‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ at the V&A

I went along to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. He’s kind of an interesting figure to name an exhibition after, since he was an impresario, rather than an artist or designer, or even a composer or choreographer. But under his stewardship, the Ballets Russes really does seem to have been an extraordinary focal point for European culture. I’m a complete philistine about music and ballet, so none of the choreographers meant anything to me, and the only dancer I’d heard of was Nijinsky; but even I’ve heard of composers like Prokofiev, Satie and of course Stravinsky. And even I know that the first performance of The Rite of Spring is one of the significant cultural moments of the twentieth century.

And I’m slightly less of a philistine about art, so I’ve definitely heard of some of the people who designed sets and costumes for him: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova, Coco Chanel. And apparently Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí as well, although neither of them featured in this exhibition. And that’s apart from some, like Léon Bakst, who are specifically known for their design work for the ballet. It is a hell of a list.

And it’s a fun exhibition: lots of cheery colours, and gorgeous costumes that have a battered glamour to them; and costume designs, which are often even more appealing than the costumes themselves. And the single largest item in the V&A collection: the back cloth for one of their ballets.

I also checked out the Raphael tapestries. Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a set of tapestries with scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, to hang in the Sistine Chapel, and one of the treasures of the V&A is the Raphael cartoons: i.e. the full size painted designs which the weavers worked from. To coincide with the current Pope visiting the UK, the Vatican has lent four of the actual tapestries to hang alongside the paintings for a bit.

And they’re quite interesting to see, although they have rather fallen victim to changing tastes. The Raphael cartoons have always been regarded as some of the most important bits of Renaissance art in Britain, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding them a bit unsympathetic. It’s not just the subject matter, although that doesn’t help; there’s something about these monumental groups of posed figures that is just a tiny bit, um, boring. Maybe it’s the self-conscious grandeur of them; these really are the Catholic equivalent of Socialist Realism. Then again, if Stalin had had people like Raphael and Michelangelo available, Socialist Realism might have been pretty fabulous.

» Top: costumes for female dancers in The Rite of Spring. Designed by Nikolai Roerich, 1913. Bottom: costume for a ‘Negro Lackey’ from The Sleeping Princess. Designed by Léon Bakst, 1921.

The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic

As part of a joint Anglo-American project with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic is currently running two plays in parallel with the same cast in both: The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. It’s a fairly starry enterprise, directed by Sam Mendes, with acting from Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke and so on; even the text of the Cherry Orchard is a new translation by Tom Stoppard.

I’d never actually seen or read The Cherry Orchard — or indeed any other Chekhov; quite a few of my most embarrassing cultural ignorances are related to drama — so it was interesting to go to it without any very specific preconceptions. Would I have guessed from watching it that it was one of the most-performed classics by one of the great dramatists? Short answer: um, no, but I don’t necessarily blame that on the play.

I do think the play feels quite dated. In one sense, of course, as a Russian play from 1904, it was dated pretty rapidly by events. The central social dynamic of the play, of a declining aristocracy and a rising merchant class, seems trivial compared to the changes brought by the Revolution. But more generally — stylistically, I guess — it feels like a bit of a period piece. It should not, I suppose, come as a surprise that a play which is over a hundred years old feels, um, old, and I’m quite certain that it will have aged better than most of its contemporaries, but there you go.

But I don’t think it was helped by the production, which also felt a bit old-fashioned but has less excuse for it. There were a few too many pregnant pauses, some slightly manipulative atmospheric musical effects, and a general sense of actors struggling to bring the material to life. I’m sure they’re all talented actors — my sister saw the other production, The Winter’s Tale, and said it was brilliant — but it all felt a bit self-conscious. Maybe they were just having a bad day.

» Obviously the photo doesn’t have much connection to Chekhov, I just thought it was cute. ezra-cherries-driveway is © Jeremy Hiebert and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Troilus and Cressida at the Globe

When I saw they were putting on Troilus and Cressida I thought it was about time I finally got round to seeing some Shakespeare at the Globe; previously the only thing I’d seen there was, randomly enough, a play about the writing of the US constitution.

I was about to say that Troilus and Cressida was one of favourite Shakespeare plays, but actually that’s putting it too strongly. It did make a particular impression on me when I read it, though: it’s funny and cynical and just interesting as a piece of literature.

The cynical/satirical aspect of it was probably particularly striking for me at the time because I must have read it fairly soon after reading Chaucer’s version, Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer presents the story as a grand courtly romance; the telling of it is not without humour, but it is ultimately a serious story of love and loss and betrayal.

Troilus and Cressida is much more ambiguous, and there’s an interesting argument to be had about what exactly Shakespeare meant by it, but one thing it clearly isn’t is a grand romantic epic. One early edition of Shakespeare classified it with the histories, although it isn’t historical; another with the tragedies, although it doesn’t end with Troilus and Cressida lying dead among a heap of corpses either. Mind you, I suspect you could make an argument that that single editorial decision, 400 years ago, to divide the plays into three genres has been hugely unhelpful to our understanding of them.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it is set during the Trojan War and intertwines two stories: on the Trojan side, Troilus’s attempts to seduce Cressida, using her uncle Pandarus as a go-between, while in the Greek camp, Achilles is sulking in his tent and the Greek generals are trying to get him to start fighting again.

The Greek side of the story is unavoidably cynical: the generals treat Achilles and Ajax as useful idiots, tools to be manipulated into fighting. Ajax clearly is an idiot, Achilles slightly less so. The generals themselves are not much better. Agamemnon is given an opening speech of startling pomposity, in such a high style that it is completely opaque, Nestor is one of Shakespeare’s long-winded old men, and Ulysses is a scheming, manipulative cynic. When Achilles finally does come out to fight, he finds Hector unarmed and sets his men on him to kill him in cold blood, then takes the credit.

The programme for the Globe production made the plausible claim that T&C, which was previously largely neglected, has become more popular in the C20th because, since the Great War in particular, that kind of cynicism about the idea of military heroism has become more acceptable to us. And they played it for all the dark humour you might expect.

What surprised me a bit, though, was the treatment of the Troilus and Cressida part of the story, which was played relatively straight; they did their best to wring some emotion from it and give it the star-crossed lovers vibe. I have to say I didn’t read it that way on the page; their relationship consists of one night in bed, arranged by her uncle, and she is being unfaithful to him within 24 hours of being sent over to the Greek camp. There is never a hint of marriage, which is unsurprising in the medieval version but very unusual in Shakespeare. Yes there is some high-flown lovers’ rhetoric, but it is constantly undercut by the busy-bodying and innuendo of Pandarus. Even at their first expressions of love, she admits to having played hard to get and then worries that by admitting it she will have lost power over him — not the profoundest kind of deceit but not exactly Romeo and Juliet either.

For me, just as the war parts of the play read as a parody of the grand heroic style of Homer and of medieval chivalric romance, the love story is a parody of medieval romance — or indeed of Romeo and Juliet.

Anyway. Questions of interpretation aside, I did enjoy the production. One of the nice things about the Globe is seeing theatre performed without the aid of lighting, amplified music and elaborate mechanised sets: just performers on a fairly plain stage in daylight having to hold the audience by, you know, acting.

Matthew Kelly played a rather camp Pandarus with a bit of a thing for Troilus, which I thought worked well to provide some explanation as to why he was setting him up with his niece. And it fitted in with the general homoeroticism of all those buff, bare-chested Greek warriors, and the possible relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

Thersites, the fool character who spends the play providing barbed commentary on the action, was played rather too broadly as a clown for my taste. It wouldn’t surprise me if the clowns and fools gave pretty broad performances in Shakespeare’s time as well — the fact that they were treated as specialist roles certainly suggests it — but I find I have a limited tolerance for gurning.

The battle scenes were a bit laboured, but I don’t know if there’s a simple solution to that, given that you don’t want the actors to actually hurt each other. I also went to see the play early in the run, and the sword-swinging may start looking a bit more natural when they’ve spent more time doing it.

Opening ceremony debrief

As I’ve said before, although I’m a  supporter of London hosting the Olympics, my big worry is that we will come up with a feeble, amateurish opening ceremony. So I watched the Chinese version with interest.

We knew they were keen to impress: well, consider me impressed. There is no way London is going to match that in terms of sheer scale and organised manpower. The Chinese put on a world class display of making-patterns-out-of-groups-of-people. So I hope we don’t even try to compete with that.

On the other hand I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. The two best bits were the spectacular opening with the massed ranks of glowing drums, and the lighting of the flame, which was a great touch of theatre. Most of the rest of it, impressive as it was, seemed a bit forgettable.

And these ceremonies always seem a bit ponderous. I appreciate that it’s physically difficult to make these huge-scale things happen quickly, and that given the amount of time and money that has gone into them they want to do them justice, but it would be great to see someone do an opening ceremony that really rattled along. Instead of an hour-long show with a great effect every four minutes, I want to see a half-hour show with a wow moment every thirty seconds. Like a finely-honed theatrical performance: if you went to the theatre to see a non-verbal performance, a dance/clowning/physical comedy type show, you would expect something to be happening all the time. I would love to see an opening ceremony that had that kind of pace to it. How do you do that for a whole stadium full of people? I don’t know.

In fact the whole ceremony could usefully be done more quickly. It’s hard to see how you could speed up the parade of the athletes, short of having them come in both ends of the stadium at once, but all the ceremony at the end — the speeches, the taking of the oaths of the athletes and judges, the carrying of the Olympic flag into the stadium, the Olympic hymn — if you could find ways to make that happen faster, without breaking with tradition too much, it would be a vast improvement. Perhaps they could carry in the Olympic flag while the speeches are going on, for example. The one part of that whole rigmarole which is a great moment is the entry of the Olympic flame; most of the rest of it is dull.

I would love the London opening ceremony to aim for exciting and fun, rather than impressive and grand. And not just because any attempt to do grand is going to look second rate compared to Beijing. London is a city of theatres: let’s put on a show. Something creative, surprising, and above all dynamic.

» Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images. Taken from the official website.

How now, nuncle!

Hot news of the day: I’m an uncle. My sister-in-law had a baby girl yesterday. So send positive mind rays in the general direction of Cheltenham, please.

The word ‘nuncle’ is, as I expect you know, a variation of ‘uncle’ formed by mishearing ‘mine uncle’ as ‘my nuncle’. The same with ‘Ned’ as a variation on ‘Edward’. ‘Adder’ and ‘apron’ went in the other direction: it was originally ‘a nadder’ and ‘a napron’. Similarly, while I’m on the subject, ‘pea’ is formed by misinterpreting ‘pease’ as a plural, and the same with ‘cherry’, which also originally ended in an s, as it does in the French cerise.

I vaguely thought that ‘nuncle’ was widespread in Shakespeare, but I did a search online and it turns out that only one character uses it: the Fool in King Lear, who uses it fourteen times. So I don’t know whether it was a genuine misunderstanding or just a whimsical usage. Almost baby-talk. Or informal/affectionate: in which case the fact that the Fool uses that kind of language in addressing the King is an indication of his special freedom. I suppose I could consult the OED and see if it tells me.

Looking for nuncles in Lear reminded me of what an incredible piece of writing that storm scene is, with the interplay between the mad Lear, Edgar pretending to be mad, and the Fool whose job is to act mad. Language is stretched almost to meaninglessness, and there’s an edge to it, a nastiness, that helps counterbalance the ladlesful of pathos. I find the overt artificiality fascinating as well; having the three ‘mad’ characters on stage together, and of course the blinded Gloucester who doesn’t know that one of them is his son. Obviously throughout his career Shakespeare made liberal use of coincidences and unlikely plots, but some of the late plays, like Lear, seem to move away from realism in a much more profound way. As a comparison, in Twelfth Night, when people keep getting confused between Viola and Sebastian, the unlikeliness of the situation is part of the joke. I’m not sure it even makes sense to look at Lear in those terms. it’s clearly true that the plot of King Lear is unlikely, but it seems ridiculous to say so. It’s somehow not the point.

KING LEAR:
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes.]

Fool:
Prithee, nuncle, be contented; ’tis a naughty night to swim in. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart; a small spark, all the rest on’s body cold. Look, here comes a walking fire.
{Enter GLOUCESTER, with a torch.}

EDGAR:
This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.
S. Withold footed thrice the old;
He met the night-mare, and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!

It wasn’t a time with a very sensitive approach to mental health issues; people used to go to visit Bedlam for the entertainment value of seeing the madmen. And indeed there’s a scene in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi where a bunch of actors basically come on stage to act mad for the amusement of the audience in the same freak show manner; the contrast with the portrayal of madness in Lear is striking.

Shakespeare really was a very good writer. I’m always tempted to be sceptical about his status, towering untouchably over English literature; my bloody-minded reaction to the cult of Shakespeare which treats him as though he never wrote a bad line, let alone a bad play. We’re less reverential about art these days—less reverential about everything—but still, the big names have a halo around them, as though entry into the canon equated to canonisation. I’m torn between feeling that serious, unironic celebration of the power of art is a Good Thing and a sense that once something gets tainted with sacredness it is defanged.

Anyway, I seem to have rambled from my new niece, via cherries, to ART. I shall stop before I wander any further off-topic. Hopefully responding to the birth of a daughter by quoting King Lear isn’t too much of a bad omen :)

» The photo Cherry was posted to Flickr by moogs and is used under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.

‘We The People’ at the Globe

I finally visited the Globe theatre for the first time this week. That’s not because I’ve been avoiding it—every time I walked past on the way to Tate Modern, I thought ‘I really must go to the Globe some time’— but I never got round to it.

Since the whole point is that it’s a reconstruction of an Elizabethan theatre, it might have made more sense to see a play from the period, but in fact I saw We The People by Eric Schlosser.

Ben Franklin and an air stewardess

N.B. Picture may not be representative of actual play.

Dealing with the play first: it was a dramatic reconstruction of the process of writing the U.S. constitution, based on primary sources. Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, is primarily a journalist/non-fiction writer, and this is a very straight presentation of history on the stage. He does his best to bring out the personalities of the men involved and find human interest and humour to leaven the mix a bit, but to be honest, a committee of lawyers and politicians discussing constitutional law doesn’t make for dynamic theatre. It was interesting and somewhat entertaining, but it all felt a lot like being in school.

I heard Schlosser on the radio talking about the play and saying that one of the things that interested him was that Americans tend to treat the constitution as a semi-sacred document (my paraphrase) and that he wanted to bring out its history as a document written by human beings, a product of compromise and a particular historical moment. Which is a worthwhile project, and I think he was successful, although for me the constitution never had those associations particularly.

With the subject of nation-building in the air at the moment, it’s worth being reminded that the process in our own countries’ histories was slow and erratic. A lot has changed in the meantime which might provide a framework and some help, but still, we can’t be surprised if countries like Iraq, Bosnia and even Russia take many years to even achieve stability, let alone all the features of a mature democracy. There’s no guarantee that they will ever achieve those things.

One touch worth noting: at various breaks in the action, a couple of musicians, dressed, like the rest of the cast, in C18th clothing, and played and sang West African music. One was playing a many-stringed instrument that I think was probably a kora, and the other some kind of stringed instrument played with a bow. Schlosser explains:

It’s a reminder of those who were not invited to the room. Slavery was crucial to the economy of the United States, but slaves had no voice whatsoever in society. In the play the music offers them a means to be heard. And it’s wonderful music.

I like the idea, although I’m not sure how well it worked theatrically. I’m not sure how many of the audience made the connection. And in a rather literal play, it seemed a bit out of place. Considering they were supposed to represent the voiceless, it’s an unfortunate irony that the musicians’ names aren’t listed on the website. They were named in the programme, but I don’t have it with me; one was Senegalese and the other was Gambian.

As for the theatre: it’s a striking building and has a plausibly authentic feel, although I believe it’s reconstructed on the basis of fairly thin evidence. I think probably the most interesting difference from a conventional theatre isn’t that it’s in the round—I’ve been to quite a few productions staged like that over the years anyway—it’s the natural lighting. Stage lighting provides a natural focus on the actors and away from the audience, and it helps the audience concentrate. In daylight, the actors don’t have that advantage. I don’t think this particular play made especially good use of the theatre, in fact; the actors moved among the audience standing in the pit sometimes, but most of the play consisted of men talking to each other and was naturally static; it could as easily have been staged in a proscenium arch theatre. Frankly it could almost have been a radio play. I’d be interested to see something more dramatic there sometime. Shakespeare, perhaps.

Oh, and if you visit and you have a seat, get a cushion. They rent them in the theatre. The seats are wooden benches, and it’s tough on the buttocks. They also rent out seat backs for some lumbar support, which is what I had, but I didn’t think it was very comfortable.

» The picture of Benjamin Franklin and an air stewardess is a section of a photo by Matt Wright and is used under—and therefore available under—a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.

Too wit to woo

I heard an owl last night, for the first time in years. I think there are quite a few tawny owls in London—they’re a basically woodland species and fairly well suited to a suburban mix of woodland, park and gardens. A few years ago I used to hear them quite regularly here, but as I say this is the first for a long time. I guess it’s probably a young bird dispersing from its parents’ territory.

Tawny Owl, Sparham Pools (Norfolk), 24-May-07, originally uploaded by Dave Appleton.

There’s something incredibly atmospheric about hearing animal calls at night. It’s hard not to hear the quavering calls as somehow mournful, although presumably the owls aren’t actually permanently depressed. It makes a change from foxes; we’ve got a lot of young foxes around at the moment (one wandered into the house the other day) and they make a complete racket.

From Love’s Labour’s Lost:

WHEN icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whoo!
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all around the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl—
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whoo!
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Most of Shakespeare’s owls are referred to as screeching or shrieking; indeed he sometimes calls them ‘screech-owl’. Those are probably barn owls. But ‘tu-whit tu-whoo’ is the call of the tawny owl. In fact it’s the call of a pair of tawny owls; the female does the ‘tu-whit’ followed immediately by the male saying ‘tu-whoo’. That wasn’t what I heard last night, though; mine was saying ‘hoo… hu-hu-hu-hoo’. So it was just a male owl on its own.

And on an unexpectedly sinister note; according to Wikipedia “This species probably injures more people than any other European bird. It is fearless in defence of its nest and young, and strikes for the intruder’s face with its sharp talons. Since its flight is silent, at night in particular it may not be detected until too late.”

Elizabethiana

I’m currently reading a biography of Bess of Hardwick. I’m not that far through it yet (don’t tell me how it ends!*), but one thing is striking, reading about Tudor England†: how capricious the politics is and how much it’s dependent on patronage and favour. Admittedly, the period I’ve read about so far covers the end of Henry VIII, a cameo by Lady Jane Grey, the reign of Bloody Mary and the dawning of the age of Elizabeth, so with the dynastic politics and the swings between Protestant and Catholic, it is perhaps unusually unstable. But the basic point remains that all power derives from the monarch, who can have people banished, impoverished or executed at will. At the Holbein exhibition, there were little bios of the subjects next to the portraits; it was noticeable how many of them seemed to have ended up under the axe.

It isn’t just that politics and law are unstable because of the whims of the monarch; it also creates an environment where access to the monarch is everything and where the people with access and influence don’t just get a bit of second-hand power: they also potentially get serious serious money. It breeds conspiracies, factions and coups. The stakes are so high and power is so unanswerable. Men, entire families, could be raised up or destroyed in a moment. And there were indeed plots, revolts and conspiracies; armies were raised and marched on London. And it trickles down; the great lord in favour with the monarch had local influence in their own part of the country, and used it to favour lesser lords who in turn favored their own cronies.

It’s rather like the situation in a poor country which has a lot of oil or diamonds but not much else; all possibility of wealth or success gets tied into one thing — how close people can get to the oil. The economy and politics get twisted out of shape, not because the oil company necessarily intends to be exploitative or ruthless but because the gravitational pull of the oil is so disproportionate to any other source of money.

I remember at university, possibly in my finals, there was a question which was something like: ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially political. Discuss.’ At the time I was annoyed by it because it seemed like a reflection of a certain critical tendency to find politics in everything, and to foreground politics, in its broad sense, at the expense of other kinds of analysis. Now, though, I’m more sympathetic. A play like Julius Caesar, about courtiers conspiring to kill a king, would have had immediate relevance to the original audience. Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear: all revolve around court politics. All operate in the shadow of civil war. Which isn’t to say that they are narrowly ‘political plays’, but the action does take place in a highly political environment.

It makes an interesting problem for anyone staging them. You want a setting which is contemporary enough to be immediate for the audience, but western politics these days just isn’t brutal, unstable or corrupt enough. Some kind of dictatorship seems the obvious choice, but of course that setting brings a load of baggage of its own. Hamlet set in the court of Kim Jong-Il doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

*Really, don’t: I don’t know that much about her and have no idea what’s going to happen next. I haven’t read that Wikipedia article I just linked to for precisely that reason.

and indeed medieval England, but one thing at a time.

Billy Elliot, the Musical

Yesterday I went to Billy Elliot, the musical of the movie.

Billy Elliot

Which I have to say was very enjoyable, in an emotionally manipulative kind of way. The little kid with a poignant letter from his dead mother, who wants to be a ballet dancer despite coming from a northern town in the process of being torn apart by the miners’ strike, the gruff miners with hearts of gold – no heartstring was left untugged. Tunes by Elton John, who’s also not afraid to lay the emotion on with a trowel.

But sometimes that’s quite nice. And it was leavened by lots of high-energy dancing and plenty of good jokes.

I’m obviously just too literal minded for my own good, though, because I never entirely stopped finding it ever so slightly odd that the actor playing Billy was a different race to his parents. He was very good, mind you, particularly at the tap dancing. They actually have five actors playing Billy in rotation to prevent them burning out, one of whom – Matthew Koone – is Asian. It wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the show or anything, but I was always slightly aware of it somehow.

But then the whole business of ‘believing’ what we see on the stage, and what we mean by that, is peculiar and subtle. It wasn’t like the show was unremittingly realist – we’re talking about chorus lines of picketing miners here – so why one detail niggles and another doesn’t… I think I might be overanalysing at this point.

Blog pause

The cricket is so enjoyable that I almost regret the fact that tomorrow I’m going to the Dorgogne to spend a week eating, drinking and being merry with a bunch of friends. Here’s a picture of Marie Lloyd for you to look at during my absence:

The Queen of Innuendo

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