Thursday, November 28, 2019

Jonathan Miller

If you were at all interested in theatre or opera in the 1980s, then Jonathan Miller was a magical name.

"It's a Jonathan Miller production " implied something surprising and controversial, something which was going to be talked about for years to come.

The old fashioned theatre critics hated him. I imagine that the Quentin Letts of this world still do. It isn’t “Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet” they snarled, “It’s SHAKESPEARE’S Hamlet.” They even invented a snarl word, “producer’s opera”,  to describe what he was doing.

Miller had an answer for them. I heard him lecture several times at Sussex, when I was doing English and he was doing brain surgery. There is no such thing as a production without production ideas, he said; all there can be is a production which copies the ideas of the last production, and the production before that. For years, Chekov had a reputation for being stodgy and boring because the Moscow State Theatre held the copyright, and endlessly reproduced the same play, with the same sets and the same costumes and the same out-dated acting styles which had been prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The works had, as he put it, become mummified. “The D’Oyly Carte did much the same thing to Gilbert and Sullivan” he added “But in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn’t matter one way or the other.”

In 1987 he produced the Mikado for the English National Opera. Everyone knows what he did: reimagined the play on a 1920s film set, with largely black and white costumes, all the characters wearing smart suits and cocktail dresses and speaking with clipped English accents. “But the Mikado isn’t set in England!” cried people who hadn’t seen it. Maybe not: but I doubt that there were too many second trombones performing English sea shanties in feudal Japan. However you stage it, the play is about English people playing at being Japanese. Yum-Yum is an English school girl, so why not accentuate the gag by putting her in an English school uniform as opposed to a kimono. “But I do love you, in my simple Japanese way...”

And then of course there were the changes to the script. “And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing...oh bugger the flowers that bloom in the spring...”. The production has been revived fourteen times. It arguably saved the company.

Moving classical works from one time frame to another is what we all associate with Miller. I think his Rigoletto (or, if you insist, Verdi’s) was the first live opera I ever saw. The setting has moved from Italy to “Little Italy”; the Duke is now “Da Duke” and Sparafucile is a “hit man” rather than a “murderer for hire”. “But I didn’t think they had court jesters in 1930s New York” complained by traditionalist Grandfather. No: but with a little judicious jiggling of the libretto (the E.N.O always work in translation) the story of the hunchbacked bar-tender and his tragic daughter made complete sense. Miller said that audiences who didn't think they would like opera responded to this. (“Oh, it’s just like a musical” he said in his Pythonesque normal chap accent.) Possibly this was why the old guard couldn’t accept him: audiences liked what he was doing.

My own acting career began and ended with a walk-on part as “third servant on the left” in a student production of Twelfth Night, and Dr Miller sat in on one of our rehearsals and made some suggestions to the producer. (This was a nice thing to do: an amdram show couldn’t have been very interesting to him; but it did mean we got to put his name in the programme.) He said that contrary to popular belief he didn't think there was any point in "updating" Shakespeare: making it "relevant" made about as much sense as going to Spain and refusing to eat anything except fish and chips. On the other hand, most modern actors look incredibly awkward in doublets and togas. The thing to do, he said, was to treat it as an uncostumed production, but to choose clothes which might suggest to the audience what character types we were portraying. Avoid at all costs allowing Andrew Aguecheek to become a falsetto ninny, he said. That was, of course, exactly how our guy had been playing him. Ever since, in every production of Shakespeare I have seen, I have waited for the arrival of the Falsetto Ninny and rarely been disappointed.

I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile. Hamlet checking his make-up in a looking glass and noting that the point of theatre is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.

Not all the ideas worked. There is some truth in the accusation that he took other people’s texts and filled them with his own ideas. (“I think that the blackness of Othello has been over-emphasized” he once wrote. “Presumably by Shakespeare” retorted Private Eye.) His BBC King Lear strayed into ludicrousness. Spotting that Edgar descends into a kind of hell at the beginning of the play and then rises again in the final act, he made the poor actor deliver all the mad scenes in a full crown-of-thorns and stigmata. Considering Ibsen’s Ghosts, he pointed out that that is just not how syphilis works. You can’t go from being fine and lucid to crazy and blind in one afternoon. So he invented a parallel play in which Osvald only thinks he has inherited the disease from his dissolute father; briefly suffers from hysterical blindness and is presumably euthanized by his mother while in perfectly good health. But no-one who has survived an unexpurgated Long Days Journey Into Night (which doesn’t clock in at less than five hours) can have had the slightest objection to Miller’s legendary production, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, in which the big idea was that all the characters talk at once.

This is the main thing which seems to have interested him: in opera, theatre and science: how communication works; how people talk; their gestures; their body language; where they position themselves in the discourse. What if you took Eugene O'Neill's words and made the actors say them as if they were part of a normal conversation, overlaps and interruptions and all? What if Violetta behaved like a terminally ill patient with the symptoms of tuberculosis? What if Alice in Wonderland was not a whacky panto but a disturbing Kafkaesque dream-world populated, not by mad comical hatters, but frighteningly insane people who serve you empty cups of tea and threaten to cut your head off and won’t tell you why. What if? You can only know by trying it out; it doesn’t matter if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think that is the most important thing he taught us. Texts are unstable. There is no true version of Twelfth Night. Each production is a conjecture. In the theatre, anything goes.


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.


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17 comments:

  1. "I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile."

    Isn't this the kind of thing that a director does?

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    1. The demarcation between "Producer" and "Director" is different in cinema, theater, and TV. I think a theater director is the guy who decides what plays to put on next season, how high the budgets should be, and indeed which producers to hire. Which is more like the job of a cinema producer. (In the olden days, Doctor Who had Producers, Directors, Script-Editors and Writers. Now it has Chris Chibnall.) Certainly, Miller was involved in the minutiae of the performance: suggesting that Alfredo should hug his father for comfort when Violetta dies; telling Hamlet to poke his fingers through the sockets of Yorik's skull. There's footage of rehearsals for the Mikado with him telling Lesley Garrett how he wants spoken line delivered ("Can this be VAN-it-tee"); or trying to get the chorus of freemasons in the Magic Flute to mill around like a congregation after a funeral (rather than process around the stage like a high Mass.)

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    2. Well, that is interesting! It seems that producer and directory in theatre are close to exactly the same roles but reversed in cinema.

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    3. I dont think that's quite right. In my theatre experience (30 years in independent small theatre companies both acting and directing and teaching drama) the director directs the play ie tells the actors where to stand, how to say lines (sometimes, though this is frowned upon) and what their motivation is (if its THAT kind of production). The Producer (sometimes a production company) is basically in charge of the greater logistics- booking tours, paying the actors and techies wages, arranging publicity, marketing etc. I admit Jonathon Miller was a genius with his own ideas of interpreting those roles but I'd maintain that his skills lay in adapting and directing, not producing.

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  2. But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors. This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.

    I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

    But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics.

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  3. I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.

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  4. how do you account for the popularity nd success of Rigoletto and the Mikado?

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    1. Sorry, I'm not following you. Were these productions which were unpopular and then someone set them in the present day (or whatever) and they suddenly were popular? I'm by no means an expert on European theater.

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    2. I am also not here commenting much on Jonathan Miller, about whom I know next to nothing, though I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work (probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works.

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    3. I would also point out that Shakespeare is still quite popular in America and nobody does trashy Regietheatre productions.

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    4. The productions which I wrote about in the obituary .... the Marx Brothers themed Mikado and the gangster re skin of Rigoletto, which were wildly popular, sell out productions which bankrolled the English National Opera for decades,

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    5. I have seen productions of Wagner in modern settings which worked; and productions of Wagner in modern setting which did not work. Phylida Lloyd put Siegfried on a skateboard and turned his wedding into a show biz TV event; someone whose name I forget put the Dutchmen in a disused telecom factory in Kergistan. I have told you, in an obituary for the director, that many of Miller’s productions worked very well and that I enjoyed them very much. Are you telling me that I am somehow mistaken?

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    6. I have, as usual, started a new thread.

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  5. Sometimes the mummification is due to the actual playwright - Beckett has always insisted his stage directions be rigorously adhered to (I actually think it's a legal prerequisite if you want to stage one of his pieces). I've seen two Beckett plays, and reckon it shows - the sets do look very old-fashioned. But I also think that's part of their curiosity value. Unintentionally or not, Beckett's plays come across to me as period pieces - as much of their time as Francis Bacon or Patrick Hamilton or Mervyn Peake.

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    1. Beckett doesn’t insist on his own set designs or costumes, but does stop anyone fiddling with the text. blocked a gender swapped Godot, i believe. i saw a production of one of his radio plays in which the audiences were asked to wear blindfolds! approved by the estate and worked quite well.

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    2. I think Beckett's sparse stage directions -- "a tree, a mound, a road, evening" ... "pause, say two beats" are legitimately part of the text. (Godot is arguably a spoken poem, with the pauses as crucial as the words: one beat for a comma, two beats for a colon, three beats for a full stop and a full four beats for a stage direction saying "pause".) But very much they are off their time: even at his strangest, Beckett is evoking the pre-World War I Dublin of his childhood.

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  6. Thanks for the clarification, Andrew! I was never quite sure how much control Beckett exerted (and continues to exert) over the staging of his plays. I was always told that he was an intellectual who just decided to use the stage as a medium for his ideas, but I actually think he had a very good sense of the theatrical, so specifying the beats makes a lot of sense.

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