Thursday, 19 January 2017

At the Theatre

The other day we went to the National Theatre and saw Amadeus. Did you know that the National Theatre has a Five Year Equality Action Plan - yes, I too thought that five-year plans had gone out with Stalin, but apparently not.

Silly me. I also thought that what they were supposed to be doing over there on the South Bank was making theatre, but it turns out that they are busy with the important task of "celebrating" the nation, most specifically "the diversity of the nation in terms of ... ethnicity, disability, sexuality and class."
They are also frantically "trying to shift perceptions."

Good for them, the arrogant busybodies. Why can't they just put on plays?

I'm glad to say they failed totally in their mission to shift any of my perceptions. I went in thinking Amadeus is a good play and I came out with the same view. What is more, I discovered that it cannot be made boring, no matter how hard anyone tries.

I wrote about the performance we saw here.

4 comments:

  1. Hello Zoe,

    Firstly I want to say how thrilled I am that you were so moved by Adam and Karla's performance, and that your faith in the power of this 'ancient magical art form' was revived. I'm all kinds of chuffed with that.

    I'm sorry that you were not taken with Lucian's performance. That is, of course, your prerogative, but I would like to respond to some of your comments.

    I cast Lucian because he is a stunning actor, brilliantly able to convey the emotional arc of the character (an opinion which has been validated by the universal critical acclaim he has received for his performance). For me, historical literalism or physical likeness isn't necessary to deliver the character or themes in this play; namely those of genius, mediocrity, jealousy, the transcendent power of music etc. Shaffer hugely embellished the composers' rivalry and played very fast-and-loose with the historical facts for dramatic effect. It is a historical fantasia rather than a biopic about the real Salieri. And as the play isn't about race, it strikes me as completely permissible to cast in a colourblind* way; and that in doing so I am not obscuring the meaning of the play. One of Peter Shaffer's final creative decisions was to approve casting Lucian. He was thrilled with his portrayal of the character.

    Ultimately, I'm just not interested in excluding the talent of brilliant actors like Lucian, Karla or Hammed and Sarah (who play the Venticelli) because their characters were/might've been white historically. I haven't cast Italian or Austrian actors either. I haven't literally presented the Palace of Shonbrunn' or literally aged Salieri by 40 years to play his older self. Furthermore my production is deliberately full of anachronisms from Mozart's Doc Martins, to a modern-dress orchestra which Salieri can see and interact with because I am interested in interrogating ideas about the endurance of Mozart's music, about him being the 'punk of his day' and musically ahead of his time, and about Salieri's obsession with posterity and creative immortality. Shaffer's framing device contains the idea of a performance within a performance: it’s meta-theatrical. Performance can be a place of metaphor and dreams - so the ethnic (and in some instances gender) identities of the performers isn't necessarily of paramount importance to me. It depends on the viewing prism.

    I gender swapped a Venticello and Count Von Strack because why not? (fwiw it’s funnier when Mozart says ‘lower your breeches’ to her; or more pertinent she’s excluded by male Italian speakers who undermine her authority as a woman). Again, yes, they would've been men in Vienna in 1793, but I'm not being literal. And yes this does lead into a positive social agenda in my work.

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  2. The English theatrical canon is overwhelming male and white. Those who were/are not this, have been and are frequently prevented from telling their stories by conscious or unconscious bias of the (white male) gatekeepers of culture. I don't think some redress is a bad thing. As written, Amadeus only has one speaking female role in a massive cast (and even she is rather dubiously envisioned as a 'silly goose' who the men fight over; rather than the talented musician she was historically). There is not enough work for our great actresses because there are significantly less female characters written (and even then, often only supporting male narratives cf the bechdel test)

    Identification is important. It's part of what makes this ancient art form so magical. It moves people because they identify and empathise with the people in the stories. But everyone should have the opportunity to see themselves reflected and portrayed; and in interesting rather stereotypical minor roles. Why should someone be interested or moved by theatre if the never do? Then theatre in England remains the domain of the privileged white elite who chose which stories get commissioned or revived to serve the tastes of a predominantly white audience. This is why I think the National Theatre (funded by all our taxes) has a duty to promote diversity and to attract an audience that reflects the demographic of our country. And why I applaud its aims. I believe these things are important and I don't find it 'tedious' or 'maddeningly pointless' or ‘dispiriting’ to address them. And I would argue that it belies your position as part of the privileged majority that you think do (this is why I called you out on twitter). For you, historical literalism is more important than inclusion. I find that sad.

    The reason no white actor will (rightly) be playing Martin Luther King any time soon is because of the historical exclusion of black stories by white supremacy. There already aren't enough of those stories. When it’s an even playing field in terms of representation & opportunity, then colour blind casting might become a two-way street. But even then, in the case of MLK, his story is necessarily about race, in a way that Salieri's isn't in Shaffer's telling.

    Ultimately, I do hope someone who doesn't usually go to the National might see Lucian on a poster and decide to hear this story and be moved in the way you were by other aspects of the production. That the pirate off Game of Thrones might attract a young person to listen to some Mozart for the first time, or take up an instrument. Or that women in the audience don’t watch a story with no female voices again. I'm not going to apologise for my idealism, where I don't believe I've in any way obscured Shaffer's story; just made it more accessible and resonant to a newer, wider audience.

    Regards,

    Michael Longhurst
    Director, Amadeus

    *as an aside, I actually find 'colour blind' a problematic term. We all see in colour and I'm not necessarily asking you to ignore Lucian's ethnicity; just accept it as not a literal representation of Salieri's. There are moments in this production that I feel are more poignant precisely because of Lucian's race e.g. Saleiri's outsider status in court as a non Austrian native, or one of his final lines 'I sought only slavery for myself: to be owned, exhausted by an absolute music'; which resonates more overtly.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The English theatrical canon is overwhelming male and white. Those who were/are not this, have been and are frequently prevented from telling their stories by conscious or unconscious bias of the (white male) gatekeepers of culture. I don't think some redress is a bad thing. As written, Amadeus only has one speaking female role in a massive cast (and even she is rather dubiously envisioned as a 'silly goose' who the men fight over; rather than the talented musician she was historically). There is not enough work for our great actresses because there are significantly less female characters written (and even then, often only supporting male narratives cf the bechdel test)

    Identification is important. It's part of what makes this ancient art form so magical. It moves people because they identify and empathise with the people in the stories. But everyone should have the opportunity to see themselves reflected and portrayed; and in interesting rather stereotypical minor roles. Why should someone be interested or moved by theatre if the never do? Then theatre in England remains the domain of the privileged white elite who chose which stories get commissioned or revived to serve the tastes of a predominantly white audience. This is why I think the National Theatre (funded by all our taxes) has a duty to promote diversity and to attract an audience that reflects the demographic of our country. And why I applaud its aims. I believe these things are important and I don't find it 'tedious' or 'maddeningly pointless' or ‘dispiriting’ to address them. And I would argue that it belies your position as part of the privileged majority that you think do (this is why I called you out on twitter). For you, historical literalism is more important than inclusion. I find that sad.

    The reason no white actor will (rightly) be playing Martin Luther King any time soon is because of the historical exclusion of black stories by white supremacy. There already aren't enough of those stories. When it’s an even playing field in terms of representation & opportunity, then colour blind casting might become a two-way street. But even then, in the case of MLK, his story is necessarily about race, in a way that Salieri's isn't in Shaffer's telling.

    Ultimately, I do hope someone who doesn't usually go to the National might see Lucian on a poster and decide to hear this story and be moved in the way you were by other aspects of the production. That the pirate off Game of Thrones might attract a young person to listen to some Mozart for the first time, or take up an instrument. Or that women in the audience don’t watch a story with no female voices again. I'm not going to apologise for my idealism, where I don't believe I've in any way obscured Shaffer's story; just made it more accessible and resonant to a newer, wider audience.

    Regards,

    Michael Longhurst
    Director, Amadeus

    *as an aside, I actually find 'colour blind' a problematic term. We all see in colour and I'm not necessarily asking you to ignore Lucian's ethnicity; just accept it as not a literal representation of Salieri's. There are moments in this production that I feel are more poignant precisely because of Lucian's race e.g. Saleiri's outsider status in court as a non Austrian native, or one of his final lines 'I sought only slavery for myself: to be owned, exhausted by an absolute music'; which resonates more overtly.

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    Replies
    1. I am extremely grateful for your very thoughtful response. I will read it properly and think about it more, (currently reading it on a telephone while standing on a crowded Budapest tram) but, for now, I just want to say I recognise truth in some of what you say, but, possibly due to too much time spent in what was the Soviet bloc, I am intensely wary of "solutions" imposed by committees, however right thinking their members may be. Making art is strange & generally not suited to being stuffed into a box made out of political doctrine. Thinking about your point about the poster, as a woman, it doesn't make me feel more attracted to see a play if Glenda Jackson is playing King Lear, rather than a man. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet so this swapping about of roles is not a new thing, I know. Still, I worry about the implications of suggesting a woman is more likely to be attracted to go to a play where the central role is played by a woman, or a person of Lucian's ethnicity is more likely to be attracted to go to a play if the poster shows someone of their ethnicity in a leading role. It seems to me that this approach reinforces separateness, with its assumption that we can only really achieve imaginative sympathy if we see a figure resembling ourselves performing. White supremacy is quite a loaded phrase too. Britain is historically a country that has been inhabited by mainly white people, which is not the same as saying it is a white supremacist country that has excluded black stories. South East Asia is largely populated by people who are ethnically Asian and their theatre tends to reflect the culture of the region. Does this mean they are excluding white stories? What demands from whom led to the cultural engineering initiative that is the five-year equality plan? Is it something driven by those to whom it is directed or imposed from above by those who believe they know what is best? Please pass on my huge thanks to your Mozart and Costanza and thank you for your direction of them. Together the three of you brought from those roles a psychological complexity I have not seen anyone else manage. Also your costume designer is a marvel - particularly spectacular is that wonderful turquoise striped dress, with, if my memory isn't tricking me, pink insets (??), that Costanza wears. "On the screen, you see pictures; on the stage wonders unfold." I will never forget that old guy's comment. And what makes those wonders such especial treasures in today's technological world of recording etc is the fact that they are ephemeral - existing for the course of a performance, the result of the strange alchemy that an audience and performers together can sometimes make.

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