I (sort of) go to the THEATRE to see FRANKENSTEIN

October 31, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Posted in reviews, theatre, tv & film | 2 Comments
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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.)

who killed cummingsThis 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.

How Not To Die, from The Art Of Coarse Acting, by Michael Green. I don’t have permission to use this image, but I am mitigating this by telling you all to click here and buy the book, which I have read approx. 1763 times, and which still makes me weep with laughter.

I go to the OPERA

June 18, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Posted in music, reviews, tv & film | 4 Comments
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I’m an opera newbie. My Dad was obsessed with Verdi and Puccini, but I never paid much attention (though I realised halfway through a school trip to La Bohème that I knew all the words to Che Gelida Manina from hearing him singing it in the bath).

But it’s sucking me in. As usual, I blame twitter: in my new experiment with classical music fandom, I’m following a gaggle of writers, performers and enthusiasts, and they’re all obsessed with it. They’re being terribly nice to me, sending me YouTube clips and reviews and blogposts, and being lovely about the fact I don’t know my arias from my Elgar. And the excitement is catching.

So. Benvenuto Cellini! Directed by Terry Gilliam! Everyone was in a flap about this. No chance of going to London to see it, but happily it’s part of the ENO Screen season, and was broadcast live in cinemas last night. Now, I was a bit nervous about this. I remember watching televised dance, and being wound up that the cameras never seemed to be where I wanted, and I couldn’t get the perspective I needed. But the trailer looked stunning, and it was the ideal excuse for a night out with a good mate. We got our gladrags on and downed a glass or two of prosecco (just to get in the Glyndebourne spirit, you know).

As we wandered in, the audience on screen were finding their seats too, standing on each other’s feet, sitting on their bags by mistake and offering each other Murray Mints. One portly chap stood and wearily hitched up his trousers (I wonder if that’ll make it onto the DVD). The cameras squinted over people’s shoulders at their programmes while we listened to the strange meanderings of the orchestra warming up. I tried to spot @joshspero, who was on the balcony somewhere.

josh conv re celliniThe lights dimmed, and we were off.

The opera, like all good operas, contained a number of essential elements: 1) star-crossed lovers; 2) rowdy drinking scenes; 3) women in elaborate underwear. I liked the staging very much: the space was used cleverly, the crowd-scene choreography was great, and there were lots of visual gags. The script’s a daft romp, with lots of implausible events, wild emoting, railing against fate and so on; the principals played along with unironic gusto and almost managed to make the story credible. Minor characters tended towards Coarse Acting hamminess, but once I’d reminded myself the scenes were designed to be peered at from the back of the upper circle, this bothered me less. I wasn’t too thrilled by the music: I’d expected some memorable, sing-this-in-the-shower type arias, but nothing stuck with me (except, perhaps, the one where the dissolute sculptor yearns for a pure life among goats, which probably sounds a bit more solemn in French). But the singing was truly marvellous; I’d convinced myself years ago I didn’t like operatic voices, all silly vibrato and peculiar pronunciation, but things have changed – or I have – and I was swept away by some performances. Willard White’s bass-baritone Pope was mesmerising, like watching a limbo dancer (lower… lower…), Michael Spyres was a clear-voiced and almost loveable Cellini, and Paula Murrihy stole the show in that other operatic staple, a chick playing a chap (this is called a ‘trouser role’, which just makes me giggle like a loon).

cellini

Well. It made me really, really wish I’d been there to experience it in person. I hate you, people who live in London. But I got a lot out of watching on the screen: in many ways it was better than being there. Somehow, seeing it all up close brought home the mad, bizarre brilliance of opera as an art form: not just the artistic vision and the organisation and the hard work, but the sheer astonishing fact of people, up there, making this extraordinary, beautiful noise, perfectly, live. Add to that the detail of faces, costumes and sets; the sweat running from the conductor’s sideburns; the glint in an oboist’s eye. Even opera glasses don’t get you that.

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