Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bertolt Brecht: 'Our love is just begun'

A celebrated film director of my acquaintance keeps a framed photograph of Brecht (not unlike the one to your left) on the wall of the rustic kitchen in his English country cottage. On first noticing said portrait during a visit, I remarked to said director that I hadn’t ever suspected he was such a Brecht fan. ‘Oh I don’t know that I am’, came the reply. ‘I just like to have him around. How could you not?’
Here’s a quick rundown of my own limited but much savoured form in the study and appreciation of BB:
- In 1985 I saw a production of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End mounted by the RSC and presented on tour in the sports hall of a fairly grim ‘leisure centre’ on the outskirts of Belfast. I hadn’t previously seen such a joyous piece of live theatre in all my life; and that evening would still rank right up there in the annals for me.
- By my desk as I write is a humble cassette recording of the cast of The Threepenny Opera from a 1954 staging of Marc Blitzstein’s book and lyrics. I bought that tape in 1988 and it’s travelled everywhere with me in the 20 intervening years. Threepenny is by some distance – i.e. miles and miles – my 'favourite musical'.
- In 1998-99 I was so fortunate as to spend a bit of time in the company of the late John Willett, consummate collaborator, English translator and critical interpreter of Brecht – the sort of laconically brilliant, easily witty man who’d make you proud to be English. My copy of his Brecht in Context is inscribed with John’s small, precise hand, and its introduction, wherein he charts the history of his passion for Brecht, offers repeated proofs of the sangfroid I’m talking about:
‘I had left school early to go to Vienna and spend six months studying the cello… Almost incidentally I became fluent in the [German] language… In the autumn of 1936 I moved on to Oxford to learn politics, philosophy and economics [Love that ‘learn’]… The war came, as we knew it would, and for five and a half khaki-clad years all I was left with was my addiction [to Brecht’s work]… There was in fact only one point of sharp conflict between Brecht and I, when I said I thought war between Communist states was by no means inconceivable. That, he snapped, was ‘eines Gymnasiasten Ansicht’, a schoolboy’s view…’
Superb, eh? Passing through the garden gate of John’s Hampstead cottage and stepping into his book-lined sitting room was for me an experience full of magic that I’ll not forget.
- From the late 1990s through to the mid-2000s I was a not infrequent visitor to Los Angeles for work purposes. And just as most literary-minded visitors to Prague find it impossible to keep Franz Kafka from their minds for long, I would defy any booklover to pass more than a few days in LA without making recourse to Brecht’s diamond-sharp poetry about the city – a place full of ‘houses built for happy people, therefore standing empty / even when lived in.’
- But Brecht’s poetry wasn’t all scathing, which is why my wife and I picked the Sonnet #19 (‘My one requirement: that you stay with me’) as a reading at our wedding ceremony in 2004.
- My all-time favourite Brecht quote, at least with regard to theatre composition and technique, comes in his famous discussion of Coriolanus where he argues that his mission as a dramatist is both to have the pleasure and to convey the pleasure of dealing with what he calls ‘illuminated history’: the dialectic experienced as drama – and not in any rarefied, high-flown way but, rather, where the play has a direct audience appeal and could be enjoyed even in passing at a country fair… because it’s a good old familiar story of the rise and fall of the mighty, the cunning of the oppressed, the hidden potentials of men.
- Brecht's celebrated stage plays haven't always worked the same charm on me as his poems, his musicals, even his handful of movie scripts (chief among them Kuhle Wampe). I enjoy the plays endlessly on the page, less so in performance. Today, though, I dropped into the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre to see a matinee of Deborah Warner’s staging of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children. Such are the perks of my current writing attachment at the National Theatre Studio, and I had a fabulous time. This is a rambunctious, wrenching, endlessly lively piece of theatre. The stagecraft might be of a higher order than Brecht would have thought necessary, but the audience are the happy beneficiaries of all this merry, mauling invention. In the lead role Fiona Shaw is a phenomenon, as usual. I’m not such an ardent fan of hers as are other theatregoers of my acquaintance, but days like today make me feel slovenly in that estimation. Warner’s production derives a big boon from the new arrangement of Brecht’s songs by the Northern Irish singer/musician Duke Special, who also performs in the piece with his band, his contributions deeply treasurable throughout. I noticed Deborah Warner herself at the back of the house, showing a commendable level of immersion in her project to be observing its condition on a Wednesday matinee a month into the run. I don't doubt she's finical about this stuff, but I trust she wasn't too worried...

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A Booker Prize for Hilary Mantel

If the historical novel is enjoying a resurgence, as the commentators seem to be saying this evening at the Guild Hall, then I'm all for it; and if a novel clocking in at 600pp+ is commended both for its ambition and for the demands placed upon the reader by its hefty proportions, then I'm ready to raise a cheer too. Mantel clearly has a good nose for subjects in general, and in this case - Thomas Cromwell - I'd say particularly so.
I've taken Wolf Hall onto the tube with me a few times in the last fortnight, just because I happen to be commuting into town daily at present. I can't say I've cracked too far into it as yet. But then that's the Long Novel for you, isn't it? It reveals its delights slowly, repays revisiting, is meant to live by one's bedside or in one's saddlebag a while, take a few knocks and so become a trusted friend in the process - rather than, say, the fairweathers and the one-night-flings that one tends to buy in airports and leave behind in hotel rooms... But then I suppose part of the joy of the Booker, and the attendant boon for Hilary Mantel's pocketbook, is that her ostensibly daunting novel will now attract some of those more casual/promiscuous customer-readers too...

Boris Johnson: As Funny as a Crutch

At any given moment there can only be a handful of people among us able to harbour not merely the idle dream but also the realistic hope of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain. Sadly, it's rare that one can find much to approve of in any of the individuals comprising this elite band. For some time I've considered Harriet Harman the most risible personage lucky enough to be up there (on the unavoidable strength of her position as Deputy Labour leader.) But of course I'm forgetting that there's someone who could make our nation look yet more ludicrous in the eyes of the world, and that's the current Mayor of London, who is unable to keep his blithering gob shut or his mug far removed from cameras whenever (as at Tory Party Conference) the stage permits him to lumber about in the manner of some populist political hero.
Interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman last night, Johnson didn't come across much worse than the enervated Paxman himself, who clearly needs a new challenge in life. But then Paxman doesn't aspire to Number 10 Downing Street, whereas Johnson's clearly irrepressible desire to upstage his 'friend' Cameron on any fit occasion, now or in future, is a glaring reveal - glaring, one might say, as a fat arse riding out of a pair of Union Jack underpants.
You would think that Johnson's 17 months as London mayor had been some barrage of bold initiatives and achievements. As it is, I can't think of a thing he's done other than to make Ian Blair's position untenable and then boast about it, cheered to the rafters by his toadies. Perhaps, then, what drives Johnson onward to greater heights is pure self-confidence - one might call it a sense of entitlement? It would be useful, then, if he ever said anything intelligent, or could at least stop himself sounding like a blithe cocktail of Prat + Snob. But a lot of people - indeed most Tories, it would appear - think he's a tremendous wit, per his irrepressible glibness on the subject of any part of this country lying north of Watford.
Still, I suppose such prejudice doesn't disqualify one from being Mayor of London; and you might get extra points, plus much love from free-market Tories, if you defend the City of London to the death, even in the teeth of our Great Crash as provoked by investment bankers buying and selling toxic junk and clearing fat bonuses for it. Boris is still quick as Dickens to shout out whatever pumped-up percentage of our economy is attributable to the City, as if that preponderance for making toxic junk (rather than useful goods and commodities) had not now been exposed as part of our problem. Likewise, Boris is a big booster for all the riches the City gives back to the country in taxes, as if the City didn't steal a far bigger slice of what it 'earns'. But of course he's only parroting the bankers. In his long-gone pomp Sir Fred Goodwin used to say the same thing endlessly, boasting about how much of what RBS 'earned' duly kicked back to the Exchequer. Bullish, assured, thrusting people like Boris and Sir Fred - we shouldn't really stand in their way of their ambitions, should we? Clearly their phenomenal confidence betokens an actual competence of which you and I could only dream... So let 'em have it, eh?

'Lolita' par Adrian Lyne: Not at all bad...

Ever since the Adrian Lyne filming of Lolita struggled to reach screens back in 1997 a critical consensus seems to have developed that Lyne's version was not at all a bad effort: perhaps doomed to a small audience, given its unhappy subject (so missing the mainstream) and its director's dodgy track record (so losing the arthouse crowd, who were never going to pause to re-evaluate Flashdance.) My fellow Faber and Faber scribe Gilbert Adair put the Case For pretty well unimprovably in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro: "[Lyne's] Lolita is rather more faithful to the spirit of the novel than Kubrick’s, more lusciously erotic, also more tender and poignant. As for Dominique Swain in the title-role, she gives (I weigh my words) an extraordinary performance, and the wreck of her career by the near-universal contempt with which the film was greeted is something of a tragedy." Having finally caught up with Lyne's movie on Film Four last week, I too find myself among those who can give their (measured) approval of the venture.
Kubrick's film was a comedy of manners, such as 1962 permitted; I'm sure Stanley would have made it racier had the censor allowed, but instead (helped by Peter Sellers, James Mason and Sue Lyon) he made it very, very blackly funny, and his screenplay, which made Nabokov rather wince, is a serious achievement. (You can read Nabokov's own effort at adapting Lolita if you wish, because he published the thing separately as a matter of pride. But you wouldn't ever want to watch it...)
Some smart fellow once said that it's pointless to pretend you can 'film a book'; the best a filmmaker can do is come up with something that reminds one fondly of the source. Lyne's Lolita certainly accomplishes that. Watching it, I was frequently and happily put in mind of my first meeting with Nabokov's novel. When Lyne was doing junkets for his movie's release he was quick to confess that originally he had "read Lolita for all of the wrong reasons." Yeah yeah, you and everyone else, pal. Certainly as an adolescent I sought it out for its notoriety as a 'hot book' and instead, like a million others, was quietly stunned by one's first encounter with the high style of twentieth century English literature.
Of course, the book still describes sexual heat, and Lyne obviously couldn't resist visualising some of that, in his very own breathless fashion. But where his film most memorably refracts the novel is in its poignancy, its villain's creeping awareness of his terrible, unretractable sin. How bold and honourable was this Lolita to end on the note of Humbert Humbert's self-realising moment as the police cordon closes in on him while he stands on a hilltop, hearing the far-off sounds of children at play in a little hamlet snuggled in the valley below - knowing that, whatever feelings of 'love' he has professed for his stepdaughter, the truth is that he robbed her of her childhood, and her every chance of happiness in the bargain. Thus: "The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord..."