MAY 25, 2007 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Arts Editor: Mark Greaves Tel: 020 7448 3603 Fax: 020 7256 9728 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Darcey Bussell with Roberto Bolle performing William Forsythe’s ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’. Bussell does not quite capture the piece’s playfulness
British ballet’s most glorious legs
BALLET REVIEW Dennis Chang
Darcey Bussell Farewell
SADLERʼS WELLS, LONDON
It seems premature to offer a postscript on the nation’s favourite ballerina when she still has three more shows left with the Royal Ballet in June, but she did entitle her brief Sadler’s Wells season “Farewell”, the penultimate stop of a very public and drawn-out goodbye. The Ballet Boyz, her larky friends entrusted with producing the evening, interspersed four excerpts and one complete ballet with cleverly edited interview and rehearsal footage that revealed an endearing frankness about the offstage Bussell that at once shattered any mystery that her onstage Swan Queen or Princess Aurora might have suggested. Few present at Sadler’s Wells could escape the sad realisation that British ballet’s most glorious pair of legs would soon become a sepia photograph of the past. Catapulted into the limelight in 1989 as the youngest ever principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, Bussell has been at the top for nearly 20 years. Smiley, friendly,
conscientious, fearless, beautiful, and stupendously gifted, she provokes admiration for her talent and envy for her success. No other British dancer from her generation can claim to have guested with top companies in Russia, France, Italy and America, not to mention being the chosen face of both American Express and Mulberry and, as a writer, to have published an autobiography, an anthology of ballet stories for children and a book on Pilates. She is the most popular British dancer since Margot Fonteyn, and every seat of her four-day pre-departure “love fest” was understandably snapped up on the day the performances were announced. As a dancer, Bussell has matured from a mould-breaking Amazonian technician into a walking Greek statue – displaying a perfection of form at any given moment in time. Nowhere could one better appreciate her inherent physical beauty than in two classical numbers in her show –William Tuckett’s On Classicism and the apotheosis pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia . The former, set to the Aria reprise from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was the ideal prelude to the evening –a whimsical two-and-a-half minute duet constructed from building block ballet steps. To see Bussell standing in relaxed turnout while moving her arms from one basic position to the next was like watching Maria Callas warming up for a singing lesson by going through the do-re-mis. If On Classicism is a prima ballerina’s childhood reminiscence, the Sylvia excerpt, created in 1952 for
Fonteyn at her peak, is very much a triumphant celebration of womanhood in full bloom. With her head leant back and arms reaching skywards, Sylvia is brought on to stage lifted high above the head of her shepherd lover Aminta. Accompanied by Delibes’s rapturous score, Bussell radiated complete contentment in her only tutu number of the evening. Escorted by the Italian Roberto Bolle, she beamed to the audience a “look at me” smile with every pirouette and balance. Even when she came off pointe on one of Ashton’s
Bussell has matured into a walking Greek statue – displaying a perfection of form at any given moment
thorny diagonal combinations, the mishap only served as a reminder of how age has failed to diminish her academic technique. Classical harmony is smashed into shards in William Forsythe’s 1989 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated , an epoch-defining leotard ballet created for Bussell’s greatest rival Sylvie Guillem while she was still a 22-year-old étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet. Set to Thom Willem’s crashing electronica noises, Forsythe’s contortionist splits and stopand-start acrobatics remain as exciting as ever, and Bussell proved that she still had the strength and stamina to fling herself into what really is a young
person’s dance. What made Bussell’s In the Middle less than totally compelling, however, was something more deeprooted; it was the exact quality, in fact, that made her Sylvia so satisfying and life-affirming. Bussell, for all her abundance of gifts, is not one of nature’s actors. Not that the Forsythe requires acting as such, but the choreography, especially when danced by Guillem, emanates playfulness, a mocking disregard for the difficulty of the steps and a provocative attitude that challenges fellow dancers to greater heights of virtuosity. Bussell is so pure a dancer that sometimes she either can’t or refuses to engage with these overtones. It was therefore all the more surprising that Kenneth MacMillan should have chosen to create the darkly melancholic Winter Dreams for her in 1991. It was the turning point in her career and, understandably, she wanted to include it on this occasion, to relive the romantic rollercoaster one last time. Indeed, it was impossible not to be seduced by Bussell’s expansive dancing and expressive pathos. She assembled on stage a starry team of friends that included no fewer than four present and past principal dancers of the Royal Ballet. Jonathan Cope’s coming out of retirement to play Masha’s gauche schoolteacher husband is a testament to the affection that Bussell engenders among her colleagues. She ties her pointe shoe ribbons for the final time in Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth at Covent Garden on June 8. Beg, steal, or queue up on the day for a return.
Sondheim wouldn’t like it, but you will
The Three Sisters
If you ask any actor, any director or any regular theatregoer which is his favourite Chekhov play, he will almost certainly answer that it is the one he is acting, directing, or seeing at that moment. One of the reasons for Anton Chekhov’s enduring success is that audiences can so easily identify with the characters’ suffering. The Three Sisters is a bitter tirade against the pain and anguish of life’s injustices, its unrealised dreams and its missed opportunities. The play is not the tragedy of any one individual but the concerted tragedy of a whole group of people. Olga, Masha and Irina live in a dull, provincial Russian backwater and are only too aware that life is passing them by. They yearn for a better, more fulfilling existence and long to go to Moscow. It’s a pipe dream: Moscow is 950 miles away and they will never get there. They are doomed to either spinsterhood or sterile marriages. The final moments –with the departure of the battalion, the military band playing off-stage, a distraught Masha taking leave of her lover, and all three sisters weeping away –remain some of the most heartbreaking in theatre. Declan Donnellan’s Russian-language production, with its fine ensemble of actors, will rank among his very best. The unexpectedly close relationship between the naïve, well-meaning Tuzenbach and the mentally sick Solyoni, both rivals for young Irina, is particularly interesting. They are like Siamese twins, constantly dogging each other’s footsteps.
Side by Side by Sondheim
For many people Stephen Sondheim is the most significant lyric writer in showbusiness. But he has never been keen on compilations from his musicals. “I can’t,” he has said, “think of anything more boring, except possibly The Book of Kells .” Nevertheless the revue, premiered over 30 years ago, has always been popular and is strongly recommended to anybody who enjoys clever, witty and sophisticated lyrics to tuneful music. The songs, drawn mainly from Company and Follies , are almost miniature one-act plays and they work surprisingly well out of context.
ORANGE TREE THEATRE, RICHMOND
John Masefield was Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967.
Few people today will have seen his peasant drama, which has been rarely revived since its premiere in 1908. The action is set in a small tenant farm in Gloucestershire in the Regency era. Nan has lived with her uncle and aunt since her father was hanged for sheep stealing. The aunt, a mean-spirited, sour woman, persuades Nan’s fiance that he will be disinherited if he marries her. The first two acts are domestic realism in the Thomas Hardy style with a touch of Tess of the D’Urbervilles . The third act, which features a major role for the River Severn, is in the mystical manner of J M Synge. The scene of courtship is charmingly acted by Katie McGuinness and Edward Bennett.
I Have Been Here Before
One of those cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul types once said: “It looks like deja vu all over again!” And so it is with this Priestley revival. A mysterious stranger arrives at an isolated inn on the Yorkshire moors. By showing his fellow guests that they are not simply interconnected in a social sense but interdependent creatures in a moral nexus, he transforms their lives for the better before departing as mysteriously as he appeared. It’s a formula that J B Priestley was to use more effectively eight years later in An Inspector Calls . Partly because it’s not Priestley at his best; partly for reasons peculiar to this production, the formula doesn’t quite work. I Have Been Here Before is one of his “time plays” written in 1937. It combines a conventional 1930s thriller setting, a generous dose of moralising, and a lot of mucking about with time and parallel universes. The mysterious stranger Dr Gortler is a German emigre mathematician and scientist turned mystic. David Acton plays him as a caricature, a kind of Teutonic Poirot with a touch of the marriage guidance counsellor. He is hardly ever convincing, and is played as a send-up in a production where, even though the characters are so stock you expect them to have yellow tags stapled to their ears, everyone else on stage is playing it straight. All is by no means lost with this production. Directed by Giles Croft, I Have Been Here Before is his first piece for what seems like ages that is not a book adaptation. But the slow development of an already feeble plot puts one in mind of a firework that stays alight but never really does the business you expect of it.
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A Matter of Life and Death
If the theatre is about memorable moments, I am sorry to say I will long remember Lyndsey Marshal, playing the leading character’s girlfriend in A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre, in one of the play’s fantasy sequences. Harnessed 12 feet above the stage, swinging and dangling in mid-air, trying to get her footing on a suspended and very wobbly bed, she did her best but the balancing task given to her by the director was impossible. It looked painful and ridiculous; this was a gallant actor trying her best in very trying circumstances. Most of the other actors looked the same for most of their scenes. By the time of Miss Marshal’s predicament, towards the end of the evening, I had given up on this tortuous adaptation of the famous 1946 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. An RAF pilot called Peter Carter falls from the sky, but survives due to a celestial administrative error. The heavenly authorities send down a “conductor” to put matters right, but the airman complicates things by falling in love. A heavenly court decides whether he will remain to enjoy a loving old age on earth, or be called above. The film is available on DVD for less than £5 these days, and if you have
not seen it, I strongly recommend that you do. It has emotional depth, tenderness and intelligence, and is full of peculiarities and surprises. Tom Morris and Emma Rice’s adaptation at the Olivier stage at the National Theatre has lots of peculiarities but few surprises; it is not noticeably intelligent and is certainly not tender. In fact, all those who love the original film should avoid it, for I cannot think of one aspect of the movie that has been made more interesting. The story has been knocked senseless. It raised my blood pressure and left me spluttering, on the brink of doing myself a mischief. Director Emma Rice turns Powell and Pressburger’s inspirational characters into clichés. For example, in the film the heavenly conductor is subtle and mysterious. At the Olivier he is a manic and unsubtle Norwegian played with pantomimic energy by Icelander Gisli Örn Gardarsson. The refinement of the original is abandoned for a lot of crowd-pleasing gurning, soppy acrobatics (including a “moon walk”) and cheap jokes at the expense of Norwegians. Even worse is the character Dr Frank Reeves (played with sublime humanity by Roger Livesey in the film). He is the general practitioner who attempts to make sense of the pilot’s delusions. A dispenser of sound advice and common-sense morality in the film, Dr Reeves in this production, played by Douglas Hodge, is predatory
and coarse, preferring to dance the tango rather than get to the heart of things. Tristram Sturrock is a confused and indecisive Peter Carter whereas the original character, played by David Niven, had grit and determination. Unless you try to forget the film, this show will make you very queasy. In particular, there is an awkwardly written scene when a blitzed Coventry housewife and women from Dresden remonstrate with the airman. It does not appear in the film. While the sentiments are valid in usual circumstances, in this context the sledgehammer morality seems patronising. One is left with something resembling a tumbling and rope-climbing circus, with lots of bangs and flashes, rather like the French Archaos company from the 1980s recreated by the sons and daughters of gentlefolk, without the smell of petrol and certainly without the erotic charge. The musical numbers are tiring. The effect is often like one of those awkward musical moments on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where comic numbers from every musical revue ever written fuse into one toe-curling routine. I had the feeling that I have seen this theatrical paraphernalia before: nurses on bicycles, acrobats in pyjamas, people climbing ropes over flaming buckets. Maybe it was in a previous life, at the music hall. Peter Shaw
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Could you torture an innocent human being?
If you believe that you are incapable of inflicting cruelty on others this haunting book will convince you otherwise, says Quentin de la Bédoyère
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, Rider Books £19 Could you torture innocent people? Could you take part in the deliberate humiliation of others to a stage where you are doing deep psychological harm? Could you subscribe to deceitful and fraudulent practices in the organisation for which you work? If you reply in the negative, then you are almost certainly one of those at danger. But if you feel that, under given circumstances, you could do so, then join the human race and be on your guard. You might argue that your great age and experience would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that your high level of education would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that being a faithful child of the Church would protect you. Sorry, not even that. Philip Zimbardo is one of the most distinguished social scientists of our age. His book was triggered by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards in Abu Ghraib prison. You will have seen, and been disgusted by, the photographs. But Zimbardo has devoted most of his professional life to examining the situations and circumstances in which “good people turn evil”. He emphasises that circumstances do not excuse individual responsibility but demonstrates that plenty of circumstances exist within which evil is almost inevitable. Before you look at the bad apples, he says, you must look at the bad barrel. His founding point is his notorious 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which a group of college graduates, monitored for their normality, were randomly assigned to the roles of guards or prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment had to end after one week because of the increasing brutality of the guards, and the patent psychological damage being done to the prisoners. You may well know the experiment but I have never read it described in such meticulous detail. He follows this up by accounts of many other experiments and observations which demonstrate the potential for evil in normal people. He concludes with the Abu Ghraib prison incident which became public in 2004. Reality was acting out, but with far greater harshness, the lessons which had been learnt at Stanford three decades before. Yet the brunt of culpability was laid on the guards, the bad apples, and virtually none on those who had set up and supervised the situation, the bad barrel – even
The Stanford prison experiment, left, and the haunting image from Abu Ghraib, right
though the outcome was predictable. I am not going to describe Zimbardo’s accounts because, if you have any interest in the nature of evil, you will read this book. Indeed, without doing so you will find it hard to credit his conclusions. If you do, you will, like me, suffer a number of sleep-disturbed nights. I will just whet your appetite by mentioning the account of the teacher who told her class that she had discovered that blue-eyed children were naturally superior to brown eyed; and then, the next day, told them she had made a mistake and the facts were exactly the other way round. You can laugh or cry at the outcomes. Zimbardo is not merely recording academic accounts, he is specifically challenging us to look at our behaviour, and in what ways we are affected by the different barrels in which we live. So let me muse, without blaming Zimbardo for any implications I may make. I start at the comfortable historical distance of the Inquisition and the Marian persecutions. How could we, with the gospels at our side, have tortured and brutally killed those who sincerely disagreed with us? It was the context, the assumptions of the system within which we lived, and our rationalisation that made this seem virtuous. We were only doing our duty. Shades of Eichmann? Let’s take a broader span of history. Anti-Semitism has historically been a feature of the Church, and still exists in pockets. Here, the traditional rationalisation was
deicide. And of course the failure of the Jews to accept the true Messiah was evidence of their inferiority as human beings. De-humanising other groups has always made their persecution easier – just as de-humanising black people made the slave trade possible, and indeed acceptable in many parts of the Church. (In another part of the woods, dehumanising babies in the womb has served its utilitarian purposes.) Let’s get nearer the bone. The original excuse for not taking imperative action against paedophile clergy, but simply rapping their knuckles and moving them on, was excused by our ignorance, and rationalised by fear of scandal. Arguably, it was our closed system which allowed the authorities to be naive about the nature of paedophilia, and imprudently optimistic about personal reform. Who would put a known fraudster in charge of the treasury? And the fear of scandal (protecting the group) is so often the stimulus for wishful thinking. Where was our vaunted wisdom of 2,000 years? Religion is particularly prone, and ironically so, because its different forms so often emerge from the best intentions. But those who share these best intentions tend to form a group, large or small, which creates its own norms. The temptation to become exclusive and to look at those outside the group as inferior is strong. Think, for instance, of the Puritans or, within Catholicism, the Jansenists. It is not unknown for smaller, exclusive, groups to form
within a larger community – a sort of church within the Church, if you like. Often their very exclusiveness and rigour attracts devotees who are low on personal autonomy and high on need for the identity given by membership. Their own moral sense is replaced by the norms of the group. Despite their worthy inspiration, group members can become as those who have enough faith to move mountains but have not love, and are therefore nothing. As I write, a survey comes in which tells me that less than half of American troops in Iraq believe that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and that a substantial proportion support torture as a means of getting information. Bad apples? Bad barrel? But there are far less dramatic instances. Anyone reading Zimbardo is likely to be spurred into considering what aspects of our belief and our behaviour emerge from the several groupings, including the purely secular, to which each of us belong. And then to judge, as individuals with independent consciences, whether we sincerely reject or confirm them. Having both written and broadcast on this subject for many years I find myself still getting caught out. But I find it helps to admit my own vulnerability. And every day I try to commit at least one, perhaps mild, act of disobedience to the norm to keep the muscles of my autonomy in good trim.
Jonathan Wright is dismayed by a bizarrely speculative approach to Shakespeare’s life
Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography by René Weis, John Murray £25 There is no good evidence that William Shakespeare was lame, or that William Davenant was his illegitimate son. There is no clinching evidence that Shakespeare fled Stratford because of troubles provoked by a poaching misadventure. Not that this stops René Weis from discussing such theories at length, thus lending them a credibility they do not deserve. Yes, it is frustrating that we have so little biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Very tempting, then, to recruit references to disability in the sonnets and dredge up the conclusion that Shakespeare might have had a limp. Tempting, but bizarre. Weis believes that Shakespeare’s writings contain endless clues about his life: he takes up Keats’s old notion that “Shakespeare led a life of allegory: his works are the comments on it.” It isn’t such a bad idea. The trouble is that, as the basis for a historical method, it can never prove anything. There is also a risk of pouncing on a pregnant phrase and assuming that, because Shakespeare wrote it, it must directly relate to something he experienced. Take his relationship with Anne Hathaway. Weis quotes one of Shakespeare’s female characters lamenting how “Young men will do’t if they come to’t, / By Cock, they are to blame” and remembering how “Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.” Apparently, says Weis, “without a doubt this is Shakespeare recalling his own teenage sexual encounters” and “it is clear… that [Will and Anne] had sex during the summer of 1582, before they were married.” Really? Of course, Shakespeare might have been recalling his youthful indiscretions but, equally, he might not. For the most part, Weis concedes that his speculations are precisely that, and we get much hedging as a result. Words like “perhaps” and “possibly” appear with alarming
Shakespeare: A biographer’s worst nightmare
frequency in these pages. Sometimes Weis seems to raise possibilities just for the sake of it. On the issue of whether Jesuit missionaries visited the house of one of Shakespeare’s Stratford neighbours we get: “There is no evidence of [Edmund] Campion and [Robert] Persons passing through the Badger house during this period, but none that they did not.” What exactly is that supposed to prove? On Shakespeare and the Jesuit John Gerard, both living in London at the same time, we get: “It is possible that Shakespeare and Gerard sometimes passed one another in the Strand.” Entirely possible, but so what? Such distractions are frustrating because, in his more focused moods, Weis offers rewarding readings of Shakespeare and he does an excellent job of bringing early-modern Stratford and London to life. The reconstructions of the neighbourhoods Shakespeare inhabited and the accounts of the capital’s theatrical life are extremely well wrought. Ultimately, though, what Weis refers to as “decoding” the works is a perilous enterprise. Surely someone of Shakespeare’s genius was more than capable of writing about things that had never happened to him, or portraying pitches of emotion that he never experienced. Shakespeare will always be a biographer’s worst nightmare. We can approach consensus about
some things –the identity of the Dark Lady of the sonnets, for instance –but other issues (Shakespeare’s religious sympathies and sexual leanings) will doubtless remain obscured. A surprisingly handsome Shakespeare (with not the slightest hint of malepattern baldness) recently made an appearance on Doctor Who . At one point he flirted with the Doctor; a bisexual advance that, as the Doctor commented, would delight some sectors of the 21st-century academy. What works on prime-time television is less well suited to academic study. There has never been a lack of curious theories about Shakespeare; that recent business about him supposedly spending time in a Lancashire recusant household, for instance. Perhaps we will eventually accept that we are never going to know much about Shakespeare the man, and that literary texts are a phenomenally unreliable source of biographical information. Until we do, old and new theories will continue to fester. René Weis is an accomplished Shakespearean scholar, someone who knows the texts intimately and has the sensitivity to interrogate them in fruitful ways. He should know better than to employ a couple of stray lines from the sonnets in order to convince us that Shakespeare probably had a limp.
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Decoding Early Christianity: Truth and Legend in the Early Church, edited by Leslie Houlden, Greenwood World Publishing £19.95 It’s obvious from the title that this is a response to The Da Vinci Code . But, as Houlden’s introduction stresses, it isn’t intended to deliver direct refutation of every allegation Dan Brown recycles. This, Houlden says, has already been done in, for example, Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code . Houlden concedes that Brown’s book is fiction: nevertheless its author makes some claims for factual accuracy that don’t stand up. He also recognises that much of the territory in dispute is unknown, probably unknowable, which doesn’t mean that all theories regarding it are equally valid. The New Testament is “the literature of the winners”, says Houlden, but it’s undoubtedly our earliest account of Christianity, and it reflects “a wider range of ideas and groups than has often been supposed”. Houlden claims that all the contributors are happy to adapt theories to fit emerging facts. The Dead Sea Scrolls changed our ideas about Judaism at the time of Jesus –not about early Christianity as Dan Brown pretends –and the Nag Hammadi codices modified our thinking regarding some of the earliest Christian groups.
The first chapter stresses that although the gospels are broadly reliable about life, culture and politics in firstcentury Palestine, they were written 40 to 60 years after the events described and each is couched in what Houlden calls its own “poetry”. He’s right; all narratives are. But this truth must also apply to the present work. The writers all seem impartial, and are no doubt trying to be, but we’re all human. It might have been ideal if they had all been totally bereft of religious belief, either pro or anti, but no thinking person can be. Unsurprisingly therefore where there’s doubt you sometimes feel they give the benefit of that doubt to mainstream Christianity. An example: Stephen Need, without sufficient justification, concludes that John the Baptist wasn’t an Essene. But it’s tempting to wonder whether Jesus was baptised into the Essenes by John and later rejected that sect. We’re told that the Essenes stressed the importance of hating outsiders and enemies. Was Jesus making an explicit rebuttal to the Essenes when he told people to love their enemies? And why, incidentally, are the Essenes not mentioned in the gospels along with other Jewish sects of the period, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? And on what grounds is the apocryphal literature regarded as being completely unhistorical, as in Houlden’s assertion that
“the four New Testament gospels are our only source for the historical Jesus”? There’s a lot to think about. According to Need, the Greek word translated as “betray” properly means “hand over”. Jesus doesn’t stop Judas from handing him over. Was the whole business pre-arranged? When Jesus seems to foretell his own betrayal (Mk:14) is he actually giving an order no one wants to carry out? There’s fun to be had, especially in Lionel Wickham’s chapter on heresy. The heretic, he thinks, is always the other person, never you. And the modern heretic is “usually a bishop or professor of theology, who weeps all the way from official condemnation to the TV studio and thence to the bank”. Wickham is also uncomfortably provocative: “If in doubt you can always tell which is the Catholic Church: it is the one that persecutes because it invokes the force of the State and prosecutes under the law”. The writers, all C of E, make you feel that Christianity is nothing to launch Crusades for or even agonise about; rather, it’s ideal for ruminating over in the privacy of your own study, preferably with a single malt to hand. One already knows a lot of this ground. But it’s nice to have it all in one hardback, written (for once) by academics rather than journalists.
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