Sunday, 22 May 2011


     I didn't know Jon Fosse's work at all when I went to his I AM THE WIND, translated by the fine British playwright Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic. I went primarily because it is the first production in English by the great French theatre and film director, Patrice Chereau. Fosse is supposed to be the best known and most produced Norwegian playwright since Ibsen. He also writes novels and essays. He clearly knows his Beckett. I AM THE WIND has two nameless characters, THE ONE and THE OTHER. Their halting dialogue is filled with pauses. It seems to be a meditation on depression, despair, life and death. There are various ways to read the dialogue, which has no exposition. The One seems to be chronically depressed, unable to cope with people or to be alone. He takes to sea with The Other and drowns, happily surrendering his identity. The Other recalls his death. Are they two people or are they facets of one personality? Fosse asks that there be no specific representation of setting. It's an absorbing, but arid play, lovely to hear in Stephen's translation. In the first ten minutes, during which The Other asks The One questions, then repeats The One's responses, I thought I was in for a very long seventy minutes. But the play does exert a certain hypnotic spell. In this turbulent day and age, one can wonder at a playwright who seems totally disengaged from society. We're back in the void of Beckett's plays which makes the work seem "literary" rather than engaged. There are more dramatic things to write about.
     Patrice Chereau made the play much more concrete and specific than the text itself offers. First of all, he creates a very thrilling theatrical picture. Once the men set out to sea, the stage area is filled with water and a hydraulic platform emerges which becomes the rocking boat. The circular structure of the play becomes a flashback as The Other recalls his experience with The One. The relationsip between the two men verges on homoerotic. The performance begins with The Other lovingly carrying the limp, shirtless body of The One as he carries his memories. The men touch a great deal. Fosse's arid existential void becomes something of a love story as well as a beautiful theatre piece. It is less ambiguous than Fosse's text, but one accepts that because the result is so absorbing.
      What we get is Fosse's play very much filtered through Chereau's imagination and theatrical genius. This is true of any production, but more so with many celebrated European directors. I think Chereau improved a piece of warmed over Beckett combined with a poetic depiction of depression that isn't all that original. Chereau made Fosse's metaphors visual as well as verbal. Isn't that what theatre is about? The two actors, Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey, were superb. Under Chereau's direction, they made every line seem an emanation of character rather than merely poetic abstractions.
     Some of the critics haven't been very kind to I AM THE WIND, but I found it an absorbing experience thanks more to Chereau and the actors than Fosse.
       Two nights before I went to the new English National Opera production of Benjamin Britten's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM as directed by Christopher Alden. Britten's opera, one of the most musical ravishing of 20th century operas, is a condensation and adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. It is quite different from Britten's other works in its lightness. Even Albert Herring, his other comedy, has a dark side. Of course there is a dark side to Shakespeare's comedy and for all Britten's emphasis on the lighter aspects of the play in his libretto, the music is often dark, sinuous and a bit scary. Christopher Alden has imposed his own narrative onto Britten's opera. The setting is not an enchanted wood, but the front of a dark, imposing boy's school. Before the music begins, a troubled young man enters the scene. There are hints that he is the grown up Puck as well, we discover, as Theseus, haunted on the eve of his marriage by memories of his adolescent sexual confusion. Oberon is not a fairy king but a bespectacled, chain-smoking pedophilic teacher. His queen, Titania, is a spinster music teacher. Puck is upset and jealous that Oberon has turned his affections elsewhere -- toward the changeling boy. The fairies, written by Britten to be sung by a boy choir are now the schoolboys who are like something out of Children of the Damned. Everything is taken quite seriously. Even Bottom's transformation from school janitor to beast becomes a vision of libido frighteningly out of control. Given Britten's own attraction to boys and his recurring theme of lost or threatened childhood innocence, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM becomes more in tune with other Britten works.
     Alden has done what many European opera directors do -- he has imposed a meta-narrative onto a familiar story to offer a different point of view toward a work. It was intelligent and, ultimately convincing. It is not the only approach I would like to see toward a work I love and admire, but it was fascinating in its dark, hypnotic way. Musically, the performance could not be faulted. Leo Hussain's conducting and the orchestral playing were gorgeous and the singing was all fine as was the acting of the principals. Everyone threw themselves into Alden's approach.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. English National Opera. May 19, 2011.
I AM THE WIND. Young Vic Theatre. May 21, 2011.          

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