Tag Archives: Theatre

A colourful cast of characters

 

As mentioned in an earlier Leaf Collecting post, a big impact was made on me as a young theatre enthusiast by the book Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. It describes a journey around 1972 made by the director Peter Brook and a multi-national acting group through the African countries of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Mali.

As Heilpern summarises near the start of the book, “Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and thirty actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another.” One of the most vivid sections is his brief biographies of the actors at the start, full of colourful detail as if they were characters out of a 19th century novel.

For example, Malik Bagayogo, from Mali. “Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school – he can still scarcely write – until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment took three years…When he was eleven years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils… Sometimes he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down before it’s lost for ever.”

And Andreas Katsulas, “the giant American-Greek….The son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois…He’s emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with ‘the mystical shit’. He does a job. His father always said, ‘Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don’t do any more or less.’ So he doesn’t. His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn’t do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet, when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to lend it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place…”

The Englishman Bruce Myers “(had) made history when he was expelled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk onstage while playing Napoleon in Man of Destiny”, writes Heilpern. He continues, “Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I’ve known all my life. ‘Don’t laugh’, Myers said to me when we were fourteen. ‘I’ve decided to become an actor’ … Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life, I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa, he took a leading role for a short time in Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill, and he had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one of the finest achievements he’d ever seen on the stage. Then (Myers) lost it…he found himself in a state of terror on stage…He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains…”

Miriam Goldschmidt was “German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. At twenty-five, she’s the youngest member of the group. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years, an archaeologist, died in a car crash. One time, during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. ‘I don’t want to come on last!’ she snapped. ‘It’s the story of my life…!’ People thought she was joking…”

Lou Zeldis was described as “tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He’s a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends. He’s been busted a couple of times…The second time, he was jailed for six months downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he’s listening with his eyes closed…”

Michele Collison was “a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6 ft 1½ ins, weight 180 lbs before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings…”

Most of Brook’s group were not well-known at the time of the African trip, and scarcely better known now, 40 years later. However, one who was already established has become more famous as the decades have passed.

“Helen Mirren… a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her, part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol…However she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money… She’s famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company…and some massive publicity usually labelling her as ‘The Sex Queen of the RSC’. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can’t resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. ‘Oh, don’t let’s talk about serious acting,’ she’s been known to say to earnest journalists, ‘let’s talk about my big tits.’ Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn’t decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can’t have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.”

Heilpern’s comments are particularly apposite since it is quite obvious that, in subsequent years, Mirren did manage to combine serious acting and sexy celebrity.

The primary long-term legacy of the enterprise was Brook’s dramatisation of the Indian epic poem The Mahabarata, first performed in 1985, given its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1988 and later adapted for television.  Bruce Myers and Miriam Goldschmidt featured among its large cast, plus a third member of the African explorers, the Japanese Yoshi Oida. The film is on You Tube – high time to watch it again, I think – as is The Empty Space, a documentary by one Gerald Feil about the Brook group’s residency in New York shortly after the Africa trip.

 

Reference: Heilpern, John (1979)  Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa   Harmondsworth: Penguin

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Gangsters and their molls in New York and Havana

 

Happy New 2017!

As a theatre lover I recognise that Broadway musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s such as Oklahoma and Carousel are as important pieces in their own way as the work of Brecht and Beckett, but I’ve never really been a fan. Probably to do with the fact that the actors in screen musicals like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae always seemed a lighter thinner breed in comparison to Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda. Possibly also to do with the fact that my teenage pop listening days also included that bizarre later era of musicals when every established dramatic genre was twisted and turned into a musical like Paint Your Wagon or Camelot or Scrooge or Man of La Mancha. 

However, despite not being a fan of most musicals, I am a fan of Guys and Dolls.

This emerged from my great interest in the National Theatre in its early years at its home on London’s South Bank. That interest was spurred by their practice of touring productions to Glasgow plus the fact that one of their three auditoria, the Cottesloe, had a company for many years led by director Bill Bryden from my home town of Greenock. Guys and Dolls, by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, was staged at the NT in 1982, directed by Richard Eyre. He discussed it on Desert Island Discs in 1985 in an interview which is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 archive.

One interesting snippet from the interview is that Laurence Olivier originally planned to produce Guys and Dolls during his own stint at the National Theatre.  I love Eyre’s anecdote about Olivier’s criticism of his production’s New York accents being “a bit of a melange” and his view that Olivier’s vocal performance, in contrast, “would have been placed exactly to the right street corner”!

 

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The southern half of Manhattan, as seen from the top of the Empire State Building in 2003.

 

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Near Times Square in New York – definitely “Guys and Dolls” territory.

 

The NT was sometimes criticised in its early years for being too dependent on star actors and the cast of Guys and Dolls certainly had some of my own favourites of that time. Bob Hoskins of Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday was Nathan Detroit (perhaps this led to his American characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids), Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire was Sky Masterson, Julie Covington of Rock Follies was Sister Sarah Brown. Among the supporting players was Bill Paterson as Harry the Horse.  

This cast did not come to Glasgow but I did see in Edinburgh a touring production in 1985, which Eyre refers to in the radio programme.  I was always struck by that show’s slightly unbalanced casting. The main star billing went to Lulu, then finding her new route between two periods of pop music fame, who was Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit was played by long-established TV face Norman Rossington (similar to Bob Hoskins in his earthy persona I suppose, but perhaps then less fashionable). Sky Masterson was the black US actor, then unknown but later more familiar, Clarke Peters. I enjoyed the production although I felt it displayed more of the elements of an old traditional performance rather than a cooler new one. (I think this cast did, however, transfer to London for a time). “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnston is traditionally regarded as the show-stopper song and David Healy had been retained from the original cast, but I definitely recall finding this section technically impressive (with its two encores which appeared to have become standard) rather more than emotionally or artistically.

Soon after I enjoyed the film version, directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz, who was similar to Richard Eyre in being unused to directing musicals.  Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were paired in the two leading male roles. Sinatra would possibly have been seen as a safe piece of casting as Nathan Detroit being an established performer in screen musicals alongside the fashionable but provocative young dramatic actor Brando, but it’s easy to forget that in 1955 he was still younger than 40 and only two years into the new career which had been launched by From Here to Eternity and its attendant Oscar.

 

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Some old American cars in Havana, Cuba, in 2014. Part of “Guys and Dolls” takes place in Havana, a glamorous spot for American gangsters in pre-Castro times.

 

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The Bacardi building in Havana, built in 1930.

 

As with many folk of my age, my ideas and tastes in theatre were influenced by the writings of Kenneth Tynan, and Tynan’s review of the London premiere of Guys and Dolls still reads well: not just for his confident assessment of the show’s quality – “not only a young masterpiece, but the Beggars’ Opera of Broadway”, but his adoption of the language of its Damon Runyon characters: “Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty who is sored up…”; “…being short of ready scratch, Nathan places a bet…”; “I will give you plenty of eleven to five that it is the first fugue that many patrons…ever hear”…;  “I found myself laughing ha-ha… more than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to”.      

This is probably the most famous work of its songwriter Frank Loesser. Songs as strong as any by more famous musical craftsmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fruity, quirky Damon Runyon dialogue and its exaggerated delivery by the flashily dressed small-time criminals; the New York setting – all combine to keep Guys and Dolls fresh in my affections.

 

Reference:   Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen

 

 

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Close to the very best of Scottish theatre

 

The 1970s-1980s heyday of the Havergal/MacDonald/Prowse triumvirate at the Glasgow Citizens will always for me be the pinnacle, but, otherwise, considering the number and variety of its productions, the geographical scale of its touring and its artistic and financial success, the National Theatre of Scotland must be regarded as one of the best Scottish theatre companies in my lifetime.

A previous post assessed the five years of Vicky Featherstone’s artistic directorship of the company; now another opportunity to take stock as her successor Laurie Sansom moves on after four years.

The most obvious change in the company’s organisation is that, after their much publicised Theatre Without Walls approach, they have now built a bespoke administrative and rehearsal centre at Spiers Wharf, in the north of Glasgow. However, each new show as it is announced still seems designed either for touring or for a specific location, so we the audiences can surely still expect future productions to be widely available throughout Scotland and beyond. One significant foundation of the success of the first decade has been co-production with other theatres and companies. That this fruitful practice is continuing is demonstrated by recent examples with the National Theatre, the somewhat smaller Told by an Idiot, and TEAM of New York.

The last NTS show which I saw was one of its most widely travelled, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This year saw its fourth tour since its premiere in February 2011; after visits to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland it finally last month played a town somewhere reasonably close to mine. David Greig’s modern ghost story in rhyming couplets, in homage to traditional ballads, was performed with great energy in a confined space by a multi-talented cast. Although I felt that the text was less well written in the second half and gave the actors too much work to do, its reception on the night and on its previous 80 or so venues around the globe demonstrates how wrong I am.

My other recent NTS experiences have probably been a fair cross-section of the company’s repertoire. A more formal modern musical in Glasgow Girls, a literary adaptation with both a heavy employment of video and an international emphasis in The Drivers’ Seat and a revival of a 90 year old Scottish play in In Time O’ Strife.

Earlier, I presumed that Alan Cumming’s performance in The Bacchae would be the first of many appearances by celebrity actors. I was wrong. Whether because such TV and film stars are simply not available or are deemed not suitable for the work being planned or because of a clear policy position of inclusion, the actors employed by the company have mostly been less famous or less established. (Perhaps one exception was the casting of Rab C. Nesbitt veteran Gregor Fisher in the similarly toned Yer Granny last year). However, I now realise that extensive casting of lesser known actors is especially important. There has been a tragic decline in small scale touring theatre in Scotland in the last 20 years, which has meant that several generations of home-trained performers have had much less opportunity to work regularly in live theatre. Anything the NTS can do to heal that weakness is invaluable.

Earlier, too, I expected that the NTS repertoire would include regular revivals of classic texts. I now agree that the its role should not principally be to perform Shakespeare, Lorca, Strindberg, Ibsen or Miller – even though it has tackled all these in the past. One group of plays from the past which surely does merit attention and revival are those written by Scots within the last 50 years and only ever given two or three productions, or even only one: for example, some plays by John (now Jo) Clifford, Bill Bryden, Donald Campbell, Liz Lochhead, Roddy McMillan, Hector McMillan, C.P. Taylor, Anne Marie Di Mambro, Sue Glover, George Rosie and Iain Heggie.

However, I sense that the NTS sees its house style as one of new plays or adaptations rather than revivals. The period of the independence referendum was marked not by new versions of forgotten theatre treasures of the past but more boldly by a new trilogy set in 15th century Scotland, The James Plays. The risk was great since Rona Munro’s status as a playwright might be seen as respected rather than famous, but the production was judged artistically and financially successful and has been touring further at home and abroad this year. The most recent contemporary prose writer to be dramatised, following Andrew O’Hagan, is Alan Warner. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a version of his novel The Sopranos, did strike me as somewhat similar to the aforementioned Glasgow Girls. Since its initial run proved popular enough to merit a further, longer, tour, to England, Ireland and the USA, the cavil seems redundant.

Although the announcement of Laurie Sansom’s departure has caused some anxiety, I find it hard to imagine that the legacy built up by him and his predecessor Featherstone of those dozens of varied, successful productions in thousands of venues in Scotland and around the world will be lost or squandered. The National Theatre of Scotland’s foundations seem firmly established.

 

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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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Olivier and Branagh

 

When I saw Kenneth Branagh play Laurence Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, it reminded me of the many times in the past when Branagh has been compared to Olivier. First, by his star-making performance of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 at the age of 23. Then the film of Henry V which he both directed and starred in. By this time he had made his bold move into theatre management with his Renaissance company, performing in or directing several classic and modern plays.  The next film he directed was Dead Again with its evocation of Rebecca, in which Olivier had starred for Alfred Hitchcock.  Later came his film of Hamlet in which he starred. Eventually, inevitably, came the knighthood. Over many years, frequently, circulated the rumours that, following further in Olivier’s footsteps, he might become the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Some writers, like Joe Queenan, have pointed out that Branagh has less acting talent than his success suggests, but in a busy successful career there are always a few false steps. My own  choices for Branagh’s most wince-making were his association, adding spurious gravitas, with the BBC’s over-publicised fantasy/science melange Walking With Dinosaurs  when he had already served as narrator in serious documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered, and with the BBC’s unnecessary Wallander , when the corporation had already bought and were screening a perfectly decent Swedish version.

Otherwise, I would suggest that TV and film producers have been luring classical British actors to highly-publicised and/or unedifying projects since the 1930s, and, taking this into account, Branagh’s acting CV is almost certainly no worse than many distinguished predecessors like Olivier.

In addition, some of the films which he has directed suggest that one area where he has a greater professional skill than, say, Olivier is in directing, and not merely acting in, a lightweight special effects-driven potboiler like Thor. (I can’t imagine why artistically he would choose to do it, but he clearly seems to have the necessary professional ability!)  Furthermore,  directing a World War One-set version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is certainly something that no previous British theatre knight ever felt inclined to attempt.

One reason I have always had a high regard for Branagh, in addition to his varied and substantial career, is that he has always appeared personally very affable and even self-effacing. I remember a TV interview with Barry Norman at the time of the film of Henry V when he brushed aside media attention with a comment like “There are other actors”. In other words:  you needn’t give unusual attention to what I’m doing.

Olivier lived during an era of much greater hierarchy, his life divided  by two world wars and great changes in social class and the British Empire, where a man’s age and experience greatly affected his own behaviour and people’s perceptions of him. It was often reported that he was prone to jealousy and hated anyone whom he saw as a rival. But then Olivier was one of the first people in his profession to experience the opportunities and success and status which he enjoyed, and the rulebook for socially approved behaviour had not been written.

It may well be true that Branagh’s long-term reputation will rest on his versatility and his project management skills rather than on individual performances, so I’m pleased that he has returned for a while to an area where his talents are of particular value, leading a theatre company in a year-long season of varied plays . His production for the Kenneth Branagh Company of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s complicated play of jealousy, suffering, loss and reconciliation, was highly suitable for this time of the year, and it was good to get the chance to see it through the currently popular practice of live video screening from theatre to cinema.

 

 

 

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All’s well… in some art, if not always in life

 

Judging by this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, younger stage producers have not entirely lost interest in Shakespeare’s best known plays. The programme lists productions of Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado about Nothing and no fewer than six of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But the less famous are not ignored:  there are also four versions of the implausibly gory Titus Andronicus and two of the “problem play” All’s Well That Ends Well.

The latter in particular has raised its profile within the last few years through productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, so I thought it was high time I found out about it.

 

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Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, the 21st century working facsimile of the Elizabethan theatre, as seen from the River Thames.

 

The plot  is based around the love of Helena, a doctor’s daughter, for the higher-class Bertram, and about the association of these members of the Spanish state of Rousillon with the King of France. It includes confusions over identity, exchanges of rings and practical jokes.  So in some ways it has similarities to Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice.

Definitely at the conventional end of the spectrum was Elijah Moshinsky ‘s production for the BBC, part of the project to screen all of Shakespeare’s plays between 1978 and 1985. The design of the production was clearly based on paintings of the 17th century, such as Vermeer or Rembrandt, in line with the inter-disciplinary interests of the then series producer Jonathan Miller.  The full text was used, and the pace was slow and precise, which did  often bring out nuances and depths.  One intriguing directorial touch, pointed out by Alistair Nunn,  is the physical intimacy of the scene between the ailing King of France and Helena, who is reputed to have inherired considerable healing skills from her late father. Perhaps  part of Helena’s cure for the royal illness is sexual intercourse, suggests Nunn!

A familiar modern take on You Tube is an outdoor production by California-based Shakespeare by the Sea in 2013, screened by a local TV station.  Period costumes and performances in a lively if broad fashion.

In Edinburgh this month, Fusion Theatre’s approach was more maverick. The play’s locations moved from Rousillon and France to the kingdoms of Tesco and Asda, thus justifying a design of casual clothes,  portable shelves and shopping trolleys.  A lot of startling physical movement was employed. Frankly, it did not always illuminate Shakespeare’s text, but it certainly did work in showing the shifting desires of Bertram for Helena and Diana, and also in the fight to trap Parolles, which ended up with him blindfolded by shopping bags and with head and shoulders trapped in an upturned shopping trolley.

The uses of the title phrase within the play perhaps point to its reputation as one whose conclusion is not entirely happy. Helena uses the phrase after she has successfully carried out a “bed trick” with Diana’s paid cooperation in order to sleep with Bertram, and, later, when she arranges for the King of France to see the letter which will reveal the trick.  However, at the end, the King suggests only that “all yet seems well”. He seems to foresee that the relationship between Bertram and Helena, built on deceit and manipulation, is doomed to failure.

My own feelings were more positive:  amazed that it has taken me so long to read or see the play but delighted to have now made its acquaintance.

 

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Cultural honours

 

When UK government honours are announced twice a year, it is those recipients who come from the areas of sport and entertainment who tend to receive the greatest attention.

I always think that two of the key events in the history of cultural honours must have been the knighthoods given to Laurence Olivier and to Matt Busby.

The former led to a succession of elevated thespians, such as John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, and, in recent times, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher and Kenneth Branagh, whose status seem especially to impress international audiences.

But Olivier did not get the knighthood merely for being an accomplished and successful actor. I am sure he received it in 1947 specifically for directing and starring in the successful film Henry V which was perceived to be an important wartime morale-booster.

In turn, Busby did not get his knighthood for being the manager of a successful British football team who won the European Cup in 1968.  He got it for being the manager who built a European Cup-winning team from the one who had suffered multiple casualties in the Munich air crash ten years before.

Busby’s knighthood led directly to one for Alex Ferguson. Since Busby had been given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the European Cup, the popular media argument went in 1999, Ferguson should be given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the Champions League. However such argument forgot or ignored the difficulties which Busby, himself seriously injured in the Munich air crash, had to overcome in order to reach his success. Neither Ferguson nor the club needed to overcome any similar challenges in that later era of TV millions.

This has gradually led, in my view, to a serious level of honours inflation. There are a lot of actors and sportsman (you make your own list) who have been given the top honours merely for a decent length of performing career or a number of Olympic medals. Some athletic knights or dames have been so honoured when they are young enough to be still competing.

And it makes me think back to the MBEs awarded to the Beatles in 1965. That event was one of the first times I became aware of the world of news. The award was specifically for the group’s financial success: services to British exports. Yet there must have been plenty of grumpy old men like me who complained about such an honour being given to a group of long-haired howlers. It was still early in their short career. If it had been done at the end of their career, it might have been more understandable. It suggests that some members of the Harold Wilson government were more attuned to the new modern technological world than some later politicians who would rate highly their antennae in that area.

 

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Spark, Hitchcock  and Italian art-house   

Until two months ago, although I felt I had a reasonable layman’s knowledge of the writings of Muriel Spark, I had never heard of The Driver’s Seat. Then, at a talk about Spark given by journalist Alan Taylor at the Boswell Book Festival , he mentioned that the 1970 novella was her own favourite.  He also mentioned a forgotten film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, as well as an upcoming stage production by the National Theatre of Scotland .

When I read The Driver’s Seat, I was struck by its structural similarities to Spark’s famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – both works use a non-chronological narrative from multiple perspectives –  but also its similarity to films by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Psycho, which begins with a woman at her work and follows her on a dangerous adventure, or Marnie, which looks into her troubled past, or Spellbound, which features a romance with a man who has psychological problems.

The NTS production, directed by Laurie Sansom, plays further on the Hitchcock influences. The mysterious behaviour of Lise is depicted in a way which recalls many of those Hitchcock heroines such as played by Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren or Ingrid Bergman; the heavy use of video brings many scenes stylistically closer to parts of a film; the grey checked patterns of the suits of all the male characters reminded me of the one worn by Cary Grant’s character in North by North-West.

Fortuitously, the film, directed in 1974 by one Guiseppe Patroni Griffi , is currently available on You Tube. Although at the time of original release it will probably have fitted the fashion of the many international co-productions of the era, its visual style now looks closer to arthouse films like Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Costa-Gavras’ Z. The story is told mostly in slow-moving middle- and long-distance shots. People are eerily silhouetted by bright light in airport, hotel, department store, police station and gardens.  Franco Mannino’s piano music helps create a dissonant environment. The political turmoil which is mentioned only in passing by Spark is given a higher dramatic prominence.

As you watch the film now, you would surely spot its influence on the NTS production design even if it hadn’t been acknowledged in the programme or as an exhibition in the theatre. For example, the repeated scenes of police interviews are recalled by the use of video cameras by the actors and the large images thrown up at the rear of the stage. Like the film, the play has a mixed British and Italian cast.

Although the narrative deals with sexual desire, the 2015 play does not add any explicit depictions. It is also interesting to compare the two differing approaches, both 40 years old now, of book and film.

In a few places, Spark uses overtly the words “gay” and “queer” in ways which are different to current usage.  When a woman at the airport says that Lise in her vividly-coloured outfit looks “very gay”, she replies that she is hoping for “a gay time”. Later, the predatory health-food fanatic Bill says he is “queer for girls”.  In 1970, a woman in her 50s like Spark would remember the days when “gay” did more often mean cheerful or light-hearted. But to feature both words in the same short book at a time when homosexuality had just been legalised and was more openly practised and discussed?  It seems mischievous and perverse  – which, of course, Spark’s writing is often regarded as being.

The film finds additional ways to depict Lise’s sexually provocative behaviour . Tastes towards deviancy and bondage are hinted by the way the female airport security officer puts on her rubber gloves and unties the scarf around Lise’s neck to receive the retort, “I can’t stand being touched”. We see Lise tighten her safety belt on the plane with a sigh which suggests pleasure. When Bill says that his macrobiotic diet requires one orgasm a day, she replies defiantly, “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm”.

Although the film of The Driver’s Seat looks very different to Ronald Neame’s film of  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one snippet links the two strongly. In another demonstration of her disturbed behaviour, Lise shouts repeatedly at an airport security officer, “You’re all so suspicious! Suspicious! Suspicious”. It brings to mind Jean Brodie’s equally hysterical yelling of “assassin” at her treacherous pupil Sandy at the end of that film. Suddenly you spot the similarities between these two apparently very different Spark characters.

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Modern takes on the old-fashioned Marxist

 

An earlier post bemoaned the infrequency of productions of plays by the great Bertolt Brecht. There are a few exceptions, such as the two plays which, unusually for Brecht, give opportunities to a star actor, Mother Courage and her Children and The Life of Galileo. Or the one whose narrative has an anti-Nazi lesson which is still clearly understood, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui , or the one with the famous songs, The Threepenny Opera.

One striking memento revealed by the Glasgow Miracle project’s research into Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre was a programme of a 1970s student production of two short Brecht plays, The Exception and the Rule and The Measures Taken.

The photo’s main curiosity value may be the number of future professionals in the cast (Alexander West, Ruby Wax, James Fleet, Alison Peebles, Janette Foggo) but for me it also served to remind of those days when Brecht was bread and butter to any egalitarian-minded ensemble performance group, whether established or novice. A great theatre book, Other Spaces by Colin Chambers, identifies the decent number of Brecht productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company during just a few years in the 1970s: of The Days of the Commune, Man is Man, Schweik in the Second World War, Baal and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Occasionally, Brecht is still performed, and it has been instructive to look at the online videos of some modern versions.

For instance, the Baylor Theatre from Baylor University Texas, in the aforementioned The Measures Taken.  A young cast dressed in khaki tells the story of why, as a group of revolutionaries from Russia working in China, they felt obliged to kill a young comrade. Voices are declaimed in unison, mixed with invigorating rhythms of percussive hand-clapping and  boot-stamping.  The commentary songs are omitted, but present is another classic Brecht motif of scene titles chalked on boards, although not always easily read.

A Norse TV staging of the same play on You Tube, originally from the Bergen International Festival, uses video screens and more than one language, which seem like reasonable variations on the playwright’s alienation technique, although the effect here is rather more of internal discussions among the characters than calls to the audience. It also includes the Hanns Eisler music,  although the arrangements are, to my ear, are not quite spiky enough for their subversive task.

Zoe Beloff, the Edinburgh-born, US-based artist, directed and filmed Brecht’s play about the Paris Commune of 1871, The Days of the Commune, outdoors in New York in the spring of 2012, in response to the anti-capitalist Occupy movement which she saw as a piece of radical theatre in itself.

An art project rather than a standard drama since it was staged and filmed one scene at a time on different days, Beloff’s enterprise is still a brilliantly vibrant performance which would have enhanced BBC4 or Channel 4. Visually striking are its costumes and hand-painted signs, the latter identifying scenes and characters from actors’ hands, necks and heads. The cast is ethnically various and mostly from non-theatre backgrounds. Their singing is as strong as their speaking, while three accomplished accordionists drive along the brilliant Eisler music.

There are several performances available of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the play which discusses whether a child should stay with his bourgeois natural parents or working-class adopters.

Two secondary school productions, the City of London Freeman’s School and the American Round Rock High School  approach the text in the same way. Both omit the prologue about the two communes who are arguing their rights of land ownership, and also the scene about the early exploits of the unconventional judge Azdak.  Both leave out the challenging dissonance of the songs and share the lines of the narrator Singer among many performers. In each, the simplicity of the video recording helps create a Brechtian distance.

Somewhat different is a professional production by Benno Besson for French TV based on a theatre production from around 2002.  Besson, now deceased, was a veteran theatre director who had as a young man worked with Brecht. The programme’s first minutes show actors donning costumes, musicians rehearsing, audience waiting : well-established TV tropes which here are also thoroughly Brechtian.

Besson’s use of masks and extravagant colourful costumes is an imaginative distancing strategy turning the characters into unrealistic and comic grotesques. I was reminded of the visual style of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland although Kate Connolly of the Guardian showed rather more insight  in a review of the stage version in seeing the similarity with Brecht’s contemporary and compatriot Otto Dix. The design obviously enjoyed a much bigger budget than the schools versions, such as with the bridge in the Northern Mountains which Grusha crosses and the foaming cloth river where she meets Simon –  although a rigorous Brechtian response might find such touches an unnecessary distraction from the important dramatic lesson.

At The Good Person of Szechwan produced by Campbell Hall School in California, the single video camera also creates a strong Brechtian effect as it forces your attention on the wide narrative of the visiting gods and the business career of the prostitute Shin Te, rather than the individual characters whom you can’t always clearly distinguish anyway.  This version includes some songs, appropriate music of honky-tonk piano and drums and a substantial set of walls, curtains and cabins. The epilogue is presented in true Brechtian style where the lights go up, the whole cast comes together on stage and one actor speaks the coda about how the fate of Shin Te is unsatisfactory and how it is up to the audience to write another ending  which would improve on it.  Which suddenly made me think of where Dario Fo might have got his inspiration for the ending of Accidental Death of an Anarchist or where the writers and directors of the RSC Nicholas Nickleby might have got the idea for the close of its first section.

The production of The Good Person of Szechwan by Francophile American Stuart Seide for French TV begins like Benno Besson’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The camera runs along racks of costumes with attached actors’ names, clothes are chosen, furniture is pushed to one side. The design and acting has much of the authentically Brechtian Weimar flavour:  different actresses play Shin Te,  the first of these takes over her ruthless male alter ego Shui Ta,  a man plays the neighbour  Mrs Shin. Seide omits the epilogue: his very different way of presenting the better ending of the Shin Te story has the three ascending gods crashing back to earth to their destruction.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was an early anti-Nazi play which presaged the more analytical and more famous The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.   Two UK schools productions helpfully select and omit different scenes from Brecht’s two dozen or so originals. The video of Plymouth City College suggests a strong production with some imaginative design touches. For instance, the scientists who are frightened to show respect for the Jewish physicist Einstein are given red clowns’ noses, and a set of tall hand-held black boards become enclosing walls around the couple who are worried their son is spying on them.

King Edward VI College Stourbridge place a large swastika on the floor of their stage, project titles on the back wall and change lighting colours for each scene. A real highlight is their depiction of the Jewish Wife  who is voluntarily leaving her husband to protect his career, through the use of four different actresses making the phone calls which disconnect her old life.

Reassuring, then, to see how Brecht’s political bite is still fully appreciated and well presented by some 21st century theatre practitioners.

 

Reference :

Chambers, Colin (1980)  Other Spaces : New Theatre and the RSC     London : Eyre Methuen / TQ Publications

 

 

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Duchesses, cardinals and revengers

 

Around the time that my interest in the theatre developed in the early 1980s, there seemed to be a general resurgence in interest in staging the English Jacobean plays of the early 1600s. Within a few years I was able to see productions of such plays as John Webster’s The White Devil, Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Thomas Middleton ‘s  A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling and  John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

To me, as to others, the plays’ mixing of sex and violent death was undoubtedly part of their attraction. The plots of most of the above involve promiscuity, adultery, murder, corruption, deception and hypocrisy within aristocratic Italian or Spanish (ie Catholic)  families.

Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi  is one play which has maintained popularity,  judging by the fact that during the past few months I have been able to see it three times :  just revived by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and televised on BBC4, live at the Edinburgh Fringe in a production by UCLU Runaground and in a 1972 BBC version currently available on You Tube.

The performances in that 1972 version are slowly and precisely delivered, with appropriate pauses, powerfully evoking how plotting, betrayal and  treachery progresses while the characters appear to observe the correct niceties of behaviour. For example, the scene of the first attraction between the Duchess and the lower-class Antonio, their anxiety and nervousness fighting against desire, is marvellously done.

The newer BBC4 version tended to be brisker. This may say something about the greater challenge of delivering a dense text complete on stage compared to recording with the benefit of editing and multiple takes. Another factor is that almost certainly the younger generation of actors will have had less experience of this sort of allusive metaphorical verse. The 1972 cast includes many who continued after this to have careers which were distinguished and widely ranged : Eileen Atkins as the Duchess, plus Michael Bryant, T.P. McKenna and Charles Kay. In contrast, the publicity for the 2014 version concentrated on their Duchess, Gemma Arterton, probably because she had been in  James Bond and St Trinian’s films – although her performance here is perfectly fine. Sean Gilder, who had just appeared in the very different The Selfish Giant, is also highly competent  in the key role of villain-victim Bosola.

There are moments of comedy and irony in the play, and you will always notice these more often in a  live performance, but I did feel that James Gardon, playing the Cardinal at the Globe , does sometimes veer too far in that direction.

I recall that there was a TV fashion during the 1970s for performing classic plays in period buildings and outdoors, and this was such an example. According to IMDB it was filmed  at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire, which  is now in the care of the National Trust. The latter’s website says that it was owned by “an increasingly impoverished family” until 1991, which may explain why they might have been keen to let it out for a TV production. A large number of spaces are used, indoors and out. It looks and sounds brilliant around the actors in their period costumes,  although there is little in James MacTaggart’s production which would not have worked equally well in a London TV studio.

This version was not part of the BBC’s long-running Play of the Month although it now looks identical.  It appears to have been part of another series called Stage 2 which might have been  a strand of more “adult” plays, or more “adult” treatments, since here we actually see the Cardinal in bed with his married lover Julia, and she is shown unclothed in a couple of brief shots.  In contrast, the 2014 stage production shows Julia always fully clothed and, unsurprisingly, the 17th century stage directions give no suggestion that she should not be fully dressed.

Only in the ending is Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe staging a bit unusual. The dead characters rise up and enter into a sequence of uneasy movements which suggest a film being rewound. Perhaps the point is that the tragedy we have witnessed is the consequence of a plan which might have been carried out quite differently;  perhaps also to remind us that several murders have just taken place without damaging the glossy surface of the ducal court.

Both these productions perform the text fully. The UCLU Runaground company, in contrast, reduced it to 90 minutes, although that is still a substantial length for a serious drama at the Fringe these days.  Although confined to a tiny basement space, their staging worked well, and the young cast performed capably. The design was suitably black, symbolising formal religion as well as death and tragedy. From memory a wooden confessional box was a part of the stage set and some plainchant and church bells were successful elements of the sound.  Certainly their publicity drew attention to the theme of religious hypocrisy with a photo of a crucifix lying across a scantily clad bosom.

Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore  is strictly a Caroline drama rather than Jacobean, since it was written in the later reign of King Charles rather than that of King James,  but it presents a similar story in a similar way to The Duchess of Malfi.  A BBC version of ‘Tis Pity directed in 1980 by future Oscar nominee Roland Joffé transferred the setting, as I recall, from hot dissolute Renaissance Italy to cool amoral Victorian England.  Its excellent cast included Kenneth Cranham, Cherie Lunghi and Tim Pigott-Smith and  I hope one day to see it screened again.

 

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