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BAFTA Laughter, ENO Beano

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I spent half the weekend hanging around BAFTA in Piccadilly, gaining a head start on the latest films of Jonny Depp and George Clooney. The first stars as underground journalist Hunter S Thompson in The Rum Diary, Bruce (Withnail and I) Robinson's first film for seventeen years, while gorgeous George plays a previously part-time father in The Descendants, drawn closer to his two daughters through his wife's fatal boating accident.

The great thing about seeing films at BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) is that the audience really wants to see the films, doesn't eat or talk or even text during the performance, and stays right till the last credit has rolled. Somethimes they even applaud.

The place also has a good bar, a decent buffet and an interesting, professional clientele: the audience over the weekend included veteran producers Kenith Trodd and David Rose and actors Gary Raymond, Delena Kidd, Michael Fitzgerald and Trevor Cooper.

Curiously, both films involve bad behaviour by American capitalism in the offshore havens of Puerto Rica and Hawaii; one can't help wondering if there are metaphors lurking here for recent US military adventurism in the Middle East.

Probably not, as both are great fun, though The Descendants veers dangerously towards sentimentalism and, guess what, good-time George -- whom I always find, well, rather boring; no Cary Grant, he -- is a good guy with the future of the planet and his responsibilities in it so close to his heart that he forgets how to be a nasty old go-getting lawyer lining his own pocket by selling off paradise.

The Rum Diary is a highly entertaining account, based on a book by Thompson, of Depp's attempt to expose the sleazy hotel and property development on Puerto Rica in the early 1960s.

It also has one of the funniest sequences I've seen on screen for some time, as Depp and his rum-sodden sidekick, played by a wonderfully sweaty Michael Rispoli, make a getaway in their burnt out tinny car, Depp sitting on Rispoli's lap as they bump through the shanty towns like a pair of bobbing, copulating farmyard animals.  

There's a rum diary of events, too, in ENO's terrific new version of Rameau's Castor and Pollux, which has attracted a few reviews only too eager to mispronounce the second of those titular names with a softer consonant up front.

There's absolutely no reason why ENO should present a baroque opera like this in long curly wigs and starchy old costumes; the modernity of Barrie Kosky's ENO debut production (in Amanda Holden's well-judged new translation) is creatively extreme in order to set in relief the rigour, discretion and utter classical beauty of Rameau's music.

And the singing is nothing less than sensational, especially that of Allan Clayton as Castor and Sophie Bevan as Telaira, the divine princess who loves Castor but is betrothed to the immortal Pollux.

Telaira's sister, Phoebe, also loves Castor, who is killed in battle and descends to the underground; or, in Katrin Lea Tag's superb design, a huge mound of earth raised in a neutral beige box. Is this making a mountain out of a mole-hill, or vice versa?

Such double-edged questions have been posed by people dismayed by the explicitness of the sexual yearning: Pollux is assailed by two nymphs in gingham skirts who tempt him with carnal pleasure by removing endless pairs of knickers while standing astride his head; and Phoebe, lustrously sung by Romanian soprano Laura Tatulescu, lying spread-eagled and semi-recumbent on the earth mound, and deep in sexual reverie, is pleasured by Castor's rogue right hand emerging between her legs, in her soggy dream. 

Neither of these scenes is inconsistent with the overall tone of the evening, which is one of dream-like sobriety with a serious erotic undertow, a powerful cocktail of serene, but also sexy, meditation. And all of it fits the music and the words to perfection.

The chorus in particular is inventively used, especially as hooded voodoo-like demons at the gates to the underworld and then as the sleep-walking lovers in the Elysian fields, five of the men and one woman stark naked in fleshly sorrow, only one pair retreating like Adam and Eve from the scene with any hint of solace or corporeal interleaving.

I remember reading accounts of how Danny Kaye, when he came to the London Palladium after the second world war, sat on the edge of the stage and dangled his legs in the orchestra pit, an act of outrageous insouciance only plausible in such an august venue with a copper-bottomed star personality.

But the legs over the edge trick is part of everyone's repertoire in Castor and Pollux, a way of expressing another dimension in the choral architecture of the piece, and also suggesting a healing rift between stage and audience, heaven and earth. To this end, the orchestra has been raised nearer the stage, fully visible, with conductor Christian Curnyn, to the whole house.

Another vaudeville stroke is pulled when we see the multitude of dancing legs to just below the knee level, reminiscent of that magical moment when the curtain was raised a fraction to reveal an army of tap shoes and ankles in 42nd Street.

There's also a lot of rushing around, prompting Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times to reach for the phrase "micro-waved Pina Bausch." Others, including Rupert Christiansen, own up to just not "getting" Rameau (less astonishing, really, this admission than that of someone else over the weekend owning up to not "getting" Bach).

But the music, for me, is like a therapeutic bath, where subtle dissonance, elegance of form, repetition verging on the serial, decorative detail and very rare melodic effusion are all part of some marvellous and bracingly boring remedial treatment. I loved every bar, and every moment in the bath.


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