Oh no they didn’t! Jane McDonald and the Hippodrome Panto Stars Begin Rehearsals in London

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It’s December, and with panto season well underway, rehearsals for the UK’s biggest pantomime have just begun, with the stars of this year’s show, Jack and the Beanstalk, getting into character in London’s Jerwood Space.

Yesterday, members of the press were invited to sit in on some of the first read- and dance-throughs. Although we caught the cast early on in their rehearsal process, from the short scenes we saw, it was clear that both the comedy and choreography were already taking shape.

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First up, we got a glimpse of the opening dance number, with the chorus getting jamming along to Pharell’s ‘Happy’. Next, Jane McDonald (The Cruise, Loose Women, Star Treatment) and Chris Gascoyne (Coronation Street, New Street Law, Soldier Soldier) took to the floor to face off in their respective roles as The Enchantress and the Giant’s assistant, Fleshcreep. Returning for his second Hippodrome panto running, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (who plays Simple Simon) and his puppet, Sam, then rehearsed a scene involving a complicated gag centred around the names of three neighbours. Zerdin was later joined by returning comedy co-stars Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot) and Matt Slack (Silly Billy) as well as Blue’s Duncan James (Jack), who discussed the hard times the family had fallen upon, and made a good early attempt at some very complicated lines! Finally, a second dance sequence ended with a number from TV songster Jane McDonald.

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After lunch, I had chance to interview some of the stars about their roles in the show. Here’s what Jane McDonald had to say about The Enchantress.

Tell me a bit about your character in the panto.

My character is The Enchantress and she is the magic spirit of all that is good. I come in and fix everybody’s lives and make sure that nobody gets hurt and that the love is shared all around. So it’s the perfect role for me, really!

You’ve not long started, but how are the rehearsals going so far?

No, we’ve only been doing it for two days, but I have never laughed so much! The cast are the funniest people I have ever met in my life! I’m really looking forward to it now. I’ve never done panto before – this is my first time – and a lot of people have said it’s hard work, but to be quite honest, I go out and do my own shows for two and a half hours every night, so to actually work with a cast is a lifesaver for me! I’m also looking forward to being in the same place every day and sleeping in the same bed every night. That’ll be complete luxury!

DSCF3412Sounds like the tour has left you feeling worn out!

You could say that, yeah! I only finished on Sunday night and then it was straight into the first rehearsal on Monday, so I’m at the stage where I’m not sure how I’m even managing to talk to you right now! But it has been fabulous fun, and you just keep going in this business.

This is your first pantomime, but it won’t be your first stage musical, so how does it compare to other things that you’ve worked on in the past?

I did Romeo and Juliet in the West End, which was very dark, so this is obviously much lighter! It’s very camp and very funny. The script is hilarious. Even my opening line is about my knickers coming off! When I first read it, I thought, “Blimey, that’s a bit much!” But it is funny. It’s all typical English humour, which we don’t see a lot of, nowadays.

I think I caught sight of your magic wand earlier on. Have you had chance to try your costume on and see how everything looks yet?

How heavy is that wand?

I think it’s about half the size of me!

Ha, it is, actually! It’s massive, isn’t it? And it lights up and does everything. I think you can probably see it from space! It is very heavy, so I’m going to have to get used to handling it. It’s phenomenal though. It’s got its own credit, that wand.

How about the dress? Have you had a look at that?

Yeah, it’s lovely. Lots of Lycra! So that’ll give me a bit of breathing space – built-in underwear, that’s me. It’s actually very easy to wear.

And sparkly, I bet.

Yeah, of course it is!

That doesn’t light up as well, does it?

No – not yet! That’s an idea, though!

DSCF3398[1]You’ve previously worked with Duncan on Loose Women. How has it been reuniting with him in a different context?

Yeah, we’ve done a couple of shows together. It’s great, actually. You get to know people a lot better when you’re doing something like this, because we’re going to be working together for eight weeks. He’s a cracking singer, you know. When he started up singing in the rehearsals, I was like, “Blimey!” He’s got a really strong voice, and he’s a great actor as well, so I think it’s good for him to be doing this in his own right.  I think a lot of people will be impressed. I was certainly wowed when I saw him, even though I’d seen him in the West End before so I already knew he could do it. He’s hilarious, too – not at all like his character. He’s very very funny and very dry.

Have you had chance to have a look at the theatre yet or will it all be new to you when you arrive there?

I went over to have a look and to do the press day before, and it’s absolutely stunning! The Birmingham Hippodrome is like the place to perform. Apparently everybody’s coming to this place and everyone comes to watch the Birmingham panto, so I’m hoping they’ll all come and see this one – otherwise it’s not going to reflect very well on me! I must admit I’d go and see a show there. It’s a very comfortable theatre. It has really nice seats and fantastic views. I’m really looking forward to performing there.

What about Birmingham more generally. Do you know the town much?

You’ve got everything there, haven’t you? Selfridges and all the shopping. I’m well excited!

So has starting the panto rehearsals put you in the Christmas spirit or have you resisted the festive pull so far?

I think I’ve avoided it a bit, just because I haven’t really had time to think about it. But all the adverts on telly are starting to get me now. I think once I’m in Birmingham that’s when I’ll start to feel really festive. I’ll have my partner there and my mum will come to visit, and my best friend. I think it’s gonna be lovely!

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Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19th December until Sunday 1st February. Tickets are available from the Birmingham Hippodrome website. Keep an eye on this blog for my interviews with panto co-stars Matt Slack and Gary Wilmot

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DanceXchange – Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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The season of festive shows is now well and truly upon us, with Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl following hot (or should that be cold?) on the heels of the recent run of Slava’s Snowshow at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Presented by DanceXchange, Pita’s production is a beautiful, enchanting and surprisingly funny adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story that sees the little match girl (here named Fiammetta) transported to an unnamed Italian town where Christmas festivities are well underway.

The show is in large part an exploration of the meaning of Christmas, bringing together an eclectic mishmash of traditions with the kind of sombre, poignant reflections that tend to creep up on us on long winter nights towards the end of the year. Fiammetta’s own joy and wonder at the the beauty of her surroundings reminds us of the happiness of any young child anticipating presents and games on Christmas Eve. Then there’s the mouth-watering, Neapolitan-style Christmas food list rattled off by the wealthy and gluttonous Donnarumma family. The flamboyance and grotesqueness of that little trio, complete with its own ridiculous dame of a mother, is obviously inspired by a long history of British pantomime. Nevertheless, as self-absorbed as they are, the Donnarummas also on some level communicate the idea of Christmas as a time for family, a theme more sensitively dealt with in Fiammetta’s visit to her grandmother’s grave, where she, like many others at this time of year, spares some time to think of absent loved ones (that “auld acquaintance” that we so often toast on New Year’s Eve).

The_Little_Match_Girl_-_Bayes_1889Sensitively, Pita opens up both the meaningful and the shallow sides of Christmas, like two sides of Fiammetta’s single shiny penny, highlighting the hypocrisy of much of what goes on. While the Donnarumma family and others like them give gifts and eat together, the notion of Christmas as a time for sharing does not extend as far as poor Fiammetta, left barefoot and empty-handed in the cold. Rather than simply allowing her to drift by, ghostlike and unnoticed, however, Pita brings her into direct conflict with a jealous pair of rival match-sellers, as well as with the obnoxious Donnarummas.

The design of the show is utterly gorgeous, from the giant full moon hanging low in the inky sky to the rows of little houses that disappear and reappear onstage. The lighting is also beautifully atmospheric, with pools of streetlamp glow highlighting little patches of falling snow. Even more crucial to maintaining the mood is Frank Moon’s fantastic music. Performing onstage, Moon is drawn in to the world of the show, sometimes as a kind of incidental street musician, other times as a more direct part of the story, in a role he aptly described in the post-show discussion as something akin to that of a narrator. Interestingly, his music evolved symbiotically with with the movement, rather than being set to the dancing or the action being choreographed to a ready-made score, a process which has worked fantastically well. Moon attended creative sessions with the cast and director throughout the development of the production, and the result is a wonderful meeting of violins and theremins, haunting, Danny Elfman-esque sounds and jolly Christmas tunes.

The little cast of four is utterly brilliant all round, with Corey Annand convincingly innocent and vulnerable as Fiammetta (though with a surprising strength and determination when necessary), and Angelo Smimmo, Karl Fagerlund Brekke and Valentina Golfieri hilarious in show’s various other roles. The one thing that let the show down, however, was an apparent reluctance to allow the darkness in the story room to breathe and to sink in with its audience. It’s understandable that for a festive family show, something a little more light-hearted was called for than Andersen’s almost unbearably bleak tale, which is enough to reduce grown-ups, let alone children, to blubbering wrecks. Nevertheless, the fact of the match girl’s death was so lightly skimmed over that at least one of my fellow audience members was left confused and unaware of what had actually happened. Shifting a single scene to a point a little later in the show would probably have been enough to resolve this lack of clarity. Another, related issue was Smimmo’s semi-comedic take on Fiammetta’s grandmother who, like Clementina De Magistis Donarumma, is played by a male cast member in drag. For me, her heightened singing and pantomime dame qualities took away too much from the emotional resonance of her reunion with the little girl, a touching moment in the story that should have been more joyous, as well as more sad.

That said, the show gets an excellent and powerful ending when we are transported to a more contemporary town where, over a century later, another young girl attempts to sell cigarette lighters on the streets, which left me feeling as though there should have been some kind of charity collection on the way out.

Overall, what this production loses in Andersen’s devastating emotional blows, it makes up for in irresistible charm and a sense of genuine magic. Guaranteed to warm your heart like a handful of matches in a snowstorm, it’s a perfect Christmas treat for kids and adults of all ages.

“The Mother of All Musicals” – Carmen Performed by the Welsh National Opera

carmenIn words that pretty well summed up my own first impressions of Bizet’s Carmen, WNO Artistic Director David Pountney describes the opera as both “the first ever kitchen-sink drama” and “the mother of all musicals”. Widely criticised around the time of its first performance, it’s a ground-breaking piece that has since gone on to become one of the most popular and enduring operas of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. Fusing comedy and tragedy, lively characters and instantly recognisable tunes, the show’s appeal, much like that of its hot-headed heroine, is irresistible.

Carmen’s character is key to both our continued fascination with the opera and the stir it originally caused. Though the story takes the form of a tragedy in which our anti-heroine is ultimately killed, it’s difficult not to come away feeling that, in spite of her death, she has still managed to win the battle against those who would control and contain her. Unlike the agonisingly remorseful martyrs in sentimental operas like La Traviata, Carmen never relinquishes her freedom, unheeding of Don José’s damning accusations and refusing to be defined or domesticated by the rigid, oppressive patriarchy that he embodies. And, crucially, we love her for it. While for the male characters in the story, Carmen my be a puzzle that can eventually only be resolved through annihilation, for the audience, she is a free-thinking human being, mischievous, criminal and even cruel, perhaps, but still a clever and compelling advocate of individual liberty. She chooses death, in full knowledge that it is her only available alternative to submission.

The role of the saintly soprano in Carmen instead belongs to Micaëla, whose frightened reaction to the soldiers’ leering couldn’t be further from Carmen’s own. Passionate and righteous to an extent that seems foolish and childish, Micaëla is finally sidelined and forgotten along with the dying mother she speaks for. In contrast to Carmen, Micaëla is virtually denied a voice, becoming little more than the on-stage representative for Don José’s mother, who is never seen but whose presence and influence over her son is always felt. Don José is not so much trapped in a love triangle between two young women he seeks to dominate, then, as caught in a tug-of-war between the two “mysterious” women who shape the course of his life, leaving him embittered and emasculated.

Carmen herself is played compellingly by the stunning Alessandra Volpe, exceedingly sensual and seductive, even during the first act when she remains seated for long scenes. Jessica Muirhead makes a magnificent Micaëla, and Don José, Escamillo and Zuniga are well played by Peter Wedd, Simon Thorpe and Aidan Smith. The most lively and entertaining performances, however, come from Amy Freston, Emma Carrington, Cárthaigh Quill and Julian Boyce as gypsy smuggler team Frasquita, Mercédès, Remendado and Le Dancaïre.

After earlier opera experiences this month, it’s clear that the WNO place a great deal of emphasis on the acting in their shows, rather than viewing this as something secondary to the music. This is not only true of the stars, but even of the chorus which, in Carmen, includes a large group of children, all of whom do a great job. Big, ensemble scenes like the emergence of the women from the cigarette factory and the bullfight in Seville are beautifully set and directed and brilliantly performed, the women hilariously extolling the beauty of their cigarette smoke and the Seville crowd cheering Escamillo with an exuberant energy and some genuinely funny slow-mo sequences.

All this is not to say that the music itself suffers, however. On the contrary: the orchestra are phenomenal, with one of the most enthusiastic and energetic young conductors you’ll ever see in James Southall. The chorus are also in great voice, and Muirhead’s solos in particular are breathtaking. Volpe, too, has a deliciously rich, sultry voice ideally suited to her character. The quality of diction also deserves a mention. Though partly a virtue of the music itself, it was very easy to hear and understand the words, often without the surtitles, which were (happily) used relatively sparingly in this production.

For all its tragic ending, the overriding impression Carmen leaves is one of great good fun, rousing melodies and humour. Coming to it for the first time, it was a welcome surprise to discover that its comedy is as essential to the storytelling its more emotive, dramatic moments, as well as to see how clearly it serves as a forerunner for modern musicals. Exciting and accessible, Carmen would make an ideal introduction to the form for those who have never seen opera, and is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome again this evening. Click here for more information and to book.

“Like being in a giant wallet” – Chris Gascoyne gets into costume for the Jack and the Beanstalk Panto

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With this year’s Hippodrome panto, Jack and the Beanstalk now just a month away, the cast are beginning to get to grips with their scripts and prepare for their parts in the show. Last week, I caught up with Coronation Street’s Chris Gascoyne – who plays the giant’s accomplice, Fleshcreep – to find out more about the show.

So how are things going with the panto so far?

Well, we haven’t started rehearsals yet. We start rehearsing in London in about two weeks’ time, and then we come to Birmingham. Normally rehearsals for a panto are only a week. It’s crazy really. When you see the size of it, all the costumes and the routines, you wonder how they’ve managed to do all that in a week, but it’s just because you have to, really.

Our director, Michael Harrison, is working on two pantos at once – I think the other one is in Southampton. We’re all rehearsing in the same building in London, so he’s running from one room to the other. I think it might be the same show, so maybe I’ll have a look next door and see how the other bloke’s doing it, once we start! [Michael] has written the script for this one as well, and it’s one of the best panto scripts I’ve ever read.

Tell me a bit about your character, because it’s not one that’s in the original story, is it?

The character that I play is called Fleshcreep, and he’s the giant’s “second-in-command”, so apart from the giant, he’s the baddie of the show. The giant himself will be mainly in 3D. About six years ago I did a pantomime in Cardiff and they used 3D in that and it was incredible! But apparently this is new technology and it’s supposed to be even more amazing. Maybe one day it’ll be so good that they won’t need actors any more!

So is it Fleshcreep who’s really in charge, or is the giant still the big boss?

No, the giant’s definitely in charge of me! Fleshcreep is his minion.

Do you know what the giant will look like?

I haven’t seen him yet. I won’t get to see the giant until the technical rehearsal.

So you’ll just have to use your imagination in the meantime, then?

Pretty much, yeah. I remember with the one that we did in Cardiff, I played Abanazar and I had to talk to the genie, but because it was in 3D, I couldn’t even see it on stage. So while everyone else had got their got their glasses on, I had to look at a certain point in the auditorium and talk to him. All I had to go on was a recorded voice, and if I was a second too early or a second too late with my lines, it just carried on anyway, so the timing was the most difficult part. Also if I forgot my lines, he’d just carry on speaking as if I’d said them!

Your character on Coronation Street has a reputation for being a bit of a “bad boy” too. Do you think it’s more interesting playing characters with a mean streak?

Yes, I think so! But I don’t think Peter is really a baddie – he just makes mistakes and makes bad choices, just like anybody. He’s not a bad person, and even if he gets himself into situations where it looks pretty bad, he’s not someone who would intentionally hurt anyone.

Chris-Gascoyne-Birm (2)Have you done a lot of pantomimes before? How does this compare to others you’ve been involved with?

This is my fourth panto, and it’s bigger than any of the others I’ve done. I’ve been pretty lucky really: apart from the first one, all the other pantos I’ve been involved in have been with Qdos, which is the biggest pantomime company, and this is their biggest show. Everyone tells me that the Birmingham audiences are great and the cast is great and I know the script is good, and there’ll be all the 3D and special effects so I’m really looking forward to it! But really, I’ve got no idea what to expect!

You haven’t started rehearsing with the other cast members yet, but have you had chance to meet many of them?

No, not really. I met Duncan James this morning for the press photos. It was quite funny, because I came up to his dressing room head to toe in black leather, and he said, “Oh hi – are you playing the baddie, then?” and I said, “Well, I’d guess.” So I’d just met him and then the next thing I know I’m trying to strangle him in the foyer for the pictures!

Was this your first time seeing the costume today as well?

No I’d seen that before for some other photos we did earlier, but I’ll slightly modify it, I think.

What’s it like to wear it? It doesn’t sound especially comfortable!

It’s very warm! It’s all leather, and it’s a little bit like being inside a giant wallet.

Obviously Fleshcreep is a completely new character. Can we expect to see anything else new or surprising in this version of the Jack in the Beanstalk story?

Based on the script, I think that without it completely moving away from the story, there are going to be lots of really brilliant, interesting surprises. But I don’t know that much yet, so I’m as intrigued as you are to see how it all comes together.

What do you have lined up next for when you’ve finished with all of this?

I don’t know yet. Hopefully I’m going to go and do a couple of plays, though I can’t say what they are yet because they haven’t been 100% confirmed. I’ll probably do a bit of TV and just carry on and see what happens. I think all you can hope for as an actor is that luck will keep smiling on you and you’ll keep on working.

Has being involved with the panto made you start feeling festive yet?

Yeah – it always makes you feel Christmassy. I think the best thing about doing a panto is when you’re performing on Christmas Eve and all the kids are so excited! It’s great to be a part of that. It’s not really that far away now and all the lights are up so I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19 December until Sunday 1st February. Click here to read my interview with star of the show, Duncan James, or for more information and to book, visit the Hippodrome’s website.

An Experience Like No Other: Slava’s Snowshow at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Yellow clown in storm (V.Mishukov)

An experience like no other; an explosion of unrestrained joy and delight: beyond this, it’s close to impossible to describe Slava’s Snowshow without saying at once too much and too little. At the risk of falling into this trap, however, here are some of the things you can expect to find, should you decide to attend.

Subtle, thoughtful and contained yet somehow simultaneously buzzing with a mischievous, child-like energy, Slava Polunin is both a traditional clown and something altogether fresh and unique. Having raided a long and well-established history of silent performance to create this show, he refashions what he finds there into something truly remarkable, the gleaming treasures and dusty clichés all radically transformed through his own comic genius and that of his collaborators.

Storm with drape (A.Lopez)

What makes this show so different from anything else you will ever see, then, is not so much what happens, but how it does so. Everyone who attends the Snowshow will enter the theatre thinking they know something about clowning, and will be met there with plenty of the things they expect to see. Yet they will also have their every expectation subverted. The most familiar gags and gestures startle and surprise, appearing so suddenly and in such imaginative ways that we almost fail to recognise them when we see them.

Trudging gloomily onto the stage, the Yellow Clown begins the show by fashioning a piece of rope into a kind of noose. By the end of it, he’s showering his audience with snow and bombarding them with giant, multicoloured, inflatable balls, leaving the room filled with smiles so big that ear-to-ear doesn’t do them justice. Between these two points is every emotion in-between: the show is perhaps best described as a kind of rollercoaster ride through the highs and lows of life, triggering a similar adrenaline rush that’s undoubtedly better shared than experienced alone. To steal a brilliant description from my fellow First Night Blogger, Amy Stutz, it’s also “like having a good dream and a nightmare at the same time”.

Slavas Snowshow at the Royal Festival Hall  Photo by Vladimir Mishukov  4 (2)People may come to see Slava’s Snowshow, but they soon find themselves becoming a part of it: to describe the audience members as “viewers” seems wholly inadequate. If you choose to participate in this show – and I urge you to do so – you’ll be covered in snow and cobwebs, possibly soaked, surrounded by bubbles and generally invited to relinquish your inhibitions and play. It’s hard to imagine a single person making it through this show without cracking a smile – most of us won’t be able to wipe the grins off our faces for days. And why would you want to? The only bad thing to say about Slava’s Snowshow is that eventually, it has to end.

Slava’s Snowshow runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome tonight and tomorrow. For more information and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website.

_MG_0819Photo credits: A. Lopez, Vladimir Mishukov

About Town – Video Art in Birmingham’s Southside

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Wednesday night saw the launch of About Town,  a video art exhibition presented by the Hippodrome in collaboration with Ikon Gallery. As its title suggests, the exhibition is spread out across a different urban spaces, all within the Southside area, from the Back-to-Backs and the theatre itself to Hurst Street’s Gallan Car Park. Free of charge, the exhibition is currently open to the public from 4-10pm daily until Sunday 16th November.

Intended to present some of the best in international video art and to provide viewers with a fresh perspective on familiar environments, About Town incorporates work ranging from intimate interviews to large-scale, multi-screen installation pieces. As the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths explained, the exhibition was initially inspired by a visit to La Biennale international art festival in Venice, and the diversity of art on display reflects that of Birmingham itself.

About Town falls within the remit of Hippodrome Plus, the theatre’s continually expanding outdoor and outreach branch that also oversees things like Summer in Southside and the youth ambassador scheme. For Ikon, meanwhile, there was another motivation for getting involved: as the gallery prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, now is a great time to look back over some of the work it had displayed over the years.

Beginning in the Hippodrome’s own Qdos Lounge, Marjolyn Diikman’s Wandering Through the Future takes viewers on a journey through things to come as envisaged in the movies, with a series of film clips arranged chronologically according to their setting, from 2008 through to 802.701. This fun, playful exhibit prompts questions about the things we want and expect from the future.

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Meanwhile, in the foyer, Kelly Mark’s Hiccup #2 shows the Canadian artist sitting in the same position on the steps of the old Birmingham Library at the same time for five consecutive days. The fact that, each day, many of the same people pass her without noticing her performing the same actions calls attention to both the many things we ignore in our daily routines and the monotony of modern life, themes that crop up again in various other exhibits.

Scattered around the theatre are a series of clips entitled Happiness in Mitte, depicting stray cats drinking milk left out by the artist, Adel Abdessemed, in Berlin’s Mitte district. This proved popular among conscious attendees, though the small, inconspicuous screens are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, leading to parallels being drawn between this and Hiccup #2.

In the Back-to-Backs, a very ‘meta’ piece called Video Times shows the artist, Kevin Atherton, watching television, staring back at viewers from the screen he appears on. The film is accompanied by a magazine containing scripted directions for his actions, printed in the style of a TV listings guide like the Radio Times. Created in 1984, this self-reflexive yet oddly cosy and domestic piece predates not only reality shows like Gogglebox and Big Brother, but also the culture of CCTV surveillance to which we’ve now become accustomed.

Upstairs, Heather and Ivan Morison invite viewers to enjoy the simple pleasures of an English country garden, while next door, a series of fascinating extracts from Cornelia Parker’s interview with Noam Chomsky demand a little more of our time. Santiago Serra’s Person Saying a Phrase deals with the issue of homelessness, another subject that emerges more than once in this exhibition.

Grace Ndiritu Nightingale

One of About Town‘s most eye-catching and instantly engaging pieces is Birmingham-born Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale, showing in Route 2 Havana Car Park opposite Southside’s Nightingale gay club. Her piece explores issues of identity and stereotyping with regards to race and gender, using the simple tool of a red, patterned scarf. By variously becoming, through a series of transformational movements, a headscarf, blindfold, hajib, burka, veil, bandanna, turban, gag and purdah, the scarf playfully references an assortment of different cultures, all present in the multicultural melting pot of the West Midlands.

The exhibition culminates in a sensory feast in Gallan Car Park, where a series of huge installations are displayed side-by-side, surrounding viewers with light and sound. Like Saying a Phrase, Roy Arden’s Citizen tackles the issue of homelessness, showing a young man in the centre of a traffic intersection as seen from a moving car. Like Hiccup #2Citizen also prompts reflection on the things we often fail to see.

Junebum Park’s 1 Parking and Oliver Beer’s Pay and Display are well-suited to the car park setting. The latter features some eerie choral work by Ex Cathedra and some slightly scary, emotionless performances from children: it’s certainly one to hold your attention, as long as you’re not put off by its creepiness! Meanwhile, Yang Zhenzhong’s Let’s Puff places viewers in between two screens, one showing a busy Shanghai Street, the other showing a woman blowing air in sharp bursts. As she exhales, the scene opposite shifts, and we find ourselves thrown into another part of the street.

The most instantly emotive and visceral of the exhibits, however, must be Gillian Wearing’s Broad Street. In this (at times uncomfortably) immersive piece, viewers find themselves ringed about with screens showing club-goers courting, arguing and otherwise interacting in central Birmingham, with lots of alcohol involved. Experiencing this in a dark, chilly car park has the effect of making us feel as though we’re really out at night on Broad Street. Troublingly voyeuristic though strangely fascinating, the installation is sure to inspire a variety of reactions depending on viewers’ own experiences of similar nights out.

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About Town is showing across Southside until Sunday 16th November, from 4-10pm. For more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

All images by Mark Rhodes except still from Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale.

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung by the Mariinsky Opera

Gotterdammerung © N.Razina (2) (1)The final part of Wagner’s epic masterpiece begins and ends with a group of three sisters, creating a kind of elegant symmetry both within the show itself and across the Ring Cycle as a whole – a satisfying circularity appropriate to its title and themes, that lends the story’s outcome a sense of inevitability.

At the start of the Mariinsky Opera’s Götterdämmerung, the three Norns – daughters of Erda and weavers of fate – appear on a relatively empty stage, with dimmed lighting coloured a warning red. Surrounding them, silent, dreadlocked dancers are arranged in a ring, passing the Norns’ rope around their circle to maintain a delicate status quo until the rope runs out, having broken on the rocks it was tied to. Themselves embodying the broken strands, the dancers separate, and as they exit, their loping gait and contorted poses create the image of fate itself trudging miserably and unwillingly onwards, powerless to prevent the catastrophe that humans, dwarfs and gods alike will bring upon themselves. It’s a powerful opening, setting a dark tone for the rest of the show.

Götterdämmerung features another excellent Siegfried/Brünnhilde pairing in Andreas Schager and Larisa Gogolevskaya. Some time having elapsed between the events of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the characters that we meet at the start of the show have changed significantly in the interim. Stripped of her armour and dramatic hair and make-up, Brünnhilde immediately seems much meeker and more vulnerable than previously, and Gogolevskaya’s performance reflects this change: initially passive, contained and apparently content with domesticity, it’s difficult to equate this mortal woman with the powerful warrior and demi-goddess we encountered in Die Walküre. Siegfried, meanwhile, though as cheerful and energetic as ever, has lost a little of his callowness, having begun to absorb some of his lover’s wisdom. More important than any knowledge she might have imparted, however, is the fact that he has learned to respect another person.

Meanwhile, in the court of King Gunther, Mikhail Petrenko reappears as the king’s half-brother and closest adviser, Hagen. The son of the ring’s creator, Alberich, Hagen is bitter and twisted, fed on hate and spurred on by jealousy of his more noble, legitimate siblings. Another of Mariinsky’s genuine stars, Petrenko is perfect in the role, conveying the loathing and malice bubbling away beneath a thin exterior of calm and composure. His deep, sonorous voice has apparently designated him the “baddie” of the company – he previously portrayed both Hunding and Fafner in his dragon form – but despite some stand-out acting in the former role, this is the first of his three parts that really gives him space to show off his vocal talents. Mlada Khudoley also makes an excellent Gutrune, in great voice and giving a more nuanced acting performance than in her previous part as Sieglinde.

1Soon after arriving at Gunther’s hall, Siegfried is tricked by Hagen into forgetting all about his beloved, in order that he might marry Gutrune while Brünnhilde is herself claimed by Gunther. Upon his drinking a magic potion brewed by Hagen, all memory of Brünnhilde is washed away, and with it all her teachings: at this point, we see Siegfried revert back to his conceited former self, only this time, he comes off as considerably more dislikeable.

Back on Brünnhilde’s mountain, one of her former fellows risks Wotan’s anger by showing up to warn her sister of the grave danger the gods and the world as a whole are in. This Valkyrie, Waltraute, is played by Olga Savova, who brings the same powerful stage presence, stunning voice and emotional depth to this part that made her so compelling as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

Gunther’s court features some of the Cycle’s best set design, with grand pillars supporting a moveable platform that creates a sort of smaller, second stage, allowing action to take place on two levels and adding a sense of depth and scale to the show. This works particularly well when Hagen calls the army to prepare for Brünnhilde’s arrival, bellowing orders at the soldiers from high above them. The soldiers themselves are also excellent: this is the only part of the Ring Cycle to feature a chorus, and as a result, this scene is one of Götterdämmerung‘s most visually and musically striking moments. More gorgeous lighting creates the mood, with a sunset sky burning a bright, blood red in anticipation of the tragedy that will follow.

It’s upon Brünnhilde’s learning of her betrayal by Siegfried that Gogolevskaya really comes into her own acting-wise, balancing disbelief and confusion with horror, humiliation and fury. From this point on, we seem to see another version of Brünnhilde – no longer the mild, passive creature that appeared at the start of the show and allowed herself to be captured for Gunther, but the steely demi-goddess who once collected dying heroes from battlefields. Ultimately Götterdämmerung is Brünnhilde’s story, and Gogolevskaya rises to the emotional challenges of the end of the show: all eyes are upon her as the character makes her final, fatal decision.

It’s a fantastic end to truly incredible series of shows, and an experience I feel very privileged to have had. Next week, I’ll be attending two more operas at the Hippodrome – Carmen and Moses in Egypt – this time performed by the Welsh National Opera. They’ve definitely got a tough act to follow!

Header image by N. Razina. Second photograph by Alexander Shapunov.