Thursday 27 October 2016

Dance Review: Akram Khan's Giselle at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Huge anticipation has surrounded English National Ballet’s latest production of Giselle – especially since Akram Khan was confirmed as its choreographer. Having previously collaborated with ENB to choreograph Dust as part of 2014’s World War One commemoration trilogy Lest We Forget, his Giselle promises not so much a reworking of this classical favourite, as a stripping back to its core. The essence of the peasant girl and her doomed love triangle remains, but here she is reinvented with a contemporary edge as a migrant factory worker in a gang of Outcasts, hemmed into their shared misfortune by a massive, insurmountable wall.

It’s a setting that thrums with the cacophony of manufacture in Vincenzo Lamagna’s surging new composition, blended with live music from the orchestra and shot through by familiar motifs from the original score. The company of dancers are reduced to a lowly existence as cogs in a remorseless machine; pulsating with kinetic energy, they move to a timeless warp and weft – of England’s industrial revolution, perhaps, or Khan’s own Bangladeshi roots. Dispossessed of their jobs, the earthy, elemental endurance of the Outcasts is in stark contrast to the statuesque superiority of the obscenely super-rich Landlords; having no imperative to move, it is they who appear more hampered by their extraordinary costumes of outlandish gaudiness.

In the original 19th Century narrative, Giselle is courted by both local gamekeeper Hilarion and the already-betrothed nobleman Albrecht, who, to win Giselle’s love, has adopted a peasant’s disguise. Here, their roles are less defined; Hilarion is described as a ‘shape-shifter’ – a gang-master, maybe – bridging the worlds between the Landlords and their underlings. Meanwhile, Albrecht’s duplicity in winning Giselle’s love is only made clear at the end of the first act; in this retelling we realise it at the same time as she does. For some purists, this may just be a step too far.

What this production lacks in narrative clarity, however, it more than makes up for in the sheer scope of its visual and aural impact; from the beginning, hypnotic rhythms incorporate Khan’s Kathak influences in the forceful, riveting vitality of the whole company, beautifully contrasted with moments of loving tenderness, heart-breaking betrayal and the eternal silence of separation. Tim Yip’s austere but strikingly ethereal set design and costumes create this world and set the tone from the outset for the dancers to illuminate.

Artistic director and lead principal Tamara Rojo’s portrayal of Giselle is hauntingly vulnerable but courageous, expressive to her fingertips and lyrical in her pas de deux with James Streeter’s princely, although slightly understated, Albrecht. Cesar Corrales’ dark and brooding Hilarion emphatically imposes his will in the first act before meeting his demise in the second, while Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha is a truly chilling Queen of the Wilis, her pointe work spectacular as she attempts to enlist Giselle into her stick-wielding marionette army of the dead. The contrast between the chaotic world of the living in Act I and the regimented, spectral Wilis in Act II is dramatically marked by their elevation on to pointe, towering over their chosen victim as they close mercilessly around him.

Bristol is only the second venue to host this production of Giselle after its premiere in Manchester, high on the list of cities bearing witness to this mould-breaking metamorphosis of an already-revered classic. Although not without flaws, this is a work of such visceral emotional intensity, it surmounts any quibbles you might throw at it and promises to linger in the memory for years.

Reviewed on 18 October 2016 | Image: ENB

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Guest Post: M J Carter on her relationship with Blake and Avery

As the third of her historical Blake and Avery mysteries is published, I'm delighted to host a guest post from M J Carter about the relationship between a writer and her characters.

The Devil's Feast finds intrepid young soldier-turned-sleuth William Avery investigating a grisly death in 1842 London at the newly opened Reform Club. A death he witnessed, that might be from cholera but could equally have had an altogether more suspicious cause.

Bereft of his unlikely partner Jeremiah Blake, Avery must investigate alone, unearthing a seething ants' nest of rivalries and recriminations. The club's committee is divided, the members politically at odds and tensions simmer in the kitchen around the eccentric but brilliant head chef, Alexis Soyer.

This wasn't the first death, it seems, and may not be the last. But although Avery is quick to discover deep divisions, he's less sure of what to do about them. He desperately needs his errant mentor Blake to help sift the clues and divert a potential disaster, but will he be able to find him in time?

The Devil's Feast reprises all the rich historical detail and authenticity of Carter's previous Blake and Avery adventures The Strangler Vine and The Printer's Coffin, combining mouth-watering descriptions of sumptuous banquets with a vivid portrayal of life in a Victorian professional kitchen and the genius of the now largely forgotten Soyer, self-styled 'Napoleon of Food'. Above all, it develops the intriguing relationship between our intrepid duo further, as we learn more about the unhappy state of Avery's marriage and the secrets of Blake's past.

Here's what M J Carter has to say about them:

The relationship between a writer and her characters can go wrong… Just now, though I’m more than happy to spend more time with Blake and Avery.’

My protagonists are Jeremiah Blake, a working class private enquiry agent — the name given to private detectives in the 19th century — and his younger, posher sidekick, William Avery, a former Captain in the East India Company army. Blake comes from a seedy, maybe actively criminal, London background, and was sent to India as a child where he was spotted for his astonishing ability to pick up languages by a Company spy, and received an education. Avery is the product of a conservative county family from Devon, undereducated and somewhat naïve, who hides beneath a sporty, hearty veneer a secret passion for books and a more questioning nature than he realises. So far, he has narrated the books.

The two are unlikely companions, thrown together by chance in the first book, The Strangler Vine, in a manner they never expected — Blake, the older working class one leads the younger, posher Avery. It allows them to develop a relationship beyond the normal boundaries of stratified Victorian society. Avery finds himself admiring Blake’s cleverness, independence and unspoken code of honour, and equally infuriated by his stubbornness and radical political views. Blake, who has endeavoured to cut himself off from the world, is annoyed to find himself susceptible to Avery’s mixture of youthful naivety, bravery and surprising kindness, and at the same time irritated by that same naivety and Avery’s conservative views.

One of the surprises of setting out to write a series set over a period of years, and have two characters bouncing off each other, is that I feel I can give them story and character arcs which carry over each book and onto the next. I can let them develop and change and bring their pasts to light. I always knew that I didn’t want to reveal everything about them both in The Strangler Vine: that each book would show a bit more about Blake’s mysterious history, and a bit more about Avery’s character forming. I have literally dozens of places I want to take them, and a range of experiences I plan to put them through (some of them extremely uncomfortable).

Of course, the relationship between a writer and her characters can go wrong. Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, feeling he was holding him back from writing other, better things — only to be forced to bring him back to life. Agatha Christie quickly came to loathe Hercule Poirot: his prissiness, fussiness, predictability, but was forced to live alongside him to the bitter end. Just now, though, I’m more than happy to spend more time with Blake and Avery. One thing though, I’m finding that I’d like to travel beyond Avery’s voice, and tell the stories in different voices. Is this a sign of exhaustion? I’d like to think it was just one more step deeper into their world.

The Devil's Feast is published in hardback by Fig Tree on 27th October 2016. Many thanks to Sara at Penguin Random House for my review copy.

Monday 24 October 2016

Opera Review: WNO's The Merchant of Venice

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
WNO’s English premiere of André Tchaikowsky’s opera The Merchant of Venice powerfully illuminates the story’s original themes of prejudice, tribalism and anti-Semitism. Keith Warner’s production, first performed at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 2013, forms part of WNO’s 2016 Autumn season commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In the starkest terms, it hammers home the play’s continuing relevance; that the seam of racial hatred, so embedded in Shakespeare’s portrayal of 16th Century Venice, can still all too easily be found running through the core of wider society today.

A Polish Jew and gifted musician who survived the Warsaw ghetto, André Tchaikowsky was unequivocally qualified to take on the challenge of translating Shakespeare’s problem play into an opera. Indeed, it became his life’s work, taking almost 25 years until his death in 1982 to complete. His score has echoes of Benjamin Britten and he wrote more and more of himself into it; that he was depressive is reflected in an opening scene with Antonio on the psychiatrist’s couch. Later, Tchaikowsky’s homosexuality underpins Antonio’s bond with Bassanio – driving him to secure his friend’s loan even by mortgaging his own flesh.

Despite, or more likely because of this, Tchaikowsky’s finished work is far from finely balanced; there’s an uneasy pendulum swing of styles between the dramatic tragedy of Act One as Shylock successfully agrees the terms of his loan to Antonio, only to discover his daughter has absconded with his money and jewels, and the Edwardian bathing costumes and cavorting light farce of the second act set in Portia’s Belmont. John O’Brien’s libretto lacks clarity on occasion, at its best when it closely reflects Shakespeare’s own words. The impact of the superbly heightened courtroom tension of Act Three – ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ – ebbs away during the baffling and over-long moonlit escapades of the Epilogue.

There are strong performances; Lester Lynch’s Shylock dominates the stage with his fluid baritone and imposing presence as he rails against Christian injustice and demands his pound of flesh. Sarah Castle’s Portia transforms from frustrated, frivolous heiress into an impressive courtroom doctor of law, where her mezzo really hits home. Mark Le Brocq convinces throughout as Bassanio, the conflict of lover and friend etched onto his face, but his rich tones often, unfortunately, overpower the weaker countertenor of Martin Wölfel’s Antonio.

Ashley Martin-Davis’ set, constructed around two towering walls of safety deposit boxes, is strikingly effective, and the WNO orchestra is elegantly conducted by Lionel Friend. For all the importance of the themes of Tchaikowsky’s opera, it feels like a curate’s egg of a work; while there’s much to admire in its discourse on the ugly, destructive forces of prejudice, this is too often deflected by a distracting lack of clarity and consistency in musical and narrative drive.

Reviewed on 11 October 2016 | Image: Johan Persson

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Theatre Review: Half Life at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

When memories fade, what is there left of us? John Mighton’s play examines issues of memory and identity; how reality blurs with age, the balance shifts and we become more diminished by what we have forgotten than defined by our recall of the past.

It’s a subject matter that reflects the themes of Florian Zeller’s The Father, which received its UK premiere in the Ustinov and went on to great acclaim. But Half Life, first seen in Toronto in 2005, contains the sweetness of new beginnings, too; love blossoming, in the sterility of a Canadian nursing home, between two elderly residents who may or may not have enjoyed a previous relationship.

Patrick and Clara meet over a game of hangman in the dayroom; Patrick was a wartime code-breaker and can still master such activities with ease. But Clara is more overtly fragile, her memories ephemeral, dissolving and reforming as she reaches out to grasp them. It seems they may have met before, gone dancing during the war. They develop a tender, protective relationship, childlike in its devotion, but then it is for their grown up children, Donald and Anna, to determine what their future should be.

Mighton writes with humour and empathy for the elderly couple; in a rapid succession of vignettes, Nancy Meckler’s direction always allows space for their dignity and relationship to develop. It is Donald and Anna, both divorced and grappling with the present, who are posed the greater challenge. Anna seems able to adapt to the idea of her father being happy in a new relationship but Donald, who worshipped his own recently deceased father, is more reluctant to permit his mother a life that might no longer encompass his own.

Helen Ryan is radiant and luminous in her portrayal of Clara, endlessly long-suffering and patient – truly an angel as she’s often described by her nurse. Patrick Godfrey as the irascible Patrick has fewer lines – and less room – to develop his character, but their relationship is entirely believable. Patricia Potter as Anna is at ease with herself and convincing in her support for her father’s new relationship. It is Ustinov regular Raymond Coulthard who has the most difficult task in communicating Donald’s distress at his loss and his mother’s new love, disguised in concern for her dementia-ridden vulnerability.

Janet Bird’s set is ingenious in its adaptable design, casting shadows and shifting perspectives to suggest both presence and absence. There are chairs that disorientate on the walls and ceilings, while the simple drawing of a hospital curtain is enough to change the focus of each scene. Mighton’s work throws up ideas aplenty, contrasting memory with the development of artificial intelligence, the endless variance of human life and death with mathematical constancy.

Yet, these ideas are not always carried to a satisfactory conclusion and ultimately, there is a sense of ambiguity; of questions unanswered and a gradual loss of momentum. Perhaps this – as in life itself – is the point. Still, in the confines of 90 minutes of theatre, there remains the uneasy sense of needing something more.

Runs until 5 November 2016 | Image: Contributed