Posts Tagged ‘drama’

“All Our Children” by Stephen Unwin

All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Unwin.

This is not intended as a review. It’s a bit pointless anyway to review a play just a few days before its final performance. This is really no more than a record of my personal impressions, for what they’re worth. It is an attempt to make some sort of sense of the various thoughts and ideas that this play brought to the forefront of my mind. And, since the play did make a big impact on me, these personal thoughts and impressions seemed to me worth recording.

The play addresses the organised mass-murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. It’s a problematic theme. Mass-murder of the innocent and the vulnerable is so morally nauseating that our moral indignation, though entirely justified, is likely to drown out those subtleties and nuances that generally give drama its depth. And once one has asserted how monstrous an atrocity these murders were, what more remains to be said?

In the event, this play delivered some ninety or so minutes, uninterrupted by an interval, of gripping, passionate, and sometimes explosive, drama. At the centre of the drama is Victor, a paediatrician, himself, quite obviously, severely ill. From Victor’s clinic children deemed “incurable” are transported away to special camps, in buses with windows painted out. He does not care very much to know what precisely happens in those camps, but he is assured that the extermination is painless. He himself marks out those children who are “incurable”, and, hence, to be exterminated. And, somehow, he has convinced himself that it is all for the best – best for everyone. The arguments for this are, after all, entirely rational: these children are so severely damaged that life can have no meaning for them; they are unable to contribute to society in any way, and are a constant source of pain and distress both to their families, and to themselves; they require vast expenditure just to be kept alive, and, when money is short, they are taking away resources from more deserving areas; and so on. Leaving aside sentimentality, disposing of them quietly and painlessly is really the best all round.

There is no real rational argument against any of this. The only argument is presented in the final act by Bishop von Galen (a historical figure), and his argument, far from being rational, is, as is to be expected from a bishop, overtly religious: human life, he asserts, all human life, is sacred. “Sentimental squeals of the ignorant,” as Eric, the enthusiastic young SS officer assigned as Victor’s deputy, puts it.

Victor himself is atheist, and a rationalist. And yet, he cannot quite share Eric’s enthusiasm for this brave new world. He cannot quite believe the arguments he is himself making in his own defence. He has compelled himself to accept all the rational arguments for what he is doing: leaving sentimentality aside, this is, indeed, the best for everyone – best even for those unfortunate, incurable children – the lebensunwertes Leben, lives unworthy of life, as they were known. And yet, he is not at peace with himself. And over the course of the play, a series of confrontations – with his deputy Eric, with his housekeeper Martha, with Elizabetta, the mother of one of the incurable children, and, finally, with Bishop von Galen – compels his inner self, which he had kept suppressed, to assert itself. Not that it makes much difference in the end: he has already been a major cog in the monstrous machine, and the horror will continue, with or without him. And in any case, he does not expect to live long. He is severely ill, and, if the illness doesn’t get him first, the Nazis will. “They’ll probably send me to a concentration camp,” he says at the end. “Or worse.” But it is not Victor’s conversion that is the real crux of the play: at the centre of the drama is a conflict between different value systems – one that sees human life without “sentimentality” is strictly rational terms, and the other which, in defiance of all rationality, insists on seeing human life as “sacred”.

It is all too easy for us to look at this conflict, and declare that the bishop’s view – that human life is sacred – is obviously the correct view, but there is more to this play than so obvious a conclusion. The question, it seems to me, is not so much “which side is right?”, but, rather, “why is it right?” Bishop von Galen can assert the sacred because he firmly believes in God, but can the concept of the sacred still be asserted in when, like Victor himself, we don’t believe in a God? And if we cannot assert the sacred, what answer do we give to Eric? This issue has not, I fear, disappeared with the fall of the Third Reich.

At this point, I trust the reader will forgive me if this piece takes on a more personal hue. For this is a question that I have struggled with now for some time, without being able to reach an answer that satisfies me. If we believe in God, and define the “sacred” as that which relates to God, there is no problem: we are, internally at least, consistent. But if we no longer believe in God, how do we define “sacred”? And if we cannot even define the sacred, how can we assert it? How can we declare it to be anything more than the “sentimental squeals of the ignorant” that the Nazi officer Eric takes it to be? If we cannot wholeheartedly assert our belief in God, how can we insist on the sacred?

This question plagued me insistently throughout the play. The murder of children is without doubt obscene, but how do I argue against it without appealing, as Bishop von Galen does, to religion?

The play is so passionate, so emotionally powerful, that at times it is almost unbearable. The scene where the mother of a murdered child confronts the doctor had me squirming in my seat with almost physical pain. The bishop’s assertions of morality in the last act came almost as a sort of relief – relief that such thoughts are finally expressed. But it is Martha, the housekeeper, whose words near the very end have the greatest effect:

Oh Doctor, I worry so much. About the children. Not just mine, but all of them. I know we’re meant to look down on the ones here and say they’re useless. But I don’t. I love them. I love every single one of them. I love my own children, of course, and I’m glad that they’re not – But I love the ones here too. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who can’t do anything. Even the ones who just sit in their chairs dribbling. [Pause] I used to be so scared of them. They seemed so different to me. As if they’d infect me with their illnesses. As if I’d become like one of them. And they are different. But they don’t scare me any more. They’re just children, aren’t they? They’re just children. All our children.

No mention of religion here, or of the sacred. It is, indeed, an utterly irrational speech. Sentimental squeals of the ignorant. But sometimes, it is worth leaving our rationality behind, and worth risking sentimentality.

***

Jermyn Street Theatre is a small, subterranean venue, seating, I’m told, only 70, and with everyone very close to the actors. The acting space itself is very small. Being so very close to the action gave the whole thing more than a sense of intimacy: it was, quite often, as it was no doubt meant to be, oppressive and claustrophobic.

At the very opening and again at the end, we heard strains from the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, possibly the bleakest work of art ever conceived. The evening lived up to its promise of bleak intensity, unrelieved by anything even remotely resembling “comic relief”. The performances were stunning: Colin Tierney, on stage throughout, was very believable as the tortured doctor, who shows heroism only when it is too late; the intensity of Lucy Speed’s performance, as the mother of a murdered epileptic child, was almost too intense to be bearable; Rebecca Johnson gave a touching performance as the housekeeper Martha, who had unthinkingly swallowed all the propaganda about the Fatherland, but whose underlying compassion is, ultimately, the only possible answer to the evil around her; Edward Franklin’s portrayal of the committed young Nazi is genuinely disturbing; and David Yelland, as Bishop von Galen, conveyed all the authority, moral indignation, and also, it must be said, an aristocratic disdain bordering on pomposity (Bishop von Galen was of an aristocratic background) that the part called for.

The entire production was, in short, a triumph. Quite apart from anything else, when cinema, and, in its wake, television, are moving increasingly towards visual rather than verbal means of expression, it is good to be reminded just how powerful and moving drama can be when generated primarily by the spoken word.

Stephen Unwin is best known as a theatre director, and, especially, for his productions of the plays of Ibsen and of Shakespeare. This is his first play as writer. I, for one, hope it won’t be his last.

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

#Shakespeare400: “Henry IV, Part Two” revisited

The two parts of Henry IV are almost invariably performed together and that makes sense: the work is essentially a diptych, and neither part is complete in itself. At a stretch, the first part may be performed on its own, but there are several issues that have been raised that are yet to be resolved; and the second part makes no sense without knowledge of the first. However, the two panels of this diptych seem to me very different from each other, and the differences are such that they complement each other, and form a unity. The first part is borne along by a powerful forward momentum to a suitably exciting climax at the Battle of Shrewsbury; the second part, in contrast, is static, with nothing really happening. While the first part is infused with an energy and a vigour, the second seems weighed down into a sort of lassitude by themes of disease, illness and death.

Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the two major tavern scenes contained in each play at exactly the same point – at the end of the second act: in Part One, the scene is full of ebullient high spirits and sparkling wit; in Part Two, it is not merely static, it is given over to thoughts of diminished powers of old age, and of death. “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” Hal asks on seeing Falstaff with the wonderfully named Doll Tearsheet; Falstaff himself is aware of his approaching end (“I am old, I am old”), and, loving life as he does, he cannot bear to think about it:

Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head; do not bid me remember mine end.

That entire scene in Part Two seems to introduce a completely new idea of what constitutes drama, and one that we still perhaps haven’t come to terms with. Not only is this very long scene entirely static at just at the point where we might be expecting the drama to develop and the pace to pick up, it is full of utter gibberish: there’s Pistol, who does nothing but mouth high-sounding nonsense; there’s Mistress Quickly, whose general lack of understanding and intelligence prevents her speaking too intelligibly; there’s Doll Tearsheet, who’s scarcely better; and there’s Falstaff, who is far from the ebullient figure we had seen in Part One: here, he is quiet for much of the time – possibly because he has had too much to drink, and can no longer hold his drink as well as he used to. And Shakespeare puts these four characters together in a very long scene in which nothing really happens, and most, if not all, of what is spoken is garbled nonsense. Even now, over four hundred years later, we find it difficult to recognise this as drama: yet, this is what Shakespeare wanted. It’s a mad world, absurd, and also diseased, and close to death – a death which is not noble or triumphant or beautiful, but death as merely a random event that brings to an arbitrary end meaningless and absurd life.

It is only after this scene, in Act Three, that King Henry IV, the titular character, makes his first appearance: like Falstaff, he too is old. And he is ill: death cannot be far away for him either. We see him suffering from insomnia, his mind restless, his heart troubled. He is effectively waiting for death. Everyone else is waiting for his death as well: this entire play seems to be one long process of waiting – of waiting for something to happen.

Hal, as far as everyone else can see, is unconcerned about his father: relations between the two had never been the warmest, despite the partial reconciliation we had seen at the end of Part One. It is generally assumed that Hal wouldn’t be too distressed by the death of his father, and various people are worried about what sort of king this madcap and tearaway young man will make when he eventually, and inevitably, succeeds to the throne. But when we see Hal, we see a quite different picture: he is genuinely distressed by his father’s state of health, but feels that were he to show his distress, he would be considered a hypocrite.

And Falstaff, who had for so long been Hal’s surrogate father, warming the young prince’s cold Bolingbroke blood, also has expectations too of what will happen once his beloved Hal becomes King: he is in no doubt that he would be awarded a high position in court. We know from Part One how wrong he is: Hal has no intention of maintaining his wild lifestyle once he becomes king, and we can but wonder how a character as intelligent in all other respects as Falstaff can be so self-deluding on this point.

Some have found Hal to be reprehensible in this respect: if he had meant to repudiate Falstaff from the start, then surely he should not have led him on. But the point is, Hal doesn’t lead him on. He even tells Falstaff that he’ll reject him – although, admittedly, that was during a bout of play-acting, so Falstaff can – and indeed, does – convince himself that Hal didn’t really mean it. But after the big play-acting scene in the second act of Part One, Hal very noticeably keeps his distance from Falstaff. Only once is Hal tempted back to the tavern, and the scene he has with Falstaff there is very short: soon after meeting with Falstaff, news comes from court about further rebellions, and Hal sneaks away guiltily, as quietly as he can. Falstaff should have got the message, but he doesn’t. Throughout this entire play, we see Falstaff deliver comic monologues directly to us, the audience: he has to – the one person intelligent enough and sympathetic enough to have appreciated and relished his humour is no longer with him. Falstaff is left without anyone really to speak to: he is, one strongly suspects, lonely without Hal.

Even the rebellion ends in an anti-climax. There is no battle: Prince John, Hal’s brother, offers the rebel leaders peace terms, and, once they have dismissed their armies, breaks his word, and has them arrested and summarily executed. We are in a very different world now from the world of Hotspur that we had seen in Part One. These scenes leave a bad taste in the mouth, and one may be left wondering why. After all, did not Hotspur’s sense of honour lead thousands of innocent people to death on the battlefield? Did we not, with Falstaff, laugh at the concept of honour that could lead to such a bloodbath? Yes, Prince John breaks his word; but is that not justified given the number of lives saved who would otherwise have died on the battlefield? The answer to all these questions is “yes”, but it leaves behind a bad taste anyway. If Hotspur’s concept of honour was absurd and dangerous, this new order of things, where honour counts for nothing, seems not quite right either.

In the middle of the play, Falstaff goes to Gloucestershire to visit his old friend, master Shallow. The scenes set in Gloucestershire don’t advance the plot or the themes in any way: they’re just there, take ’em or leave ’em. In these scenes, Shakespeare projects nostalgia, a shocked awareness of the passage of time and of the nearness of death (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”), and the profound sadness of life itself. But, somehow, Shakespeare also makes these scenes funny. Master Shallow is a successful local bigwig, a landowner, and although, one suspects, the first signs of senility may be discernible in him, he retains still the financial and managerial shrewdness that has made him so successful, interspersing pious exclamations of regret for old friends no longer living with sharp questions to his servants on prices at the livestock market. Falstaff enjoys his old friend’s hospitality, but, once again, Master Shallow is no real companion for him: his witticisms fall on deaf ears, and he is reduced once again to speaking to the audience.

And finally, the old king dies. This is what they had all been waiting for. Unlike his more neurotic cousin Hamlet, Hal is reconciled to his father before he dies; and, furthermore, he is determined to take on the burden of responsibility that comes with kingship. The old king, like Hamlet’s father, expects filial love to be demonstrated by assumption of responsibility, and commitment to duty; this Hamlet could not come to terms with, but Hal can: he has steeled himself for it. In the process, however, he has to cut away a large part of himself: it’s not just Falstaff he has to reject. The worst of it all, perhaps, is that Hal is intelligent enough to know full well what he is doing. But it has to be done.

And yes, we too know it has to be done, that rejecting Falstaff is the right thing to do. We know that Falstaff is, in so many ways, quite a nasty piece of work who should not be anywhere near the seat of power. And yet, every time I read those final scenes, or see them in a good production, I am moved to tears. All this waiting for something to happen, and when it does, it turns all expectations upside-down.

Every time I revisit this play, I find myself astonished by Shakespeare’s concept of drama – static, aimless, random, all characters merely waiting, and nothing really happening – until the end, which ends with disappointment. There is no movement because there is nowhere for these characters to move to. And through it all are images of illness, senility, death – not a noble or a tragic death, but death as yet another one of those random and arbitrary things that we have to put up with. I am not sure that we have quite come to terms, even now, with Shakespeare’s dramatic vision in this work.

#Shakespeare400: “Love’s Labour’s Lost” revisited

I was considering choosing The Winter’s Tale as one of the Shakespeare plays to write about for this #Shakespeare200 series, but I have written about that play not once, but twice, only quite recently, and while it is true that these plays are inexhaustible, I don’t know that I have had in the last few months any startling new insight into this play that is worth communicating. And in any case, a series such as this should not consist only of the big hitters – the Twelfth Nights and the King Lears: there should be some advocacy also for at least one lesser known play. And there are a great many lesser known plays that deserve to be better known – the second (and perhaps also the third) of the Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy, the bitter and despairing Troilus and Cressida, and so on. And recently, I have found myself coming round to Cymbeline, the play memorably described by Samuel Johnson as “unresisting imbecility”: I used to think this play was something of an anomaly, but frequent re-readings, and seeing a very fine production of it live on stage, have convinced me that Shakespeare knew what he was up to. Whether we can figure out what Shakespeare was up to is perhaps another matter, but it’s worth making the effort.

But Cymbeline too I have written about quite recently; so the lesser known play I decided on was a very early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost – a play rarely included in anyone’s list of favourites, but one for which I have a great affection. This may well have something to do with the fact that, way back in 1978, on my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, I saw a production of this play (directed by John Barton) that, even after all these years, strikes me as just about the most perfect evening I think I have ever spent in a theatre: it was lyrical, charming, delightful, funny, exuberant, and, by the last scene, wistful and sombre and sad. While much of this was due to the superlative quality of the production, so deeply satisfying a theatrical experience could not have been based on a play that is merely mediocre: there was nothing I saw on the stage that night that is not present, or at least implicit, in the text itself.

What I particularly remember from that evening, and what strikes me most strongly every time I revisit the play, is the sudden and very decisive change of tonality near the end. After all the high-jinks of the earlier scenes, just as we think we are heading for a happy and conventional boy-gets-girl finale – or, rather, boys-get-girls finale – the messenger Mercade enters, and this happens:

Enter MERCADE

MERCADE

God save you, madam!

PRINCESS

Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.

MERCADE

I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–

PRINCESS

Dead, for my life!

MERCADE

Even so; my tale is told.

 

“The scene begins to cloud,” observes Berowne, and from this moment to the end, the clouds don’t lift. What had been, till then, a happy and quite cloudless comedy now contemplates that reality from which none of us can escape – death. The boys don’t get the girls – not yet, anyway: the proposed marriages are deferred for a year:

BEROWNE

Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

FERDINAND

Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.

BEROWNE

That’s too long for a play.

And yet, while the change of tone is striking and decisive, it does not seem like something tagged on as an afterthought: the closing scene is, somehow, perfectly consonant with what had gone before, and it is not easy figuring out why that should be. We could, of course, put it down to some mysterious alchemy that, as so often in Shakespeare, defies analysis, but let’s not give up on it so easily: the question is at least worth investigating – how is it that a play so abounding in cheerful major keys could shift so suddenly to the minor in the final scene, and yet not appear disjointed?

It seems to me that, despite this very drastic modulation near the end, the unity of the play derives from the tonality of the final scene providing a sense of completeness: it is a minor key tonality that had been lacking earlier in the play, but the very lack of this key had left a hole that its belated appearance fills.

We had seen the four young men – Berowne, the King of Navarre, Dumaine, Longaville – all, essentially, at play: these are people who are divorced from the messy business of living, and want to keep it that way. In the first scene, they swear, despite reservations from Berowne, to devote themselves to three years of study, living a life of austerity, and secluded, monk-like, from feminine company. That last condition has to be broken almost immediately: a deputation of ladies, led by the Princess of France, appears on the scene, and the men are obliged to meet with them. It is significant that it is the ladies who have come to the men, and not, as in Much Ado About Nothing, the other way round; and it is significant also that the ladies have come on a matter of serious business, the sort of thing the men have been trying to avoid. In most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the ladies are more intelligent than the men, and, indeed, educate the men, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this play.

Of course, the expected romantic attachments all follow, but there is still something lacking. What is lacking is a sense of seriousness. For these young men, life is merely a set of games, such as the oath taken in the first scene which is broken with such ease as soon as the ladies appear. The words they speak – especially Berowne’s words – are full of wit and fancy and clever wordplay, but they do not at any point address reality: language is relished for its own sake, and not for the reality it signifies.

Intermixed with all this are characters from a lower social order – Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown, Jaquenetta the dairymaid, Nathaniel the curate, and Dull the constable. And accompanying them is a “fantastical Spaniard”, Don Armado, whose peculiar and highly eccentric linguistic extravagance seems a sort of parodic counterpoint of Berowne’s sophisticated wordplay. These characters are, of course, absurd, and very funny: Holofernes, especially, is possibly the most lunatic, off-the-wall character Shakespeare ever imagined. We laugh at them: it’s hard not to. And yet, when they put on a show for the nobles, and the nobles – the men, at least – mock them mercilessly, we feel that something is not right. And Holofernes of all people, possibly the most absurd of all these characters, articulates in an unforgettable line what it is that is not right:

This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.

Never has a reprimand been more just, more deserved, and delivered with a greater innate dignity. The young men, cloistered in their own enclosed world of games, games both with words and indeed with life itself, have forgotten, or, perhaps, have never learnt, how to be generous, gentle, and humble. The ladies, who, significantly, take no part in the mockery, must educate the men: whatever joy and happiness one may find in life, it is a serious business, and, beyond a certain point, one must learn to put away one’s childish things. The tonality that had been missing in the men’s lives arrives with the news of the death of the Princess’ father: those who had refused to look on reality with any real seriousness must now face up to the challenge of the ultimate reality. Whether they will be able to meet the challenge, we do not know: as Berowne, the most intelligent of the men, says, “that’s too long for a play”. But the challenge is set. If the men are to win the ladies, they must prove themselves worthy of them.

Rosaline, the first in the line of Shakespeare’s great female protagonists of comedy – Beatrice, Viola, the similarly named Rosalind were to follow– sets Berowne a particularly demanding challenge:

ROSALINE

…You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

This a real world with which Berowne is not familiar – and from which, indeed, he had tried to shield himself.

BEROWNE

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

And yet, this is the challenge that he must meet. No more nonsense about taking oaths to live lives of study and seclusion: life is a serious business, and its seriousness needs to be faced. That element that had been so conspicuously missing in the lives of the men is now provided by the new tonality, and there is a sense of completeness.

The play is left unresolved in a sense: whether the men can rise to the challenge set them by the ladies, we do not know; that the challenge is accepted is, however, resolution enough. And, after all the sophisticated wordplay, after all the spectacular verbal pyrotechnics, the play ends with two very homely songs, with simple words, and drawing on everyday scenes. It’s like a draught of fresh spring water on a palate sated with rich and exotic cocktails, and the effect is magical. It is hard to believe that such an effect was created by a young playwright just starting out on his career.

We need not see in Love’s Labour’s Lost intimations of what is yet to come: it is a great work in its own right, and really requires no special pleading.

#Shakespeare400 “King Lear” revisited

I saw King Lear again last night – a touring production in the Oxford Playhouse, with Michael Pennington, a very favourite actor of mine, as Lear. I go back quite a long way with both actor and play. On my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, back in 1978, I saw Michael Pennington play Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, and I have since seen him play Timon of Athens, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and double up as Claudius and Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Peter Hall’s production. And as for the play itself, it has haunted my mind ever since the age of eleven, when my parents took me to see a production at the Edinburgh Festival with Timothy West in the title role. That night, I was so excited by what I had seen, I couldn’t get to sleep. I have seen the play on stage several times since: by my count, last night’s performance was the ninth. There have been some extraordinary Lears amongst them – Brian Cox, John Wood, and Timothy West again, some thirty years after I had first seen him in the role. (I have also seen Robert Stephens’ much admired performance, but I saw him only at the end of the run, when it was obvious that he was physically exhausted, and not really up to it: he died shortly afterwards, and it was intimated that the physical exertion of playing the role hastened his demise.)

I think it’s fair to say I have been very close to King Lear over the years, although I should be careful about making such a claim: this huge, craggy monster of a play is not really something one can get very close to. But for over forty years now I have read and re-read it, seen television broadcasts, heard radio productions, listened to audio recordings, revisited it in my imagination God knows how many times – made it, in short, my own. I have no gift for memorising things, and don’t try to do it anyway, but I found, watching the play last night, that I could anticipate every line spoken; I could identify the omissions, the slight re-orderings; I could even tell at which point they were following the Quarto or the Folio text. One would think that when one gets to such a stage, the interest in the play itself would become a bit jaded, and focus not so much on the work, perhaps, but on how it is done this time round: how, after all, can one be shocked or overwhelmed by something one has been so familiar with for so long? But that was not the case. Not that I didn’t take an interest in how it was done this time round, and not that I didn’t make comparisons with previous interpretations: one can hardly help doing either. But the sheer elemental force of the play, a force so unremittingly powerful and startling that it seems to render all commentary both irrelevant and impertinent, remained undiminished.

Will there ever come an age, I wonder, when this play will not speak with such burning urgency to the issues of the times? The world is currently on fire. Perhaps it always was, and I am just noticing it now more intensely. Senseless hatred, cruelty and brutality on unimaginable scale, grotesque injustice, and dumb animal suffering – somehow, no matter how much the world changes, some things seem to remain with us, as if ineradicable. This is the world of King Lear. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We get a sense of being close to the apocalypse itself. And yet, when we came to the storm scenes at the centre of the play, I found myself asking just how we came here. Was this inevitable from the opening scene? One could certainly trace a coherent line from the opening scene to this raging tempest, a tempest both real and also of the mind, but could that line have been otherwise? If, say, all we had of the play was that opening scene, could we have guessed that this is what it would lead to? I don’t think so. If we had the opening scene alone, we would, I think have conjectured this to have been the start of a fairy-tale: we may have conjectured that the rest of the play would have been something like, say, Cymbeline. For that opening, though psychologically coherent, does have a fairy-tale feel to it. But how did we get from a fairy tale to … well, to this? Despite all the familiarity with the text that I had bragged about earlier, I honestly don’t know. There’s a mystery about art of this stature, no less than there is about life itself, that all the knowledge and understanding in the world cannot fathom. And, furthermore, I claim only familiarity with this play: knowledge and understanding are different matters.

We tend to think of the play these days as, essentially, a bleak play. Since Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production with Pau Scofield in the early 60s, we tend to think of it in Beckettian terms – dark, desolate, comfortless. But it was not so long ago that so distinguished a critic as Kenneth Muir (editor of the old Arden edition) was seeing it as essentially a Christian play – a play about a man who loses the whole world, but gains his soul. We like nothing better these days than to scoff at what we deem to be “sentimental”, but if it is indeed true that Muir’s view of it as a Christian play falls well short of telling the whole story, seeing the play through a Beckettian lens seems to me to fall similarly short. For although we see the most extreme evil and cruelty in this play, humanity is by no means presented solely in such terms. Indeed, it may be claimed that in no other work of literature are we presented with such overwhelming pictures of human good – of good that is tender, self-sacrificing, heroic. And Muir isn’t wrong in what he says: Lear does lose the whole world, and he does gain his soul. That is not the whole story, no, but is there any formulation of this work that can give us the whole story? In the end, we simply do not know. We do not know anything of the nature of the gods – whether, in their inscrutable way, they do indeed administer justice of sorts, or whether they see humanity as wanton boys see flies, and kill us for their pleasure. We do not even know whether the gods exist at all. The extreme good and extreme evil we see are all human good, and human evil: what need of gods or of devils when we can fulfil ourselves the roles of both? By the end, both good and evil are destroyed: so absolute is the sense of destruction that no-one even pauses to think of who should now rule, of how the country should now continue: such matters are important at the end of a Hamlet or of a Macbeth, but not here. Is the Good we see an irrelevance because it is crushed by the Evil? Or does the very presence of Good, miraculous as it is, redeem the world on some plane, despite all the Evil that engulfs it? The play offers us no hint of an answer either way. Lear speaks of taking upon us “the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”, but even this is ambivalent: are we spying on behalf of God, who, by implication, cannot see what is happening in his creation? Or are we spying on God himself?

This year will be the Year of Lear for me. I have tickets to see Anthony Sher play the role this summer at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (after his magnificent performance as Falstaff, expectations are high) ; and it has been announced that later this year, Glenda Jackson will be coming out of retirement to tackle this Everest of Shakespearean roles. And I am certainly not missing out on that. My obsession with this most terrible and awe-inspiring of works shows no sign of diminishing.

Revisit Lear? When have I not inhabited this play?

Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I seem to have started this year immersed in late Shakespeare. First, there was the cinema broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s fine production of The Winter’s Tale. And, in a fit of bank-balance-depleting enthusiasm late last year, I bought myself tickets to all three of the late threesome (I hesitate to call it a “trilogy”) of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that beautiful little theatre attached to the Globe that attempts to recreate the environment in which these plays would originally have been performed. I reported on their production of Cymbeline a few weeks ago, and, earlier this week, I was back there to see The Winter’s Tale. The Tempest will follow in a couple of weeks’ time.

(The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are also putting on the late play Pericles, and perhaps I should have gone along to that too: but I refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote more than a few scenes at most of that work; and, further, my bank balance was in a parlous state as it was…)

I find these plays fascinating, but maddeningly, sometimes frustratingly, elusive. Cymbeline has particularly puzzled me. When I first wrote about it in this blog, I presented it as a work in which Shakespeare was setting out in a new direction, but in which he had not quite found his feet; that he was experimenting, though not always successfully. When I read that post again before sitting down to write this, I found myself embarrassed by my presumption. That Shakespeare was moving into a new direction – a direction already foreshadowed, incidentally, by the earlier All’s Well That Ends Well – is undeniable, but the more I read that play, the more certain I am that the old boy knew precisely what he was doing.

The production I saw last month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse seemed to confirm this: for all the play’s manifold absurdities – none of them, I think, unintentional – Cymbeline, in performance, came across as a cogent and highly satisfactory piece of theatre. As in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare seemed fascinated by the plotlines and the conventions of the fairy tale: this was, in many ways, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the story of Snow White (variations of which, I gather, had been widespread long before the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection). To the fairy story element, Shakespeare added knockabout humour – an element that the production I saw played up to the hilt. Nonetheless, through all this, we seemed transported at points into what I can only describe as another dimension. I am not sure how this happened.

Cymbeline ends – as do, in their different ways, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – in reconciliation and in joy: it seems as if Shakespeare, having depicted in his tragedies the darkest of visions, looked beyond the tragic in his late plays; but what he glimpsed when he looked beyond remains, though wondrous, enigmatic and elusive.

Of the three plays, I tend to find The Winter’s Tale the most approachable. By that I mean this this is the play I think I understand best. This is in no small measure due to the first half of the play returning us with the utmost force back into the world of his earlier tragedies. And yet, there is a difference. When thinking about the earlier tragedies, we must, if our thought is to be more than merely superficial, consider the source and the nature of the evil that is depicted as engulfing humanity; but in The Winter’s Tale, neither the source nor the nature is debatable: they just are – brute facts, beyond analysis, beyond discussion, beyond thought. The evil emerges from nowhere: Leontes is Iago to his own Othello. It wreaks havoc, destroying all in its path: never has Yeats’ famous line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” seemed more appropriate. And, having destroyed all in its path, it disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared. There’s no point looking for reason here: it’s all beyond reason. And as the first half ends, and we emerges dazed into the interval, what we have witnessed seems to challenge us: after such evil, what reconciliation?

We can never tell whether or not Shakespeare knew Greek. There certainly were scholars of Greek in London – Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, for a start – and it is not, I think, stretching credulity too far to imagine that Shakespeare, given his literary curiosity and his mastery of language, may well have taken the trouble of learning Greek, and reading its literature. We simply do not know. But, whether by design or by accident, this first half of The Winter’s Tale seems to me to be in many ways a recasting of Euripides’ Heracles: there, too, we see a man in the grips of an irrational madness, and who, beset by delusions, destroys that which is most precious to him – his own family; and, having done this, the sanity cruelly returns, so he has now to live not merely with his loss, but also with his guilt. At this point, Euripides’ play ends, but Shakespeare was determined to pursue the drama further: the end he has in sight seems to look towards another play by Euripides – Alcestis, which finishes, like The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen brought back from the dead, and with subsequent reconciliation. The question is how to work one’s way to such an ending from the total devastation with which the first half finishes.

Shakespeare’s solution is a curious one, and one that I am not sure I quite understand: he negotiates the path back from tragedy to reconciliation through a pastoral, through song and dance, and through earthy, rustic comedy. Admittedly, the sudden outburst of rage from Polixenes threatens even here to turn the plot back towards the tragic, but that possibility is quickly averted. The knockabout humour continues even into the final act, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Shakespeare rounds off the drama with a scene that is miraculous in all respects: Hermione is miraculously restored to life, and, for reasons which seem to defy analysis, the audience miraculously accepts this. I don’t think I have come across any other scene in any other plays that conveys such a sense of wonder.

I have seen quite a few productions of The Winter’s Tale now, both on stage and on screen, but I don’t think I have seen any that projects, as this production does, the horror of the first half with such unremitting power. As I sat there watching the scenes I thought I already knew, I could almost physically feel a knot in my stomach, tightening. The closing scenes of that first half were particularly affecting: the candles – the entire hall is lit only by candles – all went out, the physical darkness engulfing us an apt metaphor for the spiritual darkness; and Antigonus, charged with abandoning the newborn baby in the wilderness, entered with the helpless child, lit only by a hand-held lantern. Some commentators have suggested that the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” should be played for laughs, but this production, quite rightly, doesn’t go for that. Instead, a terrifying bear-like shape moves vaguely in the profound darkness behind Antigonus, and the lantern extinguishes, leaving the entire hall in utter darkness. And then, the audience, still in utter darkness, hears the eerie moans of Antigonus’ mariners perishing in the shipwreck. Nature itself seems to be taking its revenge, indiscriminately, on errant mankind. And I, for one, could not help asking myself: after this, what reconciliation can be possible?

I must admit that the long, pastoral fourth act, with its knockabout comedy, continues to puzzle me. It all works in the theatre, and for many, that is a justification in itself. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for trying to rationalize that which is beyond rational thought.

The joy engendered in the final scene always seems to me a subdued joy: it acknowledges rather than banishes the tragedy. Productions at the Globe Theatre – and in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, its indoor venue – end, as the original productions seemingly did, with an elaborate dance in which the entire cast takes part, but, after the subdued nature of the final scene, I could have wished the dance here to have been less exuberant. Such exuberance as was conveyed seems not to fit with what had gone before: a solemn dance would, I think, have been more appropriate. But if that indeed was a false step, it was the only false step in the entire production. Everything else about it seemed perfect: John Light’s frightening portrayal of the mad Leontes; Rachel Stirling’s passionate Hermione; the compassionate Antigonus of David Yelland; the superbly feisty Paulina of Niamh Cusack (whom I had seen all of thirty years ago playing Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre); the earthiness of the pastoral comedy; and, of course, the splendidly judged direction of Michael Longhurst. I do not think I’ll see a better production of this play. The power and intensity of the first half, especially, will henceforth remain, I suspect, firmly etched in my mind.

Two weeks later, I am back in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Tempest, another late play that I find elusive. Having now seen the other two late plays of this late threesome, expectations are, I admit, very high.