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Wednesday, 23 May 2018

I take it back - all of it!

If you've read my last post then you'll know that I wasn't much impressed by the Russian theatre.Well, my view has changed: and it's all due to Uncle Vanya. Mr Chekhov certainly writes well: but then we all know that don't we. One of my theatrical highlights was a recent production of the Seagull - in translation  - along with the Cherry Orchard wonderfully complete plays both dramatically and psychologically truthful.

Last week we were treated to a gem of a performance of "Uncle Vanya" by the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. The stage setting was sparse; very Russian (to me at least) and beautifully paced. I have to admit it took me a while to get into the tempo of the performance. Unlike modern cosmopolitan living, life in the Russian countryside in the late 19th century went along at a modest pace. Once you recognised that you were able to appreciate the treat before you on stage.

Chekhov doesn't know how to under or overwrite character: each perfectly formed - even the young peasant  - you engaged with the characters on the stage. The play was, to my eyes, a series of two handers which allowed the characters to develop - Chekhov developing each of the main characters through their interactions with the other antagonists.

It ostensively was a play about a modest land owning family, the local doctor and unrequited love and unfulfilled passion. They all do nothing or nothing that is worthy. Nothing too complex!  Uncle Vanya looks after the estate for his professorial brother in law. The estate's income allows  the professor and his second young, attractive wife to live in town which otherwise they couldn't afford. Vanya thinks but for the thankless toil of running the estate he could have achieved something in life.

The professor is a dried up, failed scholar demanding respect and attention but seen by the others for what he is. Only his mother has any respect for him. To see her reading her son's worthless pamphlets and papers is quite tragic - for that is all that makes her life meaningful.

The professor's young, beautiful wife gave up a promising musical career to marry the scholar after the death of his first wife, Vanya's sister. She regretted that marriage - more and more as her life and that of her husband descend into idleness and recrimination.

The professor and his wife are staying on the estate - at first we don't know why - all we know is that their stay is disrupting the lives of all in the household and the family doctor. He is at the beck and call of the professor who is verging on hypochondriacal. The doctor doesn't mind because it gives him an excuse to be in the presence of the young, attractive if self obsessed wife.

Then there's the professor's daughter by his first marriage. She is plain and in love with the doctor, who of course isn't in love with her. She's too timid or stupid to test that out so she spends quite some time moping around.

That's the failed minor aristocracy for you and a small town provincial doctor - all hiding secrets and disappointments. Then there's the peasants - hard working, faithful and down trodden. Russia as represented by the play's characters is not in a good place.

Obstensively nothing much happens on the surface but emotionally all the main antagonists are paddling away frantically just below the surface. Vanya and the doctor resort to much drinking of vodka. I assumed to anaesthetise their feelings of failure and disappointment. Except Russians generally drink a lot of vodka - to soften their feelings of failure and disappointment in their nation?

In the last act we learn why the prof and his wife are staying at the estate. They're going to sell it! It's not bringing in sufficient income to support them in the life they think they should be living in town. Selling it and investing the money in bonds will give a much better return than currently provided by the estate. That will maintain their life style and leave enough to buy a nice holiday home in Finland.

Vanya's not happy with this and tells his brother in law so. After a flaming family row which ended in Vanya failed attempt to kill the professor, it's decided to leave things as they are.

The professor and his very attractive young wife leave; she and the doctor realising that they've lost the opportunity to have a passionate affair (both far too lazy or scared to take that extra step). The doctor leaves, the daughter having learnt that the doctor doesn't love her.

The play ends with Vanya and his niece sitting down going through the accounts as they have always done. The only consolation she has is the knowledge that the toil will end one day and they'll get their reward in heaven. Vanya, I don't think, shares her optimism, but at least the estate's not to be sold and life can go on as before. Or can it after such disruption?

Given the above you may think that at the end of the play the first thing you'd do is hang yourself from the nearest lamp post. Nothing could be further from the truth. The play was full of laughs, and despite the people portrayed being mostly completely useless and lost you warmed to them. I mean I felt that they needed a revolution to shake them up!

There were gallons of curtain calls and the whole theatre gave a standing ovation: I thought the two young Russian women in front of us would throw themselves over the balcony - so enraptured were they by the play and the performances.

Oh, did I mention it was in Russian with English surscript? The brain's amazingly adaptable - after a short while I was perfectly at ease with that - in fact I completely forgot about it. The only time it noticed was when there were comical scenes. Then the translation went ahead of the actors speaking on stage so the English speaking audience got the joke before the Russian audience which was quite intriguing.

As I say, I take it back - all of it - the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg are the bees knees or as we say in Russia "Колено пчелы."

Friday, 11 May 2018

Don't employ me as a theatre critic

I like going to the theatre. My friend likes going to the theatre. In fact it's not far from the truth to say that people like us keep the West End wealthy - we don't mind paying silly prices to see the best. Eh, that's not bad as a strap line. Anyway we went to the theatre on Wednesday to see an adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s celebrated novel performed by the "the legendary Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg - described by Peter Brook as ‘the finest ensemble theatre in Europe’. It was in Russian with surtitles.

The play got rave reviews:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "Sergey Kuryshev shines as a nuclear scientist stuck in a moral maze in this vivid staging of Vasily Grossman’s sprawling novel" - The Guardian
★ ★ ★ ★ "A wearying first half paves the way for a complex and vivid display by an extraordinary ensemble" - The Times
★ ★ ★ ★ - The Telegraph

We left after the first act. We found it boring, not really a play with much too much posturing and declamation. Maybe we should have stayed since the Times, whilst agreeing that the first half was a pain, says it picked up speed later on. But it was three and half hours long. At my age I can't take the gamble.

Maybe we should have read up on Grossman and his novel and why the "legendary Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg" was so...well. legendary. Rather like a piece of tough steak had we been tenderised beforehand the whole thing might have been more palatable.

I must point out I don't make a habit of walking out - at the prices charged - it's too dear. No, maybe I was having an off day as was my fellow quitter, or maybe I hadn't noticed the KGB scrutinising the affluent audience in the stalls. If I had maybe I'd have stayed - anyway we left. Disappointed but relieved and we headed our separate ways home.

My journey was eventful. At Russell Square our tube train stopped permanently. First it was because ofa passenger incident, which became a points failure and turned into a major incident. Klaxon bellowed and the controller screamed -"evacuate the station: evacuate the station". This went on for ages - reminding me of the play we'd just escaped from. The whole train - which at around 9 pm was full - flooded onto the platform and headed for the exit. Russell Square has no escalators just lifts and because it was an emergency the lifts were shut down. We all had to climb the spiral stairs  to get to street level.

Pissed off passengers forced marched up a lot of stairs - so many similarities to the play - is not something to be in the centre of. At last we reached the top - God knows what happened to anyone unable to climb the stairs  - and headed out into the unsuspecting streets of London. A ten minute walk to King's Cross on the Victoria Line and by 10 pm I was home knocking back a glass or two of wine.

I reckon the KGB saw us leave, sent a message to the Kremlin who hacked into TfL and buggered up our journey home.

We're seeing Uncle Vanya at the same theatre with the same crowd next week. I hope it's better - otherwise if we leave Putin will shut down all of London...Really!

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Anger Management - Fail

Yesterday I and a mate went to see "Beast" by Michael Pearce with Jessie Buckley as Moll and Johnny Flynn as Pascal in the lead. Set in Jersey Moll's a put upon daughter of a control freak Mum whose churchy, sense of right and wrong and lack of love screws up an already damaged woman.

Moll is kept down by guilt for a crime she committed as a young girl.The only sympathetic person in her family is her demented father - and with a wife like his he was well out of it! Moll's sister and brother are selfish, spoilt, uncaring shits and the only man ( I use the term advisedly) who shows any interest in Moll, an intelligent, open face beauty, is a wimp of a police officer. (In this film the police do not shine).

Frankly I wasn't surprised when Moll stormed out of her own birthday party after being treated like shit and humiliated. She went into town (is that possible in Jersey?)  got picked up at a disco, got roaring drunk and was rescued the following morning by Pascal from the rather nasty young man.

Storming out, screaming, enjoying great sex with Pascal and uncontrollably bashing a poor bunny rabbit to death with the butt of a gun, made you think that not all was right with our Moll noggin wise.

She had a temper which her freaky controlling mother had kept a lid on. Pascal was her ticket to freedom and once away from Mum that anger was harder and harder to control. The beast in her got stronger and stronger throughout the movie. And if you hadn't got the message, the final scene of Moll dirt and blood splattered back lit by a wreaked car's headlights looking like Lon Chaney Jr. on a reasonably good day rammed it home.

Oh, there was also a series of murders of young girls going on in the background (Must check Jersey tourist figures for this year) and Pascal is the clear favourite. There's a couple of gem scenes - Moll freaking out the distraught mother of a murdered child at her funeral and roaring at two decidedly nasty white fathers - scared the shit out of them (and me) and quite right too.

It was riveting, with great acting from the two leads, super location shots and enough ambiguity to keep you switching sides. But what really got me; had no one thought of putting Moll on an anger management course? That made me see red!