Tuesday 31 January 2017

Some stylish opera, an enthralling Gemma Arterton performance and the final bow for Bowie's Lazarus...

16th January 2017 - 22nd January 2017

A theatre-centric week this one, spanning three types too with some opera, a play and a revisit of a musical, so without further ado...

Written On Skin

Miss, (soon to be Mrs), Culture was under the weather on the cold Wednesday night we'd decided to catch the revival of George Benjamin's opera, so this was a solo outing, (and also my second time seeing it, the first time being during it's initial run here in 2013), and it must enough of an impact to want to revisit it as a couple but alas it was not to be. Unfortunately as seems to be the case with operas it has quite a limited run so rearranging or booking again wasn't an option.

Now let me state this right up front, I'm no opera expert. I've seen around ten operas in my life, either at the ENO or here, (and one production of 'Tosca' by the opera group Opera Up Close which was pretty great at the Soho Theatre, but I digress...), and usually go because the production looks interesting or the story appeals, so I can't comment with any degree of authority on what is considered a triumph by discerning opera goer's standards I'm sure.

It also seems that people generally appear to be of the opinion that opera is a pursuit of the upper classes as many are in a foreign language, (although usually with surtitles above the stage), and tickets are prohibitively expensive for the layperson. I first took a punt on 'Don Giovanni' at the ENO and really enjoyed it, they perform all of their operas in English so for many that could be overcoming a barrier, also there are a huge amount of seats and standing spots at the Royal Opera House which are priced as low as £6, (obviously the stalls can be over a hundred pounds, but in my experience everywhere sounds good in the ROH, a feature of a good opera house I'm led to believe). In fact for this performance I had a £6 ticket up in the heights of the Upper Amphitheatre in a standing space, which was perfectly fine for hearing and seeing the production, which was only around 90 minutes with no interval. Also be assured, you don't need to be dressed to the nines either...

Tickets for £6 are a steal...

So the opera itself then, well firstly the set itself is superb, a real wow of design, it's a two storey construction which also slides sideways between acts to reveal different sections, so if nothing else it's a treat for the eyes.

The music is also very easy to listen to, it's quite film-score like in parts and the orchestra were being conducted by the composer Benjamin himself which is always a bonus, and not so common an occurrence.

The singers were universally excellent, especially the female lead Barbara Hannigan. The male lead Christopher Purves had a throat infection on the night so although he was on stage acting the part he wasn't singing, the part was sung off stage by James Cleverton, which didn't diminish from the performance one bit.

Set in 13th century Provence, loosely the story involves a wealthy landowner known as The Protector who lives in a farmhouse with his wife and employs an artist/writer known as The Boy to produce a book based on their lives, (the book is written on bound skin hence the title), and follows the wife Agnes falling in love with The Boy and the consequences/revenge that follow.

The brilliance of the production however is that throughout the people and settings are arranged and 'controlled' by angel-like figures who are always present in adjacent rooms to the farmhouse in modern styled office type environments. So while the action is playing out in the farmhouse they are moving in slow motion with slightly subdued lighting going about the admin side of portraying the story and sorting costumes and props to stage each scene and move the story along... It's quite difficult to fully explain and needs to be seen in action really, (there's videos floating about the interweb and a DVD/Blu ray does exist of the show).

It plays almost like an adult Grimm's fairytale of sorts, with a dash of Shakespeare, (primarily in mind was Titus Andronicus), with modern flourishes to the text and music which melded the 13th century setting and the more modern angelic universe.

I've always found even when the opera itself doesn't quite float my boat that I've enjoyed hearing and seeing the music performed live, and the staging so have never really experienced a wasted night, however after seeing 'Written On Skin' in 2013 it had stuck with me and I really wanted to see it again. It didn't disappoint.

As divisive as opera is I urge you to give it a go, you never know...

Saint Joan

The next night Miss Culture was thankfully back on her feet, and in time to see the latest production at one of our favourite theatres, the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.

Usually we'll see whatever production is on here, via the now defunct Barclays Front Row scheme which although could be a bit of scrum come release day were a bargain at £10 per ticket for front row seats.

So onto the play, a revival of a George Bernard Shaw play from 1923 which depicts the life of Joan of Arc, based on information from the mass of records which still exist from her heresy trial.

Gemma Arterton is Joan, and once again proves herself to be a very versatile, captivating presence, (we've previously seen her in the criminally short-lived production of 'Made In Dagenham' and the West End transfer of the Globe's 'Nell Gwynn', both of which she excelled in having singing duties too). She's on stage already as the audience filters in performing prayer and personal meditation of sorts, which along with the sparse set backed by three framed screens and the orchestral chanting music sets the mood. Throughout the play the set revolves slowly and the action is set almost entirely around a large table which is dressed to suit the scene, something which allows the audience to see all the characters properly during every scene.

Arterton on stage before the play starts proper...

The story although unchanged in it's characters, locations and time period, is updated to use modern metaphorical devices to convey such events within the text such as 'the wind changing' in the French army's favour before they launch an attack on the English, and the fluctuations of stock markets to portray the effects of the hens not laying at the start seen as a message to encourage the army to instill faith in Joan and her messages from God.

Brian Cant also makes an appearance as a couple of characters and proves himself more than capable.

A shot during Joan's trial for heresy...

Although the play is nearly 100 years old we won't spoil the story arc, and the 2 hour 40 minute run time, (including interval), flies by and never drags, whilst examining an interesting look at Joan's religious condemnation and subsequent historical significance.

The show runs until the 18th of February and is well worth catching, if only to see Arterton at the top of her game in such an interesting piece and in an impeccably, intimate environment.


So we were back for our third visit to 'Lazarus', and the final performance of this London run, (it's not currently announced as transferring elsewhere so maybe the last time this cast will be together).

We'd booked the tickets for the final performance back on the day that ticket sales opened, along with the other two pairs and opted for the fantastic bargain of £15 tickets, although for this performance we were nearer the back, (perhaps having been a little spoilt by our front row experience last time), however it didn't diminish our enjoyment too much despite reduced sight lines due to the design of the auditorium, (which is now being removed).

A shot of the amazing artwork for the production...

This performance also allowed us the opportunity to see Sophia Anne Caruso as The Girl and again she didn't disappoint, totally inhabiting the role which has almost entirely been only hers, and providing just enough other worldliness and ethereal charm along with a sublime, pure singing voice which lent such familiar songs a new emotional resonance.

Again Michael C Hall inhabited the role of Thomas just as seamlessly as Bowie did in 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' and despite the character not initially being an outwardly emotional force, depicts the awakening of feeling and his deteriorating mental state brilliantly.

Amy Lennox also continues to bring heft to a role which be considered slight in the grand scheme of the plot, but proves herself more than capable of making every moment count, especially her chance to let go during her performance of 'Changes'.

Also Michael Esper once again proves his versatility in flitting between vulnerable and sinister in his role as Valentine and shine throughout.

Although it's now over for the time being it was filmed so hopefully a home release is on the cards, and maybe will transfer elsewhere to continue Bowie's legacy.

A section from the programme...

The director Ivo Von Hove is moving on to many projects including a production of 'Obsession' with Jude Law at the Barbican later this year, (we have out tickets already), and will also be directing Bryan Cranston in a production of 'Network' at the National Theatre too.

That's it for this week, but next week brings a film preview and some iconic movie scores brought to life at the Royal Festival Hall. Till then, get inspired...

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