Cyrano de Bergerac (The Lyceum: 12 Oct. – 3 Nov.’18)

Image result for Cyrano de Bergerac Scotland 2018

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A production that oozes professionalism”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Good theatre, I think, is both a puzzle and a pleasure. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart – but also something layered, where the picking apart of each thread in a production leads only to more curiosity and wonder. To that end, Dominic Hill’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac is the theatrical equivalent of a delicious chocolate cake with a Rubik’s cube shoved in it.

The year is 1640, and much like every other time prior to the 21st century, things aren’t going so great: the Spanish are acting up again, social conduct is bloodier than ever, and everyone seems to be talking in rhyming couplets. Enter Cyrano de Bergerac, a witty warrior and poet cursed with a face like a production of “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Pinocchio. Deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne but damned by his features, Cyrano soon finds himself helping another man win her heart with his words. Hi-jinks ensue.

It seems prescient here to point out that the first thing that struck me about this performance was its language. The original verse drama becomes – in Edwin Morgan‘s lyrical translation –  a mix of modern, light and heavy Scots and is wonderfully effective from the outset. I was surprised – as someone who is naturalised Scottish enough not to mispronounce “Cockburn” but who falters on “Kirkcaldy” every time – surprised that I was never confused.

And make no mistake: this review could just as easily been a list of the cast from ensemble to music, with associated favourite lines and individual strengths. Part of the joy of this production (especially from a reviewing standpoint) is that the acting chain suffers no weak link. Keith Fleming’s pompous and yet strangely respectable portrayal of De Guiche and Jessica Hardwick’s firecracker rendition of Roxanne stood out as particular favourites, but that isn’t by much – each ensemble character could have acted alone on an empty stage, and I still would have paid to watch it.

However, I would be remiss not to give extra praise to Brian Ferguson’s portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. And what a portrayal it is: the sting of heartbreak, the fever of victory and the occasional misery of acting morally – combine alchemy-like in Ferguson’s performance, which stands out as the most singularly believable portrayal of De Bergerac since Depardieu’s on screen. Whether duelling with steel or syllables, Ferguson not only succeeds in creating a character who is larger-than-life, but is also imbued with a vulnerable, raw kind of groundedness.

The sheer energy and verve of Ferguson’s act is amplified even further by a director with a clear talent for the physical. Each group movement and mime is executed so expertly, it’s akin to watching a single organism twitch, undulate and react to its own dramatic movements. My theatre partner for the night, a stage combat instructor and enthusiast, had particular praise for the fights (especially in the first half, where rapiers abound).

However, this is not a flawless production. Any criticisms, though, are minor in comparison to its strengths, and are mostly relegated to the second half, where accents occasionally slipped and lines of dialogue were directed to the back of the stage. It also proved a little difficult to see some of the beautiful physical accompaniments performed in the background of many scenes, owing to actors being swallowed up by the impressive scenery.

A thought may also be given to the length of the show itself: the first act alone stretches to just under two hours. And whilst the production is of high enough quality that its length does not detract too much from the experience, I found myself hoping that it did not receive a deserved standing ovation for fear of my legs giving out for numbness.

These moans do very little to muddy the sheen of care and talent which is buffed into every scene of Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a joint production that oozes the professionalism of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, Glasgow’s Citizens, and the National Theatre of Scotland.  Its ability to mix what many might consider disparate ingredients into glorious, singular, drama cannot be understated. Just admire the dramatic polish!

Give this one a watch while you still can.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 October)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Morison (Usher Hall: 12 Oct. ’18)

Illus. Vesper Stamper.
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

“Well played throughout. One has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in programme selection. Often a short warm up piece, followed by a concerto, and after the interval a symphony. Last night we were completely spooked. For sure, we had the symphony after the interval, but we started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2, a good 30 minutes worth, and finished the first half with Ravel’s Scheherazade. That’s right, Ravel’s Scheherazade, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s. I suspect that many people didn’t realise it wasn’t the one they knew until it was over, in about eighteen minutes as opposed to the better known version’s fifty.

 

Moreover, Thomas Sondergard in addressing the audience before the concert started, as is the RSNO custom, pointed out that he had moved the various movements of Peer Gynt around to make for a better musical flow, and it worked. We started, as we absolutely had to, with “Morning Mood”, commonly known as “Morning” and hijacked by virtually everyone from TV commercials to Monty Python. A confident opening with crystal clear flutes and oboes before the glorious strings took over. Following on such well-loved sketches as Solveig’s Song and Anitra’s Dance Sondergard rightly chose to end with the splendidly tub-thumping In the Hall of the Mountain King. The trolls seemed to be clambering all over the Usher Hall as we left for the interval. A much underrated work, I would suggest that the Peer Gynt Suite is one of the most gloriously lyrical orchestral pieces ever written, and the RSNO did more than justice to it.

 

Not unlike its counterpart, Ravel’s Sheherezade is an exotic, ethereal yet sensual piece, and the excellent 2017 first British winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Catriona Morison had less time to get us in the mood. The work comprises just three songs taken from Tristan Klingsor’s poem, Asie (Asia), La Flute Enchantee (The Enchanted Flute) and L’Indifferent (The Heedless One). At first a little arid in interpretation and finding balance with the orchestra, Morison wowed us with ‘La Flute Enchantee’ and began to develop some of the magic and mystery of this short piece. ‘L’Indifferent’ showed nuances of world-weariness of a woman watching a young man walk by, apparently indifferent to her charms. I detected in the music shades of the Pavane pour un infante defunte and also –  albeit arranged later –  Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. A pleasant interlude.

 

If anyone’s symphonic career got off to a terrible start it was surely Rachmaninov, the more extraordinary considering how popular his works are today. Poorly played and conducted by a supposedly inebriated Glazunov it was a critical and popular disaster, so much so that the composer retired from composition for three years and returned only after hypnosis therapy, (and to great acclaim) with his second piano concerto.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony is clearly a nascent work and never published in his lifetime. “Bold as brass” is an appropriate description of the opening followed by the strings playing as if in marching order. Very little development of a melodic line, lots of noise not really going anywhere. The second movement was again striking but cannot be described as good music, although there was a definite promise of things to come by the time we came to the third and fourth – a lot of good stuff trying to get out. It is a courageous decision to programme this work (no faint praise intended): it is of considerable interest, and terrific if you like noise. The closing Tan Tam and Timpani were an audiophile’s delight! Well played throughout; one has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 October)

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Scottish Ensemble (St. Cecilia’s Hall 9 Oct.’18)

St Cecilia’s Hall, University of Edinburgh.

“I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “Rich tone.” It was an aural joy”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

What do Edinburgh’s New Club, Cameo Cinema, and Usher, Queen’s and St. Cecilia’s Halls all have in common? They are all hosts to the most glorious live music, and this most fortunate of music writers has had the privilege of attending five concerts within just six days in these various venues. My conclusion after living here for approaching four years? Edinburgh is a world class music city, with some world-class music being performed here. We are very lucky.

 

There aren’t many new concert halls being built these days, although there are plans for one in Edinburgh, so the inspirational redevelopment of St Cecilia’s as a museum of musical instruments (you simply must see their fantastic harpsichord collection, many still playing) and enchanting, bijou oval 200 seater auditorium with central chair and perimeter soft bench seating is a delight. Only problem with the venue? No bar. However, the instrument showcases make for an adequate non-alcoholic distraction.

 

Notwithstanding the building’s eighteenth century origins (built for the Edinburgh Music Society in 1762) the concert style was modern. Ipads instead of music, standing instead of sitting in the custom of Chris Warren-Green and the LCO (all bar the cello!) and sleek modern tieless black rather than evening dress.

 

Four members of the Ensemble were playing on the evening, Music Director and first violin Jonathan Morton, Cheryl Crockett on second, the fabulously lively Jane Atkins, principal violist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Alison Lawrence on cello. Star soloist on clarinet was Matthew Hunt guesting from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The standard was remarkably high, and while it is a well-known adage that a string quartet can sound as loud as an orchestra, what struck me about tonight’s combo was not so much their volume but more their rich tone. Time again during the evening I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “rich tone”. It was an aural joy.

 

We started with the Brahms Clarinet in B minor Op.115 (1891). Less easily accessible than the Mozart (being held back, one suspects, for a lollipop finish), the players brought a generosity of spirit and a refreshing lushness of tone, particularly in the second movement Adagio, to what is quite a dry, late Brahms work, making it one of the most enjoyable renditions that I have heard. The intensity of sound from the strings, with the clarinet (Clara Schumann described it as “wailing”) soaring above them in full, unforced tone. It never wavered.

 

After the interval we were treated to an extraordinary amuse-bouche, Mclaren Summit by contemporary composer John Luther Adams, written in Alaska some five years ago and played by the quartet alone. Entirely on open strings and harmonics it was a strangely melodious work that reminded me of near namesake John Adams.

 

The uber popular Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K.581 (1789), which one might have expected, because of its chronology, to be the concert opener, was held back until last, a bit like a rock star ending with their biggest hit. One felt almost a sense of reassurance by the familiar opening and the playing of first violin Jonathan Morton really came into its own. The second movement Larghetto, matched only perhaps by the Adagio from the Gran Partita as one of the most beautiful pieces of woodwind and string music ever written, more than met our expectations with a degree of perfection often found only on recordings, clarinet and first violin calling and answering each other with a breathtaking poignancy. The third and fourth movements took us on a joyous romp home. In the final movement I was surprised to be reminded of the final movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the players almost teasing us with their phrasing, deliberate pauses, and changes of tempo.

All in all a delightful evening’s music. I have to confess it was the first time I have heard the Scottish Ensemble. I want to hear more.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 October)

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SCO. Mazzola, Frang. (Usher Hall: 27 Sept’18)

Vilde Frang
Photo: Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics

 

“It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

A braw Autumnal evening met me as I walked across the Meadows to the Usher Hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2018/19 Season Opening Concert. The programme contained Nielsen and Sibelius and I braced myself for an evening of bleak Scandinavian forests, folklore and darkness.

I could not have been more wrong. It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.

Of course, Robin Ticciati was not on the podium. His replacement, Maxim Emilyanychev, was not either (he comes back next week), but instead Enrique Mazzola, Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre National d’Isle de France and Principal Guest Conductor of Deutsche Oper in Berlin returned to take up the baton. Essentially a bel canto and opera conductor, how would he cope with this Romantic and late Romantic fare? He did fine.

The more I thought about the evening’s programming the cleverer I thought it was. How many of you have heard Sibelius’s third symphony? Two and Five, of course, but this was an interesting choice. Moreover, Nielsen is known principally for his symphonies and concerti, but an overture? Cleverer still was the positioning of the star attraction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, along with the soloist of the evening, Vilde Frang, in the second half. So often it’s a bit of a downer when the soloist goes home before the interval and the rest of the evening feels rather flat.

First off was Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen himself said that the work needed no introduction and indeed it was a predictable (none the worse for that) evocation of sunrise somewhat in the classical genre. After the pianissimo double basses, four horns braved the introduction and were just a tiny bit shaky on their damnably difficult to play instruments, so exposed. The orchestra very quickly found its feet with all sections playing confidently with some magnificent strings, wind and brass before it drew to a close as it had started, with pianissimo basses again. It was a pleasant relief to experience the audience sitting on their hands as Mazzola held up his hand to restrain applause rather longer than one might have expected. When it came, it was enthusiastic.

On to Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony in C. Who would dream of calling a Sibelius symphony “jolly”? But it was, and none the worse for that. In the first movement there was calling woodwind, responding strings, melodious horns, all at each other’s beck and call, ending with shades of the horn call of the 5th symphony. In the second we heard melodious flutes and unalloyed joy yet in the Sibelian mode. Come the third and a darker, sombre theme with nuances of Finlandia. A useful, unusual addition to one’s knowledge of this fabulous composer.

After the interval Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, written a hundred years earlier than the previous two works. Nielsen was of course a Dane, Sibelius a Finn and while Beethoven undoubtedly German his interpreter tonight was another Scandinavian, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Yet this was proving to be no Scandi Noir, Frang perhaps making the point by wearing a light coloured floaty dress rather than more conventional evening colours. The work has a long orchestral introduction and to be honest Frang looked a little spare as she awaited her entry, which she then executed extremely competently and was very much in charge for the rest of the performance as she drew a great deal of tone and volume out of her modern-ish 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The work is so well known there is little new for the music writer to contribute, save to say the performance was fresh, committed, with gusto, a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute’s worth from start to finish.

Throughout the performance conductor Enrique Mazzola showed quiet authority and got everything he could and should have out of the works and the players, who responded only too happily. All done with the minimum of podium histrionics.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 September)

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Twelfth Night (Lyceum: 14 September – 6 October ’18)

Dawn Sievewright as Lady Tobi and Guy Hughes as Andrew Aguecheek.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovi

“Truly festive and entertaining”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Where to begin with this eye-catching season opener? Well, you should accept that music is indeed the food of love and that Frank Zappa is a legend, and then go to 1966 for Freak Out, the debut album of The Mothers of Invention. Side one, track six, is How Could I Be Such a Fool? (Answer: in Malvolio’s case, stupendously) and on side two you’ll find Any Way the Wind Blows, (not so freaky; more early Beatles) which nicely covers Twelfth Night’s alternative title, What You Will, with sax’, flute and clarinet.

The ‘mothers’ of this co-production from Edinburgh’s Lyceum and Bristol’s Old Vic are Wils Wilson and Ana Inés Jaberes-Pita, director and designer respectively, who brought Cockpit to the Lyceum last October. And, Wowie Zowie (.. track 7), do they pull out all the stops this time around! If mellow vibes come colour saturated and swaying with the dance moves of the early 70s, then this Twelfth Night is in the mix.

Suave Duke Orsino may have musicians ‘attending’ but these actor-musicians displace him, helped by a grand piano centre stage and blinding, wonderful costume. Were those magenta or crimson loon pants on an elongated Curio (Meilyr Jones)? Andrew Aguecheek (Guy Hughes) is a winged vision in white, gifted by ABBA, on platform shoes. Lovelorn he may be but his outing on piano to start the second half is awesome. Aly Macrea directs the band with customary, unassuming coolness, while any resemblance to Frank Zappa is accidental. It’s a delight to hear Dylan Read sing and move as Feste, once you’ve stopped admiring the blooming purple peonies on his dress.

TwelfthNight'18.2

l to r. Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones, & Brian James O’Sullivan.

Maria wears her furry mules to mischievous and joyful effect. You can forget quite how vital she is to the pace of the piece, and played well – as here by Joanna Holden – how easy it is to like her at the expense of Viola and Olivia, laden as they are with love and identity. Malvolio, the major-domo of rectitude, of proper clothes and estuary English, has no chance but, boy, does he have a go at embracing the ‘other’ side! Christopher Green has taken on (and created) many parts but this is probably his largest codpiece to date. He is also a fine singer and together with Messrs. Jones, Hughes, Macrae, and Read you do – for once – get a truly festive and entertaining Twelfth Night.

But what of love, with or without drink and desire? Frankly, they’re all subdued by fun and playacting, which the text proves it can support. Olivia (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) suffers the pangs the most, possibly because she has grey trousers. Sir Toby becomes Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright) who belches less but has all the gusto of the portly knight and even has room for a moment of pregnant melancholy. Viola (Jade Ogugua) and Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) are the identical twins that you’re happy to take on trust and see reunited whilst Orsino (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) has the hauteur not to care in the slightest that he has married the ‘wrong’ twin. Only Antonio (Brian James O’Sullivan) is really disappointed in love and he wins a sympathetic “Ah’s” from the audience as he exits, hurt.

When you can accept that a lava lamp and a squeeze box is a police car you know that you’re in expert hands. This is quite a rare Twelfth Night, suffused with theatre, and I enjoyed it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 19 October)

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Underground Railroad Game (Traverse: 2-26 Aug: 22:00: 85 mins)

“Brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

It has been called transcendent, genius, one of the ‘25 Best American Plays in the last 25 years’ — but, to its credit, the unique shine to Underground Railroad Game does not fit a single simple category of ‘high quality theatre.’ What Ars Nova has put together, under the direction of Taibi Magar and through the blistering voices of writer/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is beyond quantification; to ‘decode’ it seems beside the point. Various cacophonous interactions between questions and understandings of race and sex are dragged out bloody and screaming into the light in this production, as it presents a vision of America that is both revelatory and maddeningly intractable. This show is disgusting, but very intentionally; for better or worse, I have never seen a piece of theatre like it, nor even conceived that it could be done. 

The ‘plot’ is frenetic and full of hairpin turns away from narrative logic. On one plane of existence, Kidwell and Sheppard are two grade school teachers who craft a convoluted classroom exercise called the Underground Railroad Game. In the game, students must recreate the networks that runaway slaves used to attempt escape from their white American owners in the South, with brown-painted dolls standing in for slaves and other classrooms standing in for free land, et cetera. To achieve this, the ‘class’ — the audience — is randomly divided into the Greys and the Blues (Confederacy and Union) and told to cheer for their side as the game ensues. In the end, there is not much audience interaction with the game itself, for instead, the show quickly pivots towards the personal lives and macrocosmic implications of Teacher Caroline (Kidwell), a black woman, and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard), a white man, as they present disparate, extremely controversial approaches to the sensitive material in the exercise – and woo each other in their personal time. 

Underground Railroad Game is at its best when it sadistically presents the two teachers swapping racially charged comments and just lets them ride this politically incorrect train to the end of the line. Teacher Stuart’s raucous white privilege and carelessness with his words, even as he fawns over Teacher Caroline, are tautly written and very effective; Teacher Caroline is played with fascinating honour and unpredictability by Kidwell, who is certainly one of the most memorable performers I have seen this Fringe — both her and Sheppard, in fact, have a gift for breakneck comic timing and riveting onstage energy, even when used for remarkably revolting encounters in the show’s later segments. 

The production is brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm in all its layers. These sharp, vicious parts ultimately combine to serve a true sense you are watching a dangerous piece of theatre – one that kicks the hornet’s nest with merciless rage, one meant to hurt more than to help. Which, in all likelihood, is exactly what a society with problems this complex needs. The play aims for disparate targets — to make one feel confused, hurt, disgusted… even angry, driven, and curious — and hits almost all of them.

I did not like what I saw, but I immediately felt sure that this piece is an essential product of long-standing racial disharmony, and in a sense, exactly what we deserve. Sure, it might be on the surface a distinctly scattershot experience, but the world, to our misfortune, probably needs to be so visually and thematically eviscerated such as the audiences of Underground Railroad Game find themselves; out of the disorientation, some form of budding reckoning is sure to flourish. 

Through all the possible profundities of the piece, whether they make you laugh or wretch, there is an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing living, breathing triggers, firecrackers, enflamers — conversations and topics so out of bounds that they earn some mystical quality just from their utterance and thorough dressing-down. These extend to Teachers Caroline and Stuart’s ribald parodies of hatred and interpersonal violence, on racial, intellectual, physical, and psychosexual grounds. Beyond, there is absurdist, surrealistic aberrations of logic and narrative, that erratically leap across time and space with little warning, an approach which pierces and deflates preconceptions of “difficult” racial and social discussions with breathtaking wit and take-no-prisoners abandon. Through and through, this show imbues its ‘relevant’ messaging with a riveting and primal sense of revolt and destruction — less a hold-hands-and-grow resolution than a burn-it-all-down caterwaul.

It shouldn’t work, and in certain ways it does not, but Underground Railroad Game succeeds in this hair-tearing rage through sheer energy and its vicious urge to show itself and all its twisted innards to the assembled crowd. It is one of the most impressive pieces of frenetic art I have ever seen come alive in a theatre, and reaches territory you may never see elsewhere onstage. If you are curious after all this, find a way to see it. But consider yourself warned.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Athena Kugblenu: Follow the Leader (Underbelly Bristo Square: 1-26 Aug: 17:30: 60 mins)

“A standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

In Athena Kugblenu’s new hour, entitled Follow the Leader, the term ‘pregnant pause’ gains new meaning. To explain, not only is the witty and clever comedian currently with child, but her slick and punchy new hour of standup is frequently based on letting extended, exasperated silences serve as the punchlines themselves. This approach loses no hilarity, mind you, and in fact proves quite a clever move for Kugblenu, a standup presence so engaging and poised onstage that you know whatever she says next will either be witty or a genuinely good point, and frequently both. 

Kugblenu loosely bases this show on the notion of trusting and following leaders, and how that does and does not help our ultimate goals. She incorporates funny and knowledgeable examples of leaders we probably should not admire so fervently, and contrasts them well with societal tendencies and cultural expectations that should similarly be reevaluated. Not every punchline is quite risible enough to create a consistently side-splitting hour, but ultimately, Follow the Leader is a good deal of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable walk through Kugblenu’s outlook on life and people. 

Her material ranges from political loyalties and questionable leanings to amusing anecdotes about herself and how she gets by. She touches on some hilarious ideas, such as more evidence-based alternatives to unfair government policies, and the relative pressures of ‘positive racism’ and similarly strange treatment from white to Black people. Her musings on international food and her unborn child also hit high notes, and though perhaps her material on being drunk and having sex could use a bit more workshopping, overall, this is a charming and well-spent hour of standup, and a standout voice in the Edinburgh comedy lineup.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)