Present: Emmanuela Lia, Colin Ellwood, David Whitworth, Kevin McMonagle, Paul Hamilton, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anthony Ofoegbu, Jamie Newall, Rachel Bavidge, John Chancer, Julia Winwood, Helen Budge, Hemi Yeroham, Marta Kielkovicz, Adam Tyler, Rob Pomfret, Valerie Gogan, Simon Usher.
A strudel is a type of sweet or savoury layered pastry with a filling inside. The rolled version of the pastry looks like the inside of a whirlpool. It is most often associated with Austrian cuisine, but is also a traditional pastry in the area formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“My homeland,' says the guest, 'no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works. Everything’s come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens, the only thing to do is go away.” Sándor Márai, Embers, on the Austro Hungarian Empire
Well, a long, hot afternoon but with some wonderful rich, insightful individual 'soundings' sparked from a combined edifice of absolutely granite 'long-game' plays. For the final session of our thirteen-week epic virtual perambulation we expanded on our recent focus on the circumstances and fallout of the 1914 Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, this time looking more broadly at the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also back a further twenty years to its final flourishing (or late-stage rheumy, cynical decadence…take your pick), via John Osborne’s extraordinary, mighty, intricate, measured, subversive slow-burn larghetto of a play A Patriot for Me (written for the Royal Court in 1966, and one of the twin wrecking balls – the other being Edward Bond’s Saved – of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorious ascendancy) and Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Also featured was a Brecht scene as a Hapsburgian premonitory prelude/coda. We mirrored the mittel-kingdom’s scale with a (for us) record twenty participants; and also perhaps its multiplicity in our attempted ‘melding’ of the Schnitzler and Brecht scenes with the Osborne. This latter promised to work wonderfully well, although sadly time limits meant we were only able to read a small sample of the interposed Ronde extracts. But with even those limited additions, the effect created was of an all-levelling, proliferation of Hapsburg bedrooms featuring multiple genders and proclivities: A textual and situational immersiveness. The Osborne is set exactly in the time and milieu out of which the Schnitzler was written. The queer intrigue and subversive eroticism of the former was contextualised beautifully by the equally transgressive heterosexual daisy-chain bed-hopping of the latter, with the whole thing becoming a continuum of fluid eroticism beneath a crust of Hapsburg protocol. Together they embodied a tension between characters’ residual belief in fundamentalist Catholic Hapsburg ideals and the broad cosmopolitan tolerance (shading into cynicism) that sanctioned and/or drove the cavorting. Which was the more thoroughgoing ‘drag’ mode: the men’s in the famous Osborne ball scene, or the same men (and their straight contemporaries) in their ostrich-plumed Empire-parade-ground finery? There is surely a middle phase in all imperialist enterprises, after the departure of the founding ideologues, obsessives and psychopaths, when functionality and decadence; primness and permissiveness; licensing and licentiousness exist all together as, respectively, mechanism and lubrication. Then the mechanism tightens and the lubricious lubrication begins to run out-of-phase and turns corrosive. So, the ever-more-formalised racist ideologies of the latter British Empire reportedly existed on an increasingly decadent subsoil; and latter-day Soviet Marxism was largely no more than cant disguising graft. A similar stand-off was clearly a feature of establishment London at the time of Osborne’s writing (witness the Profumo goings on), and perhaps nowhere more notably than at the Royal Court itself, at the time supposedly a bastion of Anglo-Saxon spade-is-a-spade ‘vibrancy’ set against the ‘continental’ sexual subversiveness of the preceding HM Tennant ascendancy, but in fact a sexually complex and conflicted place all by itself. Osborne’s riven protagonist in Patriot is the upwardly mobile and talented Redl, pulled apart by competing and incompatible (in his world) needs for personal and societal acceptance and success. As with the Cambridge spies, espionage and betrayal form Redl’s attempt to square that circle, with genuinely tragic results.
Although we only managed to read two of Osborne’s three acts together with a sample of the Ronde scenes (actually doing the whole thing in three shorter maybe two-hour sessions over a day would have been ideal!), we nonetheless navigated the key stages of Redl’s compromising and his professional corruption (in a ‘bed’ of Rondedness), with only his eventual downfall untouched. As a character, Redl is in some ways the opposite of Jimmy Porter in Look Back: a man not given to blowing his own trumpet, mostly self-contained, readable by the audience through silent night crying rather than extended verbal peroration. Patriot is surely a very major work, with Osborne beautifully and forensically anatomising the complex mechanisms, subversions and micro-transactions of Hapsburg regimen in a flinty and un-showy way. And from what we now know of Osborne himself, he is clearly here negotiating his own internal ambivalences and contradictions, working to contain and express rather than to pre-emptively resolve. As with Jimmy Porter though, Redl’s thwarted romanticism is apparent even as his behaviour becomes more hopeless and contradictory, and the play itself also has a magisterial and insouciant sense of slow-unfolding confidence: Osborne is, by this stage in his career, theatrical aristocracy: laidback in dramaturgical attitude and understated in accomplishment. In Friday’s reading the group really tapped the work’s dark, illicit, eroticised and watchful tone, which is an especially amazing feat over zoom. Even the stage directions (which as stage directions generally go are fantastic in the Osborne: beautifully novelistic/cinematic) were wonderfully conjured.
We had begun the afternoon fifty years beyond Patriot’s/Ronde’s Hapsburg highpoint (so concluding some unfinished business from a couple of weeks back,) with the magnificent final major scene of Schweyk in the Second World War, in which Brecht’s version of Jaroslav Hasek’s other First War corporal, lights out in search of Nazi-besieged Stalingrad. This is perhaps where - by means of the subversive, insinuating Schweyk and the whole Nazi regime itself - the two contradictory tendencies of the Hapsburg ethos meet their final nemesis. Our reading of the scene included a brilliant Gisela May account of the first of its Eisler-composed songs, and a plangent Fumio Yasuda/Theo Bleckmann arrangement of its second, the haunting, bitterly poignant Deutsche Requiem. The Brecht scrubbed up beautifully as a rich, nostalgic - and coruscating and subversive – premonition of this ultimate Hapsburg vanishing point.
Altogether a very satisfying if 'incomplete' afternoon, and hopefully a fitting end to our twelve-week lockdown journey, which has tackled over twenty scripts, including classics and new writing in the original English, and in translations from Italy, Chile, Norway, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Austria and USA; featuring around thirty-five performers collectively putting in something like one hundred and sixty separate appearances (and goodness knows how many roles and individual readings of roles that has included: many multiples of that); also guest playwrights, translators and directors; a musician and a psychotherapist.
For me, a particular satisfaction over the weeks has been witnessing regular participants relaxing into the zoom medium. Zoom tends to isolate and focus on individual contributions, to put them on a zoom-square-circumscribed ‘slab’. In response, participants have increasingly ‘owned and explored’ their individual spaces and opportunities, creating in effect a series of beautiful animated and expressive tessellations (examples visible sometimes in the ‘stills’ of each session uploaded onto this blog). Aside from the voices in these, there has also been a hugely expressive mosaic of faces caught in the process of actually speaking but perhaps even more so in listening and responding mode, in for example the smiles of appreciation of colleagues work, or in unselfconscious ‘catching’ of the mood or tone of a play or of a single moment. This was certainly evident in the tense and measured unwinding of the Osborne on Friday. Which effect - in the spirit of at least two of Friday’s plays – might perhaps be termed a fitting consummation for our getting into virtual bed with each other over thirteen ‘daisy chain’ weeks
More, by way of zoom and also perhaps beyond and growing from that, over the summer I hope.
Anyway, huge thanks to all who have taken part.
And finally a mention of an issue that emerged – very much in line with the current societal zeitgeist – in relation to the play selection on Friday: some concerns arising out of the racism, misogyny and homophobia expressed by characters in all three scripts. A bit and complex issue that we can only attempt to navigate with honesty and good heart, and that perhaps should be a subject for a future post.