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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Noh thanks!

It was Mrs Frost who pointed them out to me. I was quite oblivious as they disported themselves on the lawn around the sinuous swimming pool, young ladies of Junoesque stature undressed in scant clothes of great cost. Their older gentlemen companions chain-smoked, spoke Russian, and possessed corporations of which a Victorian beadle would have been proud. I reflected on the theory of the psychologist Maslow, the son of Russian emigrants, whose hierarchy of needs if applied to the born-again capitalists of the former USSR suggests a progression of acquisitions that concludes with caviar, a humidor, a nubile ‘niece’ or bodyguard, a fashionable home in London, and a soccer club. The week in Spain was my preparation for a busy July.And my needs are much simpler. The fine Georgian architecture of Cheltenham plays host to its annual music festival and on the visit there I saw two excellent offerings. Serse is an opera known best for Handel’s ‘Largo’ (Ombra mai fù), an aria which opens the work and which is an encomium by Xerxes, King of Persia, to a plane tree: ‘Ombra mai fù di vegetabile cara ed amabile soave più’ (Never, dearly beloved tree, was nature’s shade more sweet).The production was by Guildhall School of Music and Drama Early Music Project, and the impact of the early bars of this aria when sung by Joana Thomé da Silva galvanised an audience in the town hall already steaming from the summer heatwave. She and her colleagues, especially Claire Booth as Romilda, gave us a concert of unalloyed pleasure. This is as far removed from the Messiah as you can get and would convert any sceptic to the joys of Handel’s considerable operatic prowess. In the pomp of the Pittville Pump Room there was a recital by John Mark Ainsley accompanied by Roger Vignoles. I am a big fan of this tenor voice and there were two utterly sublime moments. In the ‘George-Lieder’ by Alan Ridout, written for Ainsley, the simplicity, dignity, and calm of the opening piece, ‘Dies ist ein Lied’ (This is a song for you alone), was a susurration through the Regency building amid absolute silence from the listeners. In the chanson ‘A Chloris’ by the French composer Reynaldo Hahn the accompaniment emulates Bach and as played by Vignoles was a spellbinding counterpoint to the tenor. Seventy minutes of bliss – can the whole two weeks be of this standard? The festival brochure is encyclopædic and a £3 bargain.

At some time between the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 and the writings of Germaine Greer audiences began to find The Taming of the Shrew uncomfortable, especially the last five minutes which contain Katherine’s manifesto on uxorial duty. The magic words ‘Kiss me, Kate’ do little to alleviate the embarrassment. Gregory Doran’s production at Stratford’s main theatre starred Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, who gave fine comic performances which eased slightly our squirming at the end. At the Swan in parallel was The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher (1579– 1625), a sequel in true Hollywood fashion, in which Petruchio gets his comeuppance from his second wife. The common casting worked a treat although the play lacks the brilliance and pace of the Shrew and serves only to confirm Shakespeare’s genius.Have you ever sat in a theatre and regularly hit yourself with a hammer? That’s how it felt at the Donmar in a revival of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. My prejudices about musicals were fed by this 1976 oddity described as a ‘glorious theatrical fusion of Japanese Kabuki, Noh theatre and the musical styles of the West’. In other words nine men dressed in black, female impersonation, masks, cymbals crashing and drums thumping, and the fervour of a production originating from Chicago. This is another of those works that has not travelled well through time. In the 70s this would have been avant-garde but we now know enough about Japan’s emergence and growth from its feudal structure not to be amazed. I overheard a patron at the interval saying this was his best night at the theatre for many years. Get out, sir, and get a life.