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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, March 1, 2000
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Catalan "Ricardo i Elena"
"Walküre" in Edinburgh
Gertrude Stein & "Hashirigaki"
Dancing To Architecture
NY City Ballet's "Diamonds"
18th Century "Gentle Shepherd"
Thomas Bernhard's "Old Masters"
"The Notebook" & "The Proof"
Digging in the Northern Irish "Midden"
Canada's First Nation "FareWel"
Terry Neason's "Slaps & Tickles" Cabaret
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For a selection of Glenn Loney's previous columns, click here.
EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 2001:
Avant-garde Beyond Post-ModernismTraditional & Conventional don't count for much at major modern festivals anymore. But arts-experiments are becoming increasingly expensive to mount.
Salzburg can still afford to manufacture its own cultural outrages and occasional revelations.
But the Edinburgh Festival cannot—aside from regional productions by the Scottish National Opera, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, and other Edinburgh or Glasgow ensembles.
So the Festival has to import avant-garde work from around the world—if possible—making it the major European showcase for new advances in the Performing Arts.
Some of the best are soon seen at other arts festivals. Some even make their way to Manhattan or Brooklyn.
More should be seen on this side of the Atlantic, but touring is a very costly proposition these days. And some people are sick of super-titles…
Carl Orff & Salvador Dali:
Eat Your Hearts Out!
Carles Santos' Surreal Ricardo i ElenaOne of the most exciting and unusual works of Music-Theatre I've seen recently is surely Ricardo i Elena, created by that mad Catalan, Carles Santos. And not just because its pounding beat, unrelenting energy, and Latin libretto invite strong comparisons with Carl Orff's admired Carmina Burana.
Is More Than a Catalan Carmina Burana
But it is memorable also because of the fantastical Surrealism with which Santos—who also performs, plays the grand-piano, and sings—has visualized his bizarre vision of Post-War Spain under Franco. And he makes the great Catalan Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, look positively Academic.
In the Edinburgh Festival program, Santos' texts are printed parallel in Latin—not Spanish, not Catalan—and English. But they are sung in almost incantory Latin.
In Orff's Carmina Burana, the medieval Latin texts—found in the library of the Benediktbeuren Monastery—were, in a sense, "ready to hand," waiting only for Orff to set them to a remarkable percussive score, which heightened their incantory powers.
Thanks to Orff, this is now a sound that has gone round the world. It is often used as background music in films which need some excitement injected into them.
Santos understood very well this power, which is why he elected to set his texts in Latin. With Santos' Ricardo i Elena, the magical sound of fiercely sung & chanted Latin almost overpowers the considerable impact of his visual images.
Ricardo and Elena were Santos' parents, and they had their piano-prodigy son Carles after the Spanish Civil War was finally over. Under Franco's Iron Hand—and with the eager & empowering complicity of the Catholic Church—Iberia was at last at peace.
So Ricardo i Elena, says Santos, is not so much about his parents as about that time. "The piece is referring to the peacetime, the 1950s in Spain. The situation was very special: it was very tranquil," he told an interviewer.
It was a time of sinister allegiances, however: "I don't use the symbol of Fascism. I use religious symbolism. And I wrote the text in Latin. It was the official second language in Spain because the Church was very powerful and very related with Fascism."
That is an astonishing revelation from a Catalan. Spain's second language was not Catalan, but Latin! But he was not about to set this piece in Catalan—or Spanish. Latin was the clear choice.
"The language is fantastic. It's very good to put music and song with Latin—this is the most important reason for using it," he says.
He's on solid ground with that claim. Even today older Catholics would prefer to hear the Mass sung in Latin. And they are still grateful for Mozart or Haydn Masses sung in Latin.
The Vernacular is all very well for helping people to understand what is being said or sung in their own languages. But most people want some Mystery to enhance their Faith.
For Santos, however, his verbal and visual images are not a celebration of Faith & Piety. But rather of the strong human sexual undercurrents which become increasingly powerful when they are deliberately suppressed by Church & State.
The Cross and the Rosary as objects not so much of veneration as of venery shocked some who saw the Edinburgh performances.
But, after all, when lusty Spanish girls become nuns and "Brides of Christ," where are they to direct their very human passions except toward the nearly naked image of an agonized Christ on the Cross?
He made the Ultimate Blood Sacrifice, not only for their sins, but those of the entire World. Should they not love and venerate his image with every fiber of their beings?
Not to overlook the special S&M appeals for celibate monks of baroque images of an arrow-riddled St. Sebastian, his also nearly naked body contorted in an ecstasy of suffering?
Sexuality will not be repressed, and Santos shows some unusual ways in which it has manifested itself, at least in his imagination of his childhood years.
His texts, however, are deliberately banal, dealing with the lives of Ricardo and Elena. She speaks: "Ricardo, the light's gone out. Ricardo, have you changed your shoes?
This is quite a contrast with what is sung, however: "Ricarde, ablit lux. Ricarde, calceos mutavisti?"
Ricardo explains to the audience: "It's Elena, my wife. She's a Catalan from Barcelona. She eats oysters for Christmas. She takes a swim in the sea six months a year. She doesn't want to wear a mantilla or be in mourning. I don't know if she's happy living here, but I do everything I can to keep her content."
Santos' own written explanation of his new work is anything but banal. It could be a description of a Surrealist painting by Salvador Dali: "Elena ringing bells, her giant legs full of insects floating in the theatrical space, the pianist with the world falling over him, restless playing, freeing his ghosts."
And more: "The music, his music, 'the crux of the matter,' the conducting thread, support and exorcism, which will re-unite in an incestuous trip back to the pianist with all the elements, put together for their configuration and appearance in 2000; border line the programmed tops and the broken horizon of the most beautiful isms of the deceased century."
Dali could not have said it better!
The black grand-piano is a central prop in this astonishing production. It is thunderously played by Santos himself from time to time. And sometimes he's joined at the keyboard by Ricardo and Elena, as they pound out six-handers.
It is, however, also a sexual object, but with a different charge than getting off on the Rosary.
At one point, a beautiful blonde with long, streaming hair rushes across the stage to leap onto the piano. In basic black, she sits atop it and plays arpeggios on its keys with her feet and toes.
Later, she gets under it, locking her legs around its own rear leg in a kind of ecstasy. Still lying on her back, she drums out a powerful beat with her feet on the underside of the piano!
Here are some other astounding Santos images, beginning with the opening scene:
·Across the shadowy stage are strung a series of large crosses. They dangle from a taut rope-walker's wire. He silently proceeds across the wire, balancing with a pole which has two more dangling crosses on either end—and which throw ghostly & symbolic shadows on the backdrop.
·One immense glowing backdrop is a giant photograph of rice. Another seems to be some kind of salad.
·Ricardo appears in the conical hat and flowing robes of a Spanish Religious Penitente. But it's no longer Holy Week in Seville, so a sexy lady on a rope swings across the stage to knock off his hat.
As he gradually divests himself of robe and clothing, not one but two women criss-cross the stage on swinging ropes to snatch the clothing. Or later return it.
·Two gaudily decorated panels close in the stage, with a small opening in the center. On the stage-left side, high up on the panel, is a bed, with a restless Elena in it, thrashing around. Surely the insects in her legs are bothering her?
But the bed is parallel with the wall, so the audience seems to be looking down on her from above.
On the stage-right panel, is a rectangular box with thumping noises coming out of it. It has a keyboard, so the audience is again looking down on an upright piano.
The man inside puts his hands over the edge of the top of the box. Then he proceeds to walk up the panel—his horizontal body at right angles to the wall—until he disappears into the flies.
Then the panel-sections shut to form a colorful wall.
·Overlarge pieces of metal furniture have a life of their own, moving around the stage and crashing into each other.
·Above the black grand-piano hangs an immense cross. A sexy lady is swinging back & forth, her naked legs swung over its cross-bars. Gradually, she raises herself to stand on the cross-beam, as a large ball zonks down the cable supporting the cross.
It falls into place, separated from the cross by 12 inches or so. The woman works her way up onto this ball, as another falls into place above it. This climbing woman, mounting falling balls, seems a sexual metaphor.
But suddenly, as the chain of balls increases, it's clear this is a Giant Rosary. And the woman is having some kind of Orgasm with it.
As it then hangs there, its shadow solitary against the background, it suddenly crashes down onto the piano and caroms onto the forestage. To pounding musical accompaniment.
·From the flies, a stage-wide collection of framed pictures begins to descend. It continues until it fills the proscenium arch of the King's Theatre like a partial curtain. Then all the pictures and frames end in a heap on the forestage.
·As Ricardo & Elena vocalize with Latinate passion in Latin, overhead on a dual revolving trapeze, a man & woman rapidly whirl over and over, splayed out in the rigging like Albrecht Dürer's famous image of Man.
Antoni Comas and Clàudia Schneder perform wonders as this duo. With voices like these, they should be performing in major opera-houses. But the rest of the cast—especially the trapeze-artists—are just as talented.
This remarkable work of invention and imagination must be seen in New York at BAM! Music-theatre might never be the same in the New World…
Scottish Opera's Die Walküre:
Not Bayreuth But Not All Bad!
Second Quarter Slackens Pace—Last August, the Scottish Opera premiered Das Rheingold, the first opera in its new Ring Cycle, with Die Walküre bowing this festival season in Edinburgh.
With Two Operas Left in Cycle
From the design standpoint this summer, it all looked like more of the same from last year, only in different mythic locales. And obviously inspired by recent continental Ring updatings which have placed Wagner's reworking of Nordic Myths in fairly recent times.
So it was no surprise to discover Hunding living in some kind of abandoned Post-World War II housing-project, with entrance to his apartment made through two sets of doors in each of three rectangular pillars.
This could have been DDR architecture. And it made Siegmund's exhausted, staggering invasion of the home considerably more difficult than usual. Having to open all those doors!
Interior-decoration was apparently not Sieglinde's strong suit, for furnishings included an old kitchen-table, a plastic-covered sofa, and three chairs, vintage 1950s.
The fabled tree was a spindly little stem with barely thickness enough to accommodate the great sword Nothung.
No sooner had Hunding left the scene than the long-separated brother and sister made up for lost time with passionate embraces.
In fact, Jan Kyhle and Ursula Füri-Bernhard, as the twins, were two of the best actor-singers in the entire production. Sieglinde was especially moving in her final scene.
But there were strange vocal and orchestral problems throughout.
Not only did the orchestra not seem to have sufficient personnel to give the score its full dimension and depth, but conductor Richard Armstrong was belying his family-name at every turn.
His arm was definitely not strong. He lacked fire and energy, as well as engagement with singers and orchestra. He could have been conducting background music. Even an operetta score demands more vitality than he gave to Wagner's Ring.
There was also the sense, in his slow tempi, that—like Florence Foster Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon—he was helping some of the singers over passages that had been giving them difficulties.
Indeed, there were entirely too many instances in which Wotan and Brünnhilde were singing so softly that this premiere could have been only a rehearsal. With the principals saving their voices for the real Opening-Night.
Now this can lend a certain subtlety to intimate scenes, but Walküre is not exactly a chamber-opera, even with only two Gods on stage. Nor does one want to turn piano into pianissimo.
Elizabeth Byrne's Brünnhilde was girlish rather than strong. No wonder Wotan seemed to have a crush on her.
Incest, it seems, runs in the Walsung Family. Siegmund & Sieglinde weren't the only blood relatives smitten with each other. In fact, there was entirely too much embracing before Wotan finally put his warrior-daughter to sleep.
In his loping about the stage, Wotan [Matthew Best] looked rather like Spaulding Gray—working out another Sag Harbor monologue—than the seriously troubled Father of the Gods.
Quite simply, stage-director Tim Albery is not very imaginative in his Personnen-Regie: He runs the gamut from A to B in conventional poses, movements, and reactions.
And he has very little sense of inventive, theatrical ways to move groups of people about the stage. His Valkyries were often just standing around, waiting for the next cue.
After just having seen Jürgen Flimm's remarkable contemporary staging of Walküre in Bayreuth, the similarities in concept were less surprising than disappointing in how poorly they had been worked out.
Why set-designer Hildegard Bechtler and director Albery decided to set their Ring in what seems the 1950s—though unfortunately without the design-sense of Ray & Charles Eames—must remain a mystery.
To be solved, perhaps, with the 2003 completion of this Scottish Opera Cycle.
The basic set-pieces were already shabby last year in Rheingold. But this seems a deliberate shabbiness. Wotan has paid for a cut-rate Valhalla.
But this may be an intentional visual comment on the total lack of taste of all the gods, demi-gods, dwarfs, giants, and humans?
If that is the intention, however, how can it be justified by Wagner's triumphal music?
Did anyone listen to the score before this production was designed?
Why are the Gods living in a sleazy motel-room underneath an abandoned Freeway?
As in some current Salzburg Festival productions, the settings are deliberately ugly and barren. This may well be a visual metaphor for the characters and the actions they are involved in. But, if so, is it urgently necessary?
The difference between Salzburg Shabby & Ugly is that it is very expensively created on stage. In Edinburgh, it simply looks like they ran out of money. Tacky!
At its least imaginative and exciting, this production looks like well-intentioned Community Theatre, although the voices are well above that level.
Anne Mason was straining as Fricka: her quality was sometimes unpleasant. But that wasn't just because she was being unpleasant to Wotan. Carsten Stabell was stable as Hunding.
As the Twins discovered their true identities and their mutual love, instead of the Vision of Springtime transforming Hunding's humble hut, a bunch of dead leaves fell down in the space between two pillar-doors.
So the vision was of Autumn, but it looked like the welfare-family upstairs had simply dumped their trash in the air-shaft again.
The dead leaves were recycled as an image in the next scene. Wotan dumped them on a sleeping Brünnhilde, who had apparently checked into a shabby Motel 6 room, underneath a failed Art Deco Expressway.
His obvious affection for her—and the fact that he finds her in a bedroom, complete with tile-bathroom—suggests rather strongly the Incest-Theme recycled. As do later bodily interactions…
Bechtler's fundamental design in this scene—which incorporates the fatal duel between Hunding and Siegmund—is essentially quite striking, with a starkly Modernist elevated highway sweeping from downstage right to upstage left.
The fleeing Twins appear above on the highway, which for no apparent reason has three tall shattered concrete square pillars and two smaller stumps. What these once supported is anyone's guess, but they make movement aloft difficult.
So Siegmund has to clamber down off the road behind the motel-bathroom to do battle with Hunding in the Walsung's bedroom. Or whatever this may be…
The oddly-shaped slanting sections of neutral background from last season's Rheingold were recycled this year—and surely will be upstage again for Siegfried & Götterdämmerung.
Even though one of them had a low row of mountains painted on it, Brünnhilde's shadow was thrown against it grotesquely—dwarfing the mountains—in the combat-scene.
This looked like really amateur lighting mistake, but the sloppy effect may have been intentional. After all, the much admired Wolfgang Göbbel is credited with the lighting.
That mountainous backing surfaced again as the Valkyrie's Rock.
This time, however, it had a small fridge in front of it. The Valkyries—dressed like cowboys or gypsies, or Gypsy-Cowgirls—were taking cool green bottles of beer—Becks?—from the cooler and guzzling away. One even got a very wet beer-bath!
For future performances of Walküre in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, or Aberdeen, however, they would be well advised to seek the help of Fergie & Monicax. Or sign up at the nearest Alpine Weight-Watchers Hut.
Six of the eight were definitely too hefty for riding horses through the sky. So maybe they should lay off the Beck's beer?
But then it's not easy just standing around on a flat stage—surrounding a little white peak which could be a Salt-Berg, or Salzberg—with nothing much to do with your hands or your bodies.
Albery should take a remedial course in stage-movement. Or manage that London theatre which bears his Family-Name.
But he and designer Bechtler must at least get credit for a new Ring which really has some Magic Fire, unlike Bayreuth's. And Loge also appears—in his bright red coat—to light Brünnhilde's Fires.
This was not required by the Master. And, in most contemporary productions, one just has to imagine that the flames—or the red glow, if there's even that much concession to Wagner's Vision—have been raised by Loge. He has no music, so why should a theatre pay another singer for a non-singing role?
Helpfully, the man sitting next to me—who had been sucking on a plastic bottle of water for most of the evening—explained to his wife: "That's Loge, you see, the God of Fire."
She seemed most grateful—also because the 5+ hours had finally come to an end: "Really, I do see that."
After writing this, I was interested to read Daily and Sunday Telegraph reviews, one by Michael Kennedy, the other by Rupert Christian.
Had I not also been at the premiere, I would have to believe that this was one of the finest new stagings of the Ring, with outstanding vocalism all round.
Christian even noted that friends just back from Bayreuth said it was better than the one currently on the Grüner Hügel. Could this be British pride, after all?
Dance & Performance Pieces—
Pigeons In the Grass, Alas…
Gertrude Stein Back on StageNo, Gertrude Stein did not write any Japanese tales. Not that I know of.
In Hilariously Haunting Hashirigaki
She did create for the stage—with composer Virgil Thomson—two charming & unusual operas: Four Saints in Three Acts & The Mother of Us All.
But the much admired Post-Modernist German composer, Heiner Goebbels, was safely on Stein Territory with his handsome & haunting performance-piece, Hashirigaki. The word is Japanese, signifying talking while walking—but it also refers to a classic of the Kabuki Theatre.
Created for the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, this attractive production has already visited Rome, Berlin, Hamburg, and Paris.
How long will New Yorkers have to wait before it comes to BAM? Or that relatively new alternative site: the Theatre of John Jay College of Criminal Justice…
This is primarily an entertainment of Images & Music, with Stein's texts from The Making of Americans functioning rather like music.
Charlotte Engelkes & Marie Goyette archly share Stein's repetitive & incantory formulae with the audience in English. Yumiko Tanaka plays a variety of traditional Japanese instruments. She can make a lute sound like a banjo.
The three women play against a stage-filling half-round cyclorama, on which are projected both rear and frontal designs. These are the inspirations of designer Klaus Grünberg.
The effect is often surprising, though relatively simple in execution. It is certainly haunting. One stage-picture features three Japanese bronze bells on bungee-cords.
The cantus firmus of Goebbels' musical accompaniment is a sort of homage to the Beach Boys'Pet Sounds. The three ladies are as accomplished as pop singers as they are in varied choreographies.
Their quirky costumes—which they are constantly changing—were designed by Florence von Gerkan, who also created the costumes for Bayreuth's new Ring.
Dancing To Digital Architecture—
Frédéric Flamand & Zaha Hadid'sFrédéric Flamand's athletic young dancers—from his Charleroi/Danses—Plan K Company—are energetic and accomplished. Supercharged, in fact.
Innovative METAPOLIS—project 972
They need the energy and endurance, for Flamand's choreography for Metapolis involves a lot of dominance & violence.
But this is a very curiously devised work: effectually, one with a visual Split-Personality.
It is, nonetheless, an interesting exploration of meshing multi-media visuals with live dance performance.
Zaha Hadid, one of Britain's most original—and controversial—architects, has contributed the production design. It bears the sub-title project 972 because it is in fact that number among Hadid's many projects.
The actual architectural elements on stage—which the dancers use variously—are three arched aluminum "bridges." These are graduated in size, so the smaller two can nest inside the greater arch.
But Hadid's most significant contribution to the work is a series of computer-generated projections of her designs for super-cities of the future. They zoom and flow over the rear projection screen, changing direction and dimension.
Zaha Hadid is one of the most innovative architects now working—although many of her projects haven't been built because they are too advanced for competition-judges or potential building-owners who have to pay the bills.
In several different exhibitions of new architecture—at MoMA and in Britain—the designs which have first caught my eye have been those of Ms. Hadid. She is thinking and seeing years ahead in her designs.
And, for this show, she has attempted to create a Virtual Reality, a Metapolis.
Unfortunately, the designs literally and figuratively upstage Flamand's dancers.
Even in deliberately blurred focus, they call attention to themselves—especially when they are zooming and gliding across the screen—at the expense of the dancers so strenuously working in front of them.
But before the architecture appears, a much less interesting multi-media show also somewhat eclipses the dancers. Here, an onstage TV-camera records the dancers in action and these moving images are simultaneously projected on the rear screen. Initially in black & white.
Then certain dancers don green garments which, on the screen, form outlines into which blurry, rapidly-moving overhead scenes of bustling cities can be dimly viewed.
So that the dancer on screen seems to be partly an aperture through which fuzzy old film-footage can be glimpsed.
This is the same film & TV technique in which performers are recorded in action against a neutral blue background. They can then be digitally integrated with other moving images around them.
Perhaps because I am so interested in architecture & design, my attention was constantly being stolen away from the dancers. This may not have been a problem for dance-addicts, but the jumpy visions on screen must have been something of a distraction for them as well.
Nonetheless, this is another on of those innovative dance/media pieces which ought to be shown at BAM, Or somewhere in New York. The built-units and the projections are not all that complicated to tour.
Look Where It Comes Again!
The New York City BalletLast summer, the New York City Ballet returned to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in some 15 years. They brought their re-cycled Balanchine, and it was rapturously received.
Back at the Edinburgh Festival
But on their return visit this August, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins was determined to show something from the current repertory. The immense Edinburgh Playhouse was packed for the premiere.
The audience was certainly delighted with the youth, energy, attractiveness, and technique of the NYCB ensemble. But none of the initial four choreographies sparked much interest or excitement.
These dances are part of the Diamond Project. But not to be confused with any of George Balanchine's Jewels… Rather, the project is sponsored by Irene Diamond.
In fact, Martins' own Barber Violin Concerto seemed to elicit almost as much applause for the violinist as for the two contrasting dancing duos. But Darci Kistler remains a favorite, even with her back-problems.
Miriam Mahdaviani's derivative choreography for Appalachia Waltz had nothing in common with Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring—except the regional appellation.
More of Martha and less of Miriam might have been welcome, but the dancers were at least spirited. This was neither a real hoe-down, nor an angst-ridden dance-exploration of folk-culture. But the three onstage musicians were much appreciated by the audience.
As for John Adams' noisy & trendy Slonimsky's Earbox—also a Martins choreography—it could have been a very demanding workout at a Midtown gym. But the tremendous energy and proficiency of the dancers was admirable.
As were their form-fitting costumes of bright basic colors—a different shade for each dancer—designed by Broadway's William Ivey Long.
It isn't a good sign, however, if spectators find themselves following the colors on the dancers, rather than their movement-patterns. The colors, finally, were really more interesting.
Christopher Wheeldon's Mercurial Manoeuvres was also fairly uninspired.
I think Ismene Brown—dance-critic for the London Daily Telegraph—got it right: Not only did she suggest that she could almost believe all four ballets had been created by the same person. And "…those dancers looked like they could dance this stuff all week without waking up."
My musical adventures in Edinburgh were given added dimension by the harpsichord concert of that venerable keyboard master, Gustav Leonhardt. In the equally venerable Georgian Queen's Hall, he presented a thoughtful but also spirited program of Couperin, Bach, and lesser-knowns such as Reincken, Ritter, Böhm, and Le Roux.
Theatre in Three Forms:
Scottish Tradition/Viennese Satire/Flemish Innovation
·Allan Ramsay's The Gentle ShepherdDid you know that Wow! was actually a Scottish expression way back in the 18th century?
To Scots of that time it meant either Strange! Or Wonderful! And you thought it was modern slang?
When Scots poet Allan Ramsay published The Gentle Shepherd in 1725, as a "Pastoral Comedy," he had no idea it might actually be produced on a stage.
But because it had been partly inspired by an Edinburgh school production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, it was an easy matter for Ramsay to add some songs—in the manner of Gay's popular ballad-opera—for the same school to perform.
At that time, both the Scots and the Irish stages were dominated by London dramas and comedies. So the new work's popularity in Scotland was guaranteed, especially as it was rich in Scots dialect and was set just after the Stuart Restoration of 1660.
The Theatre Licensing Act, however, closed all theatres outside London. So Ramsay's tuneful tale of two noble bairns—raised as simple country children—was even more easily performed as a musical concert.
Patie, the shepherd of the title, loves Peggy, niece of an old shepherd. Their true parentage was concealed at birth, during the bloody reign of The Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Patie's real father, Sir William Worthy, had escaped to France.
On his return, all is made well again, in a sentimental conclusion obviously inspired by Shakespeare.
But this Scots ballad-opera proved so popular that it was republished almost every year—complete with some 22 songs by then—even into the late 19th century.
At the charming concert performance in Queen's Hall, I sat next to a gentleman who had a very old copy of the musical play. It had both text and songs, which he followed closely. So he didn't get to see very much.
Ordinarily, in concert performances of musicals or operas, acting is minimal, but the talented cast really interacted with zest and characterization.
Jamie MacDougall was an admirable Patie, with Mhairi Lawson as his beloved Peggy—who nearly loses him because she is believed to be a commoner, unfit to marry the heir of a great Laird.
Brian Ferguson was especially feisty as the rowdy young Bauldy, a "Hynd" engaged to the unseen Neps, but also in love with Peggy. He gets taken down several pegs and is forced to do right by his first love.
Even a contemporary Scots drama—with Glaswegian or Highland accents—can be very difficult for non-Scots to understand. With the added barrier of 18th century language and usage, at times this performance seemed to be played in Icelandic. If not Old Norse…
Andrew McKinnon directed the production, with David McGuinness conducting the Concerto Caledonia chamber-ensemble.
·Burgtheater & Bernhard: Alte Meister/Old MastersIn the years preceding his demise, novelist/playwright Thomas Bernhard became notorious as Austria's Scourge, or at least its Leading Scold. Its self-satisfaction, its smugness, its phony pieties, its over-rated culture, its unresolved collaboration with the Nazis: these were among his targets.
There were so many negative reactions to some of his dramas that he finally forbade their production in Austria.
He was not loved while alive, but in death things are changing.
Alte Meister is not, in fact, one of Thomas Bernhard's controversial dramas attacking Austria & Austrians. It is, instead, his last major prose work , published before his death in 1989.
Fortunately, for those Austrians who just cannot get enough of self-criticism, this book is also crammed with Bernhardian rants against real and imagined faults in the Austrian National Character.
So Stephan Müller and Claudia Hamm have adapted it for the stage, and even staged it for the prestigious Burgtheater, which was once under fire for the scandal of producing Bernhard's Heldenplatz—or Heroes' Square—which indicted Austria for its National Socialist past.
This dramatic dynamite even moved the then-President of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, to denounce the play—which he of course had neither read nor seen, like most politicians playing to the prejudices of voters.
But then, Waldheim could hardly have endorsed the play, considering his questionable World War II record with German troops in Yugoslavia…
Alte Meister refers to the many priceless artworks on view in Vienna's major art-museum. Acquired—or purchased—over the centuries of Habsburg Rule in Central & Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain, and in the Spanish Netherlands, it is one of the world's most important collections.
The drama's substance is the attempt of would-be biographers to reconstruct the life and sayings of the late and prestigious music-critic, a certain Herr Reger.
It was Reger's custom to come daily to Vienna's prestigious Kunsthistorisches-Museum and sit before Tintoretto's portrait of Man with a White Beard.
He was always protectively watched over by the gallery guard, Herr Irrsigler. And often joined by Herr Atzbacher, a younger admirer and amanuensis.
As Reger clearly speaks for Bernhard in his tirades against trends in the arts, general ignorance & superstition, and the flaws of philosophers such as Heidegger, there is ample material to shock and amuse not only an Austrian, but also an educated international audience.
Reger/Bernhard also has some very funny riffs on Viennese Toilet Culture. It stinks. But then he doesn't think cleanliness is a priority in Old Vienna.
The interchanged and repeated dialogue is entirely memories of what Reger, Irrsigler, or Atzbacher said or may have said at one time or another.
The death of misogynist Reger's wealthy wife obviously devastated him. Being a critic for The Times clearly added weight to his already thunderous pronouncements on Life & Art.
Unfortunately, the material is not really dramatic, so the co-directors have had to work very hard to devise stage-movements & interactive strategies to make it look like a play of some sort.
In a square room with overtones of Wiener Werkstätte design—stands a kind of Isolation-Box upstage center. It is flanked on either side by high Jugendstil settees.
But they are very high indeed, so that would-be sitters have to jump onto them, leaving their feet dangling inches off the floor. They could comfortably accommodate two people, but, at times, all four actors jump aboard, arms and legs intertwined.
Urs Hefti, Hanspeter Müller, Adrian Furrer, and Edmund Telgenkämper—all i>Burgtheater stalwarts—made it work. In fact, their actions were often more hilarious than the dialogue.
The Burg also brought its Chekhov Seagull staging to Edinburgh, but it opened only on the day I had to leave for London. I very much regret this, for it had been mounted by Luc Bondy, one of the most ingenious of contemporary stage-directors. It also featured such stars as Jutte Lampe and Gert Voss.
In the event, some British critics trashed Bondy, the production, and even its stars.
·Antwerp's De Onderneming:In German, the word is Unternehmung. In English, it's Undertaking, but not in the sense of a funeral.
The Notebook & The Proof
Antwerp's De Onderneming undertakes to create theatre of "minimal means and maximum imagination." This they have certainly done with the new pair of plays known as The Notebook & The Proof.
The cast of four have adapted these for the stage from a trilogy of novels about twin boys in the Second World War and after, by Hungarian expatriate author Agota Kristof. She escaped after the 1956 Uprising.
An Edinburgh journalist took pains to explain that this name was not Agatha Christie in Hungarian.
Nonetheless, there is something very cold, strange, and menacing about the twins, Lucas and Claus. Their childhoods are shrouded in mystery, as are their later fates when World War II is over.
Abandoned in wartime by their frantic mother—who leaves them with a cruel grandmother—they train themselves to show no feeling when she beats or insults them.
In effect, they become like Empowered Zombies: Nothing touches them. They seem to feel nothing as well, aside from the twinning-bond and their mutual sufferings.
As they grow up, they write their experiences down in a notebook. Or Lucas does. Or is it Claus? The handwriting in the book is the same.
Their long-absent mother returns to claim them. They refuse to go. Minutes later, she and her new baby are blown up by a shell which lands in the street.
They help their cruel grandmother to leave this world. They are beyond Good & Evil,
apparently. When their father returns to the village, seeking to get across No-Man's Land to freedom, he asks Claus to help him. The twins know everything about the forests, the Death-Strip, and the border-guards' routines.
Clever Claus lets his father go first. He is almost instantly killed by a land-mine. Having effectually cleared a path, he makes it possible for Claus to escape.
That is the substance of the first drama, The Notebook. In the second, The Proof, some of these events need to be verified.
After the war, Lucas—who is doomed by an incurable disease—decides to leave the village and find his twin.
Claus has become a settled bourgeois married-man. He works in a publishing-house and writes poems under a twinned pen-name.
Lucas finds him, but Claus denies any relationship, sending him away. But not before Lucas has left him their notebook.
Lucas then commits suicide.
The Onderneming's amazing actor-adapters play all the roles. Robby Cleiren and Günther Lesage are the twins, as well as some other characters. Ryszard Turbiasz—of Polish origin—is an all-purpose character-actor, playing the vicious grandmother with especial edge. Carly Wijs is various women in the twins' lives.
Both dramas are played in excellent English—in an absolutely minimal stage-environment. No supertitles are needed. In fact, this troupe can perform these troubling plays in several languages.
In this, they are similar to the Dutch ensemble, Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia, which astonished Salzburg Festival audiences this August with Der Fall der Götter—a stage-version of Lucino Visconti's film, The Damned.
Just as the Flamands from Antwerp played in admirable English in Edinburgh, so did the Dutch play in excellent German in Salzburg!
But both ingenious and adventurous ensembles have a similar problem: when leading actors play a variety of roles—instantly changing from one to another—changing hats or coats is not enough to establish the change of character.
Abrupt changes in body-movements and vocal patterns certainly help, but the faces remain the same.
This is sometimes confusing, more so when spectators are not themselves native speakers of German. Or of English, for that matter.
Nonetheless, both these powerful productions ought to be seen in New York. If BAM cannot host both, then LaMaMa or New York Theatre Workshop could welcome them.
Audiences should certainly be very grateful, for unusual new theatre-works are now being created in both Holland and Belgium.
Maybe BAM should have a Next Wave of Dutch/Flemish Theatre?
On the Fringe at the Traverse—My first priority at the Edinburgh Festival is to cover as many main festival events—dance, theatre, opera, music—as possible. And then book Fringe events in between.
As I've been coming to the festival since the late 1950s, this often meant a Fringe breakfast comedy-monologue at 8 o'clock, followed by innovative Children's Theatre Puppetry at ten.
Not to overlook late night shows with starting-times at 11, 12, and even 1 am. But some of these were dreadful, so I don't feel the need to check out everything anymore.
There are just too many shows—hundreds of them over four weeks in August—to try to keep up even with the "Fringe First" award-winners.
But my first Fringe Priority has long been the Traverse Theatre, with some of the very best productions of new Scots, Irish, and British dramas.
And there's usually something intriguing from Canada booked into the Traverse as well. Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit has done very well by the Traverse—and itself—in recent seasons. But this summer, it was the Prairie Theatre Exchange of Winnipeg which delighted and astonished with Ian Ross's First Nation serio-comic satire, FareWel.
Unfortunately for any critic arriving in the final week of the Fringe, all the Traverse's own stagings which had won awards were already sold-out.
So I missed Iain Heggie's Wiping My Mother's Arse and Gregory Burke's Gargarin Way. Considering the critical acclaim they reaped, they are sure to be more widely produced.
After all, Stones in His Pockets was a recent Traverse hit. And it made it all the way to London's West End and to Broadway!
Digging in the Irish Ash-Heap:Kitchen-Middens are those ancient heaps of rotting garbage, broken dishes, and shards of human life which layer up over the years and centuries to give archaeologists clues to how people lived long, long ago.
Morna Regan's Modern Midden
Morna Regan's Midden is a more metaphorical ash-heap, though it is set entirely in the contemporary Derry City kitchen of Ruth's bitter mother, simply known as Ma.
Ruth, played with verve by Kathy Downes, is a successful fashion-designer, who's just returned home from 15 years in Philadelphia.
But Regan's family-drama is not exactly a sequel to Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Instead, it deals with the poisonous secrets and hoarded resentments of three generations of Northern Irish women.
Grandmother Dophie [Barbara Adair] is now senile, running Ma [Ruth Hegarty] ragged, trying to keep her from running off or doing harm to herself.
Ruth has come home to duplicate her American success as a designer. Helped by the lively and irreverent Mab [Maggie Hays]—who has also been in the US—her first show is a big hit.
But neither her mother nor her grandmother are there to witness it.
The bottom-line—aside from that old Irish inability to hug and kiss and say "I Love You"—is money. Money meanly withheld. As love is withheld.
Dophie had a nest-egg, but wouldn't give it to Ma and her husband when they desperately needed a loan.
Ruth later also needed some start-up cash—and as Dophie's favorite, superseded her mother's needs. But Dophie finally gave it to Ma, who then, out of bitterness, wouldn't share it with Ruth.
But there's the darker story of sister Catherine who also went to America but was burned to death in a clothing-factory fire. She was Dophie's real favorite, and the old woman is haunted by her death—for which she feels responsible in her senility.
Ma is so judgmental that almost everything Ruth says or does—from the moment they meet again after all those years—earns a negative comment. Even apparently generous gestures like making a roast for a Prodigal Daughter's Feast—Ruth is a vegetarian—are a reproach.
Regan has made Ma almost amusing with her constant stream of bitter bile and negative commentary. But it can be a bit wearing.
Young sister Aileen [Pauline Hutton] has her own problems, but she's the only one in the household who might get free of the past.
This Rough Magic production was staged by Lynn Parker. The kitchen was efficiently designed—for touring as well as for the rapid set-ups & strikes at the Traverse—by Bláithín Sheerin.
Canada's "First Nation" Waiting for Welfare Checks:In Canada, in place of "Native American," the Politically Correct code-words are "First Nation." But it was something of a surprise to read that the new play from Manitoba at the Traverse was to be performed by an "all-Aboriginal cast."
I thought it was derogatory to refer to original natives—whether in Australia or Canada—as Aboriginals. Certainly not as "Abos."
And it's certainly just as well that playwright Ian Ross—author of the wonderfully serio-comic FareWel—is of Saulteaux and Métis Indian descent. He also plays a raffish character named Nigger.
Ross's title is an inversion of Welfare, the checks of which most of the inhabitants of the Partridge Crop First Nation Reservation depend upon.
His cast of characters is chosen to show the varieties of ambition and opportunities which co-exist on such Canadian reserves. And their opposites, as there is actually very little opportunity, and most of Ross's people are already defeated in fact and in spirit.
Despite that, this is an often hilarious play, with characters which soon prove to be very real people, not just a playwright's stereotypes.
In the absence of the Tribal Chief—who has gone off to gamble in Las Vegas, leaving his people penniless—a feisty young man, Teddy, tries to get himself elected Chief. He has big—but totally impractical—plans for making a casino on the reservation.
In the end, the play is about Respect. Some of the characters come to realize that they have to respect themselves first before anyone else will.
But there is a clear sense that they don't and won't get respect off the reservation in Winnipeg or elsewhere. They exist in—and may also be trapped in—a separate world which is not that of the White Man.
A gas-sniffing teen-ager—who always wants to borrow money, but who also does not want to work to earn much more than he wants for gas—is taunted by the fact that he is not entirely an aboriginal.
Ian Ross has some Scots blood in his heritage, so he knows about such things. And he also knows why his very popular play can speak so clearly to Scottish audiences:
"Ultimately, FareWel is a story about dispossession and empowerment. I think that's something the Scots know a lot about," he says.
This is a play which should be much more widely seen. It should have special relevance in those parts of the United States where Native Americans are languishing on reservations, afflicted with alcoholism, lassitude, and hopelessness.
Opening a casino—as one of Ross's upright characters insists—is not a real solution, as it creates new problems for those who gamble and lose their savings. It also may not really be a worthy undertaking for people with such an ancient and sacred heritage, bound up with Nature & Tradition.
The cast of FareWel is so good that there should be a North American tour of this Winnipeg Prairie Theatre Exchange production. As well as of other productions of the play.
Allen MacInnis has skillfully staged—in an intimate space, with some revolving set-pieces—the following fine actors: Jonathan Fisher, Marsha Knight, Michael C. Lawrenchuk, Tracey McCorrister, Grahame Merke, and Ross himself.
There is a lot of interesting new theatre being generated north of the border. Americans know too little about this, so there ought to be more theatre-exchanges and tours from Canada.
Terry Neason's Slaps 'n' TicklesA bawdy lady with a big voice, big bust, and big heart, Terry Neason is a total delight. In her 11 o'clock show at the Traverse, she alternated songs with poems performed as monologues. Some of the latter were music-hall risqué.
A Lively Late-Nite Show at the Traverse
She's been in films, on TV, and on stage, having recently played Bill Sykes' Nancy in a revival of Oliver! As she's larger than life in concert, one can only speculate what she's like up there on the silver-screen.
Her menacing rendition of the Brecht/Weill "Pirate Jenny" was thrilling. She could be a great Mother Courage.
Tom Lehrer's "Masochism Tango" was hilarious, complete with whip. So was "The Laughing Song," with its variety of laughs, keyed to characters and situations. Including orgasm…
Also on Neason's program were Dory Previn's "Ester's First Communion," Jacques Brel's "Sons of," and "J. K. Collins," by Anderson & McNiven.
Brian Prentice was her accomplished accompanist.
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