Sunday, 27 March 2011

Forced Milk Wood

In the week they buried Elizabeth Taylor it seems appropriate to revisit Under Milk Wood, in which she appeared briefly as Rosie Probert at the height of her partnership with Richard Burton in the 1971 Technicolor version.

Even though playing a bit-part, Taylor was famously difficult, refusing to travel to Fishguard where the movie was being shot. Her scenes were filmed in London over the two days she had available before leaving England to avoid being collared for income tax, and the stills with a cameraman lying on the floor to get the only angle which flattered her low-slung figure and showed off the three Parisian nightdresses she’d demanded which cost half the costume budget.

Both Parisian nightdresses and Technicolor are absent from the Pentameters production. Colourlessness becomes a positive virtue in a play where the sounds are paramount, a day-in-the-life of a small Welsh fishing village seen through the eyes of a blind sea captain.

It starts well enough with a convincing blackout and a few minutes in which to let the imagery of the sleeping hamlet beside the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ unfold in your head. Even without Richard Burton’s impassioned baritone, it works. Unfortunately as the lights come up, the scene is an anticlimax: an all-purpose set comprising a badly painted door panel, the back of a piano and a cheap flat-pack Welsh dresser certainly not borrowed from any self-respecting neighbouring kitchen here in Hampstead.

There are two ways Under Milk Wood is successfully performed: with a vast and colourful cast recreating as authentically as possible in costumes and props a fishing village in the fifties, or on an almost bare stage returning to the piece’s heritage as ‘a play for voices’. This production falls uncomfortably between the two stools with the five actors straining – a lot of the vocals are shouted – to portray in snapshot 64 different characters and using the all-purpose Welsh dresser as everything from captain’s bunk to wild wooded hillside, but equally using all-purpose accents which, even to my one-sixteenth-Welsh ears, sounded occasionally English in their inflections and certainly more random than the quite specific lilt of Cardigan Bay where Dylan Thomas placed the village.

The play has been set to music, by director and onstage participant Tom Neill, but it’s the sort of self-consciously-worthy wheezing and whining compositions you might hear scraped out by a school orchestra and serves only as irritating punctuation while the actors clump on and off stage to their instruments. The music is massively better when the cast sing, finely in two- or four-part harmony for example in the first-act closer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ morning service in which Tom Neill and Thomas Heard counterpoint particularly well together.

Even when shared among only five pairs of hands, the material can shine, and the bickering of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard with her two deceased husbands, or Butcher Beynon’s taunting of his wife with the liver of her pet cat are quite nicely pointed.

It’s a heart-felt production: Pentameters founder Leonie Scott-Matthews introduced the evening with a personal memoir of Dylan Thomas’s daughter Aeronwy, who read and dedicated her own poems on this same stage, and Neill’s affection for the work is palpable. Sometimes the best that a fringe production can do is to indicate that a classy revival is overdue. Hopefully the National or the Donmar will hear this clarion call from Hampstead and give Under Milk Wood the production it deserves.

This review written for The Public Reviews

Friday, 25 March 2011

French Leave ... preferably in the interval

Sacre Bleu, Zut Alors, Quelle Horreur, and as for the choreography: Fosse septique … pick your own Francophone diatribes, this is vachement awful.

It’s a shame, because the hand on the Kneehigh Theatre tiller is Emma Rice who helmed their extraordinarily inventive Brief Encounter but to continue the boating metaphors it’s no coincidence that Cherbourg was the port from which the Titanic steered out into the Atlantic, you can’t wait for this leviathan to hit its own iceberg.

Reworked from the Jacques Demy movie which made Catherine Deneuve a star, it's a tenderly simple story of very young lovers parted by circumstance – he’s sent to fight in Algeria whilst she covers her pregnancy marrying a rich bore.  He returns, she’s gone, he marries the maid.  The central character of the girl’s mother is played here by the much undervalued Joanna Riding as a haughty harridan in a ginger Fanny Cradock wig and the lovers limply by recent Guildford graduate Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand for some unfathomable reason imported from the US to play Guy, despite the fact the West End is crawling with unemployed lightweight younger leading men: shout across the street from the Gielgud to The Yard bar and you’d find a dozen his equal.

‘Internationally renowned’ (although not so much in this country) cabaret artiste Meow Meow – actually a harmless Australian soubrette called Melissa Madden Gray who assumes her fantasy alter ego rather like Humphries does Edna - is contractually obliged to front the soiree in a split skirt, fishnets and black beehive.  She also has to hustle the reluctant audience participation so morphs Irma La Douce with Gladys from Hi-de-Hi in a performance which is more cliché than Clichy.  Mind you, in the echoing grove of yesterday’s second press night with three-quarters of the seats unsold, not even Ken Dodd could have warmed us up.  Her ‘straight’ entr’acte solo ‘Sans Toi‘ is delivered sans taste and with so much eye rolling, r’s trilling and lardoned pathos that the producers of ‘Allo ‘Allo would have cut it from embarrassment.

Veteran composer Michel Legrand reworked his orchestrations for the production – but using the sort of random, stunted, cul-de-sac riffs which make you realise some jazz is basically musical masturbation: enjoyable for the participants but ultimately not really a spectator sport.  And it’s through-sung which means banalities to music, and no interruption for some sharp dialogue or even a joke.  There’s only one recognizable theme tune (appropriately the made-for-lift-muzak If It Takes Forever I  Will Wait For You) which repeats on such an interminable loop the audience feels it’s being battered to death with an especially stale baguette.

There’s a highly mechanized set from Lez Brotherston with tricksy use of model buildings, artful neon and an unexpected skate ramp, colourful costumes, and a seductive lighting scheme by Malcolm Rippeth, but it’s all so much empty effort when the performance doesn’t engage with the audience.

London weather’s so unpredictable but I expect folded Umbrellas before Easter.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kitchen Sink for the Cornbelt

Although set in the remote boondocks of Northern Illinois, on a near-derelict farm, we are not in any new territory with Sam Shephard’s ‘Buried Child’.

The possibility that an outwardly-naturalistic family shelters a dark secret which through the arrival of a stranger is revealed to devastating effect over three drawn-out acts is a theatrical motif so well explored as to have lost its power to shock even by 1979 when ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – an accolade which, incidentally, Shepard said gave him less satisfaction than winning a roping contest in the local rodeo.

Shepard’s plays chart the decline of the American dream but more angrily than Miller or Albee, and more autobiographically too: Shepard’s father, a former WWII Air Force pilot, grew up on a broken-down farmstead and supported his mother and brothers from a very young age when the farm business collapsed but later succumbed to alcoholism, living a life that was endlessly disappointing and not able to find another path.

But Shepard is not easy to pigeonhole: his works combine attempts at satire, farce, and cynical verbal attack with images of the Old West, a mourning sense of nostalgia for a lost rural idyll, and a disconnection from familial and spiritual roots.

Possibly Shepard wanted to be a Beckett or a Pinter but merely acquired Pinter’s relentless verbosity and Becket’s obscurantism which makes the play hard to listen to since the dialogue is repetitive and disconnected. This isn’t helped by the variable accents of some of the cast and their propensity to turn upstage on important lines – Tala Gouveia is simply unintelligible a lot of the time.

The ramshackle farmhouse – the location is shown as ‘a squalid farm home’ in the programme - is excellently realised in Martin Thomas’s design, and Howard Hudson’s carefully graduated lighting scheme.

There are some good performances: the play starts well enough with a verbal sparring match between John Atterbury, totally convincing as the old-timer Dodge, arguing with his irritable wife shouting from offstage. His ‘slow’ son Tilde played by Math Sams and grandson Vince by Joe Jameson are also well-studied and persuasive performances of quite unengaging redneck characters.

In Timothy Trimingham-Lee’s lurching production, the actors are required to switch urgently from kitchen-sink drama to Ortonesque farce and back to horror when the parentage of the dead infant is revealed in the too-long-coming third act denouement.

It almost works, but last night’s audience was too readily entertained by the absurd to focus on the dramatic conclusion.

In fact towards the end it was a bit like 'What the Butler Saw' with Vince chasing Bradley round the stage with his prosthetic leg. But too hard to call, the audience was an odd mix of bemused blogcritics and over-volubly enthusiastic friends of the cast: it might have been better if we'd just had a fist-fight ourselves over it.

an edited version of this review appears on The Public Reviews

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Covent Garden markets

Tuesday morning 11am and one is royally chuffed to be invited with a clutch of bloggerati by the Covent Garden media/marketing team to put ones feet up in the Director’s box at Covent Garden for dress rehearsal of the David McVicar Aida which opens on Friday. 

Apart from the close-up view of the singers’ facial expressions and a position right over the pit where we can eyeball Fabio Luisi spurring the orchestra to a spanking pace, we're all captivated by brilliance of both staging and movement.

If you’ve seen Aida before, forget those legions of spear carriers and chorines in white nighties and gold halters, crapping camels or Zandra Rhodes’ pleated silk elephants making the Nile run turquoise with fashion accessories. In Jean-Marc Puissant’s design it’s more Dune than Pyramids, and his motifs are smeared blood, scimitar and samurai. We’re in a darkly exciting metallica world framing the stories of battle, sacrifice – literally, human sacrifice – and conflicted loyalties.

In a brief chat after the performance, associate director Leah Hausman points out that Verdi was writing a serious piece about war: the word ‘guerra’ appears a hundred times more often than ‘amore’ in the libretto, so this is a story of war in which love happens, rather than the other way round.

It looks like Coriolanus but feels suddenly relevant: Amneris condemns the priests as controllers of a rotten society, Radames as head of the army is called upon to save the nation for posterity amid popular chanting and a march of bloodied and butchered foot-soldiers.  It could be played out in Tahrir Square.

The grandiose set-pieces are so much more than parades: there’s a fantastic troupe of athletic bare-breasted women whose urgent runs and synchronized thrusting seem lifted from a Soviet spartakiade, there’s ritual disembowelling and corpses dangle from the rafters.  Their male counterparts stage Kendo-inspired sword and lance fights in a dance of death under David Greeves’ genius martial arts coaching.

It’s no-one’s fault but Verdi’s that Aida shoots its load in the first two acts and what remains after the interval is the afterglow of the doomed romance between Radames and Aida, and Amneris’s slow-burning disappointment. But this is where the production really delivers as the emotional triangle is explored in scenes of tender and realistic intimacy, due to the powerful collaboration of the three principals: Roberto Alagna, Olga Borodina and Micaela Carosi whose acting is every bit the equal of their sung performances.

It’s edgy casting: Alagna was booed at La Scala in the same role in 2006, Olga Borodina famously walked out of an earlier Covent Garden Aida in a disagreement with ROH music director Antonio Pappano, so it’s a miracle not just that they are both here but that they conspire with Carosi to create such chemistry.

We went backstage for the scene change and some gossip: Swan Lake has had a box office mega-surge due to the ‘Black Swan’ effect with phone calls asking when Natalie Portman would be ‘on’.  The box office has a sense of humour because they’re tempted to answer ‘every other night alternating with Billy Elliott’.  But the best news is that ROH is trying to reprise its sensational Anna Nicole in 2013, and working on available dates with Eva-Maria Westbroek.

a version of this article appears on Londonist