Self-portrait

Self-portrait

29 May 2015

RELICS AND RELIQUARIES

The footsteps are obliterated now; the face of the country may be changed; but the pillar is still there, to remind me how all things were when it was reared.
Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey


I have been regarding relics, de-cluttering. I bethought myself that our daughter might want to keep the well-thumbed pack of Happy Families so I rescued it from the recycling bin. Somebody had written ‘42 cards’ on the pack. I counted them up and there were only thirty-nine. Back into recycling they went.

It can be a labour-intensive business. It took me fully four minutes to fill in the form at the Oxfam charity shop so they could make the best of my contribution, to say nothing of the time it had taken to sort books and nick-knacks and carry the first of, I trust, many weighty loads to the bus stop. 

My mother’s watch and her embroidery – two
precious family ‘relics’. Photo by EP
I have come across an old wristwatch without hands, but it strikes me that the Iranian watch repairer down the road might need the spare parts, at least the spring. He repaired a watch that belonged to my mother by using the spring from another defunct timepiece. To my knowledge, Mother’s watch had not told the time for at least seventy years, and now it can, so I will ‘take the time’ to go down to the watch repairer in case I might do a good someone else a good turn. Of course one needs to take more radical, sweeping measures if one is to achieve anything in the de-cluttering line.

Talking of relics, last week I was in Chichester Cathedral where there is a glass panel set into the paving of one of the aisles and there, some four or five feet beneath, is a small section of ancient Roman mosaic preserved for history’s sake. 

Photo by EP

As it happens I have come across Roman-inspired relics of my own: a photograph of the ruins of Palmyra, taken when I visited Syria some years ago. The theatre is most impressive; one tries to envisage what a performance would have been like, and its audience, at this important trading centre on the Silk Road. 

Photo by EP

This is a photograph of the young man who took tourists round the ruins. He told me he was a Bedouin; I noted his stylishly distressed jeans and new trainers. I have often thought of him along with so many of the people I met on my trip. It is not only his livelihood that has ended; the very existence of the ruins themselves is now under threat.

Photo by EP

Photo by EP
One thinks of the sedate calm of our cathedral cities where past cultures are proudly preserved for our pleasure within the very confines of the centre of worship. Chichester is famous, too, for its patronage of modern art as John Piper’s tapestry and Graham Sutherland’s altarpiece demonstrate.




Photos by EP
At the first night of the new Glyndebourne season last Thursday there was no sign of anything like this magnificent portrayal of Ancient Rome, as might have greeted the first audience of Donizetti’s Poliuto in Naples in 1848. 

Set design sketch for Act 3, scene 2, of Charles Gounods
opera Polyeucte, Paris Opera, 1878

The logo on the website prepared us for something distinctly of our time though the set design demonstrated how Edward Gordon Craig’s radical ideas in the first decade of the 20th century are still current. Craig as a visionary was no engineer nor was the Moscow Art Theatre able to realize his dream of moving screens suggesting pillars – the scenery, part of the fluid action – so his scene changes had to be effected behind closed curtains.

The ghost scene of Gamlet (Hamlet)

The menace of Julia Hansen’s massive moving walls would have caused Craig to cry of stolen ideas, but he would have envied the engineering. Craig might have allowed a glimpse of sky at some point which we were denied but there were accessional brief projections to ‘paint the scene’.


Photos by Tristram Kenton

The conflict is a combination of love triangle and the persecution of Christians, the hero and heroine facing the lions in the certainty that they will be reunited in bliss. At the end of a riveting evening – the first professional performance ever in Britain – and the ancient issues strangely resonant, the denouement suddenly disappointed, reducing Christianity to the preference for blissful life beyond – not, to put it crudely, a very fashionable reduction, particularly on an evening of privileged luxury amongst the cultural, culinary and gentle bucolic delights of Glyndebourne. And, of course, one couldn’t help the troubling thought of modern-day ‘martyrs’ and the promise of heavenly bliss that leads to a very different kind of sacrifice.

The grounds at Glyndebourne.
Photo by EP

And now a few relics both exotic and close to home. In our conservatory we have a number of fairy lamps salvaged from Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. The lamps adorned the house and grounds in celebration of Victoria and Albert’s visit in 1858.

Photo by EP
The gatehouse at Stoneleigh illuminated

Photo by EP
A few years ago, clearing the way for some repairs to the conservatory roof, I found a bird’s nest on a high ledge, obscured by the grapevine. I was harvesting the ripe crop, and there was the small songbird’s abandoned mud and straw home, brought inside by us as an ornament, still with some fragments of shell from its young. Astonishing that the tool used to construct it was the bird's beak.

The Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge holds a relic of a much older sometime resident of West Hampstead, a prehistoric shark’s tooth discovered in a clay pit in the still rural village of 18th-century West End.

Courtesy of the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge

Nearer to home still, I have a relic of one of the very first residents of our house, the artist Legh Mulhall Kilpin. It is a watercolour he painted in 1905, when he lived here and before he emigrated to Canada.



This past week, whilst de-cluttering and preparing for my imminent departure to New York, I learnt that across the street from the Manhattan apartment in which I’ll be staying is a relic that predates the Stoneleigh lamps, a little pre-Civil War clapboard house described as ‘a rare surviving remnant of the early years of the village of Yorkville … One of the oldest of the few intact nineteenth-century wooden houses which remain in Manhattan north of Greenwich Village.’

Google Maps screenshot
Postscript Since I wrote these words the peace and grandeur of the ruined amphitheatre in the desert in Palmyra have been horribly violated and I find no adequate words to express the dismay the world feels at the cycle of violence and suffering that has engulfed Syria. But in the terror of the conflict it would be heroic indeed to take comfort from the words of Victor Hugo: ‘Try as you will, you cannot annihilate that eternal relic of the human heart, love.’  

09 May 2015

STRANGE INTERLUDE, THIRTY YEARS ON

Out of this hulk of storm-tossed life he wrenches his own philosophic musings, and sings them as ever in the lyrical ecstasy of affirmation.  He pieces together a romantic religion out of the bones of science, and reaches across pagan biology to make a god of life. He did it before … but never before with such exhaustive and exhausting questioning, never before with such unwinking courage, or such passages of soaring poetry. Here is, truly, a play of heft and thought.
John Anderson on Strange Interlude 
New York Evening Journal, 31 January 1928 

As promised, a short film to mark the 30th anniversary of Strange Interlude on Broadway:



Eugene O Neill in the early 1920s
The brief clip you see of me carrying Glenda Jackson off stage is from the version we did for television in 1988, directed by Herbert Wise. And the music you hear over the opening and closing credits was composed by the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and conducted by Neil Richardson. You can watch three excerpts from the TV version, each between six and eight minutes, on YouTube. Here is the first.

Incidentally, here is the poster of which you catch a fleeting glimpse in the film, in the living room of the O’Neill’s summer house in New London, just above a bookcase situated near the site of James Tyrone’s ‘glassed-in’ bookcase, as described in the opening set directions of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

07 May 2015

06 May 2015

STRANGE INTERLUDES

Glenda Jackson and EP in Strange Interlude
Thirty years ago today (5th May), Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude closed on Broadway. The production had transferred from the Duke of York’s in London to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street (where Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had its premiere in 1962, when the theatre was called the Billy Rose) with its principal cast intact: Glenda Jackson, myself, Brian Cox and James Hazeldene. Our ten weeks on Broadway were a happy experience and garnered for me Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations. With My Perfect Mind’s New York season on the near horizon, Kathleen and I are preparing a short film to mark the 30th anniversary of Strange Interlude on Broadway, which we will be posting soon.


O’Neill’s experimental and controversial nine-act play was first produced on Broadway by the Theatre Guild in 1928 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It created such a stir that its famous soliloquy technique (characters speaking aloud their inner thoughts) featured as a running joke in the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers in 1930.



A Hollywood adaptation of Strange Interlude was released by MGM in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. We reprised our production for television in 1988, which, apart from Glenda and me, had a different cast and a very different set from the clapboard and clouds of the stage version.

Strangely enough, with the Strange Interlude anniversary in my thoughts, the weekend before last at the National Theatre I ran into Brian Cox (our Dr Ned Darrell) and his son Alan who, as a youngster, made his West End debut in Strange Interlude, playing the boy unwittingly at the centre of so much subterfuge and angst in the drama. They gave me a lift home and we chatted over coffee in Regent’s Park Road where Alan snapped this picture of Charlie Marsden and Ned Darrell thirty years on.

EP and Brian Cox, April 2015
Photo by Alan Cox

Alan, himself a veteran of the Brits off Broadway festival, is currently appearing at the Arts Theatre in The Kingmaker, whilst Cox Snr is to appear with Bill Paterson in Waiting for Godot in the autumn as part of the 50th anniversary season of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. And exactly a month from today, I will be arriving in Manhattan in preparation for the first night of My Perfect Mind at 59E59.