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     How directors' interpretations can obscure and even counteract the real shocks and scandals of great drama

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    PostSubject: How directors' interpretations can obscure and even counteract the real shocks and scandals of great drama   Wed Feb 24, 2010 1:14 am

    Is the theatrical scandal dead?
    How directors' interpretations can obscure and even counteract
    the real shocks and scandals of great drama



    John Stokes
    From The Times Literary Supplement

    February 17, 2010

    At a symposium entitled “Ibsen from Page to Stage”, held at the Riverside
    Studios on Saturday February 6, a small number of theatre scholars, the
    English director Stephen Unwin, and a representative of the National Theatre
    in Oslo debated the place of the Norwegian playwright in the international
    theatre of today. The issues focused as, perhaps surprisingly, they still
    tend to, even now, on the right of directors to reshape texts according to
    their own interpretative inclinations and to the surrounding circumstances.
    This is a battle that seems to have to be continually refought and the usual
    asides were directed at the “text-based” conventionalities of English
    directors.



    The most illuminating contribution came from the Norwegian Ba Clemetsen, whose
    job it is to circle the globe searching for Ibsen productions worth inviting
    back home. Clemetsen is always on the look-out for intrinsically local
    enterprises that might be of interest by virtue of their extreme otherness,
    and she is clearly finding them. Any early impulse to shrug off her
    predictable loyalty to postmodern principles, her denial of any kind of
    textual “original” or any idea of ultimate “authority”, was soon dispelled
    by the extraordinary range of examples she presented: from Ramallah, where
    an audience of Muslim women exposed to A Doll’s House showed no patience
    with Nora’s bid for self-realization, from Cuba, where the costumes chosen
    for An Enemy of the People reflected the uniform of local political groups,
    and from both Galway and China, where productions of the same play evoked
    imminent environmental threats. Inevitably, provocation leads to repression:
    Ghosts was banned in Iran when Pastor Manders was represented as an imam.
    All around the world Ibsen can be seen to have attracted not just members of
    the internationally celebrated avant-garde such as Robert Wilson, Susan
    Sontag and Thomas Ostermeier, but lesser-known, equally questioning talents.
    Witness an allfemale Hedda in China and, not necessarily the same thing, a
    lesbian version in Denmark. Meanwhile, back in Bergen, a production of A
    Wild Duck had to be called to a halt after twelve hours of continuous
    performance – with the end of the play still not in sight. Ibsen himself was
    a director, said Clemetsen, so he of all people would have understood the
    need for experiment. His texts actually “allow” interpretation, and the
    evidence for that lies in physical movement as much as in speech, in what is
    not said along with what is. Since theatre can only be a temporal event,
    nothing more but nothing less, directorial freedom is the inescapable
    privilege of the moment.



    While members of the panel as a whole had praise for the Dundee Rep production
    of Peer Gynt, which came to the Barbican last year, they – tactfully no
    doubt – made no mention of another recent show, a modernized and anglicized
    Little Eyolf at the National Theatre which, though dull in execution, was
    ambitious in its own parochial way. The British have not always been supine
    in the face of foreign greatness, and the right to interpretative freedom is
    certainly claimed by a current production, also at the Riverside, of Hedda
    Gabler – though it isn’t entirely vindicated either. Directed, translated
    and adapted by a Norwegian, Terje Tveit, this is staged by the London-based
    Ibsen Stage Company with some capable young British actors. Undeni-ably
    creepy and atmospheric though it is, Tveit’s Hedda Gabler nevertheless
    demonstrates how postmodern possibilities can obscure as well as enlighten.


    The acting area is a large circular island space surrounded by a sea of torn
    white paper and a few wooden chairs. Outside – and sometimes inside – the
    circle, the lighting is extremely dim, though spots will pick out faces.
    There is a single major prop: a throne-like chair, covered with a white
    sheet that is usually in the centre of the circle. Sometimes it is facing
    us; sometimes all we see is its back. Hedda will spend a good deal of time
    in that chair which is alternately her place of refuge (the equivalent of
    the inner room in more realistic productions), a power base for controlling
    others, and a screen for eavesdropping on what is being said at the back of
    the stage. At extended moments, Sarah Head, a fiery and noticeably youthful
    heroine, looks straight ahead at us while her flashing eyes register what
    she is hearing behind her with all the regularity of a digital display.


    An ambient soundtrack of synthesized noise, sonic booms, nervy strings, icy
    chords, and what may well be robotic seagulls acts as accompaniment. There’s
    a brief new prologue describing Hedda’s arrival back home which is
    distributed, sentence by sentence, among the actors. It will be repeated at
    the end. Entrances and exits involve pacing around the perimeter before
    stepping into the central circle. This process gives a distinctive
    clip-clopping sound and, when several characters are lined up, the
    impression is of circus ponies, although, because many lines are delivered
    out into the void rather than to another character, the dominant suggestion
    is obviously supposed to be of a domestic prison or cage. As if we needed
    help. All through, much that is implied in Ibsen’s text is made visible,
    which is not to say that it is made more apparent. Indeed, a reverse process
    may be taking place since some innovations are newly puzzling. Lovborg’s
    manuscript is a long medieval-style paper scroll described as a “poem”
    rather than as a speculative and prophetic book. It is destroyed not by
    Hedda alone –there’s no stove – but collectively by the whole cast in a
    series of tearing movements. Protracted physical gestures frequently outlast
    their significance.


    Tveit’s heavily choreographed Hedda is the kind of production that might
    confirm Theodore Ziolkowski’s worst fears, since Scandal on Stage is as much
    a polemic against directorial imposition as it is a history of theatrical
    outrage, the link between the two being Ziolkowski’s belief that when
    directors stamp their own personal vision on a work in order deliberately to
    cause a sensation they are effectively pre-empting, or even counteracting,
    its innate provocations, denying rather than amplifying the writer’s wishes.
    He begins in the early nineteenth century with the weakening of aristocratic
    and clerical patronage, and the ensuing dependence of artists on the rise of
    a paying public. The emergent quandary is that the artist must sometimes
    attract and serve that public by challenging or insulting its avowed
    standards. This can be done either by uncompromising engagement with
    unrepresented political issues (at one extreme agitprop) or, conversely, by
    refusing any social involvement whatsoever and serving “Art” alone. The
    “freedom” of the artist becomes a shibboleth that is produced precisely out
    of his initial situation. The public must continue to pay – and in more
    senses than one.

    The historical starting point of Ziolkowski’s argument, like many of his
    examples both old and new, is German: Schiller’s famous essay on the theatre
    “as a moral institution”, which the poet defines as an activity above law
    and religion, and yet necessary to both. Theatre, according to Schiller,
    takes us into human realms that conventionalized ethical systems may ignore
    or suppress, and in so doing it reveals more complex truths. It is for this
    reason that society cannot survive without the ancient art form, and that it
    should be institutionalized, a step taken in many European nation-states
    with national, regional or civic initiatives.


    Ziolkowski, respecting Schiller, argues that a genuine scandal occurs when the
    sacred responsibilities of theatre are believed, at least by some, to have
    been abused and corrective action or protest is thought to be necessary.
    This may take many forms according to context. Ziolkowski’s well-documented
    but selective survey takes in responses to Schiller’s Die Räuber, Hugo’s
    Hernani, Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Wilde’s (and
    Strauss’s) Salome, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, Schnitzler’s Reigen,
    Brecht’s Mahagonny, Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellverteter and Hans Werner
    Henze’s Das Floss der Medusa. Ibsen, one might note, isn’t included – though
    he obviously could have been, given the scandalized reactions to A Doll’s
    House, Ghosts and, indeed, to Hedda Gabler.


    In most cases, responses, all the way from legal reprimand to street-based
    riot, involved some external or peripheral cause, whether partisanship on
    aesthetic grounds as with the first night (or nights) of Ubu Roi (occasions
    recently rehearsed in the correspondence columns of the TLS), or some more
    directly political commitment, as was the case with Synge’s The Playboy of
    the Western World in 1907 or Genet’s The Screens in 1966. Neither Synge nor
    Genet is discussed by Ziolkowski, nor does he mention the two great English
    examples of theatrical scandal in modern times: Edward Bond’s Saved and
    Sarah Kane’s Blasted, both serious plays about violence and poverty where
    the scandal should be seen as social in the first instance and theatrical
    only in the second. At least, that seems to have been their authors’
    intention. In the event, the scandals lay in the treatment given them by
    journalists. Similarly, purity campaigns have been periodically mounted by
    people who would never normally go near a theatre, while, as Ziolkowski
    makes pointedly clear, some twentieth-century interventions cannot be
    separated from outright anti-Semitism.


    When we speak of a scandal as “created”, this is often what we mean: something
    exceptional that takes place outside the text as such and is to do with
    aspersion or tainting, orchestrated and maintained by specific vested
    interests that only profess to be concerned with the general good. And it’s
    this feeling of manipulation that encourages Ziolkowski to go on to argue
    that today the directors are increasingly part of the process, sometimes
    with the excuse that they are keeping texts alive, but in actuality always
    submitting them to some external imperative. His leading example is Hans
    Neuenfels’s direction of Mozart’s Idomeneo, which caused a considerable fuss
    in Berlin in 2006 because of an imported scene considered, and probably
    designed, to offend organized religion.


    It is true that in Britain “scandal” has become a small word, restricted for
    the most part to the related to physical gender and the financial. Dodgy expenses and office
    affairs are scandals; invading a foreign country may be a crime or a
    courageous moral decision, either way it’s something to which gossip may
    contribute but which ultimately lies beyond its delighted buzzing. Scandals
    go with gossip, the unverified, which is why the tabloids love to create
    them. When Schnitzler’s Reigen was first published in 1903, long before its
    first authorized performance in 1920, it suffered ugly attacks from both
    Left and Right and was seen as a slur on the German people. Years later, in
    1998, when the play was revived in London in a new translation by David Hare
    as The Blue Room and the director opted for brief full-scale nudity, the
    scandal, such as it was, seemed trivial, no more exploitative than the
    average popular newspaper and mostly generated by the fame of its movie-star
    lead.


    Is a genuine theatre scandal still possible? At our own national institution
    on the South Bank, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art currently features related to physical gender
    behaviour (with language to match) that was illegal within the lifetime of
    many of its appreciative onlookers, while David Hare’s The Power of Yes
    addresses the economic crisis in a manner that is baffled but oddly
    unshockable. Representations of financial irregularity and explicit physical gender no
    longer in themselves make for scandal in the theatre – as they did in
    Ibsen’s time – and that is no bad thing if we are seeking the deeper origins
    of human behaviour. According to Judge Brack, contemplating Hedda Gabler’s
    suicide, “people don’t do such things”, a famous irony that is played down
    in the current Riverside production, perhaps as too obvious, too well known,
    no longer startling. But what people do and what they don’t do, and where
    and how they do it, must always be the primary concern of any worthwhile
    theatrical practice requiring intellectual purpose as well as interpretative
    vision.



    Henrik Ibsen

    SCANDAL ON STAGE
    EuropeanTheater as Moral Trial
    Cambridge University Press.
    978 0 521 11260 4


    John Stokes is the author of The French Actress and Her English
    Audience, 2005, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Actress,
    2007.
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