Showing posts with label THEATER. Show all posts
Showing posts with label THEATER. Show all posts

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Answers to Reader's Questions

Andrew Stevens writes: 

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.

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.

....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.

I am going to respond to this in some detail, at risk of my blog comments spiraling out of control again:

Productions become mummified. Not texts; productions.

Some people think that you can "do" Hamlet in the way that Shakespeare "originally intended" or that you can and should retain the original Victorian production style of Pirates of Penzance on a 20th century stage.

The claim being made is that this is like working very hard to preserve a person in the condition they were in when they died. It is possible. But you don't end up with a still-living Chairman Mao. You end up with a more or less well-preserved corpse.

You can't go and see the first night of the Pirates of Penzance. The best you can have is a copy of a copy of a copy of that First Night at the Savoy Theater; becoming more out-dated and stylized with each copy. You can honestly try to re-imagine and recreate a Victorian show: which is to say, give the audience a 2019 producer's impression of what an 1878 production might have been like. Which might be very interesting, but it would still be an interpretation. 

Interesting fact: The Pirates of Penzance was first staged 5 years before the publication of Treasure Island. No-one in the original audience knew that pirates said "arrrr."

"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."

You have misunderstood the metaphor. When you say that a new production is merely "spray painting the mummy" you imply that the play is the mummy -- irredeemably dead -- and the "new production" is something interposed on top of the corpse to make it seem fresh. But this is not the claim. The claim is that the text is alive, but that some kinds of production make it appear dead.

You can have an embalmed, dead, fossilized preservation of what someone imagines Shakespeare's Hamlet must have been like; or you can have a sequence of living reinterpretations of the play, some good, some bad, many indifferent.

What you can't have, ever, is Hamlet, pure and unmediated, with no pesky actors and producers coming between you and the Holy Idea. Dear dear Sir Larry's version of Hamlet, tights and ruffs and posh voices and all, is just as much an interpretation as the recent National Theater production set in a post-Orwell surveillance society. (And the National used Shakespeare's text which is more than dear, dear Sir Larry did.) 

There were people in the early 20th century who thought that you could avoid letting nasty production ideas into the Bard's plays by only permitting amateurs to stage Shakespeare, or by performing his works with a cast of very young children who could be coached in verse speaking without understanding the words. And there was a Victorian idea that no-one but qualified experts ought to be allowed to even read Shakespeare's plays, in case they found out that along with the Great Speeches there were also a lot of dick jokes.

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.

This is very interesting. You imply that there is a real thing -- "an actual mummy" -- to be got at. You imply that modern conceptual productions somehow obscure the "actual mummy". But that there is a kind of production available which allows us to see the "actual mummy" shorn of additions.

But this is not the case. Again, it is certain received ideas -- certain styles of production -- which are said to be like embalmed corpses. No-one is saying that the plays themselves have  been embalmed. And the idea that you can have a text without any production ideas is the same as saying that you can have 50 miles per hour without a car.  

That said; I think there are people who, in your words "love the mummy". That is, they like a particular kind of production, and think that any other kind of production is Not Really Shakespeare. There were D'Oyly Carte geeks who positively liked highly mannered and stylized productions. There were opera fans for whom part of the magic was not understanding the words and watching very fat singers who couldn't act being showered with flowers and taking endless curtain calls. And there is no particular reason not to keep those styles of production going as a sort of heritage event. The Mousetrap survives as a kind of historical reenactment of what theatre was like a hundred years ago. I myself enjoy the occasional panto. 

You are implying that it was the cognoscenti, the people who had seen many productions over many years and who craved variety and innovation and maybe something a little shocking who enjoy new productions of familiar works. The vast and overwhelming success of Miller's Rigoletto demonstrates that this is not the case. It wasn't only opera buffs who made it a sell-out. It was people who hadn't been to the opera before and didn't think they would like it.

The famous Broadway Pirates wasn't a hit because of all the G&S geeks flocking to it; it stood on its own two feet as a piece of contemporary musical theater. (It would now look very dated and dare I say it, mummified.) 

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.

This could, for all I know, be true. But supposing the Moscow State Theater to be a poor example and a special case does not refute the central claim: that striving to reproduce some pure and original first-night version, unmediated by production ideas, is impossible, and undesirable even if it were possible. I saw Rupert Everett doing Uncle Vanya earlier this year; in a pretty modern, naturalistic production. It wasn't a piece of historical re-enactment, nor was it a radical reinterpretation. It was a play.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics. I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" 

No. But we may be tempted to say "What you perceive as a neutral, unmediated production is in fact a very particular production style that you happen to prefer and want to privilege." 

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.

Every production of Shakespeare is new, fresh and interesting. Some actors and a producer start with his words, and they work out how they are going to say the words and what they think the words mean. They come up with their own answers to a series of unanswerable questions. Why did Claudius kill his brother? why does Hamlet delay? is Hamlet really mad? does he love Ophelia or is he using her? where are the lines drawn between the personal and political? Every production has to find its own answer. Some answers may be bad or wrong: but there is no such thing as an answer-free-production; only a production which takes for granted the answers thought up by some other company fifty or a hundred years ago. 

I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work.

This is a metaphor. No-one is actually beating up the text. I do not know what violence in this context means. Does it mean "invariably produces a poor production"? But this is demonstrably not the case.

And anyway, what does poor mean? It isn't the case that audiences invariably have a bad time in shows which have changed the original setting of the piece; nor is it the case that critics invariably dislike them, nor is it true that they always lose the management money. What criteria are we using?

Or does it mean "the original text of Hamlet is violated if Elsinore becomes the White House or if the Prince played by a woman?" But what does violation mean? A production in which a punk Hamlet yells out "to be or fucking not to be" might be amusingly shocking or devastatingly boring or somewhere in between. I rather liked the nude Hamlet with Quentin Crisp. But at the end of the day, Hamlet is still there, un-violated in a nice neat Penguin edition, for some fellow in tights and a pudding basin haircut to read out genteelly, if that is really what you want.  

I start to wonder if what you are really saying is that Jonathan Miller was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes.

(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!). 

It might do; or it might not do. I would need to see the production.

If it was a production which did not work; then it was a production which did not work and not an argument against the whole idea of production.

I felt that Gotterdamerung was massively elucidated by drawing an analogy between Brunnhilde and a suicide bomber; I felt that Parsifal was hugely clarified by making the grail Knights modern/futuristic soldiers and the Pure Fool a native-American. I found Lohengrin re-imagined as an experiment with laboratory rats rather baffling; but in the end quite powerful. The Dutchman set in a disused telecommunications factory I could have done without. 

I would defy anyone who thinks that modern dress productions of Wagner cannot work to watch the footage of Act III of the Valkyrie being performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and to pay particular attention to the audience's reaction to it. 

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. 

Distracts from what? Enhances what

This is the whole problem. You think that there is some magical pre-existent thing called "the work" and you can validly judge a production according to some standard of "truthfulness" about "the work". I would call that -- what was the word you used? -- nonsense.

There is no "work". There is only ever this group of actors in this theatre. with this audience; and what matters is what works, today, in this particular setting. A bad production is one that doesn't make sense or is contradictory or obscure or (the only unpardonable offence) boring. 

I saw a gender-swapped production of Henry V last year, which conflated Princess Catherine and the Dauphin into a single figure. It didn't work, for me, on its own terms, because it asked me to believe in a world where women lead armies and serve alongside male soldiers, but can also be bartered by their fathers in dynastic marriages. The same company did a gender-swapped Dream a few months later, in which Hermia and Lysander are both men; and Helena and Demetrius are women; so the story became about two gay couples being unwillingly forced into straight marriages. This made sense; it added something to the humour of the piece. And it made it easier to keep track of who was meant to be in love with who. 

And it's always nice to see a female Bottom.

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.

If you are enjoying my essays, please buy me a "coffee" (by dropping £3 in the tip jar)

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downfall Meme

Tolkien didn't like pantomimes. He thought that A.A Milne had completely missed the point of Wind in the Willows; he thought that Macbeth was better on the page than on the stage. Fairies and witches and talking toads should, he thought, be left to the imagination.

That said, he sold the film rights to Lord of the Rings in 1968 for the princely sum of £10,000. Cash or kudos, he is reported as saying: if you are going to make a rotten film of my masterpiece, I expect to be well paid; but if it's going to be a good film, you can have it cheap. £10,000 was quite a lot of money in those days.


Game of Thrones has established that we are all prepared to watch seventy-hour TV adaptations of  big-long books, so many big-long books are inevitably going to be adapted. Dune and Earthsea and Watchmen and a new Hitchhiker loom on the horizon. How quaint, how retro, how six-months-ago it now looks of the BBC to have rattled through twelve hundred pages of Les Miserables in hardly more than six hours.

The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably very big and very long. It has dragons and battle scenes and wizards. People who are not specially interested in fantasy have heard of it. Christopher Tolkien has withdrawn from the fray. Tolkien Estate: The Next Generation is less unamenable than he was to enormous cheques  respectful dramatizations of Grandpa's works. A seventy hour TV series is an inevitability.

Speaking for myself, I think some Dragon Fatigue may be kicking in. I watched Game of Thrones: I watched most of it twice and I stayed awake through nearly all of it. I thought it was fabulous; I didn't even specially object to the ending. But, you know, there was a hell of a lot of it. Maybe I'm ready to go away and read Chekov for bit?

Same goes for superheroes. The Eternals and the Fourth World were the two best things Jack Kirby ever did, which is to say, the two best things which have ever been done, but I greet the news that they are both being turned into movie-films with a certain ennui. Darkseid is not DCs version of Thanos; Thanos was Marvel's version of Darksied. So many Tweets.

But there is no avoiding it. Amazon have to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I will have to watch it. 

When I heard that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series, I naturally assumed that this meant that Amazon were going to make a Lord of the Rings TV series. But nothing could be further from the truth. What Amazon are actually going to make is a TV series called The Lord of the Rings, in which they will be contractually prohibited from including any scenes or characters from Tolkien's novel.

It's not as mad as it sounds. In fact, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea. 

It is very nearly 20 years since Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. (Some of the perpetrators are still at large.) It's 5 years since I sat in the back row of the Bristol Odeon whimpering "please, please, make it stop" at Jackson's infinitely prolonged Battle of the Five Armies.

Twenty years is no longer a very long time in popular culture. When Star Wars came out, Forbidden Planet (1956) looked quaintly dated and antediluvian. But the Fellowship of the Ring does not remotely feel like an Old Movie. I suppose it is because of DVDs and Netflix: everyone who is interested in that kind of thing has seen Lord of the Rings, even if they weren't born when it first hit the multiplex.

Jackson has defined what Middle-earth looks like for the foreseeable future. Any new version of Lord of the Rings would be in competition with his imagery. No actor wants to spend seven seasons being not quite as good as dear, dear, Sir Ian, and no special effects guy wants his Balrog to be unfavourably compared with Weta's.

If you are one of the sixteen or seventeen people who still read books, then of course, you would like
to see the Lord of the Rings adapted by someone who isn't Peter Jackson, which is to say, properly. That was my main reaction to Game of Thrones. Every time there was a ten-minute council scene or fifteen minutes of character development or a battle that mostly took place off screen but still felt dirty-nasty-scary-brutal I asked myself why the Lord of the Rings couldn't have been done in that style.

Leisurely pace. Multiple plot lines. Slow burn character development. Naked ladies.

But with the Jackson thing fresh in our minds it makes perfect sense not to rewind and start the whole long slow trek to Morrrrdor all over again.


At the end of the First Age the humans who helped the elves defeat Sauron's boss Morgoth were given a wondrous and improbably star-shaped island called Numenor to live on. But Sauron infiltrated the kingdom in the form of Santa Claus Annatar the Gift-Giver and corrupted the Kings. He eventually persuaded one of them to launch a military invasion of the Undying Lands -- with the intention of stealing immortality from the gods.

This does not go well. The entire island is destroyed. Numenor sinks to the bottom of the sea. They don't even have time for a second referendum. Tolkien tells us that in the Numenorian language, The Downfallen comes out as Atalante, and he swears he didn't do it deliberately.

A few survivors come to Middle-earth ("with seven stars and seven stones and one white tree"). They found Minas Tirith, and defeat Sauron all over again. It turns out that this era -- known as the Second Age -- is going to be the setting for the new TV series. 

And why not? The lord of the rings was a title given to Sauron: the full title of Frodo's book is "the History of the Downfall of the Lord of the Rings". The Second Age is the era when Sauron rose to power and suffered his first defeat. The story of the Second age has much more right to be called the Lord of the Rings than the Lord of the Rings does. 


The Second Age takes about 4,000 years of chronological time. The story takes up about 40 pages of Christopher Tolkien's synthetic Silmarillion; but Tolkien left many other notes and adventure seeds and hints which Chris has spent half a century decoding. The Unfinished Tales contains a few lines about each of the reigning kings of Numenor. [**] 

"Tar-Ciryatan...scorned the yearnings of his father and eased the restlessness of his heart by voyaging east and north and south until he took the scepter. It is said that he constrained his father to yield it to him ere of his free will he would, in this way (it is held) might the first Coming of the Shadow upon the bliss of Numenor be seen."

Cecil B Demille said that he could get a movie out of any two pages of the Bible: it wouldn't be hard to spin a 45 minute TV episode out of that one paragraph. Tolkien left us reams and reams of this stuff. 

No-one thinks that there is anything odd or funny about historical fiction. If they weren't allowed to make long, dull T.V shows about Thomas Moore and Anne Lister BBC 2 would pretty much go out of business. At one level, historical fiction is all about making stuff up: we don't know what Thomas Moore said to Henry VIII on the fifth Tuesday of 1531, so someone who is a good historian and a good storyteller has to imagine it. But we do know lots of facts about Harry and Tom and lots of facts about the world they lived in; and a decent historical novelist sticks to those very closely indeed. So the instructions "make a TV series about an era which Tolkien only sketched out; without deviating from the historical notes he left behind" seems entirely comprehensible. Pseudo-historical fiction; historical pseudo-fiction.

(Yes, there is some historical fiction which pretty much dispenses with the facts and just spins a yarn about that time Queen Elizabeth I dressed up as a boy and traveled along the Spanish Main with her lover Francis Drake. That's the kind of historical fiction which the Tolkien estate has not commissioned.)

Apparently, Amazon have strict instructions to keep their hands of the First and Third Ages. This also makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless the rights to make pseudo-historical drama about other sections of the Legendarium are going to be separately parceled out. An epic movie about the doomed love of Beren and Luthien is entirely feasible, although I still think it would go better into an opera. Who wouldn't want to see Turin Turanbur do his dragon-slayings-sister-screwing routine on the big screen? I am less convinced that the story of Feanor and the holy gems -- the backbone of the Silmarillion -- is adaptable. The early First Age material is too much about gods and immortals and millennia flying past between paragraphs. A big special effects scene in which Satan and the Cosmic Spider drink the light from the Two Trees before the Creation of the Sun and the Moon risks turning into mere spectacle with UltraMagnus and Godzilla riding in at the last minute to save the day. It's the difference between Mr Demille making a movie out of Judges chapters six and seven and thinking he can film the book of Revelation. 


Once a scene has been visualized, it can't be unvisualized.

When a film gets it disastrously wrong, not much harm is done. Probably no-one finds Peter Jackson's winged Balrog interposing itself between them and a re-reading of Tolkien's text: Jackson's creature had pretty much nothing to do with Tolkien's description. But when a film-maker gets it right, or, worse, nearly right, then film and book are entangled for all time. Jackson's visualizations of Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and maybe even Lothlorian are very good; so that's what Hobbiton and Minas Tirith and Lothlorian look like from now on. Gollum is Andy Serkis and will always be Andy Serkis even though Peter Woodthorp did it better.

So. If Amazon's visualization of the Second Age is silly and dull and camp then we can ignore it and the Akallabeth will be the same as it always was. But if it is very good indeed then the lives and the histories of the Kings of Numenor, which Tolkien only hinted at ,will be fixed and crystallized in the form Amazon Prime gives them. When we re-read the Unfinished Tales we will always be thinking "oh, that was the one played by Sean Bean; that was the Kenneth Brannagh cameo; that was the really cool special effects sequence..." The better and more faithful it is, the more likely we are to end up with a secondary canon, consistent with, but distinct from, the words which Tolkien actually wrote.

Does the Legendarium weave its spell because it is so fragmentary? Is the point of the Second Age that it is four thousand years which Tolkien gallops over in a few pages? Are those kings and queens with strange names fascinating just because we know so little about them? Is Atalante a powerful idea just because it isn't embodied in a proper narrative?

We have asked the same question about the Phantom Menace and Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock and Christopher Tolkien asked the same question about the Silmarillion itself.

And yet: the Silmarillion is very condensed; very dense; very inaccessible; a book which is often said to be unreadable, especially by those who haven't read it. 

And it is full of this kind of thing.

And Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned.

For he passed alone in disguise to Armenelos and to the courts of the King, which were now forbidden to the Faithful; and he came to the place of the Tree, which was forbidden to all by the orders of Sauron, and the Tree was watched day and night by guards in his service.

At that time Nimloth was dark and bore no bloom, for it was late in the autumn, and its winter was nigh;

And Isildur passed through the guards and took from the Tree a fruit that hung upon it, and turned to go.

But the guard was aroused, and he was assailed, and fought his way out, receiving many wounds; and he escaped, and because he was disguised it was not discovered who had laid hands on the Tree.

But Isildur came at last hardly back to RĂ³menna and delivered the fruit to the hands of Amandil, ere his strength failed him. Then the fruit was planted in secret, and it was blessed by Amandil; and a shoot arose from it and sprouted in the spring.

But when its first leaf opened then Isildur, who had lain long and come near to death, arose and was troubled no more by his wounds.

It may be a disaster of Hobbit trilogy proportions. But surely no ageing fan-boy can fail to be excited by the thought of a 45 minute end-of-season cliffhanger based on that paragraph?

[*] Jackson's Lord of the Rings was a moderately unsuccessful attempt to film Tolkien's unfilmable novel but, if you ignore some lapses of taste, it was a very good fantasy movie. I place it roughly in the same category as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, speaking as someone who really, really likes the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The Hobbit, on the other hand, was a bad adaption, a bad movie, a bad computer game, a bad theme part ride, bad, bad, bad. It makes Jackson's sacrificial butchering of King Kong look like a masterpiece. I have not yet seen the one in which world war one soldiers are chased across the landscape by sentient cities.

[**] And also linear measurements. 5000 ranguar make 1 lar, apparently.

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

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Halfling Laws @ The Alma Tavern, Bristol

still experimenting with workflows and being more spontaneous.

It is the autumn of 2010. New Zealand Actor's Equity has threatened to boycott Peter Jackson's Hobbit series unless Kiwi actors are paid the same minimum rate as their US and European counterparts. Warner Brothers say that if the boycott goes ahead, they will take production of the Hobbit out of N.Z altogether. The camera crews and set designers and caterers who will lose their job if the film is closed down are demonstrating against the actors' union, who even start to receive death threats. But they stand their ground and demand a living wage for their profession. In a back office of the studio where a big battle scene is being hastily rewritten, the union representatives meet Peter Jackson to try to find a solution. 

The Alma Tavern is Bristol's smallest theatrical space. One never knows quite what one is going to get there. Initial portents this evening were a little alarming: I was handed a small feedback form with my ticket ("was there any part of the show you didn't understand"); and there was a slight friends-of-the-cast vibe in the 50-seater auditorium. The action of the play starts with an ill-judged meta-textual cough in which everyone in the cast breaks character and starts to argue about whether the play can really be said to be "based on true story", points out that all but one of the characters is fictitious, that the the play is condensing weeks of industrial dispute into an hour and we could look up the facts on Wikipedia when we get home. This would have been better covered in the programme. (There was no programme.) 

False start over, "The Halfing Laws" -- rapidly retitled from "The Hobbit Laws" for obvious reasons -- quickly establishes itself as a very small but rather special piece of work: just the kind of thing which the Alma's intimate space is so well suited for. 

The actors side of the argument is represented by Hamish Lynes and Millie Walsman. Hamish, the more militant unionist, is (ironically) a Lord of the Rings enthusiast and fan of Peter Jackson; Millie is more willing to compromise but less invested in the material. The script resists any temptation to make Hamish into a stereotypical fantasy nerd. Millie isn't as anti-fantasy as she might have been, although she does describe the men of Harrad as "the evil maori elephant people"; which is fair enough. 

Jackson himself and his (fictional) assistant Charlie Dewberrie remain sympathetic throughout.  Jacskon wants to support the union case but is not willing to further endanger his already faltering production. (The news that the two film series as been expanded to a trilogy comes through during the negotiations.) As a further wrinkle, Jackson brings in Edward Hamilton who plays one of the dwarves ("the one with the beard") as a witness for the defense. Hamilton doesn't want the Union to kill the production -- after a long career it is his last chance to make it big. But he turns out to be bitter at about the endless delays and rewrites and because Jackson has cast Kiwi actors in subordinate roles while giving the big dwarf part to an American actor. 

The best moments are when the personal, the literary, and the cinematic come together. There is a very fine moment -- at least one member of the audience applauded -- when "Sir Peter" admits that the Hobbit is not going to be a very good film. ("It's turning into a Donkey Kong level"). Charlie, the P.A wonders if all the dubious changes of direction -- the extra movie, the dwarf/elf love story, the introduction of characters who aren't in the book at all -- are truly Peter Jackson's dramatic calls, or if they are being forced on him by the studio. Either way, she fears he may be losing his touch.  While everyone is despairing about the Hobbit, Jackson suddenly produces a copy of Mortal Engines and starts enthusing about it like a schoolboy. When it appears that he has stabbed them all in the back, Hamish tells Jackson just how much the Lord of the Rings means to him, and Jackson just replies "thank you".

In the end, the studio steps in and the New Zealand government redefine actors as freelance contractors with no right to unionize, so it has all been for nothing. Jackson starts to say that even this darkness must pass, and when the new days comes the sun will shine out the clearer...and Hamish roundly tells him to fuck off.  

The play doesn't really come to a point or offer any answers -- everyone just shuts the door and walks away. But in the hour we have learned a good deal about New Zealand employment law and the troubled history of the Hobbit; been made to think about idealism and pragmatics; and even seen how a decent person can start sending out death-threats Without being at all geekish, the play seems to "get" the importance that cinema and fantasy can have in all of our lives. Theater too. If we all valued tiny little productions in small rooms over pubs above billion dollar epics, it would be a merrier world.

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

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A serious treatise on the English mythological interactive folk drama tradition

Oh no it isn't.

If Colin Baker is singing “Let's Do The Time Warp Again” (*), in green make-up, accompanied by a large amount of white smoke, a dozen pre-teen dancing girls (dressed as devils) and two adult ballet dancers, then it follows that either

a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or

b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.

He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”

How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.

Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.

But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk.
The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.

I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn.
But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”

I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.

(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.