Financial Times Europe - 19.09.2019

(Jacob Rumans) #1
8 ★ FINANCIAL TIMES Thursday19 September 2019


Bizarre: ‘Opera of Time’

Shirley Apthorp

The listing carcass of an erstwhile grand
piano lies rotting in the sand. The cen-
trepiece of this year’s Music Theatre
Days in Vienna is a homage to the rav-
ages of time, a nod to the festival theme:
The Myth of Civilisation.
Vienna, home to both operatic behe-
moths and the contemporary music
elite, still has room for this relative new-
comer, a festival that pushes the bound-
aries of what music theatre can be. The
event is a liminal late-summer space for
the experimental and the outrageous,
for risk-taking and for redefinition.
Four short world premieres by young
composers Yiran Zhao, Malte Giesen,
O y v i n d M æ l a n d a n d N a t a l i a
Domínguez Rangel were deftly woven
together inLiesofCivilisation, four differ-
ent examinations of crisis and miscon-
ception for percussion, clarinet, key-
board/sampler, and up to four voices.
Dutch sibling directors Gable and Romy
Roelofsencreated a museum context as
a provocation, an extension of Giesen’s
philosophicalWhiteBorder. The German

composer reflects on the notion of art
and framing; the Roelofsen production
asked us to think about the way a
museum both constructs and influences
the nature of history. From the multiple
layers of Zhao’sThe Single Day o thet
howling voices of Rangel’sThe Invisible,
the four works are at once wildly diverse
and somewhat patchy in their use of the
available resources; kudos to the direc-
torial team for a taut and coherent reali-
sation with minimal resources.
Thomas Jelinek and Jorge Sánchez-
Chiong’sOpera of Timeis a more whole-
heartedly bizarre construct, a trans-

disciplinary reflection on the nature of
time itself. Part talk show, part revue,
part rave club, part physics laboratory,
with a splash of installation art and
more than a little pure insanity,Opera of
Timeis a series of clever tricks, a mix of
genres, a few jokes, and a number of dec-
ibels too loud. Friendly ushers handed
out earplugs at the entrance, a practice
that the city’s mainstream music insti-
tutions could do well to follow.
Bertl Mütter and his trombonetook
centre stage forUtoperan 19, a short but
sweet performance piece in which mul-
tiphonics, Schubert, and a witty tangle
of thoughts on structure, organisation,
society and music are woven into one
poetic piece of brilliance, a prelude for
the festival discussion on civilisation
and its myths. Vienna is a place that
does both philosophy and madness
very well, and the Music Theatre Days,
now in their fifth year, tread the razor’s
edge between risk and expertise with
balletic grace.
As the week progresses, Frank Zappa
for children, a young team of Ukrainian
anarchists and a roadshow about alco-
holism are among the additional festival
offerings. The days of civilisation as we
know it may be numbered, but Vienna
is as good a place as any to watch it all
going down.

Howling voices push at the boundaries


Music Theatre Days
WUK, Vienna

Max McGuinness

“I’m always honest about my dishon-
esty,” says Derren Brown towards the
beginning of this one-man show. That
statement calls to mind the paradox of
the Cretan liar. But the British mental-
ist, here making his Broadway debut,
indeed seems pretty upfront about what
he is up to on stage.
Brown, who first performedSecretoff-
Broadway in 2017, does not purport to
possess any psychic powers. He instead
combines old-fashioned magic tricks
with quirky showmanship and, as he
puts it, “the art of secretly directing peo-
ple to do what I want”.
The results are frequently dazzling
and often unsettling. If you are of a
susceptible disposition, be warned
that Brown has a knack for getting
audience members to blurt out dark

secrets (such as fantasies of infidelity).
The show starts more tamely as
Brown invites us to stand and conceal
any random object in one hand. He pro-
ceeds to whittle down the numbers
based on whether he can guess which
hand we’ve used. He then challenges
one of the last audience members
standing to play for money. On the
night I attended, his competitor
won $50 when Brown failed to guess the
right hand — one of several instances

where his powers appeared to fail him.
But those apparent lapses themselves
end up seeming like a trick calculated to
win us over to his mind-boggling
charms. Over the course of two and a
half hours (with an interval), Brown
pulls off increasingly impressive feats of
psychological manipulation, concluding
with a piece of collective dupery that
neatly ties together several unlikely
strands that have been dangling
throughout the show. That achievement
is facilitated by Andrew O’Connor and
Andy Nyman’s bare-bones staging,
which supplies a visual echo toSecret’s
central conceit that what you think you
see is emphatically not what you get.
Among Brown’s few props is a set of
frisbees, which he randomly tosses into
the audience to choose his patsies. That
device seems to rule out the use of
plants. Brown also deploys techniques
to pick out the easiest marks. His
approach is ultimately good-natured.
But one shudders to think what such
methods could bring about in the
wrong hands.



Derren Brown: Secret
Cort Theatre, New York

Unsettling: Derren Brown in ‘Secret’


o infinity and beyond.
James Gray’sAd Astra, set
in the future, takes us to the
planets and back with little
Buzz Lightyear braggado-
cio, but with so much weighty rumina-
tion it would sink any believable space-
ship. The spaceships aren’t quite believ-
able here. But for an hour they are capri-
ciously compelling, even when hosting
the trans-spatial soliloquies of Brad Pitt.
He plays an astronaut sent to meet his
dad — Tommy Lee Jones in the briefing
photographs — who is “still alive, near
Neptune” and the last survivor of a mis-
sion gone rogue.
Cosmic ray surges have resulted in
“the uncontrolled release of anti-
matter”. Calamities are occurring
Earth-wide. 43,000 people have died.
Pitt has to be the best man to send, since
Colonel Kurtz — sorry, I’m thinking
Heart of Darkness and so, I suspect, is(
film-maker Gray) — since Prospero —
sorry, I’m thinkingThe Tempest ditto)(
— since Clifford McBride ( Jones) is not
just his dad but very possibly his dark,
fathering, necromantic other self.
How to travel to Neptune? In a film
like this, it’s pretty much like getting
from Wandsworth to Wimbledon,
allowing for the odd exploding bus in
Tooting or adventure with zero gravity
in Colliers Wood. The Moon and Mars
will be stopovers. Just try to avoid the
old guy on the cosmic bus route who
offers you DIY route guidance. He will
be played in a scary, witchy, entertain-
ing cameo by Donald Sutherland.
James Gray madeTheLostCityofZ nda
before that a series of chamber movies
about the displaced or misplaced (We
Own the Night,The Immigrant). He likes
adventures, but he likes mind music
too.AdAstratries to be both. But instead
of marrying, they are mostly at each
other’s throats.
We think excitedly “Ooh,Gravity

again!” in scene one, when Pitt is thrown
from the giant space mast he is helping
to fix; later again when he free-whirls
through voids, battling rubble while
hopscotching between space vessels.
Elsewhere comes the monologuing, of
which there is much. Freudianism 101 —
“I don’t want to be my dad” — is mixed
with that other prime number in sci-fi

metaphysics, 2001. Pitt’s character is his
very own Hal 9000. And, at risk of giv-
ing you too much intertextual shopping
to carry, he is Prince Hal too to his
father’s “uneasy lies the head” cosmic
In the Relativity Theory of film
watching, too much almost always adds
up to too little. By climax time,Ad Astra
has accumulated so many echoes we
realise we are in emptiness. After prom-
ising us bounty (including a mutiny to
precede and set the plot), Gray delivers
a boom chamber.
There are wonderful moments,
including a lunar “car chase”, with space
pirates, and some production-design
deliriums out of Michael Powell by Sal-
vador Dalí. But psychological platitude,
Oedipal cliché and holistic common-
place about love and humanity can’t be
hidden by attractive clutter and kinetic
action, even in space.
Blandness is the perfect weapon
for defeating film criticism. I had

no problem watching Lulu Wang’s
The Farewelland that’s my problem.
It passed my eyes painlessly and emo-
tionlessly. How does one respond to a
movie to which one has no response?
It’s perfectly competent, and has even
won popularity, this Chinese-American
family drama with a message. Relatives
gather in Changchun, officially for a
wedding but also to bid unspoken good-
bye to grandma, who’s dying of cancer.
She doesn’t know. That’s a Chinese tra-
dition, we’re told: to keep the truth
about fatal illness from your near and
dear ones. In America it’s different
(we’re reminded): it can be unlawful not
to tell them.
That’s the plot and that’s the theme.
The film could have had wit, attitude,
poignancy, style — or any single one of
the four. Instead it slithers along, shal-
low and soapy. The sole redemption is
the performance of the inspirationally
named Awkwafina. She plays a young,
unattached, misery-faced Brooklynite,

forever grouchy about the wool being
pulled over gran’s eyes. I expected graf-
fiti to materialise everywhere she went
saying “Killjoy was here”, with two
depressed eyes peering over the high
wall between cultures.
Naturally, since even her dyspepsia
has character, Awkwafina is the one, at
showdown, to cry, smile and even tear-
fully sing. The rest of the cast just keep
speaking their lines, hitting their chalk
marks and saying “Eggplant” — that’s
China’s equivalent to “Cheese” in family
photo opps — to the camera.
The Kitchenis a knuckleheaded
knock-off of Steve McQueen’sWidows
set in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. We all
know what community lives there. The
Murphia; the Irish Cosa Nostra. Unlike
The Farewell, this gangland thriller is
fearless drivel and therefore obdurately
Melissa McCarthy is the touchy-feely
wife who toughens up when “widowed”
by a husband’s jail sentence. Also newly
slammered are the better halves of
black Tiffany Haddish and blanched-
white Elisabeth Moss, a star who withUs
andThe Handmaid’s Tale s fast becom-i
ing the punchbag who punches back in
the #MeToo era.
Director and co-writer Andrea Berloff
goes to few places we don’t expect. As
bang-bang replaces kiss-kiss in the
women’s lives, the Murphia men still
un-jailed are neutered or eliminated
with violent, improbable ease. Dom-
hnall Gleeson plays a strawberry-blond
Death Angel who helps out with corpse
dismemberment. (OK, we didn’t quite
expect that.) And by the end we have
received the message loud, clear and
mellifluously feminist.Dulce et decorum

In space no one can hear you soliloquise

Echoes: Brad
Pitt in ‘Ad Astra’.
Below left: from
left, Elisabeth
Moss, Melissa
McCarthy and
Tiffany Haddish
in ‘The Kitchen’




Ad Astra
James Gray

The Farewell
Lulu Wang

The Kitchen
Andrea Berloff
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