RCM at St Stephen’s Church (Wieniawski, Elgar, Bach)

I attended another RCM concert at St Stephen’s Church, this time featuring young violinist Emily Turkanik and pianist Alison Rhind. Turkanik chose pieces with personal meaning to her, works that I was not familiar with, but enjoyed nevertheless.

Wieniawski Fantasie on Themes from Faust
Elgar Violin Sonata
JS Bach Vivace from Violin Sonata no 3 in C major BWV 1005

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Deeds Not Words

Deeds Not Words was a short theatre piece by historical theatre company Time Will Tell Theatre, performed at Blackheath Halls as part of their ‘Votes for Women’ celebratory weekend. It told the story of the suffragette movement through the eyes of a middle-class woman and a maid, with humour and intelligence. Perfect for all ages, it was a great way to convey the story of the Suffragettes.

‘A Crowd of Twisted Things’: New Works for Ensemble and Voice

The first work in the Royal Academy of Music’s New Recital Hall – situated above the new theatre – was a programme of new works for ensemble and voice. The works, composed by third-year undergraduates at the Academy, included varied instruments and showcased different ways of using the voice. The event’s title comes from TS Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night, which Isabella Gellis’s (the event initiator) piece made use of. Altogether an interesting experience.

Kristupas Bubnelis Clockworks
Filippos Raskovic “Ο υπνος του πνευματος” (“O ipnos tu pnevmatos”)
Zhenyan Li 34
Mitchell Keely Les images des espaces louangés
Joshua Hickin Tapestry
David Rose Aspects of Robinson
Thomas Gibbs zum Seiltanzer, “furchte nun nichts mehr!”
Isabella Gellis La lune ne garde aucune rancune

Ethel Smyth – Grasp the Nettle

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Ethel Smyth, but judging by this hugely entertaining play, I’ve missed out. Smyth was a composer, the first female composer to have her work performed at the Royal Opera House in 1902, and the first female composer to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1903. She also took part in the Suffragette movement, spending time in Holloway prison after bouts of window-breaking, and composed the music to the movement’s song ‘The March of the Women’, which she conducted from her cell window with a toothbrush.

As Smyth, Lucy Stevens portrays a likeable and determined character, recounting her life from her travels to Germany, aged nineteen, to study music, through her various compositions, and then to her involvement with the Suffragettes. She was clearly a woman of tenacity and courage. Interspersed with the drama, Stevens performs excerpts from Smyth’s work (accompanied on the piano by Elizabeth Marcus), including her opera The Wreckers. Stevens is a talented singer and somehow manages to sing all of the parts, from soprano to bass!

This was a thoroughly entertaining play, and I left wanting to find out more about Ethel Smyth’s life and work.

Mengele

Mengele, performed at the Katzspace Theatre in the basement of Katzenjammers, was inspired by Right to Live by Philip Wharam. It is a two-person play focusing on the Nazi ‘doctor’, Joseph Mengele, who escaped to South America after the Second World War. Rescued from a river by a mysterious woman, Mengele is encouraged to recount his horrific actions during the Holocaust – actions which included experiments on children and others. All attempts to justify his actions fall on deaf ears, and Mengele eventually comes to realise that he must pay for what he has done.

There is a superb performance from Tim Marriott (who also adapted the story for the stage) as Mengele, who presents him as someone who believed absolutely in what he did. Mengele comes across as a human being rather than a monster, and, frighteningly, some of his thoughts and beliefs almost sound reasonable – until you remember who he was and what he did. Emma Zadow is also very good as the avenging angel who comes to find him, and reminds us that Mengele practised great evil.

This play is an uncomfortable watch, but worthwhile, especially in our current age. When Holocaust deniers seem to be becoming increasingly prevalent, it’s more important than ever to remember what happened.

Julius Caesar

The Bridge Theatre, a brand new theatre next to Tower Bridge run by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, announced its inaugural Shakespeare production several months ago. A promenade production of Julius Caesar was planned, with tickets available as part of the mob, at the heart of the action, a bit like the Globe’s pit. I take issue with the ‘promenade’ description – to me, that implies moving from location to location. ‘Immersive’, to me, would be a better term, and immersive it certainly is.

Get there early to fully experience the atmosphere. Ushers walk around the pit, selling refreshments, badges and red baseball caps suspiciously similar to those seen on Donald Trump. On a raised platform, a band plays: The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, a rock version of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. The performance slides seamlessly into the beginning of the play.

This is a modern Caesar, exhilarating and immediate. The immersive aspect is not a gimmick, but an integral part of the play. Raised platforms change the shape of the stage while ushers (actors?) herd the mob away from the rising shapes. The immensely populist Caesar (a superb David Calder) walks among the people, shaking hands. (Contrast this with Brutus, who only stoops to sign a copy of one of his books for a fan). At Caesar’s assassination, the crowd is told to get down, against the possibility of further gunfire; as the action descends into war, the mob is herded aside as casualties are rushed past and the sound of explosives is heard overhead. Being part of the changeable mob makes Mark Antony’s famous speech (performed powerfully by David Morrissey) even more impactful. Holding up a black and white picture of Caesar, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the conspirators yet. I’m convinced that Ben Wishaw is one of our greatest actors and his performance as Brutus only cemented my opinion. I wouldn’t immediately have imagined him as Brutus but he is superb: intelligent, an intellectual, genuinely concerned for the state of Rome but susceptible to flattery, and happier writing political theory than acting out revolutions. Michelle Fairley is an excellent Cassius, angry and determined to end tyranny, while Adjoa Andoh is a memorable Casca. More than in any other production I’ve seen, the conspirators – who too often become a faceless mass – are individually drawn. As Octavius Caesar, Kit Young makes an impact as the young leader, his triumph showing how the cycle of populism goes on and on.

This is without a doubt one of the best Julius Caesars I have ever seen – one of the best Shakespeares I have ever seen. I’m sure I will still be thinking about it for months to come.