Saturday, May 22, 2010

Farewell Mapplethorpe Hello Shakespeare

"It's quite odd, really. People keep telling us — that is, professors and CNN commentators and Hollywood actors keep telling us — how very stupid President Bush is. Yet everywhere one looks he is supporting some of the most intelligent and dynamic people ever to occupy their cultural posts... This is the George Bush approach to cultural reinvigoration. Conservatives — by which term I mean people who are interested in conserving what is best from the past — should applaud his efforts." Robert Kimball, the National Review, "Farewell Mapplethorpe, Hello Shakespeare" January 29, 2004

The images in this entry were selected by searching for "Shakespeare America" on Google and choosing the first five images which included a US Flag and linking to the source page

Earlier this year, Lincoln Center announced that it would be building a replica of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the Park Avenue Armory for a six week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They did not say how much all of this will cost, only that it was made possible by a seven-figure donation from Ohio State University and two of its leading donors.

Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times liked the idea, and wants to make the structure and concept permanent. His idea was not exactly popular with everyone. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal agreed with the artistic director of a regional American theater who decried the disparity of resources given to American artists as opposed to artists flown in from abroad, and suggested the replica be used the following year to showcase US Shakespeare productions. Last week, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice pointed up an analogous imbalance in the favoring of imported productions over the increasingly neglected treasures of Off and Off-Off Broadway theater (“I wish I could see New York learning to value and cherish its own.”)

The vast majority of American artists and American arts organizations are indeed chronically underfunded. They aren't given a fair crack at creating the truly great art I and many others believe they are capable of. In a word, it's heartbreaking. Currently, the only way to correct this imbalance is for the government to increase arts funding, thereby restoring balance to the arts funding ecology.

Some people in the government do get it. Money was included for the arts in the bailout. But this amounted to a paltry 0.0064% of the whole - a third of what the governments of France and Germany (whose populations number a quarter and a third of the US respectively) had each distributed to the arts six months earlier. Even so, some in the US heralded this development as an important breakthrough.

I'm not a fan of Lincoln Center's decision. Not least because I lived in England for a long time, where I saw too many Shakespeare productions to count - even acted in a couple of them - yet still much, much prefer my Shakespeare to be Eastern European, Japanese, African.... or American.

But in the circumstances, I can't blame the messenger.

I submitted a comment to the Wall Street Journal to that effect, basically agreeing with Teachout. It wasn't posted (you can see the ones that were here).

So, I now invite you play a little game, and guess why my comments below were deemed unworthy (unwashed?). I've also unashamedly toyed with the original text so that I could be as unfettered as I yearned to be, so you can also test your wit by trying to spot the embellishments.

"It was disconcerting to see so many resources being devoted in one fell swoop to feeding America’s inferiority complex about/infatuation with British theater when American theater artists and companies could really use those resources.

However, it was understandable. The sad fact is, even if American companies produce Shakespeare at the peak of their abilities, they are at an automatic disadvantage.

Firstly, America does not have a generously funded year-round Shakespeare repertory company like the RSC, with its $50 million budget, half of which is provided by the government.

Secondly, due to that deep-seated infatuation, members of the critical establishment like Christopher Isherwood will routinely compare US companies unfavorably with the superior standards of UK Shakespeare, whether real or imagined.

Thirdly, with particular reference to the Lincoln Center Festival, it is a bit of a tightrope walk to find productions that will fill halls while justifying subsidies (trenchant analysis of the problems by Rocco Landesman here); invigorate the audiences while pleasing the critics; and, last but certainly not least, successfully adapt to Lincoln Center’s institutional culture.

Case in Point #1: a scintillating South African ensemble production of Macbeth presented in the early days of the LC Festival, where the swathes of empty seats dividing the small but enthusiastic crowd were probably a big reason we haven’t seen any ensemble Shakespeare there since.

Case in point #2: two of America’s most accomplished young theater auteurs, Richard Maxwell and Young Jean Lee, have in recent years run the gauntlet with bold and distinctly American Shakespeare productions (to paraphrase Virgil Thomson: the way to make American Shakespeare is simple, all you have to do is be an American and then make it any way you wish).

Maxwell came tantalizingly close to lodging his Henry IV Part I near the very belly of the beast - the Barbican, the RSC’s former home in London. After viewing a rehearsal, the Barbican balked and sent the production back to BAM’s Next Wave, with mixed results. About half the audience walked out, but the half who stayed probably thought like me that although the production was uneven (or worse), it was far more satisfying than the RSC and Donmar Shakespeares on BAM's menu in the tamer Spring Season.

Lee’s deconstruction of Lear played an extended run to smaller, sold-out houses downtown earlier this year, with a much lower attrition rate - I saw only a couple of empty seats after the interval. Yet Lee was taken to task by (who else) Christopher Isherwood in the New York Times for having made a badly behaved play. (At least David Cote of Time Out New York used the critical storm-in-a-teacup as an opportunity to go global with a shrewd and timely re-assessment of what kind of Shakespeare we need, as opposed to what kind of Shakespeare we actually get)

So we find ourselves caught between two stools - the demands of the mainstream Shakespeare audience, for whom no-one can do it better than the Brits; and the ritual bruising that unashamedly American attempts to take the Bard off that British pedestal will inevitably come in for. I don’t know what the solution is, but reconstructing the RSC in New York is definitely not it.

As the theater director Peter Brook - the son of Russian immigrants - cried out once in the title of an essay he wrote in his early days of working at the RSC: 'O for Empty Seats!'"

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The meek have it... just

So it was a fine night in imaginary St Petersburg, as I immersed myself in a production of Uncle Vanya flown over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music from the Maly Drama Theatre. But the early signs had not been good. The director and sine qua non of today's Maly, Lev Dodin, hadn't shown up for the pre-performance talk, and the company members who filled in were pandering something awful to the rapt audience by mocking new writing and simultaneous translation. Old is best, they declared with ingratiating shrugs, and, having seen a Moscow Arts Theatre production in that very building that had clung to this principle with stultifying effect, I braced myself for the worst.

The stage was simple, a square floor of natural wood framed by three low walls in which several doors were hidden. Above the stage floated an open wooden grid holding three huge egg-shaped bales of hay. The actors casually drifted in under the hay, setting out table and chairs, a samovar, teacups, a buffet. By the time the first words were spoken, the play had coalesced rather than begun. In the homes I visited on my trips to Russia, little plates of nibbles and tea things and bottles of mineral water would constantly appear on the kitchen table as if out of nowhere throughout the day - this was exactly like that, the characters grazing at their leisure.

All the other Vanyas I have seen were played by men who probably would never have stood a chance with Elena. This one (Sergei Kurashev) was more awkward than unattractive, and could easily have been quite the dashing catch in his youth, but he had been physically impaired by years of indecision. He exuded anguish every moment he was on stage, and needed only the slightest of excuses to start bursting with it - Elena's exclamation about him being a pain resonated like never before. In fact, the remarkable thing about this production was that all of the text resonated - even those Chekhovian character self-descriptions that can so easily bring with them the scent of old chestnuts (Telegin (Alexander Zavyalov) was the only one who came anywhere near this trap, and it was clear that whatever fault there may have been laid squarely with Chekhov and Father Time, not him).

All the lead men exhibited the same indecision around Elena (Ksenia Rappaport), torn in delicate agony between fear of rejection and desire to devour her. Elena herself was not an ice queen, like Julianne Moore played her, but rather another soul that wanted to soar but had been atrophied by indecision. Sonya (Elena Kalinina) was played not as the ingenue victim, but as a sweet young woman whose heart was fully engaged in the buffeting it was being given, and yearned like the best of them, yet deep down had a sublime grasp of its fate (yes, "its" fate - Sonya was led by her heart, and her head and conscience knowingly accepted the back seat). There was a beautiful moment when Elena and Sonya were talking girl talk about the doctor, faces turned to the audience, Sonya letting the irrational laughter roll out (an easy, natural laughter, not nervous, and its meaning was not commented upon by the staging, but rather floated up there somewhere between the bales of hay) and Elena sobbing drunkenly and miserably next to her - a hilarious parody of those happy/sad masks that hang in old theatres.

The long night was done beautifully. I realized that the productions I had seen before had for all intents and purposes either ignored or forgotten what time it was. Most of the stage was in darkness, and people were carrying candles. The wall opened to reveal a double door with glass panes downstage left, down which rain ran in rivulets through the entire act. The dialogue was punctuated by the sound of heavy drops hitting the ground. In the morning, the bales were bathed in intensely bright orange light from the dawn.

Elena and Astrov's (Igor Chernevich) first kiss came as Vanya burst through the garden door with a bunch of roses - he froze mid stride, balanced comically on one leg, roses drooping, and Elena in her terror grabbed the map and held it tight around her torso, like some kind of farcically surreal chastity belt. The staging of the final parting kiss followed Chekhov's directions to the letter - "(she kisses him impulsively, and they part quickly)" - while building a world of subtext around them. Astrov circled Elena for some minutes, struggling to chastely resist her patently obvious availability, and when the impulse finally found expression, it was dam-breaking time. But the second they gave in to their passion, the walls opened and the entire cast wafted onto the stage, witnessing their indiscretion with a quintessentially Russian stoicism. Elena had her back to the assembled crowd, and Astrov had to silently indicate to her that they had company - LOTS of company. She turned to the audience before facing the music, and pulled her face into a wide-eyed grimace - "OOPS!!!!"

The Sonyas I had seen before had elicited nothing more than pity. They were fighting a valorous yet ultimately doomed struggle against the greater power of fate, and their hearts were eventually crushed by the ugliness of it all. But now I realize that this was because all those earlier productions hadn't worked. For this Sonya, I did not feel a shred of pity. Instead, I felt compassion for these meek hearts, Sonya and Vanya, a longing for them - for us - to be rewarded for the good deeds we do for others, for which we neither ask nor receive a worldly prize. And for the very first time, I believed deep down that what Sonya said was not a desperate, naive attempt at transcendence that was destined to be repeated over and over again in vain - but rather that it was true. It made me wonder, could this actually be how the meek shall inherit the earth?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Once upon a New Year's Eve I met a Drunken Boat

Here's a story I discovered by chance on New Year's Eve.

This is a recording of Tim Buckley performing Song to the Siren in 1970. The song follows the thoughts, dreams, and feelings of a protagonist who is literally and metaphorically at sea until he becomes infatuated with a songstress on the shore. He follows his longing, at first full of passion and the excitement of the conquest, but becomes more and more despairing and confused as he loses control of his ship and it crashes onto the rocks. At the end of the song, he finds himself stranded in the waves, ahead of him the prospect of unrequited love, and behind him the deathly embrace of the water.

The deeper meaning of the song rests on a narrative device: that of using quotes in the trio of two-line choruses that follow each verse. In the first chorus, the protagonist quotes the siren: "Sail to me, sail to me, let me enfold you." In the third and final chorus, the protagonist quotes himself, calling out from the breakers: "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you."

Both the first and last choruses end with the line "Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you." But it's not entirely clear who is voicing the line. Probably the siren in the first, and the protagonist in the third. But then again maybe not.

In the middle chorus, it is crystal clear that the siren is the one singing: "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow." Yet the ultimate line - the clincher - could be sung by the siren, the protagonist, the songwriter, or all of these - "O my heart, o my heart, shies from the sorrow." You can hear this in the way Tim sings it. I suspect this is a reflection of the extraordinary turbulence of those early years, and the unworldly places his pursuit of his muse was beginning to take him. This line is placed smack dab in the middle of the song, framed in perfect symmetry at its very heart.

Tim wrote Song to the Siren having in quick succession discovered his high school sweetheart and fellow outcast, Mary, was pregnant; married her; discovered it had been a phantom pregnancy; honest-to-goodness impregnated her; then divorced her. Many of his songs from this period are said to be inspired by Mary. She bore his son Jeff without him, then changed the child's name to Scott Moorhead, after her new partner and Jeff's stepfather. Tim and Jeff, bloodline father and son, were to see each other only once, when Jeff was eight years old. Mary took Jeff to see Tim in concert, and the son stayed with his father for a week. Seven months later, Tim was dead, having mistaken heroin for cocaine and overdosed at the age of 28. Scott Moorhead began asking to change his name back to Jeff Buckley.

Jeff went on to be a celebrated singer-songwriter in his own right, primarily on the strength of his first and only studio album, "Grace". It is hardly a surprise that he struggled mightily to escape the mythologized legacy of his father (Interviewer: Extraordinary voice. I mean, everybody knows your dad is Tim Buckley, of course. I mean, he sort of had that same sense of abandon, didn't he? Jeff Buckley: Yeah - he abandoned *me*.) Yet the similarities in their musical styles and personae cannot be ignored. Also unavoidable is the uncanny way each died before his time - on the dot. On the evening of May 29, 1997, also at the age of 28, Jeff went for a dip in Wolf River Harbor in his clothes and boots singing Whole Lotta Love, and didn't come back. His drowned body was spotted by a riverboat tourist five days later.

"Grace" is basically a death prayer. Not something of sorrow but just casting away any fear of death. No relief will come, you'll really just have to stew in your life until it's time to go. But sometimes, somebody else's faith in you can do wonders.

The most well-known rendition of Song to the Siren is by This Mortal Coil, with Elizabeth Fraser on vocals. It was much admired by David Lynch, who used it in Lost Highway, and pointed to this single song as the inspiration for Julee Cruise's entire first two albums. Elizabeth Fraser's vocals were recorded in 1983, when Jeff was a high school student in Hollywood. She had become a fan of Tim's music, and studied not only Song to the Siren, but Tim's entire vocal style. When she heard Jeff's voice, she also became utterly captivated. And Jeff knew Elizabeth's voice through her international success as vocalist of The Cocteau Twins.

When Elizabeth and Jeff finally met several years after Elizabeth had recorded Song to the Siren, each had listened to the other's voice, and come to idolize it.

They fell in love with each other's voices.

To meet Jeffrey was just like being given a set of paints. ... I had all this color in my life again. I just couldn't help falling in love with him. He was adorable, he was lovely. I read his diary; he read mine. We'd just swap, we'd literally just hand over this very personal stuff, and I've never done that with anybody else; I don't know if he has. So in some ways there was a great deal of intimacy, but then there'd be times when I'd just think, "I'm just not penetrating this Jeff Buckley boy at all."

Broken down hungry for your love with no way to feel it
Where lie you tonight cause you know how much you need it
I love you
But I'm afraid to love you

So. In the year of his son's birth, his father writes a song about a lonely man falling in love with a woman's singing, but who can't quite reach it... and by that time, it's too late, but the only other choice is to "lie with Death my Bride" in the watery depths...