26 July 2010

POPERY, PUPPETRY, PASHTUNS AND PICASSO


In response to your charming comments about Bean, I open with a picture of her relaxing between diplomatic missions:


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I can see the Pope chain-smoking now. Are you old enough to remember? I am, though I never actually saw the play, way back in 1968. It was called Hadrian VII and had been adapted by Peter Luke from Frederick Rolfe's novel of 1904. The hero is a failed candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood, a chain-smoking Englishman living alone and in obscurity with his cat. Somehow he is elected to the Papacy and forces through astonishing reforms. It was funny enough and serious enough for an Anglican canon I knew (John Taylor, later Bishop of Winchester) to arrange to buy out a performance at the Mermaid, a special matinée for that year's Lambeth Conference. Alec McCowen, who scored a huge hit in the lead, received the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, in his dressing room and said the play had never gone better. Pathé News recorded the event: 300 bishops sitting attentively in the auditorium and, afterwards, the Archbishop and the Apostolic Delegate warmly greeting the cast.

A far more remarkable coup de théâtre and de politique will take place this coming Thursday. The Great Game: Afghanistan – a dozen half-hour plays commissioned by Nicolas Kent and produced in three parts at that jewel of a fringe theatre, the Tricycle, in London NW6 – will be performed to a military audience including General Sir David Richards, former commander of the international forces in Afghanistan and our next Chief of the Defence Staff. I have seen two of the three evenings (though you can occasionally see the 'trilogy' in one day) and am looking forward to the third on Monday. But I am sure Thursday is going to be THE occasion as the military watch vivid dramatizations of our first involvement in Afghanistan under Queen Victoria, and just some of the teeming complexities, as portrayed by thirteen playwrights, of Afghan history up to the present: the Soviets, there by 'invitation' to liberate the country, women in Kabul wearing Soviet-issued miniskirts, the Taliban, NATO and NGOs. General Sir David Richards himself is the protagonist of one play. Yes, I will be there on Monday night for Part 3! 

The Great Game. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Talking of things coming in threes, last Thursday I went to the press night of Danton's Death at the National Theatre, Georg Büchner's play about the French Revolution, which has been done twice before at the National – by Jonathan Miller in 1971 and by Peter Gill in 1982. I have now seen all three productions, having had friends or colleagues in the cast on each occasion. I found the experience eerily bloodless each time, despite the current full-blooded Danton of Toby Stephens. Anyway, for the record, The Sunday Times awards this latest production of the German warhorse five stars.

From a learned review of Jonathan Miller's production, I quote part of a letter Büchner wrote:
I find in human nature a horrible uniformity. . . . The individual is foam on the wave, greatness is nothing but chance, the dominance of genius a puppet play, an absurd struggle against an iron law. The greatest of us can only recognize it: to control it is impossible. [Danton is one of the great; he recognizes the futility of his struggle, and iscrushed to nothing under the terrible determinism of history.
Froth is too light a word for Büchner's heavy individualism. As for his message that our best efforts are a puppet play, this was symbolized in Miller's production, 'indelibly' I read (though I can't for the life of me remember it), by a series of dolls and mannequins, some headless and appearing sinisterly in boxes throughout the action. Perhaps this dismal view of humanity as mere puppets accounts for my overwhelming sense, at all three productions, that I was witnessing dead wood. Conversely, some of the best, most moving performances I have seen have been given by puppets: splendid representations of the human spirit. I am thinking of the Bunraku puppets of Japan, Lotte Reiniger's first silhouette film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and, dare I mention, the latest Toy Story movie which I understand makes adults weep. James Agate once wrote: 'Punch and Judy have no understanding, yet their show is the most complete illusion of life' (and certainly no more exaggerated or bizarre than the Picasso portraits I saw the other day). 'Puppetry', he said, 'is the first and all but the last word in acting: it is the point at which all schools converge.'

Incidentally, I have in one of my books a rare photograph of Henry Irving as Robespierre (Danton's political rival) in his Lyceum staging of Sardou's melodrama in 1899.


So in a busy week spent trying to apply the final polish to my book and attempting a charcoal portrait, I saw not only the guillotine on the South Bank, Kabul in Kilburn High Road, chunks of Afghan wars and revolutions, but also evidence of Picasso’s revolutionary paintings at the Gagosian Gallery, the astonishingly immaculate addition to the Kings Cross area.


O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times.
                                                                                      (Henry IV, Part 2, III.i)


Postscript: The Cost of the Information Revolution
A piece of street art I caught sight of on my way home from the Gagosian Gallery was a curious amalgam of Disney and Picasso. The extraordinary image, which I photographed, was on a high chimney stack. I had planned to show it to you but have momentarily mislaid the device that allows me to transpose images from my memory card to my laptop. Meanwhile, just this morning, I heard on the radio that the average email uses the same amount of power as that used to boil seventeen kettles. Should I keep my blogs shorter, I wonder, in the interests of energy conservation, and when I find my device, should I dare post the photo?

18 July 2010

DOG DAYS AND TALES FROM THE BRITISH RAJ


Ambassador Bean


Through Bean, our family terrier, I have informally met one of the district's more colourful and intriguing characters, somebody I have passed in the street many times over the years I have lived here and whom I have wondered about in vain. He's betrayed never a flicker when I've looked into his eyes. In appearance he is perfect casting for Henry (my character in The Fantasticks), or indeed an older version of me, except that he is always nattily dressed. I was in a striped cotton sweater this morning, though, like him, I was wearing what I think of as his regulation hat, straw for the summer. His straw sported a scarlet hatband which matched his elaborately patterned scarlet silk waistcoat. His linen suit and walking stick, long white hair and a long wispy beard ('full-blown and blowing') completed his consummate characterization of the English gentleman. 

Bean had taken fright in the pet shop for some strange reason and was pulling me along the street. This was enough to elicit the first remark from him in twenty-nine years: 'She's pulling you along nicely.' Within five minutes I had learned about two of his dogs and that he had been a cavalry officer in the British Raj. He told me that, after two years in India, he had sent a letter to his sister, asking her to give it to his dog, a retriever. The dog carried it round for two days! When, after ten years, he returned home, the dog looked at him for some moments as if trying to remember, and then leapt up, paws on his master's shoulders to greet him.

I also learned that in India, his servant, and the dog he had there, missed a train: our cavalry officer pulled the communication chord to no avail, but at the next station he explained the situation and the servant and dog arrived shortly by special train! I expect more tales from the Raj when next Bean and I meet him.

Six-month-old orphan Bean learning to socialize in last January's snow.

The other day Bean introduced me to a little American family who had been in London only a few hours on leave, here for the first time from the husband's post in Africa. They had found the children's playground at the end of our street, and there, in the dappled shade of a great plane tree, we talked about dogs (they had left theirs behind) and the relative coolness of our heat wave. As we talked I realized they had not so far got the lie of the land here or discovered the treats in store. So I told them about the London overland train that would take them to Hampstead Heath, of which they had never heard, in ten minutes from their local stop. Or, if they took the Jubilee Line Tube to Charing Cross, their little girl could play in the fountains in the neo-classical courtyard of Somerset House, and they could take tea and see some masterpieces in the Courtauld Gallery. I heard there were professional dancers disporting themsleves in the fountains a week or so ago (that I regret hearing about too late!), and I turned down the chance to attend a free lunchtime violin recital of Mozart at St Martin-in-the-Fields the other day. One really must gather the London rose buds while one may.


Counterpoint performed by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. Photos by Richard Haughton


Postscript
Well! This afternoon I was out walking with Bean and we met a local artist I know: I was telling her about my cavalry officer and it turns out that he had worked for her as a model! So I too may yet be able to portray him in paint as well as in words.

12 July 2010

ENGLISH LORDS AND RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONARIES


Last Sunday I attended the Midsomer Murders farewell garden party for John Nettles near Great Missenden. It was like a bumper edition of the show - lots of smart and pretty straw hats, though no suspicious looks. John gave a short speech in which he acknowledged his OBE, but said it stood for 'Other Buggers' Efforts'. He told me that the first thing he is going to do is play the Ghost and Claudius in a production of Hamlet at the Sheffield Crucible. Marcia Warren was at the party; she played my housekeeper in the Midsomer episode I appeared in three years back. She told me I was excellent. Seeing her in the repeat on ITV just the other night, I was right to say she was perfect.

Here is a compilation of some of my scenes as Lord Holm in 'Death in a Chocolate Box':



I regretted that the drug-befuddled, misused lord had no last scene in which to show his reaction to his new-found innocence (no, what Aristotle would have called, anagnorisis - a moment of recognition or critical discovery). What were the programme-makers thinking of? The forty-second coda I offer here by way of webcam is an age to hard-pressed producers with all those shots of cars pulling up and away to consider, but it makes me feel better.



My brother rang me up and asked wryly if I had discovered any blue blood in the family tree, since I seem to get away with playing lords. He doesn't do computing so I can't at the moment point him in the direction of Bill Naughton's Joe Brady, my last week's working-class hero. Noble is a word that begs a lot of questions and takes some defining, but one might apply it to Joe, who felt something like the ennobling effect of a day's work as a coalbagger.

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Last Tuesday at the National Theatre I saw the penultimate evening performance of The White Guard by the Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov (in an adaptation by Andrew Upton). Extraordinary how relatively few performances it has done. It was the nearest thing to being in Kiev in 1918. Where do all these excellent actors come from? In my ignorance I knew only one of them. The director Howard Davies I worked with long ago. His production I found quite flawless, masterly. One is amazed to think that Stalin saw the Moscow Art Theatre performance twenty times - but perhaps not so amazing if their production was as good as the NT's and, of course, it must have been. Odd how one catches oneself out assuming that the theatre must be better now than it was way back, the further back the worse. On the other hand, I also catch myself out in the reverse attitude, being particularly astonished at how superb so many young actors are nowadays.

  The Days of the Turbins (aka The White Guard), Moscow Art Theatre, 1926. Directed by Stanislavski.

 Set design by Ilya Sudakov

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This week I have read two pieces of writing by my daughter Dora and her friend Ruth in Edinburgh, posted on Ruth's blog Cocktails and Feminism. They both experimented in two consecutive posts, composing 'snapshots' of Edinburgh. If ever you wanted to define the essence of what a blog should be and what it should do, you might look at these delightful and successful experiments in 'Free-Writing'.

04 July 2010

BILL NAUGHTON - A CENTENARY BLOG


Bill Naughton (1910-1992)
Photo by Ida Kar

12 June marked the centenary of the birth of playwright Bill Naughton. It was he that in 1963 provided me with my first West End part, the younger brother in All in Good Time, which transferred from Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre to the Phoenix. I had to convince as a young working-class lad from Barnsley. It was a cinch; I didn't have to think about it, the years of Southern upper-crust nurture fell away and I was the pre-Theatre School boy again. Bill Naughton was fifty-three at the time, and was Bolton through and through (he had been a weaver, coalbagger and lorry driver), although his best-known work celebrated a London wide boy and sexual adventurer called Alfie. 

During the run of All in Good Time I was offered the lead role in a radio play Bill had written, November Day, the original recording of which I only recently rediscovered. As a way, then, of commemorating a significant anniversary, let me share with you an excerpt from this rare recording, the moving final scene between my character, Joe Brady, and his wife played by Lois Dane. First, to set the scene, I offer a short extract (another sneak preview) from my forthcoming book:
Ironic really that, after all my endeavours in the provinces at 'keeping it West End', and the part that BBC Radio had played in 'grooming' my voice, my first West End play and my first radio play should be in the North Country working-class vernacular. Some actors are not able to lose their native accent, feeling that to do so would be to betray their roots and put on artificial airs. I was one of the many working-class actors of the 1950s who had no such qualms. In any case, as a boy, as I never tire of acknowledging, the radio was my ear's window on the world; what a wide and infinitely coloured world it was and I wanted to be as multicoloured as I could. So I am not sentimentally attached to my native utterance; pragmatically, one searches for the appropriate voice wherever it might come from, but I found that I was especially moved listening again recently to Naughton's November Day, a day in the life of a young married man in the Depression who lands a day's work as a coalbagger.
There is a purity about the script; it has something so honest and authentic, reminding me a little of the plays of D. H. Lawrence in its lack of political posturing and cultural self-consciousness. The spare language is a kind of poetry; one line in particular I remember and love: 'If I had a Clydesdale mare like that o' thine …'. The hero is so busy keeping up with his arduous work and absorbing the rich talk of his newfound workmates and bosses, he speaks little in the central part of the single November day, but all the time one has the sense of him striving and learning, leading to the transformation which happens between the intimacy of waking up to the alarm clock and wrenching himself out of the warm bed, away from his wife and bairn, for the routine of failing to get work and coming back home to breakfast, the shock of being taken on and having grit himself to survive the challenge.
But beyond authenticity, and far beyond sentiment, I found a kinship with the voice of the young character I played. It was as if he were someone I might have been. A hero, yes, perhaps an idealized one, finding, after his exhausting day's work, a moment of fulfilment, even redemption, with his wife and child as he sits naked before the kitchen fire with the baby on his knee. I knew that kitchen and that man, his life with his wife and baby, and felt proud to know them.


The extreme naturalism of Mr Douglas Cleverdon's production, a pattern of recognizable natural sounds, tends to reinforce the impression that Mr Naughton is only cutting and offering a thick slice of life. Mr Edward Petherbridge's Joe Brady, Miss Lois Dane as his wife … and others maintain the same easy, natural atmosphere. But Mr Naughton's apparent artlessness, the exactitude of the external life which he and Mr Cleverdon present, needs neither to make claims nor to point morals. The people among whom Joe undergoes his ordeal are vigorously and cantankerously alive; the ordeal brings the hero to his maturity. To consider the surface of this is to apprehend the depths it covers. 
('A Chronicle and Something More', The Times, 22 July 1963)

Coalbaggers pictured in the Lancashire Evening Post

And yet there was the odd occasion when I might get a sentence to match up almost perfectly with what I felt, and this simple act gave me a glow of satisfaction, even a touch of self-esteem. At times I'd be so overcome by the reconciliation I might achieve between imagination and writing, that I would feel a need to sneak out to the front door, sit on the doorstep, breathe in the sweet, cool air, gaze up at the night sky, and try to think of eternity, the soul, beauty, and images remote from lorries, spades and coal. It was as though something was urging me on in what appeared even to me to be a vain and hopeless quest.
(Bill Naughton, On the Pig's Back: An Autobiographical Excursion, 1987)

02 July 2010

REEL LIFE: KRAPP'S LAST TAPE


Nothing I have written, or can write now, seems adequate or even necessary by way of introduction to the intense, sparse poetry of this little masterpiece. It was an RSC production that played Stratford's Other Place and the Pit at the Barbican and was included in the New York (BAM) and Washington season.

Subsequently it was taken on tour by a commercial management, playing an odd assortment of venues in far-flung places: Jerusalem, Tiberias, High Wycombe, Bath, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and the little Arts Theatre near Leicester Square where I had seen the original English production of Waiting for Godot while still a drama student. Royal was in the title of the Dublin venue (the Royal Hibernian Academy Downstairs) where I arranged for the production to be captured on video. It was a small, disused underground car park with grey concrete walls, ceiling and floor and grey dust, and an awkward arrangement of seating for a very small audience. 

There was a single wooden batten on the concrete ceiling in quite the wrong place for us to suspend Krapp's solitary light. When I declared that there was no alternative but to move the batten, the stage manager in her charming Dublin accent said gravely, 'That would mean recourse to masonry nails.' A line worthy of a Beckett character.

Here are two clips, from near the beginning and the end, of the Dublin performance:





And a couple of excerpts from my forthcoming book (to be published later this year):

This is a play about a man and his diary, the record of his life, literally recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In it the actor performs with a recording of himself – himself, the actor he trusts best in all the world; the actor whose criticism, if he is fortunate, is constructive, however harsh, and only seldom flattering. 'Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago' are the words Krapp commits to a new tape after his first listening session. 'Hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.'
After a 6 p.m. performance of Krapp at Stratford's the Other Place in the summer of 1997, I found myself the centre of a small, informal meeting as I crossed through the café bar to go out and on to the main house for the evening performance of Hamlet. Just one or two people had waited to see me. An elderly gentleman – well, he might have been sixty-five – said, 'I saw Waiting for Godot when it first came out and made nothing of it. I don't know why I came today to see this play, but I enjoyed its spaces in between, the silences, the stillnesses. You see, then I had nothing to fill them with. Now I do.'

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Every time I performed the play I learned to marvel at it the more. It defies categorization. It is an intellectual and elegiac vaudeville sketch for clown and tape recorder, a life’s history in fifty minutes, beginning with the hero slipping on a banana skin and ending as he looks into the abyss. It is a conjuring trick with stage and 'real' time – except that there is no trick. The time the solitary Krapp spends with us in the play is the actual time it takes to sigh and peer at his keys and search his table drawers for bananas, to read his logbook, to play and listen to a particular tape ('Box … thrree … spool … five'), and begin to record another. But the sense of the distances between his present and his pasts, captured in the sound of his voice, evoked by the use of the stop-and-start, rewind and fast-forward buttons, so actual, so arbitrarily, sometimes violently controlling but giving rise to the surprising, disruptive power of his history as it intrudes into his current existence – all this gives the play its deep sense of perspective.

Krapp and His Last Tape. Self-portrait, 1997. Pastel on Card