Posts tagged ‘Shakespeare’

March 15, 2013

Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Last week, my friend and occasional ‘cultural conversation’ partner Jo and I were lucky enough to be invited to a performance of Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse through our friends at The Culture Vulture and we’ve been meaning to write our review ever since. Unfortunately, events conspired against us so far, but, finally, here it is. And just in time for you to catch it before it closes this weekend! We talked in the interval, and since, about the impact the play had on us, and the questions it raises about decisions, faith, morality, and – perhaps most importantly – how amazing Mephistopheles’ final costume was. I’ve reproduced some of our conversation below, with huge thanks to Jo for her fabulous contributions and apologies in advance if I accidentally shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ continually throughout this piece …

If you’re the sort of person who likes your Marlowe and Shakespeare served traditionally, Colin Teevan’s Doctor Faustus probably won’t be your cup of tea. Personally, I’m happy for myths and legends to be re-imagined in a modern context—it replaces the natural evolution of stories that happens in oral traditions—and as the Faustus tale explores such a juicy question—what it means to lose one’s soul—it’s ripe for adaptation across centuries and continents. Luckily for both of us, we really enjoyed this version, and admire the boldness of both Colin Teevan for adapting such a well-known and loved piece of work and the Playhouse and Citizens Theatre, Glasgow for producing it.

From the Playhouse trailer,  we were expecting something much darker than the lurid show we saw.

The sense of menace came in the form of Mephistopheles (Siobhan Redmond) who, we both agreed, stole the show. Jo said that she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see her floating rather than walking across the stage; she oozed otherworldliness. Mephistopheles’ excellent performance was closely followed by Alasdair Hankinson’s back playing Marilyn Monroe. We’ve never seen someone act with their shoulder blades before and Hankinson has set the bar high!

Flanking the main stage space with a secondary set—rows of vanity mirrors, suggesting a theatre dressing room—was a clever touch, creating a blur between audience and actor and allowing us to be in on the jokes played on Faustus—we see a male devil gleefully don a wig, veil and wedding dress when Faustus asks Mephistopheles for a bride. This distinction was played with again, right at the end, when the edges of the theatre backdrop lifted to expose a part of the Playhouse backstage area, repositioning the audience emotionally from being outsiders looking in to complicit in the scene; a small act with a massive effect.

There were a few really nice details in the piece, from a brief moment at the opening of the play when the ‘off-stage’ characters all sit up in their chairs and lean, as one, towards the action, to an Elvis rendition of Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ in a Las Vegas scene.

Jo did have rather a WTF moment about a rabbit. In a scene of debauchery, one of the participants appears in a bunny head. Apparently, nightmarish equals giant rabbit. Cue her version of Tito’s rant about dwarves in dream sequences (Living in Oblivion). There. She’s said her piece. I’m sure she feels better now …

The language in the contemporary parts sometimes felt a bit too obvious, and as a result,  sometimes it felt as though Mephistopheles lost a little of the otherworldliness introduced and performed with such brilliance in the first acts. We perhaps didn’t need to have such blatant examples of evil in order to believe… Having said that, we did enjoy the contemporary acts of the play, and the contrast between them and the original Marlowe text; they were bold, quite fun and introduced a bit more of the conflict in Faustus’ mind.

Whenever Faustus begins to examine the wisdom and morality behind his choices he is told to ‘think on the devil’ and a distraction is created to divert him. Similarly, the heavyweight ideas in the fabric of the play disappear once the show is done, leaving behind a sense of having been thoroughly entertained.

Doctor Faustus closes this weekend, but if you get the chance, do go along to see it. We’d love to hear your views …

February 4, 2013

A visit to Opera North

Last week, I was given the opportunity to visit the opera by The Culture Vulture and Opera North. I hadn’t really thought of opera as being for people like me so I hesitated at first, but it seemed a good opportunity to challenge my assumptions and so, encouraged by my friend and ‘culture date’ for the evening, Jo, I accepted the ticket.

Otello, based on the Shakespeare play, was performed by Opera North at The Grand Theatre in Leeds. There’s plenty of room on the internet for reviews about the performance but, for us, the opera trip was a catalyst for debate about what assumptions we had about opera, what the barriers to engaging with it as an art form were, and why people might think it’s not for them.

Me: I’ve always thought opera was for posh people, who dressed in fancy clothes so they could see other posh people, who were also dressed in fancy clothes, singing in another language. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and, having sat through my first opera, I now know that my assumptions were wrong.

Jo: I love listening to opera but wasn’t that bothered about seeing it performed until I saw Opera North’s production of Don Giovanni last autumn. Now I’m hooked! Opera is definitely greater than the sum of its parts: melodramatic theatre, caricatured personalities and awkward scripting, all brought together to provide a stage for some really exquisite music. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Me: When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to the opera, I got lots of questions about what I was going to wear.  When I looked around the audience, there was a distinct lack of evening dress. Everyone was just in smart-ish clothes – just the kind of thing you’d wear for any night out in town. I’m wondering we get a lot of our perceptions about opera from seeing it on period dramas or something!

Jo: I can understand why people think there is snobbery around opera. There was a ‘shushing’ incident during Otello. I don’t think the sush-ers meant to be rude, more that people get passionately involved in the performance. Powerful music needs powerful silence to let it breathe and be fully appreciated.  Most every situation has a kind of etiquette or ritual attached to it.

Me: Another thing much of the audience had in common was grey hair, but actually, because opera deals with dramatic emotion, it’s perfect fodder for younger people. I wonder if it’s because opera seems to have a feeling of being ‘classical’ – most people could name something like ‘Madame Butterfly’ but not a contemporary opera. Is there even such a thing?

Jo: Popular music is full of songs about love, jealousy, defiance and betrayal. Our greatest hits aren’t about having a nap or walking your dog. Music that grabs your heart doesn’t deal with the in-between moments of life. That’s true of all kind of music and opera is no different.  ‘No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’ WH Auden.

Me: As Otello is sung in Italian, I was afraid it would be difficult to follow but the English sur-titles made it easy to understand what was going on. The language wasn’t at all complicated—the story and dialogue are stripped down to the bare bones. However, although the sur-titles were useful, they often reduced the emotional breadth of the music to just a couple of lines of dodgy dialogue.

Jo: As I got into the performance, I found the sur-titles really distracting. Next time I’d like to research ahead of time so I won’t have to read them. I think it’s like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre—once you know the story, you can’t help but hear the instrumental characters in the piece.

Me: Although the production was impeccable, the opera itself wasn’t for me. There were some stand-out moments—the love duet between Otello and Desdemona—but for someone visiting the opera for the first time, Otello might not be the best choice. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because people know the Shakespeare play, they will find this particular opera accessible or appealing – even though the music was stunnin. They feel like two very separate entities.

Jo: I can’t fault the production, it’s just not an opera I’d choose to see again or recommend. The story didn’t satisfy me. I felt no investment in the characters: Desdemona was too wet; Otello wasn’t solid enough for his status; Iago’s strength was in the music; and Emilia just made me cross! Musically, my highlight was the love duet, ‘Gia Nella Notte Densa’.

Me: For me, the most impressive parts of Otello were when more than one character was singing at once and all their emotions and perspectives are woven together.  After eight years of living in Leeds, and countless visits to the theatre and ballet, I’m so glad I’ve finally seen an opera; I’m definitely a convert and a new fan of Opera North.

Jo: It was a huge privilege to stand on that stage; I now feel a personal connection to the theatre. I’m looking forward to booking my next Opera North performance, Dido and Aeneas. It’s only an hour and it’s sung in English and the cheapest seats are going for £15—it’d be a great place for anyone tempted to try opera out for themselves.

So, opera is for me, after all. Which, I’ll admit is something of a surprise. Now, I really do think that opera is for anyone and everyone  – so, if you get the chance, do try it out. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you can see Opera North, then grab that opportunity. Overwhelmingly, again, it seems that the only way to decide if you like something is to try it. Otherwise you’ll never know…