October Miscellany (2009)

Continuing with Caryl Churchill I reached Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1977). I thought from the title that this was likely to be among  my favourite of Churchill’s plays and so it proved. Using her ensemble techniques she covers the radicalization, and then the confrontation with and suppression of the radicals, which occurred during the course of the English Revolution. Act One starts by showing how people were in various ways radicalised by the enormous possibilities which opened out before them and the optimistic dreams which they entertained; it continues with an enactment of the high-point of radicalism, the Putney Debates, using the actual characters and words. In Act Two we see the repression of the Diggers and the Levellers, and the retreat of the radicals into Millenarian fantasies as the Revolution is defeated. Churchill explains in the introduction that the intention is that the actors should switch between roles. The effect of this I imagine is that, when performed, the play is less about individual characters and more about the social and historical changes and forces which she is trying to portray. This is the most politically committed and driven of her plays and in a way its form is also among her more radical so that subject and form meet. I would love to see this performed! It is worth many hundreds of thousands of words of revisionist dribble which have been expended in recent years upon trying to once again erase from history the people Churchill portrays  .

 In my quick trawl through 19thC Russian Literature I reached Turgenev; and there I am likely to stick for a while because I found Fathers and Sons to be a brilliant and fascinating book, so I will now be staying with this writer for a while rather than moving on to pastures new. I am going to post separately about the brilliant Isaiah Berlin lecture on Turgenev, which by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune was in the edition which I borrowed from the library. As far as the novel itself is concerned I am chary about rushing to judgement until I have read more. What I particularly liked was the seriousness which Turgenev accords to ideas, married to a deceptively simple plot construction, brilliant characterisation and of course an ending of immense emotional power. This book is only just over 200 pages long, yet it packs a punch in both emotional and intellectual terms which seems quite disproportionate to its length. Of course much of the debate both at the time and thereafter has been about the character of Bazarov – both how we are to regard him and how Turgenev intended him ; Berlin covers this matter brilliantly and I know that Herzen also has much to say on the subject and I will need to re-read that. But I think to treat the book as a one character study is grossly misleading (not that either Berlin or Herzen does so); every character exerts their own fascination and most importantly ‘has their reasons’. They live. And they live in both time and place. I am very much looking forward to reading more Turgenev so I can improve my acquaintance and see if this is a one-off masterpiece or all his work is of this quality.

The only event in the Birmingham Book Festival which I really wanted to attend this year was celebration of the tercentenary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. This lack of desirable events is no doubt partly down to my taste but also I think a certain populism in the programming. The celebration took the form of a number of readings from Johnson’s works introduced by Philip Smallwood from Birmingham City University who had arranged the event; they certainly deserve plaudits for so doing and it was good to see that the event was well-attended. As an event it was pleasing without being really inspirational; no doubt it was a tremendously difficult task to make a selection from the vast amount of Johnson’s writing, but my own feeling was there was a little too much of the acerbic and humourous; but maybe this is a more accurate reflection than I can accurately judge.

We went to see Joan Baez in concert. Ageist though the observation may be, it is impossible not to comment that the fact that she is still touring enthusiastically at 68 is, in itself,  remarkable; the physical and mental demands of touring must be considerable. The voice of course is not what it once was – how could it be? That bell-like clarity and power which so thrills has gone. But it is still unique and her phrasing is fantastic. Everything about the woman strikes one as authentic. The concert did not induce spine-tingling, but the pleasures of hearing her sing a song like Joe Hill or joining in the chorus of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (and yes even I joined in – I can’t think of many other artists who could induce me to do that!) are very considerable indeed. She is – much misused word – a legend.

A couple of very different classical concerts. First an extraordinary one-off event. The CBSO  joined forces with the Mariinsky (ex-Kirov) Orchestra under the conductorship of Valery Gergiev, and both Choruses, to perform Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution and Berlioz’s Requiem. Both works demand vast orchestral and choral forces and are for that reason, I imagine, rarely performed – though there are probably additional reasons for the rarity of performances of the former! In the first place it was extraordinary to follow a libretto (that is not really the right term but it seems to fit) composed of the words of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. One is so used in Choral Works to following the words of the Mass that this really came as a shock. Of course there are many other secular choral works, but I doubt if there are any which are so directly oppositional to Catholic ritual as this. The tone for this is set from the very first choral entry which is based on Marx’s proclamation that the point of philosophy is not to explain the world but change it. From here the work progresses through the course of the Revolution. At its heart is the 6th movement which courses the events of October 1917 itself using Lenin’s speeches and articles from the time. The music is dramatic, spine-tingling, exciting and utterly involving. Later movements are more celebratory and based on Stalin’s speeches, first at Lenin’s funeral and then at the 8th Extraordinary Congress of Soviets. These texts have of course a very bitter historical irony. Prokofiev uses an extraordinary battery of musical effects, including men’s marching feet, to convey exactly what he is trying to say and he does this with consistent brilliance and effectiveness. This truly was a thrilling performance in every way. The Berlioz is similarly experimental in many ways. At one point no less than four brass bands perform from different parts of the hall – which given the brilliance of Symphony Hall’s acoustics was an electrifying experience. My problem was that this was an exceptionally long concert and I had spent the day on a Training Course; I have to admit therefore that my attention wandered as time drew on. Fortunately the facility was offered to actually buy a recording of the concert and have it sent out immediately – so we already have a record of this performance (this is something I really do think is a ‘wonder of modern technology’ – how many concerts I wish this had been available for!). I will therefore be able to listen with proper attention at some point. Despite my later inattention the Prokofiev alone would have made this a truly memorable evening. And those vast orchestral forces – over 100 strings for Berlioz, not to mention the most kettle-drums you will ever see on a stage – wondrously marshalled by Gergiev. Gergiev seemed quite a small man – or perhaps this was just the illusion given by the fact that for the Berlioz he did not use a podium – and moves with peculiar dance-like steps.

The second concert was of a far more conventional nature and consisted of the CBSO doing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture Number 3, Mozart’s 3rd Violin Concerto and Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony (Scottish) – the obvious link being 3! In some ways surprisingly to me I enjoyed the Mendelssohn, a piece I know a little which is rare for me when going to these classical concerts, most, then the Beethoven and then the Mozart. I say surprisingly because I would have unquestionably expected a few years ago to enjoy the Mozart most. I do not think that I am ‘going off’ Mozart but that it is merely a case of my musical horizons changing as I listen to more classical music. In any case this was again a throughly enjoyable and pleasing experience even if quite lacking that sense of ‘special occasion’ which was so overt in the case of the visit of the Mariinsky.

Turning to television, Criminal Justice was a BBC1 series shown in one-hour instalments over 5 nights. It was in many ways a typical British television production in that every stress was laid on the fact of the writer – Peter Moffat– and no attention at all paid to the Director or anyone else involved in the production (other than the cast). In this particular case that was no bad thing as the direction was atrocious, with a lot of strange use of light which I imagine was intended to be naturalistic, but was in fact merely disconcerting and distracting. The series as a whole saw itself as superior to the average cop/mystery show because it adopted the faux docu-drama style so beloved of British realists. But in order to hold the viewer’s attention it in fact retained a number of – pretty inadequate – mystery elements which were gradually resolved as the week progressed. The theme was that of marital abuse and rape ; an abused woman stabs her husband, a barrister, who later dies. The issue is why she did this and whether her defense lawyers can establish that she was acting in self-defense (initially there was nothing to suggest that she was so doing); along the way issues of child protection, the treatment of pregnant women and then women with babies in prison, the vagaries of the legal system, police malpractice, the protection of women in prison and so forth were brought in. The problem with the programme’s approach was that its emotional impact was limited by the constant insistence on the docu-drama style – as if it did not want to condescend to any ‘lesser’ level. Thus in the climactic trial scenes we are denied the lawyer’s closing arguments or the judge’s summing-up; ‘this is not a court-room drama’ the programme screamed. So it failed as drama; but on the other hand it very obviously was drama and was not, in fact, above resorting to dramatic tricks and a careful structure to retain the viewer’s interest, which meant that it very obviously was not a documentary. How far it was an accurate representation of the British judicial system I have no idea. Certainly the police seemed to conduct themselves in an extraordinarily leisurely manner – if this is true then every mystery book, television series, documentary, article I have ever read is wildly inaccurate! There were certainly important and serious issues but the more I think about this programme the less I like its implicit superiority – there is nothing wrong with structure, emotional involvement, decent direction, high production values – artistry in short – to make a point. My ultimate feeling is that I wasted five hours of my life!

Julia Mackenzie made her debut as the latest incarnation of Miss Marple, replacing Geraldine McEwan. The first episode was A Pocketful of Rye and it was pretty good. Extremely faithful to the book – much more so than the Hickson version in fact – it retained Christie’s peculiar downbeat ending wherein it is shown that if Miss M. had merely remained at home she could have solved the mystery without ever leaving! The dominant emphasis of the production, at least as far as Marple was concerned, was sadness, which was not what I had expected from MacKenzie. It is fascinating to see how different actresses bring their own interpretations and emphases to the role. The great thing is that all these elements – Hickson’s prim acuity with a hard moral edge, McEwan’s wry comedy and disposition for match-making and, so far, MacKenzie’s sadness for fallen humanity – are all present to greater or lesser degrees in the various books. Unfortunately the second episode was an adaptation of Murder is Easy which I think is by far the worst of the Marple (ie: McEwan/MacKenzie) series that I have seen. It took a book which, while it has some weaknesses notably in its homophobia and the references to witchcraft (always a dodgy area in Christie), has many strengths, notably a terrific opening (in its way a kind of parody of The 39 Steps), a brilliant plot and one of Christie’s most compellingly malevolent villains. Almost all of these were lost but most importantly the plot. While I have absolutely no objection to re-writing if it produces something good or interesting or new, what we had here was an incoherent mish-mash. This is doubly disappointing in that the book is not that well-known (by Christie standards), and has not been adapted before (other than a little known American version), so could have been done completely straight. I am in general a great admirer of the Marple series but this was a pretty unmitigated disaster.

An unexpected gem was a very fine documentary by Alan Cumming about Cabaret. Cumming has played the MC in both West End and Broadway productions so knows the show intimately. But what was so fine about this documentary was its breadth – Cumming moved from the obvious suspects (Liza herself – not that it is ever anything other than a great pleasure to see the legend that is Ms Minelli) to an in-depth tracing of Isherwood’s footsteps when he was staying in Berlin, through a detailed examination of the nature – both musical and political – of the real Berlin Cabaret scene of the twenties and early thirties. There were clips from interviews with Isherwood himself, and Cumming went and spoke to experts in the Berlin Cabaret scene including Ute Lemper. The scene was in fact very political, leftist and Jewish – hardly surprising that it was a prime target for the Nazis when they came to power. The cabarets were shut down and many of the artistes who had not fled abroad were murdered in the Concentration Camps. In fact the Nazis made some of them stage ‘entertainments’ designed to re-assure an international audience that the camps were benign [1]; one survivor from those concerts spoke about how in the circumstances, even under the threat of imminent death, the participants could lose themselves in music. Cumming also visited the arresting memorial to the book-burning in Berlin – I had not heard of or seen this before ; it is a simple glass-covered well in the ground in which there is row upon row of empty shelves, lit up at night. However Cumming did not neglect the extraordinary artistry which went into Kander and Ebb’s writing of the show, or Fosse’s extraordinary direction. This was everything a documentary should be – inquisitive, wide-ranging, taking a seemingly fairly innocuous subject and actually going in unexpected and fascinating directions with great intellectual curiosity; it both informed and moved.

On a more trivial note but of considerable importance to my autumnal television enjoyment the X-Factor has now reached the ‘Final-12’ stage – well in fact we are down to 9 now. Each year there is a particular narrative and also a recurrent theme. The recurrent theme is that female groups get knocked out early – two have gone already, one very justifiably, the other much less so. The particular narrative this year is the dominance of men however. While the three girls are all very adequate none of them can reach the heights of two of Simon Cowell’s  ‘Over 25’ men. Unfortunately the best of these – Danyl Johnson – was for some unaccountable reason in the bottom two this week. Or is it unaccountable? Disgracefully Danyl’s sexuality was questioned by Danii Minogue in an earlier round (for which she did apologise the next day); but could it be that homophobia is going to dictate the outcome of this year’s X-Factor in exactly the way it did American Idol? Having said that the Adam Lambert scenario would not be repeated in the UK it looks quite possible that I am going to be proved wrong and homophobia is just as prevalent here – without even the false excuse of religious intolerance to mask it. A result like that would just be depressing.

In sharp contrast to September this was a very good month; despite one bad weekend my mood average was 6.68 – the highest October on record and third highest average overall (in 5 years). In part there is a co-relation between a good September and a bad October related to the success, or otherwise, of a September holiday. This year, given that we did not have a holiday and even the week off was something of a disaster, it is perhaps not surprising that October should have been so good! My efforts and time  have been concentrated on the Birmingham LINk. Not only has there been a continuing heavy workload connected with the Mental Health Group, but I have been part of a small ‘Strategy Group’ charged with drawing up a Strategy and Organisational Plan for the Core (Managing) Group. In some ways this has been very interesting, but it has taken me away from my books and writing. This, as I observed in August, is an inevitable corollary to my taking on these roles – which I have done, as previously remarked, almost without any acts of volition. I make a poor Existentialist (about which I am reading a Short Introduction – to be blogged on at some later point).


1. Co-incidentally I have recently read an article about the staged performances which took place at the Terezin Camp in (present-day) Czechoslovakia (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresienstadt_concentration_camp for more details).

4 thoughts on “October Miscellany (2009)

  1. ellenandjim

    I find all you say interesting. I wish I could join in on some of it: our TV in the US is atrocious, and Birmingham is clearly a haven of beautiful music in comparison to the DC area. As I wrote on Trollope19thCStudies, I’ve never read any Turgenev.
    Caryl Churchill is a remarkable playwright.


  2. bob

    This is most interesting. I hadn’t realized how much we share a point of view. I’m thinking particularly of your feeling for the English Revolution but also of your regard for Joan Baez. I saw her perform in 1960 and have never forgotten the experience, not just of her singing but of what her presentation of self taught us before we were entirely ready to learn.

  3. Pingback: November Miscellany « Moving Toyshop

  4. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen and Bob. Wow! Seeing Joan Baez in 1960 – I am impressed. Co-incidentally there was an excellent documentary on her in the Imagine series on BBC here this month which really demonstrated just how committed to her values she has remained throughout her life.

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