Sunday, 28 October 2012

Psycho Ditto, or Norman, Master Bates.

In the 'fifties, there was a tiny cinematic subgenre of shot-for-shot remakes.  Mostly British, and mostly colour versions of earlier black-and-white films, like The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959) or The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), they were based on the idea that, in cinema, nothing changed except technology, and that all that needed to be updated in a new version was the film stock.  The only shot-for-shot version of a colour film that I know of, Storm Over the Nile (1955), a remake of The Four Feathers (1939), actually reuses some footage from the earlier film, including one entire performance - rather improbably, it's the Scottish actor John Laurie, playing a villainous Arab.

The subgenre (even that seems like too big a word) made an unexpected return in 1998, with Gus van Sant's Psycho.  At the time of its release, the film was viewed as either a sign of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy - William Goldman refers to it as a 'vomitous carbon' - or, more charitably,  as a post-modern artefact, like Douglas Gordon's gallery installation  24 Hour Psycho, which slows the film down to roughly two frames a second.

Last week, I went to Psycho vs. Psycho, a simultaneous screening of the two films at the Leicester Square Theatre; Hitchcock's on the large screen, van Sant's on the four television screens dotted around the auditorium.  Sadly, the nature of human perception meant that the organisers could only play the soundtrack from the Hitchcock film - though you could sometimes lipread van Sant's actors, saying the same lines a moment after their equivalents.

The most obvious thing you notice, watching the films like this, is that (like most of the films mentioned above) it's not quite shot-for-shot - van Sant sometimes reverses the composition, creating a mirror image of Hitchcock's screen, and makes a few small cuts and additions - notably, having Norman Bates (in this case, Vince Vaughn) masturbate to orgasm as he watches Marion undress, a tacky stating of the obvious that, if it didn't seem anatomically inaccurate, I'd describe as on-the-nose.

There are jokes - when Marion first approaches the Bates Motel, we see a sign that describes it as 'Newly refurbished', and Van Sant dutifully reproduces Hitchcock's cameo appearance, standing in the street in conversation with an oddly familiar rotund figure.  At other times, the replication seems downright OCD - cars have the same numberplates, the same signatures are visible in the register of the Bates Motel.  The film's determination not to cut the apron strings even explains some of the odder casting decisions - I wondered why Julianne Moore is wasted in the role of Marion's sister, rather than playing the woman herself, but then considered how much nerve van Sant would have needed, in a Hitchcock remake/homage/copy, to make his leading lady a redhead.

It's worth remembering that van Sant has form in this department - most people who know My Own Private Idaho (1992) can tell you that it's a modern retelling of the Hal/Falstaff story from Shakespeare's Henry IV plays - another story of inappropriate parental influence - but it's less commonly mentioned that several shots are straight lifts from Chimes at Midnight (1965), Orson Welles' film of the same plays.  (Richard Eyre did the same thing in his recent television version of the plays - Orson still walks through modern culture like a ghost.)  Though the method is similar, the effect is completely different - in My Own Private Idaho, the borrowings are an in-joke, only noticed by Welles buffs like me; in Psycho, they're part of the meaning of the film.

So why does Psycho, in particular, inspire this kind of conceptual game?  I think it's to do with the paradox of the film - it's a story based on surprise, that precisely because of its success, hasn't surprised anyone for decades.

More than any other film before Jaws, Psycho bases its appeal on a skilful manipulation of the audience, and of storytelling time.  Famously, it was one of the first films to which audiences weren't admitted after the start, in defiance of the standard practice (which I remember continuing as recently as the late '70s) whereby films were often shown in constant rotation, with audience members coming in when they liked and leaving when then that moment came round again - the phrase 'This is where we came in' is still stuck in the language, even though the practice to which it refers is long gone.

For the last half-century or so, it's been almost impossible to watch the film without feeling that this is exactly where we came in - we know the central twist, and who's going to die when - for most of us, the first viewing is already a return.  Both 24 Hour Psycho and the van Sant film play with this paradox - the former takes a film timed like a stopwatch and slows it down, like a slow-motion replay of a particularly brilliant sporting play, while the latter is a film that Norman Bates might have directed, a film that's obsessed with its ancestry, a child all dressed up in mummy's ill-fitting clothes.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Robert Wilson's 'Walking' (and so am I).

'Walking' is one of those events that it's difficult to describe without sounding pretentious, somewhere in the terrain between live art and actor-less theatre.  At its most basic, it's a three-mile, very slow, walk round some achingly beautiful North Norfolk scenery.  The leisurely pace is part of the point, encouraging a greater-than-usual contemplation.  As such, it's part of what might be called 'the new slowness', a trend that includes such phenomena as the Clock of the Long Now, Jem Finer's LongPlayer and the Slow Food movement.

Walkers are guided by yellow-jacketed stewards called 'angels', who help set the snail's pace and occasionally whisper you instructions.  At intervals, the walk takes you through massive installations - at the start, a wooden structure surrounding a pit, where an angel escorts you to a darkened room, saying that 'The way will present itself.', which turns out to be New Age-speak for a door opening.

Walkers set off at intervals of a minute and half, and are instructed to keep an even distance form the person in front, so that the effect is of a steady, distant stream of people, extending into the distance like figures from a guide to perspective.  The characteristic flatness of Norfolk is part of the experience, extending the horizon in all directions.  (A landscape-painter friend of mine once told me that in Norfolk, you could see the curvature of the earth.)  Though you have no direct contact with any of the other walkers, you develop a very intense relationship with the retreating back of the person ahead - in my case, a young man with a check shirt and curly hair.

About halfway, there's a break where you sit (by yourself) and get an apple and some water.  This also serves as an opportunity for the angels to re-establish the spacing between the walkers - as with buses, there's an inevitable bunching effect as faster walkers catch up with slower.

The second half takes you through a pine forest, and for large stretches you can't see anyone either ahead or behind,  like a character in a fairy tale, or A Midsummer Night's Dream.  In my case, this was accompanied by a slight shower of rain, which gave me my Spalding Gray Perfect Moment as I came out of the forest and over a sand dune just as the rain stopped, with the sea in blinding sunlight.  In the far distance, I could see the final installation, a teepee-like structure, recognisable from the event's publicity.

At this point, it was almost impossible not to start thinking in mythical terms - the teepee, and the long walk towards it, inevitably conjured up ideas of a rite of passage, or adulthood ceremony.    By this stage, the walker's consciousness is so altered that everything seems like a symbol.  Even the walk back to the minibus, which goes through a naturist beach (unintentionally, I assume)  seems somehow appropriate, like a return to Eden.  It's quite a large beach, so the naturists don't get too disturbed - I didn't actually realise what was going on until I noticed a man getting stripped for a swim, and not stopping once he got to his costume.

I blagged a lift back to Norwich, and thence to London, where I've currently got a show on at the White Bear Theatre.  Which sort of brings me to the point of this post.  As a theatregoer, I'm a sucker for anything site-specific, installation-based, or immersive, even though it's completely different from what I do myself - script-based work, mostly in theatres, and often (though not in this case) written by dead people.  Sometimes, at events like Devoted and Disgruntled, surrounded by improvisers, devisers, live artists and physical theatre-makers, I feel like an oddity, the White Man in Hammersmith Palais.

What does this prove?  Nothing much.  In adolescence, we often define ourselves by our tastes - Alan Moore has written that a lot of his fans just like being the sort of person who reads Alan Moore comics.   I once had a student who said, of a Shakespeare film, 'I didn't like it, because it's not how I would have done it.', apparently with no sense that she was saying anything odd.    In later life, most of us realise that this is a mug's game.  After all, how sad would it be only to like the sort of things you like?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

South Bank Vignette

I've always believed that getting into conversations with strangers is one of life's great pleasures.  It's a view I inherited from my late father who, though naturally a very shy man, would always try to engage in some way with everyone he met.  It had some odd lasting consequences - he liked to eat avocados with rum and brown sugar, the result of a recommendation from a bus conductor he once got chatting with.  Among his effects we found scribbled notes from many chance encounters, things like a recipe for the illicit Irish drink pocheen, written on the back of a beermat.

A few days ago, I was walking back from the National Theatre after a rather disappointing outdoor show that had - a point in its favour - a spectacular firework display as its climax.  As I headed towards the station, I was accosted by a man in his late fifties, with a goatee, a raincoat and a half-drunk can of beer.  His accent suggested a Northern upbringing, maybe Liverpool.  He carried two large plastic bags, and might have been homeless.

He asked me what he'd missed with the fireworks.  I mentioned that it was part of a show, and that he could see it again if he was there at the same time the next day.

'I won't be here tomorrow.  I only just got back from Holland.'

He said that his name was Kinder, and offered a hand.  I told him my name, and he said that he was also a David, and that we were taking over the world.  We agreed that the Prime Minister was letting the side down, but that otherwise David was a fine name.  I mentioned that it was the Hebrew for 'beloved', which it turned out he already knew.  He translated his full name - David Walter Kinder - as a beloved conquering child.  I said that mine breaks down as a curly-haired beloved owner of a cottage.

Once we'd bonded over our names, he told me his big idea - that for one day a year, everybody should be called David Walter Kinder.

"Imagine you meet someone and say 'My name's David Walter Kinder' and he says 'So's mine'.  Well, you wouldn't be able to do that person any harm, would you?  Try to shoot someone with your name, you can't do it; it'd be 'Let's have some cheese on toast.'.  Just for one day a year, everybody's David Walter Kinder.'

He followed this up with a second idea - that everyone should at birth have a mirror implanted next to their left eye. The thinking is similar  - you wouldn't be able to hurt someone if you could see yourself in their eyes.  He told me I should write a play based on this image - 'You're the brainbox, you're the one with the connections.'

I said - truthfully - that it had been inspiring to talk to him - and started walking towards the station.  He mimed throwing a ball and I caught it.  He said 'Your name's David Walter Kinder - shout it out.' .  And I did.

When I got home I googled his name and couldn't find anything.  (There's a Dr. David Kinder who slightly resembled him at an American university, which led me briefly to construct an elaborate fantasy of a brilliant career ruined by alcohol.)  I'll almost certainly never meet the man again, but he's given me two images that'll stay with me till I die.  It's unlikely that I'll ever write the play, but he deserves memorialising, so I hope this blog post will do.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

'Gatz' at the Noel Coward Theatre

If you're the kind of person who reads blogs like this one (and if you're not, come on in), you've probably already heard about Gatz- the Elevator Repair Service's stage 'adaptation' - in this context, the word is slightly misleading - of The Great Gatsby, in which every word of the original novel is read.  It lasts around eight hours, including two intervals and a dinner break, so about six hours stage time, and is currently at the Noel Coward Theatre, after immense success in the States.

The show starts in an unspecified shabby office, apparently a few years ago, judging by the outdated computers and oversized mobile phones.  A man comes, discovers that his computer doesn't work, so he picks up a copy of the novel and starts to read it.  For a while we just hear his voice, as our ears adjust to hearing the rhythms of written prose spoken aloud (this is the hardest part of the show - if you can get through this, you'll probably have a good time).  Gradually, other characters start to appear, represented by the other workers in the office, so that, for instance, the man who comes to repair the computer becomes Wilson, the auto-mechanic.   On one level, it's a show about the experience of reading a novel, the way in which we cast it with locations and people from our own lives.

As the piece goes on, it gradually gets more 'staged', with set-pieces including a beautifully claustrophobic party at the flat rented by Tom Buchanan for his extra-marital affairs, and a remarkable coup de theatre towards the end (I won't say in case you're going to see it).   It's an amazing piece of story-telling - after a while, you get attuned to the style, as if the language were being placed under a microscope, so that it becomes hard at the intervals to readjust to normal speech.  While the standing ovation at the end did seem a bit obligatory, I joined it without demur  - apart from anything else,  it was quite nice to get up.

I was a few seats down from a friend who didn't enjoy it as much as I did.  She said - and I don't really disagree - that the office setting was under-realised (I doubt that even the cast could have told us what they actually did there) and might have been used more wittily, and that some of the peak moments, like the scene where Gatsby produces his shirts (quoted by William Goldman as a demonstration of the concept of subtext), went for too little.

So why didn't these things bother me?  I generally believe that an adaptation should be judged as an independent work of art, without reference to its original - so that, say, David Edgar's Nicholas Nickleby is a great play, and would be even if there were no novel of the same name.  Gatz is an unusual case - an adaptation which is always reminding us of its status as such, and of its own inadequacies.  That is should work is surprising, and I think says something about the original.

One reason why The Great Gatsby has never been successfully adapted for the screen (and does anyone really believe that Leonardo di Caprio will be any more three-dimensional than Alan Ladd or Robert Redford?) is that the protagonist is almost defined by his nebulousness; Fitzgerald holds off his first appearance for about a quarter of the novel, gives us hardly any physical description, and is constantly praising his personal qualities in phrases that are almost impossible to visualise:

'He smiled understandingly - more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced - or seemed to face - the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey'

(The Great Gatsby, p.54)

At which point, it's not difficult to imagine Leo di Caprio throwing the book across the room and wondering if it isn't too late to find a less demanding way of supporting a lifestyle.  Even the author seems unsure of the accuracy of his own description; that 'or seemed to face' adds a note of self-sabotage, as if he himself doesn't understand the character.

This nebulousness is appropriate; Gatsby is a man of unclear past, probably criminal connections, and from a lower social class than he first appears.  (Gatsby is an unusual American novel in that it deals with the reality of class, as well as, almost subliminally, with race - Gatsby's real name, which gives this adaptation its title, contains a slight suggestion that he might be Jewish.)  It's quite telling that the novel is called The Great Gatsby, a phrase that never appears in it - it suggests a stage magician, conjuring up a new life.  In this respect, Gatsby is an American archetype, the labyrinth with nothing in its centre, ancestor to both Charles Foster Kane and Don Draper.

This, for me, is why the show worked so well - the style of adaptation (and I can't imagine it being appropriate for any other novel - some of Kafka, maybe)  accepts the central feature of the novel - its unknowability.  Given that it's impossible to visualise Gatsby, a balding bloke in a tatty office will do as well as anything.    This adaptation doesn't attempt to give a full representation of the character or milieu - it gives you just enough, and lets you do the rest of the work.  Gatz belongs to a relatively small category of artwork - a piece where the (inevitable) failure of the enterprise is part of the point.

Offhand I can think of only a few other examples of this phenomenon - the film A Cock and Bull Story, based on the 'essentially unfilmable' (IMDB) Tristram Shandy, art speigelman's Maus, where the subject matter is less the Holocaust than speigelman's own efforts to understand it (and where the mouse faces - speigelman himself called them 'masks' - give a Gatsby-like nebulousness to the characters), most of the work of the late Ken Campbell.  Sometimes, nothing succeeds like failure.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Globe to Globe - Weeks 3 and 4.

Got a bit behind, haven't I?  Blame my students...

The Dhaka Theatre's Bangla Tempest was another folk-theatre reading, with much use of music (Ariel played by a singer) and the production book-ended by scenes of ships, represented by models on the fore-arms of the ensemble.  The most interesting moment came at the end , with Prospero giving the island to Caliban, as the latter moved out of the tortured physicality he'd held throughout the show.   This struck me as another of those scenes that Shakespeare didn't write but should have, like the assassination at the beginning of Richard II, and reminded me of the similar redemption that Alan Moore gives (in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to Caliban's literary descendent, the Frankenstein monster.

Teatr im. Kochanowskiego's Polish Macbeth was, frankly, a bit of a dud, like a conservative theatre-goer's idea of what all modern-dress productions are like.  The general aesthetic was Eurotrash gangland - lots of white suits, drag-queen witches, and a Tarantino-easque use of music, including 'I Will Survive' (which, weirdly, also turned up in the German Timon of Athens) and Nancy Sinatra's 'Bang Bang' (which is also in Kill Bill; as I occasionally tell my students, there comes a point where intertextuality just becomes copying).    The high point was a very drunken post-show party, with drag queens passing vodka shots into the audience (actually water, which made me feel better about not getting any), and Duncan doing a striptease to 'Billie Jean'; the low point was a lengthy onstage rape of Lady Macduff - apart from anything else, she's such a minor character that it doesn't serve any dramatic purpose.

I only saw the first half of the National Theatre of Albania's Henry VI: Part 2, which struck me as a very old-fashioned production, with heavy, undifferentiated costumes and leaden pacing.  Because of this, I didn't bother with the Macedonian Part 3, of which I've since heard nothing but good.

The Compania Nacional de Teatro's Mexican Henry IV: Part 1 and Elkafka Espacio Teatral's Argentine Part 2 were on the day that had the worst weather of the season so far; it was actually hailing during the former.  Despite that, I enjoyed the production a lot more - the Latin machismo suits the play.  This was emphasised by the set, with two cat-walks running in a v-shape into the audience, and down which the characters would run for stand-offs (of which the play has an amazing number).  David Calderon, playing Hotspur, deserves a special mention in dispatches; at one point, he put his foot through one of the catwalks while running offstage, and tore a flap of skin off his leg - he not only reacted in character, but came on in the next scene as Francis without missing a beat.

This was one of the first productions to use any kind of historical costume, a sort of RSC-timeless that mixed medieval and modern.  The Argentine company went in for a sort of cartoon-ish modern dress - justices in wigs and bowlers, Hal blazered like a renegade member of the Bullingdon club, and Rumour, the prologue, who's described as wearing 'a garment painted with tongues' in a Rolling Stones tee-shirt.  (I played the same part at school 35 years ago, and wore the same design.)  When the crowds at Hal's coronation came on waving Jubilee-esque Union Jacks, I did start to wonder if this was intended as an Argentine parody of Englishness - maybe even a comment on the bald men's fight over a comb that was the Falklands War?  Just a thought.

The National Academic Theatre's Armenian King John (described by Dominic Dromgoole as 'a challenge to our marketing department') didn't make that much impression on me, though it had a nifty set, made up of a variety of suitcases and packing cases, which were stacked in various combinations, including John's throne, and the height from which the boy Arthur falls to his death.

The Belarus Free Theatre's King Lear was preceded by the sight of Tom Stoppard in the audience, and an usher warning us that it would contain 'nudity, whipping, water and eggs'.  I thought it was absolutely brilliant - constantly surprising, but never gratuitous.

The tone was set early on as Goneril and Regan sang their rehearsed declarations of love for their father, like a sort of regal karaoke, and were then rewarded with handfuls of earth symbolising their territories, that they gathered in their skirts.  This was a production that constantly returned to the physical realities - Edmund humiliatingly holding a commode for his wheelchair-using father, Edgar, as Poor Tom smearing his face with his own shit (peanut butter, I think), Kent spitting in Oswald's face.

The storm itself was stunning - the cast manipulated a large blue tarpaulin like waves, enveloping Lear as he raged amid the water.  The naked Poor Tom emerged from under the same tarpaulin, causing Lear to tear off his own clothes, and making a reluctant Kent and Fool follow suit.  Like Peter Brook, the company refused to sentimentalise the morality, playing Lear's knights as rowdy football hooligans, and Edmund as the ignored bastard son, Gloucester at one point threatening him with his belt.  

In case you're wondering about the eggs, they appeared in a bird's nest, which the mad Lear wore on his head, carefully placing them at the front of the stage, then stomping on them on 'Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!'.  Strangely, the best other production of this play I've seen - Adrian Noble's for the RSC in 1982 - also featured raw eggs, one being broken and swallowed by Tony Sher as the Fool.  Maybe something to do with the fragility of social institutions?

The Marjanishivili Theatre's Georgian As You Like It was a delight, performed as if by an early 20th century group of strolling players, Chekhov meets Vincent Crummles.  If Lear was an earthy production, this was an airy one - Orlando released his love-notes on balloons,  Jacques (here played as a cross-dressing lesbian, with an emo-kid's haircut) was caught up in a storm of blown leaves.  She also played the best 'All the World's a Stage' speech I've ever seen, relating it to the offstage company and their implied stories - Audrey was the company prompter, Silvius and Phoebe having an illicit affair.  Those of you who know me personally will know that I've got a romantic streak a mile wide, so this production, with its a capella 'love at first sight' theme was right up my street.

(Not everybody's, though - I was discussing this show the next day with the Canadian playwright Jason Sherman, who's a lot less keen on this season than I am.  I asked if he'd enjoyed it, and he said 'Not as much as they did.'  Honesty also compels me to add that this show made no concessions at all to being in the Globe - anyone sitting at the sides would have had a terrible experience.)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

She Stops at Costa's

(A Costa coffee, somewhere in North London.  A WOMAN is sitting alone with a coffee and a laptop.  A BARISTA is talking into a mobile phone.  Enter a MAN, carrying a pad of writing paper.  He approaches the counter.)

BARISTA: (into phone)
And so I had another drink and said to her -
Hang on a second.  (To MAN.)  Can I get you something, sir?

I'll take a chocolate brownie and a large flat white.
Oh hell - I've only got a ten, is that alright?

That's fine - I've got the change.  Five pounds and fifty pee.
I'll bring it when it's ready.

Thanks a lot.  I'll be
There in my usual corner, writing.

BARISTA:  (handing over the change)
There you go.

Sugar and caffeine sometimes help the juices flow.

(MAN takes the brownie and heads towards his corner.  He pauses before the WOMAN, unable to pass her outstretched feet.)

Excuse me, madam, could you poss'bly move your feet?

Did you say something?

'Scuse.  I'm trying to reach my seat.

Of course.  I beg your pardon.  I was miles away.

It's really not an issue. (As he passes.)  Thanks.

WOMAN:  (letting him past.)
Have a nice day.

(MAN goes and sits down, and starts writing.  At some appropriate moment during this next section, the BARISTA brings him his coffee.  The WOMAN returns to her reverie.)

I've always found it tricky
Meeting people face-to-face
'Cash-rich, time-poor''s a cliche
But appropriate in my case.

Tried speed-dating on the offchance
But you know that something's wrong
When the regular three minutes
Seems half-an-hour too long.

A colleague came in knackered,
So I ask if she's alright
She says 'Oh lord, I'm sorry.
I stayed up half the night.'

I ask her 'On the razzle?'
She says 'No, on the net.
You ever heard of Second Life?
You ain't seen nothing yet.'

One drunken night, I took the plunge-
What could happen at the worst?
A second life's attractive
When you haven't got a first.

Made an avatar - the person
That I'd like myself to be -
Blonder, thinner, quite a winner
An upgraded sort of me.

It's easy to get flirty
Where nobody sees your face -
Met a virtual kind of fellow
In a virtual sort of place.

It's virtual, not virtuous,
Things quickly got obscener,
Things move on rather quickly
In an avatar's arena.

When now's the only moment,
And you're neither here nor there,
There's little to restrain you
In a virtual affair.

Lord knows, I've had my moments
In the world of real-life men
But this was regaining virginity
And losing it again.

And again and again and again
And again and again.
Our avatars made tender love
Until that moment when...

A message popped up on my screen
I read it - Bloody hell!
He said "Since we're so good on here,
Why not try IRL?"

(WOMAN sits for a second.  The MAN finishes writing.)

If men are from Mars, and women from Venus,
The vellum's the vulva, the Parker the penis.
The page undiscovered, a virginal land
Awaiting the touch of the pen in my hand,
Which grows slowly erect, like a conjuror's wand,
Each word a caress on the Basildon Bond.

I fondle each sentence, draw up to the brink,
As the seed of my passion pulsates through the ink.
Every paragraph marks an additional stage
To the climax that comes at the foot of the page
And I sign off 'Yours ever, let's never forget'.
Perhaps a P.S., like a last cigarette.

We stare at the ceiling, exhausted, replete,
The evidence round us, as marks on the sheet.
Put it into the envelope, make the world guess
Exactly what's hidden beneath her address,
Find a soaring red pillar, insert it and then,
Head back to the cafe and start it again.

Are you all done with these?

Yes thanks, take them away.

(BARISTA takes the coffee cup and plate, leaving the man alone.  MAN starts to pack up his pen and paper.)

I think there isn't that much reason I should stay.
I'm writing to a girl I've never really seen,
Our only contact point a laptop's screen.
Her avatar I know, in real life, she's a blur,
I wouldn't know my love if I fell over her.

(MAN gets up and heads for the door.)

I've not decided what to do,
Now, here's the irony.
I wouldn't know the fellow
If he fell over me.

(MAN finishes sealing his letter, and walks towards the door, again towards her outstretched legs.  As he approaches, she pulls them in, and he walks past her.  Finis.)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Globe to Globe - the Second Week

The Yohangza Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been around for a while - I remember the opening scene tearing the roof off an Edinburgh preview in 2005 - and it's got the confidence of a show that's been playing in for several years.  This is very much a Dream told from the point of view of the fairies, adapted as the spirits of Korean folklore, with Puck (here divided between two actors) as a roguish master of ceremonies.  The lovers are intruders in this world, and the mechanicals disappear entirely, apart from a single female herb-gatherer, who in an surprising gender-reversal, in wooed by the king of the fairies after being turned into a pig (an image which carries a strange overtone for anyone who grew up in the '80s).  This is a very physical, joyous production, with the cast, in beautiful costumes and make-up,  throwing luminous bracelets into the audience like rock stars - one tweeter described it as 'the closest I've seen to a rave in the theatre'.

I Termini's Italian Julius Caesar was an altogether drier affair, the kind of thing you might expect to see at the Barbican.  The cast was stripped down to minimum - Caesar himself was kept offstage, discussed but never seen - and costumes were eclectic; Casca in leather and jeans, a bald-headed Cassius in tails and Brutus in a moustache and frockcoat that gave him something of the look of fellow assassin (and actor) John Wilkes Booth.  Spaces were created with moving doors, in the manner of Steven Berkoff's The Trial.  This was a polarising production; I spoke to many people who hated it, and it was certainly sometimes annoying - when the schoolchildren behind me started giggling at Portia's headbutts to her husband, I wanted to shush them, then realised that I agreed  - but there were also moments of extraordinary beauty, like the assassination itself, with the three killers gathering round a black chair (to the Balanescu Quartet's version of 'The Model') and slowly drawing lines on it in red chalk.  Written down, it sounds absurd, but (as I observed last week) the step from the ridiculous to the sublime can sometimes be as short as that in the other direction.

The South Sudan Theatre Company were here as representatives of a country which has only existed for a year, and their production of Cymbeline did, at times, feel like something that should be admired more for its existence than for its quality - the Jupiter scene, with spirits in white sheets appearing in the gallery, was pure school nativity play.  This was another piece of ensemble storytelling, like the Greek National Theatre's Pericles, drawing in this case on African traditions rather than Mediterranean - an usher told me that the company had blessed the stage before the performance by pouring a bottle of beer round the perimeter (He seemed very keen to tell us this; I think he was worried that we might think that the alcohol smell was coming from him).  It was an unpolished but good-hearted show, made remarkable by the sense that we were witnessing the birth of a nation - my companion quoted Theseus "never can anything be amiss/ When simpleness and duty tender it" - and it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by the curtain call, as the cast took the hands of the entire front row.

National politics were also inevitably brought out by the Ashtar Company's Palestinian Richard II.  But for my season ticket, I probably wouldn't have bothered with this show - it's a play I dislike, and one that only seems to work if you accept that the detestability of the lead character.    Here, Richard was clearly a Machiavellian villain - the play opened with an additional scene showing the political killing of the Duke of Gloucester, his throat slit Sweeney Todd-style as his shaved in prison, using the first of the show's many mirrors.  As you might expect, this production was cynical about regime change - Bolingbroke gradually became as brutal as his victim, his final pledge to travel to the Holy Land gaining an additional irony from the company's origins.

One of the incidental pleasures of this festival has been the matching of national companies with individual plays.  A few patterns have emerged - plays involving magic have tended to go to Asian companies, complicated plots to Africa, political plays to Eastern Europe and Latin America.  In this respect, it's interesting that the two most gory plays - Richard III and Titus Andronicus - have been performed by Chinese companies.  The Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio's Titus, in Cantonese, was a cool, minimalist production, with clean angled furniture and colour-coded costumes - Titus' family in grey, the Emperor's in sharp-looking whites and the Goths, like their subcultural homonyms, in stylish blacks (Tamora, in particular, wouldn't have looked out of place on Camden High Street of a Friday night).

I've already written about the Q Brothers' Othello; the Remix, a smart, very knowing adaptation, so I won't go on about that.  So far, everything I've seen has been either inspiring or (at the very least) interesting.  We're nearly at the halfway point, and a few themes have emerged: absent lead characters, the different performance aesthetics of hot countries, political subtexts and bare (male) buttocks - I'll write about these in my next post.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Q Brothers' 'Othello - the Remix' at the Globe Theatre - May 5, 2012.

(To get the effect of this, you really need to read it aloud - it doesn't work at all on the page.  Also note that, in the traditions of both hip-hop and Shakespeare, I claim the liberty to stress and elide words any way I damn well want to.)

Friends, Londoners, countrymen, knock me your lobes,
Othello - the Remix is rocking the Globe's
G2G season, and nobody should mind
That it's not foreign language as usually defined.
You could call it Ebonics but that still wouldn't be right,
As three out of four of these fellows are white
(Which needn't cause you any kind of a crisis -
They're more Marshall Matherses, less Vanilla Ices).
From the moment they enter, with cool finger clicks,
(That inevitably suggests an earlier kind of remix)
These guys have the Globe-goers glued to their seats
As they shake up the story to common-time beats.
They say it themselves, they're just doing what's
The thing Shakey did when he plundered his plots.
'Our own plagiarism is keeping it real;
Good artists borrow, the best artists steal'
(And iambic pentameter isn't much more
Than old-school hip-hop with five stresses, not four).
The story's the same, but they're making it sillier,
By setting it all in a music-biz milieu,
Among three touring rappers - Iago, Othello,
And Cassio, a pretty boy, Bieber-ish fellow
Who takes Iago's place higher up on the bill
Giving I. (as he sees it) a license to kill.
His insinuations split husband from wife,
Rapper from crew and a girl from her life.
He turns poor Othello from lover to slayer
By making him think his beloved's a playa.
Desdemona's unseen - it's the company's choice
That she's only a sample, a soul-diva's voice -
Which is all rather like - the coincidence is curious -
What another show did with Caesar (that's Julius).
In less than two hours, hardly pausing for breath,
They tell the whole story, from marriage to death.
There's lots of good jokes, and some times when you think
That they're going to swear, but come back from the brink.
Emilia and Bianca are played by the guys,
Which starts as a joke, then Emilia dies
And it all becomes moving, as the passage of time
Transforms the ridiculous to the sublime.
Pop culture, high culture, this has it all in
(There's even a quote from Tom Petty's 'Free Falling').
I say this with wonderment, not with disparagement -
This so easily could have been an embarrassment,
But they're truthful to both sides of the equation,
Shakespeareans and hip-hoppers get education,
And I'm not an expert (I mean, bloody hell,
The last rapper I saw was M.C. Melle Mel)
But I hope you can all understand what I mean
When I say forty-something felt like seventeen,
And as culture meets culture, it seems what we've got
Is the wooden O turned to Blue Mink's Melting Pot.
If you haven't got tickets, you've reason to curse;
This is poetry in motion - it's gone bard to verse.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Globe to Globe - the first week

One of the most interesting parts of this summer's Olympics-related Shakespeare shenanigens, the Globe to Globe festival features 37 plays (plus a narrative poem) in as many languages, from not quite as many countries.  I bought a season ticket, which gets me a matinee standing place for all of them for £100.  I'm told there are about a hundred of us - I'm starting to recognise the others by sight, notably a middle-aged couple who bring their toy rabbits and sit them on the front of the stage, dancing them around at the curtain calls.  So far, I've seen six shows and, it's got to be said, every one's a winner.

The Festival began with  Venus and Adonis, from Cape Town's Isango Ensemble.  Although it might seem perverse to kick off with something that isn't even a play, this was a canny choice of opener - fairly short, dance- and music-heavy, partly in English (as well as parts in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans), and from a company who've played London successfully before.  As ever, they sang and danced like angels - it's hard to imagine a more moving start to the Festival than the sight of a young South African actress, a little smile playing across her face as she paused before singing words that had left this city four hundred years ago, now returning after their journey a continent away. 

The poem's a story of lust and obsession, in which the young and beautiful Adonis is pursued by the predatory love-goddess.  One of my university lecturers said that the ideal casting for a film version would be Elizabeth Taylor and Woody Allen; in this case, the part of Venus was divided among the seven female cast members, of different ages, costumes and physiques (starting with the regal Pauline Malefane), the collective style creating a Jungian eternal feminine.

The Vakhtangov Theatre's Russian Measure for Measure, by contrast, was characterised by a doubling rather than a sharing - the Duke and his replacement, Angelo, played by the same actor.  This production started worryingly like a '70s fringe show, with boxes of plastic bottles and paperbacks (including Carrell's The Shakespeare Secret) scattered around the stage, but picked up as it went on, with staging flourishes like Angelo's dream sequence as he and Isabella tangoed around the platform, broken by a sudden Spike-like awakening (I wanted at this point, to include a link to Spike waking up after his unexpected erotic dream about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I can't find one that hasn't been messed about with, or turned into a fan's music video.  Anyway, you get the idea.).  The doubling came into its own at the very end, with the Duke's proposal to Isabella, blocked in exactly the same way as the equivalent Isabella/Angelo scene earlier in the play.  It's tempting to conclude that this feeling of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' is one that has an extra resonance in Putin's Russia.

I only saw the second half of the Ngakou Toa's Maori Troilus and Cressida, after catching Zefferelli's Much Ado About Nothing at the NFT (I realise that sounds pretentious, but it's what I was actually doing that day - so sue me).  I hadn't actually intended to attend it at all (two and a half Shakespeares in a day is quite a lot), but kept hearing positive positive things, from Stella Duffy's blog, and a fellow season ticket holder I overheard in the Measure for Measure queue, who said, in a phrase that stuck oddly in my mind, that the play was well-suited to 'that bare-chested, tongue out, foot stomping haka machismo'.

That turned out to be quite an accurate description - the males tattooed and bare-buttocked, the females more clothed, with plaited hair (which led to one lovely gag on Cressida's post-coital entrance with dishevelled JBF bed-hair).  I don't mean it as an insult when I say that the highlight was the curtain call, with a full-cast haka being answered by another in response from a group of Maori in the audience - it's the only time in my life I've seen audience response get a round of applause.

This illustrates one of the incidental pleasures of the season - the appearance of multi-culti London in the audience, as different nationalities and ethnicities turn out for their team.  This created an especially interesting effect for the Company Theatre's Hindi Twelfth Night, , with South Asian families (who'd obviously booked in advance) in the galleries, and Caucasians in the yard, in a sort of reverse-Raj.  (It also meant that verbal jokes got laughs from the gallery, physical from the yard.)

The Company's blurb described them as drawing on Indian theatrical traditions including Kathakali - to this ghorah, it seemed closer to Bollywood, with primary-coloured costumes, apart from Malvolio's black jacket, and song and dance in almost every scene.  The musicians were placed dead centre, actors joining them when not onstage and occasionally joining the action as a chorus.  This was popular, high-energy performance, with an impish female Feste and odd jokes in English - Malvolio at one point said 'Goodness gracious me'.  At the risk of coming over all Billington, it was a bit one-note for me, strong on the play's humour, less so on its vein of melancholy.

The National Theatre of Greece's Pericles was another production that kept the cast onstage throughout - actors became different characters by slipping on a coat or (for the oily Simonides) a pair of shades, sometimes turning into a chorus of fishermen, or  trouserless punters at Marina's brothel.  Again, there were throwaway jokes in English - Pericles, begging for food from an audience member 'Of course I've got no money -  I'm Greek.'

This was another production where it was impossible not to see the cultural history as part of the experience - the ensemble playing evoked not just conventions from the classical Greek theatre, but of the whole Homeric tradition of storytelling.  The opening captured this beautifully - a single lute-player sat alone on stage; when it was time to begin, an actor joined him, gave a whistle and, as the cast gathered from all over the auditorium said (in English) 'Let's play.'

This sums up the whole wonder of this season for me - companies from all over the world coming to the symbolic centre of Britain's theatrical and literary culture, and bringing their own history and achievements to the party.  Shakespeare's plays are turned into a vast adventure playground, and this year, the world's come round to play.

(In case you're wondering, I didn't see the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor or the Mandarin Richard III - on the only occasions when I could have done, it was pissing down with rain.  I'm dedicated, but not stupid.)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Wherefore art thou Quentin?

When I first aired my theory about the reasons for the popularity of 'JB' as initials for action heroes, a friend pointed out that not everyone with those initials is heroic, his prime example being Jim Bowen.

In real life, people often lack the nominal suitability of fictional characters - the real James Bond, after all, was an ornithologist.  Stephen Fry once pointed out that if Noel Edmunds were a fictional character (and there's a pleasant thought), no author would have given him that first name.  A few years ago, I'd have said the same about Quentin Tarantino but, as time has gone by, the tension between the two elements has come to seem more and more appropriate for his odd combination of badassery and nerdishness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list of people whose names suit them perfectly includes a few cultural icons.  Orson Welles, with its suggestions of 'awesome' and 'swell', is ideal for a man whose genius was constantly brought down by grandiosity, in several senses of the word.  Similarly, it's fitting that Brian Eno, the music business' presiding intellectual, should have a name that combines an anagram of 'brain' with a surname that sounds like a technical device, or medicine.  The fact that his middle names are Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle is just a bonus - Eno, like Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, sometimes seems like a person whose exuberant nature was determined at the font.

My two favourite examples of real people with well-chosen names are less illustrious.  Nicholas Parsons, with its surfeit of syllables, is the ideal name for a generous, slightly befuddled quizmaster, not least because of its suggestion of minor clergy losing their underwear, like an image from an unusually frank Whitehall farce.

By contrast (and it's a demonstration of how much difference an abbreviation can make) Nick Bateman, villain of the first series of Big Brother, seemed predestined for that role by both his first name, evocative of both Machiavelli and the Devil, and a surname that suggested one who lays a trap, as well as American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, itself a hint of his eponymic ancestor, Norman Bates.

Margot Asquith said of Lord Kitchener that, if not a great man, he was a great poster.  Bateman was a C-list celebrity with an A-list name.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

One of the many reasons why I never learnt to drive.

Woman, overheard on the train out of Waterloo, evening of 12/4/12:

"She works on the ticket desk at Alton Towers. Now, you get in free if your child's disabled, and lots of people come along saying their child is deaf. So, every ticket seller at Alton Towers has a brick on their desk, and if someone comes along and says their child is deaf, you're supposed to take the brick and drop it on the floor, and if the child flinches, you say 'I'm sorry...'."

Friday, 6 April 2012

Take Care of the Sense and the Sounds Will Take Care of Themselves (Or Not)

Okay, it's time to start dealing with the really important issues:

Why does the announcement at London Underground stations say 'The lift on the left shall (rather than 'will' ) be the next lift' and why does it sound weird?

I've always been interested in phonics, the way in which the meaning of a word is affected by its sound. I've written before now on the subject of why so many action heroes have the initials JB - James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer. I reckon it's because of the sound of the consonants - the J promises adventure, as in jump, jaunt, journey and the parachutist's cry of 'Geronimo!', while the plosive B is comforting, suggesting a happy ending.

By contrast, heroes with the initials JC tend (despite the religious connotation) to be more morally ambiguous, the harsh C sound denying reassurance - Jack Carter, Jerry Cornelius, John Constantine. (If you wanted to get really clever, you could argue that the two best actors to play James Bond brought something of that harshness through the C sounds in their own surnames.)

Back to that 'shall'. Standard usage guides are fairly clear on this; the rule is that, when using the future tense, 'shall' denotes simple futurity, 'will' is for intention, determination and, in its other sense, will. To this extent the underground announcement is by-the-book.

However, a little thought demonstrates that everyday usage is exactly the other way round, and has been for many years. 'I will get up early tomorrow' is a statement of fact; 'I shall... ' is a resolution. General Douglas MacArthur's 'I shall return!' sounds ludicrous as 'I will...' It works the same way with negatives - recalcitrant toddlers shout 'Shan't!' rather than 'Won't!'.

Why did the two words change places? Again, I think it's in the consonants. W is weak, watery, and wimpish - one of the reasons why a German accent still seems sinister to English ears is its lack of that sounds - 'Ve heff vays...'. Sh, by contrast, is effortful - you have to shove, shift, or schlep it, and it can be a bit shitty. 'Shall' took over from 'will' to indicate determination simply because the word sounds more like what it describes.

That's why the underground announcement sounds odd - it sounds like it's making a resolution rather than simply promising a lift. The etymology says that 'shall' is correct, but phonetics guarantees, in this context, the triumph of the 'will'.