Thursday, 24 November 2016

Theatre Review: King Lear (Old Vic)

When the news came that Glenda Jackson would be returning to the London stage after an absence of 25 years to play King Lear in a new production directed by Deborah Warner, my first reaction (like most people's) was Wow”! That response was followed quite swiftly by another thought: I wish Pauline Kael was around to write about this!

Sometimes positive but generally not, Kaels appraisals of Jacksons distinctively brittle screen performances have given me as much pleasure as her writing on any actress. Full of acclaim for Jacksons TV work in Elizabeth R, Kael came to find Jacksons clenched, hard film performances much more problematic, and expressed her displeasure in some memorably cutting remarks.

Miscast, Jackson can scratch on ones nerves; she can even seem to be scratching on her own nerves, Kael wrote in her (actually favourable) review of The Return of the Soldier (1983). For Kael, Jackson - spiky-thin, with slitted eyes showing malice - was the least lyrical major actress of her day,” her performances familiarly grating.”

[Jackson has] been in movies only since 1967, Kael complained in her piece on Michael Apteds Triple Echo (1972), its too soon for us to know her every trick, yet shes as easy to imitate as Bette Davis. For Kael, Jackson was a coiled-tight actress who articulates each shade of emotion with such exactness that she has no fluidity and no ease. She carries no-nonsense precision to the point of brutality; she doesnt just speak her lines she flicks them out disgustedly.” Kael diagnosed an unnecessary tension in [Jackson’s] voice and body,” and seemed to put her finger on the issue when she observed: “it could be that shes so determined not to be smiley-sweet that she looks daggers.


The qualities of androgyny and abrasiveness that irked Kael about Jackson on screen are part of what make the actress a formidably great stage Lear. From the moment she appears - still “spiky-thin” and defiantly “no-nonsense” - Jackson commands the stage with an apparent effortlessness that’s all the more staggering following her long absence from theatre. If the performance takes a little while to really warm up that may be due to some of the production’s more questionable decisions (after all, a cardie and slacks ensemble doesn’t do a whole lot to suggest regality).

But by the time Jackson’s Lear is spewing curses or, later, fiercely berating himself for his neglect of his kingdom, the actress’s control and mastery are quite breathtaking. Jackson does what any great Shakespearean does: she makes us hear familiar speeches totally afresh. The descent into madness is charted with rasping poignancy but without special pleading. Awakening, shocked, to find herself reunited with Cordelia  (Morfydd Clark), the lightness of touch that Jackson gives to lines like “I am a very foolish fond old man” is superbly judged. In not begging for pathos, the actress achieves true pathos. (And, even, though Kael might doubt it, true lyricism.)

  King Lear (Credit: Alastair Muir)

The rest of the production is more mixed. I’m a huge fan of Deborah Warner’s productions generally (even her much-derided School for Scandal made my Top 10 of 2011), which have a messy, uncontrolled atmosphere that can be very exciting. Here, though, some of Warner's ideas feel shopworn. This isn’t the first time that Warner has directed Lear (her 1990 NT production with Brian Cox in the title role was widely praised) and maybe she takes too much for granted: the bits of Brechtian business (the spare, white box set; the rehearsal room ambience of the opening; the casual, contemporary costumes; captions announcing Act and Scene, and so on) don’t add up to much.

Yet the affected staging is fitfully powerful: the storm scene, in particular, is simply great, with Jackson and Rhys Ifans’s Fool making their way towards us across billows of black plastic sheets, while a wind effect ensures that we too feel the chill. And I admire Warner for not doing the obvious, such as setting the play in some overt post-Brexit Britain facsimile that would have probably got a lot of people very excited.

  King Lear (Credit: Alastair Muir
The performances surrounding Jackson are fitful, too. Both Celia Imrie, as a matronly Goneril, and Jane Horrocks, as a whorish Regan, feel miscast. Imrie’s indignant line readings sometimes suggest Miss Babs at her most self-righteous, and when she reaches for a pair of marigold gloves to clean up some sick in a late scene, an Acorn Antiques homage actually seems intended. Yet the ferocity Imrie gives to her reading of Goneril’s last line almost redeems the whole performance. Teetering on spiky heels, Horrocks overdoes it quite a bit throughout. Yet, cackling as she clings to Cornwall (Danny Webb), something memorable is achieved: an archetype of coupledom at its most grotesque.

Karl Johnson is a solid, if not exceptional, Gloucester and the always-interesting Warner-fave Harry Melling succeeds in showing Edgar finding himself within Poor Tom’s disinhibition, while Simon Manyonda’s strong Edmund limbers up for malice with press-ups and a skipping rope. (Any production that doesn’t cut Edmund’s final attempted moment of repentance - as this one doesn’t - also wins points from me.)

As with Hamlet, the greatness and depth of King Lear is such that no single production can really encompass it, and, while Jackson’s greatness in the role seems to have been acclaimed by all, Warner’s staging has proved as divisive as expected.  It's an erratic Lear, to be sure. Yet, writing about this by turns annoying and exhilarating, obtuse and illuminating production a few weeks after seeing it makes me feel very eager to see it again.

King Lear is booking at the Old Vic until 3 December.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

CD Review: Boys for Pele, Tori Amos: Deluxe 20th Anniversary 2-CD Reissue (Rhino, 2016)

As anyone with even a passing interest in pop culture wont have failed to notice, acres of media coverage, some of it sceptical but most of it rapturous, greeted the release of Beyoncés stunning visual album Lemonade back in May. The cultural conversation raised by that record rightly continues, yet, amid the articles and think-pieces examining the albums inspirations and intertexts, one connection failed to be made by major commentators: namely, Lemonades links to Tori Amoss Boys of Pele (1996), which was released exactly 20 years before.

From the fierce, feminist play with Deep South iconography, to details such as Beyoncés Amos-echoing left-leg-slung-across-the-chair-arm posture in the Sorry video, from the shared musical quoting of Led Zeps When the Levee Breaks (in Peles notorious Professional Widow and Lemonades equally blistering Dont Hurt Yourself), to both albums detection of wider historical, mythic and cultural patterns in the intimate sphere of male/female relationship conflict, the connections between the two records are numerous. Aside from short memories, maybe critics ignoring of the parallels is down, in part, to the current polarisations of US culture and its worrying segregation of Black and White artists, even as Lemonade itself subverts that tendency through Beyoncé's fruitful collaborations with Jack White, Ezra Koenig, and others. (Amos, for her part, performed two Beyoncé songs, “Crazy in Love” and Halo, on her last tour.)

For many listeners, Boys For Pele remains as significant and indelible a cultural touchstone as Lemonade will doubtless prove, and, 20 years on, the album gets the recognition it deserves thanks to a two-disc reissue from Rhino, who put out deluxe editions of Amoss first two albums, Little Earthquakes (1992) and Under the Pink (1994), just last year. (You can read my review of those reissues here.)

The format is very much the same for the Pele release: once again, a re-mastered version of the record is supplemented by a second disc that contains B-Sides, live versions and rarities. But where the Earthquakes and Pink reissues featured no material that hadnt already been released elsewhere, the new Pele goes one better, with a second disc that includes some previously unavailable tracks, most notably the near-mythic To the Fair Motormaids of Japan, a song that Amos devotees have been hankering to hear for many years. The inclusion of that track alone pretty much renders this an essential purchase.

When it came out in 1996, Boys for Pele sounded like nothing else out there, and, 20 years on, the albums freshness, strangeness and idiosyncrasy havent dimmed. The records heady mix of styles - with classical flourishes (has the harpsichord ever sounded this demonic?) merging with post-punk fury and ghostly gospel interludes segueing into surreal show-tune strut or achingly beautiful torch songs - remains as confounding as it is cohesive.

What links the diverse parts is the consistency of Amoss vision (this was her first solo production job) and her skill at constructing an album as a compelling narrative in which sequencing and transitions are crucial. A brutal and beautiful fever dream of a record that boldly confronts violent impulses (while making space for lyricism, tenderness, humour and hope), Pele takes the break-up album into previously uncharted areas of myth, madness and magnificence. It still stands out as the weirdest, wildest item in the Amos canon, its musical ingenuity matched by brilliantly bizarre, allusive free-association lyrics and seriously strung-out vocals. (The albums infamous, The Night of the Hunter-referencing liner art, meanwhile, involving dirty mattresses, pig-suckling, and pianos aflame, proved the perfect visual complement to the musical and lyrical subversiveness.) 

Amoss bravery in going to emotional extremes had already been signalled on Earthquakes and Pink, of course. But Pele, recorded in Ireland and the American South and named for the Hawaiian volcano goddess who demanded the ritual sacrifice of young males, represented a whole new kind of exorcism in its confrontation with patriarchal power. Shes crawling on her knees towards a telephone that isnt ringing, Amos said, at the time, of the albums protagonist. To go there, you have to remember when you did that.

As it turned out, a lot of folks were willing to go there, and Boys for Pele remains the album that certain fans would have liked Amos to have carried on remaking - a stance which may say less about her own evolution than about their inability to move on. Rich and daring, expansive and intimate, Pele still rewards, unnerves and challenges. And this reissue does what a good reissue should do: it succeeds in deepening a masterpiece. The second disc is the place where fans will head first and while some will probably find something to whine about there (the complaint Where is Samurai’”? has, inevitably, already been made) its likely that most will be sated by the abundance of riches on offer and the attention paid to the materials sequencing and presentation. 


The second disc actually opens with a familiar item: the so-called “Dakota Version” of “Hey Jupiter” which was released as a single and which Amos still performs in concert. B-Side fan favourites featured include the Chas and Dave covers “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” and “London Girls,” which retain their quirky charm, thanks to the supple arrangements and the incongruity of Amos gleefully scatting out ineffably British lyrical references to “kippers,” “pie and mash,” “Derby chinaware,” and “Glenn Hoddle scoring a goal.” The deceptively playful childhood reminiscences “Toodles Mr. Jim” and “Frog on my Toe” are also highlights, as is the subversively mournful, resigned reading of “This Old Man” and the brisk, tremulous “Alamo.”

Some of the tracks here first featured on the mammoth A Piano collection that Rhino released ten years ago: these include “Fire-eater’s Wife/Beauty Queen,” a delicious prelude to Pele’s oblique opener, and “Walk to Dublin (Sucker Reprise),” a sublimely unhinged piece that finds double-tracked Amoses wailing “Do a jig!” against chunky piano and brusque harpsichord. Both songs gain from this new context, and the latter track now gets supplemented by its previously unreleased sister, “Sucker,” a wonderfully mean classical/grunge hybrid that starts out echoing “Jingle Bells” before morphing into something that Wanda Lewandowska and Kurt Cobain might have cooked up in collaboration.

Easily the most highly anticipated track here, “To the Fair Motormaids of Japan” does not disappoint, either: from its tumbling piano introduction, it’s an exquisitely evocative and enigmatic piece that could have fitted snugly into Pele’s arc, as it finds its narrator contemplating all manner of feats and humiliations in order to recapture something lost. “The things that I would go through/To turn you back around/The laces I would trip on/To bring on the circus crowds” Amos seethes, the song debating whether transformation (“the things that I turn into”) might be an expansion or a betrayal of the self, and ending in fittingly unresolved suspension. 


Emotional complexity and ambiguity has also been a large part of Amoss appeal, and songs like the brief and beautiful elegy Graveyard showcase her peerless combination of the sexual and the spiritual (Im coming in the graveyard/To sing you to sleep now). Southern influences also continue to surface on a number of the tracks, including the demanding piano dirge Sister Named Desire (which might be Blanche du Boiss post-incarceration fever dream) and Amazing Grace/Til the Chicken, a lovely piece of improvisation that showcases Amoss warm rapport with bassist George Porter Jr. This is our church, George, Amos quips in the segue between the two songs.

Such exposing, loose and jazzy jams demonstrate the kind of spontaneity that Amos prefers to leave off of her studio work and save for live performance these days. The fine concert versions of Honey and Sugar included here find the songs starting to take shape in front of an audience in a way that their recorded versions cant match, while the ironically subtitled, and frankly terrifying, Professional Widow (Merry Widow Version) remains one of Amoss most uninhibited and startling vocal performances ever. The album signs off - succinctly and elegantly - with In the Springtime of His Voodoo (Rookery Ending), a spare and emotive extension of part of that song, as, against delicate piano, Amos breathes out: Right there for a minute, you were my enemy/Right there for a minute, I was over it.

For many listeners, Boys for Pele has, over the years, served as its own church of sorts: a place of enlightenment, succour and empowerment in the midst of pain and confusion. Amos has produced much fantastic work of comparable ambition and immersive impact since: whether its 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, 2007’s American Doll Posse (a record whose relevance seems only to have multiplied in the last week), 2011’s Night of Hunters or her sublime foray into musical theatre, The Light Princess (2013). Pele, though, finds Amos at her most overtly radical and risk-taking: boldly challenging the oppressions of culture and history, pushing the album form in fresh directions, discovering a productive way to burn. In its expanded form, the brilliant Boys for Pele thrills, moves and inspires anew.

Boys For Pele: 20th Anniversary Reissue is out on Rhino on 18th November.