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La Bohème at The Cutty Sark

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Puccini’s La Boheme has long elicited a powerful emotional response from its audiences, but rarely have the cast been close enough to see its effects on the faces of those watching them. OperaUpClose deliver exactly what their name suggests: beloved classics in an intimate setting. La Boheme, winner of the Olivier Award for Best Opera in 2011, is part immersive, part promenade, and all the more atmospheric for its one-off staging beneath the hull of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

Opera venue or not, the Cutty Sark is always an impressive sight. The performance took place on Saturday
November 12th, and the tea clipper’s rigging was ghostly in the autumn evening. Once inside, audience members were directed down under the body of the ship, to find their seats for the first act. Anyone who still equates opera with snobbery and/or inaccessibility might breathe a sigh of relief on discovering that this was a contemporary, English version of La Boheme, directed by Robin Norton-Hale. The performers wore jeans, cracked satirical asides and swigged vodka onstage. The stage itself resembled a ramshackle apartment complete with a fibre optic Christmas tree and sporadic tinsel.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, and would-be novelist Rodolfo (Edward Hughes) and his painter friend Marcello (Tom Colwell), are lacking girlfriends, money, food and central heating. But the bachelors are resourceful, and in an effort to win the battle against the cold, Rodolfo sacrifices his manuscript to be burnt. Hughes’s tenor complements Colwell’s baritone, one gentler, one more commanding, much like their onstage personas. Rodolfo and Marcello are joined by their friends, Schaunard (Alistair Sutherland) and Colline (Dickon Gough), similarly starving artistes. Sutherland and Gough are charming in their roles. They sing a gleeful ode to Rudolfo’s literary efforts as, page by page, his papers disappear. When the fire fizzles out, the studenty bohemians proclaim the ending of the novel ‘disappointing’, and at this, insist on a trip to the pub, where they will at least be warm and in the company of women.

This is a contemporary piece, though, and Rodolfo’s little source of income as a freelance writer means he has to ‘knock out’ 1000 words for a website by the end of the evening. Promising to join his friends later, he sits down with his laptop when there is a knock at the door. Having seen off his landlord – played with vim and seedy humour by Martin Nelson – once already that evening, Rodolfo is surprised to discover that waiting outside is a female neighbour in need of his help.

The neighbour is Mimi, played by Elinor Jane Moran. Moran’s soprano is in equal measure strong and fragile. Mimi is a cleaner, and therefore must deal with the grimier side of life, but she is also good-hearted, sweet, meek even – and Rodolfo is instantly smitten. Those familiar with the story will already know that Mimi’s tale is a tragic one, foreshadowed in this act by a persistent cough. However, a lost key and the clasping of her frozen fingers ensure that before the end, Mimi will experience great romance.

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Elinor Jane Moran (Mimi)

But first, the pub. Cue a brief interlude where audience members had to reposition themselves in the café to the right of the staging area. There was just about enough time to order a drink (to really commit to the immersive experience), and then the show continued. Flamboyance arrived in the form of Musetta, Marcello’s occasional girlfriend, played by Sarah Minns. Dazzling in red, Minns sang in her distinctive soprano whilst clambering on chairs, cackling heartily and perching on the knee of an unsuspecting audience member. And all in formidable heels. It was fun and chaotic, and it’s not every day an opera singer performs a nineteenth-century score inches from your glass of house white. Even the barman was a performer (played by James Schouten) – a nice touch that enhanced the playful tone of this scene.

The first half culminated in the reunion of Marcello and Musetta, when the latter’s latest boyfriend (again played by Martin Nelson), shies away from her public hijinks once and for all. The interval followed, providing an opportunity to look around the restored space, which suffered fire damage in 2007. There were times throughout the show when audience members could be spotted glancing up at the gleaming copper underbelly of the boat, or around at the many figureheads on display. These figureheads are brightly coloured, bringing to mind objects plucked from a carousel, and there is no denying that they made for rather sinister audience members. That gazes were wandering is not a reflection of the quality of the performance – it is an uncommon thing after all, to find yourself surrounded by history, opera and water.

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Dickon Gough (Colline), Alistair Sutherland (Schaunard), Elinor Jane Moran (Mimi), Philip Lee (Rodolfo)

After the interval, the action returned to the stage. This second half of La Boheme contains very little of the jollity had in the first. Musetta and Marcello’s relationship has soured once more, and, perhaps more surprisingly, this is also the case for Rudolfo and Mimi. Though still in love, Rudolfo’s bouts of misplaced jealousy put the relationship under strain and it eventually crumbles. To make matters worse, Mimi’s health is deteriorating. One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the poverty. Rudolfo reveals his plan to Marcello: if Mimi can find someone with the money to pay for a doctor, perhaps she can get better.

Things, naturally, do not go to plan. Whilst the polarisation of the female characters does feel somewhat simplistic, at least in the final stages of the piece we see Musetta gain more depth, as she sacrifices her material wealth to pay for Mimi’s medical care and unites her with Rudolfo once more. The final scene was an affecting one. Throughout the show, the piano was seamless, surging, sensitive – thanks to the talents of Elspeth Wilkes.

Though originally conceived in the 1800s, this adaptation feels authentic and relevant – the first world still harbours poverty in its major cities, with so many unable to afford heating and rent. However, the crux of the story is relationships, both romantic and platonic, and the struggles and joys that they bring. It is about idealism and reality. It is old and it is new. All of the characters are likeable in their own ways, and all of them are flawed. La Boheme did not enjoy much immediate success, meeting lukewarm responses from the critics. However, its popularity has far outlasted its initial reception, and provided fuel for many a creative director’s fire. OperaUpClose deserve their reputation as an exciting and vibrant company, as well as praise for bringing the art form closer to audiences than ever before. Should La Boheme return to a boat near you, it is well worth setting sail.

By Charlotte Newman


 Future events from OperaUpClose can be found here

The Threepenny Opera

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If you put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, how much does anyone care that the action is ostensibly set in the streets around them? My guess is that we understand when a setting is a stand in for ‘far far away’, and are happy to displace it in our heads to another similarly foreign location for the duration of the show. This question is at the front of the mind when watching Rufus Norris’s new National Theatre production of The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Victorian London-set fable. This is no more a play about London than The Barber of Seville is about Seville, but putting it on the National stage means you can’t avoid certain reflections on the city itself.

For Brecht himself in 1928, Victorian London was the very image of the bourgeois capitalist city, and thus a good place to set a myth about its myriad failings. To their credit Norris and translator Simon Stephens have chosen to lean into the grounding the locality provides, so that references to Rotherhithe and Canning Town don’t come across as the meanderings of a slightly lost German working off a dated guidebook.

Part of the effectiveness of the London-setting comes in the earthiness of Stephens’s script. The slightly distant quality of Brecht’s words when translated over-literally is replaced with filth, and fury, and a kind of almost Falstaffian ribaldry suiting the East End down to the gutter. Stephens is a playwright who, when it’s called for, can put contemporary spoken English to full obscene effect, and he relishes it here: we are left in no doubt which part of Macheath’s anatomy is doing his thinking for him. Nor are we left in any doubt as to what kind of comradeship he and the chief of police enjoyed in their army days (the production follows the current trend of removing the ‘sub’ from any homoerotic subtext in the original play; while this can be a little on the nose, it is probably worth it as long as men kissing is still even a slightly surprising sight on the stage).

In many ways, however, this is a relatively purist Brecht production: Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary set is constructed in front our eyes, managing to appear both elaborate and eye-wateringly precarious at the same time as counterweights fly across the stage and large pieces of moving scaffolding come within an inch of seemingly decapitating cast members. This is theatre not so much with its heart on its sleeve as with all its other internal organs worn for all to see. Indeed, the slapstick element, with cops running after robbers in physical sequences that play like the demented dark mirror of Benny Hill, is one of the production’s great trump cards. If the language is good at giving us the scummy undercurrent of London life, then the pictures on stage give us its equivalent: Hogarth by way of Keaton.

Production image courtesy of The National Theatre
Production images courtesy of The National Theatre

Fun as it is to see Brecht performed in a way we might imagine the Berliner Ensemble might have wanted it, all unpretentious bare bones and moving parts, I am not sure if the politics of the show come through clearly enough. For one thing, Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, while every bit as shark-like as his entrance number suggests, is never quite seductive enough either in antiheroic charm or in singing voice to really sell us on the corruption of aspirational capitalism. And while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is by far the standout performance, her extraordinary renditions of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and the ‘Barbara Song’ give such terrifying, vengeful bite to the gender politics of the piece that the class politics fades into the background. As with much Brecht performed today, when no longer agitprop the messages can become diffuse, and even contradictory.

Looking for contemporary resonance in the show might be a fools’ errand, but with a kind of left-wing politics with which Brecht might have been at least passingly familiar in the ascendant it is a fun game to play. Yet the exhilarating tensions of the Weimar Germany it derives from – when the world seemed in flux and the only question seemed which flavour of street politics, left or right, would triumph – are far removed from the comfortable academic lives of the left’s champions today. My chief thought watching the procession of pimps and whores and cut-throats was not only that Momentum members had never met them, but wouldn’t want to. The moral portrait Brecht paints is one of humans running around London driven by animal instincts, rats in the capitalist rat race. ‘It was for the tax advantages!’ pleads Mack to a jilted lover to explain away his sudden marriage to another woman, sounding like someone taken in by a David Cameron-era Tory party soundbite.

But if this Victorian society is hardly a Big Society, it is not a society ripe for a Corbyn revolution either. The ‘Ballad of the Easy Life’ with which Kinnear serenades us upon our return from the interval mocks ascetics and intellectuals of the bearded Islington sort. He just wants his comfortable life, and will happily walk over such people to get there. Brecht of course is parodying the cut-throats of the free market, but it is significant that Macheath is an aspirational lower-middle-class businessman. At the very least Brecht would have wanted any decent revolutionary party to understand them before changing the system. But in Norris’s production politics at street level is a carnivalesque tangle of gender struggle and disability rights, the false loyalty of a twenty-foot St George’s flag and the sudden treachery of a sex worker. There are too many people out for their own gain for the grand common purpose of a Corbyn-Labour London.

The desired class-consciousness of Brecht’s street-level theatre is not going to be the straightforward outcome on the audience of the National Theatre, I think. But this is still an excellent and timely production, and one that, given the hero’s falling foul of the offshore accounts he has attempted to keep his money safe in, should remind us to keep track of just where money is going and who stands to benefit in this (still) most capitalist of capitals.

By Fred Maynard



3po_artwork_landscape_layered_tt_2578x1128_digital_ho9The Threepenny Opera, 
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, The National Theatre, playing until 1 October.

For more information and tickets visit The National Theatre website here

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