Archive for March, 2010

Review – Spring Storm – National Theatre

March 31, 2010

Spring Storm, currently on at the National, was written by Tennessee Williams in college and then apparently forgotten for decades. I’m a big Williams fan and was curious about seeing a play by him I’d never heard of before. As it turns out, it’s a very clear introduction into many of the Williams types: the desperate and lonely; a woman in touch with her sexuality; a man in love with his masculinity; a man not so in touch with his masculinity; the domineering mother. The plot centers around two young men and two young women; both of the men want the prettier of the two women (Heavenly, played by Liz White); both girls fear becoming old maids; all of them have issues with wanting different things than what “society” has chosen for them.

And, other than that, my thought is that this mostly should have stayed as a school exercise, or really only be seen by hard-core Williams fans. The script is both thin and ham-fisted, and the characters mostly cardboardy (an effect highlighted by Jacqueline King as mother Esmerelda, as her farcical acting at the end of the play made me think Widow Twankey was about to make an entrance); the only one who seemed to have emotional depth was the maiden aunt (Joanna Bacon), who could have been a nothing but somehow seemed very reasonably like a woman who had played the cards life had dealt her with grace.

The actors mostly handled the material well; it’s rough being stuck with quoting Strindberg’s philosophy on stage, but in the more physical scenes, like when Heavenly was being encouraged to elope by her muscley, greasy boyfriend Dick Miles (subtle name, eh? -played Michael Thomson), it seemed very realistic, like the kind of scene you might have seen if you stuck your head around the corner at a garden party. Some of the dialogue was good (“Why must you attribute such awful motives to people?” “Because I know them”), but then some horrible clunky moment would come along (rich boy Arthur – Michael Malarkey – grabbing homely girl Hertha’s-Anna Tolputt’s- boobs and going, “This is life!”) and I cringed in my seat. I can forgive the accents wandering all over the South, American, and even the Atlantic Ocean, but I can’t forgive a line like “Every time I touched you would be like dipping my hands in her blood.” Williams was a callow young thing when he wrote this play, and its attraction toward “the obvious” is painful, just as much as the voiceover that opened and closed the scenes by giving a description of the set. I don’t need that any more than I needed to hear Bertha’s scream when Arthur described it in his memory; I can create better in my imagination. While this was an entertaining and educational night, and not horrible by far, unfortunately the play isn’t very good – not exactly “one of those tragic not-quites” (as Arthur describes himself) but nearly, and not worth the 28 quid I shelled out for tickets. You have been warned.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010. It continues through June 12th.)

Advertisements

Review – Swan Lake – Ballet Nacional de Cuba w/Carlos Acosta, London Coliseum

March 31, 2010

Last night was the long-anticipated start of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s run at the Coliseum, an event I’d been waiting for breathlessly since I first saw it mentioned last fall in a Sadler’s Wells program. I’d especially booked to see Carlos Acosta, who was fortunately performing on opening night. The combination was magic (of the box office sort, at least), as the giant barn of a theater was filled to the rafters with wittering ballet fans. How exciting, to see so many people all together to enjoy ballet! The atmosphere was positively electric.

I’d actually not bought the program beforehand (in part because I showed up about two minutes before curtain up), so I didn’t know if we had a 3 or 4 act (answer: 3) or which ending we were going to get (tragic, sad, or inappropriately happy), though I was told in the cast sheet that the curtain would drop at 10 PM (actual: 10:15). The lack of program left me with a few moments of confusion during act one (what was up with the people in the animal masks coming out from behind the screen – and were those ravens or swans with very thin beaks?) and an utter shock at the very end (I was not expecting the ending they chose). However, in most ways, it’s not as if there was going to be a different story up there than Swan Lake: the difference was going to be in the dancing.

And the dancing: so, so very good! One of the things I’ve come to believe about BNC (based on having seen them twice before) is that theirs is a very pure dance tradition, one I think hews closely to the earliest interpretations of these dances. Thus, in these performances for which composers especially made music to be danced to, in BNC we see dancing that hews tightly to the music, where so many of the movements enhanced the music played with them, so that it seemed the dance served the music. I noticed this first during the first act, when the leaps of Yanela Pinera, Amaya Rodriguez and Alejandro Virelles, in their pas de trois, appeared to have organically developed from the efforts of the brass section. Then, in the third act, the fouettes of Odile (Viengsay Valdes, rather adorably credited with this role as if we did not know she was also Odette) seemed, for once, not a prima ballerina foot-twirling death march, but rather a musical illustration of the martial music underneath it. Each dip of her toe matched up with a blare of horns, and, for the first time I ever, I saw this bit of choreography as something to do with Tchaikovsky and not just with showing off technique. So many times I have felt like dances are being done by people counting beats in their head; but with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, it really seems the dancers are listening to the music, and the difference is truly remarkable. It just all feels so very right, this marriage of music and movement, and I found myself getting goosebumps over and over again, seeing this best of ballet scores come to life. It was great.

I also enjoyed the differences in this version from many of the ones I have seen. All of the first act takes place in the court, and the dances seem to be done spontaneously by the staff to cheer up Prince Siegfried (Carlos Acosta). There were additions I’d never expected – a maypole, a jester (who is a big player), a strange bit in which the jester becomes a crossbow, the animal masquerade (mentioned above), and this whole “mystical experience” thing where Siegfried seems to suddenly be struck by the idea of looking for a swan. As it turns out, when he finally meets Odette, he just kind of steps onto the stage from the wings and grabs her from the waist, which is utterly anticlimactic. However, prior to this we have the most glorious dance of the swan corps ever, whom, despite their smallish numbers (twenty, when I think some company brags of having forty or so), utterly mesmerized me with their movements across the stage, forming and reforming shapes just like real birds do in the sky, only instead of just Vs and teardrop shapes we got circles and a gorgeous set of lines with offset dancers in the middle. I … I mean, I’m sure it was just standard stagecraft, but it was just … goosebumps again. Lovely.

Then we were barelling on to Act Three and Siegfried’s betrayal, and of this act I have to say RED AND BLACK ODILE! This isn’t what most people would have noticed, but it was a novel costuming decision, and I’m a bit obsessed with the color combination. And Valdes’ transformation – it made it impossible to see how Siegfried could have possibly mistaken the one for the other, she had so utterly changed her self presentation on stage. Her seduction of Siegfried seemed ever so much more cold and calculating than in other versions of this show, though, truth be told, the vision of Odette that appeared behind the scrim was so poorly lit that it almost seemed a metaphor for Siegfried’s poor memory. The ending, well, just in case you like surprises, I’ll say a bit of it was clunky and horrid and some of it was magical. Odette’s inability to resist Von Rothbart seemed like it was physically manifested, though, and Valdes did some powerful dancing in this act – but what can I say, being evil always makes a performer more interesting, and it was her Odile I loved best.

Costumes have been a bit of a problem with BNC for me before, because, though the dance preserves well over time, the costumes go stale. I enjoyed them, though – the court was very medieval a la Disney’s Cinderella meets traditional Russian clothing, and the costumes for the dancers in act three were great. Best was the third act’s black and white theme for the jester and the prince, which showed clearly the tug between Odette and Odile that was to come. Foreshadowing via costuming: nice! And the sets were simple but servicable, Gothic and eerie and easy to pack into a shipping container.

At the end of the night, we were treated to the Grande Dame herself, Alicia Alonso, coming on stage to take a bow besides the dance company that she has made, and a dancer that she helped create – Carlos Acosta. She really is a treasure and I feel lucky to have actually seen her, especially since I felt she was wholly responsible for the wonderful evening I’d just had. Who’d think in a world in which there is so much bad dance that one night could be so magical? Even though last night was sold out, there are seats available for £35 for the non-Carlos nights – and, dammit, it’s impossible for me to go back. But I really and truly wish I could. At least I’ve got their Magia de la Danza program to look forward to after Easter, and may I suggest you book for that, too, using the same £35 deal to get lovely stalls seats.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 20th, 2010. Ballet Nacional de Cuba continues with Swan Lake through Sunday April 4th; their residency at the London Coliseum continues through Sunday April 11th. Don’t miss it. Really. No matter what Ismene Brown says.)

Review – Cole Porter’s “Paris” – Lost Musicals, Sadlers Wells

March 29, 2010

Lost Musicals is a series that celebrates forgotten members of the Golden Age American Musicals. Back in the day, new musicals opened a lot more frequently than they do now, rather in the way these days we have a never-ending series of movies rotating in and out of the local cinema. So any given composer would be very likely to have created a stash of shows that met with differing levels of success; only a very few have carried their popularity forward.

This slow fade into obscurity seems especially sapping for the 20s; aside from Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie, they seem to have all vanished. Fortunately, one student poking around the archives of a California college managed to dig up the score and book for “Paris” (or so I recall from the pre-show discussion) and thus we are graced with an opportunity to hear fresh work by America’s wittiest composer, Cole Porter, as well as see “Let’s Do It” and “Let’s Misbehave” in their original setting*.

Now, the plot is just a bit of fluff, exactly of the sort mocked in “The Drowsy Chaperone;” American mother goes to Paris to convince roue’ son to abandon his utterly unsuitable actress fiancee; fiancee’s leading man gives said teetotaller mother her first sip of brandy; comedy ensues. It only needed a monkey to round it out. I laughed at its ridiculousness (it just kept piling it on), but another audience member couldn’t stand it. Oh well, horses for courses; I could only assume he wanted Sondheim, or, God forbid, Webber.

Perhaps he didn’t like the setting. My friend expected a movie; perhaps this man expected a fully staged show. I thought we were just going to get singing. In fact, Lost Musicals has the entire show performed, with the actors, in concert performance clothes, reading out of scripts. It’s kind of similar to how Brown Derby does their restaging of old movies in Seattle (but without the heavy sense of irony). I was actually surprised by how much acting was going on: Mom (Anne Reid) was definitely staggering around the stage when drunk, the butler (Stewart Permutt) was going to a lot of trouble to mime moving statues around actress Vivienne’s flat, and son Andrew (Richard Dempsey) looked in love when appropriate and then put out later. Poor Vivienne (Sian Reeves) even had to do a dance number. She, however, was decked out in 20s glam, with gold lame, a head-dress, and flapper-cut skirt – really outstanding given that everyone else was in their blacks, but, of course, perfect for the role.

The singing was uniformly very good. Mom Sabbot sounded matronly, son Andrew Sabbot looked (and sounded) like the callow youth he was (and transformed nicely over the course of the show); Guy Pennel (James Vaughn) may have been a bit old for the role but was enchanting as a French actor slash gigolo. Brenda Kaley (Clare Foster), who seemed to have been brought along by mom from Massachusetts just for the ride, had a great moment where she cut loose that reminded me a lot of Hairspray.

I bought the plot, I enjoyed the performance, I was unbothered by the lack of set, I loved the witty dialogue, I was thrilled to hear this music performed live. In fact, I liked it so much that at the interval I sat down and planned when I was going to see the next two shows in this year’s series. Forget trying to watch silent movies in a cinema; seeing live productions of musicals that have fallen out of favor is much, much more difficult. I will absolutely be going for the rest of the season, and, musical theater geek that I am, I think I’ve just been converted for life.

*I think, anyway. Don’t quote me on this; I wasn’t taking notes when the show was being introduced, but since it’s supposed to be a “faithful presentation of the original work,” I think this means this is the play in which these songs first appeared. Here’s the complete list of songs, which differs from what’s on Wikipedia:
Act 1: Vivienne, The Land of Going to Be. Act 2: Let’s Do it, The Heaven Hop (which reminded me of the song “Toledo Surprise” from Drowsy Chaperone), Don’t Look At Me That Way, Let’s Misbehave. Act 3: Two Little Babes in the Wood, The Land of Going to Be, Finalture.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 28th, at 2 PM. It continues on Sundays through April 25th at Sadler’s Wells; be advised Easter Sunday is sold out but there were probably 10 returns the day I went so it is probably not too difficult to pick some up on the day if you’re motivated. Running time is about 2 1/2 hours. Note that tea and snacks are very cheap in the Peacock, just 2.50 for tea and a muffin, so I advise you place your interval order in advance so you can take advantage of these great prices and have a nice natter.)

Review – La Fille Mal Gardee – Royal Ballet

March 28, 2010

While I love modern ballets, there is definitely a soft spot in my heart for the classics, especially the big standards like Giselle and Swan Lake. Who couldn’t love their great stories and wonderful dancing? It was with them in my mind that I approached La Fille Mal Gardee, which, as it turns out, is a classic, one that even precedes Petipa, going all the way back to 1789 and substantially reworked by Frederic Ashton (though many others had their hands on it in the intervening years). I was a little terrified by some reviews I’d read, that made it all just to be a bit too cute, and I was cringing just a bit as I sat down at the Royal Opera House on Friday night. Was it going to celebrate the more revolting aspects of ballet, the tutu-loving tweeness that makes me think of little girls dancing in their bedroom at the expense of producing good dance? Was I going to run screaming into the night?

It turns out I need not have worried. While there may have been a bit too much wuv in the just slightly-starcrossed lovers Colas (Johnathan Kobborg) and Lise (Alina Cojocaru), Ashton managed to stay just this side of treacle and delivered a really good evening’s entertainment. The story is clear-cut and required almost no mime-reading skills to interpret; Colas wants to marry Lise, but her mother has engaged her to Alain, the son of the local rich man and a clear candidate for village idiot. We of course get to laugh at gangly Maman (Will Tuckett) and her hopeless attempts to keep Colas and Lise apart (which at one point leads to a clog dance, TOO funny), and the affianced’s ridiculous attempts to make a good impression on Lise are also the source of humor. But there’s only one question to be asked in all this: will Colas and Lise get together? Well, as this is a comedy (and I can’t remember seeing any other comic story ballet besides Coppeliaa so let me tell you it was welcomed), there was only one way it could end; happily ever after.

There are probably three things that come to mind when discussing Fille: there is the live pony (pulling a cart, cue little girls squeeing); there are chickens dancing on stage (several times, hysterical and much less nauseating than in the Beatrix Potter ballet); and ribbon dances. When I read in the notes that XX was going to leave a love-knot tied for Colas on the stage, I had no idea that it was leading into a major dance theme for this show, and there were ribbons everywhere, really, almost all due to Ashton. I adored the way Alina and Kobborg played with the ribbons; they tied each other up, tangled them behind each other’s heads to force kisses, used it to spin Alina like a top, harnessed Kobborg like a pony – it really just went on and on. But I found the trope inventive and fun. Maybe it’s been done elsewhere, but it was so elaborate and perfectly executed that I really enjoyed it. In fact, it felt genre-setting, like the flower garden sequence in Le Corsaire, and yet unburdened by stiffness. Then the theme carried on in the second act, in which the village girls made pretty designs in the background while Colas and Lise danced away – it was all just really yummy and top-of-form choreography that could have really fallen limp if designed less confidently or danced with less skill.

In the end, I’d describe La Fille as a raspberry meringue – pink and fluffy and not really much of substance but still a treat. Like Proust says, pink does always taste better than other flavors, and it suited La Fille to a T – lighthearted, fun, and full of joyous dancing – the perfect antidote for a blustery spring day. Catch it while you can!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 26th, 2010. It continues through April 28th. For more reviews, please see the Ballet.co.uk Royal Ballet listings. I bow to the superiority of Clement Crisp’s review, though. The man is god.)

Review – MacMillan Triple Bill (Concerto, Judas Tree, Elite Syncopations) – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

March 26, 2010

Kenneth MacMillan and Frederic Ashton have been the two mystery choreographers of England whose style I was in complete ignorance of before moving here nearly four years ago. Thanks to Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was well versed in the work of Balanchine (and had come to expect nothing but top-notch performances of same), as well as Jerome Robbins and a wonderful assortment of modern choreographers. But the English style was a mystery to me, and when I moved here, I was surprised to see that these two men had a veritable library of ballets created of which I had seen not one. This was a gap in my balletic knowledge.

I have to say, I have not warmed up to this choreography. I saw Manon in 2005 or so (on a trip – can’t find the date anywhere so that’s when I think it was) and found it rambling, brutal, and generally unappealing, my only positive memories being a pas de trois with some truly amazing manipulation of the lead ballerina by the two men partnering her. And Mayerling, which I saw this fall despite suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it, was a grind. But, still, I feel that I should be able, if not to enjoy Ashton’s depressing full-length ballets, to at least be able to identify his style. Nobody gets that much work in the dance world unless they have real talent, and, in this case, I fully believe that my inability to enthuse indicated a gap in my understanding. Not liking depressing full-length dance evenings, well, that makes sense to me, but I do really want to understand MacMillan’s style. And, well, I love triple bills and the opportunity they give you to see a wide variety of dance in one evening. I’d also scored some £6 amphitheater seats, so come 7:30 last night, my thought was, bring it on!

First up was “Concerto,” a piece from 1966, was an abstract ballet, with sunny orange, yellow, and red costumes. Sadly, it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. Yuhui Choe and Steve McRae looked really good and moved together nicely, but I found Hikaru Kobayashi’s forward-propelled leaps more memorable. The problem was that with “The Judas Tree” nipping on its heels and a high-powered, brilliantly costumed suite of dances to ragtime music at the end of the night, “Concerto” was just overwhelmed.

“The Judas Tree” was billed as “controversial,” and I suppose a ballet in which a dancer is raped would probably generate a lot of talk. However, I found it more ridiculous that she was forced to stand there holding her hand over her crotch afterwards as if we hadn’t understood what had happened, and that the person who’d set her up for this (in the context of the story, “The Foreman”) was so indifferent. I would expect either sympathy or brutality but instead the choreography showed cluelessness – just not a realistic response. I found the piece just painfully belabored and overdone, lacking in subtlety and clarity. “The Woman” (Leanne Benjamin), she’s a madonna (“look, she’s got a cape on”), she’s a whore (“ooh, she’s flirting with a lot of the men”), but really, all she was with her costume on was a ballerina. She didn’t look like a hooker brought in from off the streets, and if she was supposed to be The Foreman’s girlfriend, she should have been wearing something a little bit more street (hot pants and a tube top would have been perfect). This would have really cranked up the emotional drama but as it was I was unable to connect. Carlos Acosta did some nice leaps in the beginning (when he wasn’t the center of attention), Edward Watson acted his shoes off (the man is great), and it was interesting to watch Leanne “walking” on all of the construction workers hands, but the end, with murder, a suicide, and Leanne shaken to death, just didn’t work. I think part of this was because she had already appeared to have been killed once. My vote for this ballet: incoherent. A shame really, as it seemed to have so much potential with its great set and fab male cast, but it just didn’t hit it. I could about imagine going back to watch what was happening with the rest of the crew when Leanne was swanning around in the front of the stage, but it won’t take the taste of “opportunity missed” out of my mouth. The audience did not receive this piece well and I don’t think it could solely be blamed on the darkness of its ending.

Much like a child getting a lollipop after a trip to the dentist, we, the audience, were treated to “Elite Syncopations” after the hard work of “The Judas Tree.” My reaction to it was, of course, totally contaminated by my desire to have a good time, but I’ll pretend that wasn’t the case. I thought “Elite Syncopation” was great, right up there with “Les Patineurs” as a fab, fun ensemble piece, but even better because it had wonderful music (I love ragtime), amazing costumes (I couldn’t focus properly on the dancing because of them) and lighthearted, lovely dancing that put more recent attempts at the “dancers in a ballroom” to shame (sorry, Northern Ballet). I loved the references to the dances of the era, I thought Steve McRae was fab as a twinkle-toed high-flyer, I found the Hot House rag with the four man a treat – it was just lovely. And the whole time, at the back of the stage, a similarly manic-costumed band was burning it up. I can only imagine wanting to see this over and over again, just to get swept up in the magic.

So – a mixed bill, a mixed bag, and at the end I didn’t feel any closer to understanding what makes Kenneth MacMillans “style” anymore than I did before (other than a tendency to do complex partnerings with women). That said, it was a good night and good programming, and I’ll keep working at getting Mr. MacMillan worked out since there’s no shortage of his work to be seen now that I’m over here.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 24th, 2010. The MacMillan Triple Bill continues through April 15th, 2010.)

Screaming deal – Ballet Nacional de Cuba London 2010 visit best seats for £35

March 26, 2010

The Metro has got a screaming deal for Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 2010 visit to the London Coliseum. For the Friday-Sunday April 2-4 shows of Swan Lake and for the Magica de la Danza program on Fri-Sunday April 9-11, best in the house tickets are £35. Call 0871 911 0200 and ask for the “Celebrate” offer by 29th March to book. If you bought tickets before this, you can’t return them. Boo hoo.

Review – White Guard – National Theater

March 23, 2010

Oh lord. Must I write up a review for this? White Guard was perfectly acted (mostly) and had impeccable set dressings. But it was just all SO BORING. Okay, well, it wasn’t that boring to most of the people there – somehow in a play mostly about civil war (and how damned uncivil it was) there was plenty of room for laughs – the butler helping dress a man escaping from a palace, a young man falling impossibly in love, a room full of people getting drunk and throwing up – yes, there were lots of comedic moments.

And, well, the setting, the bombs exploding were very realistic, and the bunker in which Petlyura’s forces hide is very realistic. But all of this dinner conversation about who is going to rule the country – I didn’t care for it or for the singing! (Actually the singing was very good. But it didn’t make me like the play.) The one woman in the play – Elena Vasilievna Turbin (Justine Mitchell) – is dressed beautifully. But … every time I see a Russian play, I feel like they spend all of their time arguing and none of their time doing anything. Alexei Vasilievich Turbin (Daniel Flynn) almost turned that upside down by DOING something, but everyone else managed to gang up and screw up his big moment.

I can blame some of this on the script, but somehow I feel like this problem of perfect, dry shows is more of a problem of the National. Really, if they’re going to stick to this perfectly realistic style, so perfect for sixth formers trying to get a little bit of culture in, can they please choose scripts like The Voysey Inheritance or Major Barbara, where there is at least some real moral quandaries being discussed on stage? I should have gone to see 4.48 Psychosis at the Barbican instead. I have no idea what the West End Whingers really saw in this show, but, for God’s sake, if you’re not a fan of Russian drama or a National Theater completist, please just go next door and watch London Assurance, which is so much better I can hardly believe I saw them both in the same building. Well, okay, it’s not that much better, but it’s excellent and this play is just flat. I presume the critics are in general going to cream themselves because White Guard is so very much in that realistic English style they seem to eat up, but as for me, I’d have rather spent the evening re-reading Master and Margarita.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010. White Guard continues at the National Theater through June 15th, 2010. Seriously, these were the people in the pretty house that An Inspector Calls was taking to task,and I just felt no sympathy for them as they sat there drinking and singing while people were fighting in the streets. I can’t believe they weren’t all shot at the end of the play. Actually, after reading John Morrison’s review, I’m convinced that it’s the so-called translator who needs to be shot.)

2010 Olivier Awards – did they deserve it?

March 22, 2010

Reviewing the final list of winners for the 2010 Olivier awards, I had to ask myself: did they deserve it? Aside from Spring Awakening, I did manage to see pretty much every show that got a nod (well, a major nod – Hello Dolly also slipped through my fingers due to being staged outdoors). So, first, a look at the shows that won minor awards (each linked to my original review).

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT – THE MUSICAL: Best Costume Design I have continued to be mystified by the popularity of this thin on the ground musical. But one thing I wouldn’t deny: it’s got great costumes. In fact, that was about the only think I really liked about the show.

The Brandstrup-Rojo project’s GOLDBERG: Best New Dance Production I disagree with this. The production was nice but the output sterile. I’m sure there was something better out there that was overlooked. Did Birmingham Royal Ballet’s E=MC2 just not count? They did it in London, too …

Royal Court for COCK at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs: Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre Well, this show was my pick for best of the year, so I’d say: yeah, damned right it was an outstanding achievement. Or perhaps “upstanding” would be more appropriate.

So – this leaves the shows that were up for the major awards. Only one thing surprised me: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: Best Revival I thought this cat was a dog. Did the performances improve tremendously after the time I saw it? I sure hope so.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that JERUSALEM deserved its best actor award for Mark Rylance (though I don’t think it really hit Best Set Design – was the competition slim, or did the live chicken make the difference?). I, however, just never really “got” this play, much as I wasn’t able to quite buy Rachel Weisz (Best Actress, A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse) as Blanche DuBois. Not that she was bad, mind you, but Ruth Wilson (Best Actress in a Supporting Role, same show) inhabited her role with seamless perfection.

So we’re left with the top new play of the year. I actively go see new plays, so this is a category that matters to me. And Enron (Best Director: Rupert Goold), well, it had good direction, but it wasn’t a story for all time. And … I hate to say it … but … Jerusalem … it may be where England is here and now, but it didn’t move me. Me? I’ve been to THE MOUNTAINTOP (Best New Play), and I saw the promised land, a land where artists lose themselves completely in their roles, where I learn more about the world, where I walk out with my skin shivering with excitement. Hats off to you, Katori Hall, for making theatrical magic happen: you really deserved it.

Review – Homage to Nureyev – various dancers at the London Coliseum

March 21, 2010

Ah, the gala. What are they all about? For me, they’re a chance to see dancers I might not ever see performing the peak elements of works I might know – or be completely unfamiliar with. It’s a chance to celebrate teh best of ballet. Or, rather, it celebrates certain aspects of ballet, pushing showy technique over story telling. Despite it’s shortcomings, I’ve been finding galas well worth attending to expand my knowledge of the world of dance.

Tonight’s “Homage to Nureyev” featured a lot of the typical elements – a horde of imported dancers, an audience full of preening plutocrats, a late start, an overly long interval, recorded music (not all, thank goodness), and 32 fouettes (though thankfully no dying swan). It also had an original pieces (“Elegy”) and two male solo pieces (“Adagietto” from La Muette and “A Picture Of” by Patrick de Bana) that I had not seen before.

The quality of the evening was, again typically, mixed. Unfortunately, the Adagietto (or “A man and a chair”) took an opportunity for some really acrobatic dance and turned it into a tortured set of poses and stretches, and “A Picture Of” managed to do even less – an hour later and both are already fading from my memory. Sadly, “Elegy” is memorable due to the Olga Esina being dropped on the floor by Vladimir Shishov. Celebration of Nureyev and Fonteyn? More like a celebration of the need to rehearse before performing.

In retrospect, the thing I enjoyed most about this night was the chance to see two truly outstanding women performing: Uliana Lopatkina (Russkaya and Trois Gnossiennes) and Svetlana Zakharova (Tristan and Isolde). Zakharova was fluid, willowy, with great extentions and … well, she just reminded me of a naiad in a painting by Waterhouse. Lopatkina came on for an amazing solo in Russkaya which actually gave me the giggles as it started with her holding a white hanky that I couldn’t help but think she’d found from “The Moor’s Pavane” (a retelling of Othello). But her footwork – I just don’t know how to describe it. On pointe, she was so in control that it looked to me like she might just have casually done calligraphy with her feet. Then she flung herself into some Russian folk dancing that was lively and energetic and amazing. She came back with a much more modern “Trois Gnossiennes,” which had her displaying beautiful positions, angling her feet in ways that seemed impossible and unnatural. I’m not sure if either of these women are coming back to London any time soon, but I’m going to make an effort to see them.

Unfortunately, due to the late start(s) and then the video, I wasn’t able to stay for the entire show – I’ve seen Afternoon of a Faun twice already this year, and while I was curious to see “Black,” what I wanted to do even more was to get a full night’s sleep for the start of my work week. And so what am I doing? Writing this up instead. Still, I managed to do most of it while I was on the train. Verdict? This one was probably missable, but then, I didn’t stay until the end, so who knows how much better it might have got? Still, I’m glad I went. (Full program here. Info on ENO site here. Their ad is a bit off as it mentions “La Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and Le Corsair” as possible ballets in the show and only Swan Lake was excerpted. Shame!

This review was for a show that took place on Sunday, March 21st, 2010. Other reviews: Zoe Anderson in the Independent, and Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph.)

Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican

March 21, 2010

It’s always a joy to discover you share enthusiasms with other people, especially coworkers. A conversation about dry project details can suddenly come to life when you take a detour to discuss really _important_ things, in my case, The Theater! And it was through such a conversation that I was given a tip to check out Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth, currently playing at the Barbican. I was discussing my plans to see Henry V and Measure for Measure, and my colleague said that Cheek By Jowl was a great company and that I really needed to fit a trip to their Macbeth into my calendar. Well, okay then! It was mostly sold out, but then a few extra seats were added (in front of the rest of the seats – be warned that if you’re in AA your knees will be above your hips), and as the negative reviews came in for The Gods Weep, I had a consultation with my theater posse and we made an executive decision to ditch the four hour long Weepie in favor of a two hour long trip to Key Show By Bard. Because, really, what’s 25 quid lost compared to a night wasted at a bad show?

I am going to assume that this show represented the Cheek By Jowl style: the stage was nearly completely bare, the actors dressed mostly identically in black jackets or t-shirts and jeans (and black Doc Martins), the whole thing redolent of Ye Olde Emptye Stage. The cast created very strong effects through use of their voices and lighting and almost nothing else. At the beginning, our witches were but two, but all the men stood there whispering behind them, creating a forest full of evil. There was music and other non-vocal effects, such as knocking/banging and cymbal ringing, and even a phone going off. In the darkness, it worked together nicely to focus the attention on the story. Full credits for stagecraft here, except that in the incredibly powerful “Banquo comes to dinner” scene, the fact that Macbeth delivers his address to the back of the stage meant that even in the front row I could barely hear a thing he said – and for once it wasn’t the fault of the damned 17 year old school girl behind me taking notes on a crackling handful of lined notebook paper. I just could have killed her.

However, the performances by the leads were lacking somewhat. I realize I’m polluted by Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth three years back, but his acting conveyed to me clearly the character’s movement from hearty and happy to doubtful to corrupt and finally just plain mad; Will Keen started seeming partway over the edge and seemed to lack a grasp of moving toward madness, or even expressing it … well, with any subtlety. (I’ve complained about this before. Madness seems to be a hard thing to act out well; drunk seems to get practiced more and thus performed better.) I also found Lady Macbeth (Anastasia Hille) playing the part through a slimmer range than it deserved, though her final mad scene (“Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him!”) was great; she just seemed too quick to kill in general. Keen certainly worked very hard at his Macbeth, and was a sweating wreck long before the play was over, but to me that just showed that his pacing was off, that he sprinted too soon instead of taking his time and giving it all an arc.

Of course, with a two hour, intermission-free running time, the whole play was a bit of a sprint, and I think, in retrospect, that, despite my general preference for shorter shows, it was this cutting that was the greatest fault of this production. The script is incredibly powerful, but most of the moments I had found most affecting in the past – Macduff’s wife’s scene, Macduff finding out about the death of “his pretty chickens” (which should bring tears to your eyes), the whole ghosty banquet – were rushed through and lost a lot of their emotional impact because of their dilution. Even though the staging was very good, Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth unfortunately tended toward the Reader’s Digest Condensed Shakespeare. For that reason, though I think this was a “good enough” show, I really think it’s missable, fine if you want to get in some Macbeth (and probably far less painful than The Gods Weep) or have a free night, but, well, just basically good and competent, and maybe nice as an example of doing a good production without any props. Just don’t have anything to drink beforehand – two hours straight is still a bit much to not have a chance to run to the toliet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 19th, 2010. This show continues through April 10th. For more information on Cheek by Jowl, please see their website. SansTaste saw things differently. For more reviews of this show, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)