Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

November 20, 2012

Why is it that we’re all so keen on Edward Thomas all of a sudden? What is it about this poet of a hundred years ago that resonates with us so powerfully today?

I happen to love Edward Thomas’s poetry. I read ‘Adlestrop’ at school, like everyone else, but thanks to Matthew Hollis’s new collection of his Selected Poems last year (see this post), then I read many more. And as my interest in Thomas’s poetry grew, so, it seems, did everyone else’s. Matthew Hollis wrote an award-winning biography of Thomas, which concentrated on his friendship with Robert Frost, Now All Roads Lead to France (see this post). This was swiftly followed by Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful The Old Ways (see this), in which the spirit of Edward Thomas lingers like a watchful ghost. And now we have Nick Dear’s new play at the Almeida. What is it that has made so many of us now, suddenly, at once, so fascinated by Edward Thomas?

The first thing one might suspect is that they’re all in on it together. It’s quite nice to picture Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear going for long walks together up Shoulder of Mutton hill, puffing on clay pipes, listening out for larks, tramping in the poet’s footsteps and being mutually inspired to write their books. But the surprising thing is that each of them says they wrote their respective books about Edward Thomas independent of one another. Indeed Nick Dear talks a little about this on Front Row in an illuminating little interview – about 8 minutes in.

Perhaps these writers were inspired by a conference about Edward Thomas that took place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 2005. From this conference came yet another lovely book, Branch Lines, filled with the responses of contemporary poets to Thomas. But none of our writers Hollis, Macfarlane or Dear have contributed to the book. Perhaps this book is another coincidence, a few years ahead of the zeitgeist.

I pondered this very question – why all this Edward Thomas now? – on Twitter (that home of articulate, complex pontifications) and reviewer Wayne Gooderham, who wrote this excellent blog, said that maybe it was because we are coming up to the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. Good point – and actually I’m rather ashamed that it hadn’t crossed my mind – but then I haven’t noticed the same growth of interest in our other war poets. Where are all the new books on Sassoon, Owen and Brooke? In any case, was Edward Thomas really a war poet? Yes, he wrote at the time of the War, and the War is there in the shadows of his poetry, but really his poetry is about the land – England not Belgium. (I loved the way this came across in the set of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, with its floor of dark earth, even if it did give rise to a surprised titter when Thomas’s wife Helen dug up some potatoes from it.) And beyond this, as Macfarlane points out, his true subjects are ‘disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness’.

I think there must be something else pulling us towards Edward Thomas.

In his Foreword to Branch Lines, Andrew Motion writes of the appeal of ‘the story of Thomas’s arduous journey towards poetry’:

not simply the pathos of his frustration in prose, but the patient struggle of his efforts to purify his style and “wring all the necks of my rhetoric” describes a process that most poets they undertake (on a smaller scale) every time they pick up a pen to write.

For those of us who aren’t poets, let’s not dismiss so quickly ‘the pathos of his frustration in prose’. All the books make it clear that Edward Thomas only became a poet at the very end of his short life; he didn’t even live to see one of his poems in print under his own name, rather than his pen name Edward Eastaway. As he says in The Dark Earth: ‘Did anyone ever begin at thirty-six in the shade?’ Until this turning point, this late out-pouring of poetry, sparked largely by his encouraging and inspiring friendship with Robert Frost, Thomas was really a hack, scraping together a living by reviewing, clutching at his advances for prose works which he belted out, thousands of words a week – as Muriel Spark put it several years later and about someone else, he was a ‘pisseur de copie’.

And Thomas was deeply unhappy with his existence as a hack. His choice to quit the civil service and earn his living by his pen plunged his family into dreadful poverty. He felt he ‘ruined’ Helen and was thoroughly horrid to her. Take this from The Dark Earth, the book which best captures his cruelty:

I’m sick of everything. Sick of you, sick of the children, whom I know really despise me, although they couldn’t despise me as much as I despise myself for not putting an end to the wretched business! – Stop that! I don’t want you fussing around me. I know what I am, I know what I’ve done to you. Go away.

Thomas is frustrated, dissatisfied, miserable. He suffers from depressive visions of ‘the other man’. But he finds relief – indeed, at times ecstatic happiness – from walking for miles through the countryside, especially in the company of Frost. And he will eventually succeed in his struggle to become a poet.

It’s a potent story, an appealing myth. Of course many of us are unhappy with the daily grind of our lives, and feel a little like frustrated poets – or at least frustrated somethings – suffocated by the 9-5 slog of work. This has always been the case, but recently, with the recession, everything’s been shaken up. People have been made redundant; we are at a near-record high of part-time work, as opposed to full-time. For many people, the decision to leave their jobs, to quit the 9-5 and start again has been made for them. Admittedly, for most people this is awful and they want to find full-time employment again as soon as possible, but for some, perhaps Edward Thomas is a kind of lodestar. Now is the time to write that poem, or novel, or whatever it is that you’ve been meaning to do forever. Now is the time to start, even though you’re thirty-six in the shade. Perhaps we are becoming a nation of poets rather than shopkeepers.

In any case, The Dark Earth left me fervently hoping that if we do become a nation of poets, we aren’t all as perfectly horrid as Edward Thomas! While Matthew Hollis and Robert Macfarlane both make it clear that he was a difficult, unhappy man, and Hollis gives over quite a bit of space to his tricky marriage, perhaps the authors are too much under the spell of Thomas’s wonderful poetry to condemn his behaviour towards his wife.

Seeing it acted out before you, it is impossible to watch Edward’s exchanges with Helen without flinching at his cruelty, wincing at the disparity between his carelessness and her exhausted tending to him.

The virtue of The Dark Earth’s use of multiple perspectives, rather than just one narrator, is that Helen’s voice comes through loud and clear. She loves Edward Thomas in an all-encompassing self-sacrificing passion, and I couldn’t help but think what might have become of her if she hadn’t sacrificed herself so entirely. What happened to the bright young Helen that she remembered, who read the literature brought to her by her lover? Now, as she says when she opens the play, she hasn’t the time to read – she’s too busy looking after Edward and the children.

My understanding is that Helen Thomas has been rather dismissed by the literary establishment. Her books about her relationship with Edward Thomas are out of print, indeed at one point they were banned in Boston. There is a brilliant scene in The Dark Earth which shows Frost returning to England many years later and being very rude to Helen. He says that he has removed his dedication to her in his book of poetry because she ‘insulted …[the] manhood’ of Thomas in her book. Whereas in the past, opinion would have sided with Frost, such is the power of the play, that we side with Helen.

If our collective obsession with Edward Thomas is set to continue, perhaps a publisher will see fit to bring Helen Thomas’s two much maligned books about her husband back into print. Unlike Robert Frost, I for one would be fascinated to read them.

The Mousetrap

July 30, 2012

Last week I went to see The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been continuously performed in the West End for sixty years – more than double my lifetime.

It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do and have always felt somewhat ashamed of not having done. It’s been around for such a long time, woven itself into the fabric of London, that how can one really call oneself a Londoner without seeing it? To my mind, it’s akin to not having heard the chimes of Big Ben, or standing on the wrong side of the escalator on the tube.

So I was very excited indeed to be going to see it at last. The trigger was thanks to a friend who – rather thrillingly – was playing one of the starring roles. It was particularly exciting as I went with a group of friends from primary school, plus a few other halves, so it felt quite like a school trip. There was a moment when I wondered whether we should be walking in a crocodile.

I had such a fun evening. It was a very entertaining play – by turns funny, fascinating and very frightening. At half-time I hadn’t a clue as to who the murderer was, but – typically – the husband did. And he was right too! I can’t quite believe he worked it out and now I worry that he is wasted in the world of architecture and should become a professional detective.

People complain that the play has aged badly, that it feels dated. Well of course it’s dated. It’s sixty years old. And so obviously the language is from the 1950s; the references to the wireless, to the Evening Standard being sold at half-past-three, to getting coke for the central heating are all “dated”. But I thought this only added to its charm. Apparently there was a time when they tried to update the language, but thank god now they’ve sensibly decided to leave it alone. A little bit of me felt a guilty pleasure at the thought of younger audience members being baffled by wireless not referring to the internet.


But amidst all this stuff that speaks of the fifties, the central concerns of the play are timeless. At its heart is a terrible case of child abuse. The horror of this is every bit as horrific today, the sort of dreadful event that takes over the newspapers for months and etches itself into everyone’s consciousness, a sort of common ground of awfulness. And surely the suspense and the frights are also timeless. Everyone screamed when a sinister gloved hand reached out form behind a door, and a friend spent most of the performance gripping on to neighbouring legs (one of which was mine) in terror.

The more I think about The Mousetrap, the more I think it is a kind of time warp. It’s astonishing to think that this play – this very same production, with the same lines in the same theatre, with the same props – has been performed without a break for sixty years. Admittedly, that’s not quite true. It swapped from the Ambassadors Theatre to next-door St Martin’s Theatre in 1974. And the set has changed twice – once in 1965 and 1999 – but really that’s a pretty impressive stream of continuity.

What struck me is that now people go to see it and cosy into its nostalgic setting – with the tweedy outfits, stone hot water bottles and corned beef – but when it was first performed, none of that was nostalgic, it was a portrayal of the current reality. It isn’t a re-imagined period drama, a la Downton Abbey, but the real shebang. I love the thought of it being performed, night after night, and people’s reactions to it gradually changing as the years slipped past. When was it that corned beef became old-fashioned? When did people stop disapproving of vacuuming in the afternoon?

It must be because it’s not a hammed-up period drama that it still works so well. The details are right because they were observed at the time, not reimagined decades later. Really, as the lights dim, you are stepping back into 1952, watching something that is exactly the same now as it was then.

What seals the time warp is the closing request from one of the actors. He steps forward from the line of bows and asks the audience to keep the secret of The Mousetrap to themselves. So you leave knowing the whodunit but you are bound to secrecy. You feel it would be morally wrong – having been asked so nicely to preserve the tradition of mystery – to tell anyone. And so, just like its first performance sixty years ago, and every performance since, really very few people who go to see it (at least for the first time) know who the murderer is.

Well I couldn’t have enjoyed my little trip back to 1952 more. I hope it continues to run, as now I long for the day when I can take the next generation and tell them about when I first went to see it many years ago. I wonder how much more will be deemed “dated’” by then? Will there still be telephone cords and newspapers or even big old houses? Well for anyone who despairs at the things we are losing as we march ever forwards in the name of progress, rest assured it’s all there in The Mousetrap. Really, this little portal to the 1950s is one of London’s best-kept secrets.

A Literary A-Z

May 31, 2011


Just over a year or so ago, I’d have found G a bit tricky. There’s Graham Greene (of course) and also Amitav Ghosh – I was mildly obsessed with his books, when I was at university. And, thinking back to children’s books, there’s also Ursula le Guin, who wrote the absolute classic Earthsea books, featuring Sparrowhawk, a wizard with whom, as a ten-year-old, I was completely in love.

But all this was before I discovered Jane Gardam. It was before a strange two weeks, last March, when I was recovering from having my tonsils removed – a time spent moving between bed and sofa, alternating between severe pain and being smacked out on Codeine, when it took half an hour to nibble a piece of toast. A colleague had recommended reading A Long Way from Verona. She said it was one of her favourite books – comforting, funny, and brilliant enough to make anyone want to become a writer. Indeed, she gushed about it so much, I felt like I couldn’t very well say no. (Now, I worry that I have the same unnerving effect when recommending Jane Gardam to unsuspecting customers.)

Reading A Long Way from Verona was absolute bliss. It was everything I’d hoped for and more – silly and clever and touching and altogether brilliant and, best of all, utterly eccentric. Set in wartime Yorkshire, it’s written from the point of view of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl, who is determined to be a writer. (For more, see this earlier post.)

Subsequently, I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (see this post) and then Old Filth, both of which confirmed my view of her as one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. (And these two were read without any codeine at all.) Jane Gardam manages to be so terribly clever in such a light-hearted, delicate, precise way. Everything is very funny yet also quietly poignant; it all seems slightly mad, yet is so perfectly observed. I cannot recommend her highly enough. G is definitely for Gardam.


I cannot resist bringing in a terrific tale from the bookshop. Somebody’s favourite author is Roger Hargreaves, he who wrote the Mr Men books. I say ‘somebody’, because until last week we didn’t know who he or she was. We have a recurrent problem in that every couple of months, ALL our Mr Men and Little Miss books – so that’s around a hundred of them – would disappear. Despite our most vigilant efforts, no one had managed to catch sight of the thief. Until last week, that is, when my colleague and I were involved in a pretty exciting car chase.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I came out of the stock room and instantly noticed that the Mr Mens were gone. I told my colleague – I shall call him, enigmatically, ‘C’ – and C said, ‘Oh my god, it was that woman, she’s only just left.’ He raced out of the shop, accosting her, asking her about the books, asking if he could look in her, suddenly rather suspiciously capacious, bag. She refused to stop, hurried across the road, with him in hot pursuit, and jumped into her getaway car. Yes! She really had a getaway car, with a driver inside. Quick-thinking C, wrote the number plate down on his hand, as they sped off towards the horizon. We phoned the police. We got to use the funny Charlie Foxtrot Tango code. The police said they’d try and catch em. But they didn’t. They just suggested we got CCTV. And that was that.

But, Mr Men thief, if you were to happen to read this. BE WARNED. We know who you are now! Don’t ever come near our shop again.

There are some good Hs. There’s Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame, Hemmingway and Siri Husvedt. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read anything by her. I must put that right, as several people have told me how fantastic she is. I suppose the correct choice should be Hemmingway, but, for some reason I’ve never been quite as wild about him as I feel I ought. My favourite Hemmingway moment is that really naf bit in the film City of Angels when Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan to describe a pear like Hemingway:

Sweet…juicy. Soft on your tongue. Grainy … like sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth.

I suppose it’s actually quite good, but watching it feels cringingly terrible.

But for my real favourite H I’ve got to hop over to non-fiction and say Alexandra Harris. What a hero. Her book, Romantic Moderns, is completely wonderful. (I’ve written about it here and here.) She shares Jane Gardam’s eccentric tone and lightness of touch. What comes across more than anything in this beautiful book, is quite how much she knows, yet quite how lightly she wears her knowledge. Rather than wading through millions of dates and dry facts, the book is a feast of gleeful anecdotes. My favourite one is in her chapter entitled, ‘An Hour in the Garden’, when she writes about how flowers became a kind of protest against the utilitarianism and rationing of war. In 1943 The Transport of Flowers Order (yes, really!) banned the transit of flowers by rail and, consequently, tales of flower smuggling bloomed. People used to scoop the hearts out of cauliflowers and fill them with anemones. Extraordinary!

Harris has a magpie’s eye for the sparkling anecdote that brings an idea brilliantly to life. Romantic Moderns is a marvellous book that has got to be in my non-fiction Top 3, and definitely the winner for H.


I is a troublesome letter for an author’s surname. I haven’t read anything by John Irving, which makes me feel, rather resignedly that perhaps, just by default, due to the paucity of authors whose last names begin with I, it might have to go to Ishiguro. Even though I think he’s not really all that. Izzo is supposed to be a great French crime writer, but I haven’t read him either. I suppose I could be precocious and a bit witty and say, aha, ‘I’ am my favourite writer. But that’s, frankly, a bit too nauseatingly self-satisfied.

I was about to give up on this one and just say ok, Ishiguro’s good enough, but, by a tremendous piece of luch, I’ve been saved by a splendid theatre trip on Saturday night. I’m not sure if I’ve yet mentioned The Rosemary Branch on EmilyBooks. It’s a sweet little theatre pub, just round the corner from me, which happens to be playing rather a large part in the novel I’m writing. By happy coincidence a friend has been acting there in I am a Camera – a play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

First of all, let me just say, that there are few things better than a night out at a theatre pub, especially if it’s local. It feels a bit like going back to the fifties. All the punters are very friendly and jolly. The landlady knows pretty much everyone by name. There’s a lot of sitting around, drinking and gassing in the interval and afterwards, that you definitely don’t get in a theatre that offers only an expensive, crowded bar, rather than a spacious, welcoming pub.

And the play itself was fantastic. It’s had brilliant reviews, which is not particularly common for Fringe theatre. The acting was top notch, and the story was brilliant, following the escapades of Isherwood and Sally Bowles – two English expats – in 1930s Berlin. The title is from the first line in Isherwood’s book:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Good first line.

I know that a play based on a book by an author is somewhat tenuous ground to claim that he’s the best author for I, but well, sorry, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I have seen the film of The Single Man, based on another of his books, too.) Anyway, I fully intend on reading Goodbye to Berlin as soon as poss – then I’ll have something a bit more solid as backup – but, even in the meantime, Christopher Isherwood wins for I.

King Lear

January 10, 2011

I’m sorry this post has been a long time in coming. I was ill, then it was Christmas, then I was away … but enough excuses. Now I’m back, and here it is.

Just before I was struck down by ’flu, I was lucky enough to see King Lear at the Donmar. Even before the rave reviews appeared in the papers, I knew that Jacobi – who I last saw in his award-winning role as Malvolio in the Donmar West End’s Twelfth Night – acting Lear in the confined space of the tiny Donmar Theatre would be truly extraordinary.

Lear is my favourite Shakespeare. Perhaps spending so much time on it at A-level ingrained it into me, so that, although I’ve always had an atrocious memory for lines, now when I hear Lear there is a wonderful soothingness in the familiar beauty of the language.

corky arms … crack your cheeks … looped and windowed raggedness … burst smilingly …

It is heaven to hear them trickle into my ears, especially my favourite question ever:

Dost thou squinny at me?

Alongside the comforting familiarity of such beautiful words lurks the rather more traumatic memory of lying in bed at 6 a.m. on the morning of my Shakespeare final at university, desperately trying to memorise them. Scribbling away on pages and pages of notepaper any quotations that might be useful for the unknown questions that would be seen in three hours time. The terror and frustration at consistently forgetting a word or muddling up their order, cursing my brain that seems only ever to remember the gist of things when what was needed more than anything was perfect minute detail.

I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because of all that time spend on Lear at school, but while studying Shakespeare at university I kept coming back to it. Whatever aspect of Shakespeare I was thinking about, whichever plays I was scrutinising, Lear always reared its head. It was the lethal still centre at the heart of a whirlpool, the other plays swirling around its centrifugal pull.

And if Lear is the centre of Shakespeare’s vortex, then at the centre of Lear is the storm, the moment when Lear’s madness breaks.

Blow winds and crack your cheeks!

How astonished I was when these greatly-anticipated words were rasped low, echoing in an amplified whisper through the Donmar rather than being shouted over the crashes and booms of a theatrical storm.

When I was much younger my cello teacher told me that it was good to be able to play loudly, but to get someone to really listen you must be able to play softly; you have to make them lean forwards in their seats, craning their heads, straining their ears. And so, in Lear, we listened, spellbound, to this powerful quiet, this hissing entropy at the centre of the play’s destruction.

It is these unexpected moments that remake a play like Lear. An audience for Shakespeare already knows the story, and that must be a terrific problem for directors and actors. There can’t be a new twist, a new character, a new subplot … it’s all there already, written down hundreds of years ago and has already been read, performed, seen countless times.

And the audience will rely on the fact that they know what’s going to happen. There’s an inevitability to watching a Shakespeare play – especially one with so great a tragic arc as Lear – he will fall, his world will fall apart … this is what will happen and there is cathartic pleasure in watching it unfold.

So perhaps it is down to the director and actors to trip up the audience. To throw in something unexpected, to make them lean forwards to hear the words anew, or to make them lean back and gasp in surprise.

Ian McKellen’s Lear was renowned for the moment when he got completely starkers. Germaine Greer’s article about it for the Guardian is reliably ascerbic. I bet few people (other than director Trevor Nunn) had thought of ‘unaccommodated man’ in quite such graphic terms before.

And the Almeida’s production of Lear, back in 2002, to which I was taken on a school trip, conveyed the storm by the wooden panels of stage set falling down with terrific ‘crack’s and crashes, and rain pouring in on the stage for half an hour. It was wonderfully dramatic; we were all stunned.

Both these were visually astonishing. (It seems crude to say impressive.) But what I so admire about Jacobi’s Lear is that the astonishment lies in the way he speaks the words. The set was markedly stark, the costumes stayed away from opulence, the only props were the occasional letter or sword (and some rather simplified stocks for Kent). It was a bare performance in a much more impressive way than McKellen’s, stripping everything down to language rather than to the naked body.

I was stunned to hear those lines whispered, and I was grabbed even earlier by Jacobi’s scream before he uttered with dread certainty ‘I shall go mad.’ Lear’s madness risks becoming something of a refrain, ‘the King goes mad … when Lear is mad … do not make me mad … O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heav’n! / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.’ But here, the piercing scream, the frankness of his line, brings a whole new horror to it.

Another resonance Jacobi brought to Lear’s madness was his terrific anger. Jacobi is so furious in the early scenes of the play that it brings the now-American sense of ‘mad’ as in ‘angry’ to the play. Being ‘beside oneself with anger’ is a meaning of ‘mad’ from c.1300, only thought of as an Americanism in the late eighteenth century.

And it is this anger – his temper, his tantrums – that made me think of Max from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

After all, Max, like Lear, makes mischief, and – albeit in his imaginary world – is King of the Wild Things. The anarchy of his Wild Rumpus surely has a parallel with Lear’s storm. Isn’t Where the Wild Things Are, like Lear, about the creation and then dissolution of worlds?

As Jacobi is an old Lear, not far off his years of ‘fourscore and upward’ stipulated in the text, it seems particularly pertinent to think of him in relation to a child. Max’s madness, his mischief-making, his anarchic fun is so joyful. His chaos is celebratory – a wild rumpus – and when he’s had enough of it he can return home to comfort and normality. Lear’s is destructive and tragic, spiralling rapidly out of control. And Shakespeare denies a happy resolution, despite dangling it so tantalisingly with Cordelia’s return.

‘Old fools are babes again’, but I bet Lear wishes that his mischief, his madness, had only such brief and contained consequences as Max’s. If only he could go home again and find his supper waiting for him, still hot.

Perhaps most foolish of all was my Shakespeare tutor at university. At the end of a big, grand, black-tie dinner, which involved port and snuff and all those other Oxbridge trappings, we all retired for coffee and a game of charades. My tutor proceeded to enact the following clues:


Two words.

He draws a crown around his head.

He leers at each of us in a truly creepy way.

So we can comfort ourselves with the thought that at least Lear wasn’t leery in his old age, just mad.


Outlines in Gauguin

October 25, 2010

What I like most about Gauguin’s paintings, I decided the other day while wandering around the Tate’s blockbuster exhibition, are the big bold blocks of colours and the strong smooth black outlines.

These outlines make everything look so clean, so separate and individual. Each apple or pear in his still life paintings asks to be picked up, to be handled, touched, taken out of the composition. The puppies in the popular Still Life with Three Puppies beg to be held, to be stroked and played with. Outlined so strongly in black, they are clearly independent of one another – there are three puppies, not merely ‘some’ puppies – each one is separate from the other, and even more separate from the three glasses and three apples below them. I’m not sure if Gauguin would like the association, but the painting reminds me of a child’s sticker book. The outlines are obvious, the shapes distinct, as though each one – with its appealingly wavy outline – has been stuck on to the canvas.

This technique, which I find so impressive, is called cloisonnism, named after an old method of metalwork decoration which uses wires to section off compartments for various coloured enamels or inlays.

While I was looking at all this Gauguin, I found that I was still half-thinking about Passion, a Sondheim musical that I’d been to see the night before. It is definitely a haunting musical, the songs almost dissonant, the character Fosca spooky in her sickliness. I loved it, and I particularly loved the Donmar’s production. Indeed, the production seems to me to be similar to Gauguin’s cloisonnism.

In Passion, Giorgio is happily in love with his Milanese mistress, Clara. But then he is posted to a remote military station in the mountains, where he pines for her. A great deal of the musical is taken up with Clara and Giorgio’s letters to each other. And when Giorgio reads one of Clara’s letters, she bursts on to the stage, striding past the other soldiers, perching on the mess table, easily inhabiting Giorgio’s surroundings as though she is there rather than in Milan.

Clara is so real for Giorgio, so sharply outlined, that she can be plucked from her Milanese environment and summoned before him. Her luxurious prettiness looks out of place in the austere military camp, but it is there nonetheless. It is as though she has been peeled out of her rightful page and stuck down on the wrong one.

It is just as I felt tempted to do with Gauguin’s subjects. What if the French apples were swapped for the Tahitian mangoes? What if the Tahitian woman were transported to the Breton landscape? It is an impulse encouraged by the Tate’s bias towards thematic rather than chronological curating. All his still lifes are in one room – how easy it would be to move an apple from its bowl to a Tahitian basket.

But I don’t think that Gauguin wanted his sharp outlines, his cloisonnism, to have this effect.

Gauguin’s rendering of place is tied to local people’s interaction with it. He is expressly saying that you can’t take a Tahitian woman out of her beautiful landscape of pinks, reds and greens. For Gauguin, Tahiti is where ‘these women [are] whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself.’ You can’t take them out of the palace, away from their beautiful nature.

In the painting Are you Jealous?, for instance, the title could be part of a conversation between the two Tahitians, but it could also be addressed to the viewer. Are we Europeans jealous of this beautiful idyll? Are we jealous of being able to lie naked, baking in the warm sun on pink sand, next to iridescent water and the cool shade of a green tree? When he exhibited his paintings in Paris, he insisted on the Tahitian titles being used, rather than French translations. His paintings are self-consciously exotic, other, foreign. It would be wrong to take someone out of a Tahitian painting and put her into a Breton one, just as a Breton peasant would look out of place in the Tahitian landscape. Just as Clara looks out of place at Giorgio’s military post.

Perhaps it is because of Gauguin’s method of working that everything seems so separate, so easy to pluck from the canvas. Rather than following the Impressionist vogue for painting ‘en plein air’, Gauguin made only sketches outdoors; his paintings were composed in the studio, guided by aesthetic decisions rather than just pure observation.

So he plucked these women and these objects from other scenes, reassembling them on his canvas. And so it is no wonder, really, that they remain so pluckable, as though these canvases are merely temporary homes.

I came away wishing that I could be plucked and stuck onto one of those Tahitian landscapes. Coming out into the cold crisp air by the Thames, it felt rather a long way away.

And it is such a long way away. Really it is this foreignness that is so extraordinary about Gauguin. He was a stockbroker. He had a wife and kids. He only painted in his spare time. He wasn’t so different from all the bankers, with their wives and child-filled buggies, that circulated around the Tate Modern, leaving the gallery to find the nearest Carluccio’s to feed Flossie and Archie and Henry before they kick up too much of a fuss.

Gauguin left all this behind and went somewhere completely different. And, if it wasn’t quite as different as he wanted it to be, then no wonder he tried to make it look all the more exotic. I’ve done it, all his paintings are saying. I’ve left you all behind in cold drizzly France to be surrounded by colour and heat and naïve beauty. I’ve stopped looking for all the sixpences and started seeing the beauty of the moon. (Somerset Maugham spotted that too.) Gauguin’s own outline must have been pretty clear for him to be able to successfully peel himself out of real life and transfer himself to an utterly new page.

I wonder if any of the stockbrokers milling around the Tate on their Saturday afternoon were tempted to follow his lead.


Inception versus Earthquakes in London

August 9, 2010

Last week I went to see Inception, as did however many million other Brits. It was two-and-a-half hours of non-stop adrenaline, which meant that I spent the entire film slack-jawed, tight-gripped, sweaty-foreheaded. And I barely ever sweat.

When it was finally over, I found myself shaking, barely able to stand up, reduced to leaning on the fiancé for support – and his legs were quaking too, so we left the cinema looking like a pair of geriatrics. I was reminded of one particularly grim night during my first term of university when I drank a litre of espresso and could do nothing other than lie on my bed shivering for hours, unable to sleep, unable to concentrate on the essay I was supposed to be writing, wondering if this was what it might be like should I end up in purgatory.

I know there are people who call themselves ‘adrenaline junkies’. I can only conclude that they must also be quite insane. I would hate to put myself through that prolonged state of extreme tension again.

Inception seems to be one of those films that everyone says is brilliant, except for those people who say that ‘everyone says it’s brilliant, but I thought it was awful’. Yes, ok, it has massive plot flaws, and one does come out thinking ‘well what was the point of that?’ (I managed to annoy the fiancé almost as much as after The Karate Kid – see my last post – by constantly saying, ‘But what if this is a dream, and what if my subconscious made me go to see that film to realise that I’m in a dream, or what if you are controlling my dream and wanted me to see that so that …’)

But for all its flaws, I fail to see how anyone could not be completely and utterly absorbed by Inception. My near-death adrenaline experience was, in its own way, rather amazing. How clever to be able to make a film that is so intense, so gripping, so immersive! Quite aside from the shots of Paris being bent around and the collective ‘wooah, wow’s of the audience, being on the edge of one’s seat for two-and-a-half hours might be rather uncomfortable but it’s one hell of an achievement for the director.

You must know by now that books are at the top of my list of favourite things. Above Coco Pops, toast, sunflowers and certainly films. But I do feel that the total immersion achieved in Inception is only very rarely found in books. (Is it embarrassing to admit that the Harry Potter books might be the only ones that, for me, have ever come close?) And plays … well, now they’re a different kettle of fish altogether.

Or are they? Later in the week I went to see Earthquakes in London, a new Mike Bartlett play directed by Rupert Goold, the same guy who did Enron (which I thought was a bit silly and bizarrely akin to Peter Pan in this vintage post), at the National’s Cottlesloe theatre.

I have to admit to palpable feelings of smugness and anachronism when I go to the theatre. It is so much more highbrow than the cinema. Definitely not for the hoi polloi, no matter how much the Arts Council tries to make it more socially inclusive. Yet theatre certainly used to be as much for the hoi polloi as for anyone else, and I suppose that’s what makes it feel slightly anachronistic. Ask Joe Bloggs when he last went to the cinema and when he last went to the theatre and I can hazard a guess that the cinema will be a far more recent and far more frequent excursion.

But Earthquakes in London is not set up to look high-brow at all. The Cottlesloe has been emptied out and turned into what looks like an enormous bar – a serpentine orange raised surface that winds its way through several pivoty bar stools. The action takes place on said snakey bar and on two raised stages recessed into the walls on either end. It means that those people seated on the pivoty bar stools spend a great deal of time pivoting around.

Now in the rather cynical zone of my head I imagine some hotshot young director saying something as vile as:

Let’s sex this baby up. Let’s throw the action right up into their faces. Let’s break down the barriers, let’s deconstruct the whole idea of “theatre”.


But, to my surprise, it works. I was completely absorbed. The acting is brilliant, which is crucial – one is so close to the actors, anything less than completely convincing wouldn’t cut it – and all the music and the lights, and the rapid head turning from one end to the other … Well it makes it fun, different and compelling. I felt in the middle of it all, caught up in the action; it was all too easy to forget I was in a theatre for over three hours. Yes, that’s right. The play was actually longer than Inception. And I was standing up. And I loved it.

But can this kind of sensationalist theatre really compete with the special effects, enormous screens, clever camera angles and speeded-up/slowed-down shots of a film like Inception?

Well, I’ve told you about the effects of all that Inception-fuelled adrenaline, but Earthquakes in London had a far more dramatic effect on me.

I fainted.

After only half-an-hour or so, I felt it coming on – the nausea, the thudding in my ears, the blacking out, the strange fuzzy pins-and-needles feeling in my head. I staggered towards the exit (through the strobe lighting and crowds of spectators), was helped up the stairs (which by then I couldn’t see at all) by a very kind steward, and swiftly collapsed on the blue carpet of the foyer.

If I were a human scale of overwhelmingness, I would say that fainting definitely trumps jittery sweats. And so Earthquakes in London must trump Inception. And so, I suppose, this sensationalist ‘sexed-up’ theatre must trump Hollywood no-expense-spared cinema.

And, best of all, even if Earthquakes in London has an unbelievably naf ending, it does make rather a serious point, unlike Inception. It makes one think about hedonism in the light of ecological disaster. It makes one (or, at least, me) completely panic about the future of our planet, and what we are bringing our children into, and what can we do to stop it, and why aren’t we doing all of that and more right now … Perhaps Inception isn’t the best film for comparison; Avatar is along more similar ecological lines.

But now I come to think of it, and now I remember Avatar – another brilliantly absorbing film, I wonder if 3D specs are the answer for an ultimate viewing experience. Perhaps what one should really do is go to the, completely naturally 3D, theatre instead.

Almodovar’s ‘All About My Mother’ and Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

February 4, 2010

I watched Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) last night. It inspired a few thoughts about translation, which I shall endeavour to write about here.

Early on in the film, Manuela, the main character, takes her son to see a play. He wants to be a writer and it’s his birthday treat. The play, like the rest of the film, is in Spanish. But, as soon as the camera alights on it, there’s something very familiar about this play. It is clearly a moment of climax – three men sit at the rear of the stage playing poker, while a nurse chases an eccentrically-attired woman around the stage. It’s only moments before I recognise the play to be Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, confirmed in an instant when another actor address the woman as Miss Dubois.

The play takes on a great deal of significance in the film, and Almodovar shows excerpts of it several times. We are clearly invited to see links between the play and the film, perhaps made most explicit when Manuela says, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life’. Almodovar has etched this American text into his character’s existence.

This line reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in particular the moment when Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz:

Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English …

Bear in mind that this was originally written in German. Pannwitz goes on to say that the translator ‘must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’.

According to this principle, Almodovar has achieved a feat of translation in the character of Manuela. Manuela’s life has been so influenced by Streetcar, so ‘marked’ by it, that she only makes sense with this foreign text. Almodovar has taken Pannwitz’s idea of expanding the mother-tongue and extrapolated it to show how a mother-narrative, so to speak, can be expanded and deepened by means of a foreign narrative.

For instance, Manuela says she is ‘moved’ by Streetcar’s character Stella, who, when we first see Streetcar in the film, leaves her husband, taking her baby with her. Manuela met her husband when they were both acting in Streetcar and we can hazard a pretty good guess that when she left Barcelona for Madrid, running away from him, carrying her unborn son inside her, this idea was inspired by Stella’s actions at the end of Streetcar.

But something jarred while watching the play in the film. The thing is, I studied Streetcar at school, and I was sure that something about Almodovar’s excerpts from it didn’t quite add up. I found my old copy of the text, filled with sixteen-year-old scribbles, and watched those bits of the film again, play-script in hand.

I realised that something quite uncanny had happened. The first thing that became clear was that the scene had been cut, less significant parts removed and more dramatic ones sown together. I imagine this was to make it more simple, more understandable to the viewer who only sees a minute or so of the play. But the really crucial change is that, in Williams’s play, Stella stays with Stanley. The final image is one of Stanley soothing Stella:

Stanley [voluptuously, soothingly]: Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love …

Stella remains in Stanley’s modern (echoed in the repeated ‘now’), sexual (suggested here with ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’) world. She doesn’t run away with their baby.

In the play that Almodovar shows, however, the final image – and the one that has been so significant for Manuela – is Stella leaving Stanley. The subtitles go like this:

[Stanley] Come on. The worst’s over.

[Stella] Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again, bastard!

[Stanley] Watch your language. Stella come here. Stella.

[Stella] I’m never coming back to this house. Never! [Stella walks off stage]

[Stanley, calling after her] Stella, Stella.


So the effect of the translation is not straightforwardly one-way. While it seems as though the American text has marked the (Spanish) narrative of Manuela’s life, it is actually the Spanish translation of the text that has marked her life – if it had been the American version, perhaps she would not have run away from her husband with her unborn child.

Examining the two versions of the play more meticulously, it is clear that the words themselves – not just the narrative thrust – have changed. Translation is evidently a radical process. Instead of getting the original English of Tennessee Williams’s play in the subtitles, we get something very different indeed. We get the end result of two translations: an American play, translated into Spanish, and then translated again into English for the subtitles. The word ‘bastard’, for example, isn’t used once in the original play. For every part of the play that Almodovar shows, there is a marked disjuncture between the text of the English subtitles and the original text of the play.

In the original, for example, Blanche asks Stella to get something from ‘the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in’. In the version we see in All About my Mother, this is altered to:

[Blanche]: Where’s my heart?

[Stella]: She means her jewel-box, it’s heart-shaped.

Almodovar then cuts to Manuela watching the actors, closing her eyes in, what we infer is, pain. The question, ‘where’s my heart?’ is of great significance to Manuela, harking back to earlier in the film, when she went to Coruna to see who received the heart of her dead son in a transplant operation. A ‘heart-shaped box’ would not have the same resonance. The re-translation of the play back into English has been vitally affected by the Spanish.

Some phrases are sacrosanct. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, uttered by Blanche to the doctor at the end of the Streetcar we see in the film, is identical, word for word, to the line in Williams’s play. There’s a remarkable scene about half-way through the film, when Huma Rojo, who plays Blanche in the play, is being driven through Barcelona by Manuela, who she has only just met, to try and find her girlfriend and fellow actress Nina. Huma turns to Manuela, in the car, and repeats the infamous line perfectly. The phrase is utterly characteristic of Blanche, and is also utterly characteristic of Huma. This is an example of Pannwitz’s ideal translation: a phrase, albeit spoken in Spanish, that has kept Williams’s unmistakable tone, deepening and expanding Spanish with the American-English idiom. The retranslation in the subtitles shows it to be identical to the original version; the phrase is meaningful enough, strong enough, to survive intact.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. Almodovar’s translation of Streetcar into All About My Mother is far more dialogic. The American play affects the Spanish, but the Spanish also affects the American play. I can only conclude that while Streetcar may have ‘marked’ Manuela, All About my Mother has also, indelibly, marked Streetcar.

Enron and Peter Pan

January 31, 2010

I went to see Enron the other night at its new West End venue. There can’t have been such excitement, more energy, buzzing around the Noel Coward Theatre since its opening in 1903. Enron is a play that thrives off energy. A play in which the actors don’t stand around talking, but jump, dance, sing, play with lightsabers, sprint on imaginary running machines. The electricity rippled through the audience, who were all entranced, gawping at the display of power, longing to be part of it.

And yet, I was bored. I felt completely disconnected from the charade that was taking place in front of me.

I could see that it was a very slick production. And well acted. Sam West was fantastic as Enron’s president Jeff Skilling – transforming himself from an overweight geek to a magnetically arrogant, glisteningly intelligent stud. But I simply wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t that it was inaccessible. Indeed, I felt like I’d been given a remarkably lucid crash course in accountancy and financial lingo, from ‘black box’ companies to ‘mark to market’. But I didn’t really care.

I couldn’t understand why I was giving up three hours of my life to watch people pretending to be corporate whores, prancing around a trading floor, throwing wads of money in the air, backlit by the fluorescent glare of increasing share prices. I nearly left in the interval, but decided that would be churlish. Besides, I usually enjoy the second half of plays more than the first.

And I’m pleased that I stayed, because that’s when I had a minor epiphany.

Apologies to those of you who are reading this from the City, to whom this next bit might seem terribly obvious. It became clearer and clearer in the second half that what mattered, for Enron, was for people to believe in it, to believe in whatever Jeff Skilling told them. I was astonished that Enron’s share price kept on rising purely because of this belief, because Jeff Skilling went around saying naf catchphrases like, ‘we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas’. Enron wasn’t making money; it had mountains of debt. Skilling and his sidekick, Fastow, realised they needed to keep people believing in Enron. They proceeded to hide the toxic debt in a pretend company – a ‘black box’ – which did nothing except leech all the poisonous debt away from squeaky-clean Enron. And then, when a journalist begins to unpick the corporation’s façade, and panic begins to set in, all that matters to Skilling is keeping up the pretence, trying as hard as he can to stop people from losing their belief.

My epiphany, during the second half, was that I was really watching Peter Pan. Where else is make-believe so all-consumingly important?

When I then sat down to re-read the children’s classic, it became clear, by page 2, that Peter Pan warrants a post-financial-collapse reading.

First of all Barrie introduces us to the Darlings – Mr and Mrs, Wendy, John and Michael. And, of course, their lovable dog/nurse, Nana. But, what I’d forgotten, is that Mr Darling is defined as someone who:

was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.

Straight away we are told that ‘deep’ men know about stocks and shares, only to have this negated by the admission that ‘no one really knows’ about them. This important, manly, characteristic of understanding the stock market is just pretence. If a man plays that game correctly, he wins respect from women.

So money is in the male domain, from when Mr Darling does ridiculous sums to work out if they can afford to have another baby, to when one of the lost boys, Nibs, says, ‘All I remember about my mother … is that she often said to my father, “Oh how I wish I had a cheque-book of my own.” ’ Without wanting to be too feminist, what is implied is that when a boy has to do the dreaded thing and grow up, he will become in charge of the money, allowed to play this grown-up game of pretence about stocks and shares.

But let’s not think about grown-ups for a little while. After all, not wanting to grow up is Peter’s most memorable characteristic; this is what the more recent versions of Peter Pan seem to focus on. But what becomes more of a defining feature, when re-reading the original, is how hideously arrogant he is. As soon as Wendy sows his shadow back on to his foot, Peter assumes he has done it himself: ‘ “How clever I am,” he crowed rapturously, “oh, the cleverness of me!” ’ Barrie really spells it out: ‘To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy.’ Throughout the book, Peter’s arrogance is highlighted, such as the many times when he ‘crows’ like a cock. It is this conceitedness that so drives Hook’s hatred of him. When Hook comes across Peter, asleep and defenceless, Barrie states that he would have turned away, he ‘was not wholly evil’, but ‘what stayed him was Peter’s impertinent appearance as he slept’, that his posture, even when asleep, was ‘such a personification of cockiness’. It is this which makes Hook poison Peter’s medicine bottle.

Peter Pan may be arrogant but he is also brave and intelligent. Coming up with the plan to pretend to be the ticking crocodile is a stroke of genius. And he is a leader; the Lost Boys unquestioningly obey his commands and so do the Redskins, once he’s rescued Tiger Lilly.

Another of Peter’s key traits is his love of make-believe. When it comes to food, ‘you never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim … Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.’

Barrie goes along with this make-believe. The Neverland is a space where pretending, under Peter’s command, rules. He sets up Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys as a pretend family. Wendy is referred to as ‘Mother’, Peter as ‘Father’, and the boys are their children. Michael even has to pretend to be the baby and sleeps in a basket. This pretence is so effective that when the Darling children do eventually return home, Michael, confused as to why John and Wendy have cried out ‘Mother’ on seeing Mrs Darling, asks his sister, ‘Then you’re not really our mother, Wendy?’

Is Barrie asking us to draw parallels between the two ‘families’ in the book? Wendy happily fits into her role as mother/house-wife: mending, cooking, administering medicine, insisting on bedtime – just like Mrs Darling. But what about Peter Pan and Mr Darling? I’m certain Peter would hate to admit to having anything in common with a grown-up. However, they are both arrogant – think of Mr Darling’s insisting on putting Nana in a kennel outside and refusing to admit his mistake until it’s too late. And, more importantly, they are both good at make-believe. Peter’s realm of make-believe is the Neverland; Mr Darling’s is stocks and shares.

Towards the end of the book, we are invited to imagine what would happen to Peter Pan, if he were to grow up. We are privy to the fate of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings: ‘You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella …’ But what about Peter? What if he were to accept Mrs Darling’s invitation to adopt him?

‘Would you send me to a school?’ he inquired craftily.


‘And then to an office?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Soon I should be a man?’

‘Very soon.’

Of course, he doesn’t stay in ‘the Mainland’. He returns to the Neverland and is a boy forever. But, what if? What if he’d agreed to stay behind? Would Peter Pan grow up to be an, admittedly more successful, version of Mr Darling? Like the twins and Nibs and Curly? Surely Peter would excel at the stocks and shares game of make-believe?

To bring us back to Enron, doesn’t Jeff Skilling, with his arrogance, intelligence, leadership qualities and remarkable aptitude for making people believe, really have very similar characteristics to those of Peter Pan? Perhaps all those boys who wanted to be Peter Pan cultivated those characteristics, and then, when they did inevitably grow up, they became very successful in the City. For arrogance, intelligence, leadership, and pretending – convincingly – to know about stocks and shares is a winning combination.

But Enron shows that make-believe doesn’t work as well outside the Neverland. There, you just have to believe in fairies and clap your hands for Tinker Bell to be saved from death; everyone can gorge on enormous make-believe feasts. But that is in the Neverland. In the City, however glitzily it is portrayed, excelling at make-believe isn’t quite good enough. The truth will out, and then Skilling, Enron, and all its investors and shareholders, come crashing down. And if the make-believe goes far enough, the global economy comes crashing down too.

So why is it that now we see bankers going to work, clapping their hands with glee at their bonuses, thinking, ‘yes, I believe’? Belief isn’t enough here. They are not in the Neverland; they grew up. And, as is clear in Enron, playing games of make-believe with stocks and shares doesn’t really work. And Peter Pan is also terribly forgetful. It would be awfully sad if bankers were already forgetting the horrific crash, the enormous wave of redundancy, the crippling consequences of corporate greed.