Thursday, 29 May 2014

McDermott's Cosi Fan Tutte at the ENO - A spectacle of candyfloss ****

Phelim McDermott’s production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ at the English National Opera (ENO) is an outstanding display of eclectic and vibrantly coloured set designs. Tom Pye’s scenery evokes a 1950’s fun fair similar to Coney Island which include all the circus trimmings from a neon ferris wheel, cotton candy, tea cup rides and strange circus folk named the ‘skills-ensemble’ of contortionists, fire eaters, dwarfs and, even, a quiet giant. This glitzy extravaganza mimics a scene out of a Baz Lurhmann movie, which adds a fun and comedic edge to Mozart’s ingenious musical score despite its misogyny and ironic story line.

"Fiancée swapping" was a 13th century practice which has influenced great literature like Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte's ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ which at its premier (1790), was considered a derogatory piece, Now, 300 years ahead, the severity of the, then, sordid plot has trivialized and much exploration has gone into what musicologists have claimed is Mozart’s best work. But, alas, this can’t be said for McDermott’s production despite its visual entertainment and theatrical brilliance - there just wasn’t enough opera oomph, in my opinion.

At times, there were intriguing tricks taking place in the background but this left the audience torn between watching this and the actual opera; sword swallowing, balancing acts and other impressive talent couldn’t be applauded because Fiordiligi (Kate Valentine) and Dora Bella (Christine Rice) were singing and rightly so – ‘Cosi fan tutte’ is an opera after all. This was coupled with various large fun fair props including love swans, all crafted by Joby Carter, being wheeled in and out of the stage which, although stylish and pretty were frustratingly distracting.

On the contrary, Soave sia il vento, sung by Valentine, Rice and Roderick Williams was performed with tenderness and devotion; it is, I believe, the peak of the entire performance and for Williams, it is possibly, his highlight as there wasn’t any sign of a wise philosopher in his version of Don Alfonso, but a troubled carnival barker. He discusses the wager like a businessman as oppose to proving a philosophical point about women. However, Mary Ward as Despina managed to deliver with multiple roles as a cynical chambermaid, mad German doctor and baffling, yet hilarious rodeo marriage lawyer. She retained the presence she had as cheeky Papagena in Simon McBurney’s production of ‘The Magic flute’.

Randal Bills as Guglielmo was a good enough tenor and Valentine did her best to contain what she could for such a difficult role as Fiordiligi - the over-thinking sister. Yet, it was Rice who kept it together, not only for her improvisations of a keen and mischievous Dora Bella, but sustaining vocal vigour throughout.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a sturdy orchestra but at times, the music and voices wasn’t audible. Some surtitles were absent and, in some moments, they took a life of their own as translated by Jeremy Sams. McDermott is, indeed, entitled to chop and choose words as he sees fit yet the only problem is some meaningful comedic value goes missing which is needed for such a disturbing, dramatic and fast-moving opera.

Sadly, there wasn't any room for analysing the women’s infidelity or the dynamics of the character’s relationships. McDermott has produced a great spectacle of fun and games, but the production lacks depth and a certain ‘wow’ factor. A lot can be learnt from such an interesting opera as ‘Cosi fan tutte’ but by Act 2 the only thing one craves is candyfloss.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Think you know enough about Verdi's 'La Traviata' in time for the Royal Opera House's #BPbigscreens? Think again.

Context notes and Synopsis

I have included details on:
  • Verdi's inspirations
  • Violetta's characterisation
  • Short section on the music
  • Modern films inspired by the opera
  • Clips from other presentations of the opera
  • Why it is regarded as No.1 in the world according to 
 There should be enough information to get you in the mood for the Royal Opera House's #BPbigscreens of 'La Traviata' taking place on 20th May.  (All views are my own.) 

More literature about the cast and the production: Click here 
(This is the version to be shown on the 20th May)

On 2nd February 1852 Verdi saw Alexandre Dumas’ play, ‘La Dame aux caméllias’ in Paris, which was the inspiration behind 'La Traviata.' ‘La Dame aux caméllias is based on Damas’ own novel about Marie Duplessis (1824-47); he dubs her as Marguerite Gautier in the play. Dumas bases the story on his true account of the relationship he had with Marie who suffered consequences such as Marie’s infidelity in addition to financial difficulties which is unlike 'La Traviata'  which uses a father figure to break the relationship. Marie was characterised as a Parisian courtesan with wit and beauty who carried a bouquet of camellias and died of consumption at the age of 23. Dumas depicts her as a part of the demimonde whose lifestyle choices and immorality offended the puritan values of the 19th century.
Some historians have suggested that Verdi’s interest in ‘La Dame aux  caméllias can be seen through his own personal life, which may have added to his aspirations in creating 'La Traviata.' This involved his love affair with Giuseppina Streppon, who had two illegitimate children, which  generated considerable scandal among the citizens of Busetto and his father figure, Antonio Barezzi, who criticised him for continuing the relationship.
Francesco Maria Piave was the librettist for 'La Traviata' who managed to write a first draft within five days, reducing the five acts from Dumas’ play into three. It focuses on three main characters: Violetta, Alfredo and Germont.
On the premiére of 'La Traviata' at La Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, the performance was described as a disaster and Verdi even wrote to his friend Tito Ricordi, ‘Unfortunately, I have to send you sad news, but I can’t conceal the truth from you. Traviata was a fiasco. Don’t try to work out the reason, that’s just the way it is. ‘ However, Verdi already had his concerns regarded the production. Firstly, the lead Soprano, Salvini- Donatelli (1815 – 1891), who was not his first choice, was 38 years old and weighed over 20 stone, which was the antithesis of how Verdi would have wanted Violetta to be casted. His ideal Violetta would have been ‘young, had a graceful figure and could sing with passion.’ Unfortunately, for Donatelli, who received good reviews for her voice, was laughed at soon after Act 1 and towards the end of the opera.
Verdi, also, sought to add a contemporary touch to the opera and  requested the singers be in modern dress; the opera was also regarded as being the first for dealing with such censored and immoral topics including sexuality, prostitution and the disease: consumption. This was not popular among various countries, so much so that La Fenice declined Verdi's request for contemporary costume and insisted the singers be dressed in 17th century costume – the era of Richelieu – to keep the opera’s provocative and highly controversial ideas at a distance. At the time, operas portraying death through consumption were considered taboo, as it was a deadly disease that could take life in a matter of months.
After 14 months of withdrawing the opera, revisions and amendments were made between 1853 and May 1854 particularly on Act 2 and Act 3. They were performed, on Verdi’s approval, at the Teatro San Benedetto and Violetta was sung by Maria Spezia-Aldighieri who was closer to Verdi’s ideal casting. As a result, it was a successful performance that was produced all over Italy and Europe, always in 18th century costume.
Following the revival after the Teatro San Benedetto (1854) Giulio Ricordi recommended Soprano, Gemma Bellincioni, for the next role as Desdemona in ‘Otello’ having  been cast as Violetta. But Verdi replied, ‘I couldn’t judge her from 'La Traviata'; even a mediocrity could possess the right qualities to shine in that opera and be dreadful in everything else.’ For Verdi, Violetta was a ‘near perfect union’ of music and drama. He thought that a strong and dynamic coloratura soprano was needed to highlight the glamour and extravagance of Violetta’s Parisian lifestyle from 'Sempre libera’ to, then, infuse emotion, death and love together through her agility and stamina to sing powerfully for songs such as ‘Amami, Alfredo’ without the use of flourishes.

The Music

Often, like other operas, 'La Traviata' songs have be used for commercial reasons which maybe recognisable to some, even if they have not seen the complete opera.
Rhythmic choruses of the matadors, gypsies and carnival music are often familiar songs.  For a love story, viewers may question its usage in such a heartrending opera but, in fact, these choruses are used as dramatic device deliberately added by Verdi to provide calm after emotional outpouring moments by Violetta in Act 1, Act 3 as well as Act 2 where she dashes to Flora’s party leaving Alfredo behind.
When Violetta sings ‘Amami, Alfredo,’ it is the single most poignant part of the entire opera , in my opinion (which brings me to tears each and every time.) As much as her words ask for Alfredo’s love in the cheerful sense, coloratura sopranos must face the challenge of conveying a Violetta that betrays her outward appearance whilst instilling the sadness of abandoning him and their love.

This is a clip from Willy Decker’s 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival; notice the use of a large clock as the centerpiece for the stage (by Wolfgang Gussman) to signify Violetta’s impending death. Anna Netrebko’s is Violetta, Rolando Villazón is Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont. Villazón viciously stuffs and throws money all over Netrebko’s body, which although unsettling is quite effective. 
Placido Domingo is Alfredo in Franco Zeffirelli film of ‘La Traviata.’ At the age of 20, Domingo made his debut in Mexico and later admitted that he, ‘had not yet learned to control his emotions.’ Teresa Stratas’ Violetta encapsulates a lot of the elements Verdi would have wanted in his ideal Violetta (in my view.) Cornell MacNeil plays Germont

Modern Film
Gary Marshall’s 1990 romcom ‘Pretty Woman’ is the most obvious movie that represents certain aspects of ‘La Traviata’ given that the heroine who is an inexperienced prostitute, Vivian Ward (Julian Roberts) falls for the handsome and successful businessman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). One of Lewis’ ways of courtship includes sweeping her off by private jet to watch ‘La Traviata’ on stage (how fitting?) She tells an audience member, ‘Oh, it was so good, I almost peed my pants! to ‘which Edward translates as, ‘she said she liked it better than The Pirates of Penzance.’ However, the big difference between Ward and Violetta is that this prostitute gets her happy ending.
Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 romance musical ‘Moulin Rouge’ was also inspired by ‘La Traviata’ but (I believe) has more plot elements from ‘La Dame aux  caméllias.' Also set in Paris the red light district of Montmartre, a young English writer and talented musician, Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with courtesan and cabaret dancer, Satine (Nicole Kidman.) (Luhrmann was inspired by the Greek mythology of 'Orpheus and Eurydice' in making Christian a musical genius.) Satine, like Violetta, suffers from consumption and has to forfeit her relationship with Christian to secure the rights to the Moulin Rouge, staying loyal to the theatre and appease its investor, the Duke of Monroth. This is all at the advice of Harold Zidler; the owner for the Moulin Rouge and (in our case,) Satine’s father figure who tells her to leave her love, Christian, behind.  
Why is 'La Traviata' rated No. 1 by the world according to

‘La Traviata’ is a love tragedy that underpins the suffering of a woman – a high-class prostitute – who is put in the spotlight of Parisian society. Supposedly, a beautiful and witty courtesan she is, in fact, fatally ill, and, despite being in love with a wealthy man, who loves her back (which is, perhaps, not often the case) she is requested to leave and relinquish any hope she has of them being together. There is also her willingness to move to the country, sell her possessions and support them financially, which subverts her position from prostitute to protector. However, as we see later on, her lover turns his back on her by embarrassing her in front of society by throwing his winnings at her, whereby society and his own father, pity her and condemn the man’s behavior.
From Violetta’s coughing and repetitive mention of her looming illness, the audience is led into an opera focusing on the life of an immoral character; a contemporary subject that we would not usually pity, but for Violetta, we do. This opera draws on controversial and opposing themes at the same time, which is what makes ‘La Traviata’ an original opera with reference to prostitution, love, social hierarchy and consumption. Looking back at how  contentiously ‘La Traviata’ was received from its first showing in Venice (1953,) it is a testament to how these 19th century values have left us, and to some degree have not; no-one no one has created a opera about lovers torn apart by HIV, but there is 'Rent' the theatre show.
Verdi’s use of both sorrowful arias  coupled with timed dances and carnival songs breaks up an emotional storyline, again evoking the use of contraries, which work remarkably well in this opera. In its entirely, with the combination of these dramaturgical themes and literary necessities and, more importantly, Verdi’s overwhelming rich musical score, this can only be but a timeless and memorable opera that affects us all. It is, however, the task of the director and production company to ensure they find the appropriate coloratura soprano to cast Violetta just as Verdi would have so wanted.
The Synopsis

This synopsis is based on the libretto. Productions may amend and change the opera as the director sees fit.


It is 1850; Violetta Valéry throws a party in the salon of her Paris mansion secured by the Baron Douphol, her protector. Violetta (in earlier productions) is known for carrying a bouquet of camellias. She suffers from consumption - a fatal respiratory disease. Her conversation with her doctor Dr. Grenvil is interrupted as guests enter, including Flora Bervoix, another courtesan who is financed by the Marchese; the Marquis; Gastone, a Viscount, introduces Violetta to Alfredo Germont, a young man from a provincial family in Provence, and tells her that Alfredo has fallen in love with her from afar and had been enquiring about her health daily. She then decides to chide the Baron for not being as attentive as Alfredo, as he replies, ‘I’ve known you only a year.’ 
Alfredo proposes a toast to love and pleasure, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, and the partygoers join in his drinking song, ‘Brindisi’; Violetta rejoices as well and says life’s many pleasures need to be enjoyed. She encourages her guests to go to the next room and dance to the music of an accompaniment band, but suddenly she has a coughing fit and feels so ill that she has to sit down. Alfredo immediately comes to her attention even though she insists that he not worry and carry on enjoying the party, as ‘the chill will pass.’ He tells her that he must take care of herself to which she replies that she cannot afford to sacrifice her consumptive lifestyle. Here, Alfredo confesses that he has secretly loved her Di quell’amor, quell’ amor ché palpito for a year Un di felice o. At first, she questions his sincerity with the belief that romance cannot exist for her - a woman from the demimonde, and requests he forget her, as friendship is all she can offer him. She then hands him a camellia (depending on the production) and asks he return it when it has withered which he persuades her is ‘tomorrow!’ Oh ciel! Domani Alfredo leaves and the guests and chorus and soloists take part in a large ‘Verdi’ chorus Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora, and exit after. 
Left alone, Violetta is ecstatic of Alfredo’s love and admits she loves him too Ah, forśè lui che l’anima soling ne’ tumulti. Yet, she battles with her emotions, going to and fro, pondering her lavish and fashionable courtesan lifestyle, her loneliness and unsuitability for Alfredo’s love. She asks herself whether risking all of her extravagant privileges for his love is worthy as she is afraid it will be painful - as she lives for pleasure Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioia in gioia. Yet, Alfredo sings from below her balcony Di quell’amor , which is an echo and reminder to Violetta of his love, which adds to her confusion. The scene ends with a repetition of her determination to be free and to live for the moment.
Act 2 Scene 1 

Set in a country house outside of Paris, Violetta and Alfredo have been living happily together De’ miei bollenti spiriti for 3 – 5 months (the actual duration varies between operas). Violetta has sacrificed the Parisian city life to be with Alfredo; however, Violetta still lives luxuriously and pays for all their bills, which Alfredo is only made aware of by Annina, Violetta’s maid. Alfredo feels ashamed O mio rimorso! O infamia! to hear that Violetta has requested Annina to sell off her horses, carriages and possessions to finance their living costs. She tells him that money is running out, so he immediately heads to Paris to try and raise more. 
Violetta enters and Giuseppe, a servant, gives her an invitation from Flora to a party taking place that evening but she puts this aside. She welcomes in a man she thought was a financial adviser when it is, actually, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. He is impolite towards her; accuses her of seeking his son’s fortune and destroying his reputation, but she proves him wrong by showing papers that she is supporting them - and not living on Alfredo’s income. She also admits to Giorgio that she is selling her possessions, at which point he realises he has misjudged her. Irrespective of this, Germont requests she leaves Alfredo for the sake of his two children, of which she has no knowledge Di due figli, and the sake of Alfredo’s sister whose marriage is being jeopardised by their scandalous relationship Pura siccome un angelo.  
Violetta accepts that she may have to leave Alfredo for a while but Germont insists this must be forever. This upsets Violetta as she pleads with him not to make her have to make such a sacrifice of letting Alfredo go; she tells him she cannot live without Alfredo Non sapete quale affetto vivo. Yet, Germont is unsympathetic and says their love affair is not blessed by heaven, and that his son’s desire for her will eventually fade Un dì, quando le veneri. Violetta gives in, weeps and decides that she will leave Alfredo as she says to Germont, ‘tell the pure and beautiful maiden, that an unfortunate woman, crushed by despair, sacrifices herself for her, and will die.’ Germont pities and venerates Violetta for her willingness to put his daughter first Piangi, Piangi, Piangi, o misera! He asks her to tell Alfredo that she no longer loves him and she asks him for an embrace as if she were his daughter. Germont bids her farewell and goes out to the garden to wait for Alfredo on Violetta’s request, as she knows that Alfredo will be distraught with the news. 
When Germont leaves, Violetta mourns and accepts Flora’s invitation to the party. (In other operas, Violetta writes a letter to the Baron Douplol.) She begins to write a farewell letter to Alfredo, but he interrupts her. She resists showing the letter to him, and, at the same time, he tells her that his father will like her. (In some versions, Alfredo is worried over a note he had received from his father whom he is expecting.) Violetta’s emotions are uncontrollable as she cries and bids to Alfredo ‘Love me, Alfredo. Love me as much as I love you’ Annina, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo. Here, Verdi has marked the score with con passion e forza. 
Once Violetta leaves, Alfredo, unaware of Violetta’s endeavour to leave him, is content momentarily until Giuseppe tells him that Violetta has left for Paris and a messenger gives him the letter from Violetta soon after. He reads the words, ‘Alfredo, by the time you receive this letter…’ and bursts into tears and embraces his father. Germont consoles him and tells him to consider his life in Provence Di Provenza il mar but Alfredo ignores him; enraged and jealous of the Baron, he sees Flora’s invitation and makes way to the party with his father following him.
Act 2 Scene 2

Flora’s party takes place in her salon, which the Marquis has paid for. There are gypsies dancing to their song Noi siamo zingarelle and some guests are dressed like matadors and picadors. The Marquis tells Flora that Violetta and Alfredo are no longer together and that Violetta will be coming with the Baron instead. When Alfredo enters, Flora asks for Violetta; he says he knows nothing of her and heads to the gambling table. Violetta and the Baron enter in together and the both see that Alfredo is there; here, the Baron forbids her to speak to him, and Violetta, shocked that he is there, asks God for mercy. The Baron challenges Alfredo to play for high stakes, and Alfredo continually wins as he says, ‘Unlucky in love, lucky at cards.’ When supper is announced, all the guests go to the dining room and the Baron discretely requests a rematch. Violetta enters after having left a message for Alfredo to speak to her.  
Alfredo enters the scene in anger, asking why she has summoned him; she warns him that the Baron wants to challenge him to a duel and advises him to leave.  Alfredo, however, accuses her of being selfish for thinking that if he won the duel she would lose both lover and keeper. She tries to convince him that she is genuinely worried for his life, and tells him that she loves the Baron. Alfredo calls all the guests and exclaims how foolish he was in letting Violetta waste her money on him. He asks them to bear witness to him repaying his debts to Violetta, as he sarcastically says Qui or testimon vi chiamo
che qui pagata io l’ho and throws his winnings at her (or onto her feet in some versions); she faints. Everyone is outraged and, at this moment, Alfredo’s father steps in and expresses his contempt for his son’s behavior and show of disrespect for Violetta. He says: “A man who insults a woman, even in anger, is himself worthy only of contempt.” Even though Alfredo feels guilt and shame for what he has done, Violetta tells him that God will forgive him and she will still love him in death Ah! Io spenta ancora, pur t’amerò. Alfredo is led away by his father, and the Baron challenges him to a duel. The act ends with another Verdi chorus expressing the remorse and sympathy felt for Violetta’s suffering.
Act 3 

The following month, Violetta is in her bedroom laying on her deathbed in critical condition. She is penniless and attended by Annina only. (Several versions include a priest and the doctor present who tells Annina that Violetta has only a few hours to live.) Violetta instructs Annina to give half of the money remaining to the poor and when Annina leaves, she begins to read (not sing) a letter from Germont describing Alfredo being abroad after having wounded the Baron and shall return to seek her forgiveness. But, it is too late È tardi! , as she knows that her health is deteriorating and she will die at any moment as she sings - as a fallen woman - farewell to all her happy dreams Ah, della traviata sorridi al desìo. A carnival baccanale takes place outside to signify her impending death. 
Annina returns with exciting news that Alfredo has been seen and is making his way to her, and he makes a big entrance; he runs to her and they embrace in each other’s arms. He promises to take her to Paris so they can be together and she can recover Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo. Violetta is so filled with happiness and energy that she begins to prepare to go to church to thank God for Alfredo’s return; yet this is only momentary, as she faints. Here, Alfredo realises the severity of her illness and Violetta is desperate to be with Alfredo Ah, Gran Dio! Morir sì giovane. 
Germont (accompanied by the doctor in some operas) enters and embraces Violetta as he had once promised to her before. Violetta gives Alfredo a locket (or medallion in some versions) with a portrait of herself and tells him, ‘If some pure-hearted girl in the flower of her youth
 should give you her heart, let her be your wife. It’s what I’d want.’  Alfredo is miserable and cannot accept what is happening No, non morrai, non dirmelo. She tells him to deliver the message that an angel in heaven is praying over them. Suddenly, Violetta begins to feel rejuvenated and rises to her feet in joy Oh gioia and then dies.
Great Operas, Michael Steen (2012) 
The Complete Operas of Verdi, Charles Osborne (1997) 
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera, Stanley Sadie (2004) 
The Operas of Verdi: Volume 2, Julian Budden (1992)
La traviata Opera Guide Roger Parker, Anna Picard, et al. (2013)
La traviata Opera Guide, Nicholas John, Denis Arnold, et al. (1985) 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Dennis Kelly's 'Debris' through the eyes of Abiegail Graham at the Southwark Playhouse - Intensely Gripping **** Ends May 18th

Dennis Kelly’s bleak yet gripping script, ‘Debris,’ is his first written play that celebrates its 11-year anniversary at the Southwark Playhouse. Imaginative director Abigail Graham, approached Kelly to adapt his script onto the stage and given how impressed he was with her direction of 'Molly Sweeney' - it was an offer too good to refuse.
Stage designer, Signe Beckmann, makes use of the little room of the Southwark Playhouse displaying grey and concrete rubble of stones and bricks scattered and piled onto a heap - it, literally, is debris. Even before the play has begun our innocent and tattered siblings, Michael (Harry McEntire) and Michelle (Leila Mimmack) warm themselves up before they plunge into a devastating nightmare conveying a dark and broken childhood filled with unanswered questions and unsettling conclusions. They draw on the wall and play with stones to fill their time.   
Monologue after monologue they re-visit their miserable past retelling stories as they had viewed them through their inexperienced eyes verbalising their deeper deranged thoughts about God, their paedophilic Uncle Harry and their abusive and alcoholic father. Throughout the play, they’d kick and throw stones across the room to add to their confused mindsets and distorted frustrations. Their handling of these bricks and stones measure the intensity of their emotions.
Michael delivers his account of his 16th birthday that sheds blood as it shares the same date as his father’s death whose body was crucified in his own living room. He laments on his skewed reality, which is the polar opposite of a boy who lays his head on his mother’s lap and watches them through a window like watching TV. Yet, McEntire shows us his true colours through Michael’s discovering of life in a waste chute – a half dead baby - as he says, he is now aware that there are lives different from ours. His visualization of breastfeeding the child with his own blood and finding solace in this shrivelled baby he calls, my rubbish he exclaims is the meaning of love.
Michelle, with a balloon in her hand, to symbolize her embryotic state, fires away with several accounts of her mother’s death. She depicts her parents struck with a life-changing ultimatum when her mother chokes on a piece of chicken as she says, they chose me…I was their joy. And another provoking image of herself as a foetus growing like a plant in her mother’s dead corpse eating the almost decayed womb in order to survive. Mimmack has a brilliant way of grappling with Kelly’s detailed words, which give Michelle’s stories a resounding effect of despair.   
Memorable scenes include Michelle with a lightsaber in a quasi Star Wars moment as well as Michael’s shocking attempt to forcefully strangle his sister. Graham’s revival show is filled with heartrending monologues that gradually build up with wake up calls through abrupt thumps and a loud balloon being popped. This intensively engaging production will make an audience think about violent realities and Kelly’s language is conveyed by both, McEntire and Mimmack, in individual and insightful ways.

National Theatre Live's showing of 'Sam Mendes' King Lear ****

National Theatre Live has provided live broadcasts of their stage productions since 2009 to over 500 cinema venues internationally. 250 venues of which are in the UK alone.  May 2nd was the live presentation of Sam Mendes, director of James Bond: Sky fall and American Beauty, suspense driven production of ‘King Lear.’ The re-broadcast shows shall take place on the 15th and19th of May and considering that ‘King Lear’ has sold out at the theatre, itself, it is perhaps worthwhile grabbing cinema tickets for one of Shakespeare’s most notable tragedies; which although loses the frills of a theatrical experience allows viewers to see the action from closer angles, which can be equally beneficial.

Mendes relationship with Simon Russell Beale, who plays Lear, has been longstanding since 2000. Russell Beale’s Lear descends from an officious authoritarian leader, (who, although, is a short man has a powerful presence that speaks volumes beyond his height,) to an insane naked hospital patient who wears a straw hat and carries a bag of flowers; he suffering from dementia.

The beginning scene is a stately affair, in the presence of military men, where Lear divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, yet Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) defies her father’s request for praise and love which drives him into a tantrum frenzy as he stomps across the stage. Vinall, however, plays an outspoken and unwavering Cordelia quite different to docile and self-effacing versions of Cordelia often portrayed, yet his parading of her on top of a chair to embarrass her is early signs of his sanity soon-to-be doomed.
Anthony Ward’s injection of digital grey cloud screens made the ominous tone of the play even scarier and his use of an elevated platform, which brought Lear and the fool towards the turbulent thunderous skies, was an innovative device necessary in any version of ‘King Lear.’

Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) play the catty, evil sisters, similarly dressed in colour, sexiness and skintight wear to enchant and bewitch the men of power; Lear, their husbands, and their own half brother, Edmund, who they both – unknowingly – have affairs with to get their way. Yet there are other sinister and darker hues of immorality which pervade Mendes stage such as an incestuous relationship between Lear and Regan, as he often smack her bottom, and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Michael Nardone) use of a cork screw to pluck out the eyes of loyal and merciful Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) which left viewers gasping from the, somewhat realistic, blood as they hid behind their hands. A unique touch of Mendes was added when Lear killed his fool (Adrian Scarborough,) with an iron bar who delivered woeful singing to his Shakespearean lines of half-truths as he subtly warned Lear to be, ‘not have been old before thou hadst been wise.’ It is a unexpectedly shocking scene to see the innocent fool dead in a bath tub by the hands of the one he had most concern for, yet Russell Beale’s Lear is full of contradictions; he looks back at the bloodied body and whimpers as he had forgotten that he taken his fool’s life.

Sam Troughton as the bastard son, Edmund, plays an erudite half brother, but a hypocrite (no less,) whose charismatic monologues make him a great fit for the role. Yet Tom Brooke’s Edgar only becomes convincing towards the end of Act 2 with the accompaniment of his blind father, Gloucester. From the moment Brooke enters the stage, he presents a naive and uncertain Edgar; unsure of himself and, possibly, his own place in the play which is, sadly, felt by the audience. Gloucester and Edgar’s relationship is a parody of the lack of familial love shared with Lear and his daughters, and it is perhaps Brooke’s mistake to emphasise this as oppose to focusing, a little more, on the deeper elements of Edgar’s character.

The last scene where, like, most Shakespeare plays many anti-heroes are suicidal and bloodied, is rather unchoreographed and half-heartedly done. A much-anticipated brawl would have come in handy for such a taut and forlorn play. Nonetheless, the show’s sell-out status is thoroughly justified thanks to Mendes’ wickedly presented production.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Why ‘I Can’t Sing’ failed. A waste of exceptional talent on a distasteful and tacky script ***

Even I have to admit that the closure of Simon Cowell’s co-produced theatre show, ‘I Can’t Sing’ is not an entire surprise and may do the West End theatre world a lot of favours given it’s patchy, inconsistent and often over-the-top script, which seemed to have gotten carried away with itself.  That being said there were great musical scores written by Steve Brown, exceptional singing from talented and artistic cast members particularly Cynthia Erivo, impressive dance choreographies and added showmanship on hard-to-make set designs by Es Devlin, which deserve notable credit.

Harry Hill, comedian and host of his own comedy show,‘TV Burps,’co-wrote the show with direction from West End’s, Sean Foley, which may sound like a fitting pair to create something innovative given how successful they have been in their individual professions, yet attempting to translate the X-factor, a Saturday night TV programme with over millions of viewers which has a bitter sweet and sour reaction from the general public based on its odd contestants and frequently ridiculed judges, onto a large scale, £6 million worth, West End stage only riles theatre critics more by putting a question mark over it’s credibility as a stage show and over-worked marketing strategies which took place months before the show came out. Cowell even devoted time on TV such as the Royal Variety Show to promote it. Circumstances like these ask for an early retirement, which was precisely the case yesterday (May 10th) after running as short as 2 months at London’s Palladium. There are possibly several factors that have led to the shows demise, which should caution anyone thinking about bringing theatre to the West End.

The plot is based on Chenice’s (Erivo) struggle and strife of a journey to X-factor fame. Accompanied by her crude dog, Barlow (Simon Lipkin,) she falls in love with ukulele player and plumber, Max, (Alan Morrissey,) which puts their relationship on a standstill having to deal with the unglamourous complications of show business. This, alongside the death of her grand father who lives off an electrically supported lung and the demolition of her caravan, is left penniless which gives her a head start in the competition with an X-factor necessity – ‘a back story.’

Unfortunately, the show isn’t as simple as this as there are multiple plots, sub-plots and tertiary plots that detract from the main story. There are bizarre and random parts of the show, which reveal a lack of consideration or planning at its preliminary creative stages to keep the story line fluid. These weird parts include the show ending with Cowell as an alien that the audience sees off in a spaceship, one of the contestants singing dressed as a Valkyrie figure, presence of leprechuans and everything Irish cheering on the band, Alter Boyz (Shaun Smith and Rowen Hawkins,) Trevor Modo (Charlie Baker,) as the modern day Quasimodo and wannabe Eminen style rapper, the rise of an air pumped phallic lily to the song, ‘Uncomplicated love,’ and other dragged out choruses, which the show could have done without. This frequently left the audience confused and losing track of where they were in the show.    

Critics have argued that the show was a narcissistic project of Cowell’s even if it depicted him in a satirical way.   He is played by Eastender actor, Nigel Harman, who sings, ‘I am the Patron Saint of Fame,’ having entered from the sky like a statuesque messiah.   Knowingly, and as condoned by Cowell himself, Harman recreates an impression of Cowell in every possible stereotype the media have described him; diva, little-man-syndrome, insecure, arrogant and lonely bachelor.  Silly but noteworthy acting stems from various actors including a performance artist playing a dramatisation of the wind,  Polish contestant, Vladimir (Steven Serlin,) Camp TV producer, Billy Carter who showed off his tap dancing skills and Brenda (Katy Secombe,) the check out assistant.

Staff, stage and crew were said to make deliberate and slight changes to the show given it was the grand finale which were presented through brief references and adlibbed lines by Lipkin and Chenice’s grandfather (Joe Speare) who just before the standing elevation (to which I reluctantly took part in,) hung down as an angel and said the words, ‘God loves this show but even he could not make it run.’

Despite the glitz and glamour, most of the mumbling and pointed jokes that came out of Lipkin’s puppet dog were crass and debasing. Some members of the audience were unsure whether to laugh considering there were children present and some lines seemed off-the-cuff and plainly politically incorrect. It goes to show an error on Hill and Foley’s part on not identifying the discrepancy of who they should have targeted their audience at and dealing with the repercussions of a non-sell-out show because of the lack of consistent writing.  Hill is a comedian and with respect to this, the show will undoubtedly be humorous but one has to ensure the jokes are in line with the correct audience, not as degrading as Jordy’s bottom tattoo.

Concerns of the ticket sales could have stemmed from the miscorrelation between X-factor’s target audience of 7 million sofa viewers and those willing to pay for a theatre ticket that are worth up to £80 per seat. It seems that the realistic figures were not bought up earlier on, which even Cowell admits, “We took a punt and it didn't work out. If I could do things different, I would have gone to local theatres and built up a following…’  

The TV show that founded artists like One Direction and Leona Lewis is watched by a larger number than those willing to fork out the cash to see it in the West End, especially one which glorifies and gratifies Cowell, a celebrity with a mixed reception. Yet, there is one thing worth pointing out which no one has interestingly picked up. Over the course of a decade, or ever since Cowell started judging on TV programmes including Pop Idol, American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, how many contestants has he rejected? These could have been possible theatregoers or perhaps due to his uncompromising, blasé and rash critiques of their performances developed a large hate group. The calculations potentially go beyond the thousands if we are considering contestants outside the UK as well.

From the failure of 'I Can’t Sing’, we have to succumb to the fact that no matter how extravagant the budget, how grand the hype, and popularity of the TV show or its celebrities, it is not a formula for success in the West End. However, let’s not forget that not all theatre critics gave the show a 4 star or 5 star rating at its debut which may be why it was not only the misguided target market or its subjects that was a recipe for disaster yet the perception of the show in its entirety which hastened its closure.