Sunday, 30 May 2010

Penderecki's Paradise Lost in Wrocław

My initial impetus for going to Wrocław was the coincidence that of finding that a Polish friend I'd lost and regained touch with was now living back there (I knew him previously in London) only a day or two of noticing that there was a rare performance of Penderecki's Paradise Lost at the opera house there. A trip to see my friend and this rarity proved irresistible.

The Wrocław opera are based in a good old traditional 19th century opera house with a prettily (some might think too prettily) decorated interior. The repertoire is mostly the staples (Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Carmen) mixed with some more local favourites, for example The Haunted Manor and Król Roger; Penderecki is a Polish composer – perhaps the best known living one – but the inclusion of his relatively obscure 1978 setting of Milton's epic poem is an act of some bravery on their part. The Sunday afternoon performance I attended was about two thirds full, and the audience didn't feel particularly enthusiastic. Like a lot of people (I suppose), I was made aware of Penderecki's music by its inclusion on the soundtrack to The Shining; he had a fierce avant-garde reputation in the 1950s and 60s but since the 1980s he has taken a more conservative route which he refers to as him having "come to a point where it appears most creative to turn back and open the door we have shut behind us".  Paradise Lost is mid-period Penderecki and its sonorous, deep and gloomy music is well fitted to setting a text based on a work by the author of At a Solemn Music.

This is the second theatrical adaptation of Paradise Lost I have seen, after Rupert Gould's production of Ben Power's version for Headlong. Despite having being a relatively dialogic epic poem, whose writer made his own contribution to the Jacobean theatre scene with the masque Comus, Paradise Lost usually proves tricky to make dramatic.  Its scope is enormous, and its structure – whizzing from the fallen angels in hell through flashbacks to their rebellion in heaven onwards to the temptation of Adam and Eve and then flash-forwards to later events in Biblical history, there's too much there for a single play. Christopher Fry wrote the libretto for Penderecki and does a decent job of getting it down to a manageable two and a half hours but loses the battle in Heaven, which is one of the most dramatic sections of the poem. He brings Milton on stage at the beginning and at intervals throughout, to introduce and narrate the action; this is strong, as it suggests that what we are seeing are the visions of a bard, the performance our visionary experience. The Wrocław production began well, with Penderecki's music brooding over a dark stage, with the figure of blind Milton being led by a dogged boy gradually becoming clear as the lights rose – us being introduced to our own temporary form. Milton's part is spoken and has the great effect of an incantation.

In Fry's rearrangement of the material, Milton/we first see a moping Adam and Eve in postlapsarian guilt and despair over the loss of Eden. We then meet the hordes of hell, and witness the council at which the devils discuss how to deal with their fall. This structure works well and preserves a strength of the poem, wherein one gets the feeling of having backdrops lifted to show what lies behind each thing we encounter. The devils at Wrocław were dressed as a cross between Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings orcs and Clive Barker's Hellraiser team of Cenobites. This was a fairly straightforward visual imagining of the poem with devils looking ugly and devlish and angels looking pure and angelic. As these are poetic figurations, this didn't prevent me as an audience member reading them as signs but sometimes it did seem a bit obvious as a choice, even a little ludicrous at times – when the devils did a demon dance near the beginning, it looked a little like a geriatric version of the zombie routine from the Thriller video.

Satan is always going to be the focus of interest in Paradise Lost, as despite being the theologically the antagonist, dramatically he is the protagonist – goal orientated and driven in a way that none of the other characters are. In Wrocław he is dressed in leather trousers and cuts a half-attractive, half-campy figure. Piotr Nowacki sung him with an impressive authority but did a little too much swishing of his long leather coat, suggesting that this when he states it is "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven" I got the feeling he was going to be the Queen rather than the King. He had great moments though, best of all when he lurks and lingers voyeuristically observing the happy couple in Eden, a malcontent singleton who disses partnership whilst burning in the hell of lacking one. Whatever my qualms about the design and performance, Satan is the most energetic and compelling presence on stage; Adam and Eve begin as whiners and for most of the time either stay doing that or stay dull under God's law. Eve's giving in to temptation feels like the best decision she ever made, and Adam's best moment is when he takes the plunge himself, more committed to a life with the wife he loves that obedience to the laws of the God who made him.

Fry's best decision in the libretto is having two sets of performers as Adam and Eve – two singers, for the disquisitive  sections and two dancers for the action. The Adam dancer – sturdy Sergei Oberemok (who really does look the part of the Human Form Divine) – brilliantly expressed Adam's birth pangs in a coming to being more reminiscent of a Frankenstein movie than a Bible tale. Later, the two dancers perform a fairly raunchy consummation of their marriage – Milton was certainly the greatest poet of married love the world has known and here his words take a physical form which manages that most difficult of tasks for contemporary artists, to make marriage an erotic activity. A dance with anthropomorphic animals as Adam names them (as in one of Dylan's quirkiest Christian-period numbers) was less successful, being somewhat reminiscent of that long and best forgotten West End musical flop Children of Eden.

Eden in the Wrocław PL is a dubious place. The walls are plain and the angels walk around entirely dressed in white, as if this were some sinister private mental institution or science lab with Adam and Eve the inmates/subjects of experiment. God is never seen but spoken in an amplified voice; as his speeches are accompanied by a large ball hanging over Adam's head, there's something of The Prisoner about Adam's predicament. William Empson argued that Milton's God was a prediction of Stalin and this makes the production and story very relevant indeed for post-socialist Poland; the population has been tempted to escape from the prison-Eden of the Soviet era but the world waiting for them is one of toil and blood. It is ironic, given how antithetical to communism the Catholic church is, how close the God of creation in Milton (and, indeed, Genesis) is to a Stalinist authoritarian. In this reading, Satan would be the temptations of neoliberalism, promising freedom but providing struggle, wars, pestilence and pain.

Later in the libretto, as Michael shows Adam mankind's future, Fry calls for "A series of static and moving images from the beginning of time to the present, of man's physical and mental affliction." The projections were dispensed with by director Waldemar Zawodziński; a mime/dance in which nearly-naked extras stepped out of a pen with an iron-door to drop dead one by one was substituted; this had chilling resonances with the death camps, the most notorious and murderous of which are of course in Poland. What Michael presents to Adam as humanity's future is our terrifying recent past and potential present.

The final section of the opera is dramatically under-played and the performance ends on a tentative note. This is a little underwhelming but I can't quite make out whether it is a failing or a deliberate subversion of our expectations for climax and resolution. Penderecki didn't quite describe Paradise Lost as an opera, rather as sacra rappresentazione, a cross between opera and oratorio. At Wrocław, the chorus are offstage, on either side of the auditorium on the edges of the first circle, reminiscent of a church choir. Thus this performance of Penderecki's work attempts to abolish the differentiation between church-going and theatre-going, which is promising in the light of Blake's "What is a Church & What Is a Theatre? are they Two & not One? can they Exist Separate?" If theatres becoming churches meant the performance of ideologically leading works which disallow mental fight then this would be a bad thing but given that Penderecki's Paradise Lost points the way towards a deeply questioning and ambiguous spiritual tale, I found something in the performance deeply inspiring. The opera has all the virtues of Milton and all of his problematics (not least Messias, who in Zawodziński's mise-en-scene is a static marble-like figure in white, eerily reminding me of Syberberg's conception of Amfortas in his Parsifal film). The congregation/audience are presented with such thorny imagery and such a difficult and unfinished story and this makes Paradise Lost, for all the classical, Christian and conservative associations that Milton/Penderecki/Fry might suggest as a trio, a radical experience and not at all mere preaching or cant.

It hope that the opera becomes better known, as it does present us with what is still one of the fundamental stories of our civilisation in a way which expresses all its inspiring difficulties and sets them to music which is deep, dark, expressive and, whilst overly homogeneous for some tastes in the orchestrations, varied and fluent in its use of many voices, from speaking roles to counter-tenors and boy choirs.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Wrocław, part two: Baroque Panoramic History

The people of Wrocław were worried about floods this weekend. There had been heavy rainfall for many days preceding my arrival and the banks of the Oder river were almost overflowing, with the river running far faster than its normal speed. There was serious flooding in the area in 1999 and seeing as little work has been done on flood defences since then, the population were worried that a repeat was going to come. They, and I with them, were lucky – there was little rainfall over the weekend (it was very sunny at some times) and so - apart from a few unfortunate incidents where the river flooded housing which had, in three little piggies style, been built on inappropriate low-level land - we were spared a thoroughgoing emergency. On one occasion, just after a visit to the University, my friend and I were in a cafe when the electricity supply was cut off, but this did not last for too long. It was lucky for us that this hadn't happened an hour earlier, as we soon discovered that the University we'd just enjoyed was now shut due to the power failure.

The University of Wrocław is one of the major attractions of the city. Its main hall, the Aula Leopoldina, is a Baroque monstrosity, one of the most consistent and gaudy examples of that period in the area. The platform is capped with a faux-marble statue of the Emperor Leopold I, the stony monarch flanked by his "friends" Prudence and Providence and spurning his enemies Discord and Stupidity at his feet; students nowadays might take a warning from the personification of these fiends, a wild young woman with tousled hair and a youth with donkey's ears. Above Leopold a painting continues the scene, showing The Mother of God with Child sending Wisdom, in the care of various Saints, down to the Emperor, who has supported this University so that this wisdom gets taught to men. An equally explicit allegorical painting decorates the choir balcony at the back of the room. Allegory is an inferior art, forcing metaphor into ideological shape and indoctrinating the mind to accept the identification of abstract ideals with temporal forms of state power. Despite my distaste for this galumphing form, the Aula Leopoldina is well worth the visit, for its ornate decoration is admittedly impressive and seeing the folly of allegory encourages the viewer to identify its ideological sins. 

Next to the University and attached to it is another Baroque masterpiece, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. Here the decorations positively clamour for your attention, each battling for your eye against the other and so making focus difficult. The (rather good) audio guide suggests that the church is so ornate in order to show off and attract believers in what was, at the time of its building (by the Jesuits) a Reformed City. Although there is an aesthetic appreciation I can have for Baroque decoration – it is lively and lavish if you're in the mood – I can never identify it with spiritual thought; if you think of the religious epics of Cecil B DeMille (perhaps cinema's greatest Baroque genius), the last thing that comes to mind on viewing them is serious thoughts of God. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste. I got to like the tall, Romanesque interiors of the many other churches in the city, which were fairly uncrowded and which direct the mind to contemplations of airy expansiveness. Unfortunately the worshippers in these tall churches were, as is the religious Christian wont, bent downwards in prayer rather than looking upwards for inspiration; I read somewhere that Jean Genet despised the supplicant physical attitude of Christians in prayer and I share his distaste. I couldn't love a God who wished for bowing and scraping; as Blake has it,  such a God "is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing Else." In St Barbara's Church there is a set of statues involving a preaching form (perhaps an Apostle) done up like a Grecian noble, flanked by other aristocrats; holding him aloft are two solid soldierly types; holding them up and groaning under the weight is a Polish peasant – if the worshippers were to think about the meaning of this display rather than pray to Nobodaddy, they'd be closer to the Truth than prayer can bring them.

A strange mystery in University Musiquarium and church involves the organs in each; both are decorated by an enormous Pyramid with Eye, suggesting that the University has at some point been an Illuminati or Masonic hive. No explanation is given for these is any of the books or audio guides I saw or heard, but never have I seen Masonic symbolism so audaciously displayed...

Two sites visited on my final day in Wrocław are worth mentioning. The Racławice Panorama is an enormous painting, housed in a specially built rotunda, which celebrates the battle in 1794 in which Polish "insurgents" (that word makes a positive here) beat the Russian forces. The painting is impressive and the perspective and extra-mural effects really do place you in the midst of things. The audio guide is intensely Nationalistic, and even when the narrator is forced to admit that the battle was won but the revolt against Russian rule was a failure, we are told that the victory and this painted scene inspire those who came and come after in the fight for Polish independence. Wide-eyed children were being shipped in groups to see the Panorama whilst I was there, another generation of Poles egged-on to Nationalistic pride; it certainly was the kind of scene you wouldn't see in England (thank Heavens).

The second site was the 19th century White Stork synagogue, which somehow managed to survive Kristallnacht and which has now been restored to its former glory. The interior is impressive and spacious; the upper floors are dedicated to an exhibition telling the history of the Jews of Wrocław and Lower Silesia. On occasions they thrived in the city, although persecutions were numerous; our old friend Bishop Nanker (see previous blog) presided over an expulsion, and of the 22,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the Reich, only 30 survived the Holocaust. The communist era was not free of persecutions either, and most of the Silesian Jews who survived the war found themselves driven out of Poland into Israel. The lack of divergent ethnicities was perhaps the strangest thing for me, a Londoner through and through who is so used to many colours and creeds around him that the lack of them seems somehow wrong.

I very much enjoyed my time in Wrocław. I was blessed with an excellent host and guide who taught me much about the city. It is small enough to walk around without having to use public transport (although whenever a city is small like this, the city makes demands on the feet!). There's nothing like immersing oneself in a centuries-old city for broadening one's knowledge of the distant and near past. Even better was the chance to see Poles in their native clime, having previously only met them in mine. The contradictions, blessings and conflicts of European union now feel clearer to me than they were before the visit. If you get a chance to go to Wrocław, take it. An excellent book on the city is available in paperback from The Meeting Point, the tourist information centre in the town square, which itself preserves a medieval town hall and pillory.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wrocław, part one: Infested churches

I’ve been spending a few days in the Polish city of Wrocław, visiting a friend and cramming in some sightseeing and opera-going. I say Polish city, but in reality the city is a challenge to the idea of National identity. As a major city in Silesia, it was a German city (Breslau) until the late 1940s, when the Potsdam conference gave the region to the Poles. The Germans were ethnically cleansed from the area and a Polish population replaced them; the vast majority of the people who live in the city now only have roots in the region going back a generation or two. What this does to the idea of National identity, of being Polish because one comes from Poland for example, is quite surreal and shows that identity is certainly more about language and culture than place. 

The Polish presence in Wrocław is the latest in a changing line of occupancy of the city, which as well as German has also involved Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian rule. This has had great visual impact on the city, leaving it an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from the Gothic to the Baroque, the modernist to a low of sour Soviet-era tower blocks and apartments; there is even a German Nazi-era building, a long and imposing neo-classical edifice now used as the local Parliament.
The main thing is Churches – there are dozens of them, many of enormous and imposing size. The city’s centrepiece is the so-called Cathedral island, on which is a convocation of the twin-towered Cathedral of St John the Baptist and a number of other churches, from the small Romanesque St Giles’ to the blackened Gothic edifice Church of the Holy Cross. The Cathedral is also Gothic, with some unhappily stuck-on Baroque additions, which look like such poor grafting that they reminded me more of parasites clinging to a host than careful cosmetic alterations. One of them, the large St Elizabeth’s chapel, houses the tomb of a wealthy landowner and is one of the least happy (at least architecturally, from the outside) Cathedral tributes to a patron I have seen (the Chapel itself is not open to the public, being cordoned off with at least half of the rest of the building). There is some beautifully restored stained glass but as this covers all of the windows, the light is restricted and the Cathedral is a gloomy, oppressive interior. A stone carving on a column to the right as one enters the door shows a certain Bishop Nanker, who was responsible for building the Cathedral, anathemizing King John of Luxembourg; it is no surprise to see this assertion of church power in so prominent a place in Wrocław cathedral, as the city and its Churches affirmed to me that the church remains a politically active force in the life of the nation, not it has to be said a force for very much good. 
The Catholic church in Poland is a politically conservative and reactionary force; Poland remains (alongside Ireland) one of the two European nations that forbid abortion (except in extreme circumstances, and even then doctors demur) and, although homosexuality is ostensibly legal (due to European regulations), the gay population of Poland live lives as secret as their British counterparts from the 1950s. The Churches of the city are an incredible historical, artistic and architectural resource but the visitor has to avoid the masses still practised in every one, and one’s contemplation of the artistic achievements of the builders and decorators is distracted by worried-looking people coming in to use the churches to pray or give confession. This infestation of active religion does little for the glory of the buildings – it limits access and (like official Christianity has always done) overshadows the marvellous imaginative achievement of Christian stories and artists with the dogma and rule of priests who know nothing of light and life. Christianity should and once was a source of liberation for humankind, dragged down through centuries of its involvement with the state and the wealthy elites, it is now mostly an encumbrance to human social and spiritual evolution. Which is not to say that there is nothing good done in the name of religion – Jesus’ message of helping the poor and vulnerable means that decent people within the church do much to assist the socially excluded (who are many in a country like Poland which has been neo-liberalised to the point of crime) but this activity would be better practised without the attached Patriarchal, anti-feminist and homophobic bent, made all the more unpalatable in Poland by being attached to an unattractive Nationalism smearing itself in a martyrdom complex. 
The unfriendliness of the guardians of Wrocław’s Christian sites has struck me as peculiarly unchristian. The emblematic moment was, on entering a side-chapel of the Church of the Holy Name, being confronted with a collection of mechanical Children’s toys laid out where the alter previously was. A sour-faced female warden glared at me, made a show of how having to get up was exactly not what she wished to be doing and then switched the toys on. To a soundtrack of what sounded like Polish carols, the disparate and many toys danced, banged drums, nodded their heads and walked in circles; all this I watched, glad I wasn’t tripping, under the constant surveillance of the warden. As soon as I stepped in the direction of the exit, the warden leapt to turn the toys off with the concern of a poor pensioner watching their electricity bill, yet I suspect that dislike of the toys’ joy rather than home economics was the impetus behind the warden’s rush to switch them off.

The presence of the late Karol Wojtyła spreads everywhere in the city like a rash, including a renamed Square and frosted glass with a shrine dedicated to him in St Elizabeth’s Church, which he made a minor Basilica. My friend tells me that the so-called John Paul generation of Poles are in many ways more conservative and religious than their parents; when they come to the UK in search of work and encounter multiculturalism (Poland is almost entirely ethnically white) and open displays of female or gay sexuality, they are morally appalled. This doesn’t reflect well on the Polish pope and whilst I can see that there must be a lot of National pride in having an important world-figure hail from your homeland, his legacy is hardly something to be uncritically proud of. Poland gets a lot of money to invest in infrastructure and renovation from Europe, and the many roadworks (which apparently take an unnaturally long time to complete) and restored buildings (the painted fronts of the Baroque houses around the city are very attractive) tell that the money is much-required. It is a shame that more central European attitudes don’t bleed into the culture alongside the money. I fear that as long as Poles define themselves as John Paul II’s children and the martyrs of Katyn, the country cannot become a progressive society, by which I mean a society in which some people aren’t treated as second class citizens and the politics that govern things are not simply the politics of self-involvement, conspiracy and fear.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Opera, Ethics and La Trivialising of Culture

I've been reading a collection of essays on Film and Ethics and am highly taken by the authors' suggestion that "Critical work in the arts and the humanities influenced by those branches of thought known as poststructuralism, have been characterized in recent years by what has been termed as a 'turn to ethics.'" [1] The book concentrates on encounters with films as ethical events but we can clearly apply an ethical line of interrogation to other cultural products. Ethics were certainly at the forefront of my mind as I was confronted by the spectacle of Richard Eyre's production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House on Friday. I found the production unethical.

Why, and what might be an ethical production of an opera? Some might argue that the form itself is unethical in terms of the structure of its funding in Western Europe these days – an elitist and perhaps non-populist cultural product which though it appeals to wealthy patrons has to be kept alive with subsidies from the public purse. This objection can be easily dealt with by affirming that opera would survive, as it does in America, without public monies but that the ticket prices really would then mean that it is available only to wealthy audiences. It could keep itself going like sport from sponsorship deals with corporate companies, but how might their heavier involvement affect the artistic output of a company? I have not followed US opera houses closely enough to know if or how they are compromised by their absolute reliance on private sponsorship.

Back to La Traviata, Eyre's production might be described in terms of it being solid, handsome, traditional and completely competent as a piece of staging. Its main strength is that it foregrounds its singers in such a way that during their major arias, they are the focus of attention on stage. But notice how I use singers here to describe the performers – the singing has been foregrounded here to the detriment of the dramatic content. It is not that I am calling for opera in which the singing is not important – that would be absurd (and the singing of Ermonela Jaho as Violetta and, supremely, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont is superb here). But opera is not only about the enjoyment of the music and singing (otherwise concert versions would be the preferred production model); we are in the theatre to witness a music drama (to borrow Wagner's phrase). Eyre's production fails to lead us into the drama at all; it gives its audience a pleasant experience, and given that the work is about a woman who dies after having her one chance of happiness taken away from her by hypocritical and moralistic social forces, is a merely pleasant and enjoyable experience the ethical one? I would doubt that many in the audience came away from the production with a strong feeling of injustice.

The real work in opera production, since David Alden and others revolutionised it in from the early 1990s onwards, has been to force audiences to look at the content of the work they are seeing and understand that they are witnessing the work of artists who are dealing with the salient problems of human life, in a way which is still vitally relevant to a contemporary audience member. The simplest way of doing this is to update the setting – imagine a Violetta who is a transsexual porn star or a gay man in the 1980s stricken with AIDS. The fact that some relationships would still be socially unacceptable recently or now has to be apparent for any audience to understand the need Verdi had to compose the work; the programme makes much of  how the writing was inspired by the composer's own socially unacceptable relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi. When we are confronted, in the final scene, by a woman on her death bed who has been robbed of what the Americans feel is her universal human right to the pursuit of happiness, we need to see the truth of death, beds and human lives. Someone dying doesn't languish on pristine white sheets, as in Bob Crowley's design for Eyre, but on sheets soiled with bodily secretions. The final scene should be horrific and not merely an exercise in pretty aesthetics; at the outset of Act 2 Scene 2 the audience actually applauded the set, a thing I always find distressing in a theatre.  The production is very disappointing coming from Eyre, who when he ran the Nottingham Playhouse in the 70s was at the forefront of radical dramatic theatre, directing Griffiths' Comedians and Brenton & Hare's Brassneck. Whatever has happened to him – including the prestigious Artistic Directorship of the RNT, a knighthood and hit Broadway musical productions – in the interim has clearly been artistically deleterious if it has lead him to produce La Traviata as if it were a waxwork display sitting on top of a chocolate box.

I have seen a couple of recent German productions of Wagner - Stefan Herheim's Lohengrin and Philipp Stölzl's Rienzi – both of which really interrogated the works and gave the audience no choice other than to think about what they are seeing. Some audiences may not wish to think so hard but I would say that these are non-ethical audiences and the ethical artist cannot be beholden to them. There is the argument that Roger Scruton makes that beauty in itself is ethical, and he objected strongly to Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio on the grounds that it did nothing but destroy the beauty of Mozart's music. I didn't see that production but I did see Bieito's Don Giovanni at the ENO – the music of Mozart was still there in all its grandeur and beauty but Bieito certainly did thrust the ugliness of Da Ponte's characters and their behaviours in our face in such a way that we were encouraged to intimately connect this with our society. That must be the ethical way to produce an opera, and we do an injustice to Verdi, Wagner, Mozart et al if we fail to think of them as ethical human beings engaged in encouraging their audience to think and feel about human problems in a very immediate way.

Some of the problem, it could be said, is in Verdi's music for La Traviata – and we can turn to Adorno as a voice of encouragement to think about serious music and culture in post-1945 European context. Adorno would surely say that La Traviata should never be, as it certainly is in Eyre's production, mere trivia, escapism and aesthetic over-indulgence.

[1] Dowling, Lisa & Saxton, Libby Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (Routledge, 2010), p.1

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Bond asks the nagging questions

Another encounter with a play about an artist, as I took a pilgrimage to Chichester to see the production of Edward Bond's 1973 play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death. On the surface, this is a speculative bio-play concerning the last years of William Shakespeare, our National poet and generally considered to be, as Nick Hutchison writes in the programme,
"…the greatest playwright of all time, the greatest love poet, whose plays have come to represent all that is best in human artistic endeavour…" [1]

Bond's play begins with Shakespeare sitting in a garden contemplating a sheet of paper but it is neither a page from a script nor a poem but rather a reckoning of the amount he makes from the rents he makes from some sitting tenants on some local common fields. We soon learn that a local businessman, William Combe, is set on enclosing the land and Shakespeare wants assurances that his income will be maintained. Combe offers to compensate Shakespeare for any losses as long as Shakespeare agrees not to oppose the enclosures. In the first half of the play, alongside this business story, there is a subplot involving a young homeless woman who is at first whipped for disobeying the laws on vagrancy and then hung for setting some fires in Stratford-upon-Avon. By the end of the first part, we understand that Shakespeare retired to Stratford for rest and contemplation (buying New Place for this purpose) but is unable to stop thinking about the suffering he has seen in London and now continues to see in his Warwickshire hide-out. For most of the three scenes of Part One Shakespeare is reticent in his speech, but at the end of the Act he busts forth with an elongated speech envisioning a London awash with cruelty and crime.

The involvement of Shakespeare in the enclosures at the nearby village of Welcombe are a historical fact; Bond (in a 1973 note to the play [2]) references E K Chambers' 2 Volume William Shakespeare as a source for documentation and commentary. Despite this (and other assertions of this truth in the programme), some critics write as if this episode in Shakespeare's life is Bond's suggestion. Bond's play can cause extreme reactions from critics, but given that the play on the whole presents the bard as a humane and very deep thinker troubled by his own social situation, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why anyone should be offended by the portrait.

Of course, by the end of the play we have seen Shakespeare question his legacy as an artist (he continually asks himself "Was anything done?") and ends up taking poison and committing suicide, unable to find a way out of his despair at the world and some of his involvements in it (not only has his behaviour as a landlord been questionable, but he has neglected and alienated his wife and his younger daughter, Judith). Bond rather provocative wrote in 1973

'My account rather flatters Shakespeare. If he didn't end up the way shown in the play, then he was a reactionary blimp or some other fool. The only more charitable account is that he was unaware or senile.' [3]
Bond's view of Shakespeare as a man passionately concerned with social issues is borne out by any overview of the bard's work. In watching the play's scenes of a despairing Shakespeare wandering through a world in which judges condemn and hang homeless beggars, I couldn't help but think of Lear at the height of his "madness" – concerned in the storm for the "poor, naked wretches" and condemning judges as thieves (in Bingo, Combe is a magistrate). The play is asking important questions about a person's political and social role in the world, not merely an artist's role but every human's.  In Tony Coult's useful short book The Plays of Edward Bond, he quotes Albert Hunt (in a piece for New Society) accusing Bond of being someone who is
'…trapped by his own literary aspirations and has lost touch with the society he was trying to explain… it's not so much a question any longer of a "writer's theatre", as a theatre about writers.' [4]
Coult challenges this on the grounds that plays about artists are as valuable as plays about any other kind of worker (artists face the same social circumstances as anyone else) and also in that it is erroneous to assume that only artists enjoy plays about artists. I would agree with Coult here (I suppose I would say that, having written a number of plays about both fictional and historical artists in my time) but also add more about Bingo's positioning and impact as a theatre event.

Bingo came at a time when Bond was making inroads into the higher echelons of UK cultural life. After its premier at the Northcott in Exeter, it was performed at the Royal Court with John Gielgud as Shakespeare; soon after, Bond had work performed at the National Theatre, the RSC and the Royal Opera. Bingo was part of an ongoing project on his part to ask the most important questions about his society in those cultural institutions that were held to be the most prestigious. I had thought about using the word "infiltrate" in the previous but I realise that this would sound as if Bond was somehow coming from somewhere else and attacking a tradition; this is wrong, as Bond is very much the inheritor of the tradition of English drama and literature which through the past 500+ years has asked the pertinent questions. In a way, Bingo is analogous to Blake's epic poem Milton, in which the bard of the civil war returns to earth to separate what was visionary in his life and work from what was error.  Bond is correcting, building on and continuing Shakespeare's work.

Some critics dismiss Bond as a doctrinaire Marxist whose plays are mere propaganda for the cause. This does him an injustice, as it should be quite clear to any intelligent and sensitive audience member at Bingo that this is the work of a man who is struggling, like the play's protagonist, to understand his social situation. Bond shows Combe as a thief of land and shows the rebellion of a group of locals who dig up the enclosures, hoping to reverse the process; theirs is a revolt which has a vision of a better world at its centre (Christian in its symbolism, reminiscent of the writings of Winstanley) but which uses violence in achieving its aims, a violence which has unfortunate effects on innocent bystanders. Bond shows this struggle in all its complexity, portraying the leader of the rebels as a preaching, humourless puritan and giving Combe a speech which any revolutionary must struggle to answer:

'I live in the real world and try to make it work. There's nothing more moral than that. But you live in a world of dreams! What happens when you wake up? You find that real people can't live in your dreams. They don't fit, they're not good or sane or noble enough. So you turn to common violence and begin to destroy them.' [5]
In the last scene of the play, Combe and the leader of the protest are still arguing, in Shakespeare's bedroom. Shakespeare sits between them as they  accuse and counter-accuse, and as he does so he takes some poison. This is an extraordinary moment, capable of being taken in multi-dimensional ways. In one way, Bond is killing off Shakespeare here, asserting that a man who lived 400+ years ago isn't going to be able to help us sort out the social difficulties that face us. The character is expressing a need which many of us might feel, a need to hide in death rather than face historical or class problems. Or perhaps the sugar-coated poison is (as my companion on my trip to Chichester – Ben Francis – suggested to me after the performance) the false culture which takes us away from the real arguments of our lives. It was at this moment in Bingo I realised what a remarkable achievement the play is, one which hands to me as an audience member the question "Was anything done?", to ask myself about my life in a world which isn't very much different, in its injustices, brutality and social structure, to the one portrayed in the play. Was the Iraq invasion anything more than Western interests enclosing land in the middle east?

At the centre of the play's questioning is a problem of property which we must all face. Our main political parties encourage owner-occupation as the preferred living arrangement, and I couldn't help wondering as I was watching the play how many of our wealthy liberal writers have second properties on which they collect rent? I remember a few years ago, when I got a small inheritance, someone advising me that the best investment would be to buy to let (I did not follow this advice); friends of mine have been forced to move when their landlord needed to sell the home they were living in. The Shakespeare of Bingo faces a very current problem.

Bond's attempt to do ask the questions of our age our big arts institutions came to a bad end in the mid-80s, and his plays since then have been premiered either in a Theatre-in-Education environment in the UK or in Paris at the Théâtre National de Colline. Bond has a famous, ongoing feud with our National Theatre but the performance of Bingo at Chichester made it clear to me how important his voice is to the life of our mainstream drama; his plays ask the challenging questions and we do something when we confront them which is valuable to us. 

The production at Chichester, by Angus Jackson, is superb. Patrick Stewart (whose desire to play the role again instigated the production) is an intelligent, passionate and compelling Shakespeare, Ellie Haddington is beyond moving as the Old Woman who serves as his housekeeper and confidante and the rest of the cast give outstanding performances. Bond's plays are tricky to get right (I didn't much like the recent revival of The Sea in the West End) but here the full effect of his writing plays out. The whole experience is one I won't be forgetting in a hurry, and the central question will continue to nag.

[1] Hutchison, Nick 'Scenes of Money and Death' in Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (Chichester Festival Theatre programme, 2010)
[2] Bond, Edward Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (Methuen, 1974), p.xv
[3] Ibid., p.vii
[4] Coult, Tony The Plays of Edward Bond (Methuen, 1977), p.19
[5] Bond, p.36

Monday, 3 May 2010

The Artist as Monster Times Two

Twice in the space of seven days I've encountered dramas revolving around the idea of the artist as monster. As an artist, this is bound to be of interest to me (I hope I am not too much of a monster); I do wonder whether this is a subject which is that close to the concerns of many people, except that it does raise questions about the way that any self relates to others in order to get things done, and getting things done is the primary concern of Protestant Man. The artists – both poets - in both Elegy for Young Lovers (an opera by Hans Werner Henze with libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, performed by ENO at the Young Vic) and Hurts Given and Received (a play by Howard Barker, performed by The Wrestling School at Riverside Studios) play merry hell with the lives of those they come into contact with, but the pieces have divergent attitudes towards this wreaking of havoc.

Elegy for Young Lovers concerns a middle-aged and highly respected poet named Mittenhofer, who spends months of each year at a hotel in the Austrian Alps in order to take inspiration from the ravings of a demented woman, Hilda Mack, who has been living in the hotel for forty years since the disappearance of her husband whilst he was climbing a local peak. Mittenhofer is waited on hand and foot by his patroness/private secretary the Countess Carolina and his personal physician, Dr Reischmann, fawners both. Mittenhofer has a young mistress, Elizabeth, and the crux of the story is that she falls in love with the doctor's son, Toni, much to Mittenhofer's chagrin. We witness Mittenhofer's infantile demands and ritualistically adhered to obsessive compulsive routine and soon get the idea that this is not a very pleasant human being to be around at all; yet Mittenhofer is worse than a pain – he is actively evil, as he compels the young lovers to gather him edelweiss on the mountainside and, when a blizzard hits, tells the local guide that there is no one from the hotel out in the storm; the lovers die. The drama ends with Mittenhofer reading his new poem – 'Elegy for Young Lovers' – to an appreciative audience in a packed Vienna hall, dedicating his new work to the lovers whose death he arranged.

Much is made in the programme of the possibility that Mittenhofer is based on W B Yeats, although others have suggested that Hugo von Hofmannsthal and even Benjamin Britten are possible originals for the character. This scrabbling around for originals doesn't really interest me; why the trio of Henze, Auden and Kallman should think that Mittenhofer's story is an important one to tell does. There is an oddness in these three homosexual artists telling this tale, as the lovers are presented as an "approved" heterosexual pairing (unlike the age-gap mistake which is the Mittenhofer/Elizabeth affair) and as they lie waiting for death on the mountain, they imagine the life they might have lived, which is a pretty ordinary example of normative petit-bourgeois living from the mid-20th century; Mittenhofer's great sin is that he prevented their living out this existence. I can't help suspecting that there's a certain self-laceration in the trio's choice of material here; all three of them being avowedly left-wing, this feels like a public performance of self-criticism, a rejection of their own potential to use and abuse "ordinary" folk by asserting their Great White Artist egos.

The setting of the tale is a very Nietzschean one, and there is a satire here against the idea of the Great Nietzschean/Romantic artist who uses those around him for the glorification of his Important Works. The joke appears to be that Mittenhofer is actually not a very good artist (the programme notes that Auden's real criticism of Yeats wasn't that he was a git but that his work wasn't any good in the later years). In some ways, the opera offers a rebuke to the idea of the individual genius who can get away with anything in pursuit of his self-aggrandizing artworks. In this, it seems to me to be an important work – a rejection on the part of three mid-twentieth century artists of the assumptions about artists which had by the time of their writing it become rather clichéd. I have some sympathy for this, as those writers I've known who have paraded themselves in Mittenhofer-like ways have had an element of the faux-artist about them, dressing themselves in some rags of an outdated Romantic idea and finally not really coming through with the art which such a performance might be the only excuse for. I have my suspicions about the very idea of the writer who waits listening for the extraordinary things that those around them come out with and then churns out writing which is little more than compendiums of overheard bits and bobs. In Elegy, when Hilda Mack finally is faced with the truth of her husband's death, her madness is cured and she comes to possess herself again; in her new-found clarity, she scolds Mittenhofer for stealing her visions for his own work and reckons that she should have got some credit and a cut of the royalties.

In a note for Hurts Given and Received, Barker writes

The sacred character of the individual in secular democracies obliterates any possibility the sacred might be located in any other sphere, and the consequence is a war of competing egos, thinly concealed beneath sentimental and threadbare platitudes of conscience and pity. These rags of faith and reason, strung together by some dimly-remembered concept of progress, flutter over a culture which seethes with cruelty and manipulation, rendered more odious by the cult of transparency, a transparency that elicits no shame. The poet has perhaps, the obligation to own up to his wilfulness, if only to assist others to own up to theirs…
Barker's protagonist, the poet Bach, also arranges the death and distress of his friends and helpers which in turn feeds his work. The work has a great effect on those that read it – its quality even encourages a policewoman to hide Bach's sex-murder of his nymphet mistress – but Bach is in turn punished and exploited by those that come after him, taking inspiration from his work whilst standing around as he is kind-of crucified. Barker is certainly approaching some difficult questions about individuals' and societies' relationship to those we consider Great Artists; he is a lot less satirical than the Elegy trio, but as piece of work, Hurts Given and Received seemed less successful than Elegy, which feels in Fiona Shaw's production like a major work.

Some of the blame for the Barker piece might be laid at the foot of the Gerrard Mcarthur's production, which is an impressive piece of staging but I was never convinced by either the relationships nor by the claims made in the text as to Bach being who the play claims he is. I am not sure whether Barker means us to agree with the character and his admirers that Bach is a genius, but I never for a moment believed that this was a man who was capable of creating anything. Tom Riley's performance in the central role is an impressive vocal and physical display of technique - at his best, as he lowered down from his high chair, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum's Brundlefly spouting his insect-like brand of Nietzschean craziness; but Riley's (and other important performances in the production) are one-note affairs, him beginning as a show-off and brat and staying mostly in the same place. Barker is a difficult writer for actors to pitch right, but it can be done, as Hanna Berrigan's perfect gem of a production of a smaller Barker piece Slowly (which is playing alongside Hurts…) proves.

Yet there is something worth thinking about in Barker's characterization, and maybe a future production (or even future performances of this production) will make the play live on stage. The monstrousness of the artist – an overgrown and demanding child – is the monstrousness of the contemporary Western man, demanding and going through people (consuming them) in pursuit of some expression of the self. There is more to Hurts... than just this suggestion, but this strikes me as something which connects Barker's play with Henze's opera, the attempt to deal with the monstrousness of the self in the post-1945 world. At one point, a character compares Bach to "a war" with its "brief intoxications" when "men do vile things / men not themselves vile necessarily / its like a dream from which they wake saying / did I do that / was that me?" [Howard Barker, Hurts Given and Received/ Slowly (London: Oberon Books Ltd., 2010), p.70]

Both works encourage us to look at these monstrous artists and think about their behaviours; perhaps my qualm at the beginning - " whether this is a subject which is that close to the concerns of many people" – is unnecessary. I've always believed that we create our lives (but, to paraphrase Marx, "not in circumstances of [our] own choosing") and so we're all creative artists, all little Mittenhofers and Bachs…

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Let's blog again!

I kept a blog for a number of years - approximately between 2005 and 2008 – before ending it and deleting all of the content from public view. My rationale for ending things was that the blog was taking a lot of my writing time (I was blogging a few times a week) and I also that I was unsure about the focus of that blog – it was an impressionistic and often quite ranty view of the culture I encountered; it had no proper focus, to an extent. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile experience and I made a number of contacts and even friends in the process, which was an unexpected boon (I may also have made enemies, but they didn't contact me so I am blissfully unaware of them…).

Since ending the blog – selections from which I am gradually putting up on my website here – I have missed keeping an online notebook. A better grasp of time management and an environment (I have recently moved home) far more conducive to writing has led me to desire to resume blogging. I want to just lay down the focus of the blog, so you can decide whether it is going to be something for you to come back to, and so I can be clear in my mind as to what it is.

Although I will often be writing about the performances and other cultural events & places I visit, this is not a reviewing blog. I am not a critic but a practitioner. When I engage my mind with something I've seen or heard or read, it is for matters of inspiration – either positively or negatively. William Blake wrote that "That to Labour in Knowledge. is to Build up Jerusalem" and my attempts to know culture are inspirations within that process. I will be attempting here to write what I see, and to think through the issues which the works of other human beings throw up for me as an artist. I shall be sometimes referencing critical and cultural theory as I go along and could get dense at times. If that is not your bag, this blog might not always be for you. There might sometimes be a gap of weeks between entries, as other work takes precedence.

My major interest is drama (for both stage and screen) and most of what I write about here shall be plays and films - but this will not preclude encounters with art works, books, buildings and music. Every coincidence between the product of a human mind and the mind of another is a kind of close encounter with something alien and this is a journal examining those extraordinary events. Most of our lives are full of such events and as the Socratic proverb goes, the unexamined life is not worth living.

I will be keeping the comments box open for reader's insights and engagements and in doing so I welcome debate. I will moderate anything I find abusive or unnecessarily ignorant. But let's hope that it doesn't come to that. I will admit that, as I have evolved in my own internet usage, I have come to prefer engagements from myself and others which are not made under a cloak of anonymity.

I am currently engaged in writing a couple of plays and developing some screenplays, one of my short plays (Fellow Creature) is being performed at the Lost One Act Festival this coming Tuesday and I am researching an ongoing Ph.D. which involves the writing of and theorizing about a screenplay concerning George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham. Most of the things I choose to write about on the blog will have some connection with my life as a Imaginator of Dramas.