Monday, 27 September 2010


What do with with staging Wagner? For all the composer-librettist's theories of total theater, his works are fiendishly difficult to produce, not only because of the superhuman demands on his singers, but because they are not dramatic in a conventional sense. There are so many monologues, so many moments when psychology is more important than conventional dramatic conflict. Opera is often about what people are thinking and feeling more than what they are doing. Wagner's works are extreme examples of this. So how do you produce them?
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, perhaps the most influential of Wagners' works musically, is a prime example. Little happens. An hour into the work, lovers drink a love potion. An hour and a half later they are discovered in flagrante and Tristan is mortally wounded. Another hour later Tristan dies, a couple of other people die in a quick duel and Isolde sings her famous Liebestod. That, like so much of the opera, is an internal moment. Even the fifty minute love duet is less about love than longing to be removed from earth and conventional life. It's about death as much as it is about life. In other words, there isn't much for singers to do physically in TRISTAN. Moreover, the opera is so vocally demanding on the two singers playing the title roles that they can't be expected to move much. And, typical of Wagner, there are long orchestral passages between their vocal lines.  So, in the best of productions, TRISTAN is a static work. We listen -- and there is an enormous amount to listen to -- more than we look.
What was offered at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday was neither quite a concert or a fully staged performance. The singers were in front of the orchestra in concert dress, but they were "off book" and, to some extent, acting their roles. There was a black piece of furniture to be Isolde's couch in Act I, a bench in Act II and Tristan's bed in Act III. There was some minimal blocking and some theatrical lighting. Most impressive was the placement of some of the cast around the Royal Festival Hall. Brangane delivered her warning from a high box, the chorus welcoming Isolde at the end of Act I was in the back of the hall. The shepherd's mournful horn came from another side box. Trista and Isolde began their love duet in the auditorium and moved slowly onto the stage. This spatial variety of sound was extremely effective. Less so were Bill Viola's projections which appeared on a large screen behind the singers. Supposedly they gave another mythical, symbolic dimension to the work, if one needed such a thing. I found them either banal or distracting. After a while I ignored them and watched the singers. There were surtitles, which are essential for Wagner. One needs to know exactly what characters are singing in this complex, poetic work.
Musically the performance is as good as one can get nowadays. I grew up on Birgit Nillson's Isolde which was a perfect realization of the role musically and dramatically. No one has equalled or surpassed her. However, Violetta Urmana was the best we have now. She has a rich, lovely voice and enormous vocal power -- a necessity when competing with Wagner's rich, often loud orchestration. One never felt she was straining or forcing. The Liebestod was ravishing. Tristan is almost an impossible role vocally. When I first went to performances of the opera, much of Tristan's third act -- almost solo for forty-five minutes -- was cut because no one could sing it. Gary Lehman came as close as anyone has in the past generation. His third act -- uncut -- was as intense as it needs to be as Tristan, in delirium, sings of his longing for Isolde and for death. His is not a conventionally lovely voice, but at least he doesn't make the ugly, strained sounds one hears from most tenors essaying this role. The supporting cast, particularly Anne Sophie von Otter as Isolde's devoted lady in waiting, Brangane, and Matthew Best as the deeply hurt King Marke, father figure for Tristan and betrothed of Isolde, laments his betrayal by his dearest friend.
The Philharmonia Orchestra played magnificently for Esa Pekka Salonen whose account of the score after a too slow beginning was thrilling.
There was a much-deserved rapturous standing ovation at the end, more for what happened musically than for the five hours of projections of water, candles and homely people stripping. At least this multi-meda event wasn't as silly and obtrusive as some recent Wagner productions, particularly in Wagner's own theater at Bayreuth.
 TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Royal Festival Hall. September 26, 2010.

Friday, 24 September 2010

MAURICE again. Bravo Adam Lilley!

I was happy to return to the Above the Stag Theatre for the encore presentation of their hit from last season, a dramatic adaptation of E.M. Forster's MAURICE (my earlier review is somewhere on this blog).
The script has been tightened since the last run with a good ten minutes cut, which is all to the good. Poor Risley now has so little to do he should probably be cut altogether. The play now starts with Maurice at the hypnotist to be cured of his homosexuality, then flashes back to earlier scenes. This device isn't used consistently, but does give the long, episodic first act more shape. Since the crux of the play is Maurice's two relationships, first with the aristocratic Clyde Durham, then with the gamekeeper Alec Scudder, the cuts make the focus clearer. There is one crucial moment left out of the adaptation in its current form -- Clyde's insistence that his and Maurice's love be spiritual but not physical. Otherwise, this is a solid adaptation that gives us the most important and dramatic moments in the gay classic novel.
The production works as well as it does because of the performance of Adam Lilley in the title role. In some ways, he's not right for Maurice. He's too old, too smart and not convincingly a guy who loves rugby and wins boxing matches with inner city boys. Maurice can be happy with Alec at the end because he lives for his body, not his brain. He's not smart and, as he admits, always in a muddle. Nonetheless, Lilley's performance is so effective at expressing the turmoil inside Maurice, so clear in his specific reactions to other characters and situations that one believes he is Maurice Hall. This was a brilliant piece of casting and a triumph for an actor in his professional debut. Lilley is rarely off stage for the two and a half hours of the play and one wants to watch his face constantly for the quicksilver changes of expression. I hope Lilley gets a lot of work out of this.
The rest of the cast is variable. Steve Raine is fine as Alec Scudder, if also too old. He captures that difficult combination of fierce pride and trained subservience that Scudder displays when hurt by Maurice. Rob Stott is still too one-note as Clive. I never see what Maurice sees in him. The rest of the cast is good, except for the hypnotist, who is still playing his part as if he were in a nineteen-thirties horror film.
Forster's novel, MAURICE, was finally published just as I was deciding to live my life as a gay man. It's a lovely work and one of personal importance. I loved the Merchant Ivory film. The play justifies itself as a valid translation of a classic into another medium, particularly with Adam Lilley's performance.
MAURICE, by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham, from the novel by E.M. Forster. Directed by Tim McArthur. Above the Stag Theatre. September 23, 2010.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

FAUST at the ENO

Charles Gounod's operatic version of Goethe's FAUST is far from a faithful adaptation of that grand epic (Berlioz comes a bit closer). The Germans used to call it MARGUERITE to separate it from the original as it only focuses on one episode of Goethe's work. Not only is the focus on Marguerite -- the Gounod becomes a very Christian parable of damnation and salvation that ends with the heroine's entrance through the pearly gates after Faust has been dragged to hell. I remember the first production of FAUST I ever saw back in the 1950s with a vision of the gates of heaven opening as the chorus celebrates Marguerite's redemption (the production was by the now legendary Peter Brook). Frank Corsaro's famous prodction for the New York City Opera in the seventies had a more ironic ending -- a mad Marguerite going to her execution as the chorus sang. Corsaro was one of the first American exponents of director's opera in which a director's conception became paramount. In an age with few great divas and divos (most of whom would have cared less about a director's conception), conductors and directors are the stars.  It isn't that there aren't good singers about -- but there aren't the record companies to promote them as they promoted Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo. So now we often watch exercises in directoral self indulgence. Most of the examples of director's opera I have seen in London recently have been infuriating (Christof Loy's totally undramatic, minimalist LULU at the Royal Opera, Katie Mitchell's IDOMENEO at the English National Opera, Rupert Goold's TURANDOT at the ENO). And the look of many recent productions is simply ugly and doesn't provide a visual counterpart to the lovely music we are hearing.
There are times, as with Anthony Minghella's MADAMA BUTTERFLY in which a director creates an original, but perfectly appropriate visual production that serves the music which is, after all, the most important thing.
The MET and the ENO have brought in stage director Des McAnuff to direct a new FAUST. The ENO bills McAnuff as the director of JERSEY BOYS, but he is more than that -- a veteran director who can do the classics as well as jukebox musicals. McAnuff's idea is that FAUST isn't about salvation or damnation, but about mortality. At the end of the garden scene, the devil looks at a giant image of death who has stalked onto the stage. If anything, that image should have been more present throughout the evening. The final image we have is not of Faust being dragged off to hell or Marguerite going through the pearly gates, but Faust dying on the floor of his laboratory as if all we have seen has been a dream, as if death must be the end and nothing follows (Marguerite climbs a staircase that looks like it is part of the laboratory). Now I may believe that death is the end, but that sure isn't what the heavenly chorus has just sung. But this chorus has been Faust's lab-coated assistants in the bomb making factory where he researches means of destruction. He dreams the entire opera and elements of the laboratory and its staff are always on stage. For the most part, this works. The set isn't pretty to look at, even though Gounod's music is always pretty (for some this is a derogatory word, but there's nothing wrong with pretty music). The lighting is constantly changing and extremely effective. For the most part, I liked the production, though I thought some ideas (Death) were undeveloped and details were more important than developing character. Maybe all this will be worked out better by the time this production gets to the MET next season.
FAUST is an opera of great tunes and the real issue is the music. I have never heard the opera so beautifully conducted (Edward Gardner) or played and the ENO chorus was wonderful, as always. Toby Spence is an ideal Faust. Of course, he looks the part and can act. More important, he has a beautiful voice that seems to be getting bigger without losing its distinctive timbre and he sings the music beautifully. Melody Moore is good as Marguerite. She's not much of an actress, but uses her sweet lyric voice well. Last night Iain Paterson had a chest infection so his low notes were sometimes barely there, but everything else was fine.  The supporting cast was consistently good. This is probably a far better cast than the current MET casting office has found for their mounting of this production next season (please, not the ubiquitous Marcello Giordani!). Being the ENO, the opera was sung in a clunky English translation. Is opera in English drawing folks in or keeping them away? I think the latter.
What was most shocking was the small audience. FAUST used to be extremely popular. The MET in the good old days could fill the house with non-famous singers in FAUST. Now it seems to be out of fashion and even a production by the director of JERSEY BOYS doesn't bring in an audience. People will flock to Andrew Lloyd Webber's pallid imitations of this kind of music but don't go to the real thing. I'll take FAUST over PHANTOM any day.
FAUST. Music by Charles Gounod. Conducted by Edward Gardner. Directed by Des McAnuff. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lighting by Peter Mumford. With Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson and Benedict Nelson. English National Opera, September 21, 2010.    

Monday, 20 September 2010


Arthur Wing Pinero was one of the most successful pre World War I British dramatists. He lived until 1934, but the work for which he is best known was written beween 1890 and 1910. Like many of his contemporaries, he has been forgotten by all but British theater historians. There is an occasional revival of his delightful backstage comedy TRELAWNY OF THE WELLS, but all else has been dismissed as weak material, not worthy to stand with George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Actually, Pinero was one of many fine dramatists of the period (Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, J.M. Barrie, Somerset Maugham). The Orange Tree Theatre's revival of his 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT, like the recent Finborough production of THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, demands a serious reappraisal of Pinero's work.
Pinero was something of an outsider to British society (a Jew who rejected a middle-class career to become an actor, then a playwright), THE THUNDERBOLT takes a close look at provincial life that celebrates the characters who go against the grain. At the beginning we see a prominent Midlands family waiting for the settlement of a brother's estate. Given that no will can be found, the family members are too eagerly awaiting their share of a large fortune. One brother is a building contractor, another owner of the town's conservative newpaper. Their sister sees herself as a prominent member of London society (not likely) as she has married a poor aristocrat. The older members and their haught spouses look down on their younger brother who has become a musician and has married a grocer's daughter whom they despise. The dead brother would have nothing to do with his family until his last days. Though we never see him, we can't help but think he must have been nicer than the lot we see. The family is delighted that no will has been found since that means they will share his sizeable estate. However, they discover that he had an illegitimate daughter who has been summoned from her art studies in Paris. She is more upset at not being recognized by the father she loved than in losing his fortune.
The family discovers that there was a will that named the daughter as sole heir but that the wife they despise has stolen and destroyed it. It is typical of Pinero that the real power is wielded by women -- by the wife who destroys the will and by the rightful heiress who negotiates a just compromise.
THE THUNDERBOLT is a strange but absorbing mixture of comedy and domestic melodrama. There may be too much legal discussion and the wife's tearful confession goes on too long for contemporary audiences, but the play works. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is lively.
The Orange Tree is a 150 seat theatre-in-the-round in Richmond, a lovely London suburb, that alternates revivals of forgotten plays with new work. The level of acting is always high. I can't imagine a better cast for THE THUNDERBOLT and Sam Waters' direction was lively. He made sure that we saw characters, not caricatures. This production did the first thing a revival of a forgotten play must do which is prove that the play is worth reviving.
THE THUNDERBOLT by Arthur Wing Pinero. Directed by Sam Waters. Orange Tree Theatre. September 17, 2010.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


DESIGN FOR LIVING was first performed in New York in the early 1930s -- it would never have passed the censors in England. Noel Coward wrote it for him and his friends, the American husband-wife duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Coward's homosexuality was an open secret, though he was careful not to make it public, and Lunt and Fontanne had a kind of open marriage. Both had male lovers though the public saw them as an inseparable, blissfully married couple. In many ways they were. DESIGN FOR LIVING was sailing close to the wind for all three. Here is a play about two men and a woman who can't live without each other. In a more innocent time, it was possible to see the play as being about two men in love with the same woman, but it is clear from the text that this is the "three sided erotic hotch-potch" stuffy, aptly-named Ernest decries in the last act of the play. As in many Coward plays, the leading characters live a more exciting, unconventional life than the people around them. The same rules do not apply to Coward's witty characters and the voices of conventional morality are mocked pitilessly. In DESIGN FOR LIVING Leo is a fabulously successful playwright (like Coward), Otto a wealthy portrait painter and Gilda an interior decorator. Ernest, the voice of conventional morality, sells art but cannot create it.
DESIGN FOR LIVING is a tricky play to do. It's long and if one does not have the right touch, the central characters can seem smug and a bit preachy about their need to live outside of convetional morality. I have directed the play and know its perils and I have never seen a production that managed to make you care about the trio or to bring out the play's humor. The current revival at the Old Vic works brilliantly. All depends on the three leads and you really believe these three (Andrew Scott, Tom Burke, Lisa Dillon) are madly in love with each other and that they only really work as a trio. One also saw them as distinct characters with their own needs. They made an interesting physical combination. Blonde, lovely Dillon; slim, elfin Scott and leading man handsome Burke. Every scene clicked. Scott is an eccentric, slightly manic actor on stage who played against the stereotype of the louche Coward leading man. His line deliveries are always surprising but he has an impeccable sense of comedy. Burke is a less physical actor with less vocal range, but the two of them played the long drunk scene at the end of the second act like a great comedy team. Angus Wright played the stolid Ernest a little too stolidly at times, but his explosion at the end was just right for his character -- physically awkward and wanting to break something but too in love with his precious possessions to do it.
Fine direction from veteran Anthony Page and gorgeous sets. All in all, a perfect production of this tricky but wonderful play.
DESIGN FOR LIVING by Noel Coward. Directed by Anthony Page, designed by Lez Brotherson. Starring Lisa Dillon, Tom Burke and Andrew Scott. Old Vic Theatre. September 14, 2010.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Last year, one of the more interesting of the short plays about Afghanistan included in the Tricycle's wonderful cycle THE GREAT GAME AFGHANISTAN, was J.T. Rogers' BLOOD AND GIFTS, a short play about the relationship of an American CIA operative and an Afghan warlord during the years of the war against Russian occupation. The American saw his relationship with the warlord as a friendship though that was the American way of trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Ultimately the warlord, once relatively secular, realized that Islamic fundamentalism would be the gavanizing force to taking contorol of the country when the Americans lost interest after the Soviet defeat. By focusing on two characters, Rogers made the play dramatic rather than a staged history lesson.
Now he has expanded a 25 minute play into a two hour and forty-five minute epic with lots of characters. The American is still center stage, but we have long scenes with his Soviet couterpart in Pakistan, the outspoken British operative there, the head of the Pakistani secret service through which Americans are funneling weapons to the Afghan resistance and who have their own Islamist agenda, and American senators and bureaucrats back home in Washington. The subject is fascinating, but this sprawling play is no longer dramatic. It's too long by at least half an hour -- many repetitive scenes could be cut. The many characters tend to be representatives and mouthpieces of countries and points of view rather than people we care about.
Howard Davies is a wonderful director, but the play also suffers from an overblown National Theatre production. Many large scene changes slow down the action. The play would have been better in a much simpler production in the smaller Cottesloe. We wait for wagons to roll on and off and walls to roll in before a scene can start. The play really doesn't demand so much spectacle. Unfortunately the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre does require scenery. The cast is good, but Lloyd Owen, a wonderful actor, suffers the most from not having a character to play. He is onstage almost constantly, but all Rogers has given him is a stolid, emotionally constipated American. Does he believe what he says or is he a total cynic? He wants to avoid another debacle like Iran in 1979, but we don't know enough about him to know why this matters so much. His Russian, Afghan and British counterparts are better drawn as characters.
At the end, the Afghani freedom fighters we wanted to free from the Russians are screaming "Allah Akbar." The point of the play is that American blindness and obsession with the Soviets led to the Islamic Revolution we are now dealing with. The shorter, earlier version made that point in twenty-five minutes. We have a lot more detail now, but no play. J.T. Rogers' last play at the National, THE OVERWHELMING gave us real characters placed in an African mess they didn't understand. It mixed the personal and the policital brilliantly. One misses the personal here.
BLOOD AND GIFTS by J.T. Rogers, directed by Howard Davies. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. September 13, 2010.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


In Lorraine Hansberry's 1950s classic, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the proud matriarch of a Black Chicago family takes the life insurance money left to her and puts a down payment on a house in a suburb, Clybourne Park. This will be the home she has dreamed of for her children and grandson. Enter the one white character in the play, Karl Lindner from the Clybourne Park Citizen's Committee, to try to buy off the Youngers to save the property values in his all white community. At the end, the Youngers decide to move, to follow the American dream of suburban home owning. In the play Hansberry is dramatizing the battles her father fought for equal housing for African-Americans.
Bruce Norris's CLYBOURNE PARK shows us the other side of Hansberry's story. We are in the living room of the home the Youngers want to buy. Everything is packed up as Russ and Bev get ready to move to another suburban home. They are eager to sell their house even at a bargain price because it holds too many horrible memories. Their son, a damaged Korean War, hung himself in the bedroom. Russ has been in a depression ever since and Bev is desperately unhappy. The move may not be the therapy they need. Enter Karl Lindner and his deaf, pregnant wife and a fatuous minister. Karl is eager to stop the sale at any price. Eventually Russ explodes and all the bitterness and anger he has felt since his son's death pours out. The couples' Black maid and her husband are forced to watch this display of racism, grief and fury. No one is happy or happily married.
In Act II, it is the present and a white yuppie couple has bought the now derelict house and wants to tear it down to build a McMansion. "No one is questioning your ethics at all," the Black woman says to the white woman who wants to put up the new house, "What we're questioning is your taste." Could a Black woman say anything more devastating to whites who think they're improving the neighborhood? The Blacks who take great pride in their neighborhood want to stop this too big house from being built. A meeting is held with the buyers, the Black couple (the wife is a descendant of the Youngers), the real estate agent and a lawyer who is a descendant of the Lindners. Eventually racial hostilities build up and an exchange of racist jokes becomes a means of unleashing hostility. All this is both serious and savagely funny.
CLYBOURNE PARK is spot on it its presentation of racism in Obama's America in which denying the President's citizenship is a way of expressing racial hatred. And this production, directed by Royal Court artistic director, Dominic Cooke is perfect. When did British actors get so good at America accents? Twenty years ago they all did an approximation of quasi Bronx accents. Now they all sound middle-American, like High Laurie in HOUSE. Martin Freeman is superb as Lindner and the home buying husband in Act II. He's decent and a bit nebbishy until the hostility spews out. Freeman is a fine comic actor who is now in the spotlight for his Dr. Watson in the clever new tv series, SHERLOCK. Here he really modulates both roles beautifully. Sophie Thompson is deeply moving as the poor wife who has lost her son and finds it impossible to live with her depressed husband. The entire ensemble is excellent.
CLYBOURNE PARK is one of the finest American plays of recent years. Where has it been? I know it was produced by Wooly Mammoth in Washington and Playwrights Horizons in New York, but why hasn't it won major awards?


School shootings are highly uncommon in a civilized coutry like England where citizens are not allowed to carry firearms. Thus the bloodbath at the climax of Simon Stephens's PUNK ROCK is all the more shocking. Stephens, one of Britain's best playwrights, is a chronicler of the madness that lies just under the surface of middle-class life. His plays often tell the story of a seemingly normal person who becomes unhinged, commits an act of violence then, purged, seems quite normal again. MOTORTOWN showed us an Iraq veteran, a seemingly nice guy, who commits a mad, brutal act, then in the next scene seems saner than the people around him.
PUNK ROCK takes place in the library of a high school for bright, middle class kids in Stockport, near Manchester. We meet seven of the best and brightest. In the first scene, William welcomes the new girl at school, Lily. William seems friendly, but his questions and responses seem a bit detached. He's sweet and charming in a slightly geeky way, but there's something wrong. He talks too much, confides more than he should to a stranger. Lily, the new girl, is eager to have an ally though it isn't likely that she will be attracted to eager little William. Instead, she quickly makes a beeline for the best looking boy who also turns out to be the most decent of the lot. The other students who meet in the library are an odd bunch. Bennett is a vicious bully, Tanya obviously has little self worth, Chadwick is a genius with visions of the end of the world. Bits of violence bubble up. Lily burns herself. Bennett bullies Chadwick and Tanya merciessly and no one stops him. The play starts normally enough. These are bright, articulate, self-aware kids but something is wrong with the picture. We watch William's slow, inexorable descent into madness and when he tells Lily not to come to school the next day, we Americans in the audience know what will transpire. After the shooting we see William with the prison psychiatrist. He doesn't understand why he just can't get on with his life as planned, as if his murders don't matter at all.
Stephens isn't interested in writing a problem play (What's wrong with middle class kids? Why do kids kill each other?). He's interested in specific characters living here and now. He doesn't explain their actions -- he just shows us. A former teacher, he has an ear for the way kids talk and assert power over one another.
This is a harrowing play, but an effective one. And what a fine young cast. Rupert Simonian is brilliant at tracing William's unraveling. It's a demanding role. William is barely offstage from the beginning to the end. Everyone else, some making their professional debuts, is equally good. This is an ensemble piece, but the characters don't really connect on any meaningful level. It's a play abut separateness, not relationships. If there are deep sexual or emotional experiences, the highly articulate characters don't want to talk about them.
When this play first appeared last year, the critics all raved. In this return engagement, I can see why.