Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’

Headlong’s <em>The Glass Menagerie</em>: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’

The production at Liverpool Playhouse of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that my daughter took me to see on Saturday was slated in the Observer. In her review Clare Brennan wrote that ‘Ellen McDougall’s direction constrains 3D actors in a 2D concept’. She went on:

Context matters. In this new co-production by Headlong, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, it has been eradicated. We are left with a tight focus on individuals separated from the indicators of the circumstances that mould them.

I could not disagree more. Continue reading “Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’”

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Jonathan Miller’s touring production of King Lear for Northern Broadsides arrived at the Playhouse this week. It’s a stark, pared-down staging of Shakespeare’s starkest play, in which the weight of suffering at times feels almost as unendurable for the audience as it is for its characters. Continue reading “Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear”

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Two very different representations of the Holocaust seen in the last 48 hours are the subject of this post. The first is the stage adaptation by Children’s Touring Partnership of  Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for younger readers, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, set in Auschwitzthe second a documentary film, Night Will Fall, about the army photographers who filmed the horrific scenes revealed when British forces entered the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Continue reading “Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text”

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.

But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation.  It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them. Continue reading “The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?”

Under Milk Wood: from where you are, you can hear their dreams

Under Milk Wood: from where you are, you can hear their dreams

Under Milk Wood Clwyd 1

When Under Milk Wood was first performed in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas advised the cast to ‘love the words, love the words.’  The other night we went along to the Playhouse to see the Clwyd Theatre Cymru production of this ‘play for voices’ – now touring the country to mark the 60th anniversary of its first radio broadcast and the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth – to be once again swept away upon the poet’s tidal wave of words. I remember hearing the radio production that had Richard Burton as the main narrator sometime in the early sixties before I left home for university.  I’ve never seen the play performed on stage, nor read the text since hearing it on the radio, so I was intrigued as to whether it would still stir me in the way it did when I was a teenager. Those opening lines still thrill:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Beneath that ‘starless and bible-black’ sky, once again, as in a dream or a fairy tale, we are limping invisible down the cobbled lanes of Llareggub, peeking into the hopes and dreams, hates and loves, lustings and eccentricities of the villagers. And the words pour forth: as a review in the New York Times of the first film version put it:

Too many words, perhaps, for the stage. … It’s not simply the quantity of words, though. It’s also their ornateness. They overflow the ears and get into the eyes. Great clouds of them everywhere, like swarms of big soft gnats. They won’t stop…

The origins of Under Milk Wood go back to the 1930s when Thomas began to map out a plan to write a Welsh Ulysses and Joyce’s influence is apparent, not only in the play’s format of a twenty-four hour cycle in the town’s life, but also in the Joycean relish of language, puns and verbal inventiveness.  Kenneth Tynan once remarked:

He conscripts metaphors, rapes the dictionary and builds a verbal bawdy-house where words mate and couple on the wing, like swifts. Nouns dress up, quite unselfconsciously, as verbs, sometimes balancing three-tiered epithets on their heads and often alliterating to boot.

So, how to transfer this avalanche of words to the stage and translate into the visual the ‘play for voices’ created for radio listening?  This fine production, directed by Terry Hands (former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the original Everyman founders), successfully achieves it by means of a minimalist set that does nothing to interfere with, or detract from, the poetry. Martyn Bainbridge’s raked, circular sweep of a set evokes the steps and cobbles of the streets, behind which rises, up-ended, a circular representation of harbour and town. This is sufficient to evoke the town between the ‘crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea’ and the ‘eternal’ Llareggub Hill, ‘old as the hills, high, cool, and green’.

The stage lighting shifts subtly from moonlit night into warm sun-lit day. If the words are crucial, then you need the voices that will carry them.  The assembled Theatre Clwyd company – for all of whom Welsh is their native language – do an excellent job, with Owen Teale deserving special mention as the First Voice narrator, as he steps into Richard Burton’s shoes and wraps his tongue around Thomas’s words ‘with the relish of a man enjoying a great malt whisky’ (as Charles Spencer put it in the Telegraph).

Owen Teale in Under Milk Wood Owen Teale in Under Milk Wood

What, then, of the piece as a whole? It still has the power to touch the heart with its blend of melancholy and rollicking, lubricious good humour. It’s a piece that celebrates life and what it is to be a human being:

Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?

But to ‘drift up the dark … the drifting sea-dark street’ of Llareggub is to enter a dream world, populated by eccentrics withwild imaginations, obsessed with clocks, poisons, each other, or the past. Captain Cat dreams of his lost days at sea and of his lost love Rosie, Mr Pugh dreams of murdering his wife with deadly potions, while Organ Morgan and his wife pursue each other crazily around the bedroom (to mention merely three of the multitude of characters that populate the town).  Thomas once wrote that:

All of them, all the eccentrics whose eccentricities … are but briefly & impressionistically noted [are] all, by their own rights … ordinary & good; and the 1st Voice, & the poet preacher, never judge nor condemn but explain and make strangely simple & simply strange…

Up to a point, maybe.  In the programme there is a quotation from critic Charles Marowitz in which he argues that the play ‘brims over with the kind of humanity only a poet can manifest’.  For myself, however, as the play progressed, I began to see rather too much caricature and not a little superciliousness in Thomas’s portrayal of his characters. A bit too much fun at the expense of simple folk, a little too soft on men and their lusts and drunkenness, and too many huddles of gossipy, tittering wives.

Under Milk Wood cast The cast of Under Milk Wood take a bow Charles Spencer expressed some of misgivings – and mixed feelings – about the play in his review for the Telegraph:

It is hard to imagine a better production than this one, directed with palpable affection by Terry Hands.  … Throughout the show the cast deliver Thomas’s rich language with relish and humour. Nevertheless, the piece seems to me to work better in the mind’s eye of the broadcast version than watching a group of actors on stage. As someone wisely observed, the pictures are better on radio. There is precious little action, just a lot of windy Welsh talk and florid imagery, as Thomas describes the village and its inhabitants. And though the writing is vivid and often comic, the welter of words plays to diminishing returns. Dylan Thomas was never a man or a writer who believed that less could mean more.

‘Windy Welsh talk and florid imagery’ may be overstating the case, for there is no denying the beauty and vitality of certain passages.  For instance, Mog Edwards’ ‘mad with love’ speech, a declaration of his unrequited passion for Miss Myfanwy Price across the valley:

I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.

Or, the passage in which a child walking up the main street, hand-in-hand with his mother, catches sight of lonely Captain Cat crying:

CAPTAIN CAT: Rosie Probert.

ROSIE PROBERT: Remember her. She is forgetting. The earth which filled her mouth Is vanishing from her. Remember me. I have forgotten you. I am going into the darkness of the darkness for ever. I have forgotten that I was ever born.

CHILD: Look,

FIRST VOICE: says a child to her mother as they pass by the window of Schooner House, CHILD: Captain Cat is crying

FIRST VOICE: Captain Cat is crying

CAPTAIN CAT: Come back, come back,

FIRST VOICE: up the silences and echoes of the passages of the eternal night.

CHILD: He’s crying all over his nose,

FIRST VOICE: says the child. Mother and child move on down the street.

CHILD: He’s got a nose like strawberries,

FIRST VOICE: the child says; and then she forgets him too.

Reviewing the first stage adaptation for the Guardian in 1956, Kenneth Tynan wrote:

Watching it, I recalled the fashionable charges against Dylan Thomas’s play: that it approaches sex like a dazzled and peeping schoolboy, and that Llaregyb, so far from being a real village, is a ‘literary’ village that Thomas had adorned with a false moustache of lechery – ‘Cranford’ in fact, with the lid off. The characters duplicate one another: Mae Rose Cottage equals Polly Garter, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard equals Mrs Pugh, and Gossamer Beynon equals Myfanwy Price. The end is a perfunctory tapering-off: the town takes twenty-three pages to wake up but is packed off to bed in less than ten. To all these accusations Thomas must plead guilty. Yet we, the jury, rightly acquit him. He talks himself innocent: on two dozen occasions he gets past the toughest guard and occupies the heart. And the manic riot of his prose outdoes even the young O’Casey; he conscripts metaphors, rapes the dictionary and builds a verbal bawdy-house where words mate and couple on the wing, like swifts. Nouns dress up, quite unselfconsciously, as verbs, sometimes balancing three-tiered epithets on their heads and often alliterating to boot.

Indeed. As the Reverend Eli Jenkins expresses it in his evening prayer, we should perhaps not be too hard on folk:

We are not wholly bad or good Who live our lives under Milk Wood, And Thou, I know, wilt be the first To see our best side, not our worst.

Dylan Thomas at the BBC in 1952 Dylan Thomas at the BBC in 1948

Thomas never lived to hear the broadcast of his most famous work. Having completed the final draft in October 1953, a month before his death in New York.  His ‘play for voices’ was broadcast on the Third Programme the following year, and an instant hit and national talking point.

In 1949 Thomas and his family had moved to the Boat House at Laugharne. For the last four years of his life he moved between the Boat House and the United States, where he went on four separate poetry-reading tours.  Dylan penned some of his greatest work here, including Under Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas boathouse

The Dylan Thomas boathouse at Laugharne

The Clwyd Theatre programme included a reproduction of a painting of Laugharne by an artist previously unknown to me – Edward Morland Lewis.  Like Thomas, Lewis was a man whose roots were in Camarthenshire, and most of paintings depict scenes in the county. In the 1930s he was first taught by and later assistant to Sickert, and this is reflected in his style.  He painted scenes in Laugharne several times.

'Laugharne' by Edward Morland Lewis, c. 1930s ‘Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis, c. 1931

There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles of the humming streets, hammering of horse- shoes, gobble quack and cackle, tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced boughs, braying on Donkey Down. Bread is baking, pigs are grunting, chop goes the butcher, milk-churns bell, tills ring, sheep cough, dogs shout, saws sing. Oh, the Spring whinny and morning moo from the clog dancing farms, the gulls’ gab and rabble on the boat-bobbing river and sea and the cockles bubbling in the sand, scamper of sanderlings, curlew cry, crow caw, pigeon coo, clock strike, bull bellow, and the ragged gabble of the beargarden school as the women scratch and babble in Mrs Organ Morgan’s general shop where everything is sold: custard, buckets, henna, rat-traps, shrimp-nets, sugar, stamps, confetti, paraffin, hatchets, whistles.

‘Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis, c. 1931

Herring gulls heckling down to the harbour where the fishermen spit and prop the morning up and eye the fishy sea smooth to the sea’s end as it lulls in blue. Green and gold money, tobacco, tinned salmon, hats with feathers, pots of fish-paste, warmth for the winter-to-be, weave and leap in it rich and slippery in the flash and shapes of fishes through the cold sea-streets. But with blue lazy eyes the fishermen gaze at that milkmaid whispering water with no nick or ripple as though it blew great guns and serpents and typhooned the town.

FISHERMAN:  Too rough for fishing to-day.

SECOND VOICE: And they thank God, and gob at a gull for luck, and moss-slow and silent make their way uphill, from the still still sea, towards the Sailors Arms

‘The Strand at Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis,  1931

FIRST VOICE: The morning is all singing. The Reverend Eli Jenkins, busy on his morning calls, stops outside the Welfare Hall to hear Polly Garter as she scrubs the floors for the Mothers’ Union Dance to-night.


I loved a man whose name was Tom
He was strong as a bear and two yards long
I loved a man whose name was Dick
He was big as a barrel and three feet thick
And I loved a man whose name was Harry
Six feet tall and sweet as a cherry
But the one I loved best awake or asleep
Was little Willy Wee and he’s six feet deep.

O Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Wee was the man for me.

Now men from every parish round
Run after me and roll me on the ground
But whenever I love another man back
Johnnie from the Hill or Sailing Jack
I always think as they do what they please
Of Tom Dick and Harry who were tall as trees
And most I think when I’m by their side
Of little Willy Wee who downed and died.

O Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Weazel is, the man for me.

REV. ELI JENKINS: Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.

Of the Clwyd Theatre production, Alfred Hickling wrote in the Guardian:

The pitch-perfect, brisk tempo of the delivery is testament to the exemplary ensemble of Welsh actors that Hands has developed in Clwyd over the past 15 years. But if one is to single out the finest contributions, Polly Garter’s song of lost love is plaintively sung by Katie Elin-Salt; the doggerel sermonising of Simon Nehan’s Rev Eli Jenkins is hilariously overripe and Owen Teale shows outstanding mastery of the tongue-twisting commentary of the First Voice. Try saying “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea” at performance speed and you’ll get an idea of how hard he has worked.

There is nothing finer in the play, though, than the magnificent opening invocation spoken by the First Voice. Here it is, read by Richard Burton in the original BBC broadcast:

And here are the words themselves:

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night in Donkey Street, trotting silent, With seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams.

A Day of Pleasure: stories and coincidences

A Day of Pleasure: stories and coincidences
Day of Pleasure bw
Stuart Richman as Isaac Bashevis Singer in A Day of Pleasure

‘Only the dreamers, who dream while awake, call back the shadows of the past and braid from unspun threads, unspun nets.’
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Coincidences, coincidences …

On Friday we attended a superb production in the Playhouse Studio – a one-man performance in which Stuart Richman portrays Isaac Bashevis Singer in his New York apartment in 1978, waiting for the taxi to take him to the airport to travel to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In A Day of Pleasure, we are drawn intimately into Singer’s room as the consummate storyteller recalls his childhood on Krochmalna Street in pre-First World War Warsaw where he lived with his Hasidic Rabbi father and family.

Krochmalna Street was a neighbourhood where thieves, prostitutes, street vendors and ragpickers rubbed shoulders with devout Jews. As a child, Singer soaked up the religious observances, tall tales and superstitions on Krochmalna Street and in the isolated village of Bilgoray where, during the German occupation of Warsaw in World War I, Singer’s mother moved the family for greater safety – back to her birthplace. Singer’s childhood experiences provided the subject matter for many of his tales of shtetl life. in a community virtually untouched by modernity – tales filled with wild adventures, superstitions and rationalism, demons and hobgoblins, dead geese which shriek, a burly milkman with a voice ‘like a lion’, and a fiercely independent elderly washerwoman bent double beneath a mountain of laundry.

Krochmalna Street, Warsaw, where Singer's family lived.
Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, where Singer’s family lived.

Singer’s world – the world magnificently conjured by Stuart Richman’s magnificent performance – is the same as that depicted in Marc Chagall’s paintings (seen at Tate Liverpool a couple of weeks ago), in Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar that inspired Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, and in the last weeks fifth episode of Simon Schama’s powerful and deeply personal TV series, The Story of the Jews. In the finest of a fine series, Schama explored the lost world of the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the seedbed of a uniquely Jewish culture.  He showed how Shtetl culture made its mark on the modern world, most notably in America, where the sons of shtetl immigrants wrote the American songbook, most poignantly ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, written by Edgar Yipsel Harburg (who also wrote ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’) and released on record in March 1940 just as, in Eastern Europe, the Nazis were grinding the world of the shtetl to dust and ash.

Back in the Playhouse Studio, designer Anna Gooch’s set drew us into the intimacy of Bashevis Singer’s New York home, while the ghosts of the lost shtetl past glimmer in faded chairs and piles of suitcases which encircle the room. This was a Useful Donkey, directed by Neil Sissons, but most notably written and performed by Everyman founding member Stuart Richman, who had been powerfully drawn to Singer’s work after discovering a copy of his memoirs in a Wirral auction house a few years ago.  Early on, Richman has Singer exclaim: ‘Life is God’s novel, let him write it. But let me tell it.’

Day of Pleasure

Singer was the grandson of two rabbis and son of third, born Yitskhok Zynger in 1904 in a small Polish town twenty miles from Warsaw. When Singer was four, his family moved to the apartment on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw.  At seventeen, Isaac entered a rabbinical seminary but left within a year, unable, he later wrote, to be ‘the sort of Jew that my pious parents wanted to make of me’. A passionate reader not only of the Talmud and Kabbala but also of Dostoevsky and Spinoza, Singer turned his attention toward the literary and journalistic world. He made a meager living translating European novels, including All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as publishing his own short stories.In Warsaw Singer had a wife, Runya, although they were never married by a rabbi, and a child. But, in 1935, with differences pulling them apart, and with Hitler’s rise to power threatening,  the couple parted for different cities: Singer for New York, while Runya, a staunch Communist, took their son to the USSR, and later to Palestine.

a house on Krachmalna Street
A house on Krachmalna Street, Warsaw

In 2012, Stuart Richman told Laura Davis of the Liverpool Echo how the idea for A Day of Pleasure had begun with the collection of short stories he had picked up at auction:

I just found it very, very moving.  It’s simply a picture of a world that has disappeared, not all because of the Holocaust when a vast proportion of Yiddish culture was wiped out, but also because time has passed and life has changed.

Richman told Laura Davis that he felt a personal connection with the stories because of his own family background. Both sets of his grandparents were part of the wave of Jewish people fleeing Eastern Europe as the dark shadow of persecution swept the continent. Intending to travel to America, they ended up settling in London.

My Russian (paternal) grandparents came from a village in the Ukraine which the Nazis completely destroyed.  My mother’s father came from Poland and he was actually conscripted into the Polish Cossacks.  My father’s mother actually did work as a washerwoman in the east end of London during the period that her cobbler husband had gone to the States and got caught up in the First World War.  He couldn’t come back and they were totally impoverished.

Richman remembered being taken to the cinema as a seven-year-old in immediate post-war London, and experiencing his first glimpse of the fate that could have befallen his family:

I saw the first images of the Holocaust, the skeletons and piles of rotting bodies, and I think it’s really that which has dictated my choice of stories from A Day of Pleasure.

Although the Playhouse production was billed as a world première,Richman’s first performance of A Day of Pleasure was in the Princes Road synagogue in June 2011.  Delayed for a year by illness, this was a beautifully-crafted piece of theatre, superbly scripted and performed by Richman, and enhanced by the intimate and evocative staging.  In her review for the Liverpool Echo,Laura Davis wrote:

Rare is the opportunity in adulthood to sit in silence and listen to stories, so those chances when they are come are extra special. … Stuart Richman plays Isaac Bashevis Singer – exile, writer, philosopher – on the eve of receiving his Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm in 1978: “Today I am a Yiddish novelist, tomorrow I will be a Nobel Prize winner, a day later I will be a Yiddish novelist again,” he jokes with characteristic mischievousness.

Under Neil Sissons’ direction, Richman speaks directly to the audience, which this being the Playhouse Studio is small anyway but his warm performance makes each individual feel he is addressing them alone. Singer’s childhood was filled with the magic of imagination and belief, which he takes the time to describe as he awaits his taxi to the airport in his New York flat. There are the nameless but terrifying creatures in the dark passage, the cricket telling an endless story from behind a tiled stove, a pair of dead but still screaming geese.

In contrast, his friends and neighbours feel solid and earthly – the brave and generous dairyman Reb Asher; a spindly washerwoman with her enormous linen bundle like an insect hoisting a crumb of bread eight times its size; his Rabbi father and intellectual mother whose faith and rationalism were constantly butting heads. […]  It all helps to conjure up a picture of a now long lost culture in an experience that is pleasurable indeed.

In this YouTube clip, Stuart Richman talks about performing in A Day of Pleasure:

The opening words of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech, 1978:

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

saac Bashevis Singer feeding pigeons on Broadway 1975
Isaac Bashevis Singer feeding pigeons on Broadway, 1975

An extract from the Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy:

Singer was born in a small town or village in eastern Poland and grew up in one of the poor, over-populated Jewish quarters of Warsaw, before and during the First World War. His father was a rabbi of the Hasid school of piety, a spiritual mentor for a motley collection of people who sought his help. Their language was Yiddish – the language of the simple people and of the mothers, with its sources far back in the middle ages and with an influx from several different cultures with which this people had come in contact during the many centuries they had been scattered abroad. It is Singer’s language. And it is a storehouse which has gathered fairytales and anecdotes, wisdom, superstitions and memories for hundreds of years past through a history that seems to have left nothing untried in the way of adventures and afflictions. The Hasid piety was a kind of popular Jewish mysticism. It could merge into prudery and petty-minded, strict adherence to the law. But it could also open out towards orgiastic frenzy and messianic raptures or illusions.

This world was that of East-European Jewry – at once very rich and very poor, peculiar and exotic but also familiar with all human experience behind its strange garb. This world has now been laid waste by the most violent of all the disasters that have overtaken the Jews and other people in Poland. It has been rooted out and reduced to dust. But it comes alive in Singer’s writings, in his waking dreams, his very waking dreams, clear-sighted and free of illusion but also full of broad-mindedness and unsentimental compassion. Fantasy and experience change shape. The evocative power of Singer’s inspiration acquires the stamp of reality, and reality is lifted up by dreams and imagination into the sphere of the supernatural, where nothing is impossible and nothing is sure. […]

Singer has perhaps given of his best as a consummate storyteller and stylist in the short stories and in the numerous and fantastic novellas, available in English translation in about a dozen collections. The passions and crazes are personified in these strange tales as demons, spectres and ghosts, all kinds of infernal or supernatural powers from the rich storehouse of Jewish popular belief or of his own imagination. These demons are not only graphic literary symbols but also real, tangible forces. The middle ages seem to spring to life again in Singer’s works, the daily round is interwoven with wonders, reality is spun from dreams, the blood of the past pulsates in the present. This is where Singer’s narrative art celebrates its greatest triumphs and bestows a reading experience of a deeply original kind, harrowing but also stimulating and edifying. Many of his characters step with unquestioned authority into the Pantheon of literature where the eternal companions and mythical figures live, tragic – and grotesque, comic and touching, weird and wonderful – people of dream and torment, baseness and grandeur.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields.

We went, three of us, last night to see A Streetcar Named Desire at the Liverpool Playhouse.  It’s a magnificent production of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play that has come to be regarded as a landmark of 20th century theatre. Tender yet powered by violent rage and desperation, it’s a play that must have been deeply shocking to large sections of its audience back in 1947. Indeed, with alcoholism, sex, suicide, prostitution, class and ethnic hostilities, rape, madness and what is euphemistically referred to as ‘degeneracy’, there is plenty to chew on: when it came to London in 1949 the critic Harold Hobson raged against the ‘excessively virtuous’ playgoers who reacted to the play ‘with sheer, half-witted moral horror’. No other London production, he declared, had met with such ‘venomous opposition’ since Ibsen.  Exactly: it’s in that league, Williams’ scrutiny of repressed emotions and family trauma is on a par with that of the Scandinavian master dramatist.

The Playhouse production, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, grabs you by the throat from the very start, and maintains its grip for the entire three hours of the drama. Superb acting by the entire cast and in particular an outstanding performance from Amanda Drew as the tragic Blanche DuBois account for this, along with excellent set design, lighting and sound.

The set is all expressionistic slants and diagonals, rotating between the exterior of Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s apartment with its fire escape lit by the neon lights of the New Orleans French Quarter and its interior: two bare rooms and, somewhere off stage, a bathroom, crucial to the plot. There was a palpable sense of fraught emotions building like a pressure cooker in this confined and claustrophobic space. Both lighting and sound contributed to the atmosphere of sweaty tension, with haunting jazz and the distant rumble and sounding bell of the streetcar.

There’s no doubt that the performance is dominated by Amanda Drew’s superb performance as the damaged, fragile Blanche, lurching from the affectations of the elevated social class she has fallen from, flashes of a predatory, sexual confidence, and a haunted desolation. It’s no accident that she compulsively changes clothes in scene after scene.  But Leanne Best as Stella Kowalski and Sam Troughton as her husband Stanley give brilliant performances, too.  Sam Troughton struts the stage, chest puffed out with macho menace, though daughter felt that he lacked the presence – and physique – of Marlon Brando in the film version.  A view shared by Dominic Cavendish in his review of the production in The Telegraph:

Now Troughton holds the stage well at the Liverpool Playhouse – shoulders back, chest out, hard stares, a stiff, deliberate way with his neck – but did I believe that he is, as his infatuated wife Stella has it, “a different species”? Not really.  No one’s expecting Marlon Brando, who created the role in the original production of Streetcar in 1947, but something in the audience needs to swoon or stir a little at the sight of this work-begrimed, poker-playing Polack. We need to understand why Stella would accept such a comedown in life, such rough New Orleans circumstances, and moreover why her too-delicate sister Blanche DuBois, in flight from her troubles and throwing herself on their hospitality, might hold him in ambiguous contempt.

As the tragedy unfolds, it is Blanche who holds centre stage: the fragile, vulnerable victim, scarred by the trauma of discovering that her young husband has been unfaithful to her with another man, and then his subsequent horrific suicide. Like a bird with a broken wing, Blanche tries again and again to find love and beauty, but only succeeds in piling lie on a lie to create a world of illusion. In the final moments of the play, as she is shepherded away to the asylum, we survey the wreckage of her life – and the disaster she has brought to the lives of the others – Stella with her new-born baby, Stanley, and the unfortunate Mitch, whose hopes for an end to loneliness have, like Blanche’s turned to dust.  Each of these characters is undone by Blanche’s departure: Mitch stares vacantly into what was once her bedroom, Stella clutches her baby, Stanley embraces Stella in the vain hope of undoing the damage.

A Streetcar Named Desire had its premiere on the New York stage three years after The Glass Menagerie had won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, catapulting Williams into the upper echelon of American playwrights. A Streetcar Named Desire cemented Williams’s reputation, gathering another Drama Critics’ Circle Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Much of the pathos found in Tennessee Williams’ drama was mined from the playwright’s own life. Alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness, and insanity were all part of Williams’s world. His most memorable characters (and it’s notable, watching Streetcar, how many of them are dream roles for female actors), contain recognisable elements of their author, his mother Edwina, or his sister Rose. Williams’ mother was a Mississippi clergyman’s daughter prone to hysterical attacks. In 1918, Tennessee’s family had moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, marking the start of the family’s deterioration. His father’s drinking increased, the family moved sixteen times in ten years, and the young Williams, shy and fragile, was ostracised and taunted at school. During these years, he and his sister Rose were very close.  Later, after Williams had left home, Rose, who had begun suffering from mental illness, was subjected to a lobotomy, an event that was traumatic for Williams, and left his sister in a mental home for the rest of her life.  The vulgar, irresponsible male characters in Williams’ dramas (such as Stanley Kowalski) are said to be modelled on Williams’ own father and youths who tormented him during his childhood.

Symbols play an important part in the play.  There’s a scene in which Mitch offers Blanche a cigarette from his case, which bears an inscription that Blanche immediately recognises as coming from one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, published in 1850. It’s stands as a symbol of Blanche’s undying love for her dead young husband. The poem, written to Barrett Browning’s husband (fellow poet Robert Browning), is probably her most famous work:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.  I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life;  and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

It also symbolises Blanche’s illusions and conflicted feelings about relationships between men and women, captured in this exchange with her sister:
Blanche: What you are talking about is desire – just brutal Desire. The name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.

Stella: Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?

Blanche: It brought me here. Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.

It’s a mark of the quality of Williams’ writing that we end up caring deeply for a woman who is manipulative, snobbish, hypocritical, trapped in her own illusions.  It’s close to the end of the play when she speaks its most famous line:

Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

These words, spoken by Blanche to the doctor who comes to take her to the mental hospital, form her final statement in the play. It seems that she perceives the doctor to be the chivalrous Shep Huntleigh, the rescuer for whom she has been waiting since she arrived in New Orleans. But it’s illusory: not only is this man not her saviour, but Blanche’s dependence on ‘the kindness of strangers’ rather than on herself is the explanation for her present predicament. Strangers have given her money for sex, while the people of her hometown, and now strangers like Stanley and Mitch have denied her their sympathy. Blanche’s final remark is a sign of her total detachment from reality and her inclination to see in life only what she wants to see.

Finally, just a couple of glances back to Marlon Brando’s on screen reprise of the role he played in the play’s first New York performance. In this scene, Brando as Stanley meets Blanche (played by Vivien Leigh) for the first time:

In contrast, here they are busy tearing each other apart towards the end: ‘Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes?’

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Mogadishu: implausible and unconvincing

Mogadishu is about a white teacher who tries to protect a black student from expulsion after he pushes her to the ground, but he turns the tables, accusing her of assaulting and racially abusing him.  This is the first play from Vivienne Franzmann, herself a former secondary school teacher.  Last year, after it had premiered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre, it became joint winner of the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. Now the play is on tour, and I went with teacher-daughter to see it at the Liverpool Playhouse.

I came away irritated and less than impressed by the play.  Let me say straightaway that there is a great deal of fine acting in this performance – most notably by those playing the teenagers, and especially by Rosie Wyatt as Becky, the accused teacher’s daughter.  Vivienne Franzmann’s script fizzes in the schoolyard exchanges between the teenage students, crackling with racial tension, sexual innuendo and misogyny – clearly Franzmann listened hard during those years as a teacher.  There’s a real sense of the brutality and boredom, loyalty and betrayal of the school yard.  Much of the repartee, with its slang and sex and drug references, passed me by; but an audience largely populated by parties of school students lapped it all up with great hilarity.

The play, of course, has nothing to do with Mogadishu – a place that, when referred to by her mum and challenged to locate, middle-class Becky responds: ‘I’ll Google it later’.  Clearly, though, Franzmann wants us to see the playground as a civil war zone, and the production reinforces this, with the stage encircled in a ring of wire fencing that gives the kids the look of caged animals.

That said, I found the play unconvincing.  When white teacher Amanda intervenes to prevent a studious Turkish student being attacked by Jason, a black pupil, she is knocked to the ground.  She refuses to report the incident, despite Jason having a track record and already being in line for exclusion.  Instead, she finds herself wrongfully accused by Jason, and matters swiftly degenerate.  It’s the character of Amanda that I found completely implausible.  Even as the crisis closes in upon her, even when she is suspended, she maintains a blithe assurance that Jason, being fundamentally decent, will admit he lied.

Jason Barnett with Jackie Clune as Amanda

Amanda won’t go to her union for advice, and won’t listen to those closest to her: daughter Becky (who is so remarkably full of common sense that it stretches credulity that she could be so smart and her mum so stupid) and her husband (who, it turns out, is black).  Instead she puts her faith in a rather inept acting Head and the members of Jason’s gang, that they will retract their identical stories that back up Jason’s.

Franzmann obviously seeks to chart the impact that a false allegation can have in these bureaucratic times.  So a minor incident escalates into a career-threatening confrontation with the education authorities, social services and the police – but the play fails to make this credible.  Worse still, Franzmann pours in every conceivable ingredient. It’s not enough to explore the tensions implicit in dealing with racism and violence in the school setting: we must have three suicides and self harming as well.

Rosie Wyatt as Becky

There’s far too much repetition, in playground and domestic scenes, of characters screaming at  each other for being an idiot, for changing their mind, or not changing their mind.  The tone alternates wildly: one moment it’s laugh-out-loud comedy, next minute we’re into repressed trauma or domestic abuse.  This would be tolerable if the characters weren’t so two-dimensional.

Ryan Calais Cameron as Jason

Mogadishu doesn’t offer any answers, and the ending is infuriatingly glib. The play offers some insights into the bureaucracy of modern education and the realities of playground power, but the script and plotting are as two-dimensional and as unconvincing as an episode of Hollyoaks.

What remains strong in the memory of this play are the playground scenes, and the performances by the younger cast members, full of energy and comedy, and seething with suspicion and uncertainty.

See also

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan's The 39 Steps at the Liverpool Playhouse

Continuing a family tradition of a cinema or theatre outing on Christmas Eve, this year, in a sense, we combined the two by seeing the Playhouse production of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The play, which has been a big success elsewhere and here in Liverpool, is by Patrick Barlow and is more Hitchcock than Buchan – and like neither, in the sense that it is a comedy.  It was great Christmas Eve entertainment, very funny, energetically-performed by the cast of four (out of which a running gag emerged) and staged effectively, particularly in the balletic silent sequences.

The 39 Steps – Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

This is from the Liverpool Echo review:

Patrick Barlow’s script has thrilled theatres all over the globe and is now cutting a dash across the Liverpool stage in a brand new production for the Playhouse.  It draws on master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film version of Buchan’s original novel, with all 100-plus characters portrayed by just four actors.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, whose own name would be perfectly suited to a tale of derring-do, plays mustachioed hero Richard Hannay with perfectly timed dead-pan and just the right amount of exaggeration.  Tippi Hedron-lookalike Katherine Kingsley meanwhile switches from mysterious brunette Annabella Schmidt, Glaswegian housewife Pamela and the earnestly lovely Margaret thanks to a few costume changes and her own great versatility.  Hannay and Margaret are the straight men to Richard Braine and Dan Starkey, who take on the rest of the characters.  They are bungling policemen, variety show acts, enemy spies, underwear salesmen, kilt-sporting hoteliers and many more – sometimes playing numerous characters at a time using more accents than there are in the United Nations.

All of the film’s scenes are also featured – some in depth, others flashing by as the plot zips through the 90-minute script faster than a steam train crossing the Forth Bridge.  The set is minimal but ingenious, relying on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks – a picture frame becomes a window Hannay must escape through, doors are wheeled off and on stage to resemble new locations and four dining chairs turn into a car.  Hannay’s escape across the Scottish wilderness is portrayed through a sequence of shadow puppetry that is clever and silly at the same time.

The show is a ripping yarn of a comedy that will have you laughing out loud, while checking the theatre for suspicious characters.

And this, from Click Liverpool:

The play is so fast paced that a cast of four manage to play 139 roles in 100 minutes, which is quite some feat. The incredible aristocratic sounding Dugald Bruce-Lockhart plays the part of Richard Hanney, he brings the right stiff upper lip Britishness to the role and without it being an impersonation of Robert Donat in the original film. His is a very energetic performance and he is on stage for the entire play.

The simply stunning Katherine Kingsley takes on the three main female roles of Annabelle, Margaret and Pamela and swaps accents and costumes so quickly, that you are hard pressed to realise that it is the same actress playing the different roles. Richard Braine and Dan Starkey play all the other roles, I told you this was a fast paced show. Dan Starkey does a very entertaining robotic Mr Memory; he must have taken his inspiration from Peter Crouch, while Richard Braine has more voices than Jon Culshaw…

There are numerous references to Hitchcock films. I will not spoil your enjoyment by repeating them here; just to say if you are a fan of Hitchcocks films it will only add to your enjoyment of  The 39 Steps. Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in the films he directed and he does not disappoint here. ..

The railway Station that Hitchcock used in The 39 Steps was Lime Street Station, one of the earliest occasions Liverpool was used as a film location. Just thought I would mention that…

10 out of 10 Simply Splendid Darling.