Fences: How Do You Adapt A Play By August Wilson?

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences, Washington's faithful screen adaptation of the play by August Wilson. Photo courtesy of David Lee/Paramount Pictures.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences, Washington’s faithful screen adaptation of the play by August Wilson. Photo courtesy of David Lee/Paramount Pictures.

How do you write a play like August Wilson, that great chronicler of the African American experience in the twentieth century, that Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and poet, that ‘giant figure in American theater’, according to playwright Tony Kushner? You start, it seems, with a line of dialogue. This is Wilson’s own advice, put forward in a talk – appropriately titled ‘How to Write a Play like August Wilson’ – that he gave in 1991. ‘I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters,’ he explains in the talk. He likens the incremental process of writing a play – listening to the characters, responding to the demands of their dialogue – to the creation of a work of art. Specifically, the work of artist Romare Bearden, whose paintings and collages Wilson long admired. ‘He’s a collagist,’ Wilson said. ‘He pieces things together – I discovered that that’s part of my process, what I do. I piece it all together, and, hopefully, have it make sense, the way a collage would.’

Bearden’s iconic collages created vivid portraits of the lives of mid-century African Americans, through a meeting of bold colours and pieced-together images torn from magazines. Taking notes from the cubism of his friend Picasso, Bearden established a new visual imagery, one which excited Wilson: ‘What I saw was Black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale’, he wrote of Bearden’s work. The two men never met, although they came close on more than one occasion; once, Wilson admits, ‘he stood outside [Bearden’s home at] 357 Canal Street in silent homage, daring myself to knock on his door.’

Wilson’s plays are a patchwork of multimedia echoes. Collage-like, he assembled influences from art, music and story-telling, explaining to The Paris Review that

[m]y influences have been what I call my four Bs—the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden. From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etcetera. From Amiri Baraka I learned that all art is political, though I don’t write political plays. That’s not what I’m about. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday ritual life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.

With this broad range of influences, Wilson wove a rich tapestry, documenting the experiences of African American men and women through every decade of the twentieth century in his critically acclaimed ‘Pittsburgh cycle’. Each one in this series of ten plays is set in a different decade, although the characters all largely inhabit the same territory – the city of Pittsburgh, in which Wilson lived and worked for most of his life.

Fences, written in 1983, takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1957. It centres on the home of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector, who, through a series of dense, lyrical monologues, tells his colleague Mr Bono, his son Lyons and his wife Rose the circumstances of his life. A fight with his father at the age of fourteen leads Troy to leave his home in the South, walking two hundred miles to reach Mobile in Alabama before travelling north to Pittsburgh. Circumstances prove difficult and Troy finds himself stealing food to feed his new wife and young son. ‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ he goes on. ‘I’m ashamed of it today. But it’s the truth. Went to rob this fellow… pulled out my knife… and he pulled out a gun.’ Later, ‘[t]hey told me I killed him and they put me in the penitentiary and locked me up for fifteen years.’ He describes – in a mesmerising speaking style, tetchy yet poetic – how he went on to meet Rose and had another child with her, a son called Cory.

The central image of the play is that of the fence, which Troy promises he will build around the backyard. In doing so he enlists the help of Cory, who is fearful of his father, and disgusted by him, while yearning for his approval. The fence, which takes month to erect, comes to symbolise the deep and growing rifts that emerge between Troy and the rest of his family, as well as the wider gender and race divisions of the 1950s. As Troy’s infidelities are exposed, the image of the fence takes on a poignant edge. ‘Some people build fences to keep people out,’ Mr Bono remarks, ‘and other people build fences to keep people in.’

Wilson repeatedly referred to Fences as ‘the odd man out’ among his plays; unlike the ensemble pieces that came before it, it is ‘about one individual and everything focuses around him’, he explained in an interview with Bonnie Lyons in 1997. Despite Wilson’s misgivings (Fences was his ‘least favourite’ play, he later said), the character of Troy is a remarkable creation, loving and bitter, a master of the mundane. In the mouth of Troy Maxson, the language of ‘50s Pittsburgh is steeped in figurative imagery, shifting the play from straightforward realism to a striking kind of allegory. ‘All right… Mr. Death,’ he says in one of the play’s most powerful moments. ‘I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me.’

But how successfully does this claustrophobic domestic drama translate to the screen? Directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by Wilson that ‘got some massaging by Tony Kushner’ (Vanity Fair’s description, not mine), Fences the film takes the 2010 production on Broadway – starring Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose – and relocates it to a small house in Pittsburgh, in and around which most of the action is shot. Washington and Davis are breathtaking in their roles; Davis especially so. Of Rose Maxson, Davis has said in an interview with NPR that ‘you see her at first and she seems to be in the background. She’s making her marriage work — it is working, as far as she’s concerned. And then it gets turned on its head and you see her pain.’ For Davis, Rose represents the ‘complete journey of womanhood.’

I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman. … You see age has affected her, but you still see the smile; you see a little bit of the lipstick; you see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman, so by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma.

There are moments in the film when it feels as though the medium’s potential isn’t being fulfilled, curbed by the limitations of a theatre set. But the energy that Washington, Davis and a talented supporting ensemble bring to the screen is astonishing; viewers will find themselves deeply moved by the pathos of a life lined with fences. Although the ‘odd man out’, Fences stays true to the example Wilson cherished in the work of Bearden: this remarkable play is founded on the ‘fullness and richness of everyday ritual life […] rendered without compromise or sentimentality’.

Fences is in cinemas now. 

A Womb With a View: Three Novels Narrated By A Foetus

Three novels, all narrated by a foetus.
Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, published by Jonathan Cape; Eric D. Goodman’s Womb, published by Merge Publishing; and Micah Perks’ What Becomes Us, published by Outpost19. All three novels are narrated by a foetus.

We’ve encountered unusual narrative perspectives before. Psychopaths, death, the colour red – they’ve all been attempted. But foetuses feel new. Or felt new, momentarily: in the space of a year, three foetus-narrated novels have arrived at once. The first, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, sidesteps the obvious restrictions on the pre-natal narrative voice by making his foetus a well-educated one, absorbing the ideas of the podcasts to which his mother listens. Nutshell borrows its framework from Hamlet; our unnamed narrator listens in as his mother and uncle (Trudy and Claude, a not-so-subtle take on Gertrude and Claudius) conspire to kill his father. This reworking of Hamlet in utero has remarkable moments. I enjoyed the pleasure the foetus takes in sound and motion, and his sensitivity to the workings of his mother’s insides (her anxiety is measured through the hurry of her heartbeat and the churning of her bowels). And the relocation of Hamlet’s predicament to the womb is curiously convincing. McEwan heightens the claustrophobia in Hamlet, tightening its themes and narrowing its focus. Where Shakespeare’s protagonist is unable to make a decision, this unborn Hamlet is robbed of any agency at all. His worst fears are realised with lively derision: ‘Not everyone know what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,’ he comments.

Occasionally, the Hamlet references come too frequently. ‘It’s what we should have used,’ Claude says. ‘Diphenhydramine. Kind of antihistamine. People are saying the Russians used it on that spy they locked in a sports bag. Poured it into his ear,’ just as the ‘juice of cursed hebenon’ was poured ‘in the porches’ of King Hamlet’s ear. Later, desperate, the foetus intends to kill himself with his umbilical cord, ‘three turns around my neck of the mortal coil.’ Arriving into the world, the newborn remarks that ‘[t]he rest is chaos.’ And the title itself is lifted from Shakespeare. ‘Oh God,’ Hamlet says. ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’

This feeling of boundedness is the book’s most interesting quality, and McEwan is largely successful at limiting the narrative to the experience of the foetus. The novel is at its least effective when we hear McEwan creeping into the womb to voice opinions of his own. At one point, the foetus angrily informs us that the ‘almost-educated young’ are ‘on the march… longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities.’ He envisages ‘the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies’, a protection against ‘inconvenient opinions’. This stab at identity politics has no obvious place here; the tentative link is that the foetus’ mother ‘marches with a movement’ in ‘identif[ying] as innocent’ when she is guilty. It is a jarring passage, for – of all narrators – a foetus feels a likely advocate of safe spaces.

These authorial interruptions are the book’s greatest shortcoming, and it is for similar reasons that the second of our foetus-centric novels also exposes itself to criticism. Womb: A Novel in Utero by Eric D. Goodman is to be published early next year by Merge Publishing. Like McEwan, Goodman rises to the challenge posed by the foetus’ limited perspective, relating a story of betrayal and domestic turmoil through the filter of the uterine wall. The narrator of Womb is in possession of knowledge beyond his experience, this time not the work of podcasts but of a ‘connection to the greater consciousness’ which ‘allows me to peruse the works of great philosophers and thinkers, to study sociological and psychological experiments, to witness the past and see such theories put into practice in the field’. With such a wealth of insight under his belt, it seems odd that he can’t work out why ‘Mom’ is telling her co-worker Stan about her pregnancy before her husband. ‘I was as shocked as Stan’, we hear.

This disconnect isn’t the novel’s worst offence, however. ‘One of the commonest signs of a lazy or inexperienced writer of fiction is inconsistency in handling point of view,’ David Lodge informs us, and it is this inconsistency – unexpected in McEwan, and abundant in Goodman – that undoes the carefully-constructed conceit around which both novels hinge. Goodman repeatedly places into the mouth of his foetus-narrator the kind of moralising language which doesn’t fit with the playful inquisitiveness of the character. Rather, the foetus’ comment on his mother’s adultery – ‘your wrongdoing will be made right when Brother and I are born’ – reads like the insistence of a puritanical author. What’s more, Goodman’s treatment of Mom, the home of his narrator, is often less than attractive. Through the judgements of her unborn child, Mom is depicted to be unfaithful and impractical, unable to function without the calming presence of ‘Dad’. ‘Everything smelled good when Dad was around,’ we read. ‘[M]aybe I just subconsciously recognized Dad as an ally’. Of the possibility of abortion, the foetus pleads: ‘Give Dad a chance… Let him make that decision.’ By pitting Dad as the embodiment of reason against Mom, the voice of unchecked emotion, Goodman creates a dichotomy which feels unpleasantly two-dimensional.

The narrators of Micah Perks’s What Becomes Us, a pair of unborn twins, are unable to make such impersonal pronouncements about their parents because – unlike the protagonists of the previous two novels – their consciousness is shared with that of their mother. This novel barely touches on the physical reality of residing in a womb, a description which McEwan manages so lyrically. Rather, it focuses on a woman’s relocation from one side of America to the other to escape an abusive relationship and begin a fresh life with her soon-to-be-born children. The foetuses report on their mother’s new home in a small community on the east coast and her interaction with the local history. She becomes obsessed by a book by Mary Rowlandson, a colonial woman captured by Native Americans in the seventeenth century, and believes herself haunted by her ghost. The hunger Rowlandson felt in captivity preoccupies her, and the book lingers on descriptions of food.

There is much to praise here, specifically an absorbing cast of characters who address the problems of their past in idiosyncratic ways (one woman, for example, ‘can’t stand the fact her daughter snorts coke and doesn’t go to Church and fornicates outside of wedlock and never calls here, so she killed her off in the twin towers’). The novel offers moments of beautiful writing as it considers, in Perks’s words, ‘this business of becoming I’. But the decision to describe ‘this business’ from the perspective of a barely-there ‘I’ is puzzling. Perks is preoccupied with history and the inescapability of our past; why, then, is her novel narrated by a pair of foetuses without any pasts at all? Moreover, the present tense gives the prose an immediacy which comes to feel quite wearing. The book feels stretched in too many directions at once, attempting to contemplate the past as well as existing only in the present, a character-driven story in which our narrators never actually meet any of the other characters. This conflict between form and intent explains why Perks so rarely delves into the experience of the foetuses, why she insists that they share the thoughts of their mother.

There is a common thread to these novels. Perks examines the mother’s journey from past to present: determined to erase her own history, she embarks on a reinvention of self to match the invention of self happening inside her. Goodman laments the loss of unlimited knowledge. After the baby’s birth, his language fragments into staccato-sentences: ‘Mommy. Daddy. Holding. Hugging. Heartbeats. Gush Glow. Grin. Laugh. Floating’. And McEwan’s newborn mourns the ‘private ease of Mother’s womb’, as Thomas Gunn wrote so memorably in ‘Baby’s Song’. Gunn’s baby wishes to be ‘put… back/ Where it is warm and wet and black’. Now, ‘raging, small, and red’, he knows that while things may be forgotten, ‘I won’t forget that I regret’. This regret, a startling sentiment in narrators who haven’t yet lived, permeates all three novels.

Nutshell was published by Jonathan Cape in September and is available in hardback for £7.99; What Becomes Us was published by Outpost19 in October and is available in paperback for £12.91; Womb is published in spring 2017 by Merge Publishing.

London Film Festival: Nocturnal Animals and the Novel Behind It

Amy Adams in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Tony and Susan.
Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony & Susan.

Austin Wright’s Tony & Susan didn’t make much of a splash when it was first published in the US in 1993. The novel focuses on the circumstances of an estranged couple, Susan and Edward, and the unpublished manuscript Edward sends Susan years after their divorce. The manuscript – which we read over Susan’s shoulder – is startlingly violent. It is the story of a family broken up by force, and the lengths to which a father will go to seek justice for what has been done to his wife and daughter. The central themes of betrayal and revenge were a touch too pulpy, reviewers thought. But there was a cleverness in this story-within-a-story, a comment on the relationship between reader and writer, which people began to react to. Saul Bellow deemed it “marvelously written”, and its publication in the UK in 2010 was met with enthusiasm.

And now it has been adapted for the screen by Tom Ford, taking the name of Edward’s manuscript – “Nocturnal Animals” – as its title. Nocturnal Animals is largely faithful to Tony & Susan, reviving its many-stranded structure, but gives the story a sheen the original lacks. The Fordian trademarks we first saw in A Single Man are here again. The impressionistic shots which punctuate the narrative. The starry cast who toe the line – as Colin Firth did so memorably in A Single Man – between elegance and anguish. The plaintive strings.

Yet the film’s stylisation doesn’t detract from its emotional impact. There’s loneliness in the way Susan (played with poignancy by Amy Adams) navigates her ultra-modern house and the circus of the art world in which she works. There’s warmth in her first exchanges with Edward (both Edward and the manuscript’s main character, Tony, are played by Jake Gyllenhaal), conveyed through a series of flashbacks. And there’s horror in the scene in which Edward’s fictional family are shoved off the road and antagonised by a car full of young men, an interchange both unexpected and extremely disturbing. This episode leans heavily on the example of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in its teasing sadism. Like Funny Games, Nocturnal Animals toys with its viewers, allowing snuffed-out moments of hope (a passing police car; a fixed flat tire). As observers, we uneasily surrender our control: not only do we find our expectations continually thwarted, but our reactions to the events we witness are further influenced by the example of Susan, who is reading and reacting alongside us.

This tussle for authorial control is the film’s most distinguishing feature. It occurs from the opening credits, in which we see a slow-motion montage of overweight women dancing, the abundance of flesh a jarring contrast to the lean bodies which inhabit the rest of the movie. The camera’s unflinching relish in the women’s size is disquieting. But as the narrative unfolds, and this footage is located in a contemporary art gallery in LA, we – as spectators – take a step back. It’s not Ford who is making a spectacle of these women, but the sharply dressed art enthusiasts in his film; our judgement, we are forced to believe, was misdirected. Throughout the film, our viewing experience is repeatedly manipulated. We are never sure what to expect.

This is Austin Wright’s great, and largely unrecognised, skill, and it is one which informed his academic writing too. In 1990, he wrote Recalcitrance, Faulkner and the Professors, a piece of so-called “critical fiction” which explores the language and attitudes of literary criticism through a satirical lens. The book is set at an imaginary university, its characters voicing conflicting opinions on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in discussions “documented” by Wright, and it has been praised as an example of both experimental fiction and innovative critical discourse. There are a number of interesting things about this confluence of academic writing and metafictionality, but the most interesting, to my mind, is the idea of control.  By feeding arguments and counter-arguments into the mouths of his characters, Wright creates for himself a position of authorial power, anticipating and addressing the criticism of his readers before the criticism can be made.

Nocturnal Animals revives Wright’s interest in control. A struggle for power is evident in the exchanges between present-day Edward and Susan and the Edward and Susan of yesteryear. It is realised distressingly vividly in the assertion of the men’s power over Tony’s wife and daughter, and Tony’s attempt to reclaim that power in his bid for revenge. And we feel it in our lack of control as viewers, as we draw conclusions which are repeatedly proved wrong. The film’s subject matter and style complement each other in this respect, and for this reason Nocturnal Animals is a more successful movie than Ford’s A Single Man. The overwroughtness of A Single Man jarred with many of its critics when it was released; The Telegraph called it “a preening perfume commercial”, while The Guardian deemed it “absolutely just so”. Ford’s precision eclipsed the narrative itself, reviewers felt. But the framework he inherits from Wright is the perfect match for his directorial style, its story-within-a-story requiring the kind of close supervision at which he excels.

Close, But No Cigar: Vamos Cuba! at Sadler’s Wells

Vamos Cuba at Sadler's Wells. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson.
The cast of Vamos Cuba! at Sadler’s Wells. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson.

We all like a good story. The reliable arch of a narrative is what impels us to read, to go to the theatre, to write. For this reason I will always love the ballets of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, their fairy tales and takes on Shakespeare. Of course, this attitude to ballet leaves me open to the criticism of George Balanchine – one of the world’s most celebrated choreographers, and co-founder of the New York City Ballet – who once despairingly observed to Peter Martins: “You know, dear, we should call all ballets Swan Lake. That way, [p]eople will come.”

Balanchine made famous the “neoclassical” style of twentieth century ballet, a style which eschewed narrative and characterization in favour of mood and technical accomplishment. Dancers, he explained, are “like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.’ Fiddly plot-points are dismissed in Balanchine’s neoclassical choreography, as are elaborate sets and unnecessary props. According to him, “[t]here are no mothers-in-law in ballet”.

You can watch Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D – choreographed by Balanchine – on YouTube; on doing so I found myself bewildered and wrong-footed and stunned in the space of twenty minutes. It is the perfect meeting of movement and music (or, as he described it much more eloquently, it is the type of dance in which “music is made visible”). I can’t pretend to comprehend it.

I thought that Nilda Guerra’s Vamos Cuba! at Sadler’s Wells, with its “exuberant mix of traditional and modern dance styles” (according to its press release), might also be beyond my comprehension. I will admit, I know next to nothing about rumba and cha-cha-cha. What I do know is a sad flop of a storyline when I see one.

This whisper of a narrative is set in an airport departure lounge in Havana, where female tourists are accosted by janitors, and stewardesses twitch tight-skirted bottoms before pilots and businessmen. Such a weak attempt at romance is made further troubling by the overt sexualisation of the women, who switch between nude body-stockings, tiny dresses, and gowns of virginal white; the story follows their attempts to withstand the attention of the men. I’m sure Balanchine wouldn’t approve of this. “In my ballets, woman is first,” he said. “[Women] are not equal to men: they are better.” Women certainly aren’t equal to men in the world of Vamos Cuba!, despite Guerra’s insistence to the contrary. In a recent interview she observed that: “[I]n Cuban society, everything is about men manipulating women – it is normal in our culture. All the popular dances are like that. What I am interested in is keeping the energy of the dance but finding a conversation between the couple.”

The conversation here is a stilted one, lurching from scene to increasingly ridiculous scene (at one point the passengers show us the contents of their suitcases: as tiresome as it sounds). The characterisation lapses too frequently into stereotype, and there is nothing especially memorable in the choreography itself, no moments of innovation or breath-taking spectacle. Nevertheless, many of the dancers showed technical prowess, and a couple of the numbers – the reggaeton scene, especially – inspired a theatre-wide feeling of exhilaration. The live band and the interpolations of singer Geydi Chapman gave the performance a much-needed injection of personality.

Vamos Cuba! is not, as I had hoped, a daring blend of dance styles, nor does it convey the personal narratives of Havana in a meaningful way. The production is intended as an invitation to experience Cuban culture, but, true to its purgatorial setting, it feels as though we are witnessing the stories of Cuba through the windows of its airport.

<em>Vamos Cuba!</em> continues at Sadler’s Wells until Aug 21. Tickets from £12.

The Post-Fact World: The Truth at Wyndham’s Theatre

Alice (Frances O'Connor) and Michel (Alexander Hanson) in Florian Zeller's The Truth at Wyndham's Theatre. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.
Alice (Frances O’Connor) and Michel (Alexander Hanson) in Florian Zeller’s The Truth at Wyndham’s Theatre. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.

Since the momentous morning of June 24, there has been a temptation to shoehorn Brexit into everything. We should talk, write, breathe Brexit: to do otherwise is a kind of betrayal. How can we carry on as though this – and the daily unfurling of further disaster – isn’t actually happening? (Even cocooned in a world of words I see the implications, the perversion of the status quo with ugly neologisms such as “Bregret”, “Progrexit”, and now, courtesy of the LRB, “Bullxit”.)

I felt the impulse to make my opinion on the referendum known as I headed to Wyndham’s Theatre to see French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Truth, and I immediately tried to quash it. Whatever happened, I decided, I would not make this about Brexit. Please be assured, those among you who are tired of reading Brexit commentaries, that this review will not address the referendum again.

The play, the third of Zeller’s plays to be produced in English, centres on the relationships and infidelities of two married couples. Michel is having an affair with his best friend Paul’s wife, Alice; he evades the probes of his own wife, Laurence, and is shocked by the discovery that Paul knows everything and has pretended not to. The question of who is lying to whom, and about what, gives the play its plot and drives much of its humour. The Truth’s debt to Pinter is obvious, and, beyond that, it bears an echo of Wilde in its unexpected reversals, its comic paradoxes.

The play’s focus is – as its title suggests – on “the truth”. The concealment of the truth consumes the troupe of four characters, and we watch as they manipulate it in quick, accusatory exchanges. The truth, in Zeller’s world, is greasy. Hard to grasp, unfixed. We have seen him address this idea before, in both The Mother and The Father, plays which pit truths against truths in a riot of subjectivity.

It is its preoccupation with the truth which makes this production so compelling. The comedy helps, of course, but our laughter feels almost routine. I saw The Truth with a friend who observed that the humour hinges on a formula of shock (a man pulling up his boxers in bed asks the woman beside him how her husband is, for example), a formula we have encountered too many times before. We have read it, we have watched it, we have heard it in the pub with friends. It is funny – especially in the hands of director Lindsay Posner, with an amusing turn by Alexander Hanson as the self-absorbed philanderer Michel. But the humour doesn’t touch a nerve. There is something mildly dated about it (which is perhaps why Christopher Hampton’s translation feels a little formal, as though hailing from a time when this kind of comedy might have shocked us more).

The pertinence of the production doesn’t lie in its humour, but in its not-at-all-humorous suggestion that the truth is somehow malleable. We needn’t go to the theatre to witness this bending of the truth; it is being enacted on our national stage. It began the day Michael Gove announced that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a statement which spawned a number of other anti-expert statements: lies, in other words. As we watch the Leave campaign distance itself from many of its pledges, we begin to wonder if the truth has any currency at all nowadays, or whether value only exists in well-told lies. With this in mind, a quotation from Voltaire, cited by Zeller in an interview with Mark Lawson, feels chillingly apt: “A lie is only a sin if it does harm. When it does good, it’s a very great virtue. Lie, my friends, lie. When the time comes, I’ll do the same for you.” Last month, a piece in the Washington Post examined the importance of fact-checkers who are struggling to make their voices heard in a “post-fact world”, a world of demagoguery where emotion trumps reason (and Trump, the embodiment of a fear-based, nationalist emotion, trumps reason too). I don’t think I’m sensationalising when I say that the leap from a political campaign built on proven fiction to the Orwellian pronouncements that “War is Peace” and “Ignorance is Strength” doesn’t feel very far.

Perhaps, then, I underestimated the depth of Zeller’s humour. Perhaps, unwittingly, I had been shocked, had felt my nerves touched by a play which treats the truth with the same irreverence as our own politicians. I thought that I was enjoying ninety minutes of light relief from the strange world outside the theatre’s walls – but the relevance of the production’s message has since dawned on me. Without intending to, Zeller’s play makes an alarming comment on the status of the truth in today’s political climate. It is a work for the post-fact age.

(And for those wondering how I can blithely backtrack on my promise not to make this review about Brexit: I’m sorry. Consider it my contribution to our country’s growing arsenal of Bullxit.)

The Truth continues at Wyndham’s Theatre until Sep 3. Tickets start from £22.25 from Delfont Mackintosh.

Filtered Truth: A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

A General Theory of Oblivion is published by Harvill Secker. Author José Eduardo Agualusa was previously the winner of the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa tells the story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano (Ludo for short), who – on the eve of Angolan independence – withdraws into her apartment, determined not to observe the changes occurring beyond her walls. This is no metaphorical isolation: “She unlocked the front door,” we learn, and “began to construct a wall in the hallway, cutting off the apartment from the rest of the building. She spent the whole morning doing it. It was not until the wall was ready, and she had smoothed down the cement, that she felt hungry and thirsty”. She doesn’t emerge again for thirty years. Agualusa’s readers are presented with patchwork impressions of the arrival of independence: news from the radio, the observations Ludo commits to her diary (which, when out of paper, she begins to inscribe on her walls), and chapters devoted to the interconnecting lives of the characters beyond her apartment. Angola’s social history is rendered obliquely as a result.

This re-imagining of real events is reminiscent of Wolfgang Becker’s wonderful Good Bye Lenin!, which describes the fall of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of a man determined to maintain the illusion of the GDR for the benefit of his mother (who would, a doctor assures, die of a heart attack at the news of Germany’s reunification). And, of course, what piece could consider this kind of withdrawal from the world without referencing the famously self-isolated Miss Havisham, who, we learn upon meeting  her, “has never seen the sun since [Pip was] born”? It is with horror at this halting of the natural progression of time that Pip observes that “every thing in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago”. Like Miss Havisham, Ludo seeks comfort in visits from a young boy – Sabalu – although Ludo’s motives are kinder than Miss Havisham’s: she is genuinely affected by her interactions with Sabalu, who gives her her first hug “in a long time. She was a bit out of practice, and Sabalu had to lift her arms up. It was really him making a nest for himself in the old lady’s lap”.

When Ludo is working in the garden, she makes herself invisible to others by “using a long cardboard box, in which she had cut two holes at eye level for looking through”; anyone looking across at her “would see a large box moving around, leaning out and drawing itself back in again”. Soon, however, this state of unseeing comes to envelop Ludo herself: “Her eyesight had been getting worse and worse. No sooner had the light begun to fade, after a certain time of the day, than she began to move about just by instinct.” There is something of Marquez in the physical realisation of Ludo’s refusal to witness the history unfolding around her.

Then there is her diary-keeping, which seems to contradict her determination not to recognise the changes occurring in Angola. Her diary, written across the walls of her home, becomes a kind of anti-testimony, “a general theory of oblivion” in her own words. “If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls,” we read, “I could compose a great work about forgetting.” This “work about forgetting” begins to overtake her existence. “I save on food, on water, on fire and on adjectives,” she writes. It keeps her alive: “I cut adverbs/ pronouns/ I spare my/ wrists.”

A General Theory of Oblivion has much in common with Sleepwalking Land, a novel published in English in 2006 by another great Lusophone writer, Mia Couto. Set in war-torn Mozambique, Sleepwalking Land is inhabited by a host of characters, one of whom is a sightless prostitute. She is grateful for her blindness: “Thank God I’m blind,” she says. “Out there, the world is even worse. Because of this war, no one pities anyone else.” For this woman, like Ludo, time is confused by her blindness: “The blind woman mingled times,” Couto writes, “turning the past into the present”.

Couto’s prose has a similar feel to that of Agualusa – episodic, poetic, raw – and Sleepwalking Land shares with A General Theory of Oblivion the inclusion of a text within a text, this time the notebooks of a man named Kindzu. Both writers address African history through fragmented narratives which defy a single objective truth, echoing John Berger’s insistence that “[n]ever again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one”. The truth in both books is a filtered truth, one conveyed through subjective experience, and this is doubly so for those reading Couto and Agualusa in English; the words reach us through a second filter, that of the translator. In Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, Couto troubles over this problem of translation:

Words do not always serve as a bridge between these diverse worlds… [C]oncepts that seem to us to be universal, such as Nature, Culture, and Society, are sometimes difficult to reconcile. There are often no words in local languages to express these ideas. Sometimes, the opposite is true: European languages do not possess expressions that may translate the values and concepts contained in Mozambican cultures.

And yet, never in Daniel Hahn’s translation of A General Theory of Oblivion into English do we feel that the prose lacks the precision of the original Portuguese. The translation is loyal to tonal changes within the novel, is sensitive to the movement from straightforward exposition to the strange lyricism of Ludo’s diary. Indeed, the prose is one of A General Theory of Oblivion’s most arresting qualities, and it surprises me, therefore, that it was originally conceived of as a screenplay. The story is full of striking images, but the state of unseeing at the centre of the novel – Ludo’s self-insisted blindness – would jar with the visual medium of film. Rather, it is in the details of the language that this narrative impresses: a story communicated, in Ludo’s own words, by “feeling [our] way through the letters”.


It should be noted that the Man Booker International Prize underwent an interesting change last year: formerly, the prize had been awarded every two years in recognition of a writer’s entire oeuvre, but – merging with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – it now seeks to recognise the author and translator of a single work of fiction with an annual award. To my mind, this undermines Pamuk’s and Agualusa’s chances of winning; A Strangeness in My Mind and A General Theory of Oblivion don’t feel as though they are the best representatives of their authors’ abilities. Similarly, while I enjoyed A Whole Life and The Vegetarian, I fear that they won’t be deemed to have the narrative scope required to clinch the deal. I hope I am wrong, however, as both books are beautifully translated and worthy of celebration. Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child seems the likely winner, although – in a slight side-stepping of the prize’s new format – it relies on the strength of the three previous books in the Neapolitan series for its impact. The biggest threat to Ferrante’s win comes from Yan Lianke, whose experiments with form make The Four Books a remarkable read.

A General Theory of Oblivion is published by Harvill Secker.

Life Is Like This: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind is published by Faber and Faber.
Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind is published by Faber and Faber.

In The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk considers the purpose of novels and the tools with which they are created. The book – based on his Charles Eliot Norton lectures – draws on Forster’s Aspects of the Novel; indeed, Pamuk responds to Forster directly to make one of his chief points. Forster, he writes, “says in Aspects of the Novel that ‘the final test of a novel will be our affection for it’. The value of a novel, for me, lies in its power to provoke a search for a center which we can also naively project upon the world”. The readers’ pleasure is not paramount for Pamuk. Rather, it is the truthfulness of the novel that tells us its worth. “To simplify,” he continues, “the real measure of that value must be the novel’s power to evoke the sense that life is indeed exactly like this”.

The sense in fiction that “life is indeed exactly like this” is framed in slightly different terms by Kafka, who wrote in a letter of 1903 that “[s]ome books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle”. And yet The Trial is not, as Alan Bennett observes, “the kind of book one looks up from and says, ‘But it’s my story!'” Few readers “in our cosy little island,” Bennett writes, “are likely to be arrested without charge or expect to wake up and find the police in the room, and our experience of bureaucracy comes not from the Gestapo so much as from the Gas Board”, leading us to question what it is about The Trial that resonates with us.

A similar question might be asked of Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: “Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karataş, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View”. A wide-ranging cast of characters introduce us to Istanbul, which shifts and expands throughout the book. Aware of the foreignness of this setting for readers from “our cosy little island” and beyond, Pamuk punctuates the narrative with explanatory asides.”‘[P]erhaps I should explain for foreign readers who’ve never heard of it before… that boza is a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat… This story is already full of strange things, and I wouldn’t want people to think it entirely peculiar,” he explains at the start.

Such comments – of which there are several – give the narrative a curious self-consciousness. “Had my readers actually met Mevlut, as I have, they would… know that I am not exaggerating for effect,” we learn on the first page. “In fact,” Pamuk continues, “let me take this opportunity to point out that there are no exaggerations anywhere in this book, which is based entirely on a true story; I will narrate some strange events… and limit my part to ordering them in such a fashion as to allow my readers to follow and understand them more easily.” The familiarity with which Pamuk addresses his readers has the feel of those authorial intrusions in nineteenth century fiction, intrusions designed not to shatter but to supplement the illusion of veracity (so Eliot famously observes in Adam Bede that “[w]ith a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader”).

Pamuk, like Eliot, insists on the truth of the events we encounter, impressing it on us through complex genealogies at the start of the book and a chronology of events, both real and unreal, at its close (“NOVEMBER 1982 The results of a referendum back the 1982 Constitution, and the leader of the 1980 coup, Kenan Evren, becomes president of the Republic. APRIL 1983 Mevlut and Rayiha’s first daughter, Fatma, is born.”). But this framework doesn’t have the effect of convincing Pamuk’s readers of the novel’s truthfulness; rather, it underscores its fiction. Pamuk is aware of this, of course. He wrote that he intended his novel The Museum of Innocence “to be perceived as a work of fiction, as a product of the imagination – yet I also wanted readers to assume that the main characters and the story were true”. We find this kind of doubled experience, the reader’s simultaneous absorption and self-awareness, in the work of the postmodernists: Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler takes this doubling to its extreme.   

This is an interesting approach for a writer whose measure of the value of a novel is its “power to evoke the sense that life is indeed exactly like this”. How, as readers, are we to know what “this” is that “life is indeed exactly like”, when “this” is communicated to us in such a layered and self-conscious way? What’s more, the blurring of fiction and reality by the narrative voice is taken up in the plot itself; for the characters as well as the readers truth is confused with lies, as epitomised in the central love story in which a misinformed Mevlut writes love letters to Rayiha, thinking he is writing to her younger sister, Samiha. Mevlut struggles to reconcile this confusion with his faith: “First he would invoke the notion of intent in Islam. He would then ask the Holy Guide to explain the subtle distinction between a person’s private and public intentions… ‘Intentions come in two forms,’ [the Holy Guide] said: ‘THAT WHICH OUR HEART INTENDS and THAT WHICH OUR WORDS INTEND.'” The epigraph to Part 5 is a quotation from Ibn Zerhani – “Every word in Heaven is a reflection of the heart’s intent” – which echoes the novel’s central questions of intention and veracity. This quotation intrigues me: I can’t find any trace of an Ibn Zerhani elsewhere, although he is referenced again by Pamuk in The Black Book. Robert Irwin, reviewing The Black Book in 1995, is “sure that… Ibn Zerhani [is] made up”.

Beyond all the cleverness is a straightforward bildungsroman; to return to Forster’s measure of a good novel, there is much to inspire our “affection” as well as to challenge us. We find ourselves caring about the fortunes of this assembly of characters, drawn in by the detail of Pamuk’s descriptions (translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap). And yet, despite the engaging narrative, our likeable protagonist and the care with which Pamuk attends his readers (“Now that our story has again reached the night of Wednesday, 30 March 1994, I would advise my readers to reacquaint themselves with part 2 of our novel”), one can’t help but leave A Strangeness in My Mind feeling a little disconcerted.

A Strangeness in My Mind is published by Faber and Faber.

Life’s True Sadness: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life is published by Picador.
Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is published by Picador.

Loudly praising a book which, deep in the very texture of its writing, seems to shirk both loudness and praise is a troubling task. I want to vaunt Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. I want to press it aggressively into people’s hands. But this seems a mistreatment: its language, its length and the inclinations of its central character all call for restraint. The following will be a test, then, to see how forcefully I can whisper about this Man Booker International Prize shortlisted novel.

The brevity of the volume seems to contradict the bold promise of its title, A Whole Life (cf. Hanya Yanagihara’s paradoxically named A Little Life, weighing in at 720 pages). But Seethaler’s title doesn’t lie: within its 150 pages this book encompasses an entire life, that of Austrian mountain-dweller Andreas Egger. “As a child,” we learn early on, “Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered”. This comes to be the refrain of Egger’s existence; his loudest act is his proposal to his wife, designed to “engrave itself for ever on Marie’s memory and heart”. “Ideally,” he decided, he would “inscribe his love on the mountain, in huge letters, visible for miles around to everyone in the valley”, and this is what he goes on to do, “with the devil’s ink, which was to say, with fire”. And yet, even this act – the closest to shouting or cheering that Egger would ever come – is not quite as showy as it might have been: it is largely devised by the friend to whom he turns for help, and, when the moment comes, the “M” of Marie’s name “was rather crooked, and there was a piece missing, too, so that it looked as if someone had pulled it apart in the middle”. Marie responds “so quietly he wasn’t sure he’d understood her correctly”, and “Egger felt as if he was about to keel backwards off the tree stump; but he stayed on his seat” – true to bathetic form.

In an illuminating moment of self-reflection we read that Egger “saw himself as a small but not unimportant cog in a gigantic machine called Progress”. Hints of the progress of wider society are filtered into Egger’s consciousness, but they are peripheral to his concerns and those of the narrative. So, for example, during the Second World War he finds himself in the mountain to “set a series of blast holes” and “secure the forward position” – which sounds like an important task, but he “had no idea what forward position they were referring to or even what such a position might be”. During occasional visits from his comrades he gleans “news from the front (things were seesawing back and forth, there had been losses but also some gains, all in all no one really knew what was going on)”, and it is typical that significant political developments should be relayed parenthetically. Later, “[n]ews of the end of the war reached Egger in one of the communal toilets”; this life-changing pronouncement occurs off-stage, as it were, in the margins of the scene.

Through the filter of the nature-loving Egger Seethaler communicates social and political developments. “[G]eraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”, and, later, when Eggers returns to the place where he worked, “[l]ittle white flowers now blossomed on the spot where the general manager had sat behind his desk”. This habit of redirection, of guiding our gaze away from large-scale events to seemingly insignificant ones, reminds me of Edward Upward’s praise of E. M. Forster’s writing (recorded in Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows): “There’s actually less emphasis laid on the big scenes than on the unimportant ones: that’s what’s so utterly terrific,” he wrote. “It’s the completely new accentuation – like a person talking a different language.” This focus on “unimportant” scenes is exactly what Auden describes in “Musée des Beaux Arts”. He knows that “even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” Seethaler’s redirection of our attention away from the “big scenes” is a striking testament to Auden’s interest in the “corner, some untidy spot”.

It feels fitting to bring in poetry here, for A Whole Life is a deeply poetic book. Vivid images abound, translated with beautiful lyricism by Charlotte Collins. The description of Marie’s hand: ‘”rough and warm like a piece of sunlit wood”. The “peculiar noise” which wakes Egger in the night , “no more than an intimation, a soft whisper stealing around the walls”, and then the “shock wave” of the avalanche, which made the ‘”windows tremble, and everywhere Madonna figurines and crucifixes fell”, and while a “cloud of snow dust… seemed to swallow the stars”. There is so much to enjoy here; my copy is riddled with underscores.

Comparisons have been drawn with John Williams’ Stoner, and there is much in this, I think. These books share an interest in realism, a realism which doesn’t care for twists and turns and Hollywood happy endings, but plucks at your heartstrings with its restraint and its beautifully spare language. Julian Barnes wrote: “The sadness of Stoner is of its own particular kind. It is not, say, the operatic sadness of The Good Soldier, or the grindingly sociological sadness of New Grub Street. It feels a purer, less literary kind, closer to life’s true sadness.” It is this closeness to “life’s true sadness” which makes these books great; there is nothing “operatic” here. Instead, both novels examine the banal without apology, recognising the truth in Auden’s observation that suffering “takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.

A Whole Life is published by Picador.

The Ministry of Truth: The Four Books by Yian Lianke

Yan Lianke reads his novel The Four Books.
Yan Lianke reads his novel The Four Books, about China’s Great Famine. Photo courtesy of My Chinese Books.

Truth has often proved itself to be slippery. This isn’t my idea – it’s Nietzsche’s: “There are no facts, only interpretations,” he wrote. It’s Borges’: “Historical truth… is not what happened; it is what we judge to have happened.” It’s Larkin’s: “Strange to know nothing, never to be sure/ Of what is true or right or real.” And, of course, it’s Orwell’s. Orwell believed in the truth, certainly: “However much you deny the truth,” he wrote, “the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back”. Yet he was all too aware of its slipperiness, the ease with which it is manipulated. In 1944 he determined that the “really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future”, going on to add that “[h]istory is written by the winners”.

It is this idea which informs Yan Lianke’s disturbing depiction of a labour camp during China’s Great Leap Forward in his Man Booker International Prize shortlisted book, The Four Books. The narrative is pieced together through fragmented passages from the four books in question, the first of which is Heaven’s Child, an anonymous account of the events in this “Re-Education” camp bearing tonal affinities with the Old Testament (“So it came to pass” and “He saw that everything He had created was good” are not untypical pronouncements). Through this curiously biblical language we learn about “the Child”, the naïve overseer of the compound, and the Rightists he is charged with reforming, men and women known only by their occupations – the Author, the Scholar, the Theologian, and so on. The second and third texts are both written by the Author, an especially slippery character, who – in an Orwellian comment on the tussle between subjective and objective truths – is not trusted by the more ethically sound Scholar. Hoping to be rewarded by the Child, the Author agrees to write Criminal Records, a detailed catalogue of his fellow Rightists’ wrong-doings, but alongside this are fragments from his own novel, Old Course, a retelling of the events put down in Criminal Records. The final book, of which we see only a snippet at the end of the narrative, is a philosophical tract entitled A New Myth of Sisyphus, a further testament to Yan’s interest in allegory.

Not only is truth confused for the reader by these conflicting narrative voices (translated by Carlos Rojas with praiseworthy nuance), but it is also repeatedly confused for the characters. Towards the beginning of the book, the characters witness a scene from a play which – in keeping with the novel’s biblical overtones – is reminiscent of Pontius Pilate’s appeal to the crowd at the end of Jesus’ life. The plot “followed a professor who despised his country”, we learn. The actors ask the crowd what should be done with him: ‘“Shoot him!”’, they respond. ‘The crowd laughed, and waved their fists. “Yes, just shoot him!”’ And then, we read, the professor “collapsed like a rag doll. Everyone initially assumed this was merely a performance, but then they saw a pool of blood on the stage”.

Later, a pair of Rightists accused of committing adultery are “paraded through the streets of every Re-Ed district, the spectators repeatedly demanded that they perform the spectacle of their adultery, and would beat them if they refused”. What is real in this context and what is performance? The Author goes on to write that “[h]alf a month earlier, they had been two normal people, but now they bore no resemblance to their former selves”. Here, then, is when the truth is at its most slippery: when a sense of self becomes confused, when former beliefs and personal truths are lost. Is there any truth in being “the Musician” when you can no longer play music? “The Linguist,” we hear, “was the former director of the National Center for Linguistic Research, and had overseen the editing of dictionaries used throughout the country. But he now found himself at a loss for words. He looked at the Scholar’s inquisitive gaze, then silently bowed his head”. The Theologian, desperate for food, “took a portrait of Mother Mary from his pocket… and laid it on the ground, stomping on the figure’s head. He deliberately ground his foot on the portrait’s eye, leaving it a black hole”.

This loss of identity, this Orwellian triumph of an all-consuming system, is at the book’s core. We catch rare glimpses of an alternative truth beyond the Great Leap Forward:

With the Scholar and Musician wearing their dunce caps and placards, which years later would become priceless collectibles, the cart stopped in the entranceway to the district.

This parenthesis hints at a different reality, a time when the paraphernalia of humiliation has become a hangover from the past.

It is interesting, although unsurprising, that a book so laden with confused truths should be written by a writer whose work has shown a constant commitment to honesty. Yan examines the effect of an AIDS epidemic in rural China in his novel Dream of Ding Village, while unflinchingly satirizing the Cultural Revolution in Serve the People!, and, as a result of this subject matter, his fiction has been periodically banned in China. Confirming the importance of creative honesty, he says of The Four Books:

It is an attempt to write recklessly and without any concern for the prospect of getting published. When I say that I have written this recklessly and without concern for publication, I do not mean that I have simply written about mundane or contemptible topics, such as coarse and fine grains, beautiful flowers and full moons, or chicken droppings and dog shit, but rather that I have produced a work exactly as I wanted to.

The novel’s fascinating narrative structure, its ugly events and allegorical characters make for a thought-provoking read, but – above all – it is this honesty of intent that is Yan’s most remarkable achievement.

The Four Books is published by Vintage and is available in paperback for £7.99.


Story of an Erasure: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child
The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book in Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet.

Do you know the work of Amelia Rosselli? She lived from 1930 until 1996, an Italian poet whose beautiful, blistering verses have only recently been introduced to English readers. Here’s a flavour:

What woke those tender fat hands
said the executioner as the hatchet fell
down upon their bodily stripped souls
fermenting in the dust. You are a stranger here
and have no place among us. We would have you off our list
of potent able men
were it not that you’ve never belonged to it. Smell
the cool sweet fragrance of the incense burnt, in honour
of some secret soul gone off to enjoy an hour’s agony
with our saintly Maker. Pray be away
sang the hatchet as it cut slittingly
purpled with blood. The earth is made nearly
round, and fuel is burnt every day of our lives.

There is much to consider in these lines. The corpulence of “tender” and “fat”, in contrast with the hard sounds of “bodily stripped souls”, “burnt” (twice) and “hatchet as it cut slittingly”, for example. Rosselli revels in physical detail: the “fermenting” bodies and “cool sweet fragrance”, as well as the “potent” men and the contradictory “enjoy[ment]” of “an hour’s agony”. Threaded through this verse is a clear sense of exclusion, of lines being drawn and crossed. We read it in the direct address – “You are a stranger here/ and have no place among us”, and “you’ve never belonged” – and in the imperative: “Pray be away.” The expulsion of the listener – the “you” – from”‘our list/ of potent able men” gives the act a gendered edge.

I know only three things about Amelia Rosselli. She was the daughter of Carlo Rosselli, famed activist of liberal socialism and founder of “Giustizia e Libertà” (Justice and Liberty), which sought to resist Italian fascism with militant action. She killed herself in 1996 by jumping out of the window of her apartment building in Rome. And she is one of Elena Ferrante’s favourite poets, according to a feature published by the New York Times last year.

You can see why. There is a substantial overlap in subject matter. Both paint vivid pictures, replete with sounds and smells. Both problematize language: Rosselli by slipping between Italian, French and English in her poetry, and Ferrante in her dual linguistic structures of academic Italian and violent “dialect”. And finally – perhaps most importantly – both demonstrate a fascination with the idea of the marginalized. The outsider. The absent.

The pseudonymous Ferrante embodies this idea. Her very existence is an absence, and her remarkable popularity attests to the notion, put forward by Wallace Stevens, that the unknown “has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known”. The fact that she insists on a state of anonymity intrigues people, prompting investigations (such as that of Professor Marco Santagata in Corriere della Sera last month) into her true identity.

This sense of absence, of existing somewhere beyond the spotlight, permeates Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. These four books, the last of which – The Story of the Lost Child – has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, tell the story of best friends Elena and Lila. The novels take the pair’s experience as their focus, describing from the perspective of Elena their childhood in the suburbs of Naples, their education, their loves and losses, their respective careers. Beyond this central relationship is the panoramic backdrop of a changing Italy, as well as a multitude of characters, and the distinct worlds of academic thought and gang-ordained violence.

The significance of absence is clear from the get-go. My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series, has on its cover a picture of a marriage scene in which the bride and groom face away from the reader. This theme is revived in the covers of all four books: it is always the backs that are turned to us, never the faces. It won’t be giving too much away, I hope, to say that the last book, The Story of the Lost Child, has at its heart a disappearance: the clue is in the title. But all four books function around a wider, more decisive absence: that of Lila herself, who, at sixty six years old, erases herself completely, cutting her image from family photographs, leaving without a trace. This is Elena Greco’s motivation for writing the narrative; she hopes to commit to paper the memory of Lila, writing “for months and months and months to give her a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her”. “One doesn’t tell the story of an erasure,” Lila tells Elena scornfully in The Story of the Lost Child. The very fact of these novels proves her wrong: each book expands further on this theme of erasure.

Absence, then, plays a narrative function for Ferrante. But, to return to Rosselli and the exclusion of the “stranger”, the “you” who has “never belonged”, it also plays an emotional role. A fear of unbelonging is essential to Elena Greco’s story. Her desire to fit in – intellectually, visually, linguistically – is powerfully conveyed. This concern for the experience of the outsider is clear throughout the novels: not only are they literally situated in the margins of the city of Naples, in the so-called “neighbourhood”, but they also concern themselves primarily with the lives of women. Despite growing up in Naples, despite being as conversant in the politics of the neighbourhood as the men, the women at the centre of this series are familiar with the shock Woolf describes in A Room Of One’s Own, “say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, [a woman] becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical”. Elleke Boehmer writes with characteristic eloquence on the significance of this leap from the male-dominated centre to the marginal female perspective: “The shift of women’s experience to centre stage displaces, indeed replaces, the national imaginary from the foreground,” she writes, explaining elsewhere that the narrative is therefore necessarily relocated to “literally peripheral spaces”.

These “literally peripheral spaces” are fundamental to the Neapolitan novels – not just geographically, but psychologically. Throughout her life, Lila is afraid of “dissolving boundaries”. We learn that “she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that – it was absolutely not like that – and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped”. All the characters show an awareness of this dissolution of boundaries: of legal boundaries, of social ones. In Alfonso, an old friend of Elena, “the feminine and the masculine continually broke boundaries with effects that one day repelled me, the next moved me, and always alarmed me”, while Lila recognises that “all I had to do was find [Michele’s] boundary line and pull, oh, oh, oh, I broke it, I broke his cotton thread and tangled it with Alfonso’s, male material inside male material, the fabric that I weave by day is unravelled by night, the head finds a way”. Ferrante acknowledges the thematic importance of this transgression of boundaries in an interview with The Paris Review:

I have a small private gallery—stories, luckily, unpublished—of uncontrollable girls and women, repressed by their men, by their environment, bold and yet weary, always a step away from disappearing into their mental frantumaglia. They converge in the figure of Amalia, the mother in Troubling Love—who shares many features with Lila, if I think about it, including a lack of boundaries.

Can this “story of an erasure”, of absences, of marginal perspectives, hope to win the Man Booker International Prize? The prose is enough to convince me, described by Ferrante herself in The Paris Review as inclining to “an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat” (a far cry from Elena Greco’s self-reproach in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: “How could I have come up with such pallid sentences, such banal observations? And how sloppy, how many useless commas; I won’t write anymore”). Like Rosselli, Ferrante’s language – translated into English by Anne Goldstein – is many things: enthralling, scorching, urgent. Forcing its readers to hurry, breathless, to keep up with its pace. And like Rosselli, her interest in the excluded, in the marginalised and the boundary-transgressors, is the thing which sets her writing apart.

The Story of the Lost Child is published by Europa Editions.

Plot vs Character: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Han Kang's The Vegetarian, published last year by Portobello Books, turns the seeming banality of a woman's decision not to eat meat into a surreal psychological odyssey.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, published last year by Portobello Books, turns the seeming banality of a woman’s decision not to eat meat into a surreal psychological odyssey.

There’s an interesting narrative technique – F. Scott Fitzgerald uses it, and so does Herman Melville – that entrusts the telling of a story to a witness, a peripheral character. How different a tale would The Great Gatsby have been if heard from the mouth of Jay Gatsby! How dizzying the reading experience if Melville’s readers had been made privy to Ahab’s thoughts! It’s a brave technique: the filters of Nick Carraway and Ishmael risk a dilution of impact; the reader is placed at a remove from the plot’s driving force. This removal is particularly uncomfortable for modern readers, who have glutted on Woolf and Joyce (and so many others) and now feel entitled to their protagonist’s every emotion.

And yet, this distancing is precisely what is so compelling about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, published last year by Portobello Books. “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” This stunningly unemotional sentence opens the book, introducing us to Yeong-hye, the eponymous vegetarian at the centre of the story, and her husband, who voices the book’s first section (the second is focalized through the experience of her brother-in-law, and the third her sister’s experience; both are written in close third person). Our only insight into the mind of Yeong-hye is through rare italicized passages. As she subsumes herself in vegetarianism, and then – as the narrative gets stranger and stranger – stops eating altogether, willing, dreaming, believing herself to be a tree, these passages drip-feed to the reader a series of disturbing, grammatically unsound thoughts. “Animal eyes gleaming wild, presence of blood, unearthed skull, again those eyes,” we read. “Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe.”

Put straightforwardly, the book describes the consequences of Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian: from the social embarrassment of her husband, to her brutal self-harm after being force-fed a piece of pork by her father. We observe her unnamed brother-in-law’s growing sexual obsession with Yeong-hye, and the disintegration of her sister’s marriage as she pays visits to the psychiatric ward where Yeong-hye refuses food. But this is an over-simplification: nothing more than the hooks upon which the story is hung. The tapestry of the novel is so much richer than these moments of narrative drama.

E.M. Forster recognises the inadequacy of plot-points as means of describing (or constructing) a novel. Against “plot” Forster pits “human individuals”. “Plot” – which he imagines as “a sort of higher government official” – is confronted with human characters who are “enormous, shadowy and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg”. “In vain,” he goes on to write, does the plot point out “to these unwieldy creatures the advantage of the triple process of complication, crisis and solution so persuasively expounded by Aristotle”. Plot itself is given a voice, a churlish voice, determined to alleviate its own importance: “Characters must not brood too long,” it demands. “They must not waste time running up and down ladders in their own insides, they must contribute, or higher interests will be jeopardized.”

I can’t imagine Forster sitting down with the slim volume of The Vegetarian: it seems too bizarre a book for the man Zadie Smith calls “an Edwardian among modernists”. But were he to have read it, he might have found within it an adherence to the tussle between plot and character expounded in Aspects of the Novel. The plot of The Vegetarian is indefinable: it is tethered to the strange whims and thwarted desires of its central characters. There is no Aristotelian solution here.

The language, too, is something Forster might have admired. Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, it is simple and enthralling. It is largely free from imagery – aside, that is, from the violent interruptions of Yeong-hye’s dream-world, bloody and surreal. The disintegration of Yeong-hye’s sense of self is charted with disturbing clarity: Yeong-Hye, we read, had

removed her hospital gown and placed it on her knees, leaving her gaunt collarbones, emaciated breasts and brown nipples completely exposed. The bandage had been unwound from her left wrist, and the blood that was leaking out seemed to be slowly licking at the sutured area. Sunbeams bathed her face and naked body.

Later, we learn that “[o]nly Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.” Han does not flinch from physicality.

As a reader hoping to convey to other, prospective readers the measure of this book, I now reach a sticking point. I can’t convey it through the windings of its plot, which is too unruly to allow for a neat summing-up. And – to draw on Forster’s binary – I can’t rely on the “human individuals”; the impressions of the peripheral characters are too slippery, too self-serving, and the voice of Yeong-Hye, the vegetarian at the centre of The Vegetarian, is rarely heard, and barely intelligible when it is.

The best I can do, then, is reiterate the questions this novel asks. What does it feel like to make an enemy of your own body? This is the novel’s biggest question. How do people respond when social norms are disregarded? What does it mean to have an all-consuming desire? And how can you live when that desire is frustrated – or fulfilled?

Han tackles these questions with a story which is, paradoxically, both enlightening and incomprehensible. It is a strange book, with overtones of Kafka, and a plot that has no resolution. And yet it consumes its reader, turning the seeming banality of a woman’s decision not to eat meat into a surreal psychological odyssey.

The Vegetarian is published by Portobello Books.

What Would Genet Think?: Deathwatch at the Print Room

Danny Lee Wynter, Tom Varey and Joseph Quinn in the Print Room's production of André Gide's Death Watch. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.
Danny Lee Wynter, Tom Varey and Joseph Quinn in the Print Room’s production of Jean Genet’s Death Watch. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.

I’ve been experiencing a lot of odd coincidences recently: what Jung termed “synchronicities” or “acausal parallelisms”. My most recent synchronicity happened last Friday, which was, you may remember, 15th April 2016. I was to watch Jean Genet’s Deathwatch that day – the day on which, thirty years earlier, Genet died at the age of 75. It felt like a striking quirk of timing (all the more striking because I had meant to see the production the evening before, but hadn’t been able to).

The ghost of Genet was therefore in my thoughts as I made my way to The Print Room in Notting Hill. He overtook me, forcing me to consider, as I watched this staging of his first play, not what I made of the production, but what he himself would have made it. (I write this despite the suggestion of Genet’s contemporary Roland Barthes that we should not “give an Author to a text”; in doing so, Barthes warns, we “impose upon that text a stop clause”, we “close the writing”.) Imagine Genet, an apologetic-looking man, his eyebrows pulled low over his eyes, the smooth expanse of his forehead creased into a frown, sitting in the theatre beside me. What would he have thought of the enormous cage in the centre of the stage, the string of bulbs and the red curtain resembling a circus or a wrestling ring? Would this hazy, smoke-filled arena, illuminated by an intricate lighting system overhead, have appealed to him as the setting of his prison-based drama, Haute Surveillance?

I suspect not. “No clever lighting,” his stage direction informs us curtly. He intended the costumes to be “in violent colours”. Here, however, we have three men clad in beige. We have a complex rotation of lights: spotlights, brilliantly lit squares, strobes. Director Geraldine Alexander may be forgiven for ignoring some of the more impractical of Genet’s stage directions. “The actors must aim for heavy gestures; or such as flash like the fastest lightning, too rapid to be taken in,” he insists. And, halfway through the play: “Starting now, these three young people will have the size, the gestures, the voice and the faces of men who are fifty or sixty years old.” Talented though the trio of actors playing Genet’s cellmates (Tom Varey as “Green-Eyes”, Joseph Quinn as Maurice and Danny Lee Wynter as “Lefranc”) are, they do not confound the rules of human biology by acting with movements “too rapid to be taken in”, or ageing several decades before our eyes.

The discomfort of Genet, observing this production, would have been exacerbated not only by the atmospheric lighting (the work of designer David Plater), or by the actors’ inability to conform to his eccentric directions, but by the play itself. Unlike The Maids, say, or The Blacks, Deathwatch contains within it several inconsistencies – inconsistencies of plot, of language, of intention – that have inhibited its recognition as a truly great piece of twentieth century drama.

Here I defer to Edmund White, who devotes a handful of pages to the creation of Deathwatch in his fascinating chronicle of Genet’s life. White writes:

This play is a confusingly transitional work. At points it appears to be a naturalistic prison drama, complete with an apt use of criminals’ argot and sociological observations on the relationship between prisoner and guard and the oral grapevine by which prisoners inform one another of their own glorious exploits. But elsewhere the characters suddenly break into unconvincing arias in which, using the narrator’s voice from Miracle of the Rose, they explain the poetic and metaphysical impact of their situation.

It is in the jarring juxtaposition of the real with the surreal that the play founders, and it is in this, too, that Alexander’s production loses its impact. The leaps between the beige, contained conversation of the prison cell and the strange unreality of the action beyond the bars feels unconvincing – or, perhaps, not unconvincing enough.

White goes on to describe Genet’s difficulty in writing the play; he drafted it four times with different titles, altered emphases and the bizarre excision of crucial scenes. He observes that, unlike Genet’s later plays, Deathwatch fails to realise its author’s many intentions. It is “unable to contain these different elements: an insider’s report on prison life; a philosophical investigation of time, volition and sexual authenticity; and a purely abstract patterning of the prisoners’ movements on stage. The plot itself is hard to follow.”

The plot is hard to follow, a curious investigation into the dynamic of three jailbirds and their respective pasts. In Genet’s deliberate confusion of reality with unreality, White reads an autobiographical intent. “Perhaps,” White suggests, “he was afraid of any clear-cut interpretations: submitted so often to psychological probing and categorization he had good reason to resist any effort to decode him or his work.”

The compelling claustrophobia of Alexander’s production, the schizophrenic leaps of the actors, the occasional lyricism of David Rudkin’s translation: none of this can salvage what is, at its heart, an unsettled play. Jean Genet, sitting in the auditorium on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, would have suffered through the performance, and not simply because the production fails to abide by his bizarre directions, not simply as a result of the indecision written into the text itself. His dissatisfaction would have been more deep-rooted, and is described with brusque poignancy in a note regarding his Complete Works, made in 1967. Of Deathwatch, he wrote:

Since I am expressing my desires, I’d like this play never to be staged again. It’s difficult for me to remember when and under what circumstances I wrote it. Probably out of boredom or unintentionally. That’s all – the facts elude me.

Genet has done Barthes’ work for him. He has toppled the image of himself as “Author-God”, undermining the idea of Sartre’s “Saint Genet” in admitting the failure of his own creation. But what does this mean for the rest of us? The theatregoers, perplexed by the play’s inconsistencies and Genet’s mixed feelings about its production. Should we condemn the staging of this part-symbolic, part-naturalistic, prickly, inconclusive text, a staging which goes against its creator’s explicit instruction? Or should we admire its bold revival? I’m inclined to argue for the latter. Not least because, a matter of months before he died, Genet was working on yet another version of Deathwatch with director Michel Dumoulin, an undertaking which seems to signify a change of heart – as well as allowing for a thrilling synchronicity of dates three decades on.

Deathwatch continues at the Print Room until May 7. Tickets are from £20 (£16 concessions).

Power and Irony: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time is Julian Barnes’s first novel since 2011’s Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending.

Teffi first came to my attention a year ago, through Pushkin Press’s beautiful translations of her short stories. Teffi: it’s a warm-sounding pseudonym, which, from her thirties, she preferred to her birth name, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya. She interests me for several reasons. Born in St Petersburg in 1872 and dying in Paris eighty years later, her life straddled a fascinating period in Russia’s history, and through her body of work she paints an unsettling portrait of her time. She was an unforgiving witness, describing her surroundings with biting detail – even the slippery Rasputin couldn’t evade her satire (“Rasputin was really only semi-literate,” we learn in Anne Marie Jackson’s translation of ‘Rasputin’. “Writing even a few words was hard for him.”)

I mention Teffi here, in a piece ostensibly discussing Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, for their overlaps in subject matter. Teffi, considering the aftermath of the Russian Revolution from Paris as an émigré, and Barnes, fictionalising several episodes of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, share many themes: the most striking being their mutual interest in the disparity between what is said and what is meant. This distinction is essential to our understanding of the ideological rifts which occurred in Soviet Russia.

“Letters began to appear from the Soviet Union,” begins Robert Chandler’s translation of Teffi’s short story ‘Subtly Worded’. “More and more often. Strange letters.” These letters are filled with cryptic messages. The Vankov family, one letter tells us, have “died from appetite”, while Misha Petrov is said to have suffered in a “careless incident with a firearm he happened to be standing in front of. Everyone feels awfully delighted.” Teffi asks Ivan Andreyevich what he thinks the letters can mean. “I’m scared to think,” he responds. “I don’t want to know.” We soon discover that the creators of the letters, hoping to fool the censors, have inverted their epistles, sending to the émigrés the opposite of the news they hope to convey. So, appetite becomes a verbal substitute for starvation. Delight takes the place of sorrow.

This story of encodedness is a neat introduction to the life and work of Shostakovich – or Barnes’s conception of him, at least. In Barnes’s narrative, which builds on a bedrock of true events from the composer’s life, Shostakovich’s speech and political actions lack sincerity. He does what he is told, whether that is denouncing Stravinsky – who he long admired – at the 1949 Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York, or joining the Communist Party in 1960.

In a particularly telling passage in The Noise of Time we learn that all Shostakovich’s life “he had relied on irony”. Irony, for the composer, becomes “a defence of the self and the soul”. “You write in a letter that someone is ‘a marvellous person’ and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. Irony allows you to parrot the jargon of Power, to read out meaningless speeches written in your name…” This all has the tang of Teffi to it, but there is a difference between them: for Shostakovich dealt in music, and irony, as Barnes observes, “had its limits”. Non-verbal irony is much more difficult to convey; we learn that Shostakovich “had inserted into his first cello concerto a reference to ‘Sukliko’, Stalin’s favourite song, but Rostropovich had played straight over it without noticing it”.

Of course, the idea of irony is invaluable to the biographer. “When truth-speaking became impossible,” Barnes writes elsewhere, “it had to be disguised… And so, truth’s disguise was irony. Because the tyrant’s ear is rarely tuned to hear it”. Barnes goes on to describe a letter Shostakovich wrote to Stalin the day after he agreed to attend the Congress for World Peace in New York. The note sits uncomfortably with our understanding of Shostakovich as a private power-hater. He asks that Stalin accept his “heartfelt gratitude for the conversation that took place yesterday… I cannot but be proud of the confidence that has been placed in me”. The implication, Barnes leads us to conclude, is that the words are not intended sincerely. There is a sheen of irony here, imperceptible to the eye of “the Great Leader and Helmsman”. The doubleness in this letter fits with Barnes’s portrait of the composer – but he doesn’t pretend that this is the only way to read this rather disquieting document. The letter, he writes, “would disappear into some file in some archive. It might stay there for decades, perhaps generations, perhaps 200,000,000,000 years; and then someone might read it, and wonder what exactly – if anything – he had meant by it”.

The “someone” in this instance is Julian Barnes. This is the most explicit reference to his creative role in this fictionalised biography, but his presence manifests itself in other ways. Admirers of the spare Barnesian sentence will find much to enjoy in The Noise of Time. The usual rhythms are here – arresting at first, but a little wearing after a while. Motifs abound. From the number 200,000,000,000 (of strange significance to Shostakovich; he once wrote to a friend explaining that “Heaven on Earth will come – in 200,000,000,000 years”), to “the noise of time”, a synesthetic idea, borrowed from the essayist Osip Mandelstam – another victim of Stalin’s regime. While Barnes’s Dmitri is vivid, and the arc of his demise well-documented, the secondary characters – his family, his friends, even Stalin himself – are frustratingly flat, nothing more than “a trait here and a trait there”, to employ Barnes’s own description of his minor characters in his Paris Review interview in 2000.

For this reason, the narrative occasionally feels as though it is in thrall to Barnes’s prose. We inherit the composer’s curious numbness to his fate, and, as a result, the novel’s emotional impact comes not from the events of Shostakovich’s life – despite being events of great sadness and sacrifice – but from the strength of Barnes’s sentences. This is where Barnes parts ways with the likes of Teffi, who revelled in the power of the carefully-formed plot. And this is, perhaps, where many readers part ways with Barnes. But those in pursuit of a thoroughly researched, if impressionistic, portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers will not be disappointed.

The Noise of Time out now in hardback and published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99).

Poetic Warfare: Pink Mist at the Bush Theatre

The cast of Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist from its earlier run at the Bristol Old Vic. Photo by Mark Douet.

There is much to admire in Owen Sheers’s Pink Mist. In this play, Sheers explores the responses of three young men – Arthur, Hads and Taff – to their first tour in Afghanistan. They are accompanied onstage by three women – Arthur and Taff’s girlfriends and Hads’ mother – and through this ensemble of six we are made privy to the physical and emotional consequences of the boys’ decision to enlist.

Pink Mist began life as a radio play. You can hear this straightaway: its form is made for the radio. It is a verse drama, and is littered with rhymes – end rhymes and internal ones. This is affecting for obvious reasons; our ears respond to the patterns in speech, to echoes and lyrical language. There are moments of real poignancy in Sheers’s writing. So, for example, when one of the three main characters is attended to after an accident: “Like two maids making a bed,/ they unfolded, smoothed and checked for snags,/ before draping me in the colours of the flag.” The rhyme is impactful, and the imagery uncomplicated. Elsewhere, we hear about Arthur’s encounter with a man on Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol who “just looked at me, took one long drag,/ stubbed it out, then – ‘He jumped?’, his girlfriend asks. “‘No./ Well, yeah, he did. But more like flew.'” This is where Sheers is at his best: with simple images which rarely miss their mark.

In the Bush Theatre’s current production of Pink Mist, directed by John Retallack and George Mann, the actors work as a slick unit. Their movements are almost mime-like, deliberate and ritualised. Of the six, Phil Dunster as Arthur stands out for the pathos with which he narrates his life-story. His movements are fluid and his mastery of the stage is, at moments, captivating.

Why, then, did I find the blend of the two – the words and the action – occasionally lacking in power? I enjoyed the language, and as I reconsidered the text later I continued to discover elements I admired. But during the performance I found it difficult to forgive the play’s straight narration, the absence of a space for creative enquiry. At times, the production felt stiff as a result of this spoon-feeding, and the incessant rhymes only seemed to compound this formality. Sheers himself highlights this problem in his introduction to the programme, noting that Pink Mist “breaks the cardinal dramatic rule of ‘show don’t tell’… Pure telling… is rarely dramatically engaging and this is where the lyrical note of Pink Mist is vital”. I disagree with this. It is not “the lyrical note” which rescues a formal narrative text from becoming dry and unconvincing – not in contemporary theatre, anyway. It is characters and emotional engagement. This is where the actors might have assisted, bringing life to the voices which narrate the drama. Instead, the actors work as a single body: a dexterous, mesmerising body, yes. But a body nonetheless, robbing the performance of the close character portraits it craves.

I felt especially disengaged from the female characters – largely, I suppose, because they are entirely identified by their relationships with the men. They never address each other. Their every action and emotion is dictated by the decisions of the three male characters. It is a tricky predicament; Pink Mist is, after all, a scrutiny of war, and three young men as victims of that war. But this side-lining of female voices only served to distance me further from the drama.

And then there was the close of the play, which – beyond the too-formal marriage of word and movement, and the absence of autonomous female characters – was its most jarring aspect. The narrative reaches its dramatic climax and continues beyond its natural end in a moralising vein. “That’s all I hope for,” Arthur says, “When the debate’s being had,/ the reasons given,/ that people will remember/ what those three letters mean,/ before starting the chant once more -/ Who wants to play war?” This is the play’s worst (or should that be best?) example of “telling” rather than “showing”, epitomising its lack of faith in the capabilities of its audience. Poetry need not be the “mouth” that Auden pronounces it, making “nothing happen”. But neither, conversely, should it be “a blueprint… an instruction manual… a billboard” (to misemploy the words of Adrienne Rich). I’m glad when poetry and drama engage with questions of ethics, but believe there should be room for excavation. If there is no space for interpretation, the experience of theatre-going or poetry-reading is no longer a dialogue; it becomes an act of submission.

Still, I’d urge you to go and see Pink Mist. Go for the poetry, the blend of the figurative with idiomatic Bristolian language, the epic arc of the three boys’ journey to Afghanistan. Go for the perfectly-timed choreography, the strength and precision of the six actors’ movements. Go for the stunning displays of light and sound. The lasting effect is worth it, even for its moments of disquiet.

Pink Mist continues until Feb 13 at the Bush Theatre. Tickets are £15-£20. 

How Room and Florian Zeller’s The Mother Dissect Motherhood


Above: Gina McKee and William Postlethwaite in The Mother at the Tricycle Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet. Below: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room.
Above: Gina McKee and William Postlethwaite as mother and son in The Mother at the Tricycle Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet. Below: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in corresponding roles in Room.

This review contains spoilers for the film Room.

I have encountered two mothers this week. Unreal ones, although – as you will see – the distinction between real and unreal was blurred in both encounters. I experienced the first, “The Mother”, in Florian Zeller’s play of the same name at the Tricycle Theatre, and the second, “Ma”, in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-nominated Room. “The Mother” and “Ma” have much in common. They both demonstrate the double-edgeness of motherhood, its joy and its claustrophobia. They both attempt to escape their realities in different ways, and both, in doing so, are delivered to a hospital bed, their children by their sides. They cannot escape the fact of birth. This mothering role is theirs forever.

In The Mother, Gina McKee’s eponymous character (formerly known as Anne) experiences snapshots of alternate realities. In one scene, her husband is a liar and womanizer; in another, it is her son’s sexuality she confronts. They joke and argue and are silent, the same stretch of time replaying itself repeatedly in “The Mother”‘s mind. These moments are layered over each other, creating, in director Laurence Boswell’s words, a “kind of theatrical cubism” in which subjective experience is given equal weight with reality. The scenes grow darker as “The Mother” consumes an overdose of sleeping pills and scrutinizes her relationships with her husband (Richard Clothier), son (William Postlethwaite) and ‘The Girl’ (France McNamee – who appears in several disquieting incarnations as Anne’s son’s girlfriend, her husband’s lover and her youthful mirror image). The effect, in Boswell’s words, is a “story… built upon states of collapsing consciousness”.

Abrahamson’s Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, shares with The Mother this unflinching dissection of motherhood. It is the story, focalized through the perspective of five year old Jack, of a mother and son held captive in a garden shed; “Ma” has lived in this state of imprisonment for seven years. In this depiction of the parent-child relationship, the consciousness touched on by Zeller has long since collapsed and has been resurrected in a different guise. Ma and Jack share a world – “Room”. They have a television, which transmits to them “unreal” images; for Jack, “Plant is real but not trees” and “squirrels and dogs are just TV”. The faith Jack has in his subjective reality is endearing. His world is not a room or the room, but “Room”: treated as reverently as, say, the Pevensies’ “Spare Oom” in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (and the similarities between the stories – the foray into other realities, the hardship of having to grow up – are worth noting). Jack’s understanding of his existence is challenged shortly after his fifth birthday, when he is forced to confront the idea of an outside world (“When I was small I only knew small things,” he says, “but now I’m five I know everything”).

Donoghue, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is keen to highlight the disparity between Jack’s version of his childhood and Ma’s. The pair of them revisit “Room” towards the end of the film; “Has it gotten shrinked?”, Jack asks, while Ma waits uncomfortably by the door. For Jack, “Room” represents an entire universe, replete with friends (“Rug”, “Lamp”, “Meltedy Spoon”) and the constant security of his mother’s presence. “Wasn’t it awfully small?” his grandmother asks him. No, he responds: “It went in every direction all the way to the end. It never finished. And Ma was always there.” For Ma, it is a confinement both literal and metaphorical. The inescapability of her role as mother is echoed in her physical entrapment.

Zeller’s play is particularly good not only on the claustrophobia of child-rearing, but the claustrophobia, for the child, of being parented. “The Son”, in his many incarnations, is impatient, emotionally unresponsive, and even murderous. Sylvia Plath’s ugly imperative in her poem about her mother, “Medusa” – “Off, off, eely tentacle!/ There is nothing between us” – is not far from our minds as we watch “The Son”‘s interactions with his mother.

The “evil mother” is a recurring figure in theatre – we need look no further than Medea or Lady Macbeth for clear examples of this cold-blooded breed. What feels more interesting is the loving mother who struggles with the intensity of this love. Here, Zeller and Donoghue excel. And with their example in mind, we can revisit other mothers, mothers who have long been consigned to a state of two-dimensionality. Take, for instance, Austen’s Mrs Bennet. She is overbearing, manipulative, “invariably silly”. Elizabeth suffers on account of her behaviour. But were we to employ the “cubism” Zeller demonstrates and reconsider the events from an alternative perspective we might think differently.

How dreadful, from this new perspective, must life with Lizzy Bennet be! To be constantly quashed and silenced; your identity reduced to nothing but “schemes”, “invention”, or “mean understanding”, to list just a few of the words ascribed to Mrs Bennet. Of all her daughters, Lizzy is the most challenging to her mother. One sentence gives us the measure of their relationship: “In vain did Elizabeth endeavour to check the rapidity of her mother’s words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper.” To have your words checked, your felicity subdued – no wonder the “business of [Mrs Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married”.

I’m being facetious, of course, but I think there’s something worth examining here. The subjectivity of the story-telling in both The Mother and Room is interesting, especially when applied to the difficulties which parenting brings. Helen Simpson’s short story “Heavy Weather” interrogates this darker side to motherhood: “She had taken to muttering I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, without realizing she was doing so until she heard Lorna chanting I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it! as she skipped along beside the pram, and this made her blush with shame at her own weediness.” Echoing this, Eva Wiseman wrote touchingly on the challenge of this new emotion in The Guardian last year, describing it as “an awful love. A terrible love… It’s not the comforting bath of love I’m used to. It’s a bruise being pressed, continually, by a strong thumb”.

There is a complexity in this feeling which a splintered narrative such as Zeller’s conveys well. It is an original way of grasping the many-sidedness of family relationships; with Zeller as our guide we are no longer in the black-and-white ethical world of Elizabeth Bennet, or, say, Roald Dahl’s Harry Wormwood (who memorably tells Matilda, “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it”). Rather, this cubist take on parent-child relationships offers us a refreshing re-examination of what the role of mother means.

The Mother continues at the Tricycle Theatre until March 12. Room is currently on general release.

The Quintessence of Ibsenism: Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre

Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre
Alfred (Jolyon Coy) and Rita (Lydia Leonard) in Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. Photo courtesy of Alastair Muir.

I like literary lineages. The analogy of a family relationship feels like an appropriate one: we can see in successive generations of writers the debt that children owe their parents, their respect for them, but also the discomfort that exists somewhere deep within this filial love, a Bloomian anxiety of influence. I don’t mind commenting with Terry Eagleton on the “mighty lineage of European literary realism from Balzac and Scott to Tolstoy and Thomas Mann”. And I enjoyed listening to Armistead Maupin trace his literary heritage through Wilde, Forster and Isherwood at a talk I went to a fortnight ago. It is my interest in this idea of literary parenthood that explains why Richard Eyre’s treatment of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre appealed to me. Ibsen is often referred to as the father of modern drama, but Eyre draws our attention to a particular line of Ibsen’s legacy. In an essay printed in the programme accompanying the Almeida Theatre’s current production, Eyre – its adaptor and director – describes the play as “the godparent of many plays about marriage: Strindberg’s Dance of Death…, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Whitehead’s Alpha Beta, as well as countless TV dramas”, thus highlighting its continuing significance.

Relevance is key in this production: Peter Mumford’s lighting design perpetuates the play’s feeling of modernity, with vivid weather sequences and the giant, harrowing eyes of the drowned child Eyolf projected across the back wall. Lydia Leonard’s Rita Allmers feels very contemporary; she is assertive, passionate, fearlessly honest. There is a clear emphasis on heightening the play’s appeal for today’s audiences, reiterated in Eyre’s list of the many works it has given birth to, the twentieth century’s most celebrated dramas among them. His idea of Ibsen as “godparent” to later generations of playwrights makes me consider how curious it is that the marriage portrayed in Little Eyolf – destroyed by jealousies, death and hints of incest – should have spawned so many other marriages. It is hardly the dysfunctional union Ibsen depicts it to be.

The conception of Ibsen as a father figure – that putative parent of modern theatre, of a new breed of realistic drama – is particularly interesting when we consider the significance of the family in his work. His plays repeatedly deal with the idea of parenthood, and the uncomfortable, often extremely ugly, reality of parent/child relationships. It is an ugliness that has been the source of much disquiet among his audiences. Ibsen’s German agent famously asked him to rewrite the close of A Doll’s House so that Nora remains with her family (“this is a sin against myself, but I cannot leave them,” Nora exclaims in this alternative ending). In his essay on Ibsen, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”, George Bernard Shaw relates the response of Clement Scott, the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic at the time, to the first performance of Ghosts in 1891. He “accuses Ibsen of dramatic impotence, ludicrous amateurishness, nastiness, vulgarity, egotism, coarseness, absurdity, uninteresting verbosity, and suburbanity, declaring that he has taken ideas that would have inspired a great tragic poet, and vulgarized and debased them in dull, hateful, loathsome, horrible plays,” Bernard Shaw writes. This so-called “vulgarity” and “egotism” unsettles even today’s supposedly unshockable audiences. Rita, the unhappy mother of Eyolf in Little Eyolf, admits that she wishes her son “had never been born”: a confession which continues to rankle.

Paradoxically, it is in the absence of the child at the centre of its narrative that Little Eyolf becomes a parent once more. Ibsen’s scrutiny of the Allmers’ grief at the death of their son has set a precedent for a number of other narratives of loss – among them, Elizabeth Robins’ The Silver Lotus (Robins, an actress as well as a playwright, played many Ibsenian characters on the London stage – including Rita Allmers), Robert Frost’s Home Burial, written twenty years after Little Eyolf, and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time. The deterioration of marital relations is evident in all of these works, and in each we see a striking similarity in the unspeakableness of parental grief. “There is something you shrink from saying,” Allmers tells his wife. “And you too,” she responds. The absence of the child Kate in The Child in Time “was a fact they could neither mention or ignore”. In Home Burial, the narrator – frustrated with his mourning wife – cries, “God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,/ A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

But is this type of comparison reductive? If we fix our gaze too firmly on Ibsen’s legacy, we lose sight of the striking originality of his voice – a voice which remains shocking and pertinent today, with or without the weight of its influence (I’m reminded of the gardener’s words about “yon dangling apricocks” in Richard II, “which, like unruly children, make their sire/ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight”). I have admitted that I’m happy to draw thematic parallels through the decades, to create a kind of literary heritage wherever I can. And yet, I am mocked for doing so by Ibsen himself. The relationships between family members in his plays are constantly uneasy. For all their sorrow at his death, Eyolf remains a ‘little stranger’ to his parents. In Ibsen’s universe, what seems unquestionable is always questioned – long-supposed sisters become would-be lovers, sons feel like strangers, spouses are unfaithful. Ibsen teaches us to interrogate family relationships, and, in doing so, we start to find problems in his seemingly indisputable role as “father”.

His dramas undoubtedly made way for the theatre of realism we enjoy today, but should we admire them only for the work they inspired? Ibsen is idiosyncratic: who else would have placed the sinister, near-folkloric character of the “Rat-Wife” in an otherwise realist play? And while his depictions of families and of loss share much in common with the narratives that followed, the relationship is troubled. There is a danger of oversimplification to align the collapse of the Allmers’ marriage with that of, say, Albee’s Martha and George. Tolstoy has never been truer: “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This conclusion is not, of course, my own (Bloom’s anxiety of influence coming into play again). Bernard Shaw closes his essay on Ibsen by “reminding those who may think that I have forgotten to reduce Ibsenism to a formula for them, that its quintessence is that there is no formula”. Ibsen’s writing is, to borrow his own phrase in Little Eyolf, “a thing apart”. The example he shows us in the families in his plays is one we should apply to our analysis of his role in shaping twentieth century drama, for in these turbulent families we see that notions of parenthood and lineage are not as straightforward as Eagleton and Eyre would have us believe. I’ll repeat Bernard Shaw’s conclusion: that the unformulaic nature of Ibsen’s writing (lost, I think, in his canonisation as “father” and “godparent” of certain genres of literature) is its quintessence, and thus it stands apart from the work that followed. It is typical and contradictory that it requires Ibsen’s own example – like some sort of parent-guide – to prove that to us.

Little Eyolf continues at the Almeida Theatre until January 9 2016. Tickets £10-£38.

A Problem Play No Longer: Measure For Measure at the Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbins directs Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure at the Young Vic. Photo courtesy of Keith Pattison.

“Problem” is such a pedestrian word, isn’t it? A little bigger than issue; somewhat smaller than crisis. “Ah,” people say, crossing their arms and leaning back in their chairs. “Measure for Measure. A problem play.” And then they pass on, as though – as in stories of the occult – by naming this tragicomic confusion of a play a problem, its problematic-ness is somehow nullified.

They take a sip of tea, Shakespeare dealt with. Who’s next?

But wait, I want to say; we haven’t finished with Measure for Measure! I’d like to know what our problem with it is, exactly. Its difficulty has evolved over time, shifting with the fickle tastes of its audience. Two centuries ago, it was Angelo’s avoidance of the gallows which discomfited viewers. “[O]ur feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo’s escape,” Coleridge complained, calling the play a “hateful work”. The juxtaposition of comic with solemn elements has been a point of contention, as well as the play’s didactic Christianity, which is attended by exchanges of surprisingly lewd wordplay (a contrast Peter Brook termed “Holy and Rough, [shown] almost schematically, side by side”). Most problematic of all is the shoehorning of a comic finale onto its finish, with a string of neatly paired couples lining the stage and a fretful silence in Isabella’s corner. Never has silence generated so much conversation. Isabella’s union with the Duke has been argued, in turn, to be jarringly comic, blithely romantic, horribly sinister. Each reading is as problematic as the next.

How has this silence, the reasoning which makes Isabella “rather [her]/ brother die by the law than [her] son… be/ unlawfully born”, the troublingly odd “bed trick”, in which Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed is filled by Mariana, and “head trick”, in which Claudio’s head is replaced with one which is ‘as like almost to Claudio as himself’ – how have such worrisome moments been treated in the Young Vic’s current production of Measure for Measure, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins? Cleverly, I would argue, crossing my arms and leaning back in my chair. Unproblematically.

The production is given a modern jump-start with piles of blown-up sex dolls strewn across the set, through which the cast valiantly wades. These dolls are comically crude. Laugh-out-loud funny at times. And yet, in other moments, not funny at all. Tripping the actors up, obstructing them with horrifying gapes, cushioning them as they fall in brawls. They are both light and deeply dark, and their place in this inherently religious play is thought-provoking.

Many of the scenes are taped on a handheld camera and projected onto the back wall of the set, and, in consequence, such moments are lent an intimacy which theatre can occasionally lose. This scrutiny seems fitting in a production intent on laying things bare, on smoothing over the traditionally problematic aspects of the play. Romola Garai plays a passionate Isabella, Tom Edden is hugely entertaining as the punning Pompey, but the production is made as enjoyable as it is by Zubin Varla’s turn as Duke Vincentio.

In Varla’s portrayal, the Duke is an anxious but benign supervisor of the play’s strange proceedings. He orchestrates the “bed trick” and the “head trick” from the depths of his assumed habit, and his hypocrisy brings with it moments of comedy (“I love the people,” he says with an uneasy smile as he emerges from the pile of sex dolls at the start of the play). He is not a manipulator of Prospero’s ilk, nor the “duke of dark corners” that Lucio deems him; rather, he is a worried, hand-wringing man, determined for the play to end well (significantly, he is not the deity of past productions. Tyrone Guthrie at the Bristol Old Vic would have him “a figure of Almighty God; a stern and crafty father to Angelo, a stern but kind father to Claudio… and to Isabella, first a loving father and eventually, the Heavenly Bridegroom to whom at the beginning of the play she was betrothed”. He is not so righteous in Hill-Gibbins’ reading, thankfully). The happy ending is managed by forcibly pairing up everybody on stage (even, to our amusement, the prim Escalus with the huge, tattooed Barnardine), before the Duke propositions Isabella. Their reaction is one of incredulity, and Isabella’s silence is a surprised speechlessness. She is stunned, but not, as we have seen before, broken, or submissive. It is a neat reading of a wilfully open-ended finale.

Measure for Measure needn’t be condemned, then, for its mix of registers, its troubled messages. In doing so, we find ourselves, like Polonius, quibbling with definitions, rather than actually engaging with the writing. Perhaps the real difficulty is not in the play itself, but in our hair-tearing over it. E. M. W. Tillyard, from whom we inherit the idea of the Shakespearean problem play, by way of F. S. Boas, said that “it is anything but a satisfactory term, and I wish I knew a better”. He is right to have sought a way of understanding Shakespeare’s middle tragicomedies. They are problematic. But this umbrella term, the ugly double plosive of “problem play”, serves to simplify Measure for Measure’s fertile untidiness. So: let’s uncross our arms and rethink this exhausted label, as Joe Hill-Gibbins, dramaturg Zoe Svendsen and the rest of the team at the Young Vic have done. Problematic, yes. But a problem play no longer.

Measure For Measure continues at the Young Vic until Nov 14. Tickets are from £10-£35.

Your Life and Mine: The Cocktail Party at the Print Room

The Cocktail Party
Hilton McRae and Helen Bradbury in The Print Room’s production of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.

The Cocktail Party is a difficult play. It confounded contemporary reviewers with its mix of levity and seriousness, of Coward-ish quips and high Anglicanism. People asked why Celia had to die (and why – strung up by the “natives” in a kind of crucifixion – with such heavy-handed symbolism), how we are to take the mysterious workings of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and why we should care about the worries of the unlovely Edward Chamberlayne. The best response to such criticism was written by William Carlos Williams: “The cocktail party, on the stage, with which the play begins and ends… is, darling, your life and mine.”

He is right. There are themes here which will have rung true with Eliot’s audience. But does the cocktail party with which the play begins and ends remain, darling, your life and mine? If we stripped away the cut-glass accents, the colonialist talk of faraway cannibalistic lands, the notion that Edward will somehow starve without Lavinia in his kitchen – if we were to take away all of these post-war peculiarities, would we find in this tragicomedy something to resonate with us today? Or should the play (and its now-defunct verse form) be consigned to the scrapheaps of history?

The idea of loving somebody incapable of loving you back is surely one with which we’re all familiar. It is the bread-and-butter of Hollywood movies, which capitalise on the common experience of unrequited love. The horrifying acknowledgement of loving in vain – la douleur exquise, as the French so succinctly put it – is one which has ensured the popularity of the plights of Violas, Orsinos, Young Werthers and Eponines throughout literature. Elena Ferrante’s much-touted Days of Abandonment scrutinizes this sensation with unflinching rawness. And it is at the heart of The Cocktail Party, which explains, in part, its continuing relevance.

What else can we recognise in Eliot’s party?

The idea of sin recurs throughout, an idea which no longer sits comfortably with us; nor does the redemptive Christian message that underwrites Celia’s role in the play, and her martyred end. But there is something in the Mephistophelean characterization of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the Unidentified Guest (of whom Lavinia asks: “Are you a devil?”), which speaks to us. William Arrowsmith described the play as “the mask of the secular world in the service of a Christian society”. By this he means, I think, that Edward might not have swallowed Harcourt-Reilly’s advice if Harcourt-Reilly had appeared in the guise of a priest – for Edward is posturing as a modern man for whom the church can no longer provide reliable answers. And yet, the path he chooses, the triumph of marriage and rejection of betrayal, is a Christian one. “Put me into your sanatorium,” he pleads. He is desperate to be free of guilt; to be “fixed”, in some sense. And this cri de couer is one which continues to ring around our cities. Maybe we still live in a Christian society masquerading as a secular one. Perhaps, in this way, Eliot’s message persists.

These themes are brought to life in a slick new production at the Print Room in Notting Hill. Director Abbey Wright marries Eliot’s spare language with a simple set and economic use of light. Marcia Warren as Julia and Christopher Ravenscroft as Alex are particularly memorable for their shifts from comedy to the graver roles of the all-knowing, so-called ‘Guardians’. “I know you think I’m a silly old woman,” Julia says. “But I’m really very serious.” This confession seems to me to signify something greater than what is said, to hold within it an answer to the questions The Cocktail Party raises. For it is a play in which the idea of meaning is confused, in which things are rarely as they seem and conclusions hardly ever reached. “‘Nervous breakdown’ is a term I never use:/ It can mean almost anything,” Reilly says, and, later, “You have answered your own question,/ Though you do not know the meaning of what you have said”. Elsewhere, Celia wrestles with the meaning of “sin”; she explains to Reilly that “it’s much easier to tell you what I don’t mean”, and thinks of a time when “the word ‘happiness’ had a different meaning”.

Meaning, or lack of meaning, is explored throughout the play and beyond its fourth wall: Alec Guinness said of his part as Harcourt-Reilly: “I wasn’t sure what it meant. I still don’t know what it means. In fact, I don’t know what… meaning means anymore. What do you mean by meaning?” This question, which occupies characters, actors and critics alike, is at the heart of The Cocktail Party’s significance. It is this troubling of meaning – this rupture between speech and intention – which gives the play its lasting resonance, a durability it enjoys despite the rather archaic verse form it inhabits. While it had its admirers (“jazzy”, Stephen Spender called it), this style of verse drama dwindled in popularity after the war, despite Auden’s best efforts to maintain it. Our “formless age”, to borrow Eliot’s words, prefers glib back-and-forths to the carefully contrived, albeit “naturalized”, rhythms of verse dramas, it appears.

So, to turn again to Williams’ question: is it your life and mine that we find in The Cocktail Party? On the whole, I think it is. Notwithstanding the post-war trappings, the upper class Englishness, the carefully stressed versification, there is something here which remains relevant. It isn’t simply the common experience of unrequited love. It is the search for meaning – whether religious or linguistic – which we find threaded throughout Eliot’s work (“That is not what I meant at all,” Prufrock says, 2…It is impossible to say just what I mean!”), and continues to preoccupy us several decades later.

The Cocktail Party continues at The Print Room until October 10. Tickets are £10-£25.

Opera and Translation: Verdi’s La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre

Opera Up Close's production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.
Opera Up Close’s production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.

I would urge anyone reflecting on the question of translation to read George Szirtes’ beautiful piece on translating poetry in last December’s issue of The White Review. It has stayed with me for the eloquence with which Szirtes (translator of the International Man Booker Prize-winning Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s work) describes the frequently messy business of translation. He approaches it with the precision of a surgeon (a metaphor he employs in describing the process), and the lyricism of a poet. A snippet will give you a taste of the meticulousness of translation, as well as its need for sensitivity:

First locate the skeleton, said the translator. I want bones. Give me the bones. I want the jiggling bones.

The skeleton of the original must be the same as the skeleton of the model, said the translator. A skull is a skull is a skull…

Now let’s begin to flesh it out, said the translator. Look at the model, how it swells, flexes and sags. Shall we eliminate the sagging?

I am not a translator, but I’m deeply interested in the business of translation. Many of my favourite books have been translated – I’m thinking particularly of the work of Marquez, which I have long adored – and several of my most beloved authors have themselves (to borrow Rushdie’s understanding of the term) been “translated”. They are “borne across”, carried from homelands to foreign countries, and their writing reflects this feeling of displacement, of transposition. The act of translation shifts the focus of their work. It is changed – they are changed – by the journey over.

Nowhere is the act of translating so very changing – or so difficult – as in the translation of opera libretti. Here, the difficulty lies not only in concerns of loyalty to the original, nor in problems of foreign rhymes, of forcing stubborn syllables into appropriate places. Deeper difficulties reside here.

Difficulties, for example, of sound: higher notes require open sounds to be reached properly, a necessity which will have been accounted for in the original libretto. The “singability” – to coin an ugly word – of the sentences is a practical requirement, therefore. The fixed nature of the score is a further tax on the translator, who must match the music with corresponding stresses in his or her words. Should the text be modernized? The flowery, more Latinate language of the past seems better suited to the multi-syllabled music of opera. And should rhyme be done away with completely as a twee extra constraint?

It feels best, given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing a translator of opera libretti, to leave the words in their original language, and this has been the favoured approach since the Second World War; prior to this the translation of opera was met with more ambivalence, perhaps due to the lack of international movement by singers and the reliance on solely home-grown stars. A natural prioritizing of music over the libretto ensued (Richard Strauss would dramatize this debate of the relative power of music and words in his opera Capriccio, through the courtship of a countess by a poet and a composer). The creation of surtitles in the 1980s alleviated this emphasis on the music somewhat, allowing electronic translations – functional, rarely poetic – to keep the audience abreast of the plot. Meanwhile, many bold souls began undertaking the bloody business of translating libretti, which leads me to OperaUpClose’s current production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre, returning to London after a run at the Soho Theatre last September.

This production is set in America in the 1920s, bringing Verdi’s original forward seventy years and transplanting it across the Atlantic Ocean. The opera responds well to these changes: it is, after all, an incredibly adaptable story, borrowed from Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, and incarnated endlessly in different guises across the world. The beauty of the music endures despite being diluted to a hard-working trio of piano, cello and clarinet. And it is supported by delightful performances from the singers – Prudence Sanders especially as an impressive Violetta. This production is in English, in a version translated from Francesco Maria Piave’s Italian original by OperaUpClose’s Artistic Director, Robin Norton-Hale (and the singers should be commended for the clarity of their diction in this respect; not unimportant in a performance without surtitles). The translation is clear, delivering the narrative unambiguously.

Yet occasionally I mourned the loss of poetry. Gone were Piave’s beautiful words, the refrain to which Alfredo and Violetta return to admit their love: “…amore misterioso, altero, croce e delizia al cor.” I can’t help but feel that something significant is lost in replacing “croce e delizia al cor” (“croce”, as in “cross” – burden, or torture, carrying with it attendant ideas of predeterminism; “delizia al cor”– delight, or ecstasy, of the heart) with Alfredo’s corresponding lines in Norton-Hale’s version: “You understand me, something has passed between us, surely you understand me and understanding is close to love.” The change is pragmatic, of course. “Croce e delizia” is replaced, syllable for syllable, with “you understand me”. But the oxymoronic horror-joy of the experience of love is numbed in the English version. Alfredo and Violetta understand each other completely, it seems; there is no need for mystery, or for fear.

There’s a beautiful aria a little later on, which Germont sings to comfort Alfredo after Violetta leaves. “Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?”, it begins. He is singing of the sea and the soil of Provence, asking who has taken them from Alfredo’s heart. As a result, the aria becomes something of a lament, a look to the past. Yet, in Norton-Hale’s hands, the aria takes a decidedly forward-looking stand: “You are young, time’s on your side… In a year from now this pain will feel very far away.” The desperate nostalgia of the former is replaced with a more constructive emotion. This is, perhaps, better parenting from Germont, but the poignant sense of loss evoked in “il mar, il suol” of the past is notably absent.

What use is all this nit-picking? I suppose it serves to ask two questions. Firstly, should opera be translated at all? And secondly, when translated, should we mind diversions from the intended lines? In other words: how sacred is the original? “In translation proper there is an implicit law,” Umberto Eco writes in Mouse or Rat?, “that is, the ethical obligation to respect what the author has written.” He continues: “It has been said that translation is a disguised indirect discourse (‘The author so and so said in his/her language so and so’). Obviously, to establish exactly what ‘the author said’ is an interesting problem not only from a semantic point of view but also in terms of jurisprudence…”

Does what “the author said” exist in the movement of the story, or in certain idiosyncrasies of tone which a translator can only hope to replicate (a seemingly impossible task, perhaps; but Andrew Porter’s translation of the Ring cycle, celebrated for its simultaneous feeling of naturalness and loyalty to the Wagnerian original, proves that it can be done)? Are details such as the hills of Provence, or the torturous delight of love merely part of Szirtes’ sagging – to be snipped at as the translator chooses? These are difficult questions, problematized by the indisputable good of allowing opera to be made more accessible through the language of its audience. The ENO – who translate all of their productions – has this to say about translating opera:

We believe that singers performing in their native tongue, to people listening to their native tongue creates a subtler, deeper connection between audience and stage than you could ever achieve with a foreign language.

It is a compelling argument. But – to return to the Italian and English translations of Alfredo’s words – perhaps in the straightforwardness of our understanding, something of the wonderful “croce e delizia” is lost.

La Traviata continues at the Tricycle Theatre until July 4.

The Fierce Imagination of Yukio Ninagawa: Hamlet and Kafka on the Shore at the Barbican Theatre

Ninagawa Company, Kafka on the Shore, Nino Furuhata, Naohito Fujiki and Rie Miyazawa photocredit Takahiro Watanabe  handout ...
Ninagawa Company, Kafka on the Shore, Nino Furuhata, Naohito Fujiki and Rie Miyazawa photocredit Takahiro Watanabe
handout …

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

So wrote Kipling in his “Ballad of East and West”. But had he the chance to see director Yukio Ninagawa’s double bill of Hamlet and Kafka on the Shore at the Barbican, he might well have revised this famous line, forever robbing students of postcolonial theory and theatre reviewers the world over of a hackneyed opening quote. For in this pair of productions we see the true meeting of west with east – through the interpolation of kabuki elements in Hamlet, and the varied use of European culture and philosophy in an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

The effect is impressive. Take Hamlet: situated by Ninagawa in nineteenth century Japan, a period in which feudalism was still prevalent and honour paramount. In this context, Hamlet’s troubled desire to avenge his father’s death makes perfect sense; he is upholding the samurai practice of kataki-uchi, or blood revenge. Dramatic scenes are rendered here with the ritualism of kabuki, accompanied by the distinctive trills of the high-pitched nohkan flute and the tension-building hyoshigi wooden clappers of kabuki drama.

This exchange is turned on its head in Kafka on the Shore, in which the Japanese story is lent a predominantly European soundtrack. Satoru Nakata – who suffered an unusual accident as a child, becoming, as Murakami puts it, a “proverbial blank slate”, although gaining the ability to speak with cats – is given deeper significance through the use of the music of Parsifal to accompany his scenes: he is the ‘pure fool’ of Wagner’s opera, redemptive and compassionate. Murakami’s wealth of western literary touchstones are also brought to the fore; Hegel is placed in the mouth of a prostitute while Kafka becomes the inspiration for a hit song. And popular references abound: Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders take a break from whisky and fried chicken to become – in Murakami’s surreal, anything-goes imagination – cat murderers and pimps, vividly realised on stage. The exchange between east and west is deep-rooted and fruitful under Ninagawa’s watch.

Visually, he stuns with a son-et-lumière display lending colour, drama and occasional starkness to the performances. And both sets – designed by Setsu Asakura and Tsukasa Nakagoshi – are particularly noteworthy for their subtle emphasis on themes integral to the plays. The rottenness of Denmark is illuminated in the deterioration of the castle in which the action occurs: battered shoji screens take the place of an arras in hiding the luckless Polonius, while a spectral Hamlet Sr. wanders along crumbling corridors. The set in Kafka is more contemporary, brimming with neon lights and jidohanbaiki vending machines, as well as a real Japanese truck and delivery motorbike. Each scene is contained within a square of clear plastic on wheels – reminiscent of the display cabinets in the Takamatsu library in which Kafka finds himself – and is dragged by a troupe of nimble stagehands, themselves akin to ningyo tsukai bunraku puppeteers. These moving pieces of scenery comment cleverly on the performative nature of the drama unfolding, as well as lending the story a distinct sense of claustrophobia (one brave actor – Rie Miyazawa – is bent uncomfortably beneath the glass for remarkable lengths of time).

The limitations of these containers is significant: when the actors escape their confines they are echoing the novel’s central theme of transgression (made vivid in hints at incest and patricide, as well as the unconscious experiences of the sleepwalking Miss Saeki, or the violent, blacked-out Kafka). Moreover, the plastic vessels mimic the characters’ understanding of their own bodies. “My head was completely empty,” Nakata describes of himself after his accident, “like a bathtub after you pull the plug”. Elsewhere, transgender librarian Oshima describes his body as “a defective container”, drawing on recurring themes of containment and inescapability. (He goes on, in the book, to complain that “[n]obody’s going to give me a standing ovation or anything” – worth mentioning here in light of the enthusiastic ovation this production received on its opening night at the Barbican).

I could go on in praise of the aesthetics – the comic cat costumes in Kafka and the incredibly striking ohinasama set of ornamental dolls to represent Hamlet’s play-within-a-play (accompanied by gagaku court music) – but will take a moment, instead, to devote a word to the actors. Katsumi Kiba as Nakata stood out for his hat-clutching earnestness, and Nino Furuhata’s Kafka felt both helpless and cold-blooded: an enthralling mix. We’ve seen Hamlet in many guises since his creation – from the raving to the calculated, the rebellious to the fragile – but rarely has he been imagined in quite such rockstar-ish terms as in Tatsuya Fujiwara’s representation of him. Here, his long hair and swagger conveyed a nonchalance we don’t usually pair with the uneasy prince. It was a compelling and largely convincing portrayal – until, alas, Ninagawa has Hamlet rape his mother Gertrude, making real Freud’s Oedipal reading of the play. (I am reminded of Nabokov’s comment in an interview with Time in 1969: “It would be fun to hear Shakespeare roar with ribald laughter on being told what Freud (roasting in the other place) made of his plays.”) Elsewhere, Mikijiro Hira, doubling as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, gave an unusually vulnerable edge to his roles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were rendered with a matching idiocy akin to Hergé’s Thomson and Thompson, while Eiji Yokota took a poignant turn as Horatio, the tragedy’s last survivor.

Ninagawa, who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year, has proved himself a great Shakespearean in the past, with increasingly bolder and more original imaginings of the canon. And yet, as his engaging take on Kafka on the Shore demonstrates, he has a keen understanding of contemporary literature, fearlessly tackling the challenge of representing the surrealism of Murakami’s imagination. Through the meeting of different cultures in his creations, he sheds light on the familiar and makes real the metaphysical, all the while testing the limits of the stage. His characters have no trouble escaping the confines of their sets; they take as their example a director well-practised in breaking free from convention and surpassing expectations.