Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

August 7, 2017

Art/Film

Playing around with your influences…
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical
(Met Breuer til October 8, 2017)

A few years ago, while browsing the wares of a local street vendor of old books and, occasionally, old things, I discovered that that day’s thing was a battered plastic portable typewriter case. Inside it was a machine in surprisingly good conditionpale beige, sleek, a minimalist ode to form and function. It could be mine for $15. Took a chance, took it home, replaced the ribbon, discovered it worked and that the case would clean up nicely. Later discovered it had been designed by Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti.

That very model, and many other things are yours to enjoy at the Met Breuer this summer, affording an intimate glimpse of Sottsass’ process and works; the portfolio of an artist/designer with eyes wide open and a lifelong distaste for pigeonholes. Curator Christian Larsen has laid out this feast to include many original sources for Sottsass’ inspiration; they are legion! The man had curiosity and few restrictions on what sparked his enthusiasm for artistic potential in his designs. This is immediately apparent when the source materials (many dating to antiquity) are placed next to what Sottsass made of them.

Design Radical, with its angles, surprises, giddy balances and palette (Sottsass never met a color he didn’t love, nor was ever timid about combining them), is the perfect antidote to the current state of the world, and a joyful reminder of Memphis, that 1980s Milanese vortex of post-Modernism. You will marvel at how many corporations took advantage of his unruly talents, how he used them to define an era, and how well they hold up. Meantime, keep a sharp lookout for old typewriter cases, and be sure to open them before you move on without taking them with you. Mine remains at the ready on the floor under my desk, waiting for the power grid’s next outage. Safe to say it is sure to come.

P.S. The Met Breuer has, at last, a wonderful performance spacea little industrial, very modern, and full of promise for repurposing for every occasion. Currently, it’s been housing Theatre of the Resist (“…a snapshot and celebration of performances and films by artists in reaction toand sometimes in refutation ofthe current political climate”). The program I saw was The Lifers Group, founded at Rahway Prison decades ago to sing R & R and, later, rap. Improbably (but deservedly) they won a contract from Disney to record an album and opened a 501(c)3 with its profits to mentor young people at risk of incarceration. It was powerful stuff, real life in person, brilliantly moderated by Nicole Fleetwood. Only two programs remain;

Strong Island and DJ MOJO: Music is Life. Both are free with museum admission: http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/met-live-arts/theater-of-the-resist-15?eid=A001_%7b0716250D-27C0-484F-982F-AA3F97D397EF%7d_20170517122153. The series was generated by Met Live Arts; stay on top of their upcoming exhibitions and shows for some out-of-the-box experiences.

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Machines (Dir.: Rahul Jain) NYC: Film Forum

Anyone who has sought customer service at a very big bank comes away with an image of a generically named (Ashley, Kevin, Tiffany), relentlessly cheery Brit wearing office attire and a headset at a call center somewhere in India. You are assured that even if you can’t always get what you want, all is well with the world. But India is a very big country, whose population is approaching 1.5 billion souls; it will soon overtake China’s. And the world, for most of its workers, does not go well at all.

Rahul Jain’s first feature, shot almost entirely inside a textile plant that churns out ravishing printed fabrics for saris, shows us the images and sounds of the men and boys who make this beauty. There is no narration, and none is needed for total immersion in their life. It’s all flames, racket, speed, and back-breaking labor, almost entirely manual, dangerous and stupefying. There are 12-, 24- and 36-hour shifts for those who are able to work until their bodies give out.

Jain knows this world well: he’s a textile designer, art historian, and author of RaptureThe Art of Indian Textiles, skilled in drawing attention to the end products of hand-made traditions that made India famous for centuries. But he is honest enough to look behind their modern incarnations and bring them to us raw. The sequences are Dickensian, a 21st-century replica of 19th-century England’s industrial age, alive in the grim outskirts of Gujurat, far from the call centers. Jain is credited as director, and for editing and sound, allowing for the intimate access that makes Machines the achievement it is, and permitting us to draw our own conclusions from what we see and hear.  It’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% makes it likely we’ll get the message.   trailer

 

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Cooper’s London

July 27, 2017

Theater/Broadcast

A Tight Andronicus  

I cannot understand why Titus Andronicus has such a terrible reputation. Perhaps it’s because so far I have only seen good and interesting productions? Which suggests to me that there is something stageworthy about it even if it doesn’t read all that brilliantly on the page.

At one level, of course, it’s like watching those contemporary action thrillers or horror films with lots of blood and events. This new production at the RSC in Stratford, updated to a contemporary world on the edge of street riots, embraces (to a degree) that kind of Summer Blockbuster approach. It opens with a prologue of alarums and excursions by a contemporary mob and police, swiftly underscoring the theme that the violence and emotional savagery of humanity are still being played out in the contemporary worldEgypt or China or Venezuela or Syria, for instance?

Director Blanche McIntyre deploys a battery of shock effects and line readings that at times, and rightly, provoke uneasy, spontaneous laughter from the audience. Not that the Grand Guignol is played for laughs. The actors present characters that are believable, if grotesque or evil, and are all the more convincing because of the updating of the visuals to a contemporary world that resonates with echoes of everyone from Erdogan to Asad. Further, the play ties in neatly with the RSC’s “Roman Season “ in which they are doing productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well as Titus Andronicus to show how the plays work when given a thematic context.  The good news is that the four plays are being broadcast to cinemas all over the world; you’ll also be able to catch up with them on DVD in the near future and see what I’m talking about.t So you won’t have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or, later, to London’s Barbican Theatre, to see these shows and decide for yourself, because the RSC now brings its season to you, wherever you are. 

Of course it isn’t quite the same as being in the theatre. But these live broadcasts do capture the sense of occasion. While you are not in a fixed seat with a fixed viewpoint, the broadcast director and cameramen are choosing varied viewpoints for you, and they have become increasingly skilled at this. The compensations of being able to experience the actual new production in real time and see the actors in close-ups definitely balances the disadvantage of not actually being there. So let us hear three cheers for this new dispensation! The RSC Roman Season has already broadcast its exemplary Julius Caesar and extremely fine Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus is to be broadcast on 11 October 2017. And if you miss any of these plays, they will appear on DVD; you can catch up with them later. Another good thing about our era is simply that these productions are being preserved.

The RSC, with this kind of integrated approach to the four plays, and its commitment to widening its audience through new technological means, is enjoying a very good period at the moment under the directorship of Gregory Doran. When you see this season’s plays, each one stands on its own but there are echoes across them of a shared central vision, a core, that makes a point about our world today and what we are seeing on the the news. The news cameras are right there on stage for the big public moments of Titus Andronicus throughout. And the world of a mythical Ancient Rome is just as much a paradigm for our current displaced but suppressed violence, anger, and our populist denial of reason and compassion as are the clips we witness every day from, say, the Middle East.

I recommend this Titus Andronicus very highly (in whatever medium you can access), as you have probably guessed by now. For a start, it’s an extremely intelligent interpretation that’s very sensitive to subtext, and the text is presented with utmost clarity.There’s not a weak performance in the cast. David Troughton  (King Lear at Stratford not long ago) brings out a quality in Titus that is a kind of early, simpler draft of Lear. He begins with immense self-assurance and lack of pity for the plight of Tamora’s son, whom he puts to death. And there’s the rub! He’s tired, he’s old, he’s vengeful, he cannot see beyond the rituals of Rome and appeasement of his gods.  At the start, Andronicus only slenderly knows himself and doesn’t seem to see that his actions might have uncontrollable consequences. Nor will he allow himself to become Emperor, though the people want it. It’s his voice that tips the balance into rousing the crowd to appoint Saturninus as Emperor; it’s therefore his shirking of responsibility that causes so much chaos and damage to ensue. At the beginning, like Lear, he cannot see beyond his entitlements, his power and his beliefs. Does it make you think of anyone in the world of contemporary politics, by any chance? Clearly Shakespeare was already contemplating that the fault was not in our stars but in ourselves. McIntyre’s production suggests this strongly. 

Martin Hutson is a riveting, neurotic, lustful and dangerously self-inflated Saturninus, a modern-day City banker or trader, a Stalin whose fear of losing power makes him paranoid; Nia Gwynne is terrifyingly manipulative, fearsome and predatory as Tamora, as well as bruisingly moving and self-justifying in her anguish. There is a convincing, effective Aaron played by Stefan Adegbola, whose credo is that if he ever did a good deed he regrets it. And yet, when it comes to it, he loves the baby son that he fathers on Tamora and strives to save it. But is this unexpected paternal love or simply projection of his own ego onto the child? The strength of this reading is that we are left with several ambiguities. Aaron comes across as a very early draft of Iago, of course: unfathomable, seemingly motivated only by his own evil.

The production is as bloody as it needs to be (given the text), and visually impressive as it moves about the design outside a contemporary bank of glass and steel created by Robert Innes Hopkins. The set enables a fluid, direct staging, and Tim Sutton’s music is used to great effect;  I was frequently moved by Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and thought the pacing of the play was always superb. Will Bliss plays a clown who must have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest creations as a stark, gasp-making contrast to the unfolding tragedy and mayhem; and Patrick Drury was particularly fine as Marcus Andronicus. The younger generationespecially David Burnett as Quintus, Tom Lorcan as Martius, Dharmesh Oatel as Bassanius, Jon Tarcy as Alarbus, Sean Hart as Demetrius and Luke MacGregor as Chironwere all praiseworthy, as was Marcello Walton in more than one part. 

The great strength and pleasure of the RSC is its ensemble work, the rehearsing until everyone is completely part of a strong unit with one purpose, to find and communicate the soul of the play. In this case, the achievement is all the more impressive because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and he probably did not contribute more than a few speeches in the first act; yet one is suitably disturbed to see its portrayal of this dark and sometimes uncontrollably brutal side of the human psyche.

Titus Andronicus is playing in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 September and at the Barbican Theatre in London from 7 December 2017 until 19 January 2018. It will be broadcast live from the stage on 9 August 2017.

To experience a first-rate production of this early Shakespeare play and discover its often-disputed and underrated merits, check the web for the broadcast schedule: https://www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/in-cinemas

Apollo’s Girl

July 24, 2017

Theatre/Film

Measure for Measure
(Dir.: Simon Godwin)
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky
Shakespeare Center
Since TFANA’s move to Brooklyn to inaugurate its new theater with Julie Taymor’s magical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/apollos-girl-54/, it has been emphasizing the director’s art, seeking new takes on the classics for its new audiences. Simon Godwin’s recent view of Measure for Measure was no exception. Godwin arrived from London with a formidable portfolio of reviews and awards, keen to reveal his solutions to this “problem play” and how to update an Elizabethan plot and setting so its relevance was underscored, yet its original context respected. 
Solutions: keep the city (Vienna) and its period styles, but modernize the costumes of some of the characters; here, the less-humane wear post-WW II business attire to indicate their administrative functions. Also, think of the subtext (which would have been familiar to London audiences in 1604): the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England; it had driven Henry VIII to close the monasteries and convents, and fears of STDs and plague had also caused closings of the theaters and brothels as well, banishing them to the outskirts of town.

Vienna, a Catholic city, was known for its strict morality. Leave it to Shakespeare to marry the two geographies to make his points. And leave it to Shakespeare to focus on the elasticity of his characters’ interpretation and behavior as they confront that morality. They are marvelous at arguing their positions (you can always count on a good argument, and Measure for Measure doesn’t stint on chastity vs. promiscuity, or justice vs. corruption), and marvelously flexible at justifying their frequent changes of heart and mind. You will spot some thought-provoking parallels to 21st-century dilemmas. And of course there will be marriages in the end, following many reversals and equal measures of comedy and bloodshed. What would Shakespeare be without them?

A particularly confident and appealing cast included outstanding work from Jonathan Cake, Thomas Jay Ryan and the wondrous Cara Ricketts, who took no prisoners and gave the language and ideas their due in every scene. As a special treat, Godwin created a labyrinthine brothel to lead us into the theater; its dim lighting, erotic paraphernalia and actors energetically miming some of its featured activities were a way to get us in the mood for the play that followed. Expanding on that theme, Act Two opened in a nightclub run by Mariana (Merritt Janson) who sang a modern version of “Take, oh take, those lips away…” It was not altogether logical, but Ms. Janson was definitely one terrific singer!

Speaking of new audiences, one of TFANA’s recent coups was their double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, brilliantly directed by Arin Arbus and brilliantly double cast with Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, who played to the rapt and discerning crowds filling the house for the marathon. In general, TFANA’s audiences are enthusiastic, but this time there were a lot of New York actors who came to learn from the fun, and ticket-holders from London, Berlin and California who had flown in to experience a theatrical summit. http://www.tfana.org/about/production-history/dolls-house-father/overview#Media

The 2017-2018 season will bring new productions and outreach programs for those who truly relish theatre and are smart enough to plan in advance. Stay tuned for details and tickets: www.tfana.org.

The Fencer (Dir.: Klaus Häro. Writer: Anna Heinämaa)
NYC Angelika; Lincoln Plaza
National: http://www.cafilm.org/thefencer/

The reasons for The Fencer’s presence on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film will be immediately apparent from its cinematography (Tuomo Hutri); design (Jaagup Roomet) and flawless editing (Ueli Christen/Tambet Tasuji). Director Klaus Häro has made an excellently paced film that flows effortlessly; its cast (especially Märt Avandi in the title role), from supporting to bit players, is alive in every moment of the story. And if elements of the story seem familiar, the beauty of the production and the truth of its emotions and settings will keep you engaged.

What is not familiar to Americans is the reality of the complex politics that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century elsewhere, especially the impact of successive occupations by Nazis and Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (The Fencer is based on a true story that takes place in Estonia). It imposed an explosive climate that ruined many lives and twisted the natural civic order for decades, laying waste cultures and traditions that recovered only slowly after the double blows of World War II and the Cold War. Millions were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The Fencer makes this landscape clear in the swift progression of its tale, yet enriches every chapter and location with the tiny details that add a real sense of place and character and what it was like to be there; so you feel part of the story, rather than a bystander watching it unfold. The film’s perfect balance between issues and textures is extraordinary, like the positions, the moves and the concentration required to excel at the sport that gives the film its title. In the end, the sheer grace of the production and level of art and craft it exhibits make it a standout.

 

Kékszakállú (Dir.: Gastón Solnicki)
NYC Elinor Bunin Munro Center
Argentina seems to produce some of the most interesting (and puzzling) films around, and Kékszakállú is both. Gastón Solnicki claims it was inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; a haunting work whose origins lie in Perrault’s French fairytales, or earlier (in real life) in Brittany. In every version there is darkness and mystery. Yet Kékszakállú is more often full of light and always full of water.

The wealthy young women whose repose and aimlessness Solnicki captures are on the verge of adulthood. They find themselves on diving boards in public pools, paddling in hidden gardens, swimming in the ocean, and resting in front of pipes billowing steam in a sausage plant. There is little dialogue; from time to time, excerpts from Bartok accompany their action. It’s something of a social commentary (though an elliptical one), with the foreshadowing of socioeconomic difficulties to come. Yet Solnicki’s saturated images and the music create a sense of dread that gradually and subtly intensifies. The last frames reveal one of the women standing on a ferry with her suitcase, relocating, perhaps to a better life. But has she (or any of the other women) grown up? That’s for you to decide. If you like very elegantly filmed mysteries, this one’s for you to solve.

 

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There’s good news and bad news…

The good news: Damian Woetzel has been appointed the new President of Juilliard.

 

The bad news: our Commander-in-Chief is draining the swamp and creating a tar pit.

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

May 24, 2017

Film/Theatre

 

Dead or Alive:
Afterimage; Obit; A Doll’s House Part 2

Afterimage (Dir.: Andrej Wajda)
(Opens May 19 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
May 26 in LA at Laemmle Playhouse 7;
May 26 in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center)

The Polish film schools were always spoken of in hushed terms when I really began looking at foreign films. Their graduates seemed to have absorbed technical virtuosity in order to express a profound understanding of human nature; the films were as rich as they were beautiful, the scripts dimensional, the characters endlessly fascinating. And, no matter what kind of story they were telling, their was an element of realismus that made immersion a foregone conclusion. The very first Polish film I saw was Landscape After Battle, Andrej Wajda’s Palme d’Or Cannes nominee in 1970; I was permanently hooked.

No filmmaker’s art has imitated life as often as Wajda’s, but his 56 works reflect his long and complicated life rather than imitate it, and Afterimage (his final film) premiered at TIFF in 2016, a month before Wajda died at 90. It is one artist’s uncompromising look at another uncompromising artist, Władysław Strzemiński, Poland’s giant of the avant-garde, founder of the country’s museum of modern art, revered teacher and thinker, and author of Theory of Vision. But a listing of his achievements in no way represents the power of Wajda’s portrait, or of Boguslav Linda’s turn in the role. You can’t stop watching him, or listening to his ideas. The Communist officials detest him as much as his students love him, taking great risks in order to help him finish his book before the apparatchniks shut him down, one increasingly cruel step at a time. But the artist refuses to give way.

Wajda has created a fitting valedictory for his own life, and for Strzemińskis, the sadness of which is always outweighed by the power of the film and the magnitude of the portrayal. Don’t let this one get away!

Obit (Dir.: Vanessa Gould)
(In NYC at Cinema Village; Music Box Theatre, Chicago;
Laemmle Fine Arts, LA; wide release a/o 5/19/17)

No matter what you may think, Obit has nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. Spend some quality time with its quirky crew of New York Times obituary writers; share their MO and deepest thoughts on the mortality they confront every day and often (when there’s late-breaking news) far into the night. It’s spellbinding!

Once a Siberia for writers, the department has been revitalized by a deep sea change: some of the Times’ best and brightest are at the machines and in the morgue there (I still treasure my fading copies of William Grimes’ forever fabulous chicken pieces*), doing battle with deadlines, word counts, reluctant sources and perfectionism with every tribute. In this passing parade, everyone—everyone— plays their part, from Poppa Neutrino to the man who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; from Pete Seeger to JFK. And don’t forget the guy who dedicated his life to repairing manual typewriters, as Margalit Fox recalls their sound, “It’s this music that this man who knows the old songs was helping to keep alive.” Or Jon Pareles paying tribute to a jazz great: “It’s a definition of why art and artists make us remember…..the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move any more. They’re talking to us, changing the way we think. You don’t want to think of them as perishable.”

The sheer mass of the resources is clear in the morgue…..aisles, shelves, cabinets bursting with the print and image fallout of lives going back to the 19th century (“If,” as archivist Jeff Roth observes, “you can find them.”) Roth is the fierce keeper of these many flames, the sole survivor of a department that once had 30 colleagues. The keys to the kingdom are in Roth’s head; wish him a long and healthy life…

You will find rue and joy in Obit—a little sorrow and a lot of hilarity— among the scribes who have a way­ with words and the ever-growing horde of characters they immortalize (without ever being able to meet them) as they struggle to make each one unique. The quotes are seductive as they speed by. How many treasures had to be abandoned on the cutting room floor? One can only imagine the pain that director Vanessa Gould and editor Kristen Bye must have known as they had to compress and delete one essential after another.

Seeing Obit made me think of George Stevens’ Jr.’s biopic about his father. It ends with a shot of Brandon De Wilde calling out after Alan Ladd, “Shane, Shane–come back!” The subjects of Obit won’t come back but, as one biographer explains, “We try to weave a historical spell—to enchant the reader– to do justice to a life. It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” You will meet them in Obit, a dazzling bunch, and soar in their company. That’s the takeaway.

(Meantime, read these. You will thank me…)
*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/dining/it-came-it-clucked-it-conquered.html

*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/04/dining/lost-one-black-chicken-owners-bereft.html

A Doll’s House Part 2 (Dir.: Sam Gold; Author: Lucas Hnath)

If you’ve been lucky enough to follow Lucas Hnath’s work, you will know that he just can’t resist a good argument and that most of his plays are built around at least one. Hnath is also a prodigious learner. Having ingested competitive athletics for Red Speedo; physics for Isaac’s Eye; religion for The Christians, he has now turned his gaze on gender issues by arguing up a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—that original battle of the sexes discourse—that simply raises the ante. This time, Hnath talked to some leading feminists to get it right read it here and this time everybody wins, especially the audience, who can see a spectacular cast (Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell and Condola Rashad) acting up a storm.

Despite the play’s darker, still-unresolved issues Hnath is serious about, his sly humor erupts at intervals; you’ve got to watch him like a hawk because just as you become embroiled in the follies of each character, Hnath (and/or director Sam Gold) will snatch you up with a giggle or a belly laugh. It’s always intriguing, and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The bad news: it’s a limited run, set to close on July 23. You’ve got two months to do something about it.


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.

Apollo’s Girl

January 24, 2017

Theatre

apollo-and-lyre

 

Orange Julius (Basil Kreimendahl)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

orange-juliusFor Robert Redford, America’s definitive turn away from innocence and hope was marked by the TV quiz show scandals of 1950s, leading him to make a film (Quiz Show) based on Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. While Redford has made many admirable films, Quiz Show is surely his best. For me, America’s definitive turn came with the war in Vietnam, setting the country on a course still playing out as we face an unknowable and unprecedented post-election future. Of course with such an opinion, confirmation is always welcome, and the New York Times has come through with Karl Marlantes‘ essay the war that killed trust about his experiences as an officer in Vietnam. Its first paragraph contains a memorable quote: “But an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!”

Although Kreimendahl is too young to have lived through the war himself, he has clearly thought long and deeply about its lasting shadow. He’s crafted a play about how it affects a Vietnam vet whose deteriorating mind and body have been compromised by exposure to Agent Orange and how, in turn, his wife and daughters try to cope with its challenges. The ante is upped by the transgender identity of one of his children (Nut, the play’s narrator) who struggles with both a longing for closeness with his father and the impossibility of achieving it.

This is an ambitious production (directed by Dustin Wills), that cuts back and forth orange-julius_rattlestickfrom home to battlefield, from reality to fantasy, from anger to empathy, while reminding us that the subjects at hand can still draw blood and need to be remembered. The cast does wonders with the words and characters, drawing us in to each of them in turn, and not holding back when things turn physical during the fight scenes or emotional during the family confrontations. Applause for Jess Barbagallo as Nut, and to Stephen Payne as the ravaged vet, Ruy Iskandar as a fellow soldier, Mary Testa as wife and mother, and Irene Sofia Lucio as Nut’s sister.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

June 29, 2016

Music

apollo and lyre

 

 

When You’re Living on Mars
You Can Miss the Man in the Moon:

Benjamin Scheuer

One of the things about living on Mars is that you can keep the noise of civilization and its discontents at a distance. The down side of this luxury is that you can miss something unique and extraordinary―like Benjamin Scheuer, for instance.

Blissfully unaware that he had co-opted the public arena for quite a while, toured widely in a one-man show, released CDs, music videos, books and articles, appeared on Charlie Rose and been praised enthusiastically in all the right places (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/an-artist-takes-on-cancer/), I had never heard his name. Yet my good scheuer5instincts kicked in when his new album (Songs From THE LION) was described in a press release. Something about its unusual warmth (could the writer actually believe what (s)he was writing?) and unusual content (Scheuer has had what the Chinese call an” interesting life” marked by serious illness and loss) caught my attention. So I checked out a link within.
He had me at frame one, measure one, and wouldn’t let go:

More, the press material included a rave by Mary Chapin Carpenter, describing his appearance as part of her UK tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That, dear readers, is huge—really huge. How could a lone singer and his guitars connect with listeners in its 8,000 places? Because he’s a world-class connector who can turn that space into your living room. Because his fearlessness can stop you in your tracks. So how could I not race to hear him up close, alive and well, in the Rubin Museum’s intimate auditorium?

The house was full; the crowd handsome, hip and sleekly dressed, in the know and waiting—like the six acoustic guitars already onstage—for their hero. The unlikely troubadour entered to a roar in his working clothes: intensely colored suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief. And―surprise―knee-high Paul Bunyan boots made for striding.

One can analyze Scheuer’s music and lyrics; his harmonies are comforting,  but deftly laced with flashes of progressions that surprise (like his boots). Just when you think you know where things scheuer3are going they remind you that he’s the pilot. They twine around his lyrics, rhyme or free verse, complex ideas that pack a very direct emotional wallop. They sneak up on you; not so much flashes of surprise, but cannily structured bits of theatre that build stealthily to a climax, invade your heart. Don’t even try to distance yourself. Just give in to discovery.

What Scheuer has, in spades, is a low-key charm, a magnet that captures, and keeps, your attention. He is affable, chatting and singing, even when describing the darkest days of his life, and hilarious when recounting his meeting, and pursuing, Ms. Right. He has a lot of stories. What makes them go, whatever their content, is his generosity of spirit; he’s always in the moment, and you’re there with him. This is a man in the moon who enjoys performing and knows how to share his glow.

He’s an alumnus of the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project, a music theatre crucible where creatives are driven to the next level. Also an alumnus of Eton and Harvard. Yes, his background has given him access to the basics of being Out There. But it’s his enormous talent 

Benjamin Scheuer in the hip musical hit "The Lion." Caption: Karen D'Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy Courtesy of ACT

Benjamin Scheuer in the musical hit “The Lion.”
Caption: Karen D’Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Courtesy of ACT

and empathy that have moved him far beyond the benefits of favors to win the laurels he deserves. He’s his own man, and they are very, very real. He has also chosen collaborators, kindred spirits (like Peter Baynton,who directed his videos) who have found exactly the right key to make his songs resonate on stage and screen.

Now for the bottom line: those songs make you cry, except when they make you laugh. He has the gift of alchemy. His father’s death and his own illness have been transmuted into universal experiences that cut right through your defenses and any scar tissue you’ve accrued from living in the 21st century. The real miracle is how he’s made lemonade out of some really colossal lemons. He stands tall and radiates hope, and you catch it, like some redemptive antibiotic. Especially when he announces that he will celebrate his fifth anniversary of being cancer-free this July.

If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket, celebrate the occasion with him in person at Guild Hall in East Hampton on July 1st (https://www.guildhall.org/). You can watch his videos on YouTube (there are many) and relish the CD of Songs from THE LION (Paper Music/ADA). His Web site (http://benjaminscheuer.com/) will tell you 242BenjaminScheuerwhere to catch him live later on: this troubadour is taking his show on the road, big time! Shine on, Ben―shine on. It’s a lovely light.

Apollo’s Girl

March 19, 2016

Theatre, Film

apollo and lyre

 

 

TFANA: Pericles (through April 10)
VOD: Angel of Nanjing; Sunny in the Dark

Since moving to its new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, TFANA has continued to bond brilliantly with like-minded companies and strong directors; Julie Taymor, Peter Brook, Andre Gregory, Sarah Benson, Jessie Austrian/Ben Steinfeld, andright nowpericles 2that canny Brit, Trevor Nunn. As artistic director of the RSC and the National Theatre, he has turned his hand to art (who can forget Nicholas Nickleby?) and artful commerce (who can forget Cats or Les Mis?); TFANA has charged him with creating the best of both worlds for its new production of Pericles, and we are lucky to have him in the right place at the right timeto celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

pericles 3Pericles is a late play, and its attribution is as intricate as its plot. As Nunn states in his Director’s Note, “After…[Shakespeare’s] inspired completion of increasingly dark and pessimistic tragedies…Pericles appears to be heading in the same…direction. But then something else happens…redemption, rebirth, the relenting of the Gods…hope. The text repeatedly asks for music, dance…mime…and a strong indication that some passages should be sung. …we are no longer able to apply shakespeare2the categories of Comedy and Tragedy… instead…[it’s an] opportunity for what can only be described as ‘total theatre.’” How better to celebrate a birthday?

The production is a marvel of shipwrecks, gorgeous costumes (evocative, yet modern, by Constance Hoffman), protean sets and props (Robert Jones), and a lavish use of tropes that we enjoy and expect from Shakespeare: children and lovers lost and found; power stripped from the worthy by the ambitious; epic journeys from one part of the ancient world to another; and finally that happy ending that seems beyond reach until the dea gives us a machina of justice, reunions and marriages. The cast (some in multiple roles, many familiar from TFANA’s roster) is led by Christian Camargo as Pericles; Raphael Nash Thompson as Gower, the storyteller, pericles 5Philip Casnoff as Helicanus; Nina Hellman pericles4as both Cleon’s wife (one tough cookie!) and the goddess Diana; and Lilly Englert as Pericles’ daughter, Marina. The recognition scene at the end of Pericles’ odyssey is heartbreaking, until (thanks to the author’s skill), it isn’t. The storyteller has the last word: “So, on your patience evermore attending, New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending.”pericles

Shakespeare’s anniversary year, however, is definitely not ending. And TFANA has some aces up its sleeve to keep the party going: a series of readings, exhibitions, and discussions at its home base in Brooklyn, and at the CUNY Graduate Center and the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. It’s truly a movable feast to be consumed with pleasure: www.tfana.org/shakespeare400, and most events are free!

VOD: Angel of Nanjing (Frank Ferendo, Jordan Horovitz)
As it opens,
Angel of Nanjing seems to nanjingbe about the ordinary life of Chen Si, a Chinese Everyman; getting dressed while his wife cooks breakfast, then leaving for work at a logistics company on his moped. But as he pulls away, we see that instead of a number, the back of his jacket has a maxim: “Cherish Life Every Day.” It’s our first hint that Chen Si is most extraordinaryno Everyman, but a Chinese Catcher in the Rye, who has saved the lives of over 300 would-be suicides about to jump off the Yangtze Bridge; since his daily route takes him to the bridge to see if anyone is about to leap, he seldom goes directly to the office.

Part of the fascination of Angel is encountering some of the many grateful survivors who literally owe Chen everything, but much of it is in the revelation of the hero’s character and the incredible ingenuity with which he plies the hobby that has taken over his life. Despite the grim statistics he quotes, “…290,000 commit suicide annually in China; one-third of the world’s total,” he adds “…60% of people who jump off this bridge are from outside the city; so am I. I understand them.” The real kicker in this film is realizing how skillful Chen—a cheerful guy with a happy marriage and a pretty wife, but no formal training in psychology or medicine—has become at his avocation. It has made him famous angel(“All eighth-grade social books in the entire country have my name and phone number!”), driven him to build a “soul center” for recovering depressives, and attracted several student interns to help manage the chaos. They are all invited to his annual Christmas party.

In this country,” he muses, “there are few people who will listen to you.” His secret weapons are being able to talk, and listen to, everyone, and being able to spot a potential jumper from sixty meters away. He copes with drink, billiards and karaoke, and is philosophical about his life: “My wife predicted I would do this only for a short time,” he smiles. And when his wife breaks her leg playing badminton and is told she will wear a cast for two months, he simply picks her up and carries her (and her cast) home on his back. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Angel is an original look at a serious and universal problem, solved by an unlikely hero who simply refuses to give up; a welcome antidote to the headlines that assault us every day. He and the film’s revelation of an unpublicized aspect of China have won the filmmakers Best Documentary awards at eight festivals to date, with more on the way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s53FfWlv6tM

Sunny in the Dark (Director: Courtney Ware; Script: Mike Maden)
sunny
This is one intriguing movie, combining elements of psychological thriller, romance, a dash of the supernatural, sunny1and urban living. It’s Ware’s first, based on an earlier short film, and has a story that plays well in the hands of the remarkably talented Hannah Ward, a waif who can make the most of a character desperately seeking love and companionship without being able to speak to the object of her affections 
(Jay Huguley). He’s a therapist recovering from divorce who withdraws from the world (when he isn’t practicing his chosen profession) by finding a quiet sanctuary in which to listen to music and paint action figures in a tiny Mediaeval scene. Ward (unbeknownst to hannah wardhim) has been living in the crawl space above his apartment, spying on him through a crack in the ceiling. She falls hard, and begins using his rooms during the day to eat, bathe, explore his photo albums and play with his figurines, rushing back upstairs when he comes home. She fantasizes a relationship with him, and gradually escalates her presence, tip-toeing around the apartment while he’s sleeping, hiding when he wakes. It’s a nifty, creative story with several surprises; hinting at any more of them here would turn them into spoilers, so see it yourself to learn how it turns out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SIqlbDJUao

 

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.

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…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.


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