Sunday, 6 August 2017

Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Scottish Opera at Edinburgh International Festival 2017

Review - Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures at Edinburgh International Festival 2017


Hibernian vs Partick Thistle. Incest patricide and plague



Two years ago I combined an afternoon at a Partick Thistle away game in the capital, with an evening at the Edinburgh Festival. Unfortunately that day a 3-0 defeat by Hearts was what preceded an evening of Greek tragedy, with Juliette Binoche as Antigone. Much as the heroes of Greek plays often fail to learn the lessons of their ancestors, I optimistically tried to combine a trip to Easter Road to see Partick Thistle open their season with a match against Hibs, with another Greek tragedy in the evening. The day started much as it did two years ago, with a 3-1 Partick Thistle defeat setting a dark mood for the evening's entertainment. 

Hibernian 3-1 Partick Thistle
The Greek stories persist because they are good stories. They also give us a prism with which to examine our current world. This year at the Edinburgh Festival alongside Mark-Anthony Turnage's Opera, Zinnie Harris's re-telling of The Oresteia, which I saw (and loved) last year, in on show (Oresteia: This Restless House review). 

In Greek mythology Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, her tragic fate set in motion by the history of her father's actions. Tonight we were going to hear about the deeds of the father. Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek is an opera of Steven Berkoff's play of that name, which re-staged the Oedipus myth in the east end of London in the 1980s. 

Oedipus in Greek mythology, was left on a hillside to die by his father, King Laius, to prevent a prophecy that he would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Found and raised as their own by King Polybus and Queen Merope he hears the prophecy of what he is fated to do, from the Delphic oracle, and not knowing his real parentage flees Thebes to avoid his fate. In the classic example of  the Scot's phrase "whit's fir ye'll no go by ye" he ends up unknowingly killing his father, marrying Queen Jocasta his mother, and bringing a plague upon the lands by his actions. Discovering the truth he rips out his eyes and lives on forever in the strange mind of Sigmund Freud who believed we all want to emulate Oedipus' complex family dynamics.

The cast of Greek
Scottish Opera have recently become very competent at modern, smaller scale productions, such as their excellent The Devil Inside. Greek has a cast of four artists playing several roles and an orchestra of 18 or 19 musicians, yet it still packs a mighty punch. The co-production with Opera Ventures uses a bare, revolving stage set onto which imaginative projections give a stark, and when necessary, humourous atmosphere to the whole performance. The costumes, often requiring a quick turnover, also give it a distinctive, consistent and crisp feel. Taken from Berkoff's play, it is a story set not among Greek kings and queens, but working class families in Thatcher's dystopian Britain. Coming here straight from Easter Road, the opening scene greeted me with the rhythmic chanting onstage of Arsenal fans in an London pub. Alarmed by the racist chants of his father and his parents' belief in a fairground fortune-teller's alarming prophecy, shell-suited Eddy leaves home. 

Alex Otterburn as Eddy
The cast of Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore, Allison Cook and "Scottish Opera Emerging Artist" Alex Otterburn as Eddy were excellent throughout, both in singing and in the extravagant acting required of their parts. The words are sharp and witty throughout, with much dark humour at times. As London descends into riots and plague (the play was written whilst AIDS was running out of control) Eddy kills a cafe owner in a fight and marries his wife, before inevitably finding out at the end when his parents arrive years later that his true origins mean he has unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy. Oedipus pleaded to be excused his actions because he was unaware of what he was doing. Now Eddy knows what he has done, should the shame destroy everything he has? 

The orchestra keep the story moving along, with brassy jazz sounds at times, and a cacophony of percussion, with truncheons and riot shields at other moments. The 1980s setting feels unfortunately contemporary in a Tory led Britain fermenting division along racist lines and between those that have and have not. Are people responsible for their actions when they know not what they are doing? 

It was nice to see Steven Berkoff on stage at the end to take the plaudits from the audience, alongside Mark-Anthony Turnage and the cast and crew.

A thoroughly enjoyable night out, and I find it bizarre that the audience for this type of thing remains elusive. Opera has got to tear down its elitist image to make people aware of the imaginative and entertaining material it can provide. After a second night at the Edinburgh Festival, Greek will be coming to Glasgow in February 2018. I am planning to go see it again. 

Edinburgh skyline as we head home to Glasgow

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Brian Wilson - Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour

Brian Wilson - Pet Sounds. Summer Nights, Kelvingrove Bandstand, Glasgow. 3rd August 2017. Live review


The Beach Boys were surely one of the most recognisable and influential bands around. As they evoke a bright, breezy awakening of youth culture in the 1960s, their songs still pop up again and again in film and television. Even people like me born after the Beach Boys had faded away can adopt a cheery falsetto and sing along to "Surfin' USA", "I Get Around", "Barbara Ann," "Fun Fun Fun", "God Only Knows", and "Good Vibrations". When I was 8 or 9 years old I got a tape recorder as a present and "The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats" tape, with the blue cover and the surfer on the front was the first, and for a long time, only album that I possessed. Apart from that I had a collection of music recorded off of the radio chart show. 

The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats
The original Beach Boys line up was brothers Brian, Denis and Carl Wilson, their friend Al Jardine and cousin Mike Love. Brian Wilson was the main songwriter and often producer, along with performing lead and backing vocals, bass and keyboards. However the life of Brian was far more complicated than the sunny music would have you believe and that leaked into the music of their 1966 album Pet Sounds, which when you listen to it is far more complex and self-doubting than you would expect from a 24 year old leading one of the most successful bands on the planet at the time. Although receiving disappointing sales at the time, it has stood the test of time and was rated number 2 in Rolling Stone magazine's "500 greatest albums of all time" list (behind Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). 

I was not really aware of how complicated and bizarre Brian Wilson's life became over the years as he dealt with health problems, exploitation and over-medication until I watched the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy, which seems to have been greeted by those in the know as a fairly accurate portrayal of events in his life. With Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson and John Cusack as an older version it is hard not to warm to him as the character portrayed on screen, then when you read about what has happened in his life it is hard not to shake your head in disbelief. 

However seeing him live, it is the music that you are coming to hear. The fear is that you will be seeing a mere shadow of Brian Wilson's former self. However the younger man is such a musical giant, that any crumb of that is worth buying a ticket for. 

Brian Wilson, Kelvingrove Bandstand
The show we saw was on a summer night in Glasgow, at the fantastic Kelvingrove Park bandstand, a repeat of last year's successful "Summer Nights" season of concerts. In Glasgow the potential summer issue here is obviously the weather, but tonight the rain held off and wee shards of blue sky meant that if you screwed your eyes up really tightly, you could pretend you were being transported to a Californian beach. Expecting a run through of the Pet Sounds album, then an encore of other hits, I was amazed that before we got there the first set was 19 songs long, going from opening number California Girls, to I Get Around and Surfer Girl and 1973's Sail On Sailor, by which time Blondie Chaplin was on stage to add to the vocals and guitar barrage. 
Brian Wilson at Kelvingrove Bandstand, August 2017
Brian Wilson sat centre stage behind keyboards, sharing singing duties with original Beach Boy Al Jardine, who was in fine voice, and Jardine's son Matt Jardine. Matt dealt brilliantly with the falsetto end of the scale, notes which are beyond the older vocal cords on stage, creating harmonies very evocative of the original recordings. Wilson is not a man in good health and was helped on stage, but after that seemed invigorated throughout the two and a half hour show. His flat affect and shuffling gait are the inevitable consequences of a lifetime on heavy medication, which makes it hard for any outside observer to say what his true feelings are, but my impression was of a man at ease in front of a receptive and lively crowd, and a smiling and supportive band of eleven fellow musicians. 

The second set of the gig, working through the Pet Sounds album from start to finish, including the two complex instrumental pieces, was the highlight of the show. Opener Wouldn't It Be Nice is possibly the most positive song on the album, after that the lyrics leave you pondering and raising an eyebrow. As Brian Wilson's gruff tones started singing You Still Believe In Me then Matt Jardine's stronger falsetto took over it gave a nice impression of the passage of time from the youthful voices that recorded the album half a century ago, until today. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times could be a summary of Wilson's life, a man out of time, dealing with low moods with lines like "no one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found". Was nobody listening to him?

Summer Nights, Glasgow
As darkness finally fell over this part of Glasgow, the show was finished off with a flurry of five classic Beach Boys songs that got everyone on their feet. The last song of the night was the 1988 tune Love and Mercy that gave the biopic film its title, a slower number which is about two things Wilson feels the world needs more of. Me? I had a big smile on my face all evening.