Monthly Archives: January 2019

Playing Real Good for Free

One of the pleasures of our 10-day stay in Lisbon was the quality of the street music all over the city. Best of all was a really fine ensemble from Cabo Verde playing near the waterfront, Nôs Raíz. We listened to their concert for about 40 minutes and bought a CD, which turns out to be very well produced. The woman on the left had the job of selling the CDs.

Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.

Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.

Joni Mitchell sings a lovely song called “For Free”, about seeing a street musician playing a clarinet.

And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Street Rapper in Lisbon

Street Rapper in Lisbon

But these days, things are somewhat reversed. A lot of musicians are playing real gigs for free, or just about. And all those downloads that pay tiny fractions of a cent? Out on the street, the busker can actually make some real cash. And sell the CDs, and get some real money.

Busking is an ancient and honorable tradition. I am reading a book about Johann Sebastian Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner, and I came across this item on page 67: 

It is often assumed that, in addition to his singing in church, Bach, like [Martin] Luther, was a Currender, a member of those street-busking choirs in Eisenach, Ohrdruf and Lüneberg which collected charitable money…

Bass busker in London, UK

Bass busker in London, UK

We have a busker festival in Dundas, but I’m underwhelmed. The one real busker, our friend Michael Leech, who plays fiddle real good, was shooed by cops off the street playing outside the confines of the festival a couple of years ago. And he’s been chased away from the sidewalk near the LCBO on Dundurn, so there’s no music anymore outside. Just panhandlers.

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

 

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.

RSC: Tartuffe in Birmingham

Tartuffe (played by Asif Khan) takes a selfie.

The RSC’s new version of Molière’s Tartuffe is a remarkable piece of work. It transports the plot to Birmingham, and sets it in a Pakistani Muslim household. Tartuffe is a fake holy man, who has gained influence over Imran Pervais, and is imposing his fundamentalist version of Islam on the family, while he persuades his patron to sign over his possessions and give his daughter to him in marriage. All the while, he is attempting to seduce Imran’s second wife.

This displacement is a very apt parallel to Molière’s original Christian framework, but it could be undeniably tricky to pull off in these troubled times. And, of course, it needs to be funny! It succeeds thoroughly (and hilariously), thanks probably to the participation of Anil Gupta, co-writer with Richard Pinto, and Iqbal Khan, the director, who grew up in a in a Pakistani family in Birmingham. The script confronts preconceived notions and misconceptions of the audience head on, and manages to be educative and critical at the same time.

Parts of the script have a very loose relationship with the original, and others follow the dialogue quite closely. Most of it is in prose, rather than rhyming couplets, but there are passages that rhyme, and some rap sequences.

Darina, the Bonsnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

Darina, the Bosnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

The play opens with Darina, the Bosnian cleaning lady, with a monologue (not in the original) to help the audience get over some of their assumptions about what a Muslm family is like.   “Also, you should know, they are Muslims. It’s OK. Don’t be scared. I am Muslim too. You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslim? What they teach you in school?”

And that’s the spirit of the rest of the proceedings. Molière’s script, controversial in its time, provides a framework for satirizing hypocrisy and corruption today. It is clear that it is talking about corrupt elements within a community, not the community itself. And, by the way, it’s beautifully performed and staged. And very, very funny.

Richard II at the Almeida: the real Beale

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Almeida to see Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II. He had been a brilliant Timon of Athens at the National in 2012, in a startling production by Nicholas Hyntner that connected Shakespeare’s stark fable to the Occupy movement and Wall Street corruption. I knew that this Richard II had been reworked to focus on the theme of solitary incarceration, and I thought “what a good idea!” Richard in his cell suffers the disintegration of his personality, and halucinates the events that led him to his ordeal. Richard’s agonized musings, rather than historical events, are now the core of the drama.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida. Simon Russell Beale. Photo credit Marc Brenner
Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida

Exploring Shakespeare in this way is very like the experiments back in the sixties and seventies, by Charles Marowitz, Peter Brook and many more. Unfortunately, this production incorporated another aspect of those experiments: real things happening to real people (actors) on stage.

In this Richard II, Beale is hosed with water and has a bucket of filth poured over his head. A bucket labeled “blood” is sprayed over the stage. And so forth.

Well, Mr. Beale is a good sport. However, the play is distorted by these devices. Richard’s suffering evaporates, while we watch the actor letting himself be abused, and wonder what he is thinking, what he is feeling, why he lets them do it to him.

Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida.

There are kinds of performances where we watch real things happen to real people: prize fights, pornography, gladiatorial spectacles and so forth. They are fascinating in their way, no doubt, but I had come to witness theatrical suffering, and the real discomfort of the actor was enormously distracting.