Yorkshire Theatre Newsletter: Jun 3-16
'Parsifal' Review. Plus two fabulous (non-groomery) shows for children, Ukraine appeal, John Godber's triumphant return to Hull Truck, contested queer history and a personal tribute to Kay Mellor
And so to the Grand Theatre, Leeds, for my best night out in ages — the press performance of Opera North’s much anticipated and long-delayed production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal.
Engaging with this 19th-century German composer is not for the faint-hearted. Wagner’s works cry out to be performed on a vast scale, but his head — let’s face it — was full crackpot ideas. The philosophical thoughts of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer rubbed shoulders in an overcrowded mind with Buddhism, Christianity, British folklore and nordic mysticism. He was a musical genius but he was also like one of those awful stoned hippies who trap you in a corner at parties, trying to explain their big theories about the universe.
In Parsifal, his last work for the stage, Wagner’s Teutonic equivalent of the-world-is-being-run-by-giant-space-lizards is the made-up — and as far as I could make out, male-only — Kingdom of Monsalvat. This is where Knights of the Round Table guard the Holy Grail — the cup which Jesus used during the Last Supper to dispense the wine and which subsequent generations decided must have magical properties. And just in case we haven’t noticed the womb-symbolism, these Knights additionally have charge of the Holy Spear, with which a Roman soldier poked a hole in the dying Jesus. This second item has been stolen, with terrible consequences for both the Kingdom and for mankind.
It was all, as a fellow audience member observed during one of the two intervals, quite bonkers. The less said about the plodding — but mercifully short — libretto, the better. But never mind. Parsifal unfolds at its own majestic pace. You can’t fight it, so you might as well surrender to it like the humble serf you are. The pay-off is that you’re forced to listen to some of the most sublime music ever written.
Opera North have, in the past, dealt with the giant-space-lizards problem of contemporary Wagnerian production by staging stripped-down concert performances. Their Ring Cycle of 2016, which you can still find on YouTube, was acclaimed. Their Parsifal, conducted once again by Richard Farnes, faced extra challenges — the financial fallout from a global pandemic and the two-year closure of Leeds Town Hall, the most appropriate venue, for renovations.
The first was solved by, amongst other measures, a generous donation from the late publishing entrepreneur (and massive opera fan) Keith Howard; the second, by shifting the first leg of the tour to the Grand Theatre, where a semi-staged production made more sense than a concert performance.
The financial exigencies of a four-show run by a regional opera company could not wholly be disguised. The Chorus and some other cast members were kitted out in grey hoodies, combat trousers and heavy boots. This demoralised, war-weary, last-stand-in-the-dugout aesthetic was an entirely defendable choice by director Sam Brown but offered a dour introduction to a work which is (including two intervals), five and a half hours long. Parsifal had two shirts, one covered in gore, and the lighting was migraine-inducing. At the climax (no spoilers here — you must know the plot beforehand to have any chance at all of making sense of this work) the witch Kundry, released from her curse, holds up a baby doll to represent Christ’s rebirth. It looked naff — more Chucky than nativity.
But there was no stinting on the music. The enlarged orchestra occupied the stage with the pit built up to offer an additional apron of stepped performance space. This brought the cast near to the audience, and the famously excellent Opera North Chorus at times spilled over into front-of-house. After the distance of lockdown, it felt crowded, claustrophobic, intimate. Spittle flew (sometimes) and there were ample, hairy man-boobs on display, far too close.
Far be it from me to denigrate the achievements of a powerhouse male cast which included Toby Spence as Parsifal, Brindley Sherratt as Gurnemanz, Robert Hayward as Amfortas and Derek Welton as Klingsor. But I felt, personally, that it was Swedish mezzo Katarina Karneus, a former Cardiff Singer Of The World, who really cut through, humanising all that testosterone-fueled meglomania with her insightful performance as the cursed witch Kundry, who once mocked Christ on the cross.
The theme of Parsifal — if such a mad, complex, challenging work can be reduced to a single theme, which it can’t — is that it’s not the impedimenta of religion that heals the world but simple compassion. And Wagner wrote it like he believed it. Towards the end of Act One, the Chorus took up their stations in the auditorium. Now the music, of extraordinary, vaulting, cathedral-like intensity, was in front of me, behind me and even above.
I embraced the Godhead. I vowed, henceforth, to be a better person. And, dear reader, to my astonishment the tears streamed down my cheeks. Not single tears, but great, mascara-destroying rivers of them, the most I’ve cried in my entire life.
I’m not weepy by nature. It was Wagner’s music that did this to me. It was Parsifal, in all its lunatic, unreal and other-worldy brilliance, that opened the wound in my heart. Don’t miss it.
Parsifal runs to Jun 10 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (£15-£77.50), then tours as a concert staging to Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (Jun 14, £17.50-£55.50), Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall (Jun 15, £20-£60), Sage Gateshead (Jun 18, £20-£55), and the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank (semi-staged, Jun 26, £20-£70).
What’s On Jun 3-16
Firstly, Ukraine. York Theatre Royal will host a fund-raiser on June 14, in aid of UNICEF’S Ukraine Appeal. Tom Bird, Chief Executive of York Theatre Royal, invited Kyiv City Ballet to perform at the theatre after learning that the company were stranded in France. Eurostar and LNER stepped in to arrange the company’s return travel and various leading Visit York member hotels offered to accommodate the company and crew. This means 100% of the ticket revenue can be passed on to UNICEF. The performance is sold out but you can donate via the Crowdfunder page.
Alternatively, you can attend photographer Tim Smith’s illustrated talk Ukraine: Memories of Empire in the newly renamed Godber Studio at Hull Truck Theatre on June 10. It’s Pay What You Can (minimum £7) and all funds raised will go to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.
Meanwhile — remember Syria? Writer-director Stephen Burke conducted dozens of in-depth interviews and conversations with Syrian refugees and the resulting one-man show, How To Be Lucky, follows the fortunes of an ordinary Syrian family as they try to stay alive and seek safety. Harrogate Theatre (Jun 15, £5), York Theatre Royal (Jun 18, £5), Wakefield Theatre Royal (Jun 20, phone for returns).
Godber returns to Hull Truck…
A few years ago I watched an uninspiring production of John Godber’s Teechers at Hull’s New Theatre which left me wondering what all the fuss was about. This was embarrassing because the play’s director was none other than — Godber himself!
So I didn’t have high hopes for Teechers Leavers ‘22, commissioned as part of Hull Truck Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, in which the celebrated playwright reimagines his iconic mid-80s skewering of the publicly funded British education system. This time it’s the post-Covid era of exam chaos, tech poverty, isolation, absenteeism and lost school hours that he has in his sights.
But this updated production has enjoyed a slough of good reviews, and not just from the usual suspects bemoaning the state of comprehensive schools. Following the same play-within-a-play formula, the cast includes Godber’s own daughter Martha and is directed by Hull Truck’s Mark Babych. You can read a syndicated interview with the playwright about Teechers Leavers ‘22 here. Hull Truck Theatre, to Jul 11, on demand to Jun 18, both £10-£28.50
And if all you expect from your night out is a thoroughly good time, then Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford is the one for you. It’s as daft and overwrought as Wagner but the spectacular dance routines of this West End touring production are set to the music of Meat Loaf. Don’t expect Schopenhauer, but — who knows? Jun 7-11, £25.50-£52.5
Forget groomery sex shows made by woke young people who don’t like kids very much (and who, if Kathleen Stock is correct in her analysis, have probably never even had much sex).
Turning to the smaller venues and studio theatres, there are a couple of very high quality things for children on in Yorkshire this bank holiday weekend. Things that deserve Arts Council funding and deserve your money. The Tin Man at the Stanley And Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds is a dance reworking of The Wizard Of Oz. Anna Appleby’s original score is a joy, performed live by contemporary classical music ensemble Psappha. Jun 3-5, £9-£11
And Little Grimm Tales by Box Tale Soup in CAST Doncaster’s Second Space is a puppet show for the over-threes, telling some familiar fairy tales and some you might never have heard before. Jun 5, £8.50
… there’s Riot Act at York Theatre Royal, “a celebration of queer activism across the decades”. Confusingly, queer history is now a contested space as different parts of the alphabetti spaghetti that make up the LGBTQ+ movement discover that — surprise!!! — they may have conflicting interests and, indeed, not much in common with each other. This is a solo verbatim show, created out of interviews with three key-players in the history of the movement; Michael Anthony Nozzi; a survivor of the Stonewall Riots, Lavina Co-op; an alternative ‘70s drag artist, and Paul Burston; ‘90s London AIDS activist. Jun 9, £16.
Howerd’s End, written by Sheffield-born Mark Farrelly (The Silence Of Snow, Quentin Crisp) and performed by Simon Cartwright and Mark Farrelly, emerges from that strange era when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK but accepted by the public as long as it stayed in the entertainment sphere. It’s the story of comedian Frankie Howerd, who kept the most important relationship in his life a secret from his fans from the 1950s to his death in 1992. Jun 10 & 11, £12-£14
Farrelly also has a hand in Testament Of Yootha, in which Caroline Burns Cooke explores the sadness of beloved British character actress Yootha Joyce. A compelling small-screen performer, with brilliant comic timing, she had a talent for personal misery and drank herself to death at the age of 53. But let’s not forget how wonderful she was. Jun 10, £15.
And finally, Leaving Vietnam, at Hull Truck Theatre, is a play written by Richard Vergette and directed by Andy Pearson. This is a pre-Edinburgh showing, and tells of Jimmy Vanderberg, a war veteran who vows to ‘Make America Great Again’ until he’s visited by the son of a fallen comrade. Jun 9, £11.50-£13.50
But before I go, I must pay tribute to Leeds-born playwright and television writer Kay Mellor, who died last month. I knew her — slightly — and she thought sufficiently well of me and my newsletter to want to do to an interview. “Kay is very keen to do it.”
That was going to happen last January or Febuary but then I was busy and she, well, you know…
The author of such TV dramas as Band Of Gold and Fat Friends, she had a high-powered team around her but never forgot her roots. She was her Leeds roots, and ground-breaking in lots of ways. Band of Gold was a gritty drama about Bradford street walkers. Fat Friends looked behind the judgemental stereotypes to ask why people over-eat.
And she had her own production company!
The truth is, because she was vaguely ‘there’, on the outer periphery of my social circle, I always thought I knew her better than I did, and never understood what a huge deal she was. I once, because I had her contact details and needed to be somewhere very early in the morning in North Leeds, dropped her an email to ask if I could crash for the night at her place! (Answer: a polite but firm ‘no’ from her PA.)
So that was Kay Mellor. Ordinary, approachable — but actually very focussed and protective of her space. And now she’s no longer with us. Seize the day, folks, seize the day.
A Tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a collaboration between Opera North and South Asian Arts Network. The experimental performance imagines a prequel to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo based on the Greek myth. Musicians from the South Asian and Western traditions explore the creative possibilities of the love story, in a modest but intriguing production that starts at the Howard Assembly Room (Jun 21) and travels to stage@thedock, Hull (Jun 25), the National Centre For Early Music, York (Jun 30), Slung Low, Leeds (Jul 2) and City Park Stage, Bradford (Jul 3).
That’s all for this week. Please don’t forget to like, comment, share, donate. It does make a huge difference - to my morale, if nothing else.