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Kent flies high with Dutchman

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With all this terrible weather around, the wind and the rain seems just perfect for The Flying Dutchman, Jonathan Kent's exciting but slightly perverse new production at the ENO. Instead of jumping off a cliff at the end, Senta, the sailor's daughter, drives a broken bottle into her stomach.

Or is supposed to. At last night's second  performance, the wonderful soprano Orla Boylan - who certainly has the big lungs for Wagner - crashed the bottle into thin air and had to smash it again on a table after she'd been gang-raped at her own wedding party.

This of course was the least we could expect after the women at their spinning wheels are transformed into a crowd of butch factory workers in dungarees putting model schooners into glass bottles. 

There's obviously a Senta clause in the tragic heroine's contract: the whole show is an expansion of Senta's psychological condition of a romantic obsessiveness with the ghostly sea captain, the flying Dutchman condemned to toss and turn on the high seas until he finds the woman who can swear fidelity until death.

The only surprise, I suppose, is that Kent and the ENO don't turn the old salt into a pilot with KLM airlines, and his motley crew of companions into a chorus of flight desk attendants and trolley dollies.

Still, as you watch the show, it does exert a tremendous theatrical charge; it even has a battery of coloured fairy lights to complement those in Kent's other big London show of the moment, Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi. And like Sweeney Todd, The Flying Dutchman is unmoored from his mythic, historical context and re-floated not so much in another specific era as in an all-purpose "modern" setting.

I watched the show from the third row of the dress circle, from where you have a great view of the whole stage, the sur-titles at eye-level (how bizarre it seems to be checking the English words of David Pountney's translation as they are sung simultaneously) and the orchestra pit, where Edward Gardner stirred up the most fantastic, swirling sound in between the romantic set pieces.

I bumped into Kent on the steps of the theatre before the show and confessed that while I'm probably three quarters a Sondheimite I'm only half a Wagnerite: I love Dutchman, Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde but I've only ever seen half The Ring (though I'd rather like to see Robert Lepage's current $16million version at the Met in New York).

We discussed fanaticism in theatre going. He said that if I thought the full blown Sondheimites were a strange bunch I should get a load of the Wagner brigade. The magnificent Coliseum - easily my favourite theatre in London - was packed with them, quietly sceptical of any new version of events, much tweedier and more middle-aged than the Sondheim crowd, and just as dedicated to every twist and detail in the score.

Amazingly, for so "radical" a production, the reception was pretty good. Not thunderous, but appreciative. As a comparative newcomer - this was my first Dutchman on the stage - I was oddly less enthusiastic than I'd hoped to be.

The moment when the Dutchman's ship crashes through the scenery is fairly good but not truly spectacular. Paul Brown's design overall is a bit of a mess, and I'm afraid I've developed an incurable immunity to video projections of crashing spume and waves. It's all done in the music. So why bother to overload the senses with visual effects that look no better than a dodgy home movie?

Seeing the piece at all was a big moment for me, soon to be followed later this week with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach. I've seen Wilson works abroad, in foreign festivals, and I recall with mixed pleasure a piece of his with an absurdly long lower-case title - I was sitting on a patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating - at the Royal Court, of all places.

But Einstein on the Beach is a really great title, and I just hope the show lives up to it. Well, it has four and a half hours to try, gazumping Mike Bartlett's epic new play at the Royal Court tomorrow by a full ninety minutes. And if past form is anything to go by, those Wilson minutes will pass exceeding slowly. Beautifully, of course, but very, very slowly. I bet they do, or I'm a Dutchman.


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