Oh, What a Loverly War!
Recently Michael Gove, the Minister for Education in England’s coalition government, lambasted and insulted history teachers and the BBC for misrepresenting World War I and the heroism of its soldiers and leaders, and for using the TV show Blackadder and the musical play Oh, What a Lovely War! as teaching aids when talking about the history of World War I. What Mr. Gove proves is that the head of education of the UK has no idea of the difference between history and satire in the first instance; and in the second, that he has no idea about genuine popular art.
For the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and the 50th of Joan Littlewood’s creative musical entertainment, the adventurous Theatre Royal Stratford East in London has put on a new production of the show, sticking to the original script and music as put together by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles, Charles Chilton and all the members of the original cast. Murray Melvin, who was also in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, is now working as the archivist and historian in residence at the TRSE, and he confirms what I felt when I saw this show—that everything in it comes from meticulous research into the period. Everything on that stage happened;every song was sung in the context in which it is presented, and all the statistics displayed are accurate. Far from denigrating the soldiers or their heroism, (though it has some questions about the “donkeys” who led the war and imposed the strategies), Oh, What a Lovely War shows a huge amount of heroism among the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, and also displays the early war fever and the growing weariness with the war with accuracy. In fact, I would argue that Oh What a Lovely War is one of the best ways to introduce the topic to schoolchildren or anyone else and to get them interested in this bit of history.
The show is a presented as a review, a vaudeville, a musical hall production; it’s truly Brechtian; it’s Theatre of Alienation. Its techniques are eclectic and its impact is dazzling. It works on several levels at the same time; and this production is true to its original intention. (The film that was made of it is not bad, but it is, I feel, far more sentimentalized.) It’s also a tough and touching experience for the audience.
Full credit to the strong, ensemble cast and the way they work together. Everyone stands out at one moment or another, and then blends seamlessly back into the company, so it would be invidious to mention any one turn. Full marks also to Terry Johnson for his direction, Lez Brotherston for his design, Mike Dixon for his musical supervision; to all in the band, and yes, to every single actor. This is one of the most seriously exciting pieces of theatre on in London at the moment—just as sheer theatre—and it’s a real history lesson at the same time.
Michael Gove couldn’t be more wrong or misguided. Maybe he’s just misinformed by his friends? But now he has a chance to learn a thing or two; the show is right there for him to see. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it transfers to the West End (as it did in 1964)! Meantime, it’s playing at the TRSE—whose cozy Victorian intimacy is a perfect foil for the material—until 15 March. Don’t miss it!
Book tickets at: http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on
Yes, Yes to Iestyn, and a Cheer for Christopher!
After hearing about the success of Philipp Jaroussky’s recent Metropolitan Museum concert , instead of patting myself on the back and revelling in the joy of saying “I told you so,” I’d prefer to nobly suggest you watch out for an opportunity to hear another counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. Too many counter tenors? Never mind! It’s a golden age for them, so keep your ears open and note that name!
Last night I was able to get to the new production at the English National Opera in London of Handel’s Rodelinda, and though everyone in the cast was very fine —especially Rebecca Evans of the clean and golden vocal chords in the title role the standout of the evening was hearing live (for the first time) Iestyn Davies in the role of Bertarido, a deposed king trying to regain wife, life and crown. He’s attractive, he can act convincingly even in a preposterous baroque opera, he has a strong stage personality; and above all he’s able to make some of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard in the counter-tenor range. His soft singing was ravishing; the control over his dynamics and phrasing was sublime.
But there’s more! The other counter-tenor (new to me), South-African Christopher Ainslie, was just as captivating and convincing in the role of Unulfo, the ultimate loyal servant. Both men understood the arbitrary, cartoonish quality of the libretto and found a balance between real emotional display and tongues firmly in cheek. Both sang with ease of expression and modulation, with dramatic intensity and with strikingly lovely timbre, as well as total commitment to their roles and to Handel. I have some quibbles with the new production by Richard Jones, but the hell with that—it works, and it’s a musical treat for anyone with the slightest interest in Handel. Conductor Christian Cumyn is another talent to watch out for.
Christopher Ainslie has more work coming up at the English National Opera soon, and a Wigmore Hall Recital. Davis will be singing at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House this summer. He’s also the recipient of the 2013 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent (Singer).