Monday, April 18, 2005
Friday, April 15, 2005
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Monday, April 11, 2005
Guardian style guide.
The makers of popular domestic serial stories (or "soap-operas" as I believe they are called) like to fill their narratives with un-expected twists. Marriages, deaths, divorces, revelations, all popping up in that final five seconds before the signature tune. But it very often happens that a tabloid newspaper gets hold of the script in advance, so by the time the Surprise Twist happens, you have already read about it on the front page of the Sun. What is strange to me is that people carry on watching the soaps in any case. If you are following "Eastarchers" then, of course, the sudden return Dirty Dorris who supposedly died in a combine-harvester accident ten years ago is great fun. But how can it be fun when the Daily Lie told you in advance that it was going to happen? Maybe there is something post-modern going on. Maybe part of the pleasure of a soap is that you know what is going to happen to these characters, but they don't. Maybe it gives you a sense that someone, somewhere, might be watching over you. Everyone knew the plot of classical tragedy. The moment Oedipus walked onto the stage, the audience knew that he was going to come to a sticky end. Plays used to be called "The Tragedy of MacBeth" or "The Comedy of Errors" to ensure that the audience knew in advance whether they would have happy endings or sad ones. Perhaps tabloid spoilers, by creating a sense of fate and predestination lend soaps a mythic gravitas.
Or perhaps not.
In retrospect, it is pretty obvious that Christopher Eccleston was never going to stay in "Doctor Who" beyond the first season. I doubt that, 18 months ago, when the Dream Project landed in Russel T Davies lap, he gave much thought to Season 2. I imagine his aim was to make a stonking, self-contained series of 13 episodes. You can imagine the conversation. "Chris, you are the exact actor I want to star in my new, high profile project." "I'd love to do it, Rus, but only for one series." "Tough. If you won't promise to appear in a totally hypothetical second series, you can't play." Yes, I know that fans think that "the return of 'Doctor Who'" means "They'll be a new series every autumn for the next 27 years," but TV doesn't work like that any more.
The final episode of the season is to be called "The Parting of the Ways". The penultimate episode is called "To Be Announced." This rather suggests that R.T.D has a big surprise up his sleeve which he doesn't want to reveal too soon. The missing episode title is probably "The Daleks Murder Rose" or "The Doctor Contracts Incurable Time-lord Flu" or "Rose and the Doctor have passionate sex under the TARDIS console." (I do hope not.) Very likely,"the Parting of the Ways" concludes with an amazingly surprising last minute twist in which Eccleston leaves the series. Maybe the Doctor dies to save Rose. Maybe it was always planned that the season would end with a "re-generation." Perhaps R.T.D always intended "Doctor Who" to be a one-season-wonder with the potential for a sequel.
But of course, after episode 1, everything went completely apple-shaped. The BBC was surprised by the fact that their massively hyped revival of one of the most famous TV shows of all time, er, got very high ratings. They panicked, and announced there and then that they'd commissioned a second series. (Or, as it may turn out, a "sequel".). Whereupon the Sun discovers that Series 2 won't have Eccelston in it, and runs an "exclusive" claiming that Eccelston has "quit" after one episode. And the BBC, foolishly, instead of saying "Just wait and see" confirmed the story.
Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, Chris would have been persuaded to stay on for another season.(Presumably, if had said "Not 2006, but maybe 2007", the beeb could have talked business.) Maybe, if the Sun had kept its gob shut, we would have reached the final installment, and found that the "twist" of C..E's departure was a brilliant and appropriate way of ending New "Who" Season 1.
At first, the news depressed me. I felt as if someone had given me a box of pistachio Turkish Delight and then snatched it away before I had a chance to eat one. It felt as if instead of looking at "The New Doctor" I was looking at "The Old Doctor, the Temporary Doctor, the Doctor who Is Not Going To Be Around For Very Long."
But I calmed down, and am watching the series for what it is. Ten hours is a very long time for an actor to play one character. Longer than Mark Hamill played Luke Skywalker. Almost as long as Sean Connery played James Bond. John Clease said that he got 6 hours out of Basil Fawlty, and Shakespeare only got 4 out of Hamlet.
I could do without all the speculation about who the new Doctor should be. You would think they had learned their lesson by now. Everyone and his grand-daughter was reported as being "considered" for the part last time around. The one person whose name was never mentioned was, er, Christopher Eccleston. I fear that the doctrine of regeneration, which was the saving of the series in 1966, could be the thing which strangles it in 2005. The fact that the Doctor regenerates has become the most important thing about him, the one thing which everybody knows. "Doctor Who: oh, its that series where you have to guess who the leading man is going to be that week."
I could really, really do without all the silly discussions about whether there could be a black Doctor or a Lady Doctor, which we have had to listen to every few years since the departure of Tom Baker. Answer: a version of the Doctor based on some supposedly "trendy" version of black-british yoof culture would be too hideous to contemplate: a Doctor who happened to have dark skin ought not even to be worthy of comment. A relatively androgynous female Doctor -- like one of those actresses doing Prospero or Hamlet or Richard II -- would be no problem at all: one who was self-consciously glamorous or feminist would be unendurable. But I hate the fact that the discussion is being framed in this way – which group or category ought to have a chance of being "a" Doctor. The Doctor, for all his multi-facetedness, is a character. He should be played by a person who the director thinks can play him best.
I am trying to decide whether to do the joke about David Tennant becoming pope, or just to claim that white smoke will appear from the chimney of Television Center when the new Doctor is selected.
I said before that Tom Baker was the Doctor, where Patrick Troughton was only someone playing the Doctor. Eccleston is neither. He is a third party who is periodically possessed by the spirit of the Doctor. When he starts bickering with Rose ("You think your're so great", "I am so great") he feels as un-Doctor-ish as Peter Cushing. The character tick of calling everything "fantastic" is already fantastically irritating. But then, suddenly, he will take control of a situation, or make some speech about man's place in the universe, and he is suddenly – well, to coin a phrase, the Doctorest Doctor your ever saw.
I was about to write "As a completely new time travelling hero, I like him very much. But I am not sure if he has anything to do with the Doctor of old." But when tried to define the characteristics of Eccleston -- the glee at traveling through time, the naughtiness, the mood-swings, the occasional arrogance, the underlying Holmsian callousness -- I realised that they were all totally Doctorish characteristics.
R.T.D clearly has a meta-plot brewing. I am worried that this story-arc will become more interesting than the actual episodes. I thought part 2 "The End of the World" was rather weak as space-opera goes: but all the punch came from the slow-burn revelation about the destruction of the Time Lords. (Getting rid of the Time Lords, much the most boring thing in the Who mythos, is a good idea: but making the fact that the Time Lords have been destroyed a central plank of the Doctor's character could be a mistake.) If I said "I bet the Daleks destroyed the Time Lords" would anyone take the bet?
R.T.D said that he wanted "Doctor Who" to be character driven. Or "emotionally literate", if you insist. He is obviously taking a leaf out of the books of U.S TV shows like "Lois and Clerk" and that thing about vampires and school girls that totally passed me by. The main "fantasy" plot can be quite silly, but this doesn't matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. "The End of the World" was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a space ship being menaced by a baddie; it was about the Doctor's relationship with Rose and with the Tree-woman. "The Unquiet Dead" was not really about welsh ghosts, but about the character of Charles Dickens and how meeting the Doctor helps him overcome his general disillusionment with life. So far so good. But the relatively short episodes don't give much space for these characters to develop. The key character in Episode 3, Gwynneth the serving girl really only developed in one 5 minute conversation with Rose. If we were going to care about her, she needed a lot more screen-time.
I have no nostalgic attachment to the format of stories made up of 4 and 6 episodes (or rather, I do, but I don't expect the BBC to pay any attention to me); but the single 45 minute episode seems ill-suited to the type of story R.T.D wants to tell.
The Doctor is making too much use of gadgets. The sonic screwdriver in particular is becoming an all purpose get out of jail free card. Please stop it.
I think that it is a shame that the Doctor has got sufficient control of the TARDIS that Rose can nip home between adventures. I think that the sense of being lost in time and space and not quite knowing when and if the Doctor will get you home was an important part of the show's magic. Have you ever felt what it must be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?
"The End of the World" didn't feel very much like "Doctor Who"...and I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. A lot of aliens gather on a ship to witness a big event, and then one of them starts killing the others: this is more "Trek" than "Who". Some of the jokes felt a little familiar. (The "end of the world as an entertainment spectacle" is right out of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"; the "I-Pod" joke is straight out of "Dancers at the End of Time".)
The moral messages were rammed home with a distinct lack of subtlety. It was one thing for Rose to refer to Cassandra as "Michael Jackson", but not necessary for her to follow this joke with a little speech about plastic surgery. I am not sure that the conclusion, about cherishing the world we live in because it will all be destroyed in only five billion years, really made a great deal of sense. I think that if I had not been sitting there chortelling "It's a new episode of "Doctor Who", it's a new episode of "Doctor Who", and there are eleven more to come", I would not have thought it was a particularly good story.
I guess its main point was structural: to say to the audience -- last week was set in contemporary London: this week we are five billion years in the future, next week we will be in Victorian England.
"The Unquiet Dead", on the other hand, was classic old-school "Doctor Who". I wouldn't go as far as the man in the Grauniad who said it was the best thing the BBC had produced in their entire history, but it was damned good stuff. Two ordinary characters witness a strange supernatural event in the pre-cred sequence; the Doctor turns up "just to have a look around" and gets embroiled in the plot; he takes control of the situation; he meets a historical character; there is a tragic outcome. I do hope, that the idea of a subsidiary character pulling the Doctor's fat out of the fire at the last minute doesn't become a recurrent motif.
It needed to be longer. We'd hardly met the zombies before we found out the explanation; we'd hardly had the explanation before we'd got the solution. Oh, for some old fashioned pacing – an episode of the walking dead; and episode of blue ghosts; an episode of thinking that they are "good" aliens; and a final episode fighting them as "bad aliens". And a whole month to get to know Gwynneth, so we could properly feel her sacrifice.
It wasn't "Talons of Weng Chiang", but then, what is?
The dialogue sparkled, although Mr Davies needs to watch his habit of letting story-external humour work its way into the plot. It was a mistake in episode 1 for the wheely bin to belch, not because there is anything wrong with a belch-joke, but because there was no logical reason for it to do so: it wasn't a creature and it hadn't eaten anything. There was no reason for Charles Dickens to says "What the Shakespeare was that!" because, well, he just wouldn't have. We pardon both jokes for being funny: but too much of this kind of thing and we may stop believing in the show. The Doctor's own wit, and especially, Rose's reaction to it, is much funnier. ("I don't believe you just said that.")
Note: every time I type "Rose", I almost type "Ace". Hmm....
So then. An unquestionably cool stand-alone fantasy TV show, but with enough references and reminiscences of "Doctor Who" to satisfy my inner fanboy. I still don't know where it is going; I still want to find out. I hope that R.T.D doesn't blow the emerging backstory. And I want to see the Daleks. As relatively unequivocal a thumbs up as you could have expected an old anorak like me to give, then.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
New Readers Start Here
1: The Controversial Bit
At the end of "Twilight of the Gods", Brunhilde rides Grane, her long-suffering horse, onto the funeral pyre of her lover, Siegfried. Siegfried's death seems to have restored her divine powers. She invokes Loge, the god of fire, and Wotan's magical ravens. The flames of the bonfire rush up to Valhalla. The Rhine bursts its banks. The gods are wiped out. The magic Ring is returned to its rightful owners. The old order has been swept away. A new era of humanistic love will emerge from the ashes.
Brunhilde's last words are "Siegfried! Here, husband, welcome your wife!" But are these lovers going to be re-united in the Undying Lands? With the gods incinerated and Valhalla destroyed it is doubtful that there is any after-life for them to go to. When they were in love, they kept saying that they wanted to merge together and become one person. ("I'm hardly Siegfried at all, I'm merely Brunhilde's will" "Apart yet still united, divided yet still as one.") But this can't really happen. Human souls can't become united; they can only communicate through symbols. And the same symbols with which we communicate also separate us. The Runes on Wotan's spear are the symbols of his power: but ultimately they render him powerless. The Ring, which Siegfried carelessly gives Brunhilde as a pledge of his love, is what ensures that they will be pulled apart. The only place they can be together is outside of language; outside of symbols; outside of the opera. By destroying themselves, they ensure that the idea-of-Siegfried and the idea-of-Brunhilde will always be united. Brunhilde isn't dying so she can be with Siegfried in heaven: her death, her consumption in the flames, is the consummation of her love. She is literally in love with death. And she dies by her own hand in such a way as to destroy a morally bankrupt social world.
Everyone who reads the arts pages already knows how Phyllida Lloyd interprets this scene at the climax of the English National Opera's brilliant Ring Cycle. Five hours of gripping drama has been summarized in a single phrase. "Oh, this is the one where they turn Brunhilde into a blankety-blank. Apparently, it was very controversial." You could easily think that this one "controversial" image was the most important thing about the opera.
As every review reminds us, Ms Lloyd specializes in modern-dress re-imaginings of Wagner that range from the astonishing to the impenetrable. What is less often said is that her greatest strength as a producer is that she knows when to shut-up. What I took away from Act III of "Twilight" was not any sense of shock about the Controversial Bit. (I didn't realize it was controversial until I read about it in Sunday morning's Observer.) I was far more impressed by the relative lack of stage business and "production ideas". We are, after all, dealing with most emotive music ever composed by a human being. I swear, every time I hear Siegfried's funeral march, I feel as if someone really has just died. It's Wagner at his most sadistic. Siegfried's death would do for the show-stopping final bars of any other opera; but it turns out to only be the lead-in to the funeral music, which, if I have counted correctly, has five separate climaxes. Every time you think the music is going to let you down and release you, it comes back even bigger and louder, and more painful. And when it finally subsides, Wagner starts building up to another, even bigger climax, Brunhilde's death. Very sensibly, Lloyd mainly let's the music speak for itself.
Act III mainly un-folds on an empty stage. I could have done without the Rhine-maidens being represented as pole-dancers, although I take the point that if you look at how they treated Alberich, they are more "lusty nymphs" than "innocent maids". There was no great "controlling idea" informing Siegfried's death. Hagan stabs him with a knife rather than a spear: a slight blunder because the operas have loaded "spears" with a large amount of symbolism which it would have been better not to muck about with. The mortally wounded Siegfried is lying on his back. He is lifted up by two of Hagan's vassals: first to a sitting position (as per Wagner's stage direction) but then onto his feet for his final lines. Once he is dead, the vassals crowd around him, completely hiding his body. The stage is dark. As the march proceeds, a few of the vassals emerge from the crowd with relics: -- his hat, his horn. (I can't help mentioning that I saw this on April 2nd, a little before the news-story from Rome broke...) They take his body back to Gunther's hall. After Gutrune's vigil, they again cluster around Siegfried's body. The quarrel over the Ring starts. And then the group parts as Brunhilde enters. ("I heard your feeble whimpering just like a baby who's lost his mother/ But I heard nothing, nothing befitting a mighty hero's fall"). We're already emotionally shattered by Siegfried's death and the funeral march, but this is another fantastically charged moment. Brunhilde is back in her black costume from Act II of "Valkyrie": no longer a victim of Wotan, Siegfried, Gunther and Hagan -- she's a Valkyrie again, commanding the stage. Brunhilde's simple entrance may have been the most dramatically perfect moment in the whole saga.
It's at this point we deviate slightly from the script. When Brunhilde orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre, Siegfried's body is taken off stage. This is fairly common when director's don't feel they can cope with an on-stage cremation. Brunhilde's eight sisters turn up, dressed as they were in "Valkyrie" Act III. This somewhat contradicts the narrative, states that the Valkyrie are at Wotan's feet, waiting for the world to end. But it makes dramatic sense for the choosers of the slain to be swarming around Siegfried's pyre.
Brunhilde sings her great "immolation" aria: "Send Loge to Valhalla/For the final Twilight now is at hand/So here is the fire/Valhalla, this is the end..." Waltraute, the Valkyrie who visited Brunhilde on her rock in Act II, straps some kind of waist-coat or breast-plate to her sister and hands her an object. The audience does a double-take. It's a hand-grenade. The waist-coat is explosives. Instead of exiting stage-right and throwing herself onto Siegfried's off-stage funeral pyre, as we might have expected, Brunhilde pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws herself into the crowd at the rear of the stage. Everyone mimes being destroyed in an explosion. A combination of lighting and silvery curtains indicates that the Rhine has flooded. We see Hagan and Alberich briefly embrace under the water, before being left with a more-or-less empty stage, representing the Rhine, the return to the purity of nature that existed before the Ring was stolen. The implication is that everything has been wiped out, a rather larger scale of destruction than Wagner envisaged. (His stage direction had "men and women watching the fire in the sky in great agitation" from the the ruins of Gunther's hall. The abbreviated stage direction in this translation simply says "The world is destroyed by fire and water.") But the music and the stage imagery clearly tells us that an old world has passed away and a new one will emerge from this wreak. I have no problem with Gotterdamerung being envisaged as "the end of the world" as opposed to merely "the end of the gods".
So yes. If you insist. Phylida Lloyd "made" Brunhilde into a suicide bomber. Or, rather, Phylida Lloyd observed that the psychology of the religious suicide bomber is very close to that of Brunhilde. I really don't think she is appropriating the "Ring" in order to "say something" about terrorism. But she is very cleverly using the idea of terrorism to illuminate the psychology of a character in the "Ring."
I heard no booing, jeering, cat-calling or anything else. I don't believe that this is something that British opera go-ers do, any more than they throw flowers or shout "bravissimo".
2: The Rest of the Opera
The controlling motif of this "Twilight" is cowboys and America. Siegfried has grown up a little since the last opera. In Act I, Brunhilde unceremoniously takes away his baseball cap and replaces it with a stetson. Brunhilde herself is dressed as a little wifey out of "Little House on the Prairie", all flowery pinafores and aprons. The lovers are discovered sitting at a table with a checked table-cloth and vase of flowers.
Now, backtrack and consider the plot. Wotan sentenced Brunhilde -- who we first encountered as a sort of macho biker-chick -- to be stripped of her immortality. She was to become the wife of any man who came her way. This is intended as a punishment. But it has not turned out that way because the person who found her was Siegfried, with whom she fell in love. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the stage image – Brunhilde pathetically reduced from warrior to "little woman" but happy. It also gives a sense that they have been together for some time. If you aren't careful, the opera can give you the impression that Siegfried met Brunhilde on Tuesday morning and got murdered in time for tea on Wednesday.
A sense of the passage of time was also conveyed by the clever back-projection sequence which accompanied Siegfried's Rhine Journey. While Richard Berkeley-Steele mimes walking and riding, a film of dusty roads, prairies, and rivers is projected on the backdrop. "Wild west", Marlborough country imagery slowly gives way to scenes of the big-city. This gives a good sense that Siegfried has been traveling a long time before he reaches the Gunther's hall; it also nearly sets up the fact that although he is a Great Hero he is out of his depth in Gunther's world.
I thought maybe Gunther's "hall" was over done. Some people thought that it was an executive health spa: I thought perhaps they were meant to be running a pharmaceutical company. It certainly conveyed wealth and sophistication. An anti-septic white room; Gunther and Gutrune in bath robes, on sun-beds, with lap-tops, and a big glass fronted cup-board full of drugs or medicines on the back wall – possibly recalling the Damien Hirst installation. Admittedly, a rather very unsubtle way of introducing the love-potion, but we'll let that pass...
One got a sense from the programme notes that the company was slightly embarrassed by Act II. There is no doubt that it's as close as Wagner ever got to writing straight opera. There is a chorus, who more or less sing a drinking song; there is a rousing three way climax where Gunther, Hagan and Brunhilde swear vengeance, not totally unlike Act II of "Otello". There is the magnificently declamatory section where Siegfried and Brunhilde swear oaths on the point of Hagan's spear. (Or, unfortunately in this case, dagger.) Where Siegfried's death makes me cry, the spear-swearing makes me want to cheer, and shout "encore!". I rather wished I could have watched Act II in a Glastonbury-type situation, where you could respond to the action without fear of everyone behind you going "shush"! Wagner being Wagner, he doesn't give us very much of any one of the "tune": the oath swearing is repeated twice; the vassals celebration is really only sung once. You feel anyone else would have milked them for twenty minutes.
The production pretty much dives in an enjoys itself. Gunther and Gutrune are marrying Brunhilde and Siegfried, respectively, not because they love them, but because they think that marrying a hero and an ex-goddess will confer status on them. They are trophy brides, this is a celebrity marriage. The wedding, done partly as a set-piece for benefit of their subjects falls apart when Brunhilde (Gunther's "wife") announces that she is already married to Siegfried (who, as a result of a plot device, has completely forgotten who she is.) Brunhilde faints. Everyone starts swearing oaths and vengeance. In the aftermath of the disastrous wedding, Brunhilde, Gunther and Hagan plan to murder Siegfried. It has aways seemed to me that this section of "Twilight of the Gods" represents a desecration of the last two operas. How can the dragon-slaying Siegfried have been turned into a puppet by such a silly Shakespeare-comedy device as a love-potion? How after that intense love-duet, can Brunhilde possibly believe that Siegfried has really betrayed her, let alone participate in a plot to kill him? (Why doesn't she say "Siegfried would never betray me. One of you must have enchanted him.") It's part of the genius of the opera that he completely regains his nobility in death. But it is really not very much to the point to say that the production of Act II reduced the characters status, turned them into figures in a melodrama or a soap-opera. That is pretty much what Wagner has already done to them.
After his strange dream-meeting with Alberich, Hagan calls his vassals together to announce the double wedding. It begins with a horn call, and Hagan's very dark theme, as he insinuates that he has called them together to go to war. The chorus appears in black body suits and silver helmets, looking like riot police or stormtroopers. There are even what look like nuclear missiles lined up at the back of the stage. This is slightly corny, almost a parody of modern-dress Wagner. But at the moment when they realize that they have been assembled, not for a war, but for a wedding and the the music changes the chorus all simultaneously rip off their black costumes, and reveal gaudy, modern, pastel colours underneath. The stage has gone from black to colourful in a about three seconds. (This was another moment where I wanted to applaud.) "Hollywood" style lighting and a big silver silver staircase are lowered from the ceiling, and Gunther and Brunhilde enter in a gaudy wedding dresses, followed by Siegfried in a sparkly white cowboy outfit. The whole thing has turned into the most vulgar of Las Vegas show business weddings. As Brunhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery, and the whole things threatens to degenerate into a brawl, the two sides of the "congregation" start waving their programmes and fists, for all the world like a Jerry Springer audience.
I repeat. Phylida Lloyd is not appropriating the "Ring" and using it to "say something about" show business weddings. Neither, I think, is she shoe-horning Wagner's material into inappropriate modern situations. She is asking the question "Who, in the modern world, most resembles these legendary characters". She wants us to approach "Twilight of the Gods" as human drama, not as an argument involving philosophical archetypes. A bride weeping in a dressing room while stripping off her expensive wedding dress has a pathos that is hard to achieve with animal skins and standing stones. A woman being given a hand-grenade by her own sister makes us perceive suicide as something brutal and nihilistic, rather than satisfyingly romantic.
Dramatically and in terms of production, "Twilight of the Gods" was the most successful opera in the E.N.O ring. It wasn't as gut-wrenching as "Valkryie", but that's really Wagner's fault: it only gets onto an emotional plateau in Act III. Act I is longer than most sensible operas, and with its long expository sections from the Norns and Waltraute, is always going to feel like a bit of a test of endurance.
So it's over, and there is now nothing to look forward to unless and until they do all four operas together as a proper cycle in 2006. Obviously, only a complete lunatic would sign up to a complete "Ring". 14 hours, four consecutive nights in the theater, ticket costs of around £300. I'll be right at the front of the queue.
3: By the way....
Ellen Collins e-mailed me to point out that in the E.N.O "Rhinegold" Wotan is discovered surveying Valhalla from his bath-tub. When it is agreed that the ransom for Freya will be enough gold to cover her, they put her in the bath to bury her. So the Fafner's bath, which which perplexed me in "Siegfried" is probably a symbol of the Neiblung hoard.
A letter on the website of the Wagner Society points out that the Woodbird tells Siegfried to go into Fafner's cave to get the Tarnhelm. If the helm is in the cave, Fafner is not wearing it; but if he isn't wearing it, then he isn't transformed into a dragon. So the idea that Siegfried fights and kills a giant is actually faithful to the literal sense of the libretto.
4: And finally....
I have had a number of requests... but I decided to do it anyway: