Saturday, 10 December 2016

Review: The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic

It's always a challenge to find the story that'll make a Christmas play that isn't a panto or done to death already. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson might seem like a good candidate in that it's pretty wintery, with lots of opportunities for ice and Christmassyness and a bit of central-European scariness all wrapped up in a nice, heartwarming message. In other respects it isn't, as the story is long and rambling and thus, quite difficult to adapt to stage.

This production met some of these challenges magnificently, while falling foul of others. It's a lavish, technically adapt production which wows with effects and fantastic stage design. The Snow Queen herself is a puppet, and a rather scary one. There's goblins and turtles and reindeer and talking parrots and various sub-stories of the main adventure, all created in neat little scenarios, which in their own right are funny and engaging. The costumes are great, the music brilliant, the design amazing.

Photo (c) Mark Douet/BOV

And yet, even as an adult, there's so many twists and turns it's hard to keep up with the story. This wasn't helped by the theatre makers adding another layer, in which the lead male character is clearly having gender issues and nobody in the village understands him, because y'know, they're peasants. The central relationship between the boy and girl characters is redrawn as 'friendship' in which they 'love each other as they are' blah blah. Because having a boy and a girl whose love overcomes evil in a happy ending is obviously too heteronormative these days. There was also a cringy scene in which the supporting characters recap what the heroine learned as a person on her journey, as if there's some sort of Oftsed review due and they're afraid she might not have met her key learning outcomes. It was so Peak Guardian, I can't even.

Anyway, apart from that there were lots of things to enjoy. What there wasn't, in my opinion, was enough snow. I wanted a bit more peril, a bit more cold, a bit more ice and sparkling frostiness, a bit more Northern European menace. The best bits were with the actual Snow Queen, who was genuinely scary. I know I'm old now but when I was a kid, being forced to consider a bleak wasteland of Scandinavian hopelessness was thought to be good for your education. Meh. All in all, could have done with a bit more Scandi-noir, a bit less Generation Snowflake. Also: MOAR CHRISTMAS.

(Can I get a job for the Daily Mail, yet?)

Verdict
Puppets: yay!
Politics: yikes.
 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Kneehigh Theatre, The Flying lovers of Vitebsk

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is the last thing to be directed for Cornish Company Kneehigh by acclaimed director Emma Rice, who is going on to be the Artistic Director at the Globe Theatre in London. This is a very well deserved promotion, since Rice has directed a few absolute corkers for Kneehigh, and in a theatre world which is as sexist as the movies, is probably Britain's foremost female theatre director. 

Kneehigh are also great, with or without Rice, and so I went along to this with pretty high expectations. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is about the painter Marc Chagall, and his wife Bella, both born in Vitebsk in Belarus, in what was then Imperial Russia. I knew very little about them, but it's a fascinating story with plenty of theatrical material to milk, passing through love-at-first-sight, a rich-girl/poor-boy wedding, World War One, the Russian Revolution, the artistic revolutions of expressionism and cubism, Paris in the 20s, World War Two, and a flight from occupied France.

However, I felt like all this, in a play, presented a bit of a problem. There were lots of 'explaining history to the audience' moments going on, and what felt like more speech directed at us, the audience, than between the characters. Kneehigh usually make ensemble pieces, with quite a few actors, but this had just two actors and two musicians, and I felt like there might have been less explaining if they'd splashed out on a couple of extra performers.

Apart from this, it's undeniably an enjoyable production, with lovely music and singing, and great dancing, especially from Audrey Brisson who played Bella. There isn't, despite the title, any flying: the title refers to Chagall's paintings.

One effect this production had is to make me want to see more of Chagall's art, so in that sense it could be called a success. Overall, a decent production, with lots of lovely moments, but I felt it was a bit let down by the script.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at Bristol Old Vic until June 11th.