Theatre in Wales

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What does maverick mean?     


FIRST encounters with Richard Jones can be a little, well, daunting.
Long pauses and short replies, as many questions posed as answered and a hesitancy that jars with the bold and brazen productions that pour from his imagination.
But then this chill evaporates at the most unlikely time. “I’m really impressed with your shorthand. It’s fantastic,” he enthuses. And for once I am speechless. Well, almost.
Those who work closely with opera’s most creative of contemporary directors speak more of his shyness than any perceived coldness, his irony rather than aloofness.
Jones is back in Cardiff renewing both his wildly successful relationship with Welsh National Opera that brought praise and awards a plenty for Hansel and Gretel in 1998 and The Queen of Spades in 2000 and their conductor Vladimir Jurowski.
The project is Berg’s Wozzeck, a co-production that opened last year the Komische Opera in Berlin to mixes reviews and not always packed houses but without Jurowski conducting.
A rapidly revived visually appealing Traviata has the honour of being the first WNO show to be performed at the Wales Millennium Centre but it is this Wozzeck, opening one evening later, that marks the new era for the company. Much is expected.
If Jones is aware of the pressure it doesn’t show and questions about his current work, his reputation as a bold and hugely creative director and his own audience pulling power prompt those hesitant responses.
Is Wozzeck a difficult opera? “No, it’s a very accessible story.” Okay, is it musically difficult? “Do you find it difficult? I think it is more accessible when it is staged. Each one of 15 scenes has a fantastic crisis and it is very economically written.”
How do you react to be described a controversial, even maverick, director? “What’s controversial? What does maverick mean?”
You are not afraid to take chances, to be bold? “That’s for other people to say. I would never do it willingly. When I get a call I have to think do I have something to say about this work, am I connected with the dramatist, and can I communicate what he or she wants to say. I don’t just want to be different just to be different.”
And then the production itself. From photographs I have seen it looks like the story of the alienated, bullied and brutalised soldier who murders his mistress Marie when he discovers she is unfaithful, is transposed into a symbolic canning factory production line.
“Its not that on the nose but if a spectator decided it was set in a canning factory it would help them along,” he says helpfully.
Do you think Wozzeck can be presented as a Marxist opera? “It lends itself to a Marxist interpretation very effectively. The play is very ahead of its time in anticipating a lot of Marxist political thought and has a lot of psychoanalysis in it as well. You would not be off the mark to say that.” Fine.
But then refreshingly other questions most directors give mealy mouth responses to get straight answers. Do you like winning awards gets a straight Yes even if followed by “I don’t work for them but it’s nice when they come along.”
What’s it like working in the WNO’s new home. “I adored John Street (the old WNO base) and yes here is working well.” Maybe the WNO team, the chorus etc. love their new home? “Well, I can’t say they are jumping around like spring lambs. No one has really gone on about it much.”
Refreshingly honest, I think to myself, but I wonder if he gives many live radio interviews.
I have followed Richard’s career down the not so many years since he completed as Arts Council trainee director’s scheme that interestingly took him to Scotland to work with director David Alden and conductor Simon Rattle when they were creating a Wozzeck for the Edinburgh Festival in 1984.
Welsh audiences were given the Jones treatment with that fabulous Hansel and Gretel and equally stimulating Queen of Spades with its impossible to forget skeleton in the bed scene.
My own first operatic encounter with Jones was back in1991 when he produced a truly over the top Die Fledermaus for English National Opera with Lesley Garrett baring her rear and with enough zany ideas to fill a dozen shows.
For Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges we had scratch and sniff cards; his Ring Cycle at Covent Garden was both heaped with praise and showered with boos but the awards keep coming.
His Titanic on Broadway won a Tony and he delights in dance as well as theatre and opera but is yet to tackle ballet – although that question also got an enthusiastic response. He tells me what he doesn’t like is them mixed together.
It would seem obvious Jones is a crowd puller and for many, like me, the attraction of WNO’s Wozzeck is its director. “No, I don’t think directors sell tickets at all,” he asserts. But on pushing he reluctantly agrees there is some truth in it. “OK. But Wozzeck is a director’s piece and many people who enjoyed Hansel and Gretel and Queen of Spades will come.” Then he adds quickly: “But it is a very different piece and show. There is I suppose a common theme of hallucination with Queen of Spades and Wozzeck but I hope they don’t expect to see parallels.”
It is one of operas long running debates – are directors too powerful? Is the vogue for headline grabbing productions sometimes to the detriment of the singing and conducting?
“I would be the worst person to answer that as I am a director,” he tactfully replies. “I go to theatre to see a director’s work more than anything. People go for different reasons.”
There have certainly been many a show most enjoyed with eyes firmly clenched closed. But in balance there are other works that have been utterly transformed in the hands of a good imagination, well grounded in theatrical know-how.
So what’s Jones’ take on Wozzeck? “It is about abuse. Abuse of someone’s imagination, their soul. Wozzeck is driven to madness and cornered into behaving in a psychopathic way.”
I avoiding revisiting the canning factory conversation and asking abut the huge skip filled with shiny metal cans that I have spotted as being walked around WNO’s impressive new rehearsal spaces.
But Jones is on a roll and helpfully adds, “Militarism is difficult to translate on stage and similarly I have a problem with conveying starvation - and it is also tasteless to do so on stage.
“Yes it is about being impoverished but it is not just in terms of money. It is a Western, white trash poverty.” Well, that was direct enough and having captured that sound bite quote with my impeccable shorthand I put my pen down to stop feeling quite so self-conscious.
Jones grabs his black coffee and heads back to rehearsals. I stare at my spidery scrawl and hope to goodness I can transcribe it.

Wozzeck opens at Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday, February 19.
The Western Mail  
web site
: www.icwales.com
Mike Smith
e-mail: mike@mediasmith.co.uk
Friday, February 18, 2005back

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