Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Oh words, what crimes are committed in your name!"

Five Go Mad In Scotland! We had a nice long weekend in Glasgow, staying with some friends and popping over to Edinburgh on Saturday for a spot of culture at the Fringe. Sunday was spent inspecting the scenery around the Loch Lomond area, and very nice it was too. We drank, we stayed up late and chatted.

I broke the no-more-than-one-offal-a-day rule on Saturday by having black pudding in the French restaurant where we took an early dinner (boudin noir, my friends, a Limousin speciality) and takeaway haggis for supper, then topped it on Sunday when we stopped for dinner at a pub that offered haggis and black pudding on a pizza. Disgraceful behaviour. The high offal diet, incidentally, is one I recommend only to those who keep a good strong air freshener in their bathroom.

We only saw three shows, although these provided a good mix of theatre, comedy and music. The Fringe organisers encourage members of the public to review shows on their website, but there's a 500 word limit and most people seem to stick within about 100 words at a time, so what I've posted over there is a bit more succinct than what follows.

1. Afternoon - Jack, or The Submission (play by Eugene Ionesco)
I'd spotted this on the Fringe website and was keen to see it, so tickets were booked for the entire party. If I'd noticed then that The Lesson was also being staged during the Fringe I might have pushed for that one instead, but then again... maybe not. It's a pretty dark play, whereas Jack is, or tends to be, a more light-hearted affair.

So I was a bit bemused to see in the big Fringe booklet that Jack was being touted as "an absurdist tragedy", while The Lesson had become "light farce". Fules!

I know my friends all thought this was an hour of unmitigated woefulness, but I like a bit of absurdist theatre. Ionesco is one of the very few things that stayed with me after I put public school behind me and went off to University to become a human being. Absurdism, perversely enough, helped me to make more sense of the world. This doesn't mean I won't slag off this show, it just means I'll do it in more detail.

The script used was the bog-standard translation made quite soon after the French premiere by an American who just waded in there with a dictionary, obeying the letter of the script but caring naught for the spirit of it, and losing a fair amount of wordplay in the process. None of this is the fault of the cast or crew, you understand, just an aside. In fact the cast did an admirable job of interpreting their parts and delivering their lines. However, Ionesco didn't include very many stage directions in his script, which leaves the way open for directors to take liberties. Some of the liberties taken here were successful, others less so.

Combining the parents, grandparents and bride's parents into single, androgynous, split-personality characters was an outright success, a beautiful touch. Presumably motivated by not having a large enough cast, but brilliant nonetheless. The actor playing Jack's parents gave a particularly commendable performance. Playing the Fantasy Director game for a minute, I'd've wanted to find some way to carry this running motif through and "merge" Jack and Roberta at the end, but no such luck (in fact, the scripted end was left out and the play seemed to fizzle out a bit). The use of scenery was also excellent - presumably again invention was borne out of necessity; whatever, the edges of the stage were unmarked except for a disembodied door, which was thoroughly milked for its visual comedy potential. This sort of thing always works well in avant garde theatre.

Somewhere in the middle ground we have the play's self-aware moments, of which there are a few. These were picked up on, but not made enough of. Everybody gets the "Wait till the end of the scene" bit anyway, blatant as it is. There's a better one when Jack is telling Roberta about people not listening to him, "Not the ones who were here just now, but those others, although they don't count" - this is pretty much an open invitation to stare at the audience, and it went unmilked. On the other hand, the bare set design afforded some opportunity for the cast and director to insert self-aware moments of their own making, which were appreciated.

On the negative side, there was far too much physical larking about, particularly from Jack's sister, who spent the whole time contorting her way across the stage and making dog noises. Bugger knows why. It's as if the director wasn't confident enough that the words alone could carry the play, or wasn't prepared to let them try, and workshopped as much gratuitous weirdness as possible into the cast's performances to compensate. Some people think that this is what absurdism is all about, this grotesque caricature of avant garde theatre where people bark and gibber for no reason or deliver an entire speech in some sort of yoga position. Certainly it's what people who don't like avant garde theatre think it's about, and we were all reminded of that certain episode of Spaced: "It's not finished... it's finished..." (the whimper-ending only reinforced this).

So half marks for Jack. It wasn't a hit with my friends, but I shamefacedly admitted that it was probably about 60% what I'd expected to see. I don't know, maybe I just like pretentious rubbish. Is that so wrong - is it?!?

2. Evening - Aeneas Faversham Returns (sketch show by The Penny Dreadfuls)
As we sat in a French restaurant in central Edinburgh and pondered what to do with the hours between then and the night show, I dug out the Fringe booklet and checked for venues on our route, and this just leapt out at me. Four cravatted gentlemen perform sketches set in the Victorian era - sounded like a quickfire version of Ripping Yarns. Nor were we disappointed, for this was an hour of extremely fine comedy that slipped all too quickly away.

Highlights, to list only the very highest, included: a wizards' duel between The Great Amazingo and Kevin ("I've got your nose!" "You fiend! Give it back!"); naive young Susan (moustached and bearded) introducing her father to her incredibly creepy suitor ("You have such divine silverware..."); a sketch in which a fairy godmother presents a world in which the Scots never existed, which featured some brilliant flying effects; and the now infamous Specimen 626 sketch, which wasn't honestly much more than a concerted attempt to make two performers corpse on stage, but which had the desired effect on the audience as well.

So despite the troupe's name, not dreadful at all. Apparently there will be a radio show, which we're keenly looking forward to.

3. Night - The Honeymoon Suite (musical performance by Mikelangelo and Undine Francesca)
This was the other show for which we'd booked tickets, Ben and Sarah having seen Mikelangelo in action before and the rest of us having heard the albums. (There's a link over there on the right if anyone's interested.) But this wasn't another tour with the Black Sea Gentlemen - instead, Mikelangelo was performing a new set with his wife, Undine Francesca, and if the accents and some of the influences were the same, the material was somewhat different. The hour-long gig was a journey through the hotel honeymoon suites of a half-imagined Cold War era Eastern Europe, so mixed in with the familiar dark cabaret sound was a fair amount of Beach-Boys-esque rock 'n' roll. The results were extremely pleasing.

Undine Francesca, previously heard guesting on a couple of Black Sea Gentlemen songs, sang like a Transylvanian version of Marlene Dietrich, intoning her vocals rather than singing them. She played the keyboard as well, although "punched" would be a better word - watching her play was like watching Kraftwerk in an anger management session. It wasn't immediately obvious (to me, possibly to the others as well) whether she was deliberately doing this as part of the performance or genuinely couldn't play very well, but reading her credentials and hearing her play the piano in the book and CD project The Floating Islands I now suspect the former. More about that project later on.

Mikelangelo, "the Nightingale of the Adriatic", turned in a smooth combination of whistling and baritone crooning familiar to us from the albums. He looked and played like some kind of dark Elvis, bopping and boogieing to the livelier numbers, charming the audience between tunes. It was plain he and Undine Francesca are besotted with each other, and their chemistry on stage was as much a joy as their performance. The venue, the Bongo Club, was a sweaty pit of a club, but this only added to the slightly seedy, slightly sinister cabaret atmosphere. At times I felt Mikelangelo and UF wouldn't look out of place performing their macabre rock 'n' roll in a German expressionist film. A fine end to the day, and we were as happy to buy their books and CDs afterwards as I'm sure they were to sell them.

To follow: musical news, specifically of The Floating Islands and of the prolific Steve Palmer's recent activities.


Sarah said...

It wasn't that I didn't like 'Jack or the Submission' it was more that it went completely over my head. I am still puzzling why it was important for the family that Jack had to like hash browns. I think it would probably help if you have either read the play before and studied it. I kind of understood the 'Cat' bit at the end, and I liked the sister's unease when she fell of the stage. But apart from that, I didn't really get it.

John Toon said...

The hash browns aren't vitally important, despite their prominence. They're just a symbol of all the family stuff Jack rejects, then appears to accept, then rejects again. Why hash browns, I don't know - it's Ionesco's way sometimes to exaggerate tiny, meaningless things like this. It's not inappropriate - you know how family can turn stupid little things into matters of huge significance. So having Jack's family argue about something pointless like hash browns is ridiculous but also true to life, the way absurdism ought to be.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that what Jack says is a total non sequitur, it's his delivery and the family's reactions that matter, and that's true of a lot of Ionesco's dialogue (the sister saying "All roads lead to Rome", for instance, or the nonsense words like "chronometrible"). As I'll tell anyone who's prepared to listen, probably long after they've stopped being prepared to listen, Ionesco's all about language - about twisting it, garbling it, mocking it, testing it to destruction, but especially about pointing out how empty most of it is. The acme of this is in 'Rhinoceros', where having the characters mutate into a herd of clumsy, bellowing animals is just an outward expression of their clumsy, banal, herdlike language (and incidentally provides a nice ready-made metaphor for any number of other things the director might wish to comment upon - fashion, politics, etc).

There's an essay to be had there, or at least there was when I did my A-Levels. But you're right, it probably helps a lot to have studied the text. In fact, I'm increasingly wondering whether Ionesco might be one of those playwrights it's better to read than watch.

That said, there's a fairly serviceable film of 'Rhinoceros' starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, so it can be done.

John Toon said...

Oh, and the "cat" stuff - I did mention that this was basically a string of pussy references, "chat" having that other meaning in French. See how Ionesco simultaneously reinforces and undermines Roberta's seduction of Jack, cheapening the building rapport between them by having her repeatedly say "pussy". Again, it's absurd and yet true, the subtext of the flirting brought to the fore - she is, as it were, waving it in his face.

And he's made it clear that he wants it too, inviting her to guess what he wears on his head by telling her "it's a type of cha-". His "chapeau", of course. Sounds a bit like "chat-peau" ("cat-skin"), which explains why Roberta responds by telling Jack that she has a skinless cat ("chat, sans peau"). A filthy translator (not that I'm volunteering) might read "peau" in this context as "fur" rather than simply "skin" and use the line to imply that Roberta's boasting about the wax job she's had. Y'know, if a translator were particularly filthy. Or skilful enough - it'd be a tricky job to make it work in English.

But you get that over-literal American translator wading in there with his dictionary, all the subtlety just goes out of the window and you end up with Roberta repeatedly saying "cat", which is at least bizarre but lacks the impact of the original French.

I ought to just point out that none of this stuff about pussies was in my A-Level essay, which was strictly about the destruction of language in 'La cantatrice chauve' and 'Rhinoceros'.

Sarah said...

By the looks of it, reading it and studying it first does improve it.

Jo said...

Does the word "chat" have exactly the same dual meaning that "pussy" has in English? i.e. if you talk about a shaved pussy, you aren't necessarily having to get the RSPCA involved...
And having them say "pussy, pussy, pussy" etc in the final section might have a bit more of an impression than "cat, cat, cat..."

John Toon said...

Sarah: yes.

Jo: yes.

Clearly the next time there's a Ionesco play in the offing, I'll have to either go by myself or hand out York Notes beforehand. I suspect the former.

Jo said...

I'd be happy to have the York notes :-)
I suspect that a professional troupe might also be a bit better (I have a feeling that this one was probably a group of students...)