Monthly Archives: March 2018

THE BEST POLITICAL PLAYS PICKED BY DAVID HARE, JAMES GRAHAM, AND MORE ·

A Sheffield Theatres, English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston Co-Production
Translations By Brian Friel
(from the Guardian, 3/15)

A gripping story of the Calais camp. A caper about media greed. A pair of startling dramas from Caryl Churchill. Leading playwrights choose their favourite political plays

David Hare

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson don’t yet have the brawn and brain of Sophie Treadwell or Shakespeare. Nor do they have the acumen of Wallace Shawn, a playwright unsurprised by Donald Trump. But in The Jungle, at the Young Vic, these activists told one of the most important stories of the century.

Why did the camp at Calais have to be destroyed? Why did the governments of Europe’s 750 million inhabitants react with such cruelty and hysteria to the idea of just a million refugees coming to the continent? Do the rich really believe, as matter of long-term policy, that they can live indefinitely in gated communities and keep the poor out? Are they never going to share? How can Theresa May call herself “Christian”? How can anyone still propagate free-market capitalism when they are so opposed to the free movement of people?

Murphy and Robertson have drawn the map for a standoff we know is going to be played out many times over. Whenever you next see the dispossessed abandoned by supposedly civilised governments, whenever you watch well-intentioned volunteers struggle with the problems of trying to help, you’ll say: “Oh, it’s just like The Jungle.” And with Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin directing, the play had welcome artistic significance too. The young audience lent forward, catching an exhilarating whiff of the glory days of British theatre before the cult of style threatened to take its soul away.

(Read more)

 

CAESAR BLOODY CAESAR ·

Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

(Josephine Quinn’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 3/22.)

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War

edited and translated from the Latin by Kurt A. Raaflaub

Pantheon, 793 pp., $50.00

Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

When Julius Caesar was thirty-one years old in 69 BCE, so the story goes, and serving as a junior Roman magistrate in Spain, he once stood lamenting before a statue of Alexander the Great because he had achieved so little at an age by which Alexander had already conquered the world.

He had good reason for concern. Although his recent election as a quaestor—one of the officials responsible for finances—had given him a lifetime seat in the Senate, Roman politics were more of a funnel than a ladder: twenty quaestors who had been elected at thirty years old could compete nine years later for eight praetorships, and then, three years after that, for just two annual consulships. To rise, you needed political friends, name recognition, and, in order to buy elections, a great deal of money.

Caesar was already admired as an orator, but he was best known for his debts, and he was good at making enemies, especially among the powerful conservatives in the Senate. Furthermore, while he had ably fulfilled the standard military duties of a young Roman nobleman, he had attracted attention only for his first assignment overseas at the age of about twenty: a trip to Bithynia in northern Anatolia, where he had become friendly—many said extremely friendly—with its king, Nicomedes. Whether or not the rumors were true, this was the first hint of a lifelong tendency to test the bounds of Rome’s unwritten moral and legal codes.

(Read more)

TOLSTOY, GORKY, AND “THE LOWER DEPTHS” ·

(Pavel Basinsky’s article appeared in Russia Beyound the Headlines, 3/2.)

While the younger Gorky considered Tolstoy almost a god, the great Leo had a strong interest in the new writer, even on the verge of obsessive jealousy. Musings on the very nature of God became a passionate bone of contention between the two extraordinary writers.

This year, Russia celebrates the 150th birthday of one of its most important 20th century writers, the stormy petrel of the revolution, Maxim Gorky. Russia Beyond publishes a translation of an extract from a new book by Pavel Basinsky “The Passion According to Maxim. Gorky: 9 Days After Death,” which is about the complicated relations between Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy. The book will be published this March in Russian by Yelena Shubina publications, AST publishing (link in Russian).

***

Tolstoy’s first diary entries about Gorky were favorable. “We had a good conversation,” “a true man of the people,” or “I am glad that I like both Gorky and Chekhov, particularly the first one.” But from about the middle of 1903 there is a drastic – and even whimsical – change in Tolstoy’s attitude to Gorky.

“Gorky – there is a misapprehension,” Tolstoy writes on Sept. 3, 1903, adding angrily: “The Germans know Gorky, but they don’t know Polenz.”

But Wilhelm von Polenz (1861-1903), a prominent German writer of the naturalist school, could not compete with Gorky, who by 1903 had become famous in Germany with his play, The Lower Depths, which premiered at Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater in Berlin on Jan.10, 1903 under the title, Nachtasyl (Night shelter). It was staged by the well-known director, Richard Vallentin, who himself played Satin, while Reinhardt played Luka. The success of the German version of The Lower Depths was so overwhelming that it had 300 (!) performances in a row, and in the spring of 1905 its 500th performance was celebrated in Berlin.

It is silly and ridiculous to suspect Leo Tolstoy of envy, but there was a certain element of writerlyjealousy in this entry, and it’s not accidental that, while calling Gorky a “misapprehension,” he refers to the Germans. The runaway success of The Lower Depths, not just in Russia but also in Germany, had already reached his ears. Tolstoy had heard The Lower Depths in Crimea read by Gorky himself in manuscript form, and already then thought the play strange and couldn’t understand why it had been written. If the play had not been such a success, Tolstoy would simply have concluded that the young author had made the wrong creative choice. Even before then, he had upbraided Gorky for the fact that his peasants talk “too cleverly,” and that much in his prose was exaggerated and unnatural.

(Read more)

Photos: Russia Beyond the Headlines

 

HARVEY SCHMIDT, CO-CREATOR OF ‘THE FANTASTICKS,’ IS DEAD AT 88 ·

(Richard Sandomir’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/2; via Pam Green.)

Harvey Schmidt, whose career as a commercial artist took a long, lucrative and unexpected detour when he teamed with a former college pal to create “The Fantasticks,” the Off Broadway romance that became the world’s longest-running musical, died on Wednesday in Tomball, Tex., near Houston. He was 88.

Rachel Scholl, a niece, said the cause was complications of congestive heart failure. He had no immediate survivors.

A love story about a boy and a girl and their feuding fathers, “The Fantasticks,” with music by Mr. Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones, opened in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village and ran for 17,162 performances.

A revival that began in 2006 ran 4,390 more times at the Jerry Orbach Theater in Midtown Manhattan, named for the actor who originated the role of El Gallo, the show’s narrator.

Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Jones became nearly inseparable collaborators on a host of shows for more than 50 years. Mr. Schmidt was the quiet one; Mr. Jones, the more gregarious.

Continue reading the main story

Photo: Getty Images

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: “SUMMER AND SMOKE” (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8.)

As it is so rarely seen, this early play by Tennessee Williams feels like a major discovery. Williams began it in 1945 and endlessly revised it. Now a young director, Rebecca Frecknall, has given it a complete makeover. Eschewing realism, she adopts the expressionist tactics favoured by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove and palpably builds the production around Patsy Ferran, who confirms her status as one of the most exciting actors on the British stage.

Frecknall, designer Tom Scutt and Angus MacRae, credited with composition, join forces to give the action an unusual setting: a circular pit of sandy earth ringed by nine pianos that the ensemble periodically play to create atmosphere. The text tells us we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, between the turn of the 20th century and 1916. But here the focus is on the primal nature of a conflict between spirit and flesh.

Alma, who constantly tells us her name means “soul” in Spanish, is a parson’s daughter and singing teacher whose undeclared love for a neighbouring doctor, John Buchanan, has driven her into a state of neurosis. If Alma represents the soul, then John, both professionally and socially, stands for the body. But after a melodramatic shooting, Williams shows their roles ironically reversed.

(Read more)

 

A POLITICAL SATIRE ON STAGE, AND NOT ABOUT TRUMP ·

(Patricia Cohen’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/28; via Pam Green.)

For the American premiere of “The Low Road,” a satire of unbounded self-interest and pitiless capitalism, the playwright Bruce Norris realized he needed to change the last name of his scurrilous 18th-century protagonist, Jim Trumpett.

What would sound like a heavy-handed jab at the businessman-turned-president from a leftist playwright actually wasn’t. Mr. Norris wrote his sprawling comic fable half a dozen years earlier, before few predicted that Donald J. Trump would one day occupy the White House.

“It’s not a play about him in any way,” Mr. Norris said.

Indeed, to describe Trumpett’s contemporary descendant, the bumptious head of TrumpettBank Global, the 2013 stage directions said: “think Mitt Romney,” the moderate Republican and former presidential nominee who is now running for an open Senate seat in Utah.

(Read more)

Photo: The New York Times

DAVID OGDEN STIERS, MAJOR WINCHESTER ON ‘MASH,’ DIES AT 75 ·

(Carmel Dagan’s article appeared in Variety, 3/3; via Pam Green.)

David Ogden Stiers, best known for his role as the arrogant surgeon Major Charles Emerson Winchester III on “MASH,” died Saturday. He was 75.

His agent, Mitchell K. Stubbs, tweeted that he died of bladder cancer at his home in Newport, Ore.

For his work on “MASH,” Stiers was twice Emmy nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy or variety or music series, in 1981 and 1982, and he earned a third Emmy nomination for his performance in NBC miniseries “The First Olympics: Athens 1896” as William Milligan Sloane, the founder of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The actor, with his educated, resonant intonations — though he did not share Major Winchester’s Boston Brahmin accent — was much in demand for narration and voiceover work, and for efforts as the narrator and as of Disney’s enormous hit animated film “Beauty and the Beast,” he shared a Grammy win for best recording for children and another nomination for album of the year.

(Read more)

THE PROBLEM WITH BROADWAY REVIVALS: THEY REVIVE GENDER STEREOTYPES, TOO ·

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/22; via Pam Green.)

Billy Bigelow hits Julie Jordan. Henry Higgins molds Eliza Doolittle. Fred tames Lilli. And Edward rescues Vivian.

Amid a national reckoning with sexual harassment and misconduct, Broadway is mounting a cluster of musicals this season and next that, some theatergoers already contend, romanticize problematic relationships between women and men.

The titles are beloved: “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady” and “Kiss Me, Kate” are classics of the canon, while “Pretty Woman,” a new musical, is adapted from a smash film. And each of their female protagonists has her own strength — strength that in some cases changes the men in their lives.

But elements of the stories — and the fact that all four productions are being directed and choreographed by men — are prompting new scrutiny at this #MeToo moment.

“It’s a huge conversation,” said Carole Rothman, the artistic director of Second Stage Theater, a nonprofit that has become Broadway’s newest theater owner.

(Read more)

Photo: The New York Times