Saturday, 18 October 2014

Reading the Classics: Franz Kafka

After wrestling too long with Herman Melville, it's with relief I turned to Franz Kafka for Week 4 of my MOOC*, even if he has been called 'the coldest writer of them all'.

In a course about relationships, it's a fascinating prospect to study a writer who had such trouble with them. The only work of his I've read to date is The Trial, so I've been looking forward to extending my knowledge.

Professor Weinstein describes Kafka as triply alienated; a German-speaking Jew living in Prague. His two stories The Metamorphosis and A Country Doctor both illustrate this sense of otherness, where anything can and will happen. The protagonists are shipwrecked in their own changing bodies, just as we all may be through the aging process of debilitating diseases and decay.

*If you haven't read these two stories, there are spoilers*

The Metamorphosis (1915)

The tale of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into 'a horrible vermin', is one of Kafka's best known works.

Gregor is a conscientious employee and his first prosaic concern is that he'll be late for work. He clings to the normality of routine, the reality of his new situation only dawning once he's managed, with difficulty, to open his bedroom door. There he confronts the horror of his parents and sister Grete, as well as the chief clerk who has arrived to berate him for not turning up in the office.

After the initial shock, Grete takes on the maternal duties of feeding and looking after him and Gregor gradually becomes more comfortable with his insect body, climbing the walls and ceilings. But he's unable to communicate with his family and stays shuttered away in his bedroom lair, listening to their discussions of how they will cope, now he can no longer provide for them.

Kafka was humiliated by his father and Professor Weinstein suggests this tortured relationship is mirrored in The Metamorphosis, with Gregor, originally the family breadwinner, in turn ignored, attacked and fatally injured by a father rejuvenated through his son's misfortune. We already recognise that for Kafka, writing was a priestly act not compatible with relationships. It may be that it was also a form of therapy, a way of reasserting himself against his father's tyranny.

As Gregor increasingly 'exits the human', there is a question mark over how his family interpret him. Is he still their son and brother? Grete doesn't think so:
I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong.
They don't have the access to his internal perspective that the reader does and have no way of communicating with him. Increasingly, they view him as a burden and a pest.

Gregor is fatally injured by his father's apple-throwing. He stops eating, another theme commonly found in Kafka's work, where many protagonists have problems with food. In his 1924 story A Hunger Artist,  for example, the fasting man laments that he only does so
because I couldn't find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content
Similarly, Gregor has been denied his humanity. The only form of nourishment he can find is through his sister's violin playing and this will not sustain him. He dies because of a failure of empathy which, Professor Weinstein argues, is how genocide occurs.

Gregor never asks how or why this has happened to him, so we as readers ask instead. Was he already an automaton, a slave to his job, so that his transformation is from one form of mindlessness to another? Or does he represent an artist, living a weird, individual existence and shunned by those around him?

The family don't mourn Gregor's passing as they surely would if he had died in a more conventional fashion. As he is discarded with the rubbish, they decide they can move to a smaller flat now and Mr and Mrs Samsa notice for the first time how Grete has grown into an attractive young woman. Professor Weinstein suggests an interpretation of Gregor as a sacrificial, Christ-like figure, giving his life so his family can recover theirs.

A Country Doctor (1919)

A doctor having to urgently attend a sick young patient on a winter's night is stranded because his only horse died the night before. In this absurdist tale it seems there's no hope, until a groom unexpectedly emerges from the disused pigsty with a crack team of horses. But there is a Faustian pact to be made because, as the doctor speeds away to his house call, he realises that the groom will rape his maid, Rosa, while he's away.

Kafka's surreal story has the texture of a dream and it is this doctor's nightmare - one where he surrenders control. In arriving at his patient's bedside, he first diagnoses him as being completely well, before realising he has a gaping wound in his side.

This story is hard for the reader to understand, too. The shaped of the wound suggests a sexual dimension which seems to refer to Rosa's ordeal, reinforced by the horses neighing frantically at the windows. Is there a purpose to the suffering and the wound itself? Professor Weinstein quotes Kafka's violent imagery
Art is the axe for the frozen sea within us
So is this wound 'art', the breaking of one code of logic, in order to create another?

Finally, the doctor becomes a sacrifice, stripped of his clothes and laid beside his patient. If he can't save a life it seems he must be killed. Professor Weinstein draws a comparison with King Lear, who tears at his own clothes in his madness and proclaims to Edgar that
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art
The doctor has lost his trappings of authority and is reduced to the same lowly status as his patient. In the completion of another form of metamorphosis, he has realised that writing a prescription is easy, but coming to an understanding with a fellow human being is hard.

*Massive Open Online Course, The Fiction of Relationship.
Images courtesy of Feed Books and Koji Yamamura Films.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Opera Review: Madame Butterfly at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Opera Project first performed in the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre in 2003, and proved so popular that the company has been returning every autumn since with a fresh production. This year, they’ve chosen to stage Madame Butterfly, sung in English and with a new orchestration for 13 players.

Puccini’s popular masterpiece, first seen in 1904, is set in Nagasaki and tells the story of Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old geisha known as Butterfly. She weds the American naval officer Pinkerton for love, not realising he’s bought her as part of a match-maker’s package and that, for him, it’s a marriage of convenience.
Japanese laws of the time allowed for a husband’s absence, even for a month, to constitute divorce. In defying her family and stubbornly wishing to stay married, Butterfly finds herself abandoned and alone with a son Pinkerton isn’t even aware of.
Madame Butterfly is a deceptively simple tale of unrequited love, full of the emotions derived from Puccini’s richness of expression. Staging such an exotically imagined story on a small scale in the round focuses attention on the quality of musicality brought to the piece by Jonathan Lyness’s new arrangement.
The central role of Butterfly in this performance is sung by Stephanie Corley, although it is alternately taken by Catriona Clark. Corley’s soprano is rich in tone and her range is fluidly effortless. As her family’s outrage at her desertion of her ancestral religion is made clear by Julian Close’s terrifying portrayal of her uncle, she clearly expresses all of Butterfly’s growing love for John Pierce’s Pinkerton. Their duet after the wedding is full of tender hope for the future, even as Pinkerton knows he has no intention of staying with his new wife.
The intimacy of the setting only highlights the confines of Butterfly’s trapped existence, as she takes small, balletic steps around the central raised wooden dais which defines the corners of her world. Waiting and watching the harbour, Corley pours bittersweet longing into Butterfly’s aria of the beautiful day that she will see her husband’s ship returning. Comforted only by her maid Suzuki, sung by Miranda Westcott, their voices blend seamlessly as she believes that Pinkerton has returned to her and the house must be filled with all the flowers of the garden.
Craig Smith is imposing as the upstanding American consul Sharpless, horrified by Pinkerton’s dishonourable behaviour. Butterfly’s lonely vigil as she waits for her husband is emphasized by the wistful orchestration of the humming chorus.
Ultimately though, it’s Corley’s moving performance as the devastated and deserted wife, so close to the audience that we could reach out and comfort her, which brings home all the power and lyricism of Butterfly’s most unhappy of choices. The orchestration and staging may have been successfully pared back, but by the end of the evening it’s clear that there are no limits to the emotional intensity of this exhilarating production.
Runs until 25th October 2014. Photo: Farrows Creative

Monday, 13 October 2014

Theatre Review: Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other Love Songs) at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Make no mistake, exuberance is in town. Kneehigh have arrived in Bristol with their highly stylised version of The Beggar’s Opera and, in the spirit of the original, it’s a loud, nihilistic and outrageously funny commentary on the ills of today’s society.
You don’t need to be familiar with John Gay’s satirical plot from 1728 to enjoy this adaptation, because Carl Grose has updated it with a 21st Century urban myth. Macheath is now a contract killer, quickly despatching not only Mayor Goodman but also his dog, who would otherwise have been a witness to the murder.
Before the audience even reaches the auditorium, the scene is set with ten pound notes exploding from a filthy-looking front of house toilet and placards plastering the walls. On stage, there’s more than a whiff of corruption, as the honourable Mayor’s demise leaves a hole quickly filled by local business magnate Les Peachum, who just happens to have paid for the crime. His wife is the real brains behind it all, but when their daughter Polly marries Macheath, her carefully-laid plans may be about to unravel.
Charles Hazlewood’s score both complements the action and lifts it to a higher level, seamlessly fusing musical styles, from punk notes reminiscent of Ian Dury and the Blockheads to electro, disco and ska. There are nods to eighteenth century composers like Purcell and touching ballads, as Polly Peachum realises she may not be Macheath’ s only love.
The outstanding cast of actors effortlessly inhabits designer Michael Vale’s all-encompassing world of scaffolding and ramped planks, which they fluidly scale and manoeuvre. They collaborate in multiple roles, sliding down poles to take their place in the spotlight before merging back into the shadows. There’s a lot of slick suitcase-switching, dances fizz with energy and their musicianship shines throughout.
Dominic Marsh is cheeky and charismatic as the lovable rogue Macheath, who’s getting away with murder. Rina Fatania may have appropriated more than her fair share of bawdy lines as Mrs Peachum, but she delivers them with a knowing swagger. Andrew Durand brings high comedy to the much put-upon go-between Filch, especially in a tightly choreographed scene where he’s beaten up in slow-motion. And in the broth of festering corruption, Carly Bawden introduces a refreshing purity to the role of Polly Peachum, even though she will undergo her own metamorphosis.
Kneehigh’s use of Punch and Judy puppetry introduces a seaside sense of the familiar, while the babies Macheath discovers he has littered about the Slammerkin club more than hold their own, creating some of the loudest laughs of all.
Mike Shepherd’s production, in collaboration with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, has been receiving glowing reviews in both Liverpool and Kneehigh’s native Cornwall. The swift mood-change towards the end may not be enough to explain the anarchic onslaught of the climactic final scene, but it’s nevertheless a dazzling piece of theatre. Beg, steal or borrow one of the remaining tickets to see this; you’ll be happy that you did.
Runs until 25th October 2014. Photo: Steve Tanner

Friday, 10 October 2014

Reading the Classics: Herman Melville

I've been planning to tackle the great American novel Moby Dick for ages, although when mentioning this to anyone who's read it, I detect a flicker of horror shadowing their face.

Taking on Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener and Benito Cereno for Week Three of my MOOC*, I'm beginning to see why. Judging by these two (long) short stories, he's not the most accessible of writers, especially when read electronically on Project Gutenberg.

Professor Weinstein insists these are two more examples of literature from an earlier period, which shine a light on our own understanding. I'm hoping his analysis will focus a torch beam on mine.

* If you haven't read these two stories, there are spoilers*

Bartleby, The Scrivener

This tale of mid-nineteenth century Wall Street is narrated by an elderly lawyer who already employs two scriveners to copy out legal documents by hand. Increased business leads him to take on Bartleby, who initially appears to be a diligent worker.

Having already done 'an extraordinary quantity of writing', when requested to help proofread a document Bartleby replies, much to the lawyer's astonishment, with the now-iconic words:
'I would prefer not to'
Over the coming weeks, Bartleby repeats this phrase whenever he's asked anything; from divulging the details of his personal life to so many aspects of his job that, finally, he's not working at all. What's more, he's taken up residence in the office and will not easily be removed.

This story was a puzzle to me. I failed to understand Bartleby's passivity and found the other scriveners to be one dimensional caricatures. Only the narrator emerged from the page as an engaging personality, which didn't make up for a dismal and unsatisfactory ending.

Professor Weinstein's analysis brings some clarity. In the lawyer, we have a narrator who goes so far beyond unreliability that he doesn't have a clue about the story he's telling. This raises the theme of 'getting it wrong ' and how common an occurrence it is, as we strive to make sense of our lives.

Although I thought the lawyer showed patience and consideration in trying to help his errant employee, the Professor suggests he's representative of the Wall Street establishment and sympathies are traditionally with Bartleby (mine weren't).

Bartleby is 'the copyist who refuses to copy' and in rejecting his work he can also be seen to be rejecting capitalism, with echoes of civil disobedience calling to mind Thoreau and Emerson. Professor Weinstein even compares Bartleby to Lucifer refusing to uphold the order of things (non servium - I will not serve). His words are contagious and the other office workers, including the narrator, begin using them too.

Here ahead of his time, Melville is playing with the traditional narrative form; creating Bartleby as a character who is essentially a void, and an ending which leaves the reader to make sense of it all.

Benito Cereno

Melville wrote this tale of slave revolt in 1855, six years before the American Civil War. It's based on real events and Amaso Delano, captain of the ship which discovered the drifting San Dominick, really existed.

This is another story of a narrator who fails to understand what's in front of him, because what he sees is scripted by what he knows. He believes the slave ship to be in a forlorn state due to the Old World incompetence of its Spanish captain Benito Cereno, while he holds a 'noble savages' view of the slaves.

Did you see it coming? asks Professor Weinstein. I certainly understood what was happening long before Captain Delano and I'm sure others did too, arguably because we now read in a sophisticated manner, on the look-out for reversals of plot.

When you realise who's in charge of the ship, you begin to interpret this story in an entirely different way. The grisly demise of the slave owner Don Alexandro and the the central shaving scene both take on a particularly chilling air.  At the time of Melville's writing, this would have overthrown what was seen as the the natural, God-given hierarchy of power in the most shocking of ways.

Learning about the context and analysing the themes of both these stories has helped my understanding, but the verbosity and language of Melville still makes him a difficult read. I'm afraid Moby Dick will be waiting a while longer on the shelf.

Next week, Kafka: The Metamorphosis and  A Country Doctor.

*Massive Open Online Course

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Book Review: The Strangler Vine by M J Carter

M J Carter has chosen an evocative setting for the opening of her debut novel The Strangler Vine; the seething morass of humanity that was Calcutta in 1837. The city was a major outpost of the East India Company, an organisation so powerful it controlled much of the sub-continent through its own private army.

Against this colourful backdrop, Carter introduces William Avery, a junior officer from Devon. He's kicking his heels, drinking heavily and losing at cards, until unexpectedly sent to accompany the irascible Jeremiah Blake into the mofussil or outback.

Special Inquiry Agent Blake's mission is to track down missing writer and national hero Xavier Mountstuart, rumoured to be studying a murderous sect of Kali-worshipping Thugs. But Mountstuart has recently published a controversial novel and, with many of the Company unwilling to even mention his name, the circumstances of his disappearance appear increasingly sinister.  

As they venture deeper into the mofussil, it's evident that Blake is no archetypal Company man. Initially, Avery's concern is the discomfort;
It became clear we would not be staying in a dak bungalow such as Europeans usually stayed in...but in small native tents which Mr Blake expected me to help to erect. Of course, with only a few natives, I realized that I would have to abandon any notion of Calcutta levels of service and that if I did not help we would all become even wetter and hungrier than we already were. And so I laboured, tired, sick, resentful and drenched.
The pace of the story really begins to build as they travel from the whispering insurrection of Benares to the opulence of Doora. Hardship fades into insignificance when the mismatched duo find themselves facing one threat after another, often from the most unpredictable of quarters.
For mile after mile the strangler vines choked the sal trees, one grey trunk encircling another, until the whole jangal appeared like some terrible tangled knot in which it was impossible to tell murderer from victim.
As the Thugs are said to strangle their victims, so Company men with their attitudes of entitlement are intent on choking out the existence of the independent princely states within their territories. But nothing is as it seems and Avery and Blake must put personal animosity behind them to fight together for their very survival.

In The Strangler Vine, Carter tells Avery's story with an atmospheric sense of place and a well-researched grip on the realities of pre-Victorian India, as you'd expect from a writer better known for her journalism and non-fiction. There's many a vibrant tableau, an enthralling tiger hunt and no shortage of derring-do. If occasionally the descriptions of resplendent court scenes are a little over-long, the twists of the plot make up for this through intrigue and fast-paced entertainment.

The protagonists are completely believable, but with such a large cast of characters, some of the more minor ones are bound to be sketchy. Avery's relationship with Helen Larkbridge could have been more fleshed out, although Carter may be saving this for her sequel, The Infidel Stain. Other than this, it's wholly satisfying to see Avery maturing from a callow youth brimming with Company attitudes into a stronger, more worldly-wise man, while his tenuous bond with Blake is the central thread which stitches their epic misadventures together.

Thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Theatre Review: My Perfect Mind at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Having barely begun rehearsing for King Lear in New Zealand, Edward Petherbridge was felled by a severe stroke which left him needing to learn to walk again. Yet, despite having lost so much, the entire role of Lear still inhabited his mind. His remarkable experiences have now been brought to the stage by Told by an Idiot in a production, previously shown to great acclaim at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Young Vic, which is now on tour.
Petherbridge plays himself with the air of a classical actor previously denied, whose time in the spotlight has come. His life may appear an unlikely matter for laughter, but he’s full of acerbic lines and witty asides. Paul Hunter, his sparring partner, delivers every other character in the piece by mining a rich seam of comedy and injecting hilarious energy into them all. He gets away with an admirable amount by excusing several of his creations from the past as “borderline offensive”. There’s a partially blacked-up Laurence Olivier fresh from Othello, an Eastern European cleaning lady who turns out to be an academic specialising in Lear, and most touchingly of all Petherbridge’s mother, who herself suffered a stroke just before he was born.
In the beginning, Petherbridge is presented as a case study by a madcap German professor (Hunter in a terrible wig), instantly breaking down the fourth wall by treating the audience as his new students. His subject has EPS, we are told; Edward Petherbridge Syndrome, where a man who is king has delusions that he is really an ageing actor from West Hampstead. But who is the king and who the fool? Where does memory really end and imagination begin? The jumbled but gradually untangling strands of Petherbridge’s life, over the course of 90 minutes, will turn this crazy case study a full circle.
The set, designed by Michael Vale, is a raked stage angled so steeply that even the simplest movements require effort and consideration. Chairs slide away unbidden and an open hatch is a deep, dark well which must always be minded and stepped around. Lines from Lear are intertwined with fragments of disordered memory from Edward’s past. On occasion it could almost become maudlin, but just as a scene is in danger of over-indulgence, so Kathryn Hunter’s direction peels it away and replaces it with another.
Despite being viewed through the prism of Lear’s madness, My Perfect Mind is far from an out-and-out tragedy. As a two-hander, it’s performed with great sensitivity and involves its appreciative audience from the start. The play may question identity and contain serious reflections on the resilience of the human spirit, but it is ever draped in the warm overcoat of comedy. Ultimately, this renders the theatrical experience all the more moving, because it becomes a tender celebration of a life retrieved.

My Perfect Mind finished its run at the Tobacco Factory on 4th October 2014, but is touring until 21st November 2014. Other tour dates and venues can be found here | Photo: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 26 September 2014

Reading the Classics: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

WARNING: if you don't know the story of Jane Eyre, there are plot spoilers.

Week Two of my MOOC* The Fiction of Relationship is the one I've been most looking forward to.

Like so many, I first read Charlotte Brontë's classic novel at school. I didn't instantly take to this tale of the orphan who must make her way alone, but that says more about the English lessons at my all-girls' grammar, and my attitude towards them, than anything else. Since then I've grown to love it, and rereading is a perpetual delight.

Is there anybody out there who doesn't know the story of Jane Eyre, even if they've not picked up the book? As well as numerous film and TV dramatisations over the years, the novel has been adapted for the theatre; earlier this year Bristol Old Vic staged a stunning two-part production.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre in Bristol Old Vic's production

There's also a new, intriguingly pared-back version, part of Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre's Brontë Season, in the South-West of England right now. 

Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre's Brontë Season

I'd love to be able to read with unknowing eyes the story of Jane's miserable young existence with cruel Aunt Reed and and the torture of the Red Room. Or of her time at Lowood School under the regulation of Mr Brocklehurst, with only the friendship of Helen Burns to sustain her. To be unaware of how her unfolding relationship with Mr Rochester might develop, or the cause of all those strange noises in the attic of Thornfield Hall.

Excepting a bout of amnesia this isn't going to happen, so the next best thing is to re-examine the novel through the prism of relationship, with a bit of expert guidance from Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University.

The Good Prof

In 1847, Jane disturbed her readers. It was an era which witnessed the rise of socialism, failed revolutions in Europe and the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Unlike the standard heroines of the day, Jane isn't demurely beautiful, but little and feisty and plain. She has fire within her soul; when first she meets Helen Burns at Lowood, Helen tells Jane she's too angry for this world.

The novel is sub-titled 'An Autobiography' and, in Jane's evolution, we uncover the building of a human being through her own eyes; her moral, emotional and spiritual development. This doesn't follow a linear path; there are many forks in the road and she has difficult choices to make along the way. 

Jane's first years are lacking in love; she's treated cruelly and repeatedly abused by those who have power over her, from Aunt Reed and her cousins at Gateshead Hall to Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood. Even when she develops a mutual attraction with Mr Rochester, it's an unequal relationship because of the difference in their backgrounds. The power is all Rochester's; Jane is his employee, the governess, and she calls him 'Sir'. He toys with her mercilessly, often teasing her about his potential marriage to the beautiful but callous Blanche Ingram.

Jane is described as being 'a ridge of lighted heath' and in childhood, rage often overcomes her. Mrs Reed and Mr Brocklehurst both cast her as the 'bad animal', but later, it becomes clear that the real 'bad animal' of the novel is Bertha Mason; the very stuff of a Victorian gentleman's nightmare. 

Brontë repeatedly uses the imagery of Jane looking in the mirror. Could Jane and Bertha be mirror images of each other? Bertha, of course, has her own preoccupation with fire. Professor Weinstein argues that, in her first person narration, Jane obscures some aspects of herself from the reader. Frequently, we don't recognise the Jane we think we know in the descriptions of others; like Aunt Reed who, on her deathbed, professes her lifelong fear of the child. 

Toby Stephens, possibly a little too good-looking as Mr Rochester in the BBC TV mini series?

Whether Brontë intended Jane and Bertha to be read as mirror images of each other is doubtful. But Professor Weinstein argues that art is created and then released into the world for others to interpret as they see fit. It's a fascinating concept.

Jane establishes her own principles to live by, based on independence, love and forgiveness. She rejects the prospect of a loveless marriage with St. John Rivers, but, for the ending to be a happy one, there needs to be greater equality in the match between Jane and Rochester. And so, Rochester is reduced by his injuries in the fire, while Jane rises up because of her new-found family and wealth. In the conclusion, 'Reader, I married him', we hope she has finally found a place to call home.

Now for something completely different. Week Three; Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno by Herman Melville.

*Massive Open Online Course

Jane Eyre is published by Wordsworth Editions. Available in the UK from Hive or internationally from Wordery
Photos courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, Butterfly Psyche and the BBC.
Professor Arnold Weinstein's thoughts on Jane Eyre are included courtesy of Coursera.