Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Cultural Highlights

In the demented frenzy of the provincial visitor, I went to as many plays and films as I could while in London. I saw Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic, a theatre I'm very fond of. I'd read the play at university but never quite got the point of it. I'm not sure I still do, although at least I now understand that it's an extremely black comedy - I'm ashamed to say that I didn't entirely pick up the joke back then. It had some good lines, my two favourites being  a) when one character admonishes another for 'shaking the fat of my heart' and b) when another, (a creature entirely without passion, in fact), describes his fate as to be 'simmering in passion until the end of time'. Also-rans were, 'It's true mankind's the devil when your head's astray', and 'There's a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed'. The play was performed with gusto, although I'm not sure the lead boy was perfectly cast.

I also went to The Tempest at the Haymarket, because it is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays and also the first play I remember seeing in a theatre - we were taken from school in the late sixties to the then dazzlingly new Chichester Theatre to see a wonderful production.

I pity any schoolchildren who have been introduced to the theatre or to Shakespeare by the production I saw on this occasion though. Ralph Fiennes played Prospero as if he were Caliban, mixed with Coriolanus, in which part I'd seen him on film the night before, Ariel was played as if he were a gabbling drag queen who'd taken Lyn Barber's mother's elocution classes (see note below) - only his 'You are three men of sin' speech had any resonance and that was largely due to the fact that it was amplified by loudspeakers, which is not my idea of good acting.

Miranda was like something out of the kind of play that you might see at a school where Gussie Fink-Nottle gives out prizes. She managed to stress every line badly, her hands held stiff by her side, jabbing down to emphasise each phrase, her whole body bent forward stiffly as if the words were being forced out like squirts of toothpaste. 'What brave new world that has such people in it', she blurted, looking round, with a little giggle and then grinning inanely as she shifted from foot to foot. Oddly, the comic scenes, which are usually a little pathetic, were the best bits of the production. I think the fact that, in a performance of the play that contains some of Shakespeare's greatest poetry, the bits of nonsense about drunken sidekicks stood out probably demonstrates just how dire the evening was.

The costumes appeared to have been dredged from a very ancient dressing-up box, and for some reason Prospero's cloak seemed to have been constructed from those American Indian dream-catcher things that hippy shops sometimes sell. Most of the cast gave the impression that they considered it miraculous enough that they'd managed to memorise their lines without prompting and that to expect them to acknowledge the extraordinary poetry of the play was really too much to ask. Depressingly, the audience, mostly foreigners, agreed with this assessment, rewarding Fiennes and his cohorts with a quite undeserved standing ovation at the end.

What I wished was that Lydia Rose Bewley, who I saw at the Jermyn Street Theatre, (which I love), had played Miranda. She was playing the part of a young girl in a revival of a 1950s play called Riverline and she had that rare magic quality that allows a performer to light up a theatre. The dilemma is that she is not a slim woman and I am torn between thinking that it is most unfair that she will probably miss out on parts because of her weight, when she is so clearly a really marvellous actress, and recognising that, good though she is, my first reaction, and that of other people I overheard talking at interval was, 'Isn't that girl rather fat?' As soon as she opened her mouth she completely transcended that impression, but the trouble is that current fashion is against the meaty and all for the thin.

(This is from Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education and mirrors exactly the kind of performance Ariel provided: "For elocution competitions and exams, it wasn't enough just to recite a poem - all the words had to be accompanied by gestures. Thus, references to moonlight, sunlight, stars or any form of weather involved looking upwards; references to storms, rain, frost, involved pulling an imaginary shawl round one's shoulders and blowing on one's nails. (Does anyone, in real life, ever blow on their nails? I have never seen it.) Weeping or even mild regret meant wiping one's eyes with the back of one's hand; laughing meant much shaking of the shoulders, a la Edward Heath. Elves and fairies always started their speeches in a crouching position and then leapt up, spun round, and dashed madly across the stage with arms outstretches. Skipping was sometimes required. Searching for anything or even just looking necessitated a hand above the eyebrows shielding the eyes, accompanied by a pointing gesture.'"


  1. Standing ovations are getting out of hand, don't you think? Of the plays (and concerts)I have seen over the past ten years, ones that didn't get a standing ovation are in the minority, including a horrible production of(my favorite playwright) Arthur Miller's "The Price" in which the lead might as well have been Jackie Gleeson in "The Honeymooners." And people looked at me like I had smashed a birthday cake as I sat with my arms folded. Well, I'm not caving in, gal-dernit! (Though I did once stand and clap at a Michael Nieman concert because my friend loved his work as much as I hated it. But that was kindness on my part, right?)

  2. Yes, I think you're right, Chris. It almost seemed to be a kind of showing off that night I was in the theatre. And, given how bad I'd thought the performance, it was a bit alienating.