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December 31, 2008

the cordelia dream

I'm often complaining (probably a little too loudly, and ignorantly) that the world is too commercialised, too plain, too blank.  This comes up in my work, in the form of anonymous multiplex cinemas that are more like airports than somewhere special where you can expect to experience something memorable.  It's no surprise then that I loved finding and being in Wilton's Music Hall, in a back alley in East London about 10 minutes walk from Tower Hill tube.  Despite the decaying and crumbling walls, the building had been decked out comfortably; there was a cosy candle-lit cafe area, which sold so much mulled wine that the whole theatre smelt like Christmas.  The playing space itself was very spacious, almost sparse, with a stage raised very high (but not high enough to come anywhere close to using all that vertical space).  It was a little like a space you expect to find at the Edinburgh Fringe (it reminded me a little of the Main space at the Roxy Art House in Edinburgh), only - y'know - comfortable. 

wiltons door

Some disorganised thoughts about the play.

The Cordelia Dream withholds two key pieces of information from its audience, one in each of its two acts (incidentally, I hate to write spoiler alert, but if you don't want to know anything about the play then stop reading).  In neither case however did the revelation make me seriously re-consider what had occurred before.  

As we enter the theatre a Man (David Hargreaves) is sat at an exquisite grand piano.  He must have spent every penny on that piano however, as he is wrapped in a cheap green sleeping bag to keep warm and his blank walls are decorated just with peeling eggboxes.  Unlike the peeling walls of Wilton's, it's safe to assume that this Man's walls were never attractive.  A much younger Woman (Michelle Gomez) enters, and the two talk like old lovers exhuming an old argument; she criticises his arrogance and picks at his sexism, whereas he acts indignant and is given to huffing and puffing around the huge inconvenience that she presents.  There is an undercurrent of violence; at one point she interrupts him, and he disproportionately screams for her to let him finish.  About half-way through the first act, it becomes clear that he is her father; the earlier discussion about the (lack of) possibility of her naming her child after him makes a little more sense.  Yet nothing major seemed to change or to shift with this revelation.


There's talk of a dream about Cordelia and Lear from King Lear - apparently it's why she came to see her father in the first place.  We can see his misogyny in his provocative interpretation of the play ("Cordelia wanted to be hung // Her death was necessary for her father's salvation.").  Is King Lear something they've discussed, and disagreed on, at length in the past?     

The two characters are both classical musicians.  She is commercially and critically successful, yet he is not.  He blames this on her; he talks incessantly of 'the field', a space (of reception? of exhibition? what does he think this is?) that she is occupying.  If only she would clear this field and stop producing music, the commercial and critical attention would be focused on him.  His genius would surely be appreciated.  The Man appeals to a very old-fashioned, and firmly masculine, ideal of the Artist; a tortured genius bursting with profound ideas that will change the world.  In this ideal, the artist's lack of success is always because of someone else (a competitor who steals from him; the stupidity of the art world who just don't 'get it').  The Man delivers scathing lines to his daughter, poison-coated insults that are surely unforgivable; Hargreaves (excellently) dips them in sugar with a jolly delivery but it serves to make them all the more brutal.  The Act ends with:

Man: Will you come to my funeral?

Woman: Will you come to mine?

Man: I'll be there.

Woman: With your speech prepared.

Man: With my speech prepared. 

In the interval, the man deterioates further; we re-enter the space to find him almost-naked, curled in a ball upon his piano, the post has been piling up for days and days.  A box of formal clothes arrives, and he conducts an imaginary orchestra whilst the Woman slips in behind him (in the first act she rang the bell, by the second act he just leaves the door open).  There's more of a sexual element to their discussion now; he has seemingly lost his mind and doesn't recognise her, assuming that she is a groupie of his.  She sneaks up behind him, wrapping her hands around his tie - is she trying to seduce him?  or suffocate him?  When he does recognise her as his 'dog-hearted' daughter he panics and hallucinates, before wetting himself.  All the cigars and champagne in London would fail to mask the fact that he is a senile old man. 


It is here that the exchanges become odder - he changes into his pyjamas, and she puts on his piss-sodden coat and tails.  He recalls the Cordelia Dream, and smothers her face in blue paint because Cordelia was also blue when Lear brought her in.  The flucuations between insanity and sober rationality in the Man's state of mind, and between fantasy and reality in the play, were a little unconvincing to me.  I'm not too familiar with King Lear, so I'm prepared to think that there may be a whole layer of meaning that I'm missing though.   

The play explains some of these odder exchanges in its second revelation: the Woman committed suicide eight days before.  She is a vision to him, perhaps a ghost.  He thinks he may be able to recall the funeral, there were definitely people looking at him.  We know that she hasn't produced any work since their last meeting - ostensibly because he demanded it of her to clear 'the field', but more likely because she (like him) wasn't able to.  Despite the field still being clear, he hasn't produced any serious work - he is obsessed with writing his opus, but lacks the commitment (or talent?  perhaps) to finish anything.  His Romantic vision of the artist seems to have failed and collapsed - perhaps it never existed in the first place.  Where does artistic creation come from?  What skills does one need to create something beautiful?     

She's come to tell him that he's about to die.  Lear and Cordelia must die at the same time - one cannot exist without the other.  As he's about to die, she gives him the gift of a beautiful piece of music.  With this final gesture the creation of beauty remains romantic and mysterious, we can just pull it out of the air with the right talent.  Or maybe the truth will reveal itself after we're dead and gone.  His death is excellently handled; he stands on a stool, and a diminishing spotlight traps his terrified face before fading to black.  It reminded me of the iris effect in old silent movies.

I liked Hargreaves' performance - I mentioned above his delivery of vicious lines as if they were jolly ribbing.  Gomez is a little too uneven - her sudden shouts are disruptive rather than disconcerting.  The direction is pretty nifty - I liked the use of space, including actors sitting on the stage legs dangling above the floor.  The post coming through the door in the interval was also a nice touch. 

See also: Michael Billington on The Cordelia Dream.

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