Friday, 8 May 2009

Mishima's Madame de Sade: Blood & Roses

First things first, the image to my left is by and (c) Eikoh Hosoe: 'Portrait of Yukio Mishima', 1963.

Now then: one of the problems I have with going to the theatre is the tendency of audiences to laugh aloud at things that aren’t especially funny – as in, for example, quite a few of Shakespeare’s comedies. But, fair play, sometimes I do it myself, in that it’s a simple way to encourage the performers and assist the production on its way, just as one cheers the lads on the pitch even if a few early passes go astray.

However, it makes for a larger problem when laughter, even of that encouraging variety, serves to set up the wrong sort of mood for a dramatic production; and a larger problem still, artistically speaking, if the performers were purposely directed to seek those sorts of easy laughs.

This was going through my mind at the Wyndham Theatre last night as I watched Madame de Sade, the only play other than Hamlet that I've seen performed more than twice - so I can claim a bit of familiarity with it, as with its author, the phenomenal Mishima, a writer I’ve admired passionately for just as long as I’ve been reading good books.

The specific problem of the giggles and snickers during last night’s show seemed to me part of the tiresome, age-old English problem with sex: the furtive, embarrassed, vicarious interest in rudeness, naughtiness, smuttiness. No Sex Please, We’re British. 'That Freud, sex-mad he was...' The obsessive prurient interest in what other people do in bedrooms, the inability to behold oneself truly in the mirror. To wit, my companion for the evening pointed out that the woman two rows in front kept turning to her friend and emitting a little ‘Ooh!’, as in: 

Judi Dench: It wasn’t only blood he cleansed with his tongue...
Audience Woman: Ooh!

Now, there is a certain existential flipside to the English view of sex, or what George Orwell called our ‘lowness of outlook’: because sexual urges can indeed be low-down, dirty and comical. And since all sexual desire tends finally towards dysfunction and failure, like everything else in life, we shouldn’t miss the joke in that falling-off from urgency and vitality, in that gap between fantasy and reality.

Nevertheless: English literature has no equivalent to Sade, or Georges Bataille, or Jean Genet or even Anais Nin. So English theatre audiences may be poorly equipped for a play that refracts Sade’s philosophy of the boudoir through the measured, well-turned perversity of a Japanese genius who was both a Spartan classicist and an occasional pornographer.

I first saw Madame de Sade in August of 1990 at the Royal Academy in Glasgow: a production directed by Ingmar Bergman, played in Swedish. The whole audience were issued with wand-like electronic ear trumpets for the purpose of simultaneous translation. The elderly blazer-clad Scot in the seat beside me thought this wheeze hilarious, and expected me too to find it much more interesting than the foreign nonsense on stage that his wife had clearly dragged him to.

But I digress: Bergman’s stage was red, en hommage perhaps to his own Cries and Whispers, but also to the driving blood-and-roses theme of the play. When the lights came up on the elegantly debauched Madame Saint-Fond (Agneta Ekmanner) in riding gear avec swishing crop, there was a sharp intake of breath round the house; and an interesting tension developed in the subsequent exchanges between her and the pious Baroness de Simiane (Margaretha Byström.) Thus, it seemed to me, was a good mood established.

The same effect is certainly not achieved – or, rather, not sought – between Frances Barber and Deborah Findlay in Michael Grandage’s new West End production. In fairness, Mishima himself makes room in the text for a lot of the mock-scandalising effect. (Marguerite Yourcenar, an admirer of Mishima and of this play, wrote of Saint-Fond’s ‘cynical monologues written, it seems, to impress the spectator.’) But once the audience starts tittering over the same, because the actors are really selling it, the effect is to counteract the later dramatic force of the piece: ‘the joy of profanation’, the interplay of ‘holiness and shame.’

Still, I should say the great achievement of Grandage’s production to my little eyes is that this force had never seemed more apparent to me than last night, once the show got into its stride.

Mishima’s play is in the Racinian mode, a listening play. Mishima himself wrote that he wanted none of ‘the usual, trivial stage effects’ but, rather, action controlled exclusively by dialogue, the ‘collisions of ideas’ making the drama. It’s a tough thing to do. (I speak as an amateur who once  mounted a production of Britannicus in a black box over a pub in Islington.) So one has to admire the excellence of Grandage and his cast and crew.

The text was astutely cut to make an evening of 105 minutes without interval. There was a pronounced tendency to dramatise with light and sound the play's long speeches about Sade’s depravities, either experienced or witnessed or overheard, and their effects upon these women. But that high style did produce some fine effects. Dench did her stuff superbly. As Renee, Madame de Sade herself, Rosamund Pike rather set off at one pitch that she maintained, but her best moments {‘Alphonse is myself…) were spine-tinglingly good. She also made a wonderful job of articulating the play’s great recurrent theme of the rose and its redness, its allure and banality: ‘the usual roses’ of kitsch, prettified life, as opposed to the rose that grows snake-scales under cover of darkness...

This production really brought out the hidden bond between the depraved Renee and the pious Simiane: both find that exposure to Sade helps them see past the arrogance of ego, toward the world at its darkest. Both get themselves to a nunnery, but Simiane with less fuss. ‘You to the right and I to the left’, as Svidrigaylov says to his soul brother Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The audience laughed, of course, when Deborah Findlay made her final entrance in a nun’s habit, and so be it. But I found I was thinking of Satoko taking the veil in Mishima’s Spring Snow, the first volume of his Sea of Fertility; and her later reappearance as the abbess in the last volume, The Decay of the Angel. Mishima wasn’t big on religion but he had a refined vision of the void.

The great Luis Bunuel was never troubled by the worst things he could think of; he spoke of ‘the perfect innocence of the imagination.’ But in Mishima’s play Renee believes she is a properly evil companion to her husband until she meets his mind on the page, reading his Justine. Then she sees they have no bond if it is based only on ‘the emptiness of acts of the flesh.’ He has built a ‘cathedral of vice’ with words, one from which she is excluded.

The theme of the dutiful, devoted wife is more intriguing in the light of Mishima’s own marriage to Yoko Sugiyama, a very public affair about which Mishima, typically, wrote a treatise prior to the ceremony. Yoko conducted herself very carefully before ‘The Incident’ of his suicide in 1970, and after that she was a diligent keeper of his flame. Mishima’s friend and biographer John Nathan was of the view that Yoko ‘perfectly learned her husband’s manner’ once she was in charge of his estate, and turned from being a highly personable young woman to quite a formidable cookie.

Once, reviewing some gossipy press clippings with Nathan as he prepared his book, Yoko remarked to him as if in bemusement that ‘a few of them even wrote that Mishima was queer!’ Nathan was given to understand that this was the beginning and the end of that subject between them. And when Paul Schrader made an intricate deal with Madame Mishima for the film rights to her husband’s life, she was careful to deny him dramatisation rights to the one novel preoccupied with homosexuality, Forbidden Colours. Life and art, words and the world: few artists addressed themselves to these divides as diligently as Mishima.

Esquire (June 2009) now on stands: includes Christian Bale and Cannes

I've always liked Christian Bale as an actor, especially in that dragon film. He's the subject of an excellent frank interview in the new Esquire, which is chockfull of other fine stuff as always. (There's also a new Esquire website/blog which is shaping up nicely.) My contribution to the new print issue is a piece reflecting on the Cannes Film Festival, the 62nd installment of which opens for business next Wednesday. I won't be there, which is a source of relief rather than ruefulness, as I say like so in the piece:
"It was the sacred aura of great cinema that first lured me to Cannes in 1988, aged 17. And, for sure, there is no finer place to watch a film than the cathedral-like munificence of the 2,500-seater Salle Lumiere in the main Festival Palais. But otherwise, the hectic, histrionic air of Cannes made me feel a bit like Bunyan’s pilgrim stumbling into Vanity Fair. To my horror, people were doing deals, making money, dining out in ostentatious fashion even as the arty movies were screening across the street. Such is the Cannes described by a director friend of mine (fondly, I should say) as ‘a big, colourful cornucopia of lies, bullshit, bragging and seafood.’"

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Peter Case: Real Rollicking Force

Great Gigs I Have Been At, #17.

Peter Case: in what I remember as a little conference suite with rush seating in the back of a quite posh hotel near the sea in Dun Laoghaire, Eire. It was either some time around the year-end of 1986, or the spring of 1987, though I do suspect the former. At any rate, I was 16.

I recall that Case in the flesh looked a good deal more bohemian (specs, scraggy hair, rumpled suit) than the highly styled troubadour on the cover of his newly released and eponymous debut album from Geffen Records. But, unaccompanied, he played those songs that I already loved - 'Echo Wars', 'More Than Curious', 'Three Days Straight' - and a few I didn’t know. He encored with his own take on Shane MacGowan’s 'A Pair of Brown Eyes', and even stepped off the stage with his acoustic guitar to pace up and down atop a row of spare chairs, cheered at every step.

Afterward I lingered backstage (which was a hotel corridor, basically), shuffling and eavesdropping as some more seasoned individuals managed to engage Case in conversation. ‘How’s T-Bone’s family doing, do you know?’ asked one. He was speaking of Case’s revered producer on the Geffen record, someone whom even I had figured as a musical legend, present at the Rolling Thunder Revue and the making of Heaven’s Gate, producer of Elvis Costello’s King of America, one of my other great favourite long players of 1986...

This is all coming back to me now because of belated efforts to catch up with Case’s subsequent career. The 2007 collection Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John has brought great pleasure. No surprise that Richard Thompson contributes guitar and vocals to one cut, or that Stan Ridgway (another of my great favourites etc etc) is thanked in the notes. And at times I do feel like I’m back in 1986, enjoying that first album.

And yet I see from Case’s website that the ‘styled’ nature of his first record is something he rues somewhat, though he pays great respect to his producer, who kept on to greater things (and whose unmistakably long black-suited figure I bumped into once at a Hollywood function circa 2002.)

This is what Peter Case has to say about 'Peter Case':

Q: How much did T-Bone Burnett shape your sound?
A: T-Bone's a great producer. I came to him with this whole vision of the songs I was doing, and we talked about it and came up with the idea of tribal folk, meaning using acoustic guitars with a huge groove in the back, which only made it to the record on songs like ‘Three Days Straight.’ But the fact is that I was deemed by the record company, and T-Bone, as being too primitive to even play on my first record.
Q: Does that go back to you being a rock 'n' roll folk singer, a real rollicking force?
A: On the first record, there are a lot of slick arrangements. There are even a couple of cuts that I don't even play on, I just sing…

Clearly the things you have to do to forge a viable musical career can be strange and taxing, maybe even infuriating. Maybe it was especially so in the mid-1980s... Case seems to have made the right choice to stay out of the mainstream and keep to his own terms, 'right' in the sense that the music has stayed true and top-notch. It's hard to imagine the mainstream could have made it any better.

"Saving a Relegated Newcastle" - Gabrielle Marcotti

"Would it really be such a tragedy for Newcastle fans if the club went down? I don't think so, not if you believe that the club can only go forward once Mike Ashley sells the club..."
Shearer, if you're planning on staying on then you might want to give this man Marcotti a job, or at least try to keep him close by and friendly, because he knows football and he seems, strangely, indeed miraculously, to care a bit about the fate of Newcastle United - enough to have written out and costed a careful plan for the management of the squad after relegation. I don't think I quibble with any of it, bar the absence of a mention for Ranger and LuaLua as striking options next season. Good man, Gabrielle. This in the Times too, where some toe-rag who's supposedly a 'multi-award-winning' sportswriter pens a semi-regular Saturday morning bit willing Newcastle to lose and so 'slither' further into the relegation maw...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Jung at Heart: Sleeping Beauty

Round about this time last year I vowed here to blog my regular readings of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers in diligent instalments. Can you guess what happened to that good new season's resolution? Instead, here are some more prattlings on the latest of the canonical Disney animated films that I now watch ad nauseam with my little daughter.
When you watch an old movie - if you’re old enough to have lived through, say, about half-a-dozen changes of government - then there’s a certain code or aura the movie holds or exudes that will telegraph to you more or less precisely what point in the twentieth century the movie was made – and this even before you reach up to get the Old Movies reference book off your shelf. Paul Schrader was the first person I heard making this shrewd point, and though he is quite the connoisseur I do believe that pretty well anyone of a certain vintage can play this game. It’s mainly a study in changing fashions.
Per Disney, the game is often elementary. Snow White is clearly a product of the late 1930s just on the basis of the Wicked Queen’s vampish curling-lip looks. The Jungle Book is similarly simple – mid-1960s – because it features a group of vultures with mop-top hair and Scouse accents.
Sleeping Beauty, my daughter’s latest crush, puzzled me for a while, though. In a way, the picture has hardly dated. The artwork (largely imagined by Eyvind Earle, one of whose production paintings appears above) has a certain imprssively dedicated medieval/Flemish feel to it. Some of the musical stings are lifted from Tchaikovsky. But let’s not make it sound too complicated. It had to have been made between 1950-1970. The Princess Aurora at times resembles the animated Elizabeth Montgomery in TV’s Bewitched, which aired in the mid-1960s. But who ripped off who?
I finally made my decision thanks to a spooky scene where Aurora is hypnotised by the evil Maleficent in the form of an unearthly light that bathes the room in a greenish glow and seems to turn Aurora’s skin blue. Jimmy Stewart! Kim Novak! Vertigo! At that point Earle’s way of drawing flowers even started to remind me of the blooms in Stewart’s ‘Carlotta’ nightmare in the Hitchcock picture. Vertigo was 1958, a good year at the movies. So down comes my Old Movies reference book and there it is: Sleeping Beauty, 1959.
With her horned raiment, yellow eyes and pointed chin, Maleficent is a fairly sinister villainess, albeit played for more comedy than Snow White’s Wicked Queen. But both are perfectly unproblematic viewing for my little girl. I’m not sure I’d take her anywhere near Henry Selick’s Coraline, now in cinemas, and being pitched as an unmissable entertainment for kids even though it contains a strong undercurrent of frightening, nightmarish, sadistic villainy. It’s also highly in debt to Hitchcock, specifically the ‘Gingerbread Gothic’ of Psycho. But a wonderful picture, nonetheless.
In the land of the vivid imagination it's hard to say what’s best for kids, and what’s best for adults. I’m fairly sure that people over 18 years of age shouldn’t be reading 'Harry Potter and the Tower of Nothing' (as I heard Stewart Lee call in on telly recently.) But per my recent musings on Angela Carter, I do think fantasy material that is created first and foremost for the tender of years and innocent of heart is more truly compelling for an adult to eavesdrop upon than more self-conscious mature-reader reworkings of fairytale and myth.
To wit: the aforementioned Paul Schrader once remade the old RKO horror picture Cat People with a script rich in Jungian archetypes, decors by the genius Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and Nastassja Kinski – the It Girl of 1981 – dangerously exposed in the lead role. The poster described the movie as ‘An Erotic Fantasy’. Pauline Kael was mean-spirited but not far wrong when she said that every shot looked like the cover of an album you’d never want to buy.