Saturday, 10 December 2016

Writer as prophet: Janne Teller and Philip K Dick

Janne Teller wrote the first version of War, her razor-sharp imagining of - in its latest, English-language incarnation - Brits as refugees forced to flee a devastated London for sanctuary in Egypt, as If the Nordic countries were at war in 2001. It might have seemed prophetic, but Denmark was already turning its back on compassion for immigrants, and besides, Teller herself comes from a family of Austrian/German refugees.

The point being, I suppose, that writers who seem so prophetic are simply aware of the eternal values and predicaments, history repeating itself or at least rhyming. It's not, in my opinion, their place to examine the causes. One person in the very interesting and distinguished company Janne's and our mutual friend Marianne had assembled for Sunday brunch and a reading raised that aspect, and it's true that there are different kinds of writers who combine fiction with polemical journalism.

But the imagination must have its free rein in selecting what it thinks is pertinent, and Teller has done that so powerfully in the other myths she's created (I've already written here about Nothing, which I was inspired to buy at Glyndebourne following the Youth Opera's extraordinary work on a project derived from it, and I'm currently spellbound in the middle of Odin's Island, where Teller raises questions about dogmatic religions and politics in the imagined face of the old god coming back to earth as a wizened, forgetful little old man).

War is not so much a myth as a what if? miniature masterpiece. It's so short and to the point that I might dent it by quoting or evoking; suffice it to say that it makes you face all the realities of, say, Syrian refugees by applying them to yourself. As Teller writes in her afterword, 'it becomes about the definition of self, both for the ones who arrive as strangers as for the ones who receive the strangers'. The presentation, as a sort of EU passport with very singular illustrations by Helle Vibeke Jensen, pushes boundaries in book production, too. I'd like to see the many other versions in different languages. Each must be specially tailored to the country in question's circumstances. What was she like to meet? Absolutely natural, curious and gracious, everything you would expect.

I turned to Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle because I wanted to follow up Philip Roth's The Plot Against America with another vision of an American dystopia. Little did I know what a remarkable exercise in literary style I was going to find. Like Kurt Vonnegut in his so-called Science Fiction books, Dick has been pigeonholed in a way that would seem to stop him being acclaimed as one of the best writers of all time.

So here, too, it's not just the imagination or the prophecy; the sheer humanity of Dick's complex characters makes this as heartwrenching a novel as Roth's, and much closer to what may happen in America with Trump's advent (if it ever gets to him becoming President - one begins to have hopeful doubts of the kind that have proliferated with the Brexit quagmire).

Not that the parallels of the actual situation are as close. San Francisco sits within the Japanese sphere of influence, a much better alternative to the Nazi zone which includes New York. Nevertheless so much in each character's stream of consciousness is pertinent to now, like when the double agent Baynes aka Wegener reflects on the fellow German with whom he is travelling (with apologies for filleting; it's all good):

Am I racially kin to this man?...So closely that for all intents and purposes it is the same? Then it is in me, too, the psychotic streak. A psychotic  world we live in. The madmen are in power...

But he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? i feel it, see it, but what is it?

He thought, it is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing....

Their view; it is cosmic. Not a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk, Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honour; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte; but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life...

They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off.

And so on. Not everything here applies to Trump, I know. But it's all good, even when Dick is at his most freewheeling. And he tells a taut story which eventually becomes a thriller, interweaving the lives of the five main characters and giving the only woman independence of spirit (not bad for 1962). Cleverest of all, perhaps, is the idea of the novel-within-the-novel, the 'Man in the High Castle' Hawthorne Absensen's vision of an alternative reality which corresponds in many respects, though crucially not all, to what actually happened after the Second World War. Dick not only 'quotes' from the book but uses it as a tool of hope - the power of the spoken word to kindle a fight back.

The ending is deliberately left open, so that the book lives beyond its physical duration. Even so, I'm not going to watch the TV series, which seems from a resume to be rather loosely based on the book in the first place. 20 episodes down and another series about to be released? Doesn't look right to me. The book's the thing.

In another connection, take a look at what I've written about Péter Esterházy's text for his friend Péter Eötvös's Halleluja - Oratorium Balbulum over on The Arts Desk. The two pictured above in their only photographed meeting in March this year - Esterházy died in July just before Halleluja's world premiere - by Szilvia Csibi for Müpa Budapest. Two more prophets, then, who know about the laws of recurrence.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy: pure theatre gold

Or (as I wanted to put in the title but found it too long) 'the best six and a half hours you'll ever spend in a theatre'. That's not including the two-hour-plus breaks in between last Saturday's run. Who would have thought that the 11am Julius Caesar, Henry IV (Part One with three scenes from Part Two) at 3.30pm and The Tempest at 8 could have been linked together so pertinently, or that Phyllida Lloyd's concept of setting them all in a women's prison with an all-female cast could really be sustained? Well, I had an inkling when I went to the first run of Henry IV at the Donmar's main Covent Garden venue. But of course this was always going to be something extra-special, starting with the buzz in the excellent temporary venue just beyond King's Cross Station.

Below was the scene - a big patch of blue prisoners call the sky, plus plane, above the structure - just before 11am on a crisp winter day,

this the return for Henry IV after I'd made an excursion into the West End to buy a full score of Ligeti's Le grand macabre for my Monday Opera in Depth class and came back for a mosey around the British Library's magnificent free exhibition of most treasured manuscripts

and this the front of the theatre, illuminated by the pavilion structure just beyond, following a good supper in Kings Place.

Harriet Walter is the big name around which the three plays have developed - I'm not ever going to stop going on about how she played Schoenberg's Moses as well as the Marschallin, Prima Donna and Brünnhilde for me up in Birmingham, one of the proudest days of my professional life - and her Prospero (pictured below in the second of many excellent production images by Helen Maybanks) was always going to be central. And indeed, hers is the most moving portrayal by far I've ever seen on stage.

But she would be the first to admit it's not mainly about her. Lloyd has developed one of the best ensembles, sex regardless, I've ever seen in a theatre. We've come a long way since Kathryn Hunter played Richard III and 'shrew' Katherine, Janet McTeer Petruchio, in the Globe's all-women ventures; the supporting casts were sometimes barely that, and left quite a lot to be desired.

Not so anyone here. It's difficult to know how to go about a form of reviewing: should it be 'the play's the thing', and one by one, or a highlighting of individual performances which are not entirely the point? Nevertheless the standouts were many, and so, having dispensed with the prison roll calls that begin and end the first two plays by this one typical image,

let's salute the specific excellences of performances which can only leave one the more amazed given that every participant had at least one different role in each play. No one figure dominates Julius Caesar; the personal and political volatility is too central for that. My first experiences of it were studying the text for O-level (which fortunately didn't destroy my admiration for it), playing the role of Cassius - although, as my English master put it in his review for the school magazine I had to edit, some of my 'sensitive cadences...only reached the front few rows of the audience', I did have the one virtue of never needed a prompt - and seeing the National Theatre production with Gielgud in one of his last performances as Caesar.

Jackie Clune's Emperor is central at the start, a lively opening prison scene substituting for Shakespeare's I.i. Then we're off into the dialogues of Cassius and Brutus. Admirable from the start the way Lloyd gets her actors to express occasionally complicated sense with the precision of their hand gestures; that made Cassius' first long speech - which I've forgotten bar the 'colossus' bit - very urgent in the hands and voice of the excellent Martina Laird, pictured with Walter.

Walter's Brutus seems fine and sensitive, and of course a bit ridiculous when trying to justify the bloodiness of the assassination.

The difference between him and Caesar is highlighted by the respective scenes with the wives; Brutus's Portia (Clare Dunne, pictured with Walter above) is his equal, Caesar's Calpurnia (Zainab Hasan) is not.

The conspiracy gathers pace towards the first climax (pictured above); Karen Dunbar, top left, almost steals the show as Casca, turning out to be a genius of a comedian later as a dim Bardolph and a rollicking Trinculo. Would love to have seen her open the Commonwealth Games. Lloyd's clean lines make you appreciate the symmetry, or rather the rapid change after the murder and the descent into bloody internecine quarrels accompanied by all the abuses of war. Jade Anouka was, when I first saw her, and still is the most compelling Henry IV Hotspur, played as a wired young black man full of macho postures when the reality is a vulnerable kid, gifted and with no proper outlet for his energies.

She's hardly less remarkable as Mark Antony, progressing in the oratorical fulcrum from a nervously improvising, cornered friend of Caesar

into a dominant orator; that made the big speech more compelling than ever. Anouka's final triumph was as a Puckish Ariel, with some fine rapping thrown in for good measure.

Battle scenes in Shakespeare can make the later stages pall; the brilliance of Lloyd's sets in the first two plays was to make the combats and even the toy prison props similar yet different: warriors as boys with toys, as The Guardian's Lyn Gardner shrewdly put it. Henry IV Part I is more perilous as the combats proliferate, but there was no sense of let-down here. Even so, it was better to return to this production's perfect poise between the Falstaff/Hal scenes and the king's speeches as well as his confrontations with a seemingly feckless son (Walter and Dunne below),

with Hotspur as the earlier third point of a perfect triangle.

Sophie Stanton has been a theatrical idol of mine since her superlative role as the Mama Cass-loving girl in the first run of Beautiful Thing (in which my good friend Simon's partner Patricia got to know her, playing no less superbly then). Stanton was a more consistently funny Falstaff than her predecessor from the Donmar original; even if we lost the sleep-babbling fear of burst balloons behind the arras, we got far more seeming ad libs. The central Eastcheap scene served as the central intermezzo of the day, played at the highest level from all concerned. For other touches, see my original thoughts; just need to add how superbly it was adapted for the gym pitch surrounded by seats on all sides. The only thing missing from the production pics is the audience, that crucial third dimension to add to playwright and players. Everyone in a healthily mixed crowd seemed gripped through each two-hours-plus, including a couple of young girls on the edge of their seats throughout.

Would The Tempest bring the redemption of romance, given the setting? Not only that; its context gave it extra poignancy. Prospero is played by 'Hannah' (Walter), a prisoner for life who drove a getaway car for a political organisation and would not plead for any mitigation of her sentence. Her huge imagination guides the action. Again, the kind of props the prison girls would use create magic. As in the other two plays, no gag or idea outstays its welcome; in that respect Lloyd is classically pitch-perfect.

The acting pleasures here were too numerous to mention, but apart from Walter's mesmerising speeches, there was the magic of true young love between Leah Harvey's Miranda and Sheila Atim's Ferdinand (pictured above) - their scenes usually ruined by mannered young thesps. Nor have I ever laughed so much at Caliban's romps with Stefano (Clune) and Trinculo (Dunbar, pictured with Stanton below).

Had expected perhaps a bit more from Joan Armatrading's specially composed Tempest score, but the music-making throughout, and the use of popular songs, was always apt and impressive (fine singing, consummate instrumentalists).

Here, of course, tears came to the eyes - predictably so at Caliban's 'the isle is full of noises', elsewhere not always when expected. There was magic in one of Prospero's last natural summons, when the lights went down and we all turned on the little torches we'd been given, like hundreds of glow-worms, and the ultimate heartbreak as Hannah hears the voices of all the girls thanking her on their releases and settles down to another night in prison. I get emotional just writing about it and just realised I haven't even begun to discuss the connections forged between the plays. Enough already. Try and get a ticket - if you live in or near New York, you stand a better chance after Christmas. Though Americans, who will find this the right sort of sustenance in a difficult January, won't get the full works, yet at any rate. One of the masterpieces of theatre; it will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Around Nafplio

Two days in a bright Budapest, with unforgettable evening concerts, have happened since, and way too many good London things, but I'm not yet ready to let go of the last of the Mediterranean autumn light. So indulge me in another photojournal to follow the beachcentric idyll, bearing in mind once again that we all need retreats like this to strengthen us for the big fights for democracy ahead.

Memory of what we students did on our Nafplio stopover in 1981 is restricted to a swim and the weird circumstances of an evening meal, and probably we were using the town as a base to explore Mycenae and Tiryns before moving on to Epidavros (where I do remember Prometheus Bound drowned out by a footballish audience and sleeping under pines in the car park). But why on earth didn't we climb the 890-odd steps to the fortress of Palamidhi when we were so young and fit?

Well, it revealed itself in sharp and brilliant light this time, though I confess we didn't do the climb. I was willing, but host Louise drove us up to make the most of the day once we'd idled away a morning on her balcony. We went via the Bavarian Lion, brother of the one in Lucerne (if I remember correctly) and carved into the rock at the orders of Ludwig I to commemorate the soldiers who died in an epidemic in 1833-4.

Near here the National Assembly elected Otho first king of Greece in 1832.

A year earlier, regent Capodistrias had been assassinated on the steps of Ag. Spiridion.The interior is slightly crumbling and mysterious.

Ag. Georgios serves as the cathedral and boasts a fine early 18th century Venetian portal.

The marble statue of Capodistrias in one of the park-squares beneath Palamidhi is overshadowed by the equestrian figure of another freedom-fighter, Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843), victor over the Ottomans in an earlier battle during the Wars for Independence. The sculpture is by Lazaros Sokos, erected in 1901.

Nafplio's extraordinary possibilities for fortification have resulted in various spectacular castle-ruins: the Greek, Frankish and Venetian ones of Akronafplion, and Palamadhi towering above it at 215 metres. Here's a view from the latter down to the former, which forms an attractive green peninsula beyond the town.

Named after Palamedes, mythic descendant of Poseidon's son Nauplios, putative inventor of lighthouses, dice and scales, pioneer of navigation, the Venetian big 'un was constructed in 1711-14, so not as antique as it looks; it was recaptured by the Turks in 1715 and then retaken by Kolokotronis in 1822. Its layout of multiple bastions is very complex to grasp, and we didn't reach the main gate with the Lion of St Mark

until we began our descent. We spent most of our time around the upper bastions 

with the most spectacular views across to the mountains.

Flora and fauna were out in the midday sun: a single crocus,

a Painted Lady butterfly

and this bird - a lapwing, could that be possible?

Slowly and reluctantly we left the peace behind - as on our walks to the beach, total silence apart from the sound of the sea and occasional birdsong - and headed downwards.

If you had to choose between ascent and descent, the latter would win because of the way the old town unfolds as you descend.

Though it's not huge, you can wander for hours. There were very few tourists in November even on the main drags. Louise's Paralos shop

is just as you head out towards the sea, with some very grand buildings beyond.

Some are crumbling, but the swan and dolphin ironwork here is lovely,

and some prime shop territory is lying empty, only sign here of the Greek crisis. There are three attractive Turkish drinking fountains like this

and a lovely triangle with handsome buildings a little higher up the slope.

There are few signs of harbour life, but you get an irresistible seafront view across to Boutrzi, yet another fort, this time on an islet - Castel Pasquaglio was constructed by a Bergamasque architect for the Venetians in 1473 - and with Argos gleaming across the Saronic gulf (I'm told the squalid town belies its legendary name).

The Bastion of the Five Brothers lodges splendidly embossed Venetian cannons, all with the Lion of St Mark on them.

Past the church of Panaghia with a more attractive interior than Ay. Georgios, well cared for, featuring a gleaming iconostasis

and plenty of ex votos (though J resisted buying any this time),

is the handsome Plateia Sindagmatos

where kids kick footballs around the well-placed lumps of ancient masonry. It's dominated by a fine Venetian building of 1713, now home to the Archaeological Museum. As this represents the finds of Tiryns and other archaeological sites around - the main treasures of Mycenae, of course, went to Athens' National Museum - it has some select treasures, many of staggering antiquity. The gem strikes you first: a nearly complete suit of Mycenaean armour from a tomb at Dendhra. 

The date is c.1400 BC and there's pottery with clear designs on it from as far back as 5800 BC. Tiryns has yielded some beautiful frescoes and these Seventh Century BC terracotta ceremonial masks which the priests would wear as they did the rounds of local houses. 

The pig/boar theme is clearly tied up with Tiryns ritual: there's a selection of votive female figures bearing piglets from the Fifth Century BC.

For the first time I almost found myself admiring the geometric pottery more than the much later red and black vase painting, but of course couldn't resist this red-figure hydria of 440BC showing Orestes and Clytemnestra

while, though not of huge antiquity, the sketchy quality of the Odysseus and Circe on this Boeotian skyphos adds to the suggestive magic of the scene.

Our tour of the two beautifully-laid out floors over, we met up in the square with our next hosts who were to drive us to the ferry over to their dream island of Spetses, which will be the last instalment of this self-indulgent travelogue. Before we leave the mainland, though, here's an antiquity of sorts which our driver host spotted as we reached the pass of the last mountain before descending to the coast. 

He was heading for the road from a layby (where Nikos saw him), so I hope I turned him in a more promising direction.