Archive for the ‘Cooper's London’ Category

January 30, 2017

Film

Apollos’ Girl

apollo-and-lyreNeighboring Scenes: New Latin-American Cinema
(Film Society of Lincoln Center)

For this year’s lineup see http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/neighboring-scenes/#films and get there as fast as you can; there’s lots to see, and closing night is January 31, with A Decent Woman. This is director Lukas Rimmer’s sophomore feature, following his earlier Parabellum. (NDNF, 2015; https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/tag/dystopian-futures/) Rinner is Austrian (and likely familiar with Michael Haneke’s work), but went to film school in Argentina and stayed on.

decentwoman_06Having admired Parabellum, I have been looking forward to his next steps. A Decent Woman is in color and its cast and budget are larger, though its intricate plot and thematic underpinnings are also on the dark side (with some wonderfully bawdy laughs for seasoning throughout). Rinner is definitely someone to watch, with casting, camera and story skills, and a unique Austro-Hungarian/Latin-American view of the world.

Coming soon: Dance on Camera (February 3 – 7). Stay tuned!

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Theatre: Discovery!

Mel snapshot 19Cooper’s London

An Algo-rhythmic Beating Heart…

Sometimes you go to the theatre and are astonished at finding your faith restored in the efficacy, value and excitement of live performance, right? You come out thinking that a play can illuminate, entertain and get all your juices flowing.

This just happened close to home―in Oxford―at the Burton-Taylor Theatre, for which superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton generously gave the funds to create an experimental space for the burton-taylor-theatreUniversity’s theatre. The occasion that gave me such pleasure that I have to share it with you was a one-woman show written and performed by an astonishingly talented young woman named Jenny Lee. I write about it here because I hope that someone in New York or Chicago or LA or Toronto will bring her performance to BAM or to a suitable off-Broadway venue or an intimate theatre space in the USA or Canada. With the new US President threatening to gut the Endowment for the Arts, this is probably just the kind of theatre that will be hit the hardest. If would be a dreadful thing; it’s a small, intimate and powerful work that feeds and sets goals for more commercial venues. So if someone does fund a transfer of Heartbeats and Algorithms, as the show it called, and if you should have any chance to see its creator and star, I recommend that you drop everything and go.

heartbeats-leaderHeartbeats and Algorithms got its start and won much praise at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2015 and recently has been successfully playing around the UK, including at the small and increasingly appreciated Camden Theatre in London. I saw it there and liked it a lot about a year ago but a second viewing has deepened and improved it. It compels both as a highly theatrical piece of thought-provoking writing even as it focuses on modern-day marketing, mind manipulation and the uses and abuses of contemporary technology through the character that Jenny Lee has created. The i-Phone is its icon. The text is clever and intricate and Lee gives a memorable performance.

The narrator, who engages with her audience and even makes some of us become part of her on-line network, never step out of character. In fact, she inhabits the soul of this contemporary woman—a woman who has invented an algorithm that can predict one’s actions with amazing accuracy. Having made herself the subject of her own algorithm to test out its percentage of correct predictions, the character (known as Banks to her on-line friends and ultimately to us by her actual name, Lucy) is trapped in the dilemma of knowing that the artificial algoryhthmic Big Brother she has created is watching everything about her. Its predictions are alarmingly correct even when she is doing totally uncharacteristic things to try to fool it. Part of the tension of the piece comes from her trying to outwit her creation and cheat on its predictions about her, and trying to win back her freedom and independence of mind and action. But the algorithm always gets there first. Mary Shelley’s theme about the arrogance of scientists and the unpredictable damage they can unleash is certainly echoed strongly in this play. The algorithm is the Frankenstein Monster that Banks/Lucy has ceated and unleashed.

The writing of Banks’s monologue is extremely assured and builds impressively to its tense climax over about 75 non-stop minutes. It is also surprisingly dramatic. Some people have disliked the denouement, but I personally found it both apt and hopeful (who doesn’t need hope these days?) and not entirely predictable. Indeed, the actual ending came as a relief compared to some that I had imagined as the play progressed. Which is also to say that the play builds a very strong sense of suspense for the audience.

While portraying modern technology as the instigator of a potentially heartbeats-2Orwellian world if we are not careful, the play also embeds a get-out clause that should have you debating about it for days after you’ve seen it. I appeal to some adventurous producer in New York to bring this one-woman show over. It will be cheap. But I would import the entire team, with director, lighting, sound and set designers as well. They are a collaborative unit, with all making important contributions to the overall effect.

Lee’s acting is riveting from start to finish, beautifully judged and completely controlled. She has an almost Chaplin-esque command of her gestures and body language, and she can do as much with the raising of her right eyebrow as Charlie Chaplin did with his cane and his jaunty walk away from the camera. Credit for this evening must be shared with director Velantina Ceschi, sound designer Iain Armstrong and lighting designer Alex Fernandes. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that this is very much Lee’s concept and her show. She is a very attractive woman, an excellent actress, a superb mime, and creates and portrays a very troubled but ultimately appealing and memorable character.

Lee also engages the audience to participate in her world not just mentally but, at times, with spontaneous contributions to the action as well. The intensity of her acting and the variety of the moods that she evokes in about 75 minutes made me wish I could see her as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or Ibsen’s heroine in Hedda Gabler or some other classic role. She certainly has the presence of a strong, intelligent classic actress. Someone should audition her for Shakespeare in the Park or Stratford, Ontario?

I am happy to report that the theatre was totally sold out, and that the audience was completely hooked from line one to the last drop of text. And, of course, Lee got the ovation she so richly deserved.

Cooper’s London

July 4, 2016

Politics/Theatre

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Shakespeare Lives!
The Brexit/Regrexit Plays

Forget the West End and regional theatre; forget the RSC and National. The UK at the moment is broadcasting the Greatest Show on Earth 18 hours a day, unspooling with real style, gusto and endless twists of plot. It’s called the Brexit Play. It features major and minor politicians (some of whom are becoming stars, and others who were stars ) who look as if they are about to burn out. Some Farron-591646people, like Tim Farron (who runs the Liberal Democrats—all eight of them that made it into Parliament in the last election) is trying to start a contemporary play to compete, which I call: Regrexit. If he succeeds, we will also see the annoyed 48% of the country’s voters (Remain!) trying to reverse the decision of the 52% (Leave!) the EU.

I could write an essay on just how bad it is for the arts, and for entertainment, too, but you can probably figure it out for yourself; the whole issue has itself become the world’s arts and entertainment this summer.

michael and sarah. gove
Recently, TV pundits were comparing
Michael Gove (Conservative MP) to Macbeth, Mrs. Gove to Lady Macbeth (without the laughs), and Boris Johnson (twice Mayor of London) to Duncan. Julius Caesar seems to be playing itself out on TV screens as well, with some people appealing to the mobs to crown their Caesar, and others crying to the Brexit voters: “You blocks, you stones, you worse-than-senseless things. Knew you not Pompey?”

Mind you, we are not entirely certain who’s acting Pompey right now. It sure ain’t Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party opposition leader), with his lean shanks corbynand slippered pantaloons, still at this writing refusing to leave the stage though “Exit pursued by bear” has been in his script for days. He is also being likened to King John, who provoked his nobles and eventually signed Magna Carta against his will (are you listening, Jeremy?). Frankly, it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare is still living at this hour and somehow foresaw it all.

POLITICS Heseltine/BackbenchWe had John of Gaunt of Richard II on TV today in theperson of Baron Heseltine (the Conservative who unseated Margaret Thatcher), pleading for “this England, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-Paradise, this fortress built by Nature for her self”, and for its prime and moral position in Europe.

Daily, as if creating scripts for new History Plays, or merely echoing them, we have betrayals, and we have evidence of
theresa mayloyalties; we have great shifts of support
for one would-be political monarch after another, from one moment to the next. And we may just have another female Prime Minister soon, the redoubtable Theresa May (for now, the Conservative Home Secretary), playing, according to her supporters, our very own sane and stable Paulina of The Winter’s Tale.

Of course, the most memorable and powerful speech on behalf of remaining in the EU was made at the 11th hour (and wonderfully!) by the actress Sheila Hancock. I do hope it surfaces on the Internet.

Mingy and stingy old ITV has been blocking her speech for copyright reasons. Now if only she had said her piece on the BBC! (Which, of course, is under threat from the Conservatives, but that is another story from another place.)

Right now the beleagured UK is living through what the Chinese call “interesting times”. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s a political thriller; it’s a political farce; it’s also a soap opera and high drama, all at once. Europe is seriously pissed off with the UK, cameron-hands-2and especially with our PM, David Cameron, who swore over and over that he could win this. “If you are not 100% certain you can risk it, David, do not do it,” they advised. Years ago, thatcher1Margaret Thatcher was pressured into holding a referendum by her Euroskeptics but never would; David Cameron believed he knew better. He was told not to have a Referendum; he went ahead, leading the Remain! Campaign, and he did not win. And so his little Conservative Party squabble cost him his job and his legacy— and is costing the whole of Europe dearly. We may end up not only with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but also the withdrawal of Scotland and Ireland from the UK. (Shakespeare was no stranger to bad decisions: Brutus thought Cassius knew how to preserve the Roman republic. Chaos ensued.)

These are similarly parlous and chaotic times, and this is (do not think I am exaggerating) the worst Constitutional Crisis in what feels like forever—some say since our Civil War and Cromwell. demonstrationsThere is also the fear that David Cameron’s ill-considered attempt to bring the UK equivalent of Tea Party Republicans to heel has unleashed xenophobia of a very high order, and the racism that escalates daily as well. Has he put our toes on the first step of the ladder of Fascism? It sounds exaggerated; but people old enough to remember the 1930s are telling me that this is exactly what it felt like when it all began, and that Hitler sounded as plausible and not-so-very-racist as, let us say, Nigel Farage (England’s new Oswald Moseley?), leader of the UK Independence Party.

Farage, who has been working tirelessly for 17 years to bring the UK out of the EU, abruptly resigned from the party on July 4th, ten days after his triumph. Perhaps he is Richard II to someone’s Bolingbroke. Perhaps he and his henchmen are not Hitlersjust little Fascists much diluted. (Mind you, Hitler had plans for genocide and territorial expansion.) I suspect that the problem with Farage and his fellow bigoted Brexiters all along has been that they have no plans at all! farageThey just don’t like immigrants or the EU any more than Henry V liked the French, or the Yorkists liked the Lancastrians with whom they fought the Wars of the Roses. Never mind that this is no reason to leave it, but a reason to reform it; never mind that you are encouraging a country to betray all its friends and neighbours, remove its influence at a crucial time, and diminish its moral standing in the world.

Don’t believe the propaganda. The EU is democratic; the only laws we are living under promulgated by the EU were first debated and voted for in their Parliament (where we have MEPs), then agreed to and adopted by our Parliament. The EU asks only for a fair share of “fees” to belong to their club; the reason the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world (well, until last week) was precisely because of the growth and development achieved during the past 43 years as the EU’s partner. Basically, as in Julius Caesar, Brexit’s rationale was all a lot of demagoguery and downright lies used to provoke the crowd: “Friends, Romans, countrymen: we come to bury the EU, not to praise it!”eu

There is a mythical £350 million we send to the EU every week that is actually more like £128 million when you consider rebates and so forth. This is the UK’s fee for belonging to the EU club; this is our tax. People who complain about those who will not pay their fair share of taxes in the UK also complain about Britain’s paying its fair share of tax to the EU; they choose to ignore not only the quantifiable benefits but the unquantifiable ones. One example: the UK has a huge lead in and great respect for its scientific research. For every £4 we put into the EU budget, we actually get back £6.5 for projects that also link us to, and are done in co-operation with, other EU countries. And, for the arts, include experimental theatre groups subsidized by the EU; exchanges of artists to work and exhibit their work within EU countries; cross-cultural musical festivals and shows. All that and much, much more is about to go, too.


donald trumpBut why should I bore you with our little troubles when you have an even greater clown to entertain you for months to come in the Presidential race? Perhaps sadly, we have just had our own boris johnsonblonde clown with a comb-over (Boris Johnson) withdraw from the race for Prime Minister. But never fear! He is very ambitious and a talented entertainer. He loves a crowd. You can’t keep such people down. He will probably pop up again in some other role very soon.

lear's foolUnlike like the Fool in King Lear, who ends up dying for telling the truth, and who disappears halfway through the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 1, 2016

TV/Music/Opera

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Fearless Prediction:
The Night Manager

 

 

This TV series based on the John Le Carre novel hasnight manager been a huge success in the UK and is something not to be missed now that it’s hit small screens in the US. Apart from the contemporary resonances given to the story by an update to the original novel, this is simply one of the best-photographed, best-acted and most stunningly engaging series to come out of the BBC, ever. It is bound to be as legendary as the old Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series with Alec Guiness. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie give immensely nuanced performances in their roles as a double agent and illegal arms dealer; night manager 2Olivia Colman is superb as the heavily pregnant, obsessively moral spy mistress after the Hugh Laurie character and running Tom Hiddleston; Tom Hollander is suitably camp and sinister as Corcoran; and Elizabeth Debicki is in the same class as Tilda Swinton playing the romantic, troubled Jed. The writing by John le Carre and David Farr is classy, witty and dark.ster. The directing by Susanne Bier deserves unstinting praise. Shot as if it were a high-quality film, The Night Manager doesn’t dawdle; and all of its six hours are needed to work out the complex and exciting tale. At no point does the tension disperse; at no point is any aspect of the writing, direction, acting or photography anything but superbly realized. Quite simply, it grabs you from the opening moments of the first episode and speeds forward, always provocative, worrying, and morally challenging. I dare you not to be completely engrossed. I certainly advise you not to miss it. This is one class act!

Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall
Erato 0825646 107896

Verdi, Aida, Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tezier, Erwin Schrott/ Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano Warners 3 CDs 0825646 106639

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wigmore hallAntonio Pappano
has recently conducted two recordings that are highly recommended additions to any library. 
The concert he did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2014 with Joyce di Donato has actually won a Grammy award, and take my word for it, it’s deserved! The program consists of mezzo material from Haydn and Rossini that di Donato has made her own over the years; she sings the first half of the concert with impeccable taste and understanding.

Though I have indelible memories of Janet Baker’s performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos that even Joyce di Donato cannot drive into second place, I would put assumption of this cantata up there with Baker’s. And I certainly was just as won over by her Rossini songs. She’s a dazzling interpreter of this kind of material with her richly lyrical, controlled and warm voice, as well as a real relationship to the words she’s singing. Listen to her performance of “La Danza” by Rossini. It won’t replace the interpretation by Mario Lanza; but it’s certainly good enough to be mentioned in the same breath and returned to regularly.

joyce and tonyPappano is an impeccable partner for di Donato throughout this live recital. In the second half of the concert, they reflect their American backgrounds with some wonderful material from what is now called The American Songbook. Some people have claimed that di Donato sounds too fruity in this repertoire, but I find her approach utterly pleasing. Hearing this music sung in her unique way—especially the songs by Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen– is definitive as far as I’m concerned. Thank goodness this recital was recorded so we can hear and enjoy it forever and remember what all the fuss was about.

Another Pappano recording that caught my attention even more forcefully is the new and much-anticipated Aida. Right from the start you know this is going to be a major collectable: first, from the way Pappano conducts the contemplative, sad, soft overture, and then from the way he supports the declamation of the High Priest; and finally from Jonas Kaufmann’s inward, intense singing of “Celeste, Aida”. Under Pappano’s direction the orchestra and the soloists consistnetly follow all the dynamics in the score; Kaufmann actually takes the final note of his first aria piano with a lovely diminuendo as suggested by Verdi.

This recording puts you in the presence of artists who take their commitment to the work very seriously. Several critics have claimed that this interpretation does not quite match the great recordings made by Solti and Karajan in the early stereo era, or supercede the famous Toscanini broadcast of the opera. How silly! This recording is its own thing.

I found it consistently considered, spacious, and remarkably true to Verdi’s intentions musically; it’s also always convincingly sung and acted. The comparisons seem to me beside the point. You can hear them all and make up your own mind; they’re not mutually exclusive, but each illuminates aspects of the score in different ways. You need them all!Aida-Rome

Also there’s something compelling about being able to hear the best contemporary artists and their interpretations of this work. Listen to the classic assumptions by all means; but don’t dismiss the performance that is brought before you now.

Anna Harteros has the right kind of dramatic heft in her voice for the role of Aida. Her singing of “Ritorna, Vincitor”, for example, has a clean vocal approach that I found captivating. She’s sublime in “O patria mia”. Jonas Kaufman sounds both heroic and sensitive as Radames; and Ekaterina Semchuk steals every scene she’s in as Amneris; while the superb French baritone Ludovic Tézier as aida2Amonosro is wonderful not only in his singing but also in characterizing a cold, tyrannical father–a sort of Stalin of ancient Ethiopia. Bonus: Semchuck is particularly fine at the shadings of her role, but knows just when to chew the scenery. When she curses the priests for condemning Radames, you know they will remain cursed for a good long time. Erwin Schrott is luxury casting for the smallish role of Ramfis.

For me, after listening to it repeatedly, the recording pretty much lives up to the hype that preceded it and is certainly one of the best all-round performances of this opera in years. But I do have one quibble with this set that may just be personal; I found that the recording’s dynamic range is so wide that at times the quiet passages nearly disappeared and the big moments were liable to make me jump in my seat. But you can hang onto your volume controls, and maybe it’s just a matter of my now somewhat ageing stereo equipment not being up to contemporary sound engineering.

The presentation and booklet for this set are top-class. This is an essential performance where Pappano and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome have brought out so many nuances, so much refreshing and well-considered detail, that it reminds one why Aida was, once upon a time, one of the most beloved and performed operas in the repertoire, always placed somewhere in the top five.aida3

Aida has slipped from grace rather in the past couple of decades, possibly because that much spectacle is very expensive to mount these days of Draconian budget cuts; but this recording seems to me to go a good deal of the way towards restoring it to a peak position on the Best Operas list. It’s a great drama about the conflict between private desire and public duty; a nearly perfect score; and a performance entirely worthy of such a masterpiece, for its casting, and particularly for its conductor Antonio Pappano, whose baton controls the soloists, chorus and orchestra with a mastery of Verdian style. And perhaps because it is so good, it also provokes a strong desire to go back and listen, once again, to Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi in their legendary performances as Aida; to Jussi Björling as Radames; sophia lorenor even to see once again the old 1950s Italian movie where the angelic voice of Renata Tebaldi emerges from the mouth of a very young and sumptuously gorgeous Sophia Loren.

So if you have no Aida at all, this is as good a place to start as any; it is a fine reading of the work, and if it stimulates you to listen to Karajan with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, or Solti with the astonishingly perfect Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, that would be a good thing too. But pappanoremember that Pappano can absolutely hold his own, and don’t dismiss this version just because a few old fogeys are nostalgic for some of the great performances of the past. Be grateful, rather, that they’re all available for our delight and that these contemporary performers have created another very fine interpretation of the work to add to the list of un-missable Aida recordings.

Cooper’s London

March 24, 2016

Books

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Not Entirely Frank
Sinatra: Behind the Legend
(J. Randy Taraborelli)

sinatra behind the legendThough it often feels as if he’s still with us, Frank Sinatra will be 100 on December 16. To celebrate, J. Randy Taraborelli has revised and updated his original biography of the 1990s with considerable skill. Old Blue Eyes was still alive when taraborelliit was first written and, with age, was getting ever more cantankerous and litigious. Since then, of course, archives have been opened; more people have come forth to be interviewed, and so, even if you have the original book, this is a worthwhile replacement.

Still, I approached Sinatra with the ghost of kitty kelleyKitty Kelley’s effort still hovering in my consciousness, and I want to say up front that in most ways Taraborelli’s is preferableincluding the fact that it moves more swiftly through the material. All the shocking revelations that Kelley presented in a totally negative way appear in this book, too: for example, the abortions performed by Dolly Sinatra; the philandering, gambling, and drinking; the psychological abuse of his wives; and the way Sinatra found the Mob and Las Vegas to be the ultimate in glamour.

But instead of being a hatchet job, this biography tries to understand where Sinatra came from, to be sympathetic or to some degree understanding about the weaknesses and foibles of the man, sinatra familyhis mother, his friends. Taraborrelli tries to interpret them from the Sinatra point of view over and over again, and his analyses of how Frank or Dolly would have seen them are convincing. His view is more balanced in its assessments and conclusions; this makes for a far more interesting read. Neither an unthinking fan nor a declared hater of Frank Sinatra; he simply chronicles the life in a straightforward fashion, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. I wavered for a while, but in the end chose not to befriend Sinatra, nor risk his befriending me. (I would not wish to have dinner with him at the Brown Derby.) But how I wish I’d attended some of the concerts over the years…

Taraborrelli is also very good at referencing the entire Sinatra discography (from way back with Harry James and the Dorseys right up to the last concept albums) and in explaining how his work evolved over time. We learn about his interpretations of specific songs and the way he put his stamp on them; his interest in and contributions to the orchestrations; and also the input of gardner sinatramusicians with whom he liked working. The author deals sympathetically with the dip in Sinatra’s career from 1949 to 1953 and with his unquenchable passion for Ava Gardner and how she helped him get back on track. Sinatra also reveals his inability to control the mood swings and paranoia that made him quick to ditch people if he felt they had betrayed him in any way; and made him perpetually deaf to the other side of the tale.

Taraborelli shows us a talented, iconic and hugely successful entertainer who was also a very flawed, egocentric human being, most likely bipolar. But he also happened to possess two enormous talents; or maybe one should say he was possessed by singing and acting abilities at the highest level.

from here to eternityHis role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity helped consolidate his return to the top in the 1950s after a few years in the wilderness as a singer as well; the Capitol and Reprise years are documented in fascinating detail; so are turns in Suddenly; The Man with the Golden Arm; Some Came Running; and The Manchurian Candidate, or even lighter fare: High Society; The Tender Trap; or Ocean’s 11. Sinatra was quite impressive as a producer (but drew mixed reviews when he directed Only the Brave).

The man was a superb, professional and committed show business performer, whatever he chose to turn his hand or his vocal chords to; and that he was very proud of being known as a totally honest singer. Despite his philandering and gambling and psychologically abusive behaviour, he was honest about his personal life, too, and always very open about his thoughts and beliefs; he always seemed to say what he was thinking, even when it was unfair or hurtful. But somehow, when he sang or acted, recordinghe managed to suspend his raging ego so that primarily, as a performer, he always served his art.

The weakness of this book, for me, is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mind-set, thinking, or approach of Sinatra the artist. We don’t always get a sense of how he prepared his songs or his roles, or what went into his creativity. There are some hints here and there, but essentially we see his daily life; his love life; his links to the Mob; and his complex personality. One does get a sense of how important Nancy Sinatra Sr and Jr, Tina Sinatra, Frank Junior, all four wives and several of the girlfriends were to him, as well as his closest and longest-serving friends, his lawyers and his agents.

The book is well-written in an easy, journalistic style. marilyn-monroeSome of the detailslike a brief plan to marry Marilyn Monroe and save her from herselfwere a surprise. But there are no compelling new insights into what made Sinatra so attractive to his women and his friends; what made him such fun to be with; what his charm was. We are told it existed and we get a lot of tales about its impact. But how this man turned himself into one of the great interpreters of American song of the 20th century as well as, at times, a top- class actor giving Oscar-worthy performances, remains a mystery. And I would also love to have learned what, after a certain point in his life, made him shy away from the kind of intense and harrowing roles he had undertaken in the 1950s. For a while he was clearly striving to challenge himself and stretch his talents; and then His Way turned into the easy way. What was it in his personality rather than just in his fame and talent that attracted the long-term loyalties of such a disparate group of people? That’s a mystery, too, and an impossible question to answer because Frank Sinatra was complicated, but not much given to introspection; neither is Taraborelli.

Still, this is definitely one of the best and most informative Sinatra biographies you can get, and certainly a whole lot less nasty than some of the others. To tell you the truth, and more to the point, it sinatra5made me want to listen to his recordings again and run the DVDs of several of his films, including those old MGM musicalseven The Kissing Bandit(!). I’m convinced about the talent. I want to experience it anew, and Sinatra will get me going.

Cooper’s London

March 13, 2016

Theatre/Opera

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Coming Up:
New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
in London

Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.

Hoff0611Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.

On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with dangerous liaisonsgood reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.

An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)

Another classic revival in the West End is a new fiennesadaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.

Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting andhorrocks unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.

At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s ma raineyrunning in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-threepennyBarker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.

Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!

Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…

Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.

A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. Nell_Gwynne_and_King_CharlesYou may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.

This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).

Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The painkillerPainkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

…and some notes on notes…

The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma

As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from sunset blvdearly April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a guys and dollsproduction of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!

Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.

Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, lady daydirector Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.

Cooper’s London

March 1, 2016

Theatre/Music

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

Coming Up, In and Out of London…

For imminent highlights, don quixotemy instincts tell me that first and foremost I must get tickets to see the new adaptation of Don Quixote appearing soon at the RSC. It plays 25 February until 21 May in The Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon and has definitely raised my hopes. The novel’s adaptation will be by James Fenton, whose The Orphan of Zhao in 2012 is still one of the best and most memorable shows that the RSC has commissioned. The director is Angus Jackson, whose imaginative staging of Oppenheimer I saw in 2015 was one of the most original, intelligent and dazzling realizations of a script imaginable. Its sheer theatricality is still with me; as are several of the spot-on performances that Jackson got from his actors. Actor david threlfallDavid Threlfall is playing the mad, appealing Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the original quixotic hero. Have you seen him on TV in the UK version of Shameless? He’s a reliable and dedicated character actor whose popularity goes back to playing Smyke in the eight-hour-long RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby in the early 1980s—a performance that is still available on DVD. Add to that the fact that the novel of Don Quixote is a wonderful but ridiculously long and varied text; it will be fascinating to see which bits Fenton chooses to include. Not long ago the RSC did a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s lost play based on Don Quixote, Cardenio. I am very excited about this project, which is in rehearsal already.

Looking further ahead, I am particularly keen on two of the many major opera and music festivals that arrive every summer. Gaining repute as the new Glyndebourne, this year’s just-released programme at the Longborough Festival in rural Gloucestershire is its most ambitious yet. Several audience favorites are returning among four operas: Handel’s baroque opera Alcina will be jeremy silverconducted by the adept and youthful Jeremy Silver who is working for the third consecutive year with the same production team and with young professionals early in their careers to give them a springboard. They have already shown that they can be both cheeky and moving in this repertory; and there will even be a performance at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge on 4 August.

https://lfo.org.uk/young-people/young-artist-programme

As with Glyndebourne, you want to get to the original venue if you can to experience the full pleasure of the place; they provide a show that includes time to wander around lovely grounds and have a long interval for dinner after an early start.

https://lfo.org.uk/

longboroughTannhauser should be powerful in such an intimate venue. John Treleavan and Neal Cooper are sharing the title role; the rest of the cast looks interesting, and the music director of the festival, Anthony Negus, is conducting. He has already been highly praised by the press and audiences for his previous Wagner performances at Longborough and has a solid reputation. Conductor Robert Houssard leads another established production team for a Marriage of Figaro that will star baritone Benjamin Bevan as the Count and the Australian baritone Grant Doyle (formerly a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) in his role debut as the impertinent valet. The wonderful Norwegian soprano Beate Mordall and England’s Lucy Hall are sharing the role of Susanna. Finally, lee bissettLee Bissett, who is a huge favourite with the audiences at Longborough after taking on Isolde last year, will return to sing Janacek’s Jenufa.

The Glyndebourne Festival, that mother of all summer al fresco festivals in the UK, runs this year from 21 May to 28 August and needs very little introduction from me. Whatever you find still availableeven if you think you do not like that opera—just buy the damned tickets and go for the experience. Established in his stately home by glyndebourneJohn Christie in the 1930s to do Mozart in its original scale (in every sense of the word), many of its productions have been mythical from the very start; much of its work has been broadly influential, and many young artists have gone on from there to important international careers: Janet Baker, who started in the chorus and ended up as Orfeo in Gluck’s opera, among them. (According to legend, they nearly fired Montserrat Caballe, and Roberto Alagna scored an early success as Rodolfo.) Today’s casts are just as riveting and, in a purpose-built theatre, the productions are almost invariably innovative and thought-provoking, while maintaining the highest musical and production standards. Probably all this is due to several factors, two of which must be the long rehearsal periods and being able to work in a rural setting away from the ususal stresses of major opera houses.

For me a highlight of this summer will be more Wagner in a more intimate venue: the revival of the famous David McVicar Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Gerald Finlay as a youthful, sonorous and exceptionally moving Hans Sachs and Michael Schade as Walter. The new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville draws me like a magnet to see danielle de nieseDaniele de Niese undertake the role of Rosina with the veteran Alessandro Corbelli as her venal guardian, Dr Bartolo. In the past, Glyndebourne has had Victoria de los Angeles and Maria Ewing as memorable Rosinas and I am confident that de Niese will be added to that list. And among the other treats I am particularly delighted to see there is to be a revival of
midsummer night's dreamPeter Hall’s magical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare set to music by Benjamin Britten) from the 1981 festival.

There will, of course, also be the Proms in London throughout July and August and early September; and there are the interesting productions coming up at Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park, as well as opera in Holland Park. More of all that anon. But meantime, a reminder to start booking if you fancy a trip around the countryside with a little bit of culture as well. The Brits really do this kind of thing brilliantly.

Cooper’s London

February 28, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

The Reader’s Reader

Latest Readings (Clive James),
Yale University Press

Years ago, Clive James was a very entertaining journalist and TV personality in the UK. I’m not sure how far his writings or TV shows penetrated the USA, but in on this side of the pond he was a major, much-loved star. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Despite the shock, he decided to fill his time with reading and re-reading. Still entertaining, and in a series of cogent, brief essays, James reports back to us from these experiences and shares his insights with inimitable charm. As ever, he is decidedly witty, at times hilariously funny, and always clear in his understanding and recommendations. His Latest Readings is also a great place to pick up tips for your own reading, reactions and interpretations.

clive james1Along the way, James also takes you with him on the journey of his illness so far. For example:

Among the disadvantages of COPD, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent ten days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. … But meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. … I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation. On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but as a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers – well, Polish writers resident in England – who, dealing with eastern Europe, analyzed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what it exemplifies.”

Okay, analyse that! Note: the humour; the wry tone; the bits of autobiography; the luring you into thinking seriously about Conrad; the implication of the fun to be had; the irony; the lack of self pity; the straight stating of the facts; the conversational authorial tone. The whole book is at this level; and the whole book is a total delight made poignant by knowing the Clive James has a terminal illness and that he’s sharing some of his intellectual interests with you. His taste is eclectic; his choices of book sometimes surprising (Sir David Fraser’s biography of Alanbrooke? David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be? his taste for reading about American politics?) but he covers a considerable number of classic authors as well.

Like his old TV criticism, the essays feel personal, somewhat demotic, and very direct. The cumulative effect of this book is to make you want to follow Clive James’s reading list and to admire and share his joy of living. His intellect and insights are remarkably appealing.

The book is simply excellent; there isn’t a dud essay in it, not an essay that doesn’t make you want to read the volume he’s talking about for yourself;clive james 2not an essay that isn’t informative as well as enthusiastic. Recently, James commented that he almost had to apologize to his readers for continuing to survive beyond the original expiration date. Well, I can only hope that he survives a lot longer for all the right reasons and also so that he can produce at least ten more sequels! You could do a lot worse than forming a book club to read all the books that he covers in this charming tome.

Cooper’s London

February 17, 2016

Books/Dance/Film

Mel snapshot 19

 

On Her Toes…


Taking Flight
:
From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Ember (Paperback)

deprince4Before she was five Michaela DePrince had survived a civil war in Sierra Leone that led to the deaths of her biological parents (her father was murdered by rebel soldiers, her mother starved to death soon after); life as a refugee; life in a dysfunctional orphanage; being a witness to the brutal butchery by rebel troops of the pregnant teacher who had awakened her intellectual curiosity; and a flight from marauding armies. She was then adopted by extraordinary, loving and understanding Americans (Elaine and Charles DePrince) who took her and her best friend, Mia, to New Jersey together and changed their lives. Michaela DePrince (who has just turned 21) was only 19 when she wrote this memoir with the help of her mother. She wondered if it was premature to undertake the task, but the story she has to tell is of wide interest. The book is now being released in paperback; it’s worth serious attention and I hope it will find, in this new format, the very large audience it deserves.

Michaela describes how she had to adjust to a whole new world and was brought up in some affluence and comfort when she arrived in the USA. But also, as she grew older, was a target of the bigotry that can exist not only in white American society but also in the world of dance to which she aspired. She writes so simply and directly that the impact of her experiences is all the stronger.

michaela060509_400x300There’s much that one can say about this touching book, particularly that it seems easy to read, and persistently awakens and addresses very difficult questions about the state of the world in which we all live. Michaela’s reflections on Sierra Leone, America and beyond are haunting for many reasonsnot least the almost magical yet real aspect of her wishing to become a ballerina as a very young child. This obsession or dream developed from the time the wind blew an old ballet magazine to her during a storm in Sierra Leone when she was about four; she became entranced by the image of the ballerina en pointe on the cover. Fate? Serendipity?

Her memoir raises the question of inborn talent and capacity versus opportunity and the nurturing of talent. This little girl has now achieved the hard-earned recognition that promises entry to a fine career, but has also benefited from the sheer luck of the draw. First she had to survive; and then she had to be found by caring, concerned people who could take her to a place where her talent could be understood, appreciated and encouraged. How much talent of all sorts is being wasted all over the world today by war, desolation and famine and the absence of cultural opportunities?deprince1

Michaela, was born Mabinty Bangura, but as Michaela DePrince became one of the subjects of the excellent documentary about the training of young children in dance, First Position (http://www.balletdocumentary.com/official-trailer/) . She has gone on to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is, at this time, with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Refused a child’s part in The Nutcracker when she was eight years old because (in the opinion of a casting director), America was not ready for a black girl ballerina yet, and also one suffering from the vitiligo that disfigured her skin for years. Michaela’s is an inspirational story in print and on film. It also gives us some unusual and important insights into the world of pain, discipline and devotion behind those dream performances of ballet. 

Finally, because of its straightforward approach and clear prose style, this book is an ideal gift for young people and, like the Diary of Anne Frank, a moving and emblematic tale. In America the book is called Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina. In the UK, it’s Hope in a Ballet Shoe. With either title, its author has done us all a service by sharing her story.

Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.

Coopers London

January 13, 2016

Theatre

Mel snapshot 19

 

Queen and Country;
Sisterhood and Betrayal

I was out of the country when Helen Edmunson’s new play Queen Anne, commissioned and produced by the
queen anne 2Royal Shakespeare Company
opened and so I finally caught up with it only at the very end of December. It has had much praise by critics and audiences and, for me, this praise is largely deserved. Edmdunson’s scriptlike last year’s Oppenheimer, also a commission of the RSCis an historic recreation. In this case, I felt it came across less as a piece of innovative theatre like Oppenheimer and more like a strong BBC costume drama. But it is none the worse for that!

The play is not simply workmanlike, though it’s certainly that too. It tells with both feeling and understanding the personally interesting and historically important story of the friendship between the initially shy and insecure Princess Anne Stuart and the ambitious, glamorous Sarah Churchill. It also covers the complicated, sometimes vicious, politics of the period in ways that make this era come alive. The historic characters (including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift) are convincingly drawn, and the moments of send-up that reflect the growth of the satiric pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons of the period add welcome wit and theatricality. There are moments of satiric musical interludes as well that are worthy of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and very much in that vein.queen anne 3The design by Hannah Clark enhances the play’s context. Natalie Abrahami deserves praise for her directing of the ensemble. She keeps the action moving; her pacing of the quieter scenes and of the development of the breach between Anne and Sarah strikes all the right emotional notes, indicating the feelings and motivations of both women. Above all, there is not a dud performance anywhere in the evening. jonathan broadbentJonathan Broadbent’s Robert Harley and Beth Park in the role of the favourite who replaces Sarah, the beth parkredoubtable Mrs. Masham, are memorable and the characterizations have a vividness that both explains the background history and also creates a thirst for that fine book about this reign, Queen Anne, by Anne Somerset.

Above all, both Emma Cunniffe as the perpetually sickly, gout-ridden Anne (who experienced 17 pregnancies but left no heir) and Natascha McElhone as the beautiful, supremely confident, ambitious and ultimately thwarted (and increasingly self-destructive) Sarah Churchill, embody their characters and make one feel yes, this is what they must have been like, this is how it must have developed between them. queen anne 4The play does not shy away from the erotic possibilities between the women but, like the film Carol, their implied lesbianism is not really the point. At its heart, the play is about the clash between the expediencies of politics or public responsibilites and personal desires; the fine line between healthy ambition and self-serving corrupt determination; and also about friendship and betrayal.

One of the finest aspects of the play is the way the women and their relationship grow, develop and shift until Anne becomes not only her own woman but a real, intelligent and morally centred Queen, while Sarah is engulfed by her own ego, her venal goals and her self-aggrandizing view of her role and her powers.

john and sarahThere was certainly a power-couple relationship between Sarah and John Churchill (well-played by Robert Cavanah), the first Duke of Marlborough who was a military genius in British history as important as the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, advancement in the early days depended on patronage. How Sarah’s relationship with Anne helped John in the early days of his career is beautifully played, and the role that eroticism plays for that couple is mirrored strongly by Anne’s quasi-erotic fascination with Sarah, something the knowing and sometimes smug Duchess uses with real guile to manipulate her friend.

The play makes one reconsider the reign of the last of the Stuarts who presided over a difficult period when the throne was often unstable, the wars were costly but seen as necessary, the Parliament was consolidating its constitutional rights and the succession was very much in question. The story pretty clearly delineates the struggle between the Whigs and the Tories
and their machinations to win Anne’s support. If you become interested in the actual history behind this play, you could start background reading not only with Anne Somerset’s book but also by reading William Makepeace thackerayThackeray’s neglected but masterful and totally fascinating novel, The History of Henry Esmond. It is a brilliant book unfairly overshadowed these days by another of his great novels, Vanity Fair.

As entertaining and informative in its own more circumscribed way as the Thackeray novel (a three-hour play cannot quite do the work of a novel of several hundred pages but it still sketches out a great deal of the background material), Queen Anne is a good start for contemplating not only the politics and difficulties of this era in English history but also the complex friendship of two women that began as mutually beneficial and supportive but ended as bitter and destructive because of the way the two developed and played off one another.

Above all, it is captivating theatre. Watching the growth of Anne’s character as she responds to the necessities of being Queen and observing the over-reaching of Sarah as she becomes too self-confident and too convinced that she is the real power in the land remains fulfilling drama. I hope a proposed transfer to the West End in London comes off. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the superb performances of Cunniffe, McElhone, and Park as the three central figures in the triangle Queen_Anneof female relationships. It’s also worth noting that Anne’s great ambitions as Queen were to end the wars with France and to have Scotland join the United Kingdom; both hopes were achieved before her death. She also wanted a Protestant succession and, with her death, the throne passed to the Hanovers. I think that the RSC-commissioned plays promise to become a welcome tradition, both theatrically and educationally.

Queen Anne will run in repertoire until 23 January 2016 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and probably transfer to the West End in London after that.


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