Inherit the Wind at The Old Vic

Originally posted on November 26, 2009.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
— Proverbs 11:29

A play at the Old Vic — is there a more enjoyable way to spend a Tuesday night? If it is watching Trevor Nunn’s new production of Inherit the Wind, then not many. Although the play, based on the Scopes monkey trial of 1925, is slightly rusty, old-fashioned and preachy, the current production is absolutely first class entertainment. Despite still being topical (the debate between evolution and religion continues to this date), Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s play shows its age and limitations — the love story is really forced, the townspeople are ciphers and the whole thing has a slightly Hollywood feel to it. But the production is terrific, playing to all the play’s strengths. Nunn’s direction is smart and energetic. We feel that we are part of the town, Hillsboro (the fictional Southern town in which the play is set), feeling its passion and the sweltering Summer heat. The scene changes are particularly strong. Between each scene, the town’s people break into excellent gospel singing, a technique which both serves to highlight the religious sentiment in the community as well as entertaining the audience. The set design is impeccable. Rob Howell’s creations are fluid and sleek — and the stage transforms from a town to a train station to a court-house with remarkable grace and ease. When the stage is set up as Hillsboro, it seems to go back forever, adding a great sense of depth to the play. It was also perhaps reminiscent of the perspective in a Renaissance painting which meets at a point in the distance.

But it is the performances which really make the show. Kevin Spacey is extremely good as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow’s fictional representation). Hunched over and wearing a white wig, he steals the scene from the moment he appears in the almost abandoned town late in the evening. During the court room scenes, he is charismatic and witty, devastatingly believable in his mocking attack of the Creationists’ arguments. His opponent, however, is no shrinking violet and David Troughton is top-notch as Matthew Harrison Brady (the fictional William Jennings Bryan of the play). When Brady arrives in town to a hero’s welcome, Troughton beautifully captures the character’s easy charm and common touch of an experienced politician. However, as the court case progresses, his hubris gets the better of him and he succumbs to Drummond’s cross-examinations. We should also mention Mark Dexter’s turn as  E. K. Hornbeck (an exaggerated version of H. L. Mencken) as well as Ken Bones’s powerful performance as the town’s deranged preacher. However, the star of the show might just be an organ grinder’s monkey who appears in the first act, a reminder of man’s origin. On the night we were there, when Hornbeck gave the monkey a coin, the entire audience let out an audible awwwwwwwwww.

Clearly timed to co-ordinate with the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the production manages to accomplish its goal: to remind us that even though it has been more than 80 years since the Scopes monkey trial, our conversations have not evolved that much.

Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre

Jerusalem, the Olivier- and Tony-award winning play written and directed by Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson respectively, was arguably the best play I have seen in London: wickedly funny, timely and featuring a great performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, whose character drives the play. Once again, the play began at the Royal Court but we missed it there and had to catch the West End transfer. Unlike Enron, however, Jerusalem‘s rapturous reviews were deserved this time.

Byron is a drug dealer who has lived for twenty years in a caravan in a wood on the edge of a Wiltshire village. His life consists of liberal partying with teenagers and local outcasts, all of whom are welcome to his domain. Perhaps because of this setting and of its mythological overtones, several critics have commented that the play is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What makes Byron such an interesting character, however, is that he is also the embodiment of both tradition and subversion, the voice of Britain’s pagan past railing against modern development and hypocrisy. Byron is also a charming story-spinner, who on several occasions completely spellbinds the audience and the other characters with fantastical stories which would have been ridiculous if delivered by a less capable narrator. One of these tales describes his encounter with a 90-foot giant who claims to have built Stonehenge and gives Byron a drum which he can use to summon the giants of England when in trouble. Byron is a physically broken man (he is a former stuntman) and Rylance plays him beautifully, stiffly moving around the stage. His performance is enthralling from beginning to end and he captures all the contradictions of the character: his rage, glamour and melancholy.
At the beginning of the play, we see one of Byron’s allegedly famous parties in full force. The scene, however, is interrupted quickly by the next morning when we see two officials from the county giving Byron notice of his imminent eviction. After they leave, Byron emerges from his trailer to a breakfast of a raw egg, milk, vodka and speed. Soon, he is joined by a team of other characters including a senile retired professor, several teenagers who come out from under his caravan and sofa as well as a few friends who visit him (I thought Mackenzie Crook, from the British Office, as Byron’s friend Ginger, is especially memorable). The topic of discussion focuses primarily on the previous night’s party and the upcoming St. George’s Day fair in the village. The scene is terrifically funny and subversive, as the characters take the piss out of each other and complain about the world.
The beginning of the second act continues in this comic mode but slowly turns more mythological and Shakespearean as Byron’s situation becomes more serious. Although he does his best to pretend that the threat of eviction doesn’t bother him, there is one scene in which he rallies his gang in a mock revolt against the authorities which shows he is actually haunted by what is to come. At one point when he has been left alone, Byron slips on his glasses to read the eviction notice, a pointed reminder for all his bluster, he is after all a vulnerable man. On top of all this, we also learn that Byron has a son who is being bullied because of his father’s gypsy-like lifestyle. But the most dangerous threat to Byron comes from an angry father in search of his missing 15-year-old daughter. She has been known to hang around his caravan with the other teenagers. Byron claims he is oblivious to her whereabouts, but neither the audience or the father quite believe him. Also, the lost girl reminds us that despite his charms, there is something fishy about an aging man who throws parties for young people. Is Byron Jack Falstaff, a charming drunk, or is he something else? Perhaps he is a Peter Pan-type character, perpetually stuck in youthful irresponsibility. Or is he more sinister, like the Pied Piper, seducing the youth of the town to ruin with drugs and easy charm? At the end of the second act, it is revealed that the missing girl has indeed been living in Byron’s caravan, but the nature of their relationship is never made clear.
Everything comes to a head in the third and final act. Having been abandoned by all his friends (who we learn earlier betrayed Byron in the cruellest way), Byron is left with just the missing girl. The girl’s father, however, arrives to enact vengeance against Byron, beating him to half-death. Bloodied and with the county’s bulldozers at the edge of the wood, our main character picks up the drum and begins to heroically beat it, claiming his right to the land by evoking a long list of ancestors and characters from England’s pagan past. This scene is extremely powerful and my heartbeat was replaced by Byron’s drumbeat. In the ending, we hear several loud thuds and the trees begin to shake: are the giants coming to rescue Byron, or is it simply the noise of the bulldozers coming closer? The stage goes black before we have a chance to see what is actually happening. I choose the former as I suspect most audience members will, although some might think that it is equally likely that Byron is conflating his desire for the giants with the sound of the oncoming bulldozers.


The title of the play reminded me of William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time”, a short poem from the preface to Milton a Poem (1804-1810).

A shorter version of this review appears here

The speech that is guaranteed to get the girl

From Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1978):

You’re lovely. I’m crazy about you. All these words I’m using, don’t you see, they’ve never been said before. Can’t you see? I’m crazy about you. It’s a whirlwind. Have you ever been to the Sahara Desert? Listen to me. It’s true. Listen. You overwhelm me. You’re so lovely.  

You’re so beautiful. Look at the way you’re looking at me.

Look at the way you’re looking at me. I can’t wait for you. I’m bowled over, I’m totally knocked out, you dazzle me, you jewel, my jewel, I can’t ever sleep again, no, listen, it’s the truth, I won’t walk, I’ll be a cripple, I’ll descend, I’ll diminish, into total paralysis, my life is in your hands, that’s what you’re banishing me to, a state of catatonia, do you know the state of catatonia? Do you? Do you? The state of … where the reigning prince is the prince of emptiness, the prince of absence, the prince of desolation. I love you.

Everyone knows. The world knows. It knows. But they’ll never know, they’ll never know, they’re in a different world. I adore you. I’m madly in love with you. I can’t believe that what anyone is at this moment saying has ever happened has ever happened. Nothing has ever happened. Nothing. This is the only thing that has ever happened. Your eyes kill me. I’m lost. You’re wonderful.  

Arcadia at Duke of York’s

This post was written on September 12, 2009

On Friday, we went to the Duke of York’s Theatre to watch Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It was the first time we had been to this theatre and it was an interesting experience. The theatre seemed smaller and narrower than others. Even though we were in the first balcony, we seemed to be quite close to the stage. Duke of York’s opened on 10 September 1892, so we were almost there for its 116thbirthday. The contrast between the Victorian theatre and its modern audience and technology was appropriate for Stoppard’s play, in which there are dual timelines.
I was interested to see the play because it shares many similarities with the novels I am currently researching. The story takes place in a country house called Sidney Park in the years 1809-1812 and 1989. The modern-day characters, a literature professor and a writer, are researching the history and the inhabitants of the house from the earlier period. Academics researching the past is a common trope in neo-Victorian novels, the most well-known example being A. S. Byatt‘s Booker-Prize winning Possession (1990). The contemporary characters in Arcadia rely heavily on documents left behind by the nineteenth-century characters to piece together history. Because of their arrogance, romanticism for the past and desire for recognition, they make conclusions which are not necessarily true. The audience is aware of their mistakes as they can see the real events as they occurred in the other timeline. This discrepancy between history and interpretation creates much of the tension and humour in the play. Through the portrayal of these misdirected characters, Stoppard critiques both the impossibility of reconstructing the past and the often misguided attempt of those who try to do so. That having been said, the play also has a great deal of sympathy for the people who have genuine interest in the search for knowledge. Although the present characters make many mistakes, they are able to correctly decipher most of what happened in the nineteenth century in the end. Despite its postmodern themes about the uncertainty of history, the play may ultimately suggest a belief in our ability to accurately reconstruct the past.
I was also rather intrigued by the treatment of Lord Byron within the play. Although much of the action (both in the modern and the historic timelines) revolves around him, Byron does not make a physical appearance in the play; he is only referred to offstage. In fact, the contemporary literary professor is only interested in the country house and the documents that it holds as he imagines they relate to Byron’s disappearance from England. He constructs a drama out of some fragmentary documentation, which turns out to be completely wrong. Byron is one of the nineteenth-century literary celebrities who hold immense interest for contemporary writers, a fact illustrated by the many novels that use him as a central figure. In a number of neo-Victorian novels, the lives of nineteenth-century famous people are used as selling points and to make the narratives interesting. However, here, the placement of Byron offstage and the overenthusiastic and ultimately wrong conclusions that the modern characters draw about his life provide a criticism of this practice. If, for example, the literature professor was not so interested in using Byron’s celebrity to further his own career, he may not have pushed the documentary evidence beyond what could be reasonably concluded. But then, if he wasn’t taking the initiative to do the research, the truth about what had happened in the past may never have been recovered.

London Assurance

Last May, we went to the National Theatre for a revival of London Assurance, an early Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault (1841). The play received consistently good notices and we can see why. Although far from a perfect play, the revival was terrifically funny from start to finish.
I am not going to give too many details of the convoluted plot, suffice to say the play has many elements of classic comedy including mistaken identities, elaborate deceptions, vanity, over-the-top characters and a slightly contrived happy ending which manages to tie up all the loose ends. If formulaic, however, the play is also very witty (see some quotes below) and comparing the original to the revival, we can see that the director has made some well judged contemporary updates, which accentuate the humour for modern audience.
Still, it was the cast that brought the jokes to life. The two stars of the show, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw (the latter we have also watched in Mother Courage and Her Children), were both extremely funny. Beale, playing a vain yet aging London socialite Lord Harcourt Courtly, was captivating (as you can see, the characters’ names mirror their personality). He imbued Courtly with an exaggerated effeminacy, which would fall completely flat with a less skilled actor. Yet, with Beale, Harcourt’s every gesture was hilarious. Shaw was no slouch herself. She brought her characteristic vitality and energy to Lady Gay Spanker. The moments between the two were some of the strongest in the play, especially a scene in which Lord Harcourt proposed to Lady Gay, by comically throwing a pillow onto the ground so he could kneel on it without hurting himself. Some of the other stand-outs included Nick Sampson as Cool, the sardonic valet and Richard Briers as Mr Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay’s aged husband. Briers was so well-cast as an old man completely under his wife’s thumb that from the second of his first entrance the audience was already laughing (true story!). Finally, there was Paul Ready as Charles Courtly, Lord Courtly’s son. He was strong throughout but really shone in several wonderfully awkward love scenes between him and Grace Harkaway (played by Michelle Terry, whom we watched in All Well’s That Ends Well).
The rest of the cast was less memorable, although I think part of the problem lied with their characters. For example, the meddling lawyer, Mark Meddle (played by Tony Jayawardena), fell flat, probably because it is an overdrawn stereotype of Victorian attitudes towards solicitors. We have heard a million lawyer jokes and they are just not funny anymore. Likewise, we found the scoundrel Richard Dazzle (played by Matt Cross) less than dazzling. By the end of the play, one was left annoyed every time the character appeared.
The set was cleverly put together, switching between the façade and breakfast room of a London house and the exterior and interior of a country estate. The outside of the country estate was particularly convincing, complete with tree tops and misty background. There was also live music in the play, and musicians filled the scene changes and provided the soundtrack to a country dance. During this scene, the audience began clapping in rhythm as the characters danced to the tune. At the end of the curtain call, the musicians reprised an earlier tune, and the audience automatically switched from applause to rhythmic beat-keeping. This instance of community was one of the most enjoyable theatre moments I have had.

Below are quotes from Dion Boucicault’s play London Assurance (1841). 

  • A valet is as difficult a post to fill properly as that of prime minister. (p. 8 )
  • [Max:] I’m a plain man and always speak my mind. What’s in a face or figure? Does a Grecian nose entail a good temper? Does a waspish waist indicate a good heart? Or do oily, perfumed locks necessarily thatch a well-furnished brain? [Sir Harcourt:] It’s an undeniable fact; plain people always praise the beauties of the mind. (p. 14)
  • No; she lived fourteen months with me and then eloped with an intimate friend. Etiquette compelled me to challenge the seducer. So I received satisfaction — and a bullet in my shoulder at the same time. However, I had the consolation of knowing that he was the handsomest man of the age. She did not insult me by running away with a damned ill-looking scoundrel. (p. 14)
  • So, a man must therefore lose his wife and his money with a smile — in fact, everything he possesses but his temper. (p. 15)
  • Oh, a most intimate friend, a friend of years, distantly related to the family, one of my ancestors married one of his. (Aside.) Adam and Eve. (p. 18)
  • The bottle, that lends a lustre to the soul. When the world puts on its nightcap and extinguishes the sun, then comes the bottle. Oh, mighty wine! Don’t ask me to apostrophise. Wine and love are the only two indescribable things in nature; but I prefer the wine, because its consequences are not entailed, and are more easily got rid of. (p. 20)
  • Love is a pleasant scapegoat for a little epidemic madness. (p. 27)
  • [Grace:] Pert, remember, this as a maximum; a woman is always in love with one of two things. [Pert:] What are they, miss? [Grace:] A man, or herself — and I know which is the most profitable. (p. 27)
  • [Pert, speaking to Meddle, a solicitor:] Vulgar! You talk of vulgarity to me; you, whose sole employment is to sneak about like a pig snouting out the dust-hole of society and feeding upon the bad ends of vice; you, who live upon the world’s iniquity; you miserable specimen of a bad six and eightpence. (p. 29)
  • It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion. If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell. (p. 33)
  • [Courtly:] How can you manage to kill time? [Grace:] I can’t. Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. (p. 34)
  • Love! Why, the very word is a breathing satire upon man’s reason, a mania, indigenous to humanity, nature’s jester, who plays off tricks upon the world and trips up common sense. When I’m in love I’ll write an almanac for very lack of wit, prognosticate the sighing season, when to beware of tears: ‘about this time, expect matrimony to be prevalent!’ Ha! ha! Why should I lay out my life in love’s bonds upon the bare security of a man’s word? (p. 35)
  • Sir, you are very good. The honour is undeserved, but I am only in the habit of receiving compliments from the fair sex. Men’s admiration is so damnably insipid. (p. 40)
  • I love to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song the flowers breathe, the thrilly choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause; these, swelling out the sweetest chord of sweet creation’s matins, seem to pour some soft and merry tale into the daylight’s ear, as if the waking world had dreamed a happy thing and now smiled o’er the telling of it. (pp. 52-53)
  • I have a husband somewhere, though I can’t find him just now. (p. 55)
  • You shall be king, and I’ll be your prime minister. That is, I will rule and you shall have the honour of taking the consequences. (p. 56)
  • Have your own way. It is the only thing we women ought to be allowed. (p. 56)
  • Ah, my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour — it is the dinner hour, I suppose. (p. 68)
  • [Lady Gay:] Am I not married? [Sir Harcourt:] What a horrible state of existence! (p. 79)
  • Dictate the oath. May I grow wrinkled, may two inches be added to the circumstances of my waist, may I lose the fall in my back, may I be old and ugly the instant I forego one tithe of adoration! (p. 82)
  • Veni, vidi, vici! Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander never completed so fair a conquest in so short a time. She dropped fascinated. This is an unprecedented example of the irresistible force of personal appearance combined with polish address. (p. 83)
  • No, hesitation destroys the romance of a faux pas and reduces it to the level of a mere mercantile calculation. (p. 88)
  • [W]oman is at best but weak, and weeds become me. (p. 96)
  • Nature made me a gentleman, that is, I live on the best that can be procured for credit. I never spend my own money when I can oblige a friend. (p. 109)
  • The title of gentleman is the only one out of any monarch’s gift, yet within the reach of every peasant. It should be engrossed by Truth, stamped with Honour, sealed with Good feeling, signed Man and enrolled in every true young English heart. (p. 109)

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In his latest book 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know, John Sutherland says this about Hamlet: “Every age interprets the play’s enigmas differently, sometimes wildly so (is Hamlet mad, enquired Oscar Wilde; or merely the critics of Hamlet?). The nineteenth century saw the Prince of Denmark as a noble philosopher. Coleridge hazarded, proudly, that he had a ‘smack of Hamlet’ in himself. In the twentieth century, it’s not unusual for Hamlet to be seen by feminist critics as a homicidal, sexually predatory brute, spouting stale truisms and obnoxious self-pity. Has anyone, over the centuries, got Hamlet (or Hamlet) right, or has everyone? Can anyone?” (pp. 8-9)

While writing about other plays, I often spend time recounting the story. This is, I think, unnecessary for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as everybody seems or claims to know it. Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot, it is possible that you can recognise some of the lines from it: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (Act 1, Scene 2), “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, Scene 2), “To be or not to be: That is the question.” (Act 3, Scene 1), “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” (Act 3, Scene 1), “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” (Act 3, Scene 2), “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” (Act 4, Scene 5), “The rest is silence.” (Act 5, Scene 2), etc. etc. etc.

To be honest, this is the first time I have seen a live performance of Hamlet so I have no precedents to compare it with. However, I did read raving reviews of Rory Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet and was very curious to find out first-hand if he is really that good playing one of the most challenging roles in theatre. As Hamlet, Kinnear has to recite long soliloquies and show a basketful of conflicting emotions: fear, anger, sadness, dismay, guilt…. Kinnear turns out to be absolutely brilliant and convincing (despite the fact that he looks perhaps slightly older than the bard intended the Danish Prince to be) and I can understand why he has been so lauded by critics and theatre-goers (he got the loudest cheers I have ever heard at a curtain call). Kinnear’s delivery engages you with his emotions and better still, makes you empathise with them. At times, his quick fiery dialogue with other characters almost seems Sorkinesque.
In Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre, we see a modern-day Denmark, which is run like a surveillance state. CCTV cameras hang on the top of the stage visibly and security guards with earpieces are never too far away from Hamlet, observing his moves. (The play even features a bugged Bible.) One wonders if the guards are really ‘away’ when Hamlet is soliloquising. And the paranoia infuses new meaning into Hamlet’s speeches. Paranoia certainly got into this audience member. I thought the presentation of Denmark as a police state was a nice touch, as it draws out the scheming of Claudius and adds a modern twist to Polonius’s constant spying and eavesdropping within the play. Here, he is as much the head of state security as he is Claudius’s councillor.
Within this state of heightened paranoia, Hytner introduces an interesting interpretation of Ophelia’s death, which is ambiguously described in the original text:
There is a willow grows askant the brook…
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress… (Act 4, Scene 7)
‘[A]n envious silver broke’ – that suggests that Ophelia did not initiate her own drowning. (Perhaps we are too influenced by Millais’s painting?) In Hytner’s rendition, the maiden is taken away by two secret agents and shortly afterwards, her death is recounted by Gertrude, therefore associating her death with deliberate scheming rather than natural cause or suicide.
Talking about Ophelia, I do not feel that there is much passion between her and Hamlet, partly because even though their relationship is alluded to frequently enough, the two characters are only present together on stage for two scenes. In one of these occasions, Hamlet shows profound disgust with her, thinking that she is sent by her father, Polonius. Hemlet memorably says to Ophelia: ‘God / has given you one face, and you make yourselves / another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and / nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness / your ignorance […] To a / nunnery, go’ (Act 3, Scene 1).1 Poor Ophelia – I should feel for her but I don’t, for although I can feel Hamlet’s (Kinnear’s) vehemence, the actress who plays Ophelia (Ruth Negga) is sadly inferior.
Negga is not the only disappointment, however. Clare Higgins’s portrayal of Gertrude is even less convincing. Annoying instead of beguiling, her exchange with Hamlet is particularly unpersuasive to watch, ruining a highly emotionally-charged (and possibly sexually-charged) scene, although Kinnear’s performance remains strong here. Still, Hytner’s decision to portray Gertrude as an alcoholic throughout the play gives her drinking out of the poisoned cup a new angle. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius is not much better. His projection was not good enough to reach us at the top of the circle and his acting too effortful.
But these weaknesses do not mar the production much. I particularly love James Laurenson’s superb portrayal of both the Ghost and the Player King. In the opening scenes, his apparition blends with the greyish background, making him really ghostly. His comportment, despite his slightly hunched posture, announces that This was the King. The Gravedigger (combing two clowns in the original play), played by David Calder (who also plays Polonius), is also my favourite. Although the Gravedigger only appears briefly, he delivers some very funny lines. I thought Giles Terera as Horatio is also great; his final exchange with Hamlet is very affecting: ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’. 
Earlier this week, we went to Stratford to see the house in which Shakespeare was born and the church in which he was laid to rest. Although it was nice, I felt a little lost among all the tourist tack and it was perhaps easy to overlook why we were there. Seeing such a magnificent Hamlet reminded me exactly why we remember Shakespeare.

1‘Nunnery’ was also a street slang meaning brothel.

This is a review of the performance on New Year’s Eve.

The Habit of Art

Last December, we went to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, which is about an imaginary meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (this is in a way similar to Adam Fould’s novel The Quickening Maze, which centres on an imagery meeting between John Clare and the young Tennyson). We bought the tickets primarily to see Michael Gambon. Unfortunately he was not well enough to perform and was replaced by the excellent Richard Griffiths (whom we liked from The History Boys). Was the show good? Suffice it to say that at the interval I went to buy a signed copy of the play. And I got to see Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape, which I wrote about here

The Habit of Art has many memorable quotes; I’ll try to include only those related to writing.
  • So let’s talk about the vanity. This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world … so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.
  • Why poets should be interviewed I can’t think. A writer is not a man of action. His private life is or should be of no concern to anyone except himself, his family and his friends. The rest is impertinence.
  • Poetry to me is as much a craft as an art and I have always prided myself on being able to turn my hand to anything — a wedding hymn, a requiem, a loyal toast … No job too small. I would have been happy to have hunt up a shingle in the street: “W. H. Auden. Poet.”
  • Writers in particular perceive biography as a threat, something I had still to learn. Poets are particularly vulnerable to biography because readers naturally assume they are sincere, that their verses are dispatches from the heart, the self at its most honest. When the biographer reveals the self is sometimes quite different, the poet is thought a hypocrite. I’m thinking of Robert Frost.
  • When I was young my poems were often reports from the top of my head. I wrote the first thing that occurred to me and it was poetry. Now when I take more care, and it truly is a dispatch from the heart … it is not poetry at all.
  • Do you mind not doing that? You should not quote a poet’s words back at him. It is a betrayal of trust. A poem is a confidence. Besides which many of my poems embarrass me. they don’t seem — Dr Leavis’s word — authentic. People tell me off for censoring my poems, rewriting them, or cutting some well-loved lines. I tell them it’s because I can no longer endorse those particular sentiments, but it’s also because I’m fed up with hearing them quoted. (Ironically.) ‘We must love one another or we die.’ (Shudders.)
  • This is England all over. Hasn’t even mastered fellatio.
  • The play is not about cocksucking.
  • The genitals are fascinating too, because they’re shape-shifting. Subject to desire obviously, but to fear and cold and the innate propensity of all flesh to creep. The penis has a personal character every bit as much as its owner and very often the two are quite different. Have you found that? Men are incongruously equipped in their very essence ….
  • I have the habit of art. I write poems of a cosy domesticity trying to catch the few charred emotions that scuttle across my lunefied landscape. Still, writing is apparently therapeutic. That’s what they say these days, isn’t it? It is therapeutic. When I was young I envied Hardy’s hawk-like vision… his way of looking at life from a great height. I tried to do that, only now I suppose I have come down to earth. He has taken the words out of my mouth.
  • What I fear is that on Judgement Day one’s punishment will be to hear God reciting by heart the poems I would have written had my life been good.
  • Readers are so literal-minded. If you say you’re fond of somewhere, the question that arises in the ordinary reader’s mind is why, if you like it so much, don’t you go and live there. ‘You talk about Westmoreland but you live in New York. You’re a hypocrite.’
  • We do not contain life. It contains us, holds us sometimes in its jaws. The senile, the demented, life has them in its teeth … in the cracks and holes of its teeth, maybe, but still in its teeth. They cannot let go of it until it lets go of them.
  • There are some writers who set their sights on the Nobel Prize before they even pick up the pen. Elias Canetti is like that. And I’m afraid Thomas Mann. Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life. Some writers are all will. Talent you can dispense with, but not will. Will is paramount. Not joy, not delight, but grim application.
  • When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance. If it sounded right I left the meaning take care of itself. It’s why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing. […] Except that now I’m more scrupulous and make an effort to tell the truth, people say it’s dull and my early stuff was better.
  • This is the nature of style. It imposes itself. […] Style is the sum of one’s imperfections… what one can’t do, as much as what one can…
  • Death isn’t the payment. Death is just the checkout.
  • Dirt is everywhere.
  • Or whatever age it is nowadays that beauty can be legally admired. The boy Thomas Mann actually saw and took a fancy to was eleven. Mann wrote him up as being fourteen. Now you’re suggesting sixteen. At this rate he’ll soon be drawing a pension.
  • Our passport is what we have written.
  • There’s no malice in it. It’s just an entirely human desire for completion… the mild satisfaction of drawing a line under you. Death shapes a life. Dead, you see, you belong to your admirers in your entirety. They own you. They can even quote you to your face — only it will be a dead face — at your memorial service perhaps, or when they unveil the stone in Westminster Abbey. Over and done with: W. H. Auden. Benjamin Britten. Next.
  • I would find it intolerable myself if only because of the degree of self-relegation involved. A biographer is invariably second-rank even when he or she is first-rate.
  • (This is the ‘rent-boy’ speaking) No, not Caliban, whoever he was. And not in the language of Henry James, or any other tosser. No. Me. Us. Here. Now. When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.’A boy came around. Picked up on the hill. Didn’t stay.”Your grandfather was sucked off by W. H. Auden.”Benjamin Britten sat naked on the side of my bath.’Because if nothing else, we at least contributed. We were in attendance, we boys of art. And though there’s the odd photograph, nobody remembers who they’re of: uncaptioned or ‘with an unidentified friend’, unnamed girls, unnameable boys, the flings, the tricks. The fodder of art.
  • It cannot be said too often: what matters is the work. That night in Vienna I read from my poem on the death of Yeats.
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre

On Tuesday, we went to see Alan Ayckbourn‘s Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre. Jeff lined up early in the morning to take advantage of the NT’s day ticket policy.1 They hold back a number of tickets to sell on the day, even for sold-out shows, which Season’s Greetings was. The best part, however, is that day tickets are only £10 and if you are close enough to the start of the line, you can get seats in the front row. Fortunately, Jeff was third so our seats were front row centre. Considering the fact that tickets on the West End can be £80 or £90, £10 for front-row seats is a pretty good deal. 

Season’s Greetings is a Christmas farce which originally premier in 1980. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it centres on the antics of a dysfunctional family. By now, the story of family tensions on holidays has certainly moved into cliché territory but Ayckbourn’s play is an example of the genre at its best and is at times tremendously funny. For the first half an hour, we are introduced to the characters who have gathered for the holiday at the house of Neville (Neil Stuke), an electronic store owner and his wife, Belinda (Catherine Tate). Neville is oblivious to the needs of his wife and is constantly fiddling with electronic children toys. Belinda, for her part, is frustrated with her husband’s inattention and jumps at the chance for an affair when one literally presents itself at her door. Apart from the couple, there is Uncle Harvey (David Troughton), a grumpy and macho retired security guard who gives the children guns for Christmas. Harvey lives in a constant state of discontent and cynicism, finding fault with much, especially with Bernard (Mark Gatiss), an ineffectual doctor. Bernard, who puts on an annual long-winded and unwelcomed puppet show for the children, is married to the alcoholic Phyllis (Jenna Russell), who keeps having accidents and nosebleeds while preparing the dinner on Christmas Eve. I should note that the children never actually appear on stage, although their presence is very well signalled. They are perhaps not needed, considering that the adults are much like children themselves. Eddie (Marc Wootton), a lazy and overweight man is a failed businessman, and his wife Patti (Katherine Parkinson) is expecting another child. Rounding out the cast is lonely and frigid Rachel (Nicola Walker), Belinda’s sister and Clive (Oliver Chris), a young novelist (who has written one book) she has invited for Christmas.
The play takes a while to get going and there are no big laughs for the first half of the first act. However, once the situation has been firmly set and all the characters introduced, Ayckbourn”s farce really takes off. The last scene of the first act is particularly funny and I am not sure if I have ever laughed so loud and long at a play. A couple of moments stand out. One is the pregnant Pattie trying to wake her husband from a drunken slumber and being forced to carry her heavyset husband to bed. The other particularly notable piece of comedy comes from Clive and Belinda, whose sexual tension has been building from the moment of his arrival. Their attempts to consummate their affair result in a hilarious series of mishaps including the interruptions of a drumming monkey and a singing Christmas tree which wake almost the entire family.
The less successful second act, although still funny, takes a darker turn. Suffice to say that one character is shot in the climax. Although this conclusion perhaps does not entirely fulfil the promise of the first act, the play as a whole is excellent and great entertainment. Much of this of course comes from Ayckbourn’s script, which is often sharp and does not feel dated after three decades. It should also be mentioned that the cast are universally strong. Marianne Elliott’s direction keeps the action moving and the play does not drag even in the early moments of exposition. Also, the set and the costumes seem to brilliantly capture the era.
For me, it was very interesting to see how the family members regard Clive, the writer. Although Clive’s success is subtly undermined when characters admit they haven’t read his book, these confessions are always done with a certain level of admiration. In today’s age in which self-publishing is so common and easy, it is hard to imagine there was a time in which people could inspire so much awe by having a book published, even if the characters’ reactions have been exaggerated for comic effect.
Season’s Greetings was a great way to greet the season.

1Interestingly, we have already bought tickets to the much-hyped Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle); our tickets are for April 2011.

When the Rain Stops Falling at Almeida

This post was originally written on 5th July, 2009.

Yesterday we spent an evening in Islington. It was a beautiful day and we sat by Regent’s Canal and had a drink from the Narrow Boat Pub (Beer in a shoe, anyone?). Like many local pubs, people take plastic cups of beer and sit outside on benches or on the ground.
After the drink, we walked over to the Almeida Theatre to see the critically-acclaimed When the Rain Stops Falling. The play, which was written by the Australian playwright and screen writer Andrew Bovell, is having its European premier at Almedia.
When the Rain Stops Falling tells an epic, multi-generational story set in the UK and Australia. It is not told in a linear fashion, but is instead related through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. The action takes place at a number of different times, ranging from the 1950s until 2039, a point which may be the end of the world. The play opens at this point and we are presented with a view of an enviromentally apocalyptic future in which it does not stop raining even in the Australian outback and in which a fish falls from the sky onto the foot of Gabriel. Gabriel has just received a phone call from his grown-up son, Andrew, whom he had not seen since the boy was seven. Gabriel dreads and at the same time welcomes this unexpected visit. However, he is uncertain what he can tell his boy about their family history. From here, the play advances, or rather, retreats backward to recount the complicated story of the family which includes a pedophile, a frustrated mother, and two lovers also named Gabriel.
Bovell’s history contains a great deal of repetition and variation — certain passages are spoken by different characters at different points in the story. Although the words are identical, they take on very different meaning within the context of the scene. This suggests how history repeats itself, but with a difference. For example, in the opening scene, when old Gabriel is preparing for his son’s visit, he describes how he cleans and paints his filthy house. Later, the same passage is spoken by a female character who has just discovered that her husband is a pedophile and the speech reflects her attempt to clean her husband’s sin. While the old Gabriel’s speech is comical and inspires laughter from the audience, the later version of the speech brings empathy.
True to the title, it rains throughout the play and this along with other themes such as the fish link the generations together. In the staging of the play, the different generations blend and are sometimes shown sitting together at the same table while extensively living separate lives. The rain in the title is effectively presented on stage as a constant mist which seems to exist outside of the imaginary walls of the characters’ houses.
The story of When the Rain Stops Falling would not seem overly original if told in a straightforward fashion. However, Bovell’s clever structure and neat thematic repetition makes the play engaging and very mesmerising throughout.

"Let x equal the quantity or quantities of x"

Reading Eddie’s poem “Country” reminded me of the following from the film Proof (2005), adapted from David Auburn’s play (2001).  

Let X equal the quantity or quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold, and four of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature. In February it snows. In March the Lake is a lake of ice. In September the students come back and the bookstores are full. Let X equal the month of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September…

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
(This post was originally written on 14 February 2010.)
As many of you know, I am currently on a blog break. However, after seeing the National Theatre’s revival (actually, the return of the revival) of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,1 I felt compelled to break my break just this one time. The work, which is subtitled A Play for Actors and Orchestra, was written by Tom Stoppard (whose Arcadia we saw and enjoyed) with a musical score by André Previn in 1977. Although it comes in only a little over an hour, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is an ingenious work, which receives an equally ingenious staging in this production. I have never seen anything quite like it before: intellectual, audacious, and surprisingly moving.
The play focuses on two main characters, both named Alexander Ivanov, who share a cell in a Soviet mental hospital. The first of the characters, often referred to as Alexander (wonderfully and crazily played by Adrian Schiller), is a lunatic who imagines that he is conducting an orchestra. The other inmate, Ivanov (superbly and heartbreakingly played by Julian Bleach), is a political dissident who has been put in the hospital for writing letters that suggest that sane people (other dissidents) have been institutionalised. Ivanov finds himself in a kind of Catch-22 situation: the authorities are only willing to let him go if he admits that he was insane and has been treated successfully. However, he is unwilling to compromise his ideals and thus must remain in the asylum. His fate will ultimately be decided by a comical doctor and a Colonel, who although runs a mental institution, is an expert in philology. Stoppard’s writing beautifully and hilariously brings out the absurdity and sadness of the situation.
One of the most enthralling parts of the play is the inclusion of a full orchestra (played by the musicians of the South Bank Sinfonia) on stage with the actors. (In the original play, the orchestra is just one character.) This allows them to become part of the action. For example, as Alexander conducts imaginary musicians we can see and hear what is in his mind. The orchestra also becomes part of the political situation. In one terrifically choreographed scene, some musicians turn into secret police and hood and torture other members of the ensemble. Finally, their being on stage reminds the viewers that the characters are living in a highly orchestrated society. Appropriately, Ivanov, the one person unwilling to live within this kind of society, is constantly asked if he plays a musical instrument. His answer is consistently and clearly “No” each time.2, 3
Although the play is about a specific moment in Russian history, it could easily have been about any repressive regime. (Certainly, one such regime kept coming to mind as I watched. Also see this.) And although Stoppard’s work tends to be somewhat cerebral, I was still moved. I reacted especially strongly during one scene when Ivanov, confronted by his son about why he won’t compromise and come home, asks his son to imagine how his surrender may encourage the authorities to continue to oppress other fathers. Later, Ivanov dictates a letter to his son in rhyming verse, urging the boy to remember that despite the regime’s lies, ‘To thine own self be true / One and one is always two’.4
1 “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” is also a mnemonic for the lines of the treble clef.
2 The orchestra in the play reminded me of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘To Think of Time’ in his Leaves of Grass: ‘The preparations have every one been justified, / The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal.’ Also:
3 In his lecture “The Future of Our Educational Institutions”, Nietzsche ‘imagines the ‘pseudo-culture of the present’ as an orchestra full of ‘mechanical, lifeless body’ (Royle, 2003:63).
4 Of course, ‘to thine own self be true’ is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 1. Sc. III)

Enron at Noël Coward Theatre

This post was originally written on 5th March, 2010.

Last week, we went to see the West End transfer of Enron. The play, which was written by the promising young playwright Lucy Prebble and directed by the current it-boy of London theatre Rupert Goold, was one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of 2009. Considering the hype and the fact that both its two previous runs sold out, we were very excited to see the play, and especially timed it to fall on Jeff’s birthday.
As the name suggests, the play recounts the events surrounding the rise and eventual collapse of Enron. The potentially difficult financial details of the work are clearly presented in Prebble’s script. For example, one scene shows the shell game that Enron was playing humorously and succinctly with a series of boxes. Another scene explains the nature of markets using the following metaphor: suppose you are betting on the most beautiful woman in a room, the smart people don’t actually bet on who they think is the most beautiful. Instead, they put their money on who they think everyone else thinks is the most beautiful. Of course, the even smarter people bet on who they think those people will bet on, and so on, until it is irrelevant who the most beautiful woman actually is.
Enron, however, is not a straight ahead documentary (this has been done very well by the film Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) and it contains a number of surreal elements. The company that Enron creates to hide its debt is portrayed as a pack of raptors who devour debt; the dinosaurs representing the danger and seductiveness of the company’s lies. In such scenes, there is a potential for the play to slip too far into a kind of silly fantasy, but generally Goold’s direction keeps the piece rooted. Other places, his striking directorial style is on display. (We saw some examples of his attention-getting work in Six Characters in Search of an Author (highly recommended), especially a scene in which all the characters break into an operatic expression of emotions and another in which a girl drowns in a giant fish tank.) In Enron, the scene in which stock prices are projected onto stylised traders is magnificent. Almost as good is the use of dancing Jedis complete with light sabers to depict traders’ manipulation of California’s energy grid. However, such elements become excessive and tiresome after a while, especially the numerous dance sequences which we feel detract from the drive of the narrative. These may have been holdovers from the play’s original conception as a musical.
Indeed, despite its novelty and flair, Enron at times feels surprisingly slow and even a little dull. It is unclear whether this was the result of the topic or of Prebble’s failure to capture the implicit drama of the characters and the situation. (Or maybe it was just an off night.) I wonder if much of the hype had to do with the play’s timely appearance during the height of the credit crunch. I am not convinced that it has the immediacy today that it must have had when it was first released.
Still, I was particularly impressed by the performances of the two male leads: Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling and Tim Piggot-Smith as Ken Lay. West’s portrayal of Skilling’s transformation from an uncomfortable accountant to an arrogant leader is especially impressive. He also manages to capture Skilling’s vulnerability and self-doubt in several key scenes. I am not quite willing to give Enron‘s stock a must-buy recommendation, but it is an interesting and often engaging work which provides an important warning about greed and the excesses of capitalism.
UPDATED on Thursday 6th May 2010: Guardian ran an article about the disastrous performance of the play in Broadway.

Tribes at Royal Court

Picture source 

Last night we went to see Tribes (written by Nina RaineCraig Raine‘s daughter) at the Royal Court. I was glad to finally get a chance to go to this near-legendary theatre, which is a leading spot for new work in London. The building itself is quite lovely and has a slight warehouse feel but with dark wood and leather throughout, which makes it very comfortable. There are great sight lines even from the top of the balcony, which made the £12 we paid for a ticket excellent value, especially compared to the West End. The downstairs bar would be great if you have a table but instead we decided to kill time by walking around Chelsea, which is absolutely lovely with all the Christmas decorations up.

Tribes is a family drama that explores the relationship between language, meaning and reality. The main conflict arises from the fact that although most of the family is linguistically adept (they are always engaged in egocentric arguments), one of the three grown-up children, Billy, is deaf (played by Jacob Casselden, who is himself deaf) and is therefore partially excluded from all the conversation. This is especially the case since the father (Stanley Townsend) is a literary critic and academic, one son, Daniel (Harry Treadaway) is writing a PhD thesis in linguistic philosophy and the mother (Kika Markham) is a budding novelist writing a detective novel and many of the conversations thus have elevated topics which the family does not wish to constantly summarise for the benefit of the deaf son/brother. Billy eventually starts a relationship with Sylvia (Michelle Terry), a woman who is from a deaf family and is losing her hearing (she wasn’t born deaf). He finds a stronger connection with her and the deaf community than with his own family. This leads to a conflict between the ‘tribes’ of the title. In one climatic scene, the deaf son demands that his family learn sign language on the grounds that they have never made a true attempt to communicate with him, while he has learnt to read lips and speak.
The first act, which explores the relationship between the family members and their passionate arguments was great fun. However, the second act felt episodic and like it was rushing through a number of plot points. The dysfunction of the family which was so enjoyable in the first act became a bit trying as every character is saddled with a number of problems which dragged the momentum of the play down.

Still, for me, some of the themes in the play were interesting. For example, the classic linguistic argument that language creates meaning and reality (“How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it?”). There was also a discussion about whether the straightforward nature of sign language necessarily makes the users more blunt and less nuanced people, an argument which is put forward by the literary critic father. This assertion is challenged when one of the characters asks whether it is possible to translate poetry into sign language, and the deaf girlfriend provides a series of convincing and heart-felt signs which seem to capture the feeling of the poem perfectly. This worked nicely as theatre as sign language, spoken words and subtitles blended to add energy to what might have been a relatively staid conversation if only one form of communication was used. Also, the daughter in the family, Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is an aspiring opera singer and the play explores the emotional truth of music versus the more literal interpretation provided by words.

Despite raising a number of interesting issues, however, I don’t feel the themes were entirely worked out within the play and at times felt muddled. Still, I suppose this ambiguity is better than a didactic and black-and-white exploration of the subject matter. All in all, an enjoyable night, and if the second act was as good as the first, it would have been a solid four-star performance for me.

A shorter version of this review appears here

War Horse at New London Theatre

Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock) will be featured in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse (source). Today, the play is under the limelight again: in an Observer article, it is revealed that racism and bullying plague the production backstage. Horrible.

My review of the play (below) was written on 11th June, 2009.

Tonight we saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse on the West End at the New London Theatre. The play was based on a children’s book of the same name by the former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford. Although a play for families, the production worked well as adult entertainment. The stars of the show were the puppets, especially two extremely life-like horses, Joey and Topthorn.

The story is about Albert Narracott and his horse, Joey. Young Albert trains Joey from a colt only to lose him when his father sells him to the British army in the First World War. The rest of the story recounts Joey’s experience in the war, first serving as a mount for a British officer and then as a friend of a sympathetic German soldier Friedrich Müller. At the same time, Albert becomes a British soldier (at the age of 16) so he can find Joey. In the end, master and horse are reunited. If the play was somewhat sentimental at times, the ingenuity of the puppets, set design (bare but effective), music (especially the folk songs) and Rae Smith‘s projected drawings more than made up for it.

Waiting for Godot

This post was originally written on 17th June, 2009.
Tonight we went to watch Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a tragi-comedy. (Also see my review of Krapp’s Last Tape.) The production stars Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Patrick Stewart (Vladimir). I really enjoyed the show, especially Ian McKellen who was very funny and endearing. I was also deeply moved by the overpowering sadness of the play. I found the second act in which Pozzo (played by Simon Callow) and Lucky (played by Ronald Pickup) return particularly disturbing, as they come back blind and deaf respectively. They seem to have changed drastically from before. These changes suggest many possibilities for the fate of the characters. How long have Estragon and Vladimir been waiting? Is it only one day as Vladimir insists, or has it been much longer? Do Vladimir and Estragon even exist? In the end, Pozzo cannot see Vladimir and Estragon; and Lucky cannot speak to the tramps. Worse, Estragon’s memories are fading and Vladimir requires reassurance from the boys who come with Godot’s message that they can actually see him.
Finally, I found Lucky’s speech at the end of the first act very engaging. The idea that he can only speak under certain circumstances is heart-breaking. When the hat is put on his head, thus enabling him to speak his thoughts, he begins speaking as if it were his only chance to say everything that is in his mind. Watching him endlessly pouring out words that at first seem only half intelligible reminds me of some occassions when I tried to make my ideas understood and failed.
The full text of Waiting for Godot.
From the play:

(suddenly furious.) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. — Pozzo in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

3 Responses “Waiting for Godot at Theatre Royal Haymarket” →
naperville mom
June 17, 2009
Gosh! I’ve to see this now…:)
June 18, 2009
Did you just oh so casually and in passing mention that you saw a live production (of anything!!!!) with both Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart? Shizer, I got to get me to London.
June 18, 2009
Lawrence G. commented on Facebook: “And now you have to read The Trilogy, followed by a crash course of Pinter and Coetzee. And then head off to Thomas Love Peacock and Laurence Sterne rather than Joyce.”

Krapp’s Last Tape

The inimitable Gambon plays Krapp
It is my birthday tomorrow and therefore it is perhaps fitting that we went to watch Krapp’s Last Tape, a work which portrays an ageing writer’s birthday. (Also read my brief review of Waiting for Godot.)

The one-act minimalistic play, written by Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot we saw in June last year and hugely enjoyed (Ian McKellen as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir), is about the eponymous character’s birthday ritual of recording a tape summarising his past year. Michael Gambon, one of my favourite actors (have you watched The Singing Detective?), plays Krapp and we could not think of a better person to fill the role. (As a side note, Harold Pinter was one of Gambon’s predecessors.)

The play opens with Krapp resting, motionless, on a desk, almost as if dead. At the start of the play, a moth, whether intentionally released or whether making a fortunate appearance, flew into the lone light above Krapp’s head. The moth’s suicidal flight towards the light added to the sense that we were looking at a corpse. Slowly, Krapp begins to move: his movements are awkward, stiff, effortful and convincingly present an image of a pathetic old man losing control of his body. For the first ten minutes of the play, Krapp undertakes a wordless and depressing series of movements around his desk—one minute he drags his fingers along the edge of the desk, another he loudly opens and closes its drawers. The motivation of these often contorted and intense movements is not always clear but they prove powerful, especially when the sounds they generate punctuate an otherwise silent stage. But as always, with Beckett, there are clownish touches, particularly a scene in which Krapp rummages for several bananas in his desk and proceeds to eat them. In one case, he accidentally throws the fruit onto the floor instead of its skin. Later, he plays with the newly peeled banana, as if it is his penis.

After this series of wordless actions—one is tempted to interpret this as a piece of beautiful performance art—Krapp settles down, more or less, to listen to a tape he had recorded on his 39th birthday. Slowly, we learn that this particular tape contains an important episode of his life; yet the details do not unfold immediately. After listening to the tape’s introductory passages, we get to the most important part of the younger Krapp’s reminiscences. This section is repeated and expanded upon several times within the play, the meaning changing each time. The first time we hear it, the narration appears to be a description of post coital bliss in a punt:

We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

This is powerful poetry: ‘move’ is repeated three times, each with a different meaning. The characters who ‘lay there without moving’ are contrasted with the rest of the world that ‘moved’, a suggestion of lovers lying in rest. Yet when the same lines are played again, we see that our interpretation of this as a description of dreamy romantic situation is entirely wrong – Krapp is in fact describing the end of his relationship:

I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments—(pause)—after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

We never learn why the younger Krapp decided to terminate the romance but it is obvious that this decision still haunts the older man. As he listens to the recording the second time, we see him break down and sob.
At this point, the older Krapp attempts to record this year’s birthday entry (he turns 69). However, his life has become so narrow and empty that he has nothing substantial to say. Instead, he is filled with rage against his younger self and what his life has become. Angrily, he abandons the recording and eventually returns to the older tape. Listening to the same description again, we see that it has taken on yet another meaning. Lines such as ‘Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.’ and ‘I thought it was hopeless and no good going on’ now seem to reflect Krapp’s current loneliness and suggest he is about to give up on life. The moment highlights the ambiguity of the title: does the ‘last’ in Krapp’s Last Tape mean ‘most recent’ or ‘final’? Is Krapp’s tape about to run out?
Indeed, his tape does run out, as Krapp lets his 39th birthday message play to its end. The younger Krapp arrogantly states that

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

While this plays, however, the older Krapp (the excellent Gambon) looks at the reels with incredulity and utter sadness. And we understand that he can hardly believe that he was ever so young and pompous. It is clear that he would like to rewind his life to have his ‘best years’ back. We know he can’t.

A shorter version of this review appears here

The full text of Krapp’s Last Tape is available here. Opens until Saturday 20th Nov 2010, Duchess Theatre.