Tonight, I attended “Midnight Tango” at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne. The storyline is nearly non-existent but no matter; I went to see the tango and the theatre.
The Theatre was built in 1837 and has been through several restorations. Its interior was completely destroyed by fire in 1899 and a subsequent repair under the guidance of Frank Matcham preceded its reopening in 1901. Later renovations and “improvements” gradually damaged, disfigured, and removed, many of the finest features of Matcham’s work. In 2011 a major restoration was undertaken to return the interior to its 1901 Edwardian/Victorian grandeur.
David Wilmore, a theatre consultant on the 2011 project, commented: “This is the biggest and most meticulous theatre restoration I have ever worked on – no other I’m aware of has been as meticulously researched and recreated. Because we know far more about Frank Matcham than ever before, and understand how great a genius of theatre design and the audience experience he was, we have been able to achieve a bespoke reconstruction, and the level of detail is extreme. Nothing is ‘off-the-shelf’ here, everything has been bespoke-made using traditional techniques, and for that reason the project signifies a fundamental shift in how we approach conservation in the 21st century.”
The proscenium arch, tiers, and boxes are gold-leafed once again, the plaster work is as it was in 1901, and all seats are traditional Edwardian-style theatre seats. New frescos for the lobby and upper circle were commissioned. The theatre reopened in late 2011 and I am delighted I had the opportunity to see it in its full glory.
It is magnificent. How lucky the locals are to have such a glorious venue offering a steady stream and wide variety of first rate shows. Almost all shows, typically 30 to 40 a year, that appear here do so as part of a national tour. The Royal Shakespeare Company visits annually—the Theatre Royal is its northern home. The theatre hosts drama, ballet, contemporary dance, musicals, and opera.
There isn’t much “story” to Midnight Tango. It is a vehicle to showcase the dancing. The two principals, Vincent and Flavia, are the stars of an extremely popular British television series, Strictly Come Dancing, that has been running for the past decade or so. Strictly Come Dancing is the updated version of an earlier TV series, Come Dancing, equally popular, which began sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. The difference, the “update-ment”, is that each pair of dancers consists of a professional dancer and a celebrity and each week viewers vote one couple off the island.
The setting for Midnight Tango is a bar in Buenos Aires. A husband and wife run the bar and the twelve regulars consist of Vincent and Flavia and five other couples from the dance company Tango Siempre. The dancers were first class. Probably all under 40, perfect teeth, perfect skin, perfect bodies, perfectly coiffed, and of enormous appeal to the audience. The few audience members I talked to were passionate devotees of the TV show and reserved their fiercest applause for Vincent and Flavia. They were spectacular. I imagine that 90% of the audience are regular watchers of the TV series. The show is designed to appeal to those who watch the TV series. There is an inevitable downside to this: the darker, brooding, moody, dangerous aspects of the tango are de-emphasized and lighter, brighter, cheerful, gay, aspects are played up. The music was more “salon tango” than “street tango”.
About 30 pieces of music, most, as I said, bright and cheerful. I wanted more Astor Piazzolla. (Piazzolla interludes: numeros uno, dos, y tres, if you want.) There were 6 of his pieces, I think, some bright, some melancholy. I would have liked more of his tightly wound, intense, brooding, dangerous, pieces; pieces to accompany a dance that conveys barely controlled passion, anger, menace, indignation, or rage. I would have enjoyed some older dancers, men and women who are past their prime, and know it; dancers whose faces and demeanor show they have experienced some defeats, some bitterness, but refuse to be broken by disappointment; the tango is a perfect form for the physical expression of the feelings that accompany life’s darker sides. Healthy, glowing, smiling, youngsters can’t convey that. (Comparisons and contrasts with Wim Wender’s intensely haunting Pina were constantly in my mind. If you haven’t seen it I encourage you to watch the trailer.)
I would also have liked a more convincing portrayal of Argentinian male machismo and the ensuing male/female “duel”: the struggle for supremacy that resolves itself in a well-deserved equality and respect. The dancers did their best but couldn’t carry it off convincingly because they had to spend so much time smiling during the other pieces. When Marcia and I were in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago one of the aspects of tango that particularly appealed to us was the over-dramatized fierce strutting pridefulness the men conveyed. I like tango in which this strutting machismo provides a foil against which the woman’s gestures and movements can convey strength and indomitability—she will not be ruled, much less broken, by this silly conceited creature who calls himself a man.
Executive Summary: great theatre, make sure you see it; great show, see it if you can.
Marcia and I thoroughly enjoyed our time there and are eager to return. It is a great city. Broad tree-lined boulevards are the city’s main arteries, narrower tree-lined streets criss-cross the many small intimate neighborhoods; a multitude of parks, big and small, most with huge ancient trees, provide refreshing oases, places to relax, places for children to play, places to escape the city’s heat and bustle; grand buildings from the days when Argentina’s economy was among the world’s 10 largest impress and delight the eye;
meat, meat, and more meat, barbecued and grilled; Uruguayan restaurants determined to prove that their barbecue is better than that of the Argentinians; soccer madness;cafes and more cafes; Cafe Veronese to stimulate the tired algebraic geometer; Morita Empanadas to fill the hungry algebraist; helado to die for at Volta; fine dining at Casa Andrea y Sergio
Other South Americans think Argentinians have an inflated sense of their self-worth. (Sergio, Mariano, Pablo, Nicolas, mis amigos argentinos, if you are reading this I exclude you, of course, of course!!!) That attitude is reflected in their jokes: for example, What’s the quickest way to make a million bucks in Argentina? Buy an argentinian for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth. The Argentinians we encountered were unfailingly pleasant, polite, helpful, warm, and welcoming, pleased to have us visiting their country.
Lew and Marta, if you are reading this during your Buenos Aires vacation, hello! I thought of you tonight, not tango-ing, but enjoying the city. Lucky you, especially with the temperature there in the 70s or 80s while here it struggles to rise above 50😦