Archive for December, 2008

Review – Gesthemane – National Theatre

December 2, 2008

Last night by uncle and I took advantage of the 10 pound day seats offer and were squeezed into a performance of David Hare’s new play, Gesthemane. It was quite a challenge to get these days seats, however, as there were already 8 people in line at 8:30 and then another 30 in line when the box office opened an hour later! So I feel my uncle actually worked to get these supposedly cheap tickets, but given that the show is sold out until February, it was the only way to see it at all and both of us were quite interested in checking out the latest by this playwright. (Okay, I admit, I’ve actually never seen anything by him before, but I thought that, given how prolifically he writes and how very many of his shows get produced, there was probably something there worth taking note of.)

The show was billed as being about politics and the “loss of idealism,” but it seemed to be to be a direct blast right at the Labour government that is really hitting the target now that the economy has tanked. “How long can this [incompetence/bullshit] continue?” “As long as the money does,” said two characters, and I had myself quite the laugh in this Last Action Hero – like moment of theatrical prescience. The story is something about a minister (Meredith Guest, played by Tamsin Greig) who is struggling because of the hijinks of her husband (financial) and her teenaged daughter (sexual), along with a parallel story of the party fix-it man, Otto Fallon (played by Stanley Townsend) who fundraises and manages things behind the scenes. In a bid for attention, the daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine, positively brilliant) decides to spill some dirt about Otto to the tabloids, putting her mother’s political career in jeopardy.

While this “story” is of some little interest, the play is more sharply focused on the conflicts between the various characters, many of whom provide Shavian speeches that pepper the ends of scenes. The characters argue about what they value (Minister Guest: more concerned with the party or her family?), who they trust (Prime Minister Beasley: in the pocket of his money man, or focused on his political allies?), and the sanctity of personal life versus fame (journalist Geoff Benzine – he chooses fame and notoriety). As the lights come down, they address us on topics as varied as religion (are political leaders more naturally zealots), keeping state secrets (you must trust that we as politicians are looking out for your best interests – and I do mean trust, blindly!) and proper party fare (my personal favorite – why not to serve neither chicken or salmon sandwiches, ever).

I continually felt during the speeches like I was being addressed by the playwright himself, and, though I mostly found myself agreeing with his points (as also delivered by Nicola Walker as disillusioned school teacher Lori Drysdale), the fact of the matter was that these screeds were already feeling like they were dated by the current economic collapse. They are already talking about the good old days, when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, but at least there were some jobs out there. To be honest, I would have preferred to have seen a play that was a bit less topical and a little more long lasting, something that would be a permanent addition to the canon rather than a flash in the pan only interesting as long as the issues it cares about are current. Suzette’s desperate angling for her mother’s attention? Timeless (and brilliantly acted to boot). Meredith’s fight for her career with her former friend, Beasley? Not as razor sharp as David Frost taking on Nixon, but a good depiction of politicians under pressure nonetheless. (This scene was rather sadly held back by Anthony Calf’s performance – he never looked to me like anything but an actor on stage pretending to be a prime minister.) But this wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the play, which had dramatic tension but not enough drama and certainly not more than two characters that were worth paying attention to. It’s a shame, really, but maybe we’ll get lucky and next time Mr. Hare can get on with a good family feud a la August, Osage County and save the speeches for his personal appearances.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 1st, 2008.)

Review – Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea” (and Sibelius’ “Luonnotar”) – English National Opera at the London Coliseum

December 1, 2008

Today we trucked into town for a matinee performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea.” I will be honest about why I picked this show: it was 1) on a Sunday and sweet fuck all was happening anywhere else (except at the National), and it was 2) short (one hour long!) and 3) cheap (15 quid tickets, hurray!). This meant that no matter how bad it was, the pain was going to be short in duration and the cost wasn’t going to make me bewail my fate as a purchaser of ill priced tickets for an afternoon of doom. Plus it would get me home in time to cook a proper dinner and get to bed at the right time on a Sunday night (which I’ve gone and totally screwed up by staying up late writing this review – ah, the irony!).

Well, actually, I also went because my uncle was visiting – which was the entire reason why I was trying to find something to do on a Sunday at all (after all, I could have gone to see Sweeney Todd at the Union Theatre – but he nixed that), and the fact that it was on a Sunday was why I wanted it to not be a long show. But also, my uncle is a big fan of opera, but usually refuses to see it when he visits me in London, as he feels that between Munich and San Francisco he’s not actually likely to get anything done here that he hasn’t seen done elsewhere better (he does love his German opera). However … this was an English language opera and one that seemed rather unusual. I was right in picking it – my uncle thought it was something he’d likely never get a chance to see again. And, who knows, perhaps he’s even familiar with the composer – I had never heard of him (but I’m not one much for modern opera, so there you have it). Frank was actually pleased about going to see opera with me in London – the first time we’ve done so since I moved here.

The performance opened with Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” as sung by Susan Gritton. The setting was thus: a woman with long hair is standing in a boat stood on end in front of a screen showing water moving, so that it looks like we are overhead, in the sky, watching her floating in the ocean. She sings a song that sounds like a Finnish creation story, about a woman who floats in the sea and raises her knee above the water so a duck can nest on it, then twitches and sends the duck eggs flying everywhere, forming the land and the sky (or so I recall). The singing was plaintive, but the performance suffered again from ENO’s complete inability to let the music tell its own story without silly distractions; in this case, the singer removing her hair veil and letting it drop dramatically to the floor. Please, people, just let the singers do their work, acting when necessary, and otherwise just emoting via song. I liked both the song and the story it told and the imagery of the water – and was pleased that it was done as a fully staged piece rather than just being a recital. And it shifted perfectly into …

Riders from the Sea, which I really knew nothing about other than that it was sung in English. And what is it? It’s an operatic ghost story! I’ve never seen this genre done as opera before and I really enjoyed it. I find the atonality of modern opera generally boring to listen to, but it actually added to the creepy air of what was going on. And the staging was quite good – it took place in a house, as defined by a bright square on the stage (a plane of rock) that sometimes had a projection of the sea on it, which was furnished with very meager possessions – a chair/table (the top lifted to make it a chair), a stool or two, a basket, and a ladder. This space was set at the foot of cliffs, and the edge of the stage was the edge of another cliff, with the space behind at times showing as the sky and at times the sea. It was all grimly appropriate for the three direly poor women whose lives were completely dependent on their men, and who were all ruled over by the weather and the sea.

As the show starts, the sisters are talking about how one of the brothers, the second to last, is lost, presumably drowned, and their mother’s suffering at her son’s death. The dialogue is all what I think of as Irish vernacular, with very unusual speech patterns, i.e. “There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.” (Full text available here, along with lots of background detail to the writing of the original story.) The last brother appears and says goodbye as he prepares to leave to sell two horses at the market in another city, basically a thing he feels vitally necessary given how poor they are. His mother is dead set against him leaving given the state of the wind and the tide, but he goes anyway, his mother then rushing after him (at her daughters’ urging) to undo the ill of sending him off with angry words. And then the fun happens, or, rather, the tale begins to really become creepy, and if you don’t want any spoilers, I will leave you there. It all seemed to go a bit much for the stereotypes of the “superstitious/ignorant Irish,” but these days that all seems like a fairytale itself.

While I didn’t much care for the music of this show, the libretto, singing, and setting could not be faulted. My favorite moment was when the mom (Patricia Bardon) is singing of her grief at losing every man in her life, while overturned boats are lowered from the rafters, looking like tombstones landing on the stage around her. It really conveyed the loss viscerally and looked great. The one thing that drove me nuts, however, was the cheap plastic bag that the missing brother’s clothes were in. For God’s sake, folks, can we not pretend at least a little that this is happening in a world that existed before plastic bags were used?

Overall, this was a good afternoon and I was pleased with the cost and investment of time. That said, I would really like to see more works by the playwright, J. M. Synge, who wrote the original text upon which the opera was based, far more so than I want to see anything else by Mr. Williams.

(This review is for a matinee performance seen on Sunday, November 30th, 2008.)