Plain English: December 2008 Archives
The annual UK Critic's Circle drama awards nominating forms arrived (electronically) over the holidays; they always give me pause to reflect, and to re-read (and sometimes re-think) my theatre reviews for the year. The rules are strict: every production nominated must have been new in 2008, not transferred to London from somewhere else; and only one nominee is allowed in each category. I found both these rules irksome this year. The first, because easily the best play I've seen this year is "Black Watch, " but it was the big hit of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, and has now toured everywhere from a warehouse under Brooklyn Bridge to a former train factory in Sydney.
However, because John Tiffany's National Theatre of Scotland's production "Black Watch" was conceived for a traverse stage, it only arrived in London in July, in the converted Barbican Theatre as part of bite08, and returned to NY in the fall. Black Watch is a masterpiece - there's no other word for this amalgam of narrative, dance, callisthenics and music - but it's not eligible for the Best New Play award. Neither (on my reading of the rules) is Steppenwolf's "August: Osage County," a huge, ambitious play of the sort I don't think we've seen here since Kevin Spacey knocked our red cashmere socks off in "The Iceman Cometh" at the Almeida in 1998. Among those eligible that I valued were Katie Mitchell's multi-media "some trace of her..." based on a cut-up, boiled down version of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," starring a dreamy Ben Whishaw, at the National Theatre; and Lee Hall's elegantly staged "The Pitmen Painters" based on a ground-breaking book by my friend and former colleague, art critic William Feaver, that tells the apparently unpromising, but actually riveting tale of an adult education course in art for a group of miners.
My choice for Best Actor was difficult, because there was Kevin Spacey's tour de force as Charlie Fox in "Speed the Plow," Simon Russell Beale as Undershaft in a lavish production of "Major Barbara," Michael Gambon as Hirst in Pinter's "No Man's Land" and Ben Whishaw as above. As Harold Pinter only died last week, it was tempting to vote for something related to our greatest only-just-no-longer living playwright in every category possible. But, in fact, there is no award for Best Playwright (though there is for Most Promising Playwright), or for Best Production, so I and my fellow critics were deprived of the chance to pay posthumous tribute to Pinter.
The only other rubric in which I had too many choices was that of Best Director. I found it hard to decide among Declan Donellan for the Cheek-by-Jowl lateral-stage production of "Troilus & Cressida;" Katie Mitchell; Rupert Goold for "No Man's Land;" and Matthew Warchus for a stunning staging of the entire trilogy making up "The Norman Conquests" at the Old Vic. And this reminds me that, much though I was inclined that way, I could find no category in which to vote for its playwright, Alan Ayckbourn.
I'm not intentionally being coy about whom I did vote for, but it would obviously be a breach of etiquette to reveal my choices before the awards are made (and possibly even more wrong to do it after). However, it was interesting to note that I was confronted with an impossible choice for Best Designer, both because the play I thought merited my vote (the NT revival of the wonderfully wacky Peter Handke "The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other") had separate, but I thought equal, designers for sets, costumes and lighting, and because I could think of half a dozen other worthy candidates.
Another lesson I learned from this exercise, was that I strongly considered people for awards in two different categories for Joanna Murray-Smith's comedy, "The Female of the Species" (that was so clearly about Germaine Greer, though all parties including Prof. Greer denied it vehemently), despite the fact that it was by no means a perfect play. And though I've seen upwards of thirty productions this year, obviously I don't get out enough: I had a hard time naming anything I'd consider "Best Musical," and ended up nominating something I'd actually seen in an opera house. I hope that doesn't disqualify it.
Does anyone but the odd fundamentalist fruitcake still think of Babylon as a synonym for wickedness? It's surprising now to think what a hold this idea has had over the Western imagination for so long a time - it was still a commonplace, after all, in 1916 when D.W. Griffith made "Intolerance." The whole, weird notion is explored in a show at the British Museum until March 15th .
You can appreciate the BM's "Babylon: Myth and Reality" exhibition a lot more if you've been to Berlin and seen the Ishtar Gate reconstruction there. It's a question of scale, as the BM has only been able to borrow a few panels of their enormous 2.38 sq metre baked and glazed brick reliefs of lions and dragons dating from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562, more or less coincident with the exile of the Jews), whereas what you see in Berlin makes clear the breathtaking size of his palace.
Though I didn't see this show in Berlin or Paris, knowing the Berlin permanent display I can appreciate the British Museum's curators' claim that the show in London is a very different one. It's in the temporary exhibition space made from the Round Reading Room for the spectacular earlier shows of the Qin Emperor and Hadrian. I had the extraordinary good luck to be shown around it (alone) before it opened, by Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour, the co-curators and editors of the terrific catalog. Finkel is an immediately sympathetic character with a long, luxuriant beard, owl-rimmed glasses and an infectious fervour for cuneiform inscriptions. He explained to me that, while the BM has few holdings of Babyloniana to match Paris or Berlin on the macroscopic level, it has a good deal of stuff on the opposite scale.
The cuneiform inscriptions are at the centre of this show (and the reason for its relative miniaturization of scale), and there are a lot of them, 30 or so, on display; but, said Finkel about these tiny clay tablets, "there are about another 138,000 in drawers and boxes scattered around the BM." Peer at these 4 by 3cm (or even the larger 5 x 7cm) examples as I might, I cannot make out the individual characters stamped into the clay. To me they all look like rows of decorative marks. But in the smaller one (fig. 73 in the catalog), Finkel pointed out to me (and I took his word for it) that the name of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, can be seen fourteen times in the right-hand column, while the sign that proceeds it is always the character for "god," while in the left-hand column are listed the names of fourteen different "independent and powerful" gods. (It's a sort of equation: Marduk = god = divinity number 1, number 2 ...14.)
This leads Finkel to speculate, startlingly, that some first-millennium Babylon theologians were espousing monotheism - that Marduk was the only god, and all others simply aspects of him. Finkel pointed out that the exiled Jews, being literate, were rapidly co-opted into the mercantile, if not the actual ruling classes of Babylon, and that a lot of them remained until the last wave of emigration of Iraqi Jews in the late 20th century. Is it possible that Jewish monotheistic thought owed something to arguments absorbed during the captivity?
The show also tells the story of the myth of Babylon from the Tower of Babel, the search for the Hanging Gardens (I've always been puzzled by the "hanging" part - it simply means that there were trees growing on very high-up terraces, and what made them a wonder of the ancient world was how they managed to water them) to the story of the Whore of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzer's madness (it wasn't the historic Nebuchadnezzar, but a later, different king), Babylon in later Western art, and even in movies, music and contemporary art. Great stuff.
I most enjoyed the section on Belshazzar's Feast - especially on the Rembrandt painting of it (which you can see at the National Gallery - but this show does borrow John Martin's vast painting of the same subject from Newcastle). There's a cunning projection showing the hand actually writing on the wall, making it clear that "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" is being written vertically, rather than horizontally from right to left. This apparently solves the conundrum of why the king and his court couldn't read the Aramaic inscription, which is written in Hebrew characters. Rembrandt seems to have consulted his chum Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, whose solution to the puzzle was that Belshazzar was completely and understandably foxed by it being written from top to bottom.
If you saw the show in Berlin or Paris, I'd love to know how it differed from London.
A concert performance of a Wagner opera is not my idea of a good time - and I don't suppose the grouchy Gesamtkunstwerker himself would have been very keen on hearing his own music without sets and costumes. Still, I recently schlepped (London traffic is hellish before Christmas) to the Barbican Hall to hear London Lyric Opera's single performance of Der fliegende Holländer by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the 100-voice Philharmonia Choir, because the score being used was the opera as Wagner intended it to be performed, following the final revisions he made in 1860. The differences, I discovered, were not merely of academic interest.
Tecchy details aside, it was a great three hours that made me reflect generally on the foremost pleasure of concert performances: you're able to concentrate on the words. Though I've seen plenty of Flying Dutchmen, and read the libretto more than once, I never before appreciated the nuances of the story - especially of the psychological weirdness of the characters. Only one of the cast was a native German-speaker, Karl Huml, a tall, elegant bass who sang Daland (and made it clear that he's motivated by greed, just like our contemporaries complained about in the British press today, who force marriages upon their daughters). But despite the others' imperfect German diction, with the aid of the surtitles I could make out a lot of the words. That, and the startlingly fine acting as well as singing of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Senta, changed my mind about the whole deal.
This young black soprano held the stage just by being there. As she was sitting with her gaze down at the floor when she began her first number with her nurse and the female chorus, I did not realize at first where the hushed, warm sound was coming from. Slowly she rose from her chair and looked up, and it was as electrifying as any grand entrance. The liquid, rich, dark, almost mezzo color of her voice makes you think of deep, deep green olive oil, or melting, 90%+ cocoa-solids chocolate.
In her programme note, "The Sacrificial Female," Germaine Greer treats Senta as a not very rare specimen of a particular abnormal psychology: "Like the girls who sashay forth to clubland dressed (or undressed) to kill, she is looking for risk and excitement with Mr Wrong." Greer compares her to the women who queue up to marry men on Death Row - "US state prisons each average about ten ... per year." Ms Jeffers' Senta doesn't to me seem so much a dangerous-thrill-seeker as an involuntarily Romantic sexual obsessive. But she's a star, no kidding.
The conductor, Lionel Friend, trained with Reginald Goodall, the greatest of all British Wagnerians, and was also assistant to Daniel Barenboim for his Bayreuth Ring (which I saw twice). Friend did the research himself for the edition of the score used for this performance, uncut and in the original keys, played by the 78-member orchestra as originally specified.
The big change is that Senta's Ballade, in which she recounts the legend of the Dutchman damned to sail the seas forever until he finds his "angel," a woman who will sacrifice everything for him, was sung in the key of A minor, a whole tone higher than the G minor to which it had been transposed to make it singable by the creator of the role, the aging dramatic soprano, Wilhelmine Schroder Devrient. Just before the performance I heard a recording of the great Anja Silja (still with us - same age as me indeed- and singing the Witch in some of the performances of the new Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden). She sang the Ballade in the higher key in her 1960 début at Bayreuth as Senta (and as Wieland Wagner's mistress); but even on this recording, which I think was the live one from 1961, it sounded a bit of a stretch.
Ms Jeffers, though, had absolutely no trouble with the higher pitch - you couldn't detect at all where the break between her head and chest voice came, and her lower register is as firm and juicy as her high notes, which have no trace of shrillness or even effort.
I felt sorry for some of the other singers. Whatever his motivation may be, the Dutchman himself, James Hancock, was obviously in the throes of a cold. In the interval I was chatting with Dame Anne Evans, a distinguished Senta, and I remarked that it must be frightening to appear in a concert performance of Wagner without your make-up, wig and costume to hide behind. She replied sternly that "good singing is good singing," but agreed that the singers must feel exposed. I still think there was something extra brave about this event - but I don't think I'll be rushing to a concert performance of Götterdämmerung any time soon. And though this was great, I'm still not sure I really enjoy concert performances of opera all that much - should I try harder?
Having lived almost my entire adult life in England, I'm bilingual in both American and English. (I can talk the talk. Just don't ask me to drawl the drawl as I did when a child - I've lost the charming knack).
I want to blog about the miraculously mature arts scene here, only 19 miles away from the Continent and seven hours away from Manhattan, but also about the youthful energy it often generates. I look at the opera, the theatre, books and the visual arts in Britain almost like an alien, as I was born somewhere and sometime very different, in Kentucky, during WWII.
Anglophilia will sometimes become anglophobia, as the culture of my adopted country occasionally repulses and grates on me as much as it does other civilised people - and sometimes I'll really want to talk about something happening somewhere altogether different - France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Austria spring to mind, as does Australia and my native USA. And I'm very keen on China and Southeast Asia, though it's been a while since I've managed to journey to the east of either Glyndebourne or Second Avenue.
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