Archive for June, 2009

Review – Phedre – National Theatre

June 9, 2009

Tonight was my birthday treat to my friend Cate, a trip to the National to see Phedre. I didn’t know much about it (I love it when the first viewing of a show is a complete surprise, though I seemed to remember a bit of the plot) and had mostly purchased tickets on two points: first, that this was the play mentioned by Proust over and over in In Search of Lost Time, and, second, for some reason the National was restricting ticket purchases to four seats per person. Fine, then, it must be something special, or so I reasoned – possibly the fact that Helen Mirrim is playing the lead role. So I got seats long before the show opened – and for a preview performance, natch! (NOTE: It’s been pointed out that I spelled her name wrong. Oops. I’ll correct it for the rest of the review but I feel I need to leave it as stands to support the criticism.)

As we approached the theater, such good luck! Who was on the astroturf sipping a French red but Andrew and Phil of the WestEnd Whingers! Phil attempted to point out what they called “real celebrities” to me (some Dame Shawn somebody and someone from an American sitcom I never watched, details on their review), but it couldn’t distract me from the fact I had two of the funniest guys in London sitting around and shooting the breeze with me. It was really a good start to the show.

After which … well, if you’ve never seen a Greek drama, you should know there is a kind of formula they follow. A proud character announces that he is going to go against the will of the gods, and, once he leaves the stage, a messenger appears and tells you that he’s met a terrible fate pretty much before he reached the wings. It’s rather like working at a start-up web company, really, listening to people talk about how rich they’re going to be or the CEO promising what a success his unresearched product will be once it hits the market “and is properly monetized.” Phedre actually has two ridiculously proud characters (Theseus – Stanley Townsend – and his son Hippolytus – Dominic Cooper), and two characters with heavily conflicting emotions (Phedre and Hippolytus) requiring them to go against the will of the gods. All of the “action” takes place off stage, and there is (as is usual) no intermission (leading to a two hour running time, which meant no pre-show wine with Phil and Andrew).

I think a lot of your ability to enjoy Phedre will depend on how you like this formula. I remembered partway through the show that the last time I saw one of these plays, even the presence of Alan Cumming half naked could not save the evening for me. Consider yourself warned; God knows I found myself wishing I had remembered this earlier.

While there are certain problems with Greek drama in general that afflict this play, Helen Mirren has the disadvantage of representing her incestuous step mother as just too old to be convincing as a person that Hippolytus might ever consider, making all of her mewling utterly unresonant. (A Mrs. Robinson would have actually been a contender as someone with enough juice to make a lusty spring/autumn fling a possibility). Furthermore, even though her character is supposed to be mentally unbalanced, Mirren herself was having a hard time riding the line between hysteria and calculation, especially at the balancing point that would have caused me, as an audience member, to be truly sympathetic to her plight. I didn’t feel sorry for her and she didn’t seem to have a grip on the impossibility of what she wanted even if there were no husband in the way – how could I get involved in her emotions enough for this to resonate as a tragedy? I’m hoping that after the show has a bit of time to settle down she’ll draw back the performance to the right level to pull the audience in, to make them care more about Phedre (and less about “Ooh, it’s Helen Mirren on stage” looking very much like herself). Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Hippolytus is arrogant but almost immediately brought into human scale by his love of Aricia (Ruth Negga, pretty and strong); but his blustering father is utterly unsympathetic as the “I shall curse thee immediately for pissing me off” king. (It’s required for the plot, but when you see someone acting so quickly without thought, you kind of want them smacked down a bit.) That meant of the three leads, only the son was sympathetic, despite initially being a prig. He is truly an innocent in this drama, but is also, I think, the more compelling of the three actors, hitting a good middle ground between GLOOM and DOOM and just being flat. At any rate, I didn’t find him painful, which is hardly an overwhelming thumbs up but, well, it was a bit hard at times to notice him while the people around him were tirading.

Brilliant in the midst of all of these histrionics is Theramene (John Shrapnel), the messenger who comes in to tell of Hippolytus’s death. His outrageous tale of a wave that becomes a sea monster that doesn’t kill Hippolytus but instead leaves him free to be dragged to death by his horses (a tale so drawn out I was sure it was providing cover for Hippolytus to actually get off of the island) reallly came to life, finally providing a sharp moment for all of Ted Hughes’ glorious verbiage (especially alliteration). Sadly it was brought down almost immediately by Theseus, who fell to his knees and said, in stentorian tones worthy of the Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, “My son!” (Later Aricia drags his bleeding, bagged body onto stage for the final scene, and when the curtain open for bows, my comment was, “My, he sure did get out of that bag quickly!” But, you see, we were all in need of some laughs at that point.)

My companions said: “It was painful, but I’m glad I got through it – kind of like a mammogram.”
And: “Phedre – is that Greek for ‘house full of nutters’?”

Afterwards we sat down and actually had some wine, and it was very pleasant. Soon, the experience will fade from all of our minds, though hopefully I’ll remember that I really just don’t enjoy Greek drama and shouldn’t go, no matter how much Proust has written about the play in question.

(This review is for a preview performance seen on June 8th, 2009. Phedre continues at the National through August 27th.)

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Review – Tribute to Diaghilev – “International Stars” and Royal Ballet members at Royal Opera House

June 8, 2009

The Sunday “Tribute to Diaghilev” event at the Royal Opera House seemed a bit of a mystery to me, best summarized as “Flashy Russian Dancers” and “Flashy Russian Ballet!” rather than “Some Particular Company” doing “Any Ballet, Really.” I had no idea what was going to happen. Were there going to be speeches? Was it a way of promoting Russian culture? Was everything going to go Fa Lun Gung and leave me sneaking out the back between sets? I couldn’t tell, but since I love flashy Russian ballet and flashy Russian dancers (and really wanted to flesh out some more of my Diaghilev knowledge – so much that I’ve only ever seen photos of still!), I decided to go ahead and fork out for the rather expensive privilege of attending this show.

God knows why the tickets were so high – not a single set came with the dancers (leaving poor Petrushka fighting to escape from an invisible prison), the orchestra was provided by the Royal Ballet, and based on the pathetic handling of curtain calls (Bow on the stage! No, come in front of the curtain!) and props (I’ve never seen the “Apollo’s Lute” variation of Les Sylphides before) it was clear they hadn’t bothered with a dress rehearsal to work out the kinks beforehand. That left us with the Diaghilev tribute element – thankfully limited to one short burst of film that was maybe 5 minutes long and sloppily narrated – and the dancing, which consisted of gorgeous ones and twos of people doing “K-Tel’s Power Duets and Solos Snippets a la Ballet Russes,” fully costumed, no holds barred and no silly plot to tire them out or get in the way of the dancing. In short, there was lots of great dancing, which was what I came for, but the snippets were so short I found them a bit difficult to digest. On the other hand, wow, dancers just doing the memorable highlights while they’re all fresh, ZOWIE! It was a format I was comletely unused to (since for me a night of shorts usually means no more than 4 ballets, not 15), but once I’d mentally adjusted to it as a taster of ballets I didn’t know performed by people who were going to rock my socks off, I was good.

As for the program, mystery as it was, here it is reproduced to the best of my typing abilities (after the first, assume by Mikhail Fokine unless I say otherwise, * for dancers not in RB, bold for new shows for me):

Scheherazade (by Fokine, danced by Uliana Lopatkina*, Igor Zelensky*), Daphnis and Chloe (by Ashton, danced by Natasha Oughtred, Federico Bonelli), Petrushka (danced by Dmitri Gruzdyev), La Chatte (by Ashton, danced by Alexandra Ansanelli), Giselle (danced by Mathilde Froustey*, Mathias Heyman* – not originally in program), Tamar (by Smoriginas, danced by Irma Nioradze*, Ilya Kuznetsov – ditto), Le Spectre de la Rose (danced by Yevgenia Obraztsova*, Dmitri Gudanov*), interval, Apollo (by Balanchine, danced by Maria Kowroski*, Igor Zelenski*), Les Sylphides (danced by Tamara Rojo, David Makhateli), Le Tricorne (by Myassin, danced by Dmitri Gudanov*), The Firebird (danced by Irma Nioradze*, Ilya Kuznetsov*), Les Biches (by Nijinska, danced by Mara Galeazzi, Bennet Gartside), Swan Lake (by Petipa, danced by Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares), Le Carnaval (danced by Yevgenia Obraztsova*, Andrei Batalov*) and The Dying Swan (danced by Uliana Lopatkina*) Oddly not included was “The Rite of Spring,” a damned shame as I’d like to see how it was originally done.

Of the various short performances, my very favorite was Andrea Ansanelli (retiring? No!) in “La Chatte,” a sweet little bonbon of a dance that was just perfect from start to finish. Wearing a cute (but not face obliterating) mask with white ears and a feathered dress, Ansanelli groomed, preened, stretched, flirted, did impossible things with her legs, clawed the furniture, and pirouetted off after a mouse. I thought it was just lovely – perhaps not the most technically challenging of the night but very memorable.

My second favorite (and winner of the “shows I’d like to see in full” award, though perhaps this is all there is to it) was “Le Spectre de la Rose,” a piece originally choreographed for Nijinski. The costume, a pink half-body leotard with flowers on the shoulders, head, and here and there was both androgynous and very male and just distractingly sexy. I could only imagine Edwardian matrons swooning in their chair at this piece. Who would have thought that this would be the spirit hiding within a rose? (Fortunately I’ll get to see it again when English National Ballet do their own Diaghilev performance at Sadler’s Wells – I can’t wait!)

The third best moment was … well, gosh, not the Russians, and not even Fokine! No, it was hometown company members Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares rocking out with Odile’s duet with Prince Siegfried, in which she confirms her hold over him and her utter triumph over her rival (with a thrusting down of her arms at the very end – it just seems to say, “You’re cursed forever!” in my books). It is a very Russian moment, the bit of the ballet with the thirty-two fouettés en tournant (I didn’t count) that basically provides the unimaginative with a chance to evaluate ballerinas in the same way sopranos would be measured against the Queen of the Night’s high F – not a moment that really determines artistry but something measurable and, for many, memorable. I would imagine in the pure Russian style that this would be a dancer’s whole performance, making this tiny bit so memorable, with but Nunez we had the entire character of Odile there, the entire story accompanying her in a cloud. She was so sharp, so smooth, so seductive … so vicious, and Soares was just so the drugged-out-on-promises-of-sex aristocrat I always see Siegfried as in this scene (I always wind up hating him for being so ignorant and easily led astray) – BRRR there was clearly no need to import talent to this stage. Of course, I had the advantage of knowing this story just a little bit too well. AHEM.

Among the rest, I enjoyed Schehezade (once again, full of sex, perhaps this was how Diaghilev sold ballet to the masses?), with its costumes looking fresh out of a James Bond movie and athletic moves for Igor Zelensky (including a leap with a spin and a back kick – I wonder if it has a name?); Le Tricorne, a sort of Spanish flamenco/bullfighter thing that had Dmitri Gudanov practically leaping from a kneeling position into a high kick, very strong and impressive; and the pretty, pretty Le Carnaval, which had a Neapolitan couple (as I saw it) playing catch with each others hearts, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Andrei Batalov completely inhabiting their characters. My husband loved Ulyana Lopatkina’s Dying Swan, but she had so much elbow on display I couldn’t focus on her dancing (in short, she was so very thin I found it distracting); and Dmitri Gruzdyev was a strong Petrushka, giving me a chance to see the dance I may have ignored before but suffering from a lack of context.

None of the others were horrible, though I found Tamar boring and couldn’t help but laugh at Apollo (it’s the lute, it just looks ridiculous). It was a very good evening and my appetite is whetted for more. Too bad dance always looks so awful on the screen – I’d really like to see these works done in full!

(This show was a one time only performance that took place on Sunday, June 7th, 2009.)

* are people who aren’t in the Royal Ballet – I think. They are listed in the original cast list.

Back from vacation – June theater schedule

June 4, 2009

While I might do a writeup comparing the various aquariums I saw on my trip to other aquariums I’ve been to (and which was the best), or possibly comparing the shows at Marineworld France versus Seaworld Orlando … instead I’m catching up with work.

Theatergoing tends to slow down for me during the summer months – it’s hard to get motivated to go inside a dark theater when there are so many exciting things going on outside. (Not that Company at the Union Theatre wouldn’t get people to crawl out of their deathbeds, but it’s hard to know in advance.) I get in my usual Russian ballet treat in August, but mostly summers are more about hanging out with my friends and going to the coast.

At any rate, for readers of this blog (the five of you), what’s coming up for this month is:
7 June Sunday: Diaghilev tribute at the Royal Opera House (with a motley crew performing it)
8 June Monday: Phedre, National Theatre
9 June Tuesday: England (at the Whitechapel Gallery – site specific performance overcomes my dislike of being inside during the summer)
11 June Thurday: Been So Long at the Young Vic
13 June Saturday: Lulu, Royal Opera House
22 June Monday: Doll’s House at the Donmar
23 June Tuesday: Eonnagata, Sadler’s Wells
30 June Tuesday, the thing I’m most looking forward to: Forbidden Broadway at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Note this joke publicity feature: the National Theater has announced that two plays “from acclaimed Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima” are to be performed in London. Let’s be clear: Mishima is an acclaimed novelist, but the play most recently produced that he authored (Madame De Sade) was uniformly trashed for being, well, a piece of crap, no fault of the performers. I suspect that the producers will seriously regret taking on this project, which only really has value for noveltly. I mean, TS Eliot was a great poet, but even he wasn’t a good playwright.