Op­er­atic ode to ec­cen­tric­ity

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THEATRE JOHN NATHAN

Hamp­stead Theatre

CON­SPIC­U­OUS IN David Hare’s lat­est play is a re­buke to the English. Not all of them, just those who are so in­su­lated by the fair-play tra­di­tions of their coun­try they find it hard to com­pre­hend the foul be­hav­iour of regimes abroad. Take the up­per-class ec­cen­tric John Christie — here played by Roger Al­lam — who founded his own per­sonal opera house at Glyn­de­bourne in the early 1930s.

His first artists were the con­duc­tor Fritz Busch and opera di­rec­tor Carl Ebert both of whom were tar­geted by the Nazis — Busch be­cause, as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Dres­den State Opera, he em­ployed and ad­vanced Jews, and Ebert be­cause he was Jewish.

Their re­union at Christie’s Sus­sex house pro­vides the play’s longest scene. It is here that the artists ex­plain their hu­mil­i­a­tions to an in­cred­u­lous Christie and his wife Au­drey, played by Nancy Car­roll. Christie is all ‘‘Re­ally? Why would any­one be so beastly?’’ Or words to that ef­fect. While Busch and Ebert (Paul Jes­son and Nick Samp­son) are open-mouthed at his raw ig­no­rance.

True, this is 1934 and the full hor­ror of the Nazis was not yet widely known. But we still get that naivety to­day with ev­ery buf­foon Brit who gets caught in Saudi Ara­bia with hooch in the boot of his car or strips off on a revered Malaysian moun­tain and won­ders why the lo­cals are of­fended.

In Christie’s case, how­ever, this blink­ered view of the world is part of the tun­nel vi­sion that made the cre­ation of a great Bri­tish arts in­sti­tu­tion pos­si­ble. And much of the plea­sure pro­vided by Hare’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ver­bose yet ar­tic­u­late play is de­rived from the col­li­sion be­tween that brand of English up­per-class ar­ro­gance, beau­ti­fully cap­tured by Al­lam, and Busch and Ebert’s Teutonic, equally dis­mis­sive, equiv­a­lent. This is Ger­man artis­tic pro­fes­sion­al­ism verses English am­a­teurism. And, in this war, the Ger­mans win.

Christie en­vis­aged an opera house de­voted to Wag­ner. But the Ger­mans de­cide on Mozart as the most vi­able first pro­duc­tion. “But is he any good,” asks the Wag­ne­r­ian Christie, who once ran the Royal Opera House — Tun­bridge Wells — and of­fered his au­di­ence Parsi- fal, to find that they only turned up for Gil­bert and Sul­li­van.

Where the evening feels less sure-footed is in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Christie and­his­muchy­ounger­wifeAu­drey,née Mild­may, aka the “mod­er­ate” (as in ‘‘gen­tle’’ not sec­ond-rate) so­prano.

The ac­tion switches be­tween her be­ing painfully ill at the end of her life and the pe­riod of en­ergy and en­deav­our that char­ac­terised the opera house’s early years. Al­though this is mov­ing and sad, it also feels emo­tion­ally ma­nip­u­la­tive, as if Hare feared the re­la­tion­ship was too ster­ile in life. More re­ward­ing is his ex­plo­ration of blind am­bi­tion and how an un­wanted and un­needed opera house be­came a tri­umph. A per­fect ex­am­ple of “If you build it, they will come”.

Old Vic

Classy: Roger Al­lam and Nancy Car­roll in

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