Thursday, May 19, 2016

'A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation' by William Shakespeare

19 May 2016

In September 2008 the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Festival, Michael Boyd, gave an interview to The Stage in which he spoke about his desire to use the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival to break down barriers between amateur and professional theatre. The following day we contacted him to ask how Voluntary Arts could help make this happen. The programme we set in motion – which became known as Open Stages – led me, nearly 8 years later, to The Barbican in London last night to see a group of amateur actors from the Tower Theatre Company stealing the show in a RSC production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Erica Whyman's production, subtitled 'A Play for the Nation', is a remarkable undertaking by the RSC. The show is touring to 14 theatres across the UK as a co-production with 14 amateur theatre companies who are providing local actors in each location to play the rude mechanicals alongside a professional RSC cast, with children from local schools playing Titania's fairies. A total of 84 amateur actors and 580 child actors are taking part. Achieving this logistical feat is clearly very impressive but there was always a risk it might have been merely a worthy enterprise. Magically, the show is also an artistic triumph. Erica Whyman has set 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in a dilapidated theatre with costumes that suggest Britain in the 1940s – a decade, as she points out in the programme, that saw the founding of the Arts Council, marking the beginning of “a fundamental split between the amateur and professional worlds” in the theatre. This narrative of amateur and professional going their separate ways for more than 60 years and now gradually starting to come back together has been the constant theme of the RSC Open Stages programme and it was wonderful to see this landmark production acknowledging it. It's a witty, playful production with a mesmerising Puck – played by a constantly grinning Lucy Ellinson, barefoot in black suit and top hat, moving with the grace of a dancer and bringing to mind Joel Grey in 'Cabaret', Marcel Marceau and the Child Catcher from 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. The lovers' quarrels also had some amazingly acrobatic choreography and credit should be given to the show's Movement Director, Sian Williams. But the highlight of the evening was the performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' by the Tower Theatre Company actors, led by John Chapman as Bottom and directed by David Taylor. This play-within-a-play climax was achingly funny: people around me in the audience were squealing hysterically. It was one of the funniest things I've seen on stage for years. The amateur actors were clearly having a ball and were in total control of the situation. The final dance, involving the whole massive cast, was glorious and joyous – a life-affirming ending to a brilliant performance. Speaking in November 2009 at the RSC/Voluntary Arts Creative Planning Weekend at Stratford-upon-Avon where we first designed the Open Stages programme, Michael Boyd talked about doing something culture-changing. He said “something very radical is happening in theatre in this country … the combined forces of professional and amateur theatre provide potentially a massive engine of social cohesion and social intelligence”. This Thursday at The Barbican we saw this in action and I'm very proud to have played a small part in this magnificent journey.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

'Broken Harbour' by Tana French

18 May 2016

All too often crime novels seem to sacrifice good writing for plot. Many years ago I saw Ian Rankin speaking at an Edinburgh Fringe event at which he said his motivation to start the Inspector Rebus novels had been to see whether he could bring his literary novelist skills to the world of crime fiction. Surely murder mysteries don't have to be badly written? So I was delighted recently to come across the novels of Tana French – a superior set of detective stories. Tana French has written a series of novels featuring members of the Dublin Murder Squad. Rather than focussing on a single detective, each novel  has a different investigating officer, drawn from the Murder Squad pool. Characters from previous novels appear in the background but the main focus shifts each time. I've just finished reading 'Broken Harbour' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Hugh Lee). It's an intriguing police procedural which follows most of Robin's rules for detective fiction. The reader only sees events through the eyes of the main detective: so we have the same chance of solving the mystery as the police. And the puzzle is solved by detection and deduction, rather than some lucky turn of events that presents the answer on a plate. After the initial discovery of a gruesome and bizarre crime scene there are no further melodramatic twists or revelations, just a painstaking piecing together of the evidence. The resulting explanations of the murderer's method and motivations were plausible though I wasn't completely convinced by the way the detective chose to wrap up the investigation. But as well as working as a crime plot, 'Broken Harbour' is beautifully written with poetic descriptions, believable characters and a haunting melancholy. I look forward to reading more by Tana French.

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BBC Young Musician 2016

18 May 2016

This is the sixth time I have written here about the biennial BBC Young Musician competition – a competition I have followed avidly since it started in 1978. You can read all my previous posts at: http://culturaldessert.blogspot.com/search/label/BBCYoungMusician. Two years ago I proudly boasted that I had correctly managed to pick three of the five category winners while watching the category finals. This time I am even more smug, having correctly predicted all five – though I should acknowledge that if you watch the TV coverage very carefully you begin to pick up subtle clues from the cautiously non-committal comments of the presenters and judges after each performance. No such clues were necessary however to spot that, from his first appearance in the strings final, 'cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was clearly going to win the whole competition. Like another young 'cellist, Laura van der Heijden in 2012, there was something special about his performances – passionate, thoughtful, intelligent and incredibly mature for one so young. And his off-stage shyness, politeness and humility only made him an even more likeable winner. The 2016 BBC Young Musician competition felt like one of the best ever, with a concerto final at The Barbican in London that included a horn player for the first time in many years (Ben Goldscheider playing the 'Concerto No 2' by Richard Strauss) and a remarkably charismatic performance by the first saxophone player ever to reach the final, Jess Gillam from Ulverston in Cumbria (who played 'Where the Bee Dances' by Michael Nyman). But Sheku Kanneh-Mason's outstanding performance of the 'Concerto No 1' by Shostakovitch was a fitting climax to a wonderful competition.

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'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare

18 May 2016

It took 50 years for our local amateur theatre group, TADS, to pluck up the courage to perform a Shakespeare play. Now Shakespeare has become a regular part of their repertoire. After tackling the Bard for the first time in 2012, with a magnificent production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (reviewed here in May 2012) and repeating the feat with 'Henry V' (reviewed here in July 2014), they have added a third Shakespearean triumph with Sue Sachon's production of 'Romeo and Juliet' which we saw at the TADS Theatre in Toddington last Saturday. This 'Romeo and Juliet' is set in modern day Verona (with a magnificent set designed by Andrew Naish and David Sachon). Some years ago we saw an open-air 'Romeo and Juliet' (reviewed here in August 2006) in which the Montagues and Capulets wore colour-coded football shirts with the characters' names on the back. In the TADS production the two families were identified by T-shirts showing their allegiance to rival gyms – which provided the justification for their interest in fencing. There was some impressive sword-play, with incredibly realistic fight scenes choreographed by Jon Sachon. The lead actors – Steve Loczy as Romeo (who was a great Lysander in TADS' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream') and Jenna Kay as Juliet – were excellent, but the show was almost stolen by Peter Carter-Brown's Mercutio. In the 2014 TADS production of 'Henry V' I said “Peter Carter-Brown's performance as the King would not have been out of place at the RSC. There is little comedy in 'Henry V' but Peter Carter-Brown showed a lightness of touch in the occasional comic moments to suggest it would be fascinating to see him tackle a Shakespeare comedy”. As Mercutio he gave a wonderfully physical comic performance, standing out in a universally strong cast. And I should give a special mention to Unami Tenga as Benvolio – a really impressive performance from a 19-year-old actor. I liked the idea of showing Romeo as an aspiring poet, constantly scribbling his romantic thoughts in a notebook. This gave an explanation, in this modern setting, for his poetic pronouncements as he rehearsed phrases he would then write down. It also provided the opportunity for his parents to discover the notebook by his body at the end of the play and begin to piece together what had happened to him from his writing. At nearly three and a half hours this was an immense undertaking for an amateur theatre group but TADS pulled it off impressively. Once again they made their Shakespeare production feel like a significant event in the history of the company.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

'Cymbeline' by William Shakespeare

11 May 2016

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Melly Still's new RSC production of 'Cymbeline'. I had only previously seen this rarely performed Shakespeare play once – in a 1993 touring production by Compass Theatre Company which I saw at Stamford Arts Centre. It's a peculiar, complex but very entertaining play: the final scene includes some 30 denouements which tend to baffle an audience unsure whether to cry, laugh or applaud each revelation. The RSC production was spectacular, moving and funny. Anna Fleischle's design places this tale of ancient Britain in a dystopian future of concrete and graffiti. In this production Cymbeline becomes a queen rather than a king, played with battle-hardened determination by Gillian Bevan. Many of the cast are also currently in Simon Godwin's production of Hamlet (reviewed here in April 2016). Hiran Abeysekera (Horatio) plays the flawed hero Posthumus Leonatus, but unusually for Shakespeare this play has a female lead. Innogen has the most lines and the greatest time on stage and Bethan Cullinane (Guildenstern) made her a compelling character – playful, tempestuous, distracted, brave and clever. There was great use of back projection, which allowed the scenes in Rome featuring a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and two Italians to be performed multi-lingually with surtitles. The interaction between Britain and Europe in 'Cymbeline' feels remarkably topical with its battle between the Britons and the imperial army of Rome. It's an odd work which contains many echoes of more famous Shakespeare plays but the RSC production is great fun.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

'The Complete Deaths' adapted by Tim Crouch

10 May 2016

When I last wrote here about the extraordinary theatre-maker Tim Crouch (reviewing his show 'I, Malvolio' at the Brighton Festival in May 2010) I said “take any opportunity to see what Tim Crouch does next”. He is a really interesting and unusual writer, performer and director who specialises in breaking down the fourth wall and creating entertaining, provocative and unsettling theatre. I was intrigued, therefore, to be at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, on Saturday to see the results of his new collaboration with the superb quartet of clowns that is Spymonkey (who I reviewed here in February 2012 and April 2014). Produced to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, 'The Complete Deaths' – adapted and directed by Tim Crouch and performed by Spymonkey (in a co-production with Brighton Festival and Royal & Derngate, Northampton) – re-enacts all 75 onstage deaths from Shakespeare's plays. Crouch's research into Shakespeare's deaths (23 stabbings, 12 sword fights, 5 poisonings, 12 suicides etc) is impressive. The production fuses Crouch's tendency to blur the boundaries between actor and character with Spymonkey's trademark stepping out of character to portray a company at war with itself. The use of video cameras and projection is a familiar Tim Crouch trope and Spymonkey's excellent physical slapstick is well-used. There are some very funny moments as the deaths are ticked off, with a large digital display counting them down. But I'm not sure the conceit completely worked as a show and I found my attention wandering at various points. 'The Complete Deaths' was a little too close to the Reduced Shakespeare Company's version of 'The Complete Works', with elements of the National Theatre of Brent and the self-imposed challenge aspect of Chicago's 'Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind' (30 plays in 60 minutes). But I'm still looking forward to seeing what Tim Crouch and Spymonkey do next.

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Friday, May 06, 2016

'Kiss Me Quickstep' by Amanada Whittington

6 May 2016

On Saturday we were at Oldham Coliseum Theatre to see 'Kiss Me Quickstep' – a new play by Amanda Whittington co-produced with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, directed by Theresa Heskins. The play opens with a young man walking into an empty ballroom, gazing around awestruck and uttering a single word: “Blackpool”. This is the story of three couples competing at the British Amateur Ballroom and Latin Championships in the Empress Ballroom at the Blackpool Winter Gardens. It's a fairly slight tale but nicely told with a good balance between humour and poignancy – and the dancing was excellent. The action takes place on two consecutive days – the interval neatly dividing the ballroom from the Latin, and providing the opportunity for a complete change of costumes. When you know your dance steps, watching actors pretending to ballroom dance can be excruciating but the cast of 'Kiss Me Quickstep' were clearly all very accomplished dancers. The lead actors were joined by a community cast of local amateurs to provide several spectacular dance sequences which filled the Coliseum stage. Amanda Whittington's research (at Blackpool Dance Festival) was meticulous: even the conversations about dance steps and routines felt believable. And her script is very witty: at one point local girl Nancy insists that a rival couple whose car has broken down and can't get home must stay the night at her house. Nancy says “We'd be delighted to have you … Cos that's what we do here. We're Blackpool.” To which her father quickly adds “Well, strictly speaking, we're Lytham.” 'Kiss Me Quickstep' is a feel-good celebration of ballroom dancing, described by its author as “life caught in a mirrorball light”.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

26 April 2016

Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and the Royal Shakespeare Company marked the occasion with a star-studded gala performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, hosted by David Tennant and broadcast live on BBC2. I was thrilled to receive an invitation from the RSC but quickly remembered that I was already committed to playing in the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's own Shakespeare celebration – 'The Bard's Birthday Bash' – the same evening. Our Shakespeare-themed concert opened with music from Prokofiev's ballet 'Romeo and Juliet' followed by 'The Magic Island' – a piece by Northampton-born composer William Alwyn which was inspired by 'The Tempest'. Alwyn's score quotes Caliban's speech 'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises' – the words spoken by Kenneth Branagh at the start of Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and which I used in ‘Island Race’ – the short choral piece I wrote with Robin Osterley and Evan Dawson to celebrate London 2012 (see: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/island-race.html). But the main event in Saturday's NSO concert was a performance of William Walton's music from the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of 'Henry V', arranged by Christopher Palmer as 'Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario' – in which the music is interspersed with key speeches from the play. For our performance actor Graham Padden and NSO Conductor John Gibbons had added even more of Shakespeare's text to turn the piece into a one-man performance of the play, accompanied by 80-piece orchestra. It was great fun to play and Graham Padden did an amazing job of conjuring up Shakespeare's scenes and characters. The shunning of Falstaff by the King was a really poignant moment, Henry's wooing of the French Princess was playful and touching and the Battle of Agincourt was powerful and brutal: 'Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'. There were many great woodwind solos, a mysteriously wandering off-stage trumpet and an army of percussionists. With a series of short movements carefully co-ordinated with narrative cues it felt more like playing for a show than an orchestral concert but it was a really enjoying and satisfying experience. I'm glad I decided to celebrate the Shakespeare anniversary with the NSO: when you've got Graham Padden, who needs David Tennant?

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Milton Keynes City Orchestra concert

22 April 2016

It feels quite old fashioned to start an orchestral concert by playing the national anthem but this week's Milton Keynes City Orchestra concert coincided with the Queen's 90th birthday on Thursday and the whole audience was on its feet singing 'God Save The Queen'. The concert, in the magnificent new auditorium at 'The Venue' at Walton High in Milton Keynes, featured 'Haydn's Symphony No 103 (The Drumroll)' followed by the 'Violin Concerto No 5' written by the 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and played exquisitely by the young violinist Aleksandra Li – a winner of this year's Yamaha Music Foundation of Europe competition. The performance finished with Prokofiev's 'Symphony No 1 (Classical)' – a short symphony written in 1916 that draws on the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart but adds twentieth century harmonies. I hadn't heard the Classical Symphony for years and was reminded what a perfect piece it is. Hearing a small orchestra playing it at close quarters was really exciting. It felt like the professional players of the MKCO, precise and comfortable in the Haydn and Mozart, were much more on the edge of their seats for the Prokofiev: it was a thrilling and charming performance under their new Musical Director, Damian Iorio.

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