Roderic Dunnett looks back on his 2018 highlights
One of the pleasures of being part of Behind the Arras is the skill of our editors, Roger and Sue, at selecting shows that tally closely with the interests of their writers.
I have been sent to numerous shows over the past few years that have perfectly suited my passions: for the Greek and Roman classics (the RSC’s Cicero cycle); for medieval history (two new plays about Richard III); for Shakespeare but also his less familiar contemporaries; and so on.
It’s satisfying to be penning alongside an incisive and supportive group of colleagues, who enhance BTA’s reputation and give pleasure, hopefully, to its discerning and widening readership.
I have been introduced to The Old Joint Stock pub and theatre company, who perform in many unusual venues. Their The Full Monty was a treat, even rivalling the film starring Tom Wilkinson and co.; also to a wonderful new play, Nell Gwyn, in Leamington Spa; and to The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich - a hilarious stagework presented on tip-top comic form in the RSC’s sensational Swan Theatre.
Four 2018 events stick most in the mind, all five star, but which I have not (through illness, but to my shame) done ample justice to.
The first, following the RSC’s triumphant staging of the mighty Tamburlaine (Christopher Marlowe), is their unusual take on Molière’s Tartuffe (running till Saturday 23 February).
This production, classed by the company as ‘a wicked new comedy’, a verdict agreed on by many of the nationals (‘Biting Satire’; ‘Striking new take on Molière’; or ‘Just what theatre needs’), ran initially into doubts from other critics. These did not approve – and they had some point here – turning a 17th century comic masterpiece (Molière’s works are scandalously neglected on the British stage) into a questionable modern-day Indian sub-continent extravaganza (translated and adapted by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, already Bafta- and Emmy- award winners, known for Citizen Khan and Goodness Gracious Me), with a cast of almost entirely Asian-originating performers.
The whole wheeze, originally proposed by the RSC boss Greg Doran (‘a bloody good idea’, as the writers put it) seemed forced, inappropriate, perhaps inept.
And I might be inclined to agree, had not Director Iqbal Khan made such a feisty, tightly staged, in-yer-face and endlessly witty offering out of the material, which as in Molière teases out issues of, in particular, religious difference and diversity.
Iqbal’s namesake Asif Khan made such a terrific showing in the title role, as the manoeuvring, endlessly fibbing Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (=Tar-t-uffe, get it?), and the brilliant (young!) Amina Zia (as the side-splitting, amazingly subtly moved granny figure, Dadimaa Pervaiz), that one often found oneself helpless with laughter.
All of these performers have a striking list of past roles, none more so than James Clyde, one of (perhaps) the few non-oriental Brits in the cast, but a match for all the others (as he must be, playing the friend, Khalil), whose list of credits almost falls off the page – including five Shakespeare (he has just added a sixth, Timon of Athens) and one other (Matilda) for the RSC - who brought a terrific counterbalancing personality and punch to this staging.
Asif Khan as Tartuffe.
Picture Topher McGrillis
Asif Khan as Tartuffe. Picture Topher McGrillis
The cast was riddled with successes (not least Sasha Behar, and Simon Nagra), who kept up the wisecracks and badinage, echoing the best characteristics of RSC hilarity since at least the 1950s (The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives, The Comedy of Errors); indeed all of them without exception – this was brilliantly cast in depth - turned 17th century Parisian waggery into a marvel of modern-day Brummy raciness (to be honest, ‘Ungrateful little shit’ could just as easily have figured on Molière’s Louis XIV stage (most of his daring work was penned with Royal Patronage in the 1660s).
It was not all giggles. ‘Forgiveness is all very well, but piety is more important’; ‘I do not need to be rational, I must follow the word of Allah’ (fervent, or ironic? - or perhaps both). ‘Spending a lot of time on Wikipedia’, and ‘YouTube’, are just minor examples of this cheeky updating. But Umayyad (7th - 8th C) and Abbasid (8th C onwards) Caliphates also get a look in. Conversely, there is a hoot of an attempted ‘seduction’ scene.
Some soft, occasionally ironic, and delightfully original music (Sarah Sayeed), contrasting with the occasional appearance of Rap, Rag and Tabla, helped no end. Bretta Gerecke’s quite spare set had many witty light touches, a pink sofa managing to appear particularly tongue-in-cheek Bollywood.
One complaint, and it is a major one, directed at not just the RSC (prominent offenders) but many major theatre companies. Whereas in Opera you always get a synopsis, straight theatre has all but dispensed with them. Thus, although here you get essay after essay – all fascinating and instructive, and a list of credits, neither tells the audience who’s who, or what’s going on. Synopses are incredibly helpful, and audiences need them. At the very least, I wanted to know, from the cast list, who was really Orgon, Elmire, Pernelle (the original granny), the amorous Valère, Cléante, and so on. At least the relationships (‘stepdaughter’, ‘family friend’) are explained. But why give Tartuffe’s real name, yet omit the others?
I suppose the argument might be that plot summaries give the game away. But except for, say, The Mousetrap, so what? This omission insults, certainly does not help, audiences, and should be rectified. If there must be fourteen pages of ‘explanation’ (all fascinating), plus a spread of rehearsal photos, for heaven’s sake make one of these a play synopsis. In something like Brummyised Tartuffe it’s crucial, but the same goes for every other stagework. It helps. So what’s so wrong?
The composer Janáček has proved one of Welsh National Opera’s huge ongoing successes: Katie Mitchell’s delicate staging of Kátya Kabanová was a classic of British Theatre. David Pountney, since his ENO ‘Powerhouse’ days (Richard Jonas, Pountney and Mark Elder), has made himself an inspiring expert on not just this composer, but on all Czech and East European Opera. His 2017 From the House of the Dead was a revelation of how to turn a Russian labour camp into an extraordinary gathering of clearly - and movingly - defined individuals. He took us into the heart of desolation – and hope. These were real people, and they had hearts and souls and even, despite their plight, aspirations and optimism.
But just as Pountney, WNO’s Artistic Director, revealed Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina as the massive, yet brilliantly followable, tale of political machination that its four-odd hours make it (although remember, Graham Vick’s ‘community’ production for Birmingham Opera Company in 2015, The Khovansky Affair’, achieved something pretty comparable), so Pountney has now braved something yet more largescale with War and Peace, surely Prokofiev’s most important opera (though he wrote several others, a few of them scarcely seen).
It falls into two halves:’ Peace’, which is surely a misnomer, for there is as much machinating as in Verdi’s Masked Ball, directed by Pountney last season; and outright ‘War’. Stalin, famous for terrifying artists, seemingly found no grounds – for the subject was actually an evocation of the events around Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and subsequent defeat – for banning or demonising it when it was staged at Leningrad’s Maly (‘small’, surely another misnomer) Theatre in 1946. Prokofiev reworked or tinkered with parts of it right up to its next main staging, in 1956, by then the Khrushchev years. It reached London in 1972 with two marvellous character singers, tenor Kenneth Woollam and bass Norman Bailey, heading the cast, under the versatile conductor David Lloyd-Jones.
But this is history. The source, or inspiration, was Tolstoy’s vast 19th century novel. Apart from the invaluable programme synopsis (see above), WNO still managing 14 pages of background material, what made this production an additional treat from start to finish was the marvellous, richly conceived costumes, by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Romanian-born but another Czech-Russian opera specialist; somewhat awesome sets from the brilliant Robert Innes Hopkins; and electrifying lighting from Malcolm Rippeth.
It’s the military genius General Kutuzov (Simon Bailey, wise and amazingly moving), who is faced with the major decision of whether to abandon Moscow to Napoleon (David Stout, usually a magnificent presence, yet who deserved better direction here to make a real impact, though the Emperor’s flummoxed and unaccustomed indecision he excellently evoked).
Kutuzov – then 67: he died a year later - involves his staff in the decision but takes full responsibility himself; and surely made the greatest impact of all the cast. But Jonathan McGovern (Prince Andrei, with fabulous projection, and allotted at least one gorgeous rhapsody), Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Mark Le Brocq (Pierre) brought the personal side of the plot fine sensibility; Adrian’s Dwyer’s gave strong characterisation to the emotionally intrusive Anatole; and a host of major and minor figures served up convincing vignettes.
A host, because many of them doubled parts, some taking as many as four to six different roles: Prokofiev’s cast, like Tolstoy’s, is ginormous – (Pountney alludes to War and Peace’s ‘razor sharp depiction of a huge gallery of characters’). The WNO chorus’s enunciation of Rita McAllister’s translation was second to none: but one has come to expect that from WNO’s ever-involved massed forces. The hero again was Pountney: the internal movement amongst the chorus was, time and again, masterfully engineered; that includes one amazing moment when all as one suddenly sit; all this manoeuvring, far from irrelevant, is vital to the impact of the whole.
For once, Pountney’s love of bevies of trudging figures (Martinů, Weinberg, etc.) is more justified than ever. The relationship between the (latterly disgraced) Nastasha and her maid, and indeed the courting scene, made rather beautiful contrasts to the rugged chaps, bound up in the approaching war and prospective final stand against the increasingly bogged down French.
A brief kerfuffle of seven-strong dancing struck me as a bit so-so, but not because of the score – Prokofiev’s instrumentation and galvanising syncopation, together with dramatic skill and artistry at expressing and underlining the story, is a marvel. His thrilling music for Eisenstein’s second world war film Alexander Nevsky, his ballet Romeo and Juliet, and indeed elements of his friend Shostakovich (Symphonies 3 and 4, for instance) all figure. WNO’s orchestra excelled as usual, with solo flute, some trudging double bass, trumpet and an almost buzzing tuba making a particular impression.
There is some stunningly eloquent singing, not least from Chetham’s (Manchester)-schooled and former Royal Opera Jette-Parker young artist James Platt (Tikhon) in this otherwise war-drumming section.
Is it a cheat to show large passages of
monochrome film above the action, like a hyperactive
A rather wooden Shakespearian 1950s parody of not very convincing Wars of the Roses, of Richard II or Richard III combat, would scarcely suffice for this Napoleon-cum-Hitler standoff. David Haneke designed the Video Projection, so perfectly synchronised, working marvels. It was mind-blowingly good.
Still on the opera front, if not exactly, I managed to worm my way into English National Opera’s late autumn staging of Britten’s War Requiem. This ran a risk. Deborah Warner’s staged version of Bach’s St. John Passion struck me, to my surprise, as remarkably limp: hordes of chorus floating up and down stage to scant effect. Stephen Layton’s delivery of the music made up for that, for he is a period instrument specialist. Jonathan Miller’s staging of the St. Matthew Passion in a West London church (Holy Trinity, Sloane St.) set the ball rolling a quarter of a century ago and succeeded precisely because it realised that less equals more.
Roderick Williams in the ENO
staging of Britten's War Requiem. Picture: Richard Hubert
Roderick Williams in the ENO staging of Britten's War Requiem. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith
ENO fielded their top team for this War Requiem. Daniel Kramer, its Artistic Director, did the staging and Music Director Martyn Brabbins, already proving a pleasingly sensible appointment, took on the music. I have something to field opposite this, for I had the same couple of weeks heard the Requiem in its original Midlands location, Coventry Cathedral, with the (now) Coventry Cathedral Chorus conducted by the 40-plus years Coventrian (and frequently music director of BBC TV’s long-running Songs of Praise), Paul Leddington Wright, and by Simon Over, who went from school in Coventry to found the hugely successful Southbank Sinfonia and Parliament Choir.
So much was right about this Coventry performance that I cannot praise it too highly. But the highlight for me, undoubtedly, was the young soloists Gwilym Bowen, a former Hereford boy chorister (his father is that Cathedral’s Director of Music and recently presided over a hugely successful 2018 Three Choirs Festival), who is carving an enviable name as a concert and operatic tenor. The diction, the drama, the intensity, the passion of his delivery of Wilfred Owen’s savagely biting poetry, with Over accompanying, could scarcely have been bettered: more terrifying, or more touching.
Move on the Coliseum and the outstanding figure there was the baritone, Roderick Williams. He is widely known as a marvellous solo singer of English music, unearthing and restoring many little-known gems. But Williams is also, like Bowen, an opera performer. The first time I saw him visually dramatise anything was in the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ legendary in-your-face music theatre work Eight Songs for a Mad King. He made an impressive stab at it. Much later, Williams brought character to a rare staging – at ENO’s original home (Sadlers’ Wells) of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress/ That was pretty good. His title role for Opera North in another Britten work, Billy Budd, was particularly moving near the end, in the great lilting soliloquy as Billy, sentenced to hang, takes his leave of the world.
Ever sensitive and invariably inspired and inspiring, Williams is perhaps not quite a top-notch actor; but he can be when nursed appropriately. What struck one here was the athleticism, the sense of irony and even mischief, with which he found layers in the baritone arias, and especially the almost scampering first duet (‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death….’ ‘He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed at us / Shrapnel.’).
The soprano, the immensely gifted opera actress Emma Bell, I not sure came across as well as the increasingly impressive Ilona Domnich in the cathedral acoustic (‘Lacrimosa’); nor could ENO’s David Butt Philip match the marvellously articulate and even savage – and, so crucially, youthful - Bowen. But the long-impressive (now celebrating their 60th year) Finchley Children’s Music Group proved almost as dazzlingly good as the Cathedral boys’ and girls’ choir under Kerry Beaumont, whose expert nursing has turned the Coventry forces into easily one of the most enthralling cathedral choirs in the country, filling the choirstalls with brilliant young talent where previously there was none.
Before their closing ‘In Paradisum’, and their bell-accompanied, haunting augmented fourths or diminished fifths (the close balancing the original ‘Requiem aeternam’), at Coventry the final duet, the tenor’s ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped…’ and the German’s ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, so aptly originated with Peter Pears (Owen’s Tommy) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (the Hun), was utterly searing. If anything was needed to confirm the work a masterpiece and Britten a genius, here it was.
I have seen a little less amateur theatre this year. Yet early this winter I found myself at the Criterion Theatre in Earlsdon. The Criterion company, launched in 1961 in Coventry, has had a mixed career. Periodically it has failed to hit the jackpot.
But now the Cri, as it is fondly known, has really picked up. I missed their Christmas offering, Alan Bennett’s adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. There wasn’t a ticket to be had. Marvellous.
But I couldn’t resist nipping down (again a last seat available) to see their staging of I Am Shakespeare, a fascinating look at who ‘really’ wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Nor would I miss, for anything, Ann-marie Greene’s staging of a play written by none other than Sir Mark Rylance, my theatrical hero, whether in man’s or woman’s clothes.
And there HE was, as I’d fervently prayed, in Coventry that Friday night! His play, a collaboration (2007) which easily predated the 2011 film Anonymous starring Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford (played here by Pete Meredith) features a delightful, and perceptive, tussle between a motley gang of characters circling around ‘Shakspar’ himself (Alan Fenn). It’s as intriguing as an Agatha Christie, or Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (which exonerates Richard III, one of Mark Rylance’s more shamelessly evil portrayals).
Rylance’s play starts as it unfolds, highly entertainingly, with a very funny opening soliloquy. Right from the start, the Criterion company’s subtlety and precision must have delighted their knight-visitor, who has not seen it staged – ludicrously, for it is so pithily crafted, agile and smart - since that original London production. A travesty.
There was a medley of clever detail: wobbly legs, a bit like David Troughton on Speed; some marvellously expressive use of the eyes (surely, like so much else, an input by the Director); an utterly charming young Policeman, doubling (Samuel Grant); allusions of their day, to ‘necromancers’, and, inevitably, ‘pederasts’, plus some scrumptious more acceptable lust; side-allusions to Gandalf, and to Freud; phonecalls; likewise a witty sequence involving a chat show hotline; a spectacularly well-sourced Geordie accent.
‘There are more books written about my plays than about the Bible…’. Yes, but not about him. The basis of the argument (there is a website, https://doubtaboutwill.org, which perhaps overstates the case) is that the mentions of Shakespeare dating from his time are staggeringly few.
And that the tombstone in Holy Trinity Church has been meddled with; that this (Brummy-speaking) Shakspere, from a known Stratford family (his father an alderman and in effect mayor) in not really, in fact in no sense, a writer or leading playwright: more likely, a trader. The evidence for these doubters is virtually as flimsy as for the believers, but they are right in saying that the matter should be opened up, to and by academics.
By introducing, one or two characters (Frank Charlton, a Coventry-based Shakespearian authenticity specialist) alongside real and significant participants in the debate: Edward de Vere (Oxford), Lady Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon (another candidate) the author(s) open up the debate additionally to enquiring modern minds and, in a way, pays tribute to the acumen of its audiences.
The Criterion team was on top form. George Rippon’s shifts of, for example, yellow to white lighting (for TV) and back were especially effective; thus the lights and other essential adjuncts - sound (Dave Cornish), original music (Paul Forey, also ‘Barry Wild’ in the cast), should match the cast’s and director’s adroitness obviously counted for much. Will proclaims his genuineness: ‘I was your Will, for my name is Will … not Edward (Oxford); not Francis (Bacon).’
The thrill that night was that Sir Mark spent 20 minutes with the audience, and then another at least 20 minutes with the cast. How one applauded that. His modesty alone is a lesson in how to be a human being.
I am Shakespeare. Well, was he or wasn’t he? This was not only a first-class play, but a delicious tease as well. Great for staging by amateurs and professionals alike. Come on some of you, pick it up and run with it.
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