The One with Roger Allam: Seminar at the Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam as the withering creative writing tutor Leonard in Seminar at the Hampstead Theatre.

In Britain and America, the words “creative writing course” suggest different things. In the US, it suggests a college green in Iowa or New England, a dream factory where students struggle for publishing deals and self-actualisation. In the UK – despite the noble exception of the UEA and its satellites – it suggests a rickety hall at the University of the Third Age, or a five-day Shropshire retreat where the course leader has a “treatment in development”. So when Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway hit Seminar – set on a $5,000 creative writing programme – beamed down to the Hampstead Theatre stage from Planet MFA, we were sure to expect more heft and higher stakes than, say, Alan Ayckbourn’s Improbable Fictions (2005), a take on a local writers’ circle and its gallery of loveable eccentrics.

Seminar does have more heft than Improbable Fictions, though that’s not saying much; anything compared to Alan Ayckbourn is bound to come out favourably. In actual fact, it is pretty inconsequential; for its first half at least, it is essentially an episode of Friends with references to Jack Kerouac and Tobias Wolff.

The four students of the creative writing class – taught by Roger Allam’s scathing but charismatic Leonard – are a commedia dell’arte troupe of archetypes.  Martin (Bryan Dick) and Katie (Charity Wakefield) are the Ross and Rachel of the group, he the intense one who has come from nowhere, she the entitled one having a crisis of confidence; Douglas (Oliver Hembrough), the tweed-jacketed blowhard, is the Joey. There’s also the ambitious Izzy (Rebecca Grant), fully aware of her sexual magnetism; her nearest analogue is Cassie, the beautiful cousin of Ross and Monica who, in season 7, reduces the men to salivating wrecks. Cue a lot of who’s-sleeping-with-who and who-really-belongs-with-who, plus a sizeable dose of apartment comedy. In its sexual themes, the first half brings to mind another British counterpart, David Lodge’s Writing Games (1990), in which a creative writing course is the backdrop to all manner of sexual hijinks. But while Lodge’s play was in the British farcical tradition, Seminar is American sitcom to the core: watch as Katie, depressed at the poor reception of her short story, gorges herself on ice cream and cookie dough in pure Rachel fashion, or Izzy, like Phoebe, flashes her chest for no apparent reason.

While frivolous, Seminar is never less than entertaining: like an episode of Friends, it is frothily enjoyable. This makes for a successful box set, or a good E4 scheduling decision; whether it makes for a successful play is another matter. In the second act, Rebeck grasps around for substance and wisely makes greater use of Leonard, the play’s main strength. Instead of being simply The One with the Creative Writing Class, Seminar becomes The One with Roger Allam.

Leonard, a novelist-turned-editor with a sideline in globetrotting magazine articles,  is a withering dispenser of disdain. We virtually never see him sitting; he is always standing, strutting, scornfully tossing sheets to the ground as the students await his grand pronouncement. As only fictional creative writing tutors can, he can condemn a story based only on its first six words. Much like Wonder Boys‘ Grady Tripp, we are left to wonder why he is no longer the literary darling that he was, although Leonard has none of the depth of Chabon’s well-developed protagonist. In the first act, he is essentially a cartoon as he delivers his pithy decrees. In the second act, some effort is made to flesh him out, and the play’s themes with it. Rather than an NBC flatshare comedy, Seminar becomes a play about masculinity, testosterone one-upmanship in the literary world. As Katie remarks in a crucial line: “Boys, boys, boys. You just never get enough of yourselves, do you?” For the final 20 minutes, the set changes from Katie’s tasteful apartment, where the group meet, to Leonard’s, a virile realm of exposed brick and Jasper Johns prints – a microcosm of the trajectory of the play. The vital relationship turns out not to be the will-they-won’t-they of Martin and Katie, but the master-pupil dynamic of Leonard and the gifted (or so we are told) Martin. If Leonard is no Grady Tripp, then Martin is no James Leer; but their stormy bond, and underlying sense of surrogacy, at least prompts a greater interrogation of Leonard’s character. For all the play’s flaws, every second that Allam is on stage is a pleasure.

Allam’s is not the only deft performance. The cast as a whole are talented, in particular Charity Wakefield as Katie, the most fleshed-out of the students: there is a particular moment, as she says “I’m not so interested as I thought I was in being a writer”, when her voice cracks, encapsulating her character’s vulnerability. The only shortcoming of the acting is the use of American accents: some are better than others, but it initially grates. For the students, the accents are inevitable – but why should Leonard be American too? This represents the one dud decision of Terry Johnson’s direction. Overwhelmingly, the faults of Seminar are in the writing; the production is spot-on, from Colin Towns’s jazzy scene transitions to Lez Brotherston’s sociologically attuned design. That Leonard should be American, however, is baffling. When Alan Rickman first played the role on Broadway, he kept his English accent. This would have added an interesting layer to the play; Leonard becomes a jaded Englishman,  impervious to the students’ American idealism. Here, Allam’s widely-remarked resemblance to literary exile Christopher Hitchens would have made the emigré angle all the more delicious – not least because of Hitchens’s own way with the dismissive put-down. The main justification to see Seminar is not the play but Allam. While he is excellent as ever, the accent is both a missed opportunity and an unnecessary fetter.

Seminar continues at the Hampstead Theatre until  November 1. Tickets are  from £12 to £32.

Neapolitan Dreams: Le voci di dentro at the Barbican Theatre

Inner Voices
Toni Servillo (centre) plays Alberto Saporito, who accuses his neighbours of murder – only to realise that he dreamed the whole thing…

La grande bellezza, in which Toni Servillo glows as debonair writer Jep Gambardella, opens with a quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.” The citation could just as easily describe Eduardo de Filippo’s 1948 play Le voci di dentro (Inner Voices), revived at the Barbican this week, in which Servillo is director and star. However, in evoking what Servillo calls “la difficoltà di orientamento in una realtà indistinta e compromessa”, Le voci di dentro uses a whole different toolkit to the films of Paolo Sorrentino. Not here will you find operatic crane shots and painstaking dollies, CGI flamingos and disappearing giraffes: the play’s visual vocabulary is stark, its doctrine metonymy rather than metaphor.

The set, by Lino Fiorito, is stripped to essentials: a whitewashed kitchen, consisting of little more than a cabinet, table and chairs. We are in impoverished post-war Naples, in the apartment of a large, eccentric family called the Cimmarutas; their playful teasing and eccentric personalities initially suggest we are comfortably in the cosy realm of farce. The Saporito brothers, Alberto and Carlo – played by Servillo and his real-life brother Peppe – live in the neighbouring apartment, where they run a scrappy furniture rental business.  When they show up at the Cimmarutas’, it is apparently to scrounge for breakfast – but the real reason is much darker. Alberto is convinced that the Cimmarutas have murdered his friend, Aniello Amitrano; he knows where the body is hidden, he says, and possesses incriminating documents. He has called the police, and gleefully awaits their arrival: “Burn them alive!” he cries, like a tenement Torquemada. But when the police find no evidence and the Cimmarutas are released, he realises his mistake: the source of his accusations was nothing more than a vivid dream.

It is here that the play vaults into fantastic territory. Each member of the Cimmaruta clan comes to visit Alberto; far from upbraiding him, they believe that Alberto’s accusation has merit – and each Cimmaruta suspects the other of guilt. This begins a sinking spiral of suspicion and betrayal that soon claims Alberto himself, who becomes increasingly paranoid that Carlo will cheat him out of his inheritance – a fraught sibling relationship that de Filippo would later echo in 1955’s Bene mio e core mio.  The soul of Le voci di dentro is the Saporitos’ uncle, zi’ Nicola, who has given up speaking because “the world is deaf”; instead, he communicates through letting off fireworks. That’s a suitable shorthand for the course of Le voci di dentro: what starts out as a family farce turns into a hypnagogic pinwheel of accusations, paranoia and death, discharging blistering sparks as it spins towards its fiery conclusion.

When Le voci di dentro had its last major London production – at the National Theatre in 1983, in what was Ralph Richardson’s final acting role – its English translation, by the nimble absurdist N.F. Simpson, was widely seen as neat but flat. The Barbican production sidesteps this difficuty by taking place in Italian with English surtitles displayed on monitors, restoring de Filippo’s trademark Neapolitan dialect. Nevertheless, what is most striking about Servillo’s production is not the language but the physicality. Servillo is wonderfully expressive, generating a Chaplinesque pathos in his Tramp-like baggy suit; he and his brother spark off each other, their heads often so close together that they resemble a two-headed dog. The 14-strong ensemble, meanwhile, use their bodies to full effect, displaying a mastery of the Italian gestural lexicon – a lexicon that, many academics believe, has its roots in Naples, perhaps as a way of getting attention in that overcrowded metropolis.

Alberto concludes that his dream had some element of truth: he was not so much hallucinating as listening to the inner voices of the title. Indeed, the play seems to support the Freudian tenet that dreams reveal: Alberto’s vision may have been a fiction, but it exposes the grasping, treacherous entrails of an Italian society reduced to moral rubble. Like La grande bellezza, or Servillo’s first Sorrentino collaboration L’uomo in più, Le voci di dentro takes place in a universe suspended between the imagined and the real. Which is which? As Jep Gambardella would say of la vita: “In fondo, è solo un trucco. Sì, è solo un trucco.”

Le voci di dentro (Inner Voices) continues at the Barbican until March 29. The Barbican also announced its new 2014-15 season, which includes an internationa Ibsen season and a production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. For more on the forthcoming season, see here.

Continuity in Discontinuity: Adam Foulds at the London Review Bookshop

Adam Foulds, author of <em>In the Wolf's Mouth</em>
Adam Foulds, author of In the Wolf’s Mouth. In the background: a US ship exploding during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.

This review contains spoilers.

Reading In the Wolf’s Mouth, Adam Foulds’s latest novel set in WWII-era Sicily and North Africa, brought to mind an old interview with E.L. Doctorow. Speaking to the New York Times in 1985, he said:

Henry James has a parable about what writing is… He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers’ conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she’s a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and the intuition.

Foulds of course had more to go on than simply a fragment of soldiers’ conversation: as he described in his talk at the London Review Bookshop last week, the novel is sieved through the exhaustive study of oral histories and letters – though it does not parade its “sourcedness”. However, like James’s young woman, Foulds has extracted the kernel of army life: the diversity of soldiers that could make a unit’s personnel sound like a “saloon bar joke” (“an Englishman, a Welshman and a Jew”); new recruits’ desire to hide themselves inside the mechanised grey of drills and procedures, in the hope that they won’t become individual targets; and, especially, the communal love that develops between men, a masculine bond expressible only in the military. On finding that his friend, George, has not died in battle, Italian-American soldier Ray “grabbed the sides of [his] head, the dry prickles of his hair, and kissed him, pressed his mouth to George’s and held it there” – a kiss that his frail comrade reciprocates.

However, this is not the only way that Doctorow’s comments are apt. Foulds is an elusive novelist: he is not a spokesman for a constituency, nor has he created a Wapshot or a Yoknapatawpha in which to anchor his stories.  Like Doctorow, or Barry Unsworth, his novels are scattered in geography and time: The Quickening Maze (2009) in Epping Forest circa 1840; his verse novella, The Broken Word (2008), in Kenya during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion; his debut, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007), in present-day London during the World Memory Championships. What unites these disparate works is the quality of which Doctorow speaks: the immense, penetrative power of Foulds’s imagination.

Foulds is aware of this multifariousness, and has in fact described himself as “an E.L. Doctorow type” in that his work is always subservient to the individual book. This variety was a subject of considerable discussion at the LRB event: Foulds’s interlocutor, Andrew Motion, described how each of the novelist’s books had “a world of its own”, “continuous in its discontinuity”. Part of the fun, indeed, was to filter these discrete works for preoccupying themes. Some of these were more pronounced than others: one of Motion’s points was that Foulds’s characters seek to speak to each other despite their own perceived barriers: disability in his debut, mental illness in The Quickening Maze and nationality in In the Wolf’s Mouth. Or, as Motion puts it somewhat unwieldily, “the complications of communicating from your own place and voice with people who have their own places and voices”.

More marked is the latest novel’s fixation with dual themes that also underpin The Broken Word: violence and trauma. Both The Broken Word’s initially passive teenager Tom and In the Wolf’s Mouth’s idealistic protagonists Will and Ray experience a loss of innocence through violence; both books use animal imagery to underscore the ferocity of bloodshed. In the Wolf’s Mouth’s graphic depictions of shot-off jawbones and eviscerated flesh recall The Broken Word’s passage about mutilated men returning from conflict “heavily edited./Between them: nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles”.

Of particular concern to Foulds is the point at which violence becomes unsayable – when the usual apparatus of expression breaks down. This comes to the fore in a bravura battle scene about a third of the way into the book, which Foulds says is best described as a “rupture”. In the course of three extraordinary pages, the prose disintegrates into staccato stabs of text, strewn across the page like shrapnel. This passage – the most memorable in In the Wolf’s Mouth, alongside the novel’s opening description of the shooting and dismemberment of a partridge – is one of the two read out during the talk, although Foulds skips through it as it makes more sense on the page. It begins:

   Floating now        weightless without sound


Fear so great it had washed him empty

Up through his bones his foot beats
told him he was


The evening is at its most enriching when Foulds discusses his literary reference points. The scope of his reading is wide: Adam Phillips’s “Bombs Away”, which describes the theory of trauma as being “outside history”; Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which analyses The Iliad in terms of military psychology; Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, which contained a description of a threadbare Yiddish theatre troupe holding each other’s wigs in place. “I can think of no sweeter image of human collaboration, of ‘only connect’.” One of his chief inspirations for the textual “rupture” is the penultimate chapter of Henry Roth’s masterpiece of Jewish American literature, Call It Sleep, in which the child protagonist steps on a live rail and the text explodes in a high modernist fashion – an episode that is often compared to Ulysses’ Nighttown section.

Though Foulds treats questions of humans’ capacity for violence – he describes the Holocaust education of his Jewish upbringing, which instilled the idea that bestial cruelty is just below the surface of normal human behaviour – it would be wrong, Motion suggests, to overlook the quiet optimism of works such as The Broken Word and In the Wolf’s Mouth. These works are concerned not just with violence but with reconstruction. It’s true: both end with their morally mangled men returned from battle and with a hint of redemption. Tom falls for “a definite woman” called Eleanor; Ray is in hiding with the help of a Sicilian Princess in whom he “[sees] something. Maybe he was wrong, but it looked like love”.

Andrew Motion, introducing the author, described his time teaching at the University of East Anglia, which briefly overlapped with Foulds’s as a student. Though Motion was nominally his teacher, he says that he had “never met someone who he had taught less”, as his talent then was already so fully formed. Yes, Adam Foulds’s subject matter may be disparate – like a literary Michael Winterbottom – but this is to his advantage, and ours as readers. His gifts of imaginative reconstruction and deep sympathy for the human experience mean that he can endlessly surprise, without any temporal or geographical straitjacket; it is invigorating to imagine where he might take us next.

Adam Foulds’s In The Wolf’s Mouth is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99).

Like a Trolling Stone: Bob Dylan: Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery

Bob Dylan: Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery
Left and right: Nina Felix and Ken Garland, pastel portraits from Bob Dylan: Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery. Centre: Dylan’s notorious cover of the 1970 album Self Portrait – one of the biggest acts of trolling one’s fans in rock history.

A memorable incident occurred on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Sam Peckinpah was filming a long shot of Bob Dylan walking down the street and noticed something bizarre: the singer had inexplicably changed hats between takes. The famously bellicose Peckinpah would not stand for this continuity error and so halted the filming. “Stop! Cut!” he said, remonstrating with Dylan about this change of headwear. “Yeah,” said a nonchalant Dylan. “I went inside and I changed hat… I want to have this different hat.” Eventually Dylan gave in, but his behaviour puzzled co-star James Coburn. “Bobby would go through all these strange machinations in order to wear different things. I don’t know why, to draw attention to himself or something.”

The anecdote is particularly fitting, as Dylan is the definition of the man of many hats. He’s worn the train-hopping hobo hat, the protest singer hat, the electrified iconoclast hat, the anguished divorcé hat, the born-again Christian hat, even the Santa Claus hat (or cap) – a mutability memorably captured in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007). His elusive shape-shifting has also expressed itself across media: the musician hat, the actor hat, the poet hat, the painter hat. However, there’s one hat which has remained on at all times, one which Face Value, his latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, throws into relief: the troll hat.

Needless to say, Dylan is not merely a troll. To say so would be scandalously reductionist; he, of course, contains multitudes. Nevertheless, he has long possessed the troll’s aptitude for provocation, mind games and deliberate absurdity. Face Value, a collection of twelve rough portraits of American misfits and nighthawks, harks back to the biggest act of trolling of them all: his 1970 double album Self Portrait. The LP – a sprawling assembly of sloppy cover versions and poor live recordings that famously prompted Greil Marcus to ask, “What is this shit?” – was Dylan’s attempt to distance himself from the earnest hippies who believed he spoke for them. Even before fans removed the disc from the sleeve its anarchic folly was clear, for it was the album cover that sealed the mission’s success. A comical self-portrait by Dylan himself – yes, it was also an experiment in literal humour – it was purposefully primitive, a crude and blobby medley of wacky eyebrows, protruding ears and a cherry mouth. The joke was that an album with a title as candid as Self-Portrait shod no light on Dylan’s identity at all: the songs were largely covers of other people’s; the silly album art bore little resemblance to the iconic photos by Barry Feinstein.

Face Value, more than forty years later, continues in this spirit. The portraits’ punning titles display a similarly mischievous humour – Face Facts, Face Off, On the Face of It, etc – and this playfulness itself explodes the exhibition title; only a fool would take Face Value at face value. Even the small size of the exhibition seems like an act of trolling: consisting of one three-walled room with four paintings on each wall, its scale is completely disproportionate to the publicity it has generated. As for the portraits, their slightly childlike simplicity cocks a snook at the elaborate contemporary portraits just outside by artists like Ishbel Myerscough and Justin Mortimer. The subjects of the pastel portraits are also consciously mysterious; Dylan has been open about mixing the real with the imagined, and visitors are left to guess whether the dapper “Ivan Steinbeck” or the muscular “Red Flanagan” are products of the singer’s imagination.

Not that it matters. Dylan loves to tempt spectators into overanalysis and then frustrate them, an impulse that becomes clear in the Q&A in the accompanying catalogue with John Elderfield, former Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Elderfield’s extended and thoughtful answers are met with terse rejoinders. When he asks whether the portraits’ “out-of-focus quality” is meant to evoke the subjects’ “shadowy existence”, Dylan replies: “That’s the type of pastel I was using.” When he asks whether the white space or “generalised tonal plane” in the subjects’ background is a homage to passport photos or photo booths, Dylan replies: “I haven’t seen any passport or photo booth photos in a while so I don’t know.”

None of this is to say that the portraits are terrible; they are certainly on a different plane to the wilful coarseness of the Self-Portrait sleeve, and I have little time for critics’ snooty hostility to musicians who expand into the visual arts. For all their roughness, the works are firmly in the delicious hardboiled noir tradition; the backdrops may indeed be a white space or generalised tonal plane, but it’s no leap of the imagination to picture a roadside diner or a backroom boxing ring.

At the same time, there is no doubt that, if the portraits were not by Bob Dylan, they would not be anywhere near the National Portrait Gallery. However, Dylan patently knows this and is having a whale of a time. Many enthusiasts have gone over the top in their praise, such as The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones when he described the portraits as a manifestation of “the poet’s unique vision” – but the exhibition’s detractors have, if anything, made even more of a fool of themselves in their po-faced outrage at the portraits’ crudity. After all, Dylan, in Face Value, is holding tightly onto his troll hat. He knows that Bobcats will try to connect the dots between the twelve portraits and the motley cast of songs such as “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “Desolation Row”; he knows that critics will drill for clues as to what makes the elusive troubadour tick. To subject them to scholarly scrutiny, though, only misses the mark, for they are simply the doodles of a man having fun with his mythology – and, enjoyed on this level, they work.

The portraits in Face Value, like Self-Portrait, refuse to elucidate anything at all, let alone any aspect of Dylan’s unstable identity. In viewing the exhibition, one Dylan quote in particular came to mind, a quote that exhibits a similar approach towards questions of identity: at once flippant and sufficiently mysterious to invite reams of analysis. In his Rolling Stone interview to promote his film Renaldo and Clara – itself a four-hour trollfest – the interviewer, Jonathan Cott, asked him whether his song “Is Your Love In Vain?” was autobiographical. “You could say that the song isn’t necessarily about you, yet some people think that you’re singing about yourself and your needs.” Dylan’s sphinx-like response? “Yeah, well, I’m everybody anyway.”

Bob Dylan: Face Value continues at the National Portrait Gallery until January 5. Menawhile, Bob Dylan’s new sculpture exhibition, Mood Swings, will be displayed at the Halcyon Gallery until Jan 25.