Review by Paul Nelson
ANY unfavourable review of The Lisbon Traviata you may
read is probably because the critic spent half his time writing
on foolscap paper rather than concentrating on the play. I am
glad to admit that I do not make notes, I have a memory.
The play is totally absorbing and is played by an exemplary cast.
It deserves a much wider showing than it will get at the miserable
King's Head, in Upper Street, Islington.
The management of this theatre have the gall to ask for pennies
in a bucket as you leave, presumably because they have squandered
the money they earned in transfers to the West End and Broadway.
Not a penny, say I, but, I digress.
The play is about opera buffs. They are not just fans, they are
They can quote a flat or a sharp note from a singer in any number
of recordings, give you the date and place of the recording, and
they collect them all.
In many cases, they will have several copies of the same opera,
each one having been committed to memory and each of which will
serve as ammunition in any squabbling over them that may ensue.
The Dallas version, the London version, the New York Met version,
the Scala Milan version, you name it. They also adore Maria Callas.
According to the programme notes, there actually was a recording
of Maria Callas in La Traviata performed in Lisbon.
The recording was unavailable until a copy of the tape, given
to a member of the cast, was released and these fuzzy pirate copies
irritated the recording company and prompted them into issuing
only 2,000 collectors' items, which, to collectors, became worth
more than gold.
Enter Mendy and Stephen, two opera maniacs and Callas devotees,
who can quote chapter and verse who recorded or sung what, and
where they did it.
Stephen has a copy of the Lisbon Traviata and Mendy becomes
obsessed with the need to hear it. Basically, that is the plot
of the first act, apart that is, from some essential exposition.
Mendy is the older type of queen, he initially fancied Stephen,
but introduced him to Michael after which the two of them then
started on one of life's biggest adventures.
That was all of eight years ago and their partnership is beginning
to creak at the seams. Mike, it appears, has admitted to finding
a younger guy called Paul.
He is entertaining him in their flat. Somewhat miffed, Stephen
has arranged a date with a waiter, also a younger man.
Stephen's date founders. His pulling power (he works in a publishing
house and is attractive, therefore, to would-be writers) fails,
and he embarks on a night on the bars of the city. When he gets
home, too early, he runs into Paul and his resentment boils over.
There then ensues one of the most powerful scenes I have ever
seen in a gay play, and I must admit, it could easily not have
been about men, but any heterosexual couple.
The play is about relationships and what might cause these to
become seriously problematic.
Michael decides to leave and Stephen cannot bear the thought,
but he has not reckoned with the fact that Michael has put up
with him and his obsession while not really liking nor understanding
This Stephen cannot understand and in an impassioned plea says
to Michael that opera is about life, love and death, and what
else can there be in their own relationship?
Michael explains that his deep love for Stephen has dried up
because Stephen's obsession will not allow anything, even their
love, to take precedence.
The play then moves to its inevitable climax, with Stephen frantically
playing disc after disc to try to get his now denuded point over
to his lover. He fails.
The play is magnificent, and my readers will well understand
after all these years that I am not overfond of plays that have
a gay theme. Most of them are mawkish in the extreme, comical
or about concentration camps.
Where this play scores over the rest is that it is actually one
of the most praiseworthy pieces of writing that I can remember.
It is quite startlingly, the libretto of an opera daringly presented
without a score.
To those who say it is melodramatic, I say go to any opera and
damn it on the same principle.
It is also one of the best directed and acted plays in London
In addition, it has a lighting plot and set design that I found
stunning. Occasionally, during the action, a speech is highlighted
as a soliloquy. A soliloquy in a modern play? A really high-tec
set in a fringe theatre? You'd better believe it.
I cannot decide which member of the cast outdoes any of the others.
There is the screaming high camp of Mendy, the troubled Stephen,
the faithful, yet neglected, Michael, the youthful Paul, unwittingly
trapped in this whole web of love, passion and jealousy.
If this play does not transfer to a bigger and more central theatre
then the whole of London's theatre-going public is going to be
swindled and they will therefore be forced (and probably deserve)
to see nothing else but tribute shows to pop stars and their regurgitated
Messrs David Bamber, Marcus D'Amico, Tristan Gemmill and Matthew
Thrift, along with director Stephen Henry deserve any awards that
Do go. Don't be put off by the title, you need to know as much
about opera as you need to know about blasted heaths in either
Macbeth or King Lear. As an urban sophisticate,
you will be able to brag about having seen this one.
The Lisbon Traviata by Terrence McNally. Directed by Stephen
Henry, Designed by Lisa Lillywhite, Lighting by Hartley TA Kemp,
Sound by Sebastian Frost for Orbital. WITH: Marcus D'Amico (Stephen),
David Bamber (Mendy), Tristan Gemmill (Michael), Matthew Thrift
(Paul). Produced by Sarah Earl and Kevin Wilson at The King's
Head Theatre, 116 Upper Street, Islington, London N1. Tickets
020 7226 1916.
*An extract from a reply from the theatre
Dear Mr Nelson
Thank you for your insightful notice for our current production
The Lisbon Traviata. I would like to clarify several points that
you made regarding our bucket appeal.
You presume wrong to say that we have squandered money that we
have earned from transfers. In the last ten years, in spite being
the starting theatre for nine West End productions, we received
the grand total of £5,000 for our efforts. It costs us in
excess of £2,000 a week to keep the theatre afloat.
We do this without public subsidy and from maximum devotion
from a bare minimum staff. Were it not for the bucket and other
donations, the theatre would not be here at all.
Dan Crawford, Artistic Director