Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Medea at the National Theatre

 Medea by Euripides, written nearly two and a half millennia ago, is the archetypal revenge tragedy, and the ultimate portrait of the inner life of a murderer.  Whether presented traditionally (a rare occurrence these days) or in this modern-dress staging, in a new translation by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre of Great Britain, the play possesses an inherent power to move audiences, and inflict a wave of catharsis that left many in tears at the performance I attended last night.

To review the basic plot, Medea and her children have been abandoned by her husband Jason after the family moved to Corinth.  Jason has found a new love, the young daughter of King Kreon, and is about to marry her. Meanwhile Kreon has banished Medea since he genuinely fears her.  Medea begs that she be allowed to stay for one more day. This is all the time she needs to fashion a chilling revenge that includes the killing of Kreon and his daughter as well as the slaughter of her own children: a ghastly decision that she knows will forever torment Jason for as long as he lives.

In the title role, Helen McCrory presents us with a modern portrait of a scorned, jealous woman. Dressed in a tank top and cargo pants, nervously rolling up and only half-smoking a cigarette, she could be one of the thousands of abandoned single mothers who are having trouble making ends meet. However, when she changes into a white outfit, a costume that recalls a traditionally staged performance, and fashions her horrific revenge, the real Medea, as conceived by the author, pushes through. Ms. McCrory possesses a dark voice, and is able to command a powerful fury which often erupts with a volcanic intensity. She commands the stage when she is preparing a lethal gift for Jason's new bride, and especially at the conclusion of the play when she carries the bodies of her dead children into a windswept, smoky, dark wilderness.

 Danny Sapani gives a memorable performance as Jason, a man who loves his two sons, and is only marrying in order to advance his social status. The rest of the cast is generally good, especially  Dominic Rowan, in his brief scene as Aegeus, the King of Athens, who brings the only light of hope for Medea by offering her sanctuary in his kingdom. The chorus is a nimble group of thirteen women who dance, gyrate, and generally look spooky as they slink all over the stage to the music of Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, their primitive-sounding, moody score is a memorable addition to this production.

Medea will be broadcast live from the Olivier Theatre to cinemas around the world on September 4 at 7pm. I urge you not to miss it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Miss Last Year's Wagner Celebrations

You don't get too many celebrations when you are 201 years old.  But last year's Richard Wagner's bicentennial celebrations around the world were quite a show. Some more successful than others, of course.  Frank Castorf's Ring at Bayreuth was a huge failure last year.  It will be presented again this summer, and hopefully he has gone back to re-examined his concept in order to deliver a better show.

By far, one of the most interesting events to mark the 200 anniversary of Wagner's birth took placed in Munich. Spencer Tunick's art installation "The Ring" consisted of over 1000 nude volunteers, some painted red and others silver, who "recreated" various scenes from the Ring Cycle in the center of the city.

 According to the artist "I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era."
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at:
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes constantly poses the question whether Man and Ape can co-exist in a ravaged world where a virus has wiped out most of the human population. "Can't we all get along?" The answer to this proverbial question is "no" if the aim of this latest reboot of the Apes saga is to get us to the beginning, i.e. the classic 1968 sci-fi film Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston and his time traveler companions land in a dystopian Earth that has de-evolved into a backwards Darwinian state where apes rule and Mankind has descended into a primitive primate.

20th Century Fox knows that it will take a few sequels to get us there, and this latest installment advances to a world where apes have begun to reason and talk, all led by Caesar, the smart chimpanzee that James Franco raised in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the previous film of this series.

Once again Caesar is played by Andy Serkis together with the wonders of technology. His performance (as well as that of some of the other ape characters) is created by the latest wonders that the Weta Digital motion capture company can achieve and cgi can render. The results are truly mesmerizing.

Ten years have passed since the last film, and Caesar has developed into an ape leader, a kind of grassroots, simian revolutionary. He has gathered his clan, and made a community in the forests outside of San Francisco. Here in this primitive, secluded Utopia the apes have built a home where most are loyal to Caesar, who is the most advanced of his species as a result of his ability to speak. But all is not well in Ape Land. Caesar's leadership is constantly being challenged by the one-eyed, sinister Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape character from the previous film who as a result of being caged and tortured has a big ax to grind against Man. Koba has evolved as much as Caesar, and is also able to speak, which makes him a prime candidate for ape leader, but a major threat to any possibility of peace between Ape and Man. Over on the other side, a handful of humans, led by Gary Oldman, are living in the ruins of San Francisco. When a small party of humans venture into the land of the apes searching for a hydroelectric station, that's when the conflicts begin.

The humans, led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, are a likeable, brave couple, and eventually Caesar is wise enough to understand their good intentions. Likewise teen actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Ms. Russell's son, establishes a great friendship bond with Maurice, the huge orangutan played with great tenderness and nobility by Karin Konoval. The inter species relationships in this film are well handled, and provide much of the memorable material in the film, whether it be a tender scene between a teenager and an ape reading a book together, or a woman coming to the aid of Caesar's ill postpartum female.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of entertainment Hollywood once knew how to produce and release by the dozen during the summer months. It's puzzling how the industry has gotten lost amid super hero franchises, and questionable reboots that don't deliver. Finally there's a film to ignite this drab, uninteresting season. I have no doubt that it will prove a smash hit at the box office (it grossed a gorilla-sized 73 million on its first weekend) provided that there is enough word of mouth from the audience to keep it alive.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Two Chords that Shook the World

In August of 1857 Richard Wagner stepped away from the massive half-completed Ring of the Nibelung (he had already fully orchestrated Das Rheingold and Die Walk├╝re) and began work on what would become one of his most important achievements. The opera Tristan und Isolde, the well-known story of forbidden love, was based on the medieval romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, and inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Wagner's illicit love affair with the wife of his patron, Mathilde Wesendonck. With a libretto written by the composer, the music was completed in August of 1859. Within the first few seconds of the astonishing score, Wagner established the disintegration of tonality and pointed the way for the future widespread use of atonal musical composition in the 20th century via the arrangement of four simple notes: the musically unexpected combination of F, B, D# and G# which has come down to be known as the famous "Tristan Chord."
It was fifty years ago, on July 6, 1964 (and nearly a hundred years after the June, 1865 premiere of Tristan) that Richard Lester's black-and-white film A Hard Day's Night forever changed rock and roll, and became one of the most influential musical films of all time, capturing forever in celluloid John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the height of the Beatlemania craze. Both the madcap comedy film and the album of the same name begin with a musical chord that has been described, discussed, and debated as much as its famous antecedent of the 19th century.

To know how Wagner did it, all we have to do is read the sheet music (although during the early rehearsals for the first performance, both the musicians and the conductor complained that the score was unplayable). They were unaccustomed to playing what must have been for their ears the music of the future. Ever since, orchestras around the globe have followed the composer's careful notation and have played the "Tristan Chord" exactly as Wagner wrote it. It hasn't changed in more than a century. 

But Rock is a different animal, especially the output of The Beatles who during their meteoric career resorted more and more to remain in the carefully controlled safety of the recording studio and eschew live performances. Inside EMI Studios was the "Fifth Beatle," George Martin, who as arranger and musical guru literally made the confines of the place a research lab where he filled the gaps between the band's raw talent and the actual recorded sound they wanted to achieve. The creation of the famous chord that opens the film was a creative ensemble that included the Fab Four as well as Martin.
The above shows more or less how the chord was achieved, although this is still highly debated. The basic ingredient to much of the sound is George's 12-string guitar Fadd9 chord (an F and a G chord played together). But to this we also have to add Ringo, who added a riff on his snare drum, and the ever-present George Martin, who struck five notes on a Steinway grand piano while holding down the sustaining pedal and caused the harmonics to blend.

Perhaps we will never know how this famous chord was completely achieved. Likewise, a lot of ink has been spilled detailing how the "Tristan Chord" affected music for the rest of the 19th century, and its impact on composers ever since. In a similar way, the opening chord from A Hard Day's Night will continue to mesmerize listeners, who care about great music, for many years to come.