Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Faithfully Marianne

July 03, 2009

Michelle Terry, Oliver Ford Davies, and George Rainsford
Photo: Simon Annand 2009

Thursday was devoted (albeit unintentionally) to the marvelous work of rising theater star Marianne Elliott. What's most unusual is that this rising star is one that does not appear on stage as an actor. Ms. Elliott, who is currently an Associate Director with the National Theater, is quickly becoming one of those names that gets other big talents excited working with her. Lately everything she touches turn to…. well, let’s just say something spectacular. She’s responsible for at least three great shows I’ve seen in London over the recent years including the lively National Theater revival of Shaw's Saint Joan in 2007. This year she has two other productions bearing her name on local stages, the National Theater’s current revival of All’s Well That Ends Well and the now West End-housed War Horse which made great bookends on a busy theater day. In all three of the above productions, Elliott takes large casts with rather unwieldy material and somehow magically transforms them into energetic, well-paced and often very moving experiences.

All’s Well That Ends Well has just recently started a summertime run at the National’s Olivier Theater. It’s big, glossy, and surprisingly clear-headed. Elliott does several things well here simultaneously. She treats the piece as a comedy failing to be seduced by its more “problematic” underpinnings. She uses a quasi-fairy-tale setting for the piece that allows for more stretching of plausibility than might be otherwise expected. However, she also manages not to stretch this too far forcing the play to seem childish. Take for instance all of the Countess’ distress, which comes off as authentic as the rest of the performances and never mawkish. By the same token, the comic bits never become so broad as to become silly. Best of all Elliott is blessed with a cast she is able to use for maximum effect while keeping things very balanced between them. There’s George Rainsford as Bertram, whose boyish attractiveness and sexuality make his character’s poor judgment and rapid turnaround believable. At the same time Michelle Terry’s Helena is more about pluck than being wounded, allowing for a plausible comic scenario in Act II. Of course, there’s also the magnificent Conleth Hill as Parroles winning over the audience with ease. He was last seen in New York in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer and any time before he’s back on an American stage is too long.

A Horse and his Boy
Photo: Simon Annand 2009

Meanwhile, Elliot’s prior major success for the National Theater is currently in an open-ended run in the West End. War Horse, which she co-directed with Tom Morris, is based on a book by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The plot is obvious and cliché. Boy meets horse. They fall in love. Horse goes off to war. You can fill in all your own blanks from here. But despite a story that would be equally at home at Disney or in a Garrison Keillor routine, the show is surprisingly watchable even at three hours. Again there is a large cast in need of marshaling and quite an array of stage special effects that go a long way towards reproducing certain cinematic tricks. Most notable of these is a rotating center stage that can be used for Matrix-like action enhancement making the slow-motion war scenes seem a little more dramatic. Of course, there are the spectacular horse puppets, which do take over everything in the end. Even in their decidedly unreal proportions and physical appearance, their movements are so well reproduced they do indeed outshine everyone around them. This design of the horse puppets and much of the scenery is an intentional reference to the British Vorticism movement in the arts prior to WWI when the play’s action is set. (Of note, there is a major retrospective of Vorticism and the Futurist movement it sprang from over at the Tate Modern right now that is also very worth seeing.) Elliott and Morris realize who the star is and wisely don’t set up a battle between puppets and actors. Things are low key enough amongst the human cast that everything goes quite splendidly for everyone and even though you're obviously being manipulated, it's easy enough to go along with it.

So, here’s the next question. When can we get Marianne Elliott onto an opera stage? I wager she’s better than half the people doing it currently. So all you opera organizations out there, get on that. In the meantime, we’ll all continue to benefit from her work in other parts of the theater.


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