Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of War Hero

ODT, 24 July 2017
New opera makes mark by Elizabeth Bouman

War Hero, written and directed by Dunedin’s John Drummond, had its world premiere in the Mayfair Theatre on Saturday evening. 

Writing an opera is a massive undertaking, defining characters and complementing lyrics with scoring, but success is surely measured in whether the performance reaches out to the audience, holding them till the final curtain. The feeling and sentiment of War Hero, based on the play by Michael Galvin, certainly made its mark on Saturday’s large opening night audience.
A conscientious objector, Scroggs Hill farmer Archibald Baxter, received his call-up and War Hero covers his stoic defiance to serve, as he is shipped to England, mercilessly treated and forced on to the battlefield. 

New-Zealand-born tenor Andrew Glover’s characterisation of this central figure carried the entire work, with excellent support from a talented all-male cast of 10 sharing the large selection of supporting roles in solos, intricate contrapuntal ensemble numbers and tight chorus harmony such as For King and Country

Supporting Glover were Matt Landreth, Alex Lee, Murray Davidson, Mark Wigglesworth, Nathaniel Otley, Ridge Ponini, Antonio Della Barca, Robert Lindsay, Simon Anderson and Chris Lovell-Smith. Drummond tends to write challenging music for voice with large, uncomfortable leaps between registers, technically demanding for the singer, and often creating stark colouring to which the listeners’ ears eventually become accustomed.

Vincent Hardaker (Wellington) conducted four keyboard players and two percussionists (ominous military drumbeats often featured), who coped well with the passages of dissonance and a contrasting Intermezzo between Acts 2 and 3. 

Brenda Randell attended to authenticity of uniforms, and staging was sparse, compensated by many relevant projected backdrops. Battle scenes with barbed wire barricades and audio were poignantly effective and emotional, but there were moments of humour — We want to know what makes you tick, tick, tick! 

Opera Otago continues this centenary of WW1 commemoration until next Saturday.
War Hero
• Mayfair Theatre, Saturday, July 22 - 29th

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rehearsing War Hero

I've started a fourth book in the Grimhilderness series, but at the moment it's having to take a very definite second place to another project. I'm playing for the rehearsals of John Drummond's new opera, War Hero, about the period in the life of Archie Baxter when he was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector, during the First World War. Along with a dozen others her was taken to England, and then Flanders, where he was treated to considerable punishment - torture, in fact - by the British military establishment.

Andrew Glover
The rehearsals for this opera only began in late June, and have continued every day since, with - sometimes - three sessions a day. I thought this would be harder than it's been. Not every session has been a long one: the morning ones have sometimes only lasted an hour, and the afternoon and evening ones have varied between two and three hours. Still quite a long day, given that I'm playing the piano for a great deal of that time. But we get a reasonable amount of rest between the sessions, and that helps.

The tenor who plays Baxter, Andrew Glover, has had to be at almost every rehearsal as well, such is the extent of his part. He gets only a little time off stage. And the rest of the cast, around a dozen men (mostly young, and only just beginning their musical careers) play two or three roles apiece. So it's quite a complex rehearsal schedule.

Vincent Hardaker
I started work on the music a few months ago. I knew the music wouldn't be straightforward to read, so I couldn't get away with sightreading it on the spot at the first rehearsal. It isn't difficult music: it's what I call accessible music - in other words, people will enjoy it on first hearing because there are a number of themes that come and go regularly. These give the audience hooks to hang onto. But even though it's 'accessible' music it isn't always easy to play, and I've had to get my fingers used to playing certain chords they don't expect to play, and certain sounds which don't seem normal to them. They're coping. And I'm enjoying doing it.

We have a great young conductor, Vincent Hardaker. He's generous, patient and has a nice sense of humour. He's due to go off to Copenhagen shortly after the show finishes its season, to do a course. I'm sure he'll do well.

The season starts on the 22nd of this month (July) and there are four performances scattered over a week. I'm not sure what my fingers will do once the season ends (I'm playing one of four keyboards in the orchestra as well), but with singing and instrumental competitions coming up, I think we'll manage to keep them employed.

Shakespeare the survivor

I went and saw the movie version of Twelfth Night a couple of weeks ago - it's a recording of the 2017 production at the National Theatre in London. The movie version is bit of an oddity: there's a 20-minute interval around the two-hour mark, when nothing appears on the screen except a counting down clock; we can still hear the sound of the audience in the real theatre. The last time I saw a similar production - it was the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Love's Labour's Lost - they went backstage during the interval as well as showing how the set had been constructed and a number of other interesting facts.

This version gave us some of that at the beginning, but it gave us more: a run-down on the fact that the director and some of the cast saw this play as timely because of its 'gender fluidity'. Thus we were regaled with little speeches about the way Shakespeare was so ahead of his time in playing around with gender (boys becoming girls becoming boys and so on), and watched a queer activist talk about how the audience would probably find the play bringing out more of their unannounced gay side. (My paraphrase.) All this unnecessary stuff almost turned me off staying for the play.

Of course Twelfth Night is about boys pretending to be girls pretending to be boys. Shakespeare is playing with all this, not turning the play into some ideological statement. But this version of the play takes everything as far as it's possible to go: thus Orsino kisses his 'boy' (who's actually a girl); any of Antonio's speeches in which the word 'love' occurs are given huge emphasis, as though Antonio was madly in love with Sebastian; even Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek seem to do some odd touching up at one point. And Malvolio, Feste and Fabian are all played by women. This sort of works with Feste and Fabian, but Malvolio is turned into a Puritan lesbian, Malvolia, and, when she comes out, as it were, after receiving the famous fake letter, she's gone into cabaret, it seems. And talking of cabaret, at the Elephant Inn, a possibly transvestite singer is the entertainment (singing, curiously, a version of Hamlet's To be or not to be speech).

Does anything of this add to the play? (Does any of the crotch-grabbing or male genital-focusing add anything either? Thankfully, this is mostly in the first few scenes, and lessens after that.) I'm not convinced that it does. It does give Tamsin Greig the opportunity to play the plum role of Malvolio/a and to play it so utterly and thoroughly that she quickly upstages the rest of the cast. Viola, the main character, is reduced considerably in status as a result. Greig is wonderful in the part, hilarious, crazy, absurd, taking every word of the script and giving it all possible meaning, and even jumping into an actual fountain and getting herself thoroughly soaked at one point. But note that it's the comedy that shines through here, not the fact that it's a woman playing the role.

Aside from all this, Toby Belch isn't fat, and Aguecheek isn't thin. In fact, Belch is presented as a thoroughly unpleasant character. It's always hard to see him as humorous: he's selfish, vile, generally drunk, and nasty to his friends. Why does Maria decide to marry him? Who knows? She's a lot sharper than he is. Maybe the problem is that Maria is never played as unpleasant; she's always been a warm character in any version I've seen. What if she and Belch were cast as the Thenardiers of this particular court? That might make more sense in regard to what they do to Malvolio/a.

Daniel Rigby plays Aguecheek as wonderfully daft, doing lots of ridiculous gymnastics, enjoying himself and his lines, and generally coming across as a much warmer Aguecheek than usual. He doesn't deserve the Belch of this production - Tim McMullan - who's almost entirely venal. Not the person you want to get on the wrong side of. It's not surprising that he's given the brush-off by Aguecheek at the end.

Phoebe Fox is an excellent and lively Olivia: she swings from grief to anger to fire to passion to humour and warmth and back again with ease, and makes a character we can warm to.

Another star of the show, it might said, is the set: a huge staircase that's on some kind of turntable, and presents itself variously as the ship in the storm, a place for the musicians to loll about on, and the wall of a street. When it splits open we can be in Olivia's court, or Orsino's; we can be in the garden with a working fountain or a patio with a pool (real water in it as well). Sometimes it takes off at the end of a scene and leaves the characters behind, or sweeps them up somehow. It's a wonderful concept, and works marvellously.

The musicians are another feature of this production. At least two of them play more than one instrument, and they're an integral part of what's going on, not just filler between scenes.

So there was a great deal to enjoy here. The ideology, however, just seemed to get in the way, for me. I understand Shakespeare has been regarded for centuries as a playwright you can do what you will with (pun intended), and over the decades we've had all sorts of theories and viewpoints added into the mix of his plays. Somehow he survives it all. Thankfully.