Wednesday 1 April 2009

Scholarly finger-wagging

The Story of Vasco, Orange Tree Theatre, London

As anticipated some time ago by Richard Lea, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has unearthed a previously unknown play by Ted Hughes. In fact, though, as Lea already pointed out, The Story of Vasco is not a completely original work by Hughes, but an adaptation of a play by Egyptian-Lebanese author Georges Schehadé, and it was originally not rewritten for theatre, but for opera.

Schehadé was born in Egypt to Lebanese parents in 1905, moved to Paris in 1949, and hung out with the likes of Julien Gracq, André Breton, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco; he wrote Histoire de Vasco: pièce en six tableaux in 1956, and first staged it in Paris in 1957. Hughes was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells to translate the play almost ten years later, in 1965, and to adapt it as a libretto for an opera by Gordon Crosse. It took Hughes three years to complete this work, and eventually Crosse only used some sections of it, chopping it up and rewriting it. The opera was first performed at the Coliseum in London on 13 March 1974; in his preface to the published libretto, Crosse thanks Schehadé for allowing Hughes and him ‘this freedom with the play, even though he does not necessarily agree with our views’; he adds that only about half of the libretto was ‘pure Hughes’.

To his credit, director Adam Barnard carried out thorough, passionate research to find Hughes’ ‘original’ adaptation, pre-Crosse, which he eventually found in two numbered boxes of papers kept at the Emory University in Atlanta. Several drafts and redrafts revealed how Hughes had significantly changed Schehadé‘s text, and it was Barnard who assembled these drafts into a playscript, assessing, according to his own words in the production’s programme, ‘what might have represented Hughes’ revisions to his own works, and what changes had been made to accommodate the intended operatic setting’. The result is the production now on at the Orange Tree Theatre: a mixture of Schehadé, Hughes, and Barnard.

The Story of Vasco is a strongly anti-war fable, telling the story of barber Vasco, who is lured out of his home by the mayor to join the army as a barber to the Mirador, and then sent on a top-secret mission - the hope being that as a completely implausible and naive military man, he will succeed where the rest of the army is failing. In the meantime, a poor girl who lives in the forest with her father, Marguerite, has a dream in which Vasco is her husband, and in spite of having never met him she decides to go looking for him. During this journey, Marguerite and her father, Caesar, come across a number of army characters, including tormented lieutenant September, and villagers who have lost their children to the war. Many of the scenes are designed to underline the irrationality of violent action and the delusion of omnipotence of the men who run it; Marguerite and Vasco do meet, and the war is eventually won, but, obviously, at a considerable price.

It would be interesting to know how much of the play’s pacifistic moralism comes from Schehadé, and how much comes from Hughes’ own contribution - particularly because both authors were working on the text in significant times for their respective countries. Georges Schehadé was writing at the height of the Algerian war that had mobilised French intellectuals, including the very powerful and influential circle that moved around Sartre’s journal ‘Les Temps Modernes’, advocating civilian disobedience, which led eventually to the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Ted Hughes was writing several years into the Vietnam War, which would famously produce a previously unseen levels of civil protest in the U.S., transform youth culture, and shake American society to its core. There are many parallels between Algeria and Vietnam, both wars being somewhat connected to the 1968 student movement,  but also, and arguably most importantly, with regards to the role played by left-wing intellectuals in the way the two conflicts were perceived by the Western sides. Thus, The Story of Vasco is quite unique having been passed on from anti-war movement to anti-war movement. It is also a compelling coincidence, perhaps, that it should open in London in the days before the infamous G20 meeting, at a time when Afghanistan and Iraq risk to be chased out of the front pages by the economic downturn.

All of this said, the Orange Tree Theatre production failed to impress me. Perhaps it is because I am from the Continent, where this sort of secular, politicised version of the English morality play is more common and feels quite dated. Perhaps it is because of the repetitiveness and insistence of the pacifist message - we got the point in the first ten minutes, yet the play takes more than two hours to make sure. Perhaps it is the vague feeling, for much of the evening, of having a finger shaken in our face. The naivety of the set-design and costumes adds to the feeling of watching a 17th century French comedy in some local theatre in Italy. And while the text can be quite funny, particularly thanks to Michael Kirk’s performance as the town Mayor/Sentry/a few other characters, it also uses every trick in the book to get our laughter - including dressing tall, broad-shouldered men as women. Laura Rees is a too often bemused Marguerite, whose mood swings and dreamy looks do not really make us believe her love for Vasco is any deeper than the one she’ll develop for somebody else next week; and Jonathan Broadbent as Vasco is an eternally similar version of all the slightly simple but very likable young men in distress since Plautus.

There is a distinct feeling that the repetitive, simplistic way in which the subject is treated would be better suited to melodrama or, indeed, opera, and there is also more than a trace of traditional French theatre - specifically of Molière’s big, headstrong, ridiculous men. Fans of Ted Hughes will notice the menacing and grim presence of crows, that populate the forest where Marguerite lives and whom her father suspects of wanting to corrupt his daughter - Hughes would publish Crow, perhaps his best-known work, shortly after completing the adaptation, in 1970. And there are resonances of other barber/soldier stories, including the very popular Franz Woyzeck, protagonist of the homonymous play written by Georg Büchner in the 1830s and first turned into a movie by Georg Klaren in the 1940s, as well as, more famously, by Werner Herzog in 1979.

It is, in other words, a play that provokes plenty of thought in literary enthusiasts, scholars, researchers and those who love to know their cultural heroes had approvable political views; it is a good thing that it was rediscovered insofar as the academic appreciation of Ted Hughes’ work goes. But I am not convinced on the strength of this particular production, that it is a worthy theatrical piece.

Till 25 April 2009


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