A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC IN LONDON
by David K. Newell
A Little Night Music at the National Theatre is a truly beautiful production, that has been framed by a very interesting directorial insight. Director Sean Mathias begins the production (after the sung overture) with two female figures (an adult and a child) dressed in white, lying on the stage behind a scrim with an enormous gold and crystal art-nouveau chandelier overhead. As the Night Waltz begins the two figures rise and begin to dance playfully. As they do, the chandelier (which comes to represent Mme. Armfeldt's country house) and the scrim rise, and they dance off and are replaced by the rest of the cast in the customary dance of switching partners.
Now, what is very interesting about this is that the two women are not, as I first suspected, Desiree and Fredrika. The adult woman was obviously not Judi Dench. It occured to me that what I might be watching was a young Mme. Armfeldt (young, since she had dark hair, and seemed to resemble Sian Phillips, but scrims are foggy after all) and possibly a young Desiree. This suspicion of mine was confirmed when at the end of the production, after her death and at the conclusion of the Night Waltz, Mme. Armfeldt reappeared (in her dark act two costume) with the young girl (this time obviously the same actress who played Fredrika), lay down in the same positions they took at the beginning, as the scrim and chandelier also returned.
I was struck, and very moved, by the idea that everything we had been watching was the last blink of Mme. Armfeldt's eye (or mind) before her death, when she could finally achieve peace knowing that Fredrika would be properly cared for and that Desiree had found true happiness. I'm not sure how many other people seeing this production got the same impression (or if I'm WAY out in left field) but it all felt so right, I'm certain it must be the case.
This reminded me of a production I had worked on as Asst. Scenic Designer while a student at San Francisco State University. The director, at the prodding of our chairman, decided that the story was really Mme. Armfeldt's, since she needs to get her house in order to be able to die. In that production Mme. A. had magical powers, shown in her cards. The Liebeslieders were the faeries who did her bidding, causing the events to unfold (and harking back to the original conception of ALNM as a more magical/fantasy story). (BTW, this helps to explain how Mme. A appears on the scene to sing Liasions and can "see" what Desiree is up to) and I found it very interesting that Mr. Mathias came to a similar conclusion, but found a very different, and more subtle, way of showing it.
But, onto the actual production, now that I've dealt with it's first and last moments.
The story may belong to Mme. Armfledt, but this production belongs to Desiree thanks to the dynamic and touching performance of Judi Dench. She is alternately grand, silly, sincere, touching, deeply angry but always full of heart. While it is true that her singing voice has some bumps you can never fault her acting or her deep understanding of this woman. And, actually, I wouldn't expect a character like Desiree to sound beautiful anyway -- she's older, more experienced and would not sing like a beautiful young ingenue. Which is obviously why the part has been cast, from the beginning, with actors who convey the right feeling of Desiree in all aspects of their performance, including vocal quality.
It was a treat to see her tear into this role and bring out levels I'd never seen before. A wonderful scene was the singing of "You Must Meet My Wife" where Ms Dench does not see fit to just stand idly by and mutter bitchy asides. Her Desiree's obvious motivation is to get Fredrik to SHUT UP and into bed as quickly as possible. To that end she tries gesturing to the bedroom, tries (unsuccessfully) to pour him another schnapps and then takes a large swig from the bottle herself, and many other strategems to make him stop rattling on so. It all smacks of upstaging (and broad farce), but it works and makes the song even funnier than before.
And then, of course, there is her rendition of Send In The Clowns. Blowing years of dust (and sugar) off that song she fulfills Sondheim's idea that it is a song about ANGER. This was made very clear thanks also to Laurence Guittard's clear-as-a-bell delivery of his "when my eyes are open" speech that comes right before the song. I've heard that speech many times but never really HEARD it until I saw him and Ms. Dench's reaction.
In the first part Fredrik makes her believe that he will be hers and she puts her head against him, joyfull and content. Then the speech changes and he explains that he really wants to stay with Anne. The look on Desiree's face spoke volumes (underscored but that haunting intro. to the song) and made her opening, almost venemous, "Isn't it RICH?" strong as a slap in the face. Then once Fredrik has left, her resolve begins to fade and she cracks, facing the uncertainty of her future. A performance that truly deserves the term "brilliant".
I found the rest of the cast mostly excellent, particularly Patricia Hodge's weary and tortured Charlotte. I look forward to hearing "My Husband the Pig" on the CD since it goes by rather fast, but it's a nice addition giving Charlotte more to do and helping define her character. It just occured to me that Charlotte is something of a sister character to Joanne in Company, since they both use their fire-cracker wit to make up for the pain inside. Ms. Hodge very capably portrayed this depth of Charlotte, while clearly reveling in her banter. I'm reminded of one of my favorite lines of hers when Malcolm tells her to watch the others like a hawk. "You're a tiger, I'm a hawk, we're our own zoo." Terrific.
Of course the other major musical addition was the combined "Glamourous Life" from stage and film. I really like the film lyrics so it was nice to hear them again. Although I'm not sure the way they've combined them is the most effective. This is another part I'll look forward to hearing on CD to give it more thought. But I must say it didn't significantly weaken Desiree's entrance which was the reason Sondheim had given in the past for not using it. Of course when you have a dynamo like Judi Dench and she's got 20-30 foot tall lavender curtains swooshing apart for her entrance... I think you get the idea.
Sian Phillips was a nice and pithy Mme. Armfeldt, doing very well with what must be my favorite moment in the show, the "wooden ring" speech, underscored by that gorgeous "Liasions" melody. Just beautiful.
One exception, for me, was Joanna Riding's Anne. I found her to be a bit too arch and petulant. Anne began to verge on being very unpleasant and nasty, not just young and silly. My friend described it as a very "British" performance (I hope that's not an insult), but the audience did seem to find her very amusing so I suspect it is a type that I just don't personally respond to. She did do very well by her music and I did like her better as the evening went along. Really just a minor quibble. Both she and Ms. Hodge did a terrific job with another favorite song, "Every Day A Little Death", very haunting and moving.
Speaking of minor quibbles... if was unfortunate that since the orchestra is on stage (stepped platforms stage left) that they allowed the musicians to wear street clothes at the performance. Would have been much more elegant (and appropriate) to have them in formal black. Also, sitting closer to the orchestra on house right, they did tend to drown out some dialogue and lyrics but I suspect that has to do with playing loud enough to be heard in the entire house. I understand the acoustics in the Olivier are rather dicey so I suppose they did the best they could.
The Liebeslieders were excellent with a nice Mephistophelian (if that's even a word) touch to them. A slightly sinister edge that seemed to fit in with their role of commentators on the romantic foibles of others.
The staging worked very well in the truly enormous Olivier Theatre. Only occasionally did people seem too far away from the audience or from each other requiring them to yell dialogue that could be spoken in a smaller venue. It was a personal thrill for me to see the Olivier's famous (or rather, notorious) drum revolve in action for the first time. I could excuse the infrequent rumblings for the cinematic fluidity that it gave to the first act. The capability of changing levels was used well with the Egerman's two level flat (parlour upstairs, bedroom down), and the revolve giving us wonderful images like Fredrik walking pensively down the hall to Desiree's dressing room as the scene changed to her "digs".
The use of pale lavender for the floor and surround of curtains (and Mme. Armfeldt's magical wine, nice touch that!) was the perfect color backdrop for the show. The individual pieces of scenery (Desiree's red rose bed, the diarama of trees and lake, the sprinkling of red flower petals) also created just the right atmosphere, thanks to the set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis' impeccable taste. The same for Nicky Gilabrand's lovely clothes including some knockout hats for Desiree and Charlotte.
Credit also to Mr. Mathias and the choreographer Wayne McGregor for the fluid use of movement of the characters when the turntable was spinning and when it wasn't. One particularly effective choice was in the scenes after the dinner party in act two. By having all the servants (not just Petra and Frid) galavanting through the night in half-dressed erotic play, it more clearly contrasted the silliness of the lead characters headtrips. It also gave a clearer framework for "The Miller's Son" in a good (if not amazing) performance by Issy van Randwyck. I'm always surprised when someone tells me they don't get why that song is in the show. I think this production made it very clear.
And, (double bravo) finally a production of ALNM that was able to make it clear when the night smiled!!! Thanks to Mark Henderson's flood of lavander light and Mr. Brimson Lewis' magical chandelier -- I finally saw it done effectively and subtly. Of course the problem is that by the time it happens it was discussed 2.5 hours earlier, but this person greatly appreciated the effect.
All in all, a lovely achievement that has thankfully be saved forever on CD. To have lost (at the very least) Judi Dench's performance to the memories of those fortunate to be present at the Olivier would have been a shame. Now let's just hope they recorded everything we want to hear... and maybe even a little more.
This production, along with Company and the NT Carousel is leading me to believe that the English (and Australians, for that matter) now know how to do "our" shows better than we do. I hope we can learn from their fresh viewpoints and serious study of text and song to begin doing similarly important work here. It's time to stop feeling locked into the traditional methods of presentation that can encompass the metaphorical and mysterious in addition to the practical and literal.
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