Sunday, 11 February 2018

Greek @ Scottish Opera

1.    All reviews – like opinions – are subjective, a unique combination of the experience under consideration and the experience and personality of the reviewer. They are not, despite the occasional attempts by certain critics to trick the reader into believing that this review is definitive, absolute or objective. If an objective review were possible, it would immediately make the entire process a waste of time, since there would only never be the need for one person to attend and describe an experience.

2.     This review is being written after attending Scottish Opera’s production of Greek, February 2018, and having had an experience both boring and irritating. After the first twenty minutes, during which the novelty of hearing East London chat sung in beautiful operatic voices hadn’t become predictable (or, as in the second art, dropped for a more familiar poetic language), the performance felt trite, the dramaturgy underdeveloped and the attitude towards the working-class culture it represented on stage patronising. Musically, Turnage’s score had plenty going on – there’s a nice drum accompaniment to the battle between Eddy and a pair of Sphinxes, and the rattle and clatter of its recognisably contemporary composition eloquently expresses the emotional depths of the characters. But the production itself felt lazy, with some ill-conceived interludes of physical comedy and a set – a blank wall with two entrances – that flattened the performances and, used only to rotate at certain scene breaks and as a projection screen, an unimaginative scenography for a libretto that is full of intriguing mythic detail.
3.    I returned to a computer, expecting reviews of the previous outing for this production – at the Edinburgh International Festival, 2017 – to express some of my frustrations. However, it had been universally lauded, and called ‘relevant’. I am especially surprised that no comment was made on the unimaginative staging, and the patronising representation of Londoners. I became aware that my opinion was very much out of step with the other reviewers (but not necessarily with a proportion of the audience with whom I had shared this experience).
4.    The reviews regarded Greek as ‘edgy’ and even satirical, seeing its political cynicism as reflecting a current set of anxieties.
5.    The audience at The Theatre Royal, in a large part, had cheered and applauded. Many people seemed enthusiastic. Other people were merely polite.

6.    There are three main reasons that I dislike the production: the apparent lack of imagination in the dramaturgy; the physical presence of the actors and the choreography of certain scenes; the lack of any sense of connection to my experience. I think that I rather liked the music and while the plot was incoherent, this didn’t destroy my enjoyment.
7.    Since the plot was the Oedipus story, made famous by Sophocles, its incoherence needs to be qualified. The juggling of plot points – Eddy marries his mother directly after killing his father (and for no good reason) – disrupted the elegance of the narrative’s inevitability; the introduction of Sphinxes and a plague into a contemporary London, with allusions to civil disorder and Margaret Thatcher, was a mythical interlude that undermined the London setting of the opera; the revelation of Eddy’s true parentage is not teased out but revealed in a single song, which could have happened at any point and had no sense of dramatic tension. However, these problems could have been addressed in a production that was willing to offer more than a blank canvas for its dramaturgical construction.
8.    Usually, I address a performance in terms of its intentions. This may come to be problematic in this case, because, having read other reviews, I am writing in response to the absence of my experience in those other reviews. There is also the problem that it was difficult to discern quite what this production’s intention might be: the projection of some relatively recent tabloids onto a screen doesn’t make it ‘a comment on contemporary social values’, the parody of Oedipus’s traditional self-mutilation isn’t quite strong enough to make this production a wry commentary on tragic values. The use of fetish wear on many of the characters – or, I’d say, a suggestion of it – doesn’t bring out a playful world of sexual pluralism but just looks like some opera singers dressed inappropriately.

9.    The singing was more than serviceable and the orchestra were great. This isn’t a critique of the quality of the artists’ ability, except in their acting and movement skills. The latter were so dismal that it becomes of question of why the production considered having tentative choreography as part of the production, beyond it being something that Greek tragic choruses did.
10.                   The dancing was mostly performed by three cast members, who did something suggestive of being riot police beating demonstrators and a pastiche of musical vaudeville. Not only was the choreography unimaginative, it was executed clumsily and undermined any atmosphere conjured by the singing, either comic or serious.
11.                   However, this is a sub-category of the problem of the dramaturgy. Dramaturgy, in this case, does not signify the work of the dramaturge but the process of adapting a script into production: it’s the time and space of theatre. It’s the choices of interpretation made, the use of design in scenography. It’s the vision of the director and the performance styles of the singers.
12.                   The scenography is a beautiful summation of the problems in the dramaturgy. It’s a white blank wall that doesn’t quite fit the proscenium arch of the Theatre Royal. It rotates every so often, with the two doorways moving over the singers, if they remain on stage. The stage-hand shoving it was visible, so it disrupted the integrity of the world on stage. That doesn’t matter, because Brecht introduced the world to the deliberate exposure of theatre’s mechanics and it’s not like the world on stage was an illusory depiction of London’s grimy underclass. But it was just a bit sloppy.
13.                   The wall had projections onto it, sometimes the lyrics, sometimes video montages that filled in the plot – notably how the mother had lost her son – and occasionally suggestive sequences of food splashed all over the place or tabloid newspapers. They were alluding to the wider context of the world of the opera. They were clumsy, obvious but not particularly enlightening, although the bit where some mayonnaise was squirted over beans was funny, because it was like a cum-shot from a naughty movie. Maybe that was the edgy part. And maybe the tabloid headlines were showing us how so little has changed since Greek’s first production in 1988. But having a picture of Boris Johnson isn’t enough to make this a satire of the Conservative government.

14.                   The dramaturgy relied on a blank canvas to add context to the opera. Funnily enough, that doesn’t work.
15.                   What appeared to be a theme in costumes – rubber fetish gear – was opaque. Some waitresses, the coppers and Eddy’s dad were wearing it, but it wasn’t clear why. For the police, it did seem as if their abuse of protestors might have a sexual element – you know, BDSM as law-enforcement, but the gear wasn’t that good: one copper had a t-shirt underneath it, so it’s wasn’t like a serious effort. The waitress outfits were more convincing but this idea – the fetishization of identity – wasn’t carried far enough. When Eddy sings about an apron as a symbol of motherhood, there’s something, but I get really bored by people wearing gear that meant to be sexy or mean something, but doesn’t really work.
16.                   These are problems in the visual dramaturgy: they don’t add up to a layer of meaning on top, or integrated into, the singing. While this was going on, the singers did their job, but it never resolved into any kind of clear interpretation. It was a bunch of stuff happening.
17.                   Did I mention how uncomfortable the performers looked during the vaudeville scene – which was a choral interlude? They did the sand-dance moves and a big of jigging about. It was simply crappy. There’s a critical word that isn’t used often.
18.                   Claiming that a theatre production doesn’t speak to my experience is a bit specious in most cases: an important function of theatre is about giving voice to other experiences, and I don’t have any meaningful experience that makes sense of Greek tragedy beyond watching and reading Greek tragedy. But in this case, I am simply using that phrase to repeat an earlier accusation, and hopefully clarify it. It presented the London working-class as being stupid and trivial caricatures. As it happens, my maternal family comes from the area that provides the setting of the first scenes. They were Arsenal supporters. They use the words that are presented for laughs in the libretto. I thought they were represented as a series of cheap jokes, and their culture was reduced to a parody.
19.                   There’s nothing wrong with being critical of a culture, only the question of an opera having a laugh at a marginalised group shouldn’t need too much elaboration.
20.                   In the end, all the characters were unsympathetic which, again, need not be a problem except when there’s a swelling of music signifying emotional engagement. If you don’t give a fuck about anyone on stage, the question of whether or not they did their mum becomes irrelevant, and Eddy’s final defiant acceptance of having got in his mum’s knickers lacks any force. It’s just more stuff that happens.
21.                   Equally, it doesn’t relate well enough to the absolute shit-storm that we are all living in to count as satire.
22.                   As it goes, I do like the fancy, detailed and expensively designed operas that Scottish opera produce. I know it’s not the only way to produce opera, and is probably a bit obvious, but I enjoyed it. The performers tonight had no gift for the comedy that lurks in the libretto, and it lacked chemistry for the sexy aria at the start of Act II. But since the comedy never landed, that’s another dramaturgical problem.
23.                   I’m not saying the other reviewers are wrong or stupid, but I wish that my experience had been represented.

24.                   But now it has been. And that’s the purpose of criticism.

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