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A close-up

Friends and readers,

More than week late, because before writing my tribute I wanted to re-watch a few of my favorite films, all of which Alan Rickman worked in centrally; but with two good longish clips and a good trailer, and a whole YouTube movie, I add my voice and this blog to the many many paying tribute to Rickman’s acting career and what we know of his private life. Catherine Shoard’s fine obituary in The Guardian does justice to the variety of roles he played on the stage, in movie-houses, on TV; Michael Quinn tells more of his life and describes his mesmerizing qualities in The Stage.

What can I add? Not much I fear because I never saw him on stage, only read about his startling first performance as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and much later as Hamlet himself. He and Helen Mirren did not receive rave reviews as Romeo and Juliet:

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But as Valmont with Lindsay Duncan as Madame de Merteuil, they made Hampton’s play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses a modern classic.

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Duncan and Rickman in Les Liasons Dangereuses

Years later Rickman played again with Lindsay Duncan, this time in Private Lives.

Nor did I see him in many of his movies and films: he worked for money and fame, as in Die Hard where against Bruce Willis he seems to have played a role equivalent to that Mark Rylance pulled off recently with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. The witty European or Britisher against the he-man macho male pro-American ideologies, undermining them a little (the subversion is very slight). Rickman was not above the Sheriff of Nottingham in a successful Robin Hood either.

He often was chosen for or himself chose parts which called for steel, for self-control, abstinence in the self and enforced on others, the punitive and competitive, quiet aggression from the insinuating interviewer Slope in Barchester Chronicles (later cast out):

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to an earnest well-meaning daring politician Eamon de Valero in Michael Collins:

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Part of this thread in his typology led to his reprises as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.

I saw more of the film adaptations, romances, and in my experience and those I’ve talked to his interpretation of a character in a book deepened, changed readers’ conceptions of the character and even book ever after, charged the presence with melancholy, edginess, menace — self-retreat, keeping back. As a lover he made me swoon, but he was also complicated, the man of sensibility, unsure of himself, disillusioned, all giving and he was convincing as all loyalty

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As Colonel Brandon reading meditative poetry to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

Now for me (as for Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay), Colonel Brandon is the hero of Austen’s novel. He and she were good friends: they played the older couple whose marriage is on the edge but just manage out of compassion and understanding to hold together in Love Actually.

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Thompson and Rickman as husband and wife going through ritual of opening presents with one of their children

The last two nights I watched The Winter Guest, Sharman MacDonald’s play turned into a film and directed by Rickman, featuring Emma Thompson and her mother, another actress, Phyllida Law, as mother and daughter, two widows; and Song of Lunch, Christopher Reid’s poem, where he again played with Thompson.

I discerned a kind of repeating theme or thread, not as obviously or directly autobiographical as Woody Allen’s but there in the finest of his films. In these again and again he is a man angry at the world, or isolated from it, and turning on himself so strongly that he estranges himself and others from himself, bitter about what he is doing in the world. This is part of his Slope character; it’s part of the comedy roles. Sometimes he smiles and snarls dangerously as he looks out from within this core. Sometimes he saves others who are suffering similarly as in Truly, Madly Deeply; he enables Juliet Stevenson, as Nina, his widow to let go of him all the while he does not want to let go of her. The poignant image is of him on the other side of a window, a glass cut off from his beloved. The film has several parallel characters, David Ryall as George, a widower; Bill Patterson as Sandy who loses himself in work. Here is the opening segment:

I usually dislike these movies where characters are seen as part of an afterlife, and since reading Lucy Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History that even a majority of people believe in ghosts (!), but this one no. What transcends in the film is not so much that Nina has learned to live on her own, but his simple way of talking:

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Iconically Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)

He describes his life with Nina thus:

Well, talking was the major component! Uh, uh, we, you played the piano – and I played and we both played a duet — something, I can’t remember … and you danced for about three hours until I fell asleep, but you were fantastic! — and then we had some cornflakes and when we kissed – which was about — eleven o’clock the following day — we were trembling so much we couldn’t take off our clothes.

Here is how he accounts for his motive in coming back to “the earth:”

Jamie: “Thank you for missing me.”
Nina: “I have. I do. I did.”
Jamie: “I know. But the pain, your pain, I couldn’t bear that. There’s a little girl, I see this little girl from time to time, Alice, who’s three, three and a half, and she’s great, everybody loves her, makes a big fuss, but she’s not spoiled, well she wasn’t spoiled, and she was knocked over, and her parents, and her family, the friends from kindergarten — she used to go to this park — and she was telling me, she, they made an area in the park, gave the money for swings and little wooden animals, and there are these plaques on each of them, on the sides of the swing, the bottom of the horse. ‘From Alice’s Mum and Dad. In loving memory of Alice who used to play here.’ And, of course, Alice goes back there all the time. You see parents take their child off the swing and see the sign and then they hold on to their daughter so tightly, clinging on for dear life, the capacity to love, people have, what happens to it?”

In Song of Lunch, he plays an editor who is aging badly, a failure as a poet, who has asked the woman he lost to another better writer (both aging well), to lunch. He cannot even stop his self destructing for the hour, cannot pull back when confronted by her. Watch the movie, listen to the eloquent poetry:

In The Winter Guest Thompson’s character is a female version of someone threatened this way, pulled back by her mother

It’s as if Rickman had this on-going dialogue with himself.

In Richard Curtis’s edition of his screenplay of Love Actually, Rickman answered a series of silly questions. Among his answers: the actress he loved first in the movies was Jeanne Moreau; his “favorite romantic movie of all time,” The Philadelphia Story; his favorite Christmas song, “Merry Christmas” by John Lennon

Alan Rickman died relatively young of cancer, another person cut off by this spreading epidemic. He and his family have chosen not to say what kind of cancer, but it seems to have been one which devoured him quickly: one person who saw him used the word “terrible” of how he looked at the end; and others who knew what was happening and were close suggest his death was a release. A terrible irony to this sad end. How many people have to die, at how many ages, in what short span of time before some empowered active group of people effectively demand true fundamental research?

Ellen

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Pericles (Wayne T Carr) and Thais (Brooke Parks), tempest-tost, he grieving, she dead (Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj, scenic design Jan Chambers, Folger 2015)

… your present kindness/makes my past miseries sport … (Pericles)

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Anita (Natascia Diaz) and Maria (Mary-Joanne Grisso (from this season’s West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Parker Esse, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature 2015)

Friends and readers,

Any one who comes to this blog regularly could come to the conclusion that here in the Washington DC area we’ve had a spate of politically-atune, actuated, effective films and stage plays from Antigone to Trumbo, or this blogger is obsessively seeking these out and writing about them. Where I went has of course not been pure serendipity, nor do I deny enjoying telling others what I’ve seen and recommending what’s significant. Nevertheless I have here mirrored without making any effort the reality that the last few months in DC and Virginia have seen staged and screened as many or more relevant, pertinent, and grounded as deeply in human psyches and family and socially pressured-dramas as in any time I’ve been here over a few years (or in New York City, where I came from in 1980).

This year’s Pericles and West Side Story are en rapport too. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre was not written with the refugee exodus from the Middle East into Europe of 2015 in mind; Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story was written and a stupendous hit more than 40 years before the endless war abroad, spread of guns with daily massacres, whipped up hatred for “the other” in the last year or so of the Republicans running for President. But effortlessly the first was made to speak to us about powerless wandering individuals in a vast world of treachery, betrayal, exploitation and nature’s indifference, and the second couldn’t help but show us the same violence intrinsic to American male culture as is found in the Oxbow Incident (for example), or city streets then and movie theaters (or agencies, stores, malls, wherever today), the power of the gun to kill so easily, and ethnic hatred.

My desire to demonstrate the moving marvel that is the Oregon production of Pericles re-created here at the Folger is made easy for me by directing the reader to Susan Galbraith’s A Magical Pericles, DC Theater Scene. If you don’t believe her, Kate Wingfield is grudging; I’ve read the play several times (I once planned to write my dissertation on one of Shakespeare’s late tragic romances, of which this is the first, the others Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and was re-persuaded the first two acts are by him but from a very bad or corrupt quarto where what we have is half-remembered scenes (the man is trying hard): many lines here and there his, passages, the fishermen’s language jokes, e.g.,

    The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression, and the poor worm doth die for’t …

They say they’re half fish, half flesh. A plague on them! They ne’re come but I look to be washed. I marvel how the fishes live in the sea … Why, as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones …

Die, koth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here, come put it on; keep thee warm … a handsome fellow … we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddingg and flapjacks

    the rough seas, that spares not any man,
Took it in rage — though, calmed, have given’t again
I thank three for’t.

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light,
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent,and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they want.

the whole conception his, reminding me of The Merchant of Venice and as a first full run of the motifs of the late romances.

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The production turns into self-reflexive parodic comedy (with an unacknowledged wink) some of the more stilted passages, and into semi-dumb show the paradigmatic moments, investing what adult emotion fairy tales allow until the moment Shakespeare’s text emerges at the first great tempest. Carr is up to it:

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The god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! — O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard — (III:1)

Pamela Roberts also is eloquent and makes detail about the production by me unnecessary. I should add the use of computer-generated movie-like images in across the walls (as seas, stars, islands) worked beautifully (as these did in Antigone earlier this year).

In addition, the Folger team has had the intelligence to put on-line stills from some of the more wondrous, narrative:

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Amando Duran as Gower comes from the grave and ancient (even to Shakespeare) poetry to play narrator —

tragic and funny moments from the play.

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The three fishermen, in the center Michael J Hume who also plays Pericles’s wise moral mentor, Helicanus, and then turns into the vamp-bawd, of Mytilene:

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U. Jonathan Toppo one of the fishermen, now her sidekick pimp, Boult.

It’s more than a wondrous production. I saw something as deeply uplifting from Pericles at the Delacorte with Jim in the 1970s. It taught me what I know about books: years later the same work speaks to you in a way consonant with your life in a new time. This time watching people who died or were thought to be dead brought back, death conquered, I was brought to tears. Pericles is Lear in reverse. When Pericles says to his daughter, Marino, now found , “Thou beget’st him that did beget thee,” and “This is rare dream that e’er dull sleep/Did mock sad fools” (V:1) I thought of Jim he appears to me in my dreams. If you want to have your spirits cheered for this winter solstice, and live in the DC area or can get there, you can do no better.

But I also liked how they managed to do (as in The Tempest and Cymbeline) capture the malice, envy, indifference to suffering, sale of souls and bodies that is the world in other of the scenes, from hired assassins, to fishermen, to pimps:

Marine: “Thou hold’st a place for which the pain’st fiend/Of hell would not in reputation change/Thou are a damned doorkeeper …
Boult: “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one (IV:6)

I wish I could find as accurate reviews of Eric Shaffaer’s most recent Sondheim (he is ever in charge, and this was his choice for the Christmas mainstream-enough program). I can find none. Nor are they generous with photos (foolish). Esse and Gardiner do little that is original or different or especially inspired. They try to follow the original Broadway production, with the difference that they have a lot less to work with (props, space, dancers, money for supremely good dancers and minor roles). They also alter some of the silent staging so that Tony and Maria are seen to go to bed together the one night they are together, and the white gang just about rapes Anita when she comes to warn Tony that Chino has a gun. I assume my reader knows the story and characters of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story.

The decision which seemed to me most right was to turn the production as much as possible into sheer dance and song. The story and characters became part of an expressionist dance.

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The white male gang

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Anita (Natascia Diaz was the strongest performer on stage, she exhilarated the audience as no one else did)

But (as with Shakespeare), the work can carry itself if everyone will but try, and that’s what happens in this production. The crowd of dancers, actors, singers are there in front of you interacting in visceral ways.

You also see what makes for a lasting classic: the older work gets new electric relevancy when it’s redone in another era. When Chino gets a gun and kills Tony the meaning now is different: we see how much easier it is to kill. They had Maria take the gun from Chino and her words cursing it had a new resonance. Also the speech of Doc against whipped up hatred. There is no place for these lovers and their ideals. This is one not to miss this year too.

Haj says in his program notes that Pericles is a play of survival, loss, maturation, and reconciliation. There’s not much to reconcile. Shakespeare opened with a cruel incestuous king and his daughter; Pericles left his baby, Marina, with a queen out of Snow White; having buried his beloved wife, he wanders griefstruck, alone. When the gods or fortune are finished playing their games with him, he exhibits acceptance, resignation, expansive relief. Gower has told us again and again what we are seeing is “in the old story” if you cannot believe. If it is all improbable, including several abandonments, the actors on the stage filled the roles with an intense enough identfication from somewhere.

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A balancing act on a swing

The program notes for West Side Story tell of the 1950s gangs in NYC, the immigration into the northern cities of the US from the south, and into NYC in particular, hispanic people from Latin and South America (listen to Juan Gonzalez about Puerto Rico’s position as a century-old colony), the destitution and poverty of the slums, the violence resorted to by the males excluded from economic hope. We all know homicides, racism, inequality, violence is as intrinsic to American experience today as it was then. Signature sees this musical as “plea for tolerance, acceptance and love.” I was impressed by how it ended on another widow — like Natalie Wood in the movie, Mary-Joanna Grisso who gives the most moving performance of the ensemble, genuinely convincing, plangent, trembling, leaves the stage swathed in a widow’s cape and shawl. Her brother, lover and fiancee all dead, Anita last seen racing away in a seething rage for having tried to forgive, and been near raped for her efforts.

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No lack of women in widow’s scarves today

Ellen

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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

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Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

screenshotKajaki
As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

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Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:

Ismene

but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.

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Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

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A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.

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It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.

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The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.

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When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.

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They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.

watching

In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.

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I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

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The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?

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Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

JulietteBinoche-The-ENGLISH-PATIENT
I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient

Ellen

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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

Iagoagainstglass
Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”

Otello

When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.

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The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

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Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello

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There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
Clarycat
sharing my chair.

Ellen

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The whole cast: Carolyn Burke, Jordan De Bona, Harry Lester, Katie McManus, Carli Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Would you believe in the wilds of Falls Church (driving back you pass streets where there are no lights and sidewalks are unwanted for vast stretches), a New York song fest. In the case of the Folger Theater, one can hope the production will go elsewhere, but in this Creative Cauldron (as the stage theater produced and directed by Laura Connors Hull calls it), there is little chance precisely these five people will get together again to sing and enact this set of songs. There was no money for any fancy stage furniture, the set was a minimum. As one reviewer of the program/stage event says, this production of “The World Goes Round,” is intimate cabaret at its best — dependent on the individuals, their capacity to sing or talk a song through, a few props, a piano and saxophone and the costumes.

I thought the actor-singers conveyed a deep sense of the underlying romance of several of the songs as well at the same time as scepticism and disillusion. A wry tone colored the most upbeat songs, a sense of the necessity of putting on pizzazz. Individual numbers: “Money, money,” “cabaret,” “A Quiet Thing,” and the whimsical New York ones, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” “Sara Lee” (cakes). Carolyn did “colored lights” so touchingly, Jordan as a dancing body (flexible, graceful) and can enact ironies. He does the pathos of “I don’t remember you” and its jokes (he disappears) my friend recognized “Mr Cellophane.” I never heard of it before. They do numbers as pairs, trios, women with women:

World-Goes-Round-Press

They don’t quite get the New York accents right in “Class” (“How lucky can you get”) and when they ended on “New York, New York,” they did right not to imitate Sinatra too closely. Songs from Chicago. Cabaret. Katie McManus belts out numbers Ethel Merman style; the group does exhilaration too.

We do “all that jazz” at the Dance Fusion workshop most days. One night in the 1980s Jim and I woke around 2 in the morning, put the TV on and watched the movie. Here’s a montage of Fosse:

So rush out if you live within range (October 1-25), go and see and hear them, we need more of this kind of thing in the remote outposts of Fairfax county (Falls Church is alongside Fairfax county — I know it’s all confusing, but then I’m told it’s one of the richest counties in the US so why should they want anyone to know how to get about in it?). It was I who suggested to my friend, Phyllis, we go to this particular show: afterward we went back to her flat and drank wine, talked and looked at her art work — she’s a painter. I drove home by myself near midnight — the first time I’ve been out at that time of night and by myself for years, now listening to Simon Vance reading aloud mesmerizingly Mantel’s riveting Bring Up the Babies.

Jim delighted in Kander and Ebb songs at Signature and would talk of the effective voicing in their lyrics whenever they were threaded in.

Ellen

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Monique Barbee, Cristina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly

Dear friends and readers,

Today Izzy and I saw another text or set of texts performed which come out of Tudor Matter: the writings and what was said Elizabeth Tudor said in the form of a monologue play acted out by form women playing the Elizabeth. It lasted only an hour but it was intently mesmerizing: the way the texts were chosen and woven together, how the actresses did the parts (intensely, iconically, prosaically, wryly, emotionally, fearfully by turns). The play is part of year long festival of plays by women going on around the DC area: the music was composed by a woman, production design, costumes: and it was l’ecriture-femme; the organization was not at all chronological; motifs kept coming back cyclically; you could say we were in Elizabeth’s mind.

It’s probably too late for most people to put everything planned for tomorrow away and hurry to the Folger Shakespeare Theater to see this four-woman dramatic monologue, conceived, put together, written and directed by Karin Coonrod, with a sixth woman, Gina Lesihman, composing the music, Oana Botez designing costumes, as a production from the Compagnia de’ Colombari (originally a festival group from Orvieto, Italy, 2004). But maybe not too late to see and hear re-incarnations of this script elsewhere. And certainly not too late to go to the Folger for this year’s season. It began with the remarkably candid and brilliant production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, via their HD screening capabilities. Now they’ve moved onto a highly original adaptation of Tudor matter to the stage.

Only recently has Elizabeth R been forgiven her ability to live more successfully than most men as leader of a country she cared about, as head of an army. As Sabrina Baron says,

with a few parts of some series as exceptions (most notably the six-part Elizabeth I in 1971), the depiction of Elizabeth, a woman who was a powerful and effective leader in her day (lived long, stayed in power, overcame a number of attempts to when she was young kill her and older overturn her throne), is as a frigid jealous or humiliated sex object. Her icon in her era was manipulated to present an transcendent female figure effectively doing what men did; in the 20th century she was at first a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence. Recently she has taken over Mary Stuart’s role as an enthralled woman (by Leicester, Essex) deeply unhappy because of this. Says Baron, quite a revenge and erasure by a male hegemonic point of view and from women compensatory victimhood for them to cling to.

Not so here. Using Elizabeth R’s own words and words about her spoken or written by people close to her, Koonrod moves back and forth across the iconic and everyday events of the reign to show how she was beset from the time her mother was beheaded (by keepers, by authority figures, by what men she did discreetly involve herself with, and yet emerges, survived and knew several triumphs (the Spanish Armada). While she did not write as much as the foolhardy passionate Mary Queen of Scots, and hid her religion as Margaret of Navarre did not, Elizabeth R wrote in all the forms these two other early modern women did: poetry, speeches, letters.

These are woven in with what others reported and what scholars have unearthed. The script assumes a good knowledge of the phases of Elizabeth’s life (who she lived with during what period and what she had to adhere to to stay alive), which are divided into four movements and four games. Iconic moments include her at the tower, when her stepmother, Elizabeth Parr and her husband, Thomas Seymour (later beheaded) are said to have cut Elizabeth’s mourning dress for Anne Boleyn to shreds while they were in a garden. This one shows how little Elizabeth was regarded until she became queen; she was a woman, not entitled to her own space; the first thing that parliament did when she became queen was to ask her to marry, which they repeated periodically no matter how often Elizabeth said she was wed to England and England was better off with a single queen (like her). there was material from the death of Leicester’s wife. The Armada. The Earl of Essex’s revolt. Parliamentary conflicts. And her frivolous moments with ordinary people.

All four Elizabeths were there at the same time. They began by sitting on uncomfortable high backed narrow lattice-like chairs (thrones as imprisoning). They catch each line up in turn, like a monody by four. Their silvery-grey dresses have features which suggest different eras (Elizabethan, the devil’s, the legacy left Elizabeth by her mother.) As the script veers round in time, first enacting how Elizabeth held off the demand she marry and have children, you grasp how each place is explicated or dramatized to see its relationship to Elizabeth or those close to her at that time (her sister, Anna, cousin, Mary, various male courtiers). Four movements within each a game. First up the nagging and pressuring her to marry and have children (the French Anjou and Leicester eras). Second there was an amoral actor-soldier and city life and court (anecdotes). The third movement was made up from Elizabeth’s prayers and laments, her few witty self-revealing poems. Last her last years as queen. I found the whole experience mesmerizing and stirring.

By pre-conceived scheme this blog should go on Austen reveries as being about and by women, one of more than 50 plays by women which will be staged in the DC area over the next year (until July say). I put it here so it will have more circulation. It belongs to the inexhaustible Turdor matter which I’ve been dealing with in my blogs on Anne and Mary Boleyn and Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and which I hope to add to on the 2003 Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe (with a little help from Andrew Davies), Anne Boleyn and other early modern women destroyed, sustained over a life-time, hitherto taken out of history.

Ellen

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