Posts Tagged ‘Duchess of Malfi’

Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Old Vic Theatre

May 19, 2012

Why, I wondered, would the Old Vic be hustling Duchess of Malfi tickets on every forum possible, promising two for ones, upgrades, free drinks, and what have you from shortly after the play opened? If you’d been trying to get a ticket for their long and popular run of Noises Off, this was a completely new experience. Previously, The Old Vic couldn’t get you a seat anywhere no matter how much you were willing to pay; but now they … if I was reading it right … they couldn’t seem to find anyone to watch their show at any price. Not very reassuring given that I’d bought the tickets weeks before opening and couldn’t exactly trade them in for something else.

If nothing else I was relieved that my crummy (and expensive) full price second balcony tickets were upgraded to stalls (row O!), so I didn’t have to be bitter about all of the people who had got better seats that me for less. As it turned out, we’d booked in for the closed captioned night, so the audience was full of people signing to each other from across the room. Being able to talk to someone in the first balcony when you were in the stalls without disturbing your neighbors – how neat was that! And there was a REALLY snazzy set on stage that looked like it was pulled straight from an early Renaissance painting made to demonstrate the principles of perspective – three levels of church-looking balconies inside of a stone box (on three sides) – I was reminded of the La Cuba palace in Palermo, inspiration for part of the Decameron.

However, instead of Classic Literature Done Live, what we got was … well, revenge tragedy, which was classic literature, only without any expectation of the characters to become interesting … or really to change at all over the course of the play, except to go mad. The bad people are pointed out at the beginning and stay bad (or get worse). The only character that’s the least bit interesting is the duchess herself, who is trying to have a life of her own in a society where, although a widow, she is still basically chattel.

Unfortunately one person does not an engrossing night make. I was assisted in killing time by the captioning screens, which allowed me to follow the dialogue more closely than I would have managed on my own, and by the incredibly inept person who left their cellphone on during the interval, thus creating a profoundly memorable moment as the Duchess is slowly strangled to the theme song of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s the small things, right? Otherwise, the best thing I can say about the evening (other than the wonderful company I had) was the scene near the end where the Duchess’ commonlaw husband is creeping through the ruins of a cloister, hoping to end the feud between the brothers Malfi and himself. As he speaks of his hopes for reconciliation, the duchess’ ghostly voice repeats back his words in an attempt to warn him off. Let me quote this to you:

ANTONIO: Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.

ECHO: Thou art a dead thing.

I mean SERIOUSLY DO NOT GO INTO THE BASEMENT. But he has to, because is a revenge tragedy, and everyone has to die, and all you can do is just wait it out until the final curtain. But really, that scene with the echo, it was great, but I’ll probably tell more people about that stupid cell phone, because after two and a half hours of BLOOD BLOOD SEX DEATH EVIL MORE DEATH MADNESS SCREAMING a little humor was a thing of beauty, indeed.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 15th, 2012. It continues through June 9th. This may possibly be a perfect production of this play, but I must remember in the future I do not care for the revenge tragedy. Maybe some day I’ll get to see Noises Off, though. I do like a good laugh.)

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Webcowgirl’s Best of London Theater 2010

January 1, 2011

Wow, what a year it has been. After resolving to see less shows in 2010, I wound up seeing more – 143 total versus last year’s 116. What was I thinking? Actually, this year I really upped the number of dance performances I saw (helped, as ever, by Sadler’s Wells’ fine programming), and though, at the end 2009’s 116 shows I was feeling grumpy and ill-treated, 2010’s cornucopia left me feeling exhilarated about all the fun to be had in London, even when you’re on a budget. The dance helped; it also means that my numbers of “shows seen” misses many of the shows my my more prolific show-seeing friends have attended. On the other had, I have more people to see shows with now, and I thought it was a year well wasted, so that’s what counts, right? Anyway, my list is based on what I saw, and not what I should have seen or what all is out there. Of all of the shows I went to, I paid for all but three of them, so there are limits to what I could manage. (Note: I’m waiting for my free tickets to The Children’s Hour as there is no way I can afford decent seat to this show.)

Best play performed entirely in a foreign language: this was almost Shun-Kin, a truly spectacular work of theater in the pared-down (Empty Space) vein I enjoy so much. But in fact, I walked out of the door of Sadler’s Wells babbling and giddy after seeing Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. I mean, come on, fox spirits and slow-motion sword fights! I was so glad that whoever ponied up the money to bring this production here from Japan (the Japan Foundation?) did so; I felt extremely lucky to get to see it. Kabuki rocks!

Most magical theatrical production of the year: When I go to a show, I pray a little prayer (just like Man in Chair) that it will take me away – make me forget I’m in a theater, let me overlook plot holes or cheap sets, just make the magic happen. This is what I hope for and it really only rarely happens. Sasha Regan of the Union Theatre must take baths in the stuff, though, because her threadbare rendition of dusty old Gilbert and Sullivan staple Iolanthe won me over all of five minutes into the show. And this, mind you, was with me sat behind an iron pillar. Take that, National Theater and your wastefully overproduced Men Shall Weep. Less really is so very much more.

Best play of the year: nominees are 11 and 12, London Assurance, All My Sons, One on One Festival, Shunkin. While London Assurance had the advantage of both a top-notch cast and a hysterical script (and was so good I saw it twice, the only show I did this for all year), and would deserve the best “play” of the year, the winner for this is the Battersea Art’s Center’s One on One festival, which was a game-changer for me, a theatrical experience I’ve been talking about ever since. Thank you to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event come together; next year I will try to come as many times as possible – if it happens again.

Most “so close and yet so far” play of the year: an hour into Earthquakes in London, I thought I was seeing the most original theater likely to hit the London stage in 2010. Two hours in, my ass had gone numb, and yet we were barely past the halfway mark. At some point between these two moments I realized I’d just been locked in a room to listen to a three hour long art school lecture on climate change, complete with dancing nannies, bad science fiction, and a fanatical devotion to the pope. Well, the last one wasn’t there, but you know what I mean, and God knows the show had no concept of a sense of humor about its topic. Mike Bartlett proved himself still a most competent playwright later in the year with Contractions, but this show had a lot to answer for, not the least of which was leaving a third of the audience on their feet for way, way too long. Of course, this wouldn’t have mattered nearly enough if it hadn’t also been preachy and dull. Please save me from this kind of self-indulgent, self-righteous clap-trap in the future: and please, let’s get the outstanding production values going for a more worthy show.

Best dance of the year: nominees are Maria Pagés and Company (part of the 2010 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival), the Bolshoi’s Giselle, Bolshoi’s “Russian Seasons” mixed bill (Russian Seasons, Petrushka, Paquita pas de deux, not written up as I was gorging on dance and had no free time), Pointes of View (Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, also didn’t write this show up), and the Royal Ballet’s October Mixed Rep (La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations). This is a hard one because I saw so much great dance this year. Natalia Osipova totally sold me on the Bolshoi and made me willing to play the pauper for the rest of August and September (summer holiday? what summer holiday?) so that I could see her dance as often as possible. Nearly every mixed bill had one weak point, but despite the loathing I felt for “Winter Dreams,” the Royal Ballet’s mixed bill for fall 2010 was so strong I wanted to get right back in line and have another ride. This was impressive given that I’d just seen about five shows by New York City Ballet and found myself yawning. The Bolshoi brought the most exciting program of dance to London that was available this year, but on this one night the Royal Ballet showed its dedication to the past and the future of dance in a way that really, really worked.

Most “I don’t get why people like this so much” play of the year: seriously, why did people think Clybourne Park was so funny? Is racism amusing? The joke passed me by, I’m afraid. Makes me think Scottsboro Boys might go over better in London than it did in the US …

Worst scheduling catastrophe award: initially I thought of this category as my way of venting about The Mikhailovsky Ballet coming to London as the same time as the Bolshoi and then Carlos Acosta squeezing in a week of performances while the Bolshoi was still here but as it turns out, this was only hard on my wallet – eventually I gave in and bought far more tickets than I planned – and proceeded to enjoy myself tremendously. So, at the end of the year, this award actually goes to the Living Structures/Old Vic for the Cart Macabre fuck up, which meant that I was booted out of a show I had tickets to … and then was never able to reschedule in part because they had to cancel all of the last week of their shows. They never said why. I never got to see it. I am resentful.

Biggest barking dog award: there were the shows I walked out of at the interval (Maurice at Above the Stag, A Rat’s Tale at Lyme Regis’ Marine Theatre, the Sellador Dracula at the Greenwich Playhouse, none of which I reviewed), the shows where I would have walked out had there been an interval (Ingredient X at Royal Court, Pieces of Vincent at the Arcola, Headlong Theatre’s Salome, Passion at the Donmar, that misbegotten Nutcracker I saw at the Pentameters Theater), but I guess for true disappointment, you have to be willing to come back – or be kept from leaving – all the while desperately hoping you will get back the value of your ticket. Thus, the nominees are: Paradise Found, Carlos Acosta’s Premieres, and Punchdrunk’s The Duchess of Malfi. Net hit? £140 for three tickets. Net joy? Zero, other than the pleasure of trashing them here.

Biggest loser? While there were many worthy contestants, the most shocking failure of these three was doubtlessly Paradise Found. With a cast of such high quality and so many worthies involved with the show, you really just couldn’t have seen this one coming – especially if you saw it early in the run. Seriously, THANK the bloggers that give you a chance to steer away from icebergs like this – if we weren’t sounding an early warning system, you, too, might have been dunked for a fat wad of cash AND a bad night out. As it was, we headed off a Broadway production and probably saved the investors rather a lot of money. The rest of the people, their careers won’t be too stained by this disaster.

This leaves me wondering where this blog should go in 2011 – should I make more of an effort to review the dance I see? Should I do more essays? One way or another, I’ve discovered there are limits to how much writing I can do – limits caused by having a day job *sigh*. Ah well, it keeps me in tickets at least, and that’s what counts.

Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk with English National Opera

July 20, 2010

If you’re among the many who failed to get tickets for this sell-out, I say to you, cry no more. From the minute the horror of the location set in – a true horror, that is, as the show is done in a modern office park – I realized that this was Punchdrunk tripping over its laurels. There was no more magic in those dropped ceilings than in the diaper the fox left in my back yard last Sunday. While digging for either atmosphere or a performance (the hunt is always part of the Punchdrunk “experience,” or frustration in my case), I came upon room after room that had eminently failed to create the sense of mystery in every other show of theirs I’d seen: the feeling that I was finding clues that would tell me more about the story. Instead, the designer seemed to run out of ideas before he (or shee) ran out of rooms, leaving most of them just jammed full of junk. (The saving grace is the first floor bar; if you are somehow still going to see this show, perhaps just to feel like you got your 35 quid worth, a solid hour in the bar will go a long way to take the sting out of your evening.) If nothing else, it was air conditioned, but that is cold comfort indeed.*

And then there is the performance: bad modern dance and painful modern opera. God, I keep going to opera, again and again, and so many times it just fails, fails, fails, and here I got to watch it failing (though sung well) from mere inches away. I think I only saw four scenes at the most, and each of them was unpleasant, atonal crap. The dance is also weak. I think using it with opera is a good idea, but why couldn’t it have been good modern dance?

In the end the best moment of the night was watching a set of bass players throwing every bit of themselves into creating music while people turgidly crashed around on a large stage behind me. It shouldn’t have been the highlight of my evening, but it was the one moment when I was utterly caught up in what was happening in front of me. Otherwise, this was a painfully wasted evening. My consolation? I got to have a wonderful discussion about “Magic Flute: The Super-Mario Production” afterwards with my likewise disappointed companion. I’ll remember it much longer than this show.

*I couldn’t help myself. Sorry.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 19th, 2010. I was really let down. I don’t even want to look up links.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)