Monday, 23 April 2012

The view from the other side

That is, from the audience rather than onstage. Well, I've kind of wanted to avoid writing blog posts about shows I've seen rather than performed in (Though since I don't think I've seen any shows until recently since starting this blog I guess it was kind of a moot point), but I do have some definite thoughts, and this is my standard means of articulating my thoughts.
Also, one of the issues I have is that I don't know if I'd have that much to say just about one show I'd been to see (As I abhor incompleteness, I abhor brevity). This problem is neatly avoided by making one blog post about all three productions for which I was recently in the audience.

OK, so first, back in February, before Pirates, I went to see a local Patience, with some of my friends in it.
So, let's first start by saying that I did enjoy the show. Since I was previously in the society for Iolanthe last year, I did at least vaguely know all the principal cast, and I think all of them were better than I expected. And some of them I was expecting to be very good. Compliments to Angela on her singing, which has improved greatly in the years I've known her, and to her and the Duke for their acting during the sextet in the Act 1 finale. Big props to Lady Jane for hilarious facial expressions throughout. Oh, and massive congratulations to all the ladies for managing to prevent their hats falling off. I was also impressed by the fact that the society membership was such that they actually had twenty lovesick maidens onstage, where I think in a lot of productions and certainly when I did the show in 2009, one would have to suspend disbelief and refrain from counting them...
There were some issues with it, however. Orchestra too loud, and sometimes out of time (I have been informed by people who were paying attention that they were out of time with the conductor as well as the singers, who are of course all I pay attention to). Now I think it was better when I saw it than when most of my friends did, since they went on the first night and I went on the last. But it was still an issue, and really, the orchestra should not be working out these issues during the week of performances. These issues should have been worked out in advance.
Issue the second was a directorial decision. From the director's message in the programme:

"Production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas often these days allow the introduction of contemporary targets to be broad-sided as Gilbert's satire could be equally effective when aimed at the 'Teddy boy, Teddy girl' era of the 1950's or the 'pop idol and swooning teenagers' of the 1960s onwards. But why always forward in time? Why not go back in time for ideas?"

To quote Yes Minister, "Why not indeed, but why?"
Now, I should say before getting into this that I am something of a traditionalist as far as G&S is concerned, so my bias in this area is obvious. But what does the production gain by being taken backward in time? If you bring it forwards at least you acquire a greater degree of relatability for the audience, who are more familiar with popstars than aesthetic poets, though you may run into some issues given that the text is rather couched in the original setting. However, taking it backwards carries the same issues without the potential benefit. Alright, you don't have to bridge the gap between contemporary pop music and fin-de-siecle aestheticism, but you will, and this production did, run into definite issues in the form of anachronisms. To my mind, when doing anything, but particularly something like G&S which has so much in the choice of words, one should be very careful and cautious  about any alteration which necessitates changing the script. And you can only change so much before you have to change the script lest it become something of a nonsense (And not such precious nonsense in this case).
I admit to having been quite impressed by the effort put into avoiding anachronisms between the script and the chosen setting, but that doesn't change the fact that they were entirely unnecessary, mildly detrimental to the audience's ability to follow the words, and in the end, insufficient to achieve the end they set out for.
The first I've already outlined. The obvious example for the second, changing 'heavy dragoon' to 'chevalier du reine' - the latter is somewhat more difficult to pick up on (It took me until the end of the song to realise what he was singing), and frankly the last thing we need is to make G&S more obscure. As to the third, the plain fact of the matter is that after all that effort, there were still some anachronisms left in. Perhaps we may suspend our disbelief over small lapses such as brief allusions to Japan despite the fact a 14th century english court would not have been particularly familiar with that country. But there really is no ignoring the anachronism of a purportedly 14th century poet singing an entire song about magnets.
Shifting the setting around can be interesting, certainly I'm sure there are some interesting settings one could use. But really, I feel it is more important to let the work you are performing be itself. It's all very well wanting to make your own directorial mark on something, but not to the detriment of the pre-existing show. Make it make sense and have a point to it, or drop it, as far as I'm concerned.

Next, in March I went down to Bradford to see an internet friend of mine, Grlump, in Iolanthe.
Now, obviously I am somewhat biased in Grlump's favour, him being a good friend and all, but that said, actually I got a little worried when I was going down - what if he wasn't actually that good? Given what he'd said to me previously about his society's difficulties in finding good singing men, sub-par casting could have been a thing, and it would've been kind of awkward if I'd gone down to Bradford specifically to see him in this show only to find he wasn't so good. Fortunately he was far and away the best actor in it, so my fears were alleviated.
On the show itself, I certainly enjoyed it, but the difficulties they'd had certainly showed as well. The scale of how they were putting it on was more akin to a NUGSS summer show rather than a main show. Not such a big theatre, accompaniment only piano and a couple of instruments rather than a full orchestra (Though they did at least have a trumpet, which is the most important thing for Iolanthe). I have to give credit to their MD for managing to hold everything together, including sometimes adjusting to get the instruments back in time with the singers. And this while he was also playing the piano.

The biggest offender for getting out of time was the Lord Chancellor, however Grlump told me afterwards the reason for this is that he's deaf in one ear - specifically the ear closer to the band. Combined with the fact he was wearing a wig... it's understandable. His acting was pretty good, though his singing was also a tad quiet.
Tolloller and Mountararat similarly had quietness issues, but then they were women having to sing male parts, and allowing for that, they did rather well. Acting again rather good in general.
The next best actor in the show after Grlump was actually a part they added - Nigel, the Lord Chancellor's PA. Purely silent part, which may in fact be partly why he was so good - when you don't have any lines, you have no way of expressing your character except by mannerisms, and so you focus more on them. In that respect, I think some of the speaking parts could have taken inspiration from him as it was something sometimes lacking from their performances. When they'd thought of some particular movement or mannerism to accompany a line, it was good, but when they hadn't... there wasn't anything. Obviously. Leaving things a bit bland.

Despite these problems, as I've said, I did enjoy the show. And I can give you one definite reason why, beyond my general love of G&S. Enthusiasm, and potential. While they may not have done as well as they perhaps could have, I could see that the people in the show were enjoying themselves putting on the show - which can go a long way - and I definitely feel that they have it in them to do better, with more experience and perhaps a change of directorial styles or something. Comparing again to NUGSS, what it reminds me of is what I've heard about the state of the society two years before I joined - by all accounts, not that great, but a whole group of enthusiastic freshers joined all at once, and stayed in to see the society grow, and the members improve, to what it is, and they are, today. With that in mind, I sincerely hope that in two or three years time I could go back and see a much better and larger scale production out of BUSOM (Damn, totally missed the opportunity to make a joke about large bosoms...) I wish them luck.

And onto perhaps the main event, the primary reason I felt I had to put ideas to screen, the opinions literal ones, perhaps even multiples of people have been waiting to hear - The Grand Duke. Performed recently at the Finborough Theatre in London. The first fully staged professional UK production since the original run in 1896. No way I was missing this, and inevitably, I have numerous opinions on it.

OK, so let's start with the cut of the script. It was astoundingly complete, which made the few cuts there were more surprising. Strange the views was still left out, which is not that surprising. I was disappointed that in a production coming so close to uncut, they still skipped half of As o'er a penny roll we sing, as I love the full version of that song. They cut the second verse of  At the outset I may mention, which potentially works, although personally I would want to precede the third verse by something to give a reason for Ludwig to reconsider in that case. Lisa's act 2 song they cut straight all of the second verse apart from the very end, which I think works rather well, since that's the only part of that verse which really works for me, but it works very well and I'd think it a shame to lose it by cutting the entire verse. And finally, Julia's act 2 song. Now, I can quite understand the thought process behind cutting the song entirely. And I can understand leaving it in. And I can understanding leaving it in and cutting it down. I can't understand leaving it in while cutting it down this much, and in particular removing the line "If today is a day of illusion and sorrow, then viva tomorrow!" Since that, to my mind at least, is pretty much the core sentiment of the song. The only explanation which occurs to me is that they wanted the melancholy bit, all is darksome, death the friend or death the foe, etc, but didn't want the more upbeat number which follows it, but couldn't cut it entirely because the one flows into the other, so they just cut as much as they thought they could get away with.
Dialogue-wise, I think I noticed a few omissions, but not many (Though I just remembered a noticeable one, the Prince's little speech about roulette before his song was mostly cut. Rather odd, to my mind. And the brief bit of dialogue afterwards, which also didn't really work for me - as it was, they went straight from the roulette song to "Why you forward little hussy, how dare you?!") , and one or two may actually have been the actors forgetting their lines...

On which note, the performers:

Ludwig - Stefan Bednarczyk. Someone on SavoyNet made the point that this actor was definitely more an actor than a singer. I would certainly agree - I was somewhat put out by his omission of a few high notes, including some which were note noted in the score as being optional. And this despite the fact he clearly could hit a top F, since he did so at the end of the sausage roll song, so I can't understand the decision. In any case, yes, more an actor than a singer. So his acting, then.
I appreciate his performance more now, in retrospect, but at the time it didn't do that much for me. I've mentioned previously that Ludwig is a character defined almost entirely by his ego, and that didn't come across to me so much in this performance. He was more understated, which may have been deliberate, to make things more subtle, but in practice simply allowed them to be missed, passed over. And in fact, my greater appreciation in retrospect may be because I'm remembering the good bits and not the bland. Ludwig being such a large part, it's understandable if an actor can't give the fullest of performances to every single line - but it's still disappointing. I'm also certain he was forgetting a few of his lines, though I doubt it would've been noticed by anyone not familiar with the script and the stage. I will say that he definitely got better as the show went on, and his performance in the second act I had few issues with, if any.

Lisa - Victoria Byron. Honestly? Not impressed. Good actress, good singer, played the part wrong. Now, I've tried to allow for the fact that perhaps I am biased towards my own conception of the part of Lisa, and perhaps they had a different idea of her. But there's only so much leeway I can give, and what it comes down to in the end is something of a pet peeve of mine, particularly in regard to G&S, noted from recordings I've heard - people delivering lines and singing songs without regard for the character and emotions they're supposed to be portraying. When Lisa sings her solo in the act 1 finale and her song in act 2, I don't want to be impressed by her strong operatic voice; I want to see her distress at losing the love of her life to a woman she thought of as a friend. Prior to that, a stronger, more confident Lisa is an unexpected idea, but one which could possibly work, but at that point, in those songs, it must be shattered. The emotions are right there in the words, GIVE THEM TO ME. I'm sorry, Ms Byron, but by and large, your crying did not convicne me.

Ernest Dummkopf's company. OK, so for starters, this was a relatively reduced company production (Relatively because you can only reduce the Grand Duke cast so much), and to allow for that, rather than having five minor principal women there were two women and three men, thus covering all the chorus parts. It worked. Now these guys I really liked. Having a chorus this small gives them much more opportunity to sell themselves as characters in their own right, and they really did that well. Through the different ways they interacted with the principals and with each other separately to the principals, they made it easy to believe that they all had their own stuff going on in their lives, which just wasn't ever the focus of the action onstage.
In particular, they also did an excellent job of acting drunk, not only during Come Bumpers, but also after it, which is an easy point to miss - once the song about drinking has passed and you return to the plot, it's natural enough to sober up your acting again, but it makes little sense to do so, and these actors remained convincingly tipsy for the rest of the show (Which particularly worked during the Dance).

Chamberlains/Herald, Costumier and Supernumeraries. OK, so there's little to say about the Chamberlains, other than the Lord Chamberlain (later the Herald), who I wasn't that convinced by. Having him put upon, struggling to keep the other Chamberlains in line, in particular the most junior (later the Costumier), who seemed to be away with the fairies quite a bit. And panicking at the fact Rudolph was giving orders to more Chamberlains than there actually were (They had 5 rather than the originally scripted 7) and consequently giving three jobs to the most junior, while the others edged away to avoid it. So far so good. But the business of him being hard of hearing, and the tremendously over the top use of the ear trumpet? Funny once at most, and afterwards rapidly descending to tiresome and pointless. Was not particularly impressed by his rendition of the Herald's song either.
The Supernumeraries of course had more to do, and were perhaps not quite as good as Dummkopf's company, but then they had less stage time. They were perfectly fine. And I loved the delightfully camp French Costumier.

Since  I've just gone through essentially the chorus, this seems a relevant point at which to mention some of the staging and choreography. Now, the stage itself was rather small, but this worked in general because so was the cast. It only appeared crowded at the very end, when finally the entire cast were all onstage at once. The only entrances were down the sides, which worked quite effectively, allowing entrances to be made across more distance than could really be fit on the stage. The curtains at the back of the stage were only used once, before the Dance, since the Princess had to see someone behind one before they jumped out.
Now, choreography. Ironically, by and large, the choreography worked better the less choreographed it was. Now this should not be taken to its logical conclusion - the show would not have been better without choreography. But it seemed to work better when the choreography was looser, general directions still allowing scope for the chorus to play their characters, which they did very well as I already stated. For example, the Dance obviously had some specific directions - burst out, grab supernumeraries, spin them round, drag them off, drag them back on, etc - but the details were down to the actors being drunk and the supernumeraries being initially panicked before deciding to just roll with it. By contrast, Ten minutes since had the actors sitting, then rising alternately when they started singing between Ludwig's verses. It looked far too obviously staged, too stiff, and too silly. It detracted from the effect of their panicked entrance (Which was again much looser).

Onward with the performers.

The Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo - Martin Lamb and Jane Quinn. I have little to say about these two. They were both very good, the dynamic between the two of them worked, they  were good at being prideful and proper. I'd like to see these two play bigger parts, as I'm sure they'd do them well.

The Notary - Bruce Graham. To my shame, I almost forgot about the Notary. He was good. Again, there's only so much one can say about him. The Notary exists almost entirely to deliver or prompt exposition, and Bruce Graham did so very well.
I suppose the point to note with the Notary, the Prince and the Princess is that while I had no stunning praise, I also had no criticisms.

Rudolph - Richard Suart. Good. Definitely focused somewhat on the fact Rudolph is supposed to be somewhat constitutionally fragile as a result of his cheap diet, and that worked very well, also working as an indication of age. The downside, however (And I think it was down to this), was that it detracted from the crispness of his diction, particularly in the songs. It was fine enough for me, but then I know the words already. For someone not familiar with the libretto, I think it would have been more difficult.

Baroness von Krakenfeldt - Sylvia Clarke. Good. Certainly impressive in the aspect of being formidable and overwhelming. Perhaps a little less so in the particular propriety expressed in her first scene, and I can't remember quite what I thought of her drunk acting for Come Bumpers, but I don't think it grabbed me particularly.

Ernest Dummkopf - Philip Lee. Loved this guy. With all due respect to my friends, I'd say he was the best Ernest I've seen. An excellent balance between puffed up and pathetic. Perhaps could have put a bit more into his haunting of Julia in the act 2 duet, though I suspect that may well have been more down to the direction than the acting. All-round brilliant performance.

Julia - Charlotte Page. Absolutely stole the show. If I had to criticise, I would say perhaps her hysterical madness in the duet with Ludwig could have been more extreme. That's it. Everything else was just stunning.
Unlike the two Julias when I've done the show, she had the german accent, as in the original production, and while I've been sceptical of it in the past, I am now entirely convinced of how well it can work. Not to say it should never be removed, as it obviously requires your Julia to be able to do a very good german accent, and find the balance between being sufficiently accentuated to work for the jokes about german/english, but not so much that it interferes with the meaning of the dialogue or becomes difficult for the audience to understand. Charlotte Page did it superbly, and was far and away the best performer in this production.

In summing up, by and large, I loved the production. I've seen a number of rather scathing reviews of it. To be honest, I feel some of the reviewers just don't get how G&S works. I also recall clearly reading compliments for the efforts of the company in general and Charlotte Page in particular, but can't recall what precisely any of the reviews said was bad, merely some sweeping statements that it was, and suggesting there was no reason to revive the show. Best guess would be that they took issue with the convoluted plot, but if that is the reason for their condemnation of The Grand Duke, well pooh-pooh to them, I do not care a fig about them, and I return to my initial feelings on the matter - they just don't get G&S.
For my part, as I've outlined, there were some choices in direction and the cut of the script which didn't make sense to me and some casting I might question. Furthermore the production did seem less polished than I would have expected, seeming more like an amateur production than a professional one - actors having difficulty remembering lines and so on. But for all that, they did a fantastic job bring the show to life, including some bits of it I no longer thought could be made to work, there were some fantastic performances, and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I thoroughly deserve all the envy I received from my friends when I posted on facebook about going to see it, because it was fantastic.


  1. Completely agree about the odd setting of Patience, although you have to award generous points for trying, as you say. I do think going backwards in time can work sometimes (see Opera della Luna's Dickensian Pinafore) but usually only very slightly! Have to say though, the worst example of that would have to be NUGSS Pinafore with its 'cave women' opening - they may have been supposed to be contemporary 'tribes people' but it just looked like the world had gone mad!!!

  2. Thank you for the compliment :oD
    Glad you liked the show! Mediaevalifying Patience was a nice idea but... yeah, didn't work. I don't think back-dating specifically was the problem, actually. For me it was more that the setting needed to have two opposing recognisable, mockable social/stylistic groups, and you couldn't make much of that in a 14th-century Northumblerland castle, where they probably weren't terribly affected by the passing vagaries of fashion!

    (And anyone with half a brain could tell that the cannibals were cannibals... ¬_¬ )