Nixon in China is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh for two performances (Thursday 27th and Saturday 29th February) and this opera in three acts by John Adams, with a libretto by Alice Goodman which premiered in 1987 inspired by Nixon’s much-publicised visit to China in 1972 breaks many of the stereotypes that many people might still have in their mind as to what opera is. Here we have no tragic heroine sacrificing herself on the altar of love, no double identity twists, and no star-crossed lovers. Instead we have a story based on what to many might not even be the subject for an opera –politics. Also breaking another operatic rule is the use of amplified sound in this production. In fact, with so much of the main vocal delivery performed direct into microphones for the world’s press, sound amplification is almost expected for this opera. Here tonight though this is done with technical sound’s skill and subtlety.
In this first for Scottish Opera, John Fulljames – Director of Opera at The Royal Danish Theatre – directs Adams’ iconic work, with designs by Dick Bird (The Mikado 2016). This work though is not only about the very public events of “Nixon in China”, but an insight into some of the private events hidden from the gaze of the world’s press.
The approach used here to view our events in retrospect through archival storage of this historic meeting is an interesting one that, coupled with very inventive use of stage set design and image projections, allows for enormous flexibility in the storytelling. This is an opera, and of course the music and vocals are important, but out of all the operas that I have reviewed to date, this is the one where the actual text of the book is also an integral part of everything and used with enormous care and vision. Frequently here we are playing with the word games of politics and the veiled criticisms and often threats between the two opposing ideologies make an interesting verbal sparring game. The very careful use of images often adds extra weight to the commentary here too.
Nixon in China is a powerful work, and director John Fulljames has done a fine job with this take on it. Conductor Joana Carneiro does a great job in interpreting a very modern, and often very minimalist, score that just seems not to have aged at all over the years.
Words are however words, no matter how good they are, and they need that extra little bit of magic from a talented cast to truly bring them alive and make the magic happen, and here from the very first few moments it was obvious that our Richard Nixon (Eric Greene) had both the vocal ability and the dramatic ability to do this job. Adding hugely to the realism of this story, and often stealing many scenes, our Pat Nixon (Julia Sporsén) seemed perfectly cast for this role, and watching her performance whenever interacting with Eric Greene was simply a pleasure. There are also some beautifully portrayed little moments from Julia Sporsén when she finally meets her Chinese counterpart, Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung) performed by Hye-Youn Lee. These two women obviously do not like one another, and that is not surprising as there is a very dark and sinister presence to Hye-Youn Lee’s character here.
This meeting took place when Mao Tse-tung (Mark Le Brocq) was in very poor health and this is another fine performance from Mark who confuses Nixon and Henry Kissinger (David Stout) by often talking in riddles and parables leaving Chinese Premiere Chou En-lai (Nicholas Lester) to translate as best he can his leader’s intentions.
Politics are inseparable from this work, and the ideologies of both opposing sides are well represented here, and for this review I will leave the actual conflicting politics alone as they are so well documented in so many other sources. The one thing that is perhaps difficult for anyone too young to have lived through this historic event to imagine is just what an impact this meeting had on the world at the time and how totally unexpected it was. This “Red China” is not the China that we all now know, this is not the China that later declared Chairman Mao’s revolutionary implementation of his goal a mistake that resulted in the death of millions of people and hardships for uncounted more.
One interesting theme that I am left with though is that fear that all governments seem to innately have of its citizens having free access to information without trying to influence it somewhere along the way. West, or East, just what are governments so frightened of if their citizens are not controlled in some direct or indirect way?
Review by Tom King (c) 2020
Dial M For Murder is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 24 to Sat 29 Feb) and, as usual, King’s Theatre audiences seem to be loving their murder mystery story, and why not, this one by English playwright Frederick Knott is a classic one. Many people, however, probably associate Dial M for Murder with the 1954 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, and John Williams. Sadly though, this is not a classic production of the play (on which the film was based) and to be honest, I am not sure what has gone wrong, what has somehow got lost in translation here.
When you enter the theatre, the one thing that strikes you with an impressive visual impact is the single room stage set, a fine piece of theatrical design by David Woodhead with clever use of forced perspective lines for the stage. In this production though, we have moved from our original setting of the early 1950s forward a decade to the early 1960s, 1963 to be precise, and that transition seems to be bringing a few problems with it. One is that, although this set at first glance looks to be impeccably staged with props, when you look closer there are some items there that should not be there for another few years (well to my eye at least). The second problem is the music and design at times – someone seems to be treating the 1960s like it was all one sound and visual landscape, and although sometimes only separated by a few years, there are major differences between the years, and getting them wrong just jars with the whole feel of the story. Perhaps the biggest problem though is that this decade move forward brings some major changes to the way the British legal system was then dealing with punishment for crimes and simply is at odds with this story line.
Murder stories are always difficult to review as you don’t want to give away the plot to anyone going to the show who does not know the story, but telling you this is a story about a man who plans to murder his wife gives no clues away, and our cast (below) should have had everything set up here for a classic murder story – a classic story to work with, and even with a few out of place props, a fine set to firmly ground their story in some degree of realism.
Tom Chambers - Tony Wendice
Sally Bretton - Margot Wendice
Christopher Harper - Captain Lesgate / Inspector Hubbard
Michael Salami - Max Halliday
What has gone wrong then? Well, some small re-writes to the script to take our story forward a decade have not helped, particularly when some are introducing humour at the wrong places. Humour does seem to be the problem here all too often through this production, as that much needed dramatic suspense and tension that you so much need in this type of production is all too often replaced by a lightness of approach to characters that is at many times bordering on light comedy farce. I have no idea where this is coming from, is this how our cast want to play these roles, or is it how they have been directed (Anthony Banks) to play them. Whoever is responsible, it is not working and some fine performances at times are simply outweighed by some odd moments on stage, and you know something is wrong when the audience is finding humour to laugh at where there should be none.
Having said all of the above, and sounding perhaps a little too negative on this production, I did leave the theatre wondering if it was simply me as there was a large round of applause from many people at the end of the show.
Review by Tom King (c) 2020
Tango Fire at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh was a chance for any lovers of tango dance and music to watch some of the very best dancers in the tango world take to the stage. If you like your tango to be contemporary with spectacular lifts, high risk drops, colour, glamour, and of course some very traditional elements, then German Cornejo’s Tango Fire is a show that should be on your radar.
This award winning show has over the past 12 years toured the world, and along the way thrilled so many audiences and also taken tango as a dance and entertainment form to new levels of theatrical experience. German Cornejo is not just a dancer of amazing skill, but a gifted choreographer too, and when these skills combine with his partner Gisela Galeassi, the results are always amazing to watch. As you would expect from a show like this, all of the other dancers are chosen from the very top of their profession, including some world champions.
This show, although there are superb displays of skill from the individual couples, is not simply an exhibition of tango as German Cornejo has choreographed linking elements that give this show a narrative story, and that story starts right at the beginning in a dance hall.
Dance and music are one here, and what takes this show above some of the other dance shows that I have seen is the decision to have very good live band performing, and paying tribute to the music of tango’s most famous composers, including Piazzolla, Pugliese and Gardel. Although some people in the audience might have preferred the dancers never to have left the stage, they did need time for costume changes, and maybe even a little rest between very physically demanding dance numbers, and the band were given time for their own musical performances. Here, the quartet made it clear how music influences every step of tango.
Any show of this nature that is taking a dance form to a theatre production is always going to have a trade off against satisfying the dance purists and entertaining many non-dance specialists in the audience and, judging from the applause at the end of this show, German Cornejo and all of the dancers of Tango fire have more than succeeded in their goals with this show.
Review by Tom King (c) 2020
Rambert are at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh for three performances (Thu 20 to Sat 22 February) and, as always from this innovative dance company, the programme is varied to the point that the three works performed here fit into no identifiable (well to me anyhow) company identity. That is not a bad thing though as Rambert’s work with often cutting edge contemporary artists and choreographers is always, whether a personal favourite of yours or not, creating something that is interesting, and often challenging what people might consider dance to be able to do in terms of engaging an audience and telling a story, or making a statement.
First up on our programme schedule was “PreSentient” with concept, direction, choreography and set design by Wayne McGregor. Performed to music by one of my favourite contemporary composers, Steve Reich, this work perfectly interpreted and balanced the minimalism of his work to a live performance of Triple Quartet. Here, form, grace and style are coupled with the flexibility and power of a dancer’s body to create a work that at times creates as many unanswered questions as Steve Reich’s music itself. PreSentient was originally commissioned by Rambert in 2002, but over the years this work for twelve dancers is still as sharp as ever.
Our second out of three works this evening was Rouge, a new creation from Marion Motin. With influences firmly rooted in hip hop and working with artists such as Christine and the Queens and Dua Lipa it was always obvious that music, colour and fashion were going to be a large part of this new work, and the very distinctive sounds of Ruben Martinez playing guitar live on stage made sure that we all entered into a very sonic “Rouge Space” right from the opening moments of this work.
With music (Micka Luna), costume design (Yann Seabra) and lighting design (Judith Leray) this very visual performance could easily have been a video for MTV or part of a high end fashion show, and I suspect that someone’s emotional reaction and personal identification with this very physical dance work will depend upon their age and musical influences.
Rouge is asking us many questions here, but perhaps the most important one is when you find yourself in the “rouge zone” in your life, how do you not only find the strength to survive in there, but also somehow find the will-power to get out of the danger of “Rouge”. This is an interesting work from Marion Motin , who has until never worked with a contemporary dance company.
Closing tonight’s triple-performance show was another very physical work in the always changing shapes of “In your Rooms” with choreography and composition by Hofesh Shechter. With an original score created by Hofesh in collaboration with Nell Catchpole (The Gogmagogs), this work I found at times the most difficult to find my way into, and that perhaps is more of a tribute to its success than failure as here we are focusing on very personal moments in people’s lives and the sense of isolation and alienation that all too often is a part of modern day society. Do any of us have the answers of how to cope with the ever changing emotional and physical demands that everyday life places upon us, answers as how to fit into a society that often seems not for us? “In your Rooms” might not have the answers either, but it is at least asking some questions.
Review by Tom King (c) 2020
The Graveyards and Cemeteries of Edinburgh
96 pages fully illustrated
Published 15th February 2020
“The Graveyards and Cemeteries of Edinburgh” by Charlotte Golledge is the follow-up to the author’s 2018 book, “Greyfriars Graveyard”.
This new book covers the history of a small number of Edinburgh’s burial places, with an emphasis on the older graveyards and cemeteries, including some of the notable people buried there, and is well illustrated throughout, with much of interest for anyone interested in graveyards and local history. However, for a book which is limited in its size, I felt there was too much space given over to the history and background of some of the people and events included, rather than the actual graveyards and cemeteries of the title.
Although the author undoubtedly knows her subject, which was clear from “Greyfriars Graveyard”, this book feels a bit impersonal and somehow doesn’t capture the relevance and interest that these graveyards and cemeteries still have today. I also have to admit that too many errors in spelling and grammar, especially the confusion between interment and internment (which admittedly may not have been the author’s error) were very distracting, and I found myself at times paying more attention to these than to the actual content of the book.
Having said all that, however, I am sure this book will be a good introduction to the subject for many readers, both locals and visitors to Edinburgh.
Review by Lisa Sibbald (c) 2020