The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Selfishness & Revenge

Two post-war plays.  Two key themes.  Two examples of human-beings at their worst.

Both productions are impressive.  The first, Strange Interlude, is currently playing at the National. The second, Titus Andronicus, is a Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Eugene O’ Neill’s setting is attractive, on the surface refined.  Shakespeare’s is as violent and bloody as a Tarantino.  Neither story is redemptive.  They make you feel uncomfortable.  And though packing punches in different ways, both are designed to shock. 

The American story of grief and manipulation is gripping because you wonder how far the characters will go to prolong a litany of lies and half-truths.  O’Neill utilises a theatrical device where at regular intervals the characters speak directly to the audience about their true feelings.  This is as informative as it is entertaining, but ultimately leaves the audience feeling no-one in this narrative (and by implication the greater world) can be trusted to be genuine or better than selfish.  Indeed it is the extent of their self-absorption and selfishness which is most shocking. 

Strange Interlude shares with Titus Andronicus questions about self-sacrifice.  Did society gain from Nina’s devotion to the soldiers in hospital or was her obsession negative and manipulative?  Why was it easier, or thought more honourable, to be self-sacrificial rather than honest about Gordon’s parentage and Nina’s long-term love affair with the Doctor?  And having lived a lie for so many years, do the choices made by Nina, Charles and Edmund after Sam’s funeral prolong the deception for selfish or non-selfish reasons?  Perhaps a little of both, for only in the character of grown-up Gordon (played well by Wilf Scolding) is there any real sense of redemption – in that he changes his attitude to set his mother free from her obligations as he sees it. 

These foible-filled character’s are played so impressively well by Anne-Marie Duff (as Nina), Darren Pettie (as Edmund Darrell), Jason Watkins (as Sam Evans) and Charles Edwards (as “Uncle Charlie” Marsden) that though you continue to wish them well… even relishing the humour in the world’s worst suitor finally getting the girl… you know so much of their behaviour has been a cop-out.  And it leaves you feeling entertained but inexplicably restless.

In a reading of Titus Andronicus we tend to like, or at least admire, the lead warrior, because he has sacrificed years of his life and family to fight for Rome with patriotic pride and dedication.  Our heart goes out to Titus when he sacrifices his hand genuinely believing the trade for his sons’ lives is worthwhile.  And we even get a glint of softness in Aaron when he's prepared to sacrifice his life for love of his infant son; such is Shakespeare’s capacity for shades of morality even in the most obstinately vile of characters.

Yet on balance Shakespeare and O’Neill seem to be saying the business of self sacrifice is less than it’s cracked up to be – in the former case probably a comment on Rome being heavily controlled by the Vatican.  Their problem may be one of degree, motivation or sincerity, but neither present self sacrifice as appealing or particularly noble.

A key difference in presentational styles between the two plays – as you might expect written so many hundreds of years apart - is that Shakespeare doesn’t pretend for a moment his characters are anything other than brutal and vengeful.  Even on the page Titus Andronicus shocks by its cruelty. 

I recall being completely savaged by the relentless brutality of “No Country For Old Men” because I’d fallen for the Cohen Brother’s black comedies.   Perhaps my love of Shakespeare’s lighter folios is going to leave me similarly exposed?

So even before arriving at Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday night, I wonder how the designer, Colin Richmond, and the RSC’s technical staff are going to manage the sleight of hand required to present convincing decapitations?  The Swan Theatre is an intimate thrust stage with audience on three sides, so there’s no proscenium to hide the tricks.   And the more I think about it the more I fear the likely quantities of blood. 

Nevertheless approaching the theatre with an invitation to attend a Blogger’s Event, I am excited to see how Michael Fentiman is going to realize this challenging play and satisfy his RSC directorial debut. 

In short, I am not disappointed.  In Fentiman’s hands this difficult play suddenly makes more sense.  Rome is the epitome of civilisation, but is it?  The Goths are our enemies so we can treat them however we wish, but can we?  And what are the relative costs and risks of a relentless pursuit of revenge? 

By setting the play in a timeless world with stylistic statements of past, present, future, East and West, Fentiman and Richmond force us to acknowledge the human trap of revenge is universal.  However extreme some specific behaviour remains, and however distanced a modern audience might feel from the context, the danger of humanity losing its principles and perspective when driven by hatred and revenge is undeniable.  The result is bloody in more ways than one.

Yet herein was a pleasant surprise.  Titus Andronicus is known, even avoided, for its blood lust.  The RSC’s internet trailer hypes the violence – as if tattooed, drug-crazed Sweeney Todds have escaped the musical to be recast in a futuristic, gothic-style horror film, where cannibalism is normalised and human entrails are worn as jewellery.  I thought immediately it was meant to appeal to an audience much younger than myself; perhaps to people who play gruesome video games, or who can sit through a Tarantino without closing their eyes? 

On stage, however, what Fentiman manages to do with the violence is to stop it being gratuitous.  Each ‘assault’ is handled differently, uniquely.  I knew what was coming but still gasped at the sudden and effective slaying of Mutius.  Richard Pinner, the Illusionist, coached the cast well; particularly in the scene where Titus is tricked by Aaron to sacrifice his hand in exchange for his sons’ freedom.  The fight scenes are powerfully choreographed by Kate Waters and Ann Yee so focus is held on character conflict.   And when the sons’ severed heads are swiftly returned to their stunned and wounded father, the choice to put their heads into tied plastic bags had several benefits. 

Firstly, in a stroke of genius from Stephen Boxer - who it must be said sucks inspiration and belief from Shakespeare’s verses the way a bee sucks honey - these bags can be picked up and used as stimulus for Titus’s subsequent monologue... where in talking to, and listening to, the disembodied heads, we empathise with his Lear-like descent into grief-stricken madness.   

This choice also allows Fentiman to contain the flow of blood (so he’s got somewhere to go later), and show that Shakespeare fully intends his audience to be aghast at this point but also to see the situation’s ludicrousness.  For things are deteriorating, they can only get worse, and the tragedy is that no-one appears willing or able to do anything about the rapid decline into lawlessness and carnage.  

That’s not to say Fentiman or Boxer foresaw the multiple advantages of heads in a bag as opposed to heads on a pogo stick, for example, they likely didn’t.  It is to say that when a creative director gets with insightful actors, their collaboration accrues to more than the sum of their parts.  And that is another beauty of this production: the cast and crew have been chosen very well; several making their RSC debut and quickly proving they are worth the trust Fentiman has placed in them.  Nuances abound in this production which make the play all the more palatable and relevant. 

I include in this the imaginative use of the RSC’s enormous technical capability: able to fly villains and corpses over tens of metres while tied by the ankles like stuck pigs; platforms which rise and fall to create pits of despair one minute and exotic bathing arrangements the next; challenging costume developments, and lighting, sound and visual effects so dramatic you feel the entire crew should take an onstage bow; beautiful musical scoring and enough live musicians to make the producers of low budget productions weep; and then there’s simply the intimate beauty of the Swan Theatre, whose uncommonly comfortable seats provide an unusual juxtaposition to a starkly uncomfortable narrative.

As always, however, most memorable in a sea of features are the precious moments when actors find life on the stage you simply can not find on the page.   Suddenly in the walk and attitude of Stephen Boxer did I understand why Titus doesn’t bother to contest the Emperor’s Crown.  He’d had enough.  After ten years of war he was coming back to Rome, so he thinks, for an easier life.   In a cocky glance and grin from Ben Deery I suddenly understand the sibling rivalry and competitiveness between Saturninus and Bassianus.  The new Emperor doesn’t really want Lavinia, he simply wants to establish he’s now top dog.  Ego sets him up.  And ego lets him fall into the manipulative hands of Tamora who steers him, like all the others, into gruesome betrayal.

In a relatively short time on stage Richard Goulding as Bassianus makes an impressive impact.  Ben Deery as Saturninus deserves special mention as he stepped up as understudy into a key role due to the indisposition of John Hopkins.  Happily he was fully on top of it and convincing – not easy at short notice when the play has so many technical demands – and scene by scene he swelled to fill some rather big shoes.  If there were nerves they were absorbed into a play packed with high adrenalin and his fellow cast members supported him well; perhaps even feeding off an inevitable freshness of interpretation. It was a night for Deery to feel proud.

The infamous ‘kill a fly’ scene between Titus and Young Lucius (played variously by school boys Hal Hewetson and George David) was delightful.  Apart from much needed light relief, this exchange provided an opportunity to explore the impressionability of youth - setting up important echoes for the final moments of the play. 

Katy Stephens as Tamora and Kevin Harvey as Aaron made for a frightening pair of shit-stirrers.  Their stage status and their grounded clarity of vision make the fire in their resentment of the Romans all the more dangerous.  And though we accept the murder of Tamora’s oldest son at the hands of Titus has given her some cause, the lengths to which they will both go for revenge leaves all before them breathless and vulnerable.   Something in Katy’s performance in particular reminded me of some interpretations of fascist history – where a determination to remake the world is so tightly bound with rigid concepts of good and evil (Aryan or Jewish) that step by deliberate step the oxygen which feeds compassion or doubt is squeezed out and replaced by non-questioning purpose.  It may not be rational but Katy captures this utilitarianism well, especially when she strides around Saturninus naked in the bath, a babe in the woods to her tattooed wolf.  

By contrast, the scene following Lavinia’s abuse in the forest is a phenomenally difficult one.  I realise it is brave or foolish to criticise the Bard but I’m not entirely convinced Shakespeare got it right here - giving Marcus Andronicus a load of poetic verses to describe an atrocity which is so vile in proportions the “very stones” would surely be “struck dumb”.  The audience is so bitterly uncomfortable at this point that, if not silence, then more in line with expectations would be a tirade like “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”   As such this particular scene is hard for actor and audience alike.  One appreciates Shakespeare is looking for a bridge between the act of Lavinia’s unspeakable molestation and the scene where Marcus presents what is left of his niece to her father, Titus; the appropriate place for the peaking of our empathy.  Yet still it’s hard in the immediate wake of the event for a modern audience to accept a plethora of classical references in gently woven phrases when Chiron and Demetrius have been so atrociously flippant about their lustful destruction and we know it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. 

Having said that, in the wake of Lavinia’s tragic transformation Richard Durden’s portrayal is eloquent and tender, if a little underplayed, and Rose Reynolds’ appearance on the floor, her achingly-fragile back to the audience as she rises from a pit of horror with sharply-drawn breaths and a body gripped by involuntary spasms, is all the more heart-breaking for its subtlety.  So when the ravished Lavinia finally turns to face us and the reality of her torn limbs becomes apparent, it’s all we can do to keep our own breathing under control.  Then cleverly again Fentiman allows the full horror of Lavinia’s ripped tongue to be revealed only when facing her beloved father, using this rush of blood to build step by step toward the play’s dramatic climax.   

In this Fentiman has done well to focus on the play’s complete trajectory of violence, so as to save his big-gun blood and fireworks until the end.  He and the cast have dug deeply into the text to find and follow Shakespeare’s clues about each character’s individual truths and needs.  And by relentlessly trusting this, their director has led them through difficult terrain, conflict by conflict, assault by assault, to the near final scene where everyone, yet no-one, gets their revenge.

In this black and crazy scene there is all the relief you’d expect from an episode of Black Adder.  Titus turns up in a kitchen maid’s outfit, tights and apron ‘n all, running around with a serving trolley ah la Fawlty Towers or a Michael Frayn farce, and dishing up his pies to the befuddled Emperor Saturninus and his grossly-manipulative wife, Tamora, thoroughly enjoying the macabre opportunity to watch his nemesis eat the flesh and blood of her own (hateful) sons which he has relished slaughtering like hogs and packing into said pies. 

After some lines of shock, horror and what-the-hell… the not insignificant smothering of his daughter, Lavinia, which Titus believes will put her out of her misery… all hell does break loose.  In a couple of concentrated minutes - to a brilliantly farcical musical score by John Woolf and exceptionally clever choreography - the entire cast then leap, gallivant, slash, stab, kill, hang, choke, murder and make bleed every other possible candidate on the stage.  From the sudden action and caterwauling there is then numb, dumb, gobsmacked silence.   Actors and audience are satiated and spent.  It’s been quite a journey.

After the stillness and a brief tribute to Titus, the only surviving Andronicus takes command; a role robustly handled by a confident Matthew Needham as Lucius.  The play is then effectively wrapped up with an innovative epilogue: where Aaron the unrepentant dastardly Moor is buried up to the neck in the ground to suffer as despicably as he’s made others suffer.  And the Young Lucius, a boy of barely ten, comes onto the stage carrying the illegitimate baby son of Aaron and Tamora. 

Will he follow the example of his grandfather and uncles, and kill this loathsome little Goth?  Does evil derive from nature or nurture?  Is revenge a non-ending condition?  Or do the young have a future upon which they can write their own destiny? 

While we wonder, Young Lucius holds above the baby a shining and sharp-edged object.  Is it a mirror or a sword?  Both have meaning.   

What is his choice?   What is ours?   Lights out. 


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