Tom Sutcliffe goes to the opera


One topic not mentioned during the election has been the state of British live-performing-arts culture and how much subsidy would be needed to restore it to anything like what existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Our son Walter has been artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera in Belfast since early 2017. He has now been appointed from autumn 2021 to be Intendant of the Opera in Handel’s birthplace, Halle near Leipzig in Saxony-Anhalt. The opera in Belfast gets £559,000 a year from the government. The opera in Halle – one of more than 60 such companies in Germany – gets €32,163,000 subsidy, part from Berlin and the rest from Saxony-Anhalt. In the UK now, opera, ballet, classical music, and theatre are barely supported – and there is not much of any of them up and down the country compared with how things used to be. The difference between Germany and us is simply staggering.

Opera North, I am glad to say, deserves congratulations for their rather wonderful production of Street Scene which Weill in1947 based on a 1929 play of the same name by Elmer Rice. The story follows a community living in an apartment block in Brooklyn, and includes a mother found in bed with the milkman getting killed along with the milkman by her enraged husband. Plus some other tenants whose husband and father has abandoned them put out on the street. It is life in the raw – and no doubt it has not changed that much in New York. And Opera North’s cast are all extremely good at acting as well as singing, especially those taking the vital roles like the due-to-be-murdered Anna Maurrant (Giselle Allen), her jealous husband Frank (Robert Hayward), their daughter Rose (Gillene Butterfield), Sam Kaplan the law-student Jewish neighbour who loves Rose but is told by his sister not to marry out (Alex Banfield) Choreographer Gary Clarke has staged the children’s dance number fabulously well and the duet Moon Faced, Starry Eyed also danced makes a big impact – though the interior staircase set by Francis O’Connor is not easy to get around with all that frenetic activity.
More than once I had real tears in my eyes. The tale is told in such a convincing and inescapably truthful way. It could well be happening now. Banfield and Butterfield excel above all. Weill’s work requires 75 performers in total so is a major venture for a company with modest subsidy. This is not to be missed. There are further performances between now and mid March in Leeds, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Salford and Nottingham.

The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-on-Thames has been continuing its exploration of Bernard Shaw, most of whose plays I read when I was a child – including Candida which is one of the four Plays Pleasant. It is all about a bossy vicar’s wife torn between affection for her husband Revd James Mavor Morell and her budding sympathy for an 18-year-old interloper with persuasive literary gifts, Marchbanks, who is being put up at the vicarage. Shaw subtitled it “A Mystery” whereas his Arms and the Man (the main “Pleasant” play) he called “An Anti-romantic Comedy”. The roles in Candida are meaty to perform. But the “Mystery” is the nature of marital love, and the play does not really live up to that serious challenge. Shaw was, of course, insufferably opinionated – especially on the subject of his own genius, though his going on about himself being as good as Shakespeare, or better, was probably just meant to annoy. Some Shaw plays stand up to the competition almost. But it is not only great English playwrights like Sheridan and Congreve whom Shaw does not equal. He lacks the originality and fascination of Ibsen, Chekhov, Feydeau and Wedekind – all far superior contemporaries.

Paul Miller, director of the Orange Tree and of this production, struggled to make something of Candida more than just routine verbal comedy. Set in the 1890s (when it was written) it seemed exceptionally improbable that the curate’s role was played by a black actor, Kwaku Mills, though a good one. Should representativeness these days trump natural realism? Which is a similar question of course to today’s insistence that women play Shakespeare’s male roles. The Orange Tree loyal audience was appreciative. The play’s run was extended, Shaw being entertaining enough. Martin Hutson was excellent as the vicar Morell, Claire Lams a thoughtful compelling vicar’s wife. But it was young Joseph Potter making his professional debut as Marchbanks who made the most impact:  difficult, overweening, but sympathetic and genuine.