Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Book Review: Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, 2017)

Nicholas Hytner’s twelve year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming; the inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season allegedly prompted one NT regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the NT’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the NT (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those of us who saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the NT were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach. The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the NT, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

But, in totality, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287). Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-NT musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the NT’s workings.

Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the  personalities of the directors and actors and designers  involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of  another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe. 

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the NT receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the NT job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the NT.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying  “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation.” In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play: “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26). As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions  with general reflections on theatre as an art-form,  this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

CD Review: Nightfall, Quercus (ECM, 2017)

Quite a lot’s been said, in recent years, about so-called Slow Cinema, the minimalist, observational aesthetic that characterises a certain strand of contemporary filmmaking, including work by the likes of Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethtkal and Bela Tarr. While theres no denying that the films of these directors are challenging, and may, at their weakest, induce frustration, there can also be something gloriously subversive about their languorous approach and the way that it requires the viewer to take their time, to look closer and really work with the images. Indeed, Thomas Elsaesser sees the form as an act of organised resistance (analogous to the Slow food movement) that challenges the hyper, fast-cut style of most contemporary filmmaking - and, I would add, the incessant, damagingly choppy experience of online activity,  referred to by James Wolcott as the hyperspace of attention-deficit culture.

If theres a musical equivalent to the profound pleasures offered by Slow Cinema at its best, then one prime exponent is Quercus, the folk jazz trio comprising June Tabor (vocals), Huw Warren (piano) and Iain Ballamy (saxaphones). A wonderful sense of spaciousness and expansiveness, an attentive, meditative quality, characterises this group’s music, and the results are deeply restorative and rewarding. 

Art cinema has often been cited by Tabor as an influence on her work; after all, her second solo album, Ashes and Diamonds, was named for the final part of Andrzej Wajdas War Trilogy, while the elliptical, image-rich qualities of folk ballads (and some contemporary song writing, such as Lal Watersons and Bill Caddick's) have been compared by her to film narrative, something that she discussed with me in interview back in 2011. The cinematic aspects of Quercus’s work have to do with ambience, the way in which they offer the listener spaces to pause and reflect. Instant easy-listening the album is not. But the deeper you dig, the richer the findings.


Tabor and Warren have, of course, been collaborating fruitfully since the 1980s, but Ballamy is newer to the fold, completing the trio after appearing on Tabor's 2005 release At the Wood’s Heart. The fruits of the group’s labour were first released on their self-titled debut album – a 2006 live performance finally issued by the great ECM label in 2013. From its artwork to its content, Nightfall feels like a complement to, and extension of, that record. (Th title comes from Edward Thomas’s poem “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”: “The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood/This Eastertide call into mind the men,/Now far from home, who, with their sweetness should/Have gathered them and will do never again.”) 

From the first spare opening note, Ballamy, Warren and Tabor continue to bring out the best in each other; their combination of elements – metropolitan jazz/classical stylings wedded to songs of tradition (mostly drawn from Somerset sources this time) – proves, once again, intoxicating. The group’s distilled approach, in which every note counts, doesn’t result in austerity: instead, there’s a stealth sensuality to the record, evident in Warren’s lithe and rhythmic piano work, in Ballamy’s billowing, shadowing sax playing, and in the commanding intensity of Tabor’s magnificent vocals.

As on the first album, the opening track here is from Robbie Burns’s pen: this time the venerable “Auld Lang Syne”, pleasingly defamilarised with a subtly altered tune, the song is shifted from its usual employment as a hearty singalong to an intimate, deeply personal expression. The misty ambience conjured on “On Berrow Sands,” would have fitted comfortably on Tabor’s great sea-themed album Ashore, the track revolving around the hypnotic, trancelike repetitions of the gulls’ warning to sailors. There’s a similar attention to atmosphere on the captivatingly languid “The Shepherd and His Dog” on which an otherworldly arrangement renders an everyday pastoral scene mystical and mysterious: a passage from Hardy as directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The album’s centrepiece is a thrillingly dramatic and powerful rendering of “The Manchester Angel”. The song starts off looking like it’s going to be about a faithless soldier’s seduction of “a pretty young doxy” but twists into a tale of war as separator. Tabor delivers a series of negations with stunning power, and Ballamy’s sax soars with the heroine’s resolution. And I’ve never heard a better version of “The Cuckoo”, the song treated to a twinkling, delicate arrangement that does the floating verses ample justice – as intimations of Love Gone Wrong are offset by the birds’ recipe for happiness: “we are single and free”.

The more contemporary material – including two terrific instrumental duets composed by Ballamy and Warren - also compels. A biting “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is directed inwards and outwards in just the right way. Wistful sax and piano re-purpose Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, as Tabor’s vocals shift through irony, scorn, amusement and acceptance.  Personally I could live without another version of Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story warhorse “Somewhere” (which closes the album), but Tabor’s control and dramatic power succeed in bringing some freshness to the piece.

That’s true of all the tracks here, in fact. In a cluttered, pushy, snap judgement-dependent culture, Nightfall captivates by slowing us down, giving us room to breathe, making us listen closely and thereby experience these songs afresh. It's a glorious record. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Concert Review: Shelter from the Storm, Barb Jungr, Jamie Safir, Davide Mantovani (The Other Palace, 25th May 2017)

Recorded in a sweltering New York studio in summer 2015, and released early last year, Barb Jungr’s album Shelter from the Storm (Linn Records) [review] was a fine collaboration with the award-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood, the pair’s fresh and vibrant versions of a range of material – showtunes, Dylan and Cohen, Bowie and Mitchell – supplemented by some strong original tracks, all linked, as the album’s subtitle emphasized, as “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.”

I wasn’t able to see Jungr and Hobgood perform the album live during their tour last year, so was glad to have the opportunity to catch the show at The Other Palace (formerly the St. James Theatre) on Thursday night, where the performance was the third edition in the venue’s new “Jazz Divas” programme.

With the album’s US-based personnel (not only Hobgood, but also Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion) otherwise engaged, Thursday night found Jungr taking to the stage with her regular bassist Davide Mantovani and the young pianist Jamie Safir (fresh off a plane from Mallorca). From the opening “Something’s Coming” through the dynamically shifting rhythms of “Shelter from the Storm” to the penultimate “What the World Needs Now is Love” (hilariously prefaced by Jungr), the musicians proved more than up to the task of navigating Jungr and Hobgood’s idiosyncratic arrangements, often fleshing out the album versions with distinctive flourishes and spontaneous interplay all their own. Mantovani’s  work was characteristically elegant, subtle and supple, and Safir’s playing was a pure delight, by turns passionate and playful, and generating several spontaneous rounds of applause from the audience.

In great voice, Jungr herself was radiant as always, creating a warm and witty ambience for the evening, illuminating songs old and new in revelatory ways. Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” was revealed as a beautiful torch song, Jungr leaning hard into the “Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t” lyric. “Bali Hai” was approached via Brexit. “Life on Mars?/Space Oddity” was fruitfully developed  from the more skeletal album version, with stunning playing from Mantovani and Safir. “All Along the Watchtower”, with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” elegantly entwined in its folds, was taut and powerful. Tracks drawn from elsewhere in Jungr’s repertoire – such as her jaunty-deadly jazz strut through Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and a gospel-influenced, singalong “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”  to close – were also appreciated. She and Hobgood’s own compositions sat snugly beside this diverse material, with a soulful “Hymn to Nina” and a soaring “Venus Rising” among the standouts.

While even the most talented contemporary songwriters have struggled, so far, to write very profoundly about the US in the Time of Trump, Jungr brilliantly hot-wires us to the present moment by turning the clock back, finding relevant content in older material. Her version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” was achingly poignant and deeply moving in this context, its chorus – “Good morning, America, how are you?/Don’t you know me, I’m your native son” – turning gradually into a devastating enquiry from a soul betrayed. Her vibrantly funky take on “Woodstock” also reinvigorates the song as an urgent anthem for our age.  Loving and subversive, witty and engaged, Jungr and her collaborators help us find our way back to the garden.

Further information on the "Jazz Divas" series at The Other Palace here.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night (Shakespeare's Globe)

The sad story of Emma Rice's premature departure as Globe Artistic Director needs no further rehashing from me (besides, I already indulged in some in my review of her predecessor Dominic Dromgoole's recently-published Hamlet: Globe to Globe). So let's just get straight down to a few remarks about Rice's production of Twelfth Night, the second foray in the theatre's "Summer of Love" season, following  Daniel Kramer's decidedly unloved take on Romeo and Juliet.

The moniker seems an apt one for this final season, because Rice is such a loving director, with a generosity of spirit that shines through even in her weaker work. She approaches Shakespeare exactly as you approach a lover: with tenderness, curiosity and wonder jostling close to irreverence, impatience and cheek. She and her companies cut speeches, incorporate new dialogue, add or extend songs. (Credit for most of these changes goes, this time, to the excellent Carl Grose, Rice's collaborator on various Kneehigh shows, and the unforgettable Oedipussy.) Rice draws from a grab-bag of cultural influences: pop and punk, music hall and cabaret, film and sitcom. Her bracing inclusivity - her refusal to see a division between high art and low - makes her, in my opinion, a true Shakespearean.

Her Twelfth Night has all of that, in spades. The production approaches the play through a 1970s prism in its design and its aesthetic, allowing for disco flourishes and the wry, naughty inclusion of some good ol' sitcom stereotypes (including Marc Antolin's lisping, camp Andrew Aguecheek and Kandaka Moore and Theo St. Claire's brilliant West Indian evangelicals).

Still, proceedings start at too high and forced a pitch, with a "We Are Family" rendition aboard the "SS Unity", led by the great alt cabaret drag sensation Le Gateau Chocolat, who serves, following the shipwreck that divides Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Viola and John Pfumojena's Sebastian, as a ghostly Feste: ludic and melancholic in equal measure. (Gateau's function here is a little like that of Meow Meow's Maitress in Rice's undervalued The Umbrellas of Cherbourg of 2011.)

Le Gateau Chocolat and Joshua Lacey in Twelfth Night. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
Indeed, as often with Rice, irritation and rapture, clunkiness and illumination, are exhilaratingly close in this Twelfth Night. As in her terrific A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, the lunacy of love is a major theme, expressed with all the mania one could desire. Katy Owen's show-stopping Malvolio moves from brisk, whistle-blowing priss to a horny honeybee rubbing against a pillar and jumping on Annette McLaughlin's statuesque (and very funny) Olivia. Carly Bawden's Maria is a gleaming-eyed minx, as seductive as she's steely. Joshua Lacey's Orsino has Michael Flately's moves and his self-satisfaction, his messages conveyed to Olivia via tape-recorder.

Amid the mayhem, the notion of splits and divisions - not only from loved ones but also from the various aspects of the self - comes through with fresh poignancy, as "the whirligig of time brings in its revenges", subjecting characters to good or bad fortune. And for all her giddy, sometimes over-insistent flourishes, one can't accuse Rice of neglecting the company's verse-speaking, which is exceptionally clear throughout.

Moments of pure, surprising theatrical magic radiate. A boat carries Pieter Lawman's lovelorn Antonio through the crowd. A shower of glitter accompanies Olivia's "Most wonderful!" In a final heart-grabbing gesture, Gateau's Feste takes Malvolio's hand. Rice breathes theatre, gives us excess of it, and her production can make the viewer deliriously happy.

Twelfth Night is at the Globe until 5th August. Further information here.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Book Review: Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole (Grove, 2017)

My review of Dominic Dromgoole's new book Hamlet: Globe to Globe is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Film Review: Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 2016)

My review of Andrzej Wajda's final film, Afterimage (Powidoki), is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre Review: JOAN (Ovalhouse)

From a silent film classic and an often-revived George Bernard Shaw play to songs by Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Madonna, the singular figure of Joan of Arc has remained a somewhat unlikely icon and object of inspiration in 20th and 21st century popular culture. This enduring fascination must be down, in part, to the contradictory qualities embodied by the so-called Maid of Orleans. Peasant, prophetess, warrior, witch, martyr, saint - the identities encompassed by (or ascribed to) Joan of Arc make her a slippery, weirdly radical figure whose transgressions can be seen to go beyond their very specific historical, political and religious contexts and find resonance here and now. 

The question of Joans identity - and, more particularly, her gender identity - lies at the heart of the most recent play to represent her: Lucy J Skilbecks JOAN. Seen last year at Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently in a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it won several awards) Skilbecks one-person show now comes back to London for a couple of weeks of performances in the intimate Downstairs space at Ovalhouse. Its a most welcome return, for JOAN is an embracing, illuminating, hugely enjoyable work that adds something genuinely fresh to our perception of its heroine and her historical (and contemporary) significance.

Skilbeck’s play has clearly been carefully researched. The focus is on the events leading up to Joan’s execution: we learn about the death of her mother at the hands of the English; her decision to leave her father; and the visions of Saint Catherine that inspired her to convince the exiled King to let her lead an army against the country’s oppressors.

However, the novelty and urgency of the piece lies in the way in which it reflects and refracts Joan through the prism of contemporary gender politics. This it does boldly yet also delicately, without attempting to impose one reductive reading on the protagonist’s identity. It’s no surprise that Joan’s religious zeal is less of a concern, conveyed mostly through her deep sense of connection to Catherine. Instead, the focus is on a much more modish aspect: namely, the confrontation of a radical, “gloriously confusing” body with the rigid apparatuses of patriarchal power.  The show is particularly good at conveying the sense of freedom and possibility that Joan experiences in her male attire, as she turns her bra into a trouser bulge, and feels “for the first time total ease.”

The fluidity of Joan’s identity is echoed in the form of the show itself which combines elements of dramatic monologue, cabaret and musical. The approach couldn’t be further from strained Shavian verbosity: rather, it’s physical, fleet and often very funny, with some exhilarating musical interludes. Complemented by Joshua Pharo’s terrific lighting, Emma Bailey’s simple set of crates and mirrors lightly accents the plays themes, and Skilbeck’s direction keeps the pace supple at all times so that the proceedings turn from wry to wrenching on a dime.  

In Lucy Jane Parkinson, the show has its ideal performer, too.  Winner of Drag King Idol 2014, Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) is a dynamic presence: a whirlwind who plays off the encircling audience with hilarious aplomb, especially when mobilizing us to become an army. This Northern-accented Joan embraces something of a Riot Grrrl aesthetic: Tank Girl top, big sneakers, dreads springing from a partially shaved scalp.

Yet, as Joan confronts the consequences of (in Judith Butler’s great phrase) “doing one’s gender wrong,” Parkinson skillfully modulates her performance, doing justice both to Joan’s swagger and her aching sense of set-apartness. The late scenes in which Joan tries to appease her oppressors by letting her hair down and attempting to find a male mate are equal parts funny and painful, revealing femininity to be its own kind of drag act for women. Parkinson’s generous, open interpretation hotwires us to the heroine’s humanity throughout.  

But that’s not all. Via brisk on-stage transformations Parkinson also morphs into three of the men in Joan’s life: her father, Charles VII, and her pro-English interrogator Pierre Cauchon. It’s these guys, in fact, who get the evening’s irreverent songs, and Parkinson’s manic metamorphosis into the disco-dancing Dauphin is particularly sublime. However, Joan herself is finally allotted a moving, intimate number that Parkinson delivers beautifully, as this huge-hearted, playful yet profound revisioning of an icon arrives at its deeply poignant close.

Booking until 22nd April. Further details here

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.