Gnawing the flesh. It was the best of Timon; it was the worst of Timon. Reducing a stage production to one sentence rarely does it justice, but the National Theatre’s new, wildly popular Timon of Athens, mounted as a showcase for London’s favorite actor, Simon Russell Beale, wins the best and worst prize on several counts. It takes the messiest of Shakespeare’s late plays, a nasty, grinding parable about misanthropy, and delivers a glittering first half that is unexpected magic before the genii departs and we endure the dismal gray of the second half.
Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians' pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren't so lucky. I didn't hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
Occasionally I've thought that in my role as The Berkshire Review's 'London correspondent' I ought to focus sometimes on things that are more culturally British; unfortunately, I just don't think much of British culture generally, and with the Olympics now here, decimating arts funding and forcing friends and colleagues of mine out of their homes due to massive rent increases, I feel arguably less inclined than ever to take up the baton for this country.
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe's once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there's no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There's not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
Check the odometer. The Proms deserve a jolly rev up when they start, and after 117 summer seasons, it was a fresh young pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, who provided it. At nineteen, he came out in a casual shirt looking like a college freshman who might be spending his vacation as a pizza delivery boy or valet parking attendant. Those attendants are notorious for taking Porsches and Jags for a quick spin, returning them with hot wheels. Grosvenor had his chances with Liszt's Piano Concerto no. 2, but he returned it respectfully to its owner. He displayed glittering fingers and a beguiling soft touch at the beginning, but this work is faux art, setting a mood simply to tease the audience before the fireworks display.
Good enough for God? Church attendance has been declining in Britain, and in the rest of Europe, for almost two generations, so a play about the irrelevance of God hardly touches a burning nerve. When Canadian-born playwright Drew Pautz chose this theme for Love the Sinner, mounted on the National’s tiny Cottesloe stage, most reviewers showed indifference. The play’s themes were called muddled, and as often happens, the artist was blamed for the critic’s refusal to think. Pautz has updated a respectable genre, the drama of ideas, which fostered another argument about God and human affairs, Shaw’s Saint Joan. Shaw could count upon solid religious conformity as a backstop for his secular ripostes. Today, the orthodoxy has swung so far in the other direction that Love the Sinner includes a major character whose attitude is “God? Are you kidding? Put that Bible down right now.”
Motiveless malignity. It’s hard to transport one’s mind back far enough to empathize with Jacobean drama, when immorality masqueraded as the It Thing, as if a casual rape was merely the aperitif before fine dining. Today we have summer movies, admittedly, where mass carnage goes down well with popcorn and no harm done. We aren’t frightened or disgusted by how many people the Terminator terminates. Two minutes after leaving the theatre we return to our moral selves. Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1621), in a stirring revival at the National Theatre, affords an equally mindless vacation from morality. But it wants to be more adult. With an aristocratic audience to please and no Hollywood ratings agency, Middleton could add salaciousness and bawdry to the max. The popcorn has been sprinkled with wormwood and gall.