Drama at the theatre

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In the past, I preferred watching films (‘movies’) to attending live drama at the theatre. Now, my preferences have reversed. In live theatre there is an interraction between the actors on stage and the audience. Good actors engage the audience  psychologically and almost physically. And, I suspect that the actors are also engaged by the audience – its attentiveness, its reactions (facial and otherwise), and other signs of the audience’s feelings provoked by their actions. So great is that interaction between performers and the audience that often I leave the theatre at the end of a performance feeling physically exhausted. Even with superb cinema productions, I never feel as gripped by the performance as I do whilst watching live theatre.

Having stated the above, I am now going to be a bit critical. I have watched many live performances of drama on stage, much of which was excellent. However, I have noticed that in some plays, the first (opening) act is often very weak compared with what follows later. On several occasions, I have walked out of the theatre because a play’s first act or first half has been unpromising. This is sad because now I know that many plays improve as they progress.

I cannot understand why so many plays have weak opening scenes. If I were reading a book and the first 10 or 20% of its pages did not capture my attention, I would abandon the idea of reading it through to its end. Why do so many people remain in the theatre when the opening act is unpromising? Is it because they have paid so much for the tickets? Or, is it because they, like me, have realised that most plays take time to build up to an engaging/enjoyable momentum?

Recently, I saw a play “Amsterdam” by Mayur Arad Yasur at the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond (SW London). From its first moment, neither the actors nor the play were able to engage me. The same seemed to be the case for several other members of the audience, who walked across the stage and out of the auditorium within a few minutes of the play’s beginning.

Mercifully, about half way through the performance, which did nothing to make me forget the discomfort caused by my seat – it did the opposite, there was a technical hitch. The performance was paused, and some member of the theatre staff mumbled something, which I imagine was to notify us of the hitch. After almost 10 minutes during which no further information was given to the by now restive audience, I decided to follow the actors backstage to find out what was going on. Only then, did someone come out on to the stage to give some information. As what we had already seen of the play had been so unbearable and there seemed to be no sign that the performance would be resumed in the near future, we walked out. Had the play been more enjoyable or in some way worthwhile, we would have waited for it to continue.

Well, you cannot win every time. For each disaster such as “Amsterdam”, we have have seen plenty of highly satisfactory plays.

Critics: can we trust them?

Many of us have great faith in reviews of artistic events such as film, theatre, and other performances.  Can one trust professional critics and reviewers? Do their tastes match yours? If they do not and you follow their reccommendation, you must be prepared for an anti-climax.

 

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A rave five star review

Great expectation

Sometimes disappointment

A Dream

 

The first time I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM was in the 1960s in north London (Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb). It was performed by an amateur dramatic group in a clearing in a small wood. There were barely any props. The actors appeared and disappeared in and out of the trees growing around the clearing. It might not have been the very best of renderings of the play, but I found it highly enjoyable and magical. Whenever I think of the Dream, I remember that show in the woods, so long ago, with much fondness. 

Since that magical summer evening in the wood, I have seen several more performances of the play, but none of them managed to recapture for me the magical experience  that was created for me by my first viewing of the work.

A few days ago, I watched yet another performance of the Dream. This time it was at the lovely new Bridge Theatre next to the southern end of London’s Tower Bridge. The staging and acting was brilliant. The Director, Nicholas Hytner, had ‘tweaked’ the play slightly but successfully to make it more accessble to contemporary audiences. I hope that Shakespeare would have approved of this latest version. I feel that he might well have done. The ‘show’ was livened up with acrobats, who were not only superbly skilful but also great actors with clear diction, and much music. Despite these additions, the Bard’s original words were not sacrificed or edited in any noticeable way. It was not merely a play, but  a spectacular extravaganza.

There was one aspect of the performance that I did not like. The play was performed ‘in the round’ on an arena where there would normally be stalls seating. Many people had bought tickets to stand on the stage in order to take part in an immersive performance. The actors mingled with the crowd of spectators standing on the ‘stage’. Assistants and the actors themselves shifted the crowds around to make spaces for props and passages through which the actors could move. It was a case of, to use the Bard’s words, “All the world’s a stage…”. This seemed to be very popular with both the audience members immersed in the drama as well as the rest of us sitting in seats. I was not keen on watching a play where the actors are surrounded by swarms of spectators. I felt that the latter diluted the action and were a bit of a distraction. The immersive theatre technique disturbed me, but most of the rest of the audience approved of it.

 

My picture shows the actors and audience mingling together at the end of the play

Sounds new

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Last week, I attended two concerts that showcased the works young composers studying at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in Kensington, London. Most of the compositions were no longer than five minutes in duration. They were performed by musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists, also studying at the RCM.

I am not a musician, but I do enjoy classical music, both historical and contemporary. As a musically uneducated member of the audience, I was puzzled by many of the pieces that I heard. It struck me that many of the budding composers were aiming to make the performers produce extremely unusual sounds from their instruments or with their voices. It seemed to me that the compositions were written to make the performers produce the most unexpected sounds, many of them although interesting were not too pleasing to my ears and definitely atypical of the instrument making them. Tunefulness was of little or no importance in most of the pieces I heard. Many of the vocal pieces performed involved making various hissing sounds without using the vocalists’ vocal cords.  The object semmed to be to intrigue the audience rather than to please it.

Each piece, despite my misgivings, attracted generous applause. Either the audience was being kind as many in it were members of the RCM, or they really enjoyed what they heard. I could not decide which was the case.

At the end of the second concert, I wondered how the composers, whose works I had just heard, would ever be able to make a living if they continued composing such unmusical (to my ears) music as I had experienced. Well, I wish them luck.

Albania’s got talent…

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The Albanian community in the UK has been in the country long enough for some of their children to have been born in the country. It would be easy for the first generation born in the UK, who have to attend British schools and mix with non-Albanians, to begin to forget their cultural heritage. However, thanks to various organizations that some of the children of Albanian heritage attend, Albanian language and cultural traditions are being kept alive in the UK. On the 27th of October 2018, I was invited to attend the finals of the, which was held in a school hall in London’s Chalk Farm.

The Albanian Ambassador to the UK, Mr Qirjako Qirko, was one of several well-known personalities who introduced the show in Albanian. He ended his speech with a few words in English. The gist of what he said was as follows. He thanked the Queen and her Government for allowing Albanians to maintain their traditions and language, which is not the case in every other country. The show which followed the speeches certainly demonstrated that despite being far from their traditional homes and many years away from them, the Albanian community is encouraging their children to keep alive the traditions of their forefathers.

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The show consisted of a series of performances by young people whose parents came from Albania or Kosovo. There were songs (traditional and contemporary Albanian as well as renderings of current and not so current popular songs in English). Small troupes of youngsters in traditional Albanian garb performed traditional Albanian dances. Others danced routines that they had choreographed themselves. Several youngsters declaimed poetry in Albanian. Naturally, the quality of performance was not uniform. Some of the young people were dazzlingly competent, the rest were not bad. None of the performers was shy or overtly lacking in confidence. Each of them performed with an enthusiasm that was refreshing to observe. The large audience around me encouraged each of the contestants as they performed on stage, cheering and clapping to the rhythm of the music. The five judges praised and gave friendly encouragement (in Albanian) to each of the performers when their act was over. Three of the judges were for singing, one for poetry recital, and one for dancing. The atmosphere in the hall was joyful and friendly. Everyone who passed my wife and me, greeted us warmly even if they had no idea who we are. It was great to discover that the famed hospitality of the Albanian people has been preserved in its British diaspora.

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Many, if not all, of the performers, who sung or recited in Albanian or who dressed up in traditional costumes and performed the dances of their ancestors, use English in their day to day life. They have given up parts of their precious spare time to learn Albanian and to help Albanian cultural traditions remain vital and vibrant. They set an example that many children of British ancestry might profitably follow.