November 2008 Archives
The director Michael Grandage has just won an Evening Standard award for his production of Chekhov's early play Ivanov in London, and Kenneth Branagh was nominated as best actor for his performance in the title role. Not sure I would have gone that far, but I had a fine time at the show, watching the characters' collective very bad behaviour and extraordinarily poor choices with enjoyable dismay.
But I met two friends last night who absolutely hated the production. One an expert in matters Chekhovian (who felt the production had nothing to do with Chekhov), the other a non-British professor, steeped in the big beasts of world theatre, who said she was beginning to think that British actors were wonderful screen artists but terrible on stage. I think she meant that the attempt to amplify their performances left them looking exposed and empty - that the screen was the natural habitat of their talent for the sensitive tremor, the banked-down yearn, the hooded glance and bitten lip.
It's true, there's some big, occasionally blowsy, acting going on in Ivanov. Didn't bother me, because I'm in a Dickensian frame of mind at the moment (Little Dorrit is being dramatised on British tv, and I'm drinking in great sooty lungfuls) - and Chekhov's grotesque melodrama seemed similarly full of monomaniacal figures each imprisoned in the caricatures they've made of themselves. In different ways (miserly, snobbish, boorish) their behaviour is unimaginably stupid, venal and miserable, because those are the lines they've drawn for themselves. Branagh's protagonist works on this level too; a depressive who has allowed himself to become callous, his distress moves on parallel lines to his helpless cruelty to his dying wife; even as he curls up beside his desk, sobbing, he can't connect his intense unhappiness with the effects of his behaviour upon others.
Whether or not this is truly Chekhovian (and, more importantly, whether or not that means anything very useful - I'd argue not), I increasingly feel that what I love about British acting isn't the celebrated repression, but the black-hearted sarcasm. They're intellectually articulate, emotionally confused, flailing with cruelty when backed into a corner. Sarky, pawky and sleazy: stooge emotions that can be simultaneously heartfelt and heartless. My favourite stage actors are artists like Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale who know all about the uses of wit (as shield, as sword, as self-harming razor).
For much of the 20th century, the accepted wisdom was that the silver-throated British ruled the stage, while the sweaty Yanks ate up the cinema screen. Just tonight I saw a new print of Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, where Leigh and Brando barely seem to exist in the same space-time continuum, let alone share a pokey apartment in New Orleans. If my chum is right, and British performers are now more at home on screen than stage, it may be a terrible indictment of a faltering tradition, or a sober acknowledgement that they've had to develop skills that will enable them to earn a decent living.
But am I wrong? What's distinctively British about British acting? Or essentially American about American performance? Let me know what you think.
Earlier this autumn, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon came out in front of the curtain at Sadler's Wells in London to introduce his company Morphoses. (Why don't more artistic directors do this? It's totally endearing, and gives an audience who hasn't had a chance to read the programme notes a few reassuring direction signs.) Talking about his new work, Commedia, Wheeldon explained that the satiny pierrot costumes and silky cartoon backdrop (designed by Isabel and Ruben Toldeo) had all been carried to London by the company members, folded away in their luggage.
It was an attractive image, one that fitted Commedia and its suggestion of an itinerant troupe of players. Pack up the luggage, tra la la, as Sondheim's actress heroine sighs in A Little Night Music. Hi-ho, the glamorous life.
But it's really only ballet that could get away with this sort of portability. In Britain and western Europe, we've been living through an age of statement design for theatre and opera. Big objects, bulky with quirk or portent, have been familiar intrusions on the stage. Imagine trying to squeeze the vast leathery rhinoceros from the recent Royal Court production of Ionesco's play into your hand baggage, or cramming the portentous revolving door from the National Theatre's Oedipus into an overhead locker. Other productions create entire environments - like Tom Piper's rusting permanent set for the RSC's Histories cycle (England as a machine running down), or site-specific projects in which the building (an abandoned office block, a burger bar, the British Museum) is the pull.
It has been a while since stage design was closely allied with painting and the foldable branches of the visual arts. I've been reading a fine survey of the career of British writer, illustrator and cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster, who was also a successful stage designer in the mid-20th century. Cartoons and Coronets is written and selected by James Knox, and accompanies an exhibition running at the Wallace Collection in London until 11 January, and the section on his stage work makes clear the connection between paper and proscenium. Lancaster was a master of the largely lost art of the backcloth - the book includes appetising views of Algiers, Galicia and a fudge-coloured Florence for All's Well That Ends Well.
More on Lancaster and 2D-design after the click:
Ballet biography is a difficult genre, dependent so much on fading memories, partial accounts and the fitful mapping of filmed record on theatrical immediacy. It works when it illuminates an artist and unlocks a world, and few do this as impressively as Julie Kavanagh's Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton.
Ashton is one of the great British choreographers. An undeniably touchy artist, he felt rivalrous towards the others, Antony Tudor (who left for America, and whose centenary has recently been championed by ABT) and Kenneth MacMillan (who succeeded him at the Royal Ballet). Ashton's work is apparently more delicate - less declamatory, shaded with feeling, flecked with melancholy humour. And there have to be fears about its survival, especially as even the Royal Ballet is more concerned with excavating MacMillan's work and foregrounding Balanchine.
Ashton's active career as a choreographer lasted exactly 60 years - from A Tragedy of Fashion in 1926 (it sounds delirious: Ashton himself played a huffy couturier who, ashamed by the failure of his new creation, falls on his own scissors) to 1986's Nursery Suite, an achingly nostalgic vignette of lost childhood. These works sum up Ashton's character, who seems in Kavanagh's account to have remained a highly sophisticated child: wry, prickly, needy, an aficionado of music and literature, a hoarder of tender, bruisable emotion.
What's so great about the biography? Take a look after the click:
What does a president look like, a friend asks. It's a good question, especially as my wise ArtsJournal colleague Apollinaire Scherr has already drawn attention to Obama's 'loping physical grace', adding:
'I've spent so much of my life reflecting on the meaning of movement, I can't help feeling that our President-Elect's liquid ease bodes well: it's such a rare quality among politicians, who usually seem all bungled up in their bodies, though Bill Clinton had some of that expansiveness - except more in the flesh, which turned out to spell trouble, yes it did)...'
British prime minister Gordon Brown, shifting uncomfortably inside his skin as if it scratches him, is absolutely a 'bungled up' figure. But how do we want a president - any political leader - to move? Absolute monarchs don't need to move at all - we, their cowed and snotty subjects, eddy around their monumental stillness. If they do move, we're in trouble - Elizabeth I preparing to box someone's ears, or Louis XIV disrupting the sclerotic control of Versailles. In contrast, some of the best-loved political leaders have had a homely relationship to their own body: bustling Lloyd George, Churchill's stumpy teddy bear, the astoundingly unaffected Mandela.
Authoritarians need to try harder, which is why they teeter on the edge of ridicule. Buffed-up Putin and cosmetically enhanced Berlusconi are desperate for us to smell the testosterone. I'd love to know whether Dubya adopted his cowboy swagger early, or if it developed as he began his political career, determined, as Oliver Stone's new movie has it, to 'out-Texas Texas.' Bush junior's walk, rounding at the hip, was a gift to caricaturists, careening down the Darwinian scale from good-ol' boy to poorly-briefed chimp.
Without getting carried away, Obama is already developing into his own icon. He has the 'liquid ease' that Apollinaire observes, but also the gift of stillness, a promise of calm reflection rather than bellicose over-reaction. Or maybe I'm hoping too much. Only 76 days to go before we find out...
How do we want a leader to move? Does physical assurance suggest grace or resolute image control? And what else have you spotted about Obama's movement?
Listening to Obama's magnificent, noble acceptance speech on the radio at five in the morning, sobbing my eyes out in the London darkness, I was forced to admit that, yes, happy endings are sometimes possible. In art, we often dismiss them as wish-fulfilment, soothing evasions of life's harsh truths. It's wonderful to recognise that reclaiming optimism can be the harder, more honest thing to do.
A friend compared the America summoned in Obama's speech to Walt Whitman's ecstatic litany of inclusion. Compared to the hard, mean divisions of recent years - you're with us or against us - this feels like an astounding transformation. It was a good day for hope, and maybe a good day to go, red-eyed and bleary with too little sleep, to the Barbican for Mark Morris' new version of Romeo and Juliet, which has become known for giving Shakespeare's tragedy a happy ending.
Morris himself is a Whitmanesque artist, whose dance explodes the ivory aristocratic lineage of classical ballet. From the beginning, his company has been curvy, bumpy, multi-ethnic (it looks slightly less distinctive now, 28 years on, but is still more welcoming to the less conventional dance physique). He is hardly the world's only prominent gay choreographer, but the one least constrained by the heterosexual model on which most dance partnering depends. His work not only looks like Whitman's America, it is committed to forging a worldly, emotional communion.
Morris' Romeo and Julietis based on Prokofiev's original score and scenario for the ballet. Never produced and long thought lost, it doesn't tidy the lovers into a domesticated future in some white picket Veronese villa. Prokofiev, a Christian Scientist, seems to have believed that death should have no dominion. He refuses to allow poison and dagger to do Shakespeare's cruel, arbitrary work, and releases the lovers into a rapturous eternity. Left behind, their warring families are jolted into reconciliation by this apparent miracle.
Does Morris achieve a happy ending? Find out after the click:
In these days of turmoil and world change, the British media stopped thinking about war, recession and the future of the free world last week to consider a prank call broadcast by two high-profile BBC presenters. Louche comic Russell Brand (notorious here for shagadelic excesses, though the wider world may know him as the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and chat-show host Jonathan Ross (cheeky chappy and film buff) left a series of taunting messages for actor Andrew Sachs. So far, so sniggering: but the ensuing hullaballoo led to tabloid outrage, Parliamentary harrumphing, resignations and disciplining.
But the monkey has his mind on higher things, namely: what are these chaps wearing? Both Ross and Brand are notable not simply for sauce and provocation, but for their extravagant mode of dress. Ross favours florid suits blaring in cerise and purple, pink pinstripes and frock coats. Brand, on the other hand, works a skinny Goth look - black as the grave, big mussy hair, smeary eyeliner, entwined with thin scarves and belts and spindly tchotchkes. He looks thrown together, a bit dirty, as if he'd just crawled out of someone's bed in a hangover and a hurry. It isn't tidy but it's nonetheless highly dandified.
Know what these guys are? They are fops: eye-catching, stuff-strutting, rarely pure and never simple. A fop isn't a sissy - Ross and Brand may dress queer but their braggadocio is insistently straight. I'll try not to bang on about Restoration drama every week, but there's really no better guide to the politics of self-presentation. The late 17th-century theatre created the stock character of the fop - over-dressed, ultra-fashionable, with a hotline to the latest in gloves, coats and periwigs. As ever, the names tell the story: Lord Foppington in The Relapse, Sparkish in The Country Wife, Novelty Fashion in Love's Last Shift. Top of the fops is Sir Fopling Flutter in Etherege's The Man of Mode, who 'wears nothing but what are originals of the most famous hands in Paris', and whose first appearance whips the other characters into a label frenzy as they ask where he got his suit ('Barroy'), trimmings ('Le Gras'), shoes ('Piccar'), wig ('Chedreux') and scent for his gloves ('Orangerie! You know the smell, ladies').
Heady stuff. But does the stage truly admire men who dress up? Let's see, after the click:
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