Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Billy Budd, ENO ****

If anyone needs to be converted to the operas of Benjamin Britten, they should get tickets to ENO's new production of Billy Budd. Clearly some conversions are necessary - the gallery was only about two thirds full when I went, and that was on Saturday evening. (Of course, it could have been because France was playing Spain in the European Championship, but somehow I doubt it).

Not everyone likes the production, but I found it extremely effective. The problem was obvious - it 'updates' an opera that is very carefully localised in time and place, aboard HMS Indomitable in 1797, when Britain is fighting France. That led to many jarring references to sails (on what had been updated to a modern warship) and the French (given the 20th century look, the enemy ought to have been either the Germans or the Russians), canons (which the director replaced with oil drums), etc.

However, if you managed to ignore these anachronisms, it worked well. For a start the music was written in 1951, so the mid-20th century look suits it very well. More importantly, the implicit references to a totalitarian state - the sets reminiscent of Battleship Potemkin, the able seamen wearing boiler suits with numbers - chimes with the theme of personal and political repression that makes the opera so chilling. If the villain Claggart wants to crush the handsome Billy because he is attracted to him, as is insinuated, that makes more sense in an atmosphere where personal freedom is repressed. Captain De Vere is forced to condemn Billy because he needs to reassert his political power against the threat of mutiny.

The best thing about this staging, though, is that it doesn't get in the way of the opera. The story - which is about the relationships between Claggart, the crew, Billy and De Vere - unfurls with heart-breaking clarity. Billy's execution was unforgettably poignant.

Britten's brilliance is to dramatise big, timeless ideas whilst keeping within a naturalistic framework. Billy Budd is about repression, about good, bad and what lies inbetween, but it deals with them obliquely. One of the most thrilling musical build-ups occurs when HMS Indomitable approaches a French ship. The crew works itself into a frenzy of excitement as it prepares for battle. But then the mist gets in the way and the wind drops. The prospect of a clash with the enemy - which would re-energise the crew's flagging sense of purpose, of right and wrong - disappears. It is back to scheming and bitching below decks.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Stones of Camberwell - in the footsteps of Ruskin

After spotting a notice on the SE5 Forum, I went on a highly unusual walk around Camberwell last week. Its theme was a cross between the Victorian man of letters John Ruskin, who lived many years on Denmark Hill, and geology, which was one of his interests. Our guide was a South London artist called Martin Fidler, assisted by Andrew Stuck, who runs a small consultancy called Rethinking Cities.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The transformation of the Brixton arcades

Where in South London can you buy pigs tails, egg fruit, vintage jackets, church candles and organic sour-dough, all under one roof? The answer, as locals will know, could only be Brixton Village, the shopping arcade between Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road by Brixton train station. I walked through to buy some vegetables this morning and was pleasantly surprised by how busy and buzzy it was. The caf├ęs were packed with brunchers and even the two old-school fishmongers seemed to be doing a decent trade.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Big Society without the BS? How to buy your local film studio

Last September I went on a fascinating tour of a film studio based in an 18th warehouse in trendy Rotherhithe - and wrote about it briefly here. Now the owner of the warehouse wants to raise the rent beyond the means of the studio, which has been there since the 1970s, when Rotherhithe was a cheap industrial wasteland. It's a familiar story in the history of London - creative industries drive up property prices, forcing the creatives to move on. But rather than move on, the studio is trying to buy out its landlord. And it is doing that by issuing shares in its business to the local Rotherhithe community and contacts in the film industry.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Michaela Community School

All the drama of national politics came to Camberwell last Thursday at what was supposed to be an information evening for the Michaela Community School, a "free school" due to launch in Lambeth in 2012.

On the same day we hit the polls to vote yes or no on AV, the meeting at the Sun & Doves pub on Coldharbour Lane degenerated into a referendum on the free-school movement. Outbursts of partisan clapping followed questions on both sides of the argument and the evening closed with a women behind me literally screaming "you're destroying our education system".