No, not an introduction to some general musings on existence! Instead a note of a trip to see a very remarkable production of the play at Malvern. The cast comprised Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, Simon Callow as Pozzo and Ronald Pickup as Lucky. It is, I would imagine, highly improbable that I will ever again see such an assembly of thespian talent on stage together in my life-time. One of the most remarkable things about the production was that not for one minute, not from the instant that McKellen appeared on stage, clambering over a wall at the back, did one think of him as anything but Estragon. Gandalf, Magneto, Captain Picard and Charles Xavier disappeared completely. This is proof of the remarkable transformational power of live theatre as I am convinced that were I to have seen the production as a film, whether at the cinema or on television, some remnants of those memorable (indeed iconic) incarnations would have clung to the actors. In comparison with recent disappointing trips to the theatre (see Winter Diary entry 1st March 2009) here was everything which makes great theatre – a remarkably simple, if fiendishly hard to accomplish, combination of wonderful words and great acting. To analyse how these are achieved would be way beyond my remit, and indeed my intellectual powers; as indeed is any attempt to analyse the ‘meaning’ of Godot, something which has defeated far finer minds than mine. But one can recognise when one is in the presence of great drama at an almost visceral level. As for Godot seeing the play certainly made me want to go and read the play but I would not expect any great enlightenment and it is on the stage that it lives and breathes. The play is full of almost endless suggestion, play (and this production gave full value to the humour) and applicability (as Tolkien called it).
I will take the opportunity to note a couple more cultural outings of the past week. First a trip to see an exhibition of the Victorian painter David Cox at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Cox was born in Birmingham and although he moved to London and Hereford for periods returned here in later life. The exhibition showed him to be a remarkably versatile, competent and pleasing artist, but there was nothing that really took one’s breath away. The finest paintings, English and Welsh landscapes, made one want to go and visit the locations, which is highly commendable but I am not sure that it is what really great art should do. Obvious comments are made about how he lived in the shadow of Turner and this was perfectly clear in some pictures, but actually the best of all, which featured a Welsh funeral party (which you can see here – http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1943P3/images/107257 – although this does not capture the painting’s artistry much of which is in the detail) , had absolutely nothing to do with Turner or Romanticism and instead was a classic example of what might be termed high-Victorian sensibility. Of course from a parochial Birmingham view-point it was fascinating to see paintings of rural locations which are now suburban, or indeed inner urban.
Finally another trip to the movies to see The Reader. No good films for two years and then, like the proverbial buses, two at once (see Slumdog 2nd March 2009)! I would not claim that The Reader was as good as Slumdog as a piece of cinema : I am sure it was not as it would probably fail the crucial television test (as you leave the cinema how convinced are you that you have really gained by watching the film at the cinema as against seeing it on television?). Obviously it was a very different film to Slumdog; nothing celebratory, uplifting or fantastic here. But it was a compelling and powerful drama nonetheless and Kate Winslet gives a remarkable performance (I admit I was not previously an admirer so I was surprised by this). Despite an extremely good screen-play by David Hare the films literary origins were obvious in the frequent time-shifts (always indicated by captions as the films monochrome style allowed little room for cinematic references to the passing of time). I have read hardly any criticism of the film but would argue that it is certainly not just about the role, or otherwise, of literacy in society and any attempt to reduce it to this is absurd. At its heart it seemed to me was the issue of whether and to what extent we could sympathise with Winslet’s character and whether and to what extent we should feel guilt for this. This is why it was crucial that Winslet’s character should be female (which it could be argued is strongly atypical) because, like it or not, it is easier to establish the possibility of sympathy for a female character. I am certainly not suggesting that the film is arguing for sympathy. It does not. But it asks the question as to whether humanising creates sympathy and whether this is right. Of course there are also all sorts of questions about the legal process, about the German response to the Holocaust and so on. Against its qualities I found that the early part of the film, the erotic encounters, went on a little too long. Certainly the eroticism needed to be established and indeed the viewer needed to inculpated in it, but as this was done very powerfully in a few scenes, my own feeling was that it was a little over-done. Still this was a serious, thought-provoking, powerful piece of cinema.