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Fiona Shaw Stuffs Figaro, Rock Anthems, Spooks: London Stage

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"The Veil"
Emily Taaffe and Jim Norton in "The Veil" by Conor McPherson at the National Theatre in London. When Reverend Berkeley learns that young Hannah hears voices, he uses her as a medium for a seance. Photographer: Helen Warner/NT via Bloomberg

Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- You can tell when a director doesn’t trust the material. She pumps a staging full of props.

Fiona Shaw’s stab at Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” at English National Opera in London, is as busy as Times Square. Servants move about behind the singers, doing bits of business. There are projections above the stage. The cast scampers through the rooms of the revolving set so often it’s a wonder the poor things don’t get dizzy.

It’s not action. It’s distraction. And crucially for a comedy, it’s not funny.

Then there are the props, the endless telegraphic props. Shaw’s principal idea is that Count Almaviva is a woman-devouring Minotaur whose palace is a maze of corridors. To this end, the count frequently appears holding a pair of bull’s horns. He licks them. He jabs Susanna with them. He scratches his back with them. He fondles them. He puts them on his head when he thinks he’s being cuckolded.

It’s like one of those improv sessions favored by student actors. Find 10 things to do with a chair. Create 17 uses for a brick. Pretend these horns are a metaphor.

Almaviva isn’t the only one. Bartolo picks at a shaving brush: He hates Figaro, who’s a barber. Marcellina waves a fly swatter: It tells us she’s waspish. Figaro toys with a bleached animal skull: He’s cunning, a hunter.

It’s like an endless classroom session of show-and-tell.

Bright Voices

That’s a shame because much of the singing is lovely. Devon Guthrie (Susanna) has a bright, refreshing sound. Iain Paterson is an authoritative Figaro, with a good ringing top register. Elizabeth Llewellyn (replacing an indisposed Kate Valentine as the countess) has impressive phrasing.

Roland Wood (Count Almaviva) struggles against the demands of the production. When he’s not jabbing bull’s horns at his female colleagues, he’s in his underwear chasing them around the stage. It’s a difficult look to pull off. One minute he pretends to hide his tumescence, the next he seems to forget it’s there. Maybe the director should give him another prop.

Designer Peter McKintosh creates a maze of rooms and corridors out of rectangles of opaque corrugated plastic, and he dresses the cast in a mix of rococo and modern styles. It’s as dispiriting as Paul Daniel’s ho-hum conducting, which rarely gets under the skin of the notes.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea for ENO to have entrusted the hardest operatic comedy in the repertoire to a director with just two productions under her belt, one of them a small chamber piece. Rating:*.

Rock and Thongs

Another production in London creates a similar “what? how? why?” response. “Rock of Ages” features the pretty talent-show star Shayne Ward, and comes into the U.K. capital blazing the logo “Broadway’s Guilty Pleasure.”

When advertisers resort to calling the pleasures they offer “guilty,” you can almost hear the bottom of the adjective barrel being scraped.

The whole shebang is an excuse for a juke-box trawl through 1980s rock ballads. Some of them, like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Any Way You Want It,” were hits in the U.K. way back when. Plenty more, alas, never quivered the needle of popularity this side of the pond.

The tone is as unstable as a two-legged table. It veers from parody to social protest to silliness.

When the female protagonist is forced to work in a strip club, we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. Since most of the members of the female ensemble have been stretching their legs in tiny thongs for most of the evening, it’s hard not to feel the sleaziness of the hypocrisy. The whole show feels like a glorified female fleshmarket, parody or no.

With few great songs to redeem it, that doesn’t add up to a lot of reasons to rock along to the Shaftesbury Theatre. Rating:*.

Ghost Story

Irish playwright Conor McPherson is best known for his evening of ghost stories called “The Weir.” He brings more supernatural spookery to “The Veil,” now playing at the National Theatre.

Set in a dilapidated grand Protestant house in Ireland in 1822, it tells the story of Hannah, a young girl about to be married off to a wealthy English peer. When Hannah reveals that she has been hearing voices, her steely mother Madeleine tries to ignore her. Their family friend Reverend Berkeley, a defrocked priest with a taste for Hegelian philosophical speculation, attempts to employ Hannah as a medium to contact the spirit world.

The opening is promising. There are echoes of Chekhov in an atmosphere of entrapment, the desire for escape, and the faded grandeur.

Then the echoes become quotes. Repeated business with off-stage gunshots is too close to “Uncle Vanya” for comfort. When the play strays into dense monologues about German metaphysics, and when the early plot elements begin to meander without focus, it all feels too much like an undercooked Irish stew.

The performances are entertaining, especially Fenella Woolgar as Madeleine. And Rae Smith’s period drawing-room set is gorgeous. By no means a failure, it’s still not quite a must-see. Rating: **.

“The Marriage of Figaro” is in repertoire at the Coliseum through Nov. 10. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200. “Rock of Ages” is at the Shaftesbury Theatre, http://www.rockofagesmusical.co.uk or +44-20-7379-5399. “The Veil” is in repertoire at the National Theatre, http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk +44-20-7452-3000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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