Sunday, 22 February 2015

Welcome Back... and Five Memorable Midlands Outings

Five Memorable Midlands Outings
Ok, this is supposed to be a ‘DC’ diary and I don’t live in DC anymore but… as I’d like to start keeping track of my cultural encounters again, this seems as good a place as any to put them. It’s been a year and half since I returned from Washington and during that time there have been a few interesting trips to the theatre, of which these five are the most memorable as I’m sitting here at this moment…

1)   Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Curve Theatre, Leicester. April 2014. This performance was put on by the English Touring Opera company. I would guess that some of the people who like and understand opera look down a little at the really popular examples of the genre: Carmen springs to mind, and the Magic Flute is also in that category – so popular that a real aficionado can’t really demonstrate their superiority by praising it. To make matters worse, this version of the Magic Flute has been translated into English, which probably makes it about as déclassé as Cats. Still, being an operatic dunderhead, I loved it. My experience of opera largely consists in watching the film Amadeus, but this was a much jollier affair. The Queen of the Night’s aria, so manifestly the handiwork of a composer with swagger, was simply mind blowing; and the song of the bird catcher and his new missus is a delight. Sitting on the front row and getting to look straight down and close-up on the orchestra doing their stuff was fun too. Philosophically, I found the enlightenment mumbo jumbo a little hard to swallow, and ended up rooting for the dark powers of reaction and superstition by the finale (but what’s new?)

2)  Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. November 2013. Cleopatra would be one of history’s great characters even if Shakespeare had never mentioned her. Seducing Caesar, ruling half the Roman Empire with Mark Antony and frolicking away madly in oriental luxury while Octavian plotted against her. And then her final epic victory, defeating defeat by serpentine suicide. But with Shakespeare’s assistance, she has left the other feminine enemies of Rome (Boudicca, Zenobia) in her wake to became the ultimate icon of feminine power and mystery, even achieving that acme of honours: her own Lego mini-figure: 
Image result for lego egyptian queen               
So the performance of Cleopatra should decide the success of the production. In this case, it didn’t. Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra was not the force of nature the role calls for but, somehow, the play managed to be a winner anyway. Perhaps it was Jonathan Cake as a particularly hunky and sculpted Antony, or the stand out performance of Chukwudi Iwuji as Enobarbus, or perhaps it was the experience of seeing such an epic play in such an intimate theatre, but the result was a triumph all the same.

3) The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. August 2014. The BBC made the effort to produce television versions of Shakespeare canon in the late 1970s. The budget can’t have been great and some of them fell a little flat, The Two Gentlemen of Verona included. This version at the RST didn’t have a particularly famous cast and walking into the theatre to see the stage set up like an Italian piazza, complete with café and gelateria, set a few alarums ringing. I needn’t have worried. The audience interaction was fun (although being introduced to Julia as Silvia’s boyfriend was initially a little discombobulating), the acting was great and some of the scenes were weirdly hypnotic (the nightclub dancing scene was a little like Twin Peaks set in Milan). But one role makes or breaks the Two Gents: Crab the Dog. In this case, an up and coming actor by the name of Mossup was a revelatory force of comic genius.

4) Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. October 2014. Ok, ok, I should probably stop watching this. In Washington alone we had this and this. But it’s just so gosh darn enjoyable. In this case, the result was a little disappointing. The first intimation of trouble was renaming it Love’s Labours Won and arguing in the programme that Much Ado is really an alternative name for one of Shakespeare’s plays considered lost, the sequel to Love’s Labours Lost (except with, er, a completely different group of characters and plot). The slapstick didn’t quite hit the right notes (although the rest of the audience sounded their appreciation) and the setting (England immediately after World War I) wasn’t remotely compatible with the warmth of the dialogue. Setting it in Italy (the Kenneth Branagh film), California (the Joss Whedon film) or somewhere latino (the version in DC) reflects both the characters’ names, the summery feel and the pure joy we feel in rooting for Shakespeare’s most likeable couple. The sombre shroud cast over proceedings by the horror of the Great War, not helped by the wintry stage décor, took something special away from what might otherwise have been an excellent production. Later in the play, time seemed to skip forward a few years and we had the flappers of the roaring twenties, which suited the play much better. Michelle Terry was brilliant as Beatrice, although Dogberry was played as somebody with genuine mental health issues, which again undercut the humour, and Benedick (Edward Bennett) was so camp that an entirely new dimension was added to the play (intentionally or not). Imagine, if you will, a Benedick played by this guy’s double. Beatrice at one stage dressed up in a suit a tie which on its own might not suggest much but, with Benedict's Matthew Kelly impression, it did raise an interesting question… did Benedick and Beatrice want to remain single because they were gay, and was their eventual union then a lavender marriage?

As an aside, why did we change enigmatical to enigmatic and politic to political?

5) Antigone at the Lakeside Theatre, Nottingham. October 2014. This adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy stuck closely to the plot whilst setting it today in gritty urban interiors. Classics is a rich, white person’s thing, populated by progressives who genuinely want it to be less white and rich, so I suspect this version got good reviews from lots of people who felt a lot of right on condescension towards it. Unfortunately, for me it was memorable only in the way that the things we really want to forget are the things we can’t forget. Putting ancient works in new settings can work fantastically well, for example the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Antigone itself has been cleverly adapted, or perhaps used, since it became almost unrecognizable, in the anti-apartheid play, The Island. This is not one of those times. It is not even a brave crack at one of those times. It is New Jack City minus the charisma crossed with Eastenders minus the humour. No. Just, no.

Anyway, with this brief round-up out of the way, next up will be a more in-depth review of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.

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