“I don’t want to see ‘Willy Loman, Killer of Zombies’ on Broadway any time this millennium, but I do believe that great works of art can profit from radical reinterpretations that fling conventional wisdom out the window. A classic, after all, is tough enough to stand up to the hardest possible use. In the long run, the only thing that can do lasting damage to the reputation of a masterpiece is to let contemporary audiences take its excellence for granted…”
Archives for October 26, 2012
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s off-Broadway revival of Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City. Here’s an excerpt.
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Politics makes most artists stupid–but not Brian Friel. “The Freedom of the City,” written in 1973 and newly revived by the Irish Repertory Theatre, appears on the surface to be a fictionalized portrayal of “Bloody Sunday,” the terrible afternoon in 1972 when British soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed men at a civil-rights protest in Northern Ireland. But Mr. Friel has never been one to go in for the obvious, and “The Freedom of the City” has no more (or less) to do with Bloody Sunday than “All the King’s Men” has to do with Huey Long. It is not so much a history play as a meditation on how politics can crush innocent people in the pincers of absurdity, and the Irish Rep’s production, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly with a galvanizing blend of force and subtlety, is as wrenching as the play itself.
Mr. Friel signals his deeper purpose at the outset by setting “The Freedom of the City” not in 1972 but two years earlier. As his fictional protest unfolds, three marchers take cover from tear gas inside a nearby government building, where they discover to their astonishment that they’re hiding out in the mayor’s office. None of them is in any way militant, much less inclined to violence. Michael (James Russell) is an earnest, priggish activist for Catholic rights, Lily (Cara Seymour) is a good-natured but ill-educated mother of 11, and Skinner (Joseph Sikora) is a cynical, ne’er-do-well drifter. As the three drink the mayor’s whisky and marvel at the fanciness of his furniture, the soldiers surrounding the building wrongly conclude that it has been occupied by 40 armed protesters…
The Irish Rep’s revival is above all else a masterpiece of tightly unified staging and design. Charlie Corcoran, the set designer, has festooned the company’s tiny 135-seat auditorium with barbed wire and painted its walls with slogans, and Mr. O’Reilly fills the aisles with gun-wielding soldiers who are rarely more than a foot or two from the audience. M. Florian Staab, the sound designer, and Ryan Rumery, who wrote the incidental music, rend the air with the heartless sounds of rising chaos. Only an ensemble of formidably talented actors could hope to rise above the maelstrom and give memorable performances, and Mr. O’Reilly has found just the right people for the job….
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Read the whole thing here.
A trailer for The Freedom of the City:
In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I consider what happens when modern-minded directors go too far in tampering with the shows they stage. Here’s an excerpt.
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Simon Stone, the resident director of Belvoir St. Theatre, an Australian company, jumped head first into a pail of boiling oil when he took it upon himself to rewrite “Death of a Salesman.” Not only did he cut the play’s epilogue, but he altered the manner in which Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s protagonist, meets his death. In the original play, Willy dies in a car crash that may or may not have been intentional; in Mr. Stone’s staging, he commits suicide by gassing himself. On top of that, Belvoir neglected to inform ICM Partners, the agency that represents Mr. Miller’s estate and licenses his plays for production throughout the world, that Mr. Stone was altering the script.
No sooner did ICM get wind of the changes than Belvoir was informed that if the company didn’t perform “Death of a Salesman” in its entirety–complete with epilogue–the production would be shut down….
Theater is about what works onstage, and not having seen Belvoir’s production, I can’t tell you whether it works better to drop the curtain after Willy takes the gaspipe. What I do know is that there’s nothing even slightly surprising about ICM’s absolute refusal to let Mr. Stone scrap the final scene of “Death of a Salesman.” Few playwrights take kindly to such directorial monkeyshines….
It is, of course, perfectly commonplace for directors to “rewrite” Shakespeare, both by cutting his plays (many of which are, like “Hamlet,” too long to be comfortably performed in their entirety) and by updating their settings, at times almost beyond recognition. The same is true in the world of opera. When Francesca Zambello staged “Billy Budd,” Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Herman Melville’s novel about life aboard the battleship H.M.S. Indomitable, for Houston Grand Opera in 1998, she described the production to me in four crisp words: “No boat, no uniforms.” It worked, too!
Such productions, when done well, can offer fresh and illuminating perspectives on over-familiar masterpieces–so long as their creators believe in the underlying validity of the original text. But whenever you deviate from that text, you run the risk of twisting, even perverting its meaning….
At the same time, I also think that Messrs. Albee, Beckett and Miller would be better served if they and their posthumous representatives would lighten up and let directors, Mr. Stone included, do their damnedest. No, I don’t want to see “Willy Loman, Killer of Zombies” on Broadway any time this millennium, but I do believe that great works of art can profit from radical reinterpretations that fling conventional wisdom out the window….
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Read the whole thing here.
An Australian TV report about Belvoir’s revival of Death of a Salesman:
Jacques Barzun, author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, The House of Intellect, From Dawn to Decadence, and many other books, died yesterday at the august age of 104. Edward Rothstein’s superb New York Times obituary is here.
In memory of Barzun and his work, here’s a 2007 performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the BBC Symphony of the love scene from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, one of the supreme masterpieces of Western art. Barzun, one of the composer’s foremost champions, did much to make it more widely known in the English-speaking world:
“Everything comes if a man will only wait.”
Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred