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Now this is what I was ranting about the other day. Quirky, slap-dash, brutally abbreviated Goethe and a bunch of lip-synched pop songs.
Written and performed by German actor/dancer/singer/author Bridge Markland, Faust in the Box is the sort of thing you’d be pressed to find outside of festival season. Classic German literature performed in a cardboard box.
You might not find it as fun if you’re not familiar with Faust, or don’t like hearing a devil hand-puppet singing snippets of Placebo songs.
You don’t like Faust, singing devil hand-puppets or Placebo?
Are you dead inside?
Faust in the Box
Underbelly @ George IV Bridge
Until the 29th of August
I recently took a trip back to Australia, my sunny homeland, to spend some time with my family (and avoid writing my dissertation).
It’s a long flight. Three flights actually, plus bad transfers. Thirty one and a half hours from door to door.
Drifting through Heathrow I noticed the jolly security officer manning the x-ray device take a defibrillator medical card off the man directly in front of me. The officer suddenly bashed his chest wildly like a one-armed Tarzan.
“We’ve got a ticker!” He hollered, smiling in the direction of his colleagues behind the metal detectors. Pointing the man towards a little grey gate to the side of the machines.
I laughed only to see the man smiling at me. “Let’s get those dancing shoes off, missy.”
I handed him my scuffed trainers and he shoved them in a plastic tray. The shoes and I made it home eventually.
While in Sydney I went to a performance of Elling at the STC. A play based on an Oscar nominated Norwegian film of the same name (2001), Elling deals with the lives of two men living together in Oslo away from institutional care for the first time. The film was adapted into a play by Simon Bent in London in 2007, and well received at Bush Theatre, transferring then to the Trafalgar Studios in the west end.
It must be difficult to make a film (or write a play) about mental illness, particularly when aiming for broad humour. I haven’t seen the film, but I hope it’s a bit more sensitive than the unstable slapstick of the stage production.
The problem with Elling is that the jokes do not hinge on the way that these characters are treated by people in the world, but rather depend on people laughing at mentally unstable people behaving abnormally. That isn’t a particularly sophisticated type of humour.
There were a two great short sketches of bad poetry readings nicely performed, but otherwise the funniest part of the whole piece was a brief burst of diegetic music between scenes; Norway’s Eurovision winning ‘I’m in love with a fairytale’. But I probably found my friend Anna’s instant hysterics on hearing it more amusing than the actual musical interjection.
Australian comedian Adam Hills had a column on the BBC’s online disability resource ‘Ouch!’ where he discusses various aspects of living with a disability – including this great article on clearing security in the US after 9/11 with a prosthetic leg. In his articles he makes the case for the place of humour when talking about disability, not because there is anything non-intentionally funny about disabled people, but because often the world is organised in a way that makes everyday things a little absurd for the disabled.
That’s why I particularly liked the gruff man on security at Heathrow. He seemed to understand the absurdity of a safety system that isn’t very well suited to people partly made of metal.
Adapted by Simon Bent from a film by Petter Næss
Sydney Theatre Company
P.S. I am very sad to be missing the new production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire in December. Cate Blanchett as Blanche. I can’t imagine it being anything but fantastic.
There are very few books written for children that irritate me more than Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Why would I sit for six hours watching a dramatic adaptation of a series of books I hate?
There could only be one answer.
I love a good puppet.
The big hook of Pullman’s alternate world is that the soul of each character exists outside of their body as an animal. These animals are supposed to reflect in some way the personality of the owner, and become set at the onset of puberty (when, naturally, the personality of any person is set forever). The sexuality of characters is also set at this stage – with an animal ‘settling’ to be of the opposite sex for heterosexual people, and one of the same sex for homosexual people (although no major or even minor character described in this world is homosexual – they are mentioned briefly as some sort of very rare anomaly).
While these soul animals are the cause of most of my anger towards the books, they also require creative staging. Puppets. In this production designed by the Blind Summit puppet company. They were great.
The play, performed in two parts of almost three hours each, was first performed at the National Theatre in 2004. Nicholas Wright (author of the libretto to The Little Prince and Man on the Moon as well as several episodes of the recent BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency) adapted the play from the books. This revival was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company with the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
For those unfamiliar with the novels, Pullman is rewriting Paradise Lost for atheist children. I really like Milton. Pullman is no Milton. In his alternate world scientific development has proceeded along a different route and steam power and Zeppelins stand in for electricity and cars. Lyra, a feisty orphaned girl living under the guardianship of an Oxford college, goes on a magical adventure – discovering not only the deepest secrets of the world, but also the deepest secrets of her own soul. Well…
Pullman intends to use His Dark Materials as a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis for not letting Susan back into Narnia after she discovers boys and lipstick and silk stockings. But rather than let Susan back into Narnia, Pullman seems to think that Susan’s lipstick alone can save the world.
Lyra kisses and lies down with her boyfriend, unleashing magic dust that somehow fixes everything. Not that she knows that her sexual awakening will save the world. Agency is overrated. The witches who watch over her progress know that a prophecy has named her as a new Eve, but don’t feel the need to tell her. Why have a female protagonist valued for her thoughts and abilities when you can put pervy overemphasis on her sexuality at twelve?
I don’t have a problem with children of twelve kissing, in life or in fiction, but beyond the strangeness of a plot relying on the kiss of a child to correct the flow of magic dust (really), her male companion Will gets to save the world with a magic knife. His side of the kiss isn’t of the slightest importance. Why would it matter when you have a phallic power prop to rule the universe with?
The way the animal souls (called daemons) function is also just rather comical. People can not generally be separated from their daemons by any great distance. Some people’s daemons settle as sea creatures, confining the owner to a boat for the rest of their lives. One wonders if a person with an elephant or horse daemon would ever be able to socialise indoors or take an elevator again.
The animals don’t really do anything but make occasional wise cracks. And make out with each other. There is a rather disturbing scene when the two characters revealed to be Lyra’s secret parents kiss and their puppet souls kiss along beside them (a snow leopard and a golden monkey).
The play sets seething sexuality against a repressive church, an organisation which has begun to quite literally cut children in two to preserve their innocence. I’m quite happy to be on the atheist bandwagon, but this analogy seems a bit of a stretch.
This production was interesting, but I (obviously) find the content irritating. See it if you like lectures about why religion is bad. Or if you just want to see a monkey try to seduce a gecko.
His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman, adapted by Nicholas Wright.
Festival Theatre Edinburgh.
Touring May 28th to the the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Reading The Scotsman over breakfast on Wednesday morning I noticed a report on a new craze sweeping Scottish university campuses – drinking (or imbibing I suppose) vodka by pouring a shot straight into one’s eyeball to allow alcohol to enter the blood stream directly through the capillaries of the eye. The possible side effect? Permanent blindness.
Welcome to Scotland.
Later that morning I went over to the National Museum in the old town, a large new building between the University of Edinburgh Old College and Greyfriars Kirkyard. The museum has many interesting exhibits on early Scottish, royal and military history, but what I found most amusing were the upper floors, devoted to the place of Scotland in the modern world.
Various exhibits cover everything from Scottish inventions to Scottish airlines and covering the careers of any famous people who were born in Scotland, lived in Scotland, visited Scotland, or even had the vaguest fondness for tartan.
One of the funniest displays was a case displaying a pink women’s suit – caption reads:
Suit. Paris, 1931. Fabric may have been sourced from one of Scotland’s many wool mills.
The one thing not glossed over with lashings of Scottish pride were the rather depressing health statistics for the country. In some areas of Scotland average life expectancy is as low as 57 for men and 59 for women. Even for the overall population life expectancy figures are some of the lowest in Europe. The exhibit attributed this to the high incidence of smoking, poor diet and alcohol abuse (through the eyeballs too now).
Self destruction seemed to be theme of the day, as that night I trotted off to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray (Bourne’s branding of his own name is very comprehensive) based very loosely on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was excited to see it having heard about Bourne’s version of Swan Lake with all male swans (and hadn’t made the mental connection that he was also responsible for the ridiculous looking dance adaptation of the film Edward Scissorhands that toured to the Sydney Opera House in May).
This year I’ve seen my fair share of very well intentioned, but nonetheless awkward and unsatisfying dance. Dorian Gray was the opposite. Brilliant dance based on a slightly dull concept. That might not be entirely fair. Wilde’s novel is potentially a great inspiration for dance, but the way it was translated by Bourne into a story about the faults of hedonistic celebrity culture was a bit disappointing. In this ballet Dorian is scouted by a photographer to become the face of a new fragrance “Immortal”. Sex, drugs and ballet follow.
I happened to be seated in a cheap seat at the back of the stalls behind a group of high school students. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard school-girls titter before, but some of the more adult content of the ballet seemed to be a bit much for them at times. Otherwise they seemed well behaved. At interval their teacher came over and asked for their opinions.
“I dunno miss. But we’re liking the fit bodies.”
Never in my day. Anyway, the teacher did discuss with the students a problem with the ballet that I had also been thinking about: the essential gothic image of the novel is the eerie contrast between the eternally youthful Dorian and the rapidly decaying portrait – and this is barely represented in the ballet at all. Dancing Dorian’s poster image promoting the fragrance is clearly the equivalent of the portrait in the novel (and this is displayed towards the end of the ballet covered in graffiti) but ‘handsome man goes on a drug binge and kills some people’ seems to be a slightly different story. Although it’s certainly a story people like to tell.
That said, the choreography was spectacular. And beauty is the point. Right?
Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray