Sunday, 6 June 2010

Defending the indefensible? Paradise Found at the Menier

By coincidence, a week after I saw the opera Paradise Lost in Wrocław I saw a new musical called Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The musical has a book adapted from Joseph Roth's novel The Tale of the Thousand and Second Night by playwright Richard Nelson, and songs adapted from the waltzes of Johann Strauss II which have been festooned with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. The musical has been more or less universally abused by critics and bloggers; I went to the theatre with a fair amount of trepidation, thinking that I was going to see something in the same league as the much (and deservingly) maligned Ernest Hemingway musical Too Close to the Sun. It surprised me that I came out at the end having actually liked some of Paradise Found.

I have ambivalent feelings about musicals and only booked for this as it has been co-directed by Harold Prince, whose 1980 Drury Lane production of Sweeney Todd was one of my formative theatre experiences, and the other shows I've seen of his have also been staging miracles – hell, he even managed to make Phantom of the Opera into a show I enjoyed, and I usually hate the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  During the first 20 or so minutes of Prince's new production, I felt that I was going to be in agreement with those that have derided it – it seemed a sloppy, leering and rather absurd musical about the Shah of Persia coming to Vienna in the late 19th century in order to cure his "ache" at not being able to raise an erection with any of his many wives or indeed with anyone in his homeland. The story is set up with such vulgarity that it's like being stuck in a confined space with a third-rate Zero Mostel impersonator who insists on telling you about his love-life, gestures and all. The Shah brings with him his head Eunuch (played by Mandy Patinkin in a performance of such counter-intuitive strangeness that I couldn't help but be spellbound by it) and this Eunuch is taken out on the town by a Viennese Baron whilst the Shah lies in bed nursing his lack of a hard-on. The poor old Eunuch is dragged from brothel to boudoir to what seems to be a 19th century heterosexual sex club complete with maze, as all the time with the cast sing with oomph these Strauss knock-off songs.

It was around 35 minutes into the show that I realised that I was actually, despite myself, rather enjoying it. By the time the Shah had raised himself from his bed, dragged himself to a Ball in his honour and got a stonking hard-on for the Empress, in response to which the Baron and the Eunuch conspire to dress a prostitute up as Her Majesty, disguise the brothel as a palace and satisfy the Shah by pretence I was veritably intrigued. The show seemed to be a rather extraordinary way of talking about the idea that desire can be fulfilled through illusion; I could see what had attracted intelligent theatre makers like Prince, his co-director Susan Stroman and others Broadway royalty to the piece, which far from being the old-fashioned froth which most people have dismissed it as seemed to me to be very much tuned into our age of promiscuity and readily available pornography, Vienna standing in as a bourgeois world par excellence in which anyone with the cash or a credit card can get themselves off to an illusion that they are shagging the object of their desire but where it is all being done by proxy. In this sense, Paradise Found seems to me to a remarkably postmodern work, dealing not only with the sense that reality and illusion are to Westerners now just as good as each other, but also postmodern in the sense that the songs were not so much adaptations by deconstructions of Strauss' music, making them sing about what their lavishness excludes – the dirty truth about the sex-industry economy which was the Vienna they were written for.

The second act of Paradise Found becomes stranger still, as the characters who have just been behaving like frantic cartoons in an end-of-pier sex farce reveal that there have real emotions and suffer real consequences for their behaviour. The tone of the show now veers wildly from the lubricious and vulgar to the heartfelt and stricken and it can't be said that the change of gear is a success aesthetically, except that such an awkward gear-change does make the proceedings much more like life. In refusing consistency of tone, the piece attains a kind of crazy realism (audiences and critics hate this kind of thing, which is an interesting phenomena worth thinking about in and of itself). The final quarter of the show is over-ambitious, to say the least, in trying to hang a late-Shakespearean All Is Forgiven and Redeemed ending on the piece, a la Pericles (which is also set partly in a brothel). The ending is mostly unsuccessful because the actor playing the Baron, Shuler Hensley, is so convincing at showing us a man whom circumstance, society, drink and lack of character have brought to a bad place, a place which there's no getting up from; the Broadway musical's traditional requirement for a happy resolution is shown to be in an irresolvable tension with what actually happens to people in society – which again is interesting in itself but kind of makes the show commit hari-kari before the audience's appalled eyes.

Paradise Found
was, for me then, a mind-boggling experience and all the more fascinating for it; I found it more intriguing than many musicals that get audiences or critics or both salivating with raptures. Somewhere in his diaries, Joe Orton pours scorn on the idea that there can be such a thing as "an interesting failure" – yet with the right amount of mulling, some failures do give the mind much to be interested in.

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