Monday, May 24, 2010

Carmen at the O2

The passionate and beautiful Carmen, a gypsy factory worker, attracts rival lovers: soldier Don Jose and Escamillo, a bull-fighter. Initially faithful to the worthy Don Alonso, who for her sake deserts his post, Carmen succumbs to the local hero’s flashy charms. This being nineteenth century Seville,revenge ensues.

Christina Nassif in the skirt-swishing lead role seemed at times lost among the 100-strong cast and her voice lacked distinction. Elizabeth Atherton was outstanding as Micaela, the girl-next-door admirer of Don Jose. With mousy plaited hair and dull clothes, her subdued gestures and posture held attention and earned her the loudest final applause. Kevin Greenlaw was handsome in the fairly slight role of Escamillo and John Hudson was a stocky and sympathetic Don Jose, also cheered.

This was the very first opera to be staged at the O2 Arena, previously known as the Millennium Dome, normally hosting sell-put pop concerts. When I did presentationd to Travel and Tourism students in the run up to 2000, I explained the benefits to the local environment and transport infrastructure, in addition to providing a 'heritage' structure funded by lottery proceeds. When the right wing press bundled it with New Labour as a target any chance of a government-funded conversion was lost. The Dome was rescued from becoming a giant casino but it’s ironic that a project built with workers’ money now profits a multi-million global company.

A cross between a circus tent and an aircraft hangar, the best thing about the O2 Arena is its position, on a promontory jutting into the Thames. The reclamation of polluted land and its relative isolation from residential housing were factors that influenced the choice of the location for the Millennium legacy. Inside, it’s so big that that I doubt even binoculars would help identify the singers in the crowd scenes. It does allow, however, for the hugely ambitious stage for Carmen, an elongated serpent with two bulges in the middle.

One end of the giant S curled round the London Philharmonic Orchestra, doing full justice under conductor Gareth Hancock, to Bizet’ score. It excelled both in rousing set-pieces like ‘Toreador’ and in more subdued solo and duets between the principals. The space at the opposite end was by turns a tobacco factory, a night encampment and a bullring. The raised plane of the giant S in its wider centre served as the town square at noon, a place for lunch-break flirtation, and then a street café lit by strings of coloured bulbs for sultry evening trysts and knife fights. The snaking platform, aided by Andrew Bridge’s moody lighting design, was by turns a cat walk for factory girls, a dusty road for marching soldiers and a triumphal route for a procession that included fire eaters and somersaulting tumblers.

The programme was well worth the £6 price tag and included a plot synopsis and biography of Bizet, as well as articles on bull-fighting and the rise of the taste for verismo in operatic works. It is perhaps the latter that makes Carmen the most popular and most frequently performed opera. David Rogers contributed an interesting explanation for his design choices, in particular the death motifs celebrated in Spanish culture.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre

‘Imagine if the belief that a plane could fly was the only thing that was keeping it in the air’.

Lucy Prebble’s play explores what happened in 1991 when an American energy supply corporation, apparently worth billions on paper, crashed with massive debts. Recent financial meltdown in some UK fiancial companies adds topical resonance.

Enron, with co-operation from President Bushes, Snr and George W, made huge profits selling energy in a deregulated market and then, when things began to go wrong, two employees invented cover-up schemes to fool auditors, shareholders and fellow workers. When the fraud came to light, the main victims were the workers, who lost pensions and investments to the tune of $1.32 billion when the company went bankrupt. The two men responsible tried to bail out in advance but were caught and faced hefty jail sentences.

It wasn’t just down to two men, though: ‘nobody who was supposed to say no said no. They all took their share of money from the fraud and put it in their pockets.’

Lucy Prebbles’s witty dialogue conveys the fatal atmosphere of corporate camaraderie while a clever plot shows a smug conspiracy of greed escalating towards disaster.

The triumph of the production is that an essentially boring topic like corporate procedure is made to seem intriguing and even exciting. It’s like ‘Yes, Minister’, transferred to Canary Wharf and jazzed up with music and dancing.

It’s all delivered with panache by a group called Headlong Theatre. The cast has changed from the original Chichester Theatre and Royal Court Theatre production but competently deliver a mix of secret top-level meetings dripping chicanery, surreal encounters and exuberant ensemble scenes.

The play’s big success is Anthony Ward’s design, with its multimedia, multi-level impact and the superbly orchestrated lighting effects by Mark Henderson. Brisk scene run-ons under Rupert Goold’s direction and some clever choreography combine with fantastic escapades where characters scuttle about in giant animal heads. Office clones with laptops are drilled to deliver numbers with a precision that echoes Busby Berkeley musicals or Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film, ‘Metropolis’, about workers dehumanised by capitalism, all down to the troupe’s choreographer Ewan Wardrop.

So I’d say go, to experience a truly theatrical event, but read the programme first. As well as background to the story, it has a glossary that includes definitions, from the straightforward: ‘insider trading’,’ ‘hedging’ and ‘asset’ to the more esoteric: ‘Kool-Aid’, ‘Black Box’ and ‘SEC’

Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre :

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

'Hair' at the Gieldgud Theatre.

‘I can’t understand the words’, said my companion, halfway through a frenetic matinee at The Gielgud Theatre last week. The programme described the show as 'an ecstatic rock musical'. We were enjoying an interval respite from the noise and eating frozen yogurt in Berwick Street.

‘It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber. The words don’t matter.’

Well, the words didn’t matter to whoever rehearsed the show's chorus – or ‘Tribe’, as they are called in the programme. The solos, mostly shrieked, weren’t much better. Of the 40 songs only two are still recognised - ‘Aquarius’, which never made much sense and ‘I got my Life’, ruined by association with TV Yogurt ads. The best song, and the only one where you can make out the lyrics, was written by Shakespeare, as a speech called ‘What a piece of work is man.’, here converted into a decent anti-war ballad.

This was almost the only genuinely moving part of the show, in contrast with the ear-splitting delivery of the rest. The young cast are unmistakably enthusiastic. There was a quite a bit of invasion of the audience, of the kind that makes you glad you didn’t sit too near the front. People around me were good-natured but nervous.

Unlike my companion I was happy enough to identify a parade of sixties themes: free love, pot smoking, racial prejudice, male display, anticommunism, street protests, the atom bomb, Eastern religions and the rejection of education and domesticity. A story of sorts emerged: a young man, his best pal and their girl friends drop out of middle class suburban lifestyles to live with a group similarly rebellious young people. Then one of them is drafted and sent to Vietnam, which brings everything to an end.

‘Hair’ seemed irrelevant here even when it first arrived from Broadway, in 1968. The pill had popularised unmarried sex in the early sixties in England. Although we might deplore the war in Vietnam: ' white people sending black people to fight yellow people for those who stole it from the red people’, as one of the characters puts it, nobody mentioned a ‘special relationship’ back then. The show’s big draw was nudity onstage, recently allowed by the abolition of the Lord Chamerlain's role in censoring theatre.

Rado and Ragni's show was a hit in London then; 'Time Out' named it last week as London's top musical. I didn't see it first time round, so it was a good opportunity, being tied up at the time with amateur drama and motherhood in Penge, so this seemed a good opportunity to see what I'd been missing.

The programme says that this version, which is not the first revival, has been updated, but unless you remember the original it’s not always clear where. There’s an 'ad-lib' stand-up comedy at the beginning performed by one of the characters, and ‘contemporary’ references, such as Roman Polanski’s name called out at random moments. Comedy scenes, like the one with the hero’s stereotyped suburban parents and another with a conventional middle aged couple apparently plucked from the audience were so inept as to be embarrassing. They were not so annoying, however, as the audience ‘plants’ who made their raucous presence felt in the second half and who led the orchestrated ‘standing ovation’.

The single funny line is made by the hero’s father. When his son expresses the wish for a change of nationality, in a song called ‘Manchester, England’, he says, ‘Face it, you’re Polish!’.

For all the supposed boldness of songs like ‘Sodomy’ which nowadays sounds just like a childish list of rude words, nudity is underplayed, making a brief appearance just before the interval. The cast move towards the back of the stage, the lights are lowered and they drift off to reappear and stand without clothes. It’s like an old-fashioned Music Hall tableau, all done in the best possible taste.

‘Hair’ reminds me of all those ‘I love you, Dad’ scenes in American movies. As we sneaked out of the theatre, not tempted to join the cast onstage, I was feeling not so much ecstatic as old. In fact, I felt something like the Duchess of Malfi when the madmen ceased their torments. And I had to agree after all that we should at least have been able to understood the words.

'Hair' at The Gielgud Theatre: