THE SITUATION ROOM

On Sunday night, after a lazy day on Wandsworth Common, I found myself underneath Shoreditch Town Hall for an ‘immersive underground adventure’. It’s not often I find myself adventuring on a Sunday, even less often that it’s under East London. As usual with any hip theatre-going occasions, I was the plus one for Elisa, my talented director flatmate. The play was created by a fellow director friend of hers, so we were there for industry support, without a clue as to what we would find.

The premise to the play was:

‘It’s 1961 and the Cold War is reaching boiling point. East and West are on a collision course as revolution erupts in the small nation of Al-Khadra. Will this jewel of the Middle East become a lucrative ally or a dangerous enemy? As a world leader in this moment of crisis, your choices will determine the course of history.’

I went in thinking of a mash-up of the West Wing and Homeland, and slightly concerned about the gambling chip and blindfold we were presented with. The chip turned out to help determine which ‘side’ we were on, US or USSR. Elisa and I were split up, and we were led to different sides of the same room, me glaring at her across the aisle (I’m not usually a fan of audience participation).

It turned out to be one of the most diverting hours I’ve had, and definitely one of the most interesting plays to be a part of. Essentially both sides made choices (whether they were perceived or real is another matter) as to how to deal with the Cold War crisis in the ficitious Al-Khadra region. Should the US nuke the small village to save the big city? Should we assassinate a key player in the local rebellion? Should the USSR cooperate or fight back when summoned? Various tools of choice were used; a clicker, blindfolds so we couldn’t see the other side’s choices, standing up, raising hands. All very democratic and how I imagine days are spent in political chambers around the world, between copious cups of tea and surreptitiously reading a Kindle.

I found myself gripped throughout. The two actors, Simon Carroll-Jones and Robert Macpherson, were fantastic as their respective Russian and US political figures, working well together and with the audience, and being kind to those who were plucked for further interaction. Although we all know how the Cold War ends, it was surprising to feel so interested and invested in ‘making the right choice’.

Unfortunately the play ends next weekend, so you haven’t got long if you want to get to see it.

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La Traviata

Introducing miss Elisa Amesbury, theatre director and contributor for this review of La Traviata at The Coliseum.

In this bicentennial year of Verdi’s birth, you can expect Verdi masterpieces being produced left, right and centre, especially here in London. Here are my thoughts on the first of these celebratory productions – La Traviata at the ENO. La Traviata is Verdi’s take on the Alexandre Dumas story of the unlikely love that blossoms between the beautiful courtesan Violetta and the naïve but ardent nobleman Alfredo. The oh-so complicated life of Violetta, and the unparalleled beauty of Verdi’s score is usually more than enough to pull at the heart strings but I left Peter Konwitschny’s production feeling impressed rather than moved. During the beautiful, fragile opening bars of the prelude, the sumptuous drapes of the Coliseum were drawn back to reveal yet another set of beautifully lit red drapes. And so from the get-go, the theatricality of Johannes Leiacker’s set, underlines the idea that Violetta is constantly performing. Dressed in a gown that matches the ever present drapes and sporting a series of wigs, she becomes a poignant figure, jumping through hoops desperately trying to please others – whether these ‘others’ are her hedonistic Parisian friends, or her new lover Alfredo, the costumes never quite suit. The lumberjack shirt/alice band combo she wears to play the role of ‘happy country wife’ in act 2, is painful to look act, let alone wear.

Despite some glorious vocal performances (Corinne Winter was outstanding) I found it hard to get emotionally engaged in the story. Not enough space or time was given to finding the truth of the supposed connection between Alfredo and Violetta that should be the driving force of the opera. Peter Konwitschny’s production privileged comment over storytelling, it seemed to rely on the audience having a prior knowledge of the narrative. I think it is important that a director brings their own point of view to their work but this should never be to the detriment of the story, and this story in particular is about love – the kind of unselfish love that is too good to be true. I’m not a romantic but opera is no place for scepticism. While I have nothing against being required to think about what I am seeing, my instinct is that Opera, arguably more than any other art form, should make its audience feel. You have to feel that the connection between Alfredo and Violetta has been real (even if just for a moment) otherwise what is the point?

A wise theatre director once said – “If you need to explain your production to the audience in a programme note- then it hasn’t worked” – and so, as I wandered down to Charing Cross tube after the show trying my best to explain to my perfectly cultured and perceptive companion what the invisible curtains of the last act had been about, I wondered A) whether I should have bought a programme (although at six quid a pop it was never likely) and B) whether Peter Konwitschny’s production was a little too clever for it’s own good.

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