Thursday, July 31, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Julius Caesar seems superbly suited to the production style espoused by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The stagings in the “replica” of the original Globe Theatre on the South bank attempt to emulate as much as possible or is known of the theatrical practices of the Elizabethan era.

One of the practices was robust interaction with the audience, especially the groundlings or yardlings as they are called now, the several hundred people standing around the stage. Julius Caesar begins with a full-blooded scene with the Roman rabble but this production does not wait for that. There are people in Elizabethan costume mixing with the audience inside and outside the theatre before the performance begins.

When the performance starts, Director Dominic Dromgoole makes full use of the audience including having a number of exits and entrances through the middle of them. The antics of the Roman rabble amid the yardlings enhance the production without taking anything away from the fine performances.

Tom McKay plays an excellent Brutus. He is young, intense, with a fine voice and superior delivery of Shakespearean poetry. You sense Brutus’s strength, intelligence and decency even if he lacks Cassius’s cunning. The latter, played by Anthony Howell, has cunning and conspiratorial flair and one is never sure if his expression of love for anyone is genuine.     

Luke Thompson fits the description of Mark Antony as the shrewd playboy who manages to arouse the rabble to mutiny. He does a great job in “Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears” but he shows scant emotion of first seeing the butchered Caesar.

Joe Jameson, like most of the cast, takes on several roles, but he is most notable as the petulant and arrogant Octavius.

I found George Irving’s Julius Caesar somewhat subdued, especially in an original practices production. I expected his arrogance to be more pronounced. He is murdered by the conspirators not for what he has done but for what he might do because of his overweening ambition. The latter was not sufficiently emphasized.

The murder of Caesar is surely one of the most famous scenes in history, especially as staged in productions of Shakespeare’s play. The conspirators stab Caesar and the blood-drenched man turns towards Brutus, the man he admires and loves like a son. He utters the short Latin phrase that has reverberated down the centuries as the ultimate expression of supreme betrayal: Et tu, Brute. Caesar says these words upon seeing Brutus but before he is stabbed by him. I think that reduces the effectiveness of the scene. It is possible that Brutus was not going to stab Caesar and the scene would be more dramatic if Brutus stabs him first and Caesar spouts the words in utter shock. After that there is nothing left but for him to fall and die.

This is a solid production despite the rambunctiousness of the crowd scenes. There is scant comedy in Julius Caesar and no comic character as such. 

There is one touch that merits mention. In the final scene, Brutus has his servant Strato hold a sword and he runs onto it to meet his death. Quite sensibly, there is no running onto a sword in this production for fear that it may look ridiculous. But the Strato is played by the same actor who played Caesar. Thus there is an added poignancy when in his final words Brutus says “Caesar, now be still.”

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until October 11, 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London, England.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Claire Calbraith, Simon Harrison and Richard Bremmer. Photo Jonathan Keenan

Reviewed by James Karas

The Last Days of Troy, for the most part, is a fairly faithful and dramatic retelling of the story of The Iliad. Simon Armitage has taken some of the central characters and events of the epic and fashioned an interesting and entertaining play that is now showing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

In the midst of the drama and bloodshed of the Trojan War, Armitage has added some humour by transposing Zeus and Hera to the present as tourists to what is left of Troy in Hisalrik, Turkey.

We see the quarrel between Agamemnon (David Birrell) and Achilles (Jake Fairbrother). Agamemnon is presented as an arrogant blowhard with more ego and bluster than military ability or leadership qualities. Achilles is full of rage and he is rightly described as a one-man genocide. Odysseus (Colin Tierney) is crafty, intelligent and diplomatic. He has what most of the other Greeks lack.

As in The Iliad, the Trojans get better press. Hector (Simon Harrison) is heroic, his wife Andromache (Clare Calbraith) is a tragic figure and Priam (Garry Cooper) is humane and realistic. Paris (Tom Stuart) is a handsome but cowardly wastrel who prefers Helen’s bed to the battlefield.

The ten-year war is about Helen (Lily Cole) who is very pretty and each one of us has to decide whether she is the whore of Paris or the abducted wife of Menelaus.

Lily Cole as Helen. Photo: Jonathan Keenan 

Armitage and the production directed by Nick Bagnall do not shy away from the violence and bloodshed so graphically described by Homer. In The Iliad, after killing Hector, Achilles offers dreadful indignity to the body by fastening it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. In the play, the raging Achilles stabs the corpse mercilessly and falls on it like an animal, drinks its blood and eats its flesh. You do not want Achilles to get angry with you. He does show humanity by returning Hector’s corpse to his father Priam.

Armitage does not give us only blood and butchery. He includes the ever-present gods of The Iliad but mostly for humour. The play opens in present-day Hisalrik with Zeus selling souvenirs and trinkets. He is henpecked by his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) on earth and in heaven and gets little respect from his daughters Athene (Francesca Zoutewelle) and Thetis (Clare Calbraith). He does get a lot of laughs.   

The Iliad ends with the funeral rites for Hector. There is no Wooden Horse and in fact the war is not finished. Armitage has decided to round off the story with the appearance of the Wooden Horse, the burning of Troy and the slaughter of all the men and children. The women are taken into slavery.

Unfortunately his writing becomes creaky as he moves away from the story of the epic and tries to round off the plot with a satisfactory ending. The play could have ended where The Iliad ends which in its way is a satisfactory conclusion.

Aside from that, The Last Days of Troy paints a horrific picture of war and human suffering. The soldiers have their faces covered, the stage is draped in black and the scenes are reminiscent of what we see on the news today.

Although the gods are held to mild ridicule, the emphasis of the play and the production is on the horrors of war. There is no attempt to engage the audience in the type of humour produced in original practices productions of Shakespeare.

Armitage starts with Homer and ends up with his own play. Shakespeare’s Globe provides us with a very fine evening at the theatre.

The Last Days of Troy by Simon Armitage played from June 10 to 28, 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

The billboards and the ads went up promising a new production of “Oscar Wilde’s Immortal Comedy The Importance of Being Earnest at the Harold Pinter Theatre.” If you are in London for only a few days, you would not want to miss something like that.

When you arrive at the theatre, you notice something strange on the large billboard: “Additional Material Written by Simon Brett.” Good grief! Additional material for The Importance of Being Earnest? That is tantamount to amending Genesis 1. In any event, you try to keep an open mind and brace yourself for the worst.

I did not brace myself sufficiently for this travesty of a production. Wilde’s comedy becomes a play-within-a-play. The Bunbury Company of Players is putting on The Importance and they are in the final stages of rehearsal in George and Lavinia’s sitting room. The whole thing will be done there and we will not need the three sets that Wilde’s play calls for.

We have the “actors” of the fictitious Bunbury Company who will portray Wilde’s characters in rehearsal. The “actors” will bicker among themselves as they rehearse and things will wrong, such as no cucumber sandwiches when there is supposed to be some and a plateful of them when there should be none. It sounds funnier that it really is. 

The “actors” of the Bunbury Company are mildly geriatric or let’s just say that there is a generation gap between their age and the age of the characters that they portray in Importance. This applies only to the young. Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, Chasuble   and the servants can be any age.

Nigel Havers is no doubt a fine actor but he is not exactly suitable for the role of Algernon who will woo the lovely eighteen year old Cecily played by Christine Kavanagh. Let us avoid words such as geriatric or even senior and say that a middelageiatric love affair using Wilde’s lines is not funny. To put it a bit more strongly, it looks stupid. The same applies to Martin Jarvis as John Worthing and Cherie Lunghi as Gwendolyn.

Siân Phillips would make a good Lady Bracknell and she was not bad as Lavinia if she were directed to play that virago. In this split-personality production her performance was just passable. Rosalind Ayres had better luck as Miss Prism and a fussy wardrobe lady but then those are easier roles.

Patrick Godfrey had better luck as Lavinia’s hen-pecked husband George and the servants Merriman and Lane. Niall Buggy was also good as Canon Chasuble and an “actor.”

They did not kill all the lines or the whole play because in the latter part they stuck to the script and gave Brett a wide berth. There were some laughs but the credit goes more to Wilde than to the actors and director.

Michael Frayn showed in Noises Off how funny a botched rehearsal or behind-the-scenes play can be. Director Lucy Bailey, Additional Material Writer Simon Brett and everyone involved with this travesty should keep their hands off The Immortal Comedy.

Stay away from this production.        

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde with Additional Material by Simon Brett continues until September 20, 2014 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4DN

Monday, July 14, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

With Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Handel as its lead composers, this year’s opera offerings by the Aix-en-Provence Festival have a decidedly Germanic dominance. Only Rossini has no Teutonic connection. And all this on top of the World Cup.

You didn’t know that J. S. Bach composed an opera? Well, he didn’t but he did compose some 400 cantatas of which only half have survived. Conductor Raphaël Pichon and Director Katie Mitchell decided that they can fashion an opera using some of Bach’s cantatas and the result is Trauernacht or Night of Mourning. Mitchell has described the production as a meditation on death.

They have chosen parts from about a dozen cantatas and fashioned them thematically into a night of mourning by a family. Only the Father (Frode Olsen) is identified. The other four singers are identified only by their vocal range: soprano (Aoife Miskelly), alto (Eve-Maud Hubeaux), tenor (Rupert Charlesworth) and bass (Andri Bjorn Robertsson).

They are accompanied by the 11-member Ensemble baroque de l’Academie européenne de music conducted by Pichon.

There has clearly been a death in the family and the four singers sit around a simple table in a sparsely furnished kitchen. The father is a few feet behind them.

The programme opens with Johann Christoph Bach’s somber motet “Mit Weinen hebt’s an” (the only piece not by Johann Sebastian Bach). We are afflicted with sorrows from birth to death and only then do they cease, according to the motet. The programme then continues with cantatas sung by the five singers as solos or in various groupings. The singers carry out some mundane activities around the “kitchen” always moving slowly and methodically.    

The Chorus of Cantata BWV 146 continues the theme of our destiny to suffer: "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal" (we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God). But the soprano aria from Cantata BWV 127 “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen” (my soul rests in the hands of Jesus) gives hope of everlasting life.

The tenor and alto follow with the recitative from Cantata BWV 60  “O Schwerer Gang” (O difficult way) where fear of death and suffering is superseded by faith in a merciful God.

The programme leads to Cantata BWV 82 - "Ich habe genug" (I have enough) where the faithful has taken Jesus into his heart and is ready to join Him. The programme ends with the Chorale BWV 668 “Vor deinem Thron” (before your throne) where the poor sinner is past the sorrows of mortals and appears before God’s throne praying for His grace.

The singers have commendable voices and the instrumental performances were sound. The performance lasts 90 minutes without an intermission. The idea of creating an opera out of Bach’s cantatas is interesting and meditating on death is a sobering experience. The beauty of Bach’s music and the hope given by Christian faith make this meditation quite other-worldly and the World Cup utterly mundane.       

Trauernacht by Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christoph Bach opened on July 11 and will be performed a total of six times until July 20, 2014 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Zaida and Fiorilla in front of the Turkish "ship."

James Karas

Fate was simply not on the side of the Aix-en-Provence Festival for a couple of days this year. Perhaps that eschatological supposition is exaggerated. Let’s say that the union representing stage hands and technicians who work occasionally, “les intermittents,” went on strike. A polite strike in the end but sufficiently bad to cause the cancellation of the opening production of Il Turco in Italia on July 4.

There was a second performance scheduled for July 7 and all was well with union. It was no so with the weather as rain was forecast and playing in the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché, was not a good idea. They decided to transfer the performance to the Grand Théâtre de Provence and tell everyone about the switch. Somehow the message trickled through but the performance was to be a concert version or a semi-staged affair at best.

Fortunately the union and the weather cooperated and the opera was performed at l'Archevêché on July 9, 2014.

There is nothing more pleasant than seeing a production twice in three days unless, that is, you can see it three times. The concert performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The characters wore the same costumes as in the staged performance and you got some idea of what Director Christopher Alden had in mind.

Alden seems to have taken some inspiration for his conception of the opera from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Il Turco is structured around a poet looking for plot ideas from the happenings on the beach of Naples. A Turk arrives and falls in love with the lovely Fiorilla. Don Narcisso is already in love with her and her husband Don Geronio is pretty mad about it. The Turk is followed by Zaida, a former love of his. For the poet this is pretty juicy stuff and excellent plot material.

In the concert version, Il Turco turned into Seven Characters in Search of a Director. When I saw the staged version, I confirmed that the characters in the concert performance appeared in costume. They all wore modern clothes that would be suitable in Naples, I suppose. There was nothing particularly notable about what any of them wore except for Fiorilla who was a knockout.

There was some interaction among the characters to be sure but with the stage occupied by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble there was not much space to do very much. Under the circumstances, the cast did extraordinary work. In the end, the performers received a thoroughly enthusiastic and sustained ovation.                     

However good, it was still like kissing through a fence – something was missing. There is no substitute for a fully staged performance.

Alden converts Rossini’s “dramma buffa” into a play-within-a-play using the character of the Poet Prosdocimo as the directing mind of the unfolding events. The Poet is not just an observer of happenings; he directs and creates some of the events of the opera. He gives the characters sheets of paper containing dialogue and they read out what he has written for them. The Poet becomes the most important character in the opera.

The major characters are on stage most of the time, even when they have nothing to do. After all this is a play/opera in the making and not an actual performance.    

Who makes the poet’s plot?

Don Geronio and Fiorilla 

Fiorilla (sung beautifully by Olga Peretyatko) is an airhead but she is a gorgeous airhead. She is also a coquette, a teaser and a sexual magnet that no sensible man could resist. She puts on a blonde wig, strips to a slip and drives men crazy. She is married to the older Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli) and falls in love with Selim the Turk (Adrian Sampetrean) and invites him to her house for coffee. Peretyatko brings out all these traits and in the end sings “Squallida veste e bruna,” a show-stopping aria where Fiorilla repents and sees herself as she is. With beautiful but restrained ornamentation and outpouring of emotion, her bravura performance brings the house down. In the concert performance Peretyatko fell on her knees; in the staged performance she wrapped herself in the sail of the ship that is part of the set. Both nights she was magnificent.

Corbelli, short, chubby, is the perfect comic character. He can do patter songs, comic business and deliver those funny baritone roles as if they written for him.    

Sampetrean as Selim appears just like any visitor to Naples, wearing a not-too-distinctive cap. There are no jewels on his turban, nor any fancy robes as the libretto mentions. He serves the production well vocally.        

Baritone Pietro Spagnoli, as I said, is given center stage by Alden. Even before the overture, we see him pacing up and down, looking at his typewriter, a man in distress. He is suffering from writer’s block until he sees a good story unfolding before his eyes. He controls the development of the characters until a couple of them rebel against their creator. Spagnoli is a fine acting singer who brings to life the Poet.

Don Narcisso is a puzzling character. He is in love with Fiorilla and provides one more source of fun, I suppose. He is a relatively minor character but he does get a major aria in “Tu seconda il mio disegno.” But do you bring the extraordinary tenor Lawrence Brownlee for that? Alden makes Narcisso into a pathetic non-entity in a trench coat. He walks with his head down, tilted to the side; he looks and acts like a lifeless loser. In the concert version, Brownlee walked on stage with self-assurance. In the staged performance, he had to act the role of the dummy and I am not sure why Alden cast the character as such.

By adopting Pirandellian ideas for Il Turco, Alden makes the opera more interesting and perhaps a more substantial work. Its silly plot becomes a play in the making, Prosdocimo becomes a writer in search of a plot whose characters rebel against him. Not bad for an opera whose plot seems pretty inane.  

Il Turco in Italia by Gioacchino Rossini was performed in a concert version on July 7 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence and in a fully staged version on July 9 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché where it will be performed another five times until July 22, 2014 in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, July 11, 2014


James Karas

Simon McBurney has staged a daring production of The Magic Flute for the Aix-en-Provence Festival that is hard to pin down. The words that came to mind as I watched this idiosyncratic interpretation were unorthodox, high-tech, Brechtian, corporate, noir, brilliant – all of them applicable but none sufficient to describe the production.

We should recall that The Magic Flute is a play with songs written by Emanuel Schikaneder, a man of the popular theatre. He wanted a hit to make money and Mozart needed money. The Magic Flute has low comedy represented by the bird-catcher Papageno and more exalted themes like the pursuit of love, virtue and wisdom with a Masonic patina.

McBurney underplays the low comedy but everything else is there with a difference, to say the least.

Let’s begin. As the lights go on, we see glass booths on each side of the stage with technicians operating consoles and equipment. A screen is lowered and one of the technicians writes on a chalk board and his words are projected on the screen. We will see this a number of times including chalking arrows to point the direction Tamino should take. The technicians will remain on stage throughout and one of them will take a small part in the action in a tug-of-war with Papageno.  

Tamino runs on the stage from a door leading to the auditorium wearing a track suit. The menacing monster is shown on screen and we see the technicians operating the equipment. Tamino faints and the Three Ladies dressed partly in army fatigues rush in. They may be the ladies-in-waiting of The Queen of the Night but it seems that they must double up as fierce security guards. We will soon see them in more becoming black dresses.

The Ladies undress Tamino to his T-shirt and jockey shorts and he is joined by Papageno wearing a yellow jacket and carrying a step-ladder. A cartoon is shown on the video screen showing someone descending a mountain and that turns into Papageno.

The stage is dominated by a large platform that can be tilted or even raised above head level as desired. We see the technicians manipulating the platform. When we need rain, we see a technician pouring water out of a can and the streams being projected onto the screen.

When Papageno needs birds (well, he does in this production) there are about twenty actors in the production who run around fluttering pieces of paper to imitate the flight of birds. Instead of Tamino pretending to play the flute, a member of the orchestra steps on stage and plays it for him. Papageno does not have to pretend to play the glockenspiel; an orchestra member steps up to the stage and plays it for him.

I can go on describing the unorthodox or at least different ways that McBurney treats scenes in his vision of The Flute. Is it the Brechtian idea of “epic theatre,” telling a story without the pretense of being realistic? Think of Homeric recitation versus theatrical representations. The dominant colour of the whole production is black. Even when the sun is supposed to shine at the end, all we get is a chalk drawing of it.

Let’s deal with the acoustics and the singing. The Grand Théâtre de Provence suffers from some uneven acoustics which at times are more pronounced than at others. I think the problem is more pronounced on the stage, especially at the back. The Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado was outstanding with minimal effect from the uneven acoustics. 

We need a tenor to sing of the heroic, love and virtue that Tamino is seeking and we have him in Stanislas de Barbeyrac. He has the lyric voice and looks to be romantic and strong when pursuing wisdom. He falls in love on sight with the picture of Pamina (Mari Eriksmoen) and we see her likeness on the screen and approve. Yes, she has a lovely voice and is every inch a princess.

Bass Christof Fischesser is Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis. He has a voice with a magnificent middle that descends to rumbling low notes that resonate with splendour. He sings his great aria “O Isis und Osiris” to suited gentlemen seated around a huge table looking like the board of directors of a multi-national. The acoustics were against him. He sang his other great aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” near the front of the stage and we got the full effect of his magnificent voice.

American Soprano Kathryn Lewek was recruited to replace Albina Shagimuratova as The Queen of the Night and the Conqueror of the High Fs. This Queen is old, decrepit, bent over, using a cane and a wheelchair. She still has to sing “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” to her daughter because hell’s revenge cooks in her heart and she wants to get rid of her husband Sarastro. We may not care about him but we do want her to leap to those two high Fs and hit them with accuracy and precision. Heaven help the soprano who fails. Lewek does not fail and gives a thrilling performance.

Baritone Thomas Oliemans has the bearing and comic sense to make an excellent Papageno. He did so vocally but McBurney stayed away from the comic part of the opera with a few exceptions. There were a few laughs near the end; Papageno was allowed to interact with the glockenspiel player and the technician but overall laughter was minimal.

In the end, the performance received one of the most enthusiastic and sustained ovations I have seen in a long time.                      

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder opened on July 2 and will be performed a total of ten times until July 23, 2014 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


By James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival offers five operas among many other cultural events during its 66th season. All of it is done in three weeks in July. One of the operas is Georg Frideric Handel’s 1735 masterpiece Ariodante.

Director Richard Jones and Set and Costume Designer Ultz give this opera seria an idiosyncratic production that has many points of interest but a few head-scratchers as well.

The plot. The knight Ariodante is in love with Princess Ginevra and her father, the king, approves. Everyone is happy but Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, who wants her. Ginevra’s lady-in-waiting, Dalinda, is in love with Polinesso. He asks her to dress like Ginevra and be seen by Ariodante with him. She does, they are seen and Ariodante is ready to commit suicide at the thought that he was betrayed. Needless to say, all will be resolved in about four hours and love will triumph.

Handel has provided some magnificent arias and ensemble pieces for everyone. The vocal demands are high especially in arias that have a few lines repeated many times. They require vocal modulations and trills that are taxing but simply gorgeous when done well.

English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly tackles the role of Ariodante. She has a beautiful voice and does a fine job but I think more passion and modulation is needed in some of her arias. When she sings “Scherza, infida”  (Laugh, unfaithful one) after discovering that Ariodante has been betrayed by Ginevra, I want more heart-breaking passion, anger, resolve and raw pain. It may be the size of her voice but here were times when she did not seem to be firing on all cylinders.

Soprano Patricia Petibon as Ginevra has moments of bliss and despair and a mad scene to boot. This is not a mad scene to compete with the Lucias and Lady Macbeths of the19th century but she weaves a convincing vocal and acting representation.

Most interesting is the portrayal of Polinesso by contralto Sonia Prina. Acceding to Jones, Polinesso is a perfidious cleric, grey-haired, hypocritical and evil. He reminded me of Tartuffe. Prina has beautiful low notes but she had a bit of difficulty manoeuvring through her trills at the beginning. She settled down into a fine performance as the dirty old man.

The secondary characters more than held their own. Bass Luca Tittoto handled the low notes of the King with no difficulty and tenor David Portillo held the middle range as Lurcanio with the high notes given to Sandrine Piau as Dalinda. Well done.    

Ariodante, originally set in the royal palace in Edinburgh in 8th century Scotland, is moved to the present and takes place in what looks like a farmhouse. The single set has four playing areas, visible at all times, with imaginary walls. There is a small entry corridor on the left, a kitchen area, a large room with a table and chairs, and a small bedroom on the right. This is a modest residence and there is nothing to indicate that it is the palace of the King of Scotland. It clearly is not.

The King wears a kilt and pipes appear for a few moments. Aside from that there is no indication that we are in Scotland. Aside from the kilt and the white hat of a naval officer worn by one of the characters, the costumes are non-descript modern clothes with perhaps a rural flavor.

In order to get Dalinda to dress up as Ginevra, Polinesso puts a potion in Ginevra’s drink and she collapses, unconscious. A very nice invention by Jones. Then Ariodante discovers Dalinda as Ginevra and Polinesso dallying and goes into his “why-am-I-still-alive” recitative before going over the edge in “Scherza infida.” In the meantime Polinesso is trying to seduce Dalinda in the bedroom and the two must get rid of Ginevra. They throw her under the bed and soon disappear there themselves. Ariodante is left alone for the aria, of course. Jones is trying to enrich the story but on this occasion it is a bit awkward.

Having Polinesso as a cleric in a black robe, is a brilliant move. There are heavy religious overtones in the production from prayers to bibles. Jones is a man of detail and he develops the idea of Polinesso as a cleric completely.

After each act, Handel calls for a ballet. At the end of the happy first act, shepherds and shepherdesses are supposed to dance for the amusement of Ariodante and Ginevra. At the end of the second act, the mad Ginevra is to have nightmares. At the end of the opera, we are supposed to have happy dancing because all is well.

This production has the fine English Voices but no corps de ballet. The chorus members manage a few steps of Scottish dancing and then we have puppet shows between the acts. The marionettes are, among other things, fecund and upon being placed under a blanket produce baby marionettes. I have mixed feelings about what the puppets added to the production and would not have missed them or the ballet.

There can be no complaints about Freiburger Barockorcheter conducted by Andrea Marcon. Their performances were superb.

Jones and Ultz have achieved a dramatic re-imagination of Ariodante that has some brilliant touches, some brow-raising moments and some awkward scenes. Doing that with and 18th century opera, set in 8th century Scotland and keeping us entertained and enthralled for four hours, can only be classified as a major achievement.
Torontonians who are not in Aix-en-Provence this July will be able to see this production in the next few years done by the Canadian Opera Company. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Lyric Opera of Chicago produces it. The COC, Lyric and the Dutch National Opera are co-producers of Ariodante.

Ariodante by Georg Frideric Handel opened on July 3 and will be performed six times until July 18, 2014 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Richard Armitage as John Proctor. Photo© Johan Persson

Reviewed by James Karas

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible receives a stunning production at the Old Vic Theatre in London. It is the type of play that leaves you breathless by its sheer power and overwhelming drama. If you can catch several such productions in a year, count yourself extremely lucky.

The Crucible is about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692 but it is about much more than that. The initial inspiration for the play was the House Un-American Committee hearings (the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s) but if you know nothing about them, it makes little difference. There are witch-hunts all around us and the play should resonate with everyone. As astonishing drama, it has few competitors in American dramatic literature.

The Old Vic has been turned into a theatre in the round. There are seats on and around the stage leaving a relatively small acting area. The spectators on the stage are of course right in the action. That leaves no room for a set except for a couple of tables, some chairs and a bed as required.

The Crucible offers several great roles and the production, directed with astonishing ability by Yaël Farber has some remarkable performances. Richard Armitage takes on the role of John Proctor, a decent farmer accused of being in league with Lucifer. Armitage’s Proctor is a man of moral and physical strength despite having strayed once. He is sufficiently humane to refuse to attend the local church run by the Reverend Paris who knows about sin, evil and hell but nothing about love, forgiveness and humanity. Armitage’s display of tragic strength and grandeur is simply unforgettable.

The leader of the seekers of Satan (he is in fact a “judge”) is Deputy Governor Danforth played by Jack Ellis. The search for witches is initiated by hysteric young girls but Danforth is a smart, closed-minded bigot who genuinely believes that Satan can occupy people’s souls and that he, Danforth, is able to exorcise him. Ellis as Danforth displays the deadly force that a bully can possess to intimidate and terrorize people.

Michael Thomas plays Reverend Paris as a small, weak, foolish and selfish man and, as if that were not enough, he is also very nasty.

Reverend John Hale (Adrian Schiller) is equally convinced of the existence of witches but he soon realizes his error and with the exception of Proctor and the decent people of Salem who are imprisoned and executed, he is the most tragic person in the drama. He sees and knows what is happening but cannot stop it.

The hysterics of the young girls when they are “possessed” by the Devil is frightful and convincing.

Decency, rational thinking, even common sense do not stand a chance against the rampaging hysteria of the girls, the powerful and self-satisfied bullying of Danforth, the selfishness of Paris and the willing cooperation of some townspeople. A mixture of  self-interest and perhaps, and only perhaps,  genuine belief propel people to do awful things to others.      

This is an enthralling production that will move you and infuriate you. Even though I know almost every line of the play, I was captivated by every turn in the plot as if such unreason could not exist and if it did there will be a vindication of the innocent and not an execution.

The witch-hunts of the 1690’s, 1950’s and of today are still with us.  

The Crucible by Arthur Miller continues until September 13, 2014 at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London, England.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Jasper Britton (King Henry IV) and Alex Hassell (Hal). Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Reviewed by James Karas

At the end of the second act of King Henry IV, Part II, Falstaff bids farewell to Doll Tearsheet as he heads out to war. As he exits the Eastcheap tavern, he falls on his knees, crying, and Doll runs up to him to console him. It is an unexpected act and a telling scene about the boisterous braggart and womanizer. We see a very human, different and touching side of the fat knight. That is one of the many touches that director Gregory Doran provides in his sensitive and outstanding production of King Henry IV, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Doran has an exceptional cast to work with. Antony Sher has an outstanding record as a Shakespearean actor and his portrayal of Falstaff is magnificent. His Falstaff is all that we expect of the heavy-drinking, wenching, stealing and bragging fat knight. But there is equal emphasis on the human side. When Falstaff stops bragging about his exploits and says “I am old” we see again his other side. In the end, when Prince Hal as King Henry V rejects Falstaff with “I know thee not, old man” and treats their relationship and escapades as a bad dream our sympathy is with Falstaff and not him.

The production has many superb performances. Some of the actors play members of the nobility who express their positions with assurance, conviction and fine diction. Simon Thorp  as Lord Chief Justice, Sean Chapman as the Earl of Northumberland, Youssef Kerkour as the Earl of Westmoreland, Keith Osborn as the Archbishop of York and Nicholas Gerard-Martin as Lord Hastings are some of the peers in that category.

Jasper Britton is excellent as the conscience-stricken King Henry IV who sees the rebels do unto him what he did to his cousin King Richard II. He has a marvelous seen with Prince Hal who seems to have grabbed the crown from his bed. This is an almost operatic scene of confrontation and reconciliation.

L-R Jim Hooper (Silence), Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff) and Oliver Ford Davies (Shallow)           Photo: Kwame Lestrade

The play goes all over England but the most interesting scenes are the ones in Eastcheap and Justice Shallow’s house. It is here that we the other side of English life. Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti), the owner of the tavern and Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) have names that contain full descriptions of their characters and we bow to the actors for their performances. The pathetic recruits elicit some laughter but no one should laugh without sorrow at their fate. Again, Doran does outstanding work in presenting these dregs of humanity.

Justices Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies) and Silence (Jim Hooper) benefit from being played by superior Shakespearean actors superbly directed. Both are figures of ridicule and Doran takes full advantage of the opportunities provided by Shakespeare. Hooper has few lines but with a tuft of hair on the top of his head and proper timing in his speeches he becomes a riot. The foolish Shallow in the hands of Davies comes to dominate his scenes.

An excellent cast and a director who is faithful to the text but enhances it with marvelous touches is the type of production you want to see for a great night at the theatre.     

King Henry IV, Part II by William Shakespeare opened on March 18 and will play until September 6, 2014 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Ian Redford (Arden) and Alice Arden (Sharon Small). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Reviewed by James Karas

Arden of Faversham has the distinction of being written by that prolific writer Anonymous sometime in the late 1580’s and is considered the first domestic tragedy to have survived from the Elizabethan era. It is rarely produced but the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged it again this year in the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The last time the RSC visited this play was in 1982 and that is a long coffee break by any description.

Did I say domestic tragedy? As far as director Polly Findlay is concerned this is a modern domestic farce involving murder. The culprits, from the unfaithful wife and her lover, to the people conscripted to carry out the deed, are incompetent amateurs if not worse and it takes almost the entire play to carry out what seemed like a simple murder at the start.

Let us go to the beginning. The original play is set in the sixteenth century in Faversham, Kent but the current production has been moved it to the present. Arden (Ian Redford) is a wealthy, middle-aged, greedy, overweight, landowner married to the younger, slimmer, randy Alice (Sharon Small). Tight dress, very high heels, blonde hair and provocative mannerisms forces one to classify Alice as a slut. She has a low-life lover named Mosby (Keir Charles) who wears sneakers and tight pants, chews gum and has the manners of someone a few steps below home sapiens on the evolutionary ladder. To be fair, when he is about to kiss Alice, he yanks the gum out of his mouth.

Alice and Mosby want to get rid of Arden and they conscript Arden’s servant Michael (Ian Bonar), Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton), the dispossessed tenant Greene (Tom Padley) and the professional murderers Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena). Both Alice and Mosby have another side to their characters and do show some introspection. It is possible to produce the play as a melodrama but with so many morons on board, Findlay’s approach is a good choice.

Redford’s Arden may be a tough businessman but he is not too swift where his wife is concerned. Alice calls out the name of her lover in her sleep and Arden finds their love letters but when Mosby promises not do it again, they become fast friends. The only thing left for Arden is to strut on and off the stage dodging the latest attempt to kill him.

Sharon Small’s Alice is a piece of work and the actor seemed to be enjoying the role of the shameless hussy who will promise anything and do anything to bump off her husband. Much of the drama is reduced no doubt by changing times. A woman daring to plot her husband’s death would have been rarer and totally unbelievable and outrageous four hundred years ago. Not that is in style now. Alice does have her moment of self-realization when she muses about being honest Arden’s wife and not Arden’s honest wife.

 Alice Arden (Sharon Small) and Keir Charles (Mosby). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Simpson and Jayawardena get most of the laughs as the oafish murderers but Charles’s odious Mosby is not far behind.

Arden of Faversham is based on an actual and well-documented murder. The author is fairly faithful to the actual events but the plot becomes a bit thin near the middle. Findlay’s farcical approach with modern overtones and deft directing keeps the action moving.

I presume that the RSC is producing Arden of Faversham both honoris causa because of the type of play that it is and the time of its writing, and because it is a play worth producing. In other words, the RSC is leading its audience or creating an audience for lesser known plays. This contrasts sharply with the attitude of the Stratford Festival of Canada where they produce what they think people will like. That is not leadership. It may all depend on the amount of public funding available in which case the shame is transferred to narrow-minded politicians. There are new works produced and attempts at broadening our horizons but there is still plenty of room for more aggressive and imaginative programing.   

Arden of Faversham continues until October 2, 2014 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has staged a sinewy, muscular and superb production of the first part of King Henry IV at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

The renovated theatre sports a large stage with the audience seated on three sides. It gives immediacy to the performances that is second to none.

Director Gregory Doran gives full consideration to the political and martial part of the play as well as doing excellent work with its comic side in the tavern in Eastcheap. The central characters of the play are the antagonists Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) and Hotspur (Trevor White) but as usual the play is dominated by the immortal Falstaff in the hands of Antony Sher.

The play opens with a lengthy speech by King Henry IV (Jasper Britton) who has a troubled conscience having recently deposed and killed his cousin King Richard II. Rather than letting the King talk with no context, Doran shows Henry prostrate on the floor of an abbey. There is a large crucifix hanging from the ceiling and we hear church hymns. King Henry is doing penance for his sins. Now we know why he is dreaming of a crusade to Jerusalem.

King Henry is not the major character but Falstaff, even if he does not get most of the lines, dominates the play and our imagination. Antony Sher plays an exceptional Sir John. Sher is not a fat man and Doran seems to have resisted the temptation to stuff him with pillows. Sher does not need it. He is a superb Falstaff without resorting to cheap farcical tricks for laughs. This Falstaff is funny but he is also very human. There is a serious or perhaps just human side of his immorality or amorality.

He has some extraordinary mates at the tavern. Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti), the worn-out owner of The Boar’s Head, is aptly named but looks like she has been around the block more times than can be reasonably expected of a human being. Falstaff’s follower Bardolph (Joshua Richards) with his bright red face is more pathetic than funny.    

Hassell as Prince Hal is athletic, agile and every inch a prince except for the fact that he is mixed up with the wrong company and is enjoying it a bit too much. He shows his true nature when he leaves Cheapside and goes to fight the rebels. We quickly forget his transgressions and root for the brave warrior, dutiful son and humane prince. That is what we are supposed to do, in any event. Excellent work by Hassell.

Trevor White as Hotspur in search of glory.

Hal is the counterpart of the rebellious Hotspur. Here Doran wants to contrast the two youths and does so very effectively. White plays Hotspur not as someone badly in need of anger management, as one would say today, but as an arrogant, easily infuriated young man who is practically mad. With his blond hair, athletic physique and upturned nose, this Hotspur is a war machine in search of glory.

The warring noblemen all believe or pretend to believe that they have God and right on their side but it is easier to see them as ambitious, greedy men seeking to enlarge their wealth and power. Joshua Richards doubles (many of the actors take on more than one role) as the Welsh Lord Owen Glendower. He is a fantastic character and Richards is good and entertaining in the role. Sean Chapman plays the Scots Earl of Douglas, a wild man with a thick accent that is quite marvelous.

The wreath goes to Doran for a production that relies on the strength of his imagination and the strength of the play to give us Shakespeare at his best.   

King Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare plays from March 18 to September 6, 2014 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.