Insights: City of Song – A Night in Paris

In preparation for seeing the new production of La Bohème, I attended an Insights event at Hoxton Hall, which proved an atmospheric and highly suitable setting.

Introduced by members of ROH Reimagined, the evening was presented by Flora Wilson, Lecturer in Music at KCL, who gave an entertaining introduction to Puccini and his work. We heard from Julia Burbach, the Assistant Director on the production, and Michael Fabiano, who sings the role of Rodolfo. We also heard renditions from young performers Konu Kim and Francesca Chiejina, who sang accompanied by James Hendry.

I think this event would have been particularly suitable for those who had never seen La Bohème before and knew nothing about the story, but even though I have seen it before (and I’ve also read Henri Murger’s novel on which it was based), I still got a lot out of it.

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ResearchWorks: Classical Music Is In Terminal Decline – And Has Been For 400 Years! – Milton Court

I went to this talk at Milton Court, a ResearchWorks event in which PhD student Antony Feeny explored how opera and orchestral music are funded – mainly by governments and donors – and if this model is sustainable. He pointed out that the demise of this kind of music has been predicted for 400 years. The presentation was entertaining and irreverent, and I left with a greater knowledge of the background to how it all works.

Why does Cardenio matter? A talk at Richmond Shakespeare Society

Mary Wallace Theatre

In anticipation of the performance of The History of Cardenio on Sunday, I attended a talk at the performance venue, the Mary Wallace Theatre, by Professor Gary Taylor, the co-author of this version. Professor Taylor has spent years studying Shakespeare and brings that knowledge to bear in his adaptation.

Cardenio was first performed at the court of James I by the King’s Men in early 1613. The name Cardenio is very rare, and there is only one mention of the name in literature prior to this, in Don Quixote, a bestseller at the time by the Spanish author Miguel De Cervantes. This suggests that the play was an adaptation of an episode in the novel. An English translation of the first part of the novel (the second was not published until several years afterwards) had been published in 1612. The History of Cardenio title is important as it is a mistranslation of the Spanish featuring only in the 1612 edition, and not subsequent editions.

The next mention of the play is in 1653, when the Stationers’ Company of London registered the right to print a play, The History of Cardenio, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. The attributions in the Stationers’ Register aren’t always correct, so this does not constitute absolute proof that the play was by Fletcher and Shakespeare, but it was definitely based on Don Quixote.

The next reference to the play occurs in 1727, when the Drury Lane Theatre performed Double Falsehood, or The Distrest Lovers. The person responsible, Lewis Theobald, said it was by Shakespeare and based on Don Quixote. He claimed in a preface that he was told that Shakespeare wrote it for his ‘natural daughter’. The provenance of Double Falsehood is still being questioned today. It has been suggested that it was forged, he wrote it himself and passed it off as Shakespeare’s. However, he may well have had an original manuscript which he rewrote and edited. Even Alexander Pope, Theobald’s harshest critic, believed that he had the manuscript. Cardenio is not Double Falsehood. The latter contains a lot of material which is very like Shakespeare and Fletcher, but it also contains a lot of what Taylor frankly terms ‘crap’.

Does Cardenio matter? Taylor argues that it does not matter to Shakespeare’s reputation, or to the reputations of Fletcher and Cervantes. However, it is the only play written by a great playwright which was inspired by Don Quixote. It was also the first time Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher, a fruitful partnership that also led to Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. It also acts as a timely reminder that Shakespeare was a European writer, not just an English one. In addition, studying the surviving fragments of Cardenio forces scholars to examine the text word by word, analysing it and thinking about how it might work on stage.

I really enjoyed the talk, and I can’t wait to see The History of Cardenio on Sunday.

In Focus: Amadeus and the Music

I haven’t yet seen Amadeus, Peter Schaffer’s play currently undergoing a revival at the National Theatre, but I decided to go to an In Focus event about the music involved in the production. Led by composer and musical director Simon Slater, it was a fascinating talk about the unique demands made on the musicians. He spoke about the challenges he faced, composing music to feature in a play about one of the greatest composers of all time, and ensuring that the resulting pieces fit into the play.

Participating in the talk were a number of musicians from the South Bank Sinfonia, the orchestra who play on stage during the production. They played a number of snippets as Slater explained what he was going for during the piece.

Talk attendees asked some good questions, and the answers were enlightening. For instance, many of the musicians found the hardest part of the experience to be having to play and move at the same time – something classical musicians are not often required to do. They had to learn to follow each other and the actors rather than having a conductor to rely on, and learn to dance during ballroom scenes without damaging their instruments! Another challenge was to play the music as part of the drama: they are used to playing particular pieces straight through, but here they have had to learn to play snippets, focus on telling the story, and often to play without drowning out the actors who are talking.

I really enjoyed the talk, and I’m looking forward to seeing Amadeus at the beginning of December.

ResearchWorks: The eighteenth-century early music movement – Milton Court

I went to this talk at Milton Court to try and understand more about the history of music. The Academy of Ancient Music is a regular presence in London’s concert halls but the group was actually founded in 1726 as the Academy of Vocal Music. I found it interesting that even as far back as the eighteenth century performers were concerned with authenticity and preserving traditions. The constitution stated that the Academy of Ancient Musick was formed “not for the Management of Theatrical Affairs, but the Improvement of the Science”, and the group stated, “Our Design to search for what is beautiful in the Works of the Ancients, and to seek out those things that have been either neglected or forgot”.

Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes – John Wolfson Lecture

John Wolfson, Honorary Curator of Rare Books at Shakespeare’s Globe, gives an annual lecture on some aspect of Shakespeare’s work. This year, his lecture, which took place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was entitled Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes.

Macbeth is unusually short for a Shakespeare tragedy, suggesting that some scenes have been lost. The play also contains scenes known to have been added by another hand. The missing scenes and the added scenes are the subject of John Wolfson’s talk this year.

I was vaguely aware that Macbeth was the shortest Shakespearean tragedy, but I honestly had no idea that some of its scenes were supposed to be missing and I certainly didn’t know that others had been added. Naturally it’s harder to tell where the missing scenes are than the added scenes, though Shakespeare scholars have made attempts to identify these over the years. Wolfson’s talk was fascinating, illuminated by actors from his forthcoming play The Inn at Lydda who enlivened proceedings by declaiming several lines of dialogue.

It is thought that Thomas Middleton was particularly culpable when it came to slotting in scenes: there was a witch called Hecate in his play The Witch so it is believed that he added the Hecate scene in Macbeth, as well as the songs. David Garrick, the famous seventeenth-century actor, added a death speech to the end of the play but naturally enough, this is not performed now. I was slightly disappointed that there was no reference to my own favourite Macbeth anecdote: the famously dreadful poet William McGonagall tried his hand at acting, and on one occasion when playing Macbeth he simply refused to die.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of the talk involved the structure of the play and how it reflects the missing scenes. Acts 1 to 3 have a strong structure with Macbeth as the main character, but Act 4 has a scene between Macduff and Malcolm, in which Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty, which makes no sense in the context of what has come before. It’s possible that Shakespeare did originally include this plot thread and the scenes have gone missing. We are also meant to be aware that Macbeth has been king for many years between the banquet scene and the start of Act 4 but we don’t really get a sense of this.

Macbeth is a powerful but flawed play and this talk really helped me appreciate some of the difficulties surrounding its structure and performance. I’m looking forward to both seeing and reading the play again to explore this further.

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.