March 26th. Present (row-by-row from top left) Charlotte Pyke; Colin Ellwood; Emma Cawley; Simon Usher; Susan Raasay; David Whitworth; Juliet Gray; Kevin McMonagle; Zara Tomkinson; Valerie Gogan (pictured below)
By way of complete contrast to recent sessions, here a relatively early (but in broader terms, relatively recent) David Eldridge single-set four-act ‘chamber’ drama originally produced at The Bush in 2004. Clearly the writer is channelling – and presumably re-working - very personal memories from Romford in the early ‘80s. Eleven-year-old only child John is the loved focus of his parents’ life. His mother Alice is trying to get him to read David Copperfield as preparation for a scholarship bid to get into public school, but his market trader dad seems less keen. John is definitely not a Dickens fan, nor of any grown-up books, and is also falling out of love with his Subbuteo set, at least as far as playing against his father is concerned. In fact he is now obsessed with projecting ‘Mutually-Assured-Destruction’ cold-war tensions onto his toy soldiers, in the process using them to manage and simplify all kinds of anxieties, including the fall-out from his parents’ rocky marriage and the slow impingement of the adult world into his childhood Eden. By means of the playwright's slightly creaky dramatic device, through which John ends up hiding in a large cardboard box, he overhears his mum's marital-row revelation that she is sexually bored with her husband and has slept with the quietly charming (and as it turns out deeply dishonest) Luigi, a conjugal bystander who helps out on dad's market stall. Complicating things is the fact that John has shared some of his fears and imaginings with Luigi, including his vivid sense of the consequences for himself and his parents of the likely forthcoming nuclear holocaust. In the vividness of John’s apocalyptic imaginings and in the managing of his fears through proxy toy figures, there are surely signs of the budding dramatist in John. On the morning after his mothers’ revelations, he tries to restore his sinking Eden and to ensure his parents stay together by making them a breakfast of what he imagines to be comfort food (biscuits and eggs). It is his hope that thereby ‘mutually-assured (domestic) destruction’ will be avoided. The final act leaps forward twenty years. John is now a finance trader, waiting in the familiar (but now gussied-up) family living room with only his father’s sealed coffin for company. The proximate cause of his father's death was impact with a bus, but it turns out dad was also riddled with cancer. Thereby dramaturgically combining the evocation of metaphorical rottenness with the possibility of unfinished father/son business. Luigi unexpectedly arrives to pay his respects, having disappeared from the family orbit shortly after his role in the family ruction was revealed. In the ensuing exchange we hear that John’s parents stayed together but things were never the same – they ‘lost’ themselves, somehow. John meanwhile never got his scholarship, but his parents scrimped to send him to public school anyway. Now his life and job feel meaningless, he is alone, strangely estranged from all society, and brought up in such an emotionally 'cold-war' environment that he finds relationships impossible. The play seems to imply that maybe had the family not compromised and instead let rip with their feelings – in other words gone for ‘mutually-assured destruction’ after all - then something creative and true might have grown from the ashes. As it was, they had all spent their subsequent lives in uneasy, sterile stalemate.
Overall, in post-reading discussion, the feeling seemed to be that the play offered a heartfelt, detailed and at times brutal depiction of domestic desire and disappointment; also a broader mapping of the societal shift from the fearful 70’s to the selfish, uncompromising, Thatcherite 80s/90s, with John’s parents somehow hearkening back to the earlier, retractive, deferential period. The portrayal of the young John, clinging to childish ways and language, yet both terrified and strangely fascinated by the adult world, is beautifully done. On the other hand, sneaky Luigi comes across as a somewhat sketchy and incoherent character, and the play’s recourse to revelatory melodrama has the whiff of East-Enders' closing drumbeats. The latter-day sentimentalising of the memory of the father seems a little overdone, but John’s investment in his toy soldiers as an almost cargo-cult ‘mythical’ totem for managing life’s complex issues - a kind of cold war anti ‘glass menagerie’ – is strangely and at times almost eerily compelling. This latter lends a kind of symbolist and religious ambiguity to an otherwise realist play. Also the sheer plangency of the - at the time - tacit parent/child love and sacrifice (fuelled by a kind of Hardy-esque 'yet we were turning away' regret and by the final-act ‘attention must be paid’ paean to the long-suffering selflessness of the dad) is difficult not to be affected by. With all its intricate naturalistic details and at times searing, unglamorous portrayal of family life, this is ultimately a play that turns on a big, bold emotional axis. And here also was a chance to explore the work of a very accomplished dramatist at a relatively early (part Strinbergian, part Ibsenite) stage of his development, complete with single domestic set, four acts, and four characters.
February 26th. Present (row-by-row from top left) Kevin McMonagle; Colin Ellwood; David Whitworth; John Chancer; Susan Raasay; Sakuntala Ramanee; Simon Usher; Julia Winwood; Valerie Gogan (not pictured)
A wonderful, deadpan subversive souffle of a play. Set in a NY hospital in which the nervous middle-aged and un-talkative Wyatt is newly arrived sharing a private room with the gregarious Budge. Wave upon wave of unexpected visitors from elsewhere in the institution – supposedly doctors, seriously ill patients - turn out to be ‘performing’ or delusional patients from the adjacent psychiatric wing. All this slowly undermine the sense of security – even the sense of underlying reality - of Budge and Wyatt, if indeed Budge and Wyatt are Budge and Wyatt. Act 2 reveals the engine room of the vertiginous deception. Actors playing lunatics, lunatics playing actors, or lunatics playing actors playing lunatics? A play that forensically disassembles apparent reality to reveal acting and its cognate performance form, madness, underneath. Underneath the apparently absurdity a gradually-revealed swiss-watch realist mechanism driving the apparent quantum warpedness. It's also full of vivid and wry characters, and of such characters playing such characters. And for an early 80s piece it impressively manages to be wonderfully evocative of millennial immersive and situationist theatre, while also satirising a certain type of very 21st Century jet-set theatre-festival-groupie, determined to track down the latest elusive hot ticket. DeLillo is clearly even more than a great novelist. On the basis of this and of his later play we read in Holborn last year – Valporiso – he is also a major playwright. As with the novels, this play both celebrates and subverts the artificiality and insubstantiality of modern life. The dialogue has a wonderful deadpan relish. Its ultimate ‘trick’ of deadpan serial and multiple un-maskings, in which each subsequent layer is presented as reality only to be then revealed as just another performance, is oddly reminiscent both in tone and technique of late-stage Ben Johnson, in his The New End for example. In terms of the theatricality and role playing you could also mention Pirandello of course.
So it looks like an absurdist play until you work out the intricacies of the situational mechanism. And then it offers the satisfaction of it all fitting together. In a way it's a bit like Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, where everyone in the anarchist cell turns out to be a 'plant', so the spies are all from the same side and basically spying on each other. But with the Delillo the actors and the medics are all psychiatric patients...or the medics and the patients are all actors in the same troupe. The 'mark' Wyatt turns out to be the maddest of them all, giving in Act 2 his 'performance' as the Robin Williams-esque channel-hopping tv. A single nurse, sneaking in to 'moonlight' in the theatricals in the psychiatric patients' day room, is one genuine refugee from the supposedly 'sane' clinical world. The guy who seems unexpectedly spooked at the end of Act 1 - Budge - turns out to be (or seem to be) troupe leader Arno himself...or has taken that name (the honorary 'name' of the psychiatric ward, as well as the titular head of the theatre company...or both, or neither...). I suspect a performance would work with a kind of slightly ritualised, on-rails deadpan delivery, slightly farce-like...(with Wyatt as the Gene wilder character from The Producers and Budge/Arno as Zero Mostel.....): it's clearly not the first night of the Arno Klein after-dark production in and beyond the dayroom. They are a well-oiled machine, both in their 'doctors and nurses' schtick from Act 1 and their 'grifters' turn in Act 2. I think they do it nightly...a sop to a pretty intense narcissism, perhaps? After all in Act 2 they are fantasising their own elusive 'must see' celebrity status as the Arno Klein troupe....pursued around the world....
A great discovery, and read here with aplomb
February 12th. Present: Robert Lightfoot; David Whitworth; Susan Raasay; Valerie Gogan; Simon Usher; Ami Sayers; John Chancer; Paul Hamilton; Juliet Prague; Layla Jalaei
Back across the Atlantic for John Whiting's mordant 1950 Saint's Day. Agatha Christie's The Unexpected Guest meets T.S Eliot's The Family Reunion via Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A rackety and impoverished country house of resigned, retracted artists under virtual siege from a hostile village and runaway psychopathic soldiers. Subsequently a minor poet-critic runs amok having been bullied and taunted into inadvertently and randomly shooting someone through a door. In the end, the three (deserter) foot-soldiers-of-the-apocalypse, partly corralled by the now feral poet-critic, string the resident artists up on two dead Golgotha-evoking trees. Overall a brilliant excavation of the underside of Festival of Britain optimism and a foreshadowing of Pinter, David Rudkin and Lindsey Anderson. And great fun to read this psychotic, symbolist-inflected twist on the country-house drama.
So…an isolated country house, inhabited by reclusive, penniless, rejected, once feted, artists overseen by an apparently senile patriarch. Then the outside world comes calling, firstly via the young critic-poet come to chaperone the patriarch to a supposedly redemptive literary dinner in London in honour of his birthday, and then ultimately in the form of three psychopathic deserting soldiers. The importunate niece of the writer-patriarch is the one who takes the random bullet; the poet-critic is bullied into a kind of savagery; and the patriarch reveals he is not quite so senile after all when given purpose in a class-war. The two original rejected artists – the old writer and a young painter who has previously retreated from London in terror at the critical world - are in the end accorded the Calvary treatment. Meanwhile the very antagonistic local village gets torched when the local vicar burns all his precious religious books in his fireplace and things get out of control. Throughout, the atmosphere is charged, strange, artificial and highly symbolic. The play reads amazingly, in a hermetically sealed sort of way - almost a guilty pleasure, if a little over-loquacious at times. Hints of Lyndsay Anderson’s If in the casual bullying meted out by the upper-classes on their perceived inferiors, and – linked to that – of early Pinter. Lots of strange names that nonetheless seem so right such as ‘Procathren’ and the inscrutable, much put-upon man-servant who is always accorded his full name when summoned: ‘John Winter’. This was Whiting’s first play. Is it in earnest or a confection, an exercise? The feel of it is more like one of those slightly psychedelic films of the 1960s. It certainly doesn’t take place in what we might take for recogniseable reality and it achieves its effect by vivid assertion rather than bottom-line plausibility. But it always seems to know where it is going and unfolds in accord with a deeply satisfying internal logic that is surprising but also, on arrival, inevitable-seeming. Yes, a confection, a brutalist dream play, but the difference between artificial confections and ‘serious’ and earnest state-of-the nation realism seems to matter less now ….just think of the dramatic worlds of Philip Ridley. This has something of the same kind of sealed, simulacrum-world quality. And it absolutely stays with you, as a siren song conjuring a flavour of right-wing conspiracy, a class-conflicted world in which affectless roundheads are presented as taking over… an enlightenment world gone rotten. In doing so it seems to predict the dark conspiracy theories and rumoured coup plots characteristic of the UK in the early seventies…. On the basis of this could you perhaps call Whiting the great lost playwright of the right? His view of human nature is dark to say the least, unalloyed, and because his action and world are so ‘unreal’ yet so well internally supported, he has the knack of creating a sense of the numinous, of offering a stark myth, an inscrutable parable relished with an underlying sense of latent violence. He died in 1963 at the age of 45. This play absolutely touches a nerve still, and here elicited some rich and wonderfully characterful readings here. Whiting’s slightly later Marching Song would be his next play to look at I think
January 29th 2021: Present (from top row, left: David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; Rob Pomfret; Valerie Gogan; Sakuntala Ramanee; Susan Raasay; Julia Winwood; Kevin Mcmonagle; Jamie Newall; Emmanuela Lia; Emily Essery; Marta Kielkowicz (not pictured); Simon Usher (not pictured)
The first of two prophetic plays from either side of WW2, each offering a compelling social metaphor for their - and perhaps our - time. Here a Broadway 1939 epic: Maxwell Anderson's Key Largo, linking Fascism in (amongst other places) the Spanish Civil War to America's own tacitly accepted free-market gangsterism, represented as a small-time huckster and his gang who've hijacked an out-of-the-way Florida Keys hotel to run a gambling racket out of. Like fascism, this operation is shown as centring on a cult of personality, absolute commitment from underlings, and tacit acceptance by the authorities. Remind you of anything/anyone at all? In the play a jaded Spanish war turncoat has a chance to redeem himself by trading in the appeasement card and standing up to the domestic US ‘proto-fascists, but at the cost of his life. An astonishingly premonitory play for 1939, let alone from Broadway, and great to get a sense of the US playwriting generation slightly after O'Neill and Odetts and before Miller and Williams, especially through a play with such colourful, noir-ish roles, if a little marinated in earnest sermonising.
Maxwell Anderson also worked with Kurt Weill on September Song and whose work was also the original source of lots of British Elizabethan historical film dramas such as Fire Over England with Betty Davis. Extraordinary that this (free)-verse play lasted on Broadway in 1939 for over a hundred performances. Paul Muni and Uta Haagen took the two leads. The play was subsequently rather brutally adapted, in effect used as no more than raw material, for John Huston’s 1949 film of the same name with Bogart, Bacall and Edward G Robinson. The play takes itself very seriously, with extended speeches lamenting the death of god and the meaninglessness of the universe, all of which now feels very much like last century’s news. If the music of the piece seems at times bloated, and the pace a little waterlogged, the treatment of the Sidney Carlton-like redemption story at its centre doesn't help. It seems flat, over-explained, over-emphatic and psychologically inert and one-note. ‘King’ is the American Spanish Civil War veteran visiting the bereaved families of his comrades whom he abandoned in the field when it looked like they were on the point of being overrun by the fascists. He had been their leader and inspiration for travelling to Spain in the first place and now offers them the chance to walk away from the fighting, knowing that death was otherwise imminent and overall defeat by the fascists in any case certain. They stay on the basis that commitment to a cause – even a lost one – gives life meaning in a godless world. This episode is the play’s extended prelude, realised with a rather beautifully poignant and lyrical atmosphere. Back in the States, King becomes a bit of a hobo visiting his ex-buddies’ scattered families in an attempt at a kind of (unspecified) atonement. The last of these is to the most important to him: the sister and blind father of his erstwhile best friend ‘Victor’. If King stands up to the gangsters who've taken over their hotel, he potentially redeems himself for his Spanish ‘betrayal’. In perhaps the oddest and strangely over-emphatic plot-point, he confesses to his dead friend’s father and sister that not only did he leave his companions, but subsequently blended into and even joined the fascists in order to save his own life. As we see him King appears pathetic, guileless, depressive and generally woeful. Yet surely with a little more positivity and making more of internal contradictions this could be a really fascinating and ambiguous character. And overall this plot vector makes a fascinating link between European fascism and gangster capitalism in the US. Of course, King ultimately does stand up to the gangsters, making the ultimate sacrifice and as a result being symbolically recognised by the family as the reincarnation of their ‘son’. The gangsters are brought vividly to life by Anderson and there is some classy melodrama and emblematic plotting. And in its perceptions about the political implications of appeasement and amoral capitalism supported and sustained by a facilitating local civic regime (and strange pre-echoes of the recently ejected 45th president’s behaviours and risks) it is very telling indeed. If only it didn’t explain itself at such length, and if the psychology of King wasn’t quite so flat and miserable…But it feels that some very targeted corrective surgery by a good playwright excising the windy philosophising and tightening the screw of King's mojo might make this fascinating play very serviceable. And wonderful to hear the context for the later and livelier and more compact and punchy flourishing of Miller and Williams. The reading was inevitably long, but with some really rich and characterful voicings, especially of the gangsters. The gangster elements had slightly the feel of translations of Brecht’s Jungle of the Cities.
Friday 11th December
Present (Row by row from left to right): Gwen MacKeith; Colin Ellwood; JAmie Newall; Susan Raasay; Emmanuela Lia; Adam Tyler; Simon Usher; Kevin McMonagle; Julia Winwood; David Whitworth; John Chancer; (Valerie Gogan)
A real pleasure to be reading Gwen MacKeith’s new ‘in-development’ but already very accomplished translation of eminent Argentinian playwright Griselda Gambaro’s extraordinary 2012 spin on Ibsen’s A Dolls’ House. In Dear Ibsen, I am Nora, Gambaro imagines Nora conjuring the playwright himself into her drawing room, for guidance and also to help with her growing sense of existential unease. A sharply-compressed version of the original Doll’s House action ensues, with Ibsen pretty constantly and sometimes unsettlingly in attendance advising his principal character (and occasionally the others) while also attempting to construct and manage the play in real time like a frazzled Victorian Mike Leigh operating against the clock. This clever conceit occasions both a meditation on the messy process of writing plays in general, and a probing of the politics, possibilities and prevarications of Ibsen’s classic in particular, as playwright and central character engage in a sometimes fractious dramaturgical collaboration. Gambaro also mines the socially-comedic potential of Ibsen's incongruous half-presence as an awkward middle-aged celebrity, resented and sometimes even rebuffed by his own characters. The great man is in fact presented here as a kind of evolved version of Nora’s husband Torvald who, Gambaro's conceit implies, is himself a dramatist manqué, attempting to impose an even more reductive dramatic narrative on his mercurial wife. In fact Ibsen is shown as having a strong vested interest in Torvald’s efforts, since forcing Nora into implausible genuine dolls-house infantalism at the beginning of the action (when in fact she is already very much experienced and is deftly managing a difficult reality) serves to optimise the character’s subsequently dramatic journey. In some ways Nora is here more astute than her author, sometimes lashing out in exasperation at the weaknesses of the latter’s dramatic carpentry as the play unfolds. Nora even points out the absurdity of there being so many entrances and exits in what is supposedly a private drawing room. Are these 'weaknesses' in general functions of Ibsen as an individual, or of his historical and cultural context, or simply the necessary elisions and compromises of playwriting itself, the collateral damage involved in wresting dramatic impact and meaning out of reality’s flow? Gambaro expertly keeps all these options in play. At the same time she justly honours Ibsen’s genius and his genuinely revolutionary qualities: this is very much one great dramatist hailing an honoured predecessor. There are many telling, witty and insightful moments and tropes: Ibsen shown as being ‘in process ‘(‘I don’t know yet’); his having different relationship with different characters, for example being slightly scared of Torvald, and Dr Ranke bearing a grudge against him for his dramatically-convenient fatal affliction. It is Nora's impoverished friend Christina who is depicted here as taking the initiative on Nora’s ultimate admission of 'guilt', advocating the value of pre-emptive disclosure directly against Ibsen's wishes. Gambaro also underlines Ibsen’s awareness of the financial and class constrictions in the situation as well as the gender ones. There is a telling moment when three middle-aged men – Torvald, Ranke AND Ibsen - go off to letch at Nora practising the tarantella. Gambaro at times daringly sharpens Ibsen’s dramaturgy, for example intensifying the Cristina/Nora contrast, with Cristina shown as having the courage to accept a family, just as Nora finds the the courage to reject hers. A key and hugely effective moment of silence between Christina and the blackmailing Krogstadt beautifully parallels the subsequent silence between Torvald and Nora (the former employing an emotional blackmail). The main focus throughout though is on Nora. Gambaro’s Ibsen guides her, advises her, corrects her and puts obstacles in her way as she explores dramatic solutions to her problems. In turn she questions Ibsen’s intentions for her: will she be a heroine? Commit suicide? In the end Gambaro’s Ibsen does not ‘abandon’ Nora. This is strangely moving and perhaps here there are shades of Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. When Torvald, the apparent danger of his 'disgrace' over, offers to forgive Nora as she had hoped/fantasised, Ibsen seems conflicted. Will he settle for this more conventional ‘miraculous’ ending? In the end the playwright is shown as being redeemed by his character's unruly courage, and so it is not just Torvald’s doll’s house latter escapes, but also Ibsen’s. In the process she rejects his subsequent assertion that he created her and so should control her: She exists, she asserts, already, and with her own potential. And that of course, is partly (only) also a covert tribute to Ibsen’s greatness. In the end, after a (third great) pause/silence, Ibsen wishes her valedictory luck. And so Gambaro shows them both as pathfinders, revolutionaries.
We concluded the session with a second, earlier MacKeith Gambaro translation, the beautifully ambiguous, sometimes Pinter-esque short two hander Asking too Much, astutely exploring emotional blackmail and tacit emotional support in a relationship that may or may not be ex-partners enacting a kind of covert role-play. A great coda that perfectly occasioned a kind of balanced and equal ‘round’ of partnerships for all attending
Friday 4th December
Present (Row by row from top left): Simon Usher; Colin Ellwood; Emmanuela Lia; Jamie Newall; Sakuntalla Ramanee; Kevin McMonagle; Susan Raasay; Jennifer Woodward; David Whitworth
Joe Chaikin and Jean-Claude Van Italie’s 1968 Open Theater creation of an ensemble ritual, exploring the primal moment of the Genesis creation story, and where it all went wrong – or perhaps right – for humankind.
Have a secret.
They are a prison.
Someone is locked inside them.
Sometimes, when it's very quiet,
I can hear him breathing'
A beautiful evocation of counter-cultural innocence being 'challenged', and of the primal roots of conflict being accordingly sought, and one that imagines the 'Fall' as an ambivalent event inciting both the ‘negative’ violence of hate but also the constructive 'violence' of self-discovery and of resistance to arbitrary power; all resolved in the endless rhythm of biblical ‘begatting’ in the piece’s concluding section. Van Italie, Chaikin and their originating ensemble ask, was ‘the fall’, on balance, worth it? In contemporary (1968 American) terms, the result is shown as being a culture that is (or was) on a kind of 'life support' (the patient in the opening section having brain surgery...a shot president on life support....and then the enervated 'popular song' at the end), and that is also troubled, alienated (wonderful sections expressing troubled individual consciousnesses that apparently Van Italie adapted from testimony from ensemble members) but still potentially – in its capacity for revolution and renewal - alive. Van Italie's beautifully allusive and courageously spare text is commendable as much for what it compresses and excises, as for what it directly states. Its 'governing' structure an implying 'trace' rather than an explicit statement. An extraordinarily disciplined and tight text occasioning (in precious archive film from the original production) apparent counter-culture earnestness, but also some wonderfully specific and bold stage action.
Friday 20th November
Present: (Row by row from top left, above) Susan Raasay; Colin Ellwood; Zara Tomkinson; Jamie Newall; John Chancer; Kevin McMonagle; David Whitworth; Simon Usher; Emmanuela Lia; Emily Essery; Charlotte Pyke; Valerie Gogan)
Last week, symbolism from Maeterlinck and then in the Bonhoeffer, a visit from a mysterious stranger who may or may not represent death. Here, Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea is surely a collision between symbolism and realism, with the former represented by a visit from another stranger. This time, he embodies something primal and obsessive that threatens to draw central character Ellida away from her fragile and compromised marriage back to the obsessive self-loss represented by the sea. We sampled various translations live but ended up reading the very first English, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor's from 1890. The elegance, poise and restraint of its period-specific language balanced delicately on the shifting primal currents beneath consolidated the sense of a fragile societal containment being put under huge strain by the pull of the 'stranger' undertow: collegiate civilization and compromise versus emotional intensity and purity; the multiple versus the unitary; to extrapolate further: constitutional accommodation versus instinctual dictat/imperative; democracy versus fascism; rationality versus religious faith and absolutism. The Stranger offers Ellida certainty in submission to emotion and elemental drive; her husband Wangel on the other hand offers the maintaining of a family, the delicate accommodating of opposing needs and trajectories; love as a nurturing rather than as a demand; maternal/parental love rather than the erotic. The 'light/life' offered by Wangel is 'ethical’...but can appear ineffectual, compromised, superannuated. Overall, it's perhaps Pentheus against Dionysus; Theseus against the Minator. The play is accordingly built around two ‘vertical’ poles: on the one hand the flag raised in the garden in Act 1, which represents the compromises of nationhood and ‘rubbing along’ with unshared secrets around a common denominator, a holding mechanism, a symbol of uncertain substance. On the other hand there is the tall lean frame of the Stranger, embodying something much darker. The play is also a disquisition on art – there are at least three artists in the play – the young would-be sculptor Lyngstrand who has intuition but no sense of the commitment involved in realising it aesthetically; the local jack-of-all-trades Ballested who spreads himself and his creative efforts with farcical thinness….and then Ellida herself, yearning to be in the grip of an obsession that deprives her of choice, and through which her life will become in itself her life's artwork. She ultimately (and implausibly?) stays with her ‘civic’ family after her husband makes clear that he accepts any decision she might make. The politics and psychology of that outcome surely need more exporation than the play allows. A long play, much longer than might be thought, since the central Ellida/Stranger/Wangel action is complemented/contrasted with the tragectories of Wangel’s two daughters from his first marriage and their relationships with on-off lovers, but very rewarding especially in the immediate context of its close contemporary the Maeterlinck, and its distanct descendant the Bonhoeffer read in the previous session
Fri 13th November
Present: Jamie Newall; Colin Ellwood; Sakuntalla Ramanee; Hemi Yeroham; David Whitworth; Julia Winwood; Emmanuela Lia; Marta Kielkowicz; Simon Usher; Valerie Gogan; Adam Tyler
After the epic experience of last week’s all-action Schiller, here two shorter scripts aim to fathom the boundaries of the unknown. Firstly Maurice Maeterlinck’s hugely influential Symbolist Les Aveugles (The Blind/The Sightless) from 1890, in Laurence Alma Tadema's translation from five years later. Six blind men and six blind women from an ‘asylum’ on an island wait in a forest clearing for the return of their supervising priest, only latterly to discover that his corpse has been with them all along. Read privately, the symbolism here seems crushingly obvious, but when voiced in the live session, the blind characters’ central high-stakes action of listening comes to the fore, as does the delicate balancing of the multiple ensemble roles and voices, and the imaginative and psychological logic with which the situation unfolds from its simple originating premise. The performance itself rises to meet and subsume the play’s idea/concept like a tide coming in, and it is wonderful in this reading to hear all involved easing themselves towards trust in the material; allowing rather than imposing. The text itself enacts a series of attempted ‘fathomings’ of the unknown, and the outline of this activity is – in an almost Brechtian way - thrown into stark relief by the fact that we (the audience) can ‘see’ the situational reality that the characters themselves only dimly apprehend. By motivating his characters to truly wait - at the apparent mercy of large forces held in potential that they are trying to apprehend without provoking - Maeterlinck has found the perfect engine to drive performers' sensitised stillness and economy of gesture.
On the other hand what makes the play apparently so at odds with current times is its assumption that the implied death of religious authority and the accompanying metaphorical human ‘blindness/lostness’ needs in itself saying, let alone the sense that this state of affairs is profoundly tragic. What was clearly news in 1890 now surely palls in significance in light of the travails of the subsequent century and beyond. The play takes place in a lush forest, and we are now all too aware that the forest itself is under existential threat. And necessary efforts to preserve that ‘forest’ can in themselves now bestow meaning. The play’s quiescence in the face of meaninglessness then feels both self-indulgent and self-aggrandising. The Blind then marks a moment of sudden absence and withdrawal, the moment when a huge edifice – religious sensibility – has already collapsed, but before the echo of the collapse has died away. Subsequent waves of performance (after-shocks?) replay this moment of seismic crumpling as burlesqued farce (the absurdists) or (as in Beckett) as shrivelled, rigamortised formalisms; as small structures fashioned from the wreckage of the ‘temple’, through which inhabitants can occasionally peek to experience Maeterlinckian moments of universal silence, awe and terror. In that terror and awe though, there is also a beauty, an apprehension of sublimity, born of the stark and straitened earnestess of stillness and listening. And that is what the vividly imagined and rigorously developed dramatic situation of Maeterlinck’s play, if trusted and invested in by performers as here, conjures beautifully.
For the second half of the session, an even greater rarity: German Lutheran theologian and pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s 1942 dramatic scenes towards an unfinished play: Three extended, discursive encounters set in a small Germany town in the aftermath of World War One. The student son of the local hospital surgeon and his wife has only a year to live, having sustained serious wounds in the trenches. His parents know this and his closest friends find out through the action. He knows too, but he doesn’t know that they know. He yearns for a kind of noble acquiescence to death; for a silence to counteract the empty rhetoric of ‘freedom’ that is coming to dominate the contemporary political agenda as – implicitly – the Nazis advance. The play’s premise is that the latter have arisen as a result of a kind of ‘un-rootedness’, a lack of trust and of deep societal order. Death, and knowing how to die, is the ultimate test of authenticity, the validation of that underlying order, of the eternal loving cycle of mortal prey culled by divine ‘hunter’. As part of this cycle death is portrayed as a kind of act of love perpetrated by god. It’s a patrician and acquiescent vision, and here balances the preceding Maeterlinck in its advocacy of fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable (whereas Maeterlinck’s characters are terrified of this), but it echoes the earlier play in its recognition of the limitations of language and in its general homing in on death and silence. In the Bonhoeffer, the dying middle-class student is contrasted with a working class war-wounded boy who is by comparison ungrounded, thinking of suicide, and visited by a stranger who may or may not be death, or represent the commercialisation of death.
Bonnhoeffer apparently abandoned the drama because he thought the material wasn’t ‘dramatic’, but there is something refreshing about the expansiveness and discursiveness of this, the careful setting out of fresh and thoughtful arguments that in the reading itself was hugely absorbing. And the battle between the ‘grounded’ and ‘ungrounded’ youth surely has great dramatic potential.
While Maeterlinck seriously attends to the universe, Bonhoeffer attends to ideas about the universe. Chastened awe, a rare commodity in current drama, is vividly present in both.
Present (from top, left to right along each row): David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; John Chancer; Will Lewis; Rob Pomfret; Sakuntala Ramanee; Juliet Grey; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Adam Tyler
Schiller’s Mary Stuart is about a woman aspiring to saintliness but beset by passion and with a diffuse sense of existential, primal guilt. Despite here making very free with history, Schiller creates a plausibly real world and the play resonates as a haunting and haunted meditation on guilt, the acts and rituals of its expiation, and on the ambiguous relationships between morality, politics and eternity. Schillers subsequent tragedy The Maid of Orleans/Joan of Arc (read on Friday 16th October) similarly features a female protagonist pulled between the sensual and the serene. Experienced here in Robert David Macdonald’s crisp translation for the Glasgow Citz from 1988, Schiller’s Joan (very unlike his conception of Mary) begins in a kind of full-throated, barrelling saintliness, fueled by faith in both the Virgin Mary and France. This has a galvanising and balming effect on her fractious fellow countrymen. But then her common humanity kicks in, and she looks down from the saintly tightrope she has so far confidently bestrid. Frozen in the twin headlights/spotlights of desire and realpolitik, and still refusing to remove her protective armour (literally and metaphorically) she wobbles and falls, her rhapsodic song of simple faith abruptly staunched. (When publically and spectacularly accused of witchcraft by her own father at the supposed moment of her triumph, she completely loses the gift of speech. Whether he is the ‘small boy’ here, she the ‘emperor’, and whether she is metaphorically ‘naked’ or ‘clothed’, is one of the playwright’s main points of exploration). Her subsequent triumph as imagined by Schiller is in her ultimate return to the saintly highwire in full knowledge of the potential consequences of the laws of human gravity, and with a willed rather than assumed clothing/armour of faith. Kierkegaard would have understood and approved of this trajectory, if not of its supposed conceptualisation as tragedy….and certainly not of the hilarious and enticingly weird ‘superwoman’ denoument of Schiller’s play, in which mighty-atom Joan leaps to simultaneous victory, vindication and death in a single bound: Saints of the (other) world, you have nothing to lose – or shatter - but your chains…. There are some great scenes in the play, such as Joan’s encounter with a mysterious black knight embodying her internal doubts, and also some great melodramatic/heroic set pieces. The psychological and situational complexity involved is mainly realised in a mythical/emblematic register (we the audience are clearly intended to think by mean of Joan and her situation, as is the case with myth, rather than empathetically with her, in accord with fully-embedded realistic situational drama). So issues such as the perils of being trapped by an unsustainable ‘celebrity’ image; the gender-identity and class disruptions (as well as the issues of faith) are all tantalisingly but rather blithely presented, as if the imperatives and temptations of spectacular stage action, set piece and meliflous, smooth, leisurely heroic verse have mulched the gritty content, just as – characteristically - the story-structure of myth takes complex situations and smooths the internal awkwardnesses off them. The play accordingly comes across as Chopin when we want Beethoven, or maybe even (I think I may have done Chopin a bit of an injustice there) as rather hollow sub-Brahms…. The set pieces are clearly contrived with melodramatic intent (the unselfconscious absurdities of Eighteenth Century heroic tragedy were of course at the time in the process of sliding towards the ‘fighting from memory’ formalism of Victorian popular melodrama…and Schiller seems here kind of caught between the two. Maybe too many drafts powered by the playwright's love of the guilty pleasures of stage gesture resulted in facile form pulverising the granular content….or (again, to suggest a more favourable perspective) is it inner complexity being externalised as positional ‘mythical’ ambivalence and ambiguity. Who knows….Staged myth is usually a lot ‘tighter’ than is the case here….it – myth – seeks to avoid the time and opportunity for too many questions to be asked of it till afterwards and outwardly. As suggested above, myth is centrifugal in its meaningfulness, realism is centripetal). Whatever, our reading on Friday generated some wonderfully engaged and richly inflected ‘soundings’ from our (in the event) unexpectedly small group (shades of Agincourt - which of course is part of the play's immediate dramatic context - in the group's rising to the many-charactered and lengthily-articulated challenges). A fascinating, if at times challenging afternoon. And that ending! Abandoning all plausibility (along with well-known historical fact) to enter the world of comic book fantasy, It is strangely effective in its shameless concept-completing, wish-fulfilling, glorious absurdity. An almost Brechtian ironic acknowledgement of the absurdity of the whole enterprise? Or a final bold and glorious endorsement of divine potency (think the chariot in Medea….)? . Maybe in a modern production, that unresolved tension would be the point…
Always interesting to get a sense of what really works for the reading group and what doesn’t. What I think we need is a kind of fluent knottiness, well-placed gristle…..a balance between complex interiority on the one hand, and forward-moving fluency on the other….this Schiller tended to sacrifice the former for the latter….but then again "each experience is an arch/wherethrough gleams that untrammelled world…." Looking forward to the next one now that we are embarked on our autumn voyage.
Present (from top, left to right along each row: Kevin McMonagle; Colin Ellwood; David Whitworth; Rob Pomfret; Michael Warburton; Simon Jaggers; Simon Usher; Julia Winwood; Emily Essery
Concluding our Summer Season supplemented by Summer Sustained (scroll down this post for accounts of that) and also as a bridge to out Autumn programme, it was a rich delight on Friday 9th October to be reading and hearing Simon Jaggers’s new play Breaking Horses with the writer present. A Faulkner-esque drama set on an a hill ‘somewhere in England’, featuring down-at-heel horseman and blacksmith Bill Brogan facing the prospect of his land being undermined – literally - by fracking, and inundated (metaphorically) by the slow-lapping tides of consumerism and suburbia. Enter his estranged half-brother Alan as the fracker’s emissary and, more sympathetically, his niece, fifteen-year-old Alice along with her almost-boyfriend Jimmy. Alice is half in love with history, tradition and ritual and very much in love with Jimmy and with Fergus. Jimmy is seventeen, disapproved of by Alice’s father, starved of affection by his own father, and about to join the army. Fergus is Brogan’s ailing old horse, very much a proxy for Brogan himself. As the frackers loom, Brogan is gearing up to put Fergus out of his misery, shooting him in strict accord with the horseman’s lore that has long insulated him against modernity and which may now in itself be a kind of madness (Brogan sustains this ideology while actually subsisting on mars bars and coleslaw illicitly scavenged from the local SPAR). Overall, the play maps the inter-generational father-son passing on of law and tradition, the fundamentally ruthless and damaging ‘breaking’ and ‘branding’ this entails and the pain it causes, and how it can be done well or badly. And, interestingly, the play's central ’shift’seems to imply the passing of this function in the contemporary world onto the female line, as if the men are becoming mere superfluous husks as the women grow in authority, confidence and expediency. That is where, if anywhere, the hope of the play seems to lie, with the ‘sap’ somehow passing to the female line. Brogan is not good at winning friends and influencing people, and he soon makes an enemy of the naïve Jimmy. Perhaps all good plays fundamentally enact a battle of inner with outer, intimacy with obviousness, and here the inner ‘glass menagerie’ of the lore of the horse offers a way of being that is felt rather than priced. Very much against the tenor of the times, the play also stands up for (old male) bastards while acknowledging their likely faults and even possibly something darker than mere ‘faults’. In doing all this it rather gloriously embraces the boldness of melodrama without ever quite falling fully into that form's overheated embrace (a delicate balance that of course Tennessee Williams - and indeed Faulkner - at their best maintained also). Some long buried secrets are revealed while others– including Brogan’s possible track record of sexual transgressions – are left tellingly unresolved; dark plots are attempted and foiled. Just when you think the play is about to settle into a relatively safe genre haven of familiar tunes, it moves up a gear to a weirder and more wonderful place in which the significance of the title becomes clear, complete with the clanking of the devil’s horse-shoe-shod foot. Will Alice herself take on Brogan’s mantle for the next generation and be able to enforce all the creative/destructive ‘breaking’ it entails?
Might the play benefit from a more specific geographical/regional location? The play very much offers an imagined rather than a ‘literal’ world, but perhaps any knowledge of the actual England, and the different relations between the urban and rural environment that tend to prevail in each region, slightly undercuts a whole-hearted engagement with Jaggers’s vivid imaginative synthesis. Are we in a remote outpost, or in the garden of England? The plays epic tone, its focus on horses, together with the extreme patriarchy and the actual rural/urban relationship portrayed, even at times seem to suggests something from, say, the US Midwest. Maybe that is simply an eccentric response, but the telling influence of classic John Ford era movie ‘Westerns’ is nonetheless surely present in the play's potent, heady mix
In the reading itself the actors shared and swapped roles, each drawing on their own accent and origins, creating overall a vivid mosaic of English/Scottish voices, all somehow converging and integrating at very visceral levels of experience and expression . And a good chat afterward. A great afternoon
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