No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter

The performance I attended was held on Saturday 3 September 2016 at The New Theatre, Cardiff.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 – January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April– – May 1976, and New York October – –December, returning to the Lyttelton, January – –February 1977.

Setting

“A large room in a house in North West London” on a summer night and the following morning.”
Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class literature who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampstead, with Foster and Briggs, respectively his purported amanuensis and man servant (or apparent bodyguard), who may be lovers. Spooner, a “failed, down-at-heel poet” whom Hirst has “picked up in a Hampstead pub” and invited home for a drink, becomes Hirst’s house guest for the night; claiming to be a fellow poet, through a contest of at least-partly fantastic reminiscences, he appears to have known Hirst at university and to have shared mutual male and female acquaintances and relationships. The four characters are named after cricket players.

Cast

Patrick Stewart as Hirst, a man in his sixties
Ian McKellen as Spooner, a man in his sixties
Damien Molony as Foster, a man in his thirties
Owen Teale as Briggs, a man in his forties
Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the UK stage in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed production of No Man’s Land, one of the most brilliantly entertaining plays by Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter.

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Plot
“One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister younger men.”

Act 1

A man in his sixties named Hirst begins a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch) in his drawing room with an anonymous peer who he only just met at a pub. Hirst’s overly talkative guest, calling himself a poet, long-windedly explains how he is penetratingly perceptive, until he finally introduces himself as “Spooner”. As the men are becoming more intoxicated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass, while Spooner abruptly taunts Hirst about his masculinity and wife. Hirst merely comments “No man’s land…does Not move…or Change…or Grow old…remains…forever…icy…silent”, Before collapsing twice and finally crawling out of the room.

A young man enters and suspiciously questions Spooner, who now becomes relatively silent, about his identity. The younger man introduces himself as John “Jack” Foster before the entrance of a fourth man, Briggs, who is in his forties and who also unsuccessfully questions Spooner and then bickers with Foster.

At last, Hirst re-enters, having slept, and struggles to remember a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking, and they refill the older men’s glasses. Hirst mentions an album of photographs he keeps, commenting on the appearances of the people in the album. He does not appear to fully remember Spooner’s identity, insisting that his true friends are kept safely in the album. He begins drinking straight from the bottle, mutters incoherent statements, and continues to ponder his dream—involving someone drowning—when Spooner abruptly says that he was the one drowning in Hirst’s dream. Hirst drunkenly collapses and Spooner now rushes in to Hirst’s aid, brushing away the two younger men and claiming to be Hirst’s true friend. The younger pair becomes defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against “men of evil”. Foster openly criticises his own past, as well as Hirst’s impulsiveness and alcoholism. It gradually becomes apparent that Foster is Hirst’s apprentice and housekeeper, and Briggs is Hirst’s personal servant. All exit except for Spooner and Foster, the latter of who says, “Listen. You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this”. He flicks off the lights, causing a blackout.

Act 2

The next morning, Spooner, alone, stands from his chair and attempts to leave, but the door is locked. Briggs soon enters to deliver Spooner food and champagne, rambling on about how he met Foster and ignoring Spooner’s desire to know why the door was locked. Spooner thinks of a quick excuse to leave; however, when Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets, Spooner show vague recognition of this fact.

Hirst himself bursts in and is delighted to see Spooner, whom he oddly mistakes for (or pretends) is an old friend. He speaks as though the two were Oxbridge classmates in the 1930s, which Spooner finally plays along with. Hirst and Spooner then bizarrely discuss scandalous romantic encounters they both had with the same women, leading to a series of increasingly questionable reminiscences, until finally Hirst is accused of having had an affair with Spooner’s own wife. All the while, Hirst refers to Briggs by a variety of inconsistent names and then launches into a rant about once-known faces in his photo album.

Spooner says that Foster, who now reappears, should have pursued his dream of being a poet, instead of working for Hirst. Spooner shows great interest in seeing Hirst’s photo album, but both Briggs and Foster discourage this. All four are now drinking champagne, and Foster, for his own pride and dignity’s sake, abruptly asserts that he desired to work in this house of his own choice, where he feels privileged to serve as famous a writer as Hirst. Suddenly, Spooner asks desperately that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising his own work ethic and other virtues. After all this, Hirst merely replies “Let’s change the subject for the last time”. And after a pause worriedly asks “What have I said?” Foster explains definitively that Hirst’s statement means that he (Hirst) will never be able to change the subject ever again. Hirst thinks back to his youth, when he mistakenly thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner now comments, “No. You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” Hirst responds “I’ll drink to that!” and the lights fade slowly to black.

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Production Design and Costume:

The safety curtain (well not the safety one but the scene setting one I’ve forgotten the name of) had imagery reminiscent of a dark, foreboding, forest and tattered edging so it didn’t meet the stage floor uniformally. Somehow due to the 2 or maybe three thin layers of gauze it had a 3D like effect.

no mans land stage layout.png

The single room setting of the performance has a semi-circular design, as if we were in the keep of a castle except the walls have a square glass brick effect (which seemed to be popular a few years ago or at least my local cinema and bingo hall use a similar effect) due tinged a dark turquoise. The floor has pale pine wooden slats following the semi circular design and a mat/rug with fleur de leis on it coloured deep turquoise and paler turquoise respectively. This carpeting is slightly off centre from the circular pattern of the floorboards as if to non-verbally indicate to the audience that things are not quite as simple and straight forward as they initially appear. To the rear, of centre to the left, is a window hidden behind heavy, dusty it seems, curtains obscuring any natural light entering the room despite the possibility of Hirst going out for his daily walk (which he refuses as it isn’t very light outside when he looks).

On the right is the single door on and off stage. A plain, varnished, wooden door. To the rear a well stocked bar with a cupboard in the bench hiding even more bottles. A few glasses are used during the performance as Hirst always needs another drink and often so do the others.

The room is sparsely furnitured. To either side are free standing lamps, the right of which has a small table with it. Three chairs populate the room. Two are simple wooden ones but the third, off centre to the left, is the most important. It is Hirst’s green Chesterfield chair which only he ever sits in as the master of the house. Next to it is a small side table which he places his whiskey glass upon. A trolley, with fold out wings and covered in a white sheet to make it a table, is used for Spooner’s breakfast at the start of the second half. It is wheeled in and abruptly out by Briggs.

Costume wise Hirst wears a navy three piece suit but for most of the first half this is replaced by a striped night gown. Spooner wears a dull great suit and in the second half for a brief time has on his Mac in readiness to leave. Foster and Briggs wear clothes in the style of the 1970s i.e. brown boots, leather jackets and bellbottom trousers. In the second half, with their roles as house staff revealed, Briggs wears a blue three piece suit, later discarding the jacket with his sleeves rolled up, and Foster reappears in the last few scenes in a pastel suit. In contrast to the Americanised version I have to immediately note Stewart didn’t have a wig during the performance I saw and I don’t think McKellen had a ponytail (and obviously the roles of Foster and Briggs were different actors).

Review:
The venue was sold out and it was the final night. As is often the case here when its sold out there was barely any room to move at the entrance as they put the programme selling stall at the bottom of the stairs which start right by the left side of the entrance doors. Across the small entrance way is the box office with one, maybe two, people able to serve through the small windows. Of course people queue here too and I haven’t accounted for the people standing around chatting idly having gotten themselves drinks from the bar. Saying that once you got up stairs there was more room, not much seating but that is to be expected due to the limited space.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the boxes were used for their original purpose of ‘being seen to be seen at the theatre’ thought they are renowned for their poor view of the stage. As it is they probably worked out cheaper than some of the stall seats for tonight’s performance.

The New Theatre used to be the premier location for stage plays in Cardiff but after the establishment of the Wales Millennium Centre it was quickly usurped and although still respectable it never regained this position. It’s heyday, during my life time, was probably around 1996 when Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, directed his stage adaptation of Uncle Vanya transposing Chekov’s Uncle Vanya to a turn-of-the-century Welsh setting, emphasising the hardships of Welsh industrial life in the slate quarries and Welsh-English turmoil. Aside from the New Theatre and WMC Chapter Arts Centre, the Sherman Theatre and recently the Gates Art Centre have grown in prominence as venues for the arts in Cardiff.

The play itself I enjoyed but I think there is an important caveat to this: I knew what the meta-narrative of the play was regarding Pinter’s mindset when he wrote it and what it represented to him. What we see portrayed on the stage is not literal. Metaphor is heavily used in this play and the audience are hinted towards this reading when Spooner proclaims his joy at its use by Hirst in the first act.

Hirst is an old man at the end of his life consumed by memories which he cannot recollect with any accuracy. He often talks of a photo album he has and the faces in it yet he himself doesn’t recognise Spooner at the start and indeed we as an audience must ask if, when he does acknowledge him as a friend from his youth, if the conversation they are having is actually between old acquaintances or if Spooner is playing along and making up stuff which Hirst, being a braggard, pretends to remember but doesn’t. In fact we could ask if any of the characters, apart from Hirst, even do exist at all or perhaps speculate that they represent different aspects of himself – Foster as his young brash self who sees opportunities in the future and is very cocky; Briggs as his masculine side aggressive, objective and arrogant; Spooner as his poetic aspect and view of old age reflecting how, now at the end of his days, he thinks back to his youth but cannot recall it with accuracy and wants to ignore, if not outright dismiss, his old age from himself and instead ‘remembers’ someone drowning but can’t recall their face. Perhaps we take this as it is him seeing himself drowning metaphorically in life unable to escape from himself.

Of course there are many ways to read this play and that is, for the most part, intentional. It is however also its weakness as you must have some knowledge of Pinter, or at least writers of his generation, and how the use of language is multilayered with more than a single understanding. Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett, (premiered on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris) is perhaps the greatest example of this use of dialogue. Symbolism and metaphor are replete throughout the work and for an audience not prepared for this they may declare it pretentious as they are unprepared. If you have not watched a work like this before I think it wise to watch the film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first staged in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) to see if this sort of play is to your liking. In fact it would be hard to deny the influence Beckett and Stoppard must have had on Pinter when you make comparisons.

It would be easy to see this play as a response to Waiting For Godot. There are parallels between Vladimir and Hirst contrasting that of Estragon and Spooner but in both pairs certain aspects are exchanged. Beckett, in a correspondence reflects that “Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless.” In a twist we see Hirst, who of the pair is the slightly better off as Vladimir is, is mostly sitting for much of the first act despite how spry he is in the second, and in contrast Spooner, a poet (just as Estragon should have been Vladimir comments) is very spry unlike Estragon who is mostly seen to be sitting or reclining. In Waitng For Godot it is Vladimir who is constantly reminding Estragon but here Spooner reminds Hirst. In the first stage production of Waiting For Godot, which Beckett oversaw, both are “more shabby-genteel than ragged…Vladimir At least is capable of being scandalised…on A matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money.” In No Man’s Land Hirst is scandalised by Spooner’s accusations of youthful infidelity and, while eating his breakfast, Spooner uses the serviette as a bib instead of placing it on his lap (and indeed when putting his coat on forgets to remove it). There are many facets which could be explored in analysing the intertextuality of the pieces but that should be left for another time and place.

This is not a play of events but of moods. It is a dialogue about themes which often haunted Pinter throughout his career – most obviously those of memory and death. I highly recommend it but this is one of those occasions where you are better off knowing what happens so you can focus on the nuances of the actor’s performances. If I had a criticism of the one I attended it was the audience not knowing the tone. Some laughed at any point that might be potentially comedic, for example when Hirst collapses and then crawls out of the room, but these scenes could also be played very seriously (which I believe was the intent this night) so it seemed there was a dissonance between performance and audience on the night. Of course we must reflect that the line between a tragedy and comedy is a fine line. In tragedy we identify with them and their inability to prevent the course of events but in comedy we anticipate it and take joy in their suffering. I feel the play could easily be played to either extreme. Certainly McKellen was playing to the comedic angle while Stewart played a very serious figure and somehow, as hard as it might be to believe, they did not gel on stage although this may have been intentional due to the characters’ contrasting natures. As for Molony as Foster he played his role with much energy and easily interacted with McKellen who he has directed in other plays a number of times now. Teale as Briggs was suitably intimidating and stern. He did however remind me of Danny Dyer and, unsurprisingly, I discovered that Dyer had performed this role a few years ago in another production which lead me to question if Teale was imitating Dyer or if Dyer, by some fluke of nature, had discovered a role all but made for him he fit it so perfectly.

It was an excellent performance in every respect but the audience seemed to be at odds with the intended tone at times.

Outside the stage doors I didn’t see the autograph hunters who are always present at these things. There was an A4 printed sign in the stage door saying the cast would only be signing things to do with the production (i.e. Don’t you dare come here with things relating to Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Stella, etc). After the show the theatre manager, who for some reason was wearing a full white tie dinner suit, said no one could take selfies and you probably wouldn’t even get an autograph. Ian McKellen to his credit tried to sign as many autographs as possible as did Damien Molony and Owen Teale. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart had to rush off as he was about to miss his train though he did try to sign some brochures before leaving.

In summary: Go and see it as it is a classic of modern theatre but know what you are getting into regarding Pinter’s intent. Don’t just go because there are recognisable names otherwise you will be lost when you realise it isn’t going to be as straight forward as something you watch on television or in the cinema.



The Audience: Theatre Review

The Audience – A new play by Peter Morgan

Winner of three Tony Awards and two Olivier Awards, National Theatre Live’s smash-hit broadcast of the original West End production of The Audience – featuring Helen Mirren’s multi-award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II – returns to cinemas in celebration of the monarch’s 90th birthday.

Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and directed by two-time Tony Award winner and Academy Award – nominated director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours), these special encore screenings include an exclusive Q&A with Helen Mirren and director Stephen Daldry.

For sixty years, Queen Elizabeth II has met with each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a private weekly meeting. This meeting is known as The Audience. No one knows what they discuss, not even their spouses.

From the old warrior Winston Churchill, to the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair right up to today’s meetings with the current incumbent David Cameron, the Queen advises her Prime Ministers on all matters both public and personal. Through these private audiences, we see glimpses of the woman behind the crown and witness the moments that shaped a monarch.

The Audience was presented in the West End by Matthew Byam Shaw for Playful Productions, Robert Fox and Andy Harries.


(This teaser is from the later Broadway run but gives you an idea of the costumes and staging)


Cast: West End performers

Queen Elizabeth II: Helen Mirren
John Major: Paul Ritter
Gordon Brown: Nathaniel Parker
Harold Wilson: Richard McCabe
Winston Churchill: Edward Fox
Anthony Eden: Michael Elwyn
Margaret Thatcher: Haydn Gwynne
David Cameron: Rufus Wright
James Callaghan: David Peart
Equerry: Geoffrey Beevers
Young Elizabeth: Nell Williams



Review: The play operates as a series of interconnected, non-chronological, vignettes regarding meetings between the Queen and her Prime Ministers. Tony Blair, although mentioned, is omitted in this early version of the play. A few scenes are of their first meetings, with most set during mid-term meetings and one, James Callaghan, breaking the routine towards the end by appearing as a cut away reminiscence as the prime minister the Queen forgets to recall when she counts all the prime ministers she had. Admittedly he acts as a one scene wonder joking that she called him ‘Sunny ‘Jim’. In fact the same could be said of most of the actors playing various Prime Ministers although John Major returns a second time but, most notably, Harold Wilson has quite a few scenes with the Queen showing his first meeting with her, a holiday at Balmoral and one of their last audiences where he is shown to be paranoid of the room being bugged and admits to the Queen he is in the early stages of dementia before the Queen, in the indirect manner in which she makes her view clear. It is all but explicitly stated he was her favourite Prime Minister as he was given the honour of hosting a dinner for her and Philip at 10 Downing Street which was an honour last given to Winston Churchill.

The stage layout could be as minimal as having just two chairs on the stage but we also get some other pieces of furniture such as a bureau desk, a table for drinks and during the Balmoral scene a 3 bar heater. The provenance of each item of furniture is recounted by the Equerry (a sort of aide-de camp but nowadays more like a personal servant similar to a valet but for monarchs) and usually raises a few laughs. Usually I would make a basic stage layout diagram but it seems redundant here. The only thing I need add is that when set in Buckingham palace we have a background looking down a corridor to give a full impression of the immense size of the building along with its marble columns and while at Balmoral the background is of a highlands scene with chandeliers composed of stags’ antlers.

The costumes are historically based and during the intermission we were shown a documentary of the behind the scenes process of research with photos of the various era of the queens clothing and her hair styles. At one point, when transitioning from John major in the 1990s all the way back to Winston Churchill in the 1950s just before the Queen’s inauguration, there is a costume change live on stage. This is done by three attendants, who are actually the wig and costume staff of the production, crowding her and changing her outfit so that the queen goes from an old woman back to a young woman. Also, between Prime Ministers, we have scenes where the Queen addresses her younger childhood self who rebels and cannot conceive of being a monarch. They give us the audience and insight into how the Queen has a duality as she always wanted to just live a country life but having taken the role of monarch must act the part. Also later in the play we have actual corgi dogs, which the Queen adores, run across the stage. Of course they upstage everyone and would have been a distraction if on the stage for any significant period of time.

This is a light-hearted play with quite a bit of wordplay or what nowadays would be called ‘banter’ between the Queen and her various Prime Ministers. At the 2013 Olivier Awards, Helen Mirren received the best actress Olivier for her portrayal of the Queen, while Richard McCabe received the best supporting actor nod for his role as Harold Wilson. In this play anyone can be the standout performance it feels but with the most stage time these two roles, of the Queen which the performance hinges upon and Wilson who has multiple scenes with her, are inevitably the ones people will leave remembering.

The key question people no doubt have is whether knowledge of British political history is necessary. I would say you don’t to enjoy it. In fact having a little prior knowledge is a doubled edge sword as you will see the caricatures for what they are but at the same time, for the disinterested, its just people interacting with the Queen to no real end. The various roles are caricatures of the real life people and any suggestion regarding the authenticity of the Queen’s portrayal I think is best summed up by Helen Mirren herself: we have many photos and portraits of the Queen but each is as much influenced by the artist as it is by its subject matter. This play itself is just another portrait depicting a particular perception of the Queen just as we only have contemporary depictions of monarchs of past centuries to base our portrayals on. It’s a fun play which you will enjoy seeing once but I personally would wonder if it has any legs.

It is a time capsule of sorts in that it gives the current view of these political figures and, as mentioned in the interview shown after the show, they had to (and no doubt still do) update the portrayal of David Cameron week on week so that it feels as up to date as possible. It’s evitably at some point there will be another Prime Minister after Cameron and one day the Queen herself will sadly die so how much they add to the play and if they alter it is some way is questionable. For example interjections into other scenes as Callaghan’s scene can feel forced and as I mentioned earlier in this early version Tony Blair (and others) were omitted. It feels that for the time being this is going to be a constantly evolving play but whether it will still be held in prominence decades from now or assigned to the same place as many historical plays is to be seen. Go see it, enjoy it, just be mindful you are watching caricatures of these people not fair reflections of who they were and often it looks at their positives and ignores the bad political moves of some of them.

the audience leaflet2

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra Concert

Held at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on 17th May 2016.

A performance of Prokofiev’s Russian Overture 13′, Prokofiev’ Piano Concerto No 3 28′ and Shostakovich’ Symphony No 5 48′


The evening consisted of the following:
Pre-Concert Talk (FREE) – Jonathan James & Noriko Okawa, 6.30pm – 7.00pm, Lefel 1
Join Bristol-based music educator Jonathan James in conversation with pianist Noriko Ogawa.

Young Artists Showcase (FREE) – Beatrice Acland (soprano) & Ella O’Neill (piano),
7pm, Level 3 foyer stage
Young soprano Beatrice Acland is a current MA Opera student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She is joined by fellow student Ella O’Neill, for selections of vocal music by Rachmaninoff and Dvořák.

Post-Concert ’30-Minutes’ (£1.50) – Katie Lower (flute) & Joshua Abbott (piano),
9.30pm, Lefel 1
Prokofiev Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94

Post-Concert Tickets £1.50 (No Ticket Service Charge applies)


Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
International Concert Series

Tuesday 17 May, 7.30pm to 9.30pm

‘The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra might well be the world’s least-heralded great orchestra … With these revelatory Russians, a free seismic test is part of the bargain.’ – Los Angeles Times

The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra is led by their Conductor Pavel Kogan and accompanied by the piano soloist Noriko Ogawa.

For almost seven decades the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra has been one of Russia’s leading orchestras, forming a legendary partnership with their conductor Pavel Kogan. Hear them in work by two of Russia’s greatest composers, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Noriko Ogawa is the soloist in Prokofiev’s high energy, sardonic and sometimes bitter-sweet Third Piano Concerto and the concert ends with a classic: Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a dark tragic courageous reply from an individual to the state.

This UK tour by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra is supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.


Standard Price £7.50 | £15.50 | £19.50 | £26.00 | £32.50 | £39.50
Platinum Tickets (including prime seat in Tier 1, a glass of champagne and a programme) £48.00
Friends of St David’s Hall £2.00 off
Under 16 £ 5.00
Students (up until 6.00pm on the day of the performance) £ 5.00
Claimants £2.00 off
Disabled people (plus one companion) £ 7.50
(Wheelchair users plus one companion seats at lowest prices)


 

REVIEW
I missed the pre-show talk but the Young Artists Showcase of Beatrice Acland (soprano) & Ella O’Neill (piano) was on the same level as my seating and was a really good pre-show ‘warm up’ for the audience. WMC (Wales Millennium Centre) also do a similar thing in their foyer of letting younger acts do a short performance and it can only do good to give them an opportunity.

pre show

It would have been nice if they were introduced by a member of staff rather than having to do so themselves as it would give them some respect as contributors to the evening’s events.

The joke I am reminded of by these circumstances is the one about a restaurant advertising for musicians to play for free, to promote themselves, and someone replying by imitating the poster’s use of language and advertising in rebuttal for free meals at their home to promote the restaurant.

I’m sure they were treated well but from the look of it they turned up, got on stage and did their thing then left without any significant staff interaction.

I can only imagine, when that worse case scenario does occur at any venue, it would be setting the venue up for a downfall in the future. Of course there would have been a staff turnover by them so there is always a slight aspect of inheriting a poison chalice if the previous senior staff were not cordial with people who were only beginning their careers at the time.

Beatrice and Ella were both very good and I hope to see their names again in the years to come. Despite how I make it sound they did receive applause after each piece and seemed happy with the performance.

For the main event I saw for the first time in person the seating behind the stage being used. I personally was sat towards the front in the stalls. Ironically the behind stage seating, when an orchestra is the sole aspect of the performance, is probably preferrable. Definitely when Okawa’s grand piano was being wheeled to the front it was the only seating that didn’t have a lot of the stage obscured.

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In order to get the piano to the front, after the overture had been performed, a 5 – 7 minute impromptu interruption occurred leaving the audience just sat in silence staring at the stage staff adjusting things. When you are sat there doing nothing even this short period of time can seem like an eternity despite there obviously being no other options available. The violinists and cellists had to leave the stage, the conductor’s podium moved deeper into the stage and the grand piano actually overlapping the podium. The stage area is very limited so I can only imagine how cramped it was. Once the lid to the piano was opened Kogan was probably unseeable for most people. I was actually concerned that if he lost his footing he would fall directly onto the piano as the rail of the podium had to be left off due to the overlap. That is my only significant criticism of the evening. I imagine they discussed what to do earlier and sadly this was the only option but it was such a distinct interruption to the proceedings I wish they had perhaps agreed to alter the set and have the piano and Okawa’s part performed at the start of the second half instead.
Under the orchestra staff they had to put long pieces of cardboard for friction so no one’s chairs moved about. Do they usually do that? I have never been sat close enough to the stage to notice before.

The performance was, as you would expect, an excellent world-class experience and St David’s Hall is truly the best location still for the acoustics it delivers even in contrast to WMC. Ozawa excelled in her part and ‘stole the show’ if such a thing can be suggested. Kogan, despite never addressing the audience save for gestures and smiles, seemed very jovial and after receiving rapturous applause even performed a short humourous piece which was unexpected and much appreciated by the audience.

The real gem of the evening was the intimate performance of Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94 on level one (in the room I am certain used to be a restaurant). The musicians were Katie Lower (flute) & Joshua Abbott (piano). Katie introduced herself and Joshua then gave a small overview of the piece and its history. The ticket was only £1.50 and worth every penny. Sadly there were only about 14 people there which I assume is because it was about 9.45PM and so anyone needing the train or other public transport would have had no choice but go due to scheduling. It is a shame as it was a very enjoyable 30 or so minutes.

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I don’t know if musicians would prefer a small but focused audience, like this, or a larger, if inattentive, audience as Beatrice Acland and Ella O’Neill had prior to the concert. Both have their pros and cons I suppose.

A wonderful evening and I hope the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra return again in year’s to come.


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Only The Brave – Musical [First Impressions and Story Synopsis]

Following is my initial impression of the new musical ‘Only the Brave’ premiering at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I will write a more thorough review later this week.

First let me give you a few videos and information in case you are not already familiar with it:

Donald Gordon Theatre

Created by Wales Millennium Centre with Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions & Birdsong Productions
Only The Brave
A New Musical

28 Mar – 02 Apr 2016

Previews: Mon – Wed £11 – £25* Premium Packages*** £35*
Thu – Sat £14 – £29* Premium Packages*** £39*

Age Guidance: 11+ (No under 2s)

Only the Brave is an epic new musical about love, friendship and, above all, hope.

Starring Emilie Fleming (Les Misérables, Oliver!), Neil McDermott (EastEnders, Shrek The Musical), Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins, Les Misérables) and David Thaxton (Les Misérables, Love Never Dies), this moving new musical delves into the lives of the men and women who made the most astonishing sacrifices in order to protect their country and provide a better future for those they loved.

Based on the true events leading up to the D-Day landings, Only the Brave follows a group of men embarking on the ultimate mission, the friendship of two women united by love and loss, and the bravery of a young French girl determined to play her part.

In collaboration with the team behind the stunning UK tour of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and with an original score by Cardiff born composer Matthew Brind, Wales Millennium Centre is proud to create and première this home-grown musical that will send your heart soaring.

Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Music by Matthew Brind
Directed by Steve Marmion
Original concept by Steve Coleman, Matthew Brind & Rachel Wagstaff
Lyrics by Steve Marmion


Synopsis and Review

I typed this on my phone during the intermission and after the show so some events may be out of order and it is a very scrappy account of the proceedings. As this is the first time this musical has been performed it is natural that you will not pick up the names of all the characters initially but, to the productions credit,  I found that they were all very distinct and I would suggest that any criticisms in this regard only be challenged by asking if the same critic can name all the individual protesting students, who each have a distinct characteristic, during Marius’ scenes of Les Miserables even all these years later after its international success and social osmosis.

PART 1

The first few scenes had ‘muddy’ sound quality at the start and also something I will often come back to in the proper review: the use of simultaneous scenes occurring on stage leading the audience to miss events. The very first scene is of an old man, John Howard, in a care home lying on a bed who gets up and faces his younger self. We are introduced to Captain (later Major) John Howard and Lieutenant Denham Brotheridge courting their respective wives prior to enlistment. During this people run back and forth on stage to show the build up to war and it all seems very confusing.

There is a mix of song quality and nothing feels memorable but perhaps in time would be. Certainly the initial sound quality spoiled the opening pieces. The first few bits with moving stairs is overkill pre-enlistment as they never seem to stop moving them in order to impress up on the audience how much activity there was occurring. The lightweight staircases are used throughout the performance to emulate military locations, the small housing of the nurse’s office, at the start of the second half the aeroplane being flown and at the end the bridge they have their mission at.

As they are back projected a shiloette of one onto the ‘safety curtain’ I suppose at some point the production decided, of all the things in this musical, this scenery prop is what they want to be the iconic image. Phantom of the Opera has the mask, Les Mis has the illustration of Cosette as a child with the tricolor, Oklahoma has the map of the state, various musicals have the title done in a stylised way… and Only The Brave has a stage prop. It seemed an odd choice that this be the audience’s first image of the performance.

After the initial ‘we are real men’ macho events of John knocking out all his group during some boxing training (and he becomes regional champion possibly? I wasn’t clear what was happening as this part moved so quickly) to assert he is the alpha male and lead. Also at this point someone introduces Tony ‘Darky’ Baines. I think it is the ‘Jesus’ lieutenant saying “but everyone calls him that” but not John. There is no racism in his unit which feels like quite an anachronistic, politically correct, view. It may be true historically, as this is based on real events, but when we have Prince Harry referring to one of his colleagues by the nickname Raghead a few years ago, and such nicknames are common place in the armed forces as a demonstration of mental toughness and brotherhood, it seemed a bit too forced to suggest this would have been challenged in the 1940s. Hopefully I am wrong but it felt too forced a moment during the performance.

There is also a Welsh character who keeps turning up late to practise. I wonder, should the musical tour, if this role will be changed to which ever region they perform at or the character will always be Welsh thus presenting us as as dim witted, late to everything and as a potential liability on the mission. In the second half he somehow disappears after the plane crash only to reappear to deliver the same running ‘Sorry I’m late’ joke for the final time during a skirmish where other team members have died.

 John’s first, comedy relief, lieutenant is introduced saying ” I’m Jesus”. John looks at him blankly. “Jesus Christ College, Cambridge. You?” The boy, in officer’s uniform, assumes John is of the educated social elite, not working class, due to being in a commanding role. A few minutes later this lieutenant is joking to one side with another ‘elite’ about some one shooting a hose thinking it was a snake. John is not impressed and makes it clear to the general requesting a replacement. The general, whenever he pops up, makes french jokes such as “Whats the difference between a Frenchman and toast? You can make soldiers out of toast”. He does this a few more times throughout until the intel in the final act proves to have been useful and he says he always believed in the French. Another ‘upper class twit’ character.

We finally reach what would be the start point of any other production i.e. John’s first encounter with Denham and their immediate camaraderie. They bond over the fact they both like football, played a bit of it too, they both have, or will by the end, have pregnant wives. Good, honest, salt of the Earth, blokey, Working Class, subjects of conversation. Good old fashioned caricatures of what it is to be real men.

John’s group, unit B, is for good, hard working, salt of the earth, Working Class Lads not toffs. Really the start of the musical hammers this in. I have to wonder if this was to appease the Welsh audience who they no doubt believe hold similar views? John wants Denham as his lieutenant but Denham is dedicated to being part of Company D who he already belongs to. He insists and gets his way. Later on Unit D are mentioned again in a moment of appraisal from the general and sound like they were doing well while John seems to struggle between being a stiff upper lipped leader and ‘one of the lads’ at Denham’s insistence because “They will be more willing to die for you then”.

We get some training scenes, which are very well choreographed,  and the Captain becomes ‘one of the lads’ after buying them a crate of beers and getting dragged into going to a dance hall with them. His Lieutenant and he bond over their pregnancy wives.

So far I haven’t really mentioned the scenes ‘back home’ featuring the women. To be honest they seem an ill fit with the military side of the story. Its too awkward a juxtaposition and I think that, for me, it was more about how they segwayed between the two scenes or used the stairwells, with seating, to elevate the women chatting on sofa’s about ‘women’s troubles during the war’. The dialogue seems to do little except convey an oddly archiac stereotype of the mentality of women during the time. These are not women ‘doing their bit but preoccupied with being pregnant and recounting hearing from their significant others as if that is their lot in life. It almost feels as if these scenes are tacked on as if a producer, or someone else with clout, said at a late stage production announced ‘this needs more women’ and they had to accommodate at short notice.

However there is one female role , or two though the nurse’s significance doesnt become apparent until the end, which is well conceived. A French waitress offers to aid the resistance in France as she can speak perfect German and therefore would be a key asset in getting information to aid the cause. The nurse, who informs the resistance, refuses telling her she is only a girl. The girl, Isabelle, insists and the nurse relents. Thus Isabelle goes on to spy on the German officers who discuss their orders openly in the cafe under the mistaken belief she cannot understand them. There is a running side story explaining her motivation and I felt this was if anything underplayed considering the message of the musical. Her mother said the Germans did not belong in France and for this was tied to a tree, shot and Isabelle was told not to bury the body for 24 hours. During this time she held her dead mother’s hand and her hatred of the German’s festered. This backstory is played out low lit in the background of some of Isabelle’s scenes (performed by the other ensemble actresses) and at first felt jarring as it is in such stark contrast to other events in the first act which almost come across as an homage to the ‘jolly old war’ sanitised unreal tone of films from the 1950s depicting the events of war time squadrons.

In contrast to Isabelle, who is on the front lines risking her life, the wives back home become typists for the war effort and discuss a bit more how pregnant they are and if it will be a boy or girl and how they want their significant other to see the child (in case they die out on the front). Honestly the more I think about it the more it rings true that this has the tone of a 1950s film. Perhaps that was the intention though nowhere in the press releases etc did it imply this.

So the dance hall events come to an end and John is told that due to weight issues he should leave one of his men behind. He goes to ask them and says there is no shame in wanting to go home (well except the massive amount of ‘what did you do in the war daddy?’ style social pressure propaganda and living the rest of your life with that shame –  no none at all). No one volunteers. He is proud of them. Eventually he has the youngest, who is 16 not 19, and hasn’t even kissed a girl until tonight, not go on the mission and gives the crying boy a fatherly hug. He is a father to his men in case it was too subtle. We are men with gusto. No intellectuals here. Just good honest Working Class blokes. Wear our hearts on our sleeves. Do what needs to be done no matter the cost. Each has a purpose e.g the medic (Welsh as his mother was a nurse), the pilot, the munitions guy, etc. Also the General casually informs John he is now a Major in rank prior to the mission. At some point the ‘best marksman’ on the team shoots Denham in the leg during a training exercise but John doesn’t report him and Denham forgives him. (which later leads into the moral of ‘choosing forgiveness over vengeance is the braver act’ the musical wishes to display).

Throughout the musical the humour feels weakly implemented although I could chalk it up to the audience not knowing when to laugh (which is an annoying import from American sit-coms which have laughter tracks to tell you when something is funny and you should laugh like a trained seal) so the General is laughed with, not at, for his anti-French comments at the moment despite him being a caricature of the ‘stiff upper lip’ upper class twit you usually see in war films. The audience hasn’t ‘learned’ when it is appropriate to laugh during this performance yet… as much as I hate to suggest such a cue for audience reaction exists.

The German General and Officer realise that Isabelle understands what they are saying and reporting it to the resistance. The general leaves and the Officer beats Isabelle up. He then hands a gun to his teenage subordinate, who for no real reason mentions his father shot himself during the Great War, to kill Isabelle. He can’t bring himself to do it.  Last song before end act 1 is very good obviously as they want you to come back for the second half, and the stage fades to black with Unit B preparing to take flight in the plane, the German youth stood over Isabelle holding the gun and John’s wife holding their child stood on one of the stairwells as a symbol of the women left behind.

They over do it with the moveable stairwells. Technically good but story is naff patriotic material from an old movie.

PART 2

A muddled start again as they simultaneously play out the flight and its difficulties, the wives in the typist pool and the young Germany demanding Isabelle give him some scrap of information to take back to his superiors in exchange for letting her go. The plane, represented by 4 of the stairwells being used in conjunction (rotating on stage with a back projected front of place window) crashes, the German youth holds the gun to Isabelle but ultimately let’s her go as he cannot bring himself to kill someone and the typing pool… types out letters of condolence. Sorry but the women’s scenes really are not gelling well with the other aspects. It may be the bright colours or the tone of their songs. It comes across as ‘well sucks to be you risking life and limb in the battle zone’ unintentionally. You are torn between focusing on the flight of Unit B or Isabelle’s impending death so the typists is an extra layer on top but clashes with the tone of the other parts.

Also there is a recurring mention of John having some form of issue with flying and we are finally told what it is as he lies shivering on the floor of the plane. He passes out at the start of flights due to nerves… or something. If this happened to the man in real life I understand its inclusion but it feels awkwardly included in this musical. I would prefer that when it is first mentioned by the General in the first half they just state it all then not have what amounts to exposition as they are flying into enemy territory. If it was omitted it wouldn’t affect the narrative.

There are a lot of pyrotechnics at the start of the second half so bear that in mind if you are of a weak disposition… or just don’t want to be caught unaware. It explains where much of the budget went and why back projection and the stairwells are the major props for most of the run time of the musical.

We then have the aftermath of the crashed flight. The stairwells are overturned and the soldiers are scattered across the stage. The audience hardly had time to take everything in. Personally I was focused on the conflict of Isabelle slowly walking across the front of stage with her back to the German youth who is begging her for some crumb of information so he can return without risk of execution (implied rather than explicitly stated) or otherwise he will have to shoot her. Isabelle doesn’t care for her own life only vengeance. He doesnt shoot her and breaks down.

A call is made to the General, via the damaged wireless, and due to poor reception it is reported John, now a Major in rank, has a ‘mortal’ not a ‘mortar’ wound but reported due to misheard think it’s mortal.

We then have a dedicated scene of the typing pool (actually the song here might occur later in a mirrored scene for Denham’s wife) who sing the generic ‘with sincere regret and apologies’ standard message they type in synchronicity ‘notices of the deceased’ letters to be sent to the families of dead soldiers and the General marches in to inform John’s wife of the erroneous news.

Then we have the most jarring scene of the entire musical. One of John’s men has bad nerves and is shaking severely. One soldier suggests having  a cup of tea to John’s disbelief. Suddenly the shivering soldier, miraculously recovered, shows he brought everything to make tea including a tin mug. John admonishes him saying that only what was absolutely necessary was to be brought. “But tea is essential” the soldier chimes back. What about everyone else then? asks John, at which point all of them produce their own tin cups and an extra one for their leader. A bit of humour during a tense moment. Personally I just found it jarring enough already but then…

In the middle of a stand off battle on the bridge where a tank is heading towards them the  soldiers sing about tea! What the hell? Then to one side the typing pool ladies also sing about having a cup of tea. We are British therefore we worship tea obviously. In the American version they would sing about coffee, the German version beer and the Russian version vodka it goes without saying. It is so out of place in tone it is almost surreal. I have to assume this happened in real life as this would otherwise be such a demonstration of inept understanding of narrative tone as to be insulting. It is the tone of the song more so than its subject matter though. Having a small comfort; be it tea, a keepsake of a loved one, talking of happier things, etc could be so much better implemented. in such odds it would be understandable a solider wanted some such catharsis but it could have been far better dealt with than a big fun music hall like jaunty tune of ‘tea is great, tea is the best, we love tea, its better than the rest’ song in the middle of a battle field. Reality is stranger than fiction.

Back to bridge n explosives guy does a solo while telling us his life story. He is a goner you think but no the damaged rocket device doesn’t blow him up. We then get a back projected tank image burst into flames while some more pyrotechnics go off. They notice someone was inside and one soldier runs off, against John’s orders, to save the boy. It turns out he saved the German  youth from earlier and so he is taken prisoner.

Isabelle and the nurse are both prisoners tied to a bed after being captured by the German General. The German Officer wants to shoot them but he is denied as the German General tells him that they are like birds protecting their nest and cannot be hated for this so he intends to keep them here until after the nearby battle. He begins the title song ‘Only The Brave Forgive’ and this is echoed by John during one of this musical’s simultaneous scenes. This is an immensely powerful piece and that it is the German General, not a member of the Allied Forces, makes it all the more powerful.

Although the musical plays up much to the patriotism of its influences at least in this regard it does the right thing. The German General and youth represent conscious human beings swept up in the globally genocidal machinations of their high command. The General brings to mind the respect that Rommel, the Desert Fox, gained from Allied Forces for being a humane and professional officer who ignored orders to kill indiscriminately. Whether this is more myth than fact is disputable but certainly it seems this post-war image of a noble enemy is present in the General’s depiction here. He and the youth (and by extension possibly it could be inferred the youth’s father) are still able to see the human beings they are fighting, and who have a right to oppose them, rather than an target that is to be destroyed under the justification they are just following orders from their authority figures.

However Isabelle cannot forgive. She intends to kill the German officer.For some could completely ruin the moment as it happens far too quickly after the previous song and we as an audience have not had time to process the proceeding moment. She is meant to be the contrast to John, Denham, the enlisted German youth (arguably) and the German General – they can forgive but she cannot. Not because she is a woman, as seems implied by the depiction of the British women, but because she does not have the perspective the soldiers have. They are men fighting in a foreign country and when they go home the barren, ash covered, landscape of the battlefield will be far behind them. They can look to their homelands while she is here, in the battle zone. This land which was once her home is now a burning hell of mortar fire, soldiers and death. She is as the German General describes a bird protecting its nest from invaders and should not be thought any less of for doing so. Another aspect of the forgiveness aspect I feel it quickly glanced over at the end is that we are seeing the recollections of John as a hospitalised old man and he met the German General in his later years so this is a reflection on his experiences not an unbiased presentation, even if glamourised and patriotic, of events. At the time he probably wasn’t as forgiving as depicted in the show but in time gained perspective.

The German officer seems to serve the role of ‘evil’ German as he is given no real character beyond following the party line and his orders – however this is as much as any of the other secondary characters so arguably he is in line with the caricatures we are otherwise presented with.

 Before the fly over the English General says he always thought the French were good people because of the useful intel he received which aids the war effort and saved men’s lives. So this character is redeemed I suppose. He seemed more of a mockable figure than anything.

Isabelle and Madame Vion tell each other their names as they had never done so before. This is a major turning point in Isabelle’s narrative as it is the first time she has shown confidence in another albeit someone who already knew her tragic history.

Hold onto your hats because the last sequence is so chaotic you will only be focusing on one thing. Isabelle intends to escape by grabbing the German Officers gun. During this struggle we simultaneously have this event, the Unit B soldiers at bridge in a fire fight,, John’s wife wanders about with baby. Stuff happens. Isabelle is shot and the German Officer runs off stage never to be seen again. Denham dies of his mortar neck wound and John throws the German youth to the ground wanting to execute him in revenge but cannot allow himself to do it no matter how torn apart he is by his friend’s death and let’s the boy go.  Then the wives in the typing pool know the operation was a success. John’s wife finds out he survived but Denham’s wife knows hers didn’t. They seemed to want to mirror the female characters but… it doesn’t work for a number of reasons.

Then immediately we are given a post log saying what happened to the real life people and the Old John comes back on as a bookend closing the narrative. ‘Welshy and Baines I don’t think are mentioned… so both of them were fictional then. The window washer/heavy arms guy just kind of snuck up in the second act as a notable character in Unit B…

The actors all take their bows. They come on a second time and the old man with no lines and on stage for all of 4 minutes gets a bigger applause than the actors who have been doing very physical work throughout. One of the women wanted to come out and take one more round of bows but the others wouldn’t come back out. That’s sad. This is the first night and its at Wales’ major theatrical venue… they got less of a response than a poorly received and performed middle of the road safe humour play with an actor decades out of relevance (Yes I am thinking of a particular play so don’t take this as my general view on showing appreciation to seasoned performers but the cast and production staff for Only The Brave deserved far more of a recognition considering the mammoth task they took on)

So… Welsh guys always late in training and the operation compared to the Englishmen so he is a mockable caricature. Lots of the moving staircases to the point it feels like they spent more time on choreographing that than refining the pacing of the story. The transitions and simultaneous acting out of differing scenes means the audience hasn’t a chance to absorb anything. Personally I focused on the Isabelle parts as this feels like where the production if further refined should  focus itself more. Show us the work of the French resistance and how they are not the mockable ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ that so often get depicted in American and British films.

Summary Review

Despite everything critical I have said this is a production worth seeing. It is in its infancy and WMC’s first home produced musical. I feel the setting of a World War 2 military operation was perhaps a bit too ‘safe’ a subject matter to adapt but if this is what is needed for them to gain their footing and move onto more daring matter in future I welcome it. The music is hit or miss for the most part barring the end of the first half, the ‘We Regret to inform you’ song and the title song ‘Only The Brave Forgive’. Nothing is perfect on opening night and I think with time with a few adjustments to pacing and considerations  towards how to meld it into a single coherent narrative rather than 3 which simultaneously occur this production has the potential to be a long runner. Remember Les Miserables and many other classics were damned when they first came out but in time found their groove, made the necessary adjustments to pacing and even removing or replacing songs before hitting their stride. This was a big undertaking and everyone involved should be credited for taking what is a historic moment in Wales’ Arts history. I am glad I saw it and hope to see it again years from now when they have had time and perspective to reflect what works and what needs adjusting. And now to end of some trite line like professional journalists…. ‘Only the brave forgive’ but there is no need to with this excellent, if currently flawed, production.


Comment, Like, Follow – All are welcome.

Boris Godunov – Opera

The Royal Opera House

Music Director – Sir Antonio Pappano

Director of Opera – Kasper Holten

Boris Godunov – Opera In Seven Scenes (Original Version) ( Борис Годунов)

Music – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (Модест Петрович Мусоргский)

Libretto – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)

The edition of Boris Godunov used in the performances is published by Verlagsgruppe Hermann, edited by Michael Rot.

Performed by arrangement with Alkor-Edition Kassel and Faber Music Ltd, London.


Conductor – Antonio Pappano

Director – Richard Jones

Set Designer – Miriam Buether

Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand

Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin

Movement Director – Ben Wright

Associate Director – Elaine Kidd


Royal Opera Chorus

Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Concert master – Peter Manning

Directed for the Screen by Jonathan Haswell


Live from the Royal Opera House:

Monday 21 March 2016, 7.15PM

(Lottery Funded)

(Supported using the public funding by Arts Council England)


Synopsis

After the death of Ivan the Terrible the boyar Boris Godunov was appointed regent – Ivan’s older son, Tsar Fyodor, was physically and mentally frail, and his younger son Dmitry was an infant. Dmitry died mysteriously at the age of eight; many believed Boris had arranged his murder. Now Fyodor is dead, and with no direct heir to the throne, Boris is the most likely candidate to be the next Tsar.

Scene 1

Boris has retreated to a monastry. A crowd gather outside and entreat him to accept the throne. Shchelkalov, clerk of the Boyar’s Council, tells the crowd that Boris is reluctant to rule.

Scene 2

Boris is crowned Tsar in the Kremlin and his coronation is hailed by the people.

Years pass. Boris proves to be a good and wise ruler, and a devoted father. Under his rule Russia prospers. Then, unexpectedly, the country is visited by dreadful famines. The superstitious believe this is a divine punishment, visited on Boris for the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry.

Scene 3

In the monastery within the Kremlin, the monk Pimen is interrupted by the young novice Grigory, who has had a nightmare. Grigory asks Pimen to talk about Russia’s past. Pimen talks of Ivan the Terrible, of the saintliness of Ivan’s son Fyodor, and of the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry. On hearing that Dmitry resembles him and was about the same age, Grigory formulates a plan to impersonate the Tsarevich, and stir up rebellion.

Scene 4

Grigory (now in secular clothes) comes to an inn near the Lithuanian border, with the monks Varlaam and Missail. The Frontier Guard arrives, searching for Grigory, and carrying an edict for his arrest. Grigory realizes that the Guard cannot read and doesn’t know what he looks like, and so reads out the edict, describing the monk as resembling Varlaam, rather than himself. Varlaam protests his innocence and reads the edict correctly. Grigory escapes.

Scene 5

In the Tsar’s apartments, Xenia laments the early death of her fiance, while her brother Fyodor studies a map of Russia. Boris meditates on what he has achieved since he came to power. Prince Shuisky arrives with news that a pretender, calling himself the Tsarevich Dmitry, has appeared in Lithuania. Boris orders Shuisky to seal the border, and demands reassurance that Dmitry really did die. Shuisky describes Dmitry’s murder, but hints that the Tsarevich’s dead body may have miraculous powers. Boris, frightened, orders Shuisky to leave and, giving way to guilt and remorse, hallucinates that he can see the dead Dmitry.

Scene 6

Outside St Basil’s Cathedral, the crowd are talking about the pretender Grishka (Grigory) Otrepiev. A holy Fool sings a nonsensical song, and some urchins steal a penny [kopeck] from him. Boris and his retinue leave the Cathedral, and the hungry crowd beg for bread. The Holy Fool suggests that Boris should order the murder of the thieving urchins, just as he ordered the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitiry. Shuisky demands that the Holy Fool be arrested, but Boris instead asks the Holy Fool to pray for him. The Holy Fool refuses to pray for ‘Tsar Herod’ and laments the fate of Russia.

Scene 7

At the Kremlin, the Boyar’s Council agree that Grigory and his followers should be executed. Shuisky reports that Boris claims to have seen the dead Tsarevich Dmitry and is deeply troubled. Boris appears, still in the grip of his hallucination. Pimen enters and tells Boris that the Tsarevich Dmitry has become a saint from beyond the grave and cured an old man’s blindness. Boris collapses in a seizure. He calls for his son Fyodor, bids the boy farewell and calls for God’s blessing on his children. He names Fyodor the heir to the throne, begs forgiveness and dies.


 

Cast

Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfyl

Andrey Shchelkov (Clerk of the Boyar’s Council) – Kostas Smoriginas

Nikitich (A Police Officer) – Jeremy White

Mityukha (A Peasant) – Adrian Clarke

Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – John Graham-Hall

Pimen (A Monk and Chronicler) – Ain Anger

Grigory Otrepiev (Later ‘The False Dmitry) – David Butt Philip

Hostess of the Inn – Rebecca De Pont Davies

Varlaam (Monk) – John Tomlinson

Missail (Monk) – Harry Nicoll

Frontier Guard – James Platt

Xenia’s Nurse – Sarah Pring

Fyodor (Boris Godunov’s Son) – Ben Knight

Boyar – Nicholas Sales

Yorodivy (Holy Fool) – Andrew Tortise

Russian populace, Boyars, Soldiers, Pilgrims – Ensemble


The opera lasts approximately two hours, ten minutes.

There is no interval.

The production ‘realistically’ depicts and revisits the murder of the young crown prince (Tsarevich) Dmitry. They advise that it is not suitable for children under the age of 12 years old.


Above is the information, with a few alterations, you are provided at a cinema screening.


Review:

Staging: The stage is divided into two halves. on the upper level is the golden prayer/coronation chamber. This is also where the murder occurs. The lower, darker grey, level is where most events occur and has some large mobile scenery which can be moved in and out to change scenes.

boris godunov stage loayout

There are to the rear three moving raised platforms used by the chorus when they are dressed in traditional robes during the coronation scene and on one or two other parts. The smaller props include a yellow painted chair to represent the Imperial Throne, a bar set used during the inn scene and two manuscript scenery pieces which were very impressive. The first is during scene 3 where we see the manuscript Pimen has been writing with large illustrations of the previous Tsars. Watching this in cinema you get a close up view of the areas where they wipe the paint/ink clean after each performance where Pimen writes in Cyrillic during this scene.

The backgrounds for the upper section consist of 3 windows with are back lit. They display, depending on the scene, three bells for the monastery scenes or are unlit for those in the Imperial palace. This was minimal, but very effective, to allow an economy of staging. My only crticism would be that this upper part, unlike the lower level, seemed to have no depth and so the Boyars who walk back and forth seem very cramped and almost like characters from a 2D computer game marching back and forth during some scenes. Perhaps this area is meant to represent Boris’ inner mindscape as the murder of Dmitry is repeated her a number of times but I can only imagine the issues this alcove causes for any audiences who do not have a clear line of sight to it in the theatre.

On the lower section, after Boris’ coronation any interior scenes have the background host a line of icons of the Tsar otherwise the background is unlit and in the case of Scene 3 light is projected through the right doorway to indicate the low lighting of the monastery’s interior. On the provided simple illustration I indicate the door ways with green lines to either side of the staging. There is also a rail on the upper level and at one point one of the performers holds it with such force it rattles which was amusing but also a safety concern.

Costume: This to me was the weakest point by far. There is an odd mix of traditional clothing and more modern clothing but is set in the sixteenth and first few years of the seventeenth century. I wish they had gone in one direction or the other. Of course you have the detailed golden robes of the coronation but throughout the rest of the production you have modern clothing hinting at tradition which feels ill at ease e.g. ‘grandfather collared shirts and women in headscarves, patterns on material which is distinctly Slavic contrasting with Boyars dressed in burgundy trousers with grey blazers which distinctly are no earlier than the mid twentieth century in design.

Accessibility: This is a very good opera but also very dense to the point the fourth scene feels almost completely out of place in its efforts to offer some small effort towards a respite from the intensity. As you might have noted this is Mussorgsky’s original version and although I have not seen the adjustments by Rimsky-Korsakov, to amend perceived weaknesses, might have served to make it more palatable to a general audience those the variations have fallen out of favour so Mussorgsky’s individual harmonic style and orchestration can be valued for their originality. The music is very heavy so I would suggest anyone who like the works of composers like Puccini and have not experienced ‘heavier’ orchestrations best listen to some pieces on YouTube to see if it would be to their taste. Anyone familiar with Wagner will probably be fine. For those familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s alterations I would be interested to hear how you view this original draft of the opera – especially in comparison to his own works. Mussorgsky has other, unfinished works, and I would like to hear them but I am of a mind that perhaps he found the form of opera something very troublesome and despite his best efforts never truly felt at ease with it.

Subject matter: If you are not familiar with Russian history you best read the brief synopsis of the scenes so you can keep up with what is happening as there are some big jumps in time at the start.

It is best to bear in mind that this opera is based upon Pushkin’s tragedy.

Pushkin wrote of his play:

“The study of Shakespeare, Karamzin, and our old chronicles gave me the idea of clothing in dramatic forms one of the most dramatic epochs of our history. Not disturbed by any other influence, I imitated Shakespeare in his broad and free depictions of characters, in the simple and careless combination of plots; I followed Karamzin in the clear development of events; I tried to guess the way of thinking and the language of the time from the chronicles. Rich sources! Whether I was able to make the best use of them, I don’t know — but at least my labors were zealous and conscientious.”

So in context what we are watching is heavily influenced by the writers of each period assimilating and adapting the works of others. Therefore with each stage comes a divergence from reality and an embrace of the romaticised notion of a historical figure. With the mention of Shakespeare there is too obvious a comparison to made here. This opera is the equivalent of an operatic version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. The central character does not realistically represent the historical figure but a caricature. No more obvious is the parable like nature of this work than when the Holy Fool, Yorodivy, tells Boris he cannot pray for him as that would make the Virgin Mary sad. In Russia there is the fairy tale figure of Ivan the Fool (Иван-дурак or diminutive Иванушка-дурачок). The moral of these stories is that Ivan The Fool is rarely the fool, he is merely perceived as such by others owing to his simple nature and joviality. It is by being a fool, in this tradition, Yorodivy alone is allowed to state what others may not and is ultimately the final nail confirming to Boris his guilt is not only his own but one endorsed by society’s perception of him.

Despite Russia prospering under his rule he is only judged by one act: the sin of murder. He was a good ruler for the country as a whole but for its people he is a figure or fear – a man who would go so far to have power he would murder an innocent child. He is a tragic figure for whom repentance has been denied.

The murder of Dmitry is reprised a few times during the play. This consists of a short actor in an oversized papermache head having a knife drawn across his throat by three assassins and he smears a blood packet across his chest to denote the murder. If you watch this in cinema you will see it up close and it begins to look more comical the more they reprise it. That is not intentional. Part of me wishes they had just had Boris’ son play this role also as it seems this productions intention to mirror the two roles to indicate how, now with a son on his own, Boris feels greater guilt than ever for the murder. The murder is in and of itself not visceral but i understand why they have been cautious enough, in these days where even a ‘U’ rated film has to carry warning of ‘mild peril’ why they have included the warning about the graphic nature of the murder.

Conclusion: This is not an ‘introductory level’ opera. If you want something easy to follow then go check out Puccini or Bizet. If you have dealt with composers like Mahler or Wagner then try it but realise it has its awkward moments. The entire cast does well. There are a number of very impressive performances here but Ain Anger as Pimen steals every scene he is in, Rebecca De Pont Davies is a one act wonder with her bug eyed performance as the Hostess of the Inn and the solos provided by members of the ensemble each stand on their own. If I had one criticism, apart from the costume designs, it is that the preamble VT featured Bryn Terfyl talking about, as a Welsh speaker from North Wales, he finds it hard to do a Russian ‘L’ sound and for the rest of the performance that is all I could focus on with him. It reminded me of a time when  I read an Oxford Press foreword for Turgenev’s ‘Father and Sons’ where Richard Freeborn in his introductory essay gave away major plot points including which characters died and so I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It was just to big a distraction. This is a heavy opera but if you are willing to stay with it you might find it to be a tour de force and something very different from the yearly repeated performances of lighter works.


Comment, like or follow – All are welcome 🙂

http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/boris-godunov-by-richard-jones

 

 

 

 

Anton Chekhov’s ‘Предложение’ (a.k.a A Marriage Proposal / The Proposal)

Предложение (a.k.a ‘A Marriage Proposal‘ or ‘The Proposal‘) is a one act farce by Антон Павлович Чехов (Anton Pavlovich Chekhov), written somewhere between 1888 to 1889 and first performed in 1890. It is a fast paced play of dialogue based action and situational humour. Usually it is performed in combination with other short pieces of Chekhov‘s such as Медведь: Шутка в одном действии (‘The Bear: A Joke in One Act’ or ‘The Boor’).

I was reminded of this piece by the marriage proposal story line featured in ITV’s Dr Thorne mini series which concluded last night. A turn of fortune changes the mind of the future groom’s mother regarding the marital appropriateness of Dr Thorne‘s niece and so there is a marriage and the mother in law is teased for her preoccupation with the families fortunes wishing for her son to marry for money and not love. This theme was prevalent during the nineteenth century with the most widely recognised examples being in the novels ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813) and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847 – albeit in the latter part of the novel which is often omitted in adaptions).

Dramatis personæ:

  • Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, 54 years old, man (or 70 as he claims at one point to be ‘twice [Ivan’s] age at one point.
  • Natalia Stepanovna Chubukova, his daughter, 25 years old
  • Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, 35 years old, a neighbour of Chubukov, a large and hearty, but very suspicious landowner

Plot:

Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, a long time neighbor of Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, has come to propose marriage to Chubukov’s 25-year-old daughter, Natalia. Stephan gives his permission and Natalia is invited into the room, while Stephan steps out, so Ivan may make his proposal to Natalia.

However instead they get into a disagreement about the ownership of the Oxen Meadows adjoining their properties which Ivan intended to gift her as a dowry. The passionate disagreement results in Ivan, a foppish hypochondriac, suffering supposed palpitations and a numbness in his leg. Stepan, rejoining them, notices this and he himself argues about the sort of bad people the Lomov family have been in the past and has Ivan leave his house. While Stepan rants about Lomov, he expresses his shock that “this fool dares to make you [Natalia] a proposal of marriage!” She immediately starts into hysterics, begging for her father to bring him back which he does immediately.

Natalia and Ivan get into a second argument, this time about the superiority of their respective hunting dogs, respectively Squeezer (who is unfit to be a hunting dog) and Guess (who is old and lame). Stepan gets involved and is close to losing his temper and makes this clear to Ivan. At this junction yet again, after accusing Stepan of being an intriguer amongst other things, foppish Ivan gets a case of vapors and collapses from his exhaustion over arguing . Thus Stepan and Natalia, after checking him, fear he is deceased. Stepan also begins to over react at the junction and Natalia cries over the sudden death brought on by the argument.

However, after a few minutes Ivan regains consciousness, and Stepan, insisting they leave him alone afterwards,  all but forces Ivan and his daughter Natalia to accept the marriage proposal with a kiss. Immediately following Ivan’s kiss on Natasha’s hand, the couple restarts their argument over the dogs and Stepan resigned tries to change the subject by calling for champagne to celebrate while decrying this is how they start their union.

The End.

Review:

This is a light hearted skit mocking the over sentimentalisation of marriage proposals alongside the etiquette and behaviour of the the middle classes.


At the start the participates formally address each other using the personal Christian/first name and the patronymic name (based on the name of the individual’s father) indicates how this is a serious proposal but quickly this falls into farce as the arguments arise between the individuals. The equivalent of Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs were very uncommon and even today tend to be used more often regarding foreigners although it should also be noted the use of the patronymic today is reserved usually for formal occasions while it was more common in use during the past. Later in the piece all sense of etiquette is thrown out as the squabbling takes its place and even after order is restored the personal behaviour of the couple erupts once more over a trivial matter.


You may note how the men in the play are mirrored by the dogs. Ivan is Squeezer who is ‘overstrung’ and Stepan is Guesser who is ‘old and lame’. Natalia speaks dotingly of her dog Squeezer and perhaps this gives an indication of how her marriage will continue in which she will both argue and yet dot on her husband in the future (and it can easily be seen this is how it will go as such a pairing was very commonly portrayed in dramas of the time regarding married couples and you can see reflected in what would become a cliche in televised sitcoms from America focused on a central married couple even today).


If you saw an adaption without Chekhov‘s name attached and with a localised setting would you realise that this is the work a playwright from over a century ago? I doubt it. These character’s archetypes are universal and timeless. If you changed the names to a more local variant you can see them time and time again reflected in later works worldwide. A central male character, usually middle age or reaching it, who over reacts to events around him in situations he has no control over. A woman who is concerned regarding social matters and very argumentative with cutting comments directed towards her partner (which it is fair to comment is a sexist stereotype nowadays). An old man or woman, usually the parent of one of the more prominent characters, passing comment on events and mentioning the past both positively and negatively. These dramatic caricatures repeat as theirs is a simplistic truth pinpointing the faults of society and its nature to confuse the trivial with the sincere within the grander intentions of the people involved.


This is a simple piece and highly entertaining. As I noted earlier it is often performed accompanied by other short pieces by Chekhov and they offer views of society which still hold as true a view of society today as they did during their writing over a century ago. I would highly recommend seeing live performances as there is an energy there which is hard to replicate through recorded versions. I provide the audio book above, which is a fair simple audio performance, so you can experience the dialogue but nothing beats a live performance.


I often want to see adaptions of Chekhov’s works and they are apparently often repeated in repertoires but somehow never seem to be performed near me. I attended the performance of ‘August’, Anthony Hopkins‘ adaption of ‘Uncle Vanya’, when it was premiered at the New Theatre, Cardiff but since then it seems a far rarer thing in South Wales to see the works of Chekhov despite my every care and attention regarding the yearly repertoires in the performing arts of Wales.


People seem intimidated by the works of Russian writers – after all how often do we hear Tolstoy‘s Война и мир (War and Peace) being used as a synonym for ‘immensely long and difficult to read book’? This is due to Tolstoy‘s personal predilection of going into prolonged commentaries about society which pad the book up quite a bit and do not reflect Russian literature at all. The works of Dostoevsky are influenced by Dickens and read just as easily with a focus more on narrative than reflection. The works of Chekhov are expedient, in comparison to previous generations indulgences in the poetics of language, in how concise the dialogue is. The only limit seems, according to a Russian friend,  to be how the Russian productions of these works usually over sentimentalise them, which effects foreign productions perceptions of how to adapt them, when they can be produced in a far more relevant way to today’s audiences.


Yet with this said the BBC‘s recent near cinematic production of ‘War and Peace’ proves even Tolstoy can be translated in an easily understood adaption. Albeit, as is inevitable with many adaptions of literature, some of the aspects are lost for immediacy or because hearing the inner thoughts of a character is a difficult concept to translate without giving them long running monologues or a voice over which takes you out of the scene.


There is a stigma sadly but, once you have dipped your toe into the water and realise how absurd the prejudice is, there is a world of universally recognisable character archetypes in  Russian works.

‘August’ was also made into a film.
 For whatever reason WordPress is refusing to let me space the review part out properly so I used the ‘horizontal line’ tool to break it up and make it a little bit more easy and pleasing to read layout wise.

The Last Call Tour – Mary Black supported by Sharon Shannon

The Farewell Tour of Mary Black supported by Sharon Shannon. Held at St Davids Hall, Cardiff on 15th May 2015.

They both perform Celtic folk music. Mary sang mostly ballads supported by her band but I preferred Sharon’s completely instrumental support/warm up act where she played the melodeon (diatonic button accordion) and had one very skilled guy playing the guitar and piano simultaneously. It was a very enjoyable evening although it had more of an older crowd if I am honest. Certainly I would go see Sharon Shannon again albeit I think such music is better suited to a venue where you can get up and dance a bit if you want as a few did in the aisles eventually.

Although Mary said she would still be performing in Ireland after this farewell tour the entire concept of farewell tours means nothing nowadays considering how many artists have said it was their final tour only to then have a few more and joke about how each one with definitely be the final one. She’ll be touring again soon enough no doubt. If anything the final tour or performance often doesn’t get recognised until far later when there is no further concerts.

As for the venue the auditorium has good seating with plenty of leg space however I think sometimes some sound technicians have a bit of an issue with the venue’s acoustics during some performances I have attended here in the past. The bar refused to take orders for the interval until they were ready – which was two minutes after they were asked as apparently the protocol is they announce it over the intercom at a set time first then take the orders which is poor customer service when they had at best 5 people at the bar to be serving. After the event they had Mary signing and taking photos in a very low lit area which was bad enough to happen except the theatre manager himself was stood right there for over 15 minutes fully aware of this and made no effort to move the stool and free standing background to a nearby well lit area which was shameful. He later went to help advise how to set up the next day’s Punjabi community event offering anyone interested a taste of their culture but did not lift a finger to help them. There is a ‘friends corner’ which doubles as a autograph table and very well lit merchandise area where Sharon Shannon could be found both during the interval and after the show signing and taking photos with everyone whether they bought anything or not. Poor effort by St David’s Hall on the night but it didn’t spoil anyone’s enthusiasm. The musicians themselves exemplified that Irish informal friendliness and charm you hear so much about.

A great evening of Irish folk music only slightly marred by poor venue management decisions.

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Mary Black (born 23 May 1955) is an Irish singer. She is well known as an interpreter of both folk and contemporary material which has made her a major recording artist in her native Ireland, and in many other parts of the world. For a number of years, ‘What Hi-Fi?’ magazine considered Black’s voice to be so pure, that it was used as an audiophile benchmark for comparing the sound quality of different high fidelity systems. Music critic and lyricist Michael Leahy once said: “Over the years, Mary Black has come to define what many people see as the essence of Irish woman singers: profound, slightly ethereal and beyond the reaches of trends.” Today, Black is held in high esteem in her native Ireland and beyond and is regarded as one of the most important Irish vocalists of her generation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Black

Sharon Shannon (born 12 November 1968 in Ruan, County Clare) is an Irish musician. She is best known for her work with the accordion and for her fiddle technique. She also plays the tin whistle and melodeon. Her 1991 album Sharon Shannon is the best selling album of traditional Irish music ever released there. Beginning with Irish folk music, her work demonstrates a wide-ranging number of musical influences, including reggae, cajun music, Portuguese music, and French Canadian music. Her single What You Make It (da, da, da, da) featured hip hop music artists. She won the lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Meteor Awards.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Shannon


There was a longer draft but my computer shutdown suddenly and I lost it all. You may not have heard of either of these Irish musicians so its a good introduction to them at least.