Performance Monkey: October 2008 Archives
I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. They are hopes and fears flickering in shadow form - a culture's anxieties can probably be identified by the spectres it wants to believe in. Theatres - where so many phantom lives are lived out, night after night, should be perfect ghost-spotting material.
When I worked at English National Opera in the London Coliseum, a friend who had come in to do some work one Sunday had heard a singer practising in a distant room. Nothing new there: at times, every cranny of the old building seemed to house a piano and someone polishing their scales (it's now been refurbished, but then was dusty, plush, swagged in former glories). When my friend left, she told the guy at stage door not to lock up, as the singer was still practising. He looked at her oddly (they always look at you oddly in a good ghostly yarn) and said that no-one else was in the building. My friend insisted, and described what she'd heard. And the stage-door guy said, 'Ah, so you've heard the ghost...'
There are disappointingly few theatre spooks in The Penguin Book of Ghosts, a satisfyingly compact new volume of supernatural sightings in England. It's an old country, and a superstitious one, but most ghosts prefer the outdoors. Perhaps the curiosities which hover round the country are already so gamey (I give you the Worcestershire village haunted by a one-eyed bulldog, or the spectral coach drawn by pigs in County Durham) that no stage setting is necessary: this is the collective unconscious giving site-specific performances before its time.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of goodies fit for Halloween. No-one seems to have caught Shakespeare's shade stalking around Stratford-upon-Avon (he's too busy turning in his nearby grave at some of the production choices), but the church is setting to a ghoulish legend of a young woman who, in time of plague, was mistakenly buried alive. When discovered - too late, too late! - the despairing girl had taken a bite from her own 'white round shoulder.' The story of Herne the Hunter, a dead keeper who haunts an oak in Windsor Forest, invoked at the climax of The Merry Wives of Windsor, was probably Shakespeare's own invention. Nonetheless, several trees in Windsor Park have been credited with being the true oak (and in a fine spirit of hucksterism, if one tree dies or is blown down in a storm, others are immediately planted. Print the legend, or at least find it a good tree-surgeon...).
Anyone out there got a good theatre ghost story? Let me know, I'm in the mood for goosebumps...
Recent speculation in the comments section about Sarah Palin's future career reminded me about vaudeville, and Trav SD's exuberant celebration No Applause, Just Throw Money. It doesn't only have what may be the best book title ever (though a forthcoming history of dance in Disney movies called Hippo in a Tutu comes very close). It's also a reminder that popular entertainment defines a nation and prods its contradictions.
No Applause traces vaudeville's song, dance, comedy and bizarro novelty. Its history of popular diversions begins in rowdy saloons where performers had to compete with booze, loose women and impromptu brawls (one musician was reputed to have beaten a man to death with his banjo during a disagreement in Texas). When managers (including playwright Edward Albee's adoptive grandfather) realised there were bigger profits in a family audience - cleaning up in order to clean up, as Trav cracks - then the cussing and liquor were banished in favour of wholesome fun.
Although it describes the showbiz aristocracy who paid their vaudeville dues (Fred Astaire, WC Fields, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson), the book is at its most gleeful when it comes to the singular acts known as 'nuts.' There's the contortionist dressed as a frog, the guy who alternated banjo and recitations from Shakespeare, men who played the xylophone with their feet and mind-boggling 'regurgitation acts', in which people would swallow stuff and then bring it right back up. Trav's villains are dismissive managers (like the guy at Schindler's in Chicago who would march up the aisle, mid-act and sack a failing act with 'You are shut!'), and inflated egos like Al Jolson, who once took out a Merry Christmas ad in Variety which harrumphed 'Everybody likes me - and those who don't are jealous.' His heart is with the stoical troupers, coping with poor transport, worse lodgings and small-town audiences who abandoned an early Marx Brothers show because a mule was doing something unusual outside in the street. He gives especial props to Sophie Tucker, a game girl when faced with a crummy theatre: 'I would borrow a hammer and nails, get a heavy cardboard to cover up the rat holes in the wall and ceiling of my dressing room.'
What does vaudeville tell us about America? Find out after the click:
Okay, last week we used our critical specs to peer at the poor saps on Wall Street and in the City of London. Did it make us feel better about the financial crisis? Did it heck. But if it's tragedy tomorrow, it's comedy tonight. Yup, it's time to think about Sarah Palin.
Alone among the leading figures from the presidential campaign, Palin cuts an unequivocally comic figure. The wink, the catchphrases, the back-combing, all shimmer on the verge of caricature. Whether flailing like a frightened rabbit in interview or strutting her confident stuff from the platform, Pailin's gestures and inflections refuse gravitas. The crooked arm and pointing finger with which she seals her points add a musical-comedy ker-ching! Even the well-attested stories of corruption, hypocrisy and gimlet ambition which surround are so blatant that they only enhance the impression. This is politics as the small-town graft of The Front Page, not the ponderous machine of Stuff Happens.
But where does this, ahem, maverick figure come from, dramatically speaking? Looking for a madcap middle-aged woman? Well, in the classic canon, there's Restoration comedy. Late 17th-century theatre was a locus of fashion, sex and sharp wits. Anyone deemed not to cut it - too old, too bumpkin, too homely - was a target for satire. Particularly vulnerable to mockery are women of mature years who consider themselves still in the mating game or who dare to cross wits with young men about town. Palin is some kind of descendent of Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World and similar self-deluded dames (the names tell the story: Lady Gimcrack, Lady Bountiful). 100 years later, Sheridan's Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals shares Palin's marvellously tangential relationship with rational language: 'They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity for our neighbouring country of Afghanistan.' Amusement often nudges into misogyny, as it has with responses to Palin.
Second genre is, naturally, the musical. Palin could walk right into Mame or Hello Dolly, winking with kooky determination and leading the chorus in 'We need a little Christmas.' Focus on the deranged determination and resistance to embarrassment, and she could be Rose, the terrifying stage mother from Gypsy. But perhaps her true home is vaudeville - Palin worked so hard to reduce her campaign shtick to some few bullet points, mannerisms and catchphrases that she's her own comic turn. No wonder Tina Fey got her down so quickly, or that she makes a perfect cartoon parrot. If she's still peddling the same act on world stages four years from now, of course, the joke may wear thin...
What's caught your attention in the Palin schtik? How do you read that blend of moves, words and costume that we call performance? Sharpen your critical pencils and let me know.
So, what's the story? We're getting used to asking this question, to thinking in terms of digestible narrative. It seems that life's not only a pitch nowadays, but a plausible story. Politicians have stopped fighting the media, but now embrace the demand for constructing a clearly defined sequence. Across the Atlantic, election punditry has repeatedly looked at which candidate has shaped the strongest story: a version of their lives that settles into a compelling narrative arc (lacking only the third-act denouement on November 4). In what we used to consider our real lives too, we are encouraged to build accounts of ourselves for job interviews or first dates which give direction to the formless rush of experience.
Everyone fashions themselves into stories - but are they deceptively conventional ones? Watching an audacious new version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author earlier today, I was struck by the way the production nailed a pressure for people to reveal their individual souls in almost formulaic ways.
The production, by the prolific and imaginative Rupert Goold (best known for directing Macbeth with Patrick Stewart in Chichester, London and New York) heavily adapts Pirandello's 1921 classic (the text is by Good and Ben Power). The 'characters' (a family with a traumatic sexual secret) now erupt into a modern team of documentary filmmakers. The film's producer describes herself as a 'narrative junkie,' but those narratives are not unmediated, undirected. Even as dramatic reconstruction weaves itself through the documentary, we may be lulled into ignoring the conventions of what we're expected to respond to, the emotional cogs and pulleys that tug our attention.
In Goold's production, devastating human experience emerges through grotesque vaudeville and tragic opera, anything other than so-called 'ultra-naturalism'. (It helps that the most prominent 'character' is played by Ian McDiarmid, a magnificent actor with no interest in appealing to audience sympathy.) When two professional actors attempt to recreate one of the characters' most traumatic moments, they hobble the lines with apparently realistic pauses and hesitant mumbles that are suddenly revealed another form of stylisation. One actor even adopts a Scottish accent, which in Britain is often taken as an index of staunch gravitas. 'This is naturalism, mate!' huffs the actor when criticised - and an unexpectedly partial form of representation it proves to be.
Humans are adaptable animals. We suit our stories - we suit ourselves - to fit expectations. If we shape an account of ourselves and our experience fit for Oprah's sofa or a pseudo-sensitive drama, does this begin to shape our emotions? Theatre doesn't always need to make us feel more deeply - instead, as with Six Characters, it can make us look more sharply. The triumph of Goold's production is to help us examine the frame of our behaviour and work towards new ways of seeing.
If we can all put to one side the dread making itself at home in the hollows of our stomachs, it's time to begin looking at world events like a critic. Not a critic of economics or politics, mercy no. But a drama critic.
Yes, my friends, we're looking (nervously, through our fingers) at images from the world's stock exchanges and banks, and using our experience as theatregoers to read the crisis. You'll probably have way more insights than I do (what does a monkey know?), but here are a couple of thoughts to begin with. I'm talking costume, and I'm talking a facial expression that doesn't often get attention.
You don't often see the global financial system on stage. Its bottom-feeding level - unsympathetic landlords, rent-collectors, commission-hungry salesmen - stipple classic American drama from Miller to Mamet. But the big beasts of the banking sector usually pull the strings way offstage (or, in 1920s plays like Treadwell's Machinal or Rice's The Adding Machine, we see the system embodied in expressionist style). To find a pack of slavering stockbrokers, you must look back to Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, written in delirious rhyming couplets at the helium height of the 1980s. This was also the era of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and neither film nor theatre have subsequently sealed portraits of feral finance that are even remotely as memorable.
The city-boy's braces (red for brazen emphasis) were the uber-emblem of the 80s, but the current crisis wears grey. Men and women, whether clinging to their banking jobs or just shown the door, wear suits in black, grey, charcoal, slate and grey. If the defining images of boom showed people gesticulating madly on the trading floor in implausible bright jackets or hot-hot-hot shirtsleeves, the current financial is about people in sober suits. They cluster like walking shadows in the fallout of Lehman Brothers. They form dark puddles of smokers, trading rumours outside their offices.
What can we make of them? Join me after the click:
Entrepreneurial is too tame a word for the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) under Valery Gergiev. This week, they have been in both the US and the UK - giving their cornerstone repertory in San Francisco, and showing London some of the more recent (ie 20th-century) material they've been exploring - from early Balanchine to post-modern William Forsythe. Performing everywhere at once is a good trick - but is it good enough?
In San Francisco, critic Rachel Howard found the Kirov's principals 'mechanical', adding that 'the rigidity of that famously strong Kirov upper back seems to have traveled north to the dancers' faces.' She wished she had seen them perform Balanchine and Forsythe, but they didn't thrill to this repertory at Sadler's Wells in London. Their two programmes were disappointingly underwhelming, almost routine.
Hauteur still rolls off the stage like a chill wind, for more than any other company the Kirov represent ballet aristocracy - Harry Potter fans would recognise them as true-blood wizards rather than pedestrian Muggles. But, guess what - ballet is increasingly a Muggle art. Inhabiting the 19th century is no longer an option.
The company recognises this but, on the evidence of these shows, also resents it. Forsythe's 1980s pieces are full of presentational cheek (house lights go up and down, the curtain descends in mid-sequence). But they are also hugely demanding (it's no accident than one piece is called The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude), asking the dancers to trash their training and then reassemble it. It's sad that they failed to get their teeth into it, to relish biting the head off the classical canary.
Instead, the evening was a dispiriting indication that they only truly enjoy showing off. If it isn't bravura, they're bored. They only unleashed their invigorating finesse for In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a kinetic collage that teeters on the impossible. It was thrilling to watch Ekaterina Kondaurova rip into a duet at unforgiving speed, or jab her pointe-shod foot into the floor and swivel fearsomely around it.
Kondaurova was again a gleaming attention-magnet role on the second bill, as the Siren who stalks down Balachine's Prodigal Son. Mikhail Lobukhin hurled himself fearlessly into the role of the Son, but again the most engaged dancing of the evening was the flashiest: young meteors Vladimir Shklyarov and Evgenya Obraztsova in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. They spun and fishtail swooped with vim, but a performance is so much more than an opportunity to provoke gasps. While the Mariinsky clocks up the air miles, are they forgetting to build a real connection with audiences? I met a journalist at one of the shows who had interviewed two of the young dancers earlier in the day. Don't you get jet lag?, she marvelled. Oh no, they replied. It's not allowed.
This may seem an odd choice for the opening number in a series about theatre books. An unreliable memoir of a forgotten figure who performed in a genre we rarely see. It's not, I guess, an essential text. But Charles Dickens' Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, reissued by the enterprising Pushkin Press in a chubby little volume, gets to the heart of the theatre-going experience. It's both about our need for entertainment - all sorts of entertainment, high and low, sometimes all at once - and our desire for stars' lives to track their material, for the performance to continue offstage.
Grimaldi was England's most popular clown in the early 19th century. He performed in rib-tickling interludes and vivid pantomimes - sometimes running in costume between two theatres in the same evening. His comedy was arduously physical, but particularly characterful - Dickens notes that he was a 'humorous' rather than a 'tumbling' clown.
The book was assembled from Grimaldi's notes after his death - Dickens was the second journalist to take a crack at the material, so it is essentially a piece of superior hack-work by the young author of The Pickwick Papers. And he instinctively gives the life a theatrical shape. As Vera Rule's review observes, he strings together 'a sequence of emotional catastrophes like a script for a melodrama,' even including a reunion with the long-lost brother who ran away to sea and then vanishes without trace once again. Here too is an image of the clown whose painted smile masks his tears: when Grimaldi's young wife dies early in their marriage, he returns to work, 'chalking over the seams which mental agony had worn in his face.'
What else is to love? Find out after the click:
I haven't got appreciably wiser as I've aged - how about you? Wandering around Rothko: The Late Series at London's Tate Modern yesterday morning, I realised how tempting but misleading it is to view an artist's work as an index of their physical age - or to read it retrospectively, looking backwards from their deathday.
You might call this the Prospero Fallacy: the sense that a late work (in this case, The Tempest, Shakespeare's final sole-authored drama) also serves as the artist's concluding credo, a summation and farewell to his art. Similarly, Mark Rothko's crepuscular later canvases, typically displayed in a reverently dimmed light, can only seem more numinous when you know they culminate in his suicide (in 1970, aged 66). I realised I had fallen into this pattern when I caught myself shifting position in the gallery, trying to eliminate glare and keep the paintings in a cast of holy shadow. But the paintings come alive when light splashes them - it draws attention to contrast, to subtle layers of colour, to the human trace of smooth or dynamic brushstrokes. The show's curators fight against lazy awe: they insist on Rothko's technique, the build-up to the blur. Up until his death, he wasn't a sage, but just a working artist. What might this tell us about stage artists? Some thoughts after the click:
In which Performance Monkey sets out his stall
Welcome to Performance Monkey, a blog about theatre and dance. I enjoy watching productions, for work and pleasure, but like to think that a show doesn't end when the curtain falls. It's in talking with friends after a show that creative thinking begins, even if discussion often dissipates under pressure of hunger, gossip or public transport. This isn't a reviews site, but a place where some of those discussions can be floated, and where I hope you will bat them right back at me.
I write from London, in a small country that thinks it's a big one, and an ancient city that keeps transforming itself. A friend from the States told me that he thought of London as a city of smog, urchins, rickets and terrible cockerney pubs. And after his first visit, he was thrilled to find that it was exactly as he imagined. Although blogs emerge from a beguiling nowhere as amorphous as a Victorian London particular, I hope some sense of place will emerge.
So, here's the plan. There will be jottings, musings, opinions and (when quality control lapses) whimsies. These may spring up whenever prompted, but life needs structure as well as serendipity. So there will be some regular strands.
The monkey would like to think that all those hours watching people on stages - how they speak, how they move, how their words and bodies reinforce or betray each other - have not been entirely wasted. So, every Monday we will examine a major news moment with an eye to drama, choreography and performance. To adapt the sceptic's trusty maxim, when we examine a politician's speech and movement, we won't be asking why is this lying bastard lying to me, but how.
Lost and found
Performances are written on the wind, we know that. Even some celebrated productions and choreographies have left only confused and partial traces. So, running on alternate Fridays, we try to pluck some of those from the recent or distant past. Lost nights attempt to reconstruct performances we wish we'd seen. And Found books celebrates some favourite books that bring aspects of performance to life.
So, there we are: Performance monkey has sidled into the building. But none of this will have much point unless you talk back at me: to disagree, affirm, suggest and provoke. So please hit that comment form, people: the monkey could use some companionship as he sits in the dark.