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The Kite Runner

Frequent Flyers

The Kite Runner

by Khaled Hosseini, adapted by Matthew Spangler

UK Productions and  Flying Entertainment. at Richmond Theatre until 14th March, then on tour until 4th July

Review by Andrew Lawston

In 1970s Kabul, kite-fighting is all the rage. Amir, the creative son of a prominent businessman, flies kites and plays cowboys with his servant and close companion, Hassan, until a terrible incident separates the pair forever. Years later, as a writer living in California, Amir still struggles to deal with his guilt from the childhood tragedy. He is finally offered a chance to atone for his past cowardice, but will he seize the opportunity?

The Kite Runner, adapted by Matthew Spangler from Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling 2003 novel, offers the audience at Richmond Theatre a fascinating if frequently harrowing look at Afghanistan’s turbulent history in the late 20th Century.

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The first act focuses on Amir and Hassan’s childhood, up until their separation in the late 1970s. David Ahmad alternates between an adult American accent as the grown-up Amir and the play’s narrator, and a childlike Afghan accent as the younger Amir. He switches between the two effortlessly, and with exuberant body language to match Amir’s younger self. Andrei Costin gives the stand-out performance as Hassan, the eponymous kite runner whose meekly subservient dialogue is undercut by his fierce devotion to Amir, and his immense dignity in the face of his cruel treatment.

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Amir’s father, Baba, is played by Dean Rehman in a strong performance that develops throughout from authoritative scotch-sipping Kabul businessman to principled but humble flea market vendor. His friend Rahim Khan (Christopher Glover) manages to convey the heart of the play, full of wise words and advice for Amir throughout his life. Hassan’s father Ali doesn’t get a huge amount to do within the play, but conveys a humble but dignified man, and his low-key confrontation with Baba when he resigns is powerful.

Against all these dignified performances that shelter deep passions and dark secrets, The Kite Runner also provides a solidly unpleasant villain in the form of Bhavin Bhatt’s Assef. From his first appearance, it’s clear that this menacing youth is far more dangerous than the average bully figure that pops up in coming-of-age narratives.

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The second act covers a period of over twenty years, jumping between California, Pakistan, Kabul, and back again. As such it sometimes feels a bit choppy, in spite, or perhaps because of, director Giles Croft’s smooth and pacy direction. Given the span of time covered by the play, the tone also begins to feel uneven. The play’s next confrontation between Amir and an older Assef sees the bully transformed almost into a caricature figure, and his final pratfall, complete with windmilling arms, struck a bit of a discord considering the context.

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It’s in the second half that Lisa Zahra steps forward from the ensemble to play Soraya, the only significant female role in the production, and she gives a spirited performance, particularly when telling Amir about a teenage adventure that provoked the wrath and shame of her staunchly conservative father General Taheri (Ian Abeysekera, playing with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to stop the patrician character sliding into stereotype territory). It would have been great to see more of Soraya, as her main function is to illustrate his ongoing spinelessness in conversations with General Taheri.

When a play is adapted from such a widely-read and comparatively recent book (and film adaptation), there is a whole conversation to be had about to what extent audiences will be aware of the story’s twists and turns, and thus how much care should be taken when foreshadowing them. I’m faintly embarrassed to say that I came to Richmond completely ignorant of the story, but within ten minutes I was extremely confident as to certain revelations that inevitably popped up in the second act.

Throughout, however, Barney George’s design is wonderfully evocative of the play’s Afghan setting, while opening out the full width of Richmond Theatre’s stage. The swooping kites become an effective motif, with two huge kites forming a backcloth for projected backgrounds during many of the Kabul scenes.

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Jonathan Girling’s musical direction is similarly evocative, using instruments including tabla, Tibetan Singing Bowls, and Schwirrbogen. During set-piece scenes such as the kite-fighting tournament, the instruments, played live on stage, come together to produce a fantastic soundscape that conjures up the roar of the wind and the excitement of the spectators.

The Kite Runner is strongest in those scenes set in 1970s Kabul, and during some of the meatier dialogues in the second half: Soraya’s speech to Amir during their courtship, for example, and Amir’s final meeting with Rahim Khan. At other times it feels like a dizzying scattergun of a production: plenty to enjoy, but rarely enough time to truly savour it.

Andrew Lawston
March 2020

Photography by Manuel Harlan

Madama Butterfly

Oceans Apart

Madama Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Ellen Kent at Richmond Theatre until 8th March then on tour until 22nd April

Review by Vince Francis

The drive to Richmond was enriched by an intense rainbow straddling the A316. Was this a portent of some kind? We were on our way to see Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly at Richmond Theatre and I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of this assignment, not being an opera buff’ ’n all that. My initial thought was that it would boil down to my responses to three questions; firstly, given that my Italian is rudimentary at best, would the cast be able to convey the story? Secondly, would I be able to say that I was entertained by it? Thirdly would it engage me sufficiently to cause me to explore opera further?

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Madama Butterfly is a tragedy – aren’t they all? – set in Nagasaki, itself to become the scene of the ultimate tragedy later in the century. Based on a one act play by David Belasco which, in turn was based on a short “pot boiler” story by John Luther Long, At its most basic, it is a case of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, the end. However, this is an oversimplification of a plot that explores some interesting and uncomfortable themes, such as the marriage of our heroine at the age of fifteen to an American naval officer. Also, we (I) learn that Butterfly, or Cio-Cio San, as the character is named, was a geisha prior to this marriage, hinting at exploitation of children. The cavalier attitude of the naval officer to this, and to his marriage vows perhaps suggests a view of American imperial ambitions of the time.

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The principals all present us with well-drawn characters and real character development. Giorgio Meladze’s Pinkerton establishes himself as a swaggering cad in Dovunque al Mondo (Throughout the world), but shows real remorse when he realises the extent of his shallowness and duplicity at the end in Addio, fiorito asil (Farewell, flowery refuge).

I also enjoyed Miroslava Shvakh-Pekar’s portrayal of Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s maid. The duet with Cio-Cio San in the second act, Tutti i fior? (All the flowers?) is particularly appealing. Iurie Gisca as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul brings a natural presence and authority to the role. Both have the talent of being able to react authentically and naturally in exchanges and when they are not in the focus of the action.

However, it is Elena Dee, as Cio-Cio San, who carries the main load of the show and gives us the complete emotional palate of the character. In this tyro’s humble opinion, Ms Dee is to be congratulated for maintaining a consistency throughout, having a delightful soprano voice, which can vary from delicacy to full force strength with apparent effortlessness.

It goes without saying that the singing is of premier quality. It may sound strange to say, but it is good to hear it sung in the original language, even if that presents a challenge to the less linguistically adroit among us (me). It appeals to my reasoning to suggest that the original language and the development of the music are inter-related.

However, if you are seated with a full orchestra between you and the performers, who I don’t think are mic’d, it is inevitable that there will be the odd moment when the vocals aren’t quite the match of the twenty-two musicians supporting, but such instances are rare.

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I did wonder whether Zac O’Toole, as Cio-Cio San’s child, Sorrow, was entirely comfortable on stage and there was a minor moment of unscripted comedy when Cio-Cio San accidentally covered him entirely with the sleeve of her robe.

There are a couple of things which I was curious about, but which any regular opera goer might be able to enlighten me on; firstly, if the night is indeed so quiet and peaceful and serene, why exactly are we singing at full volume about it? Secondly, there is an intermezzo in the second act which, presumably was written to cover a scene change between act II and act III. However, since the scenery is not changed throughout, it would seem to be a candidate for a little judicious pruning – or is that a heresy?
Having said all that I felt more engaged in the second act, which seemed to have more emotional content.

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This is a touring production, so the set is kept simple in principle, with the focus being the house truck set centre stage. This uses translucent panelling, which is effective in providing silhouetted action at various points in the show. There are two other flats set stage right and left to depict garden walls, but which also serve to mask entrances and exits. The real artistry here is in the set dressing, though. Clever and interesting use of floral arrangements, together with a working water feature provide enough to describe the setting without being overly fussy. Lighting is subtle and efficient.

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The orchestra, under the brisk and expressive direction of Vasyl Vasylenko, supported well and delivered Puccini’s trademark flowing and sweeping lines with aplomb.
Looking at the souvenir brochure, there appear to be two orchestras involved, each with its own conductor. The cast list provided for Sunday evening’s performance indicated that the conductor was Nocolae Dohotaru, which would imply the production was supported by Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova. However, the conductor in front of us looked an awful lot like the photograph of Vasyl Vasylenko, which, according to the brochure, would imply that the orchestra was that of the Ukrainian National Opera. They were superb, in any event and received a well- deserved cheer at the end. Incidentally, I did spot a little motif which I would be prepared to have a small side bet on that Schönberg “lifted” and used in the song Bring Him Home in Les Miserables.

So, how did it do on my initial questions? Well, linguistically, the sur-titling helps considerably, although it can be distracting. Did the cast portray the story well anyway? Yes, they did. Was I entertained? Yes, very much so. Do I want to see more? Maybe. It’s good to get outside your comfort zone. So they tell me.

Vince Francis
March 2020

Photography by Mark Douet

Cause Célèbre

Passions Reflected

Cause Célèbre

by Terence Rattigan

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 13th March

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Set in the 1930s, Cause Célèbre was based on the true case of Alma Rattenbury and George Wood. When Alma Rattenbury’s marriage to the elderly Francis reaches the sleeping on separate floors of the house stage, she hires 17 year old George as chauffeur and general help. He becomes her lover. However, on realising that Alma and Francis’ marriage is not in fact entirely dead, George finds himself unable to cope and takes extreme action. Horrified, Alma rises to the occasion, assumes personal responsibility and is tried alongside George for her husband’s murder.

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Rattigan, however, has more to bring to his audience’s attention than a shocking trial. He is fabulously good at women, specifically women of a certain age about whom he writes with great sensitivity. Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea (1944) and Olivia Brown in Love in Idleness (1952) are witty, intelligent and firing on all cylinders, their lives restricted only by the social mores of the time, and their men – both lovers and sons. Alma Rattenbury is another of these women, far more than the wicked corruptor of boys the tabloids would have her be. Rattigan’s master stroke in Cause Célèbre, though, was to include the character of Edith Davenport and TTC’s master stroke (presumably in the person of director Fiona Smith) was to cast Jane Marcus as Mrs Davenport.

CausC210295Superficially Edith Davenport is the antithesis of Alma Rattenbury. Alma takes sexual freedom for granted. Edith is someone for whom ‘that side of things’ has never given her any pleasure, but the two women are in fact close in character and in their sense of what is right. Both are also doomed to misery, one for following her passionate soul, the other for not knowing hers existed. Jane Marcus’ performance as Edith Davenport was both skilful and endearing. This potentially wounded and embittered woman was seen as a sympathetic, dignified character whose emotional life had been cruelly unfulfilled. When the judge refuses her pleas to be excused jury service as she knows she is prejudiced against Mrs Rattenbury, Edith grits her teeth and goes on to do her duty with great integrity.

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Similarly Alma Rattenbury as played by Mia Skytte-Jensen, loving and seeking male attention of any sort, was an honourable woman, a victim of the times rather than any one individual.

The level of performance in this production was consistently high. Jake O’Hare as George Wood had little to work with but nonetheless produced a convincingly confused and unpredictable teenage boy far out of his depth. Jacob Taylor managed to convey the exact boy-to-man point at which Edith’s son Tony found himself with the mix of excitement and panic that entailed.

Particularly enjoyable were the exchanges between Edith and her sister Stella (Dionne King) which were both brisk and authentic. Everyone in fact shone in this production. Daniel Wain clearly enjoyed himself playing the eccentric, slipper-wearing KC, O’Connor acting for Mrs Rattenbury and if Sue Reoch as Montagu isn’t already in the legal profession, she probably should be. Additionally, the gentle ‘thawing’ of Heather Mathew as warden Joan Webster was endearing and Genevieve Trickett as the put-upon companion Irene was played as a character with more to her than was on display. Jack Dwyer produced a particularly mature performance as Alma’s young son Christopher.

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Patrick Troughton’s wood-panelled set brought a ‘closed in’ atmosphere to the proceedings (beautiful staircase), though any action taking place stage left seemed a little cramped. Mike Elgy’s lighting was perfectly judged, the darkening and spotlighting at certain points added a sense of things shutting down. There seemed to be some small issues with sound on opening night, Chris Morris as the floundering policeman was not always audible when he was positioned at the top of the set but these, I imagine were first night issues.

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Zoe Harvey-Lee’s costumes were exemplary, including hats, all hats male and female were worn at the correct angle for the period. (We do love a detail!)

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In 1968, 33 years after the trial of Alma Rattenbury, Paul Simon wrote a song about a certain Mrs Robinson. Fifty years on and despite huge social progress, it is probably still the case that a middle aged woman with a younger man will attract more general opprobrium than the other way around.

“Laugh about it, shout about it,
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.”

This is a very good production, TTC and Terence Rattigan are a very good mix. Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
March 2020

Photography by Cath Messum

First Love is the Revolution

Raw Bonds

First Love is the Revolution

by Rita Kalnejais

The Questors at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 14th March

Review by Nick Swyft

Basil Brush meets Shakespeare, in this imaginative retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story like no other.

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The play opens with a brother and sister holding up a leaf covered window and looking through it. The girl shrieks randomly, and at first the audience might be forgiven for thinking that the play is about mental health. It is not, although the synopsis suggests that this could be a fantasy that the main character, Basti (Zac Karaman) uses to shield himself from the trauma of his mother’s absence. Like The Life of Pi, you can choose which story to believe.

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It turns out that the brother Thoreau, played by Jason Welch, and sister Gustina (Gusti), played by Lucy Palfreeman, are foxes, and the window is the entrance to their den.

The play portrays the discomfort and violence of life in the wild very effectively, starting with the mother Cochineal, played by Maya Markelle capturing a mole, Gregor, played by Iain Reid. The youngest daughter Rdeca, played by Fionna Gough, is introduced to Gregor. He is to be her first kill. She must, after all, learn to hunt like the rest of her family. Gusti shows her what to do, and Rdeca attacks him, but doesn’t kill him outright. She is ordered to bury his corpse and there is a lovely piece of comedy in which Gregor ends up digging his own grave. Being a mole he just wants to do a proper job.

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The scene then switches to show us another family, this time human. Basti played by Zac Karaman lives with his dad Simon played by Mike Hdjipateras. He is being bullied at school, because of his state of mind. Basti is focussing his mind on building traps for foxes.

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He meets Rdeca when she is caught in one of his traps. We are not told how, but the two of them can talk to each other, and an unlikely relationship develops. Rdeca teaches Basti how she lives, and Basti treats her fleas.

Like all good plays, the comedy is counterpointed by moments of high drama and emotional tension. There is, for example, something uniquely distressing about the inhuman way the foxes cry when tragedy strikes.

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The production is refreshingly sparse, although having the actors eating cereal saying ‘crunch crunch crunch’, seems unnecessary; we know what they’re doing. Many of the actors play multiple parts. Lucy Palfreeman, who plays Gusti, also plays Basti’s upstairs neighbour Gemma whom dad, Simon, is hitting on. She is also delightfully sensual as the farm cat Smulan, who teases the farm dog Rovis, also played by her ‘fox brother’ Jason Welch. The farm chickens may be recognised as Cochineal the fox mother (Maya Markelle) and Simon, Basti’s dad (Mike Hadjipateras). One might read something into this, perhaps?

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Actually one could read a lot into this play. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet highlighted the tragedy of star-crossed lovers in inter-family strife, and there have been many productions that have applied this to race and sexuality. To apply it to species might seem a step too far. Society is maybe not ready to accept bestiality, but it’s not likely that many audience members will go away disgusted. That is the genius of the playwright Rita Kalnejais, the actors and the production team.

Nick Swyft
March 2020

Photography by Robert Vass and Evelina Plonyte

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Hairspray JR

All in Place

Hairspray JR

by Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Questors Youth Theatre at Judi Dench Playhouse, Questors Theatre, Ealing until 7th March

Review by Vince Francis

Hairspray JR is a cut-down version of the full musical, Hairspray, edited to be family friendly and thus a candidate for schools or youth theatre productions.

For those who may not be familiar, the original Hairspray is an American musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on John Waters’s 1988 film of the same name. The action is set in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962 and the songs include 1960s-style dance music and downtown rhythm and blues. The plot revolves around the heroine, teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance programme based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show. When Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, leading to numerous consequences. One consequence is stealing the boyfriend of the incumbent Miss Teenage Hairspray; an altogether bigger consequence is the beginning of social change as she campaigns for racial integration on the show.

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So, where to start? Well, the show is a one-act version, running for approximately 75 mins and, with a curtain up time of 7:15pm, it is both appealing to and practical for parents and the children involved. It is playing in the main auditorium, where the stage thrust has been removed to provide space for extra seating facing the proscenium and a walkway created in the space surrounding this seating.

The production itself is a delight. I did wonder whether abridging the book to this extent might mean that some significant elements may be lost. Some are, of course, for example the relationship between Tracy’s parents, Edna and Wilbur, isn’t explored to the same extent as the full production, which means their comedy duet (You’re) Timeless to Me is dropped. However, Alice Barker and Joshua Carr in the respective roles capture the deep connection between the two. There are a couple of other numbers omitted, but actually – dare I say it – they aren’t missed as much as I thought they might be. So, the lesson for me is that this is a production in its own right and should be treated as such.

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Emily Turner gives a beguiling performance as Tracy Turnblad, having an excellent singing voice and a sense of innocence and wholesomeness that is key to the character.

Isaac Beck has captured the spirit of the 1960’s television presenter; slick, slightly sickly, but always seemingly in control. Similarly, Sam Thompson Roche’s Link Larkin provides the veneer of Elvis-like louche cool that cracks with the warmth of true affection. The Temptations-style number It Takes Two is one to savour.

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I’ve often heard actors say that playing baddies is more fun that playing goodies and Blonda Bolganschi, who I’m sure is delightful in real life, is clearly having fun here providing us with the deliciously spiteful over-indulged princess that is Amber Von Tussle in the process. A nod here, too, to Stella Robinson’s interpretation of Amber’s ambitious mother, Velma, which was equally forcefully played.

William Connor gives an admirably assured and mature portrayal of Seaweed J. Stubbs, complimented by some of the slickest dance moves in the show.

I like Motormouth Maybelle ‘s rendition of the iconic I Know Where I’ve Been very much. Motormouth is played by Destiny West, whose voice is well suited to this number, but I felt she was a little nervous, which is perfectly understandable for opening night in the main house. She needn’t be, in my view, and once she relaxes a little, I’m confident that will soar.

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The direction of the piece was overall pleasingly pacy and made good use of the space, with cast and chorus using the auditorium stairways and the passerelle to great effect – particularly in minimising the crowding that can take place exiting the stage after a big chorus number. Also, the use of suggested scenery, such as the hand-held jail bars, helps to keep things rolling.

Sarah Page’s choreography hits the mark with period appropriate moves and a well-disciplined chorus. Everyone looks confident and happy in what they’re doing – well, nearly everyone, but, hey. The three girls as backing singer-dancers work particularly well.

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Musical Director Dave Roberts is well established in youth theatre, his experience stretching back beyond 1996, when he formed Starlight Theatre Company. This experience shines through the performances both of principals and the chorus – and, indeed, the band. I liked Chris Edwards drum percussion lines a lot and had a sneaking suspicion he may be adding to the score. If that’s true, then credit to him, but also to Dave Roberts for being confident enough in his team to give that space.

Great use is made of colour in the design. The set consists of a decorated cyclorama with a large angled square frame set slightly downstage, which represents the television screens of the time and provides a focal point for parts of the action. Other pieces, such as jail bars, are set and struck by the cast as required. The use of bright colours is effective in suggesting the décor of the period and supporting the generally upbeat spirit of the show. Costumes reflect this approach too. Everyone on stage looks authentic and comfortable in their rig. The ‘glam’ costumes sparkle and the day-to-day costumes fit nicely with each other. Good straightforward lighting brings out the best in both and the use of strobe in one of the later scenes is very effective.

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Sound-wise, Danny Tigg’s design was exactly what was required. The score for this show is energetic and soulful and there is a risk that the band could run away with it and overpower the cast. To Dan’s credit, that isn’t the case here. There is a bit of ‘techie-ness’ used that gets the musicians wired directly into the sound desk, thus removing the need for any local amplification. I think – I may be wrong – that even the drummer was playing an electronic kit, which was ideal for this production, as the output levels are wholly under the control of the desk. The sound desk in Questors is in the auditorium, so the sound operator can monitor and adjust according to what’s going on. The benefit is twofold, in my opinion: firstly, the musicians can still play with all the energy that is required and secondly, that energy can be managed to a level that is pleasing to the audience and supportive to the cast.

From the optimistic opening number Good Morning, Baltimore, to the celebratory closer, You Can’t Stop the Beat, this is a joyous production and a great night out. See it if you can.

Vince Francis
February 2020

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

Madam Butterfly

‘As if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’

Madam Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Bellasca

English National Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Lithuanian National Opera, the Coliseum, until 17th April

A review by Matthew Grierson

Madam Butterfly opens in silence: from the cinematic space at the rear of the stage, the silhouette of Cio-Cio San appears and moves down the ramp towards the audience, fluttering fans and trailing cloths in a way that suggests the insect from which she takes her name. It’s a striking image, presumably conceived by the original director Anthony Minghella, and prepares one for a production in which visual spectacle will predominate.

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At its best, this emphasis is a perfect complement to mood and action. Near the end of Act I, Pinkerton and Butterfly are alone together and the lights pick them out, both in their white outfits against the dark, with moon-shaped paper lanterns gradually closing in on them. It’s a tender moment that concentrates our attention on the lead and her lover, and one can almost believe, as she does, that he will love her forever. But the image also speaks to their isolation, given her ostracism from family and society in Nagasaki, and his distance from home – and the life he will live without her.

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There is an echo of this scene after the second interval: whether it is Butterfly’s dream or that of her maid, Suzuki, a marionette of Cio-Cio San is married to an Asian dancer in the guise of Pinkerton, and they perform a ballet that parodies the relationship between the two lovers to that point. The motif of puppetry is an important one to this production, what with its mini mannequin son, origami birds and even servants playing puppets, and suggests we need to be conscious of who’s pulling the strings even as the stagecraft contrives to hide them.

The production treads lightly at first, conscious it is walking on thin ice with a tragic depth beneath. The marriage scene is rueful, almost playful, although with Sharpless’ enquiry about whether the 15-year-old Butterfly has a sister we are never far from the sordid realities of the trans-Pacific relationship. The mannered quality is clear in the contrast between Butterfly’s white bridal gown – matching her husband’s uniform – and the vibrant colour blocks of her entourage, there first to witness the nuptials with a jaunty good humour, and subsequently drawn into denouncing it by her uncle, the Bonze.

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As the tragic Butterfly, Natalya Romaniw is remarkable, her performance tender and mischievous in her flirtatious early encounters with Pinkerton, deepening as they become closer throughout the first act. In each of her arias, Romaniw sings affectingly, raising the hairs on one’s neck. Through the middle of Act II she awaits the return of her husband with a fragile faithfulness, ultimately broken when he arrives with his American wife in tow. Romaniw completely sells these transitions, with the precision of her singing giving way to the rawness of her screams, and this allows her sudden suicide the weight it might otherwise lack.

Support comes from Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Cio-Cio San’s reliable maid, Suzuki, a wry presence who is later realistic enough to see that her mistress has been betrayed. Butterfly also gets a good hearing from US consul Sharpless, who in Roderick Williams’ performance is endearingly awkward, and one still senses that, some diplomatic faux pas aside, he wants to do right by her.

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The difficult task of making one sympathise with Pinkerton – a failed Romeo who does not match his lover’s suicide – falls to Dimitri Pittas. Despite whipping up some good-natured booing from the audience at his curtain call, Pittas is successfully engaging over the preceding three hours, his Lieutenant blithe and careless, at least at first. Indeed, his intimidation by Cio-Cio San’s assembled family, and the way his libido bursts into expression through song, make him almost as adolescent as his bride. So absorbed he has been in his own desire that he doesn’t seem to realise that his wife, young as she is, is a person in her own right, and not his puppet.

There is, then, a gentle, surprised humour in the way he responds to the dolls that she produces of her ancestors, and  this has two ramifications in the production. First of all, within moments we learn that his full name is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and that he is a lieutenant about the USS Abraham Lincoln, both of which are celebrations of his own ancestors through American cultural swagger. Yet, second, their son, is a descendant brought to life as a puppet himself, manipulated by black-clad, ninja-like stagehands. The craft they use is simple and manages to be very touching, each turn of the head or gesture of the hand speaking of the child’s awestruck attention to the world.

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None of the production’s design is anything less than accomplished – it looks fabulous, in fact – but given so many outlets it is difficult at times to know where to look. The sliding paper screens making up Pinkerton’s love nest are slid in and out by the stagehands, sometimes disguising an entrance or exit by one of the principals, sometimes serving as a blank on to which the shadow of another can be projected; behind them is the ramp down which the cast can enter in silhouette, backed by widescreen light that varies from clear day to romantic sunset; and in front the puppets that may represent children, dreams, or just puppets. So giddy with possibility, it’s as though no one has decided what the visual focus of the staging will be.

With this reliance on spectacle, there is also a lack of dynamism in the blocking. Although entrances are strikingly visual as characters come in great waves over the back, once they are downstage most of the action takes place in one plane, and tends to be fairly static, though this may be a function of the most dynamic performers – the puppeteers and scenery hands – being specifically invisible in black.

It is a more fitting spectacle with which this rousing production ends, however: where the trains of cloth that accompanied Butterfly on her arrival signified the freedom of her flight, they are at the close the blood she sheds as she renounces this world forever.

Matthew Grierson
February 2020

Photographs © Jane Hobson