Theatre review: The Rake's Progress

Posted on: 01 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Robert Lepage’s disappointing production of The Rake’s Progress at The Royal Opera House.

The downward spiral from fame and fortune to madness is charted in Robert Lepage’s disappointing production of The Rake’s Progress which is revived at The Royal Opera House and updated and transposed to the West Coast of America of the 1950s and the early days of television.

Tom Rakewell, a penniless young man, is in love with Anne Trulove. Her father, a landed gentleman, sincerely hopes for happiness for the young couple but secretly doubts Tom’s character. His concerns seem well founded when Tom turns down his offer of a job in the city, preferring to rely on good luck.

A stranger arrives, calling himself Nick Shadow. He announces that a previously unknown uncle of Tom’s has died, leaving the young man all of his fortune. Tom must leave at once to take over his uncle’s affairs, and Shadow offers to be both servant to Tom and his guide through the vicissitudes of his new-found situation. So Tom takes his leave of Anne and her father.

Shadow introduces Tom to the opportunities created by his new-found wealth. With prostitutes and rowdy youths as an appreciative and noisy audience, Tom plays his part, responding as Shadow has taught him: to follow nature rather than doctrine, to seek beauty which is perishable and to chase pleasure which is transient. This is a journey which will culminate in his complete ruin.

This is a tale of innocence and evil, temptation and corruption which, in this production, includes visual references to Hollywood classics such as Sunset Boulevard and a score by Stravinsky that combines the 18th and 20th centuries in a convincing mix. But the trouble is here the drama lacks weight and the characters are shallow and uninvolving. Furthermore the storytelling is confusing - we never are fully aware whether we are meant to be in Los Angeles (Hollywood) or London.

But the singing is strong, most notably British tenor Toby Spence as our misguided hero Tom Rakewell, Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua as the ‘girl back home’ Anne Trulove, and British baritone William Shimell, replacing an indisposed Kyle Ketelsen on the night I attended, as the diabolic, Faustian-figure Nick Shadow. There are also some imaginative visual touches but I just wish Lepage had been a bit more daring, or should I say inventive, in his staging.

This is, however, a morality tale of the past with definite messages for the present.

By Laurence Green

Where: The Royal Opera House

When: plays in repertory until 3 February

Box Office: 020 7304 4000

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