There is nothing that can soothe the inevitable rage of a Londoner’s tube-station-escalator-experience than a hypnotising glare at the neatly plastered posters which advertise the city’s latest spectacles (just me?). Catching my eye recently was Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky at The Other Palace (formerly St James’), a performance I knew I’d really like to see. This review matches the nature of the performance – short and sweet (which I know is a rare treat for my readers…) – and details this fantastically created one-man show. Fresh from the stalls and more knowledgeable about my favourite composer, I present my findings on what I believe is a cultural triumph for Victoria’s hidden theatre.
Date of viewing: 12/10/2017
Production: Our Great Tchaikovsky
How cheap!?: £2 – through ShowFilmFirst’s seat fillers scheme
The story of Our Great Tchaikovsky is the composer’s own – or at least, the version creator and actor Hershey Felder chooses to unravel. Felder begins explaining how he might go about creating a one-man show based on the life of great Russian composer, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and before the audience’s eyes, demonstrates exactly how he would do so. Breaking only infrequently to add his own political musings, or the input of hindsight, Felder spends the next hour and forty minutes embodying the Russian legend as he talks, plays, sings and conducts his way through Tchaikovsky’s tragically romantic life-story.
The play houses its performer entirely in one small but heavily ornamented room. A beautiful grand piano is surrounded by lit candles and other nick-knacks which enforce an intimate setting already promoted by the cosy little auditorium. Behind the homely antiques, a digital backdrop provides many visual aids to the anecdotes and descriptions given by the protagonist. Whilst at times this feature could be clumsy or gimmicky, it mostly is used very seamlessly to help the audience keep on track with the numerous details of Tchaikovsky’s richly complex life – as well as to evoke the visual imagery Felder’s Tchaikovsky dreamed of in the creation of his music.
Hershey Felder is an exceptional performer. Funny and feeling, he creates a portrayal of Tchaikovsky which is devoted and sincere. His transition between speech and song is perfectly seamless, emphasising just how intertwined Tchaikovsky’s compositions were with his life and his being. Often speaking or singing as he plays, Felder is completely in control and clearly has a superb geography of his keyboard. Never afraid to interject tragedy with humour, Felder does well to give his version of an honest depiction of the troubled composer’s life – which is famously riddled with gossip, debt, illness, and supressed sexuality. Entirely captivating, Felder successfully makes what is essentially a music history lesson fun and gripping. With no other performer or voice to hide behind, he commands his territory extremely well.
“Hershey Felder is an exceptional performer”
My only real criticism of the play which is, by and large, an autobiographical affair, is targeted towards Felder’s bizarre, midway interruption of his character to feed his own political views. Instead of allowing the clarity of Tchaikovsky’s unmistakable struggles with his homosexual inclinations to encourage the audience to dwell on their own feelings concerning sexual justice, Felder breaks from character to explain the atrocities of legal repression still taking place in modern Russia. He expresses what is, by all intents and purposes, a valid discussion of political hatred – but in a jarring way which disrupted the flow of his musicological journey. What appeared at first to be a purely objective portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s life became confronting and political, with no warning. Tchaikovsky’s story suddenly became our 21st century story – and I am of the belief that audiences are (mostly!) intelligent enough to make their own political connections without taking huge interjections to force the story of the past into the story of today.
“Felder certainly cannot be faulted for his clear devotion”
Providing audiences with an incredibly interesting and thoughtful production, Hershey Felder certainly cannot be faulted for his clear devotion to his subject. His political views take a powerful charge, which is not to my personal taste, but he undoubtedly expresses his thoughts with fervour and passion.
For £2, I defy you not to see the mini masterpiece that is Our Great Tchaikovsky. And I’m sure, like me, you’ll leave dying to see what Felder comes up with next.