Posts Tagged ‘London theatre review’

Review – A Streetcar Named Desire – Donmar Warehouse

August 27, 2009

Coming out of Hamlet, I was feeling pretty chary about going to A Streetcar Named Desire. Woo woo, another celeb driven classic that should have been revived simply based on its own merits and not because some screen star felt like spending his/her time slumming on the stage. I had been really excited about getting tickets to it (mostly thanks to the West End Whingers’ review), but this had all trickled away by the time the actual day rolled around. And, well, I had a cold (which I still have, three days later), and I actually tried to return the tickets, but the Donmar wouldn’t accept them as we actually had the paper tickets in our hands and couldn’t get them in theirs without trudging into town. So we trudged, bringing lots of cough drops and hoping we didn’t irritate the other patrons too much.

In retrospect, I’m glad they wouldn’t accept my tickets over the phone, as this was really a spectacular presentation of what I’m now convinced is one of the best plays of the 20th century – a play that far surpasses its silver screen version. Sure, the movie is an hour shorter, but the stuff that’s packed into that hour, which we get to see on stage, is really amazing. Tennessee Williams convinced us that these people existed – Stella (Ruth Wilson, incredibly superior to the film’s Stella), making a life for herself with the cards she was dealt, and succeeding at it far better than her sister; Stanley (Elliot Cowan), a violent bully who’s also loving and protective; Mitch (Barnaby Kay), a man who wants love in the form of someone who appeals to his better nature; and Blanche (Rachel Weisz), who’s pretentious and a liar but still trying to get through a life that seems headed downhill in a way that won’t leave her utterly broken. After the show we wound up debating what their pasts were like and what their futures were likely to be – meaning we’d accepted them as real people. Now that is some damned fine writing.

It has to be said that the presentation of this show did much to make it feel so real. J, who’s a big burnout due to getting a theatrical MFA and having spent most of his 20s in the theater, actually gasped when he walked in and saw the Donmar had been entirely transformed into the French Quarter, complete with replacement lacy ironwork surrounding the upper floor of the theater instead of the normal workaday iron bars. (This made us feel like we were spectators for a bunch of family fights in our neighborhood, quite appropriate given how close these folks lived together.) The set captured nicely both the airiness of the French Quarter and the very much run-down nature of life there pre-gentrification – a gorgeous spiral staircase wound up almost three stories but still, it was just two crappy two roomed apartments piled on top of each other – beauty, rot and claustrophobia all right there.

While the focus of the show (and my review) could easily be on Ms. Rachel Weisz as Blanche (she was, after all, on stage for pretty much every minute of the show), I wasn’t so amazed by her performance – it was good but I don’t think defined the role in the way I was hoping for. (She was too shrill at times and just a touch too young for the role.) However, the supporting cast was so generally outstanding that I’d like to pay them tribute. My favorite was Ruth Wilson as Blanche’s sister, Stella. This role was pretty much a cipher in the movie – a pregnant woman married to an abusive husband. But in this play, it was clear she was also a woman who’d given up a glorious past and let herself go with her passionate side – yet wound up in a much better place than Blanche, because she’d turned her back on it and never looked back. Ruth (as Stella) was really convincingly in love with Stanley and made the strain she felt being pulled between her husband and her sister very visible. She also had a bit of the look of someone who used to get all dressed up and know what proper manners were supposed to be. What was amazing was how she and Elliot Cowan were really able to carry off the dynamic of two people who were both intensely sexually attracted to each other but also could fight violently – then pull through the anger and make up to each other, all the while showing how close they were to each other – this was a vision of life in America that had so much truth to it I couldn’t believe it had ever really been portrayed as well on the stage before or since. God knows Carousel didn’t manage it.

While this may not be the Streetcar of a lifetime, still, it was vibrant and alive and worth dragging myself off my sickbed to see. And, I’m pleased to say, we didn’t wind up coughing our way through it, and even though we were stuck way off on the sides we could still see it pretty darned well. If you haven’t got tickets, well, time to hope this show gets transferred – though to be honest I don’t think you’ll ever capture that famous Donmar intimacy (and the effect this has on you as an audience member) anywhere else. Recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 25th. It continues through October 3rd. The Donmar releases standing room tickets for every performance, and this is worth standing through. Else, please see my tips on getting tickets for sold out shows.)

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Review – La Cage Aux Folles – Playhouse Theatre

July 31, 2009

On Friday I had the magnificent opportunity to see a well-reviewed play with a topic/theme I found intriguing at the WORLD’s best price ever. Let me be clear about what a screaming deal I am talking about: I saw the Menier’s production of La Cage Aux Folles at the Playhouse, from the third row, for the stellar sum of £5.

To be honest, rather than giving a rip about my review, I think more of you are going to be interested in how I pulled this trick off. It’s all due to joining the Ambassadors Theatre’s mailing list. They have a regular email alert with sort of unimpressive deals, £25 for shows normally £45 or so, which I ignore because it’s not such a good deal. But then this email came out saying “Quick! £5 for first 10 tickets to each show of La Cage for the next month!” And there I was with the email nice and hot in my hand and I was at my keyboard and work was quiet AND I had been planning on seeing this show for ages but just hadn’t done it because I wasn’t willing to cross the £20 price zone and voila magic happened. Seriously.

I’d been planning on seeing this show for ages but was pissed off because the “best seats available for $25” deals all came with a little * and a note at the bottom of the page saying, “*Well, no, not really the best seats, just the seats we’re going to call the best available, because we don’t want to sell you the other seats. You’ll note ‘best’ is ‘really not very good.’ Tough.”

At any rate, I’d almost bought seats a couple of times, and this time I jumped like a spider had just landed on my leg. WHAM. Four seats, 20 quid, HUZZAH! And then I had to wait.

So, after not having seen this show for nearly 7 months since I’d originally been thinking about going to it, how was it, really? Sad to say, I found it unpleasant for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the Cagelles, most of whom I wanted to take home with me (or be taken home by). No, it was the script, and the acting, that bugged me. First, Philip Quast (Georges) and Roger Allam (Albin) were … so camp it was positively panto. It felt like straight guys trying to act like how English comedy musical audiences would expect gay characters to be. And then there was the black “maid.” Nolan Frederick may have been an understudy (it seemed like half the cast was), but this wrist flapping, bubbly, squeeing and oohing black man to me was every worst stereotype of a black servant turned gay. I couldn’t believe he found this role within the scope of his dignity to play. I mean, I’ve met plenty of queeny black men in my life but they’ve never felt scraping and servile. It was like being stuck in some horrible revue written by the BNP. Did no one notice how bad it was?

Finally, and there’s nothing to be done about it (other than a major update), but I could not swallow the primary “twist” of the script, that Georges would allow his son to bully him into kicking his life partner out of the house they shared, even for a night. What The F**k. It’s just not done, and I don’t care if it was the 70s. He wouldn’t have put his mother or granny on the street for the night, how could he possibly be okay with doing it with someone he supposedly loved, even for one evening? IT WAS THE HOUSE THEY BOTH OWNED, YOU CAN’T KICK THE OTHER PERSON OUT. And for the son, Jean Michel (Ben Deery), well, he came off as so slimey and unsympathetic that it killed rather a lot of the “comedy,” but it was ultimately Georges betrayal that killed the fun in this comedy. I couldn’t get over the hump of this person being so horrible to his partner and I wasn’t really able to get my funny bone tickled during the show, even when the horrible in-laws-to-be showed up. The songs were kind of nice, I did enjoy all of the numbers with the Cagelles and the big silly scene at the restaurant, I really liked when Georges was wooing Albin at the seaside restaurant, but too much bothered me for me to really enjoy this show.

Here’s what I think. This show should be set to England (to get rid of the comedy element of 9 cast members with English accents and only one with French) and the show should be rewritten so “George” does NOT agree to kick “Al” out, but does agree to pretend to be married to “Gene’s” birth mother (Gene of course never asking for anything so caddish as to have Al turned out of his home). Then we could do the rest of the laughs without the pallor of heartlessness and selfishness that turned La Cage for me. While I can’t say it was a bad show, the way it plays now I found it was a far cry from the light evening of comedy and fun I was expecting.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 24th, 2009. La Cage is booking through 2010. FYI, John Barrowman is taking over as Albin/Zasa come September 14th.)

Review – Kursk – Young Vic

June 20, 2009

About a week ago I got an email from one of the West End Whingers, advising me that per this review, Kursk (at the Young Vic) was a show not to be missed.

I went and saw it last night, and I have to say, they were absolutely right. It’s set inside a submarine, with you, the audience member, as part of the set – standing in the galleys of the boat, experiencing what it’s like to have people living on top of you (the actors walk on certain paths that require them to brush by you, though there’s actually plenty of room to move around). Most of the action happens on the lower floor, though views are mostly best from the top – I’d advise avoiding the top wall backing the corridor to the theater as you can’t see the scenes set in the crew quarters at all, as they happen under your feet, nor the scenes in the sonar room, which happen to your right and behind you. I thought my seats on the floor near the crew’s mess were quite good, though after an hour of standing, my feet were really aching, and there was still another 30-40 minutes to go.

The sound design was incredible – ting-y noises up and to the back (for me) really defined the space, and the explosions that shook the ship had me leaping out of my skin as if the building itself had actually rocked. (I about expected the floor to tilt like in the space exploration ride at Disneyland.) And the set moved, though I don’t really want to say how. Suffice it to say it was an immersive experience that, in my mind, put the plotless meanderings of Punchdrunk to shame. Yeah, we were “there” for Faust, but we created the space last night for Kursk.

Substantially this play is about what life is like for men who work on submarines, with a heavy historical flavor of Cold War spy games. It’s only a little bit about the Kursk, really. But it’s great. And while other shows have moved me more or perhaps had more heart-string-plucking plots, this was an intense experience of the sort that could only happen in a theater, and not in any West end, cruise boat sized music hall. It could only be done black box, and that, to me, means you’d better get yourself down to the Young Vic right away or you’re going to miss a truly amazing show that isn’t likely to be remounted in London any time soon.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 19th, 2009. Kursk continues through June 27th. Don’t forget to wear supportive shoes.)

Review – Slung Low’s “Helium” – The Barbican

September 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I read a review for a show (in The Metro, which shockingly put it online for once) that really caught my attention. It sounded like one of those site-specific pieces – sort of … well, what do you call those Punchdrunk-style things where the audience gets walked around? Er … well, okay, it sounded like an interesting piece of theater to experience, one where the story is very much created by what it’s like to watch the play, rather that just sitting and watching a story take place in front of you. I was especially interested because (as I recalled the review) it was about a girl’s relationship with her grandfather, and I had a very close relationship with my grandmother and am thus interested in seeing this kind of thing depicted by other people.

The show was also described as being very intimate, with just one person being allowed to watch it at a time. Wow! That sounded very different. And it was short – so if it was terrible, it would all be over soon. And Boy Howdy was it cheap – £10 a ticket. I was sold.

As was, apparently, everyone else on God’s green earth who had read the Metro (or perhaps TimeOut, as its review was also pretty positive). Tickets were sliding out of my husband’s fingers (as he attempted to navigate the Barbican’s online ticketing facilities) faster than I could say, “Yes! No!” and we wound up booking for the last hour of the last night of this show, with entrance times an hour apart. Damn!

As we (at last) arrived (with tickets that had fortunately been rejiggered so we were only 15 minutes apart – and then they let us just come in immediately after each other, with a five minute separation), we were greeted by cheerful tour guides, who gave us birthday card invitations (with our specific entrance time written on them – as well as our names, of course) and gummy worms, then sat us down to await our turn. When my turn came, a guide came and introduced himself to me. He was going to be my guide for the whole show, and he promised to get me every time and make sure I went to the right place (none of this Battersea Arts Center faffing around stuff, thank God). He explained to me that there were going to be people in the rooms we were going to go in, and even though I could see them, they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t respond to me if I talked to them (I restrained myself from rolling my eyes), though I was free to walk around and look at things unless he had pointed out a particular place for me to be. He also very kindly took my sweater and purse. I realized he was just an actor, but still, I’ve hardly had someone talk so nicely to me in the two years I’ve been here, so it was actually a nice way to start the evening. I restrained myself from making some kind of, “So, it’s closing night, how have the audiences been?” kind of comment and let him stay in character instead.

We then walked up to a little free standing building that looked kind of like a plywood garden shed, with stairs going up to a door and no windows. Around the space I could see other jumpsuited guides walking people up to other buildings … hmm! A series of simultaneously occurring plays! How cool … The guide explained that we were actually starting at the end, which he repeated as if many of the people attending had just found it far too confusing. He opened the door for me (while promising to come back and get me when it was time to leave) … and in I went.

Inside the shed was a little room that looked like someone’s office, with books on the wall, a desk, and a few partially packed boxes. A woman (Vicky Pratt) was sitting in front of the desk on the old-fashioned phone talking, while the (also old-fashioned) radio droned on loudly. After a while it became clear that the radio was actually commenting on what she was saying, and, eventually, even talking about me – or, rather, my presence in the room. Between the woman and the radio, I gathered that she was there to clean up her grandfather’s place after he died, and that there was some sort of mystery she was trying to solve … something about how he used to give her a helium filled balloon for her birthday every year … I think. Unfortunately because I was sick, I was kind of fading in and out of paying attention, and I was getting very hung up at looking at all of the detail of the little environment I was in. What was the book she was flipping through? Was there some clue in the periodic table that was on the wall? Um … was I supposed to be listening a little better? No matter, she hung up the phone, the door behind her opened, and presto! There was my guide.

I stepped out of the back of the shed and my guide offered me some popcorn as we walked the two or so yards to my second stop. Mmm, popcorn! He had me flip a switch and then sent me into the next environment, my favorite of the night – “A theater with a seat just for you!” as my guide had promised. Inside the box, I found myself standing behind a balcony at a movie theater, “far above” the rows and rows of tiny seats on the floor. It was adorable! A movie was playing on the screen showing magic tricks, which I think was supposed to be a scene from the grandfather’s life, perhaps something about handling disappointment poorly. A balloon did appear on the screen … but I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention. The environment was just so adorable that I spent at least half of my time looking at the incredible detail. I felt like I was inside of a doll’s house (did the box of popcorn perhaps have a label on it saying, “Eat Me?”). Then the movie was over, the credits rolled … and the door opened, and my guide was waiting outside.

The third room had a much more mechanical look to it, like I was going into a safe or a submarine. I was instructed to sit in the corner and put the headphones on. I opened the door … and there was a man sitting in the corner with his own headphones on, dressed in a kind of jumpsuit … with a radio next to him … and something funny about the floor …. ah! I got it! We were in an airplane in World War II, and he was talking to his friends in the other airplanes on the radio. I could hear what they were saying to him in my headphones … but then also … another voice … the one I heard in the first room. It was two voices, in fact, apparently the grandfather, commenting on this period of his life, and … the mystery character. Then, suddenly, we were going on a bombing raid, and the floor of the room opened up, a great breeze blew in from the opened bombing bay, and we watched as the bombs fell out of the little airplane’s belly and made pretty fire bouquets … all over Dresden.

My my my. How these things do come full circle. (Which probably means nothing to anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally.)

At this point, I’ll actually stop telling the tale of the show, so that if they remount it, anyone who reads this review will still have some surprises. There were two more environments, neither of which was nearly as good as the second and third, and then a little fun bit as you walked out, but overall, I felt … well, like it was good, but like the story was just starting as I was leaving! It’s actually a good thing to have a show not wear out its welcome, but this one really seemed just too short. I was enjoying myself and really going with it and would have been happy to have kept on with the story for at least another half an hour, even though I was ill and just all too grateful that half of the scenes had a place for me to sit. I apologize if you missed it, but given how fast the tickets sold out the day the reviews hit the street, I’m sure you are not alone in this. Let’s hope it gets done again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 20th, when I was pretty much on my deathbed but still bound and determined to get out and see this show. It was closing night. Apologies in advance if you want to see it.)

Review of “The Peony Pavilion” -下本- part three (”Reunion and Triumph”) – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

June 8, 2008

It seems inevitable that a show in which we have a section/act dominated by a ghost (including a bit set in hell) would have a bit of a hard act to follow (as it were) in subsequent scenes, or, in this case, in the final part of the three night Young Lover’s version of The Peony Pavilion. This afternoon’s presentation was far quieter than the previous, high-drama evenings. With a focus on family reunification, it was basically a wrap up for what had gone before. Du Bao has to be convinced that Liniang is his daughter and not a demon in disguise, but it’s a bit of a foregone conclusion how this will turn out (though I was finding it a bit Monty Python-esque and wondered if they were going to bring out the scales and a duck to settle the question). And Liu Mengmei’s trip to the scholarly exams, how could he be anything but a success? It was good to see the old servant of Liu’s finally treated with kindness, and somehow cheering to see the slightly sleazy Confucian scholar Chen Zuiliang promoted to work for the emperor, but … somehow it all seemed a bit like those “what happened to” sections at the end of a movie.

The most dramatic for me were the scenes in which Liu Mengmei hasn’t yet found out about his success, and is unable to so much as buy a bowl of rice … and then is tortured as a liar by his father in law. His situation seemed quite dire – how COULD he be believed (“I know your daughter is dead but I’m married to her”)? How could he feed himself? – and echoed the sufferings of many people in the past, in China and in other countries. Yet as soon as he is awarded his scholar’s robes, he becomes all arrogance – no more struggling amongst the hoi polloi for him! He insults his father-in-law, hinting that soon he will take his job, and threatens the elderly scholar with exposure as a liar – it’s as if all of his years of struggle have taught him not the least bit of sympathy toward others. And Liniang is so proud of herself for having found a number one scholar to be her husband! I just saw her and Liu turning into her parents – she complaining about not having enough honors and comforts, he bullying people lower than him. And I thought, this is a romance? Perhaps at one time this was happiness.

After three nights I felt compelled to give the lovely cast a standing ovation. I’ve decided my favorite performer was Lu Jia, who played Spring Fragrance the first night and Duchess Yang the second and third nights. She really commanded the stage and was a joy to watch – a top notch actress that would bring light to any show. Shen Fengying was, I think, a very good Du Liniang – her voice was sweet and she moped delightfully. However, I felt like the cast was tired tonight – the sleeve flipping seemed a bit slow and uncoordinated, and the energy levels were really down. I can’t blame them, though – it was their sixth night, and I was lucky enough to get Thursday, Friday, and Saturday off while they kept cranking it out.

Now that I’ve been able to absorb this style a bit, I’ve decided that I really love it for its extremely simple sets and focus on “the word.” Throughout the show, staging consisted of little more than chairs and Chinese scroll paintings. The ponds, gardens, rivers, and other exotic settings referred to in the text? They are solely the product of the viewer’s imagination, as activated by the performer describing the scene. The costumes were gorgeous, to be sure, but it was really the lines, spoken and sung, that made this show come to life. Tang Xianzu’s poetry was gorgeous. It’s for this reason that I think the first night was the best of all. Part two was the most fun, with its scene set in hell and seductive lady ghost, but nothing equalled the poetry of Du Liniang in the first evening. Despite the fact this was also the longest night and I felt sure one of the scenes could have been entirely removed, this was the night I ultimately found most moving.

Afterwards we went to The Charles Lamb pub (one of my favorites in London – sure wish it was my local!) to chat about what we’d just experienced, and, lo and behold! We found an article about the show in The Sunday Times. Read and enjoy!

As a footnote, I’m probably going to be taking it pretty easy theatrically for the rest of this month. Wait, that’s a lie – I’m going to see Romersholm Thursday, Marguerite the Musical Friday, and The Revenger’s Tragedy on Saturday, and possibly two more shows on Wednesday and Sunday if I can get tickets. Ah, what a short memory I have!

(This review is for a performance that took place Sunday, June th, 2008, one of the most lovely sunny weekend days in recent memory.)

Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part two (“Romance and Resurrection”) – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

June 5, 2008

Last night was part two of the three part “Peony Pavilion” Kunqu opera currently on at Sadler’s Wells. This was the one Mel (who is quite familiar with the story) was most looking forward to, as it takes place partially in hell and is substantially about a romance between a man and a ghost.

Well! I would say the show did not disappoint. The judge of hell was a fire breathing, red bearded demon surrounded by neon-costumed, cartwheeling lackeys and heavily gilded guards brandishing spears. The whole thing was quite a spectacle, with Du Liniang’s movements carefully coordinated to allow the various demons to dance around her (my favorite bit was when she cowered underneath the judge’s desk, then threw her sleeves out to the side while he leapt over her). For about half of this scene, Du Liniang was a trembling maiden, terrified of the creatures surrounding her, as if she’d just finally understood what being dead was going to be like; but at some point she got positively smug, something I would never have expected of a dead person! It was really quite a different version of the land of the dead from that of La Bayadere – no detached shades, but rather a world in which there are politicians, lust, and laws. I believe that this scene must be one of the highlights of the show, as it certainly was the highlight of the night for me. (If you were only going one evening, this would probably be the best choice to see.)

The rest of the story involved the ghost of Liniang returning to her family’s home, where Liu Mengmei has been recuperating (and has fallen in love with the self-portrait Du Liniang did in the first section of the opera). Liniang goes to see him in the rooms where he has taken shelter, and they become lovers. Finally she convinces him to dig her up, and, voila! She is brought back to life, and they get married (it’s possible they were technically married in the scene where she tells him her big secret, but I’m not sure). There’s a great scene in which a rebel general is coached in war by his wife, both of them fantastically costumed (in fact the wife, Duchess Yang, is the one pictured on the advertisements for the show), but which seemed to have little relevance to the rest of the narrative. Overall it seemed like quite the Gothic love story – very different from anything I’ve ever seen in a Western play.

The scholar Mengmei really does seem to be a good match for Liniang, as he is just as dreamy and prone to melancholy as she is, not to mention egotistical and prideful. As the story is evolving, I’m finding Liniang a fun person to watch but quite flawed; I feel like she’s very much a spoiled brat! That said, I actually thought that artistically, the first part was better than this one, as her poetry seems generally to be better than Mengmei’s and she gets far more time to sing it in part one. Still, I wound up thinking both of them could really use with doing a hard day’s work.

The other particularly good scene in part two is, unsurprisingly, the seduction scene. I was pretty shocked to see Liniang being so forward. Of course, this is all contextually possible because of her being a ghost, but she’s been so prim and proper as a real person I wasn’t able to see how she could so easily throw that off! Mengmei, although he appeared to be handsome, seemed to me someone who would very quickly become extremely hidebound and conservative, so I am a bit mystified as to what Liniang is really attracted to. On the other hand, she’s 16, and that’s not an age known for depth of thought.

We’re taking a three day break and returning on Sunday afternoon to watch part three. Thankfully last night we got out at a quarter after ten, so I made it home by 11:30 (much better than the night before). It turns out the express buses from Sadler’s Wells to Waterloo won’t run after 10 PM, so we were just stuck to get home as best we could – a preview of life after mid-July, when apparently this service just won’t be offered anymore (as Arriva is letting their contract lapse). Final section: war!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 4, 2008; it will be repeated Saturday, June 7th.)

Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part one – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

June 4, 2008

Although I am not a big opera fan, I am a big fan of Chinese culture, and when I realized I had the opportunity to see a full length (three day!) Chinese opera performed in London by a professional cast from China (the Suzhou Kunqu Opera company), I jumped at the chance. I was a bit hesitant to go for all three nights, but with my fellow Sinophile and good friend Mel encouraging me (well, she was just enthusiastic, but that was enough), I went for it and bought tickets for The Peony Pavilion at Sadler’s Wells (really good preview available on The Guardian‘s website). Surprisingly, I was even able to convince my husband to go, so we had a group of three with nice seats on the main floor. (Actually, he convinced himself to go for all three nights, saying, “You can’t just see one part of the Ring Cycle, so why would I only come for one evening of this opera?” As for me, I can see where you might want to see The Empire Strikes Back and skip Return of the Jedi, but I was glad he showed that much interest without even a little bit of prodding from me.)

We did our best to get warmed up beforehand at the New Culture Revolution restaurant (just around the corner from Angel station), but my noodle and dumpling soup still failed to be as good as what I used to get in Nanjing, so I left somewhat dissatisfied. (They also tried to give us a pot of tea with only half a teaspoon of leaves in it – what kind of fools did they take us for?) To be honest, I would have enjoyed it if the show had been more traditional in terms of serving us food and tea as we watched it (as it was for Slippery Mountain), but Sadler’s Wells isn’t really set up for that kind of thing, so I slipped several packets of candy into my bag to keep my strength up during the show.

I learned a lot about Chinese opera even last night. Kunqu opera is, in my mind, a more classical type than Beijing opera (last night featured NO acrobatic fight scenes at all, so if that’s what you want, you’re not going to get it). While some of the dialogue is spoken, most of it is sung in classical Chinese poetry (the kind where five characters compose and entire English sentence, i.e. “Empty/autumn/dream/wander” would be the Chinese spoken, but the English displayed on the screen would say, “I wander through this hollow Autumn, lost in dreams”). I think this seems a lot prettier than mere iambic pentameter – it was, in my mind, a play full of beautiful sonnets (although they seem like haiku in style and simplicity). Shockingly, my college Chinese came back to help me last night, and not only did I follow along with the spoken dialogue at an about 70% match rate, I was able to really enjoy the poetry. It was gorgeous, and I loved having our heroine (Du Liniang, played by Shen Fengying, who is a real marathoner) reciting swooning sonnets along the lines of “no brush can untangle my hair/no comb can untangle this life” as she mooned about. Fortunately, most of this was balanced in the most lovely way by the maid (Spring Fragrance, played either by Lu Jia or Zhou Xiaoyue last night), who was just so damned chipper and cute I wanted to tuck her under my arm and take her home with me.

As it turned out, while the costumes and makeup were elaborate, the sets and staging were quite simple. Hanging scrolls, either with calligraphy or paintings on them, served to create most of the backdrops, and the show relied on the dialogue to create the rest of the setting in your imagination. At one point, Du Liniang was talking about leaning up against a plum tree to think about her dream lover, and she held up her sleeve just so, and … she was leaning up against a tree, I could see it! Actually, the whole use of the sleeves to create emotional effects was quite interesting – I’ve never seen someone flirt with their sleeves before, or use them to express despair (no waving of the hands above the head here, thank goodness). The costumes themselves were really gorgeous. I got completely wrapped up in the parade of embroidered gowns during the fairy/dream sequence – each one of them was a different flower, with matching silk belts, flowered headress, and even tasselled shoes. Watching them dance on stage was a moment of pure theatrical gorgeousness – I was completely lost in the spectacle, which was my favorite of the whole evening and entirely worth the price of admission (though you really needed the rest of the show to feel the emotions of what was happening on stage).

But … the longness. Ah yes, the long. If you’re considering going, here are the running times: Part one, nine scenes, ends 10:35; Part two, nine scenes, ends 10:20; part three, nine scenes, ends two hours and forty-five minutes after the start. Synopsis of part one: meet the heroine, a sweet girl from a scholarly family; she falls in love with a boy she sees in a dream; the boy is real and goes to find the girl of her dreams; she mopes; she dies. Part two (synopsis: girl is in hell; boy makes it to where she used to live; ghost girl falls in love with boy; boy falls in love with ghost; war; ghost is brought back to life) sounds like a lot of fun, with much less moping than last night. Apparently the last one has a lot of battle scenes, but I haven’t read the program all of the way through so I can’t say for sure. I will be taking a very useful three day break between part two and three so that I go strong into the last show. And since the singing style is so unfamiliar to Western ears, the longness might combine to make it an evening that is just a little too much to handle, though I found it well suited to expressing the characters’ emotions.

So … how was it? I was really drawn in by the great acting and found myself not even reaching for the bags of fortifying candy I had ready to help get me through the show – not even once all the way through the TWO HOUR LONG FIRST FIVE ACTS (why they didn’t just have a break after the dream sequence I do not know). I have to say, if you didn’t understand Chinese culture at all, it probably would have been a bit of a frustrating show. But, you know what? I totally bought it. I was comparing it to Romeo and Juliet and realizing that the main characters were really very strong and very interesting, while still 100% in their own culture. (Actually, it was a bit Gothic, what with its obsession with love and death, but since the heroine was a 16 year old – who was also incredibly shallow and egotistical by Western standards – I was okay with this.)

Two more nights to go, and while I _will_ be getting hot tea prepared for us for intermission, I’m actually pretty enthused about it – though I wish they’d actually stuck to the schedule and let us out a little closer to 10:30 instead of at about 11.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, June 3rd. This show will be repeated on Friday, June 6th.)

Review – Pinter’s The Birthday Party – Lyric Hammersmith

May 20, 2008

Normally I don’t bother seeing a play twice unless it’s a razzle dazzle musical (i.e. Drowsy Chaperone). But in this case, I went to see a play I thought was really bad … in the hopes that in more competent hands, it would be really good. As you should know, I am a big Pinter fan. The previous time we saw The Birthday Party was at the Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle, Washington. Now, I tend to find fringe theater (of the sort we saw so much of in Seattle) very enjoyable in general – when it’s not actually part of a fringe festival, but rather by an established, small company presenting a regular season. Seattle companies really have very high quality actors, inventive directors, and all sorts of other things going for them that makes their shows generally quite good. But The Birthday Party was a failure. We couldn’t make sense of it, and we felt to a great extent it was because it didn’t make sense to the actors. They seemed to be just saying the lines to each other, as if they were reading a series of shuffled together flash-cards with dialogue written on them, yet not really understanding a word of what was coming out of their mouths. So they successfully showed they’d memorized the play, but, otherwise, they just stumbled through it practically with a look of fear and desperation in their faces that wasn’t really called for by the story line.

Three years later, I’m living in London, and I have really come to believe that American actors just can’t handle Pinter. It’s not, as Ben Brantley says in his review of Homecoming, that they can’t get the class implications in the accents. I fact, it’s so much more than that; it’s a complete miss on the culture underlying the plays, into which I fortunately have a little more insight these days. I was pretty aware of how far I had come watching The Birthday Party tonight at they Lyric Hammersmith. For example, I heard someone talk about getting “fried bread” for breakfast in the first act, and I thought, in America, that would just sound surreal and would probably throw an actor off. In America, you don’t fry bread any more than you fry lettuce or milk. And later, a man talks about coming home with the lights off “and I put a shilling in the slot and, boom! Lights on, nobody home!” This also is completely nonsensical because in America you don’t have coin activated meters to dole out electricity. You have parking meters and you have pay laundromats, but coins in a slot do not turn lights on.

I think these kinds of things would really fluster actors – the play would have to be annotated just as thoroughly as Shakespeare for them to follow along with what was going on. The towns where Goldberg went on vacation all have certain associations and implications, the concept of what it means to be a “deck chair attendant” at a beach resort means something, it all just builds on a life that can’t mean anything to a person who hasn’t seriously researched the culture and, perhaps, lived in it (as much as you can live in 1958). So it’s no surprise that the previous production I had seen was a failure, but I can’t really hold it against the actors too much.

I’m pleased to say that the production we saw tonight at the Lyric Hammersmith was a complete success in nearly every way and has pretty well completely overwritten my previous memory of the play. The doddering old landlady (Sheila Hancock) is not a drooling, brainless maniac – she’s a sweet, friendly, older woman who wouldn’t think it unreasonable to be flirted with (a bit of a Blanche Dubois in some ways), but not nearly the sex fiend she somehow came across before. Petey, the husband (Alan Williams), is a fairly decent man who lives a life that’s very much in many ways built on habit – but he’s still engaged with the world.

Goldberg (Nicholas Woodeson) and McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson) – what is up with Pinter and his fascination with mob types? Hitmen in The Dumbwaiter, a pimp in Homecoming – is this his fantasy of the dark side of London or something? When last I saw them, they were as evil and creepy as Gaiman’s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and I found the scene where they were trying to force Stanley (this time played by Justin Salinger) to sit in a chair unbearably tense. I imagined them trying to break his legs once they got him down. They also seemed to be in a struggle with each other, for Goldberg to prove he still retained his youthful power by exerting himself over McCann. This didn’t really seem to be the dynamic tonight. Instead, McCann was the somewhat stupid muscle (with the loveliest singing voice!) who was very obedient to Goldberg’s wishes – including the scene where he blew in his mouth (and WTF was that about – I was cracking up). He had a lovely Irish accent (which Chris Macdonald flubbed) … which put Goldberg’s bizarre English/Jewish accent into high relief to me, as an American New York/Jewish accent leavened with occasional Britishness. It sounded like he’d tried to cram the two things together unsuccessfully, as if to imply the whole schtick Goldberg was doing was a put-on. I imagined the actor had perhaps just failed to get a proper voice coach, but the friends I went with to the play (Trish and Simon) assured me he sounded completely fine to them.

So, really what do I know, I am still a foreigner here. I will say, though, that this play was a really good time for us and much more clearly comic than it was the last time I saw it. I no longer think it’s meant to be read literally, and the absurdist elements were very clear to me (“We’ll make a man out of you!” “And a woman!”). What, really, is the plot? We weren’t able to make it out. Stanley (Justin Salinger, looking too young for the role) didn’t really telegraph it to me, and Pinter, as usual, didn’t bother telling me up front by having something obvious like an extended, painful mermaid metaphor at the beginning of the play. Bless his black little heart! I was so pleased I went and bought a book “about his thoughts on his work” in the lobby at the end of the night, and I’m going to try to puzzle through it myself. In fact, now that I see that his complete archives are at the British Library, I’m wondering if perhaps I ought to do even more research on him … of the sort that might eventually lead to a book of my own. I bet I’ve got it in me, but it’s going to be hard to do when I don’t want to read any scripts for shows I haven’t seen lest I ruin the surprise. How will I ever have the same amount of fun discussing what happened after a show (as if I and the person sitting next to me had seen two completely different plays) if I already know what the received wisdom is on the play I’m watching? One play at a time, though, I bet I can eventually make it through the oevre, even in enough time to get that book written. It’s a goal!

Review – Lady from the Sea – Arcola Theatre

May 16, 2008

I don’t know about how you like to celebrate anniversaries, but to me nothing seemed better than going up to the ass end of north east London to see a show about a woman thinking about leaving her husband. Sounds romantic, eh? And if you’re me (and the ever-suffering Shadowdaddy, you’ll want to start of the night with some Jamaican food hot enough to peel the enamel off of your teeth. Mmm, mmm! Jerk chicken, rice and peas, stewed pork, polenta, $16 for two people, Centerprise, you make the grade! (We also got to see a guy chased out of the restaurant by the cashier and the store guard, who called him a crook. It was quite a scene. Review of restaurant here.) Then it was off to the Oz Antepilier for some tasty Turkish baklava to keep our strength up while we waited in the lobby of the Arcola for the mad dash for our seats.

Anyway, I studiously avoided reading anything that might give me too much of a clue as to the actual plot of the show beforehand as I enjoy having a show unfold and surprise me – I figured the 5 star recommendation it had got somewhere was sufficient, plus Ibsen, for me to watch. The play, in a nutshell, is this: there is a woman, and she is feeling trapped in her marriage. She has stepchildren who seem extraordinarily unsympathetic to her, and, to top things off, she seems like she might be going mad.

Well! Quite the light evening’s entertainment, to be sure. For me, for some reason, the whole show was coming in through the filter of these two articles I read in the New York Times this week about love in Saudi Arabia. The men, for example, would have found it completely fit for a man to tell a woman she’s not a free actor, and that he will decide what is good for her and “protect” her: while the women, I thought, would agree that women are naturally less rational than men.

But they would have had a lot of problems with the rest of the story. The concept of a woman wishing to be a free agent, I think, would not resonate in the least; the thought that it might not be agreeable to essentially “sell” yourself in order to have a roof over your head would also seem mysterious; the odd behavior of the girls (not to mention the wife, Ellida, played by Lia Williams) would certainly have drawn note. I found it all a bit late Victorian feminist, but with a sort of unexpected (and illogical) ending – and very much enjoyed the idea of a play about someone who was on the verge of cracking up throughout.

That said, I think I found more problems with the script than anything else. It just seemed … clunky. People kept announcing other people were about to come on stage, then announcing that they were going to leave. The young, wannabe artist had no real purpose in the show other than to show the selfish side of men (I think) and had utterly corny lines (and pulled faces); the younger daughter (Hilde, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, apparently from the Irish side of this family based on her thick accent) seemed to change her feelings too quickly. The foreshadowing at the beginning (the bit about the painting) was like getting hit with a blackjack in terms of its subtlety, then further added to this point by having the actor say, “The idea was given to me by the lady of the house!” Please, as if the fact that she swims in the ocean every day wasn’t enough clue for us to link her with a mermaid!

While the acting was generally good, Ms. Williams seemed to be pulling rather a lot from Lady Macbeth with all of her hand wringing and twitching. Her face was beautiful to watch but I wanted more of a buildup – as it was, I was completely incapable of thinking anything but madness lied in her future.

Overall I think this was a good production but not one of Ibsen’s finer works, and the 75 minute journey home a bit of a pill – good enough if you like Ibsen or are in the neighborhood, but not worth seriously deforming your week to go see.

(This review is for a performance that took place May 15th, 2008, my fifteenth anniversary.)

Slippery Mountain – Not So Loud Chinese Opera Company – New World Restaurant, London

April 13, 2008

Three weeks ago I read in the Metro that there was a Chinese opera being performed in a restaurant in Chinatown, with dim sum and tea served beforehand. And it was only an hour long! While the price seemed a bit steep (£25), it sounded to me like a great night out and I snapped up for tickets (for me, J, W, and my fellow Sinophile Mel) right away.

The restaurant (New World) had a great upstairs space with a large area cleared out for the show. We took our seats and were immediately given our snacks. Sadly, we weren’t given any sort of plates, just a round steaming dish with 1 shu mai, 1 egg roll, and 1 steamed fluffy pork bun in it. Hmm – a bit tight for the price. I was also grumpy to notice they’d got a two for one deal going that I missed out on by buying early. At the very least if I’d been aware of it I probably could have convinced a few more people to attend. We also got some other food (lamb pancakes, pork and cashew nuts, and chicken on crunchy fried noodles) to round it out, and the food was good even though we had to ask to get plates.

Our cast consisted of three demons (or monks, depending on the scene), our hero Mulian, his mom, Mulian’s tutor and stand-in demon fighter, and a woman sword specialist. The plot was, er, rather non-Western: Mulian is sent by his Buddhist superior to deal with his mother in hell, where she is about to spend eternity trying to climb Slippery Mountain to make up for her shortcomings during her lifetime (fornication while a nun being apparently a big no-no). Most of the scenes take place in hell, where the three demons sing cheerily about chopping up, burning, and torturing the souls that come their way. Their scenes allowed for a lot of vernacular dialogue, referring (for example) to “Asbos” and “insulting the Olympic torch” (the second a reason for extreme punishment). I found this all reminiscent of Panto and a good deal of fun. The dialogue was mostly in English, but Mulian’s mom spoke exclusively in Opera extreme Mandarin (I could almost follow along) and Mulian’s teacher spoke frequently in Mandarin, but for both of them, the “chorus” of demons/monks helped us follow along. Mulian’s mom’s arias were all in Chinese, but for these we had a sheet to help us follow along (as it were) and the action on stage was very helpful in demonstrating what was being said.

The show itself was not of the highest production quality, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting this in such a short production. The highlight was a battle between Mulian’s teacher and the demon swordswoman, who went head to head in staff versus double sword action. It was a blast. I was a bit sorry we didn’t get any acrobatics, but it was a small space, and hopefully I’ll get to see some this summer when the Peony Pavillion comes to town. Overall it was a good night out, and my greatest complaint was that I wished I’d had a little more tea – being able to sip a hot cup of Jasmine tea while watching a show has got to be one of the most pleasant theatrical experiences I’ve had in a long time, but our pot was long emptied before the show started up and the staff didn’t seem to want to come by the tables to refill, empty, or do anything else once they’d served up.