Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Berkoff and Dionysos

Last week, I realised I'd never seen Sophocles' King Oedipus on stage.

Few people would be surprised by that, but I was. These days I don't get to the theatre as often as I'd like but I still think of myself as a theatre-goer. In the past, I've sought out obscure productions of Greek plays – in Greek as well as in English – because of the challenge they pose to today's theatre.

I'm not an expert but, when I struggled through two happy years to achieve a weak pass in Greek A-level, I supplemented my tussles with verbs and syntax with reading everything I could find on Greek history and culture. According to the curriculum, my school didn't offer Greek. Greek, like writing Latin verse, tended to be the preserve of boys' grammar and public schools. But somehow I wangled my way into Greek A-level, which was taught intensively from scratch in the Latin teacher's spare time. I've been grateful to her ever since. I was an unpromising prospect with nothing except a desire to learn to recommend me. There must have been considerable doubt whether I would pass. But the teacher – her name was Miss Blench – did her very best for me, setting plenty of work and urging me to read as much as I could. I think there were four shelves of books about Ancient and Classical Greece in the school library. I probably read every one.

I don't suppose any school would let a pupil take that risk nowadays, what with league tables and so on. But I'm more proud of the grade D I attained (a clear pass!) than any other academic achievement.

My teenage passion for things Greek has subsided now but I still turn to Greek texts from time to time – often in translation with the original Greek beside me, if I can find it, so that I can have some idea of the sound and the way meaning is made. But heading to Steven Berkoff's production of Oedipus at Nottingham Playhouse, I couldn't find a Greek text. I had to make do with a few extracts in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, which were far too difficult for me.

Instead I thought of the problems posed by staging Greek tragedy today. It's never going to be the same for us as the Greeks. A director could offer a singing, dancing chorus and principle actors in masks and elevated shoes, but it wouldn't have the same effect. The Greeks were as familiar with that convention as we are with drawing-room comedies or Shakespeare framed by a proscenium arch.

Nor does theatre have the same role in society. These days there's a debate about the purpose of theatre and whether it should be funded. There's always someone to say it's superfluous and that, if people want theatre, they should pay for it, however high the prices and however limited their means. The defenders of theatre talk of heritage and culture. They even act like economists and produce charts showing how much money theatres bring into their towns and cities. Meanwhile the government imposes cuts which are made at one remove, leaving the lovers of theatre and custodians of culture to decide whose potential will be stifled and whose lives they will impoverish

None of that would have made sense in Athens, when Sophocles' play was first produced at the Great Dionysia. Performing plays and going to the theatre was a religious duty. Citizens attended to honour the god Dionysos. There was a fund to ensure that those who couldn't afford the tickets could still join the audience. And it was an honour to be the wealthy citizen who sponsored a playwright's work.

As I remember – it's a long time since I worked through those books – the Great Dionysia was also a theatrical competition. A small jury would vote for the best set of plays (three from each playwright and a satyr play). However not all the votes were counted, giving the god a chance to intervene. And the plays were all on familiar topics so the question was not what the story was but always how it was told – and how it honoured the god - in the vast Athenian auditorium.

There was no way Steve Berkoff could offer that experience for an audience seeing a single play from the comfortable seats of the Playhouse. I did wonder whether he would try to bring the audience to a state of catharsis – the state of purification from emotions which King Oedipus achieves, according to Aristotle. But I'm not convinced such a state is possible today. We see the world differently.

One of the main differences is the set of questions we can't help asking about Oedipus: what did he do wrong? what could he have done differently? does he deserve his punishment? But these aren't, I think, the questions Sophocles' original audience would have askes. (These aren't my own ideas. I'm following classical scholars. I don't have my books to hand but I believe I encountered the arguments in essays by E.R. Dodds and Erich Segal.)

Sophocles' first audience believed in curses and prophecies. They probably didn't think about it all the time but the question could even enter politics. When things were going badly, citizens would mutter that there was a curse on the family of Pericles and Alcibiades – not because they thought there must be but because the curse was a matter of historical fact. Electing a leader from a cursed family could cause problems for the city as a whole.

The baby Oedipus was no more than three days old when the prophecy was pronounced – and it derived from a curse on his family. From the time of his birth it was inevitable that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The Christian idea of sin doesn't come into it because his fate was always inescapable. So is the punishment he and his family must endure for his actions – not because Oedipus has committed any conscious or willed wrong but because father-murder and incest are punished by divine law, even if they occur accidentally. What the play shows is not the way we should live but the way the power of the gods and prophecies work out. If it has a moral – and I think it does – it is simply that humans should believe in oracles and honour the gods.

I can see those views at a distance and understand logically that people held them but, like most people, I'm too wrapped up in a world that believes in personal guilt, human responsibility and the innocence of babies to feel what such views mean. Although people today often suffer for the actions of their rulers, few would find it just that a whole city should suffer from plague because its king has acted in the way the gods or Fate ordained. Because our understanding of the world has changed, ideas like this don't work in the theatre of today. Actors need characters they can inhabit and audiences need to sense a world that isn't too distant from their own.

In Steven Berkoff's production (after Oedipus rather than an exact translation) it's surprising how little this difference matters and how much of Sophocles' play survives. Berkoff may have created an Oedipus who is something of a mobster or mafioso rather than a king but Stephen Merrells' arrogant boss fits the play – he is the sort of man who, unfortunately for him, is bound to attract the notice of the gods.

I admired Louise Jameson's Jocasta too. She seemed softer than I would have expected – sympathetic and believable. I don't shudder in the way the original audience would have done when she repeatedly denies the power of oracles – to the watching Athenians this was the kind of blasphemy that could threaten the city as well as the speaker. For a modern audience this is more understandable. She's a mother who has lost her child and her husband and whose love for Oedipus is, in consequence, tender and protective.

What interested me above all was how the play itself would work. After all, telling a well-known story can mean there's little suspense. But just as children like to repeat the same suspense-filled journey, grown-ups can be interested in how a familiar story is told – and knowing the ending doesn't necessarily spoil the excitement.

I was surprised how well the tension builds. As members of the audience we observe the unfolding of events, alert to every little irony and clue. When Oedipus promises, with an oath as binding as an oracle, that he will punish the murderer of Laius with exile, we already know that he is promising to punish himself. And when we're told of his similarity to Laius, we know this is because he is Laius's son. Yet the inevitability enthralls the audience, as I suppose it enthralls the audience of a slasher-movie. And I found that, whereas I would watch Hamlet, which I've seen many times, for how the play is staged and acted, with Oedipus most of my attentions was given to the way in which the story unfolds. I suppose in that respect the modern audience is very like the Greek audience, who would have seen a number of plays on the Oedipus theme.

There were two points where I was less certain of the production, though this may suggest I'm something of a purist when it comes to Greek theatre. While at times the stylised mime of the chorus worked well – when performing clear emotions or recognizable actions, as, for instance, when a member of the ensemble suddenly became a horseback messenger – at other times I found the movements too vague in intent, though performed with complete conviction. But what a pleasure it was to see such a range of faces. Each chorus-member was both part of an ensemble and a human individual, whose face could at times be transformed into the fixed pain and astonishment of a Greek tragedian's mask.

For me one of the highlights of Greek or French classical drama is the messenger's speech when an actor tells the story of horrors that happen offstage. I'll never forget Robert Edison in the Phedre of Racine, holding a full theatre still and on edge as his mellifluous voice painted a succession of cruel catastrophes. The horror that occurs in my imagination is always more terrible than any that can be shown on stage.

I was unhappy, therefore, at the decision to show Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's eye-gouging on stage. Even a simple dumb-show distracts from the power of language to shock. The conclusion did allow a moment that moved me deeply: when Oedipus gently embraced and kissed his dead mother-wife. But that gentleness somehow made the ending less bleak and powerful. The play moved me but not to the extent that I felt purged and purified by having seen it. Good as the production was, it offered me no catharsis.

But then, I didn't go to Nottingham Playhouse to worship Dionysos. I'm not sure I believe in him.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Against the dark times

I have succumbed to temptation again.

The Flying Goose café hosted one of its regular poetry readings and I returned with books by the three poets who read - Ann Atkinson, Alan Baker and Wayne Burrows - as well as books by the Australian Andrew Sant and the Dutch poet and children's writer Toon Tellegen.

As I carried my shiny treasures home I reflected that these are not the kind of books you see in Waterstone's. They come from small presses - Shoestring, Skysill and Smith/Doorstop - and are, like so many books from small presses, lovingly made. While mass market paperbacks can seem impersonal - made to fit in with a marketing officer's idea of what "brand" each book fits - small press books often show the personal care of the tiny teams that put them together. The smallest presses are run by people who make no money from them but work for pay elsewhere. The books small presses produce have a personality which seems to come from their close link with both publisher and author.

These carefully-crafted books and the skilfully-managed poems within them cannot compensate for the horrors on the news. The optimistic and peaceful protests in the Middle East seem to be ending in bloody repression and torture by regimes to whom the British government has been - and in most cases still is - selling military equipment. The threats and massacres that silence dissent have been knocked off the front page by the pain of Japan for which I have no words.

I can't look at the television for long - it's not just the sense of helplessness I experience that prevents me but the fear that if I look too long I'll be a mere voyeur - or worse, be hardened to ignore the devastation and anguish of others.

But literature (and art and music and many other sources of beauty and pleasure) still have their place in the world. I was reminded of this by a short blog message to her Japanese readers from the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who posted at the request of her translator and friend. Reading this - and the first comment that followed - made me feel reassured that there is nothing wrong in the refuge I seek in words, art and music. These have many roles. They deepen understanding and cause us to question. They also nourish and console, in part because of the care with which they are wrought.

So I feel less bad about the joy I take in music on Radio 3, in sunshine, in books, in poetry. These good things exist in the same world in which humans and nature cause great damage. I'll campaign and write letters and even march against great wrongs. I'll try to work out how the world might be better and say what I think. I'll never have most of the answers but can try to contribute to debate and trains of thought - the more people share ideas and work together, the better hope for humanity. And I'll pay attention to things that are quite small and made with love.

This Saturday Leicester hosts States of Independence II, an independent press fair where small and independent publishers will display their wares and writers will read, talk and answer questions. It's a free, all-day event to which members of the public are welcome. It's a chance to celebrate words and the makers of books. However dark the world, these remain worthy of celebration.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The problem with patrons

I was almost impossibly tired when I arrived at the National Gallery. I'd had a good but busy week and was still recovering from the amazing and absorbing experience of hearing Alan Moore, the Magus of Northampton, read aloud from his novel-in-process. [Note to anyone who hasn't come across Alan Moore: he is not only a remarkable writer but also one of the kindest and most courteous authors I have encountered. His reading held everyone in a huge lecture theatre spellbound for nearly an hour and he spent a further hour and a half speaking to everyone who had queued to have their books signed.]

The day after Alan Moore, I was on my way to visit my parents, unsure I was sufficiently awake to take in the Gossaert exhibition but knowing that I was unlikely to find another opportunity to see it. I also had my new Art Fund card with me - at last I've fulfilled my resolution to join, not just for the very welcome benefits but also because I have benefited from the Art Fund through a lifetime of gallery visits.

The route to the exhibition took me past many familiar paintings. On one side I spotted a favourite Titian. Through the entrance to another room I thought I glimpsed a Vermeer. There was Murillo, staring out of his frame like a competent marketer of his own paintings.

In my susceptible state of mind, even Rubens seemed set to lure me from my path toward Gossaert. After all, Rubens was not only free but there were comfortable padded benches from which his work could be admired. (I don't usually admire Rubens that much.)

I forced myself to make the long trek to the basement of the Sainsbury wing where the Gossaerts were displayed. It was worth it. I realised that I had seen and admired individual paintings by Gossaert in the past but I'd never seen them in relation to one another before. I hadn't even registered the artist's name.

There are six rooms in the exhibition. Gossaert's drawings and paintings are complemented by the work of artists who influenced him - a startling range from Northern European artists like Durer to the classical tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Although he's only mentioned in the timeline at the start of this exhibition, it's easy to see Holbein as the heir of this remarkable combination of influences.

There's more to Gossaert than his portraits but these are the most obviously remarkable part of his work. The people he paints in portraits convince as human beings, simultaneously familiar and unknowable. This isn't just true of his secular portraits. There's a lavishly clad Mary Magdalen with sly glance and dirty fingernails. But he also paints relationships, including erotic relationships. There are various works showing Adam and Eve, including some copies of lost originals, but all convey an astonishing blend of tenderness and desire.

The work that stunned me most - and nearly moved me to tears - was a painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It's a dark painting - even the red robes of the flying angel and the sleeping St John are barely lit. An elderly figure - St Peter, perhaps, lies on his back, asleep in the foreground. He has the pallor of exhaustion. But at the centre is the kneeling figure of a youthful Christ, beardless, confused and close to despair. It's not an attractive figure but terrifyingly recognizable. It's the expression of any child confronting an incomprehensible horror. It could be Libya or Afghanistan - or, too often, the U.K.

At the end of the exhibition I couldn't give an account of Gossaert. I had no sense of the man who painted the pictures, except that he could see and reproduce with pencil on paper or paint on canvas. He had, it seems, some human understanding that didn't take a verbal form. And he had the luck to be taken up by a succession of patrons who took him within reach of the influences he needed to develop his art.

It was luck. That's the problem with patrons. While Gossaert had the right patrons for his development as an artist, he was limited to painting what they required: a portrait of a marriageable daughter, erotic works for a private collection, an altar piece, a sketch for a tomb. There is no way of knowing what Gossaert would have liked to paint. It's lucky that some of his patrons' requirements suited a style that we can now appreciate.

It's luck too that has made me so familiar with the works in the National Gallery - the luck of living near a free art gallery and being encouraged by my parents to look inside. I was brought up to take advantage of free and cheap culture - to see culture as a good that should be shared.

It was shocking, therefore, to read, the day after my visit to the National Gallery, of a Labour MP calling for the introduction of admission charges to London's museums. He's not just any Labour MP. The Hon. Tristram Hunt, son of a life peer and a historian with a proclaimed interest in radicalism and the working class, has written an introduction to a recent edition of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. In this book, Robert Tressell, through his main socialist characters, argues that culture is one of the necessities of life and should be available to all. I assume Tristram Hunt read the book before writing the introduction. It's a shame he didn't take in its arguments.

It's fair to say that Tristram Hunt wants free admission to the museums in his own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent and, by extension, to other regional museums. I think they should be free too. But I don't think the country's great art galleries and museums should become the preserve of the wealthy. And I'm not interested in any party that can consider excluding the poor from culture, which is not just an education but a means to nourish imagination.

Had there been a charge for the National Gallery, I might have visited once or twice when I was growing up. I know I wouldn't have gone there often - and I wouldn't have learnt much about the history of art. I remember when Mrs Thatcher introduced admission charges for museums and galleries in the 1980s. I was poor then and on many occasions I was stuck outside, wishing I could afford to go in.

Now I've joined the Art Fund. I make donations because museums and galleries were free in my childhood and it's time to say thank-you. If there had been a charge, I wouldn't have bothered. I'd have known museums and galleries weren't for the likes of me.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Banishing the mouse

I'm in danger of succumbing to a new addiction. In the past few weeks I don't just come downstairs desperate to ignite the gas beneath the espresso-maker. I also tune feverishly to Radio 3.

It began with Buchner. I read his plays years ago and have twice seen excellent productions of Berg's opera Wozzeck. But I've never seen the original plays performed. So when, by chance, I noticed that Danton's Death was being broadcast on Radio 3, I tuned to the station - and didn't tune away.

In the past Radio 4 has been my default station. But the new and views have weighed on me, as has the immense wordiness of it all. I spend so much of my life with words that every so often, I need a break - and the music on Radio 3, at its best, provides that.

But this week started unfortunately. Paul Dukas is composer of the week - and that should have been excellent, because I know so little about him or his work. It was a shame that, early on, the compiler of the programmes felt compelled to play his most famous work, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I'd have liked to consider it in relation to the Goethe poem on which it was based but I couldn't. I've seen Fantasia. My mind was flooded with images of Mickey Mouse.

It was a relief, therefore, to find a piece of music which I could experience simply as music - which didn't crowd my mind with words and images but existed in sound and space, on its own terms.

I was at De Montfort University's Cultural eXchanges festival - an annual event that offers a range of cultural events, talks and debates - mostly for free - to locals in Leicester and the wider East Midlands. I've managed to attend a number of sessions but the one that stands out for me is the one that's hardest to describe and explain. Its resistance to description and explanation is one of the things I liked best about it.

Simon Emmerson's Memory Machine is an installation. I didn't know what to expect. What I found was a darkened studio - there were coloured lights and bean-bags. We entered in small groups, advised to walk carefully andlet our eyes adjust. Some people chose to sit or lie on the floor. I remained standing and, from time to time, walked around. My interest was in the sound.

When sound doesn't conform to the normal expectations of music - when it isn't in a definable strict form and doesn't include words - the only thing to do is to experience it and either succumb or not succumb. There were occasional sounds that seemed familiar - the fall of water, for instance - that conjured up ideas and past experiences. But other sounds I seemed to feel physically - in my body as much as through my ears. The sound came from different directions at once - the balance changed as I moved (as quietly as I could) across the studio. I felt at times excited - and at others intensely relaxed.

I couldn't stay as long as I wished. Perhaps that is as well. If I'd stayed too long I might have felt I was floating. As it was I had found, briefly, something I craved - a way of being that was neither speech nor image.

I suppose some people would dismiss such work as "avant-garde" or label it "difficult." I found it neither - but I know little about music. All I know is that sometimes, when I choose to experience a new work and am ready to accept what it has to offer, I discover new and unexpected sources of delight.

Note: The photograph is not associated with Simon Emmerson's composition. It was taken during a performance of Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for a hundred metronomes at Covent Garden last year.