Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Folkestone serves up a mixed bag of food

Taramasalata – none of that over-pink stuff
The food and the travel: those are the key problem areas when traveling in the UK and both were brought into sharp focus for us last year when we visited Rye.

On the food front, it wasn’t necessarily just finding somewhere that was serving food when you needed it that was a problem (although it was, on occasion), but finding food that was worth eating.

Too often on that trip, even basic food such as fish and chips or an omelette was poor.

On the travel front, if you don’t have a car, then you’ll find it difficult getting around. Public transport is far from brilliant – while it is certainly expensive. Last year, for a short trip from Winchelsea Beach back to Rye after a lengthy walk, we paid £5 for two adult to climb aboard a Stagecoach bus.

This year, getting back from Hythe to Folkestone – around five miles, given where we got on and off – the bus fare was £6.40 (also Stagecoach). To clarify: both of these were daytime trips and outside any rush hour.

And dear Stagecoach – the mock leather seats do not compensate.

According to the Financial Times, the company’s pre-tax profits fell by 37% in the year to April this year (partly due to capital expenditure). The poor lambs only made a meager £104.4m.

Rip-off Britain, anyone?

But back to the food.

Driven out of London by the second festival to be staged just 100m away from us this summer, we decided to go away on a bank holiday for the first time.

Time was short. The flyer informing us that the park would be busy for six nights, plus set-up, rehearsal and then the strike, landed on the doormat just over a fortnight ago.

The Other Half suggested a longer sojourn in Folkestone than our first visit in June, when a two-day rap/dance/garage/whatever-the-hell festival had, by the end of the Saturday, left us in danger of throttling each other and in vital need of escape the following day.

Discovering that it’s only an hour (on the fast, more expensive) train from St Pancras to Folkestone, we’d headed to the coast.

This time around, we managed to book a couple of nights in an old-fashioned hotel on the promenade. A week later, we suddenly thought that, given that it was a bank holiday, it might be worth considering eating opportunities in advance.

Bass done scarily 'raw'
After a spot of Googling, we were just able to grab a 9.15pm booking at Rocksalt, the town’s only eatery to bother the good people at Michelin.

Having checked in to our hotel, we headed down to the harbour in search of a late lunch – still over six hours before dinner. Rocksalt is actually slap bang on the harbour – an unobtrusive, modern building that backs onto a collection of traditional fish ‘n’ chippies, seafood cabins and fishmongers.

There we bought fodder and sat down on a bench to eat, free entertainment provided by an example of local colour to our left, regaling listeners with something or other, while swigging from a bottle of red wine, and a seagull who was trying to telepathically divorce us from some of our chips (they’re polite seagulls in Folkestone), while watched and mimicked by a young gull.

Two points here. First, it’s tempting, but don’t feed gulls (yes, I know I’ve done so in the past): it’s making them behave aggressively and causing talk of gull culls.

Second, the takeaway was perfectly good for what it was. My complaints about food are not a snob thing that excludes such eating: it’s simply that, whatever type of meal I’m having, I still expect it to be good for what it is.

Indeed, the pub lunch that we had the following day at the Britannia Inn in Dungeness, after a morning spent walking over difficult terrain, in a howling wind, was also an example of being absolutely right for what and where it was (in my case, scampi, chips and mushy peas, with a glass of good Kentish ale on the side).

But I digress.

On Saturday evening, after dark had descended, we too descended back to the harbour. We were particularly fortunate to be offered a table on the terrace, directly above the lapping sea.

I say “particularly fortunate”, because inside was rather noisy. So was outside, to be fair, but since it wasn’t enclosed, it was less annoying. There is something about British diners: going out for drinks first before going on to eat.

Rocksalt is not a curry-after-the-pub eatery. The anti-social – and loud at those levels is anti-social – diners were neither posh nor ‘chavs’. And it was not younger diners that were the loudest either. A middle-aged group sitting four tables away from us could be heard throughout, with one of the women having to be escorted to and from the loo, and then later, out to a taxi, as she couldn’t stand up properly.

As we neared the end of our own meal, a group inside could be heard boisterously quaffing pints and ordering lobster, having arrived late. The staff looked less than impressed.

It’s not a joke when I say that I have no memory of anything comparable on the Continent (unless one is near Brits or visitors from the US).

But anyway, to the food.

As an amuse-bouche, we were brought fresh bread with a platter of toppings: the house taramasalata, butter, a butter mixed with pork fat, seaweed crisps and, of course, salt.

Every bit of that was lovely – and my goodness, that taramasalata was a dream of real delicacy, while the porky butter, when sprinkled with a little of the salt, was ... well, I’ll let your imaginations do the work.

I had a starter of bass, marinaded in gin, and served with a scallop, fried in a batter made with tonic water. It came with shreds of red chili, black olives, beautifully crisp pickled cucumber slices and a scatter of baby coriander leaves.

Little aside – this being Britain, our waitress had to check that I did know that it wasn’t cooked.

The fish was delightful: tender and delicate, while the scallop complimented it nicely and the garnishes worked fine – even the coriander, which as baby leaves, wasn’t overpowering and soapily unpleasant, as I usually find it.

The Other Half enjoyed his duck egg with black pudding, girolles and samphire – even though he thought the egg a fraction overdone.

For a main, he opted for the lemon sole with a hollandaise and I went for the Dover sole – in my case, this came with a brown butter with capers, and was simply superb.

The Other Half's duck egg, girolles and samphire
Delicate flesh, incredibly fresh and excellently cooked, with the capers cutting through the natural sweetness of the fish – this was why simplicity is wonderful.

For accompaniments (another British oddity) we chose Kentish cauliflower dressed with cobnuts and lemon, and a selection of seasonal green beans and peas.

Both were good – the cauli was a veritable treat and will be tried at home.

For dessert, The Other Half enjoyed a gin jelly, with Kentish strawberries and a lime and tonic sorbet, while I availed myself of a row of the restaurant’s own sorbets: raspberry, strawberry and black cherry, which simply sung with an abundance of real fruitiness.

On the wine front, we kept it simple with a Domaine Saint Felix 2015 from the Languedoc: a light white with citrus notes.

House-made fudge – instantly evoking northern bonfire nights of childhood – came with coffee.

A top-class meal, with very good, pleasant service, Mark Sargeant’s Rocksalt may not be cheap, but for this sort of dining experience, it was far from being over the top.

Fast forward 24 hours.

Almost from the moment we decided to make this trip, we had planned to visit Dungeness on our full day in the area, traveling to and from nearby Hythe on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. As such, we envisaged feeling fairly knackered by the time we got back to the hotel that evening.

With that in mind and after internet searches revealed a paucity of decent places to eat on a Sunday night – chains in the town are noisy – we had settled for the idea of dining in the hotel.

Like others of its ilk, our temporary abode thinks it still has to do Edwardian grandeur. Which helps to explain the attempted silver service and a menu that is stuck firmly in the 1970s.

Pity the poor vegetarian – they, and anyone else requiring ‘gentle’ food – faced the prospect of an omelette. And on the basis of the scrambled egg at breakfast ...

When away from work, I’ve dined in such places rather more often than The Other Half, and so was perhaps less surprised by the whole business – and it wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced anyway.

I feel for the staff: they’re not trained to the standard the hotel is attempting and they’re totally flustered when, for instance, you actually make a selection from the wine list that they’ve give you.

Heaven forfend if you actually ask for a bottle of wine – not just a glass of the house whatever.

It was an £18 Gewürztraminer. After waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... I called the waiter over to ask what was up, only to be informed that his colleague was in the cellar, hunting. Moments later came news that it wasn’t to be found.

Next try – a £10 bottle of an English white that was on the wine list’s ‘sale’ page.

Some time later – by which point I’d finished my centimetre-thick slab of Ardennes paté, served with melba toast, a doorstep of cucumber, a quarter of tasteless tomato and two fistfuls of frizzy lettuce doused in a thick Balsamic glaze – we heard that that was gone too.

“It’s been a busy weekend”, our waiter offered by way of a difficult-to-believe explanation.

We quickly ordered a large glass each of the house white. It turned out to be inoffensive and utterly unmemorable. Unmemorable, that is, except for costing £6 a glass.

For a main, we both opted for cod fillet in a lemon and herb crumb, with a dill cream sauce. Roast spuds and assorted roast veg were served on the side, by our waiter.

It wasn’t bad, but have you ever tried cutting into a roast potato with a traditional fish knife?

Dover sole with brown caper butter – and accompaniments
I concluded with ice cream and strawberries on the grounds of safety.

Yet around us, other guests were lapping it up and lavishing praise on the food.

And then there was the family of three from Yorkshire, who sat down behind us and said they didn’t need to see the menu – they’d have the roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, but “fetch us one with gravy on the plate and two with gravy on the side”.

I wish that I could amply describe the Yorkshire-born Other Half’s expression!

One of the other guests who was enjoying it all sent his breakfast bacon back on both mornings we were there – demanding it be cooked more. On the Monday, it was sent back twice before he found it to his taste. By that stage, they’d presumably substituted meat for old boot leather.

What a contrast.

Yet these contrasts provide yet further evidence of why traveling in the UK is fraught with issues. Thankfully, Rocksalt proved that it doesn’t always need to be the case. I really do hope to eat there again, but in the meantime, could someone unlock the mystery of why so many Brits struggle to eat a meal in a way that doesn’t impinge on their fellow diners?

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Winter is coming ... to the beach

Every year, at around about this time, I take a number of books off shelves and stack them in a corner of the flat.

Then, over the following period, they are shuffled, increased one day and decreased the next, as I debate whether or not this is the right selection for holiday reading and whether there are enough books or too many.

Every year, I am told by people that I should get a Kindle. Every year, I explain that:

I do not actually like reading books on a tablet;

if I drop a book on a damp beach, the damage will never be greater than a single lost book;

I distrust The Cloud and continue to prefer to actually have my ‘stuff’ under my control and my control alone.

The first part of this usually occurs a month or so before a trip. This time around, it has been just a few days – which possibly suggests how welcome the trip itself is going to be.

And while there is therefore little adjustment time, the pile itself reveals a considerable jolt in my reading habits over the last eight months or so.

Back in ancient times – okay, the end of the 1970s and beginning of the following decade – I ‘discovered’ horror and fantasy fiction.

In the case of the former, it was largely Stephen King and, in the latter, Tolkien and, a few years later, Terry Pratchett.

I read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels avidly, plus works by William Horwood.

But then, Sir Terry apart, I drifted away from fantasy because it all really rather seemed to be largely inferior Lord of the Rings. This is possibly the point at which to state that, for vaguely complicated reasons, in my mid-twenties I did a series of commissioned illustrations of places from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit for a hotel owner in Torquay who just happened to be called Tolkien and was a nephew of JRR.

Unfortunately (or not – I don’t recall them being stunning, and they took me an age) I have no record of them. Hey ho.

Be mother to your own Funko Pop dragon
Late last year, it seemed the time to pick up LoTR once more. Reading the first part again, I found myself thinking that Frodo is still wet and irritating, but I also enjoyed the poetic stuff much more, including Tom Bombadil.

And I moved from that to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy – works I’d been promising myself I should read for some years.

Thus far, I’ve only read the first book, Titus Groan: I didn’t find it a quick read, but it is a stunning one, and it reawakened by interest in fantasy. Surely there had to be works out there that didn’t just slavishly echo Tolkien’s formula?

One of the first books I found was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – a sure fire hit given my predilection for Norse mythology (I have also been reading more extensively than before this year).

Half a dozen of the Sandman graphic novels sit on my shelves and there is also Dark Omens, a copy of the novel he co-wrote with Sir Terry years ago, but I had not dipped into any of his own novels.

Sure enough, I loved American Gods. I love Gaiman’s version of Odin and all the other gods from around the world that he brings to life.

The Other Half read and enjoyed it too, so his Anansi Boys is going with us on holiday.

The discovery of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks has opened up a wonderful variety of works, including Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which is a slow burner, but draws you inexorably under its spell.

What is not a slow burner, however, is George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones – the first book in a series that seems to have spawned a little TV show.

Now I haven’t even watched a trailer for the TV version, but the first 800-page volume utterly gripped me.

This is masterful storytelling – not least given the number of threads that Martin develops at the same time and his ability to ensure that the reader never becomes confused or loses track of what’s going on and who is who.
... or your own direwolf

I still haven’t watched any of the TV version, but I am now aware of the look of it and the actors playing the main characters – and also some of the collectibles that are available. It is, as you may gather, my new favourite thing (just in time to be able to join in with all the comparisons between the stories and the state of British politics) .

The second book was the first thing into this year’s book pile – followed a short while later by the third – or to be strictly accurate, part one of the third instalment.

TH White’s The Once and Future King – his series of novels about King Arthur, including The Sword in the Stone – makes the pile: another that The Other Half is also likely to indulge in. I’ve spent years thinking that I should read some version of Arthurian legend and the time has come.

After a recommendation from a delightful Polish barista in a local coffee shop, I have just been reading – and thoroughly enjoying – The Last Wish, a collection of short stories featuring Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Blood of Elves, the first full novel, is already waiting on the shelf, but that is for another time.

For a change of flavour, the holiday fantasy is joined by two Maigret novels and one collection of three modern Italian crime fiction novellas.

But I already know that, as we head south on Friday, it will be A Clash of Kings that will be the first tome to be opened. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Music to go

I believe that young people call this sort of thing 'skull candy'
Technology, when it works, can be brilliant. When it doesn’t work … it can make you wonder, with growing frustration, what happened to the idea that it was all supposed to make life easier.

I’ve written before about the travails of being a classical music listener dealing with iTunes, but it is getting no easier.

Last year, given both its age (and thus a sense of its limited life drawing inevitably toward an end) and the prices old ones were fetching online, I made the decision to mothball my classic iPod and get a new generation one.

Mistake. The new one is a pain – the biggest size at that time is barely able to hold my classical music collection, let alone anything else, and has not allowed for any growth.

It’s irritating to have it insisting on showing everything I’ve bought digitally so that I play it from ‘the cloud’. I’d barely bought any classical music digitally and stopped buying any music at all digitally some time ago.

I’ve stopped buying comics digitally too, because I’m bored with discovering that, when I want to read or listen to something, it is no longer where I had downloaded it to upon purchase, but I have to download or stream it again, from … The Cloud and possibly with additional costs.

Would anyone really accept buying a book from a bookshop and then finding, when you actually want to read it, the bookshop has taken it back and you have to go and get it again.

Why would I want to do any such thing with, say, a three disc opera while I’m on holiday, for instance?

So, the iPod classic has come out of mothballs and, over the last couple of days has polished and plugged in to the computer, after yet another struggle uploading the music I’ve bought in the last year (not actually a vast amount).

At over six years old, my computer works wonderfully. Well, sort of. Because it’s two months ‘too old’, it is no longer possible to upgrade the operating system and, therefore, much other software.

The classic un-mothballed, with Music Angel
In other words, it is becoming obsolete and I face having to buy a new one later this year. And because of changes to tech – and concomitant efforts to get people to store their stuff in The Bloody Cloud (or somebody’s else’s computer, as it actually is), I shall also need to buy a disc drive and then a multi-USB block so that I can have more than one peripheral attached at any one time.

Ah, the joys of consumerism and the ways in which, having conspired to ensure that we now need tech, we have to keep buying it (and more).

Anyway, all this makes adding in new music to my library just a bit more complex. No album cover art ever imports automatically; I have to do it manually, finding it on the internet. And then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of re-writing information so that you get some sense of organisation.

It makes sense with classical music to organise a collection by composer for the most part. In which case, every opera, for instance, needs retitling so that it reads: ‘Composer: opera; [disc number]’, otherwise your Puccinis are all over the shop and nobody wants that.

It’s worth noting that my music listening has been improved of late with the purchase of a new pair of headphones.

Now several years old, my Sennheiser plugs had taken to crackling madly on orchestral brass and percussion sections once I hit any sort of volume.

But here’s where the internet is wonderful: inevitably, there was a guide to be found to headphones for classical listeners – indeed, the one I found was at gramophone.com and is regularly updated.

After a detailed read, I ordered a pair – and although it’s meant moving away from plugs (but big ones are so on trend these days), the sumptuous quality of sound is more than enough compensation.

Something old ...
Interestingly, the new ones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50X studio monitor professional headphones – designed very much with DJs in mind – but the definition when listing to an orchestra (you can almost pick out individual instruments) is superb and makes you feel drawn right into the heart of the music.

In addition, I found a Music Angel – a diminutive speaker for an iPod, smartphone or tablet. It needs no batteries, running off the gadget itself, and while the sound is hardly earth-shattering, it’s a great way to ensure that you can play your music when you’re away from home and there is no need to keep your music to yourself.

And since it just jacks into your gadget, it's less likely to be rendered worthless by Apple changing stuff again. 

So now I’m musically set for the holiday – kitted out for travel and for our temporary residence.

Of course, having got such things working again, the temptation has been to buy some new music.

And something new
And the most recent additions to the collection include Hildegard von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy from the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music, conducted by Barbara Thornton, and the Danish String Quartet playing pieces by Thomas Adés (Arcadiana from 1994), Per Nørgård (Quartett Breve from 1952) and Hans Abrahamsen (10 Preludes from 1973).

You might suppose that, separated by ticking on for a thousand years, these lie at opposite ends of the musical spectrum.

However, they share a certain quality in their sparse, rather purifying sound, which creates an introspective, meditative state of mind – a musical cleansing after too much (if that’s possible) 19th century symphonic richness.

As such, both make very welcome additions to my collection.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Break out the Bolly – Ab Fab's back

If the film version of Absolutely Fabulous isn’t the greatest comedy ever made, then at the end of a week in which the UK went completely bonkers, it was pretty much perfect Friday evening entertainment.

It’s extraordinary to remember that the TV show first saw the light of day in 1992, but it’s been with us, on and off, ever since.

Now, finally, it reaches the big screen.
Essentially 90 minutes of sketches, all written by Jennifer Saunders, we see Eddy (Saunders herself) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) fleeing to the south of France after apparently killing supermodel Kate Moss.

This time, they have to rely on Saffy’s daughter, the street wise Lola (Indeyarna Donaldon-Holness), to help them work out how to escape, since the intervening years have not made the duo any more sensible.

It has some laugh-out-loud moments, but is mostly at the level of inspiring a wide grin while watching.

A few brief existential moments from Eddy are probably the weakest aspects of the film, which is also incredibly indulgent in terms of the guest stars and cameos.

But the script has plenty to enjoy, with plenty of jokes about modern life, from people who say ‘totes’ or ‘O.M.G.’ to the problems of social media and being ‘trollied’ to sex changes. And of course, the world of fashion is a gift to comedy.

Julia Sawalha is back as Saffy, along with June Whitfield as Mother.

It moves at a pace and ends with a nod to Hollywood’s greatest comedy, Some Like It Hot.

If the sum of the parts is not entirely fabulous, one of those parts most certainly is.

Lumley lights up the screen every time she appears: gurning and sneering her way through increasingly improbable situations, bolstered by Bolly, fangs, drugs and self-injected Botox.

Thank goodness the years have not taken a toll on Patsy – a new dose of her sheer awfulness is worth the admission alone.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ever wondered what your pets do when you're out?

It happens so often. As you pull the front door to, there is a moment when you wonder just what goes on when you’re not there. What do the furry members of the household get up to.

I admit it: I have actually waved goodbye to our three cats on occasion by telling the oldest of the trio, Boudicca, not to let the younger ones have a party and wreck the place.

And I’m sure that I’m not unique – though I’m also prepared to bet that at least some of it can be blamed on Animal Magic – the children’s TV programme that ran from the 1960s to the ’80s, which saw Johnny Morris voicing assorted animals and birds.

Indeed, The Other Half and I have, on more than one occasion, ‘voiced’ animals and birds we’re watching at the time (we do a great routine for seagulls).

As such, The Secret Life of Pets was always going to be our list of films to see.

We’ve known about it since last July, when, on our return to cinema viewing after 16 years away, a trailer preceded Minions, last summer’s release from Illumination. The chance to catch a preview was too good to miss.

As a bonus, Illumination’s latest release is preceded by Mower Minion, a new, four-minute short featuring the banana-loving yellow creators of chaos.

The plot of our main feature is straightforward enough: in a bustling New York, the life of Max – a little terrier – is disrupted, when his owner brings home a new dog, the huge, shaggy Duke.

When they don’t get on, that leads to the pair getting lost in the streets of the city, without their collars – chased by wardens as strays, before being rescued by Flushed Pets, a revolutionary group of formerly domesticated animals led by Snowball, a tiny, cute but psychotic bunny.

But when they are revealed to Snowball and his crew as “leash lovers,” the situation looks desperate.

Can they escape? Can they get home? Can they get on? Will their friends be able to help?

With obvious similarities to Toy Story, this is a feel-good, family film.

At 90 minutes it speeds along at a merry pace, with new characters introduced throughout.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and more than a few references for adults to knowingly spot.

This may not be complex stuff, but it is a real pleasure – and is quite gorgeous to look at.

And the makers have also spent time genuinely watching animals to know how they move and react in certain situations – there will be much that you’ll recognise.

So, if you want something to make you laugh uproariously and forget the state of the world today, The Secret Life of Pets is a great option.

Oh – and the makers even manage to get a Minions reference into the film too.
It opens properly this Friday across the UK.

Friday, 10 June 2016

ENO's Tristan strikes the wrong chord

There was probably going to be a time when I saw a production of an opera that was trying just too, too hard.

Unfortunately, it happened at the London Coliseum, at last night’s opening of the English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

It’s difficult to know where to start, so probably best to do so at the beginning.

The orchestra under Edward Gardner was in good form – the prelude was beautiful, if perhaps a tad slow. But that would be being overly picky and, given what followed, I’m determined to grasp at all available straws.

The sets have been designed by world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor, and Act I takes place within a series of three triangular boxes.

This is good: it bolsters a sense of the divide between the lovers – including a divide of social convention – with a void between them for most of the act. It also has drama.

The metallic surfaces reflect light superbly and glow. I rather assumed that we would continue with something similar throughout, since it seemed set to convey Wagner’s ideas around night and day very well.

It might have needed to be built a little more strongly, though, since a bit of early business between Kurwenal and Brangäne gave one section a severe shaking. And some of the audience apparently missed out on some of the ‘action’ as the walls created blocked sightlines.

But oh, the ‘business’. As one young member of the audience noted to me in the first interval, it was all very “distracting”.

Nice set – shame about the costumes
In their respective compartments, Tristan and Isolde are dressed by their servants, bit by painful and inexplicable bit: he as a Samurai warrior, she in a ridiculously over-large crinoline – only for both of them to cast off these garments the  minute that King Mark turns up.

A King Mark of Cornwall, that is, who had apparently wandered into the Mikado dressing room and emerged on stage as an aged Japanese emperor.

Given that Kurwenal and Brangäne were attired and made up as Restoration fops, this was a cultural mash up on speed.

There was, of course, the music. And Wagner’s music is sublime.

On the singing front, Craig Colcough as Kurwenal and Karen Cargill as Brangäne gave wonderful vocal accounts; one can easily conceive of the latter as an Isolde herself.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan is a fine tenor who seemed wooden in the first act in particular, but probably in large part because he was having to act the mannequin as he was dressed.

Heidi Melton is clearly a good dramatic singer, but there is a tightness in her voice in the upper registers, and she lacks the tonal warmth of Cargill.

But if Kapoor’s first-act design worked well, the second act was less convincing – then again, it suffered from crackpot direction that no amount of design could have salvaged.

Daniel Kramer may be in the process of taking over the reins at an ENO that is struggling, on and off stage, but on the basis of this production, that does not give great cause for optimism.

Why, oh why, oh why would you have the lovers play out the great love scene in Act II as though they’re mentally-ill self-harmers?

One could say that ecstatic love is akin to a form of mental illness, but in the context of this work, using the idea of self-harm does two things.

First, it diminishes the power of the love that is central to Wagner’s vision.

Second, it buys into the idea of the final part of the opera as a ‘liebestod’ – literally, a love of death.

That was not something that Wagner ever called it or intended. Isolde does not die at the end, but experiences a transfiguration to join Tristan on some eternal plane.

Love on a gurney – watched by an old man
Now you’re welcome to say that that’s bonkers, but the whole point of Tristan and Isolde is this extraordinary, transcendantal love – are we now so cynical and so enamoured of victim porn that we have to see it like this, with the lovers themselves as damaged, vulnerable human beings who need to be protected (strapped to a hospital bed) for their own sakes?

I skipped the final act. I realised that there was simply no way that I could make my first live ‘liebestod’ this one.

Later, via social media, I was informed that I was “lucky”.

But not only did Kramer’s direction leave me cold, I have absolutely no idea what costume designer Christina Cunningham was thinking. Okay – I have a little with the dandified servants (overweening court officials), but once you’re straining to find a rationale, you’re in trouble.

As to the Samurai and Japanese costumes – I can only guess that this is some convoluted way of hinting at ritual suicide and thus, again, playing to the whole idea of the love being a love of death.

And why was King Mark played as such an elderly man? In the story, hes the uncle of a teenage Tristan, so hardly has to be ancient. Was this an attempt to make the audience consider the potential consummation of his marriage to Isolde as akin to child abuse?

The problem here seems to be: get a world-known artist to design the sets (knowing this will get attenntion), skimp on the leading singers and season with gimmicks.

Perversely, perhaps, my ear was in practice enough to really appreciate, for the first time live, the marriage between word and music – something that Wagner strived to make completely organic.

What a shame that such a moment of personal development came in such a dismal production.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Threepenny Opera – get ready for Brecht on 'roids

It says something when critics are confused. And looking at some of the reviews of the National Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera, a number of the critics out there are very confused.

For instance, it had been cleansed of all politics, suggested one review – which, were it true, would make it the most bowdlerised piece of Brecht ever produced.

It is also patently untrue and begs the question of what any such reviewer thinks is politics – let alone whether they actually know anything at all about one of theatre’s most iconic writers.

Brecht himself voiced the opinion that the British did his work no favours, treating it too reverentially and making it po-faced rather than fun.

The Other Half – a serious Brechtophile and a half – and I have been fortunate enough to see a number of productions that suggest Brits have learned how to do Brecht.

These included the 2009 National Theatre production of Mother Courage, with Fiona Shaw in the lead and songs reworked and played live by Duke Special, so we were expecting great things on our return to the Olivier for his most famous work.

A new adaptation by Simon Stephens has made textural changes – for instance, to more strongly reference bankers, which illustrates just how much this production is very conscious of its political heart.

Rufus Norris has enjoyed a mixed reception to the start of his tenure as artistic director at the National.

In a online comment after the Guardian review, one wit noted dryly that, in the style of its famous reviewer, Michael Billington, Norris’s latest outing had been given a three-star rating, meaning that it could be anything from crap to life changing.

So it was with the merest hint of trepidation that I entered the theatre last Friday evening. I don’t want to see Brecht treated like a religious text, and I’m far from being against adaptation and so on in principle, but would it really work?

Over the following three hours, there were moments when it felt as though I was closer to the soul of the Weimar cabaret scene than I have ever been before – even when listening to the songs of that era.

Brecht’s tale of London’s underworld, where the poor cannot afford ethics, is as resonant today as ever. Hypocrisy, the bread and circuses of pageantry, sex and violence and sexual violence, now with added gender play – it’s all here.

Roslie Craig as Polly and Rory Kinnear as Macheath
As too are beggars, disabled military veterans, crooked coppers and men whose minds have been damaged by war – appropriately, in Afghanistan.

While some changes have also been made to the song lyrics, Kurt Weill’s score is treated with due reverence and performed superbly by an eight-piece band, as it was originally. And this, of course, includes the iconic Mack the Knife.

It’s difficult to reconcile the doubts of some critics as to the quality of the singing – it was excellent throughout and Weill’s music has rarely sounded so downright, deep down sexy.

Indeed, many of the songs offer a very different feel to the general cynicism and decadence of the whole, giving characters the chance to reveal that they do dream and imagine something better, in sharp contrast to their physical, everyday lives.

But here’s the nub. In enjoying the dysfunctionality that is portrayed in front of us, we become complicit in the cruelty. It’s like Jeremy Kyle on speed.

Brecht has tied us in philosophical knots – with a piece of theatre that claims to eschew any moral.

Norris’s direction is spot on, giving us a performance of unrelenting energy and pace.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is wonderful – making the artifice and theatricality absolutely clear. Having characters enter and leave by tearing (or cutting) their way though paper flats is really effective – and the ruined mass of flats that creates Macheath’s den is so evocative of the decay all around (and also reminiscent of the set in GW Pabst’s 1931 film version).

The costumes evoke the Weimar period, with added Keystone cops and robbers.

The cast is uniformally excellent.

As Macheath, Rory Kinnear seems to be a physically calm presence in the midst of a whirlwind of action around him. But there’s always something sinister in that calm; a sense of latent violence – he brings to mind the brooding menace of the Mitchell brothers in EastEnders, but with knobs on; a thug with a soft underbelly.

But as Peachum, Nick Holder outdoes him in the nastiness stakes – perhaps most particularly when turned into a rotund Louise Brooks-alike in the second act; pinstripe suited and on black heels, threats and brutality his daily currency.

Nick Holder as Peachum and Peter de Jersey as 'Tiger' Brown 
Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum is in wonderful form, while Rosalie Craig makes a marvelous Polly – apparently vulnerable and naïve, yet hard as nails when she needs to be.

Sharon Small is a super Jenny – her Surabaya Johnny is simply excellent, ranging from the poignant cry of a dreamer to the incandescent rage of the abused.

A special mention too, to Jamie Beddard as Matthais, one of Macheath’s four core gang members: casting a disabled actor in the role brings an extra dimension to the work’s sense of being about the disenfranchised and discarded of society, and Beddard’s performance adds a really ballsy note to proceedings.

It is great to see Elisabeth Hauptmann’s contribution as collaborator recognised – her German translation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera formed the basis for The Threepenny Opera.

This production might not be ‘life changing’ theatre – but it is an excellent, provocative, in-your-face, fuck-you evening’s entertainment that will live for a very, very long time in the memory.

I rather think Bert would have approved. The Other Half certainly hasn’t stopped singing since.

It’s in repertory until October. Find out more at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.