Day 3 – which is actually being written at noontime on Day 4 because Day 3 was so packed. The trip keeps growing in its intensity and achievement. Neat how a group of 12 comes together as we pass through so many collective experiences.
When we left you last, memories of THE SEAGULL were still reverberating with unrequited romance laced with tragedy. It’ll be perhaps the best show of a great week, so it’s unfair to focus on the potential anti-climax. Can anything be better than great Chekhov, so wise and heartfelt and perfectly structured? Bonnie Hammerschlag comes up to me at the end of Monday night’s series of events and says, “You can rest easy, Ari. Even if everything else is terrible, tonight made the whole trip worthwhile.” She assumes I was nervous about how our group would be judging the trip and its offerings. In truth, I wasn’t; I didn’t think that I had the same responsibility that I do as a theater producer; I was leaving the worries to Jim Ryan, our tour organizer. But I come to realize that Bonnie’s right; now that I’m on board, I realize this trip HAS to be a meaningful, integrated, informative and inspiring experience for everyone or the drag of it will be unendurable. And so, I can tell I’ve become invested in each event here working out, lending meaning beyond the simple act of showing up and taking in a next show. This tour has to tell a story. And a good one.
Fortunately, it has. Things all come together this morning, Thursday, as we take stock in all that we experienced yesterday while meeting two new British authors, women – for the first time, we’re meeting female artists in Suzanne Glass and Heather Blake – who share their latest plays with us in a writers forum in the Millbank Lounge.
We’ve come to this realization: That all theater is experienced locally; and that context is all in the way it informs a play’s reception and resonance with a particular community. THE SEAGULL was the swan song (pun intended) for outgoing Royal Court artistic director Ian Rickson. The Royal Court doesn’t do Chekhov generally. It is committed to new works and formal innovations. As is Chekhov’s young protagonist, the earnest dramatist Treplev, or Konstantin Gavrilovich. He’s the dreamy writer who’s committed to a revolutionary theatrical aesthetic. The play’s youngest romantic, he’s only one of a handful of crestfallen, disillusioned and heartbroken dreamers. The splendor of a broken heart and the beauty of so much love being misdirected is the sublime emotional terrain of the play; an evening that draws superior sympathy from its audience. To repeat: Can anything be better than good Chekhov? Rickson’s parting gift to the Royal Court community of artists and audience is this rich heirloom, past from one generation of theater artists to another. The play’s enraptured reception is not just because of the star power of its Hollywood-groomed and smartly svelte leading lady, Kristin Scott Thomas; it’s because everyone understands what’s being offered by an outgoing artist; the gift of a classic reinvestigated and re-energized. (And so may our traveling artistic director begins to understand the appeal–and the usefulness–of a classics festival after all…)
One more note on this “version” by Christopher Hamption: It contains restored lines that Chekhov had cut after the play’s initial failure – and how vindicating to always remember how much failure Chekhov’s work first met up with – how much despair the author, like his characters, had to conquer. The most significant restorations to me are in the scene between Konstanin and his mother, Irina. And what a brilliant piece of playwriting that extended scene between mother and son turns out to be; with uncomfortable closeness coming in the wake of so much maternal neglect, only to be followed by fierce fractiousness and then a tender rapprochement and then an interruption by the plot hurtling us forward. The play is so full of perfectly rounded dynamic scenes where the balance between enmity and romance oscillates so elegantly. We were all dazzled. And hooked.
Could Chekhov be Jewish? Does it matter? When I retire from Theater J in another 126 years, we’ll do THE SEAGULL. And it’ll feel Jewish, and eternal, and aesthetic, with a Peace Café to follow.
A rueful joke.
Moving forward. Wednesday begins with a backstage tour of the Old Vic on the other side of the bridge, the Southern side (at least I’m pretty sure it’s Southern, will check this). We meet Ned the Stage Door Manager, who’ll be leading our tour, as we look at the dedication stone laid in 1816 when the Old Vic was first erected. It’s the oldest extant theater in London with a still performing repertory. Kevin Spacey became artistic director in 2003 after the theater lay moribund, in the red and in the hole. The play we’re to see at 2:30 – the 50th anniversary of John Osborn’s THE ENTERTAINER – is about the death of the Music Hall and Colonial British Music Hall culture, and The Old Vic turns out to be the perfect setting for it.
My oh my, I’m out of time, and I’m still at the beginning of yesterday’s round up. Bottom line: Great backstage tour; even greater lunch in the Old Pit lounge with young assistant director of THE ENTERTAINER, Jeremy Whelehan, who tells us great Kevin Spacey stories all lunch long – which I’ll return to because they’re instructive in the education of an artistic director and the rough lessons learned along the way. We see the three act ENTERTAINER and it lives up to my memory of it; not a great play, but a trailblazing play for its time in bringing home the anguish of the Suez Canal catastrophe of 1956 – the British involvement in a lost war effort – and the son who comes home in a body bag as father Archie Rice slowly loses his foothold within the family and on the Music Hall stage. The play works for Britain now as it did then; and it resonates with theater history as an anniversary production playing out now in a refurbished old war horse of a theater. But it would bore in the US. We’d turn on the play which, at 2 hours and fifty minutes, is an hour longer than it’d be today if it was run through a writers workshop buzzsaw. Not for the better, mind you. Part of the catharsis is the stasis of sitting there for so long. A Bristish audience embraces the play. Like everything else we see here, there’s not an empty seat in the house. Wouldn’t be so in the States, me thinks.
Time to go. The old Jewish East End is a calling. We’ll return to THE CARETAKER last night and the brilliant Tricycle Theatre artistic director Nicholas Kent talking about his Testimony Theatre with plays build from transcripts like GUANTANAMO, and so many more. And then we’ll return to our writer’s round up and the galvanizing discussions that ran 45 minutes over the allotted time because everyone was so excited by the ideas generated.
Yes, NOW the trip is a success. I was worried yesterday, from the beginning of the morning with Marcella Brenner being forced to climb all those stairs, up and down, over and over as part of the backstage tour. But she handled it all gamely with a smile. And the Pinter which someone close to me slept through but which everyone else seemed to love.
Gotta stop. These blogs are too long, I know. But they barely do justice. And there’s much more to record. Tonight, JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN. Would it surprise you to know that I feel woefully underprepared for talking about Ibsen’s experimental venture? Who cares? We’re all getting an education.