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Judy Dench as Paulina in Kenneth Branagh’s recent production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings — Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Time

I’ve reached Day 7/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. Since I last wrote on this blog, I’ve listed Days 5: Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (together with Bronte’s Jane Eyre, DuMaurier’s King’s General, and Austen’s Mansfield Park); and Day 6: Alcott’s Little Women (together with Traver’s Mary Poppins in the Park, and the Nancy Drew series)

When I was around 13 and in ninth grade, the teacher took the class to Stratford, Connecticut to see the Shakespeare plays performed there. The play was The Winter’s tale. Below a picture of my old paperback and above recently Judy Dench as Paulina:

However conventional or inadequate, this kind of production might have seemed to me later in life, not when I was 13. I was absorbed, riveted by the first three acts (Paulina for strong tough lines: “Look down and see what death is doing”), entranced at Act four, loved the exquisitely beautiful poetry:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function …

I was startled moved at the fifth act beating death, ending in tears.

O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

I just reveled in the whole thing. The queen speaking up for herself so eloquently (said to be Anne Boleyn in the play, but understood as Katherine of Aragon), Paulina, Autolycus, the god of thievery. I went home and read it and loved Time’s speech, and parts of it come to mind now and again. I bought a long playing record of this play with John Gielgud as Leontes, Wendy Hiller as Hermione. I’ve loved Shakespeare’s plays and poetry ever after.


Keely Hawes as Widow Grey in Henry VI (The Hollow Crown)

At age 18 finally in college, I took two summer courses where we read Shakespeare: tragedies, comedies, histories and I read some 18 of the plays; I found myself as a older teenager going to college when I went to Shakespeare in Central Park. In graduate school at first I wanted to major in Shakespeare, and write my dissertation on Cymbeline. Jim and I used to go to Shakespeare plays whenever possible, I do so today. His second present to me was a facsimile edition of the first folio. Eventually I read all 37 of them, quite a number numerous times, I went every summer to the park for all the plays they did. I loved old fashioned close-reading studies of Shakespeare, and all sorts of criticism from all angles.


Recently Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York in Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Since then I’ve taught The Winter’s Tale many times; I used to say it was my favorite Shakespeare play; it and Austen’s Sense & Sensibility on a desert Island and I’d need no more. Favorites for me beyond The Winter’s Tale to teach: Richard II, Henry IV Part One, As You Like It, Hamlet. Last year there was a Future Learn on Shakespeare, 9 sessions of lectures by Jonathan Bate! I re-watched and re-listened. Another Future Learn was on different productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (aka according to this production Love’s Labour’s Won) as twin plays at the RSC — it had clips from rehearsals and from earlier productions. Recently I watched The Hollow Crown series, loved the latest King Lear with Anthony Hopkins. Just never tire of the plays and sonnets. I go to every season at the Folger, all the HD screenings. Yesterday Izzy and I at Wolf Trap saw Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, just another of the countless sequels and variations. The man comes through all the different approaches, he’s there.


Jim’s present to me on our second anniversary was a facsimile copy of the first folio (his first was a copy of the 1924 edition of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility)

I read his poetry too. One of my favorite lyrics poems (repeated to myself in summer especially) is from Cymbeline:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

Many of the sonnets speak to us through the Renaissance idioms and metaphors. This is one of my many favorites whose plain speaking has the raw edge of a truth I recognize


Pennie Downie as Gertrude in a recent great filmed Hamlet (David Tennant playing Hamlet)

Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now,
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross;
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah, do not, when my heart hath ’scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe.
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee will not seem so —

Oh do not drop in for an after-loss.

Following this meme, I find I am writing my autobiography through crucial and early books. I’ve included some favorite actresses I’ve seen in Shakespeare plays lately.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (John Singer Sargeant)

Ellen

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Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

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A photograph from a New York City production

Friends,

This is my second blog honoring or remembering what Martin Luther King told us. I went to see The Humans last week at the Kennedy Center, and I saw The Gabriels last early January at the Kennedy Center. Both brought over from NYC, with somewhat changed casts. These two plays expose what has happened to the middle class in the US since the values and norms King stood for, the kinds of laws and social and racial and economic programs he would have passed have not been passed or have been rescinded, and what there was of social progress is now being further corroded –the realistic stories of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels (see my review) are true to US life and measure the deterioration and impoverishment inflicted on the US population at large by its wealthy masters (corporations, individual very wealthy people and their obedient politicians).

The Humans and The Gabriels hold up mirrors to the destruction of the lower and middle middle class white family that has been let to happen in the past quarter of a century; The Humans shows the process at our later stage, the results of the Trump regime’s past year re-enforcement and acceleration. The Humans is a sort of speeded-up imitation of The Gabriels, shorter, one play with no intermission rather than three plays over three nights. The Humans are on the edge of bankruptcy and a need for welfare that no longer exists, for supplemental benefits and unemployment insurance; they have not fallen off as yet, but only two have jobs. The Gabriels are in better shape, all but the aging mother have jobs, no matter how menial, or an income, widow’s pension; they can afford to keep an tangential extra relative, a single woman (a stray type familiar to most older women in our society); the first wife of the widow’s husband (she the daughter of the one older couple) rents the widow’s attic. This single woman is very nervous waiting for a male date to show up; he never does. The Gabriels have lost the larger family home but still own the cottage we find them in. The Humans will soon all be in small apartments; the Gabriels (it’s the family name) come from such summer people made permanent and people once the servants of the super-rich. The Gabriels are probably better off because of this previous history of stability.


The set of The Humans

Taking Karam’s family, the Blakes, to be a sort of continuation of Nelson’s Gabriels, we might say the situation has become much more desperate, though both sets of people are grim as they face a bleak, opportunity-less future. In The Humans, there is a young heterosexual couple living together (not married) in an apartment which has been put together from the first floor of a broken down pair of rooms, one turned into a kitchen (not meant to be) and a make-shift iron stairwell down to a basement room. The couple invite the young woman’s family there for Thanksgiving dinner. The young woman is one of two daughters; the other comes too, and it emerges she’s a lesbian whose partner has left her and whom she phones at least once (perhaps more than that as she keep running out of sight, upstairs, into the bathroom). She has been abandoned and hurt emotionally and since she was economically partly dependent on her partner, she has had to move back with her parents very temporarily.

Kasam’s Blake parents are near retirement age (the central couple was just this age group in The Gabriels) and the Blakes bring an older woman who is the mother of the husband and demented, but they can’t afford to put her in a assisted living where she’d be treated terribly anyway. Probably die. She has a violent fit at one point and he has to subdue her. Nelson’s Gabriels also includes an Aged female P, but there is money to put her in better assisted living though not truly decent and at a very high cost which is stretching her son and his wife’ resources. In the case of The Gabriels, the family house has been lost, because the older woman fell for a deceptive scheme which seemed to promise her endless money and that she would never lose the house; she become a life-tenant in it, but the fine print allowed the new owner to throw her out. And he has. It was a bank-engineered scam she grabbed at because she couldn’t make her house payments. In neither case does the society help at all. In the US society allows such egregious theft to happen with impunity.


Yet another production where you can see how a situation comedy can be emerging

I felt that The Humans is not as good a play, though it got some very high praise in some reviews. At moments it edged towards situation comedy, obvious eliciting of laughter at mainstream predicaments. The use of cell phones signaled this. The laughter might have been the audience: I found myself not in the Theater Lab (where Izzy and I saw Twisted Dickens two weeks ago was as well as me The Gabriels last January), but the big Eisenhower theater, and while not every seat was taken, many were, and I was in the 2nd balcony. (I sometimes can’t tell where I’ve bought a seat — I don’t focus my mind on practicalities.)

So you had an audience who wanted to laugh comfortably; somehow the average person sniffs out mediocrity and then reinforces it by inane reactions. The Gabriels did take more effort to understand (there is much more there); you really should go all three times, though like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests decades ago, you don’t have to see them in the correct order.

The subtitle of The Gabriels is Election Year during the Life of One Family. Interwoven were comments about the election where Clinton was running against Trump. That meant naturally they debated some of the issues; and that included health care for older people, and (surprisingly) foreign policy because so much of their high tax bill went to pay for wars. Why are there no young men in the Gabriel set? because one man has left his wife for a younger woman and to avoid the pressures of a bigger family to answer to; others connected to the family have died or been destroyed by drugs. In The Humans outside politics is never brought up nor is there an attempt at explanation as to why most of the characters they talk of and all of them are women but two.

Hungry
Public Theatre
LuEster
HUNGRY
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren
Sets & Costumes Susan Hilferty
Lighting Jennifer Tipton


The humor of the Gabriels results from the character’s deep talk to one another, not superficial guffaws

The art of The Humans needs improvement too. The desperation of the individuals in The Humans and each of their stories is not brought out slowly over many hours (as in Nelson’s 3 plays worth of time) but suddenly in the second half of the second act the calamities were admitted to and piled on towards the end — a series of sudden revelations, that felt like distress upon distress. The Blake father has lost his long-time job just before he was eligible for his pension; the excuse was a one-time affair with a fellow teacher. I should say this is nothing new: my father’s mother in the 1980s was 2 years away from retirement from many years as a cleaning and forced out so deprived of her pension; my uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband) had to endure 10 years of deliberate very hard work than he’d had before to hold on to actually get that pension; he just managed it. So these retired parents are selling their house in Pennsylvania, which they bought because it was inexpensive but now they can get less for it than they paid. The Blake daughter making the Thanksgiving has no job. They are living in a slum like street, in an apartment somehow to the back of a store. The mother works (glad to get out of the house).


The Gabriels’ table, dishes

You might say we can measure the distance the middle class has declined since last year in furniture, dishes, and appliances. The characters in The Humans sit on plastic and metal folding tables; their meal is half-ass stuff, much of it fast food, not cooked much as their stove is minimal. Their dishes are plastic cups and they use rubber as central places to put the food out on. The Gabriels had a leftover lovely round wooden table and ate decent food decently cooked in a good stove on set of real dishes. The Humans are dependent on cab services to go all the way to Pennsylvania from NYC. The Gabriels have two cars — their immediate area is one without much public transportation — as is true of much of the US.

The Humans can be cheated some more at the close because instead of a small car, which they ordered, a van comes. The Gabriels live in an ex-summer middle class community; now the people who used to come are fewer, and the super-rich taking all back. Outside the young Blake couple’s apartment they see a cement area, called an “interior courtyard.” The Blakes have bars on the windows.

It should be said that what The Humans had was much more open anguish. The Gabriels are still committed to decorum, and The Gabriels had sub-theme: the suffering of widows, of women left single alone. If The Humans meant to defend an older man accused of sexual transgression, it never did; the father-older husband told his story, apologized profusedly to all in the room (his wife is not there) and that’s all there was to that. What was hurting or mattered was he now had no pension. His wife does keep nagging her daughter to marry her partner but nowhere it is said she should do this to be marginally economically safer. It was apparently just this parroted-prejudice.

My older daughter tweeted the other day all her friends are worse off this year than last; some have lost their jobs. She did not say she is worse off because I gather she is making as much money literally as she did one year ago (but not two years before that where she made twice a much), but she has no pension, no health care except through ACA and is paid by the hour week-by-week in the supposed secure job she works at.

It is now commonplace in the US for people working full time to have no pension, no health, and no paid vacation leave. Fewer people going to college. Who can have a dream of joyful fulfillment now? Least of all those about to be deported to nowhere at all after building a world for themselves and families for decades.

No film I’ve seen in theaters comes near the truthfulness of The Humans or the subtlety of The Gabriels. Real family life in the US today. I ordered the stage plays of The Gabriels the night I came home from The Humans. Nelson’s play seems to be the kind of fertile pool of art that other plays can build upon — the way Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller’s plays at mid-century were.

Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.


You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.


A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.

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Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.

Ellen

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Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen

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Closing moments of the play

Friends,

It’s more than possible if you live near a theater or movie-house taking in the HD films sent to the US from several different theaters in London (the Old Vic, the National Theater, the Barbican) and elsewhere (Stratford-upon-Avon), you’ll see this Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as directed by Ivo Van Hove, setting sand lighting Jan Versweyveld, advertised. Suddenly this old play, a semi-museum piece becomes astonishingly good and fresh. As I left I felt that even the best TV mini-series (the on-going Handmaid’s Tale makes a good contrast because both are feminist) can’t be as pander free as this. This is subtler and more riveting for that, for me especially over the precious manuscript and hope for recreation.

Not that the players were not made to strain to some extent for shock value — Dr Brack (Rafe Spall, the powerful actor-son of Timothy) has a soda can which spits blood and after Hedda (Ruth Wilson. remarkably feelingful face and body) has driven Luvborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) from the room with a pistol to kill himself, Brack keeps pouring it on Hedda, here, there, everywhere eon her body, slip, across her face. It seems we are inured and to hit us strongly all public art must compete against spectacles. With this proviso, I felt I understood the play for the first time; it really reached me as it had not done before. Of central importance is the colloquial translation by Patrick Marber — with precise enough words too. It was as if I’d taken in the speeches for the first time viscerally. I wish I could read the script and then re-see the play (also compare it with older translations).


Hedda and Tesman

It was acted in a wide space that looked like a loft; what was so striking was the acting out of the lines physically and with gestures. The simple stark images; so a fire in a grate in the middle of the room before Hedda burns Lovburg’s manuscript.

A piano. One couch which Tesman (Kyle Soller, extraordinary presence in Poldark and made a minor role in Hollow Crown, major, unforgettable) and Hedda sit on, is also a bed. Hedda (Ruth Wilson, a brilliant actress, strong and feelingful) had a slip on and at first a robe — like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Hedda listening to Mrs Elvsted

Mrs Elvsted played by Sinead Matthews (also remarkable), in a tight knitted garment and very high heels. A story of how she took the husband of the woman she was working for as governess (a reverse of Waterford paradigm), the wife died, and then when she found herself saddled with him and his children she fled with a passing tutor, Luvborg and has found an occupation in life by living by his side and catering to him, especially his writing project. Lovborg, an actor with less British credentials but spotted by the national theater. (Iwuji “trained in Wisconsin said the moderator more than once in a kind of inverse snobbery — one has to endure a hype but brief preface). All in stark simple outfits: ordinary trousers (black, jeans) and shirts. Only Brack had something which made him feel more like an authority figure, Tesman an intellectual.


Hedda and Brack

They conveyed how Hedda became an evil force through never giving her any outlet; how twisted and manic she was, how Brack bullies and terrifies her and she kills herself partly because at the end she is in his power, while Tesman finds a new lease on life by taking fragments and notes Lovburg’s mistress has in her deep bag, enough to recreate the book with, Hedda will be left to the intense presence of Brack. It is deeply feminist even though the two key female roles are women with less than admirable traits, and are not beaten or attacked directly. There is a silent maid in black, sitting gazing, watching, sometimes smoking, ready to hand with things needed (Eva Magyar) referred to as an aunt, and a very tall housekeeper (Kate Duchene) with choral-like utterances who in another production would be taking care of the children.

On Trollope19thCStudies, we read these classic 19th century novels and most of them show couples who are basically living very conventionally — occasionally illegitimacy is seen, off stage a mistress. What’s striking about all Ibsen’s 19th century plays is he shows this is a false veneer of how individuals actually lived. In the version of the Richardson Pamela story by him the servant was driven away and her baby taken from her long before the play began. A Doll’s House is the opposite of what Dickens wants us to accept as a good contented ending of Our Mutual Friend. It is a very 19th century work too — that’s what might be forgotten as people watch and then they go back to their older novels and not connect.

A couple of good reviews: Lyttelton from The Guardian; Dominic Cavendish says it’s one of the great productions of the year; Alan Franks of LondonTheater1.com: a crew of people seeking personal fulfillment with no compromises turn self-destructive and destroy what they can of one another because they do not reign in their anarchic sexuality and emotional cravings.

There are many quieter scenes; here is one:

Ellen

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