Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 27 June 2016

Review: Jenůfa at the Coliseum

London Coliseum ⋄ 23rd June - 8th July 2016

“The King of Kings and the King of Vegas”: Amelia Forsbrook reviews the ENO’s performance of Janáček’s opera.

Amelia Forsbrook
Jenufa at the Coliseum. Photo: Robert Workman.

Jenufa at the Coliseum. Photo: Robert Workman.

It’s Thursday night and the polling stations are set to close, but Jenůfa is dawdling. While our nation lies all-too invested in one kind of dilemma, our leading lady, with her metaphorical pen (or is that pencil?) hovering over two rivalling options, is decidedly undecided about how to make her mark. By one box she has Å teva, her leather-clad hit-and-run impregnator with swivelling hips and a biker ringmaster’s flair; next to the other, there’s his half-brother, with his synthetic work clothes, a knife in his hands, a jealous need to slice up some beauty, and an arising sense of passion that’s about as flammable as his trousers. In short, Jen just wants a ginger geezer who is loosely related to her. And who hasn’t got two hours and forty minutes to spare for that?

According to Laca, beautiful Jenůfa has the power to rip the souls out of men – but in the ENO’s production under David Alden’s direction, such a claim is hard to believe. In the end, Jenůfa doesn’t really get to vote – she just obediently complies with the decisions made by others. At the start, celestial powers have their say. Delighted that her betrothed has escaped conscription, our titular lady cries “God has only saved you from being a soldier / so that we may soon be married”. Seeking his own chunk of control, Laca puts a stop to Jenůfa’s engagement by destroying the currency that was her beauty, like Farage destroyed the pound. As the community shuns Jenůfa, Laca takes his bit of chopped eye candy to go and cut some wedding cake. Jenůfa, as passive as Laca is aggressive, trades only in forgiveness and acceptance.

While the dormant nature of Jenůfa – captured with skill, if not magnetism, by Laura Wilde in her ENO debut – is perhaps not the most rabble-rousing aspect of this evening, Alden’s decision to bring this turn of the century opera into post Soviet Europe adds definite crunch to the tale of a society in transition. In a way more powerful than the passing of a woman from one horny brother to another, this is an opera about a dysfunctional family in its entirety. Robbed of the chance to bring up a baby born out of wedlock, Jenůfa faces either a future that her ancestors have coloured with shame, or a new beginning under her own new rules.

Charles Edwards’s set does wonders to pitch this stumbling family at a point of cultural hiatus – locating the story under the flashing lights of a factory, before locking our titular character within the peeling wallpaper of a low cost, USSR-issue home. The vanishing point at the centre of the public space becomes a corner in the domestic scene, but from within this claustrophobic setting, Alden gives his performers a volume that works at odds with the nature of their surroundings. Michaela Martens, in particular, presents an amplified performance as Jenůfa’s stepmother, Kostelnička. Throughout, this manipulative character’s elegantly polished pleas for decency and caution in love are laced with subtle moments of more naturalistic expression, yet Martens never severs the grace and technique of her performance. Below a Virgin Mary figurine that mocks the social reality of a premarital pregnancy, Kostelnička engineers destruction and protection in equal measures in the confined environment she sculpts for her ward.

But it’s Nicky Spence’s sleazy Å teva who wields the sexed-up thrust of this night, as he discards disfigured Jenůfa in favour of a newer, ditzier bird. In this opera, Janáček painted a community in transition, and this production locates Å teva riding his motorbike right into a booze-fuelled and sexually-charged future. Swimming in a sea of legs, scarves, fishnets and backcombed hair, Å teva escapes into a heady community that, even at the beginning, sensibly-clothed Jenůfa has already left. With his drunken raspberries, flirty glances at the audience, and a wide armed bravado that amps up the folk dance incorporated by members of the chorus, Å teva is the bridge between the old and the new, the family and the community, the King of Kings and the King of Vegas, the dive bar and the daddy issues, the marital bed and the brothel – and with all of that, he’s got my vote.

Jenůfa is on until 8th July 2016. Click here for more information. 


Amelia Forsbrook

As a Wales Arts International critic, Amelia toured India with National Dance Company Wales to discover whether national identity abroad could ever amount to more than dragons, sausages and leeks. After moving to London in early 2012, Amelia has continued working as a critic and arts commentator. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance, twentieth century European theatre and quirky little numbers involving improvisation, emotional outburst and abandoned buildings, Amelia writes for a number of publications, as well as being a Super Assessor for the Off West End Awards (The Offies) and Associate Editor at Bare Fiction.

Review: Jenůfa at the Coliseum Show Info

Directed by David Alden

Written by Janáček

Cast includes Laura Wilde, Michaela Martens



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.