Category Archives: London UK

A city we visit often to feast on its theatre, art, music and unmatched energy.

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.

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.

Tate Modern Photo-ops

Art lover at the Tate Modern

Art lover at the Tate Modern

Children playing in Turbine Hall

Children playing on the sloping floor of Turbine Hall.

Picasso retrospective

Picasso retrospective

I love the Tate Modern. There’s the shows, of course — the free ones from the permanent collection and the blockbusters. There’s the mysterious Tanks and the clever Artist Rooms. There’s the building, with all its curves and angles and long, long escalators, and the wonderful smooth sloping Turbine Hall. There are the people who swarm through it, who all seem  happy to be there. People from many lands, with many complexions, dressed up, dressed down, dressed tastefully, dressed oddly. And children, running and rolling and skipping up and down the shiny turbine slope. Photo-ops everywhere!

The show was Picasso 1932. An argument is made that this was a pivotal year for Picasso, and it seems so. However, Picasso had many phases in a long artistic life, and there are other years that are equally important. But what does it matter?

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Lots to see in 1932, particularly since Picasso had his first retrospective that year, providing an opportunity to include works from other periods. Particularly interesting was an arrangement of a group of paintings and drawings just as they appeared in the exhibition in 1932.

I’ve been looking long and hard at Picasso’s work ever since the great

The view across the river

The view across the river from the members lounge

Picasso and Man exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario when I was in high school. (“Picasso and Man” it was called, though “Picasso and Woman” would have been more appropriate. This was 1964.) He’s like an old friend. I’m always glad to renew our acquaintance.

 

National Theatre: Consent

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent is what used to be called a “problem play”, an examination from various perspectives of a current hot topic. The topic in this case: consensual sex versus rape. The characters are almost all lawyers or lawyers wives, except for one: a woman from the working class who has been raped. Two of the lawyers are trying the case, one for the crown and the other as a defense lawyer appointed by the Crown to represent the accused, the alleged rapist. “Who’s my lawyer?” demands the victim, but the prosecutor won’t even talk to her; she’s not a plaintiff, but a witness, and he cannot be seen to be coaching her on her testimony.

Consent, photo by Photo by Johan Persson

Clare Foster, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lee Ingleby in Consent at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The lawyers and wives engage in chit chat reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, but we (and they) gradually learn that all is not as superficial as it seems. Infidelities and sexual power games break and rearrange the relationships, and the men (primarily) try to achieve some kind of understanding of their emotional lives. All this to the click of highballs and wine glasses. At the end of the first act, rough reality breaks in; the rape victim crashes the party and discovers that the two lawyers are friends.

In the second act, one of the wives throws her husband out. Begging forgiveness, he ignores her repeated “no” and they have sex. His friends are horrified: technically, they tell him, this is rape.

There are more facets, more issues to explore, but you get the idea. The script, by Nina Raine, is skillful, smart and sometimes funny. The issues are examined with a certain level of evenhandedness. There are no villains, just imperfect well-bred middle-class professionals doing their best to cope.

I liked the play, but I can’t overlook that it pulls its punches. We want to see those lawyers in court. We want to see a lot more of the working woman’s ordeal than we’re given. And we want to see what happens when the gentle people have their day in court. This never happens. There’s all these lawyers, and no courtroom fireworks? They just talk it out, make concessions and compromises, and life goes on. Cop out.

 

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole

Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?

Taming of the Shrew, Trinidad Style

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Strolling along the Avon River on the way to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, we chanced on an outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew by a little company from Trinidad-Tobago. I was fascinated, and only with regret tore myself away to go to our scheduled performance at the Swan.

The set was the most minimal imaginable: a gauzy cloth thrown over a tree branch forming an inverted V for entrances and exits. That was it. Calypso songs between the scenes commented on the plot, but Shakepeare’s text was otherwise unaltered.

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

And we understood every word, every idea, every joke Shakespeare wrote. How did they do it, despite Trinidad accents and 400-odd years of linguistic change? Simple. They spoke every line to the audience as if they really cared that we would understand. They played it like Vaudeville, glancing occasionally at the other actors, but talking to us.And they carried it off with swagger and panache, with that wonderful Trini calypso energy.

And in doing so, a lot of the troubling aspects of Shrew vanish. Hey, folks, don’t take this so serious! This isn’t sociology, this is WWE. Current champion, Katherine! Challenger, Petruchio! As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1592). I like to think that this was written for touring, when the company would set up in an innyard, or under a spreading oak tree, and try to engage and win over a crowd using time-tested techniques employed from before Aristophanes to Saturday Night Live.

I looked up the company on the internet. It’s called The Oratory Foundation (www.oratoryfoundation.com).

“The Oratory Foundation is a school with the mandate to touch and teach through oration and creative forms of the spoken word. It promotes and encourages the use of various forms of oratory; it is a teaching institution providing the opportunity for the pruning and perfecting of poetry, oratory and performance.”

The performance we chanced upon is part of a series of free outdoor productions sponsored by RSC called The Dell Open Air Theatre (https://www.rsc.org.uk/events/the-dell). ”

“On weekends during June, July and August, our outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, hosts a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Dell was launched as part of the Complete Works Festival in 2006 and has hosted more than 300 amateur theatre companies, community groups, schools, universities and professional theatre companies to growing audience numbers of all ages.”

What a good idea.

August 4: Miss Littlewood

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Joan Littlewood was a theatre innovator who had a huge influence on how theatre is made. A tough cockney who  quit RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)and walked from London to Manchester, she joined with young Jimmy Miller (later AKA Ewan McColl) in 1933 to do agitprop anti-Nazi street theatre. Together with Gerry Raffles, all-round technical fixer-upper, they created an ensemble approach to theatre that revolutionized theatre practice. After the war, the company, now called Theatre Workshop, survived hand-to-mouth and unsubsidized, without a permanent home base. In 1953, Gerry Raffles found a derelict theatre in East London, Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company scrubbed it up and moved in, creating new work and a new way of working, until a series of hits, transferred to the West End, brought international recognition: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The biggest hit of all was Oh What a Lovely War (1963), which told the frightful story of the First World War using a combination of clown show, documentary segments, projections, and songs from the barracks and the music hall, all deftly crafted and arranged into a riveting experience in the theatre.

Miss Littlewood, a musical by Sam Kenyon, tells the story. Or rather, stories: the making of a theatre company, the life of Joan, the Joan and Gerry love story, and step-by-step what happened. Sam Kenyon came late to the party, having had no direct experience of Theatre Workshop, but had the help of Murray Melvin, a company member in the later years. He also had Joan’s Book, Joan’s autobiography, which (by the way) is a terrific read.

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Toronto’s theatrical innovator, George Luscombe, was in the company in its earlier days, when the techniques were all being worked out. He brought the Littlewood approach to his company, Toronto Theatre Workshop, with a distinguished history of shows: Hey Rube, Mr. Bones, Ten Lost Years, Ain’t Lookin’ and lots more. I was in TWP and co-wrote a play with George, The Wobbly. My own theatre work has been in the Littlewood/Luscombe tradition.

So I had great incentive to see this show. Two days after we landed in London, we scooted up to Stratford-upon-Avon for the production’s last day.

Bottom line: it was worth it. MIss Littlewood was lively, with catchy songs of the right flavour, navigating its way through all the stories gracefully. Given that it wasn’t an ensemble production, but a musical about an ensemble, it managed to put across the feel of group creation. The most significant convention was having members of the company take turns playing Joan in the phases of her life — women black and white, skinny and solid. It was quite striking how the core of Joan was carried through all the transitions.

Standing beside me (yes, standing room again) was a woman who taught English and Drama, and was responsible for staging very ambitious productions (Les Miz). She had returned to see it a second time, bringing her mother. Joan continues to inspire, and Miss Littlewood is worthy of its subject.

August 2: Biker Gang Opera at Wilton’s Music Hall

Outside Wilton's Music Hall

Outside Wilton’s Music Hall

Wilton’s Music Hall is our local theatre, a ten minute walk from our east-end London flat. It operated as a music hall in the 1860s and 70s, and subsequently became a Methodist Mission (1888 to 1956). It was abandoned and derelict for decades, with periodic efforts by local activists to revitalize it. Finally, in 2004, the refurbishing began, and now it’s restored to a strange and wonderful new glory, with the patina of age still evident in faded paint and old creaking stairs.

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

The production Thursday night was Donizetti’s comic opera, La Fille du Regiment, re-imagined in English as The Daughter of the Regiment, the Regiment in this case being a biker gang in California. The Opera della Luna production, with a new libretto by Jeff Clarke, is spritely and fun. Elin Pritchard as said daughter sings the demanding role admirably, and as a biker-lass she is completely convincing. Snatched up into society and put in a frumpy little-girl dress, she does her best to adapt, but eventually returns to the gang to find happiness in the arms of her Latino boyfriend, ably acted and sung (9 high C’s!) by Jesus Alvarez.

Tower Bridge raised

Ah, London!

Tower Bridge raised

Tower Bridge raised

We landed at Gatwick Wednesday morning, August 1. Beautiful sunny day, a lot like southern Ontario. England has been in the grip of a drought, but it has cooled off slightly in our honour. The emerald isle is more yellow and brown than usual, but it glows in the bright sunshine.

We took our time walking from London Bridge Station to the flat. Had lunch in Hays Galleria and then ambled in leisurely fashion along the Thames and over Tower Bridge. It’s good to be back.

 

Judith and I went on the Women’s March against Trump from the US embassy to Trafalgar Square. The streets leading to the embassy were packed, so it took a long time to get to the embassy.

When we finally reached the embassy, the march to Trafalgar square had started. We followed.

It was a very moving experience, because of the calm, purposeful determination of the women.