Nixon in China
This is a mesmerising, gorgeous looking and amazing sounding production that represents a stunning Trump era re-take on what was a classic and innovative original production in 1987.
The dazzling, seamless, silent set shifts and amazing back projection and set design combine with a brilliant sound system.
There is an added element with the sets built from towering ranks of document storage boxes and always-present groups of historical researchers, always placing authentic 1972 photographs and documents into the action on the set by projection.
Richard Nixon, the guy who complained, Trump-like, when he failed to be elected, that the American Press ‘won’t have Nixon to kick around any more’ in 1960 when he lost the presidency to John F Kennedy, stunned the world in 1972. He created a media theatre piece when he unexpectedly visited ‘Red China’ and pictures were beamed across the world of this startling reset during the cold war, when the Vietnam war was still raging, and still front-page news.
The style of the staging with its mesmerising back projections and seemingly impossible projections onto huge, slowly moving objects put me in mind of a Bertolt Brecht piece, where the audience is constantly reminded that this is all just theatre. But, oh, what theatre Nixon in China is!
This is full of surprise and delight. We had a female conductor, a black Nixon, stunning dance scenes in Act II, the subtle but purposeful choreography of the chorus, and of course John Adam’s amazing score.
There are luscious textures and surprising elements like saxophones, and the telegraph-like opening ‘News, news, news’ sequence of the score. There are astounding show-stealing performances by Julia Sporsén as Pat Nixon, and her Chinese counterpart Madame Mao sung brilliantly by Hye-Youn Lee, which is not to belittle Eric Greene’s Nixon, Nicholas Lester’s Choe En-lai, or Mark Le Brocq as Mao.
David Stout plays Henry Kissinger sublimely, mugging for the audience occasionally, acting and looking astoundingly like the real Kissinger. There are also outstanding performances by the three secretaries to Mao, played by Louise Callinan, Sioned Gwen Davies and Emma Carrington.
The staging and design deserves huge praise: this is visually stunning, and the way objects move, disappear again and interact is often mesmerising.
The sound too, is very special. The acoustics of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre are no match for Scottish opera’s Theatre Royal home in Glasgow, but on this occasion, the sound was flawless, clear, sparkling, and well balanced. How come?
This, it turns out by reading the programme carefully, is no fluke. Another critic did not notice what was at play in Act I until I pointed out that there was very clever, and quite imperceptible amplification taking place. But it sounded as natural as hearing a stone dropped into a pond behind you, and knowing its exact location even with your eyes closed.
The technology simply works - that is the beauty of it, and Scottish Opera deserve (and received) huge applause for their investment in the sound design with help from Germany’s d&b audiotechnik. This was the first time this technology has been used in the UK - and it was glorious to hear the result.
The story that unfolds is perhaps, even so many years after the original, familiar, but the way in which it is told in this production is masterful. And it is cleverly framed to make the issues of media manipulation, egocentric ‘misunderstood’ leaders and ‘them against us’ into clear, and contemporary context. The juxtaposition of the meeting of Assad and Putin, and then Johnston and Sturgeon was a masterful, and hugely entertaining piece of theatre.
The great tragedy is that this was the last performance in the run. I was travelling on the date of the original opening night in Glasgow so was not able to post an earlier review.
So I cannot urge you to beg, steal or borrow to get a ticket. This performance has gone, but it will stay long in the memory of all those in the full houses who were privileged to see this, and listen to it.
Nixon in China was astounding, gorgeous, and epic.
***** 5 stars
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