Crazy for Halmet: he is his Father’s Ghost

Quite simply, you have to see the Michael Sheen Hamlet.

No, not the Ian Rickson-directed Hamlet, though most of Ian Rickson’s direction is wonderfully intelligent and really provocative and concepts like having Hamlet be the ghost (is he channelling? Is he a split personality? Is this The Two Faces of Hamlet? Joanne Woodward eat your heart out?) really win you over the moment they happen. This is a very creative look at Hamlet the play.

But it has one major flaw: setting the play in a contemporary mental hospital simply does not work and that is right at the heart of the production concept. The idea that Elsinore is dysfunctional and a bit of a mad house is hardly original; and hammering it home by having the audience approach the stage through a “Funny Farm” (if you get there early enough to do the walkabout) simply comes across as forced. When a family encounter is staged as if it were a group therapy session the feeling is not of illuminating the text but of imposing something unnecessary, jarring and heavy-handed. Okay, Elsinore is a mad house, I get it!  Just leave in the line (they cut it) about something rotten in the state of Denmark and stage the rest of the play without the persistent reminders you are in a mental institution and people are smart enough to get the idea, I suspect.

Also I really could not see the point of making Horatio and Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) women. What have I been missing? Is Hamlet in love with them? Are they in love with him? Did they have affairs once upon a time? Why would this not work with a man playing the part? You think no one in all these centuries has noticed possible homoerotic pre-histories?

That said, the cast is good, most of the direction of individual moments and line readings is original and thought-provoking; and, above all, Michael Sheen is simply superlative.

Sheen’s is one of those legendary assumptions of the role. Every moment he is on stage you get the Full Monty – every line is delivered with intelligence, nuance, subtext and wit. There’s not a moment when he flags. He’s the craziest Hamlet in a while but he’s also one of the wittiest, one of the slyest. He’s funny at times; and he’s borderline scary as well. You can feel the barely controlled rage and despair along with a brilliant mind constantly analyzing his situation.

The level of complexity that Sheen brings to the part is energizing and gripping from beginning to end. His personal energy is phenomenal. He never flags. And he doesn’t allow his audience to flag. You are compelled to pay attention at every turn.  I looked around the auditorium a few times during this long, long evening and no one was asleep.

This is a Hamlet interpretation to cherish for all time.  It’s full of surprises all of which feel organic, growing clearly from a careful and brilliant reading of the text. Sheen’s sheer presence is mesmerizing. His star power is definitely in the same league as Gielgud, Olivier, Burton and David Tennant in the same role, probably also Kean and the legendary actors of the distant past. He conveys Hamlet’s fine mind non-stop, along with his Oedipal anxieties, his overwrought griefs and everything else you want to name. He compels attention and holds the stage with complete authority. This is one of the richest, most complex and most theatrically exciting performances of Hamlet you will ever encounter. And no matter how good you expect it to be, when you get there you will find it’s better. I promise! The performance consists of one seriously apt surprise after another. It’s what great acting is all about.

Every moment he’s on that stage (and believe me, that adds up to a lot of moments) Michael Sheen is totally captivating. The staging of the grave scene and the use of a sand pit for that and the final duel is a terrific image too. And I really liked the surprise final moment. Also, Ophelia for once is completely believable (best one since Jean Simmons?) and when Sheen says he loved her you not only believe it you feel a stab of heartbreak and a sense of what might have been if only his uncle had not killed his father.

Let us not quibble over this: Sheen is gigantic!

And, except for my irritation about the Mental Hospital Setting, Ian Rickson’s direction, blocking and engagement with the text are bright, creative and provocative. It is a pity about the mental hospital aspect. But in context that is but a pinprick.

This Hamlet and Crazy for You (see elsewhere) are the two shows in London right now that I believe you would be crazy to miss.  I think this Hamlet deserves a West End transfer so that more people can see it; and that both shows should go to Broadway.

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Crazy for it

If you are in London looking for that one show that will give delight and hurt not, will be totally comprehensible whatever language you speak, and will transport you back through a time warp to what Broadway musicals were all about in the 1930s, then head straight for the Novello Theatre in the Aldwych to see the revival of Crazy for You, that Gershwin pastiche.

To call it a pastiche, actually, is unfair; it is more like a re-imagination for contemporary tastes – one that somehow captures the style, mood, silliness, sheer joie-de-vivre and bizarre sophistication of the heyday of the goony musicals that starred Fred and Adele Astaire.

This one, really Girl Crazy  (very heavily adapted), made stars of Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman in 1930; and I wish it would make a superstar of the guy playing Bobby, Sean Palmer. The evening at the Novello is worth it for him alone. His dancing dazzled me. It seemed to me to have the same kind of masculinity, energy and grace as Gene Kelly at his best but with more of the elegance of a Fred Astaire informing it. He works very hard all evening but, like everyone else in the cast, is so energetic and enthusiastic that it looks easy. His hoofing is classic; and when he does his big solo near the end of Act Two you just want it to go on forever, it is so elegant yet spirited, chic, emotionally valid and just plain debonair.

All this is matched by the performances of Clare Foster, David Burt, Kim Medcalf and the others, down to the smallest part. The old cliché that you leave your troubles at the door and just have a non-stop good time comes true. Of course, the songs are by George and Ira Gershwin, the choreography is dazzling and the whole show is a low down, low-brow class act of non-stop wit with brilliant references to classic routines from Broadway and Vaudeville. I’m just crazy for this show!

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Beatrice and Benedick Live, OKAY!

There’s probably going to be a lot of fuss about the Much Ado About Nothing being produced in the West End in London (at Wyndham’s Theatre) with David Tennant (who is a brilliant and a proven Shakespeare actor) and Catherine Tate (one of his Doctor Who companions and a brilliant comedienne). However good it is, though, I cannot believe it could be better than the one that just opened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on 21 May! It is already in a league where it could not be surpassed, only matched if you are very, very lucky. I suspect the Wyndham Much Ado will be different – modernized or updated or whatever – and I know the actors are extremely talented. I would recommend it in “previewing” mode. But even if you are able to equal it, you simply cannot beat the ensemble playing and sheer energy of the production at The Globe. And it is such a wonderful place to see it!

To single anyone out is invidious in such a well-balanced cast. But one has to commend particularly the impressive, feisty, and loveable Beatrice of Eve Best and the outrageously attractive and intelligent Benedick of Charles Edwards. They are as well-matched as were the legendary couple like John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, Janet Suzman and Alan Howard, in those roles. Add them to the list of couples who are treasurable and flawless and so totally natural that you feel you are seeing them and the play for the first time. They both have the capacity to engage the audiences, talking and playing with the groundlings in some of the great comic moments; but also pulling back into subjective pain or pleasure that is nuanced, fully imagined and totally real.

This is a tour de force indeed. Jeremy Herrin, the director, has managed to keep the show in period and yet make it totally fresh and contemporary. The clowns are hilariously funny in a style that makes you think of what their impact must have been like in Shakespeare’s time. It reminded me that the role of Dogberry was written for Will Kemp. And the use of the Globe itself is completely captivating.

You will get the impression that I loved it. It helped that I was experiencing this production with an audience that was engaged from the very start and by the end was cheering itself hoarse with delight at what it had just experienced. It will be tough to get tickets for Tennant and Tate, probably; but do not despair if you cannot. High thyself to Shakespeare’s Globe, near London Bridge, and, if necessary, get thee groundling places. You will in no way regret it or even sore shanks from standing throughout.

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Damned Faust Rules OKAY

The new production at the English National Opera in London of The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz by Terry Gilliam struck me as so exciting, inventive and spot-on in everything it did that I simply have no way of conveying how truly stimulating and theatrically overwhelming this evening is on the ear, the mind and the eye.

To begin with, the singing, the acting and the musicality of the production conducted by Edward Gardner are all consistently of the first rank. If you went for no other reason, it would be worth sitting through it to hear the score played with such responsiveness. Christopher Purves is Mephistopheles and truly the pivot of the action; while Peter Hoare and Christine Rice not only sing their Faust and Margaret music hauntingly, they also attract both horror at and sympathy for their characters.

Also this staging is ideally suited to the music and the music to the staging and you have what Wagner wanted: a gesumptkunstwerk.

Gilliam has created controversy with this production because he has responded not only to Berlioz but to Goethe and he has created a kind of sub-story through the way it is staged that takes you through the history of Germany from the time of Goethe through World War I to the end of World War II. It is an Enlightenment discourse on the soul not only of Faust but of Germany up to about 1945. When I tell you that Margaret is Jewish and that her scene in prison becomes a scene being transported with other prisoners to a concentration camp, you may blanch; but I promise you that it not only works, it is incredibly moving and upsetting at the same time. The sequences showing Germany as the Nazis come to power and dominate everything not only politically but visually, with Nazi iconography, are very strong aspects of the statement this staging is making. The sets by Hildegard Bechtler, the costumes by Katrina Lindsay, the lighting design by Peter Mumford (especially in the transportation scene), are all star turns in their own right. There is intelligent use, too, of relevant news, films and projections; and the translation into English by Hugh Macdonald deserves praise.

The philosophical substructure of Goethe’s Faust, Part One, is completely present on the stage in this show and the tweaking that Gilliam has done to the original libretto seems to grow from the work organically at every moment and be in no way arbitrarily imposed. There are no mis-steps in the working out of this concept; and the integrity and coherence of the approach are thrilling. It is Gilliam’s first opera production and it makes one hope he will choose to do many more. Monty Python lives and still has a lot to say.

This is a production that will make you want to go back to Berlioz and also to Goethe (and maybe even to a good history book) because it provokes such a sense of closeness to both; it made me want to reconsider many aspects of the legend, the music and the original Goethe text. It also makes me want to get tickets for the Marlowe version of the legend, Doctor Faustus, that will be played for the first time at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London from 18 June through this summer.

This Damnation of Faust is the kind of production we all hope to get and so rarely do see every time we go to an opera.

Posted in Berlioz, Damnation of Faust, ENO, Goethe, London, musical, Terry Gilliam, Wagner | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Madam in the City

It is quite wonderful to go to a play at Stratford-upon-Avon that you have never seen, never studied in school and probably may never see again and to discover it in action, on the stage and learn that it is a very good play deserving revival after decades of neglect. The City Madam by Philip Massinger is being produced this summer with style, panache and a real understanding of the text. Dominic Hill has put together a wonderfully theatrical and amusing production, visually apt, artistically sound.

The story might be described as Tartuffe meets Measure for Measure. Jo Stone-Fewings is superb as Luke Frugal, a character whose quite-believable contrition and kindness of nature turns out to be a sham mask that he discards easily once he thinks he is in charge of a fortune again; and Christopher Godwin is a strong focus for the play as the apparently hard-hearted businessman Sir John Frugal who disappears into a monastery only to reappear disguised to watch how things play out once he supposedly leaves his brother in charge. Sara Crowe is spot on as the ditzy, mercenary but ultimately contrite Lady Frugal and the ensemble acting of everyone involved is simply a joy to behold.

It’s not a great play, it is not a difficult play; but it is amusing, charming – and, given the current state of everyone’s finances, quite topical suddenly. It is Ben Jonson lite, but there is nothing wrong with that. It gives a very good excuse for fine theatricality and some wonderfully amusing playfulness in the staging.

It is being performed in the newly refurbished Swan Theatre, still one of the best spaces in which to see a play in the UK. The auditorium itself has hardly been touched and that is a good thing, because it was fine all along.

Without forcing anything and while setting the play pretty much in period, the modern parallels will be easily understood. You will enjoy every actor on that stage; and come away wanting to see much more of that Jo Stone-Fewings who takes the central, defining role and inhabits it like a star.

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Merchant of Vegas

I have to admit to having had a very good time at the new RSC production of The Merchant of Venice directed by the ineffable Rupert Goold. The adrenalin I was experiencing coursing through my system throughout because of my rage and mystification I was experiencing was most invigorating; and I was stimulated by many exciting thoughts of what to shout at this director and how to re-do the whole production. Also, it did achieve a feeling of a strong desire to re-read the play, so the experience was far from a bad one.

Before I go any further let me say that I admired Patrick Stewart’s Shylock. I thought he created a real and plausible character, and acted with remarkable restraint and intelligence. I would love to see him do it in a real production of the play some day. I was also particularly taken with Susannah Fielding’s Portia, Caroline Martin’s Jessica and Richard Riddell’s Bassanio. The cast executed what was required of them with the usual commitment and skill you would expect at the RSC.

My problem was entirely with “the given” imposed on the play by Rupert Goold: that The Merchant of Venice was set in some fantasy version of Rupert Goold’s imagination that is supposed to be contemporary Las Vegas or some patronizing and, I guess, satirizing version of Hollywood’s view of Las Vegas, amaze me.

Also that everything had some contemporary popular art equivalent, so that Portia is to be seen as Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde – she is a Barbie Doll who is nevertheless smart and good at being a lawyer seems to be the message. Does the director really think that he has to drag in the shows we watch on television to relax to give his audience some sort of recognition points? Does he really think the audience could not understand the characters or situations, fairy tale elements and all, if presented directly? And what the hell is the equivalence supposed to be between Vegas and Venice?

In this production Patrick Stewart is present as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. (Patrick Stewart does the Tevye dancing at the close of the first half after his daughter has absconded rather movingly, it has to be said.) I like the concept that the wooing of Portia via the three riddling boxes is somehow a reality TV show and they certainly caught all the noise and tackiness of the X Factor in staging those scenes that way.

Venice in Shakespeare’s time was a society of bankers and power players on the international world stage, not some sort of overblown Disney play world – and though, as we all know, bankers are gamblers these days, they are also playing for power. Given the current world situation, setting the play in a Lehmann Brothers bank, on the London stock exchange or even in Brussels in the EU headquarters seems to me a better bet.

Shakespeare’s play is also portraying a society riddled with class barriers and snobbery that simply are not relevant in contemporary Las Vegas, surely, a society of men who show the same sort of male club bonding as old Etonians who run a coalition government in the UK, say; and who are just as unaware of their prejudices; and who can be appallingly excluding. And anti-Semitism of the type shown in the play certainly does not work in today’s LA unless it has changed a lot since last I was there.

If Goold had to find a more contemporary equivalence, could he not have set it in Berlin in 1932 or 1933 just as the Nazis were on the rise. Or hey, Venice in, say, Mussolini’s time? It confirms my perception that while someone like Greg Doran, for example, can do no wrong, Rupert Goold can do no right.

Part Two of the production was better. It got calmer. The trial scene was engaging and I event became emotionally interested in the characters at last. But then in the final scene back in Belmont, in the last ten minutes, Goold threw it all away with action that completely undercut the actual text and its romantic ending and added fake-tragic business for Portia that was cringe-making in its ineptitude as a concept (though well-executed by Susannah Fielding).

I have seen illuminating productions of this play set among the bankers in Victorian England (Jonathan Miller’s wonderful National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, available on DVD) and ones which explored the Jewishness of Shylock as against the world of the Gentiles very clearly and explicitly (Trevor Nunn, Miller again) but this production was simply arbitrary posturing, inconsistent, and showing off. It was, as so often with Goold, glitzy as hell; but all the glitz simply distracts you from the emptiness and superficiality of the interpretation. Frankly, I think it is patronizing to Shakespeare, misconceived, and ultimately unfair to the audience too. And I felt sorry for the actors who clearly have much more subtlety, nuance and interpretive skill to offer.

I rate this one not in stars but in toilet seats and I give it two.

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Rounding Up: Consolations of the Arts

For the past few months I have been suffering from something called Hepatitis E. The doctors in my home town were thrilled; they have never seen it before and now I am on a national register in the UK and being monitored like crazy. However, because of this I am also wildly behind. I miss having opportunities to sound off about what I believed was worth seeing in London. So I am going to sit at my computer and start saying things again.

The first is that I have rarely been so aware of the consolations of the arts as in this past few months. In a world that is increasingly in a bad way on so many fronts, they do offer not only consolation  and distraction but articulation of human folly and the human condition in ways one would not come up with oneself, necessarily. All this does seem to help.  There is something profoundly important about recognizing echoes of the present and one’s own problems in the arts, all the way back to the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chinese were right: the worst curse is “May you live in interesting times!”  These are, unfortunately, interesting times. And there are worse things going on in life than turning to the arts for consolation, articulation and sheer distraction.

So partly I am thinking: what is noticing a new young violinist or enjoying a production of a play or opera compared to tsunamis in Japan and chaos in the Middle East? But that way lies Tolstoy’s turning against not only art in general but his own writings in particular.

Does it make any difference to vast numbers in this world that he wrote War and Peace and that the recent translation I finally caught up with by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is very readable and illuminating?

Not really. And yet the novel is full of characters that can seem as real as anyone you know; stories that re as memorable as anything you have experienced and to which you cannot help referring; and the way they live their lives and handle everything from a first ball to a major battle somehow helps us with our own lives and thoughts about the epic and terrible things that are happening in our world.  I am convinced of it.

Posted in books, Russia, translations

Pushkin Lives Okay Even in English

Which brings me to the whole issue of translation. There is a lot of amazing material out there in languages, living and dead, that I do not speak. While ill, I re-read Pushkin for the first time since I was a teenager and I totally believe that it is impossible to find, in these translations, in any translation, the weight of his poetry, the way his words mingle with their sense.

But certainly in the prose tales and even in his dramas, you can feel the mastery and understand why he is so universally considered to be the first progenitor, the father of all Russian literature, the master of all forms, and the Shakespeare of his own language.

What was most amazing was rediscovering what a terrific story-teller he is. Once you have read about three sentences of any of his stories, you are pulled forward. You have to know what happens next. He has the gift of the balladeer and the sophistication of the most intellectually daring modern writers.  He writes stories that grip you as you read them and then will not leave you alone afterwards.

The version I got hold of, the Collected Shorter Prose of Pushkin in the Everyman edition, was translated by Paul Debreceny. His work as a Pushkin translator into English has been highly acclaimed and I found it completely and easily readable. The Everyman edition was published to coincide with the Bicentenary of Pushkin’s birth in 1999.

Posted in books, Pushkin, translations

Praising Pasternak

Leap forward one hundred and fifty odd years and you get another recognized monument of Russian literature, poet Boris Pasternak’s amazing novel Doctor Zhivago. It has taken fifty years for anyone to do a decent translation into English based on the original Russian and not filtered through other translations and without politically motivated cuts.

Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve our gratitude once more for coming up with a text in English that is complete and readable in a way that I have never experienced before.  I am sure that, as always, elements are lost in translation; but forget what you might be missing and enjoy what is so fully there.

When the turgid translation of 1958 was released it was promised that it was a temporary solution because everyone wanted to read the novel immediately so badly.  But it was such a best seller that no one bothered to tamper with what was there, inadequate though it was. And then the novel was further translated to another medium, to film; and that is a whole other issue to think about, especially when you read or re-read the text in this new translation and do comparisons in your head. It is a stimulating and worthwhile task.

So thanks to the publishers for finally making good on their promise of half a century ago. I also think that, given the fame and ubiquity of the MGM film, it is good to go back to a translation from the original source and realise that it was not just politics and a romantic tale that provoked the Russian authorities and the Nobel Prize committee, but something more starkly profound and pained.

While surfing the net about the novel I also discovered that there is a Russian TV version of the book with the amazing Oleg Menshikov in the title role, in eleven episodes, from 2006. Now if we all agitate, do you suppose we could get it released on DVD with subtitles so that we can see it? I would love to see how the Russians themselves and Menshikov in particular translate Yuri Zhivago onto the screen for a contemporary audience. Not least because Oleg Menshikov is one of the most profoundly gifted actors, directors and entertainers working anywhere today. If you have not already done so, see him in the Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun, which is available on DVD.

Posted in books, film

Catching Lucrezia

The English National Opera has been having a good run lately, not that you would know it from some reports. The biggest “disaster” was supposed to be their production of Donizetti’s rarely performed Lucrezia Borgia. Directed by  Mike Figgis (director of films like Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas), he has interwoven with the live opera beautifully filmed extracts of the earlier, back story of Lucrezia. The filmed extracts, like the stage picture, reference Renaissance paintings constantly and cleverly and for me the two informed each other brilliantly.

The original libretto for this opera is actually rather weak, so I found the films were a wonderful gloss on the whole story that made the opera itself more plausible and comprehensible. The critics hated it. On my way in to the third or fourth performance (I was too ill to attend the opening night) I ran into several Donizetti buffs who suggested, having read the damning reviews, that we all bail out together at half time and go to a Chinese restaurant in Soho. By half time, not one of them wanted to leave. Everyone was simply having a wonderful time, and I do not believe it is because we went in with such low expectations.

This is a bel canto opera and, for openers, the singing was superb – Claire Rutter a stunning and convincing Lucrezia in every way, dramatically and musically, with rising young American tenor Michael Fabiano  brilliant as Lucrezia’s long-lost son (whose birth and its circumstances you see in the remarkable films).  The music direction of Paul Daniel was assured, idiomatic and exciting, as usual. A very difficult opera to stage came across as a classic in almost the same league as Lucia di Lammermoor or Anna Bolena. I have no idea what the nay-sayers were perceiving.

Maybe I missed the one bad performance in the run? Maybe opening night was more like a preview than the real thing and it settled down afterwards? Yet I know of no actual member of the audience at any performance of this production who didn’t enjoy it thoroughly and I hope that the ENO are not put off either reviving this Lucrezia Borgia very soon and often or getting Mike Figgis to direct another opera!

Posted in ENO, London, opera