Thursday, January 24, 2008

Billington talking balls

Michael Billington is a venerable, much-respected theatre critic who has been first string at the Guardian since Euripides was wondering how to end Medea. However, he seems to have been filing in haste rather than offering something serious in his review of David Hare's The Vertical Hour:
If you want a definition of good drama, this is it: the confrontation of two irreconcilable ideas eloquently stated.
Surely a man who has seen countless plays realises that two equal and opposite forces - however elegantly put - are a debate, not a drama? If he wants this sort of sophisticated ding-dong, he should read Hansard from Churchill's era.

Yes, drama can certainly be derived from two strong views well-expressed - from Aeschylus' Oresteia to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to David Mamet's Oleanna - but if you apply this template to a sample of acknowledged masterpieces, you'll see how short it falls.

Take Lear. This is not an oppositional play but rather a play about the unravelling of a person and his journey into human nature; similarly, no-one thinks Hamlet's enemies have a decent point to make. Sweeney Todd is dramatic but has two characters in agreement, not conflict. From the other point of view, watching Sophocles' Ajax in its later stages is like having teeth pulled by a debating society as points-of-view fly back and forth.

Drama of course derives from conflict, but it needn't be a conflict with another eloquent cypher.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Women of Troy: tragedy, trauma, triumph

I used to enjoy [in theory] the baby-being-thrown-off-a-castle scene in Euripides' Women of Troy - it seemed far too over-dramatic to work and was thus hilarious. Indeed, in a poor production of the play, no doubt it would be hilarious, with Andromache's mascara-stained cheeks and a plastic baby less an arm belying the grief. In Katie Mitchell's masterful production at the National Theatre, there is nothing ridiculous - we get the full measure of the tragedy.

Set in a concrete repatriation block (or some similar euphemism to describe a glorified holding cell for the Trojan prisoners about to be sent to Greece as slaves), the ballgowned women of Troy pace about and await their fates. The grim atmosphere is occasionally interrupted by Greek functionaries bringing news of increasingly terrible punishments to be inflicted.

Cassandra (Sinead Matthews) tries a fiery self-immolation while whirling about, crying her disbelieved prophecies, while her mother, Hecuba (Kate Duchene, magisterial and superb), the defeated queen of Troy, tries to keep the peace and her dignity in the face of the indignities she has suffered and will suffer. Andromache (Anastasia Hille) is torn from her baby, who returns only to be buried in a cardboard document box.

The women - who include a chorus which delivers its odes straight to the audience like we are their jailers - are gradually carried off, taken through one of the many thick metal gates which contain the women. Upstairs, Helen - the hated cause of the war - awaits her vengeful husband in her own prison.

There is no plot as such, just a violent meditation on the costs and benefits of war. It doesn't ruin the play to tell you that the benefits are non-existent. There is no use, either, superimposing American and Iraq on the two sides, for tho' the victors are brutal and the vanquished tortured, we have sympathy for the aristocracy of the Trojans. The question is far more complex.

Duchene is frighteningly good as the tortured Hecuba, swinging wearily from calming mother to outraged queen to eristic supporter of Helen's punishment. She conveys the full majesty of Hecuba in whichever mode is required, but with grief always etched on her face. Matthews was somewhat overdone as Cassandra, but it is a demented part.

Mitchell has put together a completely imagined world, one full of theatrical brilliance and intellectual fertility. Trevor Nunn's Lear, which I saw a few days before this, looks like amateur night at the church hall in comparison. There is such thought given to all aspects, including her stage: at one point, the chorus are spectrally dancing to some jazz in the near-dark, while upstairs Helen also dances, this time silhouetted against the light. The blinding contrast works visually and intellectually.

Perhaps the greatest effect was left until last. When the curtain (here, a metal screen) has covered the stage, the sounds of Troy being destroyed by heavy ammunition continue even as the audience claps. Mitchell implies Troy is a real place - it is not over when the curtain falls. This is a warning not to turn our attention away from war zones when we have marked a line under them, for the people we leave are real and their pain is real - just as I believed in the people and the pain of the Women of Troy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Scrabulous: aboard and abroad

From the Guardian's travel website.


The Facebook game Scrabulous, which resembles the real-world game of Scrabble in almost every detail, is under threat from Scrabble's corporate owner Hasbro, and an unexpected group of people will be suffering: hoteliers.

As well as the hundreds of thousands of people who play Scrabulous every day on the social network and are imminently to be deprived of their lexical joy, the owners of the Rothay Manor hotel in the Lake District will not be too pleased. They are just about to host their first Scrabble holiday, and they credit Scrabulous with stoking interest in it.

Anne-Marie O'Neill, marketing co-ordinator at the hotel, says the small Google advert for the holiday, which appears when people play Scrabulous, has brought business their way, and it would be a shame for it to stop. "We're very happy for it to be on Facebook," Anne-Marie says. "Our advert got right to the heart of the matter."


Thanks to Facebook, defiantly undigital board games are enjoying an electronic revival, and serendipitously the country retreat is offering a Scrabble holiday. The Lake District does not have to fear that its peaceful shores will be polluted by the beeping of computers, however. The five-day retreat at Rothay Manor, hard by Lake Windermere, at the start of March, will feature the more traditional Scrabble format: a board, some tiles, and probably even the famous green bag, with competitors face to face, eyeballing each other over a well-thumbed dictionary.

It would feel almost sacrilegious to go digital in one of English nature's finest landscapes, where communing with the earth – and not your earthed appliances – is the aim. Nevertheless, many of the people who attend will be aware of Scrabble's flourishing on Facebook.

Rothay Manor, near the village of Ambleside, is certainly a grand setting for epic battles across the board. Built for a Liverpool merchant in 1825, it is the sort of house Jane Austen might have had in mind when writing about the elegant families of the pre-Victorian era. There are 19 bedrooms, all individually decorated and en suite, and it is set in a large garden which is perfect for croquet. As well as this year's first Scrabble break, it offers bridge, painting and antiques holidays.

The hotel's Scrabble break offers a retreat from the digital and the daily grind but with all the pleasures of your favourite distraction. Rack 'em up.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lear and his fool

That it was the penultimate outing of The Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear cannot excuse the tiredness of the show. The cast did not betray weariness, and Ian McKellen's fallen king was a spinning top of rage and madness just as Frances Barber put the bitch in Goneril.

No, the problem was the direction and the production; the credits were all Will's and the cast's, the debits the off-stage team. This was not a Lear of ideas or innovation or even anything especially deep - there was nothing to indicate that the towering theatrical intelligence of Trevor Nunn was behind it. It was - and I shudder to say this - conventional.

First, praise where it is due. There can be no actor fitter for Lear than Ian McKellen, who makes a return to the stage after several years of drought (or Hollywood, as it's known). Swapping Magneto for majesty, he starts Lear off as an already frail, slightly juddering old man, whose infirmities are at least physically manifest. There is always an air of decrepitude around him, evoking sympathy even as he abuses his daughters and forces them to profess their love at a lectern.

His whirling mind is reified in his capering and leaping across the stage as the madness descends, and it is his complete lack of self-awareness which makes this so powerful. You do not get the sense McKellen is acting, making this a very natural portrayal. It fits well with his traumatised, childlike state, pacified because of what he has perceived. McKellen casts off (along with his clothes) any trace of artificiality and pierces right to Lear's marrow.

This convincing approach was undermined by the overpowering conventionality of the rest of the play. Of course the text speaks for itself and he's a fool who tampers with it, but where were the layers? It was just such a bald reading. Worse than this was the absence of subtlety, which assumed the audience were fools. Having Goneril swirl her poison into the wine-bottle, the Fool strung up by soldiers on stage, Kent marching off with his gun for the mission he cannot refuse - nothing was left ambiguous. There may as well have been neon signs.

The set and music were respectively heavy-handed and tin-eared. Having a crumbling set - the bunting is ripped away, the wallpaper begins to peel, the roof falls in - is hardly an original approach. It is the music which really allows us to see what RSC stands for - All Expense Spared. Would it have broken the bank to stick some real musicians in a recording booth for a day so that they had incidental music which didn't sound like it came from My First Keyboard? The music was jarring in two ways.

What was best was Shakespeare's, particularly (for me, this time) the complex intertwining of Lear's unwilling madness and Edgar/Poor Tom's assumed madness, the latter's physical manifestation of the former's mind. I had never grasped before just how well it works on stage to have the two madmen contrasted yet part of each other.

I'm glad I saw this, and only partially because it's the theatrical event of the year and more. McKellen is at the top of his craft and it would have been madness not to want to see him, and to this extent it is a rewarding production. But will it be the best Lear I ever see? I can't believe so.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An atheist on religious art

From the Guardian's ArtsBlog:

Renaissance Siena
Domenico Beccafumi's Tanaquil from Renaissance Siena: Art for a City. Photograph: National Gallery

Seeing Renaissance Siena: Art for a City at the National Gallery was a revelation, throwing up magnificent artists who have been airbrushed out of art history thanks to Florentine dominance. But it was also slightly discomfiting: I consider myself an open-minded atheist, but - not for the first time - I was left utterly cold by the part of the show devoted to religious art.

It isn't that I can't appreciate the magnificence of the techniques on display in the devotional paintings. Matteo di Giovanni's Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece (1474) is a pious fiesta of angels dancing around the Virgin against a blinding gold background, and Francesco di Giorgio's Saint Dorothy (c.1460) is an elegant vision of the saint and the Christ child. There is nothing technically wrong with these paintings but they fail to stir anything within me.

I can imagine the experience I am missing. If a religious person approached di Giovanni's altarpiece in its original position in Asciano's church, they might see this painting shimmering under dusty rays, glowing with the Virgin's aura of holiness. It would be awe-inspiring in the old-fashioned sense. But to me it's just gold leaf and too many halos.

This has been true of countless museums and galleries I have been round. In the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel I see the wonder of Michelangelo's creativity and genius, admiring his divine technique but not experiencing the divine suffusion those around me seem to.

I do not have this problem with paintings of religious scenes told as narrative, since these do not feel like entirely devotional objects, demanding piety. The Master of the Story of Griselda has almost an entire room devoted to his work, including the cinematic triptych telling the Biblical story of the patient wife Griselda, which has traditionally elegant Sienese figures among fine architecture. The room given over to Domenico Beccafumi is astounding, with his rapid, colourful style illuminating his modern saints, which leavens its religion with wit.

Some of the secular work is especially wonderful. A particular favourite was Luca Signorelli's Two Nude Youths, which is far from the slight Sienese figures - it is fleshy and realistic, curved and much more like Lucien Freud than show star Francesco di Giorgio.

Do you have to be a religiously-inclined person - or even a person of just the religion concerned - to relate to these works? It seems that to fully understand their true purpose, to grasp the reason these paintings are meant to be so special, you have to approach them with God in your heart. As an atheist, these paintings do not speak to me.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What the Dickens! x2

Ah yes, a bad pun to ring in the new year. Much like the old year, I suppose.

A brief rant to start with, then. Charles Dickens creates the most fantastic characters and gives them the most dramatic scenarios to play - the dark intricacies of Bleak House, the cruelties of Dombey and Son, even the small mysteries of Great Expectations.

Still, I find it impossible to love Dickens because of his language. Pick any book and any chapter from Dickens at the Free Library and see if it is wadeable. I realise that the style of the time demanded a certain loquaciousness and that he had to fill an instalment regardless of what he actually wanted to say. Even if the story that Dickens was paid by the word is apocryphal (which the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz asserts), I am still stuck.

This is why Dickens works so well as on the television - his words are reduced to the dialogue, and this too is mercilessly cut, but we are left with his drama, which I think is his strength. But don't listen to me - I love this next show...


Bleak Expectations (currently on repeat on Radio 4) is a screamingly funny parody of Dickens. I enjoyed it so much on its first broadcast last summer - it almost caused me to drive off the road - that I'm listening to it again now.

Framed as the dictation of the memoirs of a Dickens-like figure, Sir Philip Bin (known as Pip, for obvious reasons) curmudgeonly delivers the story of his life to Anthony Head's incompetent journalist. He starts with his childhood, plunged into poverty by his father's mysterious death at his Caribbean monkey hotel. It is not long before he is sent off to borstal St. Bastard's by his cruel guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent (also Anthony Head, doing his smoothest, most villainous voice), and adventures by land and sea ensue.

Bleak Expectations combines the arch literary parodies of cruel schoolmasters, gibbering women and evil guardians with quick wordplay, surreal incidents and grossly stupid-yet-hilarious jokes. It takes all that is best of Dickens and adds the laughs he so sorely lacks. It's must-listen radio.