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Elektra
Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

StemmeEricOwens

In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

ElektraChrysothemis

Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

ELEKTRApromotional
The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

*************************

Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

Ellen

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radvanovsky-devereux
Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

Duchessduke
Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

DevereuxNottingham

It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

devereux_met

One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

Metset

Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

roberto_devereux_elina_garanca
Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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ManonLescautfinalscene
Final Scene, DesGrieux (Roberto Alagno) and Manon dying (Christine Opolais)

Friends and readers,

As a lover of Prevost’s famous story (as written by him), and having been moved by an intelligent and powerful European production of Massenet’s Manon (5 years ago now), Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as produced by the Met was something of a disappointment. It reminded me of an early 19th century French operatic version of Romeo and Juliet Jim, I, and Izzy, saw years ago at Glimmerglass, where until the last act I felt almost nothing and then suddenly at the long death scene where the lover awaken and dying grieve at length I was overcome with emotion at the lyrical beauty, acting, even words (subtitles though they were) of this opera. In this new production at the Met, the very last scene of Manon dying at length in Des Grieux’s arms sent through me waves of identification as I felt them experience her dying, with the music and singing heart-breakingly beautiful as inch-by-inch she despaired and died, and he enacted a deep form of empathy with her.

The whole of this Manon Lescaut exists to get us to this long many phase final scene. Puccini has stripped Prevost’s story of much of its rational or content. All he is interested in are the lovers when they are anguished; how they got there, is irrelevant it seems. Prevost’s original lovers are desperately trying to escape the norms and demands of the ancien regime: Des Grieux’s father wants him to become a priest, and doesn’t care if it would be utterly hypocritical of him. When Des Grieux refuses, the father uses lettres de cachet to imprison him. Prevost’s Manon is much lower in rank than Des Grieux and so unsuitable as far as the father is concerned, first seen in chains, being sent out of France as prisoner. In Massenet Manon is simply lower middle, without dowry, her brother is attempting to force her into a nunnery, but beyond that much of the original 18th century context is kept. In Prevost and Massenet, the two flee together; they are no paragons: he gambles to live, drinks, has had other women, and she deserts him more than for rich old man, but they do want to live lives true to their emotional realities and desires. They fall lower and lower, become thieves, crooks, in and out of trouble with the police, in Prevost finally ending in a desert in Louisiana, looking out on a meaningless horizon (the story is fideist), starved, exhausted, with her falling ill and dying. Massenet has a substitute setting in France for the last gouging into death.

Puccini cut all this out, and we begin with Manon as a beautifully innocent young woman, utterly stereotypical non-entity, Des Grieux, a chivalrous male student (anticipating La Boheme) who fall in love,

kristine-opolais-and-roberto-alagna

though her successful flight from her brother is engineered by Geronte (Brindley Sherratt), a vicious old man who turns up in the first scene (taking the place of Prevost’s father figure). In other words, Puccini robbed the characters of their content, context, complexity, their interest, leaving us with archetypes. The first scene of this production put me to sleep. Everyone was dressed in World War Two clothes and the soldiers were Nazis, but beyond that it looked and felt like some bland cheerful group of tourists at a cafe beneath museum steps.

Act1

Only Sherratt’s acting of a seething resentful old man and fine dark voice gave the scene any bite. If Puccini did this because the 19th century audience would not tolerate overt amorality, it didn’t work, as the program notes and wikipedia informed us the opera was thought scandalous and censored.

The production came alive in the second act. Genuinely funny in a self-reflexive way was Eyre’s original way of presenting a now rich and vulgar Manon and her brother, Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) as bored silly by the operatic songs and music of her aging and as we have felt mean, spiteful, (and as we discover) vengeful ancient lover-keeper, Geronte (Brindley Sherratt):

Presentan-la-Ópera-Manon-Lescautmocking

When Grieux rushes in and he and Manon become lovers once again,

ManonLescautAct2

only to be caught and threatened by said old man, the action on stage was compelling enough. There is even a suddenly evocative song between them. The stage seemed to me modeled on Lulu as there was again a long stairway down with a prison-like door out of which came first the old man, and then a group of Nazi officers who arrested Manon at the orders of her ex-protector. Maybe it was the same set with different accoutrements? (A penny saved is a penny got.) The furniture was all similarly tasteless vulgarly show-offy, though nowhere as graphic or meaningful as in Lulu (which had pictures to go with the setting). Christine Opolais’s dress evoked Marilyn Monroe on a particularly egregiously sexy day.

This use of sets to mirror the later 20th century continued in the third act and last scene. The prison looked like places where people are kept in solitary confinement, not gothic so much as places where senseless injustice is going on. (Welcome to the US or Egypt or a dozen or more other countries in the world, 2016.) Puccini’s Lescaut has tried to bribe a soldier to release Manon to Des Grieux and in this act the soldier fails to help them.

Prison

And at this point the opera moved into doing what it was there to do. Our lovers become desperately clinging anguished figures:

manonlescautloversbyprison

They did sing so movingly, and the music began to soar. I recognized in the second act and again here music I’ve heard before. Lescaut is shot (and looks like he is dying), Manon taken aboard a ship for the colonies with other women prisoners (prostitutes, poor women), with Des Grieux succeeding by begging to get the captain to let him come aboard. So now we are with refugees.

And then we are in our last scene, which appears to be a bombed out world. It looks like gigantic pillars of some iron building have fallen this way and that. There is a building still standing where all the glass has been shattered, and our lovers have to stumble their way up and down the columns. Here Des Grieux raises himself to cry out against what is happening (since the empty horizon and desert are gone it cannot be against some Godless wasteland)

emoting

He then runs off to find help. She thinks he has deserted her and Opolais’s acting and singing were unbearably despairing, plangent. I lost it and began to cry. And when he returned, we were set for our Romeo and Juliet close.

The reviews of the production have not been generous. Justin Davidson of the Vulture saw the sets as preposterous, making no sense and the second transposition from Puccini’s gutting to WW2 adding nothing. Anthony Tomassini of the New York Times came closer when he suggested the production was trying for a a noir twist. To be fair to Puccini, I found the Met HD Massenet Manon similarly misconceived. Both critics, though, made the same point that my daughter, Izzy, dwelt on as what made the opera finally an extraordinary experience despite the useless transposition, distracting sets, and simplification into shallowness:

The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

During one of the (long) intermissions, we were shown Eyre talking to Gelb, chief director at the Met (responsible for these HD broadcasts and central in choosing what’s produced at the Met and how). I gathered Eyre was aware that Puccini’s operatic story lacks any raison d’etre that makes sense, and he brought in the Nazi regime in order to give us some outward explanation for the scenes and make the opera relevant to day. Certainly today we see all around us flagrant injustice in the way prisons are run, mocking immorality, worship of luxury, indifference to suffering. The trouble is the content of the characters’ story has little to do with this as we experience it today. I take it the original error in Puccini’s concoction of several strung together scenes was to erase the ancien regime and romanticize, or sentimentalize the characters. What Puccini was moving towards was a realization of his masterpiece La Boheme, and he did that in the following year.

The experience though determined me to be sure and get my tickets for Madame Butterfly, the Met’s next production, exchanged for the re-airing of the HD-film later on a weekday night. I will be away the day Madame Butterfly is broadcast and would like not to miss this pair of effective actors and singers get together once again. I can’t find a still of him acting on the floor, crawling around, letting go utterly, but there is one of her at such a moment:

Manon-LescautOpolais

Ellen

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Alan-Rickmancloseup
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:

AntonyCleopatraMirrenRickmannotcostume

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):

TheInterview

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

Michael-Collins-Alan-as-Eamon-De-Valera-alan-rickman

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

ReadingAloudtoMarianne
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:

Truly-Madly-DeeplyRickman
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)

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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.

movie-review-film-Kajaki-Henry-Fitzherbert

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.

castposing
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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Ashe
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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