Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Ballet Dive

Scottish Ballet Dive

**** (four stars)

Sophie Laplane’s latest piece for Scottish Ballet is just over thirteen minutes long but it’s packed with so many layers of sound and movement  that I was reaching for the repeat button almost as soon as I’d watched the last image, desperate to recapture the constantly-changing, fleeting moments of motion and stillness that make up this extraordinary piece.

The piece started to the sound of a diver’s breathing, but I was almost instantly distracted from the ballet by the music – a piano arrangement of Schubert’s Ständchen, which I know and love so well that I was pulled deep into the music and almost had to fight myself to turn my attention back to the dancing.  

A frozen man, dressed in white, was lying on the floor: he slowly uncurled from his foetal position.  Frenetic music broke into the stillness as a woman dressed in blue, in a blue room, irrupted into his space.  She flailed her hair and body about, drank an espresso, and vanished.  Schubert’s tranquility returned.

Dive makes constant interplay between blue and white costumes and spaces; motion and stillness; calm and frenetic music, and silence and breathing.  Dancers breathe puffs of blue vapour into the air.  People appear and disappear in instants, singly or in groups, in isolation or as a heap of bodies.  At times they are frozen mid-movement: an alpaca calmly walks among them.  

The kaleidoscopic whirl of ideas can’t be grasped at a first viewing, and invites many repeats. It’s fascinating to have the camera so close to, and moving among, the dancers: I can only guess how hard it is to keep perfectly still while a camera drifts past one, only millimetres away.  And yet again Sophie Laplane asks her dancers to do things which appear impossible even while one is seeing the movement with one’s own eyes.

Dive is an astonishing production both choreographically and technologically.  It could not have been performed live: I for one am incredibly grateful for lockdown’s restrictions’ providing the catalyst to new forms of creativity.

Let us hope that next time Sophie Laplane creates a new work we’ll be able to watch it live on stage: until then, watch and marvel at Dive.

Scottish Ballet Dive, On line, available on website till 31 May 2021 Go to: https://www.scottishballet.co.uk/event/dive

Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera, Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel – Englebert Humperdinck 

**** (4 stars)

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel follows the traditional fairy story: brother and sister are sent out into the forest to look for food when their parents can no longer manage to feed them.  The children get lost, and have to sleep in the forest: when they wake the next morning they are enticed into the witch’s cottage with promises of food.  The witch intends to fatten them up and eat them, but they manage to foil her evil plan and release the other children who are her previous victims.

Filmed live at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, the show began, gloriously, with the sound of the orchestra tuning up: how I’ve missed that!  The musicians were at the back of the stage, meaning the singers had a closer connection with them but had to watch on screens for their cues rather than having an immediate link with the conductor: rather like us with our zoom meetings…

From the beginning, the ‘dark mysterious wood’ was visibly surrounding the very simple cottage into which Hansel and Gretel came, obsessed with food because they are so hungry, and turning to their toys for comfort.  They are happy in their play world, but sadden in the face of reality: they can’t even console each other with a hug: they reach out, but can’t touch – social distancing again…

Mother comes home, furious with the children for playing instead of doing chores – “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” she sings.  She accidentally breaks the jug of milk intended for their supper but blames the children and throws them out of the house –“that’s what happens when children provoke you” [lockdown frustrations…].  Father comes in singing “light the fire, your husband’s here”, waving a can of beer and demanding to know what’s for supper.  When his wife snaps that there’s nothing, he brings out a bag of food which he’s been able to buy that day after selling all his brooms.  She tells her husband the children are not in bed, but out in the forest.  He is alarmed – the forest is not safe at night for children, many of whom have been lost without trace. 

As they go in search of their children scary music depicts the haunted wood while [another much-missed sight] the stage crew set the next scene.  Calmer music interwoven with birdsong accompanies Gretel and Hansel through the wood [created by four branch-waving cloaked and hooded figures].  The children find some berries to take home, but can’t resist eating them.  They need to pick more, but realise that the light is fading and they are lost.  Hansel gets scared, and gets his cuddly toy out for comfort – but then lies to Gretel “I’m a boy, I know no fear”.  The wind rises and the chorus pick up umbrellas which have lights along their ridges: as the music becomes more agitated they surround the children with them, frightening them.  Then the Sandman appears to sprinkle the children with sleep-sand, and the children remember to say their evening prayer about the fourteen angels who will guard them while they sleep.  Sinking into sleep, they are surrounded by a wall of lighted umbrellas and rows of cuddly toys: they stretch out a hand to each other but can’t touch…

Act three begins with lively music full of cheerful birdsong.  The Dewdrop fairy [looking remarkably like the Sandman, but with sparkly wings] comes in with her water spray and Gretel wakes up, revelling in the glories of nature.  Hansel sleeps on until his sister provokes him into wakefulness and they compare notes on the ‘very special dream’ they had. 

Another cloaked and hooded figure appears, pushing a shopping trolley laden with sweets towards them.  Hansel can’t resist, even while Gretel suggests that it’s ‘meant to deceive’.  Hansel retorts that maybe the angels sent it, and grabs and guzzles, oblivious to the little voice singing “greedy little mousey, stop nibbling at my housey”…  Gretel succumbs to the lure of the sweets too – but their delighted, excited waltz suddenly stops as a figure dressed all in red and covered in Christmas tree ornaments emerges from the cloak.  She tempts them to her house with the ultimate weapon – their favourite, rice pudding.  Hansel is only too ready to go, but Gretel resists until the WITCH uses her magic glitter-broom and spell to paralyse them.  Like robots they march to her house: Hansel is imprisoned in a second shopping trolley, and Gretel is yet again sentenced to domestic slavery, while the witch gloats about the wonderful dinner she is about to have… but fear not, children, the evil witch is tricked into her own oven and the children dance and sing while she roasts.

Small ‘children’ in Christmas onesies emerge while Gretel and Hansel are having a trolley fight and throwing tinsel about – they are free from the witch’s spell, but they are blind.  Unable to touch them, Gretel and Hansel wonder how they can help them – using the witch’s magic ‘wand’ to restore the children’s sight, and they all dance and sing for joy.  Father appears, followed by Mother, delighted to find their children are safe, and all join in a hymn of thanks to God – “when in need or dark despair, God in heaven will grant your prayer”.

Another delightful feature of this show was the applause – a bit thin, but genuine: presumably the tech crew – as the cast came on stage to take their bow.  And the orchestra got their well-deserved applause too.  Recorded live on the 19th December, and most definitely under socially-distanced conditions, this is a show well-worth watching, as both a reminder of and an antidote to the current climate of restrictions and uncertainty.

I have to say up front that German 19th century opera is not my favourite part of the repertoire: despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a live performance that faced up to the limitations of performing with budget restraints and covid restrictions and gave us a Hansel and Gretel in a very contemporary ‘fairy tale’ setting.  I found the gender stereotypes irritating and the German Romanticism cloying: not exactly the best way to keep children engaged – but then is this really a kids’ story?  It wasn’t written for 21st century children, but  a Moral Tale that would be all the rage in 19th C Europe…

and that’s Humperdinck’s fault, not Scottish Opera’s! 

The setting was very apposite and the language contemporary, with lots of swearing – probably not unfamiliar to many children…  Removing the titles [if that were possible] might reduce the ‘offence factor’: but it was helpful to be able to work out what was being sung.  It was interesting to notice how the continual use of close-up of singers both aided lip-reading and made it much harder to believe that Gretel and Hansel were children…

Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois got right under the children’s skins; realistically child-like as siblings playing nicely one moment and the next spatting furiously.  Nadine Benjamin’s Mother and Witch double-act was well-done if more pantomimic than terrifying, and Phillip Rhodes’ father made the most of his few scenes, while Charlie Drummond made the most of her two cameos as Sandman and Dewdrop Fairy. 

Scottish Opera’s orchestra was conducted by David Parry using Derek Clark’s reduced score.  Instead of a massive orchestra we had a virtual chamber orchestra – fewer strings and only one woodwind/ brass player per section – but the score was still as lush and many-layered, and the orchestral sound did full justice to the complex chromaticism of much of the music while also bringing out the clarity and simplicity of the evening prayer.

Hopefully this cheerily gruesome production will enchant both kids and adults alike, and prove that opera isn’t simply ‘fat ladies singing in Latin’.  Should it whet your appetite for more, you can continue to get your opera fix on Scottish Opera’s website where you’ll find Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Opera highlights, Janáček’s The Diary of one who disappeared, Menotti’s The telephone, and – I have to see this! – Samuel Bordoli and Jenni Fagan’s The narcissistic fish

Scottish Opera presents Hansel and Gretal filmed live at Glasgow Theatre Royal 19 December 2020 Go to: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/hansel-gretel/

Review by Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward Review

Choice Grenfell Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

Choice Grenfell

**** (4 Stars)

Joyce Grenfell will be best remembered by film buffs as the toothy, angular spinster games mistress in the original St Trinian’s films. Unfortunately film makers couldn’t see her in other types of role and so film audiences never got to see her many other talents. Joyce was born into a privileged world – her aunt was Nancy Astor, and she spent a lot of time at Cliveden, the Astor’s country house – but she found an outlet for her singing and comedic talents when in 1939 she was invited to take part in the Little Revue in the West End. Her impersonations and characterisations were an unexpected hit, and she never looked back. She appeared in more revues, entertained the troops with ENSA in the second world war, wrote many books, collaborated with Stephen Potter to produce radio programmes, became a well-known and well-loved television performer, and worked with pianists Richard Addinsell and William Blezard, performing her intimate shows on stage and television all over Britain, Australia, and America.

I’ve known and loved Joyce’s work all my life – and so, obviously, had the audience at the Brunton last Friday. Suzanna Walters and Andrew D Brewis gave superb performances as Joyce and Bill Blezard, in the first half arriving at the Brunton for a warm-up and preparation for the evening’s show, and in the second half giving us a full-on, sparkling performance of some of Joyce’s best-known songs and loving, accurately-observed monologues.

The audience was quiet at first – possibly concentrating very hard on listening appreciatively – but there were laughs right from the start – when Joyce asked is this place run by the council?, when Bill complained of the nylon sheets in his hotel, and when Joyce expressed surprise that people still wanted to come and hear her in an era when others were going crazy for the Rolling Stones. Songs and monologues were interspersed with chatty conversation which cleverly gave an outline of Joyce’s career and mentioned some of the people who crossed her path, including a young Clive James and Johnny Ball.

The second half was outstanding right from the start, as both performers came in in their concert gear and moved immediately into Joyce’s signature tune I’m going to see you today. We re-encountered all our favourite characters – Lumpy Latimer, so exquisitely awkward at her first old girls’ reunion after innumerable years in the colonies; the prize worrier who simply didn’t know how to cope with having won a rabbit [still in its skin] in a raffle; the professional singer who gave up her career to look after her children while her husband globe-trotted and met up with a number of ‘good [female] friends’ – but always came home; the anxious mother on her first transatlantic flight to meet her son’s African-American wife, and hoping desperately – I just want to do it right.

The night would not have been complete without Stately as a galleon – the humorous description of women forced by a shortage of men to dance with each other – and I have three brothers, a seemingly loving celebration of a woman’s involvement first in the lives of her three brothers and then in those of their children which reveals the tragic loneliness of her servitude to these uncaring siblings. A woman’s hymn-singing worry about whether or not the gas had been left on under the saucepan of chicken bones was followed by the monologue we’d all been waiting for – Free activity period in a kindergarten class, with not only George, don’t do that…but an unending stream of little disasters culminating in the summoning of the fire brigade to release a finger deliberately stuck in a keyhole, the crowning glory of an evening we’d all been eagerly anticipating and which magnificently lived up to our expectations.

Suzanna Walters was superb as Joyce, though I was a little concerned for her singing voice which seemed to be rather strained – maybe the result of an extensive tour of this delightful show. The piano playing of ‘Bill Blezard’ was at all times delightfully impressive [looking so ridiculously easy!] but he got a special round of applause for playing while lying underneath the keyboard… The audience obviously loved every minute of the show and were sorry to see it end.

Choice Grenfell, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

Handel Agrippina Metropolitan Opera relay, Review

Handel Agrippina

***** (5 Stars)

Agrippina was first performed in 1709, but the plot is still relevant today. The Roman empress Agrippina, wife of Claudio, wants her son Nerone to be made heir to the imperial throne, and is prepared to use any means to ensure this. Claudio, however, favours his general, Ottone, who is in love with Poppaea – who is also pursued by Nerone and Claudio. Agrippina, hearing that Claudio has died in a shipwreck, leaps into action. Lying right left and centre, she promises her sexual favours to her two freedmen, Pallente and Narciso, if they will assist her. Just as it appears that her machinations will succeed she learns that Claudio is not dead: she simply regroups, and starts blackening everyone’s characters to everyone else. People start to see through her plots, and everything begins to unravel around her – but just as it seems that she is about to receive her comeuppance, she wriggles out of everything and manages to achieve her dearest wish – her son Nerone is confirmed by Claudio as his heir. Familiar, or what???

The cast are superb. Joyce di Donato is the scheming empress, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies the lovelorn Ottone, and soprano Brenda Rae the fiery, intelligently scheming Poppaea. Mezzo Kate Lindsey plays the twitching, unpredictable, self-obsessed brat Nerone, while Matthew Rose as Claudio is at times a powerfully majestic emperor, at times a suspiciously Trump-like fool. Duncan Rock and Nicholas Tamagna make a beautifully-contrasted and gullible pair of lapdogs for Agrippina.

Aprippina’s theme song could well be I will survive – though her drive to succeed centres round her son, to whose disturbingly volatile nastiness she is totally oblivious. Joyce di Donato is more usually seen as a melancholy heroine or a steely queen: here she is allowed to give full rein to her brilliant comic powers as she manipulates everyone around her and makes it clear to us, but not to her victims, how she despises them. Only when she is alone in act two does her underlying fear of the consequences of her evil deeds appear – but it is quickly beaten into submission, and she sweeps onwards in her obsessive quest. Even when defeat stares her in the face, she can twist everything round and convince Claudio that everything she has done was to keep the throne secure for him. Yet again she triumphs: her son is proclaimed heir to the imperial throne – but during the final triumphant chorus she fails to see Nerone standing behind her with his hands reaching out for her neck…

If Agrippina’s tale is one of a lust for power that she wants for her son, Ottone’s is one of a desire for power that is easily relinquished to achieve his overwhelming need to be with the woman he loves. He saves Claudio’s life in the shipwreck, and the grateful emperor names him his heir: he is overjoyed – but power is meaningless without the woman he loves by his side. When Agrippina’s lies turn everyone against him, he is desolate – but because he has lost his love, not the promised power. When Poppaea demonstrates her fidelity, cleverly evading the advances of both Claudio and Nerone, he is overjoyed: and when Claudio, finally realising Ottone’s honesty and Agrippina’s duplicity, decrees that Nerone shall marry Poppaea and Ottone succeed to the throne, he has the courage to speak out, refuse the offered power, and ask instead for Poppaea.

All the other characters are driven by desire – Nerone wants power, but he also wants Poppaea; Claudio is also pursuing Poppaea; she, believing Agrippina’s lies, wants vengeance; Pallante and Narciso desire Agrippina and blindly involve themselves in her plots. They rejoice in others’ misfortune – most tellingly when Ottone is accused of treason: one by one they show their contempt and leave him alone in his misery, the social outcast whom it’s disaster to be seen to support.

The contemporary setting chosen by David McVicar for this production starkly reveals the immediacy of the situation and the choices facing the characters. A giant golden staircase leading to the imperial throne dominates the stage, while massive pillars display the might and power of the emperor, and provide dark shadows in which the conspirators can hide. Only once does the desire to play up the humour potentially overwhelm the characters’ emotions – in the bar scene that opens the second half, with an outstanding on-stage virtuoso performance from harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire. Poppaea’s hung-over antics rather make light of the depth of Ottone’s real misery – but at the same time one has to admire her impeccable comic timing, along with the antics of all the characters surrounding her in the bar. Nerone’s frenzied coke-snorting outburst furiously promising vengeance on Poppaea for her rejection of him was another outstanding performance, again chillingly hinting at her ultimate fate.

It’s astounding to realise that this was the Met’s premiere of Agrippina, and Joyce di Donato’s first Handel role at the Met. Handel was only twenty-four when he wrote this opera, but his understanding of character and motivation and how to display this musically was already outstanding. His ability to pace the drama and provide moments of heart-stopping pathos and genuine depth of feeling amongst the outbursts of passion and cold-blooded machinations is extraordinary when you consider how new opera was as an art form. Agrippina and Poppaea have a seemingly unending succession of bravura displays of passion, drive, and anger; Claudio and Nerone each have superb opportunities to reveal their inner desires; Pallente and Narciso each display their willingness to be led by the nose and believe Agrippina’s promises.

In the middle of all this stands Ottone, whose despairing lament soars out into the blackness that slowly encloses him when he believes himself abandoned by Poppaea, and whose delight in her proven faithfulness leads to the only duet in the whole piece as the two declare their mutual love and trust. The third deeply heartfelt piece comes, surprisingly, from Agrippina: all her plots have been unmasked, and shown Claudio the lengths to which she was prepared to go to get her son on the throne. He sits dejectedly and she sings a tender aria urging him to let go of his anger – if you want peace, my love, let go of your hate: if only she could have listened to her own advice…

A stellar cast gave a timeless and spine-chillingly accurate depiction of the lengths to which people are prepared to go in pursuit of power while Harry Bicket and the Met orchestra gave a masterclass in baroque playing and ornamentation. At the final curtain it seemed as though the entire stalls audience were on their feet – a fitting tribute to one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Met relays I’ve seen in a long time.

Handel Agrippina, Metropolitan Opera relay, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

Rambert, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Rambert: PreSentient; Rouge; In your rooms

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

**** (4 stars)

I was hoping for great things from this triple-bill from Rambert, but was disappointed: the dancers were extremely talented, but whatever message they were presenting didn’t get through to me. Most of the audience, however, seemed very appreciative and responded to each piece with enthusiastic applause and loud cheers.

Wayne McGregor’s 2002 PreSentient was danced to a lot of percussive, frenzied noise with a brief interlude of surprisingly lyrical string playing, while the dancers twisted themselves into extraordinarily sinuous contortions singly, in small groups or all together, with some quite amazing lifts. Occasional moments of stillness stood out in the near-constant movement. One dancer was left alone twirling on stage as the blackout fell. I really wasn’t sure what it was all about.

Marion Motin’s Rouge, first performed in 2019, began with the stage covered in ‘mist’ through which it gradually became possible to see the curled figures of dancers. A musician on stage played electric guitar, and another had his drum kit down in the pit. Seven dancers in an extraordinary jumble of clothes emerged from the mist and began synchronised falling-down-and-surging-straight-up-again, which was extremely impressive but quite rapidly became tedious. At some stage they flung off most of their clothes: they bounced up and down together; they lay down on the floor and moved their legs; much of their ensemble movement reminded me of the snatches of pop video I try to ignore at the gym.

The mist started pouring across the whole stage in waves, looking like the incoming tide. A long neon tube on the floor glowed blood red: another one further back and high up followed suit, and at different times made patterns of light across the stage. The dancers’ interactions became increasingly cruel and violent towards each other – at one point one dancer strangled another – and the guitar and drums mirrored their increasing fury, with a noise level way beyond my pain threshold. Things calmed down a bit, the dancers twitched and wiggled and tapped their bodies with their hands before a final frenzy was drowned in a merciful blackout.

At this point I was wondering whether I could face a third piece – but I’m glad I did. For me In your rooms was the most interesting piece of the evening, created by Choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and first seen in 2007. It mixed spoken word with a musical score played by onstage musicians and had a lighting score that made me think of Rembrandt as it mixed varying levels of light and shadow and surrounded everything with a mistiness that was more attractive than the harsh lighting of the previous works. In the overall darkness tiny snatches of movement or total stillness, unrelated to each other emerged and were instantly gone. The invisible commentator mused on the essential chaos of the universe, the tension between it and the order we try to impose, and wondered whether our use of an ever-increasing ocean of words is in order to replace our feelings. There was much chaotic, neurotic movement, both individually and collectively: it was only at the end that one couple reached out to each other and found something that enabled them to relate positively to each other and find some respite from the individuals’ internal chaos.

The dancing was, as I’ve said, extremely impressive, and the rest of the audience obviously thought all three pieces were superb. I simply couldn’t connect with anything in the first two pieces, and appreciated, but was not deeply moved by, the third piece. Much of the dancing seemed to me more like gymnastics than dance – but perhaps it was simply expressing emotions foreign to me in a language I simply don’t speak, and using a music that is equally alien. Next time I’ll check what music they’re using before booking to see the show…

Rambert: PreSentient; Rouge; In your rooms, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 22nd February for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/rambert