Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) early opera The Flying Dutchman is a dramatic musical story of redemption, and like many stories about redemption it is also a story about sacrifice. The ENO’s new production, directed by Jonathan Kent, glistens with brio and pizzazz, couched in an atmospheric though at times mildly overblown staging (the parrot astride a blow-up palm tree simulating sex with various tarts works; the attempted rape of Senta feels off key), with a well-balanced cast.
The story has its roots in a 17th century maritime legend about a Dutch sailor doomed to sail the ocean till Judgement Day unless he can find a way to atone for his transgression. His crime was to dare to declare he would sail round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took him till Judgement Day. The Devil overheard and took him at his word, damning him and his crew to sail until the end of time.
This ghostly subject proved popular to artists and audiences in the 18th century, while apparently sightings of the cursed ship persisted well into the 20th. The original tale went through many retellings both on stage and on the page, with different writers offering the Dutchman different forms of redemption. In the Heinrich Heine version Wagner drew from, the Dutchman is allowed to shore every seven years to seek a woman who will remain true to him until death. For Heine, who was critical of marriage, this was a fitting ironic invention: the relieved sailor was always glad to escape from matrimony and hasten back to his ship.
In Wagner’s hands though, the Dutchman’s plight becomes serious: he is the ‘Wandering Jew’ of the ocean, outcast and alone though seeking home. Though as Wagner recorded, this is no wily Odysseus to be saved by the domestic Penelope: the Dutchman symbolises a ‘break’ with the old world, a ‘transformed’ longing to seek adventure and discovery. He seems to have more of the spirit of Prometheus. It is the sailor’s epic determination that damns him, his challenge to the seemingly natural barriers that constrain him and his bid to know the unknown. Indeed, the particular way Wagner shapes the narrative shifts our sense of value. As audience, we only see the consequences: the Dutchman is alone and very much the visionary shut out of life, human and divine.
But at last, the Dutchman’s ‘longing for death’ forces him to seek out his redeemer in Senta, who symbolises ‘women intuited’, ‘a deeply feminine being’ or ‘the woman of the future’. Senta is the intense and almost unhinged daughter of a Norwegian sea captain, has obsessed over the legend of the long suffering Dutchman since she was a young girl, make-believing it is she who will save him. In Act 1, Senta’s father Daland, forced into a bay during a terrible storm, sees a fellow ship and agrees to let its captain, who sings of his weariness and want of a wife, ask for his daughter’s hand in return for the horde of treasure in the ship’s hold. There are deeper associations at play.
Wagner wrote that the sea in this period was an ‘arena of life’ where people’s anticipation for something ‘never before experienced’ could be expressed. It is fitting that the hero of this piece is a sailor. The sea is almost a character in its own right, both dramatically but also reflected vividly in the music, which laps around the characters’ feet, at times overpowering them. We begin and end this opera with the ocean, turning full circle from howling waves to calm waters. The music takes its temper and tempo from the sea, with its growling timpani thunder and the swirling chromatic whirlpools of strings. The sea also represents both the site of the Dutchman’s fateful aspiration and his current prison and jailer.
Senta also has especial connections to the sea, drawing out its dramatic significance as an amplifying chamber of the two characters’ almighty, earth-shattering passions. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman almost draws him to her from his ship by the second act, while her violent rage at the sailors’ revelries in act three literally causes a violent maritime storm. Her final sacrifice that frees the weary sailor at the end of the opera, after she is wrongly accused of inconstancy with Erik, traditionally takes the form of Senta hurling herself from a cliff into the waiting waters, proving she is true till death after all - though in this production she stabs herself with a broken bottle at her engagement party.
Her desire to save the Dutchman is furthermore far from sublimated, and she is frequently described by others as having lost her senses. Like him, this ‘being mad’ sets Senta apart from the everyday world, signalling her perception of a deeper and perhaps more real set of feelings and ideas that just don’t fit, and are almost incomprehensible to those around her. Moreover, she is genuinely moved by the Dutchman’s suffering, and quite sincerely rejects the world around her to save him. This is pivotal to her character and to the plot, while her rejection of ordinary life and its expected fulfilments – embodied in her former lover, Erik – is exactly what ties her to the Dutchman. Both characters are set apart.
This is expressed in musical terms, too. Amidst tempestuous chords that refuse to settle firmly in major or minor, rising cleanly out of an undulating rhythm of swirling chromatics, the flying Dutchman’s majestic leitmotif rings out roundly from the trumpets. Senta’s beautifully hopeful musical depiction is meanwhile more sedate, in the oboes and flutes, innocent yet knowing with its surprising modulations and strange enduring quality. For this is also a story about loneliness and heroic isolation, the terrible burdens of the Promethean spirit and its dramatically dreadful price.
Here, Soprano Oria Boylan is the right mixture of heart-rending and heart-crazed, playing a shy teenager-like character with an unhealthy, pseudo-sexual obsession with the picture of a broody, damned Dutchman. She’s clueless and the butt of everybody’s jokes, at one point putting her pink cardigan over her head so nobody can see her face. Boylan saves up her full volume for one or two manic moments and sings the rest at an expansive mezzo piano, a compelling stage presence all through.
James Creswell’s Dutchman is oddly not quite as sustained in dramatic terms, so while his shadowy backstage presence could add to his mysteriousness and inner turmoil, foregrounding his spine-splintering angst and electrifying loneliness, we hear the full force of his resonant baritone a little too infrequently and usually not centred on the stage, which slightly unhinges the plot.
Nevertheless, there are some intelligent reworkings. In Act 2, rather than the traditional spinning, the women and Senta work on an assembly line making symbolic ships in bottles. Senta’s co-workers aren’t sympathetic at her being lost in love for the at this point fictional Dutchman, but caw and laugh, poke fun and make mock angels at her with their hands. The scene is expertly handled, its hen-like clucking the correct measure of vicious and unkind. Some actors are named in the programme, and it shows. Senta’s old lover Erik (a sympathetic Stuart Skelton) is no longer a huntsman but the factory foreman, all bumbling and humdrum. Likewise, Senta’s treasure-greedy father Daland (Clive Bayley) deserves a mention for his spirited performance and mahogany tones.
Senta’s sympathy as a character is enhanced by having her played – in the form of child in pink pyjamas – on stage for the entirety of the first act. The curtain opens to her perched on the end of a bed, in matching pink like the pink chair next to it which remains symbolically on the stage throughout the three acts. She clutches a red book: the tale of the flying Dutchman. This helps to focus our energies and gives pace to the psycho-sexual undertones running beneath this interpretation. Though it also gives just a bit too much weight to Senta. She is always present; we we see the Dutchman’s suffering mainly through her eyes. This jars a little with the way the Dutchman’s recognisable leitmotif always returns – usually in the major key - by cutting clearly through the turbulent, ambiguous chords: the staging is slightly at loggerheads with the music. Despite that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished production, with assured performances all round.
This week on CW, we feature Society Wars [PDF], a new collection of essays from the Institute of Ideas’ Social Policy Forum. Big society, broken society, sick society, stuck society? Who gets to say how we should behave when it comes to what we smoke, drink and eat? Politicians, nudgers, doctors? Should volunteering for the greater good be compulsory? Is living life dependent on welfare actually making people morally and physically sick? Should our schools become ‘engines of social mobility’ or are they ill-equipped to tackle ingrained social inequalities? We will explore further questions along these lines between now and the Battle of Ideas in the autumn.
19 May 2012
Anti-Americanism hasn’t always been the preserve of the liberal-left in Britain. In the UK, for instance, a not uncommon response among conservatives to 9/11 was: ‘Now they know what it feels like’. For decades the British had lived with IRA terrorism, funded in part by misty-eyed Irish-Americans who from a distance seemed to romanticise armed struggle (by white people, at least). I was working on the letters page of a conservative newspaper in September 2001, and in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the correspondence that didn’t froth with anti-Islamic invective instead reflected that it ‘served Americans right’.
Aside from Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the United States had never properly had to deal with domestic terrorism. This might explain, as Dominic Streatfeild expounds, why it reacted to 9/11 so cack-handedly - and why it continues to do so. Principally, the USA didn’t understand the nature of terrorism. Soldiers use violence to achieve strategic goals; terrorists employ violence to inflict psychological damage and to provoke an over-reaction (after all, al-Qaeda’s ostensible goal is either incoherent or - the destruction of the West - non-negotiable.) ‘Like a crafty Judo move, where the enemy’s strength is reversed and turned against it, al-Qaeda challenged the United States to respond, then sat back and watched’. Mistaking a terrorist attack for a military one, the US took the bait.
The author combines biography and reportage in eight chapters that interlink common themes, each a microcosm of the world after 9/11. There is the tale of a Texan, Mark Stroman, who following President Bush’s exhortation to ‘rid the world of evil’, took it upon himself, in his own words, to take care of these ‘sand niggers’. On October 4, 2001, Stroman shot dead the proprietor of a Dallas petrol station: Vasudev Patel, a Hindu, was one of the first post-9/11 victims, and a casualty of America’s new spirit of ‘othering’.
There is the infamous bombing of a wedding party in Afghanistan in June 2002, which killed 48 and wounded 117, mostly women and children. This calamity was the consequence of ’[t]he decision not to commit large numbers of troops [which] meant less accurate intelligence’, facilitated too by ignorance of the Afghan custom of letting off gunfire at weddings. The ‘war on terror’ had become a grim re-run of Vietnam: ‘coalition troops fought cowardly campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, preferring to drop bombs from the air rather than engaging the enemy on the ground, then lying about the number of women and children they killed’.
Incompetence and ignorance was combined with mendacity. American intelligence protested that Saddam Hussein had ordered aluminium tubes intended for obtaining uranium to build ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They weren’t. They were to be used for firing conventional rockets. After the invasion, once it was shown there were only weapons of prosaic destruction ‘the administration decided it was best to assume they had never been there’. The compound where the conventional weapons were stored, in Yusifiyah, near Baghdad, was by-passed by the Americans, and then comprehensively looted by insurgents. One source in the book estimates that of the violence following the invasion, 90 per cent was facilitated by this looting.
The US broke international law and breached human rights conventions, most notoriously in its ‘rendition’ procedure. It then befriended regimes with appalling human rights records, such as that in Uzbekistan, from where it could make airborne sorties to neighbouring Afghanistan. Such a move had eerie precedence: ‘Ignoring human rights abuses for the sake of political expediency was a mistake the United States had been making in the Middle East for decades. It had led to the rise of al-Qaeda in the first place’. As the author judiciously notes, the US did eventually terminate its relationship with Uzbekistan in 2005 on account of pressure from human rights bodies. However, the perfidy of US foreign policy, not least its use of extrajudicial execution and extraordinary rendition, has nonetheless ingrained mistrust - in 2003 Islamic states in northern Nigeria halted anti-polio programmes on the suspicion that an ‘Infidel vaccine’ was a covert US-led means of sterilisation.
In this, perception has become as important as actuality. In an internet age in which information and disinformation circulate instantaneously and interchangeably, and in which the US itself has been an agent of deceit, subjectivity is now king. Streatfeild observes that ‘war declared in the name of human rights, democracy and freedom subverted those very rights and ended up achieving the exact opposite of its stated goals’ and that ‘wherever the US flag went there was death… the politicians lied, and lied, and lied’. Much of A History of the World Since 9/11 is delivered in such taut staccato, and one could be forgiven for thinking this is a conventional anti-war polemic, yet he issues the important proviso: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe these statements or not. What does matter is that a huge percentage of people in the Arab world believe them’.
Therein may lie a ‘root cause’ in the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’: a pervasive dearth of objectivity and reason, and a surplus of subjectivity and conviction. Many opponents of the ‘war on terror’ affirm that there is a moral equivalence between al-Qaeda and neocons who proselytise about freedom and democracy. I wouldn’t be sure about that, but there may be a mental parallel. After September 11, policy-makers called for ‘moral clarity’, comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbor and Bin Laden to Hitler, spewing Manichaean rhetoric about the battle between good and evil. ‘Were we lied to? I’m not certain we were’ concludes Streatfeild. ‘The issue was not one of dishonesty, but of something far more corrosive: certainty’.
This is why 9/11 also brought about a perverse nostalgia for the IRA in Britain. At least they gave warnings. We could negotiate with them because we understand what they wanted. At least these terrorists were open to dialogue and compromise. They could be reasonable.
Ah, the humble human thumb. That tiny appendage that sets us apart from mere beasts. An appendage so great, Montaigne wrote an essay about it. Hell, if we’re really pushed, a thumb can even transport as halfway across the world.
Kieran Hurley knows a thing or two about thumbs. In 2009, Hurley travelled from Glasgow to L’Aquila in Italy, to join the G8 demonstrations. All he had was his outstretched thumb and a ratty cardboard sign, reading South. As Hurley introduces his show, he salutes the audience with a raised thumbs up. With a flick of his wrist, he flips his thumb into the stiff stance of a hitch-hiker. It feels like a blessing. It also neatly encapsulates the meaning of this show; the idea that one tiny movement can inject an entire audience with optimism. The idea that we can all make a difference – if only we try.
That might sound bloody cheesy but this is not a schmaltzy show. In fact, with its indy soundtrack and quirky details, Hitch has a whiff of the Wes Anderson film about it. Hurley initially teases us with obscure but tempting glances at his travelling companions. Slivers of phrases suggest extraordinary, hulking characters, all bonkers and bursting with life. At first, they’re just silhouettes. But as Hurley travels nearly 2,0000 miles to his final destination, these shadowy characters begin to glow.
Hurley also builds up his own character, alongside his livelier and more confident companions. ‘This is me,’ he says as he stands, stiff and frightened, at the side of the stage. At the beginning, he crouches whilst he talks. As he grows up – this is coming of age story at heart – he stands upright and speaks strongly. Moments that really touch and strengthen him, are whispered heavily through the microphone.
Hurley never pushes his message too hard and channels his ideas through his own, stuttering but steady personal development. He does not explicitly condemn the hypocrisy of a G8 meeting, held in a town ravaged by an earthquake and neglected by the authorities. Instead, he uses his faltering hopes and ideals to explore a world – a world of leaders – that have let him, and us, down.
When Hurley reaches Rome, he eagerly seeks out his fellow demonstrators at a central piazza. There, he is he is met by rows upon rows of policemen, their shields held aloft. The protesters Hurley hoped to stand and shout alongside, have been frozen into silence. The abject disappointment etched on Hurley’s face is heartbreaking. It makes one ashamed to live in a world that does not allow this smart, sensitive lad to speak out. But it’s heartening too. Hurley might’ve been silenced in Italy but theatre, if only temporarily, has given Hurley a voice – and what a fine, persuasive voice it is, too.
I normally loath theatrical lectures. But Gary McNair is no starchy, self-righteous professor. He might be teaching us about economics but he’s also a damn sharp showman. Dressed in a shiny black suit and boasting some seriously slicked back hair, McNair looks a bit like a young Paul Daniels. Only, McNair isn’t trying to make rabbits disappear. He’s trying to obliterate money.
McNair kicks of with an impressively lucid narrative on the history of money and the emergence of currency. With a few deft strokes, McNair describes the transition from stone age transactions (‘Who wants this ‘ere carcass?’), to the first discovery of gold and the eventual adoption of paper money. He makes economics entertaining. As he ‘teaches’, we do not lean back but forwards, engaged by his easy charm and accessible insights.
Having established an easy trust with the audience, McNair pushes his show in weirder directions. It all gets a little interactive and we’re encouraged to learn with him, not from him. McNair offers a trade. He presents an envelope of money and invites us to bid for its contents. Immediately, a steely sense of competition surges through the audience. The prospect of a ‘win’ in front of us, we instinctively work against each other. Once held together by mutual laughter, we are now pitched against each other, the prospective of personal gain instantly extinguishing that hard won, community spirit.
When an audience member finally wins the envelope, McNair asks: ‘Who was happy for this girl?’ Some kind-hearted spectators raise their hand. ‘Now, who thinks she’s a bitch?’ More hands are raised. Money doesn’t make us very nice, does it? McNair then proposes a new system; a new way of life, in which we are not beholden to money. It all sounds jolly nice in theory and, as we bleat out McNair’s new code in harmony, the audience binds together once again.
Obviously, McNair’s suggestion – break free of money’s impossible grip – is mostly just fantasy. But it is still a fantasy that gets us thinking and, coming off the back of such an intelligent introduction, it holds some weight. But when McNair attempts to put his theory into practise and invites the audience to shred their own money, the wheels fall off the wagon. No one is willing to put themselves, or their cash, on the line. This is a show that encourages us to dream the impossible – but doesn’t quite inspire us to turn that dream into a reality. Damn us stingy Londoners.
The cultural and social determinants of fairytales and their place in cultural and personal memory might render them rich ground for psychoanalysis, but in French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s adaptation of Snow White, the visual and symbolic referents are switched to a reverse Oedipus complex that would make even Freud blush. The evil Stepmother is a cunning manipulator of her public presence- suited like a dominatrix, heavy black make-up lining her angular cheekbones- travelling between delusion and dream, and Snow White a sinuous, fresh presence exuding sexuality in a revealing white dress that floats in the air at every step.
Snow White toys with a contemporary iconography of femininity veiled in myth, touching on the undertones of the story as imagined in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm. By excavating the sexual, the uncanny and the confrontational in the fairytale through a visually spectacular and dense aesthetic, Preljocaj creates a landscape of noir romanticism, albeit one that is humorously self-conscious, toying with the dense, excessive romanticism of Mahler’s symphonies that accompany the piece. It’s an intellectualised spectacle that’s arresting and aggressive, overtly concerned with its own image. It’s lyrical, but never poetic, rendering each character a distinct physicality that flirts with the traditional language of ballet, displacing precision for personality.
Our experience is shaped by this sexual disposition, but it doesn’t by any means take over the unfolding narrative, and at times, it’s appropriated into a cunning ambiguity in the relationships that unfold onstage. Snow White befriends not dwarves, but tall, handsome mine labourers, who in an impressively choreographed scene, descend in aerial acrobatics from caverns in a stone wall against the rhythmical, playful background of Mahler’s first symphony, surrounding the eloped princess as a dangerous yet protective shield.
The iconic takes centre stage in the production, allowing time for every image to be consumed, from the full-height golden wall of the castle to the tall mirror that divides the stage, surrounded by a dark cloth. This darkness is a key visual motif in the piece, serving as contour for the emotional valances of every scene, be it the Stepmother forcing Snow White to eat the blood red apple in a muscular fight, or the opening scene itself, in which a pregnant Queen all veiled in black passes away into the depth of the night as her baby is born. Jean Paul Gautier’s corsetry and costumes adds another layer of the mythical to the story, framing flesh and muscle in erotic tandems, but also referencing more gothic, fairy-tale elements, putting veils and leather together.
The first half of the piece follows a succinct but fraught dialogue with an almost baroque balletic language yet this flirtation is punctured by the divergent rhythms of the individual dancers, with their fluid, gliding movements. Once Snow White flees to the forest, the tone changes, and we move from the stuffiness of interior landscapes to the expanse of the outdoor, a physical vocabulary that is mesmerising and spectacular in its breadth. A dancer performing as a deer makes its way through the forest through jolted movements, cutting through air with its piercing golden antlers, his heart removed as a sacrifice for the princesses. A particularly entrancing moment comes in the encounter between the prince and a seemingly dead Snow White, as she is lifted from the coffin- it’s a romantic yet playful dance with a lyrical and playful feel- Snow White’s body is both extremely alert and immobile, living and dead, a fluidity and precision that are impeccable and evocative.
Preljocaj’s concept is inspired by the writings of the infamous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who contended that society should not conceal the darkness of fairytales, their engagement with death, violence and sexual awakening, instead allow children to encounter these in the fictitious narrative scapes in order to facilitate a more natural relationship. Preljocaj develops this dialogue in a spectacular manner, bringing an aesthetic of power- with gold, dark and silver puncturing the stage- as well as a territorial and feminine fight between Snow White and her Stepmother. This ‘Snow White’ complex feels fraught, and at times, underdeveloped- Preljocaj is interested in how society encourages older women to hold on to their youth and beauty at a cost towards their daughters. Despite the dramatic emphasis, the confrontational element between two women is tender and subtle, less precipitous than expected, bathed in the delicacy of the physicality, the movement of costumes and the grandeur of the setting.
All theatre involves detective work. Regardless of genre or content, every play requires an audience to piece together the evidence and answer the question: what is this piece about? A murder mystery, then, could be seen as theatre boiled down to its most basic but essential form. This genre still asks us to find meaning – it’s just a lot more open about its purpose.
What Simon Stephens has done with his extraordinary play Three Kingdoms is to take this stripped down genre and add layer, upon layer, upon layer, until the stage is cloudy with clues and confusion. Stephens has returned to theatre’s basic roots – the search for meaning – and planted new, exotic seeds. He has dug deep and, with the help of visionary director Sebastian Nübling, allowed theatre to climb and bend and twist in any which way it pleases. He has given British theatre the chance to grow.
The play begins in a fairly conventional fashion, which is perhaps why so many British theatre critics have failed to ‘get’ this piece, searching for the sort of coherence this play never sets out to provide. We open in a Hammersmith police station, where two British detectives are struggling with a gruesome case. They have discovered the severed head of a Russian lady, washed up on the Thames. Through their interrogations, the detectives learn this headless lady was ensnared in an international sex-trafficking ring. They travel to Germany, and later Estonia, in an attempt to hunt down the head-hacking, head honcho. The detectives’ path, then, is relatively straight forward – but the production does not follow them. Instead, it scuttles along its own, insanely twisted path, packed with dark alleys and terrifying dead ends.
Strangely, this production gains its strength from constantly undermining itself. Just as the detectives, or we, might be crawling towards some sort of truth, we’re teased into confusion again. Countless languages are squeezed in here – including English, German, Estonian and Russian – and, whilst the script is sometimes translated, it’s often left hanging. It feels like the production is laughing at us and our measly attempts at cross-cultural understanding. When the detectives interrogate a friend of the deceased, they bring in a Russian interpreter. We can only make out the most basic terms in his fluent translations and it lends an absurd air to proceedings. This absurdity is amplified when we discover the girl isn’t even Russian and that this pathetic attempt at interpretation has been entirely futile.
Whilst Stephens uses his script to play with the audience’s instinctive search for meaning, Nübling creates a visual landscape thick with misdirections. It’s as if Nübling has transported all the ambiguity of Stephens’ script directly onto the stage. Almost every line is accompanied by a blitz of bizarre visuals, which rub against the scene ‘proper’ in mysterious, tantalising ways. This clash between the vocals and visuals is built up slowly. At first, it comes mainly from the actors’ eyes. When the detectives travel to Germany, the German detective frequently looks directly at the audience, as if he’s challenging us to see things differently. As the confusion builds, the background performers – who scrub the floor with glazed eyes and traverse the stage in a endless blur of movement - all begin to stare out at us. Don’t look at the front of the stage, they seem to be screaming silently. Don’t look for the obvious. Maybe, just maybe, if you look beyond the surface, you might get a little closer to understanding us and discovering the truth.
As the detectives move further away from home and become steeped in a culture they cannot fathom, the stage bleeds with clues they cannot see and we cannot fully understand. An elusive ‘baddy’ slides through the walls, carrying suitcases packed, not with clothes, but with women. Insistent but hollow music amplifies the script in odd ways, hinting at pivotal moments the detectives fail to recognise. The witnesses become stranger and stranger until they are barely human. They don incredibly lifelike animal masks, alternately predatory creatures or prey. They become what the British detectives imagine them to be, the detectives’ cultural ignorance only further complicating their case.
This play might ostensibly be about sex-trafficking but what it really explores is our inability – or reluctance – to engage with or properly interpret other cultures. This is what makes the majority of those blustering reviews even more misguided, since they are falling into the very trap this production so ingeniously sets. In a final scene, an Estonian chap sits down with a British detective and promises to show him how to create an origami swan. He holds out a sheet of paper and savagely crumples it. The other detective follows suit. ‘That’s not it,’ comes back the coolly frustrated reply. That swan might be a mess – but it is their own, beautiful mess and it is our responsibility to translate that mess, as faithfully and completely as we can.
This week on CW, Sam Burt reflects on the controversy surrounding the recent London Book Fair, and argues we can best help Chinese writers by fostering a global market for Chinese writing, regardless of state censorship in China. Miriam Gillinson reviews the National Theatre of China’s production of Richard III, part of Globe to Globe at Shakespeare’s Globe, and finds much is lost in translation.
8 May 2012
Is it acceptable for a publicly-funded British institution to be seen to be tacitly complying with the restriction of artistic freedom by another state in order to solicit partial co-operation from that state? This was the question that hung over the opening of this year’s London Book Fair (April 16-18). The Fair is a trade event that gathers together players in publishing every year to sell rights and strike deals, but it also features cultural events and discussions. Since China was this year’s ‘Market Focus’, the British Council organised a programme of ‘conversations’ with visiting authors from China, state publishers, and relevant experts.
The Council’s programme was notable for the absence of any conversations with famous exiled Chinese authors (such as Nobel laureate Gao Xinjiang) or with ‘dissident’ writers living in China (such as the author and environmental activist Dai Qing). For critics like the journalist Nick Cohen, this was a case of self-censorship on the part of the programme organisers, and, as the British Council is taxpayer-funded, a cause for ‘national shame’. The Council claimed in its defence that there was no conflict of interest between their own choice of invited speakers and the list approved by the Chinese authorities, and that the programme focussed on writers resident in China. Nevertheless it seems likely that fear of a re-run of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair was another powerful motivation. That year’s Fair, where Chinese writers and publishers were the Guests of Honour, was marred by a highly public spat between visiting Chinese state officials and the Fair organisers. The dispute regarded the attendance of two ‘dissident’ writers (Ma Jian and Dai Qing) and it culminated in a walk-out of the opening ceremony by Chinese officials, followed by a quick about-face on the part of the organisers. It was essentially the result of poorly handled scheduling and miscommunication, and it probably focussed minds on all sides at the London Book Fair about the need for shared understanding from the outset.
In forming a judgment about the propriety of the Council’s cooperation with the Chinese state, let’s consider the nature of restrictions confronting writers in China today. How censorship operates on a day-to-day basis has been transformed by wider changes in government policies and technology. When we think of the crudest forms of censorship that existed under Mao, we think of the government giving detailed orders to writers about what they are required to write. Since the ‘reform and opening-up’ began in the 1980s, we think of censorship operating in negative terms: the government warns writers not to write about certain politically sensitive subjects, but otherwise they have much more freedom from government interference to write as they wish. Both images are inadequate descriptions of reality, because they focus only on government intervention and neglect fundamental structural factors.
A 2008 report by PEN - ‘Failing to Deliver’ – illustrates how government censors in China have become more sophisticated with time, in part because the structural constraints and limited options confronting Chinese authors means they don’t have to be so heavy-handed; the state exerts pressure on publishers not to re-print – and leans on state media outlets not to publicise - disapproved works, fostering a culture of self-censorship, where authors often don’t realise they have been censored until they are informed via word of mouth or the blogosphere. It is not just that the Chinese government restricts artistic expression through codified ‘red lines’ enforced through sanctions - they are smarter than that. Officials understand that such ‘red lines’ have necessarily blurred edges and the criteria for what is permitted is often unclear. It is also commonly understood inside China that China’s recent economic success has not been matched by an equivalent impact on world literature; in 2011 China’s copyright import to export ratio for book titles was 3:1. They understand that this cannot be achieved by diktat or financial incentives alone; as the author Liu Xinglong puts it, ‘Even with the nation’s coffers of gold and silver at your disposal, you simply cannot buy literature, never mind masterpieces’.
Instead, the basic structure of the publishing industry in China has, to date, provided a sort of compromise solution. At the beginning of the 21st-century, there were only around 500 publishing houses in the whole of China (compared with over a thousand in Taiwan). Over many years the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) has not permitted real growth in the number of officially-approved publishing houses, and has instead chosen to satiate rising demand by turning a blind eye to private outfits buying ISBN codes from state publishers (legal changes in 2010 officially sanctioned these trades). The fragmented core of Chinese publishing consists of many large, state-dominated firms. By contrast, a few large global publishing and media groups in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and North America dominate an extremely competitive global market. Recognising that their country lacks any equivalent publishing ‘giants’, the Chinese government has tried to goad publishing houses, public and private alike, to form more joint-ventures, creating a more consolidated industry.
In the meantime, despite the relatively low penetration of e-reader devices into China, ‘internet literature’ in its various forms is a major part of the literary scene. Aspiring writers upload short stories and novels to lively online forums and communities, and, if their work is well received, they might be snapped up by one of the many publishers who monitor them closely. In 2011 several novels that were published in this way were received as entries for the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize.
This system tacitly recognises that, in the pursuit of honest art, writers will occasionally transgress official boundaries, and they must feel relatively safe in doing so. In this sense, then, ‘internet literature’ provides a kind of testing-ground for new writers to experiment, whilst also reassuring nervous state censors - the literature forums are relatively easy to monitor, novels are usually uploaded online incrementally, and do not reach as many readers as printed editions do. There are over 500m internet users in China, and around 300m of these keep blogs. Cultural networking sites like Douban.com are key means of promoting releases to new readers. Print sales are growing at half the rate they were five years ago, around the time that internet publishers began merging on a serious scale and transforming into serious - though also slow-growing - commercial ventures. The Economist describes how writers like Murong Xuecun have become used to writing “edgy” works online and making necessary cuts for the printed edition; Murong sees himself as ‘a proactive eunuch’. The ‘internet literature’ scene can also be seen as a substitute for what China is lacking (with the some ‘underground’ exceptions), namely a large number of vibrant, flourishing small and medium-sized publishers that can innovate and adapt quickly to new trends, fashions and niches.
Among other reasons behind the inefficient structure of China’s publishing sector is obviously a fixation with control by the authorities, albeit within increasingly wide parameters. And the cost of control is both incomplete professionalisation (with small operators and authors who self-publish not earning enough to regard it as a full-time profession) and lack of success overseas. Still too few translated editions of Chinese novels are published abroad, and often with lengthy delays. Partly this is due to a shortage of active translators. In any case, translating works of fiction is an inherently fraught process that depends for its success on the very intangible, personal factors that enable relationships of trust to grow between Chinese authors and their translators. Finding the right translator can take time, and different authors have their own specific ideas about what the role of a translator ought to entail (for instance, conventions about translating culturally-specific slang, which matter enormously in a country that speaks in at least 50 different dialects). Foreign editors frequently acquire the rights to Chinese novels before considering who should translate it, and whether the appropriate translator is available.
The problem is not quite that there are no authors in China who are writing honestly and authentically (many such authors write two versions of their printed work side-by-side, one to be distributed in China, the other for foreign release and/or private consumption), but that such work is often known only to a small minority both inside and outside China. So, what is to be done? For those of us who believe ardently in freedom of speech and expression anywhere in the world, a principled place to begin would be to provide the conditions for talented Chinese authors to achieve due recognition and success overseas. If it is true that censorship is a barrier to certain kinds of great literature, then it is reasonable to suppose that a Chinese author may in future become world-famous for a work that is only available in an edited version inside China.
If we really want to promote greater freedom for writers living and working in China, we need to create a conducive environment for new Chinese talent to make their name abroad, which will thus shine a spotlight on how China’s present system is failing its readers, and stimulate debate and pressure on the authorities. It is one thing to know that your favourite writer is self-censoring, and to long to be able to read their freely-given thoughts, but quite another when a book that more closely approximates that writer’s vision is not an abstract proposition but a real work being read and discussed by other people. In order to do that, we need to start by fostering the most basic cross-border creative partnerships and bonds of trust, which at its most basic simply consists of meeting face-to-face to discuss literature. Discussing literature for its own sake is foundational; as the visiting author Bi Feiyu put it when asked whether he found such events useful, ‘dialogue is the objective of dialogue’.
If the exclusion of authors disliked by the Chinese government was a necessary condition for the Council’s programme to go ahead, so be it. Whether it in fact was necessary is a separate discussion to have; what matters is that some established writers visited from China to exchange ideas about new literary genres, globalisation and e-publishing, and to search for commercial opportunities. It is certainly shameful of the Chinese government to restrict the freedom of Chinese writers to travel abroad to book fairs and conferences, but it is not necessarily shameful of institutions like the British Council - with a remit to promote cultural exchanges around the world - to respond diplomatically if that is the price for having any exchange at all. The Fair already appears to have been a stimulus to other events throughout 2012 examining Chinese literature; hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
I didn’t see Uninvited Guest’s last show, Love Letters Straight From the Heart, but it sounds like it was a delicate, emotionally persuasive show. The company read out extracts from the audience’s own love letters, in a thoughtful and elegant merging of private thoughts and public expression.
This company’s latest venture, Make Better Please, is a much more jagged, complex and angry affair. It begins in a gentle enough fashion. In fact, it’s a bit like walking into a lazy, Sunday afternoon, as the audience sits in small circles, sipping tea, munching biscuits and flicking through newspapers. We’re invited to identify the day’s most disturbing headline and, after some tentative discussion, the groups are then combined.
Now gathered in a ceremonial circle, the groups discuss their chosen headlines. The actors then take on the guise of pertinent, political figures and we’re invited to hurl questions and complains at these mute, blank figures of power. Unfortunately, this sequence depends entirely on the intensity of the audience’s political passions. No doubt, on some nights, this sequence develops into a spitting, seething volley of rage. On the night I attended, it felt like a limp Question Time, chaired – frustratingly – by no one.
The company has limited energy to feed off and they do well to funnel the faltering resentments, that flicker around the circle. Chords clang, headlines are scribbled on signs plastered throughout the room and, gradually, all the horrors of the day – of our time – start to squeeze in on us. We are given masks of people who have recently died and asked to whisper their names into a pianist’s ear, as he slams down his angry chords. It’s a choking, disturbing moment, as we battle to honour the forgotten dead, over a clashing, obscuring soundscape.
But then the exorcism begins in earnest. Richard Duffy screams and screams, supposedly working through the audience’s anger, as he staggers, stutters and spits out the names of frequent offenders: ‘Cam, Cam, Cameron!’ The actor’s painful catharsis feels too much, though, and a gap opens between the audience and the action. This gap widens, as the warped music envelops us and the actors crack up completely, storming around with strange props, including a massive penis, attached to their flailing bodies. This raving meltdown feels so much wilder than those earlier, halting discussions and the audience seems more bewildered than bedazzled. A performance, then, that encourages respect – but not the painful, poignant recognition I was hoping for.
If you’re staging all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, in 37 different languages, then you sure as hell better get the surtitles right. Unfortunately, rather than translating the text, the surtitles used for the Globe to Globe season, simply – oh so simply – summarise each scene. It’s a bit like reading those awful York notes, alongside the production: ‘Richard pretends to be modest, making a show of refusing to accept power’. Not only does this reduce each scene – and give the sense that it is over before it has even begun – but it means the English section of the audience is left feeling a little abandoned, feeding on the scraps of meaning those scant surtitles provide.
This dubious decision has made it very hard for the visiting companies: do they go for broad, panto style theatre – in order to draw everyone in – or do they stick to their guns, teasing out subtleties and hoping those who only speak English will somehow keep up? The National Theatre of China has an even tougher task, since their costumes are still floating out at sea, in a rather Twelfth Night-esque twist. Essentially then, they must translate ‘Richard III, without language and with very few visual aids. An Olympian challenge, indeed.
The company must also reinterpret Shakespeare, without relying on his natural rhythms. Mandarin is quite a hard-hitting language – packed with monosyllabic words – and the cast’s delivery sounds a little monotonous. It’s hard to make out those elegant swoops, dips and swerves in Shakespeare’s text. The company works hard at finding other ways to break up the script. Sometimes, the actors sing their speeches. When Lady Ann mourns her husband death, she sounds like a desolate nightingale. When Margaret predicts Richard’s downfall, she is one of the few actors to really shout; a foghorn of despair.
Director Wang Xiaoying also breaks things up, by teasing out some interesting physical performances. There is an arresting moment, when Ann laments her marriage to Richard, and circles the stage in a solemn dance. It feels like she’s marking out the boundaries of her new and horribly limited life. Xiaoying also explores Richard’s character, through the actor’s movements. This Richard III (possibly played by Zhang Donghyu. though the programme is unhelpfully vague) might not have a hump – but he is thoroughly twisted inside. After certain pivotal moments, Donghyu twists up his limbs, freezing them in ugly contortions. The on-stage musician also helps accent the play, with ingenious riffs on his mystical array of instruments.
But for all these elegant solutions, there are also a number of overblown touches. The comic sections really grate: it’s as if the director has gone through the script with a massive highlighter, fiercely slashing through all the j-o-k-e-s. Richard’s hired executioners are re-imagined as two comic, gymnastic sidekicks, who express their reservations through back flips, camp tiptoeing and flippant fights. The audience is encouraged to laugh at death and the play’s intensity – and Richard’s power – diminishes rapidly with every chuckle.
Edward Bond is notoriously dismissive of critics, which makes it tough to review his plays – particularly his later, trickier works. I can almost hear him hissing in my ear, as I write: ‘Philistine! Ingrate! Fool!’ The Chair Plays, never performed in England until now, feel like a critical challenge. Bond has reduced his writing to its starkest elements and it’s as if he’s waiting, hoping for us to call his bluff and declare his words, naked and bare. Well, I accept your challenge, Mr Bond: The Chair Plays, as ambitious as they might, left me shaken but not stirred.
The main billing – ‘Chair’ – is yet to come. That’s fortunate, since ‘For Have I None’ and ‘The Under Room’ run at three hours as it is. Both are set in the future; a time when the streets stream with blood, mass suicides run riot and officials rule the roost. All this ugly chaos unfurls outside the houses, in which these two plays are set. Inside, all is tense, still - and heaving with symbolism.
‘For Have I None’ kicks off with a petrified lady, Sara, flinching with each knock at the door. Each time she opens the door, she is presented with endless black. Her husband, Jams, arrives home and he cannot hear these haunting knocks. The Biblical overtones simmer sinisterly: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ But this is a godless world that Sara and Jams inhabit and, instead of welcoming in Jesus, they eventually let in a young chap who has fled a massive suicide. He claims to be Sara’s brother but sibling ties don’t exist in this black, rootless landscape and Sara is unconvinced.
The opening scenes, directed with a thankful lack of ceremony by Sean Holmes, jangle quite nicely. The stage space becomes filled with weird gaps. It’s a world where the senses have turned senseless; although Sara and Jams talk, jaggedly, they do not connect and although there’s a hellish meltdown raging outside, life inside screeches on like normal. .
But one yearns for the play to open out and for Bond to grant us access to that shadowy, hollow landscape outside. Instead, Bond devotes much of his play to simple, marital squabbling. Sure, the nature of the argument may be pointed and bizarre – the husband and wife fight fiercely about who sits in which chair – but the dynamic remains familiar. Despite all the hazy danger that seeps under the door, inside feels safe and even a touch predictable.
Aidan Kelly’s character – the ruthless officer – is the only one connected to the rotten heart of this play and his performance is the most intense. It’s frightening to watch him chomp on mashed potatoes, as he describes a whole town marching towards death. Naomi Frederick’s role is much trickier and she struggles. All the heavy symbolism lurking in this play is laid at her feet. As she repeatedly jolts at those phantom knocks, her character start to feel like an exercise.
There is a baffling scene, deep into the play, when Sara (Frederick) enters the room, decked in a sky-blue cloak, covered in spoons. Frankly, she looks absurd. She also sounds ridiculous, as spoons jangle with her every step. Sara later turns her coat inside out, to reveal a tapestry of bones. It’s such a forced, false and wasted moment. There’s still a dangerous, glittering energy to this play – it’s a world, which could see any manner of horrors crawl through that door and tear up the stage. The fact the door reveals a girl decked in spoons is hard to stomach.
‘The Under Room’ is even more pared down and is directed by Bond himself at a grating, glacial pace. It takes place in a cellar, where an illegal immigrant is taking refuge from the police, swarming outside. With his entry, the immigrant (Felix Scott) picks up a white dummy and places it on a chair. For almost the entire play, the other actors talk to this dummy, whilst Scott speaks out to the audience. The symbolism feels so pointed that it actually blunts itself. Yes, we get that this immigrant has lost his identity. We understand that he now functions in a world that does not understand him and can barely even see him. But is that enough to hang a whole play on?
It all feels frustratingly and wilfully dry. Bond’s desire to write a highly stylised and starkly symbolic piece has ripped the guts out of his writing. ‘The Under Room’ never throbs with the kind of thick danger that wraps its way around his other, better and meatier plays. Instead, this feels like a skeletal piece, the characters as wispy and blank as the dummy that sits amidst them.
There are still some incredible moments of icy lyricism, when Bond forgets to restrain himself and lets his writing free. There is a brilliant monologue, in which the immigrant recalls the murder of his parents. ‘I vomit my laughter’, he says, as he describes a blade sliding into his mother or father: ‘The knife throb because the heart is beating’. This is what Bond does so bloody well: that ugly, mesmerising combination of love and destruction, which slices right through you and leaves you gasping for air.
Chalet Lines takes you by surprise. It takes time to confirm exactly what sort of play it wants to be and, by the time you realise, it’s very nearly too late. At first, it looks like a broad, hearty comedy about working class women in the North of England. We’re at Butlin’s. There’s a 70th birthday in the process of going tits up. There’s plenty of cheap plonk and an undercurrent of familial friction. Characters catch each other with the sort of gruff Geordie sarcasm that lashes lovingly. Tonally, it’s not a million miles from one half of Stags and Hens.
A couple of flashbacks later, however, and Lee Mattinson’s play has turned into a wistful whizz through the generations. Mattinson guides us through four generations of the Walker family. Barbara, the birthday girl of the first scene, has two daughters: Loretta, who’s cocked up the restaurant reservation, and her favourite Paula, who hasn’t even turned up. Loretta’s daughters, Jolene and the awkward Abigail are also along for the cava palava.
From there, it’s back to 1996, where the Spice Girls blare out over preparations for Paula’s hen do. Neither Loretta nor Barbara have been invited; not that that stops them bursting in and putting their own boozy stamp on proceedings. Then, zap, further back. 1961. The night before a 19-year-old Barbara’s shotgun wedding to a man she doesn’t love. She’s pregnant (presumably with Paula, though Sian Breckin is at least a decade too young) with another man’s child.
Chalet Lines isn’t a state of the nation play. The women are too culturally specific for that. Nonetheless, it’s trying to work along similar lines, showing the currents of change over fifty-odd years for a certain section of British society. It’s worth noting that Butlin’s sold off almost all of its post-war camps in 1998, with the remainder bought out by a corporation two years later. The run-down chalet becomes a symbol of something that has struggled to stand the winds of time. The wallpaper is the same throughout: pallid blue and sour cream.
Women and class are definitely up for discussion. What’s less certain is Mattinson’s point. It’s left ambiguous – almost to the point of contradiction – as to what he’s lamenting. Is it the endless and vicious cycle of inherited values? Or is it the moral decay of the past half-century? In other words, with regards the three eras sat side by side, should we be looking at the differences or the similarities?
Nevertheless, Chalet Lines pretty much tells you not to bother looking at all. Mattinson’s characters and events are larger than life. Its gags are slick and its sentiment is unabashed. Characters often voice the themes of the play. All this smacks of a writer siding for flair and entertainment over truthfulness. That’s fine; there are good plays like that. But they can’t make nuanced, near-contradictory sociological points. Mattinson obscures his astute and subtle ideas with surface currents. He promises to come to you, but whispers long words from afar. Chalet Lines is too light to carry its weight.
Mattinson’s writing is concerned with patterns rather than people and he finds really elegant notes of synchronicity between the different periods. But his surfing of history and its gaps is less convincing. It’s never clear how Barbara went from knock-kneed sweetness to knees-up knockabout.
Loveless marriages recur throughout. Abigail’s is just as enforced as Barbara’s. Aged 16, awkward and dysmorphophobic, she’s dolled up by her mother and marched out of an unsuitable date. Loretta’s marriage is equally tragic: by 1996, she’s submitting herself to anal sex just to keep hold of her unfaithful husband. She’s still subservient 15 years on, serving tea every day and suggesting Abigail ‘spend more time on her knees in the bedroom than the bathroom’. The implication is that Jolene, who’s newly engaged – at last – to a redcoat she meet two days ago, will follow suit.
Marriage is something done to please one’s parents. It’s regarded as a girl’s sole aim in life and these women are deemed – and often deem themselves – nothing without a husband. (This is despite a disdainful view of men, all described in childish terms. One strips naked to use the toilet, another wears a Daffy Duck T-shirt.) The message of how to win and keep a husband is passed from mother to daughter, just like the (almost imperceptibly) off-white wedding dress first worn by Barbara.
Yet Mattinson blurs the sense of endless continuity by implying a start to the cycle with Barbara in the sixties. It’s a move that lays blame with the baby-boomers and follows the moral decay from there. The odd sherry becomes bottles of Pomange then cheap supermarket cava. Lavatories become loos then shits. ‘This is what lasses do,’ Loretta screams at Abigail in 1996, ‘They have fun. They talk about lads…Lasses have sex’. Not in 1961, they didn’t. Those that did got frogmarched down the aisle.
Hardwon freedoms have been taken for granted and abused. Barbara sacrifices love to marry for the promise of ‘a world of colour’. By 2012, it’s everywhere, but Loretta, in a punchy floral dress, can’t ever see it: ‘There’s no colour anywhere anymore’.
This is the key to Leslie Travers brilliant cubist set, which has the chalet as if caught mid-blast or mid hurricaine. Walls and ceilings seem to have split apart, splintered under the force. Funfair lightbulbs – red, blue, yellow and green – puncture the walls like a threatening invasion of Triffids. The angular shapes correspond to the ramps of a ride. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the women’s lives: all quick thrills that leave you nauseous.
Because these women, broadly speaking, live not hand-to-mouth but week-to-weekend. Everyone is expected to do likewise: chicken fillets go in, skirts get rolled up and heels ratch up a notch. Only Paula escapes, moving on to a middle-class life. To do so, she has to face down reverse snobbery and peer pressure that form the vortex of inherited values. Ultimately, she has to leave her unreconstructed family behind. Abigail should have done likewise years ago, but fell foul of the trap.
New artistic director Madani Younis has brought out cracking performances from his cast, but both fall foul of the play’s dual personality. The problem is that by gunning for the brash and crass working class tastes, he turns them into a laughing stock. Actually Mattinson’s play has got a more sympathetic heart than that, but it’s too keen to dress up and sell itself out for laughs.
The philosopher John Locke devised a problem to demonstrate the disconnect between memory and personal identity. He wrote about a child stealing apples, who as a young soldier on the battlefield remembers that earlier theft. As an old man, he can remember leading troops into battle, but can’t remember stealing apples as a child.
Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer shows a life in four such segments. Flora, a woman in her late seventies looks back on her life. She’s surrounded by three former selves, each played by a different actress. We see her in her early fifties, mid thirties and late teenage years.
Autobiographer is framed as an attempt to address dementia, but it needn’t be seen directly as such. It feels more universal than that: not a specific medical condition, but the standards terms and conditions of life. It reads about aging and memory, about life and identity as processes. Given that the programme notes – and we don’t get a programme until after the event – point out that ‘dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging,’ the possibility of universality feels like an oversight. It makes dementia, a topic it seeks to separate, blend into ordinary experience.
The three younger women don’t feel like memories ‘refracted through the lens of dementia,’ as the playtext blurb puts it. Instead, each seems intact; untouched by the erosion of memory loss. Perhaps each self remembers its immediate predecessor into existence onstage – making Autobiographer a series of subsets; memories within memories like Inception’s dreams within dreams or Locke’s aging apple thief – but the different Floras seem to exist more independently than that.
The four women pick up one another’s sentences, without conversing between themselves. They mirror each other’s thoughts: facing one another ‘from the other end of the…telescope’. For me, they read as entities separated in time. Wilson shows us a life carved up like Damien Hirst’s sliced cow: only viewable as a whole from the outside.
I don’t think this diminishes anything. It remains a beautiful composition, tender and warm and humane. Seen from this angle, Autobiographer becomes an interesting companion piece to Nick Payne’s Constellations. Rather than flicking through parallel presents, it shows four points on a single thread.
At each stage, Flora is a different person – certainly in terms of the way we read character on stage according to the symptoms (or symbols) of their state of mind. They all wear the same cocktail dress: a deep emerald; elegantly simply. Beneath it are different shoes: trendy brogues, serious straps, practical flats, comfortable suedes. Zoom out and the impression is of a continual present and constant regeneration.
Wilson’s practice suits this perfectly. Autobiographer plays in the round, in a space constructed to allow 360° surround sound. It’s a disorientating swirl of footsteps, muffled voices, snippets of songs and other sounds. It’s a blur of half-memories; an attic full of life’s flotsam. Because we are inside the sound, rather than listening in, the effect is like immersion. Add in Wilson’s poetic and sensual text, not quite onomatopoeic, but imagistic, textural and flavourful, almost entirely natural (dandelion clocks and individual feathers, rustling leaves, stone walls and birdsong) and her voice – down-soft, 95% just breath (her fellow performers follow suit) – and Autobiographer seems designed to disappear almost instantly. Words pass from one ear to the other, tickling your brain on the way through. Any sense of narrative, of certainty, is impossible. Individual images fade from view, sequences shrink in the rear view mirror.
Wilson makes theatre as spa-treatment. Her work seeps through you, washes over you and leaves you refreshed. You exist alongside it, surfing moment by moment, completely outside out of everyday time. Autobiographer is experienced entirely in the present, just as the Floras (and the rest of us) live life.
Nevertheless, by the same token, it leaves only a vague, wispy residue behind. Rather than piercing through the vagaries of the ideas contained, it matches them and, as such, Autobiographer can feel like an entrancing mobile to be gawped at unthinkingly. The piece is passed through without significant lasting impact or transformation.
And yet, there is continuity. ‘I am a dress pattern,’ says the 70-year-old Flora, a phrase repeated in different permutations by the other selves. The pattern is always the same, but the difference is in the way it sees itself, its position relative to the world: ‘I am a dress pattern of a mother;’ ‘I am the dress pattern. My mother made me;’ ’The pattern of a dress my mother made.” (Emphasis my own.) It’s not just the continuity of an individual life, but that life as part of a larger cycle, one that will continue without us. A life might be lived as a process, but its effects knock on. Wilson’s work, less so.
State of the art
This week on CW, Miriam Gillinson reviews a selection of current and recent London theatre productions, dissenting from the critical consensus in praise of Eugene O’Neill’s painful Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo, and welcoming Enda Walsh’s Misterman at the National as a more persuasive advert for theatre as a form. Meanwhile, Federica Ancona celebrates the Royal Ballet’s triple bill of new work by Christopher Wheeldon, Liam Scarlett and Wayne McGregor as an indication that ballet is in rude health at the supposedly staid Royal Opera House.
21 April 2012