Posts Tagged ‘Theatre’

Wrong direction

When I read that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was being staged with a Japanese cast at the Bunkamura’s Theatre Cocoon, I thought it would be a valuable opportunity to see the way Japanese artists deal not only with Western theatre, but also in a play that still keeps its freshness in a society in which many elegant households enshrine their own doll-wives. I was wrong, though, when I thought that there was something new about the play – it was actually premiered in Tokyo around 1900’s. In any case, reading again my English translation, I couldn’t help considering that the text has a special freshness in Japan.

The fact that English director David Leveaux was responsible for this staging was a bit of a turn-off for me. I have seen some of his stagings on Broadway and found them invariably disappointing and that would be the case again this time. Although sceneries and costumes were stylized (an arena stage with toy furniture and a couch – nothing more), the action was clearly set in the original late XIXth century, something that, in my opinion, broke any possibility of connection between the audience and the characters. I am positive that the audience viewed it as curious old and foreign story. I mean – what is the point of staging it in Japan with Japanese actors if everything was supposed to seem “European”? Why not bringing the whole staging from Europe with Japanese titles? The fact that the theatre was crowded certainly had to do with the fact that famous soap-opera actors were involved – and the dorama-style acting provided all-around made the whole thing sound silly beyond salvation. I have to confess that the redeeming feature for me in the whole experience was the quality Japanese language has to produce different kinds of enunciation for different kinds of situation. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can follow every turn of emotional atmosphere just by the change in the way actors speak.*

I believe that Nora Helmer is an almost impossible role – it is difficult for most actress playing the hysterically child-like aspects in a way coherent with the play’s denouement. If I can use a vocal image to describe it, the actress’s attitude has to be high-pitched with a hint of edginess. At first, doll-like Rie Miyazawa has the physique du rôle and also the right kind of nature. She has an excellent speaking voice and is extremely graceful. However, she never goes beyond the doll-like – as tension increases, she seems a bit at a loss and adds an extra dose of dorama-ish expression. To me, it is clear that the director never forced her out from her comfort zone – in a role in which an actress ought to be out of her comfort zone. She also misses entirely the sensuousness of her dance in act II and is undermined by an unbecoming costume in act III.

As Kristine Linde, Misuzu Kanno is far more comfortable in her skin. She plays well the Brangäne-like motherly attitude and is very sincere in her scene with Krogstad, but her sincerity is usually cut short by the overall shallowness. Shinichi Tsutsumi again falls in the trap of the soap-opera acting style, but at least he succeeds in keeping some dignity in his Torvald Helmer, a character easily made ludicrous by many actors. Hajime Yamazaki brought a welcome congeniality to Krogstad – there is nothing unbelievable in his volte-face, since he makes always clear that he is a desperate man fighting for survival. Tetsuya Chiba’s Dr. Rank needed a bit more reserve on the other hand.

* I don’t speak Japanese beyond the barely necessary for a shopping situation, but I had my English translation with me in the theatre.

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Those who have read Chorderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel know that there is nothing univocal there – readers are supposed to use all their imagination to read between words the meaning of which rarely correspond to their face value. Those who saw Stephen Frears’s adaptation for the screen of Cristopher Hampton’s play based on the above-mentioned book are probably spoilt by the brilliant performances of Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who were unafraid of going larger than life and achieving an almost mythical, symbolic status to their characters.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the first New York revival since the Broadway première in 1987. When I try to use one word to describe my impression of it, there is only one that comes to my mind – kapellmeisterlich. This is a word not used for theatre, since the idea is to describe the performance of a conductor who achieves reliable results based on his immersion on the stylistic atmosphere where the work was produced. In a kapellmeisterlich performance, nobody expects to be overwhelmed, for no-one has deeply thought about the work to be performed – the results are predictable yet satisfying because they are made out of the tradition associated to it.

In that sense, I see something of a Kapellmeister in director Rufus Norris. He offered a thoroughly correct approach to the work – the settings are elegant and coherent with late XVIIIth century decoration, costumes are exquisitely and stylishly fashioned, the stage direction is efficient and the cast is very talented. But not only is everything exactly as you could have imagined before you entered the theater, but also you cannot help comparing the results to what you have seen in Stephen Frears’s movie – and having the famous mirror walls as shown in Glenn Close’s boudoir makes the source of inspiration even more evident. However, the more evident comparison is that the book’s main quality – its ambiguity, the exercise of cunning from the reader to see through these sophisticated characters’ attitudes is almost entirely lost in a staging devoid of demi-tintes. No wonder the audience took most of what was shown on stage as comedy. A game of destruction and desire played on stage reduced to the mere entertainment of Sunday afternoon – I guess this is was not exactly what this play should be about.

Laura Linney, for example, should be praised for the economy of gestures and the sense of restrained tension. However, behind her restrain, there was very little to discover. Her Marquise de Merteuil was something you could guess from the five first minutes while this is a character who should be eluding our understanding to the very end. In one word, there was no danger in her – and the book shows us that the relationship with this woman was everything but safe. I know it is unfair to compare Hampton’s Merteuil to Heiner Müller’s (in Quartett), a play whose unsettling dialogues leave the audience uncomfortable and ill at ease to these days, but I miss what I saw in Brazilian actress Beth Goulart, whose forceful restraint showed instead a non-human quality close to the surface, the cruelty of an animal on a cage, of a force of nature controlled but ready to explode, of something beautiful yet lethal – the restraint of a samurai, the elegance of a bullfighter, the impassivity of a surgeon while cutting through the layers of other people’s flesh.

Ben Daniels’s Valmont had the right balance between the necessary patina of society manners and virile energy. As much as his Merteuil, he also walked dangerously close to the limits of monochrome. Although the character goes through strongly conflicted ideas and feelings, one could always tell which one was the “dominant” one so muted the others were in the background. Again I have no doubt that, as much as Linney, Daniels is an excellent actor; one just feels that the director left them operating within the limits of comfort. If we were speaking of a play by Feydeau, that would have definitely worked. But I don’t think this is the case here.

Curiously, the new and old generation are the shining features of this production: bête-de-scène Siân Phillips invests her Madame de Rosemonde with so much energy and feeling that in the end you have the impression she is more important to the plot than she actually is; and Jessica Collins’s vulnerable Madame de Tourvel has such freshness of expression, such vividness of feelings that you feel as if you were witnessing something freshly brought from the nature, a bouquet of flowers still full of life but in the actual process of decay. This is definitely an actress I would like to see again. I am not so enthusiastic about Mamie Gummer’s Cécile Volange, who again falls into the trap of sameness in her performance strictly for laughs. But don’t mistake me – nothing is really bad in this production compared to the soundtrack. If you want to copy Stephen Frear’s movie and use Handel’s Ombra mai fu, do as Frears did and hire a professional singer for that. I can tell you the strained falsetto featured here only makes sense as an expression of anguish experimented by some of these characters!

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Although everybody knows that Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla is the source of inspiration for what would become Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart´s Don Giovanni, the truth is that few people have seen the play outside Spain. As the British director responsible for the production at the Teatro de la Abadía, Dan Jemmett, himself explains, the text does not survive translation very well. If you think Italian is a dramatic language, you should REALLY check Spanish, in which “How are you? Fine, thanks” sounds like “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!¨.

As it is, although you do miss Mozart when the statue of the Commendatore appears on stage, Molina’s Spanish verses still do the trick either in funny or sad moments. Actually, the fact that most scenes involve people complaining about their disappointments with love must have something to do with the fact that the action is staged in a bar and people are almost invariably having a drink. The idea here is rather stylizing than updating and the actors handle their multiple roles very convincingly. The only actor who stays in one part throughout is Antonio Gil, taking the title role. His energy, charisma and animation are indeed amazing. It seems he leads an international career in different European stages – and I can see why.

The fact that the soundtrack involves lots of reggae music (as played in the bar’s stereo) is a bit of a turn-off for Mozartians, but it certainly works as a turn-on when Don Juan uses it to seduce his “victims” in dance numbers recalling Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. If there is one thing I dislike about this staging is a sort of “magic” thing some characters do with their hands in order to bring to scene some elements which are off stage – I found it terribly unconvincing. Also, the last scene could have done better with some lighting trick or something that showed the nightmarish atmosphere other than Gil’s excellent acting

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Being acquainted with Calixto Bieito’ s production of Don Giovanni from the Teatro del Liceu on video, I thought it would be interesting to sample the controversial director in his own field and got a ticket to his adaptation of chivalric novel Tirant lo blanc, written in the XVth Century by Joanot Martorell.  Although this book is to Catalan language what Dante’s Divina Commedia is to Italian, it is primarily known abroad as Don Quixote’s favourite book.

My first and foremost curiosity was to know how any director would adapt this sort of book into a theatrical play, given the amount of battle scenes and other large-scale events. It came to mind a very creative production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Rio, in which war scenes were portrayed as American football matches and Greek heroes were hailed by cheerleaders (I swear it was not stupid as this sounds), but Bieito seemed to focus on different aspects of the work.

As I understood it, his adaptation and staging centered in the nodal point of chivalric love, to which death and sex converged in an unprecedented and probably never repeated way. Although the main events in the book are clearly represented in the play, someone who doesn’ t know the story would have some trouble to follow the plot (but this seems to be a general rule in Regietheater), since all aspects are seen through the lenses of this repressed sexuality conveyed to violence and religion.

Reading these lines, you would probably think that there was nothing gruesome portrayed on stage, but that would not be the case. In order to house this production, Teatre Romea had to be adapted. The proscenium stage was arranged in order to fit a red catwalk along which the audience would be seated. This configuration not only brings the action close to the audience, but also the audience into the drama. The main scene of the play is a combo of a battle and wedding, both of them portrayed with the help of a kitchen. To the battle part of the scene, Valencia’ s tomatina was shown on video, while the actors stripped, threw the blood of a rabit on each other, shouted at each other etc. I reckon it was stage stage blood, but there were two actual dead peeled rabbits (as in Polanski’ s Repulsion) actually dripping. In this scene, those seated by the catwalk were actually terrified that some of this food would be thrown on them! When the battle is over, there is time to party and to let go a bit of the tension, so why not a wedding? The ceremony is a fashion show featuring all characters while Madonna’ s music poured from the speakers and paella and wine were served to the audience. If you guessed few of those treated to a plate and a glass ventured to taste it after seeing those dead rabbits and those people covered in blood, you’re right. Later on, in a scene when Tirant baptises thousands of heathens, one actor in underwear covered with mud sprinkled water around to the desperation of these people (if you wonder why I tell this in such a detached way, the reason is that my seat was in the third level, from where I could safely see everything from above – now I see why the nice lady at the box office offered me this place on seeing I was a tourist).

(You might wonder how I could make through a play staged in Catalan without supertitles. Actually, if you know some Spanish and some French, you can more or less follow a Catalan dialogue. The nouns are always easy to understand, the verbs are a different story… In any case, I could get the general sense of most dialogues and even more specifically when a particular actor had outstandingly good diction, but the previous knowledge of the plot was essential to the whole venture.)

If you ask me what was my final impression on this play, well, I must say I found it worth the visit for a change. Bieito’ s insight to the chivalric novel is genuinely thought-provoking and, although one feels that the creative team and the actors are heaving far more fun than the audience (another general rule of Regietheater), differently from similar plays in this genre, you would actually laugh in the comedy passages, understand most of the ironies and references and even get touched in the most lyric moments. However, the show’ s main feature is undeniably the outstanding cast. These people are amazingly talented. For example, Alicia Ferrer (playing the part of the “blind organist”) not only acts, but plays the soundtrack in the organ while singing with a perfectly trained voice fiendishly dissonant intervals, in which she was joined by the equally adept Begona Alberdi, Alina Furman and Josep Ferrer. And when I mean the soundtrack was difficult – I mean having these people produce very high notes in intervals of a minor second, to start with.  But I don’ t mean that these people can only sing – they perform some very acrobatic and verbose scenes with amazing accuracy. Most directors wouldn’ t trust their casts with actual knives cutting vegetable while singing on stage (at least, most insurances company would NOT cover that!).

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