One day I really ought to read Edward Said’s Orientalism. I rather think it would give a stronger intellectual underpinning than my current reading in that broad line of country (David Toop’s fascinating, if idiosyncratic, musical-anthropological work Exotica) to an idea that often crops up when I watch visiting international shows. Namely, how would we react to this piece of work if, all other things being equal, it originated from a prosaic domestic source? Are we truly having our horizons broadened by watching this presentation, or are we merely awarding ourselves broad-horizons points for doing so? Are we actually seeing into another culture, or are we being offered a hybrid confected for the international market, with just enough exotic spice to make unaccustomed palates tingle without rebelling?
If indulged too far, obviously, such doubts could result in an insular chauvinism that’s even worse. Equally clearly, not all international work raises such spectres. I’d say that Gumboots – a South African presentation in the Barbican’s BITE strand during the period covered by this issue, but principally a dance show and therefore not included on these pages – would be a reasonable target for this kind of questioning. Rather less so with the other South African BITE offering, the Farber Foundry’s Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise. And yet that’s the one that’s got me thinking along these lines now.
As Robert Hewison points out in his Sunday Times review, we are a little more prone (pace Athol Fugard and numerous others) to expect happy-clappy work from South Africa, whether now celebrating ten years of the Rainbow Nation or in earlier days offering at least the temporary illusion of escape from the oppression of the apartheid regime. Yael Farber and her company’s piece confronts those expectations head-on by simply recounting what claim to be the personal stories of each of the five performers, which take in forced resettlement, abandonment, rape, casual murder and armed resistance. And yet in some respects the mode of presentation works against the material.
The poor-theatre approach of using little more than zinc baths and washbasins as props results in some moments which are both inventive and emotionally breathtaking. However, I worry whether perhaps that combination – poor theatre plus South Africa – has become a kind of cultural shorthand for a set of expectations in which the piece then finds itself unwittingly confined. My fear is that the work escapes our assumptions of easy exotica on the most visible plane only to fall prey to a subtler form of the same stereotyping on a deeper level. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps my uneasiness is no more than a personal defence mechanism, a way for me to cope with the horrors recounted by Farber’s company by focusing not on the direct content but on a penumbra of signification that I allege hovers around it. Maybe I just think too much. Ah, well, back to my Jon Hassell and Fela Kuti CDs...
For obvious faux-exotica, look no further than Edward Fox’s portrayal of Bernard Berenson in The Old Masters. Or rather, his performance in the role of Berenson, since he expends as much effort on any kind of impersonation as he does on juggling halibut. Pretty much every reviewer notes that Berenson was a Lithuanian-Jewish-Bostonian, and Fox not only can’t move out of the Home Counties but not even out of their stately homes. (My FT guv’nor Alastair Macaulay is inspired to create this issue’s greatest moment of orthography when he imagines Fox playing Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.)
I have to resile somewhat from my rather vituperative opinions in Issue 08 occasioned by Gray’s The Holy Terror. The Old Masters is clearly much more thoughtful on issues such as dilemmas of loyalty, entanglements of personal and commercial impulses and the like. Indeed, it raises my overall opinion of Gray almost to zero. But it is, as more than one reviewer has also remarked, fundamentally a throwback in terms of its register and structure. We respond more tolerantly to this piece than to his last because the material is more considered and more interesting, and because an air of endearing quaintness hangs over the affair.
In some ways this is less due to Fox – who’s long been so far out that he’s on the way back – than to Peter Bowles. Again, Alastair Macaulay hits the nail on the head. There’s no significant difference between Bowles’ performance here as art dealer Joseph Duveen and his performance a couple of years ago as crime novelist Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth; his intervening West End outing as the villain in Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark varied from these only in that it afforded him fewer opportunities for velvet-serpentine smiles. There’s only so much that can be done to rein in this personal archetype-acting, even by a director as accomplished as Harold Pinter (who would no doubt bridle at Georgina Brown’s erroneous bestowal upon him of a knighthood).
À propos nothing, one of the finest bad movies ever made is Wild Geese II. Not only does it star Laurence Olivier as Rudolf Hess, complete with bushy eyebrow wiglets and his all-purpose mitteleuropäisch accent (“I’m an old man who only wants to go back to Spandau!”), but it also includes a deliciously surreal moment when Edward Fox as an ex-SAS officer is required to act a simultaneous malaria attack and bad acid trip. Once seen, never forgotten... try as you might.
Ah, now, hang on... actually, I can fashion a chain of association here: Olivier – Henry V – We Happy Few. There we go.
Some years ago, as a cub reporter, I had to interview Trevor Nunn on a day when I found myself coming down with a virulent attack of food poisoning. All my efforts were directed towards trying at least to look conscious and not to throw up on his office carpet. Which, of course, required iron-willed self-restraint when he greeted me, whom he had never met before, with one of his trademark hugs. This was the memory which popped up when one member of Hetty Oak’s doughty wartime women’s touring theatre company in We Happy Few remarked with some asperity, “We’ve been Hettied again”. Is this an oblique allusion to being “Trevved” by such tactics as those hugs? Confirmation can come only from the author, Imogen Stubbs, or Mrs Nunn as she’s also known.
Stubbs’ play has been given a very rough ride, with the partial result that it takes this issue’s closed-before-we-made-it-into-print laurels. Ian Herbert defends it nobly, and I have to say I’m in some agreement with him. Stubbs is clearly passionate both about the Osiris Players, the real-life basis for her fictional Artemis troupe, and about the imaginative power of theatre. She’s also unfairly attacked for being sentimental, as if this were a bad thing in itself. It’s not. The best of Stubbs’ sentimentality has an affecting artlessness, because she’s so caught up in the feeling that she can carry us along with her. It’s when she tries to be artFUL that things go awry, and alas she tries all too often.
Heart of stone
Both Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (to whom, welcome, as he settles down to spend all his evenings reviewing proper theatre after spending his days writing about the amateur dramatics in Parliament) and John Gross in the Sunday Telegraph make remarks to the effect that there’s also humour in the play, but whether intentionally or not, they do so after citing instances of supposed grimness which are in fact inadvertently risible. There are moments when, as Wilde said about the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. During the interval on the press night, another reviewer and I discussed whether news of the inevitable death of Hetty’s son Crispian, fighting at the front, would or would not come during a performance of Henry V. The title of the play notwithstanding, I didn’t believe they’d dare go that far. I lost.
William Blake said the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, but then, Blake wasn’t writing Dunkirk-spirit melodrama. He wasn’t writing musicals derived from Plautus, either, but it’s just as true of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I’ve already written about this in the body of the issue; I’m just abusing my position here in order to pre-emptively disagree with the other Ian’s reservations about it. And isn’t it odd that both national flagship companies should enjoy success with unlikely choices of comedy involving an absurd set-piece drag sequence (the other being the RSC’s House Of Desires), in the same week?
The Dunkirk spirit made an unexpected but necessary return, too, the night I saw London Bubble’s Alice Through The Looking Glass. Jonathan Petherbridge’s adaptation and open-air promenade staging are lively and inventive. However, the factor which most lends the book to this kind of dramatisation also limits the satisfaction it can give in live performance. Carroll’s second Alice story takes the form of an enormous live chess game played across acres of fantastical countryside. This enables Petherbridge to switch locations easily from one scene to the next, even if the geometry of the chessboard can’t be reproduced. Conversely, though, it lends matters an excessively episodic feel; lacking a real story arc apart from a deep and complex metaphor which can’t be staged anyway, it comes to seem a little pointless traipsing from grove to grove, from scene to scene, with no sense of the overall journey. But the Dunkirk spirit...
Think of the possible drawbacks of outdoor summer theatre, and you think of the weather, insects, hay fever and so on. You’re unlikely to consider the possibility of coming under both verbal and physical fire from a bunch of jeering local miscreants. That was what happened the evening I visited Bubble on the fourth stop of their tour of London parks, in Ruislip. First came the shouts, and when they didn’t prove sufficiently disruptive, the stones began to fly. Part of me wished that they’d hit the mayor of Hillingdon, who was also present, since at least that would lead to serious action. I’ll never understand that destructive urge, even if it’s just enjoyment they’re setting out to destroy. Mercifully, though, they didn’t succeed. After all, you just have to love a production which explains the chess metaphor by telling us that if we all go with Alice the whole way across the board, at the end we’ll all get to be queens. Don’t you?
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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