Do you believe in happy endings?

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:

Prokofiev's scenario should suit Morris perfectly. He's a fearsomely, gleefully secular artist, cut with a winning west coast transcendentalism. And his large-scale works often build towards a sense of heightened democratic communion. In his best-known reworking of a traditional ballet narrative, The Nutcracker becomes The Hard Nut (1991). (Note the shift in the title, as an object that acts becomes one that is acted upon.) The original storyline always struggled to stay focused on young Clara and the fantasy of her nutcracker prince. But Morris goes further, melting his heroine's romance into delirious ensemble. The lovers must share Morris' liquid chains of movement, wave after wave of other bodies, other dreams. Like L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, another key work (1988), it blissfully dissolves individual stories into a whole.

It's tricky to fit this sensibility to Romeo and Juliet. There's a lively, if confused sense of ensemble (the Italianate gesture of insult is exuberant, but it's hard to tell who is Capulet and who Montague). The production is cramped by sociability - Morris' point that the lovers have barely any time alone before destiny intervenes is well made, but the energy continually dissipates. It's as if he doesn't quite trust this story - as if he believes that a private romance is fundamentally selfish, that it ignores the world too much. The rapture in his other work isn't personal - it's one of the things that gives his audiences such a sense of participatory unity. In Romeo, he clears away the confined, scrubbed-wood walls of his Verona and lets his lovers spin into an endless starry night, metamorphosed into eternity. Prokofiev might be satisfied, but I felt oddly excluded, uninvolved. Release into a world-without-end delight may be philosophically pleasing, but it's a difficult dramatic choice - especially for an insistently earth-bound choreographer. Darkness needs to be acknowledged before it can be transfigured.

A vision of democracy in which we can all share certainly feels like a happy ending - or at least, a pretty marvellous point of departure. I'm tapping this out on the slow train to Stratford, where I'll see Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, a play whose happy ending is bittersweetly delayed. The wise women courted by Berowne and his callow pals insist that they put their marriage proposals on hold for a year: 'that's too long for a play,' as Berowne acknowledges. Shakespeare's comedies, even the sunniest, recognise that happy endings aren't universally applied - one couple's compact is another's misery. If even Mark Morris sometimes has difficulty shaping a work into democratic rapture, imagine how immense is the pressure on the new American president to forge us all a happy ending

November 6, 2008 9:38 PM | | Comments (2) |


Crikey, Vera, that's devastating - let a monkey dream a little. I'm with you on Viola and Orsino - two years in generous, I'd be surprised if they make it through the honeymoon (the marriage baked meats may furnish forth the funeral table if they're not careful). Sharp Celia and chastened Oliver seem the best bet from the rash of weddings in As You LIke It. Romeo and Juliet barely know themselves, let alone each other - and could their heady first love have survived mortgages and parenthood and horrible family christmasses (imagine the bloated Boxing Day slump at the Capulets)? But I still want to believe that Berowne and Rosaline have something going for them, though that's perhaps coloured by seeing the irrepressible and acerbic David Tennant and Nina Sosanya entertaining each other hugely yesterday in the RSC production. They have each other's measure, and that's a start...

Dramatic endings as a resting point rather than a ribbon-and-bows ending, certainly. 'What next...?' is the great question animating 19th-century novels and modern telly serial, that greedy, resistless propulsion - but there's something about a great play that sticks around in your head and poses the same question after curtain down...

"but life doesn't have a happy ending," as dorothy parker once said to louis b mayer, who had complained that her screenwriting didn't intend to send 'em out of the foyer in a feelgood mood. neither do most great dramas or stories, really: there's only the brief hopeful equilibrium before all the elements move again. even tragedy isn't absolute: there was no gloomy peace brought by the morning, for though the capulet family was destroyed by juliet's suicide and the house of capulet extinguished in a decade, the montagues wrote the memory of romeo off within a year, adopted a finance geek nephew and successfully invested in florentine banks. the jack-having-jill of comedies doesn't mean naught shall go ill, either. berowne did his year in the hospital (the other guys dropped out of their bargains), and became the better man rosaline believed he could be: but when they met again, they weren't the same people any more, the chemistry had dissolved. they were both wise enough to accept that, and moved on. i like to write fan fiction about shakespeare's comedy characters after the endings, and don't bother with happy: satisfaction, fulfilment, utility to the world, that's the ticket. viola/orsino lasted barely two years, he was still besotted with himself and olivia, viola looked for that sea-captain — best man in the play — but he never landed on the illyrian shore again and she journeyed on through montenegro to albania, where she is still remembered as the pilgrim lady of the folksongs...

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on November 6, 2008 9:38 PM.

Practical criticism: when fops go bad was the previous entry in this blog.

Practical criticism - walking the walk is the next entry in this blog.

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