Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Grimm Tales

Translated and edited by Philip Pullman
Published by Penguin

Watts' nineteenth century image of Little Red Riding Hood. From here.
Charles Dickens apparently claimed she was his first love...

A selection of the best of the disturbing tales recounted to the Grimms, elegantly transated and with an insightful commentary.

Although they are usually called ‘fairy tales’ in English, I prefer the original Grimm title, translated here as ‘folk and house tales’, though I believe the term has a broader meaning of ‘community tales’. And this is how I read them – not primarily as stories aimed for an audience of children.

These short stories are unsophisticated, and even the best are very slight works of art. Many have the kernel of greater artworks within them (most famously Snow White and Cinderella, but even better Hansel and Gretel), or they have tapped into such a universal nightmare that, like the tales of Poe, they can be retold in powerful variants (Little Red Riding Hood).

But the greatest interest for me in these tales is that they surely reflect certain attitudes in communities centuries ago, with which we now find difficulty empathising. Hierarchies appear divinely ordained, with kings only rarely questioned. These are stories with what could be described as an authoritarian setting, though the anarchic elements could equally be seen as subverting this setting, albeit weakly.

And the family unit is as often a source of abuse as comfort, with parents all the way up the social ladder acting appallingly to their children.

For these reasons, and others, the Grimm brothers and their successors linked these tales to a medieval, proto-nationalistic mindset. As the nationalism concerned was German, we now find the Grimms’ ideas as difficult as the assumptions lurking in the tales themselves.

This may explain why Philip Pullman doesn’t address these aspects in his otherwise informative introduction to this selection of 50 of the tales. Perhaps he also wants to avoid a sociological reading of the tales, as this can seem to compete with the basic joy of the storytelling. Nonetheless, in describing some of the aspects of the stories, such as their lack of psychological depth, I felt some of the uncanniest aspects are precisely those that might seem sociological.

Put a different way, some of the strongest, strangest experiences when reading these tales are not covered by Pullman in his introduction. This is a serious omission – I think the reception of these tales, and how they continue to influence our view of the medieval, despite being transcribed in the nineteenth century, are intrinsic to their literary value.
Otherwise, the book is wonderful. Pullman succeeds in translations that are ‘clear as water’ and happily adapts the stories whenever he feels he can do a better job… so this edition is not suitable for pedants.

The comments at the end of each story are worth the price of the book in themselves, as we get the editor’s views on why and how the story works, what weaknesses it might contain, and so on. And it struck me that everyone would benefit from these notes, pedants or not.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Rodin Project

Sadler's Wells, 29 October 2012

Erebus, a film of parts of the Rodin Project (available online at the space

Interesting ideas and arresting images, some of them loosely Rodin-related, but stretched too thinly over a full evening of dance.

What might it mean for a dance work to be inspired by the work of a great sculptor? Statues are still and silent, dance is fluid and musical. Neither artform employs language, so that communication is direct to the spectator, though this needn’t mean that everything is communicated immediately.

The principal way in which Russell Maliphant (choreographer) and Michael Hulls (lighting designer) have been influenced by Rodin is in the way light falls on the human body, and the suggestiveness of shadows. They succeed in making Rodin seem as if he were trying to capture the light on dancers, rather than the other way round – linking him with the sculpted dancers of Degas.

Although this is an impressive achievement, I didn’t feel it was worth exploring over a full evening. Maliphant and his team make other allusions to Rodin but these seem spurious, such as some neoclassical cavorting, or some musical resonances with Massenet; but while these ideas are contemporary with Rodin, they are very separate from his cragged nobility.

Thankfully these superfluous touches do not dominate, and the work as a whole seems self-contained and might as well refer to anyone else with as much justification as Rodin.

The highlight of Maliphant’s scuttling choreography is a scene involving two men and a wall. The low points are anything involving women. On the one hand, this suggests the weakness of the ensembles, where everyone seems to be doing something similar, though not identically, but in any case nothing is very memorable. On the other, when the women are on their own, the result is sickly. This may reflect Rodin’s women accurately, but it can’t have been a good idea to display the sculptor’s weaknesses. 

Among the dancers, all heroic, Dickson Mbi deserves special mention for a solo scene that came closest to giving the impression that one of Rodin’s sculptures had come to life. Somehow, popping combined with angular poses conveys Rodin in movement. It was astonishing.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

55 Days

Hampstead Theatre, 22 October 2012

Charles Stuart, the central character, played by Mark Gatiss

The contemporary relevance of the English civil wars is missed through a misguided attempt at tragedy.

Watching a dramatisation of the trial and execution of Charles I, we can expect to feel something in addition to whatever we feel when witnessing a tragedy – and in fact, this production wasn’t particularly tragic, for reasons I’ll come to.

That additional feeling must be related to the broader significance of the times, of these events. Perhaps some in the audience are satisfied with learning more about the most famous case of regicide in UK history, especially in the year celebrating Elizabeth II’s sixtieth anniversary.

Author Howard Brenton aims for more than this. In one of several clumsy expository scenes before the trial, characters explain that what they are doing is unprecedented. Monarchs have been replaced before, by force, but not through the rule of law. The dilemma is how to use a legal system that assumes a king is its final guarantor of justice to remove that same king?

Characters debate three possible political systems, still directly relevant to us now, with power resting finally either with one man, through his use of a veto (monarchy, but also presidency); resting with an elected parliament (republic); or resting directly with the people (democracy). 

It is possible to see these events as the moment when our current preconceptions about justice fitfully took form – that no single person guarantees (or embodies) the law, which gains legitimacy somehow from the will of the people, though ‘somehow’ is the key word here: few people have ever lived in a genuine democracy. 

To reiterate: there had been tyrannicides before, but they were backward-looking, claiming the tyrant was illegitimate according to the previous order.  Oliver Cromwell and company can be seen as the sharp edge of our emerging contemporary idea of governance.

Brenton doesn’t push this aspect, instead opting for a less demanding conclusion – that the current form of governance in the UK, constitutional monarchy, is the eventual outcome of the trial. I feel this misses out on the wider significance, and focuses on an outmoded, parochial aspect of our politics.

This mist, obscuring the wider interest, gets thicker when the trial starts. Charles takes centre stage, literally in this production, and his eloquent self-defence pushes the drama in a more personal, tragic direction. Incidentally this may help explain why the monarchy was subsequently ‘restored’, and stays with us, though in fact Charles chooses death before conceding to be such a weak monarch.

Here, if anywhere, is the tragedy. Charles is an anachronism (dressed as such in Howard Davies’ production). He dies for an ideal that held sway for centuries, but which is generally despised today, although we still support ‘strong men’ in say, Rwanda. This suggests he is not obviously wrong, and much could be made of his approach.

Unfortunately, Charles the man must take understandable precedence over his ideas. Brenton – and actor Mark Gatiss – make the most of him, but I didn’t feel too sympathetic, perhaps because Charles is not quite given enough room; he is the central character but only first among equals, a strange irony.

Focussing on the trial is therefore extremely damaging to the drama. It doesn’t give us quite enough Charles to make him tragic in himself, and it clouds the broader political interest as the personal interest must take precedence.

In addition to jarring exposition scenes, Brenton indulges in two terrible ideas: having Charles and Cromwell ponder what the other man is like, then having them meet. If either idea is to distract from its obviousness, it needs to be handled much better than it is here.

The production was unhelpful, seeming to take place in a contemporary school gym. This works wonderfully if the idea is to undercut any possible significance of the events.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Royal Academy, 15 September - 9 December 2012

The dancing satyr, one of the highlights of this exhibition
Image from the website of Mazara del Vallo, where it was found.

More a temporary museum of bronze than an exhibition, but containing many powerful and thought-provoking objects.

During the thousand years of the Ancient Olympics, there were no prizes for coming second, much less third. But ‘getting a bronze’ would have been the greatest success an athlete could achieve, for it meant a statue of himself (rarely herself), supposedly immortalising his achievement.

Endurance is one of the characteristics of this exhibition: the endurance of bronze, but also endurance on the part of the spectator. Dozens of items, covering thousands of years and a vast geographic range (large parts of Africa, Asia and Europe), ranging from the mundane to the spiritual, and in size from tiny jewellery to huge statues, the only unifying factor being that they are comprised of a copper alloy.

The Royal Academy may need no further justification for this exhibition: the variety on offer, and the technical comments on making the items, would no doubt be helpful for any aspiring sculpture.

For non-specialist audiences, it’s still a curatorial nightmare – how to best organise this material? It has been arranged thematically in loose groupings, allowing items from different centuries and cultures to sit next to each other. The catalogue has been ordered chronologically, giving a very different journey through these items.

This exhibition has a museum feel, and as in other museums, a series of fairly random observations come to mind, rather than a coherent ‘review’:

Does bronze really endure? Where are all those statues of the athletes? Destroyed, along with so much else from their period. Astonishingly, beautiful items are still being uncovered, as with the frenzied figure above, found in 1998. But this is a melancholy thought, that so much has vanished.

Artists are rarely ‘true’ to the material. Metal sculptures can permit a wider range of forms than stone, and in depicting the human figure could allow greater feats of flight, almost literally. Whereas stone statues require a lot of weight on the ground, so are typically sombre, bronze people can do handstands, or rest on one foot. Yet across every culture, dignified – earthbound – postures are the norm. So why use bronze?

Satyr and satyress, attributed to Desiderio da Firenze.
Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen.

Artists are more truthful to materials when it comes to sex. The image above is one of several items in the exhibition utilising the properties of bronze to depict a frozen moment during sex, including a wonderful Chinese coupling whose image I sadly can't find online.

Big is better. Bronze jewellery simply doesn't appeal to me as much as gold or silver. Whereas huge metallic statues or incense burners, or whatever, seem imposing and majestic. This might be a flaw of the curating, though - the temptations of the large always block out the tiny, whne they are next to each other.

Nigeria is really really trying to get its bronzes back. One of the nerdy joys of the exhibition was the simple variety of lending institutions, many of them tiny and so presumably losing significant attractions through these loans. The number of Nigerian loans, including one not in the catalogue, made me wonder if there might be an ulterior motive.

Monday, 22 October 2012


Tate Modern, 16-21 October 2012

Sicherheits, by William Easterley, shown in the Tanks
(more videos have been uploaded and available from YouTube)

An exciting failed attempt to find meaningful alternatives to narrative cinema.

When I think of a major contemporary art gallery, at least the municipal galleries used to celebrate the culture of some city or other, I think of cavernous rooms and large installations or video art. It’s as if the building, needing to be big to make the appropriate statement, requires these art forms in order to justify itself.

A parody, I’m sure. But Tate Modern, already dominated (oppressed?) by its Turbine Hall, now has further caverns to fill, in the Tanks.

Last week, the task of entertaining visitors to these spaces fell to Filmaktion, a group of British pioneers of ‘expanded cinema’.

One of these pioneers, Malcolm Le Grice, is also a theorist, and his essay in the Expanded Cinema book published by Tate, is fascinating, an attempt to define different aspects of his art that is both clear and though-provoking.

Le Grice develops ideas from two assertions – firstly that narrative cinema is a special case of the options open to filmmakers and audiences, and secondly that narrative cinema is oppressive.

Le Grice is extremely interesting on the different types of non-narrative cinema, both when writing and also in putting these ideas into practice. But it isn’t clear that these artworks truly go ‘beyond narrative’, for I find myself providing a narrative, something Le Grice admits is possible at the very end of his essay.

I have greater problems with the second assertion, that narrative cinema is intrinsically oppressive. This is also a fatalistic assertion if it turns out to be impossible to create non-narrative cinema. Yet I'm still thrilled to witness artists exploring a new approach in order to free us from oppression, whether or not this happens.

This sense of doing something liberating and important is present in the artworks, though humour and lightness are also present, so that I didn’t find anything portentous, though I did find some of the works pointless.

An example is 'Chase Film with Clocks' by William Raban, where an alarm clock is shown on a screen, and a further two are present in the gallery itself. The sound of ringing is on loudspeakers so appears to come from everywhere, but images on the screen and use of a flashlight in the actual gallery suggest that first one, then another of either the physical clocks or the filmed clocks are the culprits.

I explained that artwork in detail because that description is pretty much the whole of the effect of the work.

Being present as spectator seems unnecessary. It is extremely conceptual, and identifies several areas that might be interesting, such as the relationship between sound and vision in a cinema, and the links between ‘screen reality’ and ‘spectator reality’ and so on.

But like other conceptual art, it is like a skeleton awaiting flesh, or better yet, life. My experience is similar to that of watching someone solve a puzzle – I might admire the ingenuity, but I am uninvolved. I didn't see how it could be liberating, except in the facetious sense of 'liberating' myself from any meaningful aesthetic experience.

Is any of this non-narrative, or just a different type of narrative? For centuries visual art (paintings, frescoes, sculptures, etc) implied a narrative, even if that was just ‘I was here, I existed’. For the last hundred years, artists claiming to be modernist or something similar have tried to create non-narrative, abstract visual art. But it seems to me that something is still communicated, even if it isn’t a full story (and what is a full story anyway?)

Perhaps instead of seeing narrative cinema as a special case of all the options, we should see all art as communicating something, and then the special case would be a simple story conveying precisely what the storyteller wished.

Directly opposing that special case would be another special case, where the artist had no clear idea or ideas to communicate, and didn’t attempt to communicate anything. And the spectator subsequently filled in all the gaps. A close approximation to this second case would be the aphorism, a literary device for appearing clever while actually leaving all the hard work to the reader.

I suspect conceptual art is a better example, and sadly while Filmaktion artists are pioneers in creating different ways to tell a story, their apparent belief that a story is a bad thing means their work is conceptual in this exhausting way.

Maybe someone will pick up Le Grice’s first assertion, with its interesting technical implications for expanding narrative, and neglect the second assertion. Then these artworks will genuinely be pioneers of a new approach to cinema.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Missa Solemnis

Barbican, 17 October 2012

 The beginning of the 1991performance conducted by James Levine.

Beethoven’s music is so dramatic, seems so communicative, that I’m often frustrated he didn’t ‘pin down’ his feelings with words. Given his unhappy experience of opera, we are left with just this intense setting of the mass. 
It is not for every day, and as conductor John Eliot Gardiner pointed out before this performance, it is inconceivable it would be used in a church for an actual mass.
It is extremely demanding, and easier to love in the abstract than in performance, where the composer's grappling with the core concepts of Christianity becomes the listener's struggle to appreciate this lumpy, hysterical, urgent, sometimes sublime work.
Unlike any of his other pieces, Beethoven engages completely with the setting of words, and the phrases of the mass dictate the musical accompaniment, or atmosphere. But as the music also thrusts forward with characteristic dynamism, the listener (at least this listener) can feel buffetted and exhausted by the regular switches in mood.
The long credo section is the extreme example of this – every word seems to warrant its own mood, and the transitions between these moods are a fiendish challenge for conductor and audience. The melting loveliness of the phrase ‘et incarnatus est’ contrasts so strongly with the music before it that I was jolted into tears. That is surely exactly what the composer intended, and he must have intended many more such violent reactions, all very difficult to achieve in performance.
With the Monteverdi Choir, we could be sure that the purely choral side would at least sometimes be magnificent, as in the ‘et incarnates est’. But the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique was a more mixed blessing – brass seemed to be in another room, and startlingly ugly; when the organ started playing I thought someone’s mobile phone had started beeping. On the other hand, I feel Beethoven benefits from some cragginess, some ugliness, some oddness.
Unfortunately John Eliot Gardiner’s overall conception is a small one, meaning both in terms of the sound and in relationship between the various sections of the mass. Each section seemed self-contained, which only increases the exhaustion of the listener. I was reminded of the music of Berlioz, and its sensation of bustle without forward movement.
In a work like this, a lot of things have to go right, and some of these seem impractically demanding. For example, the Sanctus, with its transition from low growling tones to the high flights of the violin solo. The violin tune is so beautiful it might have featured in a concerto. We need a Jascha Heifetz playing the tune, but are unlikely to get it. 
It is more likely we can get great solo singers, and unfortunately we need them, as we can hear from those recordings blessed with them. For example, the tenor entry in the Kyrie demands at least a Domingo, and it is cruel to complain that the singers in this performance did not match that. They sounded well-fitted in ensemble, and were committed.
I left feeling delighted, but also exhausted, and neither of these responses felt appropriate. Perhaps Beethoven's reach exceeded the grasp of even committed interpreters.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mother Courage and her children

Greenwich Theatre, 13 October 2012
One of the key moments in Mother Courage. Production photo from Blackeyed Theatre website.
An anti-war satire that escapes its limitations and becomes harrowing thanks to a strong central performance.

By loosely locating their drama during Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-48), Brecht and Steffin may have wanted to satirise the self-perpetuating logic of war, as they have a parson uncharacteristically put it. Thirty years is a depressingly long time, and the action takes place in only the first half or so of the conflict.
But there are other reasons to set it so specifically, and it’s a pity these weren’t picked up by the authors. Unlike the 1914-18 European war, which was surely guiding their pens, several countries were able to participate in the earlier war without being devastated – some seem to have benefited handsomely, on first glance.
The ordinary person might not have benefited, more likely the opposite, but it wasn’t quite the same situation as after Napoleon’s wars, when tyranny was imposed across most of the war-crushed European population. It is strange that the authors missed the chance to highlight that some of the poor may have done very well out of others’ misery, as this otherwise fits with their overall concept.
In short, if we need a satire on the horrors of the Thirty Years War, we might be better looking at the contemporaneous novels of Grimmelshausen, the source for Mother Courage. This piece works better as a more general satire or exposé of war, though as with other satires it leaves me feeling powerless, rather than angry and likely to do something.
Thankfully, there is a powerful emotional centre to this otherwise cynical drama – the title character, and the noble, fatal, flaws of her children.
Noble? I think so, though this aspect is downplayed in the text. Eilif could be misguidedly heroic, rather than a cunning thug. Swiss Cheese could be naively honest, rather than stupid. And Kattrin could be sensitive and eventually desperate to help someone, rather than sentimental. Each can be seen as a tragic study of courage in a realistic war situation. But except partially for Kattrin, the drama tends to agree with their mother’s view of each of her children. 
Perhaps a director will someday redress this critical authorial misstep. Curiously though, even the title character has proven difficult for some productions, though I think this may have more to do with the star actress usually taking the part.
At little Greenwich Theatre, Janet Greaves showed how to do it.
A great performance, the key being that every word, every move, conveyed the character’s uneducated poverty. Here was a self-possessed woman forced to make her own way in the world, a tough migrant worker desperately hanging on to her children, but losing them through her own errors and through the war that she relies upon.
Whichever actress takes the part, the moment when the mother has to pretend not to recognise her dead son is shattering. But with Greaves there were enough moments to conclusively prove the greatness of this drama lies more in its emotional appeal than its ability to make us think.
All else was excellent, with one small exception: the songs. Most were unmemorable and much worse, the lyrics were generally inaudible. Can future productions emulate Robyn Archer, please?

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Three Sisters

  Young Vic, 12 October 2012
Sisters having fun (Young Vic trailer) ie no relation to Three Sisters whatever
Appropriately draining experience despite an irritating production, thanks to some potent acting.

The biography of Chekhov in the programme / translated text tells us that his dramas were so ahead of their time even the great Stanislawski, his contemporary, struggled to direct them. This implies we have caught up with Chekhov, that we know how his dramas should ‘go’ now. 
I think this misunderstands his astonishing achievement. Far from being ahead of its time, Three Sisters is as close to a realist novel – the pre-eminent nineteenth century art form – as can be realised on a stage. 
Chekhov has sympathy for every character, and more importantly can make us feel the same sympathy, creating an almost unbearable sense of identification with their unhappiness. This is regardless of how petty they seem – I see myself reflected in them all, somehow. 
And pettiness is the overriding feeling, even over the characters’ other negative traits such as idleness, self-loathing, or self-regard. The worthlessness of these lives, acutely felt by various characters, is the most painful aspect of it all, and provides the effect of great tragedy without the usual accompaniments of a grand historical setting, or a gunshot.
The text achieves this novelistic effect through some devices that present difficulties for the director and actors. In an actual novel, an author can focus on one character at a time, and we ignore the others, even if they are supposed to be in the same room. But we cannot ignore actors on a stage. When Chekhov moves the spotlight from one character to the next, as it were, the other actors need to be doing something.
And when actors fully engage with the situation, as Vanessa Kirby did, to gut-wrenching effect, when Masha realises she is trapped with her husband, it can be jarring to have the sisters almost immediately afterward start talking in the abstract.
This grating, dissonant effect recurs in Benedict Andrew's adaptation and production at the Young Vic. Before addressing his faults, I should stress the director achieves wonders with his cast. This results in the awe and awfulness of a tragedy, and it does seem unfair to ask for more.
But the overall concept does not match the acting. A white space, with a mound of dirt at the back, a set comprised of desks upon which the actors walk and which is slowly whittled away in the second half, as the drama reaches its conclusion. I felt the characters were in purgatory, but this encourages a sense that the characters are ciphers, in an abstract place, rather than real people in a real society.
This feeling of displacement was strengthened when the whole cast singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Having even the elderly nanny join in suggests a deliberate attempt to highlight the unreality of what we’re watching, whether or not you share my intense dislike of the song.
No reason to end on a sour note – with acting this good, Three Sisters is indestructible.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Phantom of the Opera

Her Majesty's Theatre, 9 October 2012 

Beerbohm Tree's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Her Majesty's Theatre, 1900.
(Shaw witticism here, where I found image)
Lloyd Webber is the modern equivalent for reasons deeper than loving the same theatre, and hating the dash.
One thing should be immediately obvious watching Phantom: its creators are in love with theatre. In particular, the dressing-up and stage transformation side of things. It has the perfect setting in the 100-year-old Her Majesty’s Theatre, commissioned by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who used it for his own brand of revolutionary stage magic.

From the moment the chandelier swings out and over the audience, while the set change, we might as well be back in the nineteenth century, where spectacular stage effects were expected, especially at the Paris Opera, which witnessed a volcano erupting during one of Meyerbeer’s spectaculars.

For the rest of the work capes swirl, men are elegant, women gorgeous, rooftops have magnificent night-time views, candelabras emerge from watery mist, and everything looks like tremendous fun.

Unlike other mega-musicals, all inspired by this team, the spectacle seems appropriate, celebrating the Second Empire almost as effectively as Offenbach, though with much less mordant wit.

I saw the recent production of Sweeney Todd, and it came as a shock to recall that Harold Prince directed both musicals. Sondheim and Lloyd Webber / Mackintosh are on opposite ends of the music theatre spectrum, though this is for reasons different than the usual association of the former with serious art and the latter with entertainment. 

Although Sweeney is a powerful music drama (and Phantom isn’t), it is less linked to its medium. You can imagine a successful film of Sweeney Todd, while it’s no surprise the film version of Phantom was disappointing.

Film, especially Hollywood film, can fulfil a similar function as spectacle, but Phantom proves that something about good theatrical spectacle remains indivisible from the theatre.

The weaknesses of this work become more prominent in the second act. We’re asked to sympathise firstly with a mass murdering psychopath, then believe in his redemption through love, though it’s a peculiar form of love, as Christine has no intention of staying with him.

I found this situation sickening, exceeding the sentimentality of even the melodramas popular at the Paris Opera of the period. Christine – and the audience – gets to appear virtuous by ‘bravely’ kissing a deformed man, while of course she couldn’t be expected to love him in the normal way, and he must renounce her. Then disappear into the sewers forever, presumably.

Music can transform anything, but the more unappealing the situation, the more it needs to work to distract us. If we are to believe something so vile, the music had better soar like Gounod. I didn’t feel that, though it seems many in the audience did. 

There are other problems. Loosely parodying the conventions of opera is risky stuff, when the alternative is supposed to be the conventions of musical theatre. Christine’s excruciatingly bad “Wishing you were somehow here again” is made even worse by the actress’ melodramatic gestures.

Ironically the producers employ singers for the ‘bad opera stars’ who sing perfectly well, and so expose Christine’s supposedly more realistic singing as affectation. It doesn’t help that Sofia Escobar’s Christine sounds better in the trills of her operatic Hannibal aria than in being the pop singer her character subsequently becomes.  

And after 26 years, some staleness in the production could e expected, and I think the masquerade opening the second half was the prime candidate for renovation.  

Otherwise, the dated aspects are inherent in the work itself. The cast were excellent, though amplification did its usual job of making them look as if they were miming to a soundtrack.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The battle over Mendelism

Royal Society, 5 October 2012
The reverse of the Darwin medal. From the Royal Society website.
Although intended to commend achievements, do these awards also stifle debate?

A forgotten dispute over heredity reveals prejudice in the way true theories are established.

How does science progress? Which is also: how do we learn the truth about our world?

In the past, these questions seemed less important than what the truth might be, or what we mean by truth.

But at least since Thomas Kuhn published his historical, sociological work on how specific scientific revolutions happened, we’ve realised that the actual process is worth studying.

This is different from say, ‘do atoms exist?’ We might have all sorts of opinions on that question, but the sociology of science is interested in how we came to believe that atoms exist, or at least that we came to care about their existence.

And this isn’t as academic as it might first appear, as this public lecture at the Royal Society illustrated.

We heard about the role of the society in the early days of genetics. It can seem hard to believe, but only a century ago, not only were words like genome and DNA not yet coined, but the very idea of genetics was new and questionable.

Genetics is a theory of heredity – a proposed mechanism for how characteristics are inherited. And as should happen with any theory, when it emerged, some people were sceptical.

According to Gregory Radick, the ideas of Mendel were ignored for several years, then reappeared with venom at the turn of the twentieth century, championed by William Bateson. His friend Raphael Weldon disagreed, and the Royal Society, smelling a potential academic controversy, duly stirred one.

This leads to the sociology. According to Radick, the Society employed three 'hard Cs' in order to facilitate progress– communications (better, controversy, I think); committees and commendations. In short, it emerged that Bateson was the better controversialist, manipulated the channels of patronage and then capped his victory by receiving the prestigious Darwin Prize and effectively closing debate.

OK, that’s putting it far too cynically, and the disagreement was much less rancorous than my summary suggests. But the confirmation of the truth of Mendelism didn’t happen by experts recognising it as true, through an exhaustive intellectual debate.

In fact, Radick claims that with Weldon’s premature death, his masterful alternative to Mendelism wasn’t published, a sad fact Radick and his colleagues at the University of Leeds intend to rectify soon.

Does it matter? We now accept Mendel discovered the truth, even if we have a significantly modified version of his basic idea. But its in the modifications that we see the results of this early debate, and others. Bateson – and his followers – apparently incorporated the early criticisms into their new version of heredity.

Then it’s a question of counterfactual. What would have happened if the debate had run differently, and Weldon had won it?

As Mendelism is true, we would expect some version of it to have survived regardless. But perhaps a Weldonian version of heredity would incorporate Mendel’s insights yet be more broadly in line with our current complex view of genetics. This, at least, is what Radick claims.

He plans to produce, in the long term, a textbook that will adopt a broadly Weldonian approach to genetics. Then, we will be able to see for ourselves how much the Royal Society may have influenced our understanding of the truth.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Royal Opera, 24 September - 1 October 2012

Brunnhilde mourns Siegfried, Götterdämmerung. From Royal Opera website.
The end of the love that was supposed to redeem the world.
It is confusing to see how this could be, either in Wagner's idea or in this particular production. 

Many interesting ideas, but key aspects of this genuinely extra-ordinary drama go missing, both theatrically and musically.

The Ring Cycle is a powerful example of mythmaking and a profound critique of the possibilities of improving our relations with one another. It also places massive demands on both theatres and audiences, starting with simple endurance – how to interpret, or respond to, 14 or so hours of intense music drama.
Theatres with the resources and ambition to tackle it seem to approach it from one or other of two performing traditions that have emerged.
They might try to present the work as closely as possible to Wagner’s original, fairly literal, theatrical intentions. Or they might interpret the various layers of symbolism in a ‘modern dress’ sense.

The legendary Lilli Lehmann (right), as a valkyrie.
An example of the first tradition, of keeping to Wagner's intentions.
Both of these traditions have problems – in the first, the risk of embedding the drama in a sword and sorcery fantasy world, in which deeper meanings might be missed; the second approach generally confuses through the mismatch between what is said and what is happening on stage, a confusion further heightened by the new layers of symbolism.

Keith Warner’s production is in this second tradition, and doesn’t avoid the problems I’ve mentioned. First-time Ring-experiencing companions asked me why Wotan jumped into a pit rather than lead his fellow gods upwards into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. Or why the Rhinemaidens were dressed like a shabby chic variety troupe in the final act of Gotterdammerung.
Even if I felt I could answer these questions, they were two of perhaps two dozen that might reasonably have been asked, and I’m not confident I could answer them all – I was especially perplexed in the second act of Siegfried, with the woodbird being both a symbol of the hero’s youthful imagination and the youthful version of himself.

Maybe these confusions only enhance the attempt to achieve myth, and I did feel that Warner could have answered any question, so deeply has he thought about this production.
But the production also repeated several fatal mistakes that are part of this tradition, but which needn’t be – I wonder why they persist?
Firstly, the gods are presented as corrupt from the moment we see them, and we see a young Wotan long before Wagner intended, at the very beginning, carrying out his mutilation of the World Tree. As the gods have all of the flaws Wagner intended, but little of the compensating grandeur, they are both deeply unsympathetic and hard to distinguish from the corrupt human world of the Gibichungs in Gotterdammerung.
Wotan siezing the ring from Alberich, in Das Rheingold. From Royal Opera website.
As this image suggests, it isn't easy to distinguish these characters in this production.
When the concept starts like this, it is almost inevitable that the final conflagration will have to be visually bathetic – in this case gold statues of the gods being lowered into fire. An unsympathetic Wotan is even more disastrous, given the centrality of this complex character. By the end of Siegfried, he appears as a (violent) student in his bedsit, sullenly discarding his possessions in a fit of pique.

The second mistake, arriving like clockwork, is a bullying, unsympathetic portrayal of Siegfried. This is more understandable, as his characterisation needs a director of genius in order to reflect what Wagner for once cackhandedly intended. For Siegfried is the man of the future as well as dragon-conquering strongman. Not much sign of this here.

Mime's cave, first act of Siegfried. From Royal Opera website.
Where Wagner's dramatic and musical needs demanded a forest, or at least natural beauty, we see post-industrial waste.
A third mistake is for sets to be almost unremittingly ugly. I suspect the reason for this is to illustrate how, over the course of the drama, the natural world is corrupted and destroyed by our interventions, ‘our’ here being whether god, dwarf, giant or human.

So it reflects our views on ecology, which have intensified since Wagner’s time. I don’t want to suggest producers should ignore these concerns, which are absolutely in the Ring, but such a simplistic visual approach is as harmful to understanding as focussing on horned helmets and realistic dragons. 

Although I feel these three cardinal mistakes sink this production just as they sink all similar productions, I found many individual aspects to admire.

It seems that productions in the second tradition are chosen by teams with a strong commitment to realistic acting, and there were many thought-provoking moments between characters, or even whole scenes.

The Rhinemaiden scene mentioned above for instance, was charmingly comic, and an inspired interlude before things got extremely serious. Or Siegfried showing a sensitive side to Mime when the wretched dwarf is finally forced to reveal something about the hero’s parents.

Some of the symbols worked well over the course of the dramas, with the Tarnhelm later forming the Gibichung Hall; or Wotan’s Rheingold treaties forming a damning pile in the second act of Die Walkure, then appearing in the insouciant hands of the Wanderer in Siegfried; or a veil with horrible significance in Rheingold reappearing in Hagen’s case in Gotterdammerung. 

My mixed, but generally negative, feelings about the visual side of the production continue with the musical side.
In particular, I disliked the conducting. Antonio Pappano gave us beauty, with occasional intense or even ferocious touches, as with a magnificent Funeral March in the fourth part. But I also found myself unsettled and generally bored with the music, which implies he didn’t grasp its flow. The finale of Siegfried was especially dispiriting, with none of the soaring rhapsody I expected.
The singers were generally much more consistent, with Susan Bullock an especially radiant and heartfelt human Brunnhilde, though generally not convincing as a goddess in her first act.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was memorable, and for reasons consistent with the production, which is not to say I thought it did the character justice: a lot of anger, little beauty or nobility. Volke’s Siegfried was disappointing in his first act, but was clearly saving his voice, as he at least managed to sing all the way through. That this is cause for relief suggests I set the bar very low. I didn’t notice any great beauty or even variety in his voice, and his acting wasn’t a highlight.
Other roles varied from good to excellent, with only the Alberich and the Gunther not meeting the highest standards.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Edvard Munch: The modern eye

Tate Modern, 28 June - 14 October 2012

Edvard Munch: Self-portrait. The night wanderer. 1923-4.
Munch museet.

A major Tate Modern exhibition serves to reveal its subject as a latecomer rather than an innovator, despite its claims.

Sometimes curators claim too much for their subject, and here is a case study. Whatever might be said of Munch, I saw nothing in this exhibition to suggest he was a precursor of modernism, or modern in any other significant respect, aside from the fact he died in 1944.
The curators claim his aged self-portraits are unflinching depictions of his fragility, yet whether he had just experienced a life threatening illness, or was so old that death must have seemed imminent, Munch consistently portrayed himself as a hero, intense, stoic, resolute.

Edvard Munch: Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940–3
Munch Museet

On the evidence of this exhibition, which collects photographs, woodcuts, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, even amateur films, the artist’s self image was the same throughout his life, at all ages. 

Given the failure of these curators to make him modern, I feel confident in asserting that Munch was a late Romantic, in fact a Decadent, his whole life, regardless of the changes that surrounded him.
Almost everything about his art confirms that he was born too late, with the partial exception of his chosen media, though it is clear his reputation will continue to rest on his paintings rather than his photography and films.

Some of the rooms are impressive despite contradicting the curatorial plan. A room of some of his more well-known paintings in early and later incarnations is interesting. Munch compulsively repainted his earlier ideas, though I think the general rule is: earlier is better.
Perhaps as time passed and he became more detached from his preferred period, which is clearly the late Romantic twilight of vampires, screams, nights and forests, the harder it became to recapture his original inspiration.

Well then, a belated figure. How does he stand, considering his concerns in themselves, so far as we can assess this? Pride, obsession, angst: these are his High Romantic themes, and as we might expect from a decadent version of romanticism, his art induces unease, claustrophobia, spleen, even nausea.
Colours clash; faces (or masks of such) are prominent; viewpoints are vertiginously dramatic. The exhibition is useful in showing he had more ways of achieving these effects than I thought. Not everything is wibbly-wobbly.
A room filled with minor variations on a single theme – a downcast near-naked woman – made me think that having a good visual idea mattered more to him than anything else, and he recreated it in various media. So at his best he is an imaginative graphic artist, with descendents in that field science fiction, comic books, poster design.  

Having a characteristic approach is a strong selling point for an artist, and Munch had that. But if we compare him with his older contemporary, Ibsen, for whose dramas he sometimes produced scenery, we discover his limitations. Munch’s best paintings reflect our doubts, our fears. Ibsen takes this basic material and uses it to investigate how we might overcome these anxieties, whether successfully or not.