Thursday, January 18, 2018

CELL MATES – REVIEW OF HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Simon Gray was a prolific playwright who wrote a few good plays and many mediocre ones. Cell Mates was produced in 1995 directed by Gray and may have been ready for a decent run until the star, Stephen Fry, walked out after a few performances. The play had not been performed again until Hampstead Theatre picked it up last year for a production directed by Edward Hall.

It is an interesting situation based on fact. In October 1966, George Blake escaped from London’s Wormswood Scrubs Prison and flew to Moscow. He had been a double agent spying for the Soviet Union and Britain and was sentenced to 42 years in prison.

His escape was engineered by a petty criminal with some literary talent, an embittered Irishman named Sean Bourke. Bourke had help from Russian agents and he was lured to Moscow by Blake where he stayed for a number of years against his will.
 Geoffrey Streatfeild, left, as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke. Photo Marc Brenner
Blake, played by Geoffrey Streatfeild, is reserved, diffident, elegantly dressed and the image of the English gentleman. He is also a traitor who does not think much of human life. He knows of the millions that have been butchered by the Communists but he is ready to rationalize everything with the hackneyed metaphor that if you want to make an omelet you have to crack some eggs. It is all in support of the creation of “the country of the future” he tells us several times and that country of course is the Soviet Union.

Sean Bourke (Emmet Byrne) is a petty criminal who drinks too much and tries desperately to get out of Moscow but his “friend” Blake who owes his escape to him tells him that the KGB wants him to stay there.

Blake and Bourke are fascinating characters and the situation is of great interest but Gray does not quite bring it off. The two Soviet KGB men are out of a B movie. Viktor (Danny Lee Wynter) and Stan (Philip Bird) are menacing by profession but making Viktor sound like a poor imitation of Peter Lorre goes over the top into banality.

The leave-stay scenario with Bourke runs out of steam and when he starts singing “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the housekeeper Zinaida (Cara Horgan) you know that Gray is struggling for things to say.
 
Danny-Lee-Wynter, Philip-Bird, Geoffrey-Streatfeild, and Emmet-Byrne. 
Photo-by-Marc-Brenner
Blake wants Bourke to believe that the KGB men are cold blooded killers and they will not hesitate to snuff him if he disobeys them. What is difficult to believe is that despite that type of atmosphere both men have bulky tape recorders (it’s 1966) and they are recording their thoughts and their plans. Are they completely stupid?
The set in the first scene consists of a Spartan office in the prison that Blake occupies as the prison literary magazine and in the second scene it is an ordinary flat. From then on, the men are housed in a well-furnished apartment in Moscow with a housekeeper and plenty of champagne and vodka.

I will not divulge the ending because despite its shortcomings, the play is worth seeing. Streatfeild and Byrne do a fine job and Hall deserves to be credited with doing a good job with them. The KGB men with their bad Russian accents need some fine tuning even if they look as if they are straight from Central Casting.       
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Cell Mates by Simon Gray continues until January 20, 2018 at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, England. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA AND ROUNDHOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Royal Opera and Roundhouse have teamed up for an intriguing production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It is done at the Roundhouse and the shape of the theatre sets the tone, indeed shapes the entire production.

As its name indicates, The Roundhouse is a theatre in the round. The stage for The Return resembles a donut with the orchestra being placed in the hole. The action takes place on the perimeter of the donut of course as the singers make use of all the available space in the circle. The opera is sung in English and surtitles are displayed above the playing area.
 
The donut for the The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse. 
The use of a circular playing area provides for considerable mobility in an opera that can be quite static. With the orchestra being in the middle, it has a close relationship with the audience and provides a more intimate feel. There are no sets or props, of course, but the immediacy of the action makes up for that.

Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro uses a conventional retelling of the return of Ulysses as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Monteverdi included personifications of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, Love and Minerva but their appearance in this production is mercifully short while a number of other deities have been deleted.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was scheduled to sing Penelope but she lost her voice several days before opening night and the role was sung by Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup. Rice walked the role and Hulcup sang from the orchestra pit. The arrangement worked quite well partly because of the position of the orchestra. Hulcup appeared relaxed and she sang beautifully. She has some luscious low notes and a splendid midrange to deliver a fine Penelope if only vocally.

The cast of a dozen singers and a large chorus perform quite well but there is some unevenness in the singing. Baritone Roderick Williams sings the heroic if initially abused Ulysses who can only reveal himself in the last scenes as the powerful warrior and loving husband of Penelope.
 Ulysses and Minvera, Photo ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey
The youthful tenor Samuel Boden arrives on a bicycle built for two to sing the role of Telemachus. He has a delicate voice and made a fine son of our hero.

Mezzo Catherine Carby with a gold breastplate to inform us that she is the goddess of war Minerva exerts power – vocal and physical - and helps Telemachus. You can’t miss her.

As we all know, Penelope was besieged by a herd of suitors who wanted to replace the long-missing king. Monteverdi gives three samples of them: Tenor Nick Pritchard as Amphinomus, countertenor Tai Oney as Peisander and bass Davis Shipley as Antinous. The three baddies cover the main voice ranges and they all get their comeuppance. Monteverdi also adds Irus, a parasite, who has balloons stuffed under his clothes and looks like the Goodyear blimp. He is sung and acted well by tenor Stuart Jackson.

Ulysses has faithful servants such as the elderly and faithful Eurycleia (mezzo Susan Bickley), Eurymachus (tenor Andrew Tortise), the shepherd Eumaeus (tenor Mark Milhofer) and Melantho (soprano Francesca Chiejina). Except for the latter who plots to get one of the suiters, the rest are sympathetic figures.

The Orchestra of Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnym played with exemplary fluidity the music of Monteverdi. 

Director John Fulljames had his hands full trying to organize and direct movement around a moving circle. There was a certain fluidity to the movement of the singers but there were times when some entrances and exits were not clear. Still Fulljames deserves credit for doing well in a tough situation.

The costunes by Kimie Nakano were a grab-bag of clothes that seemed to belong to no era that I could recognize. The women wore mostly black skirts. The servants wore servant’s uniforms and the men struck me as wearing whatever they showed up in for the performance.

The translation by Christopher Cowell worked reasonably well with the usual limitation of trying to sing in English a libretto that was written in Italian.

In any event, this Return had mostly positive features and many unique ones that made for a very fine night at the opera.
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The Return of Ulysses  by Claudio Monteverdi opened on January 10 and will be performed eight times until January 20, 2018 at the at the Roundhouse, Camden London. www.roh.org.uk or www.roundhouse.org.uk

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

JULIUS CAESAR – REVIEW OF ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has brought last summer’s productions of Shakespeare’s Roman plays from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s Barbican Theatre.

Angus Jackson’s production of Julius Caesar is inept and disappointing for a number of reasons and one wonders why none of them were avoided.

We first see the plebeians dressed in a grab bag of costumes playing and celebrating in the streets of Rome. The Tribunes Flavius (Marcellus Walton) and Murullus (David Burnett) admonish them. They speak slowly, deliberately and distinctly which is perhaps not the tone most appropriate for upbraiding someone. But so be it.
 
Andrew Woodall as Julius Caesar (centre) 
Photo © Royal Shakespeare Company / Helen Maybanks
We soon meet Cassius (Martin Hutson) who wants to draw in Brutus (Alex Waldmann) into a murderous conspiracy. Cassius glances around furtively now and then but he does not sound conspiratorial at all. He and Brutus speak slowly and distinctly as do most of the actors. In fact they speak so slowly and distinctly with so little modulation, that they all sounded as if they are doing a read through of the script with little attention to much of anything except the words. Is this a high school production or young actors getting used to speaking Shakespearean English?

Most of the conspirators are very young. We expect Brutus to fit the description of a highly respected statesman. He is not. Waldmann walks like an awkward teenager with his body weaving from side to side. Where is his gravitas?

Cassius appears half-naked during the storm. Yes the text hints at it but surely it can be taken metaphorically instead of letting him appear like an idiot.

When all the conspirators except Brutus have stabbed Caesar, he turns towards his beloved Brutus and says one of the most famous line in Shakespeare: “Et tu, Brute.” These words are uttered, I suggest, after Brutus has stabbed Caesar. In this production, they are said before. Caesar may know that Brutus will stab him but how can he be sure that his friend will not do it?

We slog through the text as if walking through mud for about one hour and a half and get a break when Brutus is about to address the crowd following the assassination. It is a very long one and a half hours. By the way when Mark Antony asks to have a word with Brutus following the stabbing, the audience laughed.

When Cassius said that the “lofty scene” i.e. the assassination shall be acted over in many ages hence in states unborn, the audience laughed again.

The rate of speaking picks up some speed in the second half. James Corrigan does a good job as Mark Antony with “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” Kristin Atherton was an effective Calpurnia and Hannah Morrish was fine as Portia.

The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is of the monumental style with huge columns. There is nothing wrong with that type of image of imperial Rome and it may be okay for Republican Rome in its final days.

It did not hurt or help a production that was a bore.
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Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare continues until January 20, 2018 at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, England. www.rsc.org.uk.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

SALOME – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S PRODUCTION AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

The Royal Opera House has revived David McVicar’s 2008 production of Salome to good effect. McVicar shows originality, creativity and attention to detail that make established operas appear fresh and highly exciting.

The atmosphere of the current production done in modern dress (tuxedos, elegant gowns, khaki for the soldiers and traditional clothes for servants) ranges from a high-toned party thrown by Herod to the highly erotic and somewhat lewd atmosphere in the dungeon below where St. John the Baptist is guarded. More below.
 Michael Volle as Jokanaan, Malin Byström as Salome © ROH/Clive Barda
We get a glimpse of the posh affair situated at the top of the stage and reached by a grand staircase on our right. The dungeon has exposed cement walls and a steel cover over the cistern in which Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. All of the action of the opera takes place in the dungeon, of course, but McVicar and Designer Ed Devlin want us to know of the decadent world of Tetrarch Herod and his cronies.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström who has made a name as a lyric soprano tackled the dramatic role of Salome with superlative results. Salome is disgusted by the leering of her stepfather Herod (John Daszak) who killed her father and is married to her mother. And she has developed a passion for the imprisoned John the Baptist. The more he rejects her, the more impassioned she becomes and expresses her unrequited love for him with ever-increasing ferocity. Byström has a plush and powerful voice and the ability to confront all these vocal and acting demands.

She gives a magnificent performance of the power of irrational love that has taken a grip over her. She agrees to dance for Herod provided he will give her whatever she wants. Here is the disappointing part of the evening. Malin Byström can’t dance. She runs across the stage, she twirls a veil and dances a few steps with Herod. Even imaginative video projections can’t hide the fact that she is not a good dancer and all we can do is settle for Strauss’s music. McVicar wants us to believe that this is a journey into Salome’s past and her troubled childhood that traumatized her. OK. Good try.
 Duncan Meadows as the Executioner and Malin Byström as Salome in Salome (ROH)© Clive Barda
Tenor John Daszak looked hormonally possessed and menacing as he tried to seduce Salome and was forced to promise “anything” to the more powerfully possessed Salome. The matronly and fine-voiced Herodias of Michaela Schuster suffered the double humiliation of being thrown over and for her daughter at that.

Powerhouse singing is required from the Baptist and Michael Volle provided the requisite vocal ammunition. Looking like a wild man, he heaps scorn on all the sinners who are not aware that the Son of God is on earth. He is especially vehement towards Salome which increases her obsession and the tension between the two. Volle dominates the stage when he is singing and makes a superb duo with Byström.

McVicar is attracted by the contrast between the coarse and the genteel. While the sophisticated party is going on above in Herod’s quarters, we see a nude woman in the dungeon who appears scantily dressed a number of times. There is an Executioner (Duncan Meadows) who looks like Atlas holding the world in his powerful hands and he is buck naked. All of which pales in comparison with the ultimate scene where Salome fulfils her sexual passion for the Baptist by kissing his severed head on the lips.

David Butt Philp sings a delicate Narraboth who is in love with Salome. Louise Armit sings the role of Herodias’s slave who is in love with Narraboth. They are small roles but McVicar makes the most of them.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to great effect with Strauss’s commanding and very difficult music.
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Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 8 and will be performed seven tomes until January 30, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

Friday, January 12, 2018

THE FERRYMAN – REVIEW OF GREAT PRODUCTION OF BUTTERWORTH’S PLAY

Reviewed by James Karas

The Ferryman is theatre on a grand scale. English playwright Jez Butterworth manages to deal with national issues and personal histories seamlessly, brilliantly and deftly so as to produce a superb play. The play is about the execution of a man that Butterworth expands into almost all the history of the occupation of Ireland by the English and especially the Time of Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and later It is also about the history of a large family which stands for the tragedy of individuals and the story of Northern Ireland.

All of this takes place in about a day in the kitchen of the Carney family on a farm in County Armagh in Northern Ireland at the end of August, 1981. 

The play opens dramatically. The well-preserved body of a man is found in bog water. It is that of Seamus Carney who was shot in the back of the head in 1971. Two tough guys interrogate Father Horrigan and the third, Muldoon, demands that the priest tell him what Seamus’s brother reveals to the priest during confession.

Thus begins the multi-layered and complex saga of the relations between England and the IRA and the story of the large Carney family that is caught in the middle. One may well say that the story really began with the crime of the invasion of Ireland by the English many centuries ago. The Irish at first and then the Catholics of Northern Ireland demanded some rights. The English responded with suppression, intimidation, imprisonment, torture and shooting.

The IRA responded with hunger strikes, terrorism and murder. The murders are not confined to the English alone. They murder their own if they suspect them of disloyalty or treachery. Combined with religious intolerance, the situation provides a perfect definition of barbarism.

Quinn (Will Houston) and Mary (Catherine McCormack) Carney have seven children ranging in ages from a few months to sixteen years. They also have the garrulous Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who is usually very far away but does have moments of lucidity and the tough and crotchety Aunt Patricia (Dearbhila Molloy).

Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene), the widow of Seamus and the sister-in-law of Quinn, plays a central role in the play. She has to deal with the lies about the death of her husband, her son, her relationship with Quinn and her intuitive intelligence about the whole situation.

It is the day of harvest and the Carneys and the young Corcorans are eating, laughing and preparing for the joyous harvest. At the same time the news of the discovery of Seamus’s body and the possible consequences for the family and the IRA are being revealed. The complex facts unfold slowly, dramatically, interspersed with humour, dancing and singing.   There are intricate issues of morality, of pride, of freedom, of murder and of simple lying. The murderous Muldoon (Stuart Graham), arrogant, cold-blooded, a man who is possessed by the cause he represents and would kill without mercy, appears again.   

The charade of lies is slowly discarded until the play comes to an intensely dramatic end that leaves you stunned and breathless.

There are times when most of the large cast of twenty-two actors is on stage which, except for the first scene, is the Carney’s kitchen. Director Sam Mendes has no difficulty handling the crowd. Better still his deft directing brings out all the drama, humour and tragedy of the personal and national tragedies to the fore.

The ensemble and individual acting never fall below superb. Sarah Greene and Will Houston are outstanding in their portrayal of the people most deeply affected by the surfacing of Seamus’s body. Their relationship is a key element in the play and Greene outshines all the others.

The ferryman of the title refers to the boatman of classical mythology who transports the souls of the dead across the River Styx to Hades. The image adds to the epic proportion of the play and the grandness of the themes that it deals with. Indeed the plot unfolds like a Homeric epic and The Ferryman provides a great night at the theatre.  
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The Ferryman  by Jez Butterworth continues until May 19, 2018 (and its run may well be extended) at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave. London, England.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

HEISENBERG – REVIEW OF LONDON PRODUCTION OF STEPHENS’ PLAY

James Karas

In Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg, Georgie, an attractive woman of forty-two, is having a relationship with Alex, a man of seventy-five. She is searching for her 19-year old son and she cannot find him. She stumbles onto Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and explains to Alex that if you watch something closely you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there. It seems to apply to her search for her son and to life in general.

Stephens uses the uncertainty principle as the background, brilliantly and unobruseivly, as he constructs his play that deals with the rather unusual relationship of Georgie and Alex.
 
 Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in 'Heisenberg' © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Georgie kisses the back of Alex’s neck in a railway station in London. We do not see her kissing him but a conversation ensues that leads to their extraordinary bond. She tells him she is a waitress who was previously married and has a son. She describes trips abroad and delicious foods that lead her to farway places by their taste alone. In the following scene, she tells Alex that hse was never married, that she works as a receptionist and that she has never travelled to the exotic places that she mentioned.

Alex is a articulate, musically cultured and intelligent butcher. He is reserved and has some difficuly comprehending the behavious of this vivacious and attractive woman.

Georgie finds Alex’s butcher shop and visits him there and they go out for dinner. Their relationship progresses to the point where she suggest that they have sex. They do and the relationship is maintained but there is a sense of unreality about it and everything around them.
 
Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in 'Heisenberg' © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
Heisenberg portrays a delicate and intricate bond between two people that develops accidentally  or perhaps purposefully. There is no reality because there is no certainty or uncertainty is reality and we have no way of knowing anythind different. 

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham give nuanced, finely tuned performances as they banter, connect, love and live in a world of unreality.

Director Marianne Elliott handles the complexity and delicacy of the play with precision and care. With designer Bunnie Chistie and Movement Director Steven Hoggett, she accentuates the unreality of the play by providing balletic movements between scenes and using appropriate lighting and stage effects.

The bench, the bed, the desk and the stools used in the play are all white and they are brought up from the stage floor and disappear there when there is a scene change. The lighting suggests movement as if we were is a lab.

Werner Heisenberg may have been on the verge of developing the atomic bomb for Hitler’s Germany but that is very controversial. He did get the Nobel Prize for physics.       
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 Heisenberg by Simon Stephens ran until January 6, 2018 at  Wyndham’s Theatre, London, England. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

RIGOLETTO – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S ORGY AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

Imagine Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Roy Moore and a couple of dozen other sexual predators with women available to them in a milieu where they are the law unto themselves. The result would be an orgy where the men can use and abuse the women as if they were objects and discard them at will.

That describes the opening scene of Rigoletto as directed by David McVicar in a revival of his 2001 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. When the lights go on, a disheveled woman comes out holding her clothes against her body. She starts crying and we know that she has just been raped or at least sexually abused. We will soon learn that she is the daughter of the courtier Monterone in the court of the Duke of Mantua where an orgy is in progress. The predatory men chase woman, grab them sexually, simulate coitus and act in an animalistic manner that is as frightful as it is abhorrent.

The women’s breasts are exposed, one man is undressed completely and the courtiers crawl on all fours as if they are jackals. Rigoletto ridicules Monterone about his daughter’s and his humiliation. Monterone’s daughter on stage is McVicar’s invention and we will see her several times crouching on the floor and being abused by the pigs of Mantua. She is damaged goods and men can do whatever their animalism inspires and their imagination conceives.
Dimitri Platanias and cast of Rigoletto. Photo: Mark Douet
Rigoletto is about the Duke’s deformed court jester who amuses his lecherous employer by ridiculing the other courtiers. It is a bad job for a man who is hiding his beautiful daughter from the moral black hole of the court.

The production has an extraordinary cast that fulfills the vocal and emotional requirements of the opera to the hilt. Baritone Dimitri Platanias has a big voice that can express contempt and deep emotion with exceptional resonance. This Rigoletto, in addition to being hunchbacked, has crippled legs and needs two canes to hobble around the stage. He expresses his scorn and ridicule of the courtiers, his deep love of his daughter Gilda, his terror at being cursed and his hatred (a major gamut of emotions) with astonishing finesse and range.

Soprano Lucy Crowe as Gilda is the picture of beauty, innocence, indeed purity, with her blonde hair and simple but attractive white dress. No wonder the Duke says he is in love with her. Crowe matches those physical attributes with a clarion voice of splendor and luster.

Tenor Michael Fabiano as the Duke and chief predator is completely amoral and feels entitled to do whatever he wants with whoever he wants. Fabiano’s vocal power and strutting leave no doubt about the Duke’s abusive abilities. He has a strong voice that he commands like a fine-tuned instrument. A delight to the ears.
 Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto © Mark Douet
Bass Andrea Mastroni has a deep, sonorous voice quite becoming to a principled assassin who provides a public service. Well, sort of, but if you must hire one, go to him as Sparaficile but make sure his sister, the slutty Maddalena (well dome by Nadia Krasteva) is on holiday in Bulgaria.

The set by Michael Vale is in keeping with McVicar’s raunchy interpretation. The ducal palace looks more like a large steel shed. There is not a single indication of elegance or wealth let alone civilization. Sparafucile’s place of business is understandably grungy and his street office is logically in the down-market part of town.    

I should note that the revival director is Justin Way. Stats-crazy operaphiles, may want to know that McVicar’s 2001 production has been revived seven times. The most recent revival before the current one was in 2014.      

Alexander Joel led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a vigorous performance of the score in a richly thought out, nuanced and superb production of Verdi’s chestnut.

And if you don’t see this production, you will have to settle for lurid stories about American politicians, business executives and stars without the benefit of music, singing and a great night at the opera.
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave continues with some cast changes until January 16, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk