Category Archives: History

HAROLD PINTER ON POLITICAL DRAMA: ‘ALL I’M DOING IS USING MY IMAGINATION’ ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30/01.)

Pinter’s political plays tell the world things it would prefer to forget about the prevalence of torture and tyranny. Michael Billington meets him as he prepares to play a sadistic interrogator in One For the Road

What exactly is political theatre? It can be a means of debating public issues, as in the case of David Hare and David Edgar. It can be a source of information, as with the Tricycle’s docudramas including, unforgettably, The Colour of Justice. But it can also, as Harold Pinter has shown, be a means of creating resonant images of suffering; of checking our tendency, in Pinter’s phrase, “to shovel the shit under the carpet” when it comes to the abuse of human rights.

Pinter’s political plays are enjoying a sudden revival. Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes are showing at the Royal Court. Pinter is at the New Ambassadors next week playing Nicolas, a brutal government interrogator, in One For the Road. All three shows then head for New York’s Lincoln Center as part of a two-week Pinter festival, one that includes the Dublin Gate’s productions of The Homecoming, Landscape, and A Kind of Alaska, Pinter’s own Almeida versions of Celebration and The Room, and a rare revival of Monologue.

When you consider that in October Pinter will direct No Man’s Land at the National with Corin Redgrave and John Wood, that he’s written a film version of King Lear, which Tim Roth hopes to direct, is the subject of a BBC Arena profile and next spring picks up the European Theatre Prize in Taormina, it’s clear that, at 70, he’s not exactly subsiding into slippered serenity.

But, despite the punishing schedule, when I meet Pinter for an early evening tipple in his Holland Park study, he seems perfectly relaxed. Only the well-thumbed copy of One For the Road on his drinks table reveals the actor still anxiously getting to grips with his lines: Pinter wryly admits that just because he wrote them, it doesn’t mean he automatically knows them. But although this 1984 play about interrogation and torture is produced worldwide, doesn’t it pose an aesthetic problem? If we accept from the outset that torture is evil, doesn’t that kill the dramatic tension?

“I agree,” says Pinter, “it’s often difficult to make political drama dramatic. I believe that Nicolas in One For the Road should be, as it were, hung, drawn and quartered. Equally, the system of linguistic censorship I’m writing about in Mountain Language is an act of palpable oppression. I can’t find a way of apologising for either the man or the system. I can only hope to describe what happens accurately. But where Mountain Language is a series of brutal images, One For the Road is, I think, more complex. When I get up on that stage, I won’t be acting a monster, although he is certainly monstrous – but a man. Nicolas is a desperate man who seeks validation from his male victim, talks about his love of God, country and nature, and is always trying to find a philosophical basis for his actions.

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Photo: Blouin Artinfo

IS SHAKESPEARE HISTORY? THE PLANTAGENETS (BBC RADIO 4) ·

Listen: Is Shakespeare History?  

 In Our Time

In the first of two programmes marking In Our Time’s 20th anniversary on 15th October, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Shakespeare’s versions of history, starting with the English Plantagenets. His eight plays from Richard II to Richard III were written out of order, in the Elizabethan era, and have had a significant impact on the way we see those histories today. In the second programme, Melvyn discusses the Roman plays.

The image above is of Richard Burton (1925 – 1984) as Henry V in the Shakespeare play of the same name, from 1951

With

Emma Smith
Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, University of Oxford

Gordon McMullan
Professor of English at King’s College London and Director of the London Shakespeare Centre

And

Katherine Lewis
Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Huddersfield

Producer: Simon Tillotson

THE DRAG AND BURLESQUE SHOWS KEEPING BERLIN EDGY ·

(Emily Manthei’s article appeared in the Daily Beast, 9/7; via the Drudge  Report.)

The city’s reputation as an epicenter for fetish and fantasy is part of what draws more than 12 million tourists per year; but locals know that hedonism is only the beginning.

 

Frederic Schweizer

Like most first-time visitors to Berlin, I came to the German capital in search of a party. Conjuring the Weimar spirit, an art-nouveau flyer for Boheme Sauvage led me to a pillared playhouse and group of flappers and dandies armed with a secret code. Inside was an evening of vaudeville, complete with cabaret piano man, an absinthe fairy serving green spirits, and a va-va-va-voom burlesque dancer removing layer after layer of costumed extravagance onstage until all that remained were be-tasseled pasties.

Berliners don’t party in half measures. They love costumes, historical and histrionic.

The city’s reputation as a European epicenter for fetish and fantasy is part of what draws more than 12 million tourists per year; but locals know that hedonism is only the beginning. Party performances like drag and burlesque are as political as they are entertaining, thanks to a culture of subcultures that champions queer, minority, women, and gender-non-conforming performers on safe stages and in party zones tightly controlled by discerning (or, some might say, discriminatory) bouncers. In this environment, anyone can feel empowered to express themselves.

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https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-drag-and-burlesque-shows-keeping-berlin-edgy

Photo: The Daily Beast

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARYL CHURCHILL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/2.)

Caryl Churchill at 80: theatre’s great disruptor

She has made every theatre trip an adventure into the unknown, with a relentless urge

Caryl Churchill, who will be 80 on 3 September, was once compared by a fellow writer to Pablo Picasso. At first, it seems a bizarre coupling: a bull-like Spanish painter-sculptor and an intellectual British dramatist. But, as you think about it, the comparison makes sense. Like Picasso, Churchill has an active political conscience, has had a big influence on succeeding generations and is a restless experimenter with form. That last quality is, for me, the key to an extraordinary career that has yielded close to 40 plays and made Churchill an iconic figurehead.

Given the surge in plays by women in recent years, one forgets just how isolated Churchill must have felt when she set out. She began writing at Oxford but, while raising a family in the 1960s, focused exclusively on short plays for radio. She had her first stage play, Owners, put on at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 at a time when there were scarcely any role-models for women dramatists. Ann Jellicoe, another experimental dramatist, was the only major woman writer to have emerged from the Court’s chauvinist culture, Shelagh Delaney had flared like a rocket with one hit and then fizzled out and Agatha Christie had her secure niche in the West End. Otherwise, that was just about it. To whom was a young woman dramatist to turn for inspiration?

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Photo: The Guardian

THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEWS NEIL SIMON ·

(Erik Piepenburg’s and Jason Bailey’s article appeared in the New York TImes, 8/26.) 

A look at the work of Neil Simon over the decades reveals a prolific chronicler of New York City life who examined angst, romance and ambition through a comic lens, whether for the stage, film or television. Critics, like audiences in general, were mixed in their response to Mr. Simon’s comedy, which tended toward shticky one-liners and heart-squeezing monologues. Here is a look at his most notable works, how The New York Times reviewed them and (when available) where you can stream them.

‘Barefoot in the Park’ (1963)

Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford starred on Broadway in this “bubbling, rib-tickling” comedy, as Howard Taubman wrote in his review, about the strains of marriage on a young couple living in New York City. The show, Mr. Simon’s first big Broadway hit, was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best play, with Mike Nichols winning for best director.

“Mr. Simon evidently has no aspirations except to be diverting, and he achieves those with the dash of a highly skilled professional writer,” Mr. Taubman wrote.

The play inspired a 1967 film adaptation starring Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda (a “carelessly knocked-together film” with “plenty of gross exaggeration of the embarrassments of callow newlyweds,” Bosley Crowther wrote); a 1970 ABC series with a black cast; and a 2006 Broadway revival with Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet (and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi).

The 1967 film is streaming on Netflix and Starz, and is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play and YouTube.

‘The Odd Couple’ (1965)

This comedy about mismatched roommates Felix (the clean one, played by Art Carney) and Oscar (the messy one, played by Walter Matthau) was another Broadway smash for Mr. Simon. The play ran for 964 performances and received four Tony Awards, including for Mr. Simon (in the “best author” category) and Mr. Nichols for direction.

In his review, Mr. Taubman wrote of Mr. Simon: “His skill — and it is not only great but constantly growing — lies in his gift for the deliciously surprising line and attitude. His instinct for incongruity is faultless. It nearly always operates on a basis of character.”

The play was turned into a 1968 film starring Mr. Matthau, in a reprise of his stage role, with Jack Lemmon as Felix. In The Times, Renata Adler called it a “very funny, professional adaptation.” Mr. Matthau and Mr. Lemmon reunited for the 1998 sequel “The Odd Couple II,” written by Mr. Simon.

popular 1970s TV sitcom featured Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon starred in a CBS remake that ran for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. “It’s an interesting experiment,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in her review.

A female version of the play, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, opened to mostly negative reviews on Broadway in 1985. “The comedy plants itself four square on the stage of the Broadhurst and defies its author, director and players to make it make sense,” Walter Kerr wrote in The Times.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played Oscar and Felix in a 2005 Broadway revival that received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley said the play gave the impression “of one of those latter-day sitcoms in which the characters dream they’ve been beamed into an earlier, vintage television series. Which means that the talented stars of this ‘Odd Couple’ are indeed odd men out.”

The 1968 film is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play, and YouTube. The original 1970 series is streaming on Hulu, while the 2015 show is available on CBS All Access.

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WILLIAM SAROYAN 110 ·

(from Armenia, 8/31/18.)

“Although I write in English, and despite the fact that I’m from America, I consider myself an Armenian writer. The words I use are in English, the surroundings I write about are American, but the soul, which makes me write, is Armenian. This means I am an Armenian writer and deeply love the honor of being a part of the family of Armenian wrtiters.”

August 31 marks the 110th birthday anniversary of Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning Armenian-American writer William Saroyan.

The writer’s anniversary will see the inauguration of his house museum in Fresno. The grand opening event will be open to the public and held on the campus of California State University of Fresno.  A documentary, musical performances of songs written by Saroyan, a recitation of his writings, and remarks by the founder and board members of the foundation will be part of the event.  Two of the songs will be a debut performance, having never been played for the public.

William Saroyan was born on August 31, 1908 in Fresno, California to Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, Armenian immigrants from Bitlis, Ottoman Empire. His father came to New York in 1905 and started preaching in Armenian Apostolic Churches.

At the age of three, after his father’s death, Saroyan, along with his brother and sister, was placed in an orphanage in Oakland, California. Five years later, the family reunited in Fresno.

Saroyan decided to become a writer after his mother showed him some of his father’s writings. A few of his early short articles were published in Overland Monthly. His first stories appeared in the 1930s.

Among these was “The Broken Wheel”, written under the name Sirak Goryan and published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933. Many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated into many languages.

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Photo: Williamsaroyanfoundation.org

WILLIAM BOYD ON THE TRUTH BEHIND CHEKHOV’S MARRIAGE ·

(Boyd’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/20.)

In 1902, as he pondered The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov had another question on his mind: who was the father of his wife’s unborn child?

On 25 May 1901, Anton Chekhov, aged 41, married the actor Olga Knipper, eight years his junior. The marriage provoked great surprise and consternation among his friends and family. In Russia at the time, Chekhov was as famous a writer as Tolstoy and, in addition, a passionate and amorous man who had enjoyed more than 30 love affairs. He was also a regular visitor to brothels. And, even more significantly, he was the ultimate commitment-phobe. Many women had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him but he always quickly backed away. Then suddenly, clandestinely, he married.

Knipper was a second-generation Russian, of German Lutheran stock. She came from a bourgeois family that had hit hard times, and she had audaciously and tenaciously decided to become an actor, driving herself to rise out of genteel penury. At the time she met Chekhov she was an original member of the famous, radical Moscow Arts Theatre. She caught his eye in 1898 when she was playing Irina Arkadina in The Seagull. Many of his lovers were far more beautiful and beguiling than Olga. She was petite and vivacious, and the fact that she’d had to struggle so hard to make her way in the world gave her an energy and near-ruthless determination that Chekhov responded to.

Their affair began in 1899 but it was shadowed by Chekhov’s terminal illness, tuberculosis. He was a doctor and knew exactly the inevitable, fatal potency of his malady. As it grew more severe, he sensed the end of his life nearing: perhaps this was what spurred him finally towards matrimony.

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Photo: Getty Images

UK PLAYWRIGHTS CONDEMN BOMBING OF GAZA THEATRE ·

(Oliver Holmes’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/16.)

Caryl Churchill and National Theatre director bemoan ‘devastating loss’ after Israeli strike

Leading playwrights and directors in Britain have severely criticised the bombing of a major cultural centre in the Gaza Strip by Israel’s air force, calling it a “devastating loss for the already isolated community”.

In a letter to the Guardian, 14 figures from UK theatre, including the director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, and dramatist Caryl Churchill, condemned the “total destruction” of the Said al-Mishal Culture Centre.

We condemn the destruction of Gaza cultural centre in Israeli airstrike

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PARIS CABARETS: CAN WE ASK FOR MORE THAN THE CANCAN? ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/9; via Pam Green.)

PARIS — There are a number of attractions that Parisians are happy to leave to tourists. These include the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées, as well as some of the city’s most popular shows: specifically, the cabarets.

Indeed, while out-of-towners flock to the Moulin Rouge, the Lido or the Crazy Horse, many of the capital’s theater buffs have never even been. The genre that was once the toast of Paris lost touch with the times in the last decades of the 20th century. Its theatrical revues remain as extravagant as ever, yet the stories they tell often feel stuck in the past.

These venues still marshal impressive resources. Patrons at the spacious Lido and the Moulin Rouge can drink and dine, with high-end service, before and during two performances every night. The Moulin Rouge’s current revue, “Féerie,” is seen by around 600,000 people every year, half of them foreigners. It comes with 100 performers, 1,000 heavily sequined costumes, five pythons — and a cost of 8 million euros, or around $9.25 million.

What, however, does this buy? Today’s cabarets require viewers to suspend not just modern theatrical expectations but irony, too. Dramaturgy is, at best, threadbare; old-fashioned exoticism and sexism are par for the course. The goal — the only goal — is to dazzle, be it with feathers, jewels, acrobats or naked women.

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Photo: Get Your Guide

***** OBISESAN/ISANGO ENSEMBLE: ‘SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL’ (SV PICK, UK)  ·

(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/6.)

Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.

The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.

Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.

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Photo: The Times of London