Tags: castrati, classical, countertenors, duke of york's, fangirling, farinelli, iestyn davies, mark rylance, music, opera, theatre
Well, I wouldn’t want to share a stage with Mark Rylance. It must be like having Hemingway show up to your creative writing class. However good you are, his performance is so subtle, so natural, so nuanced, it makes everyone else look like they’re trying a bit hard.
I often feel this way about Iestyn Davies, too, so it was a rare treat to have both these luminaries under the same roof. The original run of Farinelli and the King, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, sold out in approximately three seconds, so I didn’t get to see it. But The Duke of York’s theatre is a good alternative venue; warm, informal-feeling and intimate under candlelight, and small enough that I didn’t need my James Bond-style opera glasses, even peering from the Upper Circle. I’d upgraded us at the last minute to a box – I KNOW – and Mum and I arrived to find the Ambassador Experience awaiting us. Gosh. I’m absolutely SURE the free cava did not influence my appreciation of the production in ANY way – I am a professional, after all – but it certainly got us in the mood for this sensitive, witty and absorbing play.
You’ve probably read 673 reviews of it by now, so I won’t go over the plot again. But it’s a story that resonated for me: the healing power of music, the experience of being transported by a magical voice. I loved the idea that the King and Farinelli were both lost in lives they hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t control. Mum wasn’t sure about the BOGOF Farinelli – ‘Iestyn definitely could’ve acted the whole thing!’ – but I thought it worked well: the confident, assured performer and his diffident, boyish twin. When Farinelli and Carlo finally parted, it was understated and moving.
The story developed believably with only a couple of clunky moments – ‘But the Pope doesn’t approve of your scientific ideas!’ – and there were lovely portrayals of the European opera scene, and the life of stardom and adoration Farinelli had left behind. Some scenes were partly onstage and partly in the auditorium, and the audience were cheerfully roped into bits of the action: hints of the experience you might’ve had if you’d gone to the theatre in the 18th century.
The music was the real star of the show, though. The whole place sat perfectly still when Iestyn sang. I thought about the very first time I heard him, and how I found tears running down my face; and I hoped everyone else was experiencing that, too. The arias reflected the range of Farinelli’s skills – from the coloratura pyrotechnics of Venti, turbini to the clear poignancy of Lascia ch’io pianga – and the tiny orchestra, costumed and bewigged and acting along, were the perfect match. It was so spellbinding, that sometimes it felt odd when the other characters went, ‘Well, anyway, as we were saying…’ rather than weeping, fainting, or throwing knickers. But still. It was the King that mattered, and it was completely credible that this bewitching voice could have saved him.
- Farinelli and the King runs until December 5. Day tickets are available for sold-out performances. You’ll need to queue. It’s worth it.
Tags: children, family, fangirling, jonathan dove, kids, music, opera, opera north, review, swanhunter, the wrong crowd
In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.
In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’
Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’
Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.
It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’
We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.
It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.
When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’
Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.
* More Local Opera Locally
Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.
Tags: acting, am dram, amateur dramatics, Benedict Cumberbatch, cinema, Frankenstein, humour, jonny lee miller, National Theatre, review, theatre
I used to love a bit of theatre. I mostly blame my Dad, who was an am-drammer in the great Coarse Acting tradition. At school, I hammed my way through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Wizard of Oz, and directed one of Dad’s tiny plays for the drama competition (I credit myself with discovering the huge comedic acting talent that is Ralph Bailey, who is now, er, a vet. Such a waste.)
This carried on for a bit at university, where my strategy of auditioning for everything in sight and hoping I got into something generally worked. The Crucible, where I did that popular staple, the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, and the other actors were brilliant, and I cried every night at the final scene. Who Killed Cummings?, a spoof whodunnit written by the director which we (unbelievably) took to the Edinburgh Fringe.
It all started to go a bit wrong with The House Of Bernarda Alba. Cast as ‘a maid’ (not even ‘THE maid’), I had to come on first, and deliver the terrible, portentous line that would set the stage for this most desolate of plays: ‘Dong, dong, dong!’
I started to doubt my commitment to the Craft. Halfway through rehearsals for The Real Inspector Hound, I had that sinking feeling: ‘Oh, no. This is going to be terrible. And it’s too late to pull out.’ Gradually, I found other things to do, like writing essays.
There’s something about being in a lot of risible am dram productions that colours your view of theatre forever. You Know Too Much. You can see the workings; you can’t stop yourself. Did he bring that hat in himself, and insist on wearing it? Was that boat meant to fall over? Are we supposed to notice that ‘a maid’ and ‘a prostitute’ are being played by the same person? And is she Scottish, or Irish, or South African, or what?
Despite all this, I set off to watch the National Theatre’s live ‘Encore’ screening of Frankenstein with high hopes. After all, Cumberbatch! And Jonny Lee Miller! And a full six hours in make-up! What’s not to love? Fiona and I settled down right at the front with our cups of tea and glasses of wine and acres of legroom (I love Hebden Bridge Picture House).
The initial scene – the ‘birth’ of the Creature – was terrific. Cumberbatch slowly learned to control his unfamiliar limbs: to stumble, then walk, make sounds, lit by striated flashes from thousands of lightbulbs. It was like watching dance: absorbing, fascinating.
It all went a bit pearshaped when people started talking. The play aims to tell the story from the Creature’s point of view. When he is the focus of the action, this works well; scenes where he learns about literature and morality from a blind man, or meets a child and tries to make friends with him, or confronts his maker are well-handled and gripping.
The trouble is, a lot has to happen without the Creature, and these scenes were less believable. Frankenstein does a lot of striding about wringing his hands and shouting things like ‘I must go to England! They are far ahead in Electricity!’, while Elizabeth pleads with him to reconsider in that ineffectual way fiancées have, and his father dejectedly strokes his chin and wonders where he went wrong (a baritone role, if ever I saw one). There was one brilliant moment where I thought Elizabeth was going to abandon decorum and become his partner-in-crime, but then she went back to furrowing her brow and being all moral. Frankenstein’s motivations remained unexplored: Jonny Lee Miller’s body language and all the SHOUTING indicate madness, but what kind? Frankenstein struggles with all sorts of incompatible drives – the desire to see his name in lights, a real commitment to Science, the need to put right the errors he’s made, the bizarre inability to think through the consequences of his actions. It would have been fun to see these tackled with a modern eye.
A lot of energy went into the relationship between the Creature and Frankenstein, and these scenes were the best: you could almost forget for a moment that Cumberbatch was up there Doing Acting, and lose yourself in it. Sadly, everything else felt a bit pencilled-in and last-minute; supporting characters were sketches with no hope of three dimensions, relationships strange and implausible. There was even a woman doing the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, just for me.
It’s not ALL their fault. After decades of watching cinema and TV drama, where nuanced, naturalistic performances are possible, I found it hard to go back to theatre, with its Declaiming and Projecting and Enunciating and Making Sure You End Up On This Spot Under The Light. But for a subject with so much potential, this just lacked life.