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March 07, 2009

memories of the tempest.

I always seem to end up on the same side of the stage in the Courtyard Theatre.  For productions of Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost & The Tempest in the past six months, I have been placed in the same place give or take five seats.  Figure in that these are the only times that I have sat in the stalls in this space, and one starts to think that Aisle 7 is becoming 'Tom's Aisle'.  I like it from there: you don't have a front-on view (so you get a slightly less expensive ticket) but you feel in extremely close proximity to the play.

I thought that the Baxter Theatre Centre production of The Tempest, which I saw this evening, is excellent and really rather beautiful by the by.  The wedding celebration/performance - conjured by Prospero for his newly married daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, the Prince she has met just hours previous - was a thing of wonder that combined dancing, singing and puppets of giant, dancing figures.  At first, every time a new element was brought to the party, Ferdinand, perched on a tree stump next to his new wife, looked shocked and genuinely afraid (Miranda, on the other hand, is used to her father's antics, and was delighted but not unsettled).  The production is full of moments of imaginative and inventive beauty such as this, which struck me, like Ferdinand, as pure magic.

Anthony Sher is a conflicted Prospero of ugliness and tenderness.  When he recounts to Miranda the story of how they arrived on the arid island, Sher paced in angled lines through centre-stage.  He was hunched and frequently swivelling, to embody a twisted sense of built-up aggression at his enemies, and guilt at not having told Miranda before.  He was restless, and just a little bit vulnerable. I found his caring attitude towards Miranda really quite touching.  I was also sorry to have missed the detail of Sher's delivery of the key soliloquy in which he ponders how to treat his captured enemies.  I was admiring the wonderful lighting effect, which created something like a wall of light around Sher and then immediately doubled up as a figurative prison for the Royal party.

John Kani's face has been through a lot.  He wears experience of post-colonialism and apartheid; it is an honour to come into contact with such experience.  For me, this is what made the final spotlight on him - after Prospero's final lines which act as an apology - so powerful, it brings us into contact with experience.  It is also an ambiguous note; Kani's Caliban doesn't know how to react in the moment, and how he will react is only up for speculation.

I was also touched by Miranda's innocent joy and curiosity, also beautifully played.  Some moments to mark a lovely solo outing.  The trains from Stratford to Leamington are ridiculous - I waited 80 minutes on the platform.  I read the programme cover-to-cover, but didn't have the energy to crack on with The Golden Bowl.                

January 04, 2009

This is the way the world ends.

Hot damn, 2009 has gotten off to a good start.  I would hate to spoil the play for you, so if you're planning on seeing August: Osage County don't read further; I'm immediately interested in surprises and endings.

There were some moments in August: Osage County (by Tracy Letts and Steppenwolf theatre company), which I saw at the National Theatre last Friday, of collective audience response that rivalled any shared experience I can recall in a theatre or a cinema.  I'm more accustomed to such palpable communal responses in a comedy club, where most people laugh at the same time at the same thing and feel like they've shared something.  And there's a lot of shared laughter in August, there are some hilarious moments.  Yet the collective responses go beyond this: shared surprise when Ivy (Sally Murphy) and Little Charles (Ian Barford) embrace for the first time outside the front door; shared repulsion when Steve (Gary Cole), the youngest daughter Karen's confident fiance who wears shades indoors like a dot-com millionaire (although he's clearly a wannabe at best), slowly groping the neck and face of fourteen year old grand-daughter Jean (Molly Ranson); shared horror when it slowly becomes clear just how few secrets people are able to keep from the hawk eyes of matriach Violet (Deanna Dunagan - in the performance of a lifetime).  These responses testify to the pleasures of a communal audience experience; a lot of work can only elicit such extreme social reactions if someone's phone goes off.

It is an enormous work with more ideas and references than I or anyone could hope to immediately comprehend in full, many of which are specifically tied to place - the 'Plains', and more generally America.  To this extent it aligns itself with an excellent tradition and history.  Rose, who I saw the play with, said afterwards that the only thing she could think to compare it to, in terms of size, was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

                                                    august osage county

One of the play's big ostensible themes is power and control.  One of the play's signature moments is at the end of Act 2 when eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton), after a monumental (at least to an outsider) family feud over dinner, screams 'I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW' - a moment that is referenced, and turned back in on itself, later by Ivy when she says 'You did say you were running things now'.  Violet appears to have acquiesed to this hostile takeover of power, yet in the endgame we see that in her head she never relinquished control.  For Violet, knowledge is power.  Particularly secret knowledge.  Time and again she makes others aware that nothing happens in her home that she doesn't know about: she prides herself on this declared omnipotence, no matter how hard people try to operate undercover.  It is however a particular brand of knowledge; perhaps it could be described as all evidence and no comprehension, or perhaps knowledge about everything else apart from one's self.  She stores and locks knowledge away (perhaps the lock-and-key of the safety deposit box is a good metaphor for this), not thinking to share it for a common good in case it loses its exclusive sheen and can be less effectively used as a weapon of power.  The idea is that those who claim to know everything are missing out on more than they care to realise.  

This made me think about Douglas Pye's keynote presentation at 'Continuity and Innovation' at Reading University last September, in which he praised Tommy Lee Jones's characters in No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge (and juxtaposing it against a quotation about knowledge from Donald Rumsfeld).  Perhaps like Rumsfeld, Violet is a character who doesn't see the limits of her own knowledge - which builds her up for one large dramatic fall.

And the fall is astonishing.  In its final moments, the play switches key into a more dreamlike state.  As the lights gradually diminish Violet stumbles around the almost-empty house, almost crawling up the huge flight of stairs, and finds Native American housekeeper Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) in the attic.  Violet counts those who have left, repeating 'They're all gone', whilst Johnna sings a nursery rhyme (one of the play's distinguishing dramatic devices) 'This is the way the world ends'.  It sounds corny, but I found it beautiful.  Together, the two voices put a defining exclamation mark on an enormous piece of work.  

There's more I want to say about this play, and certainly much more in it than I'm aware of.  I want to write about how second-generation cinephilia is referenced and what functions it fulfills.  I want someone to tell me about the significance of Johnna, and the history that her presence in the household recalls.  I want to find out more about the T.S Eliot references that begin the play, and glide around the house.  I've read somewhere that many people find something in this play that rings uncomfortably true for them; if there was anything, it was the attitudes of Barbara and (particularly) her husband Bill (Jeff Perry), the two professional academics.

And I can't see this production again - I'll have to work from memory, and the naked playtext.  This is the closest thing to old-time cinephilia that I have experienced; I can't just grab a DVD from the shelf and re-visit or clarify this experience.  And for me that makes it exciting, but it also makes me anxious that the memory will slip away and I'll be left thinking 'What was that play about?  I remember I liked it...' before long.    

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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