Stravinsky Series: Tales

The second concert in the Stravinsky Myths & Rituals series was subtitled Tales, and consisted of two short operas and another piece, all semi-staged.

Igor Stravinsky: Renard – chamber opera in 1 act (semi-staged)
Igor Stravinsky: Mavra – opera in 1 act (semi-staged)
Igor Stravinsky: Les Noces for soloists, chorus, 4 pianos & percussion (semi-staged)

Renard is a piece I have seen before, and while nothing can compare with the amazing Puppet Opera version in which the characters of the Fox, the Cock, the Cat and the Ram were played by kitchen utensils, this version, staged by Russian theatre director Irina Brown, was highly amusing. Mavra, based on a comic poem by Pushkin, was also good fun, and ‘Les Noces’, a celebration of a Russian peasant wedding, was intriguing: interestingly, this final piece did not have surtitles as it is apparently not possible to translate the original Russian literally. I wish they had tried, though.

In Context: Russian Comedy on the British Stage

I love Russian theatre, and on my day off recently decided to attend an event at the National Theatre. In Context: Russian Comedy on the British Stage was chaired by Julie Curtis, Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford, and featured Suhayla El-Bushra, who recently adapted Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide for the National, and Noah Birksted-Breen, Artistic Director of Sputnik Theatre Company which has premiered many modern Russian plays in the UK.

The event, which took place in the Cottesloe Room of the Clore Learning Centre (next to the Dorfman Theatre), began with a discussion of the history behind The Suicide in particular. Julie Curtis explained that Nikolai Erdman came to prominence in Soviet Russia with the Theatre of Revolutionary Satire, which had the job of staging Soviet propaganda: simple leaflets wouldn’t do, as most of the population was illiterate. His work was linked with that of Meyerkhold, a director whose attempts to move away from realism towards a more visual theatrical language marked a break with the Russian theatrical tradition of Stanislavsky. Later, he wrote for the unlikely-sounding NVKD Song and Dance Ensemble. His play The Suicide was written around 1930, an unfortunate time in many respects. For the majority of the 1920s, Soviet society following the civil war was relatively stable; with the NEP in place, artists and writers enjoyed relative freedom. However, from around 1929 onwards there were greater restrictions and further persecution of artists. In 1930, satire was declared unnecessary within the Soviet Union: as society was now perfect, satire was no longer needed. In addition, the acclaimed Soviet poet Mayakovsky committed suicide, making the staging of a play called The Suicide particularly problematic. In the end, Erdman was arrested, though he was later released and got off pretty lightly all things considered. The Suicide was not staged: the first production took place in Sweden, not long before Erdman died in 1970.

The event then moved on to discuss modern Russian theatre, the “low spot” between 1991 and 1995 and subsequent resurgence with plays like Bogaev’s Russian National Mail (1996) and the work of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century there has been a resurgence in fringe theatre, such as teatr.doc, and acclaimed new writing such as Yaroslava Pulinovich’s Joan (2014), about the rise of a businesswoman who initially gains power during the post-Soviet era of “gangster capitalism”.

Throughout the afternoon we were treated to various scenes and excerpts from Russian plays by a group of National Theatre actors, Ayesha Antoine, Liz Hill, Adrian Richards and Rebecca Scroggs. We saw the same scene from both the original and the updated versions of The Suicide, a scene from Joan, and extracts from Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Bulgakov’s The White Guard. These scenes were a treat: I particularly liked seeing the comparative scenes from The Suicide: I haven’t seen the updated version, but I have seen a production of the original, and it was fascinating to see the changes that were made. I have to say, however, that the spirit of the original remained, even though the characters were different, and credit must go to Suhayla El-Bushra for ensuring this was the case.

The extracts from the other plays served to illustrate the breadth and depth of Russian comedy through the generations. The social satire of The White Guard and the broader comedy of The Government Inspector were great fun, and I really enjoyed the scene from Joan, which reminded me a little of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. I would definitely like to see a full production of this play: Noah Birksted-Breen translated the work and suggested that there may be a possibility of a London production at some point – I really hope so.

I really enjoyed my afternoon: I hoped to learn more about Russian comedy and I certainly did. This was my first “educational” event at the National, but I don’t think it will be my last.

Lovers of Viorne

Marguerite Duras’ 1968 play Lovers of Viorne was based on a notorious real-life murder, aiming to explore what makes someone commit this weighty crime. Why did Claire, a quiet middle-aged woman, kill her cousin and transport the body parts around the country? This production by Frontier Theatre is performed in the Theatre Room and directed by James Roose-Evans.

The play, which runs for around an hour and a half without an interval, is unfortunately rather static, with the actors spending most of their time seated at tables. The play consists of two acts, during which an Interrogator (Kevin Trainor) interviews Claire’s husband Pierre (Martin Turner) and then Claire herself, so there isn’t much scope for dynamism or movement.

That said, performances are strong all round, particularly from Charlotte Cornwell as Claire who can switch from perfectly reasonable to angry and rather unhinged in the blink of an eye. The text, too, is compelling, as the Interrogator’s questions probe ever deeper in an attempt to discover the truth.

An intriguing and thoughtful play, this is worth catching.

Romeo and Juliet

After the triumph of The Winter’s Tale, I was looking forward to the next Shakespeare in the Branagh Theatre season at the Garrick, Romeo and Juliet. Starring Richard Madden and Lily James, the production was obviously designed to pull in the teen crowd, but then why not? Newcomers to Shakespeare are always welcome, but I hoped there would be something there for old hands like me, too.

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production has the stylish feel of a black and white Fifties film: it’s Italian setting is made explicit through the use of snatches of Italian, which do have the effect of livening up the street scenes. In this context, the rival families of Montague and Capulet seem almost like gangsters.

Richard Madden’s Romeo is an upright young man, more concerned with love than fighting: he comes across as older in body and mind than the teenager he is supposed to be. Lily James, by contrast, is an incredibly young Juliet, at least at the beginning: she wears pyjamas and does cartwheels across the stage, and during the famous balcony scene swigs champagne from the bottle like a naughty teen tasting alcohol for the first time. Her Juliet really develops throughout the play, and by the time she resolves to fake her own death and wait in the tomb for Romeo, you can tell that she has grown up considerably.

The play benefits from inspired casting in several roles, most notably Derek Jacobi as a superb older Mercutio, and Meera Syal as a very funny nurse. I also liked Michael Rouse as the head of the Capulet family, who shocked as an abusive bully under a veil of sophistication and charm.

I don’t suppose Romeo and Juliet will ever be my favourite Shakespeare play, but I did enjoy this production, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

Stravinsky Series: Rituals

The Philharmonia Orchestra is having a Stravinsky season this year: it’s called Myths & Rituals, and as someone who loves ‘The Rite of Spring’, I’ve been determined to attend every concert in the season. Most of them are taking place in the Royal Festival Hall, including this first concert, subtitled Rituals.

Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (vers. rev. 1947)
Igor Stravinsky: Agon – ballet
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

The opening piece was a short, unusual but memorable one. The second, the ballet Agon, was semi-staged, powerful and ritualistic. I wasn’t familiar with it, but I did enjoy it. The concert ended with ‘The Rite of Spring’, which remains one of my favourite pieces of classical music. Performed alone without an accompanying staged ballet, the music loses none of its impact.

Yugen – the mysterious elegance of classical Noh

As part of the Noh Reimagined weekend at Kings Place, a number of performances and workshops took place. I like exploring and learning about different kinds of theatre, and the Japanese tradition of Noh is one I’ve often wanted to find out more about.

I attended Yugen – the mysterious elegance of classical Noh, a production featuring highlights from the classical Noh plays Tenko and Toru, both by the foremost Noh playwright-performer Zeami (1363-1443). Yoshimasa Kanze performs as the main dancer-actor, with musicians Yukihiro Isso, Mitsuhiro Kakihara, Mitsuhiro Kakihara and Yoshitani Kiyoshi.

The website description relates the plots of the plays as follows:

“Tenko refers to a celestial hand drum and is also the name of a boy who possesses this amazing drum. The boy had refused to give the drum to the emperor and drowned when the drum was taken from him. But when the drum makes no sound when played for the emperor, a memorial service is held for the boy. There, the ghost of Tenko appears and dances, then disappears between waking and dreaming as day breaks. Toru was a prince who retired from court to spend the rest of his life elegantly enjoying arts in his country home where he re-created a replica of Shiogama Bay with its pine trees and beautiful moon. In the play, he appears to a travelling priest and dances in the moonlight.”

This performance was completely different from anything else I have ever seen, the music and singing hard to get used to but eventually I succumbed to the rhythm of it, it was eerie and otherworldly and atmospheric. The costumes and masks were also highly unusual compared to what I usually see, but it had a strong effect on me. The performers are clearly highly talented and the experience was a surreal one.

Ex Cathedra: Shakespeare Odes

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Ex Cathedra have reconstructed eighteenth-century actor David Garrick’s Ode to the Bard, using original period instruments. Garrick, who was instrumental in instigating Shakespearean celebrations in his own time, organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford upon Avon in 1769, performing his Ode with music by Thomas Arne.

Alongside the Ode, a new Ode, composed by Sally Beamish and written by Carol Ann Duffy, is being performed. I saw both pieces on their London appearance at Milton Court Concert Hall.

Garrick’s Ode, narrated by Samuel West, was an intriguing historical piece, offering insights into eighteenth-century perceptions of Shakespeare. I also enjoyed the new Ode more than I had expected to, a witty exploration of Shakespeare’s life with an enthusiastic choir of children.