Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Cooper’s London

March 24, 2010




Ruthie Henshall: Chicago Express 
West End to Broadway in 48 Hours!

 I’ve always been a fan, ever since her dazzling turns in Crazy for You and She Loves Me! In fact, she’s been a non-stop pleasure in everything she’s done—even the flops! So I had a wonderful time interviewing Ruthie Henshall (called by Encore Magazine, UK, ”probably the greatest musical performer in Britain”) backstage at the West End’s decade-long revival of Kander and Ebb’s eternal hit. She’s done it all*, brilliantly (even playing both Velma and Roxie in New York), and is taking Roxie trans-Atlantic again in record time. Her last night on stage in London is April 24; she’ll open in New York on April 26. (I hope she’s on a flight where you can rent a bed.) Our YouTube conversation:

*To learn more about Ruthie:
FROM OUT OF THE PAST:  Flirting With Disaster

If you’re in London for some memorable theatre and you can’t get tickets for Jerusalem, then my advice is: go for seats for Schnitzler’s Sweet Nothings at the Young Vic.

Just as Jerusalem is one of the best contemporary plays of the moment, with a totally spot-on production and superb acting, Sweet Nothings, originally Liebelei (1895), by Arthur Schnitzler, is a wonderfully gripping rendering (in a very accessible new version by David Harrower) of one of the landmarks of fin-de-siècle Viennese theatre as it embraced the modernity of playwrights like Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Schnitzler himself. Liebelei has a quality that also reminds me of early Eugene O’Neill.

Though Liebelei takes you back to the world of stifling conventions and duels of honour in the final decadence of the Hapsburg Empire, Schnitzler’s questioning of and avant-garde reactions to his world are very clear in the drama; the struggles of the characters, their sexual and moral confusions, are brilliantly realized by a group of fine actors. It’s consistently captivating, at times hilarious, and also a troubling play that satisfies on many levels.

For lovers of television’s The Tudors, Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) shines as the overtly good-time Mitzi; Kate Burdette is simply superb as Christine, making the most of her remarkable final scene; and newcomer Tom Hughes claims the stage as Fritz. Watch the characters shape-shift, growing and changing before your eyes. They display strengths of resolve and emotion, or weaknesses of moral understanding, that you never expected; you go out into the night thinking about them.

The ensemble work of the whole, smallish cast is impeccable. The play is performed in a simple, revolving set by Karl-Ernst Herrmann that hints at both Art Deco and the gemütlichkeit of the era; as do the evocative costumes by Moidele Bickel. But the form and approach of the play are completely modern.

Luc Bondy’s production does what a good evening in the theatre should do: I was always in the moment, and got real pleasure out of the stagecraft and acting. but I’m still pondering the characters, their reactions, how it could have been different—and the meaning of living in Vienna 1900. Having just read Stefan Zweig’s moving and thought-provoking novel, Beware of Pity, I was also struck by the cross-echoes between the two works. I recommend this novel as an appendix to the play, and vice-versa.

Sweet Nothings plays at the Young Vic until 10 April. Make time and space for it!

Down in the Depths

From 26 March until 17 April you can also catch the revival of a fascinating promenade play, Kursk, at the Young Vic, created by the Sound and Fury company . You’ll find yourself doing exercises with the crew, spying on the Russian fleet. When the Kursk is trapped beneath the sea and your ship is the nearest one in a position to rescue the sailors, fellow-human beings doing the same job as you, you want to help (instead of worrying about the “enemy” political system under which they live). But if you go to their rescue, you will reveal you have been in the area spying. A dilemma! It’s a taut, compelling evening.




A Small Warning

The 1970 play Serenading Louie by Lanford Wilson is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 March. It is best avoided unless you have a very curious turn of mind or are desperate to see Jason O’Mara (of the US version of Life on Mars) live on stage. The good news is that, because it’s the Donmar, you probably can’t get tickets anyway.

I know they loved it in New York. Maybe they could do the style then; maybe it seemed innovative at the time. I bet the accents didn’t slip into British occasionally, either. Serenading Louie was one of the first of what were called the Big Chill dramas, and it left me and everyone I know very cold indeed as a play. You are better off spending your time reading John Updike’s Rabbit, Run or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral if you want to know more about disappointed jocks discovering that the American dream has disintegrated in their grasp.

That said, the performances redeem what I think is a truly dreary and mundane play, especially Jason O’Mara’s, though he does not quite plumb the depths of the character’s fury at his frustrations with the world. I didn’t much like the faux melodramatic ending either, but admired his performance of it.




Change of Heart + Mind: Romeo + Juliet + Rupert Goold

 I sat through Rupert Goold’s production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford last week. I know I’m still a minority voice, but once again I was disappointed; his approach is glitzy, theatrical and superficial. Like a Chinese meal, you will be hungry again for more an hour later. At times, line readings and interpretation were beside the point.

 The play certainly looks good and the audience seemed to find it fascinating; and it ‘s a much better script for Goold to work with than Enron. At least it has believable characters, real motivation, brilliant structure , and a future!

I’m not sorry I saw it, but it has left very little behind. I felt very little for Romeo or Juliet as they died in their tomb, though the balcony scene was rather good. I also could not figure out why everyone was dressed in period costume, while Romeo and Juliet were dressed in contemporary hoodies, but I am sure there is some deep philosophical reason for this; and for suggesting it is set in gloomy Inquisition-ridden Spain instead of sunny Italy. Nevertheless, if you insist on revisiting the tomb, Romeo and Juliet is in repertory at Stratford throughout this summer.

I saw the Prokofiev ballet at the Royal Opera House recently and felt it did better service to Shakespeare than this production of the actual play. If you want to attend the RSC this season, I suspect that David Farr’s King Lear starring Greg Hicks (returning this coming May), and Antony and Cleopatra ,with the consistently wonderful and amazing Kathryn Hunter as Cleopatra, will be far better bets. And Gregory Doran, who can do no wrong, is devising a Morte d’Arthur, June 11 – August 28; all in rep ( for schedule).


The Phantom Returns: Pulp Fiction at the Opera

I’ve always liked the idea of Eternal Love. But – despite ten million pounds in advance ticket sales–Love Never Dies, the show (by Andrew Lloyd-Webber) is a bit of a vampire sucking the blood of its previous successes: It is Undead! (And am I wrong, or does its Big Hit Tune echo “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind ?)

 I wouldn’t want to go too deeply into the convoluted plot that makes the Phantom himself head entrepreneur of Coney Island in 1867 (Barnum and Ziegfeld, eat your hearts out!); brings to Coney Island a troubled Christine and Raoul ten years later than the Phantom story; or posits some sexual stuff that never could have happened in the first story (but without which there is no plot for the sequel you might want to call Death Wish 2). After all, it’s only a musical.

So I moved on, deciding to forget the anachronisms as well, like the Art Deco-style sets (a good half-a-century too early), because maybe that just showed how cutting-edge the Phantom was as a producer. And I did like the quasi-Betty Grable “by the sea” number in Act Two (20th Century Fox all the way), for the delightful and very talented Summer Stralen. If she can get through this mashup so brilliantly, imagine what she will do with a really good part!

But I was irritated by the forced New-Singing-in-the-Musical style designed to pump up the emotions, the ersatz plot—all fake seriousness and drab posturing—a totally inane story (wannabe melodramawhere are you David Belasco, when we need your dramatic sincerity and wit?), and most of the forgettable music.

The score was simply recycled from the previous shows (or Max Steiner) and clearly designed, like the singing, to get that obligatory standing ovation at the end. Truthfully, Love Never Dies felt like a show put together by solely by the numbers, right down to the Act One surprise twist and the Act Two jaunty opening.

Yet it wasn’t entirely despicable: the cast gets high marks for working with true commitment, no matter what. The Phantom (Ramin Karimloo, who would have an intresting voice if he didn’t have to push it all the time), and Raoul (Joseph Millson, whose recent comic turn in The Priory was very appealing and more interestingbut then, he had an intelligent script and an appealing and consistent character to work with) are rather good; Liz Roberson, as Madame Giry does a fine imitation of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (only she wants to push Christine off the pier instead of out a window); but Sierra Boggess’ Christine seriously made me miss Kathryn Grayson. There was a time…

I can’t see why, if he was so interested in the period, Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t do something with Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book about the 19th-century, say.

With Love Never Dies, we have a new genre: Pulp Musicalcreated with the same cynical approach but far less authentic lowbrow energyto milk the audience. This show puts the Con back into Coney Island. And it did get its standing ovation at the end, so clearly the scam works. But, alas, not for me.

Update: Love Never Dies was scheduled to be resuscitated in New York this November; it’s just been postponed til next year…..

Cooper’s London

July 23, 2009

Thanks for the Memories, Papa

By Mel Cooper

I used to maintain that, if you wanted to get to know Haydn String Quartets (a form he virtually invented and certainly developed brilliantly), you need not bother with anything before Opus 20.

Now, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, there is a wealth of newly-recorded CDs, re-releases, and compilations of music by this most sane and balanced of composers, and I am compelled to report shamefacedly that I was wrong, wrong, wrong!Haydn_cda67611

Humble pie must be eaten, because the London Haydn Quartet have taken it upon themselves to perform two of his early sets of quartets. Their recordings of the Opus 9 and Opus 17 cycles of six quartets each have made me think again. Not only are these superbly articulated and joyful performances, but they reveal exactly the qualities that Mozart became so eager to develop in his own string quartets.

In gratitude for what he had learned, he even dedicated a set to Haydn, and Papa himself joined Mozart in the premieres of all those quartets dedicated to him, making the dedication even more apt. By the way, if you want to exercise your Inner Meanie, and confuse CD shop assistants who are never sure what you mean when you ask for the Haydn Quartetsthose by Haydn himself? Or the ones Mozart wrote and dedicated to him?pose the question!

I am sincerely hoping that the London Haydn Quartet will now go on to record the rest of the quartets written by Haydn, since they are playing all of them live this year in repertory. They are now touring the world, performing all of Haydn’s Quartets, in cycles of 20 concerts (see if some of them are coming to your neighborhood). They are even playing them in Esterházy, where Haydn lived and worked for over 30 years, and whose 18th-century Count was Haydn’s long-time patron. The London Haydn Quartet was founded originally because of its love for this music; they play it on gut strings with classical bows. Maybe that’s what makes all the difference?

From the same British CD label—Hyperion—that overturned my Haydn Quartet prejudices, we also get the first two volumes of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas, performed with great thoughtfulness, grace, and precision (though not on period instruments)by Marc-André Hamelin.               

Hamelin_Apr09Though Hamelin is a technically brilliant pianist, he never displays his virtuosity for its own sake, subsuming it instead to the sometimes apparently simple, yet always sublime, writing of Haydn and to his own thoughtfulness. Try the jaunty Piano Sonata in C major, or the one in E minor, or the Fantasia in C major, all on the first disc of Volume 2; you will hear how fresh and apt the interpretations are! There is something truly compelling about Haydn’s piano sonata- writing, and Hamelin totally “gets” it. This is high quality playing that is extremely sensitive to the musical idiom. Hear it for yourself:

More Haydn will doubtlessly appear before the end of 2009, but these are my top picks so far. I am also looking forward to the next volume of the Florestan Trio’s complete set of Haydn’s Piano Trios (the first of which appeared a few months ago). To my ears, this is a group that can do no wrong. You should check out their Beethoven and Schubert, too. Florestan rules!Haydn_trios_cda67719 Meantime, Hyperion is already doing Haydn particularly proud, and I am going back to gorge on another sample.

Haydn, String Quartets, Op 9, London Haydn Quartet CDA 67611;
Haydn, String Quartets, Op 17, London Haydn Quartet CDA 6772;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 1, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67554;
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol 2, Marc-André Hamelin, piano CDA 67710;
Haydn, Piano Trios Vol 1, The Florestan Trio CDA 67719



July 23, 2009

Arrows of Desire in Jerusalem

by Mel Cooper

A young fairy named Phaedra comes out on stage before the curtain and sings the iconic hymn Jerusalem (words by William Blake), about England’s “green and pleasant land,” where great and even mystical things happened in ancient timesGD*7816333 (including Shakespearean magic, which is much referred-to) but where, in Jez Butterworth’s new play, things are more questionable, confusing, and difficult
in the here and now.

The story takes place on St. George’s Day; the action plays out in a woodland clearing (a fantastical and beautiful set by Ulz). We are near a new estate, outside the caravan where Johnny Byron, a gypsy, lives (so you are alerted—by the reference to England’s earlier Bad Boy of the same name—to Butterworth’s referential style throughout the play). The council is about to evict Johnny Byron and bulldoze his home. He was once a motorcycle daredevil who could leap a dozen buses at a time, but after a serious accident is now a Pied Piper to the younger kids of the neighbourhood. Half the town at least is ready to attack him for selling their children drugs and booze, and providing a place to escape into anarchy. He is brutal, foul-mouthed, and hilariously funny when we meet him.Jerusalem323_1444309c

In a work that provokes laughter first, then complex thought, then sadness and even horror, constructed to evoke a deepening sense of tragedy, this eclectic story is totally mesmerizing—and over three hours long. The cast is brilliant as an ensemble group, but one has to single out Mark Rylance’s tour de force turn as Johnny Byron. His delivery, his physicality, his accent, and his body language superlatively and totally convey his character and backstory. Mackenzie Crook is also noteworthy as Ginger. But it is Ian Rickson’s brilliant direction that shapes every detail of the entire production.

At Jerusalem‘s conclusion, everything you’ve seen feels inevitable, including the extended ovations. This production achieves what the English Stage Company set out to do in the first place—to make contemporary plays with all the power of classics, that become gripping theatrical events. The run has already been extended due to the response of critics and audiences, and I suspect that a West End transfer will follow.

The Royal Court Theatre, London, presents…
Written by Jez Butterworth
10 Jul – 22 Aug

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