Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra & Sarah Connolly

 

Edinburgh International Festival

Usher Hall

19.30

25 August ONLY

****

It is most interesting to go to a concert where the entire programme is new to me.  This concert began with songs written by Alma Mahler while she was still Alma Schindler, and ended with a symphony created from draft full scores and sketches left by her husband Gustav which were orchestrated and fleshed out by Deryck Cooke and the brothers Colin and David Matthews.

 

Alma was a talented musician and composer but her husband-to-be forbade her to continue composing after their marriage, saying “the role of the ‘composer’, the ‘bread-winner’, is mine; yours is that of the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade”.  Towards the end of his life he looked at some of her songs and declared them to be really fine, and insisted that they were published.  (Why the hell hadn’t he looked at them before?  Condemning the creations without ever having looked at them is even more insulting than simply forbidding the continued exercise of her obvious talent…)

 

That apart, Sarah Connolly did a marvellous job of selling these songs to us: her rich voice soaring above the orchestra and sinking to a pianissimo, while Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin conjured expressive atmospheric orchestral tapestries through which the voice wove its melodies.  My favourite song, from the lyrics’ point of view, was Waldseligkeit (Bliss in the Woods), a setting of a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, whose simplicity was matched by the vocal line and delicate scoring.  The lyrics of the others didn’t speak so deeply to me, or impress me as particularly out of the ordinary – but then this period is not my favourite for Lieder, or indeed, orchestral music.

 

The symphony was also very interesting.  I was glad to have programme notes, which helped me make sense of and recognise some of what I was hearing: and watching the conductor’s movements also made the music clearer.  There were some excellent bits, some less so – I wonder what alterations, amendments, improvements Mahler might have made if he had had time?  The first two movements contrasted strongly with the 3rd and 4th, which were written at the time Mahler discovered that his wife had been having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius: personal anguish suffuses the music, and the score has written comments expressing this above the staves.  Mahler did all he could to win back his wife’s love, and the final movement brings about a resolution and forgiveness, and ends peacefully.

 

Again, it’s not my type of music, too surging and rushing and loosely-woven: but it would be interesting to compare the piece with Mahler’s previous nine symphonies.  The conducting was again fabulous: I’m delighted that Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin becomes the Music Director Designate of the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year and takes over completely in 2020. It was a joy to watch him, especially when he abandoned his baton for the final few pages of the score, his hands delicately conjuring the final gently loving moments from the superb Rotterdam Symphony Orchestra.

 

The audience – and the orchestra – were loud in their applause at the end of the piece, and soloists and sections were called on to rise and receive their own applause before they and we were allowed to go home.

Mary Woodward

Thrones! The musical!

2016THRONET_AAU

Musical

Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 17)

-Aug 29th

17.00

*****

Don’t know the difference between Dragonglass and Dothraki? Then let me show you the edfringe festival book because this is not the show for you. This is a razor sharp parody of the almighty ratings behemoth Game of Thrones that is made strictly for the fans.

For  a show that celebrates the worst in humanity, you need some really warped minds to run with the premise of Thrones, thankfully the team behind Baby Wants Candy are about as warped as you could get. Where else could you get a musical number between Khal Drogo raping Daenerys and a rap about the Red Wedding and there being too many knives! It’s constantly absurd, inventive and utterly delightful.

If you have a dark, silly sense of humour prepare to belly laugh yourself into a coma. For this is an absolutely hilarious little show. Sometimes the jokes are obvious, sometimes the jokes are fiendishly clever, but it never misses a trick, getting laughs out of all the sex and death in the show (and we all know there’s plenty of that.)

For those who have already seen Thrones it is worth a return visit. For it has now been fully updated to include season 6, including a surprisingly tender song about Hodor trying to save his friends and a brilliant recurring cameo from Donald Trump who wants to ‘Make Westeros great again.’ I can’t wait to see what they do with season 7 next year.

It’s absurd, bonkers and bloody wonderful, make sure you get a ticket.

Martin Miller

Breakfast Plays: Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?): How to Ruin Someone’s Life from the Comfort of your Own Beanbag

2016BREAKFA_TR (1)

Theatre

Traverse Theatre

Venue 15

09.00

16 – 28 Aug (not 22)

***

 Darren Davidson, self-styled security consultant, penetration expert and convicted hacker, is giving a lecture in which he describes how easy it is to access personal information via the internet.  He tells us “the only freedom available today is to be anonymous” and thus avoid being under surveillance, being surveyed, coerced, or hacked.  He describes how he exacted revenge on someone who had simply pissed him off by his posts on a forum: but in the middle of his PowerPoint presentation, things start to go wrong and his own hidden personae are revealed.

 

I’m in two minds about the dichotomy in this piece: the transition between the two parts didn’t entirely convince me.  The lecture and the casual way he described totally ruining someone’s life chilled me even more than the discovery that these things could be done, but David’s disintegration after the inexplicable intrusions into his PowerPoint presentation and exposure of his alter ego L00la seemed less credible; the rapid ‘excuse’ for his behaviour – a disrupted and insecure childhood – somehow didn’t ring true.  I accept that an insecure life could make one create and cling to the imaginary friend who possesses all the longed-for personal attributes and power and is able to threaten mighty corporations and wreak havoc and destruction, but I was not convinced by the acting.

 

The plays are put on with only one day’s full rehearsal: I should like to see this piece again after more work had been done on the presentation…but maybe that’s me being hypercritical?  David’s assurance – even arrogance – and his failure to realise or convey any sorrow or regret for what he had done was disturbing, his motives for his actions seemed to me weak: but was this an illustration of the complete divorce from reality and overwhelming power kick that can suppress conscience or any feeling for one’s fellow-creatures because one is operating in virtual reality?

 

This was another sad commentary on people’s isolation, insecurity, and fear, and another chilling imagining of the future.  I don’t know how much of what was suggested is actually possible right now – but it confirms my deep suspicion of Facebook and other social media, and indeed the whole Internet phenomenon, convenient though so many aspects of it are!

 

Mary Woodward

Richard Wilson – The Good Fight: Shakespeare Today

 

Edinburgh Book Festival

Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square

11.00

25 August ONLY

**

Oh my!  It was good to know I wasn’t the only audience member to have got the Richard Wilsons confused – this was not Victor Meldrew, but an academic who certainly knew his stuff but expected that we knew it too – and alas, I didn’t…

 

The first, quite lengthy, part of his talk was about all his previous books, ostensibly to show how he arrived at the current one which he was there to promote, but maybe also  suggesting that we should buy them too.  We then turned to his latest book Worldly Shakespeare: the Theatre of our Goodwill and were introduced to various chapters and the “new ideas and insights” Stuart Kenny promised us in his introduction.  Richard Wilson’s stated aim is to put Shakespeare into his historical context and bring him into contemporary society, pointing out his relevance to today – I don’t know that he succeeded with me.

 

Considering Hamlet:  Wilson sees the Elizabethan Jesuits as the terrorists of their day, and pointed out that terrorists can be seen as good or bad in people’s minds.  He suggested that ‘to be or not to be’ was less about suicide, self-destruction, as about mutual suicide, suicide bombing – “self-slaughter as revenge”.  Hamlet stands “on the battlements of Europe” – (is he looking for/ expecting a messiah? A monster?) and sees himself as a messianic scourge.

 

Twelfth Night: he connected the Shah of Persia with Queen Elizabeth as rulers of the only two states having a very close link between church and state.  Elizabeth sent envoys to the Shah: quite what that had to do with the play was lost on me.  Troilus & Cressida, which I don’t know well: he said there was an attempt in the 1590s to re-establish the Olympic idea of peace, general amnesty, and universal brotherhood by staging the Cotswold Games, which Shakespeare would have known well, and suggested that many people in England were looking to the future James VI to come south and bring peace and harmony, bringing Catholic and Protestant together- agonism rather than antagonism [the former, Wikipedia informs me, is a political theory suggesting the possibility of being brought together through difference].

 

Frankly, most of the talk was either above my head or poorly expressed: it was potentially interesting, while not exactly being intelligible.  I’m not sure at whom it was aimed, but the interface between ordinary audience and academic was not crossed or integrated in my case anywhere near as successfully as Emma Smith did in her recent talk. There was much to think about and maybe research later, not least Wilson’s contention that William Shakespeare didn’t write everything that’s in his plays today, and that many of them were re-written after his death to take account of political developments and changes in attitude – I might well get some of Wilson’s books from the library to see whether he makes any more sense on the page than he did in person, but from the passages he read out, I have my doubts…

 

I hope other audience members fared better than I did!

 

Mary Woodward

The Toad Knew

 

Edinburgh International Festival

King’s Theatre

20.00

24 – 24 Aug

****

 

Stamping, cheering, clapping greeted the final curtain of this extraordinary show.

 

Another extraordinary piece – a dreamscape with recurring motifs, including the enigmatic toad.

 

Having just come out of the latest Star Trek prequel my mind was predisposed to think of space ships and alien visitors, so they were what came first to mind when the star-spangled red velvet curtain rose to disclose a wonderfully mobile collection of illuminated dishes floating above the stage, rising, falling, separating, clustering, lighting up, changing colour, with the largest central dish opening downward-facing petals to form a giant flower whose central illuminated golden calyx descended – bringing enlightenment?  It also became the cradle or crow’s nest into which an aerialist descended headfirst, only to rise again and twist and coil herself around the dishes’ cabling before descending to earth to continue her gyrations.

 

There was a wonderful singer in a crimson cloak, a small Baldrick-like character and an enigmatic Man in a Cloak, a long-haired contortionist who could hold her breath underwater for a worryingly long amount of time: and the amazing James Thiérrée, whose brainchild this extraordinary piece is.  Acrobat, poet, clown, magician, musician, film actor; the great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill, grandson of Charlie Chaplin and son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria and Jean-Baptistery Thiérrée, who created many legendary French circus companies; an amazing pedigree which helps explain his many talents.

 

Elastic body, expressively mobile face, incredibly flexible hands and an imagination which knows no bounds: who else could imagine a staircase that builds itself as he climbs it and then becomes the whirling support for breath-taking acrobatic skills, or visualise a contest for dominance between man and piano?  Baldrick, with two trays, one large and one small, becomes the centre of a maelstrom of plates which proliferate invisibly and even become the shell of a tortoise which emerges into the mayhem – and, of course, there is the toad….

 

In Thierry’s own words “I do not make theatre to explain what shakes our inner workings, but rather to roam around.  So, roam if you want to.  Let’s live together, here, for a few moments, and perhaps foolish things can become meaningful, on the horizon at the tips of our noses.

 

The toad will tell us.”

 

And it did.

 

Mary Woodward

 

Mark Thomas: The Red Shed

2016REDSHED_N5

Theatre

Traverse Theatre

Venue 15

Times various

6 – 28 Aug, not Monday

****

 Mark Thomas: such passion, such rage, such superb command of audience, bringing them from uproarious laughter to silence and tears in the blink of an eye.  A consummate entertainer, a brilliant writer, a passionate believer in solidarity: politicians are doing their best to divide and rule by “concentrate on self and bugger everyone else, chum”…. so we must do it differently!

 

Mark’s first gigs were performed in The Red Shed in Wakefield – the 47-foot-long wooden Socialist club.  For its 50th anniversary this year, Mark has created a show combining an account of his own political coming of age with memories of the people and events that inspired him.  The show centres on a fascinating quest – Mark wants to know whether a very striking story which he often tells is in fact true, or whether he’s amended the truth to make the story better, and in trying to unearth the truth, he realises that people’s versions of the same event will differ in big or little ways.  What is the truth?  How much are you justified in telling a lie that enhances the story in a story that’s about unearthing the truth of something?

 

As ever in Mark’s performances, there is rage, anger at what has been done, what we are permitting to be done, to us.  What does it achieve?  Many, constant, murmurs of agreement in the audience, but who will do something about it? What can be done?  What good does raging do?  Rage over the losses, celebrate the spirit that won’t lie down: make sure that the memories and the people aren’t lost, make sure that we have somewhere to go to remember and derive strength and inspiration from those who went before.

 

I can do no better than to quote from Mark’s long-standing friend and co-conspirator, Peter Hirst:

 

Those of us who believe that we have a responsibility to leave the world and the people in it in better condition than we found it, need positive stories and places where those stories will get heard.  A repository of hope, where the belief is that, in the end, our endeavours will result in a world that is a fairer and better place.  Far too much of the story telling has been in the hands of the media, owned and controlled by those with a big share in the status quo.

 

This show celebrates 50 years of achievement: I wonder where we will be in another 50?

Mary Woodward

 

THE INVENTION OF ACTING

2016INVENTI_JG

 

COMEDY

Just the Tonic at the Caves. (Venue 88)

August  16th to 28th (no breaks)

20.40

***

This is an hilarious hour with many highlights. Two young guys and a young woman trick each other repeatedly before revealing they were “only acting”, and this begins a very entertaining hour in which the three become comic monsters, “Little Timmy” becomes a centre of attention, the three become one single human entity – and there is a rousing finale that will send you away with a very big smile.

There is some comic play with the nature of the environment in this cave, and there is some very warm and vivid audience involvement. The venue was pretty full when I saw this; there is a whole barrel of laughs to be enjoyed if you join this crowd.

Tony Challis

Remember Edith Cavell

2016REMEMBE_AHE

Theatre

Palmerston Place Church

Venue 254

Times various

23 – 27 August

***

This was a very worthy, well-intentioned piece that failed to come completely alive and grab me, though it’s hard to work out quite why.

 

Edith Cavell (born 1865) was a nurse who in 1907, when she was in her forties, was put in charge of a pioneer training scheme for lay nurses in Brussels.  Prior to this, nursing had been done by nuns who, though well-intentioned, had no specific training.  By 1912 L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplomées was providing nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens; by 1914 Edith was lecturing to doctors and nurses.  When war broke out and Belgium was invaded by the Germans, some Allied soldiers were caught behind enemy lines: to be caught was to be killed.  Edith, aware of the implications of her actions, began to shelter and nurse any soldiers who found their way to Brussels and, when they were fit to travel, accompanied them to the outskirts of the city, where a network of people would help them to reach safety in Holland and get to England.  As a member of the Red Cross, she ‘should’ have remained neutral: but her argument was that she was a nurse first, and her duty was to tend every sick or wounded soldier who came her way, regardless of their nationality.  She was betrayed by a collaborator, condemned to death as a traitor and shot at dawn on October 12 1915.  Her last words to the chaplain who visited her the night before were “I expected my sentence and I believe it was just.  Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.

 

The show begins with the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, reading the proposed public announcement of her execution over the phone to the then Prime Minister.  He is then able to begin the story, and comment on it as the action progresses.  Edith writes to her mother, which enables her to express her feelings and motivation.  Her devoted assistant at the École, Sister Wilkins, is also able to advance the narrative and recount her own feelings: we also meet one of the soldiers Edith helped, some Germans, and the chaplain who was with her the night before her execution.  The short scenes are linked by popular songs of the time and hymns which would have benefited from a more accomplished pianist and better singing.

 

The story was interesting and the acting not bad – why did the show fail to come alive for me?  It felt rather as though it had been devised to put over a particular message, with hymns and some bible passages to underline the message; and though there were some accomplished actors on stage, they were not performing with the passion and energy I have seen in other shows this year, but rather preaching a sermon that had been well-rehearsed but failed to come alive.  The show had the potential to be gripping: a pity that it wasn’t.

 

Mary Woodward

Breakfast Plays: Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?): The Girl in the Machine

2016BREAKFA_TR (1)

Theatre

Traverse Theatre (venue 15)

09.00

16 – 28 Aug (not 22)

****

 Brilliant!

 

Polly and Owen have been together for some years, have been thinking about having a baby together.  Polly, a corporate lawyer, has just been promoted and her career is demanding so much of her attention that, while denying that she is addicted to her phone, she seems barely aware that Owen has a life, a career, and the desire to share his successes with her as well as rejoicing in hers.

 

Polly’s problems begin with the appearance of a new app that seems to have come from nowhere, offering the possibility of creating new songs by dead musicians by sampling their existing works and synthesising key elements into new compositions.  Polly’s firm is engaged in sorting out the complexities of this new legal ‘grey area’ and her new promotion has put her in charge.  Despite attempts to prevent the spread of the app, it goes viral, and an even more disturbing phenomenon appears – it seems that within the programming of the app is a programme that enables people to ‘upload’ themselves into the Internet: their body ceases to function but their consciousness enters the internet, and appears to be able to send messages back to the living.  [Shades of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal here, with the idea that someone is never forgotten as long as their name is still being spoken…]

 

The death toll rises and Polly is made a scapegoat for what is seen as her firm’s failure to contain/ prevent this: she is sacked.  Fearing that she will never again be employed, she descends into depression and spends even more time attached to her phone, withdrawing further and further from Owen and resisting all his attempts to revitalise their life together…  Society begins to disintegrate as more and more is shut down or destroyed in an attempt to stop the spread of this viral threat, ending up with no gadgets or appliances, and electricity itself being shut off.  Owen remarks that the house is so much better with no appliances in it, and appreciates the silence when all the buzzing stops.

 

The play raises so many questions – the addictive nature of technology, the corporate world’s need for a scapegoat when something goes wrong (“you should have been ready, you should have foreseen this, it’s all your fault”), and the possibility that maybe the Artificial Intelligence itself developed this app – (how did it get through all the security?  There’s no trace of its origin, no trail to show how it arrived).

 

A recurring theme is the search for escape from life’s problems, the idea that “being uploaded” will be a blissful end to the isolation, loneliness and constant procession of thoughts rushing through one’s head, the immense pressure, the bombardment of stimuli, ideas, must dos…  Owen’s desperation is heart-rending as he watches the one he loves disappear in front of his eyes while being powerless to help.  It’s a study in obsession/ addiction: the growing distance between the couple, indicated at the beginning as she sits cross-legged on her chair, hunched round her phone, attentive to it rather than him, is mirrored in the gradual movement apart of their chairs.

 

Despite being an unstaged reading, the characters were real and rounded, and the situation brought vividly to life – the passion is bursting out of the actors and reaching out to hook us and draw us in.

 

Another cracking start to the day – well worth getting up early for!

Mary Woodward

2 become 1

20162BECOME_UG

Musical

Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61)

-Aug 28th

16.00

****

I think it’s safe to safe to say that eight long, long, months into 2016 we all long for simpler times. Which is maybe one of the reasons 2 become 1 is such a joyful little show. For an hour we are going back to the land of platform shoes,  Spice Girls and were Philip Schofield is the ultimate DILF. The 1990’s may now be 16 years ago, but it feels a hundred . Get ready to bathe in some rose-tinted nostalgia.

The story, written by Kerrie Thomanson and Natasha Granger is a simple one.  It opens on Jess, hysterically crying into her landline. Her dream man has dumped her, hard. So her squad of girl pals are over to cheer her up and drag her kicking and screaming to try a new dating craze, speed dating.  While the plot is hardly War and Peace it is a glorious nostalgic trip for the audience, packed with great little nods to pop culture and fashion of the time. Of course no 90’s revisit would be complete without some of the songs of the time and the show is stuffed full of them, all with spot-on perfect choreography. Spice girls, Shania Twain, All Saints are all given brilliant live renditions in this warm and funny story about friendship.

It’s expertly done between the 4 leads, all who are extremely funny and each as loveable as the last. Underneath the good humour it does have some very interesting things to say about sex in a time of Girl Power. A time long before we were so reliant on our smart phones to get what we want (what we really, really want).

For an hour sit back, prepare to laugh yourself silly and get swept up in an a Lambrini soaked party of all things 1990.

Martin Miller