Monday, June 27, 2016


James Karas
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford

Friar Laurence
Richard Madden                                 
Kathryn Wilder
Derek Jacobi  
Meera Syal                     
Samuel Valentine
Continues at the Garrick Theatre, Chaing Cross Road, 
London, England.   
 *** (out of five)

Kenneth Branagh directs an interesting and somewhat idiosyncratic Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London.

Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford set the play in 1950’s Verona and make considerable efforts to give it a distinctly Italian flavour. There is a good dose of Italian spoken and an attempt is made to give the play an Italian emotional wavelength.
The balcony scene.Lily James as Juliet and Richard Madden as Romeo. 
Photograph: Johan Persson
Richard Madden as Romeo is an Italian stud, tall, athletic and a man about town. Lily James was indisposed the day I saw the production and Juliet was played by her understudy Kathryn Wilder. She is a tall, self-assured woman and not at all like the thirteen-year old that the text speaks of. She does a very good job in the role.

Branagh is not interested in presenting Juliet as a vulnerable waif. During the party at her house when she meets Romeo, she takes the microphone and sings for the guests. According to the text, when she meets Romeo and he wants to kiss her, she agrees not to move while their lips meet. In Branagh’s version, she throws her arms around his neck.

Branagh makes numerous changes to text and approach. Some of the servants are played by women causing some creakiness but nothing serious. The servant Peter (Zoe Rainey) wearing a nice dress is sent out to invite the guests to the party and we are to believe that (s)he is illiterate. Pushing it a bit and not getting too many laughs despite some boorish behaviour by Romeo’s friends.  
 Photo: Johan Persson
The dirty-minded Nurse, always a delightful character, is played with pizazz by Meera Syal. She is quite a woman and does not hesitate to shake her hips suggestively to Friar Laurence. Samuel Valentine as the Friar is straight and decent as becomes his calling.

Romeo’s friends are usually close to his age but it seems that Derek Jacobi was available and Branagh grabbed him for the role of Mercutio. Jacobi may not be able to handle a street brawl and he is quickly killed but no one can argue with his ability to handle Shakespeare’s lines with finesse and precision.

The costumes by Christopher Oram are high society Verona in the 1950’s, I assume. Tuxedoes for the men, stylish dresses for the women. The set by Oram is dominated by a series of pillars which can be rearranged as needed. The impression is monumental without being overwhelming.

The famous balcony is only three steps above stage level and any ideas about Romeo scaling walls quickly vanish. The scene after Romeo and Juliet have consummated their marriage vows becomes another balcony scene where they appear and discuss the time of day. A bed rolled on the stage would be far more effective.

At the end of the play the distraught Romeo looks at his “dead” wife and thinks that Death keeps Juliet beautiful because he wants her for his mistress. “Ah, dear Juliet,/Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe /That unsubstantial death is amorous, / And …. Keeps / Thee here in dark to be his paramour?” he says. I find these some of the most moving words in Shakespeare. I am not sure that editing them out is the best way to handle the scene.

A worthy production in many ways and a personal view of the play but Branagh comes perilously close to directorial self-indulgence at the expense of the text instead of in enhancement of it.

At the Garrick theatre, London, until 13 August, 2016.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


James Karas

The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Carrie Cracknell
Designed by Tom Scutt

Hester Collyer             HELEN McCRORY
Freddie Page               TOM BURKE
William Ciller              PETER SULLIVAN        
Mr Miller                     NICK FLETCHER                                    
Mrs Elton                    MARION BAILEY                     
Philip Welch               HUBERT BURTON
Ann Welch                  YOLANDA KETTLE
Jackie Jackson            ADETOMIWA EDUN

Continues at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre,
South Bank, London England.

**** (out of 5)

Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea deals with a subject as old as Western literature. A wife leaves her husband and takes up with another man, to put it blandly. The prime and perhaps earliest example of this conduct is probably Helen of Troy who abandoned King Menelaus of Sparta and ran off with the young Trojan prince Paris. Let’s assume that Menelaus was not a bad husband and assign a reason to her action. Infatuation, lust, boredom are possible explanations or the ultimate cause for such action which is the inexplicable, incomprehensible and perhaps completely mysterious: love.

Tom Burke and Helen McCrory. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Now let’s look at Hester Collyer, the heroine of Rattigan’s play. She is the artistic daughter of a clergyman who married Sir William Collyer, a handsome and successful judge of the high court. They live in high society and have all the benefits that money and position can offer. She meets Freddie Page, a former test pilot and leaves her husband. Whatever his past achievements, when the play begins Freddie is unemployed, drinks too much, and plays scant attention to Hester. When the curtain goes up Hester is discovered to have attempted to commit suicide.

The play then deals with an exploration of Hester’s reasons for taking such a drastic action. Sir William is a perfect gentleman and there is no apparent reason for her leaving him. He is handsome, successful, without any hint of mistreating her.

Freddie Page is what we would now call a loser. He went to Canada after the war where he lost his job as a test pilot for misconduct. He ignores Hester much of the time so he can have his own fun. Why is she staying with him? The first clue is when he arrives at their apartment and she embraces him with passion. The sexual attraction is obvious but we don’t want to believe that lust is the only reason she is living with the lout.

Helen McCrory gives a superb performance as a woman with deep conflicts who puts up with mistreatment and poverty with a “nobody” who offers great sex and, we must believe, she loves. We watch her develop and work through her emotional trauma and come to terms with her life.

Peter Sullivan as William Collyer is straight-backed, rational and kind in his own way but he has no passion in him and that is perhaps his Achilles’ heel. Tom Burke as Freddie goes from bad to worse and convinces us that he is not worthy of Hester but that is not the same as convincing her.

Rattigan has some interesting characters who are Hester’s neighbours. The most finely drawn and synthetic person is Mr. Miller, a German, a trained doctor who is no longer practicing. But he is a real mensch and Nick Fletcher brings out his humanity and decency is a fine performance.

Marion Fletcher plays the sympathetic but nosey landlady Mrs. Elton. Hubert Burton is the ineffectual but decent neighbour Philp Welch and Yolanda Kettle his equally ineffectual wife.

Director Carrie Campbell handles the play with sensitivity and makes it dramatic without making it maudlin or melodramatic. A fine job.

Designer Tom Scutt’s two-story set gives an impression of the apartment building with doors of other units and stairs visible at the back.

The lighting designed by Guy Hoare tended towards the dark and bleak but I am not sure if the production would have suffered much of the apartment was better lit.

The play may hark back to Greek mythology but for Terence Rattigan it had an autobiographical inspiration. The gay playwright was abandoned by his young lover for another man. He could not very well write a play about homosexual love but this was his expiation of a terrible chapter in his life. Menelaus would have understood.

A superb night at the theatre. 


James Karas
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

Directed by Polly Findlay
 Designed by Helen Goddard
Original Prologue and Script Revision by Stephen Jeffreys
Dol Common
Abel Drugger
Sir Epicure Mammon
Sir Pertinax Surly
Tribulation Wholesome
Dame Pliant
MARK LOCKYER                              
SIOBHAN McSWEENEY                   

Continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
***** (out of five)

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson is universally accepted as a comic masterpiece but it is a long play and not always easy to absorb all of which provide bad reasons for not producing it very often, especially in Canada.

The Royal Shakespeare Company never shows such squeamishness and it has staged a splendid production of the play in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is directed by Polly Findlay with script revisions by Stephen Jeffreys.

Mark Lockyer as Subtle and Ken Nwosu in The Alchemist. Photo: Helen Maybanks
How do you get what may seem musty and lengthy and make it into a hilarious night at the theatre? If it is too long, you make it shorter. If it seems musty, you blow away its mildew with deletion of incomprehensible references and make judicial changes to render the piece completely intelligible to those who have not studied the text in school. Note the word judicious. The leap from judicious to self-indulgent can land a director and dramaturg on a slippery slope and they can slide into the hoary miasma of egocentricity where they think they can outdo instead of enhance the author.

Findlay and Jeffreys have chosen the judicious route. The Alchemist is about one of the oldest and most reliable subjects of comedy: greed, the crooks who are prepared to dupe the greedy and the greedy who are blinded by their cupidity and become easy victims.

Mark Lockyer as Subtle the alchemist is a chameleon who can convince a knight that he can convert ordinary metal into gold, a tobacconist that he can become a successful businessman and a widow that she can marry a duke. He has Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney) and Face (Ken Nwosu) as his partners and their names describe their characters. They all display mental and physical agility as they deceive their avaricious visitors and argue among themselves lest we consider them better than their dupes. These are people to laugh at and actors to applaud.

The customers are a varied and colourful bunch who deserve what they get. The pathetic Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming) and the ridiculous Kastril (Tom McCall who is allowed to overact to his heart’s content) are easy targets. The knight Sir Epicure Mammon (Ian Redford) who covets gold, pastor Tribulation Wholesome (Timothy Speyer) and deacon Ananias (John Cummins) are classic characters, sharply described in their names and with actors to represent them wonderfully.

Siobhan McSweeney as Dol Common. Photo: Helen Maybanks
We also have the lawyer’s clerk Dapper (Joshua McCord), the gamester Sir Pertinax Surly (Tim Samuels) who wants all the money in the world and the attractively named and fetching Dame Pliant (Rosa Robson) who has the additional and highly desirable qualities of being a widow, rich and not too swift.    

This is the world that Jonson created and Findlay recreates with vigour and fine acting. The duping trio take advantage of a plague that has driven the owner Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) of the house in London to the country. They need to work quickly and efficiently before Lovewit returns and cover their tracks when he does. He does return unexpectedly and the rest is comic chaos.

Designer Helen Goddard keeps stage props to a minimum but there is a trapdoor, some explosions, smoke and use of balconies to create energy and havoc.

Ben Jonson’s play and this production, as all great comedy must, go back to the roots of theatre and the world of today, to give us a great night at the theatre.  

Friday, June 24, 2016


James Karas
The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
in new adaptation by Simon Stephens

Directed by Rufus Norris. Designed by Vicki Mortimer
Music Director David Shrubsole
Captain Machreath aka Mack the Knife
Jonathan Peacham
Polly Peacham
Celia Peacham
Chief Inspector Brown
NICK HOLDER                                                    
SARAH AMANKWAH                            

Continues in repertory at the Olivier Auditorium of the National Theatre
South Bank, London, England
**** (out of five)

The Threepenny Opera is to musical theatre what a butcher’s cleaver is to meat. It cuts through meat and bone with merciless brutality and, to mix metaphors, leaves no prisoners. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill attacked and parodied opera, private property, capitalism, morality and the justice system (the list is incomplete) in decadent and hellish Berlin of the 1920’s with the relish of a butcher chopping a bull. What they did was a violent critique but also an artistic revolution.

Based loosely on John Gay’s The Beggar’s OperaThe Threepenny can be set in any big city but placing it in its home base of East London is just perfect. The National Theatre gives the work a robust production in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens.

Set in the underworld of Victorian England before a coronation, the play deals with the colourful, amoral, vicious criminals, corrupt police and the dregs of society. The music and songs are visceral and in-your-face just like the criminals who dominate society’s leftovers. The current production is not set in any particular period. It could be the late 19th century judging by the long dresses that the women wear but the date is irrelevant.

The opera opens with the familiar and powerful “Ballad of Mack the Knife” sung by George Ikediashi. Then we get down to business with the disgusting Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. Nick Holder as Peachum is overweight, wears a three-piece suit and is the boss of London’s beggars whom he outfits at their cost and collects 50% of their earnings. It is a fine franchise operation, if somewhat monopolistic.

But there is competition in Captain Macheath also known as Mack the Knife (Rory Kinnear). The nicely dressed Mack is cool and efficient and his nickname has the benefit of truth in advertising with the slight drawback of lack of moral content. Kinnear has a very fine voice and he is an exuberant if vicious gentleman compared to Peachum who is somewhat of a pig.

There is a rich collection of colourful characters in this underworld. We have Peachum’s new recruit in the begging business, the pathetic Filch (Sarah Amankwah), his wife Celia Peacham (Haydn Gwynn), his daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig), Chief Inspector Brown (Peter de Jersey) and an assortment of prostitutes and criminals.

The music and the singing are striking, powerful and unsettling. This is the underbelly of London and they want you to know it. The fine cast generates energy, some comic business but overall gives a frightful impression of corruption and human abuse. 

The set by Designer Vicki Mortimer is a ramshackle of boards and covered boxes. There is no attempt at realistic theatre. It could be a warehouse or a rehearsal hall.  

Director Rufus Norris and adapter Simon Stephens make sure that this is in-your-face theatre. They want you to know that they are putting on a show (as did Brecht, of course) and that you are not watching anything resembling a realistic reenactment.

In the end you get a dynamic and vigorous production of a classic with salty language, vibrant singing and immense energy.   

Thursday, June 23, 2016


James Karas
WERTHER  by Jules Massenet
Directed by
Conducted by

Le Bailli
Benoit Jacquot.
Antonio Papano

Jonathan Summers
François Piolino
Yuriy Yurchuk
Emily Edmonds
Vittorio Grigolo
Joyce DiDonato
David Bizic
Heather Engebretson
Continues at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,
London until July 6, 2016

**** (out of five)

Jules Massenet’s Werther starts with a Christmas carol being rehearsed in July and ends with the same carol being sung in December. In between there is high emotion and distraught, unrequited love that results in suicide. That is what sensitive poets did when they fell hopelessly in love and the woman of their soul’s passion was beyond attainment. Well, that’s what happened in the imagination of writers like Goethe in the 18th century but there were also some real life stories.
Joyce DiDonato, Jonathan Summers and Vittorio Grigolo
Werther is a Romantic poet who meets the beautiful Charlotte and he is done for. No sooner does he arrive on the scene than he bursts out with "O Nature, pleine de grâce". He attempts to declare his love to Charlotte only to be told that she is promised to Albert.

There is nothing but despair for Werther. Albert marries Charlotte and Werther sings "Un autre est son époux!" and from there it’s thoughts of suicide: "Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage."

Charlotte has her share of emotionally supercharged singing especially in the Letter Scene and of course the final exit.

I mention these to point out that this opera is an emotional ride that is not easy to take without star-quality singing, Werther the opera may encourage thoughts of Werther the man in the audience. Bur the Royal Opera House would not allow that and for the current revival of  Benoît Jacquot's 2004 production it has struck gold.
The Bailli and his family having fun.
The star power is provided by Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato. Star power is a relationship between audience and singers that turns the potentially lachrymose into the beautifully emotional. It makes you forget the creaky plot of the opera. Grigolo light and agile voice brings splendour and DiDonato is unassailable in her singing of Charlotte, the woman who loves Werther but cannot requite his passion because her high moral standards.

Baritone Jonathan Summers was a resonant and sympathetic character as the Bailli. Serbian baritone David Bizic retains his dignity despite his rising jealousy about his wife and his singing is excellent.

I cannot be as effusive about the set in the first scene. It takes place in the Bailiff’s house where his children are practicing Christmas carols. Are they in the house or in the yard? The set shows a huge gate that looks like the opening to a barn. There is no warmth or homey feeling. The indirect lighting does not help.

The second scene near the church shows a wide-open vista that is quite impressive. The third scene in the wood-panelled room gives a sense of affluence and comfort. The final scene is in Werther’s claustrophobic lodging and it is suitable.     

Massenet’s through-written music is full of emotional intensity, lyricism and longing and Antonio Papano and the fine-tuned ROH Orchestra do not miss a beat.

In short, you get a first-rate production of an opera which has some virtues no doubt but it is doubtful it works its way into the souls of many operaphiles as an absolute favourite.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


James Karas

Sunset at the Villa Thalia
by Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designed by Hildegard Bechtler

Theo                            SAM CRANE
Charlotte                    PIPPA NIXON
Harvey                        BEN MILES     
June                            ELIZABETH McGOVERN                                   
Maria                          GLYKERIA DIMOU                  
Stamatis                      CHRISTOS CALLOW
Agape                          EVE POLYCARPOU

Continues at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre,
South Bank, London England.

*** (out of 5)

A nice English couple meets an ugly American and his wife on a Greek island and the Greeks pay the price. That is a crude summary of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Sunset at the Villa Thalia now playing at the National Theatre in London.

Theo, a playwright, and his wife Charlotte, an actress, are vacationing on the island of Skiathos. They meet Harvey and June, an American couple, who happen to be on the island. The Americans visit the English couple at the house that they are renting. Harvey is loud, aggressive, obnoxious but not stupid. He loves the theatre and is aware of history, democracy and civilization.

Ben Miles, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon.. 
Photo: Jane Hobson/Rex/Shutterstoc
The house is rented from Stamatis and his granddaughter Maria. They are emigrating to Australia and in dire financial straits. Harvey suggests that Theo and Charlotte buy the house at a bargain basement price. Maria does not want to sell because she promised her grandmother to look after the house. Stamatis insists on selling and the English couple buys the house for almost nothing.

Up to this point there are a few decent lines about Greek drinks and a moving scene when Maria tells Charlotte of her feelings for the house and the promise she made to her grandmother.

But it is April 1967. Army tanks roll into downtown Athens and a group of army officers take over the government of Greece. Harvey, we learn, is a U.S. State Department “floater”. We quickly deduce that he is a CIA operative who engineers regime changes in “unfriendly” countries. We also learn that Harvey has heard people being tortured and his conscience bothers him or at least he has difficulty forgetting the high-pitched screams of people subjected to unimaginable pain. He only heard. Never participated, we suppose. When he hears of the coup in Greece he registers no surprise but quickly glances at his watch. Coup d’état on schedule.

Nine years later the two couples meet again on the island. A few things have changed. Charlotte and Theo have a couple of children, the Greek junta is gone and Chile has happened to Harvey. Where was Harvey in the last few years? He was defending democracy in various places but especially in Chile where democracy was restored by overthrowing the elected government, putting an army general in power and having a few people jailed or disappear in the process. It’s all in defence of democracy.

In the nine year interval Theo’s plays have become politicized and Harvey’s and American complicity and duplicity in the defence of democracy have become more egregious, if that is possible. June is aware of a pianist who lived next door to them in Chile who was taken by the police and never seen again. She recalls his mother grieving and wailing for her son. And, by the way, Harvey and June are having marital issues. His conscience still bothers him but there is no evidence that his conviction that what he is doing is right has been dampened at all.

Theo and Charlotte become curious about what happened to Stamatis and Maria in Australia. The result was not pleasant and Maria may have gone into prostitution.

The final scene is a dramatic and unexpected flashback which I will not disclose.

Campbell has added some personal touches to this highly political play. Charlotte is attracted to Harvey and that is why she invited the couple to their home in the first place. Harvey is attracted to Theo but insists that he is not gay. He kisses Theo on the mouth when they depart. The sexual interactions are gratuitous, undeveloped and perhaps unnecessary. I expected someone to jump in bed with someone’s spouse before then end of the play but no one did.

The treatment of the Greeks is patronizing and unacceptable. Stamatis is loud, ill-tempered and almost abusive to his granddaughter. Yes, those colourful Greeks, they make such fine caricatures for English drama. Maria is sweet and submissive but not “one of us” – just an interesting specimen found on a Greek island.

Theo and June are sketched lightly and although they are attractive Campbell does not give them much substance. June with her platinum blonde hair gets credit for enduring her husband’s nightmares and being sexually dumped by him but aside from that she is almost a cardboard figure. Harvey is developed as a classic American who believes that he is in fact fighting the dirty but necessary war to protect our way of life, carrying the burden of the ugly but again necessary side of the struggle but never coming to grips with reality.

A rather sketchy play, decently performed, but if you want to comment on Greece you cannot present Greeks as stage caricatures however well-meant the effort may be.

And a small point: Greece did not remain neutral during World War I. It fought on the side of the Entente.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


James Karas

NABUCCO by Giuseppe Verdi (music) and
Temistocle Solera (libretto)
Conducted by Maurizio Benini
Directed by Daniele Abbado
Designed by Alison Chitty

Nabucco           DIMITRI PLATANIAS
Abigaille           LIUDMYLA MONASTYRSKA                
Zaccaria           JOHN RELYEA
Fenena             JAMIE BARTON
Ismaele            LEONARD CAPALBO
Anna                VLADA BOROVKO
High Priest       DAVID SHIPLEY
Abdallo             SAMUEL SAKKER

Continues until June 30, 2016 at the Royal Opera House
Covent Garden, London

**** (out of five)

Verdi’s first successful opera may not be many people’s favourite but the current Royal Opera House production surely raises the work a few rungs up the ladder of appeal.

The usual formula applies, of course. Great singers, a first rate orchestra and a thrilling chorus. No, I am not forgetting the other ingredients.

Let’s start with the chorus. There are operas where the members of the chorus have a couple of numbers, walk on the stage, sing their piece and are shepherded off to the wings. Not in Nabucco.   Verdi composed some exhilarating pieces for them and I am not referring solely to the all-too-famous Va pensiero. The chorus is bunched up in the centre of the stage when they render the legendary number but it is a mourning piece and does not call for electrifying singing like some of the other choruses. The augmented Royal Opera House Chorus is worth the price of admission alone.
Scene from Nabucco. Photo:Catherine Ashmore
The title role is sung alternately by Placido Domingo, the grand old man of opera and the relative newcomer, Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias making his Royal Opera House role debut.  He gives a signature performance. From the arrogant king to the unhinged ruler and humiliated father, he achieves simply superb vocal resonance and emotional range. Just listen to his delivery of Deh perdona  (Have mercy on a delirious father) where the great king is reduced to begging for mercy for his daughter from a slave who scorns him.

The slave is Abigaille who believes she is Nabucco’s older daughter but discovers that her parentage is less exalted. She is angry, betrayed, passionate, vengeful, destructive and power-hungry. She also has voice-wrecking vocal demands where she must display power, lyricism and perform sudden leaps up the scales. The soprano who tackles the role must deliver a bravura performance and still live to have a long career. Monastyrska does all of that and is unforgettable.

Soprano Jamie Barton is Nabucco’s real daughter and the one who has snatched the tenor. She does not face the same demands as Monastyrska but she gives a praiseworthy performance. Tenor Leonard Capalbo gives a fine accounting of himself in the role of Ismaele.

Canadian bass John Relyea sings the role of the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria. His deep voice resonates superbly and impressively. Listen to his magnificent rendition of Del future nel bujo   (In the obscure future), his rousing sermon to the Hebrews that stirs defiance against their enemies.

Director Daniele Abbado and Designer Alison Chitty have opted for a production that has modern overtones especially with the issue of displaced people and refugees. The costumes are modern and I felt that the direction given was “come as you are and bring your children for good measure.” That is not as bad as it sounds because ordinary dress is quite suitable and many of the refugees one sees on television are not dressed better or worse than what one sees on stage at the Royal Opera House. Children are very much a part of the refugee problem and having a few of them on stage was á propos.

The set consisted of rectangular rocks and sand for much of the production. There was judicious use of projections (designed by Luca Scarzella) to dramatize some aspects of the production.

The concept behind the productions seems sound but I am not sure that the execution of it matched the intent.

Benini conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with the vigour and discipline that the music and concept of the opera demand. It was an outstanding performance.