Archive for November, 2010

An Ideal Husband

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

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play An Ideal Husband has often been looked down on in comparison to his more famous masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest. As a piece of drama, it’s less obviously funny than Earnest, but what it lacks in hilarity (and in places it’s very amusing indeed) it more than makes up for in topicality. The plot concerns an apparently upright politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, who is widely tipped for Cabinet office. He has a loving wife, a louche closest friend in the shape of Viscount Goring and great personal wealth. This wealth, however, was acquired by his selling a state secret, which a figure from his past, the glamorous Mrs Cheveley, attempts to blackmail him with. Drama ensues.

Lindsay Posner’s handsome, intelligent and well-acted revival of the play offers a splendidly classy evening’s entertainment. There’s not much that the superb cast can do with some of Wilde’s more florid dialogue and melodramatic situations, but thankfully they bring a refreshing naturalism to it which tempers some of the innate theatricality of the situation. It helps that the play features some of Wilde’s most celebrated epigrams, including my own favourite, ‘Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.’

It’s always a joy when watching Wilde to see how the actors cope with the ornate and baroque dialogue, and the excellent cast rise manfully (or womanfully) to the challenge. Samantha Bond as the preening, calculating Mrs Cheveley is simultaneously sexy and rather terrifying, and Rachael Stirling and Alexander Hanson beautifully convey the trials of a loving marriage built, at least in part, on a lie. The outstanding performance however comes from Elliot Cowan as Lord Goring. Cowan sensibly plays the role as an intelligent, highly adept man whose witticisms and posturing are merely safety valves for containing his boredom. He also rose manfully to the challenge of a torn letter the night I saw the play, improvising brilliantly and hilariously. The other great comic highlight is provided by Caroline Blakiston as the dowager Lady Markby, who has an increasingly surreal monologue in Act 2 which just becomes funnier and funnier the longer it continues.

Post Downton Abbey, there seems to be a wide public demand for well-staged costume drama with pointedly witty remarks and venomous put-downs jostling for position. For everyone missing the adventures of the Granthams, this will come as a more than adequate substitute.

Until 19th February. Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand.






Don Giovanni

Posted in Music with tags , , , on November 9, 2010 by alexlarman

I’ve always disliked the idea that a production of something, whether it be a play, opera or symphony, ‘should’ be a certain way. The exciting appeal of watching a new staging or production or anything is that there can be scope for innovation and freshness within it, and that a fine director or conductor can make their mark in a unique and thrilling way. Then of course there are the examples of equally talented artists putting ‘their stamp’ on a work and it not only coming across as misjudgement of the material, but show-off arrogance.

The day after watching the ENO’s new production of Don Giovanni, directed by Rufus Norris, I am still unsure as to whether it’s a brilliant re-evaluation of the opera as the blackest of black comedies or an absolutely travesty of the original. It’s probably my favourite opera, partly because I believe the score to be the finest ever composed but also because I’ve always adored the way that it alternates – sometimes in the same scene – between comedy and tragedy, achieving a kind of Shakespearean breadth of emotional states.

What’s so unusual about Norris’ staging is that the tragic aspects of the opera are all but ignored in favour of increasingly farcical adventures.  These are first hinted at when Iain Paterson’s superbly sung but somewhat low-key – a lecher rather than a libertine – Don Giovanni first appears in the overture, accompanied by Brindley Sherratt’s shambling Leporello, a dead ringer for David Threlfall in Shameless. They reach their peak in pure knockabout comedy in the second act when John Molloy’s Masetto, declaring the Don to be ‘the bastard to end all bastards’ ends up having a large fork rammed into his posterior, declaring ‘Oooh, my arse!’ Here, as elsewhere, Jeremy Sams’ translation makes up for in humour what it lacks in sophistication. The overall effect is vaguely disconcerting, a bit like watching a mash up of Macbeth and Carry On Screaming, complete with Gilbert and Sullivan-esque banter.

Musically it’s fine but undistinguished under Kirill Karabits’ conducting, with the best music, as ever, reserved for the finale in which the Don descends to hell, although here, as elsewhere, Norris adopts some curious directorial decisions and makes it appear as if he is electrocuted on the giant pylons that orbit the stage. (The set design, by Ian MacNeil is, presumably intentionally, horribly ugly.) I enjoyed this production immensely, far more than some more po-faced and accomplished ones I’ve seen, but I honestly couldn’t say that this was intentional or not. One’s thing for certain, the famous ‘catalogue’ scene will never quite make me think of a spreadsheet ever again.