The hardest thing of all is to begin creative work, to find a goal, a foundation, a ground, a principle, or even a simple scenic piece of hokum and to be enthused by it. Enthusiasm, even the very smallest, may become the beginning of creativeness. Until one feels it, one knows that he is not standing on firm ground. (MLIA)
(Natasha Tripney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/30; Photo: A mirror on the world … Mark Rylance in Jerusalem at the Royal Court. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian. )
While many writers have created troubling dystopian visions, few plays have imagined better futures. But the act of theatre itself can embrace utopianism
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March, there was a lot of talk about using this enforced pause as a chance to reassess and maybe even remake the world. As the months took their toll, that energy waned. But with a vaccine rollout and a man for whom empathy is not an alien concept about to take up residence in the White House, it does not seem unreasonable to start imagining a better tomorrow.
In literature there have been many attempts to create utopias, other lands more golden than our own, untainted, Edenic, more equitable societies in which war and poverty are things of the past. From Thomas More’s 1516 book, which gave us the term, through the writings of William Morris and HG Wells, to the comic-book monarchies of Wakanda and Themyscria (respective homelands of Black Panther and Wonder Woman), to one of the most enduring utopian societies of them all – the Star Trek universe, people have used art to imagine better worlds.
When trying to identify a play that exemplifies these ideas, it gets a little trickier. There are numerous dystopian plays: Caryl Churchill’s prescient Far Away, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, Alan Ayckbourn’s interminable The Divide, but it’s harder to name a truly utopian play. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem could be read as utopian if viewed through the eyes of its protagonist, Rooster Byron. Ella Hickson’s The Writer explores the concept of feminist utopia, but as one of a series of narrative resets and rug-pulls. But the list is not a long one. Is there something that makes them particularly challenging to write?
To playwright Vinay Patel, whose television credits include Doctor Who, “actual utopias – as opposed to the places that just seem to be utopias – are, by themselves, inherently undramatic. But it’s the contrast they provide to dystopias or, indeed, our present day that make them compelling.”
For Anna Jordan, a Bruntwood prize-winner for her play Yen, and part of the writers’ room for Succession, “perfect societies are harder to imagine because we have access to social media and more information than anyone has had before. It makes it harder to believe that while there is so much difference in the world there could be such a thing as a perfect society.”
From More onwards, all utopias are essentially refractions of the world in which they were created. Utopian fiction necessarily reflects the preoccupations, struggles and divisions of the time and culture in which it is produced. The various Star Trek offshoots still bear the hallmarks of the explicitly post-conflict universe created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s.
(Berlind played a role in producing more than 100 plays and musicals. And while he kept an eye on the bottom line, he could be seduced by sheer artistry; Photo: Even as he experienced flops, Mr. Berlind had many successes, like the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” starring Bette Midler. He had “enormous fortitude and persistence,” said Scott Rudin, one of his co-producers on this and many other shows.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Success on Broadway came slowly. Mr. Berlind’s first production, in 1976, was the disastrous “Rex,” a Richard Rodgers musical (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) about Henry VIII, which the Times theater critic Clive Barnes said “has almost everything not going for it.”
As it happened, the music of Mr. Rodgers bookended Mr. Berlind’s career. His last show, of which he was one of several producers, was the darkly reimagined Tony-winning 2019 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” (That show made Broadway history when the actress Ali Stroker became the first person who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony.)
After “Rex,” Mr. Berlind co-produced six other shows before he had his first hit with the original 1980 production of “Amadeus,” in which a mediocre composer burns with jealousy over the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play, written by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall and starring Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, took home several Tonys, including best play.
Two more successes quickly followed: “Sophisticated Ladies,” a 1981 revue with music by Duke Ellington; and “Nine,” a 1982 musical based on the Fellini film “8½” about a tortured film director facing professional and romantic crises.
Along the way were plenty of flops. Producing on Broadway is always risky, with no surefire formula for a hit. It became even more challenging in the late 20th century, as theater people migrated to Hollywood, labor and advertising costs soared and high ticket prices discouraged audiences. Getting shows off the ground required more and more producers to pool their resources, and even then they were unlikely to recoup their investments.
One of Mr. Berlind’s achievements was staying in the game. Despite the challenges, he took chances on shows because he believed in them, and because he could afford to lose as often as he won.
“I know it’s not worth it economically,” he told The Times in 1998. “But I love theater.”
His successes included “Proof,” “Doubt,” “The History Boys,” the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.
Scott Rudin, who produced about 30 shows with Mr. Berlind, said that Mr. Berlind was propelled by “enormous fortitude and persistence.”
“He was not dissuaded by the obstacles that dissuaded other people,” Mr. Rudin said in an email. “He had enormous positivity, which is much, much more rare than you might think.”
That became evident after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Broadway went dark for 48 hours, a sign of the economic uncertainty that hung over the city.
At the time, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged theaters to reopen quickly, and they did. But a half-dozen shows closed, and one on the verge of doing so was “Kiss Me, Kate,” in which Mr. Berlind had been deeply involved and of which he was enormously fond. He was enthralled with Cole Porter’s music, and everything in the show had clicked. The winner of five Tonys, including best revival of a musical, “Kate” had been running for nearly two years and was not scheduled to close until Dec. 30, 2001.
(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/28. Photosgraph: Debonair … Noël Coward. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock .)
A new exhibition is devoted to the visual flair of a debonair playwright whose tastes are almost impossible to define
Noël Coward was the epitome of style. Fittingly that is the subject of a major exhibition opening at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, containing costumes, set designs, paintings and production photos. Brad Rosenstein, its curator, says Coward is “especially celebrated for his verbal wit” but that the exhibition “will remind us that his original productions were also visual feasts for their audiences”.
That sounds tempting – but it raises several questions. What, actually, do we mean by style? And how has it changed over the years? In Coward’s case, style consisted of the effortless projection of a unique personality. You see that clearly on an album cover of a 1955 LP, Noël Coward at Las Vegas, where he stands in the Nevada desert immaculately clad in dark suit and suede shoes while clutching a cup of tea. I only saw Coward once in the flesh and that was at the first night of a compilation show, Cowardy Custard, at the Mermaid theatre in London in 1972. Although visibly aged, he seemed immensely debonair. But my chief memory is of how John Moffatt dried in the middle of a Coward song. With superb insouciance, Moffatt simply asked the conductor to go back to the beginning of the number. That’s what I call style.
But while some aspects of style are permanent, its visual manifestation alters with time. You can see that by tracking the radical changes that have overtaken one particular play, Present Laughter. First seen in 1943, it is one of the five canonical comedies – the others are Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living and Blithe Spirit – that constitute Coward’s main claim on posterity. Patently autobiographical, it is about a star performer, Garry Essendine, who uses his instinctive charm to protect himself against the clamorous demands of lovers, friends and the world at large.
Coward wrote Garry as “a bravura part” for himself and there’s a photo of a 1947 revival that shows exactly how he must have played it. While being harangued by an angry young playwright from Uckfield (Robert Eddison), Coward – in polka-dotted bow-tie and striped dressing-gown – leans back in his armchair, looking on with amused indifference. That set the pattern for future revivals until Albert Finney played Garry at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 1977. There’s a wonderful photo of Finney, sporting a tweed suit and brown trilby, confronting the camera with jutting-jawed resolution. Finney banished the idea that Coward must be played with lacquered suavity and gave us a robustly butch Garry who used funny faces and joke voices to ward off ghastly intruders. As Irving Wardle wrote in the Times: “it is as though Lucky Jim had wound up in No 1 dressing-room.”
Sometimes the attempt to escape the Coward imprint can lead to grotesque exaggeration: that was the fault of a Sean Foley Chichester revival in 2018, which I cordially detested. But Andrew Scott in last year’s Old Vic production brilliantly showed that elegance can be combined with innovation. Where Coward’s Garry is first seen in his pyjamas, Scott entered sporting a piratical eyepatch and a brocaded waistcoat as if he had come from JM Barrie’s Neverland. That exactly made the point that Garry, like his author, is a lost boy. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1953: “Forty years ago Coward was Slightly in Peter Pan and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since.” But Scott, along with the rest of a talented cast including Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson, proved that style is both innate and a quality that needs to be redefined with each decade.
Can you beat the Bard?
Questions by Joyce E. Henry, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
(Dorian Lynskey’s article appeared on the BBC 12/7; Photo, Getty Images, BBC.com; via Pam Green.
She gives little away about her private life, and touts a cartoonish public image: how did Dolly Parton become one of the world’s most-loved celebrities? Dorian Lynskey explores the singer’s appeal.
Last month, it was revealed that Dolly Parton had donated $1m (£744,000) to Moderna’s successful effort to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. The news inspired a joke (“It’s 9-to-5 per cent effective”), a fond YouTube parody (Vaccine, to the tune of Jolene), and yet another outpouring of love for a woman who inspires as much affection as any celebrity on Earth.
I witnessed the Dolly effect first-hand at Glastonbury in 2014, when she drew one of the biggest crowds in the festival’s history, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that only two of the songs she recorded – Jolene and the Kenny Rogers duet Islands in the Stream – have ever made the UK Top 40. Throw in the floor-filling 9 to 5 and the showstopping I Will Always Love You, and she still has just four undeniably famous songs in her vast catalogue: far fewer than Kylie Minogue, Barry Gibb or other artists to have played the Sunday afternoon legend slot in the past decade. Her between-song patter, polished to a high shine, was the primary source of delight. Festival-goers enjoyed the music but they loved the person even more.
Parton’s fame used to have two distinct lanes. One was musical. As a writer and performer, she sits at country music’s top table with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can play around 20 instruments, including the fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin and pan-flute. She has written, by her estimation, around 3000 songs, 175 of which are featured in a new book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. In the early 1970s she was on such a roll that a single session in 1973 yielded both Jolene and I Will Always Love You. “At the end of the day, I hope that I will be remembered as a good songwriter,” she writes in Songteller. “The songs are my legacy.”
The other Dolly, the one I grew up with, was a jovial, self-deprecating talk-show regular and spoofable symbol of US excess. One example of her pop-culture ubiquity is the 1981 Two Ronnies sketch in which Ronnie Barker donned a platinum-blonde wig and fake bosom to play “Polly Parton”. Jokes about Parton’s chest, many of which she made herself, became such a trope in British culture that when scientists cloned a sheep from a mammary gland cell in 1996, they called it Dolly. No wonder her songwriting chops were eclipsed.
She is a master of distraction who wears her cartoonish public image like a suit of armour
In recent years, however, the two lanes have converged, and ascended to a higher plane of celebrity. Fuelled by her Glastonbury triumph, her 44th album, 2014’s Blue Smoke, became her most successful ever in the UK, while Netflix recently followed a drama series based on her songs, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, with a loving documentary, Here I Am, and a seasonal special, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. Last year, the hit nine-part podcast Dolly Parton’s America was predicated on the idea that she was a uniquely unifying figure in a divided nation. Even now that the discourse around music is hotly politicised, this 74-year-old red-state white woman has largely escaped being labelled “problematic”. She is worshipped by different sectors of her fanbase as a pioneering feminist heroine, a $500m (£371m) business phenomenon, an LGBTQ ally, a patriotic icon and a cultural ambassador for the working-class South.
It helps that Parton is a black-belt interviewee, fully aware of her kitsch value, using humorous “Dollyisms” to sidestep anything that smells remotely of controversy and keep most of her private life and opinions under wraps. She is a master of distraction who wears her cartoonish public image like a suit of armour. “She gives away very little,” says her 9 to 5 co-star Lily Tomlin in Here I Am. “There’s a mystery about her.” Parton herself says: “People feel like they know me.” Both claims are true. Her Q Score, which measures the appeal of celebrity brands, is one of the highest in the world, with one of the lowest negative ratings. Not everybody loves Parton but very few people hate her. “I enjoy being loved,” she told the Guardian last year. How has Dolly Parton become the world’s sweetheart?
Two contrasting pieces of narration set to music. The BBC Singers and conductor Nicolas Chalmers present Hymn – Alan Bennett’s early musical recollections, originally set to music written for string quartet by George Fenton. Hymn has been arranged for the BBC Singers by Clare Wheeler, with additional material by Jonathan Manners and Paul Spicer. The BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor David Hill then perform Richard Allain’s musical setting of A Christmas Carol with narration by Stephen Fry. Alan Bennett/George Fenton: Hymn (arr. Clare Wheeler) BBC Singers Alan Bennett – narrator Nicholas Chalmers – conductor Richard Allain: A Christmas Carol BBC Concert Orchestra Stephen Fry – narrator David Hill – conductor
The production of the stage director and the playing of the actors, may be realistic, conventionalized, modernistic, naturalistic, impressionistic, futuristic,—it is all the same so long as they are convincing, that is truthful or truthlike; beautiful, that is artistic; uplifted, and creating the true life of the human spirit without which there can be no art. (MLIA)
(Anita Gates’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/23; Photo: Rebecca Luker as Maria, surrounded by the von Trapp children, in the 1998 Broadway revival of “The Sound of Music.” She also starred in hit revivals of “Show Boat” and “The Music Man.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Her Broadway career, fueled by her crystal-clear operatic soprano, brought her Tony Award nominations for “Show Boat,” “The Music Man” and “Mary Poppins.”
Rebecca Luker, the actress and singer who in a lauded three-decade career on the New York stage embodied the essence of the Broadway musical ingénue in hit revivals of “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music” and “The Music Man,” died on Wednesday in a hospital in Manhattan. She was 59.
The death was confirmed by Sarah Fargo, her agent. Ms. Luker announced in February that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Ms. Luker’s Broadway career, fueled by her crystal-clear operatic soprano, brought her three Tony Award nominations. The first was for “Show Boat” (1994), in which she played Magnolia, the captain’s dewy-fresh teenage daughter, whose life is ruined by marriage to a riverboat gambler. The second was for “The Music Man” (2000), in which she was Marian, the prim River City librarian who enchants a traveling flimflam man who thinks — mistakenly — that he’s just passing through town.
In between, Ms. Luker delighted critics by playing against type in a 1997 Encores! production of “The Boys From Syracuse.” As Adriana, the neglected wife who gets her groove back (with her husband’s long-lost twin brother), she wore slinky 1930s gowns and exuded what Ben Brantley, in his review for The New York Times, called “a disarmingly confectionary sexiness.”
(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/23; Photo: Clockwise from top left: Death of England, The Outside Dog, Pass Over, Oleanna and Crave. Composite: Nobby Clark, Marc Brenner, Alastair Muir, Manuel Harlan.)
As the industry faced turmoil, there were triumphant stagings of classics by Sarah Kane, David Mamet and Alan Bennett – and bold new experiments
Death of England
National Theatre, London
Rafe Spall gave one of the most virtuosic performances of the year in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ one-man show about class, race, identity and inheritance. He played Michael, a tormented working-class man grappling with the legacy of a racist father. Stalking the length and breadth of the stage, which was designed in the shape of a St George’s Cross, Spall performed with the punkish energy of a man possessed. His drunken eulogy at his father’s funeral was an exemplar of a dramatic meltdown. Read the full review.
Chichester Festival theatre and online
Sarah Kane’s one-act play is as opaque as it is intense, but under Tinuke Craig’s direction it was transformed into a clean, contemporary, thrillerish drama. Its four unnamed characters appeared on treadmills on a revolving stage, with magnified images on a back-screen. The set’s lurching movement reflected the play’s unstable emotional states and Erin Doherty gave an especially scintillating performance. Read the full review.