‘Everybody Dies’: bodies in art

Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, his death referenced in a passing sigh, “my poor Fool is hanged”; at the National, he is beaten to death in front of us. Goneril and Regan, too, both die onstage, contrary to the stage directions, as does Gloucester, whose heart “bursts smilingly”. Add in Lear, Edmund and Cordelia, and that’s quite a pile-up.

But this steep body-count isn’t a modern invention. There are 66 deaths in just 11 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Titus Andronicus has a hefty 14, The Winter’s Tale has only one, if you assume that a man who “exits, pursued by a bear” isn’t going to get very far.) In fact, that Shakespeare and blood go hand in hand is so well known that the National’s bookshop sells a poster entitled “Everybody Dies”, with handy pictograms of the fates of Romeo, Juliet and their unfortunate friends.

So the recent pout from the playwright David Hare, who has called the high death rate in contemporary crime-drama “ridiculous” seems wilfully obtuse. “At what level of reality is this meant to be happening?” he huffed.

The obvious answer is, at no level. That’s why it’s called “drama”, not “reality”. Aeschylus, who knew a thing or two about drama, reminded us to “Call no man happy until he is dead” – we can’t know how a person’s life turns out until it’s over. Since one of the joys of drama is that it gives shape and coherence to the random events that constitute our lives, death is a dramatic necessity.

It’s not as if this is a secret. Almost all opera could be subtitled “Dead Women”. Elizabethan drama would have to pack up and go home without murder: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good”, says the central character in The Revenger’s Tragedy, before killing his enemy by giving him a poisoned skull to kiss – oh, that old trick – and for good measure pimping out his sister. In The Spanish Tragedy, two of the characters die before the curtain rises, but nevertheless have speaking roles.

If we were to stipulate that reality was the starting-point for drama, where would crime-fiction, films and mini-series be set? Not in Europe or North America for a start, with their death rates hovering between 5 per 100,000 (ultra-violent US), 1.8 (calm Canada), and 0.6 (safe Sweden). Monaco would be out: 0 per 100,000. Sorry, Mr Bond, no Casino Royale for you, you’ll have to head to Honduras instead: 82.1 per 100,000.

Hare, promoting his new BBC drama, Turks & Caicos, says that he wants to “restore tension”, like Hitchcock who “never killed anybody”. Say what? The Hitchcock I know had no problem killing his characters, from the 1920s The Lodger, which begins with a woman being murdered, through Rope (the victim not merely strangled, but then stuffed in a box on which dinner is served – more “reality”, no doubt). And unless I’ve misread Psycho all these years, Marion doesn’t get out of that shower, dry her hair and find a good place for brunch. There is even a film-clip on YouTube where, to save time and trouble, 36 Hitchcock films have been spliced into 2 minutes and 50 seconds of murderous denouements.

Chekov’s gun is a famous theatrical dictum: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” This is more a warning against dragging in material that isn’t going to be used. But it also returns us to Aeschylus. Until the end is known, until we get to the ever-after, no story can be judged. And art, finally, is judgment. Reality is death. None of us gets out of here alive.

First published in The Telegraph

Monica Mason retires from the Royal Ballet: a lovely woman hiding an ugly (open) secret

Being the artistic director of a major ballet company is like minding mice at a crossing. So many things can go wrong, and, it must seem, so few ever go right. The Royal Ballet has had a vexed history of artistic directors. Monica Mason’s predecessor, Ross Stretton, was sacked after a mere thirteen months, leaving behind a demoralized, volatile company. Mason, who from 1991 served as assistant to the previous director, Anthony Dowell, was parachuted in as a safe pair of hands after a lifetime of dedication to the company: she joined the corps at sixteen and became a principal in 1968, before switching to administration.

Despite fifty-four years of history with the company, Mason looks forward not back. At her final curtain call, she said: “We must change in order to grow”. And thus her final, farewell season was designed not merely as a summation, but as a suggestion for the future.

In order to stage the many works that had defined her career, classics were rationed in this memorial season: only Sleeping Beauty and that Christmas perennial, The Nutcracker, from the big nineteenth-century repertoire, although La Sylphide, sensitively staged by the principal Johan Kobborg, ameliorated the lack somewhat. Steven McRae partnered the company’s treasure, Alina Cojocaru, impressively, stepping in at extremely short notice after the sudden flight of the wunderkind Sergei Polunin.

It was obvious even from the stalls that Polunin, aged twenty-one, was two things: potentially one of the great dancers of his generation; and a loose cannon. But you can do two things with a loose cannon: you can let it slide all over the deck, damaging itself and others; or you can secure it so it functions. Ballet companies are, by their nature, filled with adolescents and very young adults working at levels of unimaginable competition in a world in which they have been almost entirely closed off to outside influences since childhood.

Mason must work, of course, with the dancers available. The Royal Ballet School, ostensibly the feeder for the Royal Ballet, in almost a quarter of a century has failed to produce a single dancer of international calibre. All the current graduates of international status joined the school only in adolescence, frequently cherry-picked after featuring in a prestigious competition.

Mason has therefore had to do her own cherry-picking, hiring a roster of foreign principals for lack of home-grown. Many of them are fine dancers whom it is a pleasure to watch, in a repertory that is both broad and deep – it is a thrill to see Nijinska’s Les Noces, immaculately staged; if Sweet Violets by the young choreographer Liam Scarlett isn’t entirely coherent, it still promises much; the riches of the Kenneth MacMillan repertoire continue to nourish, with Song of the Earth making a welcome return.

But in this season of Mason-ic celebration, with the twentieth-century British repertory highlighted (six Ashton productions, six Macmillan), it is clear that the once-vivid British style has almost vanished. Frederick Ashton’s choreography requires brisk, bright footwork counterpoised by a plastic, swooning fluidity in the upper body. Of all the Royal’s dancers, only Marianela Nuñez can claim total mastery of the style; Cojocaru is a close second, but her tiny frame prevents her upper-body work from carrying as vividly as Nuñez’s.

Nuñez, in the “Fonteyn” role, led the rarely performed Birthday Offering, created in 1956 as a showcase for the Royal’s seven principal women. But apart from Nuñez, the current crop were unable to meet the combined requirements of terrifyingly difficult choreography and 1950s-nice-girl presentation. The few years the dancers spend in the Royal Ballet School mean that the Ashton style is an optional add-on, not the essence of their dancing.

MacMillan’s expressionistic rigour is more within the grasp of the company today, as is the slick international style of Christopher Wheeldon, or the joint-dislocating gymnastics of the resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. Perhaps to highlight this all-styles credo, Mason decided to go for a mixed evening in place of a conventional retirement gala. The National Gallery selected three artists to respond to Titian’s three scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; three composers were then chosen; three conductors; and then, bizarrely, eight choreographers to work in three teams (McGregor and Kim Brandstrup for “Machina”, Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon for “Trespass” and Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins for “Diana and Actaeon”).

The results are, unsurprisingly, uneven. Chris Ofili’s sets for “Diana” are lushly Chagall-ish (although his costumes are dreadful: bodies moving at speed are very different from canvas); Mark Wallinger’s set for “Trespass” is a wonderfully tenebrous Perspex cavern in a silver-chain wood; in “Machina”, Conrad Shawcross’s mechanical Diana is intellectually but not physically engaging. Similarly, Mark-Anthony Turnage produced a thrillingly danceable score for “Trespass”; Jonathan Dove’s “Diana” will bear repeated listening; while Nico Muhly’s “Machina” failed to excite. There were interesting sections in each piece, but as a whole Metamorphosis seems set to be quickly forgotten. Forgotten, except that it displayed two problems larger, and uglier, than ugly costumes.

The Cuban Carlos Acosta is held up as the company’s symbol of ethnic inclusivity, but he joined the company already trailing stardust, and therefore has been permitted to dictate his choice of roles. Apart from him, the company fields only token numbers of black dancers, always in junior ranks. (At the moment, there are, to the best of my knowledge, three black dancers in a company of 103.) When given more than corps roles, these dancers are confined almost entirely to contemporary ones, or, worse, given “ethnic” parts, such as when Eric Underwood was recently cast in the creepily xenophobic Oriental parody in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, produced under Mason’s aegis.

This lack of space for black dancers to flourish was highlighted by the Royal Ballet School’s graduating performance. As so often over the years, several black students performed well – this year it was the turn of the blazing Marcelino Sambé (also a recent recruit, after a competition success). Yet if current practices hold, they will either not be hired by the Royal, or they will languish in the ranks. There is another, equally obvious lack: of the twenty-strong creative team, just one, Lucy Carter, was female, one of few in the team to be asked to work on more than one piece (she lit all three, admirably).

Meanwhile, Mason has commissioned not a single choreographer with two X-chromosomes during her tenure. The last women to choreograph on the main stage even predate her predecessor: Twyla Tharp and Siobhan Davies were featured in 1995 and 1999 respectively. Taxed with this recently, Mason brushed the matter aside: “I have not commissioned any female choreographers to make work for the Royal Ballet during my tenure as director because, quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue – it is an issue of talent”.

Leaving aside the question of whether it was not her job to nurture talent, not simply present it, one must ask, are there no contemporary women artists for the National Gallery to choose for this evening? Were Cornelia Parker, Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas, Jenny Holzer all too busy? Were there no women composers? Conductors? Or did the question not even occur to those involved?

I fear it is the latter. I fear it is not deliberate that black dancers are not welcome; it is not deliberate that women creatives go unhired. If it were deliberate, it would be easier to eradicate. But what is happening appears more insidious. It is a matter of people hiring those with whom they are comfortable, finding people who look and sound more (to use Mason’s word) “suitable”.

Mason says: “We must change in order to grow”. One can but hope.

[TLS, 3 August 2012]

Timon of Athens, National Theatre

As the much-loved Arthur Marshall so profoundly noted, Ibsen is “not a fun one”. One could, with as much truth, say the same about Shakespeare’s rarely staged Timon of Athens: its misanthropy, missing motivations and mercurial shifts in temper do not spell a fun night out to most. It is greatly to the credit of director Nicholas Hytner and his team, therefore, that the evening, if it doesn’t exactly fly by, is consistently engaging, thought-provoking and downright intelligent.

Hytner and his designer, Tim Hatley, have created a world that mirrors our own. Timon is officially “of Athens”, but here we begin at a private party celebrating the opening of “The Timon Room”, named for a museum’s generous benefactor. Yet even as the sycophants and money-men hover over the evening’s Maecenas, the room itself is presided over by an El Greco: Christ Turning the Moneylenders Out of the Temple.

Timon’s adoring “friends” praise him to each other as “the God of kindness”, the “noblest mind”, even as they segue into commending his wealth as the representation of that kindness and nobility.

The problem with the play (which Shakespeare, possibly collaborating with Middleton, seems to have abandoned, and which may never have been performed), is that Timon has no interior life – there is, as Gertrude Stein said (about Oakland, as it happens, but never mind), “no there there”. We have no idea where Timon’s money came from; we don’t know anything about his family, his private life, his ideas, thoughts, what drives his profligacy, his almost manic generosity. When, therefore, he loses all and rejects the world, we cannot feel that a great man has been destroyed: he is simply a vacuum.

Timon, unusually (and possibly merely because of its uncertain performing history), is not entitled by Shakespeare “The Tragedy of…”, but only “The Life of…”. For, truly, there can be no tragedy for a man with no interiority. What is it that makes Timon break when he is betrayed by his so-called friends, to go from manic giving to equally manic hatred for the world? Simon Russell Beale as Timon pulls all that is possible, and more, from this part – his gentle, almost tender verse-speaking draws every possibility out of the morass of curses that defines the second act of the play; his very physicality shifts between the giving and the rejecting.

He is well-matched, too, by those fine performers Deborah Findlay as the steward, written by Shakespeare as Flavius, here become Flavia, and Hilton McRae as the cynical philosopher Apemantus. Apart from their individual performances, they are unusually well paired: Findlay’s devotion is expressed entirely as generous affection, while McRae’s fondness is given a sterner distance and demeanour. The scene where Apemantus and Timon spar amid the dereliction of the homeless encampment is a pairing of equals as despair, comic cynicism and competitive cursing flicker back and forth between the two men.

Given its ragged nature, Hytner has done well to ground the play by reflecting our own world back at us, a world where the only unforgiveable act is to be poor. Alcibiades, the rebel leader (a good performance, too, from Ciarán McMenamin), leads the equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street forces, who catcall “Shame on you” (as they do not in the original). Outside is Belgravia stucco, steel-and-glass City, sandstone Gothicised parliament.

And finally we watch as ultimately Alcibiades too sells out. Hytner, Hatley, and Shakespeare allow us no hope: the money-changers will not be turned out of the temple, they say. It is not that easy.

‘Either way I find you disgraceful’

Well, we’re back to ‘what/who are critics for’ this morning. I reviewed a new (excellent) production of Sweeney Todd on Tuesday night (here). I liked it a lot (the clue was in the five stars I gave it). There were elements I liked less, which I covered — mostly the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney. I didn’t hate him, but didn’t think he was great either. I thought he did ‘well enough’, but wasn’t, ultimately, charismatic enough, or vocally strong enough, to carry this really heavy part.

So far, I would have thought, so uncontentious. Lord knows, I’ve given much more negative views with monotonous regularity. But apparently not. Hot on the heels of the review came this beautiful thought from [name suppressed to protect the very silly]:

Read your review of Sweeney Todd. Interesting to me that, when everyone else is praising Michael Ball, you chose to be negative. I am not sure whether you have some personal grudge or you are just in the wrong profession. Either way I find you disgraceful.

The immediate urge, naturally, was to respond, ‘Mum, I told you never to write to me at work!’ I heroically suppressed it, though with regret.

But this email continues my ongoing fascination with how we regard reviews, and critics, which seems to reflect on how we regard art itself.

First of all, it assumes that a general view (‘everyone else’) is by definition correct — that, indeed, there is a correct, and therefore an incorrect, view of any single performer. Then, even if I accepted that, which of course I don’t, it extrapolates to assume there are only two reasons for dissenting from the general view: personal animus, or incompetence.

I might, of course, indulge in both. I might nurture a secret hatred for Michael Ball because he hit me on the head with a Lego brick when we were in kindergarten. (Disclaimer: I was not in kindergarten with Michael Ball. To the best of my recollection, I have never been hit on the head with a Lego brick by anyone, although I think many have wanted to.) I might also be entirely unable to tell a good performance from a bad one. The former would be unacceptable, and I should rightly be unemployable if that were the case. (I mean, not about the Lego, you understand: the secret-hatred-disguised-as-a-review.) And I might be incompetent. Which should also make me unemployable.

But the odd thing about this email was that my reservations about Ball were a couple of lines in an otherwise rave review. I unilaterally declared Imelda Staunton a Living National Treasure (to be protected by legislation). I liked the direction, the set and the lighting. In that I was in agreement with most other reviewers. So does that mean the emailer thought I was only incompetent for one paragraph, and competent for the remainder? Did she wonder if I had a personal connection to Ms Staunton, or Messrs Kent, Ward and Henderson, which meant I was prejudiced in their favour, and thus ‘disgraceful’ once more?

I realize I’m attempting to make sense out of what makes no sense. But I’m interested because these views make no sense in a very common way: they suggest that there are absolutes in the arts, that things are either good or bad, and that collective wisdom can recognize this. Both elements of this idea are, to put it in academic critico-theoretical-speak, horseshit.

There. I feel better now. Bring on the Lego!



Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

Melodrama is not something we accept easily these days, tittering gently as the gore runs, moving restlessly in our seats as heroes or villains declaim to the gallery. So all the more odd, on the surface, that Sweeney Todd is the most popular of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. On the surface. Because, under the melodramatic posturing, Sondheim creates a cold, hard, bleak world.

So not a barrel of laughs, right? Well, no, not right either, for Sweeney Todd is Sondheim at his fastest, his most ferocious, and his funniest. The melodrama of the returned convict Sweeney Todd (Michael Ball) cutting a swathe (literally) through society in a search for vengeance is offset, and enhanced, by his besotted but pragmatic partner Mrs Lovett (Imelda Staunton), who happily bakes his leavings into pies. The mad barber roars that he will be revenged, she checks that he has enough cash to get by: they are a team because they are emotionally deaf to each other.

Mark Henderson’s genius smoky lighting fixes and focuses our attention as the action dots and darts about Anthony Ward’s splendidly grim industrial set, which gestures towards, perhaps, a semi-derelict warehouse, while his 1930s costumes update the original Victorian Sweeney to a Depression-era world, making sense of Mrs Lovett’s poverty, and the many drifting men who, unremarked, go missing after visiting the “tonsorial parlour”. Director Jonathan Kent keeps the complex action moving elegantly across the stage, using all three levels of Ward’s set to good effect as he marks out Sondheim’s shifting rhythms.

But ultimately, any Sweeney boils down to its leads. Michael Ball (pictured above right) has performed in Sondheim pieces before, most notably in Passion, that curiously film noir-ish hyper-drama. Sweeney is, however, a different kettle of mayhem. In Passion the hero is acted upon, pushed around by a psychopath until he succumbs. In Sweeney, Sweeney is himself the psychopath, the actor, not the acted-upon. And Ball, while he does well enough, is ultimately just not big enough – not  big enough psychologically, or of voice, or of sheer physical presence. (He also, for reasons I cannot fathom, sings “American” – his speaking voice is pure Brit, but he drops into transatlantic-ese the minute the music begins.)

There are no reservations, however, about Imelda Staunton (pictured above), who, theatre-goers have long known, is a Living National Treasure, and ought to be preserved by law. In “The Worst Pies in London”, Mrs Lovett’s introduction to both Sweeney and the audience, Staunton is willing to crack notes, to sing coarsely, in order to convey her character. Her “By the Sea”, the lovelorn pie-maker’s dream ditty of a little cottage where her swain can do the odd guest in, is heartbreaking as well as hootingly comic. In fact, Staunton, quiet, efficient and deadly, makes this production hers, all the while bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Bones the Butcher’s Wife in Happy Families.

But in the end it is Sweeney Todd, and Sondheim, that are the stars. It may sound pretentious to compare it to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, but in musical complexity, richness of counterpoint, and sheer bloody theatricality, it is not far off. The Dies Irae that Sondheim uses as a leitmotif rings in the ears long after the audience has returned home. Sweeney Todd is King Lear without Cordelia. It is a world of no mercy, no compassion, a world that is, tragically, all too easy to recognise.

Selling our souls

The Ambassador Theatre Group has just announced a wonderful new innovation. Before a play begins in one of their theatres, Gordon’s gin ads will be projected onto the safety-curtains. Maybe I’m old and sad. I’m certainly grumpy. But really, does everything have to be an opportunity for advertising: do we really have to ‘monetize’ life? Isn’t there some way of living without people shrieking ‘Buy buy buy’ into our ears every moment of the day and night?

Libraries used to be a place where one could read, or borrow, books that took you into a different world; now they are told to sell services to survive. Tubes and buses took you from point A to point B, yes, with ads on the walls, but the ads didn’t actually sing and shout, and the public-transport system was not expected to make money, just get people around the cities. If you looked something up in the encyclopaedia, the publishers didn’t have a way of selling your searches to advertising companies. National museums hand out press packets that say to journalists, ‘Pretty please, mention that Crappy Merchandise is our sponsor, otherwise we’ll never be able to put on a show again.’

And now, when we go to see Hamlet, we’re going to be bombarded with messages to drink gin. God knows, it’s enough to drive one to drink.