Posts Tagged ‘new production’

Cooper’s London

October 22, 2014

Books, Music




Chanel: An Intimate Life 
(Lisa Chaney, Penguin paperback)

Chaney has written a strong and stylish book telling the life of Coco Chanel. The strength comes from its giving considerable attention to the background of her life, the era in which she lived, the stories of the various people who were her most important lovers and friends. It is incredibly informative. Lisa-ChaneyAnd the stylishness comes from the writing itself, which is meticulous and readable; and from the intellectual curiosity the book displays. It treats Chanel not just as the creator of ephemeral fashion but as a real artist who understands the uses of fashion and its relationship to its age. I have learned more about what makes the fashion world tick and what are some of the deeper issues that drive its greatest talents than I ever expectedor even knew existed.

coco_chanel 1This is a thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched work, and as gripping as a novel. You not only get a convincing and detailed portrait of the woman, Germaine Chanel, who became the iconic Coco; you also get to know pre-World War I France from its lower Zola-esque depths to its high societyplus the impact of World War I, the craziness of the twenties, and then the era of the Depression and Occupation. Was Coco a collaborator? Read and decide for yourself which side her moral predicaments set her down on. The book is as interesting and as exciting as her greatest fashion shows. Highly recommended.



The Dreyfus Affair
(Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury UK)

This book details, step by appalling step, the miscarriage of justice that was the Dreyfus Case. readCarefully researched and written, Piers Paul Read is interested in much more than the details of poor Dreyfus’ humiliation, incarceration and ultimate exoneration. He also portrays with vivid and intense frustration the attitudes that enabled people (who knew perfectly well that Dreyfus was innocent) to justify their involvement in keeping the truth from the public.

Dealing fully with every aspect of the case and every character who either colluded with the betrayal of dreyfusDreyfus or fought for his freedom once they became convinced of his innocence, the book directly involves you in the era. It also makes excellent background reading for everything from Proust and Anatole France to a study of the attitudes that led to the fall of France in World War II and the willing collaboration of so many with the German occupation.

The Dreyfus Affair consciously, I think, sets out to show you the attitudes at a certain level of French society that enabled people to consider themselves patriots ,when actually they were complicit in betraying the soul of their country. It’s a good companion piece to Lisa Chaney’s biography of Chanel, too.

Figaro: New and A-Maze-ing at the ENO

It took me a while to get comfortable with (or even figure out) the visual and metaphoric concept behind this ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro bullsbut by the middle of the second scene I think I figured it out and I began to like the idea.

The crazy day in the Almaviva household is well-represented by a set that keeps revolving; keeps shifting into a series of mazes; references the maze of the Minotaur myth (Figaro as Theseus doing the bull dance or Almaviva as the cruel king?). There is also a good reason for a story set in 18th century Spain to be full of the imagery of dead bulls, bull masks and the bullfight. I found the design by Peter McKintosh also evocative of the original era of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary, disturbing play. The comedy was paramount, just. But this was a darker and more considered production that you often get of Figaro. Like  the famous production a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, this castle abounds with life, with servants and supernumeraries bustling about the maze doing their duties.

fiona shawBut in the end, it is not the concept that drives this production. The evening works so well because the director, Fiona Shaw, knows how to get her singers to act their characters and to understand and convey the nuances and complications of the various relationships. This is a seriously intelligent Figaro and, by the end (though the music is telling you that forgiveness and reconciliation can be transcendent and are possible; though you are basking in the wonderful world of sound that is created by the score and the increasingly fine ENO orchestra), the thrust of the story and the way the actors have shown their reactions suggests strongly that the reconciliations will be short-lived and that the Count will betray his Countess again.

This is an interpretation informed by the third of the Figaro plays, The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable); and by the end of the first half you begin to suspect and foresee the affair that’s bound to happen sooner or later between the betrayed, disappointed Countess and the young Cherubino. You can also, of course, see the inspiration that this text gave to Hugo Von Hoffmansthal when he wrote Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss. This is a literate and strongly theatrical interpretation of the opera and of the play behind itprobably because it’s directed by a consummate actress who here shows herself to be a mistress of theatre as a director, as well.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that carries the emotions and provokes the intellectual interpretationand Shaw knows how to listen to the music and interpret it dramatically through the singers and their reactions to events.The constant movement of the revolving set and the actors moving through the mazes;

the choreography of all the movement (as well as of the actual dances); and the life going on in the corridors or behind the scenes that we observe and that gives the sense of the very public life of the Almaviva palace; all this enhances the sense of urgency and restlessness in the tale.

The ENO has a strong cast in this first revival of Shaw’s production, with everyone working together brilliantly as an ensemble but also shining in their solo moments. The climax of the evening, as it should be, is the third scene. Each of the events is telling, with the Countess’s solo aria bevan and brandonand her duet with Susanna outstanding both musically and dramatically (full praises with no quibbles to Sarah-Jane Brandon as the tortured and lovely Countess and to Mary Bevan, the Susanna who has been promoted from being Barbarina last time). The Count’s fury and psychopathy are brilliantly and frighteningly conveyed in his solo by Benedict Nelson in that scene; and the trio of David Stout’s Figaro, Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina and Jonathan Best’s crabby, tight-fisted Bartolo succeeds in provoking considerable laughter in the recognition scene, where it turns out that Figaro is the long-lost illegitimate offspring of the couple that are trying to cheat him (leading so preposterously, but delightfully, to happy marriages all round, to the great fury of the Count). One must also note the fine contribution of Samantha Price’s boyish, androgynous Cherubino throughout. As for the Barbarina of Ellie Laugherne, her voice is so lovely and her acting so natural that she is very likely to be Susanna next time round.

Musically, Jaime Martin keeps complete control of the score and offers some really illuminating musical moments. The music and drama develop just as they should, and the confused dénoument in the garden/maze works with a clarity and impact that are very satisfying. Susanna’s big, loving aria and Figaro’s jealousy in the final scene are also memorable highlights, both exquisitely controlled.

cast bowingThis is a fine evening of opera, with all the elements blending seamlessly. The night I attended, Mary Bevan was presented with well-deserved Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent during the applause, having just proved by her singing and acting that she is a very deserving winner.

Note: The revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is in repertoire of the English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014.

Cooper’s London

April 30, 2014





Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The production of A View from the Bridge view from the bridgerecently opened at the Young Vic is one of the strongest and most compelling you can see in London at the moment and shouldn’t be missed. Mark Strong gives a painful, powerful and totally gripping performance as the tragic Eddie Carbone that builds to a towering climax from its inception as an almost self-consciously ordinary, blinkered guy; by the finale he is a man of heroic, tragic stature. Strong’s is a brilliantly controlled performance. The niece, Catherine, for whom he has incestuous feelings, and his fox. strong, walker
wife, Beatrice, whose love for him and anger at his blindness to his tragic flaw are powerfully conveyed, by Phoebe Fox and Nicola Walker. They are as strong and importantly central to the story as Eddie himself; one leaves the theatre with memories of many gestures, many readings, that are superb.

The problem of Catherine’s own sexuality and unconscious flirtatiousness are clearly transmitted; and a suggestion of Eddie’s complex attractions not only to his niece but to Rodolfo, the man she comes to love, give more depth to the play. These are complex but inarticulate characters who develop in self-awareness and maturity as the play unfolds. Catherine and Beatrice in particular come across as people of inner strength, of real understanding and of deep emotion. Luke Norris is a suitably attractive and naïve Rodolfo when he arrives from Sicily, and he grows in understanding as the play develops without entirely losing his vulnerability. Emun Elliott is frighteningly obsessive and menacing as a figure of immoveable vengeance by the end.ivo van hovePraise must be given for all this to director Ivo van Hove who is clearly responsible for the overall concept of the way this production interprets Arthur Miller’s text. He creates with this production a strong appreciation of the miller2true stature of this play.

The performance takes place on a thrust stage and uses the Narrator—a kind of stand-in for the Greek Chorus—in multiple roles: to read his own lines and play out his scenes as the lawyer whom Eddie consults; to tell us the story after the event; and to read some of Miller’s stage directions. It’s an inspired concept that avoids pace-breaking scene changes and allows the story to unfold smoothly and almost cinematically with accelerating impact. Van Hove clearly has great empathy for the play and sympathy with all the characters, and doesn’t miss a beat or a nuance. Eddie becomes a figure of true tragic stature, and the staging of the ending itself is wrenching (and not to be revealed in advance). Let’s just say it not only works for this text but evokes the great Greek plays of bloody revenge. The versweyvelddesign by Jan Versweyveld and the use of sound effects almost as electronic music to create and increase a sense of tension and foreboding are additional reasons to admire this production.

Miller began writing about the world of the New York docks when he worked with Elia Kazan on a screenplay called The Hook, a project that went on to become On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg. This was after Kazan had named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee and, as Miller saw it, had sold out to McCarthy-ism, something Miller couldn’t forgive or forget; and which, it seems HUACto me, must have informed his concept of Eddie Carbone’s betrayal of family and community in A View from the Bridge. The story itself was apparently a true one that was told to Miller by a lawyer who worked with the longshoremen.

The play has, on the whole, played second fiddle to Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, over the years; especially after its initial failure as a verse play. But this production certainly proves that it stands with Arthur Miller’s best and that it is also one of the icons of the twentieth century.

A View from the Bridge is at the Young Vic,
Waterloo, London until 7 June 2014.
Monday – Saturday (except 21 Apr and 5 May): 7.30pm
Wednesday & Saturday matinees (except 5, 9, 12 Apr): 2.30pm
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes without an interval

Tickets: £10, £19.50, £25, £35

Cogito: John Branch

July 21, 2012


Vanya in Soho

In introducing his account of life at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” adding for good measure that “From the desperate city [they] go into the desperate country.” That’s pretty much what Chekhov dramatized in Uncle Vanya, the subtitle of which is Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts. The play’s main characters are caught up in a swirl of unfulfilled desires, carrying their unhappiness with them, wanting life to be somehow other than what it is.

Everyone’s routines are interrupted when the professor and his pretty young wife arrive from the city, intending to live on the estate run by Vanya and Sonya, and for weeks little gets done. They weren’t content before—too little money (for the professor and Yelena, his wife) or too much drudgery (for Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov, the country doctor)—but idleness doesn’t suit them either. The possibility of love appears, then vanishes like a bursting soap bubble. In the end, the professor and Yelena find country life unlivable, and the others return to the familiar, dulling grind of their work. If Thoreau’s image of quiet desperation differs from the conclusion of Chekhov’s text, it’s only that Chekhov weaves in a handful of sounds, and even those are muted in the production of the play running through August 26 at Soho Rep.

Much has been made of Annie Baker’s new adaptation, possibly a little too much. Unlike Paul Schmidt, who in the late 90s published a volume of 12 Chekhov plays in colloquial American-English translations, Baker’s not a Russian scholar herself, so—as playwrights often do—she based her work on a literal rendering, by Margarita Shalina. It’s easy to see from Baker’s other writing that she has an affinity for Chekhov, but her collaborator deserves credit too. It’s also easy to hear some flavorful word choices—the noun “creep,” for instance—that catch American usage better than Schmidt does. And there are almost no Bakerisms in this show, only a few signs of her fondness for silences (beyond Chekhov’s own) and a reminder of her use of songs (as in The Aliens). What she has done best, though, is conceal her work, make the language not noticeable (a condition in which no translation lives for long).

What’s really exciting at Soho Rep is the levity and the production design. Chekhov described three of his major plays as comedies and termed Three Sisters a drama; it was Stanislavsky who viewed all four as tragedies, and for some time his influence on American theater was sufficient to make that view widespread. I’m not sure it’s behind us yet, but Sam Gold’s staging for Soho Rep gives us ample laughs. Admittedly, there are some untidy moments. For instance, Vanya’s wild pistol-waving and shooting at the professor is hampered by a trapdoor entrance both actors must use (the pistol, by the way, looks oddly like a Colt .45 Peacemaker). And quick blackouts rather than slow fadeouts would’ve been neater—fades feel a little too heavy. But we get a good overall sense of what Paul Schmidt called the “heartbreaking ridiculousness” of the characters’ behavior.

The special appeal of this production depends as well on Andrew Lieberman’s setting: we’re inside a wooden A-frame, seated on all four sides of the main playing area, with some of the action an arm’s length away. It’s not a purely environmental set. The roofing is pierced by cutouts for lighting, and large illuminated block letters spelling out the play’s Russian title in Cyrillic hang on the wall at one end. While being invited to feel we’re sharing a country house with the characters, even cooped up in it with them, we’re also reminded that this is a theater and we’re watching a play. Similarly, the costumes (designed by the protean Annie Baker) and the furnishings have a rough-and-ready contemporary feel, but this time the songs are all in Russian, and the text retains Russian character and place names as well as a few other words. We could be somewhere upstate today, but we’re also in Chekhov’s time and place.

Chekhov’s characters number nine, though some have little to do—he cared less for casting costs than today’s American playwrights usually must—and Baker hasn’t cut a soul. Nor are there any star turns among the players. If you notice differences among them—more moment-to-moment details from Michael Shannon’s Astrov, say, or a special satiric edge from Peter Friedman’s professor—that’s only because actors are different, and in close quarters their styles and qualities become more tangible. The finely polished ensemble effect of this cast is lovely to see. It’s just another of the many beauties in Soho Rep’s Vanya. tickets

Follow John Branch:

On Facebook On Twitter

On Google+ On Goodreads

%d bloggers like this: