New hope for the West End?

The success of <a href="http://www.donmarwestend.com/ivanov/">Ivanov</a> this week is a beacon of ho

Tom Stoppard’s version of the Chekhov play is part of the Donmar's residency at Wyndham's theatre, an ambitious project that aims, says director Michael Grandage, to bring about a return to straight theatre in the West End and make it accessible to all.

Tickets will be sold at Donmar rather than West End prices, with 130 tickets per performance going for £10, which means that each show will need to sell a formidable 80% of the 750 seats to break even. However, the success of Grandage’s Othello last autumn, which sold out so quickly it left many disappointed, suggests that this is by no means unlikely.

Ivanov has been rapturously received, with critics enthusiastically relating to Kenneth Brannagh’s debt-ridden and crumbling lead, a moody, self-loathing, comic Russian Hamlet with [the mother of all midlife crises]. A slight improvement, then, on the play’s 1897 premiere, after which a disgusted Chekhov complained of his actors: "They don’t know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back."

Video games and Bodysnatchers

In the wake of this spring's disconcerting news that video games are the most lucrative media products around these days, this year’s Cambridge Film Festival
will show a series of Machinima films, made using techniques and tools more commonly used in games than cinema. The Festival’s Machinima series will show film from recognised genres translated into CGI worlds, along with a discussion of the place of Machinima films in the world of film today.

Matt Kelland, co-curator of the series, explains the popularity of this surreal and often surprising new branch of cinema: ‘As young people become more enaged with internet culture and home-produced content, they are becoming more interested in user-created movies like machinima, and less interested in broadcast content.’

Co-curator Saint John Walker, however, interprets it in terms of ‘the spectacular/fantasy versus documentation/realism. Games and CGI/VFX cinema are growing; film realism is shrinking.’ He is optimistic about the future: "In five years time we'll see the Machinima era as a watershed, like the talkies!"

Films showing in the series will include Lainy Voom’s Black Swan, Tony Bannan's Folie à Deux (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4G0L8eepoXk) and the video made by Phil Rice for the Radiohead song "Bodysnatchers".

Plugged in festival

The festival season is now over (which is, I suspect, why the weather has improved so suspiciously suddenly), but if you’re not quite ready to let go, swap your wellies for a pair of headphones and head to Dalston's Café Oto this weekend. The London Placard Headphone Festival takes place this Saturday, with banks of headphone splitters taking the place of PAs to provide a concentrated yet strangely isolating listening experience. The audience will bring their own headphones, and plug into electronica from the likes of Hamster Ate My Garage Band and Leafcutter John, and the "medieval drum robot and synth array" of Bavin. Which, all in all, sounds like a far wiser way of seeking sound quality this weekend than the alternative – joining Metallica fans petitioning for a rerecorded and remastered Death Magnetic, having decided that its current version sounds better on Guitar Hero.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.