Saturday, 24 July 2010

Getting into Into the Little Hill

Went to the Linbury Studio last night to see a double bill of short operas, Berio's Recital 1 and George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill. The staging of the latter struck me as a good illustration of how a fairly "open" text - one which is not rooted in entirely specific historical or social circumstances - can allow the production team to built another layer on top in the production, a layer which is absolutely detachable from the piece in that it could be produced in quite another way but yet which gives insights which open up the piece for the audience.

Into the Little Hill is a retelling of the 'Ratcatcher of Hamelin' myth, with a libretto by Martin Crimp. In the programme Benjamin says that

Martin and I wanted to tell our lyric tale in the most direct and authentic way possible - not an easy task in the age of television and cinema. Our solution, where the story-telling as well as the multiple roles are shared between just two singers, acknowledges at all times the artificial nature of sung drama, while still permitting dialogue and characterization. Occasionally, particularly in heated moments, it approaches the naturalistic.

Benjamin's phraseology here is a little problematic - "authentic" and "naturalistic" are particularly fraught. The idea that admitting that here are two singers on stage makes something more "authentic" than something which doesn't admit such a thing up front is frankly a little silly - because I should think that nobody ever sat in an audience at an opera and imagined that they were not watching two singers engaged in something entirely artificial (one of the most attractive things about opera is its blatant artifice). This slightly fuzzy thinking results in a Crimp libretto which involves two voices - a soprano and mezzo - who tell the story to the audience and enact some bits of it in dramatised scenes. I suppose Benjamin is using "naturalistic" to mean that, at some moments, the storytellers seem to "disappear" and we are left watching the characters in dramatic conflict.

John Fulljames' production takes Benjamin and Crimp at their words and presents us with an orchestra on stage, three rather abstract hoops of varying sizes and the two singer/performers - Claire Booth and Susan Bickley - in contemporary dress. They sing the narration out front to the audience and interact with each other in the scenes between the characters (they never interact with the orchestra, which is in itself a choice which leads to results). Because the contemporary dress used is exactly what one would expect conservatively stylish middle-class women of Booth and Bickley's status to wear, we are shown a traditional story told to us by two middle-class women. Now, these ARE these two middle-class women - but the mis-en-scene also encourages one to mull over the idea that two relatively well-heeled fictional British women are telling an audience - which may be us or may be some fictive but unspecified audience - the tale. They do so with great thought and concentration - and at times (especially during the later parts of the narration) they seem to be personally considering the events of the tale and disturbed by their considerations...

Crimp has, by a few subtle strokes, make the tale suggestive of not merely ridding a town of vermin as a literal event but also of more sinister and historically recent purges of undesirable elements. At one point, a child insists that the rats look like humans, in coats and with suitcases. Crimp's tale is set in a more modern environment than the medieval version we are traditionally used to. The Mayor is up for democratic election, the rats are accused of stealing not only bread and property but electricity. The Stranger - as the Piper is called in Crimp's version - becomes a sinister figure indeed. All the while in Fulljames' production, even though at times one is drawn into the events of the tale and the fates of its characters, one is conscious of these two middle-class women telling, feeling, considering, being made sad and thoughtful by it.

The piece need not be performed like this. More abstract or mythic consumes could be used; dumb shows could work with the storytelling to enact the events; the storytellers could be a lot more neutralised or removed from the performers. By making them very clearly two well-dressed, contemporary women, the production encouraged me to think about why two bourgeois women might want to tell and consider the Ratcatcher of Hamelin tale. That the women are of different ages - Booth is young enough to be Bickley's daughter - suggests a familiar relationship between the two; that Booth is also visibly pregnant suggests that they have occasion to think about a tale in which society plunges into mass murder and terrible consequences; it certainly makes the moment where Booth plays the child witnessing a rat drop its baby very poignant indeed. A whole imagined situation in which two seemingly comfortable women are nagged at and moved by a strange children's story opens up.

All the while during this, Benjamin's haunting, nagging, insinuating music accompanies the proceedings with its seductive but sinister sheen. That The Stranger uses music in his extermination of the rats makes the story eminently suitable for operatic treatment; that certain regimes have used music as part of their death culture should gives an opera-going audience as well as the makers of opera some pause for thought. Fulljames's production of Benjamin's short opera IS that pause.

'The Ratcatcher of Hamelin' is a discomforting tale. In the end, the town's children disappear because the politicians will not pay the Stranger. The children disappear into the little hill nearby and can be heard following the Stranger further and further down to something which, in Crimp's version, sounds very much like hell. Having gone down into the Linbury Studio and experienced the piece, having seen the two worried women telling and being disturbed by the tale, I came out disturbed by their disturbance, making this a very successful evening of art indeed.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

What changes? What doesn't?

I am currently vexed by questions of change and the unchanging. Last week I attended Middlesex University's annual Learning and Teaching Conference, the title of which was Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy. Much of the conference was spent on the challenges and opportunities offered by new technologies  - Web2.0, social networking sites, new hardware and software – and whether contemporary students really are a new animal, Frankenstein creatures with short attention spans, addicted to being always plugged into the Matrix of iPods and mobile phones. Briefly, my own view is that some of them are a lot, some of them aren't at all and some of them are a bit like this (and this isn't simply true of the younger generation). Figures quoted by one of the keynote speakers, William Wong, bear this out, with something like 27% being native children of the Matrix, 57% using low levels of technology to support their learning and 20% being complete technophobes (Wong, 2010, slide 9), which bears out my own experience in teaching.

One of the moments which struck me at the conference was during another of the keynote sessions, when Steve Wheeler quotes Heraclitus' "The only constant is change." He followed this with a presentation (Wheeler, 2010) taking us through various theories about the ways in which younger people (I should add "in the West") interact with new technologies and how we are living in a world which has changed massively in the last two decades, with the velocity of change ever-increasing, which has been a theory ever since someone came up with the phrase "future shock". At one point, Wheeler mentioned Smart Mobs and quoted one Howard Rheingold saying "Smart Mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert when they don't know each other. [They can] cooperate in ways never before possible." (Rheingold, 2002) This sent me into a bit of a reverie in which I came over a little like the author of Ecclesiastes, wondering whether there was anything new under the sun. Mobs have always existed; certainly the mob that Shakespeare portrays in Julius Caesar act in concert when they riot and kill the poet Cinna simply because he has the same name as one of the conspirators.  Perhaps the ways in which the members of a mob can communicate their mass concerns has developed, certainly it might have increased in reach and velocity. But is this a fundamental change in human behaviour rather than a new way of facilitating behaviour as old as time? Are we in danger of losing site of the wood for the trees? As befits a wanderer in a wood, I was visited by the voice of various bards, ancient and modern. One of them was Dylan, who in his 1985 Biograph booklet interview with Cameron Crowe says

"…I like to stay a part of that stuff that don't change. Actually, it's not that difficult – people still love and they hate, they marry and they have children, still slaves in their minds to their desires, still slap each other in the face, and say 'honey can you turn off the light' just like in ancient Greece. What's changed? When did Abraham break his father's idols? I think it was last Tuesday." (Crowe, 1985)

I also mulled on William Blake's Note in his Descriptive Catalogue with reference to his Canterbury Pilgrims painting, where he writes

"The characters of Chaucer's pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations; as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never change nor decay." (Blake, 2009, p. 49)

Blake's point is nuanced and Zen-like here, and he is certainly having his cake and eating it. Nothing occurs in exactly the same way twice but the same things occur again and again in different guises.

This isn't a fashionable view, and can all too easily fall into a bourgeois inability to comprehend that others are not the same as him. As Barthes writes, "The petit bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other." (Barthes, 1993, p. 151).  I was reminded of this only yesterday when I came across some sloppy thinking in the programme note to The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a Neil Simon play revived in London as a vehicle for the excellent (though wasted in this) Jeff Goldblum. Kevin Spacey writes that Simon is "a brilliant writer  (…) with a deep sensitivity for the truths we all share" (Spacey, 2010), a theme which Matt Wolf continues in an article on Simon, writing

"The resonances of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, nearly 40 years on, are due to a playwright grounding his concerns fully in the specifics of the era, only to discover that the uncertainty and fears to which humankind is subject never dates." (Wolf, 2010)

Does this mean anything? Simon's play is about a New York businessman who has a nervous breakdown after he loses his job, his problems compounded by the pressures of city life; the piece also concentrates on his relationship with his wife. Certainly there are themes which link this 1971 play's content to more recent concerns – the crisis in masculinity which everyone was talking about in the 80s and 90s, and the current climate of economic concern and impending job-losses in the public sector. Yet it is hardly surprising that we recognise these factors in Simon's play, as we live under the same economic system as his characters! Would the play's story and characters be able to be translated into Other, more profoundly different times and places? Would the play be able to be re-set in a feudal society, long before the changes wrought by Reformation, Enclosure and Industrialisation? Blake and Dylan suggest that there are works of art and culture which can weather such changes in time; I am not convinced that Neil Simon's play is one of them…

A more convincing claim to long-lasting relevance is made in the programme for the Henry IV plays, currently on at Shakespeare's Globe (I caught Part 2 on Sunday).  Peter Staccio analyses the central dynamic in the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and posits that

"Shakespeare has created one of the governing myths of Western culture. Hal heeds the Protestant ethic: duty, hard work, devotion to public welfare. Falstaff belongs to the counter culture: the ethic of personal warmth, loyalty in friendship, and scepticism about the claims of the establishment." (Staccio, 2010)

Although I am not sure that "devotion to public welfare" is one of Hal's aims (more like devotion to the continuance of the bloodline power he inherited from his father), certainly Hal caught between the twin pull of  blood family and duty (his father, Henry IV) and chosen friendship and irresponsibility (Falstaff) does present us with a choice that most free human beings since civilisation began have faced (even in feudal societies, one could presumably join bands of robbers, prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells). I am tempted to say that it is in the dynamics of the ethical choice(s) portrayed that a work's "universality" is contained, and in the characteristics of those involved in the choice (the suggestion being that not only will Hal's choice be between duty and licence but also that those pulling him in either direction will always share the character of Henry IV or Falstaff).

To come back to the subject of the conference, does my reverie have any bearing on the education of the young? Perhaps not, if what they are learning is a purely technological subject, although surely ethics, which involves thinking about the stuff that never changes as well as the stuff that does, will be involved when developing new forms of technology. But teaching (and writing) as I do working in the imagination, then encouraging the students to see why some stories and characters have more lasting appeal than others must be central to my work.

Returning again to Dylan's statement, I can read about Abraham breaking his father's idols in a print edition of the Bible or on the Bible app I have on my iPhone (along with the Shakespeare and Great Philosophers apps) or in a podcast or a film of the story but the essence of the story remains the same, no matter the medium through which I receive it.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Blake, W. (2009). Seen in my Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. London: Tate Publishing.
Crowe, C. (1985). Biograph Liner Notes. Sony.
Rheingold, H. (2002). Revolution, Smart Mobs: The Next Social. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Spacey, K. (2010, June 30). Hello. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre Programme.
Staccio, P. (2010, June). Prodigal's Progress. Henry IV Part One & Part Two programme , pp. 7-11.
Wheeler, S. (2010, June 29). Digital Tribes and the Social Web. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010 Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy:
Wolf, M. (2010, June 30). New York in the 1970s. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre programme.
Wong, W. (2010, July 2). What Matters? Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010: Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy: