reading notes + some theatre for good measure

10 02 2009

I’ve got two books on the go right now.  I’m still working through Sacred Games and I really like it so far, and I’m really enjoying how the story keeps branching off into little side alleys and reminisces of the past.  I’m actually enjoy those sections more than the central detective story.  I’d been making good progress with it, but then I took a trip into Toronto and I didn’t want to lug it on the train with me so I selected The Crimson Portrait, one of the books I received for Christmas.  Between the trip into the city and back again on the train, I’ve made it halfway through the book.  Its set during WWI at a hospital for men who facial wounds and I’m finding it a fascinating read though I find the end of each section distracting, almost as if there is this tension being ending too abruptly and with too many revelations.

My trip to the big, bad city was theatre-inspired.  I was lucky enough to see East of Berlin at Tarragon on the weekend.  I missed it last year, waiting about a day too long to buy my tickets so I was glad they remounted it this year.  The play focuses on Rudi, the son of a SS doctor who performed medical experiments on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.  He tells his story to the audience, how he discovered the truth about his father’s past and how he has tried to deal with that knowledge, and though there are some scenes with two other key characters, much of the play is direct address by Rudi to the audience, and I was really impressed with the playwright’s ability to sustain monologue and the central character’s connection with the audience so effectively throughout the play.  There’s a lot of humour in the play, which you could tell some people were unsure of how to react to, given the subject matter of the play.  There was an intimacy about the space that worked really well for this play, and Brendan Gall who played Rudi was able to create such a strong connection to the audience, which is important if the play and its implication of the audience witnessing Rudi’s story are going to work.  There was kind of a funny moment at the performance I was at.  A woman in the front row kept coughing because of the cigarette smoke on stage (there was quite a bit of smoking).  At one point she was struggling with unwrapping a candy and the crinkling noise just went on and on and on and it was the second time she’d done that, so Gall – who was right by her at that moment – offered to help her unwrap it.  He handled it really well, and the audience just broke out into spontaneous applause and then the show continued.  I told the Artsy Mama about it and she said she would have walked out if that had happened to her, and I can see how it would be embarrassing, but I also pointed out that she wouldn’t have been crinkling a candy wrapper anyway.  I think she would have been clapping right along with the rest of us.


review: voyage (coast of utopia part 1)

4 11 2008

So I’ve been reading plays recently.  I don’t think I mentioned it, but I did a basics play writing course.  I’ve been wanting to blog a bit about my writing, but I’ll leave that for another time.  I’ll just say the course has got me writing again, it has got me thinking more positively about my writing, and it has me reading plays again as a way of looking at techniques and structure, as well as enjoying reading a good play.

I haven’t had a chance to see any of the plays in The Coast of Utopia trilogy because nowhere where I can get too right now as put them on.  I got the book in the summer and thought it would be a good chance to enjoy some Stoppard.  I’ll take it in whatever form I can get usually.

I must admit I found it a difficult reading experience.  I had trouble keeping everyone straight and the ideas didn’t connect with me.  I’m sure it would be better on stage.  I’m a bit unsure now about diving into the other parts.  Maybe I need to brush up on my philosophy first.  Actually, I don’t have much philosophy background to brush up on.  Maybe that’s the root of the problem…

required reading: selection from Palmer Park

22 10 2008

I was fortunate to see everything at the local theatre festival this summer, and while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw, the production that moved me the most was Palmer Park.  More of a docu-drama than a traditional play, it did ask some different questions and by the end I found that all too familiar lump in my throat.

The following quote is from the end of the play (not to ruin it for anybody or anything) and I find it is a passage I keep returning to over and over again because of the most basic truths that it captures:

Once upon a time there was an old Iroquois chief who was very disturbed.  His grandson approached him and said, “Grampa, why are you so troubled?”  The old chief said, “Son, I have two warring bears inside of me.  One is full of love and acceptance and kindness for everything in the world.  The other is full of anger and rancor and hate.”  The little boy asked, “Grampa, do you know which bear will win the war?”  The old chief answered, “Yes, I do.  The one that I feed.”

theatre review: fuentes ovenjua

20 07 2008

Since I’ve probably been seeing more theatre than I’ve been reading recently – it’s so hard living in a theatre town 😉 – I thought I would expand the focus a bit and write about some of the things I’ve seen recently.

Yesterday, I saw Fuente Ovejuna (pronounced Foo-EN-tay Oh-veh-HOO-na as the Stratford website helpfully tells us) and it was quite a remarkable production.  The one word that came to mind was “odd” – I know that doesn’t sound complementary, but I mean it in the best possible sense.

Fuente is the story of a small town who is ruled over by the corrupt Commander Guzman.  He and his men ravage the town – particularly the women – in any way they see fit.  The town eventually comes together to overthrow the tyrant and his men, proclaiming afterwards that “Fuente Ovejuna did it.”

The play is quite a mix.  There are certainly dramatic elements and there is some violence on stage, but there is also a great deal of humour, and some very memorable lines.  The director, Laurence Boswell, has also written the new adaptation they are using and he has updated the language, which is maybe where the oddness comes from, or maybe it was some of the over-the-top elements that contributed to that.  It was funny and human, but just in the oddest way.

The only choice I didn’t really care for was the slow-motion staging that was used for the violence.  I realize that the intention may have been to have the audience really focuses on the brutality of the moment, but I found that I actually felt more removed with everything being slowed down.

There are some very powerful performances in this production, most notably Sara Topham as Laurencia, whose call to action after being abused by Guzman and his men is simply breathtaking.

Pentecost: Act Two

12 08 2007

My thoughts on the first act of Pentecost can be found here. As with my first entry, I am giving away key plot points in my discussion. If you’d prefer not to have the play spoiled, please read no further. Writing both of these entries I’ve found to be quite a difficult process, particular since I realize that reading these might be confusing if you haven’t seen the plays. Still, I want to get my thoughts down and since the work itself is so complex, my jumbled ideas and reactions are my attempt to grapple with that complexity.

The second act of Edgar’s play deals with many different issues, but at the centre for me is the issue of language, story and identity. The play refers in a few spots the story of the Tower of Babel and in so doing calls attention to the division of language and the conflict which can and does result from not being able to make ourselves understood or understand other people, languages and cultures. Edgar also incorporates this issue by having the actors speak several different languages on stage – not all of which is translated directly. That’s not to say that you cannot understand what needs to be understood. Though the different languages contribute to the confusion and chaos at points, key points are made understood, the refugees translate for one another and as a viewer you are able to follow, even if at first it seems a struggle and when the translation does come it is in a broken sort of way. Those fragments of translation are perhaps more effective, because you still need to be the effort in to put together a whole and what is left out or implied is sometimes more powerful.

The play’s title obviously references Pentecost and it is there that language and story and unity interest in the play. The refugees’ stories or histories of persecution are related early in the second act in a very direct and overwhelming way. Leo has indicated a desire right towards the start of Act Two to know the names of the captors (though it seems this might be a ploy for information on the captors rather than a genuine interest on his part) and Yasmin, who has assumed a leadership role within the group of refugees, begins sharing their stories. The persecution and suffering she details is overwhelming in its directness and seemingly unending, but she finally by saying “So, do you know enough?” – a statement which suggests there is more to hear but that Leo (and those like him who ask to know) isn’t prepared to hear what he’s asked to know and would prefer not to really know what these people have suffered. The stories do continue, however, a page later with the background of Fatima. It has been written down in English so Oliver reads it:

Her brother is conscripted to the Iraqi army and refuses. he is taken to a camp and three months later he turns up a half-wit with one eye. She is by this time in the mountains but decides to take her brother back to – Qala Diza? where her mother now lives with her son. When they arrive. When they arrive. (71)

He stops before the end because – as with Yasmin’s verbal testimony on the refugees’ behalf – it is so horrific. Her story is returned to at two more points in the act, each time getting a bit more information, but her story is never told with the same bluntness that the other refugees’ histories are and this makes her story much more haunting and terrible to consider.

Edgar makes a point of stressing at the start of the act how much the hostages and refugees don’t know about each other, with Yasmin in particular stressing that people like Leo and Oliver who represent Western culture and values have made not effort to understand their position. She says:

In the time of the crusades, the Muslim armies exchanged Christian prisoners for Christian books. Because, perhaps, they realised it is preferable to know your enemy than to hold him. And indeed from then to now, by all the means whereby you have invaded us – from the star of Bethlehem to satellite TV – you have taught us oh so much much more than you will ever take the pains to learn of us. (60)

There is no questionning the distance between the two groups, but that divide is bridged as the act continues. A character that really caught my attention in the stage production was Amira. She is the first of the refugees that really begins befriending and connecting with the hostages. They discuss Fatima, Oliver asking “I wonder. How you grieve. When you find that. How you lament,” and Amira explaining that in Fatima’s faith, “It is for them great blasphemy, to despair at a loved one being called to God” (89). This discussion is striking on stage and it also serves as an important key to unlocking the secret of the painting and its true origin. Amira also shares the story of a cousin with the hostages, about her cousin’s persecution, again not going into graphic detail.

What occurs throughout this part of the play is a breaking down of walls between the hostages and their captors. They begin to share stories, initially folk or fairy tales and this leads into shared laughter over part of American culture. Story and culture unite them, a divide occurring when Fatima bursts in and says they must not interact with the hostages. “We have threatened to kill them,” she says, “How can we kill them now? What will they think of us?” (88). The personal connections they have made will prevent the refugees from following through on their threats. This cycle of unity through art and/or story and the disruption from the outside is repeated twice more in the act. Amira, who plays the cello, initially refuses to play, finally does and this again unites everyone in the Church and they share in the art until Karolyi interrupts with a response to the refugees demands. Some of the refugees have been offered a place to go, but not all and this divides the entire group, those who are grateful to have some where to go, those who have not be accepted and who lash out and try to undermine those who have been more fortunate. Leo even becomes involved questioning how a woman like Fatima could possibly have been excluded. Karolyi explains, “In this part of Europe, it is a little arbitrary sometimes, whether one is cast as victim or accomplice. An invader or a liberator. The object of unjust persecution or a voluntary exile” (92). Amira’s reaction was, for me viewing the production, one of the most heartbreaking. Having not been accepted into a host country, she does not argue or try and diminish the chances of the other refugees. Rather she gathers her things and heads to wait for the bus that will take her back, but before doing she admits who she is to the hostages, admitting that it was she and not her cousin who suffered the persecution and trauma she spoke of before. This reclaiming of her identity and her refusal to be party to the violence speaks of a very different and important kind of courage.

The painting has become something of a pawn in the second act. Leo, attempting to save his life, lies about its worth, explaining how priceless the painting is, and the refugees issue a statement (again at Leo’s suggestion) early in Act Two that they will “fry” it off the wall if their demands are not met. When Karolyi enters the play with the response to their demands, he informs the refugees that they painting is worthless and without knowing it exposes Leo’s lies and risks his life. Oliver, however, finds evidence that the painting my really be what they suggest it is – this time through language. He shares his theory with all those in the Church, once again uniting everyone on stage through art. The history or origin theory of the painting is an issue unto itself, but the critical thing for me was that everyone was once again united through art and through story and it is there that the hope in the play resides for me.

I attended a special lecture and discussion with the playwright last week. Actually, I’ve been to two discussions about the play. One was with the director, playwright and dramaturge right after the performance and then there was another talk with David Edgar a few days later. At that second talk, someone asked about hope in the play and Edgar discussed it, but in a roundabout way and without giving a definite answer on whether he is hopeful. For me, there was hope in the play and it resided, as I indicated above, in those moments when the individuals are able to come together, to share who they are and their past and their art. They are able to speak not one language, but still to make themselves understood. Politics, religion, violence – all of these things and many others get in the way of communication, but art and story unite the characters at three critical points in the play, and it is those that make me hopeful and make me long for a better way, which to me is the purpose of a piece like Pentecost. The concluding image echoes this, as Leo and Gabriella read words from one of the refugee’s (Cleopatra) diaries – words she has overheard and writes down in an attempt to practice English. These are just fragments, words taken out of context, but the three concluding ones – words that Cleopatra wrote down when she heard Leo quote from the poem carved on the Statute of Liberty – are particularly powerful and speak to the basic human desires and needs that dominate the play: huddled, yearning, free.

But back for a moment to the painting and the fourth wall that I referred to in my post yesterday. The stand-off is ended by commandos bursting through a hole they blast in the painting, shooting many of the refugees and Oliver, who wearing the clothes of a refugee, is mistaken for one of the captors. In the final scene, Anna explains why they burst through the painting: “It is, apparently, the weakest wall” (104). Considering the director’s choice in the production I saw to not have the painting on stage, but rather to have the audience (as the fourth wall) represent the painting that line presents an interesting statement about both art and humanity. That art (and by extension the people that stand in for that art in this production) are the weakest wall speaks a great deal to me about how art can be devalued and how people can be weak when faced with any number of things. I think a play like Pentecost makes us question that weakness – both on an art and a human level – and hopefully makes us stronger so that at one point we – or at the last some of us – won’t be the weakest wall.

Pentecost: Act One

11 08 2007

I’m starting with a post about the first act of Pentecost. It’s a complex play so there might be a bit of overlap and I am discussing in detail some key plot points so if you aren’t familiar with the play and don’t want it ruined please don’t read any further…

The first act of David Edgar’s Pentecost lays the groundwork for much of the second act. The painting is introduced as is one theory about its origins, which is then discredited – but again the reason for the discrediting foregrounds the major revelation about the painting in the second act. There is a lot of foreshadowing and building that needs to be done in that first act to make the second act as emotionally charged and effective as it is. The groundwork is also laid for the various relationships betweens the characters, and even beyond that is the need to establish a context for the political forces at work and how the society of this fictitious European country views itself and its past.

It is there – in terms of the past and history and national and personal identity – that my interest really lies in the first part of the play. The issue for many of the characters is history and the past and though their feelings manifest themselves over the debate about the painting, there is much more to it than their concerns about the fate of the painting.

There is an exchange in the third scene of the play between Gabriella, the woman who discovered the painting and a citizen of the fictional European country (and who is working with Oliver, a British art historian, to remove the painting and have it placed in the national gallery), and Leo Katz, an American, who has come to stop the removal of the painting, preferring instead that art age in its natural state.

LEO But surely, you shouldn’t wipe out all that history?

GABRIELLA No? Whyever not?

LEO ‘Cos it’ll be forgotten.

GABRIELLA Maybe some things best forgotten. (33-34)

Here we have contrasting views of “history” and the past. Leo speaks very much for a viewing of preserving history as a cautionary tale, whereas Gabriella who has lived in a country only just emerging from the difficulties of its WWII and post-WWII history is much more keen to forgot.

Leo continues the presents his view of history in Scene Four. He is against the trend to preserve or restore paintings by stripping away dirt and signs of decay. He talks about how paintings have become “stars” of the “Hollywood variety,” never allowed to age or “crumble, or grow old” (45). But he insists that isn’t how it should be:

But paintings do grow old. Their history is written on their faces, just like it is on ours. And like the history of people, or of peoples, either you acknowledge it, and try to understand it, or you say it never happened, nothing’s changed, and you end up doing it again (45).

What is particularly interesting and effective in the production I saw is that the director choose not to have the painting on stage. The painting is represented by the fourth wall – by the audience – and the decision is significant in terms of this speech by Leo, but even more so by what occurs in the second act of the play (which I’ll return to in a future post).

Edgar’s discussion of history and identity continues in an exchange between Karolyi, one of the priests working to stop the painting’s removal, and Anna Jedlikova, the magistrate who is going to oversee the trial about the painting. Karolyi’s father escaped the country and in their exchange Anna expresses her anger at people like Karolyi and his father who got out. Her rationale for this is that those who leave stop being witnesses. She goes on to tell him a story about children being transported to a camp who are so hungry that they eat their name tags – they literally “eat their history” by eating their names and their family names and when they die they are not remembered because of this. Anna insists that “We must not eat our names,” particularly now that people, like Karolyi, are returning and changing names back and words back – those decision re-instating something of the past, but also wiping away a part of the more recent past (38).

It’s an interesting contrast Edgar establishes here because it is not just a case of Gabriella vs. Leo, but rather Gabriella and Anna’s competing views of history (though the two women do not discuss history or their views of the past together). They are both from the same country and have experienced the same recent political and national past, but because of their differing ages (Anna is older), they have not experienced that past or history to the same extent. Anna has seen and experienced more and her memories of past injustices stretch back further. It is their competing views of history which ultimately have an impact on the decision regarding the painting’s removal. Leo, who has overheard the exchange between Anna and Karolyi and is able to manipulate Anna’s decision by revealing that in their quest to restore and remove the painting, Gabriella and Oliver have scraped away names that were on the wall when the Church was used as a torture chamber. Though the origin theory for the painting that Gabriella and Oliver have come up with is discredited by this point and thus the painting’s removal already is doubtful, it is Leo’s revelation about the removal of the names that seems to sway Anna, coming, as it does, right before she says she is ready to make her decision.

Because Gabriella is presented as a sympathetic and likable character, her desire or impulse to forgot rather than remember is something that is understandable and though she doesn’t speak openly about any trauma in her past, it seems clear that she has suffered, whereas Leo’s brash exclamations along the lines of those who forgot history are doomed to repeat seem at times over the top and unconvincing, and yet Edgar – based on the story Anna presents of the children eating their names and the stories of the refugees that come to the foreground in Act Two – does not seem to be supporting a view that history is sometimes better forgotten. The importance lies in knowing the truth and hearing stories, particularly individual’s stories, not in proclaiming (as Leo does) that history must not be forgotten. It is the difference between saying and actually knowing. And it is story and knowing that are really the key to the second act of Pentecost and the hope that resides in the play.

There is so much more that could be discussed about the first act, but I’ll stop here and hopefully return with another post about the second act (and particularly the issue of story and language) as soon as I’ve got it read.

Letting it settle

5 08 2007

In his “Afterword” to Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners Timothy Findley writes about a reader’s potential  need “to sigh and to settle” after reading the novel and then goes on to explain a deal that he and his friend have. It is this passage that struck me most after reading The Diviners and has stayed with me, in a special spot in my mind, since that time. He writes:

“My friend and I have a rule when we go to plays and movies: neither of us is allowed to talk when the play or the movie is over if we perceive the other has been upset or moved by what we’ve just seen. Surely there’s nothing worse than somebody breaking in on your own reflections with: ‘Wow! What a piece of garbage!’ Or even with: ‘Wasn’t that terrific!’ It doesn’t really matter whether the voice breaking in agrees with you or disagrees. The point is, the only voice that matters when an experience is over is the voice of the experience itself.”

It could certainly apply to a reading of The Diviners and to any reading that has impacted you emotionally, but it stayed with me more in terms of theatre, and with two productions in particular, the two most extraordinary plays I’ve had the privilege of seeing. The first was Findley’s own Elizabeth Rex. The second was David Edgar’s Pentecost, which I saw this afternoon. The play is really twofold, though I know by saying twofold that implies a division between the two major concerns of the play and there is much more a meshing or intertwining of those concerns. The play is concerned with art and the role of art and what it represent and also with refugees and nationalism. There are shades of history and guilt and trauma and responsibility, which shade everything in the play. It is also a play about humanity and about being human and about the interactions between human beings – be they hateful, loving, cruel or merciful.

I want to write about the play or what I should say is I will want to write about it and the ideas it presents once I’ve had time to finish listening to “the voice of the experience” as Findley put it. It is still with me that voice and I don’t know if I’ve even heard half of what it has to say yet.