Incest without the Morris Dancing

duke_bluebeards_castle (3).jpg

photo credit: Johan Persson / ENO

I've recently been to a performance in London where I imagine  the audience reaction resembled that of the audience at the Paris première of The Rite of Spring on 29 May 1913. Indeed, the second half of the evening was a performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; but this was a double-bill, and it was the conclusion of the first half at which the audience sat for 30-45 seconds, too shocked (or embarrassed, claimed its detractors) to applaud. There was not a sound in the vast auditorium of the Coliseum at the end of  Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle until the stage lights went off altogether, and the house lights came up. Then there was a great deal of clapping and shouting - with the voice of a solitary booer carrying over the crowd. I, for one, was too stunned to make very much noise. 

The director was the hot young American, Daniel Kramer, better known as a stage director, though he's done Harry Birtwhistle's Punch and Judy]with the Young Vic - which I wish I'd seen. Designer Giles Cadle has provided a suburban front door with a streetlamp, for the first of the castle's seven closed doors; and the remainder are in a large basement. We know the tale. The new wife prevails upon Bluebeard to bring light into his dark castle by throwing open all seven doors. He implores her not to open the last door; she insists, and discovers that he's killed his three previous wives, as he will kill her.
       Cadle's costumes for Clive Bayley's (terrifically sung, even better-acted) Bluebeard is an Austrian jacket - Tracht . When Judith, sung with real force but few consonants (thank god the English National Opera contradicts its own mission statement and uses surtitles for English-language performances, or we shouldn't have understand a word she sang) by Michaela Martens, opens the fifth door, he reveals to her his states and dominions. In Kramer's production, these are a large group of children. The eldest is a girl who is carrying her own baby. We are in no doubt who has fathered all of them.
Suburban? Basement? Austria? Children?  Uh-oh, we're in Josef Fritzl-land.
Does it work? Yes. It anchors the horror of the 1697 Charles Perrault fairy tale in the kind of horror we read about nowadays. Even though we may not be able to feel much sympathy for the incestuous monster, the pathology is one we're familiar with, and whose reality we have to acknowledge. OK, we're in the realms of abnormal psychology, but we can't deny that the sort of thing we're seeing on the stage happens - we know it does, because it's actually happened in 2009.
Bartók's Bluebeard is, however, interesting to us, not because of his idiosyncratic perversions, his incestuous desires and actions and his sado-masochism, but because of the universal aspect of the psychology of the character: here is a man who can only have a relationship if he has total power over the other. This is an extreme form of a common problem - how to form and conduct an intimate relationship where both parties are equal. The converse of this, of course, is that Bluebeard is impotent except when he has total power over his sexual object - the power to kill the thing he loves. The opera's relationship between Bluebeard and Judith is an exaggerated version of the war between the sexes. Bayley's Bluebeard plays with his own children's toys, and even his body-language is infantile. Judith forces herself upon him, even when some remaining scruple makes him hesitate from harming her. Mutatis mutandis it's the stuff of everyday emotional negotiations between couples.
That's why the libretto by Béla Balázs has lasted as well as Bartók's wonderful, arching, surging, always-thrilling score. As Bruno Bettleheim pointed out, it's based on one of the few fairy tales that has absolutely no element of the supernatural about it. Scholars have always wanted to find an historical equivalent for Bluebeard - and lots have pinned the rap on Gilles de Rais, the Breton who fought for Joan of Arc - so we can hardly complain that Daniel Kramer has found an objective correlative (as it were) in yesterday's newspapers' reports of Josef Fritzl.
As for pairing it with The Rite of Spring: they both end, after all, with the sacrifice of the Chosen One. I won't reveal the genuinely shocking ending of Kramer's Bluebeard, except to say that it involves a little boy, a sword, the three previous wives and a lot of gore. It's disturbing and distressing, whereas Michael Keegan-Dolan's rethink of The Rite of Spring  is both these, but also exhilarating, so that you leave the Coliseum with Stravinsky's rhythms still pounding in your brain.
The director/choreographer's Irish company, Fabulous Beast has 18 boys in the corps, plus three girls, and acting parts for a hag and a boy. A statue of the Virgin stage right tells us we're in an isolated Irish bog village, comparable to the ancient Russian Golden Bough-ish village Stravinsky intended (a comparison that has outraged several of my critic-colleagues, though Keegan-Dolan has said it's not necessarily his mother-country: "It's an imagined community, a patriarchal one, somewhere in North Atlantic Europe.") In any case, it's in modern dress. Seated on bleachers, the boys each have a box with a rope handle.
The three maidens arrive on their bicycles, circling the cigarette-smoking Hag, Stravinsky's queen of winter. The boys deposit their boxes at the back of the stage. Then the boys dance in unison, an intense, pulsing, tightly-knit stomp that manages to magnify what's going on in the pit, where Edward Gardner's orchestra are fluently executing Stravinsky's agitated, swelling and churning rhythms. At some places you're dizzied, or compelled to gasp for air, as if you were dancing yourself. There's violence; knives are drawn and hurled into the floor; a man is singled out and perhaps killed; the women don masks representing the head of a hare; the men ravish them; everyone is out of control.
The boys all lower their trousers to their ankles, revealing their Y-fronts, and roll on the ground; they appear to be copulating with the earth itself. The hag and the little boy give each one his box. Inside is the head of  a pit bull terrier, which they put on; now a pack of killer-dogs, they attack the women and kill two of them. They remove their heads, and strip willy-dangling naked. The hag and boy unfurl a coloured rope. The men take it, tug at it, and it unravels into women's dresses, which each naked boy puts on, as they dance the Ritual Action of the Ancestors. In drag, they are now a sisterhood, circling the maiden, the Chosen One, as she, exalted, performs the frenzied Sacred Dance of her own death. Speak of scaring the pants of someone.It would certainly have startled Stravinsky.

November 12, 2009 6:50 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on November 12, 2009 6:50 PM.

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