“We finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight.” On the perils of directing Dennis Potter’s ‘Son of Man’

Ahead of its screening at BFI Southbank, Gareth Davies – director of many of Dennis Potter’s early television hits – recalls the challenges of bringing Son of Man to the screen on something close to a shoestring.

Son of Man 3

‘Son of Man’, 1969

Dennis Potter‘s work will one day be critically reassessed and in that process I believe Son of Man will be judged a pretty shoddy production which did not serve the excellent script and cast.

It’s a platitude that critics can only judge what they see and should not concern themselves with the problems, technical and structural, that existed in the 1960s.  An historical analysis, however, might usefully consider the factors that led to poor production values.

First of all no excuses, the main fault was mine. I knew that four days in Studio 1 would be inadequate to stage the production. I suggested that we delay the production until the arrival of Colour TV and try to assemble a coalition of European TV stations and shoot all the crowd scenes in a desert location with each station feeding in its own Jesus and disciples.

I was told not to be silly and to get on with mounting a studio production. Ironically Son of Man was later shown to the European Federation with several members regretting they could not afford to make their own production.

Decisions now had to be taken over the set design and this is where the errors of judgement started.

Son of Man 1

Brian Blessed prepares to snare a cameraman.

Having fantasised about shooting in a real desert I foolishly concurred with the idea of a realistic set in the studio. A desert would be constructed out of sandbags topped off with real sand which would double as Golgotha. The Sea of Galilee measured 8′ x 4′ which meant that when Brian Blessed as Peter cast his net he caught more cameramen than fish.

The cast was tiny for the Sermon on the Mount but large by the standards of the time and under constant financial pressure.  ‘Mark, Luke, Thomas…..?  Yes I know they’re the Disciples but do we really need 12?’

Son of Man 2I decided that all crowds scenes should be shot with untidy edges and cameras on the move so that we would feel that there was life outside the frame.

A miniature Jewish village square would be constructed inaccessible to studio cameras. To shoot these scenes I was permitted to dress 3 cameramen as Jewish peasants and equip them with small industrial cameras under their robes.  These had never been permitted before and took a lot of bargaining.

I retreated into the security of doing what I knew best – working with Dennis and the actors to develop our understanding of the play and pretended that everything was going to be wonderful.

An anecdote:- The rehearsal room floor was covered in hundreds of yards of multi-coloured tape marking out the various sets. When the final rehearsal ended it was the job of two young floor assistants to pull up each inch of tape. This could easily take two hours and then they had to go to the studio to check their props.

We decided to make the final rehearsal a word run only, at speed and with no movement. Colin Blakely wandered the desert pulling up a few feet of tape.  All the cast followed Jesus and by the end of the run the floor was completely cleared and the two floor assistants were in tears.

Without that sort of company spirit, led by Colin, I don’t think we would have survived the next four days as well as we did.

The morning of the first Studio day:-  I was approached by a man who introduced himself as the Head of Engineering. He called me Gareth and asked was I watching the Test Match? After a few minutes of this bizarre conversation he suddenly said ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve decided you can’t have the hand held cameras. They’re not up to standard.’

Eventually I said that I would simply cut to black where every hand held shot had been planned and HoE stalked off. I got my cameras back but too late to rehearse with them and they were not successful.

Next I was approached by my Designer, white-faced. Permission to use sand in the Studio had been withdrawn as it interfered with the running wheels of the camera dollies. However, oatmeal had been ordered and would be spread over our sandbag desert as soon as possible.

Unfortunately whenever we turned the wind-machines on to make the desert seem bitterly cold, the air filled with flying oatmeal which stuck to the woollen robes of the cast. The wind had to be switched off, leading to one critic calling the production ‘Curiously airless’!  He was right.

All these factors damaged the production but I can’t pretend that they were responsible for the massive overrun that occurred. We were simply overwhelmed. With a stop time of 10pm we finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight. None of the Pontius Pilate scenes had been recorded.

Son of Man 5

Up to this point the BBC had frankly not been at its best, now it upped a gear and responded magnificently.

Starting with chaos at midnight, within the hour the actor’s contracts had been sorted, a programme evicted from the small studio where our Roman sets were standing unused. Gerald Savory put an arm around my shoulder, told me everything was going to be wonderful and to get some sleep.

The next morning in Studio 2 a duty Vision Mixer arrived, complete with her knitting, to find two half-naked boxers rehearsing killing one another with viciously spiked gloves. ‘I’ve come to do Jackanory’ she said. Not any more.

9781783192038

‘The Art of Invective’

Everyone rallied and we finished but Dennis was not well served. My decisions on the style and design of the production were wrong although I’m still not sure what would have been the right approach. The last time I saw a recording it still had a boom in shot!

There are no villains in this tale. I imagine senior engineers believed they were correcting poor planning decisions made by their junior staff. Certainly wrong judgements were made by young programme makers swept on a tide of enthusiasm both for the play itself and for the sheer joy of walking into a big empty box and making magic.

For many of us a BBC Drama Studio was the real National Theatre, shorn of elitism and available from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

Reactions to the production were mixed. Rev Donald Soper was quoted as saying he wouldn’t watch because he knew what it would be like. The first of many telephone complainants to the BBC was disgusted that ‘…this man has hair on his body!’

A year later Graeme McDonald showed me a letter from the Mother Superior of a video-savvy Convent. They loved Son of Man so much, they had played it so often, that their 1 Inch Video reel to reel recording had worn out. Could they please buy a new copy?

How was Graeme to explain that the nun’s actions were illegal and that he should report them? The situation was resolved discreetly.

Forty Years On – How they Made a Mess of a Miracle

Dennis Potter would have been 80 today, and in honour of the occasion here’s a rare article he wrote in October 1969 for the short-lived Mirror Magazine. It shows Potter in typically combative mood as he contemplates four decades of television since the birth of the BBC. This is exclusive to the Oberon Books blog but you can find plenty more of Potter’s thoughts on television in The Art of Invective. Our thanks go to William Ham Bevan who brought the article to light.


Mirror Magazine

11 October 1969

All television’s yesterdays… one September day in 1929, the first BBC television transmission was made using John Logie Baird’s equipment from station 2LO high on the roof of Selfridges in London. Dennis Potter, prize-winning author of the Nigel Barton plays and the controversial Son of Man, looks back on forty years.

BBC_Television_Symbol_1953If those well-heeled ladies and gentlemen shopping in Selfridges forty years ago had gone home and found tonight’s programmes awaiting them they would either clap their hands in exultation or – more likely – cower in terror behind their furniture.

For TV is both the wonder and the disgrace of our times. A magic paintbox and a dreary bore. A window on the universe and just another humdrum, pap-fed domestic appliance.

Licensed like a dog, a mad dog, it squats in the corner of the living room, a wall-eyed beast which sicks up the world on to our nylon carpets. You can put on your slippers, sink into your favourite armchair, sip a nice hot cup of tea, and watch a man being burnt to death.

Don’t choke. In a minute or two a row of teeth will smile at you, mouthing a reassuring bromide. Or you can switch channels and sweep into the sweeter world of the commercials: striped toothpaste, coloured toilet rolls and extra-mileage ingredients, the hip-hip-happy moods of what is called, by Act of Parliament, a natural break.

Every night of the week, every week of the year, the pictures go swirling by – a ship breaking its back on the rocks, a bomber dropping napalm on Asian peasants, tea with the Queen, a Hollywood cowboy sprawled on a plastic rock, spangled dancing girls, football from South America, an assassin weeping in the death cell, a pub in a Lancashire backstreet or an American hopping on the moon.

By the time you have drained your tea you can have zoomed along a quarter of a million miles, or have been bored and irritated enough to bite a chunk out of the china.9781783192038

Hey diddle-diddle, the quiz
            and the twaddle,
The telly jumps over the moon
Hughie Green laughs to see
            such fun
For the tosh runs away with
            the boon.

Our children take the technical marvels for granted. They have grown up with what used to be called, defensively, the gogglebox. They are not in the least bit astonished by the sight of a toothbrush floating in a capsule half way to the moon. As far as they are concerned, water comes out of the tap, gas out of the cooker, and pictures out of the TV set. An ordinary sort of machine. Something to pass the time when it is raining.

But years ago, on a very boozy Christmas day, I had a tipsy uncle who was so overcome by the sight of the Queen delivering her stilted seasonal message that he hiccupped, lurched forward to the set, kissed the flickering image with two resounding Christmas_broadcast_1957smacks and, unable to stop his momentum, cut his lip badly on the little table which carried the TV and Her Majesty.

‘I ne-ne-never thought I’d l-l-live to see such a thing!’ he burbled through the hilarity and the blood. It is about the only time I have seen anyone so physically moved by something pumping out of the telly.

Continue reading

Dennis Potter and Me

Sunday marks 80 years since the birth of Dennis Potter. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of British television, both as the writer of the seminal dramas Son of Man, Pennies from Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective and as a ferocious TV critic and essayist. One of Potter’s most devoted disciples is Peter Bowker, creator of the acclaimed BBC serials Blackpool and Occupation, whose BBC2 biopic Marvellous won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama last night (10 May 2015).  

In his foreword to The Art of Invective Peter Bowker reflects on Potter’s ‘cruel and witheringly precise humour’ and what this new collection reveals about a spikey and uncompromising character.

Like many a 1970s hysteric, I can lay claim to having been titillated by the work of Dennis Potter long before I had actually seen any of it. Our family didn’t get BBC2 till the mid-Seventies so, for some time, my only acquaintance with his work was the BBC1 announcer intoning, ‘And now over on BBC2, Casanova’ for six weeks. In fairness, that was probably all the TV filth a 13-year-old in 1970s Stockport could handle without imploding.

But the real beginning – the real meeting with his work – was the moment in Pennies from Heaven when Bob Hoskins’ Arthur first turned to camera and opened his mouth and Elsie Carlisle’s voice came out. I can remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ It was so audacious but yet it made perfect sense. It was experimental but it was impossible to imagine the story being told in a better way. And like all great ideas, you were left wondering why nobody had thought to do it before.

1970 'Angels Are So Few' promo shot

1970 ‘Angels Are So Few’ promo shot

As the years went by and I took in Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective and Cream in My Coffee, I used to fantasize that me and Dennis Potter could be mates. Reading this collection does make me think that he would have been a tough mate to have.

The cruel and witheringly precise humour that we see Philip Marlow exercise in The Singing Detective is very much present in both his views on television and his views on himself. Reading this collection it is clear that critically, he didn’t appear to have a safety catch. He seemed not to recognize that simultaneously being a practising dramatist and a drama critic was problematic in any way, or, being Potter, relished the fact.

Just as his best drama simultaneously provided a critical and often musical analysis of the drama as it unfolded, so his non-fiction often reads as a dramatic monologue disguised as analysis. The musical rhythm of his dialogue and the savage put downs are all present and correct in his prose style.

Here he is reviewing a 1972 adaptation of War and Peace and taking on his familiar anti-realist position. Noting how much the director lingers on the soup plates, he goes on, ‘Naturalism might well demand that life be turned into one damned dish after another, but the insights of a great novelist are rather more interesting than the eye-line of the head waiter.’

9781783192038And here again, in a review of Till Death Us Do Part in which he worries that the character Alf Garnett has become a hero to the very racists he was invented to parody. He opens with an anecdote about a recent stay in hospital in which he found himself sharing a ward with:

assembled Alfs addressing themselves to the unpalatable fact subdued Pakistanis had somehow managed to infiltrate into the ward under the pretence of chronic sickness. We all knew as a matter of course that these cunning brown bastards were only there to draw social security payments, an argument which temporarily wavered when one of them so miscalculated his ruse that he actually went so far as to die. “There’s yer bleed’n curry for you,” observed my nearest Alf, not entirely without compassion.

As a piece of satire, I can’t think of a finer or wittier skewering of the myth of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits cheats’ in the space of one paragraph.

As a piece of prose it has elegance and playfulness, that final ‘not entirely without compassion’ reading almost like a stage direction and, like a perfectly weighted pass, allowing the reader to take it in their stride.

Most rewarding of all for the Potter geek, it is recognisably the blueprint for a moment in The Singing Detective where Ali – the Pakistani in the next bed to Philip Marlow – turns the expectation of racist abuse into a moment of shared hilarity between Marlow and himself at the expense of a liberal young houseman.

With his eye for absurdity and precision of language, how I would have loved to have read Dennis Potter on the likes of Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage, with his strained combination of fake bonhomie and victimized suburban bluster, could almost be a character invented by Potter – and played by Denholm Elliott. Cameron, you suspect, would be too easy a target, although I would like to see what he would have made of Nick Clegg’s avowed love of Samuel Beckett.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter circa 1987

There’s a tone in Potter’s prose and in his voice in interviews that reflects the masochism at the heart of his greatest work. He endlessly tortures himself with the notion that TV isn’t worthy of the same intellectual interrogation as literature or art but then makes it clear that he intends to ignore his misgivings and give the same forensic attention to an episode of Steptoe and Son or Coronation Street as he would, indeed does to War and Peace.

Naturalism, as Dennis was keen to remind us throughout his career, was just one way (and a flawed way at that) of writing television drama, but it had, partly through soaps and long running series like Z Cars, become the most familiar and dominant form by the time Pennies from Heaven burst on to our screen. Watching it now it reads as a largely naturalistic drama with music. The only time it really steps out of its realist framework is during the song sequences and during the encounters with the mystical Accordion Man. The Singing Detective then used the Pennies from Heaven template as its starting point to gloriously and triumphantly deconstruct the whole way in which we tell stories.

The towering achievement of The Singing Detective was to be simultaneously formally adventurous (A man in bed with a skin disease is writing or rewriting a detective novel, reminiscing about a traumatic childhood, peopling the film adaptation of his detective novel with characters that may or may not be characters from that troubled childhood. He is simultaneously being ripped off by his agent or wife or both for the film rights to the story he is writing. He is being psychoanalyzed. These multiple worlds bleed into each other from the beginning, and the musical sequences emphasize and restage his fears of illness, of betrayal, of loss of mind, of loss of conscience) and yet still to create a character who we cared about, who we believed and with whom we emotionally engaged. When Philip Marlow raises his still misshapen hands in triumph as he leaves the ward for the last time, I cry every time. He has won. He has beaten his sickness. He has taken up his bed and walked. He has become the triumphant hero of his own story – his own stories even.

Continue reading

Black Plays Series at The National Theatre

Throughout June 2015, The National Theatre are hosting a series of readings and discussions entitled the Black Plays Series. Oberon are delighted to publish all three of the writers featured: Mojisola Adebayo, Tunde Ikoli and Michael Abbensetts. In this informal series, their plays will be read by actors, followed by lively group discussion led by Natasha Bonnelame (previously the Black Plays Archive Project Manager).

Adebayo plays cover.indd

Muhammad Ali and Me is a lyrical coming-of-age story, following the parallel struggles of a gay child growing up in foster care and the black Muslim boxing hero’s fight against racism and the Vietnam war.
Mojisola Adebayo is a British-born, Nigerian/Danish performer, playwright, director, producer, workshop leader and teacher. Her work is concerned with power, identity, personal and social change. Mojisola teaches in the department of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London. She teaches on the BA in American Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford College and is studying for her PhD at Queen Mary University of London.
This event will be held on Sat 13th June 

 

9781840020847

Scrape off the Black is set in London’s East End in 1973. Trevor organises a surprise party on the release of his brother Andy from Borstal. But Rose, his bingo-playing, pill-popping mother, has other plans.
Tunde Ikoli was born in London’s East End to a Cornish mother and Nigerian father. After leaving school at 15, he spent two years as a trainee tailor’s cutter, before writing and co-directingTunde’s Film, shown at the London, Edinburgh, Mannheim and San Francisco film festivals. Since 1977 Ikoli’s plays have been produced at a number of theatres including the Bush Theatre, Riverside Studios, Theatre Royal Stratford East, and the Tricycle Theatre.
This event will be held on Sat 20th June

 

9781840021790

Alterations is a comedy set in a tailor’s shop, inspired by a real visit to a small room off Carnaby Street where two black tailors had set up shop with just two sewing machines and an ironing board. Performed in London, New Jersey and California, it offers a lively version of black entrepreneurship.
Michael Abbensetts was born in Guyana, moved to London in 1963, and began his career writing short stores. Inspired after seeing a performance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he turned to playwriting and his first play Sweet Talk premiered at the Royal Court in 1973, receiving the George Devine Award.
This event will be held on Sat 27th June

 

To find out more information about these events, and buy tickets, visit the National Theatre’s website.
To look at these titles in more detail, click the images above to be taken to the Oberon Books website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith… and Doubt

‘The effect of the entire creation is perhaps best measured by occasional involuntary gasps coming from the audience…’ The Stage

‘…in turns funny, knowing and profoundly sad.’ ★★★★★ Sunday Telegraph 

One of Oberon’s most recent publications is a beautiful duo of plays for one actor, written by Matthew Hurt. Believe and The Man Jesus are based on the epic stories of the Old and New Testaments, and the process of writing them forced Matthew to consider what his own belief system looked like. Though evidently inspired and moved by these biblical events, Matthew here explores the deeper question which he is always asked – ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Do you have faith?’ 

9781783192021Believe was commissioned and first performed by Linda Marlowe 9 years ago. The Man Jesus finished a UK tour just last year. Despite the gap between these two plays the idea to put them together in a volume seemed logical: Believe is drawn from stories in the Old Testament and The Man Jesus from the Gospels of the New Testament. Also, they’re both solo plays. One for a female performer, the other for a male.

On each of the separate occasions that these plays have been produced – when Linda originally performed Believe in London and Edinburgh; when Margareta Gudmundson did Believe in Sweden; and when Simon Callow toured The Man Jesus to just about every town and village in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I’ve been asked the inevitable question: are you religious? Working with Oberon to put these plays into a single volume, I found myself asking a variation of the question again:

What do I believe in?

When Linda first asked me to write something for her, she’d barely seen any of my work. What she had seen was not particularly accomplished. So, what was it that prompted her to take a chance on me – a young and untested playwright? What was it that gave Margareta the will and determination to painstakingly translate a play she’d never seen performed? What was it that Richard Croxford, the artistic director of the Lyric Theatre Belfast at the time, had in his head when he went along with Simon Callow’s suggestion that I have a go at writing a play about a subject as colossal as Jesus?

Directors, designers, lighting designers, stage managers, producers – the list of people who commit to something without knowing what that thing is runs long. So what is it, apart from the practical imperatives of needing a job, that enables everyone involved in creating new work to take a flying leap into the dark?

I think that thing is faith. Not faith between people and gods, but between people and people.

The Book Launch in St John's, Hyde Park Crescent

The Book Launch in St John’s, Hyde Park Crescent

The belief that one person can have in another person, or in a group of people, gives the other a promethean power to do something that they might not have been able to do before. Before Linda challenged me to come up with ideas for a one-woman show, I had no intention of writing anything to do with the Bible. Similarly, I’d never thought for a moment I’d one day write about the Son of God. But once these gauntlets were thrown down, I didn’t become paralysed by feelings of inadequacy. (As I might well have done – the list of dramatists, let alone artists, who’ve worked on religious subjects is intimidating.) This was neither arrogance nor naiveté on my part. What was it then?

It was a galvanising resolve somehow implanted in me through the belief that they had in my potential. They wanted me to do it. They believed I could it. I would do it. They had faith, and gave me faith. Of course, nothing is ever that easy. Doubt pricks at you. But this is exactly when the sense of expectation – or maybe the word is hope? – that is implicit in faith, takes you by the hand and sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, leads you on. And so something is created out of nothing. This is faith as creative, not destructive.

The miracles we show in The Man Jesus all come about when Jesus unlocks a mysterious capacity in those around him: infecting his followers with an ecstasy like drunkenness at the wedding in Cana, for example. Or, as Joanna, one of Jesus’ female followers, reports when he cures her of her chronic bleeding:

“He’s just within reach and I grab the back of his garment
…He turns and asks: Who touched me?
My bleeding has stopped. I know it. For the first time in
twelve years, it’s stopped.
The men around him are urging him on, but he won’t move
forward.
Somebody touched me, he insists. I felt my power go.
It was me, I say, and it’s stopped. You healed me.
I don’t know if he knows what I’m talking about.
Your trust, he says, healed you.

Jesus’ miraculous gift is that he somehow enables the ‘ordinary’ folk around him to contact something extraordinary that exists inside of them.

Similarly, the divine intervention in the four women’s stories in Believe isn’t external intervention at all. It’s an intervention proceeding from the God-like part within them. They may believe the hand of God to be at work, but what is really happening is that they stumble upon vast underground chambers in their inner worlds that they hadn’t previously known to be there. Worlds that are somehow simultaneously a part of them and yet outside of them, pre-supposing them.

Faith is the portal to this realm of the transpersonal. Without it, our numinous potential is denied. For me, this is a magical idea. You could almost say: a religious idea.

So, am I religious?

As long as we have faith in the potential for creativity in each other – and I mean creativity in its broadest sense – then I think the question “do you have faith?” is a more important one.

Matthew Hurt

Matthew Hurt

Not only do I think it’s more important, I think it’s more challenging. If you believe in God, you’re only disappointed – or not – when you take your final breath. If you choose to believe in people the risk of disappointment is constant. Rather than allow this to be a deterrent, it should be a motivation.

Towards the end of The Man Jesus, the disciple Simon Peter is fleeing Jerusalem, his life in danger because of his association with the recently executed terrorist Jesus. Throughout the play he’s been puzzled by the meaning of Jesus’ words. As he slinks back north to Galilee, the ideas that have been rattling around his mind begin to settle; finally, he starts to understand Jesus’ words as

…fighting talk – a challenge – to enter the kingdom of which he really is the Messiah. A vast landscape lit up by the sun – all the seas glowing under the moon – a kingdom inside of me.

This is how I understand the faith we can have in one another. Our belief in others can trigger something powerful, and potentially transformative, in them; allowing them access to the power of the kingdom within.

It’s a divine gift.

Believe / The Man Jesus: Two Plays, is available to buy HERE
For more on the subject, see Mark Lawson’s article on Religion on the Stage HERE

World Shakespeare Day Celebration

Today is ‘World Shakespeare Day’ and, while the Oberon team can’t seem to agree on whether it marks his birth or his death, we’re celebrating his life all the same! For this very special blog post, we’ve created a round-up of some of our favourite Shakespeare-themed books – all of which you can now have a snoop inside by clicking on the images below. Plays, memoirs and acting handbooks, all inspired by the man himself.
Not only that, but we’re offering 1/3 off on all of our Shakespeare-related titles with the discount code ONBIRTHDAY at the checkout on our website. I suppose that means it’s his birthday then, does it?  

‘Andy Hinds offers a rich and detailed 9781783190089path towards a precise contact with the challenge of speaking and inhabiting Shakespeare’s language. This book is an immensely useful resource for anyone teaching, speaking and acting Shakespeare.’ Ralph Fiennes

‘It is to this book’s enormous credit that it focuses in depth on the nuts and bolts of getting lips and heads around the intricacies of verse-speaking without either shirking the difficulties or becoming stilted and dull… I wish I’d had this book when I was acting – I’m delighted to have encountered it as a teacher.’ Teaching Drama


9781783190096

‘Acting students and young professionals will flock to learn from him….passionate, entertaining… Indisputably wise and true… Wonderfully illuminating’  Telegraph

‘This is the most fabulously hybrid book – part actor’s handbook, part memoir – what is most inspiring is Hall’s conviction that form can be as exciting as feeling/ Acting in this way is more than just listening to Shakespeare – it is responding to Shakespeare’s linear needs’ Observer

‘As fascinating to readers as it is to actors.’  Independent


9781783190645

A mixture of theatrical history, opinionated views and personal reminiscences. Sharp insights, anecdotes and vibrant character sketches pour from [Weston’s] pen, as do dismissive put-downs… His book should be compulsory reading for any aspiring actor still labouring under the delusion that the profession is in any way glamourous… Weston may never have played Hamlet during his long career, but he has achieved something possibly more valuable. He has become, in Hamlet’s phrase, one of the abstract and brief chroniclers of the time.’ Mail on Sunday

 


White Hart Red Lion cover.indd

‘A blend of travelogue, actor’s memoir and historical meditation… Asbury observes how the rival colours, the red rose for Lancaster and the white rose of York, define an insuturable cut that persists in Britain today… the bonds of history assert themselves in the midst of precincts and skateboarders.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘An enjoyable and sincere grand tour… fortified with pork pies and pinot grigio, accompanied on occasion by fellow Royal Shakespeare Company actors, and alternating between a campervan named Bongo and an open-topped MG, Asbury combines theatrical reminiscence and historical narrative.’ The Times


9781849433891

‘This is a remarkable, challenging and bravely original work.’ Guardian

‘Toni Morrison’s language is superbly poetic – she’s admirable in her reckless unconcern that she will be compared to the Bard and come off the loser.… There are tremendous passages of writing, of music and some sterling performances… thought-provoking, with many magical moments.’ The Arts Desk

‘A rare and delicate show that shines a new light on Shakespeare’s tragedy.’ La Croix

 


9781840021431

‘A witty and fiercely anti-colonialist revision of Shakespeare’s island fling… the play, in Philip Crispin’s admirable translation, lends Shakespeare’s myth all kinds of extra resonances.’ Michael Billington, Guardian

‘Toni Morrison’s language is superbly poetic – she’s admirable in her reckless unconcern that she will be compared to the Bard and come off the loser.’ Arts Desk

‘Not simply a new reading of Shakespeare but an original play of astonishing power… Philip Crispin’s admirable translation of the play provides the whole production with a secure textual basis… a remarkable theatrical event.’ Malcolm Bowie, TLS


Visit Oberonbooks.com for these and all our other titles.
Or search through all of our Shakespeare titles. Don’t forget the code ONBIRTHDAY.

Yaël Farber: three plays in a new collection

Ingrid Rowland is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome and The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery. In her introduction to Yaël Farber Plays One which includes Molora, RAM: The Abduction of Sita into Darkness and Mies Julie Rowland describes how Farber has taken on classical drama texts, made them her own, and even arguably improved them in some ways for modern audiences. Rowland believes that “rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities”

9781783191512Yaël Farber has described her involvement with theatre as a mission. At the heart of her productions, therefore, no matter how dark, there is always a luminous vision to guide characters, actors, and audience forward from the magical rite of performance into a transformed awareness of normal life. Paradoxically, as in these three plays, she draws power from traditional stories and traditional rituals to address contemporary problems head on. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who hid away the most graphic events of tragedy – murder, suicide, rape – Farber shows it all. As a director, she drives the human body to extremes, asking incredible agility of her dancing, leaping, whirling, wrestling actors, pressing their willingness to bare body and soul to the very limits of endurance. She makes comparable demands of her public: we are present to bear witness, to be engaged rather than simply entertained. Each of these plays begins with a warning that production on a proscenium stage will ruin its effect; players and public must meet face to face, on the same level, to recognize their common humanity – and, sadly, inhumanity.

Furthermore, each of these three dramas is based on a classic of dramatic or epic literature transported to a new place and time. Molora (2008) sets the ancient Greek saga of the Oresteia in contemporary South Africa, with the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation taking the role of the ancient Athenian Court of the Areopagus. Ram: the Abduction of Sita into Darkness (2011) recounts a grim episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana in connection with a strike by modern Indian sanitation workers. Mies Julie (2012) moves August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie from the midnight sun of a Swedish Midsummer to Freedom Day on an arid South African farmstead. And with each of these transpositions, something remarkable takes place. Rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities. For these great tales, times and continents hardly matter; our similarities as human beings prove stronger than our differences, especially when we gather in a circle to hear a story unfold.

Ingrid Rowland

Ingrid Rowland

At its origin, the Oresteia was a tale of the dying Mediterranean Bronze Age. Agamemnon, the general who led a thousand Greek ships to conquer distant Troy, belonged to the last generation to rule from a series of massive palaces decorated with elaborate frescoes and brimming with gold. Shortly after the Trojan War, between about 1200 and 1100 B.C.E., this palace civilization was destroyed; political systems broke down, writing was lost, Greeks descended into extreme poverty. Memories of that breakdown persist in the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming from Troy: his queen, Clytemnestra, has taken a lover during his ten-year absence, and when he finally returns, she kills her husband and abandons their children. Electra, the daughter, descends into bitterness. Their son, Orestes, is bound by tradition to avenge his father’s death by slaying the murderer, but that murderer is his own mother. His conflicting obligations potentially make Orestes a monster no matter what he does; significantly, his name means ‘mountain man’ – he is, by fate and by definition, a kind of savage. All three of the great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, wrestled with Orestes’ dilemma, using it as a way to call for new, more profound forms of justice, aware that their ancestors had created a new civilization, their own, from the ruins of the Bronze Age. In their retellings, Orestes slays his mother, but is tormented by the Furies, his mother’s avenging spirits. In his great tragic trilogy. Aeschylus finally turns Orestes over to a court of law, which reaches a split decision. In a spectacular finish, Athena decides to acquit him, but she also gives the Furies a new home and a new cult in Athens.

Yaël Farber

Yaël Farber

In Molora, the dying Bronze Age becomes the dying system of South African apartheid. Farber replaces the ancient Greek chorus with a chorus of Xhosa women singers. Those ancient Athenians sang melodies and danced, vigorously, in patterns we can only guess at now. But the hypnotic two-tone throat singing of this contemporary chorus creates an ecstatic atmosphere sufficient in itself, one in perfect harmony with the play and with its new South African venue. Aeschylus ended his famous Orestes trilogy of 458 B.C. with a torchlight procession as dusk fell over Athens, knitting up all the unanswered questions of his story with the irrational, energetic rush of pure celebration. The final chorus of Molora may be sung in a different language to different instruments than those known to Aeschylus, but the language of bodies in motion knows no borders, and the effect of this South African dance must be no less exhilarating than the memory of that long-ago torchlight parade. Likewise, the sword dance that Orestes performs in Molora as he circles around a smoldering altar hews with absolute truth to the spirit of Greek tragedy, not only because tragedy is the stylized product of an ancient circle dance around a burnt sacrifice, but because, in human terms, Orestes needs to work himself into a frenzy before he can contemplate doing what he must do with that sword – namely drive it into his mother. But Farber’s most brilliant transformation of the Orestes legend is to have the chorus, as the embodiment of Truth and Reconciliation, stop the murder before it has happened, to hold Orestes to their superior, forgiving justice before he awakens the Furies.

Continue reading