Ionesco Double Bill: The Bald Prima Donna and Jacques

Eugène Ionesco is not a playwright I had come across before I saw a double bill of his work at the Network Theatre, a small space underneath Waterloo Station. A Romanian by birth (he was born Eugen Ionescu), he wrote mostly in French and lived much of his life in France. He was one of the foremost figures of the French avant-garde theatre scene, and his work has been described as belonging to the “theatre of the absurd”.

The first play performed was The Bald Prima Donna, sometimes translated as The Bald Soprano. This bizarre tale involved an ordinary suburban couple from London making conversation, inviting another couple over for a visit, and interacting with their maid and the local fire chief. It was exceptionally odd, with ordinary remarks passed off as surprising and the most unusual happenings seen as perfectly ordinary. It was a bit repetitive at times, and overall it was a bit weird even for me, but I did enjoy the absurdity and much of the play was very funny.

The second play, Jacques, also known as The Submission, wasn’t quite as good as the first but had the same kind of bizarre and absurd atmosphere. The surreal play involved Jacques’ arranged marriage to Roberta and later Roberta II, who ends up with three noses (!).

Directed by Paul Hoskins and Nigel Williams, the plays were exceptionally well acted by a hugely talented cast – particularly impressive considering that this is an amateur theatre. The cast drew every ounce of absurdity and humour out of the plays, turning what could have been a slightly tedious evening into a very funny one.

Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

First premiering in 1843, Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was highly successful from the start. Tim Albery’s production had all but sold out at the Royal Opera House when I managed to bag a return slips ticket for £9.

This was my first experience of a Wagner opera, and I was attracted by the story. The legend of the Flying Dutchman is a well-known one: a variant even appears in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The character has been cursed for eternity, and is only allowed ashore once in every seven years. On one such occasion, he meets Senta, who offers hope of redemption, but his jealousy and concern for her may end their relationship before it has begun.

Bryn Terfel excelled in the title role, lending depth and sadness to his character. I was also very impressed by Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta. I enjoyed the music and the ensemble performances, which were first-class, as I’ve come to expect from the Royal Opera House. Michael Levine’s set was a simple but effective curved hull, representing the ship as well as the loneliness of the two central characters. For a production that was two and a half hours without an interval, however, I do wish there had been rather less water on stage! Having said that, the time flew by and I enjoyed this dramatic and atmospheric production.

Eugene Onegin

I tend to have mixed experiences with non-traditional theatre performances. Sometimes, modernist productions strike me as pointless and pretentious. The Moscow Vakhtangov Theatre’s Rimas Tuminas-directed expressionist version of Eugene Onegin, however, is a triumph, capturing the spirit of Pushkin’s great poem in a way a more traditional interpretation would hardly expect to.

With two actors playing Onegin – a young, black-clad individual and a sadder and wiser older man – and a hugely talented, heartbreakingly moving Tatiana (Eugeniya Kregzhde), the story follows the track of the poem, from Onegin’s initial friendship with Lensky and the duo’s visits to Olga and Tatiana’s estate, through to the fatal duel and the subsequent rejection of Onegin by Tatiana. Adomas Jacovskis’ set is simple but gorgeous, with a mirrored backdrop and basic but effective props, like Tatiana’s metal bed and the ingeniously-designed stagecoach.

After a huge emotional journey, the end of the production is deeply moving. My only criticism is of the surtitles: I was sitting at the far end of the Upper Circle, and the green surtitles were sometimes obscured by the lighting. This was slightly distracting, but not as much as it might have been, as it was possible to follow the gist of the performance without knowing exactly what they were saying. Altogether, a powerful evening of theatre.

Major Barbara

I’m familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s works, but this was my first experience of Major Barbara, his powerful drama about money and morality. It turned out to be a longer play than I’d expected, but the time flew by.

This first-class amateur production from the Tower Theatre Company, directed by Jacqui Marchant-Adams, was superb. With Wildean wit and the kind of pertinent yet complex social commentary you only get with Shaw, the play made me laugh but also question my own values and beliefs. Like every other Shaw play I’ve seen, I was left impressed by how relevant it continues to be.

The cast was superb. Ella Imms was wonderful as the titular character, a daughter of a wealthy family who has devoted her life to the Salvation Army. She undergoes the biggest change in the play as she has to try to reconcile her strong moral views with her father’s profitable yet dubious work as an arms manufacturer. Niall Bishop was also excellent as Andrew Undershaft, whose genial manner and matter-of-fact approach to his business belied the very real harm his products obviously caused. Among the rest of the cast, Gerry Skeens as Lady Britomart and Alex Buckley as Barbara’s intended Adolphus Cusins were standouts, but really, all the cast deserved praise.

The set was simple but effective, comprising a drawing-room, a Salvation Army headquarters and the site of the arms factory. In fact, although this was an amateur production I’m not sure what a professional production could have done better. Definitely recommended.

Man: Three Plays by Tennessee Williams (Summer at the Lake, Auto-Da-Fé, The Strangest Kind of Romance)

I managed to nab a ticket to Man: Three Plays by Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic’s Clare studio. This set of three short plays were performed by the same cast; though unrelated, they explored similar themes, focused around the trials and tribulations of young men.

The first, Summer at the Lake (1937), saw a mother telling her son that their husband and father was demanding that they leave their house in the country by the lake and go to the city, where the son must take a job. The nervous mother moved around the stage restlessly; the lethargic son stared out of the window until he got up to go and swim in the lake, from where he would never return. The second, Auto-Da-Fé (1941), concerned another mother and son: the son told his mother, hesitantly, in fits and starts, that he had discovered some “filth” at the post office where he worked. She, horrified, ordered him to burn it: we learned that the picture is actually of him with another man. The final play, The Strangest Kind of Romance (1942), was about a lonely man’s relationship with his adopted cat.

The sparse set seemed to have been inspired by the recent production of A View from the Bridge. It employed traverse staging, sharp lighting and a large contraption that resembled an art installation and was used as a windowsill often during the production. Despite the bareness, Finn Beames’ production often felt quite intimate. As the main character in each of the plays, Nikesh Patel gave strong performances: in particular, the expression on his face as he looked at the illicit picture in the second play was heartbreaking. In Summer he conveyed the languid indifference of the son, and in the final piece his awkwardness around his landlady coupled with his openness and relaxed air around his pet cat was fascinating to see. Justine Mitchell, who also appeared in all three plays, was also excellent as, in the first two, the mother, and in the last, the landlady and would-be lover. Sam Cox and Janet Henfrey provided able support, and a special mention must go to the beautiful cat Bella, who was so calm and gentle as Nitchevo in the final piece. I’ve seen plenty of dogs on stage, but this was my first cat – now I want to see more!

The cat isn’t the only reason to see these plays, though – superbly performed and acted, they are moving short pieces which pack a powerful emotional punch.

Network Theatre Audio Plays

Just a quick post about some audio plays I’ve come across recently. They have been produced by Network Theatre, a long-running amateur theatre based under Waterloo Station.

One is Necropolis Now by Rosie de Vekey, inspired by the Necropolis Railway I learned about in the Baseless Fabric performance I reviewed a few days ago.

The second is The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, a Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Emma Byrne.

Both are enjoyable listens and I’d urge you to give them a go.