La Boheme – Puccini at Grand Opera House, York

It’s odd how life works out sometimes isn’t it?  I haven’t been to see an opera for years and then see two within a couple of months!

This one was more familiar to me than the last one; I knew quite a bit of the music even though I’d forgotten chunks of the story.

I wouldn’t say the Company was the best opera company I have ever seen but both they and the orchestra were competent enough for it to be a pleasant evening.  I know that sounds as though I’m damning them with faint praise, I did enjoy myself, but mostly because I enjoyed letting the music swirl around and cocoon me rather than because I was engaged with what was happening on  stage.

The women played their parts well and, more to the point, looked like the young women they were portraying.  The most distracting part was Mimi working up to a crescendo looking, through her body movement, as though she was about to break out into the Zorba the Greek dance.

The men were a different kettle of fish.  The singing was good but they looked like prosperous middle-aged men rather than starving young artists living in a garret.

The costumes were a bit of a mish-mash too.  The men’s costumes were straightforward and simple.  Mimi looked as though she had strayed out of the Wizard of Oz with her blue dress and white apron.  Musetta started off looking great, then appeared in the most hideous dress I’ve ever seen on stage (including amateur productions) and finally in a black velvet number that had definitely seen better days.  I know operas are expensive to stage but I would have thought opera companies would know not to use black velvet, which never ages well.

I think what really made this opera farce rather than tragedy though was Mimi’s death-bed scene.  Until that point I had been going along with the story and accepting the cast in the characters they were playing.  Unfortunately, as Mimi was breathing her last farewell to Rodolfo and embracing him she slightly dislodged his toupee.  Not enough to create uproar and not enough for most people in the audience to notice it.  But I noticed and, predictably, got the giggles watching him try to straighten it surreptitiously.  I’m not sure whether the people sitting behind, watching my shoulders shaking, realised I was giggling or thought I was moved by Mimi dying.

To summarise, this is what you get from provincial touring opera companies; a pleasant evening without it being particularly engaging or thought-provoking.

Snow in Midsummer – directed by Justin Audibert for RSC

This play is based on a classic Chinese drama written by Guan Hanqing in 13th century.  The source play is about injustice and I’m still pondering what the messages in this reworking were saying to me.  I’m still considering Dou E’s fate, the injustice of what happened to Rocket in revenge for Dou E, drought and the impact of what we do to our planet.  If that sounds mixed up it’s because I found this a multilayered thought-provoking play and I haven’t yet resolved my thoughts.

To back-track slightly, the play is set in modern-day China in a factory town called New Harmony.  As the play opens the factories are about to be sold to a business woman from out-of-town, the seller is about to leave town, with his partner, for a new life and the townspeople are suffering from the effects of a drought that has lasted 3 years.

Then we find that the drought may be caused by the curse of a woman, Dou E, who was wrongly executed for murdering the father of the factory owner.  As she is executed she vows that her blood will not fall but fly up and stain the banner above her, there will be a drought for 3 years and that snow will fall in midsummer and bury her body.

The play then unfolds Dou E’s story and resolves the curse.

I enjoyed seeing the play.  I have no previous experience of Chinese theatre other than traditional Chinese opera (not to my taste!) so wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d read enough to know it was based on a 13th century play but hadn’t realised it wasn’t going to be a direct translation so the opening took me by surprise a bit.

I enjoyed the shades created by the staging; the bright neon lights of the town, the dingy lighting of the workers cafe and changing light around Dou E.  There was also a great sense of movement around the actors on stage; movement through time as well as space and beliefs/attitudes.  I think this sense of movement reflects China as I saw it when I visited and what I see on TV and in the papers.

I understood the desire of the ghost Dou E for the real murderer to be revealed but I felt it was unfair that poor Rocket bore the initial brunt of that seeking justice.  Rocket had no part in what happened and was appalled when he found out so it seems unjust to me that he had to die.  Even though I also understand he had to die to lay Dou E to rest and to punish the guilty.  I know this sounds contradictory and confusing but that’s what I meant about still pondering the play; it created these contradictory feelings and, I guess, real life creates contradictions too which seems to me why so many people are moving from mainstream political parties towards people who appear to be promising to take them back to a simpler, safer past.

Overall, I thought the acting was good.  I worked out one of the plot twists in advance but not the other.  And I enjoyed the evening.  I’m not sure I’m enjoying the ghosts now living with me until I untangle my thoughts about them a bit more!

Click here to find out more about the RSC production

Click here to find out a (little) bit more about Guan Hanqing

HHhH – Laurent Binet

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, never quite shouting “read me” loud enough to be taken down from it so I decided just to pick it up and get on with it.  I’m really pleased I did.

The book is in three parts; the story of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination by Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, a biography of Heydrich and the story of the author struggling to write the book.

Firstly, the title; it is the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, a phrase current in Nazi Germany, which translates as Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.  I have never heard this before and it fascinates me.

I knew a little about the assassination from reading other books about Nazi Germany and WW2 but not the detail and not the problems Gabcik and Kubis had.  It felt like shades of Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; almost a disaster, then a farce but somehow succeeding in its aim.  What I didn’t know about was just how dreadful Nazi reprisals were against the Czech people.

Heydrich’s biography was also interesting.  I didn’t know much about him and his background.  Another example of a seemingly ordinary man, determined to make something of himself and disregarding any moral compass he might have had to achieve that success.  Do people who want power at any cost find it easy to do that or is it more a case of never having had a moral compass in the first place?  And are we back at nature versus nurture again?

I would have like to have known what happened to Lena Heydrich and her children after his death and after the war ended.

I found the section about writing the book really interesting.  There is a certain amount of evidence available in various archives attesting to what happened but none of the people are around to explain why things happened as they did or what it felt like.  This must make it difficult to write an account that captures a sense of being there whilst not putting words into people’s mouths or ascribing them motives that we do not know they had.  How do you fill in the blanks that the records don’t cover?

Overall, whether you are interested in this period of history or not, I would recommend it as an interesting book to read.

The Hypocrite – Richard Bean – Hull Truck

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this new play for ages.  I like going to Hull Truck but for some reason we don’t go very often; probably because I get to book RSC tickets much earlier in advance.

Anyway, this production is a collaboration between Hull Truck and RSC and is part of the Hull UK City of Culture programme.  And we decided that since it was a play about Hull we would see it in Hull.

There has been quite a lot of local news coverage about the play – interviews with the writer, director and cast members as well as footage of rehearsals – which left me intrigued but not buzzing.

Essentially, the play is the story of Sir John Hotham, the man who closed the gates of Hull to Charles I at the start of the English Civil War.  The action takes us from Sir John trying to work out where is loyalties lie in the dispute between King and Parliament to his beheading for treason in London. The play is a good balance of comedy and serious message.

I had forgotten what a good actor Mark Addy is until I saw him in this.  I thought his comic timing was excellent and I think the audience got a good sense of Sir John as a vain man trying to ensure he and his family came out of the Civil War with their prestige intact but who ends up in an unwinnable situation.

The banter and bickering between Sir John and Lady Hotham was the viciously funny slanging match of 2 people who are stuck in a marriage that has long-lost any mutual respect.  Caroline Quentin was a good foil for Mark Addy but I did think she was under utilised in the play.

It was great to see Martin Barrass back on stage after his nasty accident last year.  Having only ever seen him on stage as Berwick Kaler’s sidekick in York Theatre Royal Pantomime it was a bit shocking to see him in a real play but it soon stopped being a distraction as I was drawn into the unfolding story.   I rather suspect this part may come back to haunt him in the next York Theatre Royal pantomime! And I’m looking forward to it.

Danielle Bird, who played Drudge the servant, was an excellent tragi-commedic character.  I loved the clowning even though it sometimes distracted from the storytelling going on elsewhere on stage.

The least convincing bit of the play, for me, was the ghost child.  The special effects were great but it wouldn’t have an impact on the play if the character was cut.  I’m not sure what the point was.

Overall, I enjoyed my evening and am now trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get tickets to see it when it transfers to The swan in Stratford – I really want to see what non-Hull audiences make of the play.  I’ll report back if/when I do.

Click here to go to Hull Truck

Click here to see what else is on in Hull City of Culture