Archive for May, 2012

Mini-review – Einstein on the Beach – Philip Glass Ensemble at the Barbican

May 8, 2012

NOTE: If you are going to see this, I have some advice. 1. Pack water. It is allowed. You may feel too anxious to wait in line to get some when you are outside. 2. Eat beforehand; you can make it for four hours fifteen minutes without a meal. 3. When the curtain goes down and you just have people singing in front of it, this is your good chance to go to the bathroom. 4. Not much happens early in any scene. This is also a good time to pop out, say if you need a bite to eat. 5. Candy etc is not supposed to be allowed but I do really think a bit of sugar helps keep the energy levels up and your bags aren’t confiscated. A bag of M&Ms or Minstrels could really affect your enjoyment of the show. Just don’t crackle! 6. The audience does come and go, so remember to keep your bag or coat between and behind your feet. Be kind and turn your feet aside to help them pass. 7. If you’re coming back in, don’t hesitate with the door open as it’s distracting to the people sitting nearby. Instead, be sure you’ve got the right row before you go in, then just move on through. Also, don’t expect people to stand – the rows at the Barbican are thankfully wide so you can get by without them moving at all, provide they have tucked their bags behind their feet as described.

What, exactly, is Einstein on the Beach? It’s described as an opera with a length (five hours) that makes attendance a bit of a competitive sport. As presented by the Barbican, it’s a show with a price that makes attendance a bragging point (cheapest £35; restricted view £75; almost everything in the stalls £125). With a look at its provenance, it’s a work of historical importance, to an extent because of the innovative collaboration between composer Philip Glass and designer Robert Wilson.

So why would I want to go? In the end, it was because I like the music of Glass. I was also interested in seeing an iconic work – one for the life list, you know (I’d admired the photographs of the production way back in my grad school days). And while the price was really too high, I decided to just bite it and scale down the rest of my show attendance instead.

Einstein on a violin

Three months after I bought those tickets, though, my will to endure evaporated before I even entered the auditorium. I received an email from the Barbican letting me know there was going to be no interval. WHAT MY GOD FIVE HOURS MY TINY BLADDER! My panic was reduced by a note saying that “the audience is invited to enter and exit at liberty during the performance” … but that led to other worries i.e. how lame would it be to have people walking on front of me constantly during the show? And then the line “Food and drink (other than bottled water) will not be permitted in the auditorium” suddenly brought it home: I was looking at a marathon, and it was not looking very fun. The thought of “one for the life list” disappeared into a haze of “aargh” even though I’d deliberately picked a day to go that would leave me an entire day to recover before going back to work. What did I want to do? Chill out. When did I want to do it? Sunday, May 6th, 2012.

What was going to keep me from doing it? The money. £75 was a hearty investment, and, at best, if I returned my ticket I might only be able to get some credit for it which I would probably never be able to spend given the Barbican’s labyrinthine redemption policies. Or I might just lose it all. I decided to suck it up rather than entirely blowing the cashola. The breakdown: show up at 4 PM as planned, then leave in time to actually get a real dinner. Screw staying for five hours, screw taking a twenty minute break so I could get something solid to eat and then return having completely lost the plot: I was just going to leave when I wanted to and feel no pressure at all to “make it to the end.” And, frankly, if I was having an absolutely rotten time, I was just going to leave whenever the heck I felt like it and consider it an exercise in reclaiming my time for myself, given that the money was already gone. (I did hope, however, that I would enjoy the music enough that I would be able to hold on all the way through until my appetite chased me out the door.)

This all sounds just terribly grouchy, but I felt it was fair to let you know what my mindset was before I went into the show, and that I was deliberately planning on leaving before the end. Giving myself an out lifted my spirits and strengthened my resolve to attend at least some of this show; if I was amazed, I could always snarf down a horrible cold sandwich and go back in for the whole thing.


Einstein on the Beach suffers from being called an opera, which gives the viewer all sorts of preconceptions about what they are going to experience: something involving plot, say, or emotion, or maybe even Einstein. I think it would be best to walk in expecting music with visualizations, and not narrative music or even music that causes images to appear in your head. (Apparently it was designed pictorially first, with the music coming afterward.) What with the addition of all sorts of lighting, costuming, and dance, it does ultimately form a “gesamtkunstwerk” – but it isn’t an opera. Leave the mental limitations of opera behind and the baggage loss will free you greatly.

I don’t think, however, it will cause you to enjoy yourself. Both the movement (choreographed by Lucinda Childs) and the music is extremely repetitive: listening to a chorus count, “One two three! One two three!” over and over, I realized I’d never before thought that so much tension could be built around waiting for someone to get to four. In addition to the singing of numbers and note words (i.e. do re mi), there were little nonsense speeches that were repeated until the words became stripped of meaning. They certainly never had anything to do with the action on stage and, I believe, no context; they were just words formed into sentences with a dream logic at best, pronounced as if by a parrot.

That said, the images created on stage were interesting, but the buildup to these images was so extended that my senses were dulled when the “climactic moment” occurred. As I expected, I enjoyed the music and hearing it performed live, but with nothing to really engage my brain (in the way narrative would, and more varied movement might have), I found myself entering into an almost hypnotic state and occasionally taking micronaps.

Was it worth my £75 and the three hours I gave it? I think the answer is yes, in part because of the “group experience” of it all (including dealing with the new experience of people going in and out of the theater – sometimes tripping over my feet – while the music carried on, and the awareness that in the heaving theater everyone was performing a calculus as to when was the ideal time to hit the loo). That said, I didn’t feel particularly sorry about the time that I missed, especially since I didn’t feel like most of the scenes/acts merited more than about five minutes of eyeball time. I also feel better about what I saw/did because of leaving when I did, as it meant I felt I got the most joy possible out of my Bank Holiday Sunday (and didn’t spend the evening dealing with an increasingly miserable empty stomach). As it turns out, the whole thing lasted only another hour and fifteen minutes from my three-hours-in scheduled departure; it’s likely I could have stayed, but I’m not bothered that I didn’t. My husband said he left (at the end) feeling “oddly uplifted:” I can say I shared that feeling, only seventy-five minutes sooner than he did.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, May 5th, 2012. The production continues through May 13th. As a comedy note, I kept trying to say Robert Wilson and accidentally saying Robert Plant: I wonder what an opera designed by him would look like? For an alternate review, please see Gareth James’ comemntary. For a thoughtful analysis of the work as performed in New York, please see Dance Tab‘s Marina Harss.)

How I rate shows

May 5, 2012

You may notice if you read this blog much that I don’t assign star ratings to shows. I was required to for a while when transferring my reviews to Up The West End, a side project of one of the West End Whingers. Mostly, I don’t like to use stars, because for me so much of a show’s “rating” depends on how much I paid for it. Did my seats cost £75, like they did for Mary Poppins and the Bolshoi’s Giselle? Then I am expecting something pretty damned amazing right from the start. But mostly I try to stick to shows where I pay around £15-£20 for my ticket – a requirement when you’re going to see shows four nights a week.

With that cost scale, here’s what my star rating would look like:

5 stars: changes how I feel about theater. I will talk about it for years to come. I might have cried. If it’s sold out, I’d recommend standing outside in the rain for tickets. (Cock, Giselle, Collaborators, Propellor’s Richard II.) This doesn’t happen much.

4 stars: an extremely enjoyable night out, worth more than what I paid for the tickets. I left elated. I would probably go again. (Crazy for You, Jumpy.)

3 stars: fairly standard yet enjoyable fare, done at a high level of professionalism with a good script. I was engaged. (The King’s Speech, Betty Blue Eyes.)

2 stars: if you don’t really have anything better to do, this is probably not a bad choice, but a night at home watching TV might not be too bad as an alternate. Actually, you can probably skip this play, unless you have a compelling reason to go (collecting all plays by this writer, topic you’re interested in, bored and it’s cheap). (Hay Fever, Much Ado About Nothing at the National, Singing in the Rain.)

1 star: I made a mistake buying this ticket. No matter what I paid for it, I thought it might be better to leave during the interval, unless I really had high hopes that something tremendous and unexpected was going to happen in the second (or third) act. I am resentful about staying to see this show. (Woman Killed with Kindness and pretty much anything Katie Mitchell does, Floyd Collins)

0 stars: Suddenly I realized that I have a limited time on this planet and urgently needed to be making the most of the pitiful hours left to me. In some cases, this may mean I have to leap over other people in order to escape the room. Chances of being scarred are high. (Fram, Pierrot Lunaire, 4:48 Psychosis as done by Fourth Monkey.)

I don’t give numbers in my reviews on this blog because it’s all a bit of a finger in the air thing due to the impact on ticket cost on the “value” of a production (as well as the whole question of how long it is). I think, though, it’s obvious from what I write if the show in question is worth seeing or not, or if it’s just forgettable entertainment, or if it’s actually actively vile.

Do you disagree with this approach? To be honest, I do like the West End Whingers’ use of ratings as it makes it easy for me to preserve the surprise for shows I haven’t seen yet by just scrolling down to the number of wine glasses and then buying tickets for it if it’s a 5 glass show and reading the review later (after I’ve written mine). But then, I think they’re too soft and award 3/5 to shows I consider not worth making an effort for. What do you think?

Review – Making Noise Quietly – Donmar Warehouse

May 2, 2012

This year marked a big change at the Donmar, as long-time director Michael Grandage departed to make room for Josie Rourke. This kind of change wouldn’t normally be something I noticed or cared about, only since I moved to London The Donmar has become the theater to attend, both for outstanding productions and great prices. Tickets became hard to get as the Donmar did more and more celebrity casting – Ewan Macgregor one year, Rachel Weisz another – not to mention a whole season at Wyndham’s with big-name movie actors that, more and more, made getting affordable tickets – or any tickets at all – near impossible. Yippee hooray for all of the Oliviers Grandage pulled … but as time wore on I found myself drifting away from the Donmar. What was the point of getting excited about something you could never see? It all seemed to be getting rather formulaic, anyway, gloomy realism with sets that seemed to be getting a lot of reuse (for the shows I did manage to get into), you know, sour grapes mutter mutter.

So now Rourke has taken over and I’ve come back, finding it easier to get tickets and wondering where The Donmar will go. The Recruiting Officer seemed right out of the Grandage hat (if more cheery than usual), but Making Noise Quietly was quite different: a series of short plays, something I hadn’t seen in the last 5 years (though I could have missed it if it did happen). I arrived with my usual lack of preconceptions, and this is what I saw.

First, there is “Being Friends,” a play about two young men, strangers, meeting in the English countryside during World War II. One (Matthew Tennyson) is gay and physically broken; the other (Jordan Dawes) is a conscientious objector (Quaker) and physically quite fine. They talk about their lives while sharing a picnic; at the end, they strip off and sunbathe. The straight boy is flirted at terribly; in return he flirts tentatively with the other young man. In essence, what happens is the wonderful nothingness of them both accepting each other; even the bomb that exploded didn’t really create as much tension as waiting to see if either would make a pass at the other. Ultimately: it’s all a damp squib.

Second is “Lost,” a mini-play about a Naval officer coming to a woman’s house during the Falkland Islands War to tell her of her son’s death (and a few other secrets). There’s a question as to why the dead man was so estranged from his parents that I felt was never really answered (although my companion said if you were familiar with English style social climbing it was all right there in front of you): but I found it a complete mystery and not really emotionally affecting. Two people conspire together to not feel anything. It’s not my idea of a satisfying play.

And, well, there we were at the interval. I was actively bored. Nothing had really happened; no one had had any kind of self-revelation. Should I leave? I was tempted, but we were promised sweet release at 9:30, so I soldiered back on in to get through the last playlet of the night. And I’m glad I did, because the eponymous final play was very fine: a tale of a soldier (Ben Batt) trying to deal with his autistic son (actor unknown) with the help of an elderly German woman (Sara Kestelman). Here we had three strong performances that caused me to lose the distance between myself and the stage: I was no longer watching actors go through a scene, but people struggling with a problem, and each other. Watching Frau Ensslin struggle to get the young boy to respond to her was completely compelling; seeing her struggle with the boy’s violent father was nearly so. I really cared about her success with both of them by the end of the night, and that’s quite an accomplishment given where I was before the interval.

So: a weak night overall, with the best show last. I got my ten quid worth, to be sure, but I can’t really recommend this as a good way to spend two hours. We’ll see how the next show goes; but this, based on the number of tickets still available for it, does not seem to be as well received as its predecessors.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 26th, 2012. It continues through May 26th.)

Review – The King’s Speech – Wyndhams Theatre

May 1, 2012

The last two years have really changed how I decide what shows I want to see. Before, it was a blog post from a trusted source: now, it is far more likely to be a breathless post-show tweet from one of a short list of people I follow and have flagged as simpatico to my tastes.

Or, in this case, it’s a show I might have dismissed as riding on a movie’s coattails, only someone I know off Twitter (actor Adam Lilley) has been writing about it from audition through tour through early closing notices (last week). So The King’s Speech was higher in my sights than it might have been: still, even though it was just around the corner from my new work, I hadn’t been in a rush to see it: then the people running the Twitter account wrote me and asked if I’d like comps to review it. Well, you know, it was clearly time to get off of my chair and go, although I was disturbed by how quickly it was closing. Why the struggle to sell seats? Was it bad? The tour sounded like it had gone well … what was the problem? Did it not hold up against the movie? I had never seen it, so I’d be approaching it from a fresh perspective – with luck, this would work in the show’s favor.

Fresh from my night out, I’m happy to say The King’s Speech is a well acted, enjoyable play that surpassed both of the West End shows I’d seen in the previous week (Hayfever at the Noel Coward and Making Noises Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse) and was well worth taking the time to see. I found myself sucked into the plot and the “what happens next”-ness: it’s set as the Nazis are rising to power and the question of what would happen if Great Britain were ruled by a fascist sympathizer was quite … well, emotional, even though the monarchy is portrayed as having a whole lot less to do with “rule” and more to do with “morale.” But Great Britain (during the time period of this play) is a country that’s about to need a lot of work in the morale zone … and with the war and the Blitz on the horizon, suddenly you, too, want to see that someone who actually cares about the people (and not just about nice clothes and champagne) is holding down the position.

I was also very involved with the struggles between the various personalities. While I learned a lot about the battles within both the cabinet (well, amongst the monarch’s advisors) and within the monarch’s (monarchs’ ?) family, I was utterly absorbed not so much by these historical figures as by the struggles between therapist Lionel Logue (Jonathan Hyde) and patient “Mr Johnson” (a.k.a. the Duke of York and later George VI, Charles Edwards ). Logue was trying to get Mr. Johnson to deal with him as a person, not in the stand-offish way “royals” acted with the plebes and even their own family (as near as I can tell); Mr. Johnson was so caught up in the prison of his role and family (none of which he could discuss in therapy!) that he couldn’t work on the problem that was making his life hell. Logue’s attempts to draw out Bertie (as he’s finally called) were the kind of personal manipulation I love to see on stage: as intense as Frost/Nixon, but done out of care for the individual (rather than a desire to gain power).

I also loved Logue and his wife’s presentation as people who had just moved beyond all of that silly class stuff (thanks to being Australian): when the Duchess of York (“Mrs Johnson,” first name Elizabeth, Emma Fielding) winds up in Mrs. Logue’s kitchen, I could just hear Myrtle (Charlotte Randle) complaining to her husband, “I have never been treated so rudely in my life!” (Although in fact she did not say this, displaying a bit more grace than I thought Elizabeth deserved.) Frankly I was a bit sad at Myrtle’s giving up her dream of going back home; it was the only false note in the night.

I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see this show. It’s a good theatrical presentation, with a compelling narrative and fine acting – with a bonus history lesson for those of us who are a bit weak about what was happening in the UK in the thirties. I can only imagine it’s not selling well because people feel over exposed to the story – but it is a very fine play. Tickets are now easily available in the £20 range, and it absolutely delivers value in that price range. If you’re looking for a good night’s entertainment, don’t hesitate to go as it’s closing May 12th.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 30th, 2012. It closes May 12th.)