REVIEW – Master Class, King’s Theatre

*****

Until 12th February 2011, 19:30 (21:45); also Wednesday and Saturday matinees 14:30 (16:45) @ King’s Theatre Edinburgh

By Danielle Farrow

If you have an interest in performing or ever enjoy watching a performance, take this Master Class!
 
Based on classes Maria Callas gave as her career faded and personal life collapsed, Terence McNally’s award-winning play is beautifully crafted with detail, humour and humanity. It also comes across as a one-woman show despite its cast of six. In Jonathan Church’s production for Theatre Royal Bath, Stephanie Beacham as Maria Callas is accompanied by the production’s Musical Director David Harvey, assisted by actor-singers Pamela Hay, Robyn North and Christopher Jacobsen (her student ‘victims‘) and occasionally served by Scott Hazell’s somewhat unimpressed ‘Stagehand’.
 
These supporting actors provide some of the comedy, particularly Harvey and the latter three mentioned, though if Callas were truly responding to the singing there would have been more about power and resonance: musical theatre voices are not opera voices. Classically trained Hay as Sharon Graham is therefore stronger and impresses with her acting also: her student is believable as well as a fine set up for the Callas (and sometimes callous) responses.
 
Lighting (designed by Tim Mitchell) provides the right atmosphere for both master class and performance, while score and set (Ruari Murchison, Designer) – with somewhat surprising Grecian columns, yet stark – support the same mix of teaching space / performance stage. Wit is used with direct admonitions to the audience and a sense of Callas’ expressed view that performance is a struggle, a fight to conquer the spectators (and the students), comes through strongly.
 
Indeed, the central performance is truly a ‘tour de force’ – such an over-used term, but consider it in detail for a moment (as the audience is impressively informed, performance requires concentration and detail – from audience as well as artist). ‘Tour de force’ means ‘feat of skill or strength’: this is a performance that requires both and Stephanie Beacham delivers both.
 
This Maria Callas, in all her glory and neuroses – amusing, cajoling, defying, dominating, skipping (literally) from passionate artiste to needy girl, repeatedly proclaiming ‘this is not about me’ and always, always making it totally about her – is a true icon. Her weaknesses and failures are on display, but also her humour, strength, skill, inspiration, imagination and absolute commitment. While personal frailty is evident and can disappoint any fan placing ‘La Divina’ on a pedestal, despite her follies and vanity, Callas is still the ultimate diva: though human, there is something more that can still inspire, fascinate, and – yes – teach. It takes the German ‘Mut’ (pr. ‘moot’) mentioned – real guts – to give this kind of performance: Callas performed that way, and now Beacham does too, often pushing beyond what feels natural and comfortable, at times to the brink of caricature, and yet … and yet … for all the bravura and all the technique, the performance remains believable and rooted in real feeling: human whilst larger than life.
 
Master Class is exactly that. To repeat: if you value the arts / artists in any form, attend!

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