Monday, 23 November 2015

Opera Review: The Tales of Hoffmann at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Jacques Offenbach’s darkly fantastical The Tales of Hoffmann has had many incarnations since its first public performance in 1881. Now English Touring Opera’s new production, sung in English with surtitles, sets it in the 1920s world of early cinema; the eponymous protagonist transforming from a poet into a silent movie-maker well past his prime, poring obsessively over his work.

Based on three short stories by the German romantic E T A Hoffmann, the opera is well suited to this updating – at the outset, at least. Played with great conviction by tenor Sam Furness, the fictionalised Hoffmann’s passion for his current love, Stella, together with the interference of the devilish Lindorf, disrupts his creativity and hastens his spiral through an alcoholic maelstrom into the wasteland where madness beckons. Furness’ rich tones and natural stage presence mark him out as a rising star from the beginning; egged on by his boisterous friends, Hoffmann tells the story of his three great loves and the macabre threats that destroyed each one in turn.

It’s in these episodes that the movie-making relevance seems to lose its way, with Hoffmann still referred to as ‘the poet’ and some uneasy directorial choices being made by James Bonas. Louise Mott as Hoffmann’s muse transforms without real explanation into the guise of a padded-out schoolboy as his companion, Nicklausse. Hoffmann’s first love, the automaton Olympia, takes the form of a loose-limbed pink neon puppet propelled around the stage by other cast members. In the gothic surroundings of a physics lab staffed by wild-haired scientists, War Horse it isn’t, although so bizarre a creature does effectively demonstrate Hoffmann’s hallucinatory hell and the spell he must be under – much more than the magic glasses sold to him by Coppelius would be needed to make him fall for her.

At least Olympia’s singing is effortlessly beautiful; ETO favourite Ilona Domnich’s soprano soars above the surreal setting as she fills the puppet’s blankness with divine purity. But it is in the second story, after the interval, that Domnich really comes into her own, bringing lustrous passion as the consumptive Antonia, for whom the compulsion to sing is stronger than life itself. The production settles into a more conventional retelling of Hoffmann’s woes and Domnich’s characterisation carries through into the final tale of the courtesan Giulietta and the licentious depravity of Venice.

The opera’s best-known Venetian Barcarolle is surprisingly underplayed, and at times the scaled-down orchestra sounds a little thin for the grandeur of the music. The staging is simple and effective for touring, though; a panelled surround clambered over by the cast, with hatches opening to reveal spectral visions and uninvited comments from beyond the grave, transforming from film set to science lab, Munich household to Venetian palazzo with a few slick changes.

In each setting, Warwick Fyfe brings a potency to his role as Hoffmann’s nemesis; as the sinister Lindorf he scuttles across the stage on two sticks with arachnid-like malevolence, while equally at home recreating the other villains in Hoffmann’s demise, especially the vampiric Dr Miracle. Matt R J Ward provides the comedic highlight of the evening in his cameo as Frantz, the family servant in Antonia’s household who creates unintended havoc through his deafness and sings endearingly of what might have been.

This may not always be a full-throttle production, yet ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann does reveal glimpses of greatness in the performances of its leads, strong visual imagery and the core of a good idea in the updating of its premise – if only this could be clearly carried through in the storytelling.

Reviewed on 10 November 2015 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Monday, 16 November 2015

Theatre Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at Tobacco Factory Theatres

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

A play that opens in the aftermath of a hanging, Out of Joint’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern makes a grab for the dramatic jugular. Rebecca Lenkiewicz examines a Hertfordshire village at the beginning of the 18th Century; a time when the full frenzy of witch hunts may have passed their peak, yet rumours of sorcery are still woven into the fabric of a closed and superstitious society, with those accused all too easily damned when events go awry.

Ann Thorn’s mother, Eleanor, has just been executed for witchcraft. A noose hanging from a cruciform gibbet remains centre stage throughout the play, an ever-present reminder of the dead and a warning to the living. Young Ann is unhinged by events but also ready to make her own fresh assault on convention, when Jane Wenham, a woman existing at the edges of respectability, steps in as her protector. Yet, already Wenham’s detractors are baying for her blood. She sleeps for warmth with her cockerel, dances in the woods and has an all-consuming interest in herbs and potions. When tragedy strikes, it’s enough for her to be accused of witchcraft; in a place where outsiders are viewed with suspicion, she is unmarried, unnatural, old; a charge upon the parish.

Lenkiewicz skilfully exposes the human flaws of Walkern’s inhabitants; there are many all too ready to accuse Jane as a way of deflecting the guilt in their own hearts, only a few whose stumbling from the path of righteousness gives them a greater tolerance and empathy for others. The local cleric Francis Hutchinson refuses to believe in Wenham’s guilt, as do his housekeeper and former slave Kemi Martha and the publican Widow Higgins. But their voices are drowned out in the hue and cry led by Samuel Crane, the recently arrived minister sent to keep an eye on Hutchinson’s lack of orthodoxy, who finds ready support for his certainty of Wenham’s guilt.

The strong cast often takes on more than one role to present a mirror image; David Acton convinces both as the flawed but humane Hutchinson and also the belligerent villager Saul Paterson. Rachel Sanders extols tolerance as the feisty Widow Higgins but is baying for Jane’s blood as the grief-stricken Bridget Hurst. In a refreshingly predominantly female cast, there are also standout performances from Amanda Bellamy as the determined and stoical Wenham, dignified in the face of the most lowering of assaults, Tim Delap as the righteous but inwardly desperate Crane, and Hannah Hutch as the wild and grief-stricken Ann.

Strikingly staged and lit by James Button and Richard Howell, with eerie sound design by Max Pappenheim and haunting song from Cat Simmons as Kemi Martha, Ria Parry’s direction is full of bone-chilling potency from the start. Yet, the clarity of plot occasionally suffers for this and the intensity is dissipated by a few scenes running on for too long in the first half. After the interval, however, the tension builds anew; Jane’s harrowing encounter with the witch-identifier chillingly known as the Pricker will linger long in the memory although the resolution of her plight is then almost underplayed and rather too neat.

With Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently across town at the Old Vic, this is a second, no less absorbing, Bristol look at the destructive forces of intolerance. Pinned in the form of witchcraft to a specific time and place, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern nevertheless has an enduring resonance and also echoes the themes of Jim Crace’s timeless Man Booker shortlisted novel, Harvest. The play’s exploration of grief, loss, identity, religion, sexuality and truth-bending hysteria is often unremittingly stark, sometimes unexpectedly funny, but never less than stimulating.

Reviewed on Tuesday 3 November 2015. touring until 30 January 2016 | Image: Richard Davenport

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Opera Review: Welsh National Opera's Orlando at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

With so many characters at the extremes of emotion, opera might reasonably lay claim to madness as a pre-requisite. Yet, while there could be no shortage of suitable candidates for Welsh National Opera’s 2015 Madness season, Handel’s frequently overlooked Orlando, originally performed in London in 1733, still fits the bill very nicely.

WNO’s production, first staged by Scottish Opera in 2011, updates the original mountainside setting to a hospital ward during World War Two. Zoroastro is now a psychiatrist rather than a magician, while Orlando, the warrior driven to insanity through doomed love, becomes a heroic but traumatised RAF pilot. It’s a transformation from director Harry Fehr that correlates well with the plot most of the time, although the stark staging does rob the story of much of its mysticism.

The individual performances are superb; Lawrence Zazzo is masterful as the conflicted Orlando, his counter-tenor soaring full of anguish as his emotions plummet from rage to despair to the final torment of madness. Torn between the duty to fight for his country – demonstrated to him in a slide show of abdication and Nazi imagery by Daniel Grice’s commanding Zoroastro – and love for the wealthy American socialite Angelica, he storms around the stage, creating consternation and dismay while maintaining exquisite control in his vocal delivery.

Rebecca Evans as Angelica is no less impressive at portraying the tender desire of her love for Medoro in rich tones, combined with fear and preparation for flight once Orlando realises she loves another. And Fflur Wyn as Dorinda – now a nurse in a crisp, starched uniform – who also loves Medoro, provides a wonderful visual contrast while more than holding her own with her pure and plaintive precision. The trio Consolati o Bella, where Angelica combines with James Laing’s compassionate Medoro to console Dorinda that one day she too will find love, is a sublime ending to Act One.

The orchestra, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini, performs Handel’s soulfully beautiful score with such distinction that it’s tempting at times to simply close your eyes and just listen – especially as the action on stage, despite Fehr’s best endeavours, sometimes becomes a little static. Handel’s arias – each one spell-binding but repetitive in style and sentiment – have a tendency not to deliver much in the way of plot advancement. This is mitigated by projections onto Yannis Thavoris’ simple revolving set, reflecting Orlando’s increasingly delusional state of mind, and dramatic devices such as his rampage with a cut-throat razor and disturbing electroconvulsive therapy. There is still an undue amount of dressing and undressing, tea dispensing and bed-making needed, however, to pad out the action over three acts.

Yet, despite these reservations about Handel’s pacing, this is a production still well worth seeking out for the tenderness and beauty of its music, interpreted with great sympathy by an outstanding cast; a turbulent and often moving exploration of the madness of love.

Reviewed on 21 October 2015. Touring until 18 November 2015 | Image: Bill Cooper

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Book Review: The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak

I loved Elif Shafak's novel Honour, an illuminating and moving story of a traditional Kurdish family that begins to fragment when exposed to the freedoms and pressures of modern, multi-cultural society. Set in the recent 20th Century past, it combines an examination of the construct of masculinity with the timeless quality of a fable; something which is again apparent in Shafak's most recent, historical novel published in English, The Architect's Apprentice.

Istanbul in the 16th Century is a city seething with life and colour; the centre of an Ottoman empire full of exotic sights, sounds and smells. It is inhabited by a multitude of races; rich and poor, weak and strong - above all, it is full of enterprise. Home to Sinan, the Sultan's Master Architect, builder of palaces and mosques, in The Architect's Apprentice it is also a place where Jahan, apprentice to Sinan, mahout to the Sultan's elephant, makes his way in the world.

As a boy, Jahan arrives in Istanbul by boat. A stranger to the land, we see it through his eyes:
He peered ahead at the line where the water lapped against the shore, a strip of grey, and could not make out whether he was sailing towards Istanbul or away from it. The longer he stared, the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever-changing. This, more or less, was his earliest impression of Istanbul, and unbeknown to him, it would not change even after a lifetime. 
Although an imposter, initially posing as the mahout of Chota, the Sultan's white elephant, Jahan has a rare empathy for the beast and rises steadily through the ranks of the court. He catches the eye of the Sultan's daughter Mihrimah and develops an attachment that can never be fulfilled. Before the heat of battle, he meets Sinan and, helping him to construct a bridge for the Sultan's army to cross a river, is offered the rare chance to become one of the Master Architect's four apprentices, if only he can accept the need to work hard and make a fresh start:
' must let go of the past,' said Sinan as he stood up. 'Resentment is a cage, talent is a captured bird. Break the cage, let the bird take off and soar high. Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance in the universe. If you do not foster these qualities in your heart, you cannot build'
As Jahan grows in stature and wisdom through recognising the value of knowledge, his new situation brings many enemies as well as friends. Sinan's buildings are raised but occasionally fall again, new Sultans accede to the title of The Shadow of God on Earth, bring both prosperity and war before themselves being succeeded. And, all the time, intrigue piles upon intrigue in a thrilling, absorbing but seemingly episodic fashion which Shafak nevertheless draws together with great skill at the close.

This is such a richly woven tale of multiple layers and textures, a heady blend of historical fact, blurred timelines and fiction. Detractors of women writers, who accuse them of concentrating on the domestic and the 'small' (not that this is in any way a crime in my eyes), take note; this is a novel of dizzying intensity and huge ambition. Above all, it is an unblinkered love letter to Istanbul; in Shafak's hands the city takes on a vital life force of it own and Sinan's legacy is described with tender detail by an author (the most read female novelist in Turkey) unafraid to recount its dazzling beauty, but also its many human imperfections.

The Architect's Apprentice is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Theatre Review: Monsieur Popular at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov’s Autumn 2015 season of French farce opens in energetic but uncertain style with Jeremy Sams’ new translation of Eugène Marin Labiche’s Monsieur Popular.

In 19th Century Paris, 47-year-old Celimare is preparing to marry Emma, his 18-year-old bride. Unlike Emma, however, Celimare has a history; his past holds no shortage of married lovers and, to make sure these relationships flourished, he befriended their husbands, too. Now, he’s managed to jettison the lovers, one way or another, but their husbands are a different matter. Impervious to what’s been going on under their noses, they still regard Celimare as their best friend; the man who loves to play dominoes night after night and is never happier than when sorting out their crises with the servants.

Raymond Coulthard strikes the right sort of note as Celimare; self-possessed, twinkling and charmingly louche, it’s easy to see what the women are falling for. At first, Celimare’s habit of never passing up the opportunity to dabble in double-entendre and his knowing comments to the audience – letting us in on his secrets – is an inspired bit of fun. Yet, because overused, it becomes tiresome; under Sams’ direction the comic asides turn into full-on addresses, slowing the action and making Celimare appear less hapless victim of circumstance, more scheming con man in control of events.

Gregory Gudgeon and Howard Ward as the cuckolded husbands Vernouillet and Bocardon form a spirited and contrasting duo that, along with Celimare’s new parents-in-law – convincingly played by Nicola Sloane and Iain Mitchell – excels in riotously fast-paced entrances, exits and general door-slamming. Unwittingly, they conspire to ensure that Celimare receives barely a moment’s peace or time alone with his new bride Emma, played by Charlotte Wakefield – who has the difficult task of springing fully-formed into the action the day after her wedding to a man she barely appears to know.

Polly Sullivan’s set morphs easily from opulent drawing room into a dining room paying homage to the Victorian penchant for being surrounded by stuffed creatures while eating. After the interval, the transformation into a country house setting is impressive and complemented by sumptuously detailed 19thCentury French summer fashions.

There are moments of magic; Celimare’s servants Pitois and Adelina (Stephen Matthews and Karoline Gable) are a delight and their singing is particularly effective. Vernouillet’s composition Marriage is Bliss is a hoot and many elements of physical comedy – the passing of messages in Bocardon’s hat, the superb comic timing with the footstool – work well. Yet, overall the piece feels too long and laboured; jokes the audience has already understood are reiterated and become unwieldy without really moving the action forward. Perhaps a contemporary audience has less patience than one from the 1800s, but tightening some scenes and dispensing with the interval (a rarity in a Ustinov production, perhaps only there to accommodate the set change) would result in a crisper, more focused production.

Monsieur Popular is interesting as a work from the writer who inspired comic master Georges Feydeau, but it doesn’t offer any of the heightened and exaggerated reflection of our times that can be found in successfully updated farces like One Man, Two Guvnors. Although it has fine performances and pleasing aspects these never really come together; the piece remains an entertaining but uneven glance back at a different age – charming, amusing but very much bygone.

Runs until 7 November 2015 | Image: Simon Annand

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Book Review: Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I've been wanting to read Simon Sebag Montefiore for some time - although unusually it's his non-fiction works on Stalin that most interest me as background for Bulgakov's classic The Master and Margarita. Nevertheless, my book group's next choice of Sashenka seemed serendipitous; not least because Montefiore's novel of revolutionary Russia covers some of the same ground as Young Stalin.

This epic story of over 600 pages begins in 1916, with one woman's involvement in the Bolshevik uprising in St Petersburg, before moving through the decades to portray her experiences of Stalin's crushing repression in the 1930s and finally the next generation's attempts to discover what happened to her.

Sashenka Zeitlin, 16-year-old schoolgirl and daughter and of a well-heeled Jewish merchant with connections to Russian royalty, is imprisoned in St Petersburg's Kresty prison. Her mother, a ravaged beauty and devotee of Rasputin, is living an drug-fuelled high-life full of easy relationships with men and doesn't seem too concerned about her daughter's well-being. It's Sashenka's Uncle Mendel who's converted her to Marxism and drawn her into the Bolshevik party. While her father's influence means that Sashenka's imprisonment is a short one, it still marks the beginning of a lifelong involvement with Communism. Delivering messages and running workshops on Marxism, known as Comrade Snowfox because of her furs, she becomes ingrained in party life, although her background means the suspicion of her comrades never completely leaves her.

Despite a fascinating chronicling of events - from meeting the stuttering Comrade Molotov to working directly for Lenin - in this first part of the novel, the central character of Sashenka fails to fully convince. Often, she appears more of a two-dimensional peg to hang with historical detail than a living, breathing girl on the cusp of womanhood; there are early references to her full breasts, which appall and embarrass her, but otherwise she is usually described through the eyes of the men she unfailingly captivates: her figure slim and appealing, her lips wide, crimson and slightly swollen.

Part Two leaps forward to Moscow in 1939 and - despite Montefiore's seeming desire to cram in as much historical detail as possible leading to a meandering style - to me is more involving. Sashenka has become a loyal Bolshevik wife and the mother of two small children; she and her husband have already survived several purges, made personal sacrifices for the good of the party and even entertained Stalin in their own home. Yet, as she is drawn into an affair of the heart, Sashenka is in danger of losing all she has worked for and holds dear. Falling from the party's favour is terrifyingly swift, brutal and absolute; utmost in Sashenka's mind as she approaches this precipice is the safety of her children - will she be able to get them out of danger in time?

The final section of the book moves to Moscow in 1994 where Katinka, a young Russian historian, is trawling through Communist archives in an attempt to discover what really happened to Sashenka and her children. Often, she unwittingly treads the same ground as her subject, but despite its fall from power, Communism refuses to give up its secrets easily. There are many twists and turns and insights into the scope of the horrors committed at the time, before Katinka is able to uncover the tantalising truth.

By the end of this novel, I was torn between genuine interest in what had happened to Sashenka, admiration for its historical content and a strong desire to be done with characters who never truly came alive in my mind. Similarly, my book group's opinion was divided between love and dislike for Sashenka. I would still read Montefiore again - but I wasn't drawn into perusing the first few pages of his next novel One Night in Winter that were appended to this one; next time, I'll be opting for non-fiction.

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published in the UK by Transworld books. Paperback 607pp. Image: Contributed.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Theatre Review: And Then Come The Nightjars at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There is a fierce and tender connection to the land threading through And Then Come the Nightjars that might seem reminiscent of Irish influences – from the recently late, great Brian Friel to John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. And yet, this original writing from Bea Roberts, developed with Bristol Old Vic Ferment and Theatre503, is set in rural Devon, on a farm with a view of the Tamar. It tells the story of a friendship between two men from differing backgrounds but with common cause, which becomes an elegy for a rural way of life rapidly being outpaced by modernity.

Widower Michael is awaiting the birth of his prize cow Dottie’s calf and Jeffrey is the vet in attendance. Except that Michael doesn’t really need Jeffrey’s help; he’s brought so many calves into the world on his own that he’s running out of royals to name them after, referring to his herd as “my girls”. Jeffrey is really there to escape from an unhappy marriage, but it is 2001 and there are bigger storm clouds looming. Foot and mouth is circling the area, tightening its grip; the landscape of the countryside is shifting and the nightjars, birds traditionally said to herald death, are in full song.

If at first verging on the stereotypical – Nigel Hastings as Jeffrey is all public school, excessive drinking and trivia questions, while David Fielder’s Michael is brimming with Devon burr and earthy cussedness – then one of the main joys of this beautifully observed play is to watch the friendship between the two men slowly unfold and mature. From the beginning, there is a mutual dependency, with Michael providing Jeffrey with refuge and Jeffrey tending to Michael’s herd before being called on to slaughter it. As time goes by, experiencing both the best and the worst of each other, with wives either deceased or divorced, each man gradually, movingly, becomes the other’s saviour.

The set created by Max Dorey is a small marvel; a barn full of so many worn and authentic details – from stalls and wooden crates to cobwebs in the rafters – that it could have been freshly plucked from the Devon countryside. And over the years it barely changes, despite Jeffrey’s attempts to persuade Michael of the value of modernising; going organic, building holiday homes or a conference centre to accommodate the Grand Designs crowd. Michael’s watchword is constancy; he was born on the farm and you feel his anger when all he holds dear – the earth and his animals – is in danger of being destroyed.

There are moments of pure pleasure, both in Paul Robinson’s direction which atmospherically recreates external events in falling incinerator ash and disco lights, and Roberts’ weaving of tragedy with hilariously acerbic one-liners; Jeffrey describing his wife as having “10 different lizard heads, all of which hate me” and Michael advising him to “eat before cider or the cider eats you”. Following her recent audio-visual piece Infinity Pool at the Tobacco Factory, this is a more conventionally-staged but equally compassionate portrayal from Roberts of characters finding their own muddled pathways through the maelstrom and minutiae of their lives.

Reviewed on 7 October 2015 | Image: Jack Sain