Fun fact: Souillac is a small market town, and is the hub for the area. This is an agricultural region which is known for its walnuts, strawberries and quiet, rural way of life. Thomas visited the abbey church of Sainte-Marie in this town and that is the subject of this poem. The domed roofs are similar to but rather smaller than those of Périgueux Cathedral. Fragments of the original Romanesque sculptures are grouped just inside the west door.
translation by Boris Dralyuk and Margo Shohl Rosen
This extract is about a well known potrait of Akhmatova by Nathan Altman (1914) presented above for ease of reference. Nathan Isaevich Altman was a Jewish-Russian, Soviet, avant-garde artist, Cubist painter, stage designer and book illustrator.
Performance seen at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on 30/09/2017.
Performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) company.
An opera, subtitled a ‘national music drama’, in five acts by ModestMussorgsky. The work was written between 1872 and 1880 in St.Petersburg, Russia. The composer wrote the libretto based on historical sources however the opera was unfinished and unperformed when the composer died in 1881.
Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history concerning the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy (Russian guardsmen from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, armed with firearms) against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Czars Peter the Great (Peter I) and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernising reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Czars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia. Supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky, who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent, demanded the reversal of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Sofia and her court were forced to flee Moscow. Eventually, Sofia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina (Khovansky affair) with the help of the diplomat Fyodor Shaklovity, who succeeded Khovansky as leader of the Muscovite Streltsy. Finally with the rebellion crushed, the Old Believers committed mass suicide (in the opera, at least).
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and recomposition, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.
Although the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Czar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter’s westernising reforms. It received its first performance in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition in 1886.
Strings: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses
Song: “A maiden wandered”, «Исходила младёшенька» (Marfa)
Aria: “The Streltsy nest sleeps”, «Спит стрелецкое гнездо» (Shaklovitïy)
Scene 4 — Khovansky’s Palace
Ballet: “Dance of the Persian Slaves”, «Пляски персидок» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “A young swan swims”, «Плывет, плывет лебедушка» (Maidens, Shaklovitïy, Ivan Khovansky)
Scene 5 — Red Square
Introduction “The Departure of Golitsïn”, Вступление «Поезд Голицына» (Orchestra, Chorus)
Chorus: “Show them no mercy”, «Не дай пощады» (Streltsï Wives, Streltsï, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa)
March: “March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment”, «Марш преображенцев» (Orchestra)
Scene 6 — Hermitage
Aria: “Here, in this holy place”, «Здесь, на этом месте» (Dosifey)
Historical basis of the plot
The death of the young Czar Fyodor III has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan, who is 16, and his half-brother Peter, who is only 10, have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sofia acting as regent. Sofia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsin, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her alleged lover. Peter, if you haven’t guessed, is the future Peter I a.k.a. Peter the Great who established the westernised city of St Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, instead of Moscow, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernised, and based on The Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign. So what is being explored in this opera are the last days of ‘old’ Russia and what might arguably be called the prelude to it’s golden era.
Due to regulations applicable at the time of the composition of the opera in Imperial Russia, it was forbidden to portray members of the Romanov dynasty on stage, so Mussorgsky had recourse to a series of symbols and indirect mention of main characters in the plot. Sofia, Ivan and Peter never actually appear on stage.
The principal theme of Khovanshchina is stated outright in the choral number “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus'” in Act I (“Woe to thee native, Mother Russia”), which laments that Russia is bleeding and dying not because of a foreign enemy, but because of fragmentation within.
Something like a three-way civil war is in progress, which basically compresses twelve years of Russian history into one telling. The Czarist court is modernizing, and two powerful forces are resisting these changes: the Streltsy and the Old Believers.
The Streltsy are decommissioned elite soldiers/guards (“Streltsy” literally means “shooters”, just like “musketeers”), past their prime and on indefinite furlough. They are fanatically loyal to Prince Ivan Khovansky.
The Old Believers are Russian Orthodox Christians who have left the state-sponsored church because they disagree with the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms; they also challenge the line of succession to the throne and have refused to recognize the Russian Patriarch. Their leader is Dosifey.
Fortunately for Czar Peter, these two factions despise each other, as the Streltsy are rowdy degenerates and the Old Believers are pious ascetics.
Each of the three principal basses in the opera believes himself to represent the “true” Russia against her internal enemies: Prince Ivan Khovansky claims legitimacy by noble birth and military prowess, Dosifey by religion, and Shaklovity by supporting Czar Peter.
As seems a trend with WNO productions, such as The Magic Flute, they colour code the different factions.
Red: Khovanshsky and his private army the Streltsy. Khovansky himself, to stand out, wears a great coat with a large red fur collar to distinguish him from others and denote his status.
White: Old Believers members
Grey: Citizens of Moscow, Emma, the Persian dancer (i.e. the victim’s of the other factions actions)
Gold: Liberal aristocracy i.e. Golitsin
Green military uniform with brown great coat: Shaklovity and the Czar’s soldiers
Black: denotes a servant role it seems thus are worn by people with influence existing somewhere between the common person and moral factions if not with divided loyalties.
What I find awkward about this colour coding choice in the production is that even a passing knowledge of Russian history tells you these colours carry significant relevance.
The red of the revolutionary force seems at first glance an obvious choice: Khovansky opposes the monarchy and the Bolshevik’s too did in the twentieth century. So far so good. Shaklovity in military colours again makes him distinct from others as someone morally ambiguous. Golitsin in gold as a liberal aristocrat is fitting.
Grey is used for the chorus in the first few acts, Emma (a maiden from the German quarter) and the Persian slaves of Prince Ivan Khovanky who are victims of the events around them and suffer for it. A neutral body neither white nor black morally they’re swept along in events with no ability to choose their destiny nor protect themselves from the consequence of the actions of the others. Of course the chorus changes throughout the performance to which ever scene requires them to represent Streltsy, Schismatics (Old Believers), Persian slaves or otherwise.
Black is used for functionaries and those who fall somewhere between the morality of the factions. Varsonofyev, Golitsin’s retainer, wears this colour but with gold piping to show his servitude, Marfa who torn between her love for Andrei Khovansky and as a schismatic (acting at times as a diviner to Golitsin) and the scrivener who seems swept up in events around him.
The issue then is the white used for Dosifey and the Old Believers. White is the colour of those who support the monarchy or at least are of nobility, for example the term white emigrefor those who left or were exiled during the revolution and the white army, and yet in this production it is used for the old believers who oppose the actions of their monarchs.
But what other choice is there? Well the robes of Russian Orthodox priests are black so they could have easily just used that colour (despite the Old Believers breaking away from the state endorsed church) and had the ‘servant’ roles be another colour. Certainly if anything Shaklovity, as a loyal follower of the monarchy, should have. out of everyone, be dressed in white if the production is determined to have the setting updated to the early twentieth century quasi-civil war setting. Perhaps it seems I am nitpicking. Certainly Marfa being one of the schismatics (old believers) isn’t clear until much later in the performance as the colour coding leads uninformed audience members astray.
Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward
Prince Andrey Khovansky: Adrian Dwyer
Prince Vasily Golitsyn: Mark Le Brocq
Shaklovity: Simon Bailey
Dosifei: Miklos Sebestyen
Marfa: Sara Fulgoni
Susanna: Monika Sawa
Scribe: Adrian Thompson
Emma: Claire Wild
Varsonofev: Alastair Moore
Kuz’ka: Simon Crosby Buttle
Streshnev: Gareth Dafydd Morris
1st Strelets: Julian Boyce
2nd Strelets: Laurence Cole
Servant: Dimo Georgiev
Persian Slave: Elena Thomas
Conductor: Tomas Hanus
Director: David Pountney
Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Choreographer: Beate Vollack
Assistant Conductor: James Southall
Assistant Director: Benjamin Davis
Production manager: Robert Pagett
Musical Preparation: Segey Rybin
Staff Directors: Deborah Cohen, Polly Graham
Lighting Realised on Tour: Ian Jones
Language Coach: John Asquith
Stage Manager: Katie Heath-Jones
Deputy Stage Manager: Suzie Erith
Overall the permanent stage decoration is of a decimated city reflective of Stalingrad or the general western depiction of Soviet Russia where everything somehow looks like a post industrial wasteland from 1935 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apparently the country lay in ruin for over half a century. I found that a disappointing stereotype to adhere to.
Ironically, during the 1990s, a number of areas did end up in a very run down state when the economy took a massive downturn until the millennium when it was revitalised again. Indeed a few areas are still in that state but they are the exception not the rule usually being sites that exist somewhere in the countryside left derelict. The only time a city such as the setting of the opera Moscow would be in this state was during war time. ‘But they’ve taken artistic license’ people will say to justify it. Yes and in the musical Billy Elliot they trivialise a very emotionally turbulent period of within living memory history for working class people in Britain for the amusement of the middle classes which trivialises the brutal conflicts between striking picket lines and police with irreverent song and dance number. Sometimes art offends intentionally to begin a dialogue and other times it does it through ignorance. The setting is not the Soviet union, as most audience members will assume, nor is it ‘mystic Russia’ as the launch event described it. It’s a caricature underplaying the brutal historical reality like pirates, cowboys and soldiers in children’s productions.
The designers obviously wanted an iconic image of early revolutionary Bolshevik led Soviet Russia and watched a lot of western produced films set in Russia during the Soviet era but mostly filmed elsewhere (Gorky Park, Child 44, Gulag, Silk Stockings, Ninotchka, etc) which all share the same grim grey and brown colour pallet to depict it as a post industrial hell – which in areas around factories and closed cities would be true as it is anywhere, but the impression in all these films is the entire country was like that – which means even over a quarter of a century after it’s end we still live with the propagandist image of the Soviet Union which is perpetuated by visual designers who type in Soviet Russia to a search engine, see Stalin era depictions in Western propaganda films and say ‘good enough’ and copy it. Unlike North Korea Russia doesn’t have an eternal leader and if they did it would definitely not be Stalin and, it should come as no surprise, the country did actually develop after Stalin’s death and not stagnant in the aesthetic of the Stalin era (although of course the Soviet Union had plenty of periods of stagnation in later decades but that’s a story for another time).
I just find it very awkward they depicted the setting like this when they seem to have chosen a quasi-civil war setting which inevitably reminds the audience of the real life conflict which occurred between the revolutionary Red Army against the monarchist White Army yet assigns the colours inappropriately. During the civil war the white army supported the Czar while in this production white represents those who oppose the Czar. The production covers a time period of about 12 years and apparently Moscow lay in ruins throughout that time. ‘Artistic license’ no doubt applies.
Below is a rough layout of the stage design.
In the layout graphic you see the grey steps upon which performers sit or lay.
The green pieces are the scribe desks which each have a small desk lamp to illuminate them.
The green diamond is the pillar with a light on top of it which the scribe is forced to climb, by Streltsy soldiers, to read what is written on it. A pile of books/papers spill out of it when the illiterate Streltsy are informed of what is written there.
The purple barrier is on an overpass above one of the access points to the stage.
The yellow chair and painting are used when Khovansky confronts the Golitsin about Sofia.
The red hexagon is the bath where Khovansky is killed.
The red circle represents the ball on which the Persian dancer performs nude (actually she has body paint/skin toned clothing I think but I was sat in the gods so it was hard to tell when she discarded her silk dress).
The white ramp is lowered in later scenes when Dosifey comes to speak to the other Old Believers and when Khovansky, now an old man, tells the Streltsy to go home and await their fate instead of fight when the Czar’s forced descend upon Moscow to eliminate them.
On the left side is a wall with empty windows in a waffle like shape. At the start of the play light is shone through the gaps to show the dawning of the opera’s events and at the end, to bookend the opera, as the building in which the Old Believer’s commit mass suicide. At this point a smoke machine is lowered from above and the followers bring heavy stage lamps onto the steps which illuminate in the final moment depicting them tableau like in death.
Things of particular note, both good and bad, during the Welsh National Opera (WNO) performance I saw.
The tower of leaflets in the first act which is opened and spills paper out across the floor is very effective in portraying the proliferation of knowledge the scribe causes by reading out the proclamation in Act I, scene iv.
The scribe, in act I, scene IV, and Emma in Act I, scene VI, are both bound with red chords to represent the social binding they both undergo through force by others. Sadly I don’t recall this being used again later so these come out as somewhat of an anomaly and I have to question why the idea wasn’t followed up with for later scenes.
When Golitsin is sent into exile he is carried lying on top of the painting used as the background of act ii. In his hand is a book he is reading while the actor, for dear life, hangs onto the side of the painting as he is angled towards the audience while pretending like he is relaxing. If you imagine some of the more naïve medieval depictions of saints which ignored realism you can image what this looked like. It was at one turn effective and yet oddly hilarious and I don’t think in this opera that was intentional.
In the mass suicide scene one person wouldn’t stop moving towards the back of the group. The smoke machine let out a little puff and that was it. It was on stage, hanging from the fly tower, for about 20 minutes only to do that. Or it may have meant to represent the thurible/censur used by Orthodox Christians but if so it still stands it produced only a slight puff of smoke and the staging of the scene makes you think they all just laid down rather than committed suicide via immolation.
I’m pretty sure the Russian pronunciation by some of the performers was off. The only one most would note is when someone, Shaklovity I believe, pronounces emphatically at the end of one line ‘Спасибо‘ as ‘spa-see-boh’ when the naturalised way so say it is ‘spa-see-bah’. I don’t know if it was the performer or the director who went with that. Either way it really took me out of it a few times. At the launch event it was noted ‘for time’ that The House of the Dead would be performed in English while Eugene Onegin and Khovanshchina would be performed in Russia. Part of me wishes they had done this in English as I suspect they performers are not all experienced in performing in Russian if they’ve mostly been called to do works in French, German or Italian as there are inevitably differences in the languages. It’s a little sad but not completely unexpected. The actual performances themselves were of a high standard desptie all my criticisms.
In the WNO production, during the Dance of the Persian Slaves they have a single dancer in a silk dress perform over Khovansky while he lays in his bathtub. She performs a number of gymnastic postures and such then removes her dress. She has body paint across her chest and, I assume, flesh tone knickers on (I was sat in the upper circle so for intent and purposes she seemed naked but there’s no indication she would be otherwise WMC put warnings about it anywhere on the production’s literature) then climbs on top of a ball and rolls around the stage accompanied by bare chested men stabilising it. She takes Khovansky’s coat and drapes it over herself… then, after performing her piece, sits there on the ball for about ten minutes in shadow watching Khovansky be assassinated in his bath and all the other Persian slaves walk past and spit on his corpse. The dance was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov by agreement with Mussorgsky and I would be lying if I said it is noticeable that it stands out compared to many of the other pieces instrumentally. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov have very distinctly difference composition styles needless to say.
The assassination is well done as there is a shower head on the bath and thus when his throat is slit the tap is turned on and a shower of red blood rains down upon him before it’s turned off by the last passing slave and a sheet is drawn over the bath tub until Andrey is made to confront his father’s corpse.
There is a backlit walkway with folds down from right stage when Dosifey and later Khovansky address their followers. It really helps to emphasise the status they are held in by their followers when they appear from stage right on it. Dosifey strides out and is in as much, if more, strength as he was at the start of the play. His determination and disposition have only grown with time. This is contrasted when Khovanshy initially seems to emulate this when the Strelsty call for him. However instead of the barrel chested, physically imposing, leader of earlier acts we see a frail old man hobble out and beg his followers to lay down their arms and prepare for the Czar’s judgement to be passed on them.
It can’t go without mention that you have quite archaic depictions of women. Marfa is lovesick for Andrey and every action she takes is to be reunited with him despite his rejection of her, Emma despite being named is only someone for Andrey to lust after with no further contribution after her first scene, the Persian Slave(s) are there to be Ivan’s playthings, Sofia is never seen on stage but is represented by Shaklovity… the only woman of any note is Susanna (one of the older members of the Old Believers) who ultimately only serves to shrewishly condemn Marfa for her love of the younger Khovansky instead of dedicating herself to the cause absolute.
Clumsy. I think that’s the word I would want to use regretfully, if not lazy for cetain aspects, regarding this production. It’s a revival of the 2007 production and it seems like they haven’t built on what they learned back then. ‘A decade has passed, no one will remember what we did last time. We hardly do ourselves!’
At the launch event it was joked they dusted off one of the older works and apparently that’s all they did thinking. The photo used for the promotional material, even at a glance, is clearly the old costumes as you see a man dressed in traditional black robes and not this productions choice to have the Old Believers wear white. This isn’t a revival by a retread with a new coat of paint sadly. In Hollywood films we see remakes of older films that don’t add anything to the original, don’t find a successful new interpretation nor make their own version but just seem to retread the exact same steps as their predecessor and often makes the same, if not more, mistakes. Apparently that can happen in opera too from what I saw here. If anything it’s gotten sloppy trying to experiment on some aspects that they didn’t fully consider.
The performers do their best, proving their status in the world of opera and I find little fault with them beyond some pronunciation which can be expected if they’re not often called on to perform in Russian often (let alone the suggestion of there being little time to prepare which was suggested at the season lauch event) but I think it was a lot of the staging and other choices which really took away from, rather than supported, the production.
The Persian dancer certainly was out of tone with the rest of the production. You have to ask if it was mandated by someone with influence making what is meant to be evidence that Khovansky has abandoned any noble ambition and given into decadent hedonism watching ballet instead was turned into a burlesque show for the audience. It takes you out of it completely it’s such a contrast to every thing else even compared to other productions of the opera by other companies. A brave choice but one that should have been reflected earlier with the actions of Ivan’s son Andrey towards Emma to show that despite all Khovansky’s noble words we see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the end.
It seems like I am nitpicking at artistic choices or minor points but it all accumulates. WNO always put a lot of effort into their set designs and staging. You would be hard pressed to say they do anything less than excel in it otherwise but for this production the choices just don’t work. There are some great ideas but the way they get implemented seems half hearted or misinformed at times. Khovanshchina is one of the rarer operas to be performed so they really had a chance to establish themselves further as one of the great opera companies but instead seem to have ‘given it a go’ with a mindset that failure is highly likely. This season they were also simultaneously doing Eugene Onegin and The House of the Dead alongside this piece and I am not sure how those will have come across as they are in many ways much safer options compared to Khovanshchina which perhaps asks a lot of an audience in comparison.
On the whole you might think three and a half hours would be dreadfully long but I found it moved along quite quickly. The only times I noticed the time were are the start, which seemed to take an eternity to establish events, and at the end where it just seemed like, after the pardoning of the Streltsy, everyone left remaining now needed to each perform a piece individually before the finale. People joke about the ending of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy taking forever but really this opera was not well served by reinstating the parts edited out previously.
It is often asked if you need to read up about an opera before seeing it and it’s up to you. WNO on their own webpage introducing people to opera even say this. You might get more enjoyment knowing the story before hand so you can enjoy the performance or you might enjoy seeing the twists in the narratives played out before you without warning. Khovanshchina is definitely one opera you must read up about before or else you will get lost. The colour coding is a good effort to counter this but you will still get lost if you don’t follow it carefully or have prior knowledge of the proceedings.
Khovanshchina: The operatic example of what ‘too many chefs spoils the broth’ looks like.
Originally an opera (subtitled a ‘national music drama’) in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky.
After Mussorgsky died leaving it unfinished Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882.
Because of his extensive cuts and “recomposition”, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.
Of course then each staging might choose to make alterations themselves. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev’s request. When Feodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosifei in any other orchestration than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky’s finale, which is still sometimes used.
Even with only a passing knowledge of Russian classical music you can see that some of the biggest names of the twentieth century tackled the piece and with each alteration came tension on what was the best option. Rimsky-Korsakov streamlined the opera and made it accessible. Shostakovich, true to his own style, included the more experimental sections which perhaps to me make the piece feel excessive in length or, as can be expected of things added back in after a ‘finalised’ version has been created, the pacing is negatively affected so some parts move along at a pace and others seem to come to a screaming stop and drag. Rimsky-Korsakov, if you look up the alteration history, made a lot of shortened sections. It’s a topic far too long for a review as it deserves it’s own focused consideration.
I assume it’s the Shostakovich version performed as it’s not immediately obvious in the brochure which version they went with but no doubt made some adjustments to suit themselves.
It’s a good opera to go see once but I can’t say after this experience I will want to see it again and certainly having seen a few Welsh National Opera productions (Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc) this is by far one of, if not their, weakest productions by far. The staging which is one of the company’s strong points falls flat here and at a few points borders being comical or sensationalist for the sake of it.
This review is only about this one production and not the company as a whole. WNO are serious contenders in the world of opera but in this case they underserved Mussorgsky’s opera and, in hindsight, hid it between Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. They sold this seasons operas’ brochures all together in a single volume at the cost of £6 on the assumption if you are seeing one then you’ll obviously be seeing the others too all as part of the R17 event. I’m sure those are both far superior but sadly my experience with Khovanshchina has made me lose faith in them this season. For all I know it was one bad night but it just so happened to be the one bad night I went to see their production of the opera.
During the season Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are performed in Russian but The House of the Dead, for timing, is performed in English. Part of me wishes they did Khovanshchina in English too if only to have a bit more control over some of the finer details. The opera has some good arias, the chorus work at every point is astounding but there are certainly some parts which I think will test even moderately patient audiences. It’s definitely not a piece to introduce someone to the world of opera with.
The brochure is nice though and very informative about the different operas so that at least is a nice note I can end on. Buy that as an introduction to the different operas, discussion of their background and have some high quality matt prints of Russian paintings.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1962 play by Edward Albee. It examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship.
The play is in three acts, normally taking a little less than three hours to perform, with two 10-minute intermissions. The title is a pun on the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), substituting the name of the celebrated English author Virginia Woolf. Martha and George repeatedly sing this version of the song throughout the play.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It is frequently revived on the modern stage.
Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill star in a new production of the play, directed by James MacDonald, at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London currently (early 2017). This is the production I shall be discussing in this post from this point on though I do discuss the play in a broader aspect too while doing this.
Beige: stage floor
Light grey: Raised areas
Dark Grey: The entrance and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms.
Green: Access off stage. The lefthand door goes to the kitchen, the middle is the entrance to the house and living room and the one on the right leads to the toilet.
Purple: Offstage. I guess those sat on the right would have had some limited view but most events occur towards the front of stage.
Orange: The drinks trolley and the record player.
Red: the seating.
Brown: On the left the fireplace, centrally the table and the cabinet on which the piece of art sits.
Yellow: The triangle is the art piece they comment onn in the first act, the circles the bells that get hit at one point and the diamond a free standing light.
Thick black: Walls.
This image is an estimation of how everything was placed on stage. Kirsty Walk, during the brief break between acts 2 and 3 told us about the staging. The couch and lower level is set out like a boxing ring into which the characters enter to confront each other with the fireplace, doorway and reading areas act as the ringside where they take respite from the frisson of events as observers.
Act One: “Fun and Games”
George and Martha engage in dangerous emotional games. George is an associate professor of history and Martha is the daughter of the president of the college. After they return home, Martha reveals she has invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. The guests arrive – Nick, a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths), and his wife, Honey. As the four drink, Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse of each other in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple is first embarrassed and later enmeshed. They stay.
Martha taunts George aggressively, and he retaliates with his usual passive aggression. Martha tells an embarrassing story about how she humiliated him with a sucker-punch in front of her father. During the telling, George appears with a gun and fires at Martha, but an umbrella pops out. After this scare, Martha’s taunts continue, and George reacts violently by breaking a bottle. Nick and Honey become increasingly unsettled and, at the end of the act, Honey runs to the bathroom to vomit, because she had too much to drink.
Act Two: “Walpurgisnacht”
Traditionally, “Walpurgisnacht” is the name of an annual witches’ meeting (satiric in the context of the play). Nick and George are sitting outside. As they talk about their wives, Nick says that his wife had a “hysterical pregnancy”. George tells Nick about a time that he went to a gin-mill with some boarding school classmates, one of whom had accidentally killed his mother by shooting her. This friend was laughed at for ordering “bergin”. The following summer, the friend accidentally killed his father while driving, was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again. George and Nick discuss the possibility of having children and eventually argue and insult each other. After they rejoin the women in the house, Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Martha also reveals the truth about George’s creative writing escapades: he had tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed both of his parents (with the implication that the deaths were actually murder), but Martha’s father would not let it be published. George responds by attacking Martha, but Nick separates them.
George suggests a new game called “Get the Guests”. George insults and mocks Honey with an extemporaneous tale of “the Mousie” who “tooted brandy immodestly and spent half her time in the up-chuck”. Honey realizes that the story is about her and her “hysterical pregnancy”. The implication is that she trapped Nick into marrying her because of a false pregnancy. She feels sick and runs to the bathroom again.
At the end of this scene, Martha starts to act seductively towards Nick in George’s presence. George pretends to react calmly, reading a book. As Martha and Nick walk upstairs, George throws his book against the door. In all productions until 2005, Honey returns, wondering who rang the doorbell (Martha and Nick had knocked into some bells). George comes up with a plan to tell Martha that their son has died, and the act ends with George eagerly preparing to tell her. In what is labelled the “Definitive Edition” of the script, however, the second act ends before Honey arrives.
Act Three: “The Exorcism”
Martha appears alone in the living room, shouting at the others to come out from hiding. Nick joins her. The doorbell rings: it is George, with a bunch of snapdragons in his hand, calling out, “Flores para los muertos” (flowers for the dead), a reference to the play and movie A Streetcar Named Desire, also about a marriage and outside influences. Martha and George argue about whether the moon is up or down: George insists it is up, while Martha says she saw no moon from the bedroom. This leads to a discussion in which Martha and George insult Nick in tandem, an argument revealing that Nick was too drunk to have sex with Martha upstairs.
George asks Nick to bring Honey back for the final game – “Bringing Up Baby”. George and Martha have a son, about whom George has repeatedly told Martha to keep quiet. George talks about Martha’s overbearing attitude toward their son. He then prompts her for her “recitation”, in which they describe, in a bizarre duet, their son’s upbringing. Martha describes their son’s beauty and talents and then accuses George of ruining his life. As this segment progresses, George recites sections of the Libera me (part of the Requiem Mass, the Latin mass for the dead).
At the end of the play, George informs Martha that a messenger from Western Union arrived at the door earlier with a telegram saying their son was “killed late in the afternoon…on a country road, with his learner’s permit in his pocket” and that he “swerved, to avoid a porcupine”. The description matches that of the boy in the gin-mill story told earlier. Martha screams, “You can’t do that!” and collapses.
It becomes clear to the guests that George and Martha’s son is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. The fictional son is a final “game” the two have been playing since discovering early in their marriage that they are infertile. George has decided to “kill” him because Martha broke the game’s single rule: never mention their son to others. Overcome with horror and pity, Nick and Honey leave. Martha suggests they could invent a new imaginary child, but George forbids the idea, saying it was time for the game to end. The play ends with George singing, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to Martha, whereupon she replies, “I am, George…I am.”
When people debate the greatest plays ever written this one is regularly in top 10s and rightly so, when acted well it is one of the most devastating evenings of theatre you can encounter.
However the live broadcast of the current production I saw of it was not…
In a sentence I found that subtlety was thrown out for overt caricature which led the dark dry humour of the play to be performed as if it was an American sitcom.
There are only four roles in the play.
Martha – (Imelda Staunton) A screeching loud New Englander
the daughter of the president of the college
George – (Conleth Hill) an associate professor of history
A put upon ‘family man’ with a whiny nasal tonality
Nick – (Luke Treadaway) A stereotypical all American corn fed jock
a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths)
Honey – (Imogen Poots) A squeaky voiced, ditzy, North West all American girl
Nick’s childhood sweetheart and wife
I think what set it off on the wrong foot was the preceding short documentary we were presented with about the play’s history with talking head after talking head telling us of how Albee has humorous dialogue. This led to certain members of the audience laughing at every few lines as if a laugh track was playing in their head telling them when, where and to what degree to laugh.
Do you ever feel like you’re the young child in the children’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? That is how I feel about this particular production. It has received glowing reviews but the bitterness of the characters and their predicament is lost in people doing the broadest impressions of Americans they can manage. For the time period and location the play is set it’s not inaccurate but I kept getting the feeling more effort was put into that side of the production than working on the nuances of each exchange between the characters. Maybe I just feel Imelda Staunton is too old to play the role. Yes controversial. How dare I say such a thing of a living legend. But it reminds me of when, in opera, you have people with visible grey hair performing the role of teenagers because they’re the ones with the ability to do so. The performance is good but when you have a very short woman in her 60s. Playing a woman in her 50s, pawing at a tall 32 year old (playing a 28 year old) it comes across as false he would have, at least in this production, an all but implied sexual liaison while his wife lies drunk in the toilet.
The whole production is oddly paced and plays out in the style of a 1960s sitcom in tone. I think what suits it better is to play it far more straight, to allow the black humour of the passive aggression play out without flourishes. Perhaps what I instinctively felt was there was no energy between the performers. Of course it’s about dysfunctional relationships but even that has an energy to it which I found lacking here and instead replaced with energy you expect of a comedy which doesn’t fit the tone I was expecting.
Imelda Staunton all but yells her lines. Each. And. Every. Time. This is a great acting by a living theatre legend? Her performance is praised but there is no nuance. Either she’s shouting, thrusting herself at Nick or rattling off stories intending to shame her husband… until the final scene which is performed well but is too little too late. Nuance be damned. It’s far too over the top. I saw her, in person, performing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Rose in the 2015 production of Gypsy and can’t help but feel she has brought over some of that behaviour when reprising the American accent which was a mistake. She is a good actor but something in the direction has led her and the others astray. Less shouting and I probably would have enjoyed it more. There’s a way to be loud without coming across as if every line should be shouted and she is more than skilled enough to do so.
Conleth Hill… I don’t know what to say. He plays the role of a put upon family man from a 1950s American sitcom. Burton played the role as a mild mannered yet passively aggressive man of letters while Hill plays the role as… Varys from Game of Thrones (who he plays) so I am a bit concerned he lacks range as I’ve not had the chance to see him in other productions. If you know Nathan Lane and how he performs comedy roles just imagine him in the role and you’re more or less where I was watching this. What are meant to be bitter barbs of a frustrated man come across like catty comments more fitting of a stereotyped gay character. Maybe that’s something they were implying in this production though I feel I’m giving them more credit that they deserve.
Luke Treadaway plays his role overly safe if not quite bland. Imagine a jock from a comedy film or all American young hero from a war film. There you go you know how he came across both aurally and physically. Admittedly the character lends himself to being played that way but it’s too blunt. The liaison between Nick and Martha comes across as so sudden and forced due to how things have been staged that it’s as if you put two cats on heat in a box and watched them writhing into each other. Partially intentional of course but a bit too forced here when the others are in the room still.
Imogen Poots also plays her role somewhat safe if not overly straight with little if any nuance. Someone apparently watched Grease and decided to replicate a Pink Ladies. The role is a foil for the others and is meant to offer some levity to the deeply embittered proceedings but here, where everything is on the verge of spilling into slapstick, it’s hard to make the role have any weight sadly. She is a good actress and makes the most of what she can thus stealing a few scenes but usually gets left in the sidelines. Often quite literally by being offstage for most of acts two and three.
There is, as the preceding documentary insisted, humour in the dialogue but by drawing attention to it with slapstick like delivery undermines the underlying tragedy of the narrative involving a marital breakdown and how the characters feel trapped by social conventions.
Each person is ignoring reality and perpetuating a socially acceptable facade. They do so to appear as successful members of society when in reality each of them is, in their own way, severely damaged. In their overwrought efforts to fit social norms they only exacerbates their problems until confronted with their reality which ultimately breaks them. Be it Martha marrying George because she wanted to remain a part of her feckless father’s world in which she herself could never impress him. George never becoming head of the History department. Nick who married his childhood sweetheart because that’s what everyone expected of him (especially after the phantom pregnancy) or Honey who you could argue remains a cypher to us beyond her existence as Nick’s wife.
The costumes were what you would expect so there is no fault there and the stage design gives an over burdened, claustrophobic, atmosphere helping emphasis the intensity of the character’s interactions with it’s excessive furniture tightly packed into a small area. Some liberties were taken in order to make it more of a chamber drama than other productions might but on the whole you don’t miss anything substantial.
The play is good. This production is not.
If you have never seen a production of this play before then go watch the film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I never suggest watching the film as, of course, it’s a completely different experience – however in this case I think the real life relationship of Burton and Taylor lent the dialogue exchanges a depth that is hard to replicate though, by their own admission, it took a toll on their relationship and Taylor felt she was playing Martha too much in real life afterwards. I feel the play is better played understated and straight while this version has overplayed the humorous aspects.
Personally I feel the delicate balance required for this play is lost and makes me wonder if, in trying to play up to the humour inherent in Albee’s dialogue, James MacDonald unintentionally played up the humour to differentiate this production from others and in doing so completely undermined the drama of the piece. It discredits the themes of reality versus illusion, as all comedy requires some level by trivialising or satirising of reality in order for us to cope with it’s harshness, and the social expectations both we and society expect of each other which few, if any can live up to.
Playing it for laughs too much means the impact of the reality is muted and because Martha is played over the top we see her more as a caricature not as a tragic figure who feels the need to exaggerate her actions in order to garner a reaction – first from a father who all but ignores her when she doesn’t serve his purpose and then a husband she feels is inattentive to her needs.
Nick is the overachiever being both an athlete and a prodigy who got his masters at 19 years old. He has to get things right at all times because that is what is expected of him. Even in the bed room he is expected to be a stud but ultimately, like all the men in Martha’s life, failing her as a ‘flop’. Honey gets pregnant (albeit it’s proven to be a phantom pregnancy soon after) so of course he will marry her as any good guy would. Failure is not an option.
Contrasting to him is George to whom failure is the only option and like any underachiever he plays the role of satirist playing out fictional narratives over and over to trivialise the dramas of reality. He fails Martha by not having children and by not being able to stand up to nor replace her father as a potent, in both senses, male figure in her life.
Honey… is a cypher. Is Honey even her real name or just a moniker everyone calls her by just like Lady Bird Johnson in real life because that’s the only name anyone around her uses? Do we hear of anything she does exclusive of Nick? Thus she is in the role of the trophy wife, as George was the trophy husband expected to have achieved but ultimately failing too for Martha.
Honey and George mirror each other as ‘failures’ – he as an academic and husband and she as a traditional housewife meant to serve her husband and cause him no trouble. Both fail to bear children in comparison to their alpha partners who, over the nights proceedings, are drawn to each other and have a tryst which ultimately leads them to realise that it’s not an equal they need but a partner who compliments and supports them. Honey, despite drinking, plays the doting wife to her husband obeying him when leaving while George, as Martha mocks at one point, makes her laugh and as the play ends he tries, but fails, to comfort her as she admits she is deeply scared now her bravado has been stripped away and she accepts reality now George has stopped humouring her about their son and no doubt any number of unspoken illusions they have maintained with one another until this point.
This review might be a bit patchy but I keep writing things and not posting them so expect, in the following few weeks, reviews of things that are a bit out of date…
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