Russian Chamber Music: Poetry & Piano

As part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917 series, some events are taking place at the Royal College of Music. I attended a Russian chamber music event entitled Poetry & Piano, featuring RADA students and RCM students in a programme incorporating piano pieces and literature readings from just before, during and just after the revolution.

The programme featured the following pieces, and was really enjoyable.

Reading: Bely – Petersburg (1914)
Prokofiev Visions fugitives op 22
Reading: Balmont – Visions Fugitives (1917)
Reading: Babel – Red Cavalry (1926)
Medtner Piano Sonata in A minor op 30
Prokofiev Sarcasms op 17
Shostakovich Piano Sonata no 1 op 12

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The Lighthouse

Shadwell Opera have come to the Hackney Showroom to perform their latest production: The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies. This one-act opera, first performed in 1980, was inspired by a true story: in 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from their post, and what happened to them was never discovered.

In the confined space of the Showroom, Jack Furness’s inventive low-budget production, designed by Alex Berry, feels right at home. Most of the drama takes place either in the centre, around a table in the middle of the lighthouse, or just behind it on some scaffolding. The orchestra are placed close to the audience.

Davies uses courtroom drama and flashback to tell the story, and it has a distinctly eerie quality. There are only three singers in the piece, Paul Curievici as Sandy, Owain Browne as Blazes and Pauls Putnins as Arthur, and they are all superb, with fantastic vocal and acting ability. I was genuinely unsettled quite often as I watched the show. The music, with its discordant tones, suits the work well. Overall, a memorable production.

Labour of Love

I got up early on my day off, even earlier than I do on a work day, to make sure I got to the day seat queue at the Noel Coward Theatre in plenty of time. A seat in the front row for a tenner is not something to be passed up lightly. Having said that, a theatre bargain is meaningless if you don’t enjoy the play. Luckily I loved it.

James Graham seems to be some kind of super-playwright, churning out great plays at the rate of knots. His plays tend to be political, so I find it impressive that I actually enjoy them. Labour of Love is set in a MP’s office in a working-class area of the Midlands (I can’t bring myself to call it the North) and centres around an MP, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) and his constituency agent Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Grieg) over nearly three decades. We begin close to the present day, just after the most recent election when Corbyn made a better-than-expected showing but David has just lost his seat. The subsequent scenes take us back in time, finally ending up when the new MP arrives in his constituency during the final years of the last Conservative era. After the interval the order is reversed, bringing time forward from the early 90s until we are back in the present day. In between scenes, media clips bring us up to date on what is going on in the Labour party and the wider political world – the ascent of Tony Blair, the death of John Smith, multiple elections – to place everything in context.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is a joy to observe: the entire play is set in the same office, but subtle details and decorations help to fix it in time in every scene. There was a knowing laugh from the audience when David turned on the TV to check the election results on Teletext.

From a purely political point of view I found the play fascinating. I was alive during the entire time period this play covers, but at the time much of it went over the head of my younger apolitical self. Obviously a play is no substitute for historical research, but I feel my knowledge of the period has increased.

Graham is able to capture what is still a common point of contention within Labour: the conflict between more centrist pragmatism, keen to compromise to get into power, and the harder left, more principled but perhaps more difficult to appeal to the electorate. Largely this is shown by the conflict between the play’s principal characters: David, who grew up in the area but went away to Oxford, and Jean, the down-to-earth wife of the area’s former MP. David initially becomes an MP with the intention of using it as a stepping stone to bigger things, encouraged by his wife, who looks like she would be happier with the Tories. Jean cares deeply for the community – she is a resolute part of it – and initially sees David as something of an outsider.

Neither character is a caricature, however: they are both incredibly complex, and the heart of the play is their relationship and how it develops over time. Freeman and Grieg are both superb, supported by a strong cast including Rachael Stirling as David’s wife and Dickon Tyrrell as the old-school Labour head of the council. On a human level, it’s utterly engrossing.

What the play ultimately left me with was hope: hope for people, hope for politics. It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

I love Shakespeare, and I normally like to see professional productions, but every year up and down the country schoolchildren of all ages perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays on ‘proper’ theatre stages, and I thought this might be interesting. I attended the performance at the Broadway Theatre in Catford (also admittedly because I wanted to see inside this theatre, as I’d only ever visited the studio before).

The plays performed were Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Macbeth, with slightly older children performing the latter. The plays were abridged in such a way that it was still easy to follow the story, and the youngsters had clearly worked hard on their productions. The actors in the lead roles were particularly strong. Overall an enjoyable evening.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

The title of Simon Stephens’ 90-minute two-hander at Wyndhams Theatre is actually pretty misleading. It sounds like it’s a play about a scientist, a bit like Photograph 51 starring Nicole Kidman a while back, but it’s actually a story about a relationship. Theoretical physicist Heisenberg is mentioned by name and his uncertainty principle – the idea that you can’t know both the precise location and the speed or direction of travel of a particle at any one time – is referred to and is the ethos of the play. However, that’s as far as it goes.

The play opens with a woman, Georgie, meeting Alex, an elderly butcher, at a railway station. The unusual relationship develops with the outspoken and exuberant Georgie as the main instigator, self-contained Alex being a bit shy. There’s something of a twist towards the middle of the play, which I hadn’t expected but which did make sense the more I thought about it. Overall, it’s a touching piece about two lonely people and how their relationship develops.

It’s a well-written and often funny play, but it really needs two first-class actors to make the most of it. Luckily it has them in the shape of Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, who lend their characters depth and warmth. Bunny Christie’s set is stark but perfectly suitable, and I liked the way the walls moved in and out, reflecting the kind of scene that was taking place.

In summary, ignoring the title and taking the play on its own terms would be my recommended course of action, as it’s definitely worth seeing even though it’s nothing like I thought it was going to be.

Piano Recital: Folk and Fairytales

I attended a lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music entitled Folk and Fairytales. The concert, made up of piano pieces performed by Frederic Bager and Teresa de la Escalera, included the following:

Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses, op.54
Granados: Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor
Bartók: Suite, op.14
Prokofiev: Tales of an Old Grandmother, op.31
Chopin: Waltz in F minor, op.70 no.2 Polonaise in F sharp minor, op.44

Notorious: The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein

And now for something completely different. Notorious, by performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, sounded quite interesting and I’m always up for seeing new things. Different, it certainly was.

Walking into the Barbican’s Pit auditorium, we were met with a warm and welcoming scene: comfortable armchairs, lamps and a crackling fire. This made the first scene particularly incongruous: the curtain parted to reveal three – creatures? women? – covered with long hair, hanging from the ceiling. This tableau remained for an uncomfortable amount of time, and if the intention was to unsettle us, it certainly worked.

From then the show, which had the feel of a variety performance, featured scenes of Holstein dancing to contemporary pop songs, on one occasion whipping herself with a dead octopus, interspersed with scenes in which she and her companions – all with long, tangled wigs as if to represent witches – confessed their sins to the audience. In one memorable scene, Holstein inserted a fake eyeball into her vagina while one of her companions filmed it, projected onto the curtain like the giant eye of Sauron. In another, she urinated onto a pile of popping candy, before lying in it, staring at the audience for an unsettling length of time.

Holstein does have interesting points to make about feminism and the portrayal of women in the media and in everyday life; the conversational aspects of the show were the most interesting. At one point she pointed at the ceiling and commented on the fact that Shakespeare was up there in the big theatre while she was relegated to the Pit. I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t want to be up there watching Coriolanus.

I admit I was pretty bewildered by much of the show, but then again I can’t help admiring Holstein’s bravery. She certainly has the capacity to shock and unsettle, and knows how to break taboos with aplomb. I don’t know if I’d rush to see another performance like this one, but I don’t regret giving this a try – at least it was an experience.