Most drama we see on stage is historical drama - written, set or referencing the past. Do we ask it to fit our notions of a lost era? Some of these questions popped up the other evening at Barry Lyndon, part of a Stanley Kubrick season at the National Film Theatre in London. My, but it's a brilliantly strange movie - the 18th century but not as we know it. It's the kind of film which is often described as theatrical - richly costumed, painstaking compositions, acting which bumps alongside recognisable human behaviour. It is, of course, intently cinematic, but might ask us to reconsider what we want from theatre. In particular, Kubrick reminds us that sex in art doesn't have to be sexy, and style doesn't have to be uniform.
Period comedy usually offers style and sex, but Kubrick denies us both in Barry Lyndon. His films often suggest the vanity of human wishes. Not in the sense that what is desired cannot be achieved. But that wishing itself is a hollow, pointless activity. Barry Lyndon (1975), for example, based on Thackeray's rarely-read novel, is a tale of ruthless social climbing which operates in a similar fashion. Wealth, fun, status, security: the narrative appears to slavers after them, but what emerges on screen is cool and sceptical, though barely satirical.
Linda Ruth Williams, writing in the current issue of Sight & Sound, looks askance at Kubrick's lack of sexiness. 'His films overtly announce sex, but then he puts a lid on it,' she declares. 'He might well be the least sexy film-maker ever to direct people simulating sex.' Which seems to me precisely the point. For all its come-on promise and power-couple casting, Eyes Wide Shut offered a dislocated experience. Tom Cruise wanders through a honey-sheened city, bumping into debauchery but left not only unsated but fundamentally uninvolved. It's a taunting disquisition about desire's inability to deliver, about a quest strangely without impulsion.
In Barry Lyndon, the detached, corrugated voiceover by Michael Hordern describes a rapscallion protagonist up to his craw in rapacity. But the figure he describes doesn't match Ryan O'Neal's blank performance. Like Cruise in the later movie, he seems lost in a sluggish dream. Moving from rural Ireland, recruited by more than one European army, bagging a rich young widow and running riot through her fortune is gamey stuff. And O'Neal is surrounded by gamey performances, florid wigs, screen images which bring Georgian canvases to life. He himself remains oddly dissociated from his social climb and swift descent: a 20th-century drifter in a precise stylistic world.
The many registers of performance in Barry Lyndon remind us that texts aren't mechanisms, yielding to a single stylistic key. There isn't a single monolithic style that must be used for a Chekhov play, or for a Wilde comedy or O'Neill drama. And although we tend to ask a production to present us with a uniform style, Barry Lyndon reminds us that it isn't necessary: that dissonance can have its own point. We often look to the past to let us access appetite - classic revivals encourage big desires and ravening performances. But the past is odder than that, and what we make of it more strange and various.
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