Wednesday, March 26, 2014



 Reviewed by James Karas

Watching La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I was struck by the similarities between opera and Olympic figure skating. You see the handsome couple glide around the ice surface, leap gracefully in the air, twirl several times and land as if they were snowflakes falling to the ground.

We enjoy all of it but most attention is paid to those difficult moves, those twirls and those landings. One mistake and farewell medal contention.

La Fille has broad comedy, splendid music and some of the toughest arias in the repertoire. Donizetti was not satisfied with just a work of melodies and comic business – he wanted vocal gymnastics. What else would you call nine high Cs in one aria alone?

In the current production, as in the Olympics, there is stiff competition. In this case it is Canada v. Peru. You will recall, the Canadian pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir giving a breathtaking performance at Sochi. With utter objectivity, good faith and sound judgment, we expected them to win gold. They were pitch perfect in their singing …er …skating, got all the high notes (OK, there were a couple of booboos, but the others were worse) and in the end Canada ended up with silver.

The tenor in La Fille who belted out the nine high Cs for the first four performances of the current revival of Laurent Pelly’s production was Peruvian superstar Juan Diego Flórez. For the final two performances, the role was sung by Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun. Like most of the Canadian team at Sochi, Antoun is a Quebecois. The Peruvian has sung the role of Tonio umpteen times, in fact he sang it at the Met in 2008 and that performance was broadcast around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. The audience could not stop applauding at the time. It was like watching those Russian gymnasts who dominate that sport as if they own it.

Antoun was making his debut at Covent Garden and one could compare the standoff between Canada and Peru like a David and Goliath match of the vocal chords. Before we get to the singing pyrotechnics, the defining twirls in the air, so to speak, we listen with pleasure to Antoun skating around his notes with grace, and beauty. We notice that his partner Marie (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) has a big and marvelous voice. She brings energy and vocal resonance to a delightful Marie. Her voice is just a bit bigger than our Canadian hero’s.

We arrive at the crucial test of the high Cs in Tonio’s first act aria “Pour mon âme” and hold our breath. Will Canada best Peru? With poise and ease, Antoun leaps once, twice … nine times and does not miss a single beat. The audience, those relentless judges, roars its approval. In the medals ceremony, alas, as happened to Tessa and Scott the gold medal went to the Peruvian. As gracious Canadians, we accept the result but do not give up.

La Fille, as its name states, contains a regiment and Choreographer Laura Scozzi has created dance routines and comic business around Donizetti’s boisterous music.

Contralto Ewa Podleś played La Marquise de Berkenfeld. She is a crusty old woman and Podleś enjoyed showing off her low notes and indeed getting a laugh out of them. That is what a good singer/actor does in a comic opera – sing well and evoke laughter.

Pietro Spagnoli has better vocal power than comic talent, or at least he was not allowed to display the latter. Pelly had him play more a straight man than a broadly comic character.

Dame Kiri te Kanawa made a cameo appearance as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. She did some vocalizing, sang an aria, did some comic business and the audience loved her. She just turned 70 and nothing other than appreciation and applause are called for.

The set by Chantal Thomas consisted of indications of a mountainous area covered by maps in the first act and wood-paneled opulence in the second act.

Pelly moved the action from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The reason escapes me. War as fun and glory never existed but one is more ready to accept it as myth in the Tyrolean Alps of two hundred years ago than in the trenches of the Great War one hundred years ago. Christian Räth was the revival director.    

Despite the World War I setting, including a tank, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production be it with Flores or Antoun.

But one of my convictions is absolute and unshakeable: Tessa and Scott should have gotten the gold medal at the Olympics. As for Juan Diego, it won’t be too long before Canada produces a tenor who will consider nine high Cs in an aria as a mere warm up. And the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup!


La Fille du Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti was performed six times between March 3 and 18, 2014 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.


Thursday, March 20, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

As the curtain goes up on Un Ballo in Maschera in Ljubljana, we see a huge staircase with three landings occupying almost the entire stage. We are listening to the overture as eight men dressed in white military uniforms emerge furtively from trapdoors in various areas of the stairs. They have their pistols out and are looking for someone. They reach the bottom of the stairs, find a chair and as they point their guns, notice that it is empty. They disperse as the overture ends.

This is the dramatic curtain-raiser that Director Vinko Möderndorfer and Set Designer Branko Hojnik have devised for Ballo. They want to emphasize the conspiratorial aspect of the opera where a few men can collude in the murder a ruler. More about this later.

Möderndorfer and dramaturge Blaž Lukan have brought the plot to a modern setting with a powerful civic leader, Riccardo, rather than an Earl or a King as in the original and revised versions. In the original version, the main character was a Swedish king but a hypersensitive censor forced Verdi to make him the Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, where it was presumably more acceptable to murder a high-ranking official.

The production has several alternate casts but I saw the opening night performers on March 13, 2014. Two singers stood out: tenor Branko Robinšak as Riccardo and soprano Natalia Ushakova as Amelia.

Robinšak has a marvelous lyric voice and he handled the role of Riccardo with ease. He has to be generous, passionate and remorseful as he pursues illicitly but ardently his friend’s wife (wearing the mask of a friend, of course) and gives her up with her virtue intact. Robinšak shows vocal flair and gives us a fine Riccardo.

Ushakova makes a moving and very effective Amelia. She was fine throughout but rose to the heights in “Morró, ma prima in grazia,” her emotional aria where she begs her furious husband Renato to let her see her son before he kills her for her suspected infidelity.

Baritone Jože Vidic seemed to be doing a workmanlike job as Renato until Act III where in “Eri bu che macchiavi” he bursts out with such passion and marvelous singing that his performance becomes anything but workmanlike. The joy of his life loathsomely poisoned everything and Renato expresses the ultimate loss of his life through the treachery of those he loved most: his wife and his dearest friend. 

The sorceress Ulrica emerges from the crevice between the divided stairs and looks as if she is materializes from the underworld. The stage is darkened and the conspirators lurk ominously around the stage. Slovenian mezzo soprano Mirjam Kalin looks very dramatic and acts as such but her singing was not as convincing.

The conspiratorial appearance of the officers led by Samuel (Saša Čano) and Tom (Peter Martinčič) during the overture gives way to the brilliant scene in the court or residence of Riccardo. Almost everyone is wearing white and it is a brilliant scene. For the second scene, the stairs are pulled apart in the centre, as I said, creating a dark path through which Ulrica enters. It is a dark, mysterious and dramatic scene.

The same stairs are moved to the side to create the grisly execution area where Amelia goes looking for the magic herb to kill her illicit love for Riccardo. About a dozen or so decaying corpses are lowered on the stage making the place indeed gruesome. The final scene is the masked ball where the colour red is emphasized, including the uniforms of the conspirators. Again, a brilliant tableau.

Against the usual advice about not putting children or animals on stage, Möderndorfer puts a child on stage (Amelia’s son) who is cute and steals the scene. When the men must choose who will kill Riccardo, they put their names in a toy truck. The little is asked to draw a name and he picks his father as the killer. A terrific and imaginative touch.

Conductor Marko Gašperšič took a very deliberate approach to the score and the small orchestra performed well.

Möderndorfer took possession of Ballo and gave us a fresh, imaginative, effective and exceptional production.

Un Ballo in Maschera by Giuseppe Verdi opened on March 13 and continues until March 25, 2014 at the SNG Opera in balet, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Director Bepi Morassi gives an energetic and well-sung production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. The sets are kept to a minimum but spirits are high, the singing is generally excellent and the orchestra of La Fenice is in superb form.

Morassi and Set Designer Lauro Crisman have draped off the top and sides of the stage, lopping off about a third of the playing area. This gives the effect of a miniature theatre and the feel that you are watching a delightful play in intimate surroundings. The relatively small and ornate La Fenice helps in creating and sustaining the impression.

The set for the opening street scene where Count Almaviva (Giorgio Misseri) courts the beautiful Rosina (Marina Comparato) is sparse and almost papier mâché in keeping with the miniature theatre idea. The reduced playing area means that the set for the rest of the opera is also limited but elegant.

That sets the stage for opera buffo fun. Tenor Misseri’s approach to his role is not just lively, it is downright athletic. Not just physically, I mean vocally as well. He does not just hit his high notes, he leaps to them with fervor.

He is well-partnered by South Korean baritone Julian Kim as Figaro. In keeping with Morassi’s approach, the youthful Kim attacked the role of the wily barber with vigour and relish and sang superbly. “Largo al factotum” and largo al Julian Kim.

Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato sang the lively and lovely Rosina. Comparato has a lush voice with a beautiful mid-range and an amazing low register. Fair enough that with that type of range, she is not at her best with high notes. But she is and amazing mezzo in the middle and lower registers. And as the decisive, self-assured and I-get-what-I-want young lady, she is just the type of girl you want to love.

The opera is a non-stop conveyor of melodious arias, ensembles and comedy but there are two set pieces that I wait especially to see: Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” and the Music Lesson. “Una voce” defines Rosina’s character and the singer’s ability to handle all of Rossini’s embellishments. Here Comparato was not at her best when she had to deal with those high notes.

The Music Lesson is full of comedy and melody as the two lovers furtively express their feelings, sing beautifully and fool Bartolo as to what they are really up to. Delightful.

In Bartolo Basilio and Berta, Rossini provides three relatively minor but very juicy roles. Each is provided with comic business so necessary to the opera and an opportunity to show off their vocal dexterity.

Baritone Omar Montanari is Rosina’s foolish guardian Bartolo who wants to marry her. The old boob (Bartolo, not Montanari who seems quite young) is set up as the butt of the romantic liaison between Rosina and Almaviva. Montanari is very adept as a comic and as a singer.

Bass-baritone Luca Dall’Amico is Bartolo’s sidekick, Basilio. The tall singer with his flaxen hair in the role reminded me of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s sidekick in Twelfth Night. Dall’Amico gets to sing “La calumnia,” one of the famous arias in the opera and the repertoire and he handles the crescendos with aplomb. He also does his comic business well.      
Bartolo’s maid Berta is given some comic business and a nice aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” and soprano Giovanna Donadini does well in both.

Giovanni Battista Rigon conducted the Teatro La Fenice Orchestra with verve and every crescendo got its due in a splendid afternoon at the opera.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia  by Gioachino Rossini is being performed eight times bteween Feebruary 20 and March 20, 2014 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.


Monday, March 17, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Hammersmith is nowhere near Ancient or Modern Athens but that is where you have to go to see one of the finest productions of Greek tragedy. Director Anastasia Revi has captured all the essential elements of Athenian drama in her recreation of Medea, a production that takes some liberties with the text but remains fundamentally faithful to Euripides’s play.

Ancient tragedy contained music, singing and dancing in addition to the script or libretto, if you will. Except for the few scripts that have been miraculously saved, we know precious little of how the plays were in fact produced and why Athenians went to the theatre in the pre-dawn hours by the tens of thousands.

Revi provides her personal view and it is convincing and brilliant. Her Medea is a gypsy who married a Greek. A gypsy is, of course, a foreigner, an outsider as was Euripides’s Medea who came from the eastern shore of the Black Sea (think of Sochi) when she fell in love with Jason who just stole the Golden Fleece.

Revi’s production opens with a wedding. A young man is pawing his bride, the bridesmaids are having fun and an older man is enjoying the event as well. Above them all is a woman dressed in black with her back turned to the party. We hear melodious and pleasant Mediterranean music.

None of this is in the play but it fits completely as a prologue. Then the Nurse (Helen Bang) speaks the first lines of Euripides’s play in the excellent translation of Ian Johnson. We quickly learn that the groom of the prologue is Jason (Tobias Deacon) getting married to Glauce (Denise Moreno). The other man is her father King Creon (George Siena).

Jason is already married to Medea and they have two sons. His marriage to a foreigner is not valid and he is marrying the daughter of the king for obvious reasons. Medea is quite angry, to use an understatement.

Glauce does not appear in Euripides play but Revi adds her without disturbing the integrity of the play. She appears again in her wedding veil when the Messenger is describing her hideous death. She acts out the description of her death in a brilliant coup de théâtre by Revi.

Revi tightens up the play by doing away with the Tutor and giving some of his lines to the Nurse and having the children appear only imaginatively. They are made quite real by Medea walking on stage with their shoes strung around her neck after she murdered them. Another brilliant directorial touch.

Because of the long choral passages and speeches, Greek drama can easily descend into static and often boring recitatives. Revi will have none of that. The play is choreographed from simple body movements of the Chorus of three young women, to more complex dances. When Jason visits Medea, the scene becomes one of sexual passion and erotic dancing using two folding tables as props. It explains what brought the Greek and the gypsy together.

Medea becomes almost raving mad as she plots the death of Glauce and the murder of her children. As she crouched on the floor filled with grief for her children, we hear a gorgeous obbligato sung in Modern Greek. One can barely make it out but it is a nanourisma, a lullaby that a mother would sing to her children when putting them to bed.

Kaminsky plays a brilliant Medea. She is not a young woman in contrast well with Glauce, her replacement who is young and pretty. This Medea is passionate, cunning, angry and full of hatred. She speaks with an accent that I can only describe as Mediterranean but she slides out of it during her more dramatic moments. We are so enthralled with what she is doing, we hardly notice it.

Deacon is a playboy Jason. He has to do what he has to do but he will never forget Medea and his children, he tells us. He does have a very dramatic scene when he finds out their fate and does a fine job in Revi’s view of the character.

George Siena plays Creon, the Messenger and Aegeus and does a very good job. Helen Bang is equally good as the Nurse.

The Chorus (Denise Munro, Laura Morgan and Charlotte Gallagher) comes in for special praise both for the performances of the three women and the conception of Revi. They provide movement and poetry and, as I said, solve one of the major issues of producing Greek drama.

The music and musicians deserve special mention and praise. The music of Daemonia Nymphe (Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou) forms an essential part of the production. We are not talking about a few dissonant chords at lengthy intervals but music that is an essential part of the production.

If you have solved the delivery of text, the choral and musical aspects of a Greek tragedy, you have gone a long way into grasping what those early risers may have seen on the foothills of the Acropolis in 431 B.C.         

Medea  by Euripides in a translation by Ian Johnson opened on March 7 and will play until March 22, 2014 at the Riverside Studios, Crisp Street, Hammersmith, London, England.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

One benchmark for the quality of a play or of a production is how much you can enjoy the second or third time you read or see the work. This is even more critical when you know the play well and whose dramatic effect depends to a significant extent on not knowing how it will end.

Anyone who has seen the film version or a stage production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men will recall that it is about twelve jurors who must decide the guilt or innocence of a young black boy who stabbed his father. Eleven of them, gathered in a sweltering jury room in New York, have no doubt about the guilt of the accused and are quite prepared to send him to the electric chair. One juror has some questions that he wants clarified.

The result is an explosive drama that comes down to a dramatic resolution in the last minutes of the play. If you do not know the jury’s final decision, you are in for a treat. If you do know it, you will still experience a searing drama as if you had never seen the play before. That is the effect of the current production at the Garrick Theatre in London.

Twelve Angry Men started as a TV script but was re-written for the stage in 1955 and, in addition to the superb drama, it gives a snapshot of American society of that era. Some people may say that very little has changed.

Juror 8, played by Marty Shaw, (the characters have no names – just numbers and it can be annoying) is a gruff-looking but soft-spoken architect who has some questions about the guilt or innocence of the accused. He does not express doubts nor is he prepared to vote “not guilty” before he gets some answers. Shaw holds a steady hand on the wheel through some very stormy waters and his performance stands out for its boldness, sagacity and intelligence.

The opposite of Juror 8 is Juror 3 (Jeff Fahey) who is irascible, passionate and a threatening bully who may explode into violence. He gives us a key to his emotional outbursts and unshakeable convictions at the beginning of the play but we probably miss it. Fahey as the juror, standing tall and indomitable will stop at nothing to get a conviction. The knife that the murderer stuck in the victim’s chest is felt by Number 3 as if it were driven in his own heart. I will not spoil it for those who do not know the story but Fahey’s performance is one of the most powerful and emotionally charged that I have seen in a long time.

There are jurors who make their points quietly, others who are flashy and shallow but as a group most of them show a real concern for justice. The one who brings some unintended clarity and provides an emotional peak (one of several) is Juror 10 (Miles Richardson). When he becomes exhausted and emotionally drained from the lengthy arguments, he bursts out with his diseased and disgusting bigotry. Blacks are taking over his racist America and they do not deserve any consideration. This is racist America fully exposed and extent and depth of this juror’s evil awakens some of the others whose judgment was at least subconsciously clouded by the colour of the accused’s skin. A superb performance by Richardson.

Robert Vaughn, old, gray-haired and wearing a bowtie appears a Juror 9. He says relatively little but represents the type of patience and rational thinking that jury panels require.

The jurors represent a cross-section of white American society. The salesman (Nick Moran), the blue-collar worker (Robert Blythe), the advertising executive (Owen O’Neill), the foreign-accented immigrant and watch-maker from Europe (Martin Turner), the hospital worker who grew up in the slums and knows something about switchblades (Ed Franklin), the stock broker (Paul Anthony-Barber), the successful businessman (Jeff Fahey), the shy and indecisive clerk (David Calvitto), the football coach (Luke Shaw).

Even if you have seen the play before, this production, masterfully directed by Christopher Haydon and acted by a first-rate cast, will stimulate, infuriate and confuse you. And that is what theatre is supposed to do, isn’t it.

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose opened on November 11, 2013 and continues at The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
The Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2.  Tel: 0844 579 1974

Friday, March 14, 2014


Simon Callow in Being Shakespeare Photo: Alastair Muir

Reviewed by James Karas

Simon Callow provides a couple of very pleasant hours of theatre with his one-man show Being Shakespeare at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London.

The show is written by renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate and directed by Tom Cairns. Bate structures the programme around Jaques’ speech in As You Like It which is referred to as “The Seven Ages of Man” or “All the World’s a Stage.”

Callow has a marvelous voice and an impeccable delivery of poetry and it was a delight listening to some biographical and historical information about Shakespeare and his times and, of course, hearing some lines from the plays, the sonnets and the poems.

Callow starts with the infant “mewling and puking” and informs us that Shakespeare coined that colourful word for bringing up. Shakespeare was raised very much by his mother, we are told, he wore dresses and his father had very little to do with his upbringing.

Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, a new idea in public education at the time, where he learned grammar, rhetoric and Latin and not much else. Was he a whining school boy with a shining face creeping unwillingly like a snail to Stratford’s new educational establishment? We will never know but there is no doubt that what he learned there stood him extremely well as a writer for the rest of his life.

We know something about the lover who got Anne Hathaway pregnant and had to marry her in a hurry. As to whether he sighed like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
made to her eyebrow, we can only guess at.

After marriage come children, acting, writing and success but where was he for all those years that we know nothing about?

Being an actor, Callow is very interested in Shakespeare’s acting career and even more so in his advice to actors. Henry V’s speech to his soldiers and Hamlet’s advice to the players are in effect acting lessons.

Callow tells the story of the Earl of Essex offering Shakespeare’s company forty shillings to perform Richard II and add a few lines that will hopefully foment rebellion. The company had not done the play for a while but the offer of twenty thousand pounds in today’s money convinced them to learn their lines quickly.

The play went on, the rebellion got nowhere and Essex, Shakespeare’s patron Southampton and their followers were arrested, as were the actors. The latter could have been charged with treason and beheaded but they got off because they were believed when they said they were just trying to make a living.
All the ages lead inevitably to the last scene of all, that ends Shakespeare’s and everybody else’s strange eventful history. When he died at age 52 in his home town, almost no attended his funeral. Francis Beaumont, a second-rate playwright who died around the same time in London, got almost a state funeral.

Callow is a first-rate Shakespearean and, as I said, you get resonant recitations, some facts and a very good night at the theatre.  

Being Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate played from February 26 to March 15, 2014 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4DN.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Abduction, usurpation, treachery, attempted murder are the staples of opera and all of them can be found in George Frideric Handel’s Rodelinda. But this is opera seria, 1725 vintage, and truth to tell, it can be very static.

Director Richard Jones will have none of that. His production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum has splendid singing and a plot that moves like a gangster picture. Forget the ornate palace and the magnificent attire that these royals and would-be royals are entitled to. Jones moves the action to the 20th century with some realistic and some surreal elements.

All the characters wear dark clothes, suits for the men, long gowns for the women. I choose to think of the plot as a turf war in an organized crime family but it may just be a film noir about gangsters. Grimoaldo (John Mark Ainsley) has usurped the throne/territory of Bertarido (Iestyn Davies) and is lusting after his wife Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans). Grimoaldo is already engaged to Bertarido’s sister Eduige (Susan Bickley).

Grimoaldo’s henchman Garibaldo (Richard Burkhard) advises him to dump Eduige. Grimoaldo does and Garibaldo forms and alliance with her in his bid for power. We also have Unulfo (Christopher Ainslie) who works for Grimoaldo but secretly supports Bertarido. And that’s just the beginning.   

Handel has provided music and vocal parts to delight any audience. But the arias and duets can be sung in front of a single set in the palace with the singers’ feet nailed to the floor. The opera can almost be performed as a concert piece. Jones and Set Designer have created a multi-faceted set that allows for movement and fluidity. In the third act, for example, the stage is divided into six separate sections including a holding cell, a corridor, an office and a couple of other rooms for the good and the bad characters to wander through.

Some of the men carry daggers stuck in the front of their pants which I found rather surreal. When Grimoaldo is tempted to murder Bertarido he is provided with a sledge hammer, a torch and a huge sword. There is also a detonator used to blow up Bertarido’s monument and some use of video projections. In other words, there is no lack of activity in this production.

That in no way detracts from the essential character of the opera or diminishes the music and singing that are the hallmark of its greatness. Soprano Rebecca Evans is superb in the title role. She has some gorgeously affecting solos and duets that she performs with emotion and vocal finesse.

She is well-matched by countertenor Davies who, like Rodelinda, gets some of the finest arias and duets in the opera. His trills, his smooth transitions, the sheer beauty of his voice are simply a delight for the ear.

Kudos to countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Unulfo, the other nice guy in the opera. He displayed beauty of tone and singing to a very high degree.   

With mezzo soprano Susan Bickley as Eduige the voices go lower as the moral standards of the characters decrease. Not Bickley’s singing, I hasten to add.

The lower voices of baritone Burkhard and tenor Ainsley represent the villains and I was not as happy with them. Beside the countertenors, they did not sound as satisfactory and they certainly could not handle some of the trills as well. I may be unfair to compare them to the different voice ranges but there it is.

Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra to gorgeous effect. The opera is sung in English in this new coproduction with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.

Rodelinda by George Frideric Handel opened on February 28 and will be performed eight times until March 15, 2014 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Saskia Reeves (She), Danny Webb, (He). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Reviewed by James Karas

As titles go, few can match Abi Morgan’s play for expressing a succinct and titillating paradox: The Mistress Contract. On the left you have a mistress, the image of sexual dalliance – furtive, risky, immoral, perhaps tawdry, and delightful. On the right you have the weight of the Law – a contract: an agreement freely entered into between two parties that is binding and legally enforceable by a court. How can the two concepts co-exist?

In The Mistress Contract, a man and a woman jump in bed easily and without any tawdriness or furtiveness but with a lot of questions and much discussion. The furtiveness is eliminated by the fact that the man and the woman are divorced and therefore free to engage in any sexual relation that pleases them. But they are very talkative and do ask a lot of questions and strive for answers.

She and He, the two characters in the play, know each other from university but they do not begin their unusual affair until they are in middle age and divorced. She is a feminist, an intelligent and erudite teacher in an alternative elementary school on the American west coast.

He is equally bright but is financially more successful than her. Both want sex without commitment but She wants money. There is a word for women who offer sex for money and it is far less polite than mistress. In this case, that is not applicable, as far as the couple is concerned.

She decides to put down their relationship in writing and drafts The Mistress Contract. He will pay substantial amounts for her accommodation and other needs and she will provide all the sexual services that he requires. He lives in another state and visits several times per month and as an example of what she has to provide, on one visit, on the way to her house, he stops the car and she fellates him.

The affair lasts for about three decades and in the end She is 88 and He is 93. Near the beginning she decides to record their conversations and they both agree to express their views and thoughts on tape. The result is a book which has been adapted into a play.

Morgan’s distillation of those recordings makes ninety minutes of wonderful theatre. Like the title, their conversations may be mildly titillating but they are invariably intelligent and frequently moving. There are witty lines but there is very little laughter. Are they simply avoiding cheap, low comedy? Perhaps.

Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb are superb as we watch them grow from middle age into, let’s say, advanced adulthood. Director Vicky Featherstone never lets them lose dignity and keeps their relationship tasteful and mature.

The set is a beautiful glass-enclosed living room and we hear that there is an artificially watered garden and a pool. In the background there is an endless desert. Is the relationship an oasis in the desert of life or am I reading too much in the coincidence of where She happens to live?

The Mistress Contract makes for enjoyable theatre but like Shylock’s contract for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, it is unenforceable in a court of law as being against public policy. You can’t have everything.   

The Mistress Contract by Abi Morgan based on the book by She and He opened on February 5 and will play until March 22, 2014 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS.  Box Office 020 7565 5000.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Lesley Sharp as Helen and Kate O'Flynn as Josephine  Photo: Alastair Muir

Reviewed by James Karas

In the closing scene of A Taste of Honey, Helen, one of the main characters finds out that her teenage daughter Jo (Kate O’Flynn) is about to give birth to a black child. “You mean to say that…that sailor was a black man? ...Oh my God! Nothing else can happen to me now.” As her daughter is going into labour, Helen goes out for a drink.

This is the ultimate indicator of this woman’s character. She is a shallow, selfish, crude, promiscuous and pathetic “semi-whore” as her creator calls her, and a slice of life that one would just as soon not taste.

Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play is now playing on the Lyttleton stage of the National Theatre, London. Helen (Lesley Sharp) and her daughter Josephine (Jo) live in a rundown part of Manchester. The play is classic kitchen-sink realism where there is economic poverty but more importantly poverty of mind and spirit. If the fate of the characters is intended to infuriate you, the play succeeds marvelously.

Jo shows some artistic talent but there is no opportunity to develop any ability that she may have in the squalid life dictated by her mother’s character. Helen brings Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly) to the apartment; a rich young man who seems to be as crude, dirty minded and heavy drinking as her.

The pathetic teenager meets Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a black sailor who promises to marry her and leaves her pregnant. Jo then meets Geof (Harry Hepple) a tall and decent homosexual who is genuinely caring.    

A black man getting a teenager pregnant,  a mother making a living from sex, a decent gay man when homosexuality was still a crime – all of this was pushing the envelope very far in the 1950s. We are no longer shocked by the relationships but the way of life of the two women is no less depressing.

Sharp is so good in the role that she infuriated me to the point where I wanted to metaphorically strangle her. O’Flynn as Jo is equally convincing as the pathetic teenager caught up in her mother’s squalid life. Kelly, Abrefa and Hepple handle their roles well.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler has designed a stage showing the streetscape at first and then revolving to reveal the squalid apartment with the gas works in the background. Very effective.

For all its depressing and infuriating effectiveness, the production did seem to drag a bit during the first act. I think the issue was with the pacing imposed by director Bijan Sheibani. Some more energy could and should have been infused in the performances to move the action. An inordinate number of the audience heading out for the intermission displayed or suppressed yawns. 

Aside from that, it was a pleasure to see a play that made its mark when Delaney was only 18 years old and was able to paint such a realistic and depressing view of reality.

A Taste of Honey  by Shelagh Delaney continues in repertory  until May 11, 2014 at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Monday, March 10, 2014


PaulineMcLynnandPhil Daniels in 'The Knight of the Burning Pestle'

Reviewed by James Karas

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a hilarious play by Francis Beaumont that is now playing at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London. It is possible that The Knight has been produced professionally somewhere in Southern Ontario in recent decades but it is highly unlikely. Too bad.

The play was first produced in 1607 when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were very much around and English renaissance drama was at its height.

We are in London and a play called The London Merchant is about to begin. A Citizen (Phil Daniels) and his Wife (Pauline McLynn) who are seated in the front row object vociferously to the subject of the play. Why are they not putting on a play about common people? The Citizen is a grocer and he wants to see his son Rafe (Matthew Needham) on stage.

So begin the mirth and hilarity. We meet the fired apprentice Jasper (Alex Waldmann) who is in love with the pretty Luce (Sarah MacRae) who happens to be his former employer Venturewell’s daughter (John Dougall) who dismissed him for the very reason. He has a better match for his daughter in Mr. Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell). There you have the love interest of most comedies – the parents disapprove and the lovers triumph.

Rafe does go on stage as The Knight of the Burning Pestle, we meet Jasper’s family of misfits and a few other characters. There are hijinks and lowjinks as the plots develop with the Citizen and his Wife always ready to interject and interfere.

The cast directed by Adele Thomas create so much energy and laughter one wants to believe that they have captured the rollicking fun of the early seventeenth century free-wheeling theatre. The actors jump into the audience; the Citizen passes grapes to people close to him and serves them beer; there is a chase that goes around the theatre and the laughter keeps rolling in. They sing and dance as well.

Daniels and McLynn have the audience in the palm of their hands. We just wait for them to object to what is happening on stage so we can laugh. Needham as Rafe, looks and acts like a dolt to hilarious effect. The usually drunk Merrythought of Paul Rider, the foolish Humphrey, the blustering Venturewell are all stock characters from comedy but they were done well and fulfilled their mission: leave them laughing.    

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a small indoor theatre attached to Shakespeare’s Globe. The small stage and proximity to the audience probably make it easier to involve people in the action and evoke laughter. I need hardly add that seasoned actors and fine directing are the essential ingredients.

I had not seen The Knight or any other play by Beaumont or Beaumont and Fletcher as the two playwrights are usually referred to. Our Stratford Festival has dropped Shakespeare from its name and shows great reluctance in approaching Elizabethan and Jacobean plays because they may not fill the theatres. The Shakespeare Festival should lead us to the whole range of drama and create an audience for it rather than following our limited tastes. Shakespeare’s Globe is doing exactly that by introducing plays that have been largely ignored for centuries.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont opened on February 20 and will play until March 30, 2014 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London.

Friday, March 7, 2014


 Alfred Kim, Irene Theorin © ROH / TRISTRAM KENTON

Reviewed by James Karas

Andrei Serban’s production of Turandot for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is approaching its fortieth anniversary. After fifteen revivals it is still holding the stage and quite rightly so. It is opera on a grand scale with chorus and dancers the size of a small army and an array of huge, colourful  props and  powerful orchestral playing.

The title role is sung by Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin. She has sung Wagner and Strauss roles widely and Turandot, the icy Chinese princess may seem a bit off her beaten track. But with demanding arias like “In questa reggia” that require powerful expression, she is well in her vocal demesne. She does a good job and her princess displays the soprano’s strength but I am not convinced by her sudden conversion from iceberg to lover.

South Korean tenor Alfred Kim sings the difficult role of Calaf, the Unknown Prince. He has some major pieces where he has to surpass orchestra and chorus and Kim has a big enough voice to be heard. He does well in the lyrical passages but near the end he has to sing “Nessun dorma,” one of the most popular arias in the repertoire. Every tenor who got near a recording machine has put his voice on CD, vinyl or tape and can be compared to everyone else.

Kim does get the high notes but his voice is simply not sufficiently polished in the aria. You expect a perfectly clear, lyrical rendition and Kim’s performance falls just short of the wonder one expects. He was good but not great.

The finest performance is without hesitation credited to American soprano Ailyn Pérez as the slave Liu. She has a lovely voice, sweet, moving, polished and when she sings “Signore, ascolta!” our hearts melt.

British bass Matthew Rose sings the role of the old, deposed King Timur who is forced to beg with Liu. Rose sang the role with moving resonance but, despite his attempts to totter on his stick, his voice betrayed a young man with marvelous vocal chords. At the end of the opera, the frail old man drags a cortege with Liu’s dead body on it. The singing must have rejuvenated him.

As for spectacle, original director Serban and Revival Director Andrew Sinclair pull out all the stops. Huge dragons, scaffolds on wheels, a massive sword sharpening stone (there are lots of people to decapitate) a huge throne to lower Emperor Altoum (Alasdair Elliott) from the rafters, not to mention the huge crowds. There are dancers, guards, executioner’s men, wise men, phantoms, heralds, soldiers and ordinary people. We need two balconies to house the Royal Opera Chorus alone. The production can compete with the Roman Forum and the effect is stupendous.          

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Nicola Luisotti gave an assured powerful account of the score in a production that has stood the test of time.

Turandot by Giacomo Puccini was performed seven times between February 17 and March 10, 2014 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Adam Kotz, Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville. Photo: Alastair Muir

Reviewed by James Karas

Henrik Ibsen was one of the greatest and most revolutionary playwrights of the 19th century but he is now treated more like Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, full of cobwebs and dust, a relic from the past that has seen better days.

Richard Eyre does not share that view and he prepared and directed a version of Ghosts for the Almeida Theatre last year. That production has now transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in London and it makes Ghosts as fresh and dramatic as it must have appeared to the shocked audiences of the nineteenth century. True we are not likely to be as traumatized as they were or pretended to be but the basic revolutionary ideas about hypocrisy, intolerance and bigotry are as forceful today as then.

Lesley Manville gives an outstanding and defining performance as Helene Alving, an attractive, intelligent, rational, wronged and sexually repressed woman. She is the wife of the late Captain Alving and a woman who was born in the wrong century. Her whole life is a fraud that she commits against herself in an attempt to comply with the rules of her close-minded, oppressive and repressive society.

Her husband was a pillar of the community in appearance but a drunken philanderer who impregnated their servant, in reality. She went to Manders (Adam Kotz) then a divinity student and later a pastor, for advice and fell in love with him. He rejected her and told her to return to her husband and put up with him.

Manders has come to the Alving home in order to bless an orphanage built in honour of Captain Alving. Helene approaches him and puts his hand on her breast. The emotionally dead pastor rejects her again. 

Adam Kotz plays Manders as a fire-and-brimstone man of the cloth who is close-minded hypocritical and the worst that any society can offer. This pastor thinks that an orphanage needs no insurance because it is under the special watchful eye of God. Insuring it may cause tongues to wag. A frightful and disgusting character is brought to life by Kotz.

The other victim of Helene’s acquiescence to the repressive society and her husband’s gross sexual misconduct is her son Oswald (Jack Lowden) who is born with congenital syphilis. The servant Regina (Charlene McKenna) is in fact his half-sister. The Honorable Captain Alving impregnated another servant, paid her off and passed her to Jacob (Brian McCardie) who accepted the money and the fiction that he was the father of Regina.

Lowden gives an outstanding performance as the young artist who was sent away as a boy to escape the situation at home and then returns in the final stages of his illness. The part requires immense emotional depth and Lowden never falters.

McCardie limps his way around the stage as he displays his contempt for everyone and uses them for his benefit. He is so disgusting that he wants his “daughter” to work in his philanthropic retreat for sailors, a poorly disguised brothel.

Eyre gives a taut, dramatic and riveting production of the play that will leave you emotionally drained.

This Ibsen has no cobwebs or dust and if Miss Havisham had seen it she would have left her house and lived a happy life, glad that she had escaped Helene Alving’s fate.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Richard Eyre opened on December 17 and continues at Trafalgar Studio 1, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan) and Simon Russell Beale (King Lear). Photo: Mark Douet

Reviewed by James Karas
When you hear that Sam Mendes is directing King Lear at the National Theatre with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, you are well advised to check for flights to London. If you make it, you will see Shakespeare done on a grand scale with some definitive performances for the modern theatre.

Mendes sees Lear as a modern dictator. In the opening scene when Lear demands to hear extravagant expressions of love and devotion from his daughters, there is a large contingent of soldiers in black berets and uniforms in a semi-circle on the large Olivier stage. The division of the kingdom is a public event and Lear explodes into a violent rage, knocking tables over, when he is not satisfied with Cordelia’s answers. We will see soldiers a number of times. Dictators and civil wars need them.

Russell Beale, stocky, stooped, with short-cropped white hair, struts around the stage seething with violence like a beast that wants and gets nothing but obedience. He has a booming voice and is the epitome of dictatorial brutality. He is quickly disabused of his power after giving his kingdom to his daughters. When he curses Goneril and accuses her of filial ingratitude, she stands her ground and slaps him roundly across the face. The game has changed and the king is on his way to humiliation and degradation.

Russell Beale gives an outstanding performance as the pathetic and abused king. His strut becomes a shuffle and in his madness, he rails against the wind and bludgeons the Fool to death. His recovery and realization are extraordinarily moving and his entire performance is one of the finest Lears one is likely to see.

Stephen Boxer’s Duke of Gloucester is a decent man in a smart suit who is as unperceptive as Lear where his children are concerned. The self-assured Duke is humiliated and is subjected to a modern torture technique. He is hooded and alcohol is poured over his face. His eyes are then gouged out using a corkscrew. Boxer gives a wrenching performance during that scene and his trip to Dover where he wants to commit suicide.

Kate Fleetwood is a sharp-nosed Goneril who carries her deeply-rooted evil lightly and smartly and she quickly establishes dominance over her father with a quick slap. Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is equally evil and she embraces the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes with relish. She is also coquettish and sexy which makes her even more frightful.  

Aside from Lear’s and Gloucester’s Promethean suffering and display of emotional extremes, Mendes understates the evil in the heart of most characters. The treacherous and malevolent Edmund (Sam Troughton), Gloucester’s bastard son, is almost business-like in his despicable behavior.

The Fool (Adrian Scarborough) wears a distinctive hat but other that he is in a suit and his clowning is understated. In the opening scene, we see him seated downstage and away from the action. When Cordelia is thrown out, he embraces her. Lear will pay him back for that by killing him. A brilliant move by Mendes.

Stanley Townsend as the faithful Duke of Kent starts as a self-assured and vocal officer and then converts to a more sedate, undercover supporter of King Lear. Again, well-done characterization and detailed reading of the play by the director.

The overall effect of the production is that of a modern nation in a state of war. The stage is dark and threatening clouds are frequently visible. The murky sky is projected by video on the backstage and we hear thunderclaps and airplanes whirring by.

Mendes has done some judicious editing of the text that makes the play move more smoothly.

And if you can’t find a flight or get tickets to the production, all is not lost. King Lear will be shown in movie houses in Canada on May 1, 2014.


King Lear by William Shakespeare opened on January 23 and continues until May 28, 2014 at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


 Gwilym Lee and Tamla Kari in Versailles

Reviewed by James Karas

There is a small genre of plays about significant current events or historical happenings that are important today. Plays about Richard Nixon, Enron, the banking crisis, the war in Afghanistan and the American invasion of Iraq come to mind. The playwright uses actual persons, fictitious or semi-fictitious characters, invents subplots and comments on the events or crisis at hand.

Peter Gill’s Versailles, now playing at the Donmar  Warehouse in London, is very much in that category of drama. This year is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I but rather than dealing with the summer of 1914, Gill has chosen to dramatize the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

He has created two upper crust families in Kent for the first and third acts and takes us to Paris for the second act. Mrs. Rawlinson (Francesca Annis) and her children Mabel (Tamila Kari) and Leonard (Gwilym Lee) live in a fine house in the country with servants and all the amenities of class and culture. Their friends Arthur (Christopher Godwin) and Marjorie Chater (Barbara Flynn) belong to the same world but they suffered the tragedy of losing a son in the war.

The Rawlinsons have several visitors such as Constance (Helen Bradbury), Hugh (Josh O’Connor) and Geoffrey (Adrian Lukis) who are necessary for the development of the plot. The play has thirteen characters, all of them gentry except for the servant Ethel (Eleanor Yates).

The play moves on two levels: the interpersonal relations of the characters and the commentary on the peace negotiations in Paris. The tragedy of the Chaters, the homosexual relations of Leonard and Hugh, the romantic attraction of Geoffrey to Constance and Mabel’s lack of interest in romance and matrimony are among the personal entanglements that are intermingled with the political arguments.

The problem with the personal stories is that Gill allows an emotional range that goes all the way from A to B as someone once said. These are Victorian English men and women and we expect reserve but in this play they are practically dead. Mabel does shriek at her mother and Arthur Chater does display momentary emotion at his son’s death but the scene is closed with lightning speed. When the gay men confront each other they are practically standing at attention. There is almost no physical contact.

Perhaps the real point of the play is a critique of the peace negotiations especially the onerous terms imposed on Germany. The protagonist here is Leonard who attends the peace conference and tries desperately to find a compromise position where Germany is allowed to survive economically instead of being plunged into economic crises by the reparations it may be forced to pay.

Gill had to steer between meaningless generalities and hard facts as to the terms imposed on the Germans. Leonard gives us hard facts about the effects of reducing Germany’s coal producing capabilities and foresees social upheaval in the offing. Hard facts require hard numbers and statistics and parts of the play look like a debate among opposing views of the war and its aftermath.

Gill takes some easy shots at the British class system with its sense of entitlement, blindness, snobbery and even stupidity. They learned nothing from the war and all they want is to go back to the good old days as if the devastation did not occur.

Gill directs the play and the cast seems to have no difficulty in handling the roles. Lee as  Leonard is eloquent and fervent in his criticism of the peace terms. Lukis is convincing as a cultured businessman who with some of the others, represents prewar attitudes. Annis and Flynn are good as women who wear long gowns, expect servants to do the work and find discussions of class just boring.

Kari and Bradbury as Mabel and Constance are attractive, educated and independent, more or less, and represent the new woman.

Gill does present some cogent arguments in relation to the Treaty of Versailles and Leonard is prescient in his comments but it is easy to be prophetic one hundred years after the fact.
The Paris Peace Conference was an utterly fascinating gathering of hundreds of politicians, diplomats and experts. Perhaps no play can do justice to the almost six months of complex negotiations. But a first-rate historian can. Pick up a copy of Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 and you will read about fascinating people, extraordinary situations and learn a great deal about the subject.


Versailles by Peter Gill opened on February 27, 2014 and continues until April 5, 2014 at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London, England.

,     ,  n Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Monday, March 3, 2014


Peter McDonald as Brendan, Brian Cox as Jack, Ardal O'Hanlon as Jim, Risteard Cooper as Finbar and Dervla Kirwan as Valerie ©Alastair Muir
Reviewed by James Karas

The Weir is a lyrical play by Conor McPherson that consists almost entirely of memories recalled by five people in a bar in a remote village of Ireland. There is almost no plot and the catalyst for the confessional is the arrival at the bar of a young woman named Valerie (Dervla Kirwan).

Brendan (Peter McDonald) operates the bar where people gather to drink and talk. One of the most talkative ones is Jack (Brian Cox), a mechanic who spends a lot of his time drinking with his friend Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon), a rather dim labourer.

They are joined by the rich and arrogant Finbar (Ristéard Cooper) who comes accompanied by Valerie. She just purchased a house from the flamboyant Finbar who seems to own much of the village.

Valerie is the catalyst for the conversations that follow as each one of the characters delves into memories real or imagined.

Director Josie Rourke steers the cast through memories and ghost stories with us joining the company but not the drinking.

The cast is first-rate in presenting a highly sympathetic rendering of McPherson’s lost souls who tell their stories as confessions or perhaps emotional bridges among them.

McPherson’s lyrical prose, delivered to perfection by the cast has such musicality that you are drawn to the worlds of the characters. The short play strikes me more like a poem than a theatrical piece. This is the third time I have seen the play and I recall the ambience, the music of the words and the characters without remembering much of the soulful tales told by them.

This revival of McPherson’s 1997 play was originally produced at Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and has now transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre.

Worth seeing.


The Weir by Conor McPherson opened on January 21 and will play until April 19, 2014 at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA