Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

by a moderately stupid bisexual

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I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about this play, which I think itself presents several disjointed thoughts and in some senses refuses an arc: it keeps circling a central question, will a patriarch commit suicide? This question is itself ultimately left unresolved.

Essentially, the plot of this play is its cast. A multi-generational communist family’s head (a former union organizer), his sister (a former nun and a former militant member of the violent Maoist sect Shining Path), his three children (a contractor, a high school teacher and a labor lawyer) and their lovers struggle with work, sex, ideology and familial obligations.

  • This is this play’s LONDON PREMIER, though it came out in 2009 and is by Tony ‘kind of a big deal’ Kushner. For some reason London doesn’t get Kushner? I almost never see him staged here. Is he too American for them? (I don’t think it’s a Gay Themes thing, although I also never see any bloody Lorca.) The delay is awkward given that this play, written about 2007, is such an attempt to capture a moment—in part, it’s an effort to convey the slough of the Bush years and the ambivalent hope of Obama’s coming term.
  • This staging is given both humor and a desperate intensity by the apocalyptic results of the American election last week. People cackled at now-darkly-funny lines.
  • FINALLY some bi women/lesbians up in a play I’m seeing. At fucking last! Gay men, I have seen aplenty. Women-desiring-women: almost none.
  • The high-school teacher son Pilll’s husband (Rhashan Stone—compelling in the role) speaks in a distinctly poetic, non-naturalistic register, more so than the rest of the cast.
  • A lot of the dialogue is difficult to make out: there are cacophonous scenes of overlapping family arguments. I really wanted a script, or to have pre-read the libretto. I don’t think ‘getting everything’ is the point of this theatrical experience (in fact, it might run counter to it), but I still wanted to, because I’m that type of person. Even now I feel anxious because I’m not sure I’ve completed the play experience (and yet I’m speaking on it, blah blah). I think I’d appreciate this play more as a script.
  • The title is so perfect I think it’s what a friend mockingly called the play and it stuck. (Quoth wiki, “[t]he title was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.[1]” Mine was better.)
  • This might well be a hard play to follow unless you’re pretty up on America, history, political theory, classics and theology. I don’t know how you interact with it with varying levels of knowledge of these (I’m only ‘fair’ on most myself): the play emphatically does not come with the usual set of explicatory narrative training wheels. Every character is an expert in their subject areas, including family histories and emotional realities we cannot know. Mostly I feel this is an acceptable state of affairs, but the key plot point (a certain labor dispute) relies on a fundamental pre-existing understanding of the Marxist contention that wealth produced via a worker’s efforts belongs essentially to the worker, not to the company employing them: the people who work the land own the land. This is not obviously explained in this text, and for thinkers forged by late capitalism it’s a difficult proposition to grasp. How many people come in knowing that one? Who is this play for?
  • Speaking of unknowable family histories and emotional realities, I do not know how MT and her partner got in this fucking position with the baby. I can see pieces, but how the situation reached this crisis point eludes me.
  • How MT’s partner and Pill’s husband are treated bugs me: I want them airlifted to a less hostile environment.
  • I like everyone in this family, but they’re also all a bit terrible. Some especially so. I have the least patience for Pill.
  • Tony Kushner has a Chris Boucher problem in that he cannot write a dim or boring person. Here, that’s fine. Largely Kushner writes his way around this issue because it’s not interesting to him.
  • Kushner extends such an intellectual and emotional sympathy to different forms of conservatism in Angels. I wonder if, at this point in his life and in world politics, he’s still capable of or interested in that. (‘This point’ could be the moment of the play’s composition or today.)
  • Relatedly, it’ll be interesting to see what Kushner makes of 2016, if we’re still alive in 15 years or so. (Is this Kushner’s only contemporary full play? Angels, Bright Room Called Day, Dybbuk, Caroline or Change…)
  • The three-act structure is unusual, and from my current position I couldn’t tell you quite what it does here.
  • This theatre is an excellent three-pokestop hub with some great Sightings. Word to the wise.
  • The play wanted, I think, to be about anger or purity, but at least in this staging (and I suspect in the script itself?) that impulse doesn’t cohere. The children’s anger or destructiveness is (I think) supposed to be derived from their father (their aunt and their family generally also have a long involvement with violence, we discover). We’re told that the father Gus’s activism is stringently not socialist but communist, not ameliorating but revolutionary, and asked to consider whether these antisocial impulses (principles running counter to his collectivist, union impulses) are the result of his beliefs per se, or whether he just has a destructive character. We’re sort of asked to ponder the costs of his ideological purity. But I never appreciate Gus’s activism as actually ‘burn the world’ angry. He’s too wedded to the union. He’s too concerned about the people he’ll leave behind. Maybe Kusher can’t envision or write that form of searing, principled belief? His belief is always giving, ambivalent, flexible, always-already betrayed. I think he’s the rabbi in Dybbuk, still in love with religion but suffering from the knowledge that the compact is broken. Ironically, though, Kushner’s vision of faith remains what I would consider fundamentally Jewish in its very analytic hesitance.
  • Kusher is always interested in belief, and in religiosity specifically, but in this play the religious focii never comes to much. It’s hard for them to, when religious faith is chiefly the concern of two sidelined partner characters who don’t quite connect with the central family as a whole, whose relationships even with their own partners are troubled, possibly transitory. If the point is just that religious and political faith and doctrinal conflicts and schisms are similar, that’s a bit too Basic. We’re sort of half-inveigled with theological questions I think most people don’t have the background to understand and given few stakes there, few hints as to why these matter. This thread almost crystallizes with the former nun’s discussion of scientology and of escape—in the moment I felt I could sort of see it? But retrospectively that slipped away, and if I ever understood where we were there, I let it get away from me.
  • The former nun/sister/aunt is a really interesting figure, but again, I’m not sure she landed for me.
  • This is both a King Lear retelling and a modern Chekhov play. It’s seriously interested in classic Chekhov themes, characterizations/ensemble casts, political discussions and possibly even staging, in a sense—I’m thinking about the amount of action that happens in the house. We also have a Cherry Orchard plot with the ex-husband. I applaud these efforts, because I like Chekhov and could go in for Modern Chekhov.
  • Relatedly, Kusher is interested in the social situations of families and their political contexts, the family saga, and different forms of families. Look at the range of social-familial environments he explores in his ouvre.
  • I don’t think it’s accidental that we see no children: Kushner doesn’t have much time for them, in a way, Caroline notwithstanding. Something here about queer futurities, about the kinds of familial relationship which interest him.
  • Now, for me, this could have been more realistically set designed? I think budget more than anything constrained the production here, but this house has a lot of history and it’s important that’s rendered palpable so we feel the whole idea of its possible loss. This minimalist set was fine, but didn’t do the production many favors.
  • Again, a la Chekhov, a big cast of very distinct and very good characters, easily drawn. Both the characters and actors for MT (Tamsin Greig) and (her father, the family patriarch) Gus are particularly compelling. It’s hard to quite get a handle on female protagonist, but I’m not sure there’s a problem with that.
  • Someone next to me (English) bitched about the characters’ region, class and age-specific American accents, but I thought these were fine to be honest. I think English people don’t actually know shit about the variability of ‘the’ American accent, and so freak out when it’s not modern ‘broadcast’ quality.
  • Some of the people in this full house left after Act I. Judging by some of the audience chat (expressive of surprise and disquiet at gay male groping on stage), they hadn’t seemed to know what they were in for. The title apparently had not given it away, somehow. I think an American theatre public would have known from Kusher’s name? He has such a different profile here. It was also a very gay audience, though.
  • It was uniformly well acted, and for better or worse the person next to me was right to say that the production worked very hard.
  • Kushner is a lot like RTD in his treatment of love. The chase, lust, adultery. (Who has the fucking time? Seriously, the prevalence of this ‘everyone is cheating as a matter of course’ motif in relatively contemporary art is like, a mass hallucination in which ALL people spend vast quantities of sheer bloody time (in late capitalism?!) and emotional energy no one has on this process of fucking about for mediocre results or because they can’t help it, like we live in Les Liaisons dangereuse? I think everyone read a blousy Guardian article about the French and got over-excited en masse.) I don’t want to say these are topics favored by gay men of a certain age but it’s difficult not to arrive there, in a way? He rarely shows settled romantic relationships in a good place (part, I think, of why the mother is banished from this narrative by the Victorian device of childbed death). He does the rush of physical infatuation, relationships falling apart and spurned habitual love rather than the ecstasies of the fall or the complacencies and delights of substantive affection. The hustler in this or the fairy-tale couple in Dybbukmight give the lie to this, but generally I think I’m right (as per usual, right). There’s much to be said on Davies as an uncommitted writer of romantic love (with the exception of some parts of Bob&Rose), but that’s another essay—one to piss off any Ten/Rose fans around these parts, I guess.
  • Via Pill, Gus says some very unfair things about Fabian socialism and Shaw (so it’s a joke about the play’s title too, in a way). But I see why he would.
  • A core question of the second to last scene, which in may ways feels like the play’s ending, is ‘whither now communism?’ Passionate and intelligent lifelong adherent Gus cannot see a way forward for the struggle given the current position of class politics in the world, and thus cannot see any release or true betterment for mankind. This is something I’ve thought about, along with many, many other people I’m certain, so it’s good to see it addressed in fiction rather than in yet another fucking thinkpiece (I read too many—though I’m not certain, actually, that I’ve seen this topic brought up in these terms).
  • This is a play with a lot of stuff and no answers. Maybe Kusher is abdicating that responsibility or refusing to be perfect, to answer, as a point. This is a less polished work than Angels, but then Angels probably seemed more definitively ‘answering’ and like a unified theory of everything when I read it as a freshman. From the wiki, it seems like this might be a play Kushner himself isn’t final-form happy with: his Platanov/Wild Honey/Untitled, but done in his mid-late career rather than at the very start. I don’t know if I liked this play exactly, but I’ve thought so much about how it works, and I do think that’s valuable. The one disappointing thing is, I don’t know how much I’ve responded to it by thinking about the questions it raised and its responses to them.
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Confessional, Tennessee Williams, Southwark Playhouse (2016)

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Tennessee Williams is a highly regional writer, as strongly associated with the American South and its social fabric as Faulkner. His work is also time-stamped. In general, it feels flexible only within the range of a couple of decades and these are still too fresh in living memory to acquire the vagueness with which a modern audience reads the historicity of Ibsen or Chekhov. This staging of Confessional, a play about a group of regulars interacting in a shabby bar on a night that seems both eventful and utterly typical, is fairly unique in its decision to shift the action to modern South End, in England. It gets a lot from that choice. The tensions, the homophobia, and the characters’ marginal lives all feel relevant in this altered context, and only a few lines (and the burden on the viewer to imagine the role of the play’s non-NHS doctor—perhaps treating migrants?) make the reading a bit difficult. It doesn’t feel like a Shakespeare play set in a 1970s garage, where the sliding juxtapositions have their own generative play. It works more literally than that, and draws the eye to how much of the world Williams wrote of survives today, especially in forgotten, down-at-heel spots.

The text itself has strong homophobic, homotragic elements. This is not the opinion of the play per se, but layers of these opinions play out therein, and Confessional could be distinctly uncomfortable for a queer viewer who doesn’t want to confront that in an immersive, realistic, contemporary setting. I do feel there should be some kind of trigger warning (perhaps some of the materials contained one: I didn’t see). There’s been a huge post-Brexit spike in hate crimes and hate speech, and for too many people the play’s events are a reiteration of the kind of hostility they regularly deal with.

For me, the homotragic elements struck more deeply than the homophobia expressed by perhaps the play’s most culpable idiot. Both the elder of the play’s two gay characters (It’s always gay men, isn’t it? I wonder I can see myself in the mirror, I’m so invisible.) and the battered heroine (who venerates the memory of a deceased gay brother) believe homosexual life, or at least a homosexual lifestyle (as defined by this play), to be relentlessly wearing and ultimately bleak. There’s a lot of more contemporary radical, optimistic thought about queer futurities, and in some ways it’s frustrating to be dragged back into this somewhat self-hating, dated narrative and position. But that is the position Williams was writing from, and it’d be both difficult and disingenuous to strip this element from a staging just because it now feels past its sell-by date and like a nuanced, self-imposed form of discrimination.

Williams often does deeply complex, flawed, compelling female characters who have a kind of awful, searing recognizability. For me the central figures here are ultimately a drifting, casual prostitute who lives above an arcade (for now—it is, she claims, a ‘temporary arrangement’) and has little memory of her own past or idea where she’s going and a similarly migratory beautician. But this beautician controls her trailer and her destiny. She’s mothering and hard, angry and clear-eyed, responsible and self-reliant. She’s brittle and unbreakable, enmeshed in her early sorrows and utterly unwilling to become permanently trapped in any new ones—willing and able to cut and run. Determined to do it. She’s the protagonist if anyone is, and she deserves the station. I think this actress might be the best member of a good cast, but it’s also hard to tell because it’s a very good role.

For all their intersectional concerns about class, queerness and femininity, Williams can have a blind spot about race. His plays often give us an imagined all white south, where if there are black people, they’re somewhere else—not at the center of our action, not even on its periphery. The creation of a white southern past (and this is an imaginary labor, the south such efforts envision is creatio ex nihilo) is an intellectual project that, after Williams’ time, became very important to ‘post-racial’ America. This mechanism allowed a historically inaccurate Nativism to be revived and refashioned in the US: you can see it in the imagined white trajectory of country music, stripped bare of the influences of zydeco et al. Some scholars of post-WWII Japan have done great work on the recent invention of certain Japanese ‘traditions’—the back-reading of rituals like sumo and constructed long histories of entirely peaceful urban living and paternalistic companies. This invention of the past was a vast cultural project, and when I first read about it as an undergrad I considered the unfashioning of memory involved unique and disturbing. Now, when I think about the imagined white Southern past and how thoroughly this time that never was and circumstances that never were have come to dominate American conservative and moderate political thought, I wonder how prevalent such mechanisms and formations actually are?

This staging generates its immediacy and establishes its change of setting by means of probably the most successful immersive layout I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a dingy working bar, and you literally walk in and sit somewhere. Any photo of this space would be falsely identified as an image of a real pub by someone who didn’t know better. My sister, who worked as an assistant stage manager on the production, doused the floor with old, stale beer so it’d reek and stick. Gross, but the right decision. Before the actual show began, audience members ordered drinks, used their phones and watched people they didn’t quite know were actors chat amongst themselves and with punters. This pre-show was largely successful, if somewhat jarring in contrast with what we later learned about these characters’ relationships: the beautician and the doctor paled around before the play started in a way that felt incompatible with the beautician’s low opinion of the doctor.

The issue here was that the pre-show action was improvised, and thus not necessarily considered and consistent with the relationships depicted in the text. In fact all of the play’s blocking was improvised. This added to the show’s rawness and immediacy, but the choice has some issues. It demands a LOT of the actors, consistently. The fact that the show worked very well was, I think, largely down to the strength of the cast rather than the structure afforded them by underlying staging decisions, because perhaps the key staging decision is to outsource a lot of the labor of the play. Of course this means the resulting piece of theatre varies even more than is usual with live theatre from night to night, and is uniquely dependent on the cast being well-chosen, cohesive and in fine form. (These variations also make the play more difficult to critically and academically interact with, but this is incidental.) The choice could also result in an always-loaded play feeling or getting out of hand, unsafe for actors or audience members—the material lends itself to physical violence, and the staging to audience involvement and unpredictable responses.

Perhaps my chief artistic issue with the live improv approach is that it led to circular, repetitious blocking that actively harmed character arcs at some points. The beautician starts making out with her crummy live in boyfriend after she’s dumped him (or at least she did in this matinee) when I don’t think it’s in keeping with her feelings at that point. People mill around in circles. In short, a certain stage business effect can overtake character and arc. At the same time the milling feels perhaps too reminiscent of spending time in a bar like this, of how inebriated people bumble through circular conversations in life. The script might be said to lend itself to that circularity. Yet a thing’s being realistic doesn’t necessarily make it stageworthy. I think ultimately the script falls on the right side of that line and this technical choice on the wrong side. That is, of course, a balance that might shift on a great night versus a bad night, and perhaps it’s inorganic and unfair to suggest that a show’s bad nights should still be fairly strong, the cast and the audience cushioned against failure. But I would opt for purposive, narrative staging that generates effect over a phenomena-based approach: that’s always my preference, and it’s where I’d go with this text.

None of this should suggest I wasn’t engaged with and moved by this play: it’s very good theatre, well-executed. I don’t quite know why I don’t love Williams when I ought to (we share so many interests—it’s like the unlikeliness of my disquiet with Michael Chabon). I would recommend catching any reprisal, and following the cast, especially that brilliant, hard-working assistant stage manager Meghan Schwartzkopf who is looking for gigs in the greater London area please contact for more information—

School of Rock (West End Production, soft-opener)

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We accidentally saw some kind of benefit performance of School of Rock, having simply booked regular preview tickets. Michael Caine was there, and Fergie (actual Duchess, not funkstress), and so too were the men (well, maybe we’ll just go with ‘Tory peers’) responsible for the show: Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey) and the mystery cat himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was thus unexpectedly confronted with the very face of the beast.

When I was little and stupid, as little people often are (the worshipful ‘I have an insight into childhood!’ neo-Victorian tone of many very good writers aside—people are often bloody awful, why not small people?), I fucking loved Webber. The only thing I can say in my own defence is that I always, always hated Cats. But I loved JCSS; lush, camp Phantom—I read the book it was based on; I even thought Evita made complex political points, god help me. When you are the sort of person who cruel nature has predestined to Like Musicals and you’re exposed to very few of them, the pumpkin spice latte of the genre will more than content you.

No, let’s be fair: I still like Webber. This is either because I am the sort of philistine who also thinks the schmaltzier the Romantic composer, the better (and who thinks Queen may be the greatest band-qua-band of all time), or because I was weaned on him from a young age. I’m not sure the two things are easily separated. The fact remains that while I haven’t listened to Phantom for some years, and was never ‘in the fandom’ as it were, I am nonetheless almost certain I could sing the entirety of Phantom right now. Don’t worry, I won’t, this is a terrace house and our neighbours have done nothing to deserve that.

I even liked Webber’s seeming perpetual bafflement in the idiot reality show I watched a season of, which turned the already-torturous casting process into a farcical quest to find out which girl best embodied the true spirit of the nothing part of Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. For some reason or other, can’t think why, I’ve recently come to find reality shows featuring conservative political figures deeply depressing and repulsive, so it’s a no from me on any more of that, ever.

Looking at what my sister kept describing as Webber’s ‘horrible wizened lizard face’, because she’s a bitch (but a bitch with eyes), I knew not what to feel. With erstwhile collaborator Tim Rice, ALW forms a substantial part of my cultural landscape. They sunk deep roots into me at a time when I knew no other West End caliber theatre at all. I still like a lot of ALW’s earlier work, but I distrust my own liking. Now I consider him the bourgeois, conservative hack he’s become, and probably to an extent always was. I don’t think it’s just that I’ve gotten older: I think Webber has matured into the worst part of himself.

I have a strained, awkward relationship with this old friend, who, since about eighteen, has grown into her worst qualities. These were always there, but she used to be a pretty good person. There once was this real opportunity for her to grow into someone I can’t quite imagine now, from where I’m standing. Different from me, different from who she became—a full realization of a girl now lost. I can’t see most of the things she used to be in her anymore, though I’m sure if she’d kept a journal during those years or something, we’d have some remnant of her still. Essentially, Webber’s like that, with the work of his good period standing in for those hypothetical journals.

ALW came on stage, rambled about the benefit and assured us that the children all played instruments. People had been asking about that, he told us, but indeed, his merry band of ragamuffins did make all their own noises! Presumably he said this for my benefit, and that of everyone in the audience who intended to write about the show afterwards (this charity gig, to be matter of fact rather than cynical, must have doubled as PR—‘oh look, Fergie tweeted about that hot new musical’). With that, my disappointing old flame slunk off to a seat just behind the prime circle, which was currently filled with rich donors. He watched his own show, which he must have seen fifty times at least between its New York incarnation and this new one. How can he bear it? Practice, I suppose. It’s very possible that ALW is on a spectrum with Gaiman and Dickens and other artists who have been too fucking famous in their own lifetimes: there are several ways to react, but these positions as National Treasures, living members of a Pantheon (in a pop-culture version of the French sense of the term), exert(ed) a personality and art-warping weight on them all.

Webber was right to highlight the children: his Gypsy band was the consistent highlight of the show. We sat next to two proud mothers who’ve been more often even than they were given comp tickers for. My sister struck up a conversation with them about child acting regs in the UK. We learned that it’s hard for the kids to speak in American accents, except for the one native speaker and the girl who attends an American school in Richmond, but the moms say their kids love being in this show, would suspend time if they could in order to ward off puberty and stay in it forever. I believe these moms, to the extent you can know that kind of thing: they seem sensible, and on stage the kids seem delighted in one another’s company, energetic and flushed with praise for their hard work. William Morris contended that people like work, when their circumstances aren’t exploitative and awful—that it can easily be a pleasure unto itself. He was probably right.

The show is most appealing when these kids are on. Before they arrive on the scene, it drags, and when they’re off-stage much of the energy goes with them. My partner pointed out that it’s tough to adapt School of Rock, which is simple and lovely in its original form, without losing some of its charm, and I don’t think she’s wrong. It’s good to see diversity in this cast, though. However, just to note, it is bloody always gay male parents, isn’t it? At this rate the first lesbian parent I’m going to see is myself in a few years.

The venue, the New London Theatre, exists to make the National look less hideous. It’s comfortable, and I suppose it suits some productions (because god knows I’ve been thrown by ‘Book of Mormon in an art-deco palace’), but it has that soul-deep commitment to ugliness Britain used to be capable of back when it could still muster up commitment to anything in particular. I think this might have been its last gasp, actually. My partner dutifully protests that she likes the National. My stage manager sister amends that she too likes the National: its handsome lighting rig, its huge budget. As far as its face goes, well.

The one real complaint to make about the NLT as a production space rather than as an aesthetic experience is that the show’s sound mixing was way off. This is probably an issue with the architecture of the building, which was perhaps not meant to handle a musical like this (thank fuck they didn’t put Hamilton in here). The speakers were all positioned down from us, so the tech team was fighting a losing battle. The upshot is, best-in-the-business techies gave me something that, in the cheap seats, often sounded like shit. I couldn’t hear a lot of the lyrics. I’m sure it was gold for the circle, but if your whole audience isn’t baseline-served at a West End musical, that’s really not acceptable.

Part of that ‘sounding like shit’ wasn’t really down to the sound system. It certainly wasn’t down to the kids, who played songs the film had given the musical very, very well. But where new songs were required, either lyricist Julian Fellowes phoned it in or he just wasn’t up to scratch. I winced in anticipation of some of the crapper rhymes, and, inexorably, they came: exactly what you’d expected. A small schoolchild sings “I needed respect/I needed a chance/And only you would listen/I couldn’t connect”. ‘I couldn’t connect’, like we’re in a naff therapy session. Things generally should be funnier than they are, and almost every song is musically and lyrically limp (not to mention repetitious). You could swap “If Only You Would Listen” into about eight other musicals and no one would notice.

The weirdest thing about School of Rock is, it’s a musical about rock by the guy who brought vast audiences the rock musical and who remains strongly associated with that genre, and the songs by and large do not rock for shit. The protagonist’s boss, a lapsed rock chick, laments her lost sense of self and lapsed love affair with music in a meebly trad-musical number. We have only just been told this bitch would straight die for Stevie Nicks, and somehow, somehow, I am not listening to a wailing, face-melting, Fleetwoodish, raging, nostalgic, bitter belter? I got more musical wham out of that Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup skit. This musical ought to have been a sampler of the different things rock can be and do, but every song new feels perfunctory. There is one chord unique to this musical rather than the film that lingers with me a week on—the notes that go with the kids’ “stick it to the man” chant. However it’s awkwardly reminiscent of a chord Pink used in her 2008 single “So what?” (“I’m gonna get in trouble, I’m gonna start a fight!”), which seriously predates ALW’s adaptation. My sister points out this too is a musical quotation, but the point remains: the one memorable bit of music in this whole shebang isn’t even Webber’s. The father of rock opera didn’t turn out one.

It’s pretty enjoyable, though that’s largely down to the kids’ work and not Webber’s. (I’m remembering Hamlet on child theatrical troupes as gimmick, though.) What can I say? After a string of flops (Phantom II, anyone?), Webber, who self-invests like he’s Trump, turned out something safe. Relentlessly safe. And I’m sure it’s a tidy money-maker, and again, it’s not bad. (I can’t help comparing this to the Groundhog Day musical, which was competently if not exquisitely adapted by the original script writer and elegantly staged. It didn’t add much to the film really, and I can’t say the songs have stayed with me, but it was like a slicker, more careful version of what this was trying to do. It too didn’t have good enough music, but I felt it had more of an excuse.)

School of Rock is, however, structurally awkward in a way I think will sit in the backs of the audience’s brains. The overall ideology of this play about rock as rebellion is controlled and conciliatory. We’re told the kids are over-scheduled, and at the end of the musical the protagonist’s rock lessens become one more fucking thing they have to do while still poised for hygienic lives of unfaltering achievement, adding to their burdens while lessening them. They have Free Expression Hour, yay!! It’s especially ironic that it’s Tory Peer ALW talking to you about freedom and rebellion. In a hyper-establishment West End musical. K.

And then there are the people the band cannot include. One wonders, as in the film, about the kids assigned security detail, or designing costumes no one ends up using (though that gay or playing-gay kid is a fucking star—he was a true delight). It’s odd that in the musical the discovery of the key singing talent was left until 36 hours before the final competition. It just feels like the protagonist literally has not spoken to this student all month after his initial attempt at outreach. Summer, the bossy Hermione Granger of the class, is ‘part of the band’: one of ours. We root for her. Yet the two adult women she’s like either:

  1. need to distance themselves from their ambition and/or find it incompatible with living a personally fulfilling life (the principal), or
  2. are (and this is the protagonist’s roommate’s girlfriend) uppity, fun-spoiling bitches who want like, paid rent, ever, or for their boyfriend’s weird and mean high school band mate not to live with them in their apartment she partly pays for anymore, now that they’re all in their mid-thirties, or for children not to taught by a dodgy rando with no license. You know, crazy shit like that. Maaaaaan what a drag.

So how can we celebrate Summer when her eventual fate, despite her reasonable concerns and her hard, helpful work, is to be rendered ridiculous, naggy instead of powerful. Summer says some shoehorned thing about equal pay, and you can feel the musical working to earn its credibility here. But in the wake of Trump’s election, the protagonist’s claim that Summer will be the first female president of the United States is hollow and painful. Also terrifying—what is that, 40 years to wait? Shit, at this point I hope there still is an America in 40 years.

Obviously the movie did some of these objectionable things too, but small script changes in the adaptation process have actually altered the undergirding of the musical and rendered its ideology creepier. Seemingly insignificant, surface-level changes can have that kind of deep-structure effect! One might say, ‘surely the original film’s promise of rebellion was reconciliatory bullshit, because how can a major motion picture, a mass media product made by the forces of capitalism working on a grand scale, ever say anything interesting about rebellion against convention?’ Well, indeed, but I’m more Benjamin than Adorno in this as in everything, and thus I have more time for the potentialities of mass culture. Adorno doesn’t significantly account for transformative reception and a polyvocal, multi-authorial text. Bakhtin done told you this, son! Plus, I see a lot of value in Olga Goriunova’s Autonomist Marxist-inspired ‘breaks’ formation, which stresses the possibility and importance of micro-fissures: small moments of rupture in capitalist hegemonies, cracks that let light in and allow minds trapped in late capitalism’s material and intellectual death-grip to imagine radically other futurities. I think mass culture products are capable of letting light in, sometimes.

Grimeborn Opera Festival, Arcola Theatre (2016)

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This festival, with a name that apparently puns on a more famous festival I’m not opera-savvy enough to be aware of, has been running some years and is a really cool idea. The Arcola, a Fringey Dalston space that does a lot of good work, put together a season consisting of 16 opera offerings. If you bought the festival Passport you could see five productions for a tenner each, which really isn’t bad—less than the cost of a movie in London, unless you’re getting a special deal. This is about the only way I was ever going to be able to see enough live opera in a concentrated spurt to actually decide whether I liked the medium.

Ultimately, I’m still ambivalent. Despite the insights into the phenomenon of opera-crying offered by Thomas Dixon’s excellent Margaret Are You Grieving? A Cultural History of Weeping, the phenomenon remains unfathomable to me at a fundamental level. When I cry about art it is almost always because of a conceptual source of sadness. I cried a lot during War and Peace, for example when the young Rostov boy dies, because he is so young and so undeserving of this and was only the night before offering fellow officers his treats to get them to like him and trying to come off as such a grown up. He was a baby, and his death is so stupid and worthless. It’s not him I’m sad about precisely, nor is it exactly Margaret I mourn for, my own death in his. It’s the whole idea. This isn’t said to big myself up because I virtuously find Great Art sad: as a child I also cried when Qui-Gon Jinn died in The Phantom Menace, and all the intervening years have not cleansed me of this sin. When a certain friend of mine cries about art, it’s because a character is thwarted, made unhappy. As with opera crying, I don’t understand the form of identification or empathy that enables or forces her to cry because a character is rendered miserable. And I have also known real-life opera-criers, capable of being pushed to the edge not by an idea, but by a vibration. The world is SFFnal: this is true, and yet it is as fantastic to me as faeries.

This suggests to me that, for some people, opera has a ready way in. A Royal Road and all that. I love a lot of music very much indeed, but I don’t have a physical or acculturated response to it that enables me to be moved to tears by the beauty of sound alone. I relate to opera like I relate to plays and songs and musicals, and end up judging it by some mixture of the demands of those categories. I lack familiarity with the form, and I always find it difficult to engage with and be moved by something I don’t understand. I’d say ‘so does everyone’, but I’m not sure about the universality of my feelings, given that apparently sounds make people cry, but not me.

My feelings on opera are still vulnerable, unusually determined by the strength of the production I’m watching at a given moment, the last thing I saw. I still dimly remember, though, learning to watch plays. Up until maybe eight years ago, I think I’d seen perhaps 15 plays in total, which doesn’t sound so bad until you think about how many films you’ve seen or books you’ve read by 22. Take it back to ten years ago and the number drops lower, to perhaps ten, baring the handful of student things I’d been in. I was almost invariably cast as old women in these. If there was a battleaxe grandmother, I was she. I don’t exactly know why. The world/Rock Bridge High School was apparently not yet ready for my cross-cast, played-gay Hungarian linguist in Pygmalion, I guess (though I maintain that was a good audition).

I might be selling this short. My mother, always anxious to assure herself and everyone else that her children were impeccably provided for, prepared for their launch into adult life like royal yachts, would probably credit me with scores. But I’m don’t think I’m underselling it by much. My family was relatively privileged and my mom sometimes bought me tickets for touring productions of things that came to Jesse Hall, the university venue in my hometown. But the offerings in our then-smaller, then-poorer town were far more limited than they are today, and they were and are nothing whatever in comparison to those of a bigger city. Theatre is expensive in America, and to us it was a pretentious luxury item. As a family we were weirdly both ‘interested in culture’ and totally not. My mom had acted a little in local amdram as a younger woman, but she also never read a book, other than out loud to me (I think primarily for child development purposes, but perhaps that’s being uncharitable), either for information or for pleasure in my entire time living at home. It’s really remarkable to think how precious the worst Jeff City amdram Shakespeare in the Park was to me. I was David Copperfield levels of enthused about anything. I knew so little, I relied so much on crumbly old VHS recordings of Phantom and ancient records of G&S. I was the only person I knew, baring my mother and grandmother, who know what the hell they were. I was so stupid, and so hungry.

Learning what the fuck I was looking at with plays took watching them, again and again and again. Thus I understand the possible necessity, and am prepared to do the work, of learning new rhetorics for opera. I think I’d need to, so that I can come to love it as I do plays: with an abiding faith that underlies even the worst productions, with a trust in the medium. When I review a bad book, I still know War and Peace exists, and so do Jane Austen Book Club and Bridget Jones’ Diary and everything else worthwhile in the world. I know what this bad book is saying about books full-stop and what if isn’t. I know the lines between the production and the play and the medium (if you’re about to make a Marshall Mcluhan sort of point about how that is not possible to absolutely know, the door is to your left). I could get there with opera in time, but I’m not sure the medium and I are well-suited enough for me to grow into that relationship with it. I’m still looking for other things in opera—for the dialogue of a good play, and the music-staging of a competent West End piece, and the accessibility of a song.

So there are all your caveats before we begin.

TOSCA

An opera takes a long time to cover basic plot occurrences. I’m aware this is probably a really facile thing to say, but there it is. The first scenes of Tosca take ages, and the pacing kicks up dramatically in the second half.

Tosca’s big selling point for me is the titular character (Natasha Jouhl), a singer who’s jealous and perhaps too-easily moved by others’ suffering, especially if she cares about them. By that same turn, she’s great-hearted and capable of drawing on reserves of inner strength. Her plan in this story, which is good but not quite good enough, her successful attack on her would-be rapist and her song about how she’s always lived decently and been devoted to her art and doesn’t deserve the big slice of bullshit she’s being served right now are all involving. Her political painter boyfriend Cavaradossi (slight shades of B/A fic here) doesn’t have much to do besides get tortured, but he too doesn’t deserve this crap.

Scarpia, the lascivious sadist antagonising her, is, alas, fairly recognisable. He’s well-played in this production by a malevolently-grinning Freddie Tong, whose tight-held, military-uniformed body exerts a force of weight and menace. Tosca’s final remarks on how she knows her business as a singer and will tell Cavaradossi all about how to pretend to die in order to escape his captors are pert and cute, right up until they’re a sad joke at her expense. Because of course Cavaradossi actually gets shot, which Tosca ought to have guessed might happen (she’d made a bargain with the untrustworthy Scarpia, which Scarpia never intended to honor). She was fairly stressed out by dealing with her boyfriend’s torture, her own sexual assault and stabbing Scarpia to death, however, so you can see why Tosca wasn’t thinking that clearly. The scene where she and her lover discuss the murder and Cavaradossi insists she’s not to blame for any of it, nor has she been befouled by her actions, and they move past it together shows that they have a strong relationship to lose. Yes, Tosca is jealous and histrionic and comical, and she’s less able to withstand pain endured for a good cause than her lover, but that doesn’t diminish her fuller personality, or her capacity for serious moral action. I like the opera’s matter of fact treatment of her sexual agency.

There was a particularly good aria (If that’s the term I want? I think so, but it might not be quite correct.) at the beginning of the second act (?), one of Tosca’s I believe, but overall the music wasn’t a chief selling-point for me here. The staging ranged from ‘fine, but nothing to write home about’ to slightly awkward (Cavaradossi’s friend’s dead body lies immobile on a little raised platform for the whole second act). I could have done with a bit more Gareth Thomasy rebel charm from Cavaradossi, but again, the script doesn’t allow him that much scope. Glancing at Wikipedia, I find that “[t]urning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, during which the composer repeatedly argued with his librettists and publisher.” I might have preferred it if he’d left more meat on those bones, personally. Further, “[w]hile critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama with confusions of plot—musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker”[1][2]—the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged.”

It is, perhaps, difficult to access the full force of the score and orchestration via the quite small group of players the space admitted. I’m sure they performed well (the more trained people with me voiced no complaints on that score), but a smattering of players isn’t a full orchestra. Perhaps it works well if you know Tosca, and are bringing that knowledge of the full score to this small rendition. It’s possible that via this exposure, I’ve sort of bypassed one of the major draws of the piece. I liked Tosca, but feel I ought to have liked it better than I did.

MOZART & SALIERI

Well, this was a mistake. Hauled ass across town for some little 45 min spit of an opera, clumsily translated into English and modernised in that jokey way I hate, where the fact that they mention Dalston is somehow inherently hilarious. ‘We could go to the Turkish place.’ What larks. In part my not wanting this is my own fault. I should have read the program better (forty-five minutes). I’d been curious about how they’d adapted such a short play into a full piece, too. Answer: they didn’t.

I liked the effort at meta-theatrical staging, though this looked really gestural compared to the National’s treatment of Amadeus a couple months later. This should have been absolutely my thing. The premise starts queer and the execution got well gay. But even that couldn’t save it.

The acting lacked particular conviction or charm (especially on Salieri’s part), both of which one expects given what the filmic Amadeus has done with this story. This is an operatic setting that renders even the encysted Mozart fairly lifeless, which is dangerous business considering that this play is predicated on artistic jealousy. The poison element comes across as fairly comic. Why did Salieri’s dead wife give him a poison ring? Which he now keeps about his person at all times? ?? Questions.

I first encountered the original play in uni, when I also read Schaffer’s play because I was obsessed with Amadeus the film and had an idea of doing something with the story myself. It’s been eight or nine years so my memory isn’t crystal clear, but while I remember finding it a little nothing, I don’t think it left me with the total ‘…oh’ reaction this did. The play script had a weird, humming, sexualised energy slightly reminiscent of Wilde’s Salome. I thought the opera’s lyrics clunky and the plotting feeble. So does the fault lie in the operatic setting or in this translation thereof? The only moment the opera sort of falls into place for me is in the two men’s final pre-poisoning conversation about admiration. The finale, a soft thunk of ‘can geniuses be murderers?’, needed some editing. I don’t care if some of these problems are inherited from the original, you can and ought to fix things in subsequent layers of adaptation (and this has two).

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO        

I had a terrible migraine and so sat out the first half of this, crumpled in the lobby. I had seen a Figaro before at the ENO, home of shite productions, and not liked it all that much. This Figaro was probably better, or at least I enjoyed what I did see of it significantly more (my partner assures me the first half worked similarly well). This was the most fully staged of the productions we’d attended thus far, with the biggest cast, the most complex plot, and I believe the most complicated orchestral arrangements. It enjoyed quite a solid English translation, the sort that almost makes you see the point of opera translation in a world with good surtitles. It also featured competent singing, and I think possibly still-better acting. The emotional through lines made sense and the whole was imbued with energy and fun. It stood up well as a farce, though of course Figaro lacks the thundering majesty of really good Mozart, sitting more in Mozart’s Casiotone plinky-plink music box range. Don’t @ me.

(It might be worth mentioning that I have awful classical music tastes, probably. I really like huge, lush, romantic Brahms and Tchaikovsky and shit, which means that the studied precision of Mozart at his most Period isn’t ever going to do it for me, because what I find affecting is in some ways a reaction to the tradition the over-neat, studied, mathematically precise portion of Mozart’s output epitomises. Again, I don’t know much about classical music, and I prefer any Mozart whatever to such post-Stravinsky chromaticism Benjamin Britten business as goes on in avant-garde opera that isn’t like, Brecht. I don’t think I’m using the right terms. I remember distinctly that there was atonal shit I fucking despised at the end of music appreciation, but not the language or the name of that awful German? Russian? East European? thing. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck? I think it might be!

Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th-century avant-garde style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality (music that avoids establishing a key) and Sprechgesang. Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. The expression of madness and alienation was amplified with atonal music.”

That. I fucking hate that. I’d apologise for my pedestrian and conservative taste, but I do get the feeling that if I knew better I’d consider this music in about the same light as I consider high Modernism. Which is to say, I’d think it largely pointless, self-absorbed, butch titwank that is considered and, what’s worse, thinks it is more experimental than it ever was—certainly more boundary pushing than it actually is in a modern musical context.)

I quite like that there are a few plays and operas set in this universe. I didn’t know before this that Marriage was sort of a sequel to Barber of Seville (though the plot of the subsequent play sounds like a hot mess).

THE DOWAGER’S OYSTER

The program said ‘like G&S and Agatha Christie’, but what you got was a bad Fringe show that was really not ready for professional public airing in any forum, in any capacity. Actually, a miscommunication between partner and self led me to believe this would be an adaptation of a Christie book. That would certainly have resulted in a better plot structure and a better treatment of queer themes (JC Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie could argue the later contention better than I could).

The libretto was painful, the plot incoherent and dull (and a cosy murder mystery plot’s under a special obligation to function, in order to enable the puzzle to work), the characterisation vacuous and confusing, and the music was badly sung and not strong to begin with. I’m sorry to be awful, but there it is. This piece simply was not ready.

The casting doesn’t really work for the murderers, but past that the acting wasn’t all that bad. Everything was earnestly and energetically acted dull crap, like Sleepy Hollow without the strange charm and good visuals. The investigator brought some life and comedy to the piece, but I felt bad for everyone involved while watching. This ought to have been high camp comedy (that’s not the only way to handle the prompt, but it’s a way that would have worked), but it’s played too straight. Which is ironic, considering.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this was written by a gay man with a vague taste for the period, who wanted to get a bit of the old Gay Representation in there. As a gay lady with similar susceptibilities, I can’t really bitch on that score. There’s something of a Talented Mister Ripley, Hitchcock vibe between the romantically-involved male murderers. Lord knows I’m fairly easy for that shit, but drawing those comparisons makes this sound better than it is. Basically, because he needs money, a gay man has gotten engaged to a woman he’s not interested in (which reminds me, I should call my gay dad back, I said I would two days ago).

Fatal Fiancé’s also living the high life, chasing waterfalls that are a bit too much for his gay partner’s tastes rather than sticking to the rivers and the lakes and the boyfriend that he’s used to. But this thread is sort of lost when the murder plot kicks in. Because, via a weird series of events the audience could know nothing about (that’s Knox’s Rules and the audience’s intellectual engagement with the plot out the window), our lovebirds came to the island the fiancé and her mother are staying on and set up the mother’s murder. Why not wait until after the marriage, when the men’s claim to these funds was better established? I don’t remember any indication that they could have known where the mother would be eating lunch that day, gotten oyster-poising materials in order to spring upon this contingency and controlled which oysters she would consume at this restaurant. How will this death facilitate the lovers’ plans, exactly? What even are those plans? Murder, ???, Profit! Eh.

Essentially this is a reboot of a retro Lavender Menace plot. We get a word about the cruel society that restricts these men’s love, but in-story it doesn’t seem to be restricting it (they’re off lavishly sampling the delights of Morocco bath houses in the first half and no one even suspects them of impropriety) so much as not just gifting them with boatloads of cash for nothing. And it’s hard to feel that much sympathy when their oppression and specific needs aren’t made palpable here, and when they are the murderers of an annoying but largely unconnected-to-them woman (like a crap Crime and Punishment).

The flat, ungenerous but textual reading of the piece is thus ‘oo, those devious queers, they’ll deceive you and kill decent people as soon as look at them, anything to feed their immoral desires!’ I mean the thing is too inchoate to quite register as evangelical propaganda, but we move from an after school special ‘love is real’ ballad I can’t take seriously to the balladeers getting hauled off to prison. If there was a sly, playful, sexy reworking of queer crime/suspense traditions in the works here, that didn’t come through.

With a full, Sunset Boulevard level re-write, the idea isn’t awful. I could probably edit this and turn something out, given that it’s a musical play, a form I’m very familiar with, and not an opera, a form I’m not. Not that I mind much, but I think technically this was a musical rather than an opera. It might have been good for that to have been made explicit in the advertising materials. But this is the least of the show’s problems.

GIANNI SCHICCHI / PAGLIACCI

These were my favourite of the bunch. This was a short-piece double bill in a different, smaller space than the main theatre that had hosted the others. The cast shifted a bit between these two, but there were some holdovers. The first piece was translated, the second wasn’t. (Is it still called an opera if it’s one-act? I guess.) In the climactic final scenes of Pagliacci the surtitle machine broke, but one got the gist and I looked the lyrics up after.

Gianni Schicchi is a simple ‘wily old trickster’ story that worked elegantly. A rich man dies and his greedy family discover, to their comedic dismay, that he’s left his money to the monks instead of them. The best of the lot suggests they call in Gianni Schicchi, a man without great wealth or familial connections who is, nevertheless, the father of the girl he wants to marry. He is also, the young man claims, the cleverest man in the city. He’ll be able to sort this out, if anyone can. And so Schicch does—to his own advantage, for the most part, though his machinations also enable his now rich daughter to marry the lover who would have taken her when she was poor.

The music was excellent, and the Florence aria (which I gather is The Famous One) was superb. Given that this piece was translated, she sang that aria again at the end in the original (something of a money shot for opera fans, I think, that they might have been sorry to miss out on the received version of). The translation, acting and singing were all successful. The wonky mid-century set design reflected the family’s claustrophobic, wonky relationships and priorities. Actually the set felt as designed as they were designing. A simple evocation and reflection, but an effective one. If anything it was a bit too dark for the piece, which isn’t that black a comedy, but that’s a slight complaint. This was a lot of fun.

The second piece of the night was the most consciously ‘staged’ of any of the operas we’d seen, with an easy to follow but non-literal opening that gained resonance when the play finished and the cast returned to this configuration. In watching it I realised how comparatively basic a great many of the previous operatic stagings had been, and the degree to which they’d felt old-fashioned or under-worked to me as a result of this, without my quite identifying the cause of my disquiet until now. Is this typical of opera staging, or did I just happen to see four productions in a row that hadn’t done that work? The former feels more likely, to me? Maybe part of the reason I had trouble connecting with these is that the visual and structural language and work I expect to encode and convey meaning aren’t present here in the ways I’ve come to rely on them being. We’re back again at the introduction’s point about the relationship of expectation, understanding and enjoyment, I guess. But also, possibly opera staging needs to git gud.

Pagliacci was musically gorgeous, though the plot (revenge on a cheating wife, ‘Is life art?! I’m not for saaaale, maaaan.’) was in some ways more annoying than that of the previous piece. Even I knew the big ‘I am a sad fuckboi’ aria, and it’s great, if too ‘about a sad fuckboi’. The spectator-chorus ranged along the back wall did good work. The meta-theatricality of the play-within-a-play was interesting, and even though I’ve slagged them off the themes did more for me than any of the others. There were bigger questions being asked, and explored in a decent way.

The characters were decently drawn and their relationships fairly compelling. (Poor benighted ‘let’s just put on this fucking show’ guy.) Cross-casting a woman as the cringing, brutal, Snidely Whiplash-ish clown lusting for the heroine slightly reminded me of Dowager’s Oyster’s underworked Lavender Menace thread, but it didn’t bother me much in this far more solid and self-aware production, where the clown’s lust and the menace characterised her more specifically than her orientation. Her desire exerted a compelling, rare force. You see so few lesbian stagings of anything.

If I had to pick a total favourite, perhaps it was this one.

IN SUMMARY:

* Fuck knows what I feel about opera, but I like good opera better than bad opera, and staging matters more than one might think, affecting one’s perception of material in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. ‘Duh’, but true, and often I do forget it, or half-entertain some fantasy that I can access the material in a purer way than that. With a medium I know well I can to a fair extent, but the less familiar I am with a mode the less I’m able to identify its elements and guess what’s working and what isn’t.

* Throwing in gay elements doesn’t automatically make your story Queer Positive. I’m not asking for twee, rah-rah depictions of queer people and desires across the board, just a considered approach that doesn’t accidentally replicate and reify harmful tropes. Including queerness to be Provocative often comes off as condescending and stupid. Being queer yourself is not a perfect protection against making a poor show here.

* Translating opera into English can work well and may especially help comic opera, but on balance I don’t think it’s a great idea in terms of the music. It especially lays bare any repetitious passages.

* The repetition and banal lyrics in some quite well-regarded opera can drive me mental, as can the thin plots.

* It seems less easy to do good opera with a bare minimum of people and on a tight budget than it is to do good theatre with the same resources.

* I would still rather see a decent play than a decent opera, I suspect. Possibly it’s a phase, possibly it’s just me, or possibly opera is culturally-cathected as an elite art form over and above its merits.

Notes on Crimson Peak (film, 2015)

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* Someone said this was a gothic novel adaptation of an unwritten book rather than a horror movie. That’s very true. The flow is a bit awkward no matter how you slice it, but Crimson Peak does work better considered in that capacity.

* I almost prefer Edith, the heroine, before she marries. She loses herself a bit in the second half. Perhaps that’s an intentional effect, but it’s not entirely working for me on the “Rebecca” level. I wish we had a protagonist who, even befuddled by the horror, didn’t try to walk out of this snow-hell without shoes.

* My friend Jade pointed out that it was fairly interesting that the ghosts were benign, and that the movie made an effort to ask ‘what is ghosts’ deal? What do they want?’ She is: CORRECT. The horror’s never been the haunted house, or the ghosts. We’re in one of those ‘people are the true monsters’ psychological gothic horror stories. I like that subgenre, but feel the film’s hold on this material could have been tighter.

* The house looks a lot like the similar manor in the more recent adaptation of The Haunting, which isn’t good per se but is compelling nonetheless. It has some of that film’s beats as well. The titular house is hella Aesthetic movement. Unless it’s original gothic, and let’s face it, it isn’t, and even if it is—no, sorry, it’s still really 19th c., design/serving post-Strawberry Hill realness at the very earliest, just look at it. Thus there’s been no time for these features to have mouldered to the extent they have. I wonder how common mismatched eras of decoration and degrees of decay are in horror movies?

Also, why not tarp over the ceiling hole that is artistically admitting drifting cascades of… something. Petals, or leaves from overhanging trees this property doesn’t seem to have. Sell half your shit to get that done, it’s your clear and present structural priority. They’re hard up, but this place is still LUSH with moveables. I’m mentally pricing these mantelpieces. You don’t even need this Bluebeard scheme, just call Lyon & Turnbull.

The visuals are indeed lush, but it’s hard to take the protagonist seriously in her diaphanous mutton sleeves. She looks like Sarah in the Labyrinth ball sequence. In fact these amazing visuals are almost getting in the way of the plot. We have to be in this house, so we’re here, even though the villains’ motivations for remaining (having sunk multiple fortunes into this place they hate, and yet never having bothered to repair that roof-hole) are shaky, and become less intelligible as the plot is revealed. If the siblings had some mystic connection with the house I could see staying, but in fact they could have cut and run ages ago, on any one of these bride-fetching trips or after their first murder. More time could have been spent on why they don’t.

* The logistics of this bride plot are strange. Did none of these women call shenanigans on the absence of sex? They can’t all have been in mourning—at least that isn’t explicitly mentioned. When the protagonist and HigPig: Incest Edition finally do the deed, on her first sexual outing Edith is confident, pain-free and cowgirling adroitly like a rodeo champion, no problem. You have to work up to those technical skills! Unless he has a dick like a pen nib, I guess, but even so one does not simply walk into Mordor/instinctually know where to put one’s limbs for more advanced manoeuvres. More seriously, the fluidity and the normalcy of the sex normalise what could be a site of intensity and strangeness, possibly a jarring period moment, or a moment of cute intimacy between the couple.

* I guessed from its first appearance that our heroine was being being intentionally slow-poisoned by this shit-tasting tea, but honestly it could easily just have been some Victorian wellness bs. It’s not like that lot haven’t tried restoratives that turned out to be medically terrible ideas in good faith before now.

* Why are our protagonist and HigPig sharing a bedroom? It’s not very period, and it’s not as if they don’t have enough rooms. This is especially true given HigPig’s secret incestual relationship—which I also called pretty early—and consequent practice of marital chastity. It’s hard staging these gothic novel plots now. Nothing is so shocking you can’t clearly guess it’s coming, and nothing is religiously or conventionally abhorrent in a deep and sacred sense. Gothic no longer quite works, in its accepted forms, as transgressive social horror.

* In general I feel periodicity is kind of strangely conveyed by props and clearly flagged pop cultural references in this film. It vaguely conditions aspects of the characters’ relationships, like making the sexless union and the live-in sister more possible, but it doesn’t inflect people’s behaviour or challenge audiences. It’s set dressing.

* Or protagonist is ‘so different’ from her predecessors, according to Hiddleston. How? This is never really explored. She was specifically picked to be like them, just going by her CV. Knowing more about what’s happening here would shore up the male lead’s pivotal turn against his sister, making it believable and meaningful.

* Burn Gorman’s Dickensian-lookin ass was goddamn meant for these Hammer Horror roles. It’s a pity he was in such a meh Bleak House, because he is an ideal Smallweed, visually. I never know if he can act: he seems fairly capable, but is generally cast in quite one-note roles. (I’m not walking it back, PacRim people.)

* ’Fuck’ doesn’t feel like the right verb for the sister’s class. Victorians posh people usually went for blasphemy related curses, while lower class people went for physical. Possibly the implication is that the asylum coarsened her (adding a degree of class horror to the mix), but if so, that could be clearer.

* Killing the dog is just excessive.

* Alternate boyf fucking skis his way here or some shit. Fuck knows how he gets here with vague directions in this weather, knowing nothing of the area.

* I’m a little more interested in Edith’s weird tension with the cray sister than I am in the multiple heterosexual erotic configurations, to be honest. There’s some Munchausen’s by proxy up in this joint which we touch for but a moment before gliding on. I want this movie to dwell in its oddness more than it does, to let these characters feel this strange, murderous, jealous, sisterly queerness. The movie sort of knows this, though—it stages the final confrontation between these two.

* The movie could use some honey-slow, sinister, dipping moments that couple its aesthetics with feeling. Something like ma, as Jade would say.

* Crimson Peak feels like a somewhat less successful version of something like Labyrinth, which is a flawed and at times incoherent fairy tale about maturation, desire and responsibility that resonates deeply with a lot of women, despite its structural issues as a text. I know a lot of people have this relationship with Jupiter Ascending, though I don’t personally. There’s perhaps something to be said about this category of films that just hit women’s fictional kinks in an attractively-shot but not quite cogent kind of way. Ultimately I want Crimson Peak to do more for me, emotionally or thematically or visually, to earn that status, though I understand it does something like this for at least one of my friends.

* I guess there’s something interesting to be distilled from all this about the siblings’ desperate, pitiless effort to try and keep the estate together, to repair and rebuild this decaying structure—about class and families and rurality, child abuse and trauma and haunting. Possibly there’s also something to be made of Edith’s status as a monied American transplant, a colonial from the New World and the only survivor of this too-long-steeped mess. She’s so reminiscent of the many real heiresses who ‘saved’ British aristocratic houses with their funds. People are always returning from the colonies bearing with them or coming into gothic unrest in the contemporary (and mentioned-herein) Holmes canon. I can’t quite pin these elements down, though, and I think that anything I did come up with would be a narrative imposed on rather than drawn out of the rich but ultimately uncultivated material of Crimson Peak.

(Have now read and liked Abigail’s piece on this, as well.)

Notes on The Witches (film, 1990)

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I don’t remember ever reading this particular Dahl, though I have a curious and contrasting strong memory of the cover (yellow, the Quintin Blake witch in black), and of looking at it in the closet where we kept my books—so did I? Could I have owned it and not read it? Or entirely forgotten it? That seems so unlikely. Perhaps I’m back-imagining this.

I loved James and the Giant Peach and was particularly and predictably way into Matilda when I was young. Both titles were probably quite formative for me. I don’t think my elementary school library had that many of Dahl’s books. I suspect I must have looked hard, but my book choices were always limited as a child by things like that. The libraries I had access to were, looking back, often fairly scrappy. I’m not sure anyone in my family would have known there were other Dahl titles to buy me if I’d wanted them, given Dahl’s lesser American reputation (it’s notable thatthe American trailer for The Witches doesn’t even mention Dahl) and my family’s general lack of interest in books (bar, of course, my grandmother). I couldn’t yet use the internet to determine how to find out whether more books by a given person existed, because the internet didn’t work like that at the time.

Aishwarya Subramanian makes a good point that the alchemy of forgetting that has made Dahl a national treasure and a Writer of Children’s Classics has done much to obscure his personal unpleasantness, and the value judgments and cruelty she draws attention to as persistent elements of his work aren’t absent in this adaptation. (Is there much work on the different directions people went out of Dickens? Because Dahl is as much an inheritor of one aspect of his work as Pratchett, Peake, DWJ, and Rowling are other, contrasting aspects. Except Dickens’ violence was slapstick and Dahl’s… isn’t. Dahl is the baby!Webster to Dickens’ Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. ‘I LIKE IT WHEN THE MICE SCREAM!’ ‘Oooookay, kiddo.’ *)  I had been told before I watched it that this would be traumatising, that it was a classic and that Angelica Huston was epic herein. Yes. All the actresses playing the witches seem to have the time of their lives writhing about being gloriously, viscerally unpleasant, and it is a fucking treat to watch. Great physical acting. One particularly raptorish specimen just goes to town. I’d just watched the first Addams Family film for the first time two days or so before, and am quite impressed with her. Obviously. It’s Angelica fucking Huston.

The start of the film has a certain sedateness, and the pacing lags a bit in the middle, but I’m not too bothered. The protagonist’s sort-of-friend Bruno’s a little Brexit voter, but I’m glad his parents learn to accept and love their gaymouse son. The bittersweet ending (which I know to not be the book’s) is the biggest issue. In the book our protagonist is turned into a mouse, and will live out the rest of his short life (mouse lifespans are a bitch) in this form, cared for by his loving grandmother. In the film the head witch’s assistant, the sole survivor of the massacre of witches the protagonist orchestrated, completely improbably goes to the good. She shows up to change the child back into a human, and even to do the same for wee UKIPer Bruno. This new ending isn’t in and of itself a problem (it is in fact what filmic traditions would lead us to anticipate), but it feels structurally weak and deflated, like the film itself doesn’t believe in this. The lamp shading is too late and too winkingly obvious. It does feel very ‘made for Americans’, changed to suit expectations, to flatter American filmmaking’s distaste for ambivalent endings (especially in children’s productions).

Odd that Dahl adapts rather well. (Dickens doesn’t, or at least people often do a terrible job with adapting him—though there are some good examples.) Matilda is a fairish film and the play is strong. James and the Giant Peachwas well-made. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps more famous as a film than as a book. The Witches is a recognized cult children’s classic. We’ll see how the recent BFG fares. Quintin Blake’s illustrations are definitely part of the reason why this is so. Even where the filmic visuals don’t directly draw from his, there’s something about his evocative, brisk linework that both creates striking images and suggests figures in motion.

* The relevant bit of Shakespeare in Love:

(Will is pacing restlessly up and down in front of the theatre, looking for Thomas Kent. The streetboy who wanted to play Ethel is sitting on a corner, mice are clambering about him.)

Will (affably): Better fortune, boy.

Streetboy (shrugging): I was in a play. They cut my head off in “Titus Andronicus”. When I write plays, they will be like “Titus”.

Will (flattered): You admire it?

Streetboy: I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives.

Will: What is your name?

Streetboy: John Webster. (holding up a mouse on her tail) Here, kitty, kitty! (A cat comes nearer.) Plenty of blood, that’s the only writing!

Will (disgusted): I have to get back. (The mouse screams.)

(Will gives up waiting and returns to the theatre where the rehearsal is in full swing.)