The Sound Of Music / Zerbombt (Blasted) / Richard II / Whipping It Up
Various venues
November, 2006

From an entity which may be about to disappear from the West End [the Theatre Museum] to one likely to remain there for some time to come: The Sound Of Music.  The one criticism that everyone seems to have in common is that Connie Fisher might benefit immensely from having, at least at a few rehearsals so that she realises, her arms tied to her sides.  (This is neither a flippant nor a cruel suggestion: I once went through a rehearsal with a strip of gaffa tape – duct tape to Americans – on my lower forehead, so that I felt physical discomfort every time I indulged in my own vice of acting with my eyebrows.  It worked.)

I remain suspicious of Fisher – “Fisher”, you’ll note, according to my standard style of referring to practitioners by their surnames; unlike most of the rest of the country, I don’t feel on first-name terms with “Connie” simply because she was on a TV series.  Reviewers have reacted to the same vein in her performance, albeit reacted in different ways, ranging from “the first real Maria I’ve seen” in Nicholas de Jongh’s case to an accusation of defaulting to “Wide-Eyed Sexless Rapture” from Alastair Macaulay.  What I don’t agree with is the opinion that she is significantly different from Julie Andrews.  Indeed, without having watched any of the television series, it seems to me from the result that what was being sought was not a new Maria but a new Andrews, with due allowances for cultural changes in the 45 or so years since the latter first came out of the Trapps.  It’s the same brisk freshness refurbished for a slightly different age, that’s all.  (Oh, and a point of pedantry: a number of reviewers refer to Maria as a novitiate.  She’s not.  She’s a novice.  Novitiate is the state or period of being a novice, or a building which houses novices.  It’s a lovely word, but it’s the wrong one.)


One matter which no-one seems to have mentioned, but which hit me like a slap in the face: do we not expect a major West End musical production, in the Palladium of all places, to be able to steer clear of the basic pitfall of wobbly sets?  Praise has been given to Robert Jones’s set design of a great disc of mountainside on which Conn— sorry, Maria is discovered lying, almost perpendicular to the stage, and which then swings down to only a few degrees off horizontal so that she can skip across it, rhapsodising that the hills are alive.  They certainly bounce enough even under her relatively lissom feet to suggest that they are alive, because the whole disc is fixed on one hydraulic axis only and is simply not firm enough to avoid wobble.  As with Bill Dudley’s digital cycloramas for The Woman In White a couple of years ago, a beautiful idea counts for nothing if you can’t make it work sufficiently well in practice.  Contrariwise, I almost gasped out loud at the sudden, simple yet shocking transformation of the entire theatre into a Nazi concert hall as drapes descended and guards took their places on the forestage walkway.  For me, that moment alone negates claims that Jeremy Sams’ production is light on the threat of Nazism.  In any case, by all accounts the tills are alive; I give it three or four years.  (Now there’s a hostage to fortune…!)


As German or pseudo-German experiences go, The Sound Of Music ran a distinct third during this fortnight.  It was eclipsed firstly by Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, entitled in German Zerbombt.  My Financial Times review of that production is elsewhere in this issue.  Not everyone agrees, of course: on seeing Kieron Quirke after I’d read his review, I jocularly remarked to him that he had no soul, whereupon he twice grabbed my arm to stop me walking away while he continued his excoriation of the production.  In the “pro” camp, I suspect the person whom Maxie Szalwinska heard responding audibly behind her was Paul Taylor; I say this not to mock Paul in any way, but to testify to the power of Ostermeier’s production, that it can draw vocal exclamations even from such a potentially jaded spectator.  One thing, though: after his Nora (A Doll’s House) (which I was almost the only British reviewer to rave about) and now Zerbombt, I think perhaps, when he brings his next show over, Mr O. might be advised to leave the stage revolves at home for a change.  Just because the revolve was popularised by Max Reinhardt in Berlin, that doesn’t make its use mandatory in all productions from that city a century later.

But the Hohepunkt of my German viewing was Claus Peymann’s magnificent 2001 Berliner Ensemble Richard II, in Stratford for half a week only.  The central visual metaphor may be overdone: an accretion of earth and water on Achim Freyer's spare monochrome set rather belabours the point that faction and civil war are turning the governance of England into a quagmire.  Much of the delivery – strongly declarative, from predominantly white-made-up faces – may owe more to the company's Brechtian history than to Stratford sensibilities.  But it made its points (and, above all, Shakespeare's) beautifully and powerfully.  Michael Maertens may be the finest Richard I have ever seen, Sam West and Kevin Spacey not excepted.  His is not a negligent king, simply an insufficiently commanding one; he exudes a great emotional clarity at every instant, and can find a wealth of resonance in a single word (only partly because he sometimes has more syllables to savour: “Herunter” offers more phonetic mileage than “Down”).  Manfred Karge is a looming, Machiavellian presence as the Duke of York, and there is even a running gag in which Hanna Jürgens' oft-fainting Queen (looking oddly reminiscent of Joanne Catherall of The Human League) is revived by water.  I caught a brief flash on the surtitles describing Thomas Brasch's translation as "faithful to the original, with additional wordplay".  Boy, is there ever!  Love's Labour's Lost at its most euphuistic doesn’t pun or romp as much as Richard's exchange with the dying John of Gaunt.  But it is shot through with a sardonicism perfectly in keeping with a play from which no-one emerges unsullied.  A bleak, mordant delight.


I’m not sure what Aleks Sierz means when he says that the whips in Whipping It Up “have no ideals except for their own public-school loyalties”.  (Amazing how many reviewers mention not just public schools but the resemblance of the Whips’ Office to a public-school common room.  I wouldn’t know.)  It struck me that the sacrifice made at the end of the play retains a kind even of nobility which, author Steve Thompson seems to suggest, is anachronistic but far from undesirable; that the Chief Whip exhibits in extremis the kind of honour which is alien both to the day-to-day running of the office and to contemporary political culture as a whole.  This is what I think Quentin Letts misses when he says its portrayal of Tories is out-of-date: far be it from me to teach an experienced Parliamentary sketch-writer how to suck eggs, but the point seemed to me to be not the various kinds of corruption and peccadillo being bandied around, but the fact that political values didn’t enter the picture anywhere, for either party.  Quentin laments that it’s the Tories who are the targets rather than Labour, but he hasn’t been in the theatre game long enough to take account of Alistair Beaton’s Feelgood back in 2001.  A number of reviewers say that Thompson’s play is nearly as good as Beaton’s; if that were true, it would be a poor thing indeed.  In fact, it’s more than a little better.  Although, when the character of the blonde intern started simpering intensely, I couldn’t help whispering to my companion, “Ah, Terry Johnson’s been directing again…”.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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