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Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.


By Glenn Loney

[1]The "Ring" comes full circle, plus other electrifying entertainments
[2]Look where it comes again! "Hamlet" in modern-dress:The Dane in a dress, with Horatio at the piano
[3]An Asian-immigrant "West Side Story"from London: "Strictly Dandia", with a welcome happy-ending
[4]San Francisco Ballet returns with Wheeldon World Premiere

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The "Ring" comes full circle, plus other electrifying entertainments:

This summer's program schedule for the Edinburgh Festival looked rather slimmer than in past seasons. Not so on the Fringe, where hundreds and hundreds of attractions were on offer. Considering the considerable reductions in government arts subsidies across Europe, I thought that Edinburgh must also be suffering such cuts. Not so, says Festival Director Brian McMaster:"In fact, this season has cost more than the last one. Several of the productions we have mounted ourselves, instead of importing them. And completing Wagner's 'Ring' has been a major expense."

Fortunately, these are long-term investments, for the "Ring" will enter the repertory of the Scottish Opera. And several of the impressive stage productions are actually co-productions with other theatres. The very unusual "Hamlet" is already scheduled for four subsequent venues and is a candidate for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, better known as "BAM". It should prove both shocking and popular in other major American venues as well.

Wagner's "Ring" cycle completed:

When the Scottish Opera launched its daunting project of producing a new "Ring", a London critic-colleague asked friends: "Why are they doing this? Scotland needs a "Ring'"even less than it needs its own Parliament."

Attitudes such as this one suggest why the Scots are so insistent on maintaining their own customs and culture, as well as producing their own contributions to the High Arts. London imports are all very well, especially Broadway and West End musicals, but Scotland has achieved eminence in the Arts and wishes to share that not only with Scots audiences but internationally as well.

Fortunately, the Edinburgh International Festival provides just such a showcase for the Scottish Opera and Orchestra, without the expense and difficulty of touring to Tokyo or Toronto.
,Peter Bronder as Loge,"Das Rheingold".Photo Douglas Robertson.
Its distinctive new "Ring"-just completed this past August with "Götterdämmerung"-has been created in stages, beginning with Wagner's "Das Rheingold" in the summer of 2000.Having also seen it developed in-and on-stages, I must admit that my initial reservations about the concept, interpretations, and design have been largely swept away by the power of the larger vision in performance. And the performances seem to have taken on strength and stature as well. Matthew Best was especially strong, yet vulnerable, as Wotan. Anne Mason's Fricka made a good match for this willful god. Peter Sidhom's brooding Alberich remained a threatening presence throughout.

In "Die Walküre", Carsten Stabell-having been slain as Fasolt-returned with renewed strength to become a forbidding foe as Hunding. Jan Kyhle, as a really blond super-hero Siegmund, sang the German text so clearly that every word could be understood, with no loss of vocal power or emotion. Placido Domingo could take lessons. Marie Plette initially looked like a frumpy housewife in a welfare-project, but she grew in stature as the forces arrayed against her hclosed in.

Although Elizabeth Byrne's Brünnhilde seemed too soft in some early passages, she gained magnificent power in her awakening to earthly womanhood. Graham Sanders had no power problems as Siegfried, and his rough country-lad image-simple and basically good-natured, as eager for friends as for a quarrel-served him well.

Alasdair Elliott's scheming and screaming Mime was comically excellent and rolled with the frequent punches and pushes Siegfried gave him. This Scottish "Ring" is a very physical production, so the actors/singers cannot just stand in place and vocalized to perfection. Only Erda-Mary Phillips-was allowed somnolence. Gillian Keith's Woodbird-perky in white suit with red accents-was flitting all over the forest.

Fafner and Fasolt-Strongly sung and acted by Markus Hollop and Carsten Stabell-again made their entrance as heads peering out of eye-sockets of a giant mask on wheels. When Siegfried killed the dragon-apainted cloth with a giant mouth of gaping teeth, not a very good effect-this fabric collapsed to reveal the tux-clad Fafner, affecting in his death agonies.

As for the Rhinemaidens-Inka Rinn, Marianne Andersen, and Leah Marian Jones-the idea of costuming them as though they'd just been shopping at Victoria's Secret has by now almost become a cliché. After Peter Hall's naked maids swimming in a pool at Bayreuth, anything now seems possible, even permissible.

In fact, I had just seen the Jürgen Flimm "Ring" at Bayreuth, so comparisons were inevitable. Director Tim Albery and set-designer Hildegard Bechtler obviously could not have been looking at Flimm and designer Erich Wonder's plans for the Bayreuth "Ring" but it's interesting how many visual and interpretative resonances there are between the two "Ring" Cycles.

In fact, some of the Scottish solutions to major scenic problems seem truer to Wagner's text and intentions. Certainly the forging of Nothung is more effective in the Scottish "Ring". Even the awakening of Brünnhilde seems more emotionally and visually powerful than it does in the sterile majesty of the Bayreuth production.

Also interesting was making comparisons between the vocal timbres and qualities of the two casts, both largely excellent. The Scottish cast was ably guided by conductor Richard Armstrong, whose family-name is fort-in-bras in French. He certainly wields his baton with power and subtlety. But then he has an excellent collective instrument in the Opera's orchestra.

In the past three seasons, I have described the visual effects of this developing Scottish "Ring" in some details. Those descriptions are supposedly archived somewhere on this website, so a diligent search may provide some outraged reactions to scenes I now find acceptable, even innovative.

Initially, I though it odd that Wotan's interview with Brünnhilde-just before the angry arrival of Fricka-should take place under what seemed to be a freeway-flyover in a Phillipe Starke Post-Modernist motel-room. With the bathroom door open. This August I realized at last that this enables Wotan to go into the bathroom and throw up when he realizes that Siegmund must die-and the implications of the death of his beloved son.

Of course, there's always that annoying problem about modern-dress and modern-environments for productions of classics, in order to make them seem contemporary and "relevant." This is especially ticklish in the "Ring", for the standard of battle seems to be single-handed combat with swords, pikes, and spears. How about Saturday Night Specials or machine-guns? In a truly Post-Modernist production, Siegfried could slay the dragon with one burst of a flame-thrower!

We now tend to take such inconsistencies in stride. People who initially hated the 1976 Bayreuth Chereau "Ring" now regard it as a classic. So Scots will get accustomed to their new and complete "Ring" as well. There won't be all that many chances to see it however, for the two Festival Cycles were sold out, with additional performances in Glasgow, Stirling, and Salford Quays.

It is a Herculean Task to re-assemble such a fine cast, to re-hearse the staging, and touch up the scenery, so even a "Ring" as powerful as this one will not be a repertory regular. It simply costs too much, and audiences find it some

Elizabeth Byrne as Brünnhilde "Die Walküre"
Photo Credit: Douglas Robertson

difficulty to set aside four evenings for such demanding opera experiences. At the Festival, "Walküre" and "Siegfried" began at five pm, with "Götterdämmerung" commencing at four. That's all right in Festival Season, but in an ordinary work-week-with your job hanging in the balance-it's risky to leave the office early.

If you are a Wagner Fan, however, you may well want to check the Scottish Opera's website, or get on the mailing-list so you can see this colorful and powerful "Ring" production the next time it is on offer. It will certainly be easier to get seats in Scotland than in Bayreuth!

Look where it comes again! "Hamlet" in modern-dress: the Dane in a dress, with Horatio at the piano:

Modern-dress productions of "Hamlet", once a novelty, have become instead something of a cliché. But the vision-and revision-of the Melancholy Dane unveiled at Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre by that innovative mad Catalan stage-director, Calixto Bieito, is a total astonishment. Like his elemental Edinburgh Festival "Life Is a Dream"-which also starred George Anton-this electrifying production is a Must for "BAM", the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It may outrage some Traditionalists, but it is sure to provide a provocative New Look at an Old Master for younger, trendier audiences.

This "Hamlet" -a co-production with the Birmingham Rep-unlike most modernist treatments, is anything but an embarrassment or a simplistic reduction. It is dynamic, ferocious, sexy, stylish, violent, bloody, hilarious, handsome, heart-breaking, and infuriating by turns. After the initial visual shock, it carries the viewer along on its flood-tide of energy and emotion.

Hamlet's college-chum Horatio has been promoted to Lounge Pianist at the Danish Court. Looking altogether too handsome-a cross between George Hamilton and Elvis-in a stunning white suit, he tickles the ivories of a gleaming white baby-grand-piano. His tunes set the Royal Family dancing, with King Claudius opening the festivities by crooning "He's My Brother" into a mike. As he has recently killed his brother to gain both crown and queen, this is only the first of many ironic or bizarre visual and sub-textual commentaries by Bieito. They follow with astonishing impact, outraging some spectators, but delighting most.

Karl Daymond is Elsinore's matinée-idol pianist, but he has also composed the original music that underscores much of the action, as in old silent-films. But this "Hamlet" is anything but silent.

It is performed with tremendous energy, which sweeps away most momentary objections to Bieito's unusually psycho-sexual interpretations of the characters and situations. Giving the pretty teenie Ophelia advice, her handsome dad gropes her to the point of orgasm: his, not hers. Hamlet's confused emotions about his mother even seem to extend to male friends and enemies as well.

As for Hamlet in a dress, how else could Bieito provide a Player Queen in a cast of only nine actors? Horatio, aided by the mike, is the Ghost and the Gravedigger as well. Forget about Fortinbras…

You can also forget about poor Yorick's skull. Instead, Horatio hands Hamlet a funeral urn filled with ashes. Hamlet sifts them through his fingers, finally finding a red clown's nose, which he rams onto his own, evoking Yorick's comic gambits of long, long ago. Later, Ophelia's remains have also been reduced to ashes. A Bardophile near me suggested that Bieito had reduced the entire tragedy to ashes.

Bieito's economy in casting-coupled with a deft elision and conflation of the original text-for once has made Shakespeare's comment about "the two-hours' traffic of our stage" come out right on the dot. This split-second timing is also made possible by the supercharged emotion with which the actors explore-and even explode-each scene, pushing the drama relentlessly forward to its corpse-littered conclusion.

This frenzy-sometimes verging on hysteria-is exemplified in George Costigan's Claudius. He's like Ron Leibman in former times: a force of nature, barely held in control. Initially, he illustrates his every utterance with stock gestures, as though he'd studied Public Speaking at night-school. Frustrated in his prayers, he hacks his way through a cake of ice on the cocktail cart. The ice-pick is later given to Laertes [Lex Shrapnel] to kill Hamlet.

Although George Anton's Hamlet looks older than anyone on stage-aside from Rupert Frazer's Polonius, who is a dashing middle-aged courtier-his total immersion in the role commands attention. And his soliloquies are usually treated with a thoughtfulness not accorded to much of the text.

Diane Fletcher is a lovely Gertrude, with Rachel Pickup's dithering Ophelia hoping for her first album. Matthew Douglas &and Nicholas Aaron-as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-are a really forceful team of almost savage saboteurs, undermining Hamlet at every turn.

This show must come to "BAM" and Brooklyn. It should be easy to tour as-aside from the white baby-grand-piano-the set is largely composed of stepped platforms with four rows of modern armchairs. IKEA could have designed it, instead of Ariane Isabell Ufried and Rifail Ajdarpasic.

Backing this is a metal scaffold with a huge electric sign: PALACE. What could be easier to import-and even tour America!

An Asian-immigrant "West Side Story" from London: "Strictly Dandia," with a welcome happy-ending

This engaging little show is nothing like the West End's big Bollywood hit, "Bombay Dreams". Some festival spectators seemed to have expected just that, however. So some seats were empty after the interval of this sold-out play-with-music.

There might be the seeds of a Broadway musical in Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith's charming-if slightly amateurish-play-with-music, "Strictly Dandia". At its core is the possibly doomed love of a Hindu girl of good family for a "slim," London Indian slang for a Muslim. This is not exactly another "West Side Story"-where the parents of the gang-members are never seen-nor is it a clone of "Romeo and Juliet", for it closes, not with tragedy, but with a festival of inter-racial and inter-caste harmony, with a double-wedding on the horizon,

Dandias and Garbas are traditional circle dances of Gujarati Hindus, many of whom emigrated to London from East Africa, where they had felt increasingly threatened. And there have been waves of Hindu immigration from India as well, especially after the Partition of India and Pakistan.

These special dances are central to the Gujarati's religious identity, but they are hardly known in Britain outside Hindu communities. Unlike the Punjabi Bhangara-already popularized in "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham"-the ritual and repetitive nature of garbas and dandias don't make for effective show-biz choreography.

Recognizing that visual limitation even on the community level, Prema Ghedia-played by playwright Sudha Bhuchar, as a leading light in this small London Hindu social world-hosts an annual Dandia Contest, with King and Queen crowns for the best and most innovative couple. Some talented aspirants have been coached by a young man whose father insists he give up dance and join him at his news-stand. There is more than a whiff of "A Chorus Line" here.

Although the new-found popularity of Bollywood films in the West has introduced both Britons and Americans to distinctive customs and cultures of India, there is obviously much that is not known about the daily lives of transplanted Hindus, Sikhs, and Pakistanis on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Strictly Dandia" offers a charming introduction to that otherwise closed world. Not only are the Hindus deeply mistrustful of Muslims-remembering the horrors of the Partition and the fact that Pakistan has the atom-bomb-but the distinctions of the caste-system are also alive and well in London and other immigrant communities. Even Hindus who are not Gujaratis may be looked down on.

All comes relatively right in the end, as the lovely Preethi Ghedia-threatened with an arranged marriage-is able to win the dance contest with her Muslim partner and love, Raza Khan. The attractive dancing duos are played by Fiona Wade and Paul Tilley.

Previously, it would have been unthinkable even to allow a Muslim to be present at such an event, let alone participate in it. Fortunately for the Young Lovers, Raza has just protected the Hindu news-agent from a vicious attack. This act of courage and generosity cannot be ignored, and it helps to set changes of cultural attitudes in motion.

Unfortunately for the dynamics of the show, it happens off-stage. It is merely reported. What a choreography such a street-fight might make! But it is part of the problem of this very well-intentioned entertainment that the mechanics of the playwriting are not sufficient to the needs of the conflicts. Add to that the problems of actors talking too softly-and in Asian accents unfamiliar to most audiences-making it difficult to follow what is going on. Some deft re-writing and directing would certainly help.

Sudha Bhuchar as co-playwright already has considerable credits with the BBC. And for the Tamasha Theatre-which co-produced this show with the Lyric Hammersmith-she has written "Balti Kings" and "Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral". So both she and her Tamasha colleague Kristine Landon-Smith are creative talents to watch.

This interesting show could certainly have another and more dynamic life beyond its current format. But any choreographer/director who believes he or she can transform it into either "A Chorus Line" or "West Side Story" should pay heed to its Anglo-Asian origins and its initial creators.

San Francisco Ballet returns with Wheeldon World Premiere

Ballet companies, like prophets, sometimes seem to be honored only outside their own lands. When the San Francisco Ballet first came to Edinburgh some seasons ago, it proved a sensation. Its showpiece was Michael Smuin's "Romeo and Juliet", which had not been so much admired in the Golden Gate Metropolis. Smuin's image of Renaissance Veronese women joining the men in swordfights on the streets seemed a bit much. In due course, Smuin was ousted, which unfortunately lost the Ballet a very inventive choreographer.

The company has now been directed for some time by Helgi Tomasson. It was hoped he would restore some of the classical elegance Bay Area conservatives longed for in their ballets. He seems to have done that, while at the same time seeking new directions and new ideas as well.

This summer, the ensemble came to the Edinburgh Festival with a World Premiere by Christopher Wheeldon. He has already made a reputation with stunning new choreographies for the New York City Ballet, which had been in the creative doldrums for some time.

Some measure of the admiration Wheeldon has provoked among New York's influential and elite audiences is the recent presentation of the prestigious Brendan Gill Award by the Municipal Art Society. This award is given annually to that person who has in the previous year contributed the most to New York City's cultural richness in the arts or architecture. [I mention this because I am a Gill Award Nominator, though I did not think to propose Wheeldon for the honor.]

Michael Smuin's trademark was the razzle-dazzle ballet or dance-work. Wheeldon's growing popularity with both audiences and ballet companies, on the other hand, is his ability to blend elements of the classic ballet with modern dance in small-scale works, though not yet as strikingly as his New York City Ballet predecessors George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

He is scheduled to create a new version of "Swan Lake" for the Pennsylvania Ballet, but, thus far, he has mounted no major programmatic ballets of his own. For the Edinburgh Festival, he offered three works, one a World Premiere. This is "Rush", set to composer Bohuslav Martinu's "Sinfonietta La Jolla". The work was commissioned especially for the Edinburgh Festival.

Sixteen skilled dancers of the San Francisco ensemble, variously paired, wearing pinks and purples, showed their physiques and physical agilities in beautifully composed movements. The Daily Telegraph's critic observed of the new work: "Rush" is more fluid and conventional than "Continuum", full of neo-classical bravado and satisfying in an undemanding sort of way."

"Continuum" was premiered in San Francisco in 2002, and it proved the most interesting of the three-part program. Set to a piano score by the Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti, it puts four couples-all in sober green practice-outfits-through a series of at times undulating movements which are at once entrancing and often unusual. Four men, arms linked, rotate like a unit. Even physically unflattering moments show the possibilities of the dancers' bodies in motion and in stasis.

The opening dance-work, "Where She Loved", explores a variety of love encounters, some of them wistful, some brutal. The Brecht/Weill song, "Surabaya Johhny," illustrates the bruising futility of loving a man who "Is No Good". Chopin's "Country Songs", however, are the musical fundament on which most of these dances are set. Sarah Castle and Jacqueline Miura alternated singing the songs, to Michael McGraw's pianism.

A visually pleasant, but not an astonishing evening in the Edinburgh Playhouse. Andrew Mogrelia conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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