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Blue Orange, Deb's Delight

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There is nothing more miserable in the world than to turn up at a theatre and find the doors locked against you. Such was my fate on Saturday afternoon at the Orange Tree in Richmond, where the publicists had guaranteed me a ticket for the 3pm performance.

There was, it turns out, no 3pm performance. The publicists -- who I hasten to add are not in-house, but an independent firm -- had booked me into the evening performance without telling me; I wasn't exactly averse to hanging around the pleasant suburb for another few hours, but I had another engagement, the opening of Deborah Warner's wonderful revival of Eugene Onegin at the ENO.

The Orange Tree play is James Saunders's Next Time I'll Sing To You, which I am anxious to see and to which I hope to return later this week. It was Saunders's first notable success in the early 1960s (he died in 2004) -- other fine plays of his include A Scent of Flowers (in which Ian McKellen made his London debut), Hans Koolhaas, Bodies and Retreat -- and he remains interesting because he was so poetic and unclassifiable a writer; indeed, he was the very first client of the formidable agent Margaret Ramsay.

Saunders, like Vaclav Havel, had a special relationship with the Orange Tree and adapted one of Havel's plays for the theatre. And the director of Next Time is Anthony Clark, the much maligned former director of Hampstead Theatre, who also has form and former association with the little Richmond powerhouse.

Clark, on his day, is a very good director. Unfortunately for him, it's now entered unalterable folklore that he made a hash of running Hampstead, just as Adrian Noble is rather tarnished by his last few years at the RSC, and just as Michael Boyd might well be if Quentin Letts has his way: "A ridiculous man who is soon to leave his post, thank goodness."

Letts won't have his way, because "Left-wing" Boyd has palpably achieved a very great deal of good with the RSC. And like Clark and Noble, he too, on his day, is a very fine director.

Actually, let's stop right there and tot up the "Right-wing" artistic directors in the country; nope, there aren't any; we just have to live with the fact that people tend to work in the theatre because they absolutely aren't "Right-wing," it's in the DNA, unless of course they want to be a producer, perhaps, or Julian Fellowes.

Anyway, back to the publicists. They also sent out a release saying that James Saunders had faded into obscurity, and that this particular play was a great example of what the Orange Tree does best, ie, rediscovering neglected gems. The first statement is untrue and the second so well known and obvious that its very iteration is insulting. They then misspelt Ian McKellen.

I only harp on this because the Orange Tree has a fine tradition of excellent in-house publicists. Indeed, they still have a press officer on the books. So why waste money on outsiders? Probably all part of a misguided attempt to catch some sort of "West End" zeitgeist. The great charm of the Orange Tree, and its value to its local audience, is that it operates in its own special water; and if that's a backwater, so much the better.  

Luckily it was all systems go at the Coliseum for Eugene Onegin, almost certainly Tchaikovsky's best opera, and given here, in a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in a psychologically detailed and sensually realised Chekhovian (with knobs on) version by Deborah Warner, and played in the pit with an almost overwhelming beauty and passion by the ENO band under Edward Gardner.

The translation by Martin Pickard is curiously annoying, trying to reflect the origins of the libretto in Pushkin's poem by inventing banal internal rhymes and some hard-to-sing vowel clusters. The acting, though, is superb, especially from Amanda Echalaz as Tatyana (her letter song, declaring her love for the feckless Onegin, stopped the show) and Toby Spence as Onegin's rival and duellist.

Odd, though, to see the duel played out with rifles instead of pistols. And the pillars at the St Petersburg ball seem unduly fat and stubby in Tom Pye's otherwise magical design: the country estate gives way to icy vistas on a frozen lake, lit with misty moistiness by Jean Kalman.

Hurrahs, too, for the oatmeal and pastel colours of Chloe Obolensky's costumes and the sly elegance of Kim Brandstrup's choreography. The huge chorus is mobilised throughout with purpose and eloquence. 

Of course there will be those who say that Warner has returned to form after her controversial revival of The School for Scandal at the Barbican, when what they mean is that she has played mercifully safe and steady with the Tchaikovsky.

But even that's not quite true. We're going through a strange reactionary period when some audiences and quite a few critics aren't too keen on directors being adventurous or over-analytical, let alone outrageous. You can see this in the reviews of Michael Sheen's Hamlet.

And I heard it bellowed down my lughole in the gents loo at the Colisum on Saturday night when I caught a regular in mid-rant along the lines of thank God for something half-way decent after the disgraceful travesty of Castor and Pollux.

That travesty wasn't a travesty, but it was fairly outrageous. And it was also revelatory and exciting and interesting and different, as indeed was Deborah Warner's School For Scandal. Her Eugene Onegin will please many opera lovers, but it won't startle or surprise any of them...except in finding something so beautiful, humane and emotionally stirring coming from this director, perhaps.=


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