Sunday, April 16, 2006

The word of the day is prosaic!

Ah, the classics. There remains a great many of these feted pieces that I have yet to experience. All of the ancient and traditionally praised work of centuries before stands before me in this enigmatic mess. I read them, expecting great impact...but the truth is, I am not as receptive to the large strokes, the big ideas, the deus ex machina. Don't get me wrong; I love Shakespeare just as much as the next dramaturg on the block. I absolutely respect the time-honored work of the Greeks.

But I rarely see them treated as new, sometimes they are produced on their good graces alone. I feel that we have collectively lost touch with these works, and very few people are trying to get them back.

With my boyfriend in tow, I stumbled upon Frank McGuinness' Phaedra at the Donmar Warehouse. Not only had this unfortunate production been pushed back, but it was because one of the leads had to be replaced at the last minute, resulting in a girl with a flashlight throwing lines to replacement Hippolytus when he dropped them. Props to him for jumping into a role so late in the game. But what is everyone else's excuse?

This telling, after Racine's, is aimless. With vague costumes and setting, we are left floating in an equivocal mess. We could be in ancient Athens, but no one wants to say. Instead of creating a world where these events and passions are possible, a world where the acts of the gods upon these hapless humans is a foregone conclusion, we have a strange attempt at a middle ground. Phaedra wants to be naturalistic and modern; McGuinness has taken the language to a muddled middle ground where the ideas can't mesh with the awkward interruptions of modern phrasing and vernacular. These are characters without a properly matching voice for their action. And of course, as in other Greek tragedies, the 'action' lies in wordy description of offstage events and interior desires. Phaedra never accepts this, and instead tries to be what it is not. We cannot sympathize with these characters the way we would in a kitchen-sink-drama, because they are not set up that way. Even the actors were aware of that, as the actress playing the title character explained, "The one thing that you don't do with the Greeks is ask what sort of woman am I playing. The process is not one of finding out what sort of shoes she wears. When you play this kind of role you are a blank canvas who is affected by outside forces. It is a primal and mythological experience, not small and internalised like western drama."

It isn't enough anymore---for me, at least-- to put these works up for their own sake. As with the selection of any play, we have to ask why this, and why now? Is there some new insight to be gained? How can we illuminate some part of this story, and how might we do it with respect to this play and this audience?

Purists will fight to leave these plays as is, but I agree with Robert Brustein, who writes, "...charges of 'desecration' are meaningful only if you subscribe to the idea of a 'definitive' production. I don't. The specialness of theatre--alas, the poignance of the theatre, too-- is its impermanence." Besides, how do we decide what is and isn't faithful to a text? Isn't it faithful to bring out the embedded ideas of a text, to penetrate what is there and find a heart, whether or not that aligns with what we may have come to know as the accepted traditional staging? If we don't look at these works with fresh eyes, they will become decrepit and ragged; they will show their age.


Blogger MattJ said...

Hi Annie. I definitely agree with you. Especially when it comes to Shakespeare, since we don't even have a good enough point of reference for the greeks and their staging and such.

That said, it is extremely difficult to mess with them as well, for a number of reasons. Even the best can sometimes turn into nothing more than a concept slapped on top of a great classic play. And so many concepts have been applied that sometimes you're new idea can actually be a regurgitation. But of course, no 2 productions are the same.

So, I agree with you, but the other direction can sometimes be equally as dangerous. This is why I have been putting a focus on new work lately. Why do another tired resurrection of Midsummer Night's Dream when you can dive into a new work?

7:13 PM  
Blogger Annie said...

Exactly. While you and I may prefer to cultivate new work, there will always be reimagined classics on the horizon.
They have the potential to be exciting and completely different from what we are used to, in that they can find a contemporary footing on what we thought was past.
I think the difference comes when we realize that you can slap a concept over a text by updating the time period, costumes, etc., OR you can use a poetic metaphor approach and do more than cosmetic alterations. Not that I have ever seen that done successfully, but I can hope, right?

2:19 AM  
Blogger Justin Kownacki said...

As a non-regular theatregoer -- and your boyfriend -- I should also add that the script girl with the flashlight was sadly more compelling to watch than the actors themselves. Not only did their voices not gel with their actions in theory, but they seemed pathologically unable to invest their characters with the slightest bit of reality or a human connection -- except the chap playing Hippolytus, who was essentially winging it, and the gent who played the king. Everyone else seemed content to writhe in their primordialism while I kept wondering if the restaurants would be open once this experiment in existing for existing's sake concluded.

9:04 AM  
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