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.)