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Archive for November, 2009

Oh happy day! Clearly Fiona Shaw reads this blog (someone has to) and she has done the right thing and decided to spend a LOT more time on stage – so, pretty much as soon as the mighty “Mother Courage and Her Children” closes its run at the National Theatre, Ms. Shaw returns to Wilton Music Hall to perform T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, some ten years after she first performed it there, directed once again by Deborah Warner.

The unparalleled Shaw apart, the venue is a great reason to see and hear this production: London’s only surviving Victorian Music Hall, it’s a haunting and evocative place, perfectly suited to the poem – or it was when I first went there ten years ago, perhaps it has been rejuvenated and refurbished in some awful way. I doubt it.

Anyway, I am beholden to a certain “Epidaurus” for the tip on “The Waste Land”, now confirmed in the press and on-line. Do see it if you can – even Wife enjoyed it, and that’s saying something.

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Alan Bennett’s new play, “The Habit of Art” opened yesterday.

Seeing it, I was reminded of something that David Hare wrote about the reception of “Pravda”, the Fleet Street satire that he co-wrote with Howard Brenton. Before a single review had been written, before a single line had been spoken, the two authors, sitting in the audience, looked at each other in delighted disbelief because it was already apparent before the lights went down on the first night that the audience had decided to love the play. Every line was met with delight, every laugh was twice as loud, and twice as long as they had dreamed, and the ovations went on and on.

And so it was with “The Habit of Art” – a consideration of artistic identity told through an imagined encounter between Auden and Britten when both men were in their sixties.

What struck me was that Bennett had (according to the programme note, quite late in the day) framed the story as a “play within a play” – enabling any questions that had arisen in the rehearsal process of the original, unadorned play to be voiced (and answered) by the playwright, stage manager and other attendant crew who watched a “run-through” in the rehearsal room. I think it worked very well, enabling Bennett to add a consideration of the process of acting and theatre as another example of identity being accorded to those who create out of habit and determination, as well as love. Alex Jennings (as Britten – and the actor performing the role) gave a beautiful pair of performances; Frances de la Tour provided a magnificently tired, cynical, but loving portrait of a woman who had spent her life not just in the theatre, but in a role that subjugated her identity and desire to others – and Richard Griffiths (stepping in at late notice for Michael Gambon) gave a performance of tremendous charm, maybe not quite as unforgettable as his “Hector” in “The History Boys” – but tremendously affecting, funny and clear. Definitely one to see.

Seen within a month of David Hare’s “The Power of Yes” it was another striking example of a great playwright who had presented a play that used commentary, notes and glossing to tell his story and present his argument. And then, of course, there is the powerhouse performance of Fiona Shaw in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” – the ultimate playwright glossing his own work with a commentary. All three plays are running at the National Theatre: all three are giving us a very clear view (though from three very different positions) of dramatists examining –  possibly even doubting – the traditional form of the play.

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If anyone is interested in knowing about a gap in the market (and, I dare say, a market in the gap) then stories of the Saints, told for children (ie: the cool bits, with only a glancing dose of holiness) is a real opportunity. This half term’s homework has been for each of our children to choose, learn the story of, write about and illustrate the life of a saint.

Eldest Son chose St.Michael (on the grounds of the expulsion of Lucifer from heaven, and the artistic possibilities of angels fighting that this afforded him) and did a fairly good job of it, relying only on Wife’s understanding of the story – which was more than adequate. His drawing looked a little like one of the fat cast members of The Simpsons dancing a tango with a lizard, but otherwise, it was a fine job.

Daughter decided that she wanted to do “her saint” (ie: her birthday falls on this saint’s fete day), with whom she shares (some of) her name) – and so it was that we found ourselves researching Saint Martha. Again, I knew the bare details, but I thought that I would double-check and see if I could add anything more interesting around the edges, so I had a quick scan of our library and happened upon “100 Saints”, and found a Guercino painting and a page of dense text about the saint’s salient details. Daughter translated the story into her own world, making it a story of unfairness, sibling rivalry and “telling”: “One day, Jesus was coming to Mary and Martha’s house. Martha was cleaning and tidying up and cooking, but Mary was NOT helping her. Martha went to Jesus and said “Jesus, I am doing all the tidying and Mary isn’t helping AT ALL…” – and so it went on…

But it was Youngest Son who proved most true to character in the choosing of his saint. He tells the story of Saint John the Baptist thus: “St John the Baptist went to the desert, and he knew that Jesus was coming, so he told all the people that they had better say that they were sorry, because God was sending his son to look after them. To make them really sorry, he made them stand in a puddle and poured water on their heads, which he said was baptising them. But then Herod came and killed him and put his head on a tray.”

This account is, of course, pretty accurate, if a little disconcerting to read, casting (as it does) John as a vaguely threatening figure, warning everyone that they’d better watch it because God’s coming and THEN they’ll be sorry;  not to mention someone who got his jollies by making people stand in puddles. Needless to say, it wasn’t until the introduction of Herod into the story that Youngest Son really perked up – and the sense of “serves him right” in the above narrative is certainly no accident if Youngest Son’s disgusted expression on hearing the life story of this most significant of saints is anything to go by.

But it was while browsing the books, the internet and so on, looking for a digestible and diverting version of these stories to use as a starting point for this homework that I was struck by the realisation that such a collection just doesn’t seem to exist – certainly on the Net, though maybe it does in printed form. Any takers?

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