Monday, 28 February 2011

In Defence of Angry Women Pt 3

The Furies are snake-haired, dog-faced and bat-winged. They are full of hyphens. An ugliness that defied their description in the ancient world – they were called Eumenides – bringers of justice – because their bronze-tipped flails were too horrible to contemplate.
They punished the most horrible of crimes – parricide and perjury.
It makes you think.
Killing your parents is right up there with lying.
Those ancient Greeks were fond of making their most fearsome monsters and deities, female. Scylla; the Gorgons: the Fates; the aforementioned Furies. They had a deep, in-built fear of the female.
Hesiod tells us that woman was made as a punishment for all human kind for the gift Prometheus made us of fire. Of course given Zeus; the constructor of said punishment; was himself a prodigious womaniser; one wonders if he was totally truthful in the whole “I'm only making her to punish those naughty mortals” story that he told his ever jealous wife Hera.
Truth is a slippery concept. I don't know if the ancients anthropomorphised Truth in the same way they did almost every other force or idea that impacts on the lives of us mortals – but if they did it would have been the nasty, slimy, long entrail of a particularly lecherous giant. Such, I think, is the nature of truth. It takes a long time to unfold; it slides through your fingers unpleasantly and if you split it open; it stinks.
As last week's post will attest I've just seen one of the great plays written about truth...Ibsen's The Wild Duck. No need to re-visit last week's fangirl slatherings here and no need to further contemplate why I might have been pondering the concerns of said play; suffice to say – its been on my mind.
This morning I read an interiew with a woman in her early 30s, Emma Forrest. She's an author and a journalist – and someone who appears to have made a career out of being a particularly self-conscious self-revealator. She takes the opportunity in the 400 or so word article to tell us first about her bulimia; then about her disastourous attraction to addicts and alcoholics; about her numerous (and I do mean a very, very large number of) failed relationships and her attraction to phyically imperfect men. I was, I suspect, not the only one, finishing my Sunday morning coffee and toast, dusting the crumbs off the sheets and thinking “Emma, love, TMI”.
She's just one of the many, may I venture too many, people making a living out of telling us just a little more than we really want to know about someone we don't.
That great philosopher of our generation; or at least my generation: Agent Mulder, thought the truth was out there. I tend to think right now, its just a little bit too out there.
Ibsen in his idealistic younger years wanted people to have truth in their relationships. He wanted people to know one another fully and intimately so they could be full and equal partners. When he's writing The Wild Duck; he's writing with a very different idea in mind.
Ibsen was fascinated by the maelstrom – the huge whirlpools in the sea off Norway – wild, unforgiving nature. I just saw Derek Jacobi's King Lear – unaccomodated man has never been so witty, so rational and therefore so moving. Let me remind you of the lines:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

I thought I had heard them so many times that I could not find them new or fresh or more truthful. Jacobi whispers them, barely audible in the tiny DONMAR theatre, barely audible to the audience at the live screening in Nova cinema. I'm having to lean forward in my seat and almost read his lips.
Its still the piece of poetry that for me sums up that moment of the full recognition of ourselves as tiny, insignificant ingrates in the eyes of the gods. Later Gloucester, in the long tradition in tragedy of the blind who finally see the truth, pronounces that damning indictment on the human condition:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.

It is a terrible, brutal play with a terribly brutal ending. I have never wept so much for Cordelia as I wept with Jacobi's Lear and the horror of utter defeat.
Truth; the truth of our own mortality; our humble position in the turning of the orbs is confronting and it is painful. Ibsen isn't dealing with the same grand themes that Shakespeare throws about the stage in King Lear. Ibsen's tragedies are the falls of small people; people like you and me. When I watch Hjalmer in his homespun cardy or Hedvig in her school uniform; I'm no less moved than when Lear staggers on-stage crushed; yes, crushed; by the weight of his daughter's death.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Third time lucky

There's a point somewhere near the middle of Simon Stone's re-working of the Ibsen classic, The Wild Duck, when Gina (Anita Hegh) is alone on stage. The lights are blazing and the music is almost unbearably loud. Seconds earlier her husband of 16 years, Hjalmar Ekdal (Ewen Leslie) has stormed out. She is distraught, her pain almost unbearable to watch. Somewhere around there I know I whimpered and the woman sitting next to me turned to check I was ok. This is what really good theatre should do.

In the moments before, Gina and Hjalmar wrestle on stage; she pressing him into the wall, begging with her whole self, that he stay. Its intensley private; an awful, painful, uncomfortable moment of absolute physical distress. And I'm watching it all, through one-way glass, not even a metre from the now quite literal fourth wall.
There are more such moments to follow. I know my breathing matched his, as Leslie's Hjalmar shakes with rage and grief. Its so low-key, in fact so barely palpable I'm not sure if it was even visible from further away; but its horrifying to witness. This is what a really good actor can make you feel.

Its no secret that I'd pay to watch Ewen Leslie read the phonebook. And now none that I'd travel 2000 kms in less than 24 hours just to see him on stage for 90 minutes. But Stone's Wild Duck delivers much more than just putting Mr Leslie within touching distance of this particular fangirl.

This play is the answer to Ibsen's earlier work on marriage and lies - A Doll's House. Equally shocking in its time, Doll's House tells us why we have to be truthful, really truthful, in relationships and truthful also to ourselves. Much later Ibsen writes a play that argues the opposite.

This production is physically overwhelming. The intensity of the voyeurism, starring into the lives of this family as it all-too-quickly unwinds. The glass walls Stone has built around the stage don't so much create a barrier as break one down. The walls reflect the audience back at itself; we're as much a part of the play as the actors.

Sounds harrowing? It is. But its also hilariously funny. Stone has done for Ibsen in re-writing him completely; what no translator into English has previously achieved. Ibsen's theatre was realistic - naturalistic dialogue; real people; real people's lives. It deals with serious issues about love, relationships and how we negotiate our way through a series of social expectations which seem at odds with the reality of being human. But he's also really fucking funny. And so is this script.

Did middle-class Norwegians 130 years ago swear quite as prolifically and energetically as the characters Stone puts on stage? Possibly not...But then they also didn't have mobile phones, watch beached whales on their iMacs or "go down the pub" with their mates. And all these elements work in this play. Its Ibsen but not as you've ever seen him before. Funnier, sharper, more moving.

I wasn't crying by the end. But I was deeply disturbed. The mics the actors wear transmit every sound; every intake of breath; every gasp; the sound of Leslie sniffing and wiping his noise. It creates a soundscape vivid and visceral and in contrast to the empty set and pared down costuming. It means that the final offstage dialogue between Gina and Hjalmar comes to us as an overheard conversation. Its all the more affecting as a result.

I want to talk about how creepily likeable John Gaden is as the aging and lecherous Werle; the genuine affection transmitted between the two old friends when Werle and Ekdal(Anthony Phelan) meet by accident and share a joke. I want to talk about how Eloise Mignon blazes on the stage, stealing scene after scene as Hedvig; the girl at the centre of all the lies. Or Toby Schmitz using his whole large frame to bear over the other characters; his size and prescence an apt metaphor for the impact Gregers idealistic truth-telling will have.

But its Leslie that sets the set on fire for me. I have gradually been running out of adjectives; metaphors; cliches; with which to describe his performances. Last night I suddenly found the lights going up from total blackout and the man himself almost literally standing on my feet. If I gasped out loud, I apologise. You can read directors talking about his energy; the bottled chaos he channels on the stage - but that close, its almost a little too real. That glass wall around the stage suddenly makes a lot of sense.