Monday, 13 April 2015

Come and Visit Your Good Friend Sweeney

Review: Sweeney Todd - English National Opera, London Coliseum.

Sweeney Todd
Dontcha hate it when you're enjoying a show, but the rest of the audience are clearly enjoying it more? Or, more accurately, when the rest of the audience are making it clear that they're enjoying it more? Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum was a good show, but a standing ovation? What are the audience going to do when they see something really great?

I've seen quite a few Sweeney's in my time, both professional and amateur. The best two were probably the version starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton at Chichester in 2011 (later transferred to the Adelphi in London, where I saw it) and The Royal Opera House production of 2003.

Sweeney ToddThe ENO production comes in behind these, but not so very far behind. The most notable feature is that it's 'semi-staged'. This is probably its biggest fault. Sweeney's music and lyrics are among the best of the twentieth century, and stand up easily to concert performance and to recording. On the other hand, the sheer gruesomeness of the razors, the chair, the oven and much more really do lend the story to a full staging. Even the most parsimonious amateur productions try to make some attempt at realism with these aspects.

In being semi-staged, this production fell between the two stools - and worse than that, it opened by deliberately emphasizing the point. Throughout, the entire orchestra is on stage (impressive both visually and aurally) and the show opens with the cast lining up in front of music stands to sing, at which I felt a certain disappointment - but then came the twist. Midway through the opening number, the cast rebel, throw aside their music and stands, kick over some unnecessary set decoration and overturn the unconvincing grand piano to make it into a rostrum as they transform the stage into something more dynamic.

The point seems to be that we don't want this fusty concert staging, we want a full production! I quite agree, but it's a shame that this revolution can only deliver semi-staging. This is Liberal Democrats raging against the Tories, before pusillanimously adding, but let's not go as far as Labour.

That said, some of the staging was very effective. Todd's chair didn't deliver his victims down a chute to the bakehouse; he simply covered their faces with a cloth and let them walk quietly away, which worked fine. I've certainly seen it done worse: an amateur production where victims had to do the 'walking downstairs behind the desk' trick. Ultimately though, the limitations of the staging, particularly in the final scenes, meant that for me the tension did not build quite as well as it usually does.

The big production numbers were generally well choreographed, the best of them being the Act II opener, More Hot Pies, which worked to a climax of Mrs Lovett being lauded by her adoring customers in a style that echoed Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.
More Hot Pies

The on-stage orchestra was used to mixed effect. A plus-point was the interaction with violinists and flautists when Todd and Lovett discuss pies made from fiddle and piccolo players. In some instances, the musicians' equipment was used for props. This worked well when conductor's baton was used as a comb, or when one of the double-bassists' stools was used as Todd's preliminary barber's chair.

But the idea got more strained when musical props were used that did not come from the orchestra. A cymbal was used to represent (geddit?) the dish that pies were served on, but (unless I missed it) this was brought on as a prop, rather than taken from the orchestra. And the kettle drum which Lovett uses as a worktop (geddit? - no, hang on, it's a pie shop, not a tea shop) was twice brought on by stage crew, breaking any real connection with the orchestra. Similarly the trombone used to grind the meat (ged... no, don't even bother) was not taken from a trombonist; it was just an extension of the idea of musical instruments, the concept of why they were there having been forgotten.

By definition though, this was never going to be a production that stands or falls on its staging. Musically, it was pretty top-notch. The orchestra and chorus sounded good, and the supporting cast were generally excellent. Jack North's Tobias managed to avoid the straight-out-of-theatre-school precociousness that such a young role can sometimes deliver. Rosalie Craig's Beggar Woman was too young to make any sense in terms of plot, but a difficult role was excellently sung. 

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel
Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett and Bryn Terfel were both on top form. Terfel's bass brought a strength and sustain to the music that you don't hear in more musical-theatre voices, and his acting was just right in a part that has to be mostly understated, but of occasional devastating passion. Thompson's voice is a contrast in style, and has a clear break in it that I thought would irritate, but which I quickly got used to. She performed the comedy well, but not as well as much of the audience seemed to think.

The jokes in Sweeney Todd I find much like the jokes in Shakespeare: they're witty rather than funny and you've heard them a dozen times before. They need a lot of clever delivery to make them fresh, and while that was often successful, it can't be done on every line. Maybe I do the audience a disservice in assuming they're all familiar with the show, but even heard for the first time, many of the gags just aren't laugh-out-loud funny. And some of the best are impossible to deliver well. For example, Mrs Lovett's 'That's all very well,' after Todd's devastating rendition of Epiphany is impossible to time because of the thirty seconds of applause that follow the song. And yet it got a big laugh - not a reflex, visceral convulsion at the humour, but a demonstration to the rest of the audience that the joke was got. 

It's worth mentioning some of the cuts that were made. The two acts were 85 minutes and 55 minutes, so there was no real tightness on time, which makes me wonder at the reasoning behind some of it. As is often the case, the tooth pulling section of The Contest (don't think Seinfeld) is cut and having seen it both with and without I can't say I feel too strongly either way. 

More unusually though, all the toing and froing over Pirelli's death has gone. Traditionally he's throttled by Todd, but not quite killed, and dumped in a trunk. Then there's various business with both Lovett and Tobias coming up to look for him, while Pirelli's hand waggles, caught in the lid of the trunk, until Todd finally despatches him with the razor. I'm not sure it ever works that well, and probably would do less so in such a big theatre. But what the scene does do is set up the unpleasant ambiguity of Lovett's relationship with Tobias, fulfilled in the second act where her affection for him is revealed as pure sentimentality. As it is, Tobias simply disappears until the beginning of Act II.

The strangest cut, however, is not to include The Tower of Bray in Parlour Songs. While it's never going to be a hit, it's not long and is particularly haunting as a trio with Tobias below in the bakehouse. (This was attempted with Sweet Polly Plunkett, but wasn't contextualized and didn't work so well musically.) Additionally the dialogue around The Tower of Bray provides for some good jokes: 'LOVETT: How many bells are there? BEADLE: Twelve.' - I might even have laughed at that (though I've achieved as much by telling you that I might have).

In the end, it's about expectations. I love Sweeney and I was very slightly disappointed by a production I'd had high hopes for. Impertinent of me though it may be, I suspect some of the standing ovators were overcompensating for similar disappointment. For a seasoned Todd-follower there was plenty to enjoy and, as there always is, a little to criticize too. For a novice, I'd have to recommend full staging - maybe Thompson and Terfel should give it a go.

Monday, 16 March 2015

I Am Not As Other Men

Last year the results of an experiment were published that demonstrated that Americans are irrationally prejudiced against atheists1. Participants were described the life of an evident psychopath who in his youth tortured animals and in later years murdered homeless people. They were then asked if it was more probable that this person grew up to be 1) a teacher, 2) a Christian teacher, 3) a Muslim teacher or 4) an atheist teacher.

The results were that almost half the people surveyed went with an atheist teacher (with lower figures for a Christian teacher and even lower for a Muslim teacher).

The problem is that all those answers are wrong - categorically and unarguably wrong. It must be more probable that the person was a teacher. Given that there are some teachers who are not atheists, it is clearly more likely that the person (that any person) is a teacher of unspecified religion rather than an atheist teacher (or indeed a teacher of any other faith). Even if you hold the strange opinion that all teachers are atheists then options 1) and 4) become equal. It cannot be more probable that the person is an atheist teacher.

It's an example of what is known as the Conjunction Fallacy2, an example of Cognitive Bias3 that occurs in many situations.

In Britain it affects political opinion, as a recent survey reveals.

Now when it comes to economic policy, I reckon I'm a tad to the right of the UK population as a whole - which puts me way to the right of most people I discuss politics with. I should emphasize that this is only with regard to economics - on social policy I'm reliably informed that I have opinions so liberal they make David Cameron feel physically ill4.

That said, I think that I am on the right because of my opinions, not the reverse. I have made no decision that I am right wing and therefore adopted opinions favoured by the right. Indeed, in the past those same opinions have put me slightly to the left of centre.

And as most of us do, I'd always thought that most other people think like me. Not that they come to the same conclusions as me, obviously, but that they base they're alignment on their opinions and not vice versa

A YouGov survey conducted last week demonstrates that I was wrong5.

Participants were asked the same question regarding various public services ranging from hospitals to banks. The question was whether the service was best run by the public sector, the private sector or that it doesn't matter as long as standards of service are maintained. 

The answer is no-brainer. It doesn't matter as long as standards are maintained. That's assuming that people actually want good public services, which for the most part I'll take as read. But given that assumption, the answer is just as clear as that the psychopath is more probably a teacher.

Seems I'm in a minority, however. Our survey said:

The immediate conclusion we might draw from these results is that 18% of the population want hospitals run by the private sector, but I see something far more depressing. What we can read from that first line is that 92% of the population do NOT want standards to be maintained in hospitals. Given the choice between standards and observance of political dogma they chose their own flavour of dogma.

Now you might disagree with my interpretation, you might say that what people are saying is that they favour public hospitals because that's the best way to maintain standards. That may be how people are thinking, but if so it's another fine example of the Conjunction Fallacy. Only if you have absolute certainty that your way of doing things is the way that maintains standards do the two options become equivalent. That's a megalomaniacal degree of certainty. And even then, it only makes the two options equal, so the answer should be 'don't know'.

I've tried to think of other explanations. Maybe the participants were just too busy to think about it and defaulted to a dogmatic response? But the problem is that here the pragmatic answer is the easy answer: we want what's best. It's only in the real world that things get difficult, when asking for what's best prompts the difficult follow-up question: and how are we going to achieve that? If people aren't even prepared to think in the easy case, what hope have we in the difficult?

I can't make sense of it, and yet it makes sense of much of my experience of politics. I'd always assumed that people were like me, that even when we disagree on policy our starting point is what is best for the country. But it turns out that that isn't the case - when  asked directly, most people favour dogma.

What's missing from the survey is a more direct, neutral question: Do you favour a) whatever maintains standards or b) an ideological solution. I suspect in that case more would favour option a), but if so it would only tell us that people don't recognize their own opinions as ideological.

There was one further breakdown of the data, however, looking at the tendency to choose the pragmatic option (maintaining standards) broken down by party support:

In all cases but one, Conservatives were more likely to choose the pragmatic option than Labour voters. It's not great news for them - the pragmatists are still a minority - but it still seems to be a significant difference.

Which is odd, since one of the most common accusations thrown by the left is that is that it is the right who are ideologically driven. It seems that if there is a difference, dogmatism is slightly more a feature of the left.

But that's a digression. Being pragmatical doesn't mean that you come up with better policies, but it does at least give you a chance. If you can't even admit that you'd prefer good standards to the implementation of an ideology, what contribution are you really making?

I'll always place myself firmly in that minority cyan block in the middle of the chart. And if, like most people, you don't place yourself there, then what's the prospect of any discussion between us?