Sunday, May 29, 2016

the law of writ and the liberty: Maxine Peake's Hamlet @ the artplex HD

Maxine Peake doesn't rewrite the playbook on Hamlet, but it's a respectable effort in a big field of recent respectable efforts. Where in other productions the Ghost is the catalyzing agent that impels Hamlet down the path that ends [spoiler alert] with Horatio and Fortinbras as the last men standing, Peake's Hamlet is clearly already well down that path from the opening dinner table awkwardnesses. (Also, btw, there is no Fortinbras as they cut all of Denmark's knotty foreign relations entanglements.)

This directorial strategy has a plus side and a minus side. The minus side is it makes for a somewhat one-note main character. And as such we, the audience, miss the transformations, the steps become more of a slide. The famous indecisiveness, as addressed in Hamlet's speeches, seems less in evidence, which in turn makes those speeches less convincing. (nb: this may be precisely the point.)

On the plus side, the more like wallpaper the main character becomes, the more secondary characters stand out. This may be the first production I've ever seen where I was actually interested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters. Peake's Hamlet really has no decisions to make -- the train is never not going to the station. But what that makes evident is the collateral damage to Hamlet's "friends", actual or potential: R & G, of course, and Laertes and Ophelia, but also the Players, scattering in a panic at the termination of their performance, when they realize they've been used as pawns in a game that could turn out very badly for them. This Hamlet is one willing to throw anyone under the bus without much worrying about the consequences.

In fact as soon as the Ghost appears we are calling into question the whole enterprise: John Shrapnel plays both the Ghost and Claudius, the only difference between them is the clothes. But Hamlet is a play about appearance and sham, and masks are everywhere. The "Hyperion to a satyr" comparison Hamlet makes to Gertrude (Barbara Marten) is a visual one -- "Look here upon this picture and on this." If there is no physical difference, and the text abjures psychology, then who's to say Claudius is any worse than the brother he's usurped? And who's to say Hamlet's "revenge" has any meaning whatsoever?

Director Sarah Frankcom makes it clear to us that Rosencrantz (Jodie McNee) and Guildenstern (Peter Singh), two punk kids with accents from some other part of town, have never darkened the doors of Elsinore. Gertrude knows of them, as any mother might who makes it her business at least to know the names of her children's friends. Claudius is uncertain of their names, "Moreover that we did long to see you" becoming a bit of lip service even more patronizing than usual here. And they, unlike much smarmier versions in other productions, seem to be both genuinely concerned and leaping at the chance to hang out with a mate so often out of reach, whether off at school or mewed up behind castle walls and protocol. Unlike the Players, though, they don't quite know when to bail out, finally trapped between Claudius's "need we have to use you" and Hamlet's own somewhat sociopathic agenda.

The casting of Maxine Peake doesn't make for much in the way of a gendered understanding of the title role. Her Hamlet is androgynous, rough-voiced, trickstery, but not quite a challenge to convention. But there are interesting things happening in the margins: Rosencrantz, Marcellus and the Player King, the grave diggers, and Polonius are all explicitly gender-swapped. In the case of Rosencrantz, this means she and Hamlet have had a passing thing, which a bit ups the ante on each one's (real or perceived) betrayal of the other.

In the case of Polonius -- Polonia here -- it changes the relationship with Ophelia in the way recent gender-swapped Tempests have altered, and expanded on, the relationship between Prospero and Miranda. When Polonia (Gillian Bevan) says "I do know, when the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows," you know her mind's eye is looking down the long road of her own past and seeing her daughter's likely future.

The upshot: worth seeing, full of interesting choices, but we're still waiting for an actress to really drag this role kicking and screaming out of its conventions.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


High of 90F today in Rens-wyck, so we listen accordingly

Saturday, May 21, 2016

sundry items

Some of you may be interested in the talking heads livestreams from the Opera America conference. Bernard Foccroulle, GM of Aix, is up next at 10:45am ET today.

BBC Radio 3 is having a little Shakespeare festival, so they've posted up a new Winter's Tale, with Danny Sapani and Eve Best, and with music by Tim van Eyken (also playing Autolycus), whom the hipster folkies among you will know from before he did the music for War Horse. It's up for another ten days or so.

Next after that is Ian McDiarmid's King Lear, which should be around for a couple of weeks yet.

WNYC's Studio 360 has a segment on the new opera JFK (and also an interview with Tilda Swinton).

Friday, May 13, 2016


In case you're wondering where we're at, we're engaged in a Twitter war with the Powers That Be of Beverwyck about tree removal in the neighborhood and what is evidently the city arborist's abiding love for his chainsaw. And also script-doctoring a thing on the women's suffrage movement in the Grate State of New Netherland. Details at 11.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Welcome to Hell, Here's Your Bassoon: Saul @ Handel & Haydn, Boston

Being arguably the most metal of Handel oratorios, Saul presents a conductor a wide range of opportunities to stomp the effects pedals and up the drama quotient by way of the orchestra. But we knew from his recording with The Sixteen that Harry Christophers is one to resist those temptations, and our expectations were borne out on Sunday when he brought the work to Symphony Hall in Boston with his American gig, the Handel & Haydn Society.

If there was anything that stood out about the Christophers approach, it was his skill at making room for the singers, and leaving the drama, by and large, for them to create. If there was a certain chemistry lacking among the singers, it was also a very short run of two performances. Nevertheless, there was some extraordinary singing, not least from the David of Iestyn Davies (if there's a broadcast, that sound you'll hear at the start of O Lord Whose Mercies Numberless is everybody moving to the edge of their seats) and -- perhaps the standout -- the Michal of Joelle Harvey.

The chemistry vacuum was probably not helped by this being a fairly straight-up concert performance, with comparatively minimal singer interaction. There were some thumbnail gestures toward the drama -- Saul (a very good, if reserved, Jonathan Best), after his first address to David, turning to walk off but being arrested by David's long, bell-like note on O King, for instance, -- but in this day and age of increasingly sophisticated semi-stagings, we've come to look for a little more. There was certainly room for more. Or maybe we've just gotten used to Handel oratorios performed with an operatic sensibility for which they weren't really designed, and so it's unfair to judge them accordingly. My jury is out, and anyway this is more a quibble than a complaint.

The Handel & Haydn Society has been in existence since Haydn was a New Music composer, so in spite of this being (remarkably) the first assay of this oratorio in the history of the orchestra, the execution was smooth without being anodyne. And if any one thing was worth the price of admission, it was the H&H chorus, who surfed some of Handel's most exquisite choral writing with impeccable balance, dramatic flare, and close attention to dynamics.