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Anton and Olga
I’m reading a most divine compilation of correspondence between Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper called Dear Writer, Dear Actress.
They are such sweethearts, Anton and Olga. They spend much time reproaching each other for not writing often enough, long enough letters, or for writing about the wrong things. But ay ay, with such tenderness, such passion, such wit! Dear me, did those pre-technology folks know how to write letters. And, it has to be said, the 19th century European postal service appears to have been both more reliable and swifter than our modern-day Royal Mail (who would have thought?).
Heartless, savage woman, a century has passed without a letter from you. What does it mean? Now my letters are being sent to me properly and if I don’t get them the only one responsible, my faithless one, is you….
Anton, darling, dearest, why the sad letter, the despondency? Why the rust in the heart? … Throw of the gloom, my dove, my darling. Do you love me? … You ask about the play? What nonsense to think of failure! God help you! The play is terribly interesting to see. We haven’t been through it all yet. Everything is going well for all of us, only Meyerhold lacks joie de vivre and Sanin still hasn’t found the tone….
Darling little actress mine, exploitress of my heart, why send me a telegram? It would be better to wire about something yourself than for such silly reasons. How is Three Sisters? Judging by your letters you’re all spreading utter and complete nonsense. … Be healthy, sweetheart, my dear despondent actress, don’t forget me, love me just a little, even a penny-worth…
And so Knipper is rehearsing Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters while Chekhov is penning away at The Cherry Orchard. And while the letters do give some insight into the work at the Moscow Art Theatre and of the writing process of Chekhov, I think for the sake of focus, much has been omitted. And it is all the better for it. Knipper, herself full of joie de vivre, is impulsive, passionate and changeable in moods. Her writing, notes the editor, assumes the style of the character she is playing and is, during the rehearsals of Three Sisters, Marsha-like (And look how cute she is! And she dances the mazurka with Stanislavski til 7 in the morning!). She meets the more serious-minded Chekhov in 1898, as the MAT is formed. The tragedy of their story (and the reason there are so many letters) is that they are separated for much of their short time together. Chekhov is required to live in Yalta, or travel the continent, due to his poor health and Knipper is committed to the stage. They are dear friends and lovers before marrying in 1901, on the condition that everything must be as it was, i.e. she must live in Moscow and I in the country and I’ll go visit her. I can’t bear happiness that continues either from day to day or from morning to morning (My sentiment exactly). Chekhov dies in 1904, Knipper in 1959.
This has been a most spectacular week, theatre-wise. Starting at the Barbican, Nevermore – the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe was just pure magic. Ok, I am bias here. I am a sucker for musical theatre, especially the dark, unhappy kind. And that, my friend, is something that does not come along very often so this was a real treat. With Poe’s own words “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream” guiding the aesthetic direction, Nevermore is the life (and dreams) of Edgar Allan Poe told like a gothic puppet show reminiscing Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket, containing more death and calamity than your average Greek tragedy (it has to be admitted; I pulled a cardigan over my head more than once). Poe himself is slightly one-dimensional but I think there is a point in that. Being more about telling than showing, it is the music that is the star of the show and the Poesque verse is both witty and harrowing.
Moving on now to Hampstead Theatre and Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Sigh, what to say? I get that it must be very tempting to do classics in modern dress these days and camouflage, machine guns, sand and oil appears to be the favoured choice (as if it was common duty to draw Iraqi parallels wherever possible). And with no taboos these days restricting the action, nakedness and sex on stage is more rule than exception. Now, while as a general idea this is getting a bit drab, it does quite often work well or possibly less well. In the case of Salome it just did not work at all. While it fits the basic (Biblical) story, Wilde’s Salome is pure poetry, evocative and sensual. This production is in-your-face and aggressive rather than suggestive, and Wilde’s lines are completely corrupted in orgiastic tomfoolery and masturbatory frenzy. But hey, it gets a point for trying.
Carbón Club, part of the National’s Watch This Space Festival, wins the prize for most excellent catholic imagery with its priest walking through the audience carrying a burning bible. Me like. And the show was jam-packed with these ingenious tricks of fire, explosions and what not. Full-on action performed very intimately, making the audience duck under everything from blowtorches to champagne showers. Now, while this is all very well I have to say, as a cabaret, the song and dance acts did just not come together all that well. Lots of poignant points (mining accidents, rape and lost love) were unevenly balanced by repeated jokes. One wish that less energy had been spent on special effects and more on the real extravaganza which, in comparison, costs no money. Nonetheless, new and interesting and so great to be outside and do something a little bit unusual.
Here my friend, are some gorgeous Salomes…(and not a Beardsley in sight, I’m sorry to say but I do find him tiresome.)
(Corinth; von Stuck; Strathman; Dessau-Gottein)
Did you see the Brits totally rule at the Tony Awards yesterday? Red, my personal favourite, did extremely well. Someone (Liz Koops?) was saying how the Broadway audience are very particular, quite sentimental and takes everything literally (when talking about why West End hit Enron closed after only two weeks on Broadway. I think if I for one second took Enron at face value I would find it dreadful.) so I can see the appeal with a play like Red. But the great irony in this is of course that even though it is witty and sentimental, the type of people whom – I can imagine – are celebrating it at the Tonys, are made fun of in the play. How right Charles Spencer was back in December when he wrote in his review that “Red will almost certainly become a snob hit among the chattering classes, who will then go on to patronise the kind of swanky restaurant Rothko despised and discuss the play over the starters” (The Telegraph).
‘Of course you like it – how can you not like it?! Everyone likes everything nowadays. They like the television and the phonograph and the soda pop and the schampoo and the Crakcer Jack. Everything becomes everything else and it’s all nice and pretty and likable. Everrything is fun in the sun! Where’s the discernment? Where’s the arbitration that seperates what i like from what I respect, what I deem worthy, what has…listen to me now…signifigance.’ (Red, John Logan)
This time it makes perfect sense why two critics’ views of a show are miles apart. You remember Phedré getting one respectively five stars from the Independent and the Guardian? This time it is The Telegraph who thinks Mother Courage and Her Children, currently running at the National Theatre, is worth one star while over at the Guardian it has been rewarded with four. Charles Spencer calls it one of the most embarrassing spectacles I have ever seen in a theatre, a desperate ploy to make Brecht, the discredited old Marxist, seem relevant and modern while Michael Billington thinks it’s one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. As another Guardian writer points out; As a rule, the more Conservative the newspaper, the less its critic likes Mother Courage.
Without getting overtly in to my political views here; I am very, very fond of my Brecht. This three hour spectacle was not embarrassing at all; most of it was actually quite enjoyable.
Fiona Shaw gives her all as Mother Courage, scampering around the stage like a gypsy-cum-rock star and is noticeably exhausted in the end. Her hard-headiness and sharp-witted nature makes her a charismatic and principally likeable character. But as Brecht pits war against morality, her capitalistically driven business-sense, that not only allows her to endure the 30 Year War but also to profit from it, has fatal consequences as she loses each of her three children. There is in Mother Courage (both the character and the play as a whole) a gradual build-up of a deeply emotional dimension, which I have to say I found lacking in this production. You could argue that Brecht favoured Intelligent Thinking over Emotive Feeling but in fact he was of the opinion that the two cannot be divided. His call for an epic theatre was based on the view that it was not enough to incite emotion in the audience; those feelings also had to be examined.
So with Brecht you get a bit of a disjointed narrative, stage directions read out loud (in this case by Gore Vidal. You know, I really thought he had kicked the bucket a long time ago but apparently he is still going strong.), dressers and costume changes on-stage, musicians and random song outbursts (this role is given almost entirely to Duke Special which I think explains the hordes of screaming teenagers). Director Deborah Warner has been more than faithful to Brecht’s intentions. A barn is a barn, not because it looks like a barn but because there is a sign that tells you it is a barn, that kind of thing. But all those distancing effects need to be balanced by an engagement of the heart as well as the mind. It gets a bit like with Moulin Rouge. It’s loud (extremely loud), confident and showy and while you’re watching it does feels really impressive. But afterwards you leave feeling surprisingly unaffected with only some stupid song stuck to your brain. Nonetheless, even though Mother Courage is not all there, Brecht sure is and somehow that is more than enough.
Ok, so I can tick Phédre off my wish-to-see-list. I am not too sure what I think about this. Mediocre maybe. I don’t really care to elaborate as I haven’t even read the play. I knew the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus but am not familiar with Racine’s version. I can say, however, that Dominic Cooper has stepped up a few notches since Mamma Mia but is still not quite the Greek Tragic Hero I had hoped for. As for Helen Mirren…not too impressed to honest. I am terribly pleased to have seen her; she has great stage presence and is very charismatic. But I thought her character Phédre was ill-defined and couldn’t work out if it was played for laughs or tears. I know she is somewhat of a British Untouchable and this feels almost blasphemous to say, but there was also something that distracted me in her appearance. She is gorgeous for sure and I’m not quite sure what it was exactly. Maybe her nose. Yes, most definitely her nose. Hmm, I sound really negative when I don’t mean too (just a little bit). It wasn’t bad at all, the ending in particular was good, and not merely because it was the ending but because of all the dying and blood and that. But I wanted it to rip my heart out and it didn’t. It barely moved it.
To be fair, I think I was also most unlucky with the audience. A lot of times you here actors say how much a performance can differ from night to night, being either extremely cheerful or very serious. Last night was certainly the former. I agree, some bits are funny, but the people behind me were chuckling away at every single line. I am really not exaggerating. Maybe they were high. Oh, and the great irony was that of course the whole company of queuers from the morning dispute were seated next to each other on the front row. Ha! Now, if we don’t have ancient gods to play with our destiny anymore, at least we have the National’s ticketing system.
Some velvet morning when I’m straight, I’m gonna open up your gate and maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra..
I have left it to the very last minute but tonight I am finally going to see Helen Mirren in Phédre at the National Theatre. The last performance in London is tomorrow before they go on a world tour. I am very perplexed by the fact that Michael Billington at the Guardian has given the production five out of five possible stars while Michael Coveney at the Independent only thought it was worth one. That it has gotten very mixed reviews I knew, but this is quite ridiculous. Admittedly, Billington is reviewing the broadcasted performance that the NT screened a while ago at cinemas around the country, but still, have they seen the same play one has to wonder? Anyway, a little disagreement is always entertaining.
As I was reminded of this morning when queuing up outside the National for the tickets. The ‘amateur-queuers’ were austerely informed by the more experienced ones, who had been ‘doing this a millions times,’ that their queuing was quite unordely and most intolerable. People have apparently been lynched for less. This became even more amusing when the pride that English people take in being quite superior in the fine art of queuing was being hurt. As an American gentleman remarked that this sort of thing never happens in New York, we were all quite assured by the self-acclaimed queuing-queen that normally ‘neither does it in London.’ Of course, as often is the case, both sides had their fair point, but the way people get worked up about things is just hilarious.
Here is a painting I like of Hippolytos (who is being played by Dominic Cooper, that lame boyfriend in Mamma Mia, hopefully a bit more manned up for this role) being dragged to death behind his chariot.
The Death of Hippolytos (1860) by Sir Alma-Tadema.
Two days to go to A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar and I’m watching the 1951’s film which NY Times’ Arts Beat are discussing this week. All this talk of Marlon Brando and method acting and its perils reminds me of something I read in a Gielgud biography about Vivien Leigh, who I think used much more classic acting techniques, but who still was considerably affected by playing the role of Blanche. She hesitated at accepting the role as she was already mentally unstable and feared the role would drain her emotionally but was more or less talked into doing so. My point being, I don’t think it has so much to do with the acting method per se, rather the circumstances of life in which a demanding role can be damaging to your psyche. But then again, I’m no actor.
There is another high-profile Streetcar opening soon in Sydney. It is somewhat surprisingly Liv Ullman who is directing with Cate Blanchett starring as Blanche. At the moment it looks like there are only plans to tour the U.S but one can always pray it will eventually come to London. Wouldn’t that be something.
I went to a wedding on Wednesday. Technically, not a real wedding but a theatre wedding. Blood Wedding to be more precise. I’m in general quite sceptic towards this Lorca-play, mostly because of the one scene in the woods where three woodcutters, who appears to be under some kind of hallucinatory influence, are followed by a talking Moon and a Beggar Woman who is not to be mentioned in the cast-list. I’m very suspicious towards this kind of hocus-pocus in the middle of an otherwise realistic play.
For a classic playwright like Lorca to be played at Southwark Playhouse, you know to expect a re-invention of some sort. The usual grandstand was gone and instead there was a pell-mell collection of chairs spread out across the room. We were not the usual audience either, we were the wedding guests. Equipped with wedding programmes, we were invited to join in the action, encouraged to both sing and dance. I’m very fond of meta-theatrical concepts like this, bridging the gap between the stage and the audience, and I’m also a big fan of sing-along on all sorts of occasions; karaoke, church singing, football chanting and drinking songs. It’s the only time you can get away with not knowing the words and/or singing off key. Partly because most people are not very good at singing either and partly because the important thing is not how it sounds but that you participate. So for me it worked. Unfortunately for the actors, who had a decent amount of singing to do on their own, it did not. Lorca put a lot of poetry into Blood Wedding, not an awful lot came out of it that night. It was all submerged in confused/confusing accents, high-pitched wailing and hooded costumes.
What did work however, was the move from a rather primitive setting to present time (motor bikes instead of horses, scrap yard instead of vineyard etc) and the emphasis on knife-crime. I never thought of Blood Wedding in that sense but of course, Lorca was quite the pacifist, was he not? These last lines did come through, thank god, it’s so beautiful:
With a little knife
that hardly fits into the hand;
but which neatly enters
the astonished flesh
and stops at the place
where lies trembling, enmeshed
the dark root of the scream
Tonight; England People Very Nice at the National, for which I queued up for at 8 o’clock this morning. As the weather is wonderful today it was rather pleasant, even if bloody early. And I did get terrific seats for £10 each. Have to do this more often, am terribly fed up with high altitudes. Nobody puts baby in the corner.
And speaking of the Donmar, I saw A Doll’s House there the other night and am now seriously considering to go and see it again. Not because it was superb or mind-blowing or anything extraordinary; it was good, no more, no less. But what struck me as as I was watching it, was how timely this new version of the play arrived onto the London stage. The setting is moved to early 20th century London and the bank is replaced by the British Cabinet, raising the stakes considerably when it comes to the characters of Torvald and Krogstad (or Thomas and Kelman as they have been re-named). This new story coincides so extremely well with these recent expenses scandals surrounding the MP’s that the whole thing seemed rather like a parody of current ministerial fuck-ups. I don’t know how else to explain why people laughed at such heart-wrenching moments like when Nora is told the children will take after her moral baseness. It’ just not on. Although, much of my annoyance with the adaptation was probably aimed more at myself over the fact that I couldn’t really point out when or how much the dialogue deviated from the original. So now I have a copy of Zinnie Harris’ play script to compare with Ibsen’s (geek-warning here, but to my defense it has to do with my dissertation. I think. ).
I had been a little scared about having Nora played by Gillian Anderson, as I thought I would (at the best) sit through most of the performance, hyperventilating, thinking ‘it’s Scully, it’s Scully, it’s Scully’. Unfounded fears it turns out as she was absolutely brilliant and I did not think Scully for one second, not even Gillian Anderson, only N o r a. I guess that’s why they call it acting.
I had similar doubts about Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot. Also unnecessary it turns out for two reasons; firstly, I was sitting so far away I could barely make out who was who anyway. Secondly, thinking ‘it’s Gandalf, it’s Gandalf’ was kind of the only thing that I could focus on as the whole Beckett experience had been lost along the way of production. Perhaps somewhere in the process of making flashy websites and pulling mainstream audience with the promise of the two X-men actors on stage together. I’m not saying it was bad acting, it was just bad Beckett.
Anyway, this was how pretty Thomas and Nora Vaughan looked. Velvet and mesh..me like.
Toby Stephen and Gillian Anderson in A Doll’s House (picture from BBC).
Southwark Playhouse; love it.
It is a little bit tricky to locate, but a real treasure once you find it. Epitomizing independent fringe theatre, it is truly original both in its location and repertoire. It is the only theatre that I actually want to live in and a shame that they are moving to Elephant & Castle. Currently it is located underneath Hell-On-Earth aka London Bridge’s Platform 1. Inside the railway vault the brickwork and murky air makes my imagination run unusually romantic and it feels a little bit like being part of a revolting underground culture movement á la Swing Kids. The bar is a wicked place to be; they have a real confession booth standing in a corner, need I say more? So, great venue, great atmosphere but what about the show?
About Tommy is a Danish play (Om Tommy) by Thor Björn Krebs, which together with Europamestrene in 2004 gave him a double nomination for Årets Reumert as Best Playwright. It tells the story of Tommy who is a Danish UN-soldier placed at the centre of violent conflicts during the war in the Balkans in the 1990’s. The absurdity of war is exposed as the regulations of the UN Protection Force limits the soldiers to do little else but to observe the brutality of human evil. The cast impressed as several roles were split between a trio of two men and one woman. Tommy’s psychological development is given from the beginning, in the same way that it is in most recent war films, but a captivating performance makes it nonetheless engaging to follow. Tommy’s parents are made up by two dolls with pre-recorded performances projected onto their heads, which I thought was quite clever. It formed an illusionary view of that which is us; the people at home who can never come close to understand what war is like, making Tommy’s experience so much more real and affecting. The parents aside, I felt there was an excess of technology used on the stage. Call me old-fashion but I strongly object to the television screens planted randomly all over the set and Tommy’s video projections on the sand-bag wall. Maybe it helps create a documentary feeling, as the play is based on interviews and documents from the war, but I only found it distracting and annoying for my eyes. I don’t know, maybe I need glasses.
The effect of About Tommy is that you become painfully aware of the enormous breach between our ordinary, everyday secure lives and the terror and inhumanity of war, which I reduce to a Sky News feature, but is in fact other people’s reality. And even though this is nothing new, there is a constant need to be reminded. The paradox created by UN’s need to stay neutral also feels suitably current as the ongoing UN Racism conference is turning into complete shambles.
Running next at the Southwark Playhouse is The Exquisite Corpse, and it sounds well exciting.
You know that Friends episode where Joey throws a secret party for the days-of-our-lives-cast and gives everyone tickets to a play to get them out of the way but then everyone finds out and goes to the party except for Chandler who is at the theatre all by himself and it turns out to be this one-woman-play with a very bitter and intimidating woman that goes “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ME?! Chapter One: My first period.”
Well, it was something like that I imagined The Vagina Monologues would be like, which is why I have never attempted to go and see it. I was scared.
The Vagina Monologues has been around for a decade now, Eva Ensler started conducting interviews with women on their thoughts on sex, their bodies, relationships etc. which resulted in a play celebrating female sexuality and the vagina. Ensler went on to create V-Day which is a global movement to end violence against women. If I understood it right it is not on a specific day but the campaign runs throughout the months of February and March. All over the world campaigners organises benefit events, usually involving productions of The Vagina Monologues.
So every year around this time there is a student production of the play at my university. Ticket prices were £3.50, the stage was next to the union bar and they sold vagina cookies so I couldn’t really say no, could I?. Turns out I had nothing to be afraid of. True, some parts were very intense and if I had been alone on the first row like Chandler, I would probably have been a bit uncomfortable. And shouting cunt repeatedly together with people you don’t know is….well awkward. But it was very entertaining and moving (the monologues are addressing everything from orgasm, child birth, gynaecologists, dominatrix, rape, genital mutilation etc.). It did contain very visual descriptions and some images have engraved themselves in my memory. Like Burt Reynolds standing knee-deep in ‘the flood’ watching Dean Martin swimming by in a tuxedo…hmm.
“Scholars Discover 23 Blank Pages That May As Well Be Lost Samuel Beckett Play”
This article from The Onion – Americas Finest Newresource is quite old but it always makes me laugh out load. That Beckett frustrates me a little bit could be the understatement of the year, and I could probably make more sense out of 23 blank pages than I can of Waiting for Godot. Hopefully, seeing it staged will ease my confusion a little bit so I have booked tickets to go and see the play in April. Thinking about it, it is quite probable that it has the opposite effect. But never mind, to be honest, the main reason I wanted to go was to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen…can’t wait!
Picture from the Telegraph
Feste (Zubin Varla), Olivia (Indira Varma) and Malvolio (Derek Jacobi)
Last night I went to see Twelfth Night at the Wyndham’s Theatre. I bought the tickets ages ago so I was well excited when the day finally arrived. My Shakespeare professor has urged us time and time again to go and see it and the reviews have celebrated the production so expectations were high.
Something else that was high were our seats, as high up as you get on the top row, and although it was much more comfortable and spacious than the regular Donmar theatre, I actually got a bit dizzy. I don’t really mind being far away from the stage but the vertical angle made it difficult to see the full facial expression of the actors. But then again, beggars can’t be choosers and Wyndham is truly beautiful no matter where you sit; I love the vulgarity of old-fashion theatres. All in all, I thought it was a really good show. The set was very simple and pleasant; I especially liked the wooden floorboards and blinds as the back-drop. The acting was superb, as were the casting choices of Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew whose scenes together were absolutely brilliant. The proclaimed star of the show, Derek Jacobi as Malvolio left me feeling a bit confused. He starts of wonderfully sarcastic and his first line ‘yeees’ is ace. The amount of laughter he aroused in the audience was fantastic but then I felt like it went down-hill (or at least not in the direction I wanted it to go). Maybe I would have thought it more amazing if I had known who Derek Jacobi was. I have understood that I should be lucky to be able to see him do Shakespeare on stage as he is somewhat of a living legend (I always found that paradoxical, isn’t the whole point with being a legend that you are dead?). However, until yesterday I had confused Derek Jacobi with Derek Jarman, thinking they were the same person. How very wrong; Jarman made punk films and Jacobi is that good guy who helps Russell Crowe out in Gladiator. But still, with Malvolio, I think I was expecting a more subtle and less farcical performance and I did definitely expect a more heartbreaking ending, which I suppose has less to do with the acting and more with Grandage’s direction. I know Twelfth Night is a comedy but there are also so many more serious issues that were never really explored. I was waiting for the moment when laughs would get stuck in throats and sympathy would replace scorn in the audience, but it never came.
I will return to Wyndham’s in April for Madame de Sade with Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike and I will try not to build up any unrealistic hopes or expectations (But OMG I just know it is going to be absolutely amazing).