Thursday, 30 June 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 1: The Two Faces of Treachery

Okay, this time it's really a review of "the Scottish play", and no fooling.  For any non-theatrical readers, virtually all theatre folks subscribe to the sincere belief that you will curse any theatrical enterprise in which you are involved if you so much as breathe the name "Macbeth" inside the theatre, or in any meeting, rehearsal, etc., in any other venue.  Therefore, when it must be mentioned, it is called simply "the Scottish play" -- and it's best not to use even this circumlocution too frequently.

There are as many theories about the origin of this belief as there are people trying to unravel its roots.  But more than this: it is also widely believed that trying to perform the play will cast a deep shadow across the careers of actors, directors, designers, and crew -- and that it is the one play which is almost guaranteed to produce an artistic failure, even if it succeeds at the box office.

The current production at the Stratford Festival is certainly not perfect, but it has come closer to the mythical perfection in its overall tone and approach than almost any other performance of the play which I have seen.  As we've come to expect from director Antoni Cimolino, it has energy to burn, a clear sense of time and place, a clear sense of style and of language, and sparing but very effective use of special lighting and sound effects.  That energy is very important; without it, the play is apt to sink into a morass of melodrama.

The almost unavoidable problem is that Shakespeare's script sails closer to melodrama than almost any other of the Bard's plays, with the possible exception of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus.  So the poor artists, struggle as they may, are hard-pressed to avoid tipping into melodramatic excess in certain scenes.  However, this production does minimize the melodrama while upping the quotient of genuine dramatic tension across the play as a whole.  This performance of Shakespeare's shortest tragedy lasts for just 2½ hours including the intermission, but its a tense, involving, and exhausting 2½ hours for the audience, never mind the actors.

Julie Fox's simple, understated set on the Festival Theatre's thrust stage takes us backwards into the Middle Ages and into a kingdom of death.  The floor is covered with granular material resembling soil.  The sides are edged with irregular lines of stones.  The back wall is a series of alcoves containing skeletal trees, leafless, and lit from below with cold blue-white light.  Indeed, Michael Walton's lighting designs are critical to the success of the play in which colour in costumes and props is almost entirely muted down.

Inevitably, though, the play stands or falls by the actor playing Macbeth, since almost the entire action of the play is triggered by him.  Ian Lake played out his active scenes with a strong voice and powerful physical presence.  Less successful were the soliloquies.  Although these were all effectively staged, Lake delivered them with over-long rhetorical pauses and underlinings, such as "Tomorrow.... (big pause) and tomorrow.... (bigger pause) and.... (huge pause) to - mor - row...."  The effect was such that these were no longer the musings of an active mind but instead became a case of an Actor Performing Big Speeches.  These soliloquies were the biggest weakness of the play.

Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth played the dualities of her character very clearly.  The scene in which she persuades Macbeth to fall in with her murderous plan was a masterpiece of psychological persuasion.  Her sleepwalking scene was nicely poised on the edge of frantic without quite tipping over.

Joseph Ziegler was in fine form as the old king, Duncan, a monarch with a more common touch, a man instead of just a walking figurehead of Majesty.

Scott Wentworth gave a first-rate performance of Banquo, balancing the extremes of loyalty and ambition with a believable humanity and feeling of reality.

The banquet scene with its two ghosts was brilliantly staged so that the ghosts appeared at opposite ends of the table, and the brilliant flashes of lightning neatly concealed the exact moments when the two ghosts -- both looking quite hideous in their effective make-up -- stepped into place.  Underlined with a subtle but intense electronic score, this became one of the high points in the dramatic intensity of the play as a whole.

Michael Blake had a magnificent moment as Macduff when told of the murder of his wife and children.  From then on he dominated and centred the action of the play.

The Porter has only one scene, but Cyrus Lane made a fine Shakespearean clown figure, younger than the part is often played.  His word games and jokes thereby added youthful energy to their other comic possibilities.

Sarah Afful was sweetly maternal in her one short scene as Lady Macduff, culminating in a brief but brutal beating by the murderers before she was dragged away.  Her offstage dying shriek was amplified and echoed multiple times until it seemed that even her husband hundreds of miles away must have heard her -- a blood-curdling sound effect.

As played by Antoine Yared, Malcolm was almost too young, but that gave his speeches of self-doubt more point and meaning.  At the end, his youth gave way to an adult as the nobles proclaimed him king and hoisted him shoulder-high in centre stage.

And that brings us to the three characters whose words trigger the entire dramatic action of the play: the three witches.  Heavily made up with ghost-like, almost skeletal faces, and decked in grey and black ragged robes, this trio avoided the strange caperings that sometimes make these scenes descend into silliness.  Moving and speaking with deliberation were their keynotes.  Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, and Lanise Antoine Shelley matched each other in an interpretation which chilled through its very lack of excess.

Their third scene, in which they conjure up the three apparitions, was performed around a cauldron lit from inside with orange light, as if it contained fire instead of simply sitting on a fire -- a violent contrast to the general cold, grey nightlight of the rest of the stage.  They circled the cauldron slowly, ceremoniously, moving in time with the natural rhythm of the words.

At the play's final moment, as the nobles repeatedly acclaimed King Malcolm, three figures on the outskirts of the crowd turned around and revealed themselves as the three weird sisters -- a chilling final vignette.

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't."  That line of Lady Macbeth's could stand as a metaphor for the entire play, which is full of the kinds of two-faced, ironic lines that call to mind the oracles of Greek tragedy -- most notably in the mysterious speeches of the three weird sisters.  The special strength of this production is that it captures the same kinds of dualities in all the major characters, so bringing us face to face with the unpleasant and inconvenient truth that almost any of us might be capable of becoming a Macbeth or a Lady Macbeth, under the right circumstances.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Scottish National Epic

I know what my theatre buddies are likely to be thinking, but no, this review is not about "the Scottish play".  That play is being staged at Stratford this summer.  Stand by for my review in just over a week!

No, this was something much, much bigger.  Two days ago, I passed a quiet, peaceful Sunday immersed in family feuds, bloodshed, palpable fear and internecine strife.  Welcome to the dark and dangerous world of The James Plays, by Scottish playwright Rona Munro.  Commissioned for the National Theatre of Scotland, first staged in 2014, this epic trilogy has been restaged this year -- and the company, after an extensive tour of the British Isles, has brought the entire production to Toronto.

Here, the plays are being presented as part of the annual Luminato Festival in a most uncommon environment -- a 1,000-seat temporary theatre constructed inside the normally-vacant hulk of the Richard Hearn Generating Station on the waterfront.  

It's an inspired choice of venue.  For these three dark and dangerous plays which reach backwards into the bloodshed of the Middle Ages, a glossy and luxurious modern theatre wouldn't work nearly as well.  By the time you've walked through the dim, gigantic, foreboding, chilly atmosphere of the Hearn for five minutes to finally reach the theatre, you feel almost as if you're in a Scottish castle yourself.  Yes, chilly -- even on a day when outside temperatures soared past the 30-degree mark, I was grateful to be wearing long trousers and many audience members had sweaters on.

Munro's trilogy of plays can be seen as a unit all in one day -- as I did, and as they will be seen again this coming weekend.  But it's not really necessary to do so.  Each of the three is a separate, independent piece, and each one has its own distinct atmosphere.

Munro's style of language is Scottish, but contemporary.  There's no attempt at the use of an elevated, Goode Olde Daze style of language, except for the use of historic formulas in a couple of formal moments.  F-bombs abound as tempers rage.  For all that modernity, the tone is unmistakably epic, as is the sweep of the action.  In each of the three plays, depicting three successive generations of the Stewart family of monarchs, nothing less than the throne and power of Scotland is at stake.

Munro has also indicated in her programme notes the use of time compression, as well as the conflation of multiple historic personages into a smaller number of onstage characters.  Also significant is the fact that none of these plays covers the entire reign of the titular king.  Each one is focused on a particular time period which yields maximum dramatic impact.  This was all scarcely surprising to me, as a historian, since virtually all "historic" novels, plays, and films use the same tactics -- and that includes the history plays of Shakespeare.  For the rest of the audience, it does serve as a useful reminder that this is not just a live history lesson but drama, first and foremost.

The three productions all present the same company of twenty actors, most of whom are on stage in all three plays, with leading roles in one play taking smaller parts in the others.  This has the curious and indeed subversive effect of undercutting your expectations when an actor who played a helpful ally in one play becomes a vicious enemy in the next.  Conversely, the same character can appear at two quite different stages of life portrayed by two different actors -- or even portrayed very differently by the same actor.  The audience are given a programme sheet with a casting grid which is helpful in keeping track of who played whom and when.  (cf. "Who's on first?")

The three plays make use of a single unit set.  The stage is a semi-circular arena, edged by walls which slope slightly away from the playing area.  Above the walls are several rows of bleacher seating, left and right of centre.  It's those walls and bleachers which make the description of "arena" especially appropriate.  The audience members sitting on those stage bleachers have to be prepared to keep bags, coats, and feet out of the way of the highly mobile actors who make great use of that space.  Above the bleachers, a square platform at centre stage serves occasionally as a balcony or as a prison, but also and more often as a throne room.  In that capacity, the throne can be approached by means of a long staircase wheeled out of the large double doorway below the platform.  Other set pieces can be moved in or out via that door or either of the two lower side doorways.  Actors can enter and exit by steps from the main audience level as well.  There is one fixed piece, a gigantic sword, six or seven metres tall, plunged into the floor at an angle slightly off vertical with about 1/4 of its blade buried.

Well, that covers the common aspects of the trilogy.  Now for some detailed comments about the three individual plays.

James I:  The Key Will Keep The Lock

This first play has an overall story arc very similar to that of Shakespeare's Henry V: the process by which a young man becomes in every way a king.  Not least of the similarities is the fact that in each play the king must, for the safety of his realm, commit unspeakable and unethical acts.

So it's an intriguing connection that James I spent 18 years in imprisonment in England, courtesy of none other than Henry V.  And Henry thus becomes one of the characters appearing in the very first scene, setting out his scheme to marry James to an English lady and then send him back to Scotland as a kind of puppet king.  The action explodes all over the stage when James (Steven Miller) refuses the plan, and attacks Henry.  Henry (Matthew Pidgeon) wrestles him into submission, an event which then goes on to shape James' life.  Henry is near death when this happens.

As soon as James arrives in Scotland, he has to confront the noble families who have been running the country according to their own lights.  A key figure here is his cousin, Murdac Stewart, the Regent.  John Stahl portrayed this nobleman as a figure of gruff common sense, in striking contrast to the loud, offensive, boorish, and threatening behaviour of his three sons.

Murdac's polar opposite is his wife, Isabella (Blythe Duff), a smiling, treacherous serpent of a woman.  The scene where she threatens James' young English wife, Joan (Rosemary Boyle) is a skillful piece of writing in which treason and affection can be heard as two sides of every word.

Another significant figure is Balvenie of the Douglas family.  He's the only nobleman who makes no secret of his desire to have more land and therefore more wealth and power, or of his hope that James will help him achieve what he wants.  Peter Forbes very clearly portrayed the mixture of hesitation and urgency with which this relatively small-time operator tries to break into the big leagues of landholding.

Pulled this way and that by the conflicting currents of the rival nobles, James is at first hesitant but begins to grow in authority as he seeks to enforce the laws of the land (Miller handles this transition very effectively).

There is great contrast of tone and manner in his private scenes with Joan.  Here again the parallel is with Henry V -- the script depicting the awkwardness that must inevitably ensue as the result of an arranged political marriage.  Boyle is first-rate in suddenly going off like a verbal rocket whenever she has a chance to discuss household and farming issues, and then clamming right up again when James changes the topic.  Miller's earnestness contrasts strongly with her awkwardness and shyness.  Her rapid-fire orders to a servant in her first scene make for one of the few comic moments in an otherwise serious play.

More comedy comes from the arrival of Meg, a Scottish woman sent to Joan to be her lady in waiting.  Meg, portrayed by Sally Reid, is as down-to-earth as they come, and shares a lot of wit and good plain common sense with Joan.

James strikes a bargain, sealed with an oath, to take no lands from Murdac while, in return, Murdac urges James to arrest his unruly sons.  This is done.  But one of Murdac's sons evades capture.  In the end, as rebellion grows, James finds he has no choice but to execute the sons, and their father too, while Isabella is to be imprisoned for life.  The scene where James confronts his erstwhile ally with this decision is laden with intensity from both Miller and Stahl -- the tables turned, the king fully in command, the commanding noble reduced to pleading.

The climax of the play comes when James battles one-to-one against Big James Stewart (Ali Craig), Murdac's surviving son.  In a stunning dramatic effect, the lighting slides into a dreamlike blue and Big James is "replaced" by the ghostly presence of Henry V.  This time, King James successfully kills Henry, and -- as we now understand -- finally kills the memory which has acted for years as a dragging anchor on him.  It's a powerful point of resolution to bring the play to its end.

James II:  The Day Of The Innocents

Time has leapt ahead many years.  In the interim, the reign of James I ended in regicide, but Joan -- although wounded -- escaped to safety with her son, James (Andrew Rothney), who is a child of six years old.  In the first scene, we see James befriended by the young William Douglas (Andrew Still), son of Balvenie of Douglas.  Both these full-grown actors successfully achieved the tricky feat of convincing us that they were actually young boys.

The first part of this play depicts a deadly, fearful Scotland.  The child James is plainly the puppet of the out-of-control nobles, and in particular of the fierce and dangerous Earl Livingston (John Stahl), his guardian or jailer, take your pick.  James suffers from frequent nightmares about the murder of his father and the subsequent pursuit of his mother and himself.  Whenever this happens, he climbs into his wooden chest and pulls shut the lid.  But he also has occasional violent fits of bad temper.

There's a ritual repeated several times in this act, a total mockery of due process of law.  Livingston, Balvenie (Peter Forbes), and other nobles group around the boy king, who sits huddled up on top of his chest with his hands around his knees.  Livingston makes some cryptic pronouncement about the matters up for discussion having all been approved, and then shouts threateningly at James, "You know what to say!"  James manages to gasp out the words, "As I will it, so let it be done."  The nobles then utter three times the phrase, "In the name of the King."

Rona Munro has adopted a curious procedure for this script, beginning the play with one of those nightmares, then circling back to the moment when Joan reaches safety with her son hidden in a wooden chest, only to lose him to Earl Livingston.  James then meets William Douglas, and eventually the action moves forward again to the opening nightmare scene, which is repeated.  It's natural to wonder if everything we've seen so far is a kind of Groundhog Day nightmare, endlessly replaying in the boy King's mind.  But now the action continues to move forward.

Another key encounter comes when James finds himself in the room, apparently in a tower, where Isabella Stewart (Blythe Duff) was imprisoned by his father.  Her half-mad, half prophetic tone and manner in this play is a huge contrast to her manipulative personality in James I, and the closest the cycle ever gets to incorporating a witch figure.

The danger always hovering over the life of James is mirrored by the attitude of Balvenie towards his son.  In part as a result of the events in the previous play, Balvenie now has become much more powerful, owning lands in all parts of Scotland, and with it much more power-hungry (large-scale contrast from Forbes as compared to his depiction of the same man in James I).  William as a boy is a bit of an impulsive loose cannon, and his father readily loses his temper and kicks him around in a thoroughly abusive way.

The friendship between James and William continues to grow and change by subtle degrees as the boys grow towards manhood.  This continual and subtle evolution of character is the great challenge of this play, a challenge both actors meet with success.  The one spot where I felt it didn't quite work for me was at the beginning of Act 2 where James had plainly matured, while William still sounded at first just the same young boy as before.  As the second act progressed, there developed an undercurrent of homoerotic attraction in the attitude of Douglas towards the King.  It was subtle, it was slight, it's not mentioned at all in the text, but Andrew Still managed to incorporate it, by hints and vocal inflections, into his lines -- subtextual acting indeed.

James, now an adult, has married the Flemish princess Mary (played by Rosemary Boyle who also appears as Joan in one early scene).  Her accent provides a charming contrast to the Scots voices all around her.  It's the one example in the cycle of a cast member appearing as two quite different characters in the same play.  There are some lovely scenes of domestic life between the King and his Queen, showing a completely different kind of relationship from the previous royal couple.  There's also a nicely-developed friendship between Queen Mary and the King's youngest sister, Annabella (Dani Heron), and between both ladies and Meg (again played by Sally Reid).  Although all appears fine on the surface, the King's nightmares still haunt him.

As the play builds towards its climax, there's a powerful last scene between William and his dying father.  Balvenie's antagonism towards his son roars out unabated.  Forbes reaches the peak of nastiness in his final moments.  I suspect I wasn't the only person glad to see him die, just as I wasn't the only one glad to see Earl Livingston get arrested!

There follows in swift succession the scene in which James bestows on William the "honour" of being his Papal Envoy in Rome.  William leaves in bitterness.  A year later, back again, he's drinking with the King and getting increasingly drunk.  Andrew Still handled this scene with great vocal and physical presence, telling James that after what he had seen in Rome he was never going to let anyone order him around again.  Their friendship is collapsing in ruins right before our eyes, only William still hasn't got the wit to realize that.  James accuses him of treasonous plotting with other nobles.  And suddenly, the King's temper erupts and he violently, repeatedly, stabs Douglas -- over and over and over -- while the Queen and Annabella watch in utter horror.

It's the ultimate irony of the play, and of the life of its protagonist.  People believed that the prominent port-wine birthmark on James' face was the sign of a hot temper.  In the end, James himself has become another Livingston or Balvenie.  This one horrific murder, although it allowed him to finally exert royal authority over the nobles, still smirches his reputation right up to the present day.

James III:  The True Mirror

Again we leap forward by many years.  The childhood of James III was almost a parallel to that of his father, but Munro bypasses any repetition and drops us into his life at a fairly late stage in his reign.

The third play is completely different in tone from its two predecessors, as King James III was totally different from his father and grandfather.  This King James is depicted as obsessed with fashion, fun, and luxury, to the detriment of his kingdom (historically, he was most interested in music, riding, and hunting).

So director Laurie Sansom and designer Jon Bausor have chosen to set this play apart from the other two by putting it into modern dress.  Also and notably different: the two acts each begin with a party scene, with the company dancing to lively upbeat music from an onstage band.  The choreography of the dances is an amusing mix of traditional Scots reels with modern club dance moves.

Once the dance breaks up and the action begins, it's easy to see why James III (Matthew Pidgeon) was an unpopular king.  He tricks and jokes with people, spends money like water on his luxuries, refuses to tend to the business of state, demands more taxes, mocks the parliament, and spends time openly with his favourites.  Munro pulls no punches here, making it clear that the "favourites" were bed companions.  A cute young laundress named Daisy (Fiona Wood) and a handsome manservant named Ramsay (Andrew Fraser) represent all the favourites for the purposes of the drama.  Both are playful characters, and Fraser in particular makes use of a fine singing voice in several interludes -- an allusion to the historical James' love of music.

The character of James III, unlike his two predecessors, shows no development at all across the course of the play, and it's here -- I feel -- that Munro has weakened this play in comparison to the other two.  To put it bluntly, James III is a whiny, egotistical spoiled brat of a man.  It's actually easy to consider him half-mad, both for his turn-on-a-dime rages, and because his makeup highlights Pidgeon's eyes so strongly that they glare at everyone like headlights in dark frames.  From first to last he's actively unpleasant -- and tedious too, since he never changes.

The character who does develop, and who truly centres the play is his Queen, Margaret of Denmark (Malin Crepin, in her only appearance in the trilogy).  The arc of the storyline is most notable in Margaret's gradual evolution from doing the royal accounts for James, to collecting them directly from John, the Head of the Privy Council (Ali Craig), and beyond -- all this while James pursues his whims and pleasures.

At the same time, Margaret serves to illustrate the unaccountable charismatic pull her husband can exert, as she chooses to live apart from him yet still loves him and can't resist the urge to go to bed with him when the opportunity presents itself.  All these diverse, even contradictory, aspects of the woman add up to a truly believable character portrait from Crepin.

Some of the most entertaining moments in this play come from the private scenes between Margaret, the now-much-older Annabella (Blythe Duff) and lady-in-waiting Phemy (Dani Heron), including Duff's hilarious handling of the bath scene.

Another private moment tells us in a nutshell the whole nature of these characters.  James presents his wife with a wonderful (and expensive) mirror of great accuracy -- a gift which would indeed be a true rarity in the 1400s!  All of them look into the mirror and are startled by their reflections (nice variations on the idea from each of the actors here!).  Margaret, Phemy, and Annabella are pleasantly surprised, but James and Daisy both thought they were much better-looking than what they see.  The metaphor of the title is now (pardon the pun) crystal clear.

James acts in a very determined way to undermine and alienate everyone: the nobles, the parliament, his eldest son and heir.  In a dramatic scene in Act 2, he disinherits his eldest son, Jamie (Daniel Cahill) and bestows favour on his next son, Ross (Andrew Still) who is not yet a man grown.  Jamie leaves in disgust, and -- as we find out presently -- colludes with the nobles who oppose his father.

After James mocks the parliament for the last time, Margaret steps forward and, in a passionate speech, persuades the aroused parliamentarians that in spite of her Danish birth, she is the Queen of Scots, has the good and welfare of Scotland in her heart, and has the experience and capability to rule jointly with them.  Crepin's performance in this turning-point scene is totally magnificent, one of the great high points of the entire cycle of plays.

The historic James died at the hands of the rebellious nobles, with the connivance of his son who then became King James IV.  But Rona Munro's last and greatest dramatic stroke is to have Jamie fight his own father, sword to sword, and kill him in person.  Jamie then prepares for his coronation by taking off all his clothes and wrapping himself tightly in a stout chain with pointed links as an act of contrition for parricide, before allowing the motherly Annabella to dress him for the ceremony.  As he does this, he quotes an earlier line about the significance of what is worn next to the skin.  Because of the sheer concentration and intensity of Cahill's performance in this scene, I doubt that many people in the audience were especially troubled by the full nudity, nor should they have been.  (The chain is historically accurate, although the scenario of Jamie directly killing his father is not.  He wore the chain every year during Lent for the rest of his life, with added links put in every year.)

In a beautiful final vignette, both poetic and ritualistic in feeling, Annabella tells over Jamie's heritage as she hands him, one by one, jewels and rings that had belonged to all of his ancestors as we have seen them throughout the three plays.  Duff's gentle tone in this recital of ancestry made it one of her finest moments of the entire cycle.  While she was giving this moving speech, the people she named were gathering on the balcony, looking down at them.  At last, the centre doors opened and King James IV walked forward into the blaze of light to his coronation, alone -- yet plainly accompanied in spirit by all his forerunners.

This epic triptych of plays was an incredible dramatic experience on every level I could possibly imagine.  The complete cycle will be presented in Toronto two more times, on Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Hell Hath No Fury

I thought the classic Shakespearean line, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" would make an admirable opening gambit for this review.  Imagine my amusement when I looked it up and found out that the ACTUAL line was written by William Congreve, and runs like this:

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."

It's still an excellent opening.  After seeing the latest remounting of the famous Romantic ballet Giselle  by the National Ballet, the figure I can't get out of my mind is not so much the heroine but the iron-willed, implacable Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis.

For those not familiar with the story: Giselle is a peasant girl, who falls in love with a man she knows as Loys (he's really Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise).  When Giselle discovers that Albrecht is already engaged to his social equal, Bathilde, she dances a magnificent mad scene and then kills herself.  She is then buried in the forest, not in the hallowed ground of a churchyard.  After death, her spirit joins the Wilis, the unquiet spirits of women jilted by their lovers, whose Queen has sworn to have her revenge by forcing all men they encounter to dance without ceasing until they die.

An interesting challenge for a stage performer, to lock the face into a single rock-solid expression of frozen rage and keep it like that for the entire performance.  And that's what Myrtha has to do.

Well, more on her in a minute.  First, though, the music.  Adolphe Adam's fine score is one of the key reasons why Giselle has held the stage where many of its contemporaries have not.  Adam, better known as the composer of the Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night) has here begun to experiment with the concept of attaching a melodic idea to a particular character -- the concept that Wagner would later bring to full life in his mature music dramas (Giselle was created at the same time that Wagner was beginning work on Tannhauser).  Adam's score is really one of the first symphonic ballets, making extensive use of the expressive possibilities in all departments of the orchestra.  It's not by accident that you hear in this music foreshadowings of Tchaikovsky.  It's also music of considerable technical skill and originality.

The choreography of the National Ballet's version, created by Sir Peter Wright, respects the significant history of this work.  It's a key turning point in the art of the ballet, both because it is one of the earliest ballets to place the female dancers en pointe and because it creates, in Albrecht, a male lead who is a true character, not just a convenient pair of hands to lift his partner.

The story, too, is a timeless one.  The characters can be and have been portrayed in different ways, and driven by different motivations.  At bottom, though, what you have here is a love story that crosses social class lines and cuts across social conventions, with disastrous results.  In that respect, it's not unlike Romeo and Juliet.  We know Albrecht will marry Bathilde because society demands that he marry his social equal.  Like many a man in the bad old days of arranged marriage, though, he really loves Giselle, the woman he can't marry -- a fact which becomes abundantly clear in the second act of the ballet.

The role of Giselle herself has often been described as "the ballerina's Hamlet" and it's an apt metaphor indeed.  The dancer has to begin as a light-hearted, playful girl, and then evolve quickly through shock and horror into the mad scene.  After her death, she has to become an ethereal shade, yet still be capable of feeling and expressing love -- since it is her loving assistance that enables Albrecht to defy the Wilis until the sun rises, breaking their power.  Also, like Hamlets, there are as many different interpretations of Giselle as there are dancers taking the role.

In this run of seven performances, the company has cast no less than six different Giselles!  While I would have loved to have seen another one or two, I had to settle for just the one at hand -- Elena Lobsanova.  Hers was a remarkable performance.  Consider that mad scene.  In the past, it's often been seized as a cue for all kinds of melodramatic excesses (probably how it was originally performed).  Lobsanova's madness was much more inward, subtly delineated in face and gesture but without histrionics -- and all the more moving for that.  When she began slowly and hesitantly, to dance to a quiet fragmentary reminiscence of her earlier love theme I found my eyes growing wet.  In the second act she was effortlessly ethereal, her arm movements in particular much softer and gentler than before,  This was a deeply thought and deeply felt portrayal of the character.

Her Albrecht was Naoya Ebe.  It seems almost superfluous to comment on Ebe's technique.  High flying leaps and rapid turns, all precisely executed, are his trademark.  What struck me here was how much he delved into the character in Act 1, portraying the different aspects of Albrecht in a way that invited us to ponder what was driving this man.  His Act 2 pas de deux with Giselle was infused with love.  At the end, when he starts to walk with her only to have her finally slip away from him, the look of heartbreak on his face broke my heart too.

Hilarion, the forester who also loves Giselle, can sometimes come in as an also-ran.  Skylar Campbell, in his debut in this role, made much more of him.  Expressive face and gesture alike are critical to this man's role in the story, and we got these things loud and clear.  Equally clear was his exhaustion in his dance of death when he falls into the clutches of the Wilis in Act 2.

The role of Myrtha is also a testing role for a ballerina, in a quite different way.  Not only must she maintain that iron face and (more challenging) a similar rock-solid physicality, but she has to do some technically difficult dancing at the same time.  At the beginning of Act 2, she has to glide slowly across the stage, perfectly erect, perfectly poised, apparently drifting on mist -- moving all the way en pointe.  The least quivering or unsteadiness will destroy the illusion of this ghostly spirit floating above the ground.  Hannah Fischer, also making her role debut, did all of this and more.

It's a pity that the curtain calls at the end of the ballet feature only the dancers seen in Act 2.  I say that because the quartet who portrayed Giselle's Friends in Act 1 were very much more than also-rans, and deserve praise for the energy and joy they brought to their featured solos and duos:  Jordana Daumec, Chelsey Meiss, Ethan Watts and Giorgio Galli.  Daumec and Meiss also doubled as Moyna and Zulme, the two lead Wilis, in Act 2.

Also deserving of more than a passing mention was the precision of the corps de ballet in the Act 2 "white scene" -- as neatly done as I have ever seen it.  Certainly, the corps earned the cheers which came their way at the final curtain!

It seems superfluous to mention that the National Ballet orchestra under David Briskin played with all their usual verve and panache.  Musically, though, it's worth noting the careful balance of the bass-heavy brass chords at the beginning of Act 2, chords which can easily degenerate into mere congested noise.

Like Hamlet with which it is so often compared, Giselle is an endlessly intriguing challenge to each new generation of dancers and of audiences too.  This performance was notable for the particular strengths that the leads each brought to their roles, as much as for the subtlety which they also built into their interpretations.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

A Little Book Becomes a Major Ballet

One of the most extraordinary books ever published is a brief illustrated novella, a bewitching fable that stands astride the artificial division between adult and child literature, without precisely falling into either category.  Poetic, allusive, allegorical, mystical, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince is all of these and more besides.  Some people don't get it at all; at the opposite end of the scale, some people all but marry the book.

Nothing sums up the impact of Le Petit Prince quite so much as the laconic statistic that the book (first published in 1943) has sold over 140 million copies, and continues to sell in excess of 2 million copies every year to this day.

For such an iconic and widely admired and loved work, then, it's no surprise that numerous adaptations of the novella have been made.  It's been turned into stage plays and stage musicals, into films and filmed musicals, into TV shows, into operas, into ballets.

It's not a unique or ground-breaking adventure, then, that the National Ballet has decided to stage a new version of this beloved tale.  Nor is it surprising, given the advance publicity, that many of the performances were sold out except for standing room -- a very rare event!  This newly-created work features choreography by Guillaume Coté and a score by Kevin Lau.

Coté has taken a unique and successful approach to re-visioning the story in terms of dance.  There's no classical-style mime to illustrate events.  Rather, the choreography reaches down into the various personalities of the tale and brings their characters to life on the stage.

Lau's score matches the updated classical language of much of Coté's choreography.  He uses a large romantic orchestra with wordless soprano voices added in key passages.  The musical language mirrors the dance language in moving along a spectrum from lush Wagnerian harmonies to the more tortured sounds of the early twentieth century.

The first sequence introduces the Aviator who narrates the book -- showing him folding and flying paper airplanes.  His crash landing in the desert is symbolized by a gigantic paper airplane with a crumpled point descending through the ceiling.

Once this vanishes, the set for the remainder of the ballet is a series of solid black walls, covered with sparkles which automatically suggest a starry sky.  A series of circular openings of all different sizes in the walls appear from time to time to suggest the different planets the prince visits during his travels.  In Act II, these are replaced by a single outsize circle in the rear wall.  Costumes deliberately avoid the look of the whimsical illustrations in the book.  The Prince's flaring red coat, for instance, is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, the Prince and Aviator are dressed in simple white, colours being reserved for the other characters.

In a nod to one of the more whimsical pictures in the book, a simple chair tilted so as to stand on only one leg appears in a circular cutout, rotating in obvious depiction of the Prince's little chair on his home planet.  The Prince climbs onto the chair and stands atop it as it turns slowly around.  Sitting on it at that angle would be a bit challenging!

Coté's radical innovation is in his development of a corps de ballet role.  The flock of Wild Birds who draw the little prince from planet to planet here become a darker, more ambiguous, even threatening idee fixe throughout the work.  Their costumes are black-with-sequins, matching the sparkling treatment of the walls.  The sweeping black wings used in many sequences fill the stage with dark shadows and make the birds seem far bigger than the other characters.  In other scenes they dispense with the wings but still participate in various capacities.

Speaking of threatening, Coté's golden King is a much more threatening presence than his counterpart in the book.  The Vain Woman sequence is pure classical, with the Woman's tutu overlaid with dozens and dozens of fragments of mirrors, and a half dozen similarly-dressed dancers mirroring her every move.  The Businessman is accompanied by a corps group of men in suits, in a sequence that moves in a more modern style.

The Lamplighter of the book becomes a pair of Lamplighters, a male-female couple dressed in costumes that are black (for night) on one side and yellow (for daylight) on the other side.  Instead of having them turning an actual lantern on and off, the choreography here presents a snappy and entertaining pas de deux in which they take turns spinning each other alternately to their day and night sides -- a clever visual counterpart to the story.

The Geographer was the one serious weak link in visual terms, the ridiculous wig and hyperactive beard looking like something from a children's dress-up game where all other characters were taken seriously in their own terms.

In the second act, the story turns darker as the Prince arrives on earth and encounters the mysterious Snake.  The lengthy first scene with the Snake illustrated the strength of Kevin Lau's score, as the music developed over that span of a number of minutes in a convincingly symphonic manner.  The Snake's choreography, performed by Xiao Nan Yu, beautifully captured the multiple possibilities inherent in the character.  Coté had her followed on her first appearance by a "tail" of black-clad dancers without wings.  After that, her erect carriage and sweeping upper-body movements remained convincingly snake-like, the tail still seeming to be there behind her even when it wasn't.

The subsequent scene where the Prince meets and comes to know a Fox was one of the choreographic highlights.  Coté made inventive use of movement to illustrate the concept of the Prince and Fox taming each other.  It was the one sequence in the work which I wished had gone on for longer than it actually did.

The Snake's final scene with the Prince also uses very inventive choreography to illustrate how she bites him to send him home to his own planet.  It was the emotional climax of the piece, as it needs to be, but staged in such a way that I felt no sadness, only fulfillment.

I've deliberately saved for the last the three key dancers in the work.  Tanya Howard danced the role of the Prince's Rose.  In the book, he lavishes care on his Rose but she is petulant, vain, and demanding in return.  In their first pas de deux he uses many standard Romantic ballet moves with her, but she remains unresponsive, always looking out and away from him.

In the second act he encounters a garden full of roses.  Here, Coté has staged a scene reminiscent of the vision of the Princess in Act 2 of Sleeping Beauty.  The Prince's Rose also appears in the garden, but he cannot get to her because the other roses are constantly in the way.  When the Rose finally realizes that she too needs the Prince, she goes through the same movements as in Act 1 but with a more responsive air and a more involved look on her face -- subtle and beautiful at the same time.

Harrison James danced the role of the Aviator.  It's a tough assignment as he spends much time through the ballet watching, observing, and learning, rather than actively participating.  James was particularly riveting in his pas de trois with the Snake and the Prince.

Dylan Tedaldi captured the questioning look and stance of the Prince throughout the ballet.  He was ardent and puzzled all at once in his pas de deux with the Rose, and similarly displayed a blend of fascination and curiosity with the Snake.  His scenes in the garden of roses and with the Fox brought out many more facets of his character.

I found myself wondering if the sell-out audiences enjoyed the piece as much as I did.  If I had to sum it up, I would call it a set of choreographic inspirations loosely related to the book.  Although it is a full length ballet, I'd hesitate to call it a "story" ballet.  That's because Coté has deliberately chosen to explore the ideas and emotions underlying the story -- and that was clearly where author Antoine de Saint-Exupery placed his emphasis.

For me, this was a beautiful, involving work, thoughtful and entertaining in equal measures, and I do look forward to seeing it staged again at some future date.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Being Pulled Three Ways

In the last couple of years, the Toronto Symphony has created some unusual concert programmes by combining works of very different musical style composed in the same decade.  The years from 1890 to 1920 are one ideal period for this kind of artistic cross-fertilization, and this year we have had a whole series of such concerts.  On Thursday, I attended a particularly intriguing concert made up of one grandly-scaled late Romantic piece, one totally wild and extravagant piece, and one set of cryptic little epigrams -- all of which were being composed at almost exactly the same time!

As I sat down and considered the programme before the concert began, I was struck by the realization that only one of these three works was likely to be familiar to most of the Toronto audience.  What's odd -- and ironic -- is that this is the work that has a long-standing reputation of being particularly thorny or difficult music: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.  We've come a long way from the days when a concert absolutely had to be anchored by a mainstream symphony from 19th century Germany or Austria!

Artistic Director Peter Oundjian came onstage to give his usual pre-concert talk, and raised a laugh by commenting that he had better not make his talk longer than the first piece to be played!  Anton Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 are tiny little miniatures -- and I chose the words "cryptic little epigrams" with great care.  The entire set takes barely five minutes to perform!  Oundjian raised another laugh by commenting that the third piece "...is epic.  It lasts for over a minute."

Much of the music is very soft, and thus difficult to hear in the cavernous spaces of Roy Thomson Hall.  The very few loud crescendo passages were almost shocking in contrast.  I was forcefully reminded of Sir Hubert Parry's trenchant comment on the music of Webern's teacher, Schoenberg:  "I can stand this fellow when he's loud.  It's when he's soft that he's so obscene."  Without a score in front of me, it would be basically impossible to comment on the quality of the performance since I have never heard these strange, enigmatic pieces before.

It was with another shock that we turned to the next work, Elgar's Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 and realized that here was a lush outpouring of romanticism steeped in nostalgia.  It's a beautiful piece, and like much of Elgar's music it's not very well known outside his homeland.  I have to confess, though, that I've always felt much the same about this concerto as I have about his two symphonies.  To me, these big, sprawling works come across like butter scraped over too much bread.  The music is definitely lovely, but I've always found it easy to "check out" during the concerto's second and third movements.

(I have not heard this concerto performed live since the days when the TSO lived in Massey Hall.  A very young Andrew Davis led the orchestra with a violin soloist whose name now eludes me.  The soloist had the build of a football player, and played the concerto as it it were a rogue horse that had to be tamed -- so forcefully, that he snapped a string and had to do a lightning-quick instrument swap with the concertmaster.  He was lucky that this happened on the final note of a phrase.  The concertmaster then swapped with the player behind him, and so on back, until the dead violin came to rest at the final player on the last desk!)

This week's soloist was James Ehnes, a Canadian violinist of deserved international repute.  Anyone who has ever heard Ehnes play could guess that he wouldn't attack this concerto so forcefully, but would find far more light and shade in the writing -- and so he did.  The first movement, which is structurally the strongest, opened with a carefully shaped account of the long orchestral exposition, which set the stage ideally for Ehnes' first entry.  Throughout this movement the soloist and orchestra were beautifully balanced, a challenge because Elgar's writing for the orchestra does get very rich and heavy in places.  Pacing was near perfect, slackening slightly (but only that) at the appearances of the wistful second main theme.

The slow, songful second movement was still taken at an andante so that it didn't stretch out interminably, as a slower performance might.  The prize moment here is a unique passage in which the violin sustains a single low note, getting louder as it goes, while the orchestra plays a four-chord sequence incorporating that note in each chord.  Ehnes here maintained the sweetest tone while getting slowly louder on each recurrence of this sequence.  On the violin's lower strings this is not duck soup by any means.  It was a thrilling moment each time.  Interesting, because "thrilling" is a word most people will pull out when a violin is indulging in high speed acrobatics on the top string -- but it's the right word in this very different situation all the same.

The last movement is fast but long, and for me it seems to consist of bits of phrase that never quite coalesce into any themes of sufficient stature.  One can only then admire the soloist, who does get some wonderful passagework in many spots here.  Ehnes handled it all with aplomb.  But the entire performance of this concerto stands or falls, for me, by the slow, accompanied cadenza at the end of the movement.  This moment is the peak of the work's emotional message of nostalgia and regret, and the wistful tone has to be right.  Oundjian and Ehnes shaped this prolonged passage beautifully.  In that long-ago performance, I seem to recall that all the strings participated in Elgar's unique "thrumming" accompaniment (strings being strummed with the pads - not the tips -- of the fingers).  I could be mistaken, though.  In this performance, only a few of the violins and other instruments provided the thrumming accompaniment and it came across as exactly the gentle, distant whiff of sound required.

Overall, a very fine performance of a very big and challenging work -- and Ehnes capped it with a beautiful encore of a movement from one of Bach's Sonatas for solo violin.  He then made his way to the lobby to participate in an intermission chat with Tom Allen, and stayed around for autograph signing after the concert.

After the intermission, we got yanked in another completely different direction with The Rite of Spring.  I have heard this played live before, and it's always a powerful experience.  The orchestra now filled the stage as completely as if we were to hear a Mahler symphony, but of course with far more space for percussion instruments!  This is the second time in less than a decade that the TSO has presented The Rite, and on the previous occasion it was recorded for the TSO Live record label, where it comes generously paired with the orchestra's phenomenal reading of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances.

The programme indicated that this was the "1913 version" of The Rite -- which in practice means the work as originally written, before Stravinsky later struggled (not too successfully) to re-shape the final Sacrificial Dance.

Most people, thinking of The Rite, think of its raucous, percussive climaxes.  Yes, the music certainly leans very heavily on the percussion in many places.  What was notable about this performance was the way that Oundjian and company highlighted the chamber-like delicacy of much of the writing throughout the work, especially with the woodwinds.  And yet, when the loud, stamping chords of the Dance of the Augurs burst out, the horns and strings played with percussive precision.  Equally pinpoint precise were the similar hammered chords of the Dance of the Earth.

In the second part, the drumrolls under the quiet introduction were kept under control so the rest of the orchestra was not overwhelmed.  The plodding procession of the Ritual Action of the Ancestors took on a forward motion that created great tension against the bass-heavy writing.  And the final Sacrificial Dance had all the momentum and energy anyone could want.

Well, that's my last Toronto Symphony concert for this year, and definitely a rewarding conclusion to what has been (for me) a particularly rich season.