Somewhere between Waiting for Godot and The Nutcracker – Appetite’s The Enchanted Chandelier

Two drunken tramps discover a huge bell hanging from what appears to be an enormous chandelier. The bell’s rings summon a court of comic and grotesque fairy tale characters – a king, a queen, a troubadour, a jester, and sprite like figures who illuminate the the outdoor arena with fiery torches. After some drama to illustrate their roles, the fairy tale characters take their places on the chandelier before being hoisted way above the heads of the audience. What follows is a mesmerisingly choreographed combination of drums and bells, acrobatics and technical wizadry. The music played by the courtiers carries us through lulls and crescendos; the sprites perform on ropes, swings and trapezes way above us; and the chandelier itself changes height and shape as it is illuminated in a constantly transforming show of light, dark and shadow.

This is Appetite’s fourth major show in Hanley Central Forest Park. All four have been triumphs and this one is up there with my so-far-favourite, The Bell (a promenade performance about the futility of war with acrobats, fire, explosions and opera – oh, and a bell!).

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Appetite is an Arts Council funded body who, in collaboration with the New Vic theatre, stage accessible and and often interactive arts events for the communities of North Staffordshire. A recent city centre event celebrated the originator of the modern circus, Philip Astley, who came from Newcastle under Lyme. Staffs Uni English and Creative Writing students have volunteered and undertaken work placements with Appetite who continue to do great work across the region.

See what else is on this summer here

 

 

Powerful Civil Rights Drama

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  (Dr Martin Luther King Jr, April 3, 1968)

mountaintop

Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia as King and Camae (courtesy or the New Vic)

To what extent should we allow a man’s human failings to define his place in history? Martin Luther King’s reputation as the man who changed the course of racial politics in America is unassailable. However, close associates have described his weakness for women, he smoked, and, at the time of his assassination in 1968, he was battling factions within his own movement over the policy of non-violent resistance and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, is an exploration of the conflicts between the man and his myth and is named after the speech given in Memphis the evening before King’s death. The play explores the humanity of King the man, while contextualising both his struggles and his achievements in a wider American history of the late 20th century. In his speech, King makes reference to his own mortality and to the need for the struggle to go on without him. After the sermon, and on the eve of his assassination, King is visited by a mysterious maid bringing him coffee and difficult questions about his faith and the direction of the struggle. Camae challenges King’s adherence to non-violent struggle, evoking Malcolm X and delivering her own oration, as passionate and compelling as King’s, exhorting American Americans to ‘kill all the white people … with our minds’. The play draws our attention to both the costs of passive resistance in the face of ruthless violence (‘walking won’t get us far’, Camae reminds King) and to the sacrifices made by poor black women under the conditions of segregation in the South and in the Civil Rights movement itself (a concern dealt with by Alice Walker in her novel, Meridian). Camae refers to women like her as the ‘mules of the world’ and challenges King to include them in his vision of the Promised Land. Hall is, I think, deeply aware that the Civil Rights movement was a patriarchal enterprise; beyond Rosa Parks, most of us would be unable to name a significant woman campaigner.

The play was first performed in London in 2009 and won numerous nominations and awards. There are some surprising twists in this drama, and plenty of humour alongside the politics and human frailties.

This production is on till Saturday June 25 at the New Vic close to Staffs Uni. It’s a shame that the production has been ignored by the national press, as the acting is superb, with British actors Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia nailing the Southern accents and the staging allowing the power of King’s oratory and his legacy to be fully realised. It was great to hear the actors talk about the rehearsals, the emotional responses of the audience, and their own re-appraisals of the Civil Rights struggle and King’s legacy in the talk-back session after the performance. This is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen.

Sonnet 65: ‘Paint it Black’ – Back to Black, on occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary

The Sonnets are Shakespeare condensed into small scale poetic form. Their performance space is not on the playhouse stage, but in the more expansive theatre of the mind, portable Shakespeare, therefore, for the modern bookreader, to be accessed anywhere and whenever. Compiled inside the covers of one book, the 154 poems, 14 lines each, provide a lyrical backdrop to Shakespeare’s theatre, a sort of engine room or microcosm of nuclear ideas that power the universe of the plays. Of course they also demand to be enjoyed in their own right. For, first and foremost, this is great poetry: something else Shakespeare, the playwright polymath, was exceptionally good at, even though various juries are still out whether all of The Sonnets are of equally high artistic quality. As is the case with numerous other aspects of Shakespeare’s work,The Sonnets carry some unanswered questions regarding sources, origins, authorship, publication, purpose, sexual orientation even, order of arrangement of the sequence and of individual poems in the collection, its dedication, addressees etc.. To pick out but one area: who, for example, was the dedicatee of the collection, the enigmatic ‘Mr W.H.’ (the most recent research-based claim suggests he was a friend of the author, a London publisher called William Holme), or, in another contentious area, who was the young man the first 126 sonnets are addressed to (was there even a physical role model, and what, if there was?); and who was the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ of the last 28 ones? As first port of call, introducing some of the ins and outs of the text, W. H. Auden’s ‘Afterword’ to the Everyman’s Library edition may serve: a poet’s perspective on the poems…

The sonnet as a new poetic form originated in 13th century Italy. Its invention can be regarded as one of the most substantial literary achievements of early modern culture, with a first peak of artistic perfection in the Canzoniere of Petrarca (written between 1327 and 1368). In fact, it has been argued that the sonnet as an artistic landmark points to the beginning of the Renaissance as  such… Since then the form has enjoyed several high points along the way to later modern writing, Shakespeare’s collection of 1609 being one of them, of course; also, Elisabeth Barrett-Browning’s 1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese needs a mention, and, most recently, in 2015, Don Patterson’s excellent collection of  40 Sonnets. Almost everybody who was (and is) anybody in the world of poetic writing has at some stage used the sonnet. Its specific formal features demand of the poet a high degree of skill and good craftsmanship; it lends itself particularly well to the display of poetic virtuosity. You can make a good name for yourself, even aspire to enter into the afterlife of everlasting poetic fame, or become a Poet Laureate, if you manage to compose  decent sonnets. Contemporary likenesses convey Petrarch as the bearer of the laurel wreath, the ancient Apollonian crown for heroes and champion poets. The other reason is that owing to the peculiarities of its intricate structure and patterning, the Petrarchan sonnet and its Shakespearean modification have served as a model form for expressing complex  thoughts, sentiments and feelings: the sonnet is a modern poetic form because it allows particularly well for an expression of the issues that are on the modern mind.

The modernity of the sonnet as a form lies in the fact that it is eminently suitable to deal  with questions of conflicted human identity in an increasingly confusing world of post medieval secularisation, a world we are still living in today. The discourse-oriented, bipartite structure of the Italian sonnet (Octave – two Quatrains –  followed by Sestet – two Tercets) and the possibilities of fugue-like intertwining of rhymes (across the different intersections) allows for great flexibility in expressing condensed, complex ideas, often of an antithetical, or oxymoronic and paradoxical nature, and encourages the development of a complicated argument, that may extend from initial statement via discussion in the Octave down to a resolution at the end of the Sestet. Shakespeare modifies the Petrarchan model. Replacing the two-part structure (Octave and Sestet), he introduces three Quatrains and one final Couplet, which, it can be argued, even increases the sonnet’s propensity for intellectual disputation and the charting of thoughts as a ‘dialectical’ process, with negation, self-doubt, and contradiction as ingredient elements. Arguably, through its essentially tripartite structure (plus concluding couplet), the Shakespearean paradigm of the sonnet, even more so than the more binary-based Petrarchan, caters even better for the requirements of dynamically developing, modern thought and a fluid argumentation. Like most of his plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets use iambic pentameter, the metrical line that hides its own constructedness and aims at giving the illusion of life-like speech. It also brings The Sonnets in proximity to the plays in that it enhances the dramatic positioning of the ideas discussed in them. Their rhyme scheme mostly follows the pattern of abab cdcd efef gg.

Sonnet 65 is one of my favorites.

Shakespare

SONNET 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

 

To me it stands out as one of the most radically modern of Shakespeares utterances, through its imagery, for a start, which seems to point forward as far ahead as Victorian Industrialisation and Darwinian Geology. But also through the depth of what is being discussed in it: at the root is a central question still asked in a similar way (and sometimes  answered), perhaps asked again for the first time in this radical way since Shakespeare’s days, in European art and thought around the middle of the 19th century and beyond. Art, poetry to be precise, holds out the faint hope of permanence and constancy in the face of the great ravisher Time who causes all human life and its products to be annihilated. The human counts for nothing in a world of raging natural devastation where even rocks erode over time, let alone brass and steel: hope against hope, the poet writes against the inevitability of natural decay, and perhaps there is a slim chance for poetic passion, codified in the black ink of the written text, to survive the tumult of destruction and shine through it.

The notion of transience of life is as widespread in the European literature of the Baroque as that of teatrum mundi  (‘All the Word’s a stage’, in the words of one of Shakespeare’s plays), both ideas feeding into the modern notion of tragic absurdity of life. Thus, as Walter Benjamin emphasised in his  study of Baroque tragedy, the literature of Shakespeare’s period paves the way into our own time. However, Sonnet 65 seems to me to go particularly deep in its modern concerns, perhaps further than other discussions of the matter in Shakespeare and other contemporary writers, such as Cervantes, Calderon or Grimmelshausen. This sonnet strikes me particularly through its visionary qualities, enhanced  by its peculiar network of metaphors, directly anticipating, down to the phrase almost, many later expressions of the same dilemma from poets and writers who were neck-deep embroiled in the battles for orientation and identity during Industrial Revolution and later Capitalism, the worst times of turmoil and change of the whole period. Marx, no poet, comes out with the stunning well-known poetic line, ‘All that is solid melts into air’ (1848), a fact, he maintains with the characteristic optimism of the early freedom fighter, that we can, waking up to realising our own situation, turn into our advantage. From Sonnet 65, links can be drawn to Darwin who propagates the notion of  ‘geological time’ in Origin of Species (1859); The sentence from the same source: ‘How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods’, chimes with the sentiments of the Sonnet. It also anticipates late-19th century Aestheticism which, counteracting the pessimism of Darwin’s biological determinism, identifies a faculty in the make-up of the human that may provide a reason to live in a devastating world of destruction, by resisting ‘Nature, Red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson’s phrase from In Memoriam, 1850). In the famous Conclusion to The Renaissance (1873) Walter Pater says that

‘we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. … Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. … Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’

There is a variety of connections that can be made between Sonnet 65’s desperate vision of hope that art may resist the destruction of time to similar reflections in 19th century poetry. Canto V of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) echoes the Sonnet’s idea of fragile ink set against overwhelming devastation. Tennyson, who thinks of his own poems as ‘lullabies of pain’, holds that

But for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

If at all, it is only through art that the human has any significance, any distinct part to play in the grand scheme of things. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 the dim glow of the black ink of poetry is the only light source in a world of cosmic devastation and universal darkness. The same black sun of poetry shines from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857), and more, powerfully black even, from James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night (1874). In an early poem called ‘Hap’ of 1866, Hardy calls Time a ‘purblind Doomster’: this is the major ingredient also in all of Hardy’s novels. Time in Hardy is the modern equivalent of ancient fate in a post-mythological and post-Christian age, the main agent (together with chance, or ‘Happenstance’ – the shortened title of the poem ‘Hap’) that turns human life into tragedy, even under the most modern of conditions.

 

 

 

Lovers, Lunatics and Poets

The English lecturers have been picking their favourite speeches and sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Here, Mark Brown ponders the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

When most people think about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they usually think of a tale of lovers wronged, true love realised, magical fairies and a man with the head of a donkey. And, on the whole, they would be right. Critics often focus on the carnivalesque aspects as rigid Athenian society is disrupted by a holiday to mark the Duke’s marriage and the magical effects of the countryside. They also focus on the conventions of romantic comedy, many of which still hold true for the Rom-Coms we see at the cinema. The romance is found in the characters of Hermia and Lysander, who are in love with each other. Hermia’s father, however, wants her to marry Demetrius (for reasons of wealth and power). Demetrius is loved by Helena, but he’s just not interested. If Hermia does not conform to her father’s wishes she can, according to the Athenian law of Theseus, be killed or banished. So, Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest, pursued by the jealous Demetrius and the besotted Helena. Here they encounter the fairies (with their magical royal equivalents of the Athenian elite, Oberon and Titania). After lots of misunderstandings caused by magic potions, love triumphs and all the right people marry each other for all the right reasons, and order is restored.

I find the play fascinating for its exploration of dream and how Shakespeare relates it closely to the magic of theatre. This speech, from Theseus near the end of the play, reflects back on the moment when the lovers are discovered waking from their enchantment in the forest when Demetrius says

It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. (Act IV, Scene I)

The theme of dreams here is carried from the enchantment of the fairies in the wood, to their awakening and then back to Athens, where its effects will be felt in the re-ordering of chaotic marriage arrangements into an acceptable order and the re-establishment of both Egeus’ and Theseus’ patriarchal authority. But first Theseus reflects on the nature of the stories of enchanted woods and fairies. After describing ‘these antique fables’, he considers the role of the poet (and, hence, the playwright) in fashioning stories to speak to the interests and experiences of his audience:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (Act V Scene I)

 

The poet’s pen, then, is what makes sense of a chaotic and incomprehensible world, which sometimes can only be explained by the actions of nature and magic. The writer is able to change the ‘airy nothing[s]’ of imagination into a recognisable world that will draw us in and persuade us, for the duration of the play, of the verisimilitude of the fictional world and the characters he has conjured by his own form of magic.

Crime fiction and gender

We borrowed the film theatre once again for an English and Creative Writing private screening and the complete cinema experience, complete with free pop-corn (my pleasure). We watched One for the Money, the 2011 adaptation of the first Stephanie Plum novel, as part of the Crime Scene America module.

I think Rotten Tomatoes’ 1 star review of this jolly crime-romcom is a bit unfair. Along with a nice afternoon at the movies, we watched the movie for the way it adapts the detective-figure role for a female central character, explored notions of gender and racial representation, and the further development of the crime genre. We used Mulvey’s discussion of the gendered cinematic gaze to consider the extent to which this film challenges Hollywood’s patriarchal attitudes (it doesn’t!).

One for the Money

Special Showing of Macbeth at the Film Theatre

We borrowed the university’s very own film theatre for a special showing of Justin Kurzel’s new interpretation of Macbeth. English and Creative Writing students were joined by students from other degrees, friends, family and staff for a great afternoon in the dark (with apologies to Graham Greene for nearly stealing his line).

The film itself is dark and brooding, set in an atmospheric Highland landscape which is a character in its own right. This is not a landscape of castles and pomp, but of barrenness and struggle. The delivery is faithful to the original, as unadorned as the landscape and brilliantly understated, making the action even more menacing. Any moments of Shakespereian levity are edited out. Kurzel re-imagines the supernatural sequences in a new and original way, adding innovative nuances to what should be a deeply mined narrative. Macbeth (Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard) stand out in a stand-out cast.

The Telegraph gives it 5 stars and says it is ‘one of the great Shakespearean movies’.

The play is on the GCSE syllabus too, and this is a fine introduction to the text.

Click for the Stoke Film Theatre programme

 

Hardy’s Tess – Skeleton found in a – Prison Carpark?

It so happened last week, just before we were about to start the first session of our four week run on The Novel (in the Level 4 Introduction to English Studies skills module), that a newspaper article appeared reporting the discovery of the mortal remains of one Martha Brown in the grounds of a Dorchester prison. Brown was condemned to death by hanging in 1856 for the murder of her violent husband, one of the last executions of this kind in England. The event was attended by the 16 year old Thomas Hardy, apparently traumatised by the incident, so much so that he used the personage and the story leading to the hanging as raw material for one of his most famous novels, the late work Tess of the D’urbervilles, published 1892, more than half a lifetime after the grim spectacle. Coincidence wills it that this very novel is featured as specimen in our session on the novel in the above mentioned module. I could not have wished for a more fitting and timely introduction to studying the novel as a reality-bound literary form. The episode profiles the doctrine of Realism in stark relief…

Gemma Arterton (right) in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/19/thomas-hardy-tess-of-the-durbervilles-bones-found-at-prison

Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ Adaptation: ‘Battlefield’, at the Young Vic

Down the smoke, 19 and 20 Feb, to tank up on High (and some low!) C(c)ulture. I saw Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen’s The Master Builder: an excellent performance in the Old Vic. The Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street behind King’s Cross (free entry!) has an exhibition comparing/contrasting portraiture of the photographer Avedon with Warhol’s portraits. Highly recommended. The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Aldwych (also free entry for students and teachers), shows the Botticelli cartoons illustrating the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy: 60 plus drawings, with magnifying glasses handed out at the entrance.: can’t think of anything better, at least not in this area of the highest pursuits…

Warhol: self Portrait

Warhol: self Portrait

Avedon: Ezra Pound

Avedon: Ezra Pound

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Avedon: Beckett

 

The main theatrical event happened in the other more vibrant place around the corner from the Old Vic: i.e. in the Young Vic, which still, it seems, fulfils the promise held out by its name: vibrancy, new impulses, setting the standard for contemporary theatre. A while ago I saw Beckett’s Happy Days there. Terrifyingly intense. This time, I was  lucky enough to score a ticket for one of Peter Brook’s rare productions on an English stage, entitled Battlefield. Brook is now 91; it was (without trying to wish time away) probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me then to see the legend in live-action.

The venue was  bristling with young vibe. Andrew Scott, of Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) and Pride fame was in the house (I could smell his Eau, I came that close), also Fiona Shaw, and, as coincidence had it, our very own Staffs arch-practitioner in the dramatic arts, playwright and Panto specialist extraordinaire ‘Rob’ Marsden…. Indeed, the Staffordshire links extended further, for, one of the five-strong cast was the Cheesemanian disciple of yore and sometime Northern Broadside member, Sean O’Callaghan, the only Caucasian white actor in this show.

My interest in Brook’s work goes back some time and is linked partially with a stint of teaching I did in the olden days for the Drama and Theatre Arts Department at Staffs Uni, including 20th century play-writing and dramaturgy. A short explanation might be in order.

Peter Brook started off as one of the most radical innovators of British post-war theatre, with trail-blazing productions of plays from the traditional canon to his name, such as Shakespeare’s Lear (1962) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), but also new ‘experimental’ ones, the most spectacular Marat/Sade (1964) by Peter Weiss. Brook re-examined the very texts of the plays he used in the light of innovatory 20th century theatre practices and the theories that transformed theatre after Ibsen, such as those of  Brecht (‘Epic Theatre’), Artaud (‘Theatre of Cruelty’), and the Theatre of the Absurd. In one of his seminal studies (The Empty Space: the practitioner Brook is also a formidable theorist!), which has  come to be regarded as something of a rule-book for post-modern theatre, he argues that text is only one amongst the elements that come into play when the empty space of the theatre is to be filled with theatrical matter. In fact, it is Brooks iconoclastic irreverence towards the traditionally sanctioned play-text (handed down over centuries and meticulously edited into ‘definite’ shape by generations of scholars) that might be singled out as a key feature of his radicalism as a theatrical innovator. Far from holy writ, the actual text is according to Brook by no means THE central  element of theatre. Particularly the well established texts almost held sacred, such as those of Shakespeare’s plays, need to be put through the mincer; they need re-shaping and re-jigging, as each new specific present  production requires. The above mentioned  Midsummer Night’s Dream went down as a good example for the new flexibility in the handling of text for the theatre that Brook advocated, including cutting, altering, re-ordering of passages and scenes: an attitude of postmodern utility and sobriety…

All in all, Brook argues the case for a re-evaluation and re-prioritisation (dread word!) of the elements that come together to create the theatre experience. He aims at a new holistic inclusiveness of the theatre which needs to start from scratch (an empty room) in the assembly of its ingredient elements for each new production. Some of these elements, such as mime, acrobatics, magic, are to be re-admitted centre-stage from the neglected fringes of performance practice. Thus, Midsummer Night’s Dream used acrobats, fire eaters, jugglers, etc. In this regard Brook’s theatre seems to correspond  with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the Carnivalesque: established doctrines of style are subverted through the liberating force of chaos and humour ….

Brook also worked in film. In the versions of Lord of the Flies (1963), Marat/Sade (1967) and Lear (1971), all three in Black and White, Brook seems well conversant with the aesthetic requirements in this different medium. For example, the madness scene of Lear raving on the Heath comes alive well as film. Shot in a sequence of blurry, double-exposed images, the over-blending gives Lear’s psychotic outbursts a uniquely cinematographic form. During  the English period of his activity, Brook was instrumental in launching the careers of many now well-established theatre and cinema actors, such as Glenda Jackson’s (Marat/Sade) and Ben Kingsely’s (Midsummer Night’s Dream); the name of Paul Scofield (Lear) is intrinsically linked with earlier Brook.

These days it is rare to see Brook in action in Britain. He now operates from Paris, where he moved in the mid-70s, acquiring a defunct Belle époque venue, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord near the Gare du Nord, whose director he remained until 2008. The most spectacular production emerging from Paris was the 12 hour-long staging of a Sanscrit epic, Mahabharata, in 1985, an experience of truly Wagnerian dimensions, both in terms of sheer length and as a multi-artistic fusion project, with the slimmer film version, cut down to a mere 6 hours, added in 1989. The immensely long text of more than 200000 verses is the Indian equivalent to Homer’s Greek epics, albeit probably older, going back to even before C8 BCE in its oldest core parts.

It was thus with great expectations that I attended the performance at the Young Vic. Reader, they were not thwarted! Battlefield, it emerged, is the massive epic of the Mahabharata whittled down to a mere 65 minutes of performance time. Brook has moved away then from the gargantuan proportions of the original 1985 production, from the opulence of his earlier output altogether, to a ‘late style’ of sparse gestures and tightly crafted minimalism: the show runs through without interruption in what could be called ‘one act’. The short segment presented is the condensed essence of the whole of the Mahabharata project, the full epic in a nutshell, so to speak. The structure of the huge text consisting of scores of intertwined tales held together in a broader narrative frame is showcased here, in an exemplary, didactically demonstrative way, very much reminiscent of Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘Instructive Theatre Parables’). Thus, the Battlefield segment features as a representative nuclear scene standing in for the whole of the Mahabharata’s endlessly confabulated creation-of-the-world myth. We see the key players of the extended version in action here, Krishna and Vishnu, as well as a small selection of more minor characters lower in the mythological chain through whom the will and wisdom of the gods is filtered down the pyramid of creation. The ebb and flow of life is presented in an allegory of battle and war, the battlefield of death as wasteland of rebirth and renewal, a kind of Indian version of the baroque idea of Theatrum mundi.

One of the most impressive features of the production is  that of ‘the fifth man’, a Japanese tabla player with a free-jazz backdrop, who provides continuous musical commentary on proceedings. The music-maker is fully integrated as an independent voice with a non-linguistic, purely musical part. This goes deep into the heart of the play’s mythologizing intentions. The good Dr. Schopenhauer is near in spirit…

If one were to sum-up the whole thing in terms of impact of theatrical experience and significance of production, the following could be said:

  • an enormously rich experience  packed into  little more than an hour of performance;
  • a fruitful tension of contemporary, ‘modern’ theatre feeding on primeval, in itself half-shadowy, prehistoric text: a ‘post-modern’ tension;
  • fulfilment of the key demands of Brecht’s Epic Theatre (narrative intentions; props rendering strange the action; the actors stepping outside of their roles etc.), paradoxically through bringing mythology back to life;
  • a marriage of thinking man’s Brechtian Epic Theatre therefore and C.G. Jung’s dimming Collective Unconscious.
A curious admixture of the best of two different worlds….

 

 

Broadsides’ Merry Wives

On Tuesday night, I, along with several other Staffs Uni students, saw the Northern Broadside production of The Merry Wives (of Windsor), by William Shakespeare. It was a thoroughly entertaining play, with jokes, music, singing, dancing, trickery and, of course, love (and how could Shakespeare resist the chance at making fun of the French?). I also learned that this is the origin of the popular phrase ‘what the dickens?’, which I had always assumed had come from a similarly named author. Afterwards, there was a talk-back session with all the cast, where we were able to ask questions, and were told stories (particularly by Barrie Rutter, who played Falstaff in this production), including performing in the Globe Theatre in T-shirts and jeans for the first half of A Midsummer Night’s Dream due to lost luggage problems. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and I would highly recommend this play to anyone.

(Harriet Lee, Creative Writing)

Some wives (not from Windsor, but somewhere Northern – as you would expect) being merry at The New Vic (courtesy of Northern Broadsides)

See the trailer at their website here

 

 

Harper Lee, the author of the iconic To Kill A Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89. The novel tells the story of the heroic lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl in segregated Alabama. The novel, scandalously, was removed from the GCSE syllabus recently to make room for more ‘English’ literature about drawing rooms and manners. It’s a shame, as generations of students have been given a genuine insight into the legacy of slavery and the pernicious effects of racism and have, I suspect, become better people as a result. Lee, interestingly, grew up in the same small, Southern town as Truman Capote (author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and helped him to research his seminal non-fiction crime novel, In Cold Blood (which we study on the Crime Scene America module).

File:Atticus and Tom Robinson in court.gif

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson in the Oscar winning film of To Kill A Mockingbird (WikiCommons)