of  a modern world alienated from,  but needily haunted by,  its dark old myths and magic.

 

 

       For Rooster’s Power over the disaffected, the eccentric, the  aimless teens and Peter Caulfield’s touchingly needy Ginger lies in more than drugs (though dammit, that’s topical as ‘county lines’ flourish) .   His defiance of eviction notices and the law is bolstered by something older and wilder:  legends, giants, earthy magic.   Butterworth’s monologues for the myth-maker are notably clever in mixing banalities – canasta, motorway service areas,  Nigerian traffic wardens – with giants at Stonehenge and miracle births.  And with the ensemble, there’s a wonderful riff about how BBC Points West merged with Bristol –  and for all they knew Belgium – and abandoned them. 

 

         These are David Goodhart’s “Somewheres”, no doubt kneejerk Brexiteers, bereaved of identity by cultural homogeneity and rural neglect.  Every character stands out:  Robert Fitch as Wesley the landlord under the brewery’s thumb,  Natalie Walter as the ex-partner who has to fight  to deny herself the ragged grey hair and bottomless black eyes of her lost but essential lover,  Rebecca Lee as Tanya pleading for attention from Sam Swann’s awkward, aspiring, reluctant Lee who may never actually get that bus to a new life.

 

           So you laugh, and shudder, and watch the gradual darkening of the picture.    Ever more you sense that through the human warmth of bantering, intoxicated comradeship , in all our private woods the old werewolf is waiting.  Britton’s great roaring finale stops the heart.  

to  21 July.  Still tickets.  Go!

Box Office 01635 46044

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE. Noel Coward WC2

CRITIC AND HELLRAISER LUKE JONES WINCES AND LAUGHS …

 

This is as violent as anything I’ve seen on the stage. And I’m including in this survey that Titus Andronicus at the Globe which saw half a GCSE class collapse before the interval. And by ‘violent’ I don’t just mean execution by hand gun at close range, I mean the subsequent vivid red splatter which streaks up the wall, the cat ‘brained’ at short distance with a hand gun, a man’s face being rubbed in the corpse, and the nonchalant request of a torturer for a cheese grater and something to muffle the screams.Each one is punctured with a top notch gag.

 

Martin McDonagh’s play can be summed up thus; an INLA (the IRA wouldn’t have him) paramilitary comes back to his home of Inishmore because he gets wind that his cat is ill. ‘Wee Thomas’, his only friend in the world, is in fact dead and when Mad Padraic finally arrives and realises he died, many others follow suit. For all the wistful nonsense literature we’ve had to endure about this part of the world, this is a firm sharp slap round the face.

 

McDonagh wanted to write a play, he says, that would make the IRA want to kill him. I can only imagine what impact the play would have had in 2001 when it was finally first staged. It’s a ferocious satire on the terrorist mindset. Blinding people, murdering them, pulling their toes out is fair game but leave the cat alone.

 

But it’s the sparky bickering and distracted conversation which really sets this play alive. Who said what, is this the right cat, should you feed it Frosties? Lines shouted at the peak of panic like “do you want a happy cat or a free Ireland?”. Also is there a better accent for the word “knickers” than Northern Irish (try it). Michael Grandage orchestrates this brilliantly. The Irish accents (perfect to my Nottinghamshire ear), the gags, the thumps all bounce along perfectly, and you feel every jab and shot.

 

Aidan Turner (Poldark sans sythe) is Mad Padraic. At first I thought well he’s the straight man so easy peasy but as the absurdity ratchets up his perfect comic timing is what keeps things ticking. The dufus duo of old man Donny (Denis Conway ) and young man Davey (Chris Walley) works beautifully as they natter endlessly as the carnage unfolds around them. Charlie Murphy as the young, aspiring paramilitary is eerily dead behind the eyes. Just like the Childish Gambino video for This is America which swept round the internet like wildfire (Google it) this has a spookily unfeeling quality. The gags have us all roaring but when someone with a blank expression “brains” someone with two handguns 2 feet from their head, 900 gobs took a sharp intake of breath. It lampoons terrorism but also gives you a flavour of the giddy mindless emptiness of it.

 

A funnier, more chilling, more satisfying comedy you will not find.

Rating  5   5 Meece Rating

Until 8th September

 

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MONOGAMY Park Theatre N4

A RISOTTO OF RESENTMENTS 

 

 

In some plays, you reach the interval not exactly dissatisfied but wondering “where is this going next? How will it knit  up the ends.?  So many characters – and their  troublesome characteristics – have piled in, manic sitcom style, with bursts of backstory and downright bafflement, that it seems a problem beyond solution in a final hour. That is why you should not leave in the interval. 

 

      I wouldn’t have anyway, being keen on Torben Betts, whose INVINCIBLE should be much better known.    And the superscription of the play promised that it was, beyond the satire about celebrity-TV-chef in family meltdown, a reflection on the “culturally imposed aberration” of nuclear family life in general.   I am not sure it achieved that, given that the characters as individuals were so much more (entertainingly) flaky than the norm.

 

      So we had the great Janie Dee as TV cook in rehearsal , clearly drinking too much,  preparing a family gathering and rather more bonded to a crucifix on the kitchen wall than is normal in cookery celebs. She has   a TV assistant  (Genevieve Gaunt) manically Bubble-y , swerving begin street, Sarf-London PA efficiency,   and a loghorrreic intricacy of sentence .   She is in communication with the Mail over some shaming drunken photos of the saintly cook.  Then there’s Caroline’s son ( Jack Archer)  frustrated by her failure to listen to something he has to tell her (it’ll be Act 2 before he manages) and a hunky builder Amanda fancies and who clearly prefers the maturer mistress of the house. But then, exploding into the kitchen with his gold clubs in comedy woolly pompom hats, there is Mike the red faced banker husband.

 

 

At which point you stop worrying about whether Betts will take it anywhere interesting because Patrick Ryecart is just plain hilarious,  from his bristling ginger eyebrows to his ramblingly explosive anecdotes about the glory of golf and his choleric outbursts about “homosexual bolshevist vegetarians” his theory that ‘vegetarian’ is neolithic language for “shit at hunting’.  Every scene he is in lights up.  

 

        Too many issues of the day seemed to cram in : some current to the characters (Charlie Brooks is very touching as the newly arrived Sally, mistaken for someone else) and many in back-stories.    There’s gayness, infidelity,  religious mania, Syrian refugees, an Afghanistan veteran suicide,  Japanese POW postwar trauma, multiple,sclerosis, autism, benefit cuts and the criminality of the British empire.  I began to wonder whether Mr Betts was fulfilling a side-bet on how many issues he could get in without mentioning Brexit.

 

     As to where this entertainingly jerky goes in Act 2, –  the answer is drunker, wilder, increasingly funnier (Alistair Whatley of the Original Theatre Company clearly enjoys directing chaos).  Characters do grow, esp Dad Mike:  I was actually slightly tearful at his realization that he’d never told his son he loved him. Janie Dee is as ever credible even at the characters oddest , drunkest and most religiously transfixed,  Archer as  the son poignant and infuriating. The carving knife brandished in scene 1 gets its moment, as is the grand tradition of theatremaking;  the entire act  is constructed in a rising thunderstorm effect. 

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to 7 july

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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MACHINAL Almeida, N1

MICHAEL ADAIR SHUDDERS AT THE HARD OLD PATRIARCHY…

 

‘These modern neurotic women, doctor. What are we going to do with them?’ says one exasperated male character to another. Here, right on time for the #MeToo generation, is a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal… first performed in 1928.   90 years on, some men are still making our skin crawl, and Natalie Abahami’s superb direction of this prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare.

 

This is a play about Helen, played by the hypnotic Emily Berrington. Helen works as a stenographer in New York. She lives beneath a noisy train track in a tiny apartment with her impoverished mother (Denise Black) until her employer, Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone), takes a shine to her. Why? Because Helen has such lovely hands, of course. Despite Helen wincing every time that her oblivious boss touches her, the two wed and she despondently sobs throughout their honeymoon. Mr Jones doesn’t care. Mr Jones barely notices. Mr Jones wants to sit with his legs spread telling his beautiful wife his anecdotes, he reasons that he’s worked hard so he should be allowed to enjoy his life. At one point he even dares to utter ‘I understand women’.

 

Although the subject matter wrings your stomach, as a visual spectacle this is an utterly beautiful play to watch. There is ceaseless cacophony of sound – the thud of metal doors and bins, the relentless grind of typewriters and pneumatic drills, even the repetitive 8-bit bleeps of a child’s Gameboy helps to build a wall of noise that surrounds us, imprisoning us with our protagonist. The rhythmic, breathless dialogue matches it – clicking back and forth as if set to a metronome. All of the music and sound effects are perfectly chosen and placed, huge credit to Ben and Max Ringham for Sound and Composition.  The set by Miriam Buether matches this. A slanted mirror takes up the entire back of the stage  – we see everything in double, further adding to the claustrophobia. Each of the story’s nine chapters is separated by an increasingly blinding light.

 

It’s not all hell and nightmares though. As Helen seeks to escape from the shackles of a husband she never loved and the straitjacket of social convention, she heads to a bar. As the stage becomes filled with cigarette smoke, we become privy to the conversations of other couples – one pair are negotiating an affair, whilst an older man is extolling the virtues of amontillado sherry to a younger man in a bid to seduce him. It’s a heady mix of sight, sound and smell that serves to seduce the audience themselves – and in this midst, Helen, in a grasp for freedom, begins an affair. In its aftermath, the mechanical noises temporarily ease away and are replaced by the soothing patter of rainfall, the claustrophobic mirror suddenly seems to reflect a limitless night sky.

 

This is a brilliantly crafted work, where the biggest plaudits must go to those involved in the technical production. Urgent and compelling, it is remarkable that Treadwell’s work is as relevant now as it would have been 90 years ago.

 

BOX OFFICE  020 7359 4404 TO JULY 21

boxoffice@almeida.co.uk

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating

 

 

 

 

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JULIE Lyttelton, SE1

STRINDBERG MEETS STENHAM, BIRD MEETS BLENDER

 
We’re in a Hampstead mansion. The daughter of the house is whooping it up at her birthday party, a deafening, purple-lit rave where tight-buttocked androgynes and glittering hair-flickers writhe and shriek. Below them in a bland grand kitchen the help – Ghanaian chauffeur John (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his girlfriend Kristin the maid (Thalissa Teixeira) tidy up, take a swig of the absent Daddy’s Chateau Latour and comment on the chaos. Down comes the birthday girl Julie, leaping around barefoot on the worktops flashing ever more thigh at Jean. And so the trouble begins.

 

 

The scenario is familiar, you say? Indeed. It’s a Strindberg update by Polly Stenham,  who at 19 famously wrote “That Face” , brilliant on the damage of growing up in a boho, addiction-addled posh family. A few years later she gave us No Quarter, which was frankly just annoying, since rather than any relatable pain it exuded a tiresome conviction that rich decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people . Which is an attitude you can only get away with if you’re Noel Coward, and capable of lightening it up a bit. Which Stenham, as yet, is not.
But this time she joins the endless line of adaptors and updaters of August Strindberg’s toughly nasty, misogynistic Miss Julie: a play soaked in such fin-de-siecle Nordic hopelessness that it makes Ibsen look like PG Wodehouse.

 

It is hard to see why – apart from the obvious marketing reason – Stenham would need to borrow the classic. There are other ways to tackle the hypocrisies and inequalities of rich London versus its immigrant servitor class – the stated intention here – without piggybacking on the miserable old Swede. Stenham’s Julie is not an 1888 ingenue for whom sex with Jean would be momentous , but a 33-year-old trust-fund waster, returned home to live with her affluent father, party, and self-medicate with everything from Xanax to cocaine. The gang upstairs is not Strindberg’s estate peasantry but the usual upmarket druggy ravers; the heroine’s degenerate behaviour and distress has less to do with social pressures than with the fact that she’s off her face and with a bolted-on back-story about her mother’s death.

 

 

Only the character of Jean with his hard-edged ambition and eye for the main chance feels close to the original, and he is a man for all ages. Stenham’s social-outrage intention is clear enough, especially when the chauffeur (good line) exasperatedly tells the wealthy messed-up Julie “We don’t have the luxury of being sad like you”. And again when Kristina the maid is given a very un-Strindbergian speech of indignation near the end about how she has washed our heroine’s blood-stained underwear , picked her up from abortion clinics, listened to her endlessly but despises the faux-liberal pretence that they were ever any kind of friends.

 

But with the glossy visual values (Tom Scutt design, amazing) and some remarkably directed movement by the ensemble of non-speaking partygoers (Ann Yee clearly should be booked for your next rave), the howling flaw is that Carrie Cracknell’s production feels more like a zoo – “see the rich posh ravers!” – than any sort of polemic exposure. There is one particularly enjoyable moment when – in what may be a dream sequence – the dancers creep down from above with cockroach-like crawling movements and vanish into the mysteriously changed kitchen appliances. It’s not often you encounter the stage-direction “Exit through the dishwasher”.

 

And there’s the extreme audience giggle when (back to Strindberg’s detail again) our modern Julie rather improbably insists on taking her pet canary with her on the fantasy flight to Cape Verde with Jean. When told to kill it, she puts it in the Magimix. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie (a tremendous performance, as one would expect) then collapses in sobbing grief about her terrible traumatic past experience. But the Magimix giggle ’n groan has spoilt that. So we feel nothing. What a waste.

 

box office 020 7452 3000 To to 8 Sept
Travelex season. NB in cinemas 6 Sept, NT Live

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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