May 2005


FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT

 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT
 FORSAN ET HAEC OLIM MEMINISSE IUVABIT

THE MOMENT OF GREAT SEEING

new yorker cartoon

TARNATION

My iPod just did it again.

tarnationI was cycling back from the cinema in town and humming the achingly beautiful melody of Rufus’ “The Consort”. When I got home, fetched in the washing from the dark garden and went upstairs to put it on the bed, I thought I’d like to listen to some music. Putting on the shuffle of the whole library – that’s 11.7 days worth of music – the third track it played was “The Consort”. Is still playing in fact.

More beautiful New York boys this evening in Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation “. Broken, nervy, cross-dressing, abused, but beautiful. I absolutely loved it. It’s an extraordinary piece of self-dramatization. Nearly 20 years of filming himself and his brain-damaged mother and his possibly abusive grandparents. Then edited together by his 31 year-old-self.

Watching it you constantly think – “how could he film his mother like that?”, “how staged are his tears, his breakdowns, his freak outs?” – but somehow that extreme self-staging is part and parcel of the Big Brother, reality tv age we live in. What’s extraordinary that his footage dates back from the mid 80s. I mean how many 11-yea-olds had video cameras back in the mid 80s? Let alone filming themselves in a chillingly mimetic performance of a woman describing her abuse at the hands of her husband?

But then how many highschool kids in Texas get to stage musical versions of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet?

Although the film hit Sundance in 2003 and has been all over the world it’s only just arrived in Britain – I say ‘only just’, it’s been out a month and I ‘ve only just got round to seeing it. But then I’m a great believer in seeing things when you’re meant to. Good art is always a little bit of chemistry between the subjective moment of viewing (slightly in love, aching from the gym, sitting next to Gill) and the objective artefact of the thing (Tarnation). So I found the stability Jonathan finds with his boyfriend, David, in NY really touching and I was conscious of Gill’s worry about her mother as Jonathan’s mother, RenĂ©e, deteriorates on screen. Mostly I was moved by the fondness of it. The by-line was cute: your greatest creation is the life you lead. I came out of the cinema feeling electric with wide-arching, plans to recreate London and fill my life up with glugging emotions and bruised loves.

And what a beautiful puzzling word: tarnation.

JC at ELECTION TIME

Went to see the Deborah Warner Julius Caesar at the Barbican on Election Night. I’ve never seen it staged before – infact, I’m not 100% sure I’ve ever read it. I have a vague memory of some school-annotated copy picked up at a bookstall, back when I was obsessively buying Penguin Shakespeares to have the complete set. I remember the big set speeches were laced with heavy pencil markings and Collins notes transcriptions. “Irony”, for example, underlined three times.

Anyway it came alive on stage. As it should. It’s so nice to go to a production where the verse isn’t rushed over like some embarassment – “Hmm, better speed through this till I get to a laugh”. Shakespeare productions – particularly British Shakespeare – can be unspeakably bad, all jolly-hockey-sticks and pantomime and – heavens forfend – no seriousness. That seems to be the English disease: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. Don’t really say anything too profound. Especially in this Blair-lite political ethos. Where a whole campaign was fought on dogwhistles and a smeary racist Immigration card. Whatever happens: don’t talk about economy, public services, ethics.

Of course, Julius Caesar, talks about big things all the time. And it’s a great production. Even though it clocks in at about 3 hours, I didn’t flag once. Though my buttockbones were aching by the end. Simon Russel Beal is a fantastic verse speaker – he makes every line sound like it was carved out of conversation. Each word, the perfect fruit hanging off the breath. Raph Fiennes was puppy-like and wonderful as Mark Anthony. (Though distressingly like Leonard Rossiter at times). I wasn’t so keen on Anton Lesser. He’s a bit shouty and hoarse – which is a shame since it really is Brutus’s play. But I loved the huge staging – with literally hundreds of extras for the crowd scenes and the sort of stark chaotic stage I grew to love in Berlin. There’s a moment when a skip-load of domestic debris falls from the flies after a battle scene which was pure Castorf or Pina Bausch.

But my real admiration was for Shakespeare. I was shocked and amused a couple of days ago to hear Gary slag off Shakespeare as a colossal bore with no resonance for him at all. To me, it seems fatuous to imagine that all art should have a direct resonance to our personal lives. I’m never going to be a Scottish Thane who kills a King and talks with witches. Nor am I likely to sleep inadvertently with my mother and put out my eyes. But standing by and experiencing something other than our personal lives, seems to me the very essence of good art.

Julius Caesar is a political play. It’s about the ethics of citizenship and action within a political world. Is it right to kill a statesman who has become a tyrannt? Or who might become one? Or to be more contemporary: is it right to depose a tyrannical ruler who has WMDs? Or might have them? The parallel with the Iraq war is made evident in Warner’s production. But when Caesar first enters in a swarm of sunglassed security men and smart suits, it’s not Saddam I thought of but the hubristic Tony Blair. And it was that sliding identification that most impressed me. Of course, Shakespeare was writing unconcerned with Iraq or the 2005 Election, but what is fascinatingly fresh about him is that he never sides. He never polarizes. In the age of “you’re either with us or against us”, he gives us an endlessly subtle picture of the mirrors and simultaneities of human endeavour. Here more perhaps than in other plays.

In Macbeth, although one identifies with Macbeth, the moral trajectory of his decline is never in doubt. Similarly in Othello, our emotional compass is pretty firmly set towards Desdemona and the Moor’s suffering. Here in Julius Caesar however, we can never rest morally or emotionally on any of the three main protagonists. Is Cassius a bad man? Is Brutus a noble one? Is Mark-Anthony shallow? None of them can be reduced. And at different times in the play we sympathize with all of them. And the end of the play – which seems so problematic to modern audiences – is problematic precisely because it doesn’ t allow us to wrap things up nicely. Brutus and Cassius are dead but Mark Anthony is left with a weedy counterfeit Caesar and he mourns his nobler enemy : This was a man.

That sort of psychological maturity – letting everyone co-exist and honouring all with attention but not with judgement – is Shakespeare’s greatest asset. But personally, I also love the artifice of his stagecraft. I love being sat infront of an artificial contraption – a play – which unwinds in front of my eyes for a few hours and creates a little hologram of another world. I went to see A Winters Tale 2 weeks ago with Simon and although it was much less satisfying production, the extreme – almost torturous – artifice of that play pleased me even more. The mysterious implacable madness of Leontes, the weird juxtapositon of that with the pastoral idyll of Florizel and Perdita, the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to pull off the Statue scene. The arbitrariness of late Shakespeare appeals to my love of the incommensurate, the awkward. It was just a shame so much of the verse in that production was hidden under hammery.

It reminds me of the story of my Director of Studies at Cambridge, JH Prynne , a fiercely intellectual poet and my academic hero back then. He went to see a student production of The Tempest in a church in East Anglia. (I can’t think why he went since he had ferociously exacting standards of performance. Perhaps because he also a great deal of kindness to his students.) Anyway, he went and sat through the whole thing
and came out thinking it was the best production he’d ever seen. On further reflection, he realised the reason it had been so great was because, sitting at the back of the church, he’d actually been unable to hear any of the actors in the terrible accoustic and so had run through the entire play’s poetry in his head.

OF COURSE

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