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Tosca at The King's Head, Opera Up Close

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Tuesday, 30 October 2012
4 stars

Until 10th November 2012 OFFICE 0207 478 0160

If you don’t know about Opera UpClose at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington, then you may be missing something, as the company’s work is innovative and has been attracting very favourable critical comments from both Opera fans and those people who normally don’t see the point of Opera delivered on the usual grand scale. The company made a name for themselves in 2011 with a radical reworking of La Bohème which won an Olivier Award and which has returned to the somewhat bigger Charing Cross theatre from 30th October 2012. See

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca has been produced by Opera UpClose association with Malmö Opera. Director and librettist, Adam Speadbury-Maher and Danyal Dhondy who has undertaken the radica; orchestration have reworked this to make it work in an intimate theatre seating about 50 people and there really are no bad seats. Four singers and three musicians, but what the production loses in grandnes of effect, it makes up for in a combination of excellent acting, determined sensuality, and some extremely talented singing in what is a boldly reset production, which tries to move the opera much closer to our modern day.

Tosca is played by Demelza Stafford, while James Harrison plays Scarpia and Sheridan Edwards is Mario Cavardossi; Miles Horner plays the remaining parts.

Fig 1.
Demelza Stafford (Tosca), Sheridan Edwards (Mario Cavardossi)

is is 1989 and we are in East Germany in a light-bulb factory where the portraits of Lenin and GDR Chancellor, Erich Honecker, stare down from the wall; even the boiler-suited musicians blend in well. 1989 is when the Berlin wall will fall and the GDR collapse into the past, but in the opera we see, no one knows this will happen, although there are suggestions that all is not well in the world of the party and its custodians the STASI. Adam Spreadbury-Maher resets the drama successfully because 1800s Rome like 1989 East Germany are both elite based regimes, filled with spies, where propaganda rules and repression is the norm. Though of course, neither regime would have seen it quite this way. Angelotti has escaped a Stasi prison fleeing to his friend, Mario Cavaradossi, for safety. Mario still paints, despite being in the factory, marking him out as a potential refusenik of the regime and the party. Sheridan Edward’s doesn’t quite look the heroic part, perhaps, that he should but his Recondita Armonia for example is confident and fluent. Demelza Stafford’s Tosca has a powerful voice and is a voluptuous, sensuous figure. As she sings Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta she has Mario lying in her lap, suggesting that in 1989 Tosca is a much more confident woman, at home with being sexually independent and dominant.

James Harrison’s rather wonderful Scarpia, the villain of the piece, is a cold but lustful Stasi officer; his petit bourgeois sentiments and belief that he desire sexual power over Tosca make him seem not so far from his Nazi predecessors. Mario he realises is an enemy of the state and can be used to blackmail Tosca into giving up her body to Scarpia in order to save her true love. His Te Deum is controlled and powerful and is mirrored by the relaxed ease with which he sits down in the Stasi offices, drinking wine and eating, while his underling tortures Mario out the back. He is a man in complete control, or at least he thinks he is.


Fig. 2 James Harrison (Scarpia) and Miles Horner.

Danyal Dhondy’s orchestration, tends to somewhat elide Mario Cavaradossi’s role and concentrates on Scarpia and Tosca as a version of master and slave and perhaps this works best in terms of the small-scale setting that has been chosen. It is generally a powerful and surprisingly effective orchestration, using as it does just three instruments. This suits the way in which this feels much more intense and dramatic than most grand Toscas, less period melodrama and more a small, bitter story of lust and revenge, one among many perhaps in the GDR.

As Tosca kills Scarpia she alludes to his original, crude but tender request to have a moment ‘inside of her’ with a bitterly powerful, ironic : ‘How does that feel inside you?’ as she buries the knife in him. When she commits suicide after Mario has been killed, she uses the same knife and a bucket of red paint. It makes for a surprising and surprisingly moving Tosca.

Theatre Delicatessen/ HalfCut’s Shelf-Life

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Tuesday, 30 October 2012
4 stars

An example of something that was so eccentric, whimsical and thought-provoking that I am still telling people about it. If you go and see this interactive show in these old abandoned BBC buildings in Marylebone High Street, you may well find yourself thinking a great deal about your life or else you may not - but hold onto those balloons and avoid the angel of death. 


Read my full review of the work for The Public Reviews here via this link.

At 7pm and 8.30pm, Until November 10th, Theatre Delicatessen at 35 Marylebone High Street, London 
W1U 4QA,, email

Shakespeare's Queens/The Madness of King Lear

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on Thursday, 25 October 2012
Shakespeare's Queens/The Madness of King Lear

Until Sat Nov 3rd , Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport St, London, WC2H 7JB

phone Tel: 020 7836 8463, web site

3 stars

This is a double bill of two interesting takes on Shakespeare that have been very successful at the Edinburgh fringe, but which originated with Australian companies. Together they last about 2 hours long.

Shakespeare's Queens is written by Kath Perry and begins with a ghostly afterlife meeting between Elizabeth I (played by Kath Perry) and Mary Queen of Scots (played by Rachel Ferris), to which they summon Shakespeare (played by Patrick Trumper) to act as a referee regarding who was the better queen and which is the better way for a woman to be a queen.


Fig. 1. Left to Right. Kath Perry (Elizabeth I ), Rachel Ferris  (Mary Queen of Scots) and Patrick Trumper's Shakespeare.

They agree to act out the great queens from Shakespeare’s plays, as a way to explore this question and this becomes what is essentially the opportunity to present a medley performance of Shakespeare’s queens from throughout his work.  Shakespeare will himself play the male parts in his own plays.

It is an interesting historical frame as well as an entertaining one, as these two queens were opposed in more than just terms of religion; Elizabeth I refused to have a consort for fear he would denude her power, while Mary was always keen to have a consort and belived she could only rule through one. The play has as a strap-line She-Wolves and Serpents, which recalls historian Dr Helen Castor’s BBC  series She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens an exploration of the aristocratic women who challenged male power and the assumption that only kings could rule.

If you don’t know Shakespeare’s entire work well, then you may well be surprised how many strong parts for queens he wrote into his plays, though of course as women were not allowed to act on the stage until much later in the seventeenth century, these parts would have been played by boys.  Kath Perry’s Elizabeth I is suitably imperious, mischievous and determined while Rachel Ferris’s Mary Queen of Scots is much more girly and vulnerable, but capable of holding her own against the cousin (Elizabeth I), who had her executed.  Patrick Trumper’s Shakespeare is a rather funny creation and suitably intimidated by finding himself summoned to the present by the two queens.

I was impressed by the range of the performances of  female figures from Shakespeare and the banter between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots which shows this is a play that has bedded in. However I also wondered, if the framing narrative meant that the actors sometimes gave the impression that the queens they played were less than complete characters as after all they were Elizabeth or Mary Queens of Scots playing them. However, there is considerable comedy and some moments of genuine pathos in the production and there is certainly something very intriguing when you see these many queens from Shakespeare isolated and in close-up so to speak. However, I am less sure if the question is ever answered as to what makes a successful queen and perhaps this is part of the point.



Sarah Fernandez Reyes directs 
The Madness of King Lear which is another eccentric ( in a good way), take on one of Shakespeare’s plays: it attempts to be a rich performance using movement as much as language to explore its topic. In this case Lear and his Fool are consigned to the afterlife where they must revisit the past to try to understand it. They do by acting out key elements of the play and since Lear’s sanity is already lost in this ghostly place, the plot of Lear doesn’t follow the play but rather has the hallucinatory quality of a dream. You probably do have to know the play reasonably well to really enjoy this as it is by its very nature quite a complexly deranged plot: this is a Lear who is like a patent in psychoanalysis trapped in the past and seeking understanding and resolution aided by a shamanic, trickster-like-spirit in the shape of his Fool.


Leof Kingsford-Smith makes for a distracted, broken King and in general his delivery of lines was good, However, it was occasionally dulled by the musical sound track (by Andrew Kingsford-Smith)  of the production which to my ear occasionally seemed to sometimes be too loud to  add to the proceedings. Lucas R Tsolaklan’s Fool skitters, dances and gambols  around the stage compared to Leof Kingsford-Smith’s relative static walking and the former uses an impressive, slightly unnerving voice to act out Regan, Goneril and Cordelia with a green fan and red feather. Is he Lear’s friend and servant still, is he too been consigned to the afterlife for something he did? 

This points to what to my mind was one of the central problems of the often very watchable production ( apart from the fact it is too frequently too dark to see expressions clearly) ; as it is a reordering of Shakespeare’s original text there is little space to see what is being achieved here in limbo as there is no narrative except by reordering key speeches from the play. Does Lear finally reach understanding and forgiveness that he didn’t do in life in Shakespeare’s original play or is he condemned to a purgatorial revisiting of his scenes of great calamity and madness? I was never very sure; although this is not to argue against the considerable energy and vigour as well as sadness that the two performers bring to the production.

The play’s finish abruptly and poignantly, with Lear’s blinding of his own Fool who repeats the role of Gloucester  and who in turn becomes Cordelia, dead on the ground, as childlike Lear tries to  tickles her into life. In one sense one has to ask whether Lear is child or adult apparent playing with his dead daughter. In the end both are after all ghosts, and the Fool only plays at being Cordelia, and I began to wonder if rather than in purgatory, this play may not have been set in hell?


The Sacred Flame by W. Somerset Maugham

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Friday, 05 October 2012
English Touring Theatre. Touring the UK until 24th November 2012

phone Tel: 020 7450 1990, Email:, web site

4 stars

English Touring Theatre have done W Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) a huge service in their revival of The Sacred Flame and while this production does not show a rediscovered, forgotten and classic voice, like that of Terence Rattigan, it is more than a pleasant surprise to find a fascinating play that often feels more modern than its date of 1928.

 Although the dialogue characters use follows the rather formulaic, politely mannered language of the upper middle classes of the period, and characters often  speak in rather long set pieces, there are plenty of surprizes about characters and dramatic plot twists. There is also some very bold discussion of the importance of the physical side of love (Freud and Havelock Ellis probably lie behind some of this), as well as questions of the value of British cultural norms: all of which I found quite  unexpected.


Fig. 1.  Beatriz Romilly and Jamie De Courcey. Photo by Mark Douet

What starts out in the first half as a kind of whodunit becomes by the end quite a complex debate about euthanasia that is still far-reaching and to my mind problematic, even if it is couched in the romantic language of love and disillusionment. It is actually a play that leaves the audience thinking.

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