Thursday, 20 November 2014

Opera Review: WNO's Carmen at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In reviving its Caurier and Leiser version of Carmen, Welsh National Opera (WNO) has chosen a solid foundation for its autumn season. It may not have been an instant success at its première in 1875, but Bizet’s tale of the life and loves of a seductive and headstrong gypsy girl has since enjoyed an enduring popularity.
Solid Caroline Chaney’s revival may be, but not always scintillating. Alessandra Volpe takes the eponymous lead, arrested for fighting with another woman at the tobacco factory in Seville where she works. While she looks and moves convincingly as Carmen, initially Volpe’s mezzo in the Habanera is a little uneven. She does warm into the role, illustrating her indomitable will with some bull-like head-butting of her lover towards the end, but both she and her Don José, Peter Wedd, have a tendency to be overpowered by the orchestra.
What’s more alarming is the lack of chemistry between the two, which undermines such scenes as Carmen’s private dance with castanets at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen’s allure is such that no man from the soldiers on guard to the bullfighter Escamillo is able to resist; in this production it’s often difficult to believe in the couple’s mutual attraction, or the overwhelming love which will compel Don José to desert the army and carry out his final act of vengeance.
Set against this, Jessica Muirhead really shines as Micaëla, the village girl bringing messages to Don José from his mother. Her soprano is crisp and full of pathos; in her early scenes she expresses all of Micaëla’s attraction for the soldier, combined with an embarrassment at his mother’s unsubtle matchmaking. Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo also has a pleasing tone, although he could do with a little more swagger at times, particularly when fighting his rival in love, Don José.
The WNO orchestra is superb throughout and James Southall conducts with great clarity and vigour. Although some of the set pieces, such as the build up to the bull-fight in the final act, feel less dramatic than they should, the chorus is consistently strong and rousing and the gang of young street children are delightfully urchin-like.
Against the grandeur of the Hippodrome, the pared back set consists of Goya-inspired backdrops and a scattering of wooden chairs and tables. With its soldiers and cigarette-girls costumed in an earth-coloured palette, it does feel like less of a lavish visual feast than other versions of Carmen, and indeed other WNO productions. What this dulled-down vision does do though, is contrast wonderfully with the greater colour and vibrancy of the finale. There may be many highs and lows in this revival, but it is still an absorbing production with plenty to enjoy.

Seen at Bristol Hippodrome on November 12th 2014. This production continues to tour; destinations and dates can be found here

Monday, 17 November 2014

Book Review: The Other Ida by Amy Mason

The earliest memories of Ida Irons revolve around her mother, faded celebrity playwright Bridie Adair, and her episodes of excessive drinking.

Bridie's alcoholism isn't pretty; it breaks up her marriage and often leaves the young Ida to look after her little sister, Alice, all alone. Ida tries to reassure herself:
Things were nearly always fine, and if they weren't at least it would be an adventure.
Amy Mason's debut novel, The Other Ida, zips back and forth between childhood and a 'present day' setting of 1999. Now Ida's almost thirty and a mess herself; living in a squalid bedsit in London, she's abusing just about every substance she can lay her hands on. Bridie has died and Ida needs to get back home to Bournemouth for the funeral.

Home means confronting all the problems she ran away to escape; her difficult relationship with Alice, and her father's new life with her perfumed step-mother. Most of all, it means dealing with the long shadow of the play Ida's named after; the one her mother wrote before she was born:
She was almost asleep,...,when she realised what was wrong. It was so simple she could hardly believe it. She was the play, wasn't she? It wasn't just her stupid name. And if it was so terrible, so irrelevant, then what on earth was she?
Finding out about the other Ida in the play may help uncover the troubling secrets of her mother's life, but will Ida be able to cope with the discoveries she's about to make?

Real-life Ida isn't the easiest person to love; at first, like the passengers on the coach taking her back home, you might be tempted to give her a wide berth. She's dirty and smelly and she wets the bed when drunk. She's well on her way to becoming the female equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson, starring in her own version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing in Bournemouth, anyone? 

But, as you get to know Ida, you begin to realise she's avoiding a script that's already been written. That she's no good with boundaries because, as a child, she never had any.

Amy Mason won the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize with this, her debut novel. Her writing is full of incisive observation and she's created a gritty, funny and layered story in which key events in fiction are mirrored by reality and repeat themselves across the generations. By baring Ida's soul, Mason does a great job of making you understand and care for her.

Occasionally, a character will leap off the page of a novel with such vitality, you can almost reach out and touch them. By the end of The Other Ida,  I just wanted to grab brave, wild, lost, endearing Ida Irons with both hands and give her a great big hug.

Thanks to Cargo Publishing for the review copy. Pictures courtesy of Cargo Publishing and Amy Mason.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: Institute at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Gecko’s latest creation deals with the stuff of life itself. Institute is a raw, heart-rending, high energy exploration into the triumphs and despair of the human condition, encapsulated in a Kafkaesque world of unfathomable filing cabinets.
Each of the four performers within Institute has their own story to tell, but don’t expect a clear narrative; instead there’s a stream of consciousness in dance form, layers of meaning stretched taut by incredible physicality. There are echoes of Salvador Dali’s surrealist picture City of Drawers here, a body full of secrets waiting to be unlocked.
Amit Lahav directs and appears as Martin in this, Gecko’s sixth show in ten years. He has a rendezvous with Margaret; the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet opens to reveal a lamp-lit table and chairs, together with a pair of disembodied hands representing his beloved. It seems he’s all set for a romantic evening, until flashing red lights and harsh buzzers transport him back to the everyday.
Margaret remains a shape-shifting illusion, an ever-receding fantasy which Martin ends up carrying on his back. It’s his co-worker Daniel who proves to be his greatest source of fellow-feeling; their tightly sequenced dance culminating in a hilarious office meeting. They have become each other’s ticket to surviving the mundane and meaningless ritual of bureaucracy.
Martin and Daniel may be the employees or patients of Louis and his assistant Karl; like so much this is never really clear. The fragmented profusion of spoken English, French and German emphasizes their difficulty in finding a common understanding, yet each has an impulse to catch their fellow human being as they writhe in disjointed agony. Support is provided by crutches and ever more lengthy poles; beginning as close-fitting aids, by the end of the piece their increasingly sinister purpose seems to be to modify and control.
Institute is complex, it could be argued overly so. In a disconnected age, how far are we all still interconnected? With care being more commonly bought as a package, can we rely on each other’s freely given support? And at what stage does the carer turn puppet-master?  These are questions which Gecko typically doesn’t answer readily, but instead asks its audience to contemplate.
Lahav’s fellow performers are Chris Evans, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and François Testory, whose Louis is especially affecting in his attempts to retain control despite growing incapacity. They are thrilling to watch, never more so than in the passages of flowing choreography where they all move as one. The lighting, original music by Dave Price and atmospheric sound design also play an integral part; particularly mesmerising  is the vision of a body which cannot be saved, falling over and over again on the mezzanine.
Institute portrays a world of vulnerability and loss, relieved by an intense human connection ultimately betrayed by the passage of time. The piece’s final golden, frenzied expression of the continuance of life in the midst of grief helps to ensure that, by the end of the performance, there’s a great deal that will stay in its audience’s mind.

This run has now finished at Bristol Old Vic; there are more tour dates here

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Reading The Classics: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I've been reading To The Lighthouse for my on-line course, The Fiction of Relationship. Virginia Woolf's most autobiographical work may well be my favourite of all her novels, and it clearly has a special place in the heart of course tutor Professor Weinstein, too.

Woolf has recreated her own late parents as the book's central characters, Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and their holiday home in the Hebrides is based on her childhood summers in St Ives. The story begins before the outbreak of the First World War; strong emotional currents coursing just beneath the surface are visible from the outset.

Mrs Ramsay promises James, youngest of her brood of eight, that they'll be able to visit the nearby lighthouse next day, provided the weather is good. At this, James is filled with 'an extraordinary joy', until his father makes a passing comment that, of course, the weather won't be fine:
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence.
Mr Ramsay is egotistical and abrupt, apart from his family; an academic and philosopher who, like Woolf's own father Leslie Stephen, is nevertheless in need of constant approval to validate his life.

It is Mrs Ramsay who is the emotional heart of the novel. A woman whose extraordinary beauty affects all those around her, she is often conveyed through the impact she has on others. The odious Charles Tansley falls in love with her and his fellow house-guest Lily Briscoe, painter and spinster surrogate for Virginia herself, loves and observes Mrs Ramsay closely. At the family's dinner party, as she turns to the man next to her:
How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again
Mrs Ramsay breathes life into the house and provides her husband with the love and support he craves:
They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them.
Even though, at other times her feelings are less benevolent:
She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him
As Mrs Ramsay concerns herself with the well-being of family and friends, compelled to match-make those around her, she is also contemplating the 'wedge-shaped core of darkness' in her own soul.

The novel is written in Woolf's exquisitely lyrical stream of consciousness; Professor Weinstein describes it as 'throbbing and full throated.' It imbues every passing moment with depth and overturns the patriarchal point of view that Woolf so famously criticises in A Room of One's Own:
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
Shakespeare combines the domestic with the apocalyptic and political in King Lear and Professor Weinstein argues that in To The Lighthouse, by moving from a settled pre-war scene to the devastating short central section, Time Passes, and its aftermath, Woolf is doing the same.

To The Lighthouse can appear elitist in the twenty-first century, concerning itself with summer homes and dinner party meals of boeuf en daube. Mrs Ramsay is not the role model to women today that she might have been at the time of Woolf's writing; she has no profession and dwells entirely on the domestic. Yet, at a time of great social and class upheaval, she is the provider of social texture, the sole source of fusion, as she induces her family and reluctant guests to break bread together.

In her profound exploration of marriage and adult relationships, Woolf is is as relevant today as she has ever been. And the shocking brutality she introduces in Time Passes, with those we have come to love blotted out in brackets, emphasizes the fragility of our relationships. This is particularly poignant as, one hundred years on, we reflect on the senseless waste of the First World War. 

So what is the significance of the lighthouse? Like Mrs Ramsay, it is a beacon in the waves for human orientation. The sea is fluid, knowing nothing of human emotion, so all that endures is where a connection has taken place. 

In the final part, both reaching the lighthouse years later and Lily's finishing of her painting are paramount:
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
In Lily's thoughts there is also a sense that Virginia has successfully completed the task she set out to achieve; an intimate portrayal of her parents.

The edition of the book shown is published by Harcourt. Image of Virginia Woolf courtesy of The Virginia Woolf Blog.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Theatre Review: The Father by Florian Zeller at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Crossing the bridge of understanding with a fellow human being can often be difficult, especially when that person is suffering from dementia, with a very different reality from our own.
This new translation from the French of Florian Zeller’s play, The Father, uses the immediacy of theatre to create a window into the world of André, an elderly man whose perceptions are constantly shifting. He thinks he’s living in his own flat in Paris, and that his daughter Anne is leaving for London to be with her new partner, Antoine. So why is Anne now telling him he’s moved into the house she shares with her husband Pierre, until they can find him another carer?
From André’s perspective, he may once have been a tap dancer, a circus conjurer or, as his daughter tells him, an engineer. Time doesn’t move in a linear fashion but circles back and forth, with familiar faces becoming unrecognisable before reverting to themselves again. It’s a confusing and often frightening place, where events are fragmented and out of sequence. Small wonder that André blames his daughter for repeating herself and searches for his watch over and over again, to pin a timestamp on the day.
This frail space which Zeller has created is challenging to unpick and unsettling to inhabit, as the simple tasks of dressing and eating become too difficult for André to negotiate. Struggling to cope with her father’s deterioration, Anne’s relationship with her partner suffers. The music splicing scenes together becomes distorted and disconnected and a beading of neon light frames the set, switching on and off a picture that is gradually being stripped of the familiar.
Kenneth Cranham as André delivers a master class in human susceptibility, flickering between the charm he must have effortlessly displayed as a younger man and the intransigence of one who attempts to leave a last, firm tread upon the sand, for fear his footprints may be washed away. His towering performance is matched by the rest of the cast; in particular Lia Williams is outstanding as Anne, navigating conflicting responsibilities and suffering a daughter’s pain as she witnesses one of the pillars of her world being reduced to a mewling infant.
We should sit up and take notice of Zellerwho has already written a number of novels and plays which have been produced all over Europe. The Father won him a prestigious 2014 Molière award for Best Play in his native France and it’s no small achievement that Christopher Hampton agreed to take on its translation.
There is a resilient thread of poignant humour running through James Macdonald’s production, although whether it fits the Ustinov’s season theme of ‘black comedy’ may be open for debate. What is without question is that in this tour de force, the Ustinov is exceeding the already high standards it has set in previous years. The Father is not only a memorable window into a decaying mind, but also a perplexing mirror, confronting its audience with the everyday, isolating exile that so many of us might experience in old age.
Runs until 15th November 2014. Photo: Simon Annand. All seats on Mondays are £10, further information and booking here

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Theatre Review: Stones in His Pockets at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stones in His Pockets has enjoyed phenomenal success since its Irish debut in 1996, with award-winning runs in the West End and on Broadway. Now this entertaining and bittersweet two-hander is returning to tour with its original director, Ian McElhinney, in charge.
A quiet backwater in Kerry has been taken over as a Hollywood film set and its villagers recruited as extras, feasting on the catering facilities and spending their £50 daily reward in the pub. This unfolding story is seen through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, two of the film’s hired crowd of the dispossessed. As its star, Caroline Giovanni , struggles with her atrocious Irish accent, she visits the pub to pick up some local direction and set in motion the most tragic chain of events.
Conor Delaney and Stephen Jones play not only Jake and Charlie but also all the other characters, from sultry Caroline to Mickey, the lifelong extra. Jake has recently returned home from New York and realises that Caroline is only interested in him for his Irish dialect; he shamelessly channels Seamus Heaney and is not unduly put out to be uncovered as a fraud. But young Sean is another matter; drug-dependent and disillusioned with life in rural Ireland, he’s more than ready to be seduced by Hollywood glamour and completely pulled apart by its rejection.
As circumstances change and the locals threaten to boycott filming, the mood darkens to one of resentment with the villagers beginning to reassert themselves against their tyrannical employers. Yet the thread of humour is never lost and unwanted flowers are transported from wedding to funeral, leaving a trail of hay fever in their wake.
Delaney and Jones have both appeared in Stones in His Pockets before, although never together until now. They are a superb combination, inhabiting the play’s fifteen roles with split-second timing and never better than in the dance which brings together so many of their creations. Their freedom of interpretation is enhanced by the minimal backdrop of clouds on a screen, a traditional Irish soundscape and a couple of boxes which they manoeuvre around the stage.
For all its heritage and skill, the ending of this play feels a little too neatly wrapped up. There’s a sense of the space here being too big for the performance and a distance which would be have been naturally overcome in more intimate surroundings. Yet this is still an enjoyable exploration of the triumph of aspiration from the ashes of failure, in the virtuoso company of two fine actors and the world of characters they create.
Reviewed on 19th October 2014.
Stones in his Pockets is on tour in the UK until 18th November 2014, details are here

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

I loved Rachel Joyce's bestselling first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about a man who walks the length of England to save the life of an old friend. Harold's literal and metaphorical journey is a warm, witty and inspiring tale, radiating a sense of hope that it's never to late to atone for past mistakes.

Written from the point of view of the woman who must wait for him, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is Harold Fry's hotly anticipated companion. Queenie is dying of cancer and living out her remaining days in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, when she learns of Harold's walk. She hasn't seen him for more than twenty years and there's still much that has been left unsaid between them.

Queenie may have been robbed of her voice by illness, but with the help of a new volunteer, she quietly and insistently makes herself heard. It's through writing down the truth in this last, heart-rending letter that she comes to believe she can hang on until Harold arrives.

She has moments of doubt that she can make it:
I can't wait for Harold. I am here to die.
 But Sister Mary Inconnue, the nun transcribing her scribbles, doesn't let Queenie off the hook:
Pardon me, but you are here to live until you die. There is a significant difference. 
In between the unfolding chapters of Queenie's life we meet the nuns who are helping to look after her, as well as the other residents of the hospice. There's the irascible Scotsman Mr Henderson, blind Barbara and her escaping glass eye, the Pearly King and loud and colourful Finty. Other patients come and go and Queenie finds herself becoming increasingly used to the sight of the undertaker's van on the drive.

It's possible to read this novel without first knowing Harold Fry's story, but if you do then the episodes of Queenie's past fill the gaps in Harold's with the gratifying precision of a well-cut jigsaw. It seems that Queenie has not so much stood on the shoulders of a giant, as leant her frail weight against Harold's tall frame. But still she still has some resistance of her own:
I didn't want support. I had hosiery for that. I wanted love.
Queenie's discussion with Harold's son about the ordinary ways of loving reminded me of W. H. Auden's O Tell Me the Truth About Love
When it comes, will it come without warning 
Just as I'm picking my nose? 
Will it knock on my door in the morning, 
Or tread in the bus on my toes? 
while her intimate knowledge of every inch of her beach house garden in Embleton Bay made me think of Tove Jansson's innate love of her island in The Summer Book.

Queenie Hennessy may be reflective and almost unbearably sad, but it captures the warts-and-all humour of life while remaining addictively readable. Rachel Joyce has a rare ability to write about profound ideas with an enviable lightness of touch; any doubts I might have felt about the almost heavenly surroundings of Queenie's last days were swept away in the impact of her story's ending. Building on the spirit of Harold Fry's renewal in the first novel, by the end of the second there's a satisfying sense that Queenie Hennessy's life has finally come full circle.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is now out in hardback, published by Doubleday Books. 
Thanks to Transworld Publishers for my review copy. 
Images courtesy of and the Guardian.