Tag: Hamlet

Matthew Jocelyn: Interpretation Over Illustration

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire

Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.

Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.

Matthew Jocelyn theatre Hamlet director writer artist

Photo: Tony Hauser

Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen,  Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten  (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.

As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”

That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marks Hamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.

How is your production of Hamlet going?

It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.

How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?

From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind. 

So this will be more abstract?

Yes, more abstract.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?

It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.

Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work. 

And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.

Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.

So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Photo: Paul Leclaire

So there’s a freedom working in Germany… 

Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything. 

It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!

That’s right!

What’s been your process working with the cast? 

This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.

And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.

Duncan Ward conductor music artist baton podium

Photo: Alan Kerr

I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also. 

Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.

The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing? 

I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.

In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

So not change so much as evolution… 

Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.

Susan Coyne: Her Own Peer

There are some plays I’m absolutely drawn to, Hamlet being a notable example. I love the haunted nature of the title character, the complicated nature of his relationships, and the ways he deals with (or avoids) various elements thrown up at him. Like Hamlet, Henrik Ibsen‘s Peer Gynt has a compelling main character and a complex set of relationships -but the big difference is the sprawling, massively ambitious storyline. Most people associate Ibsen with serious, hard-edged reality-based works like Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Yet before these works, Ibsen wrote his five-act play in verse, and, to quote one critic, “in deliberate, liberating disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama.” Wow. Ambitious? Yes. Brave? Yes. A little bit crazy? Perhaps.

Indeed, Peer Gynt has presented its fair share of challenges in live production; many versions are long, or else condensed so thoroughly that they risk losing their original Norwegian folk flavour. Ingmar Bergman helmed a five-hour version in 1957 (and didn’t use the famous Grieg music named after the work), while Christopher Plummer presented a radically-reduced concert version in 1993 (and did use the Grieg music, natch). There’s a myriad of reasons the work is so challenging: numerous location chances, an enormous cast of characters, and fantastical elements that reference fairy tales, religion, and the nature of time itself. Like I wrote, Peer Gynt was, and remains, ambitious, brave, and a little bit crazy.

So it was with much intrigue that I recently looked over a press release for a new, streamlined production of the work, staged by The Thistle Project; adapted for two actors by director Erika Batdorf and the company, the production features playwright, actor, and author Susan Coyne alongside Thistle’s co-founder Matthew Romantini. I wanted to find out Coyne’s ideas about this unique work, perhaps in the hope that she’d be able to furnish me with a little more clarity in trying to understand the nature of Peer. I soon learned she brings not only an actor‘s dedication and commitment to the role, but a writer‘s intuitive understanding of the language, and how it informs the visual elements within the work. The Thistle Project’s production of Peer Gynt promises to be one of the most memorable experiences of the Toronto theatre season this year.

How do you approach the role? You’re playing what some might characterize as a “typically male” role. What is it about Ibsen’s hero that ultimately renders him genderless?

The character is very male in the traditional sense and we aren’t changing that. However, I”m not playing him in drag. I like to think it’s similar to what actresses quite often did in the nineteenth century- playing the “breeches part” without having to explain why. The play reveals new facets when you can get away from some of the off-putting surface elements of Ibsen’s original script (which was probably not written to be performed at first)- like the character of Solveig, who seems a kind of caricature on the page. (She is) the maiden pure who waits her whole life in a castle tower for her hero to return to her. What attracts me to Peer is his energy and his imagination. He’s a dreamer and a doer, though he lacks the capacity to look at himself and his actions.

By producing it in a church, there is a lot of spiritual background brought in. Intentional?

We wanted to do the play in a non-traditional space. Again, this is a way of looking the play from another angle. The play has a very spiritual core and we wanted a space that would provide it with a kind of resonance- as it happens we found one in the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is a beautiful space with a very progressive history and deep roots in the downtown community where it sits.

How does the movement-based, experiential nature of the piece complement Ibsen’s writing?

Peer Gynt is very unlike the plays by Ibsen that most of us are familiar with: A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabbler, Ghosts. It is a kind of folk tale, very earthy and wildly inventive and mixing all kinds of styles of theatre. So we are doing the play with only two actors, me and the brilliant Matthew Romantini, who plays every other character.

How much of your own writing background helped in the streamlining of the work?

Erika Batdorf is the real force behind this adaptation, which involves cutting a play down from about four hours to something like ninety minutes. She knows the play intimately, and has been involved with several productions, and lived with it inside her for many years. The rest of us have had a hand in reworking bits and pieces as we’ve found some stumbling blocks in the text.

What does Peer Gynt have to say to us in the 21st century?

First of all it’s a very entertaining story, and surprisingly funny. It is the story of Everyman‘s journey through life- the struggle between our flawed, selfish, human desires and the part of us that might be called our higher self- the self we seldom allow to have the upper hand. I think it’s an old, old tale, and one that never goes out of style.

Peer Gynt runs to February 21st at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity. More information is at the Facebook Event Page.

Photos by Lindsay Anne Black

Reason #2 I need to go to New York

I love the Tonys -or rather, the theatre scene the Tonys represent.

Nominations were announced today and they include a slew for the Elton John-penned Billy Elliott.

I remember watching the awards year after year, from the time in 1995 when a nervous-looking Ralph Fiennes won for Hamlet (which I saw at the Belasco that summer, and was indeed magnificent) to Alan Cumming slinking across the stage to the opening strains of Cabaret (best production ever, bar none -and at Studio 54, no less), to when entirely very-very Australian actor Hugh Jackman hosted (charmingly, but you knew that).

This year, I was a bit surprised there were no nominations for The Seagull, or its lead, Kristin Scott Thomas. Though I didn’t get to see it (sadly), I heard a lot of good things. Apparently I wasn’t the only one surprised by its overlooking. Hmm.

Still, the Tonys makes me long for a chunk of the Big Apple. A big singing, dancing chunk.

Drama Is…

There’s certainly plenty of great drama out there lately.

If you’re in London, there’s the Tony Award-winningAugust: Osage County. New York has the recently extended one-man show Taking Over, while Chicago has Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. If you’re in Toronto, there’s no shortage of goodness either, with the disturbingly brilliant Festen running into next week, and Frank McGuinness’ timely (timeless?) Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me opening this Saturday.

But oh, the best drama for us Canucks right now is in our own Parliament. The drama! The speeches! The fist-shaking fury! It would all be very entertaining, if it weren’t also real. Ouch. The best part is the level of engagement it’s provoked among average Canadians; considering our last election saw some of the worst voter turnout rates in electoral history, being a part of something so starkly different in terms of mood and passion is… refreshing. The downside is the deep cracks in unity the Ottawa drama is revealing to all of us. Forget the “one” part; we’re just simply “not the same.” Or so we’re being told.

Objectively interesting as it all may be, the cause of national unity isn’t helped by our politicians giving deeply dramatic, occasionally hysterical Bernhard-meets-Kean performances. Makes the fuss over the use of a real skull in an RSC version of Hamlet seem tame by comparison. Then again, I can think of a few people who feel as if their own skulls have been bashed around, watching the frantic arm-flapping of Canadian politicians over the last week. I can only hope there’s a great playwright (or two) watching, listening, and writing. We’re going to need someone to make sense of this for us, and I can’t think of any other way to see it, other than a dramatic presentation in the theatre. If Frost/Nixon taught me anything, it’s that human behaviour is often at its most desperate and revealing when put through the fire of politics. Stay tuned for it: Harper Hears A Hoard, on tour soon.

Thank You, Clive

Clive Barnes, the venerable theatre and dance critic for the New York Post, has passed away.

I had the opportunity to meet Barnes in 1995 when I traveled to New York City for a much-praised production of Hamlet that featured Ralph Fiennes as the melancholy Prince. We met at Cafe Un Deux Trois, just beside the Belasco Theatre, and he regaled my friend and I with his great tales one splendid evening. He was, to quote fellow theatre critic John Simon, “charming, witty and learned.” Just so.

Barnes was a big personal inspiration, and he will be very missed.

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