Monday 29 June 2015

CD Review: Not That Kind of Girl, Susie Glaze & the Hilonesome Band (Hilonesome Music, 2015)

My review of Susie Glaze & the Hilonesome Band's new album Not That Kind of Girl is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Monday 15 June 2015

Friday 12 June 2015

Theatre Review: "Why Greeks Matter" Discussion + Oresteia (Almeida)

With Ben Whishaw heading up the Bakkhai from July, Kate Fleetwood tackling Medea in the autumn and Robert Icke’s production of the Oresteia now under way, the “Almeida Greeks” season is one of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the year. “For theatre, to begin at the beginning is to begin with the Greeks,” notes Artistic Director Rupert Goold, and the exciting season is also being supplemented by a series of context-providing talks and Q&As. The first of these, held last Monday before the performance, found Goold, Deborah Warner and Ivo van Hove sharing their thoughts on “Why Greeks Matter”. With Goold serving as interlocutor, the directors talked insightfully, wittily and sometimes even movingly about their experiences of directing Greek tragedy over the years. (The discussion can be viewed at the Almeida website.) 

Deborah Warner

All agreed that these plays pose unique challenges for practitioners, actors and audiences, mostly because, as van Hove noted, they’re built around very specific “conventions that have to be approached in a new way.” Frank about her dissatisfaction with some English approaches to the plays, Warner reminisced about her first foray into the field with her influential production of Electra in 1988. The director recalled the “frightening” experience of not making any progress after three weeks of rehearsal (a soon-to-resign Orestes with a drug problem didn’t help, apparently) before ordering an impromptu run-through that – thanks primarily to Fiona Shaw’s dynamic brilliance – showed her that the play could indeed “release pure emotion” as she intended.  

Warner was particularly interesting when discussing the limitations of a text-based approach to Greek tragedy, emphasising that the words can be a mere blueprint or membrane in this case: “With most plays you think you can go to the words on the page and something will happen. But you can speak a Greek play and nothing may happen.”
Ivo van Hove

Both directors talked about the importance of specific collaboration with actors - Warner with Shaw, of course, and van Hove with Juliette Binoche on their recent Antigone - with van Hove stressing the importance of researching the characters’ context and back-story: his first direction to Binoche when preparing Antigone was to go away and read Oedipus at Colonus. Van Hove discussed his strategies for involving the Chorus in Antigone while  Warner warned directors to be wary of the “Choral Revolt” – which happens  when cast members realise that they’re not playing one of the main roles. Hilariously, she recalled how the Chorus for her Medea came to her and announced that they couldn’t be in the play, after all, because they didn’t approve of child murder. (Warner: “I’m not sure that I do, either…”)

Especially memorable (and moving) were the directors’ remarks about the contemporary resonances, or political parallels, of the plays. Warner recalled how a performance of Electra in Co. Derry in 1992 affected the audience to the extent that they didn’t applaud but instead demanded a discussion with the cast afterwards. Suggesting that his approach has become more politicised over the years, van Hove, meanwhile, talked with palpable emotion about the impact of the shooting down of Malasia Airlines Flight MH17 last July on his staging of Antigone. Warner, however, was adamant that such parallels shouldn’t be forced or imposed on the plays but rather emerge organically from specific contexts. Ultimately, the plays are family stories, she said, and, as such, “they go to the core. To something essential. They define the profound experience that theatre can be.”    

Jessica Brown Findlay  and Angus Wright in Oresteia (Almeida Theatre) 

The idea of “approaching conventions in a new way” is unsurprisingly central to Icke’s take on the Oresteia: sometimes  scintillatingly, sometimes less successfully so. Icke’s production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns last year was one of the great polarising productions of recent times and his take on Aeschylus, on which he serves as both adaptor and director, could prove just as divisive. Running at a lengthy 3 hours 45 minutes, Icke’s production approaches the trilogy with a good deal of irreverence, replacing the Chorus with a "doctor" figure (Lorna Brown) who’s interviewing Orestes (Luke Thompson), for example. Hildegard Bechtler’s fine design is filled with meandering, ghostly presences as the evening progresses, as Icke, a shrewd and often daring manipulator of pace, tone and mood, languorously stretches out some scenes, allowing particular flourishes to really resonate.

Some of the production’s innovations (mics and screens, the employment of an iconic pop song) aren’t really innovations at all. Rather, they’re borrowed wholesale from the precedents set by the likes of van Hove and Warner. But while there’s perhaps too much recourse to elements that have essentially become the "lingua franca" of contemporary takes on classical tragedy, the actors come through: Angus Wright with a memorably conflicted Agamemnon, Jessica Brown Findlay with an intense Electra, and especially Lia Williams as a stunning Klytemnestra, galvanising when screaming “I’ll wake the house!” as her husband confronts her with his murderous plans for their daughter or raising a shriek of pleasure at her own violent acts. The production, with its share of excitements and irritations, makes for a memorably bold and potent start to this season. 

Thursday 11 June 2015

Theatre Review: Now This is Not the End (Arcola)

My 4* review of Rose Lewenstein's new play, Now This is Not the End, at the Arcola Theatre, is up at Official Theatre. You can read it here.  

CD Review: Little Earthquakes / Under the Pink (Deluxe Edition Reissues, Rhino, 2015)

My review of the Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink Deluxe Edition reissues is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Monday 8 June 2015

Concert Review: Peggy Seeger, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 6th June 2015

There probably aren’t too many people who’d consider a UK tour the best way to celebrate their 80th birthday, but then Peggy Seeger has never been one to follow the herd. A witty, smart woman, committed activist, prolific songwriter (or “songmaker” as she prefers it), sister of Pete and Mike, and spouse of the late Ewan MacColl, Seeger wears her folk legend status very lightly. The topic of attire actually came up during Saturday night’s show at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, in a remark that exemplified Seeger’s attitude to the future. “I’m a bit of a tightwad when it comes to clothes,” Seeger confessed. “I wore this outfit for my 70th birthday show. And I intend to wear it for my 90th.”

Like many an enduring folk troubadour, Seeger creates an exceptionally warm and inclusive ambience as a performer, even mingling with the crowd before the show begins. With sons Neill and Calum MacColl providing accompaniment on vocals and a variety of instruments, and guests Paul Brady and Eliza Carthy (no less) also on hand, the evening soon took on the feel and appeal of a relaxed family gathering, with much cheeky and affectionate banter throughout. “If there’s anyone in the audience who’s not related to us, there’s a helpline,” quipped Calum at one point, while Peggy gleefully noted that “there’s a lot of family linen being aired here” – after sharing some details about, yes, the circumstances of Neill’s conception.

The friendly atmosphere ensured that the occasional forgotten verse or mis-tuning mattered not a jot. Switching between guitar, banjo and piano, and forever encouraging audience participation, Seeger was in quietly commanding voice. Her warbly, quavering high register was as disarming as the lower tones she employed on several songs: a voice of experience that’s retained its wit and nimbleness, not to mention its hotline to the heart of the folk tradition.

The set-list also ranged widely, encompassing the earnest and the irreverent, the personal and the political, songs old and new. Though Seeger classics such as “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” were sadly absent, selections from her acclaimed recent album, Everything Changes, shone brightly, in particular the superb title track (inspired by her mother) and the BBC Folk Award-winning Titanic ballad “Swim to the Star” (with Neill’s wife Kate St. John hopping up on stage from the audience to join in on accordion).  Such fresh dispatches  rubbed up against the likes of “Cluck Old Hen”, Seeger’s great union anthem “If You Want A Better Life”, the Playford-derived dancing tunes “Lull Thee” and “Kettle Drum” and such superbly pointed, quirky items as Charlie King’s “Send in the Drones” and the eco-friendly "Wasteland Lullaby".

A selection of Ewan MacColl songs were particularly moving, with Calum taking the lead on a tender “Sweet Thames Flow Softly” (a song that was also a highlight of the Valentine’s Day show performed by Barb Jungr at the Southbank Centre just a few months ago), Neill doing the same for a lovely “The Joy of Living” and Peggy tackling the classic that she inspired, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, with understated delicacy and grace.

The guests also took memorable solo spots. Brady contributed the rollicking anti-blues “The World is What You Make It”, the tender piano croon of “Harvest Time”, and his delicious, definitive rendering of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”, before partnering Seeger on the traditional “Five Nights Drunk”, a hilarious account of an inebriated cuckold.  Carthy, meanwhile, leant her ripe vocals and funky, sensuous performance style to a dreamy “Prairie Lullaby”, an a cappella “Maid on the Shore” and “Slave’s Lament”, augmented by sublime fiddle, while she and Seeger joined forces for a dynamic, driving “Logan County”.  The evening was, in addition, enhanced by Seeger’s witticisms and observations: a joke linking anti-gay marriage rhetoric, and the legalising of marihuana, was especially choice.     

The concert closed with Seeger at the piano and the assembled company all pitching in on the Pete-penned “Get Up and Go”, a wry musing on the ageing process that prompted the night’s most joyous and heartfelt audience singalong. At the top of the show Seeger spoke of the songs as a route to survival and solidarity. This delightful evening, rich in history yet as current and vibrant as can be, offered conclusive prove of that.

Details of further Peggy Seeger tour dates here

Monday 1 June 2015

Theatre Review: buckets (Orange Tree)

A silver slide. Vases of yellow flowers. Some red balloons... James Turner’s spare set design for Rania Jumaily’s production of Adam Barnard’s new play buckets may possibly reflect straitened circumstances at the Orange Tree, since the theatre is (for shame) no longer in receipt of regular Arts Council funding.

But, with its suggestions of the festive and the funereal, the mischievous and the melancholy, Turner’s simple, sparse design actually provides an ideal ambience for Barnard’s play, which touches on Big Themes - memory, mortality and the moments that shape and define human lives - in a mostly merry, ludic manner.
An alumnus of the Orange Tree Trainee Director scheme 2003-4 (he’s directed Torben Betts’s The Company Man at the OT, amongst other shows), Barnard has increasingly turned his hand to writing in recent years, and his short play Closer Scrutiny was a memorable part of the Orange Tree’s great Festival last year, an extravaganza that was one of 2014’s theatre highlights for me.

buckets, Barnard’s first full-length play, is a very different proposition, however. The action here unfolds in around thirty scenes: some super-short sketches, others more sustained narratives. In them, a talented multi-tasking sestet of performers - John Foster, Tom Gill, Charlotte Josephine, Sarah Malin, Rona Morison and Sophie Steer - zip through multiple roles and scenarios that range from the realist to the absurd, incorporating elements of soap opera, surrealism and even sci-fi. Doctor/patient and teacher/pupil duologues, an ailing teen’s encounter with a pop star, a suicide attempt that gets interrupted by a mugging… these are just some of the many incidents that the play presents as it explores time and the transience of human experience.
With dialogue unattributed, the number of cast members unspecified, and a flexible approach to staging advocated, the form of Barnard’s play owes a rather too obvious debt to selected Caryl Churchill works, notably 1978’s The After-Dinner Joke (itself revived at the Orange Tree last year) and 2012’s Love and Information. But it’s a friendlier piece than either, and while some sections fail to ignite or feel half-baked, others prove engaging and effective.  
Much of the appeal of the evening is down to the cast, who, barefooted and casually clothed, work together wonderfully well. Malin’s metamorphoses into a stroppy teen and, later, a parent bemoaning her daughter’s lack of rebelliousness are especially choice, and Foster is just wonderful in a lengthy sequence in which his character expresses curiosity about  the longevity (or otherwise) of the existence he’s been assigned under a so-called “Living Vessels Incorporated” scheme.
There’s a slightly calculated eccentricity to the production that might grate on some, and a few a cappella musical interludes add disappointingly little to the experience. But, moment by moment, there’s much to delight and surprise in buckets.
Booking until 27th June. Further information at the Orange Tree website.