Archive for January, 2010

The Habit Of Art

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by alexlarman

Alan Bennett might have been forgiven for retiring after the enormous success of his 2004 play The History Boys, which, amongst many other distinctions, launched several high-profile careers (Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey amongst them), won just about every award going, and was turned into a not-bad 2006 film with the same cast and creative team. It’s not at all hard to see why – in its blend of highbrow erudition, knockabout farce and genuinely touching pathos, it managed to be that rare beast that could appeal to chin-stroking intellectuals, seasoned theatregoers and casual West End punters.

Now, half a decade later, the now 75-year old Bennett has returned with what will surely be his final play, The Habit Of Art. Sold out virtually from the second booking began, there’s no doubt that this is a Rolls Royce of a production, from the returning (Sir) Nicholas Hytner directing to a cast including History Boys stalwarts Richard Griffiths (replacing an indisposed Michael Gambon) and Frances de la Tour, and others of the calibre of Alex Jennings. And, in its central theme of an aged WH Auden re-encountering his former friend Benjamin Britten for a final time, it would seem time for Bennett to revisit the quasi-Stoppardian territory of life and art coinciding that he’d already written about in Kafka’s Dick and A Question Of Attribution.

And so he does, albeit with a post-modern twist. The play is meta-theatrical – Bennett’s conceit is that it’s a late stage run-through of a rather pretentious drama called Caliban’s Day, where the actor playing Auden, Fitz, is a grumpy old sod who doesn’t really know his lines and is dying to dash off to do a voiceover, and the actor playing Britten, Henry, is a precious old queen who seems to think it’s all beneath him. All the while, the valiant stage manager (Frances de la Tour) is trying to salvage the situation by soothing egos right, left and centre. And the actor playing Humphrey Carpenter, both Auden and Britten’s eventual biographer (Adrian Scarborough), thinks his character is being sidelined – might a spot of drag and a tuba do the trick?

There is an awful lot going on here, and all in a comparatively brisk two and a half hours. (The running time flies by.) It’s superbly acted by everyone, especially Griffiths (channelling both Hector and Uncle Monty but with a rougher, shabbier edge) and a camp, knowing Jennings. There are countless laugh-out-loud lines and moments, whether it’s Britten’s acerbic pronounciation of the name ‘Tippett’ or the farcical entanglements of Auden mistaking Carpenter for a rent boy. And, in the presentation, when it eventually comes, of the imagined final meeting between Auden and Britten, Bennett movingly suggests a parallel akin to Stoppard’s Invention Of Love, where the disgraced, ailing Wilde could still suggest to a repressed Housman that he would live on in life and art and in people’s imagination, whereas Housman’s repression would go to the grave. Thus here, with the shabby, unhygenic Auden and the prissy, comfortably off Britten. Yet it hardly matters, in a sense, that both the figures portrayed were two of the 20th century’s most famous artists – it’s as much about the loss of a great friendship as anything else.

If I had a problem with the play, and it’s carping to criticise something so enjoyable and rich, it does seem as if Bennett has written very consciously a post-History Boys, National Theatre play (there are knowing references to the NT’s stages), with lots of good lines and great roles for a top-quality cast (special mention to John Heffernan as the charmingly put-upon assistant stage manager and Elliot Levy as the pretentious playwright) and just enough intellectual allusion and erudition for the blue-rinse brigage (who were out in force on the matinee I saw). What it isn’t is anything like Bennett’s Talking Heads or even much of his pre-History Boys work. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, more a faint surprise that he’s replaced a precise, almost surgical evocation of character, place and time with references to dreaming spires, rent boys and blow jobs.

But this is classy, witty and moving stuff, beautifully acted by a wonderful cast and a highly enjoyable experience. If an opportunity presents itself to get tickets to it, take it – you won’t be disappointed.


The Rake’s Progress

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on January 28, 2010 by alexlarman

The Royal Opera House’s revival of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, with libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman and directed by Robert Lepage, met with mixed reviews on its first production in 2008, but this confident revival shows that any initial difficulties have been more than dealt with. With its mix of pointed satire, constantly intriguing neo-classical score and poetic wit, it has been extremely popular ever since its first production in 1947, and this suitably gutsy staging more than does credit to it.

Loosely based on Hogarth’s series of 18th century paintings that explored the decline and fall of a decadent wastrel, Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman instead focus on Tom Rakewell (Toby Spence), an amiable ne’er-do-well without a penny to his name who is in love with the similarly sweet Ann Trulove (Rosemary Joshua). The match looks doomed until he falls in with the enigmatic Nick Shadow (Kyle Ketelsen), who offers him vast fortunes from a mysterious ‘uncle’ and a suitably glitzy career in a world that Lepage evokes as 50s America.

The singing from all the leads, especially Ketelsen, is fine, and the conducting by Ingo Metzmacher is suitably energetic, responding to all the subtleties and ironic nods to neo-classicism in Stravinsky’s score. The costume and set designs are lavish and elaborate – at one point an inflatable caravan appears on stage – and if, finally, this isn’t the most profound of productions, it’s certainly one of the more enjoyable.

(Oh and hat-tip to Lucy of who accompanied me and claimed to enjoy it much more than she was expecting!)

Six Degrees Of Separation

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on January 22, 2010 by alexlarman

John Guare’s acclaimed 1990 drama Six Degrees Of Separation, which was memorably filmed with Will Smith and Donald Sutherland, explores a wide range of contemporary issues, ranging from the ephemeral nature of the contemporary art market to the inability that well-heeled New Yorkers have with understanding the world outside their Fifth Avenue penthouses. EM Forster might have exhorted his readers to ‘Only connect’, but for Guare, ‘connecting’ is something that the wealthy do to catch a train to the Hamptons. First class, naturally.

The plot concerns a charismatic young man (an excellent performance from the hitherto little-known Obi Abili) who appears at the apartment of the well-heeled art dealer Flan and his wife Ouisa (Anthony Head and Lesley Manville), appearing to be the victim of a violent mugger. He presents himself as a close friend of their children, and the son of Sidney Poitier to boot. The couple are charmed and initially beguiled by Paul’s easy, erudite manner, but it soon becomes clear that he is both less, and more, than he originally appears.

Guare’s play alternates between the genuinely profound and compelling and slightly irritating faux-Brechtian alienation – lots of characters speaking directly to the audience – but at 90 minutes it never outstays its welcome and, in Abili’s compelling and multi-faceted performance, offers a fascinating character study of a man whose intelligence and charm are equally matched by his guile and consummate dishonesty.

The Rivals, Southwark Playhouse

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on January 17, 2010 by alexlarman

Sheridan and, in particular, his play The Rivals is a fascinating halfway house between the worlds of Shakespearean and Restoration comedy and the more contemporary theatre of the likes of Orton, even Wilde. In 18th century Bath, two young couples, Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish and Julia and Faulkland, find themselves engaged in various romantic entanglements, helped and hindered by the likes of the verbally challenged Mrs Malaprop, Jack’s splenetic father Sir Anthony and the imbecilic Bob Acres, who has come from the country. All ends happily, though not before some splendid digs at sentimental literature, Bath society and the Irish, in the form of the absurd Sir Lucius O’Trigger.

Some of the dialogue – less Mrs Malaprop’s ‘an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ and more statements along the likes of Jack’s “though one eye may be very agreeable, yet as the prejudice has always run in favour of two, I would not wish to affect a singularity in that article” seems startlingly modern, even today, and so it comes as little surprise that Out Of Joint-affiliated Jessica Swale’s lively, clear and fluent production of the play at Southwark Playhouse is an immensely entertaining evening. I groaned a bit at the beginning when the cast, attired in appropriate period costume, launched into a Georgian version of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, but thankfully such touches of self-c0nscious ‘modernisation’ are kept to a minimum.

It’s superbly acted, especially by Harry Haden-Paton  as the dashing Jack Absolute (complete with highly entertaining verbal and facial asides to the audience at moments of stress or excitement) and Robin Soans as his splenetic, somewhat priapic father. Celia Imrie as Mrs Malaprop is a slightly more realistic rendering than is often played, meaning that the rejection at the end has a more emotional side than usual. Ella Smith and Tom McDonald do their best with the dead-air subplot of the love affair between Faulkland and Julia, but there’s nothing much doing with this solemn, horribly dated parody of sentimental literature. But that’s the only downside to what’s otherwise a joyous, often hilarious evening. Well worth catching at Southwark, it runs til January 30th.