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:


Mary Woodward Review

Nixon in China Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Review:

John Adams Nixon in China

**** (4 stars)

In 1972 President Richard Nixon made history by shaking hands with Premier Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, an event which Nixon regarded as important historically as the moon landings.

Fifteen years later composer John Adams wrote his opera to a libretto by Alice Goodman: the production marked the beginning of Adams’ long collaboration with director Peter Sellars.

The first act of the opera deals with the historical event – the Chinese people awaiting the arrival of the presidential plane, the handshakes, and the diplomatic meetings [in which both sides seem to fail to understand each other]. The second act focuses on Pat Nixon’s reactions to the succession of places and people who are displayed to her, culminating in her visceral response to the punishment of a young girl in a ballet the presidential party are watching. In act three the central figures on both sides reflect on their past happiness and present state of unknowing. It’s left to Chou En-Lai to close the opera, getting up after yet another sleepless night to go to work as the dawn chorus begins, wondering how much of what we did was good?

In this production we are onlookers of the past. The stage is full of stacks of document boxes, among which archivists move, occasionally opening boxes to view their contents. Extremely clever use of contemporary photographs and newsreel footage shows the arrival of the presidential plane and the initial historic handshake: we then move to the room in which Nixon met Mao – the set [bearing a striking resemblance to a photograph of Mao’s private rooms] unfolds on stage from an enormous wooden archive box.   The second act starts in the main archive, with boxes used to form the places between which Pat Nixon is shepherded before the space opens up for the ballet. The boundary between art and real life dissolves as Pat is drawn into and takes part in the drama. The third act takes place around the enormous wooden archive box, into which the main characters are gradually replaced. The chief archivists close their boxes, switch off their desk lamp, and Premier Chou En-Lai joins the others ‘back in history’.

What of the opera? I didn’t expect to be grabbed by the music, and I wasn’t. Most of the speech was declaimed, there were no [to me] recognizable melodies, and there was frequent repetition of patterns of arpeggios to start each new scene, as though Adams couldn’t think of any other way of linking scenes. Having supertitles helped understanding of what was being said/sung but distanced one from the action, while not making clear who was singing what in the ensembles. The music didn’t make things any clearer either – I couldn’t follow each character’s musical line in the general all-over wash of sound. I loved the moment when Pat Nixon was taken to a pig farm and the chorus all broke into pig pig pig pig pig, getting one of the few huge laughs of the evening [another being when a photograph of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon stonily ignoring each other appeared a succession of ‘historic encounters’ shots].

The first act, though extremely long, mostly held my attention. The various characters became individuals, and the cultural and ideological differences, and the American seeming ignorance thereof became clear. The second act brought life, colour and incredible movement as seven dancers performed part of The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The third act seemed extremely long and tedious, and lacked any dramatic contrast or fire. Maybe this was the intention: to show the ephemeral nature of the media hype while the real long-term effects of the event were insignificant and the main protagonists disillusioned.

The performances were superb, and I have profound admiration for the singers’ mastery of the complex music as well as their impressively clear diction and excellent characterisation. Chou En-lai [Nicholas Lester]’s voice was gorgeous, while Madame Mao [Hye-Youn Lee]’s ability to sing ridiculously high notes while clearly articulating every syllable was masterly – as was her utterly self-confident ability to dominate every person on stage. David Stout as Henry Kissinger presented a personality somewhat at odds with his ‘elder statesman’ reputation in later years. Eric Greene was an excellent Nixon, underlining the inherent impenetrability of his personality and his possibly conflicted motives – ‘tricky Dicky’ in every respect: while Julia Sporsén shone as his wife Pat, loyally supporting her husband and doing her best to comply with all the press requests for photos, even obligingly patting the ear of one of the pigs at the pig farm. Tenor Mark le Broq gave us a well-observed portrayal of Mao both as an ageing statesman on the verge of death and in his ‘miraculous’ restoration to youth and health as he remembered the pleasure of the early years with the dancer who became his wife.

Nixon in China, after receiving mixed reviews in its early years, is now regarded as one of the great works of the American repertory. Not being an American, I’m left wondering quite what was the point of the piece. It’s great theatre, some of the time, extremely tedious at others: maybe I’m simply not sufficiently politically savvy to have an informed opinion? Maybe this tedium/ quiet subsidence into nothingness was the point? It was Adams’ first opera: I’ve not seen any others, but I’m not inspired to rush out and find them. I’m glad to have seen the piece and warmly appreciative of Scottish Opera’s courage and expertise in bringing it to Scotland for the first time this century. The first-night audience was very warm in their applause at the final curtain, acknowledging the quality of the piece in both its design and execution.

Nixon in China, Scottish Opera Theatre Royal, Glasgow Untill 22nd February, Then Transfers to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. 

Mary Woodward Review

Vamos Theatre Dead Good, The Studio, Edinburgh, Review

Vamos Theatre Dead Good

**** (4 stars)

Bob and Bernard have both been told they have terminal illnesses. Bernard’s wealth can’t buy him a cure, and Bob’s wife can’t bring him back to health. When the two men meet at their local hospice, their initial antipathy develops into a warm and caring friendship in which each helps the other to face up to, and make full use of, the time they have left to them.

Using full-face masks, Aron de Casmaker, James Greaves, Angela Laverick and Joshua Patel not only play Bob, Bernard, Marie and Shefali but also the whole host of people with whom Bob and Bernard come into contact at the hospice and during their outrageous forays into the world outside. Racing around in a vintage sportscar, paddling at the seaside, dining at the Ritz, or simply misbehaving and teasing each other in the hospice garden, the two men develop a close and loving relationship, and their care for each other lasts to the very end of one man’s life – and beyond.

The wordless action is underpinned by an excellent soundtrack created by Janie Armour, and there is clever use of projection to allow Bob and Bernard to race around the country, taking selfies as they go. Tiny gestures and alterations in body language reveal so much about what is going on inside each character as we see the progress of their illnesses and the past times they remember. Not everyone they meet treats them kindly, but the extraordinary love and care they receive [and give to others] at the hospice is a celebration of all that is best in humankind.

At one point, Bob’s wife texts him because he’s still not come home: Bob replies Bernard needs me. His wife asks what are you doing?: to which he simply replies Living. It’s a lesson to us all…

In a play which delicately mixes great pathos and ridiculous schoolboy humour, writer/ director Rachel Savage invites us to face up to and talk about one of the greatest taboos of our time. Death comes to us all, but many of us choose to pretend that we will live for ever. I hope I would face up to a terminal diagnosis with the courage and humour Bernard and Bob display as, supported by each other and the loving care of hospice staff, they are determined to go laughing into that Great Unknown that awaits us all.

Vamos Theatre Dead Good, The Studio, Run Ended, UK Tour Continues.

Mary Woodward Review

Pride and Prejudice (sort of), Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Pride and Prejudice (sort of)

***** (5 stars)

Playwright Isobel McArthur had never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice before director Paul Brotherston asked her to turn it into a play for his Glasgow theatre company Blood of the Young. First seen at the Tron in Glasgow last year, the show has transitioned to the big stage and has rightly been receiving standing ovations every night.

The basic plot line is simple: Mr and Mrs Bennett have five daughters and little money, while the house in which they live will pass to a distant male relative when Mr Bennett dies. In an age when women had no rights to property or money – these would belong to her father and then, if she married, to her husband – and when the concept of earning a living was unthinkable, the girls would have to find husbands or eke out a miserable existence as impoverished spinsters. No wonder Mrs B can think of nothing but finding suitably wealthy husbands as quickly as possible while Mr B retreats to his library and immerses himself in his books.

Any young man who comes into the neighbourhood is instantly a target. In fairly quick succession Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, Mr Collins and Mr Wickham appear on the scene, and Mrs B sees them all as prospective husbands for her daughters. The plot takes many twists and turns, and the two central characters – Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy – have to learn to overcome both pride and prejudice before they can reach their happy ending.

There have been many film and tv adaptations of this novel – I think fondly of the BBC serialisation with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul, but those younger than I more probably swooned over Colin Firth’s dip in the lake. The Bollywood Bride and Prejudice is a firm favourite of mine, as is Yorkshire TV’s four-part series Lost in Austen in which 21st-century Amanda Price of Hammersmith swaps places with Elisabeth Bennett and finds herself desperately trying to keep the plot moving along the right lines, with increasingly hilarious results.

Tonight’s show took the basic plot line but chose to look at it from the perspective of the servants who play small but vital parts in all the households in which the action of Pride and Prejudice takes place. Anne, Maisie, Clara, Tillie, Flo and Effie give their below-stairs take on the situation while at the same time playing the major ‘upstairs’ characters, with all the complex choreography and lightning-swift changes of manner, voice, accent and gender that this involves. There are some fabulous moments when two characters played by the same actor are in conversation with each other, and an utterly brilliant solution to the problem that Mr Bennett’s presence on stage with his wife and five daughters would require a seventh actor…

Words fail me when I try to describe how talented these six actors are. They sing a superbly-chosen succession of musical numbers, they dance, they play a seemingly limitless number of musical instruments including trumpet and harp. They constantly change not only costume and character but also gender as they weave in and out of the different households, completely ignoring the fourth wall as they invite us into the riot and mayhem of the Bennett household.

Some at least of the audience certainly knew their Austen, and greeted characters and situations with howls of delighted laughter or gasps of anticipation. The family dynamic, with everyone picking on Mary, rang very true, and I loved Charlotte Lucas’ never-to-be-acknowledged quiet passion for her best friend, Lizzie. Meghan Tyler was magnificently mercurial as the strong-willed and unconventional Elizabeth, while Christina Gordon was distractedly in love and quietly heartbroken as her older sister Jane and a loathsomely self-congratulatory Lady Catherine de Burgh.   Felixe Forde did a brilliant job of playing Kitty and two of the girls’ suitors – the loathsome Mr Collins and the charmingly amoral Wickham. Tori Burgess went one better by playing both the irrepressibly boy-mad Lydia and everyone’s target Mary [who must at all costs not be allowed to sing – I was so glad that she got to shine in the spotlight and close the show.] Hannah Jarrett-Scott was a quiet, lovelorn Charlotte Lucas and an impossibly okay-yah Caroline Bingley while also doing some nifty costume changes as Caroline’s brother Charles. Not content with writing a cracking play, Isobel McArthur got to play desperately-scheming, rhinoceros-hided Mrs Bennett and, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, start by despising and then slowly fall under the spell of her least favourite daughter, Elizabeth. And all the time, the servants wove in and out of the action, nudging here, prompting there, delivering the essential letters, announcing meals – and observing and commenting on everything that happened in front of them.

There was a horse, a glitterball, torrential rain, lots of alcohol and the odd cigarette. There was a delightfully inventive country walk, a Rubik’s cube and a glorious moment in the portrait gallery at Pemberley.   There were moments of pure joy, of perfect theatre, of pants-wetting laughter: the six cast members had a ball throughout, and we had the pleasure and privilege of being invited into their world. If you don’t know the Austen original, you’re in for a treat which I hope will entice you to read the novel: if you do, you are in for an evening of sheer delight which you will remember fondly for a very long time.

Pride and Prejudice (sort of), Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 15 Feb, For tickets go to:

Mary Woodward Review

The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns, The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

The Ghosting of Robbie Burns

**** (4 stars)
Based on an idea by Alyson Orr, Gillian Duffy’s play brings the ghost of Rabbie Burns back to ‘life’ on his own Night.  Once a year he returns to earth, and this year he meets Emily, a writer who has retired to the rural solitude of the remote cottage which used to belong to her aunt, in the hopes that she will be inspired to write and meet an ever-nearing deadline.  Emily’s had a miserable journey and is feeling very sorry for herself.  She turns on the radio to cheer herself up, but when she tunes into a Burns Night Special whose host cues in Charlie is my darlin’, Emily’s singing reveals that Charlie was her darling – before he broke her heart.
It’s a wild night, and Emily is alone in the middle of nowhere: suddenly there’s the sound of a horse’s hooves, a thunderous knocking on the door, and a man wearing a long black cloak enters the cottage.  Emily fears the worst, but it’s not a burglar – it’s the Bard himself, come back just for the one night, and obviously believing that Emily is going to fall into his arms the instant she realises who he is.  Emily is made of sterner stuff, however, and bitterly sceptical that the thing called ‘love’ exists, either in Burns’ time or today: Rabbie tries to convince her that love is real.
It’s a charming play, and the audience loved the earthy humour and boundless self-appreciation of John Kielty’s Burns, especially when he engaged audience members in conversation.  Alyson Orr was spiky and hard to warm to, her inner defences against further hurt being so strong that she came over as hard and cynical while all the time being desperate to find love.  Burns’ songs and poems were cleverly woven into the play, and beautifully delivered by both actors .  I don’t know if I was convinced by Burns’ arguments in favour of love, but I found Emily’s cynical hard-heartedness equally unsatisfying, and the ending a little too flimsy.  But it was a light and frothy romcom, after all, and I was perhaps searching for more depth and truthfulness than a work of this nature usually holds.  It was a very pleasant evening which sent everyone home happy.
The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns, Run ended but tour continues until 22nd February.
Mary Woodward Review

George & Ira Gershwin, Porgy & Bess, Review

George & Ira Gershwin Porgy & Bess

Metropolitan Opera live relay
**** (4 stars)
This is the first time I’ve seen Porgy & Bess, and I found it a curious piece.  Using the novel by DuBose Heyward, it tells of the life, loves, hates and struggles of a black community in Catfish Row, which the author based on an actual area of Charleston, South Carolina.  Almost the entire cast of characters is African American – the only white faces are a police officer and his henchmen, who appear to ‘investigate’ murders that occur within the community, whom they look on as so much dirt.
The show is packed with well-known melodies – Summertime, It ain’t necessarily so, Bess, you is my woman now, and many more – woven together with fascinating orchestral writing, uniquely descriptive of the community and its time.  There are large and small solos for an extraordinary number of singers compared to the usual opera cast – a few soloists and maybe a couple of tiny solo lines here and there – and all are clearly-defined individuals with their own place in the community.  It ought to be a spell-binding piece, and it is an enormous hit in New York, with standing ovations greeting the cast every night.
And yet… I found myself conflicted, admiring the quality of the singers’ voices and the sincerity of their acting while at the same time feeling acutely uncomfortable at what I couldn’t help but feel was a stereotypical description of a black community by three white American men.  One of the highlights of the Met relays is the interviews with cast and creatives during the interval, where this very question was raised.  The African American choreographer and white director were asked this question and gave a very pc answer which didn’t work for me.  Maybe it’s impossible for me, a seriously mature white woman who’s spent most of her life in the UK, fully to understand.  I couldn’t help but notice the lack of black faces in the audience or the orchestra.  I found it hard to stomach the subtitles which made plain the ‘massa’s in de plantation’ language which felt so impossibly dated: shades of the squirmingly awful Mammy in Gone with the wind…  Extra performances have been scheduled because of the demand for tickets, the opera is seen as a wonderful celebration of all things American – and yet the gap between black and white America which is so clear in Porgy & Bess is just as wide, or even wider, today.
The performances throughout were magnificent.  Eric Owens, despite struggling with a heavy cold, gave an outstanding performance as Porgy, the man who thinks he will always be alone because of his disability: his enormous heart accepts Bess as she is and loves her no matter what she chooses to do. Angel Blue’s Bess was warm, human, and fallible: wanting love and security, but unable to free herself from her addictions despite wanting to.  Frederick Ballentine’s Sportin’ Life, snaking his way though the community peddling his ‘happy dust’, was a perfect mixture of irresistible charm and complete self-interest, while Alfred Walker’s Crown was the classic villain of the piece – a violent and unpredictable bully who acted like a vicious dog, unhesitatingly biting savagely when his possessions were threatened.  There are too many other outstanding singers in this opera to single out – even the itinerant strawberry and devil crab sellers made the most of their moment in the spotlight and received a round of applause.
It was an evening that clearly demonstrated the strength and depth of talent in the African-American operatic world in America: it’s an enormous pity that so little of that talent takes centre stage in the rest of the operatic repertoire.
Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Recital Concert Hall, Glasgow University, Review:

Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Recital

**** (4 stars)

Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists programme gives a period of full-time work with the Company to young people endeavouring to establish their careers.  Starting just with singers, the programme has been extended to give the same opportunity to a composer-in-residence, a repetiteur and a costume trainee.

It’s always a joy to see these young artists as they progress through their year, and this year’s crop of singers are no exception.  Charlie Drummond had already delighted me in the autumn Opera Highlights tour and moved me in her brief cameo as the Geisha in Mascagni’s Iris, so I was sorry to learn that a last-minute illness meant she had to withdraw from the recital.  In her absence, mezzo Heather Ireson and baritones Arthur Bruce and Mark Nathan, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, entertained us right royally.

Heather got us off to an electrifying start with Dorabella’s dramatic hissy fit from Mozart’s Così fan tutte – the drama queen saying ‘sod off and leave me alone: if I don’t die of grief I’ll end my days in misery’.  She showed the very real conflict of interests as Zerlina tries unsuccessfuly to resist Don Giovanni’s advances in là ci darem la mano; and followed this with what for me was the highlight of the afternoon – Minskwoman’s soliloquy I bought this suitcase in New York.  Initially a sunlit recollection of happy times, it becomes a lament for lost selfhood – “Tired woman, drained of life” – as her life leaches away before her eyes under the mound of nappies and baby clothes that consume her very existence.  It was a superb performance, rightly greeted with a long silence and prolonged applause.

The two baritones presented a fascinating contrast in vocal quality and personality.  Arthur Bruce, already seen in Amadeus and the Bard and Iris this season, began with Belcore’s swaggering Come Paride vezzoso from Donizetti’s L’Élisir d’Amore: his huge, bright sound effortlessly voicing his massive egocentric swagger.  He showed a much wider-ranging mixture of emotions as he tried to comfort a grieving Ariadne in Harlequin’s aria Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos, and as Valentin expressed his concern for his sister, Marguerite when he is called up to fight in Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s Faust. I look forward to seeing him later this year in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited and The Gondoliers.

Mark Nathan’s darker, subtler, and more flexible baritone brought us two less well-known arias – O Lisbona alfin ti miro from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano and Komm, Tzigany from Kalman’s Gräfin Maritza – in both of which he displayed a wide range of emotions.  The famous poet who fought beside Don Sebastian, was captured and enslaved, and can hardly believe he sees his beloved Lisbon once more had moments of velvet-soft pathos and soul-stirring patriotic outbursts, while as the disguised Count Tassilo he poured out his feelings for his native land [and the Countess Maritza] as he celebrates the Life of the gypsy. I enjoyed Mark’s performance in the autumn Opera Highlights tour and look forward to seeing him in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Gondoliers.

The programme ended with two delightfully cheerful numbers – the Gendarmes’ duet from Offenbach’s Geneviève de Brabant and the Champagne aria from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus – which allowed the singers to let their hair down and have enormous fun, sending us out with a smile into the dreich Glasgow afternoon

Michael Papadopoulos did a great job of accompanying the stylistically varied programme: he’s also been working on most of the pieces in this year’s season, was assistant conductor for Iris and will be the music director and pianist for the spring Opera Highlights tour.