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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Let's talk about Ibsen

Let's talk about Ibsen. Nothing to do with my current work, just because.  (Okay, there is a slight link, but mostly because talking about one thing for weeks gets rather dull.)
I bought a DVD box set - the BBC Ibsen Collection - a little while ago and it's pretty damn good. It has all the major plays and a hell of a lot of the lesser known ones - and that's just the extras, which include eight (yes, eight) whole radio plays to boot. (Though one is about Ibsen, not by him.)  That's sixteen in all - not a bad line up.
But - and here's an irritating thing - only two of these plays are commercially available in the UK.  Brand and Ghosts are to be found elsewhere (I already have them - Patrick McGoohan as Brand is fabulous) - but the rest are only found in this box set which is only available in the US.  This means I have to dig out the multi-regional DVD player and skip the BBC America ads.
I started with the radio plays first, as I don't really have time to watch anything, but I do listen to audio books when I go to bed. I've listened to Emperor and Galilean (which I've only ever read) and Peer Gent (which I've seen and staged) and have been enjoying The Pillars of Society and Rosmersholm (which, again, I've only ever read).  The recordings are from very different periods in the BBC's history and are mostly well executed.
But I really want to write about Peer. Listening to it, I've remembered so much I'd forgotten about the play and I've been inspired to want to stage it again. This is no abstract itch, I know how I'd do it. The last time I staged it I made a bit... well, not quite a hash of it, but it could have been a lot better.  I didn't have a proper plan, only a few half ideas (some of which worked very well) but it was mostly a production I moved from A to B.  But now I can see it.  A way to stage this monster of a play - it's simple, contained and yet epic. It would have a small cast and a very small stage space, it would be bounded in a nutshell and yet played on a canvas of infinite space.
I am, obviously, mad.
The radio version in the box set is from 1943, featuring Ralph Richardson and a full orchestra playing the Grieg incidental music.  I feel sorry for the Grieg incidental score - I think it's really very good dramatically.  It tells the story and evokes the mood - it is a bit too grand but it is a play that is too grand, too big, too busy - too clever, perhaps.  It is a score destroyed by a thousand associations, with adverts and cheesy, lazy broadcast soundtracks - diminished to contextless muzak.  As guilt by association it is largely doomed to live in bitesized chunks from the Suite on Classic FM.
On this recording the music is both an asset and a liability.  An asset because, in context, it works rather well (though the absence of Morning as Peer awakens is a testament to the fact that, even in the forties, the chocolate box odour already hung heavy).  It's a liability because the sound mix is poor (basically non existent) and the music overwhelms the microphones leaving the listener with a jumbled wall of noise.  This is particularly poor for any sung sections (intelligible) or where dialogue and music coincide.  It's a shame, but not an overwhelming one because the music is used sparingly.
The atmosphere of the recording is that of a concert performance, which it presumably was.  The acoustic of the hall is echoey and not intimate enough for dialogue, so it feels very stagy.  This is added to by the delivery, which is very much of its time.  It is brilliant in so many respects - the cast, plucked from a stage version for this recording - know their lines intimately, which pour out of them like water - fast and flowing, a beauty to listen to.  But, there is no depth.  Even Ralph (or especially Ralph) doesn't get at the meat of the emotion - he sings the part, and sings it well, but I don't believe there's much going on under the surface.  But, I suspect, this is the context of the time speaking - is it fair to judge the conventions of the past?  In one respect it has a clarity not to be beaten, which many an emotive performer can lose.  Balance is the key.
There were two other interesting elements to the recording.  The stage directions were not just read - they were made into an incredibly effective chorus, spoken by two actors.  They were turned into an extension of the poetry of the play - shaped presumably by the producer.  It changed the performance from a recorded play, into an epic poem (which is arguably what it is - discuss), and gave it an unique flavour.
Secondly, the cuts were telling.  At first I thought, as it was over three hours long and performed over two nights when broadcast, that it was largely uncut - and so it seemed until the final act, which had wholesale purges.  All of my favourite scenes, the ones that drew me to the play, were gone.  The second conversation with the Mysterious Passenger, the meeting with Satan, just gone.  (Was the appearance of the devil as a priest too much for the BBC in the 1940's, or was it also cut from the production?  One to research.)  Whereas the previous Act, where Peer is on his travels, left very much as writ.
When I produced my version in the depths of the Noughties - I cut Act Four completely.  It is a problem, Act Four.  The play is very neat otherwise.  Young Peer and his adventures in the first half, Old Peer returns home in the second.  The adventures abroad are important to the play in many of the images and recurrent themes, but they don't quite pay their way, they are deeply unsatisfying.  So, it made sense to take the pain and cut it.  This wasn't a perfect solution and it left some problems, but I'd done something similar with Doctor Faustus a few years earlier and it worked then, so why not again?
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has many similarities with Peer Gynt.  The eponymous leads both make bargains and effectively sell their soul, then they go on semi-comic and problematic adventures, ending with a reckoning for good or ill.  When I did a semi-staging of Faustus I cut the already short play right down to the essential bargain and the consequences - but that production never pretended to be anything other than a playabout with the material, it never pretended to be a straight production of the play.  By going only halfway with Peer Gynt, hacking a chunk out and leaving the rest largely as writ (I've since lost my directing version, so I can't be certain of that) I did more damage to the play than good, because I didn't restructure the source to massage the joins in the cut.
What appealed to me were the scenes in the Troll Hall, brilliantly realised satire and witty dialogue, and the final Act with the Button Moulder and his re-meeting of characters from earlier in the play.
Here followers of my blog may see the thread that runs through this post.  These plays, Peer and Faustus, are thematically and historically linked to Everyman.  They have the same narrative, they have the same focus on a central character who is trying to escape death, to make a delay from meeting Death, Satan or the Button Moulder - and, once the inevitable happens, fighting for the best deal to save them afterwards.  Everyman is saved by his Good Deeds, Faustus damned by his Wan-hope, Peer sort of saved because he left his soul with Solvieg before he tried to give it to the Trolls.  The latter is, of course, the most vomit inducing.  (As well as staging it straight, I'd quite like to rewrite it - create a completely new play based on modern themes.  I planned to do something of this with the last story in my Trolls trilogy, but it didn't come together.  Next time, perhaps?)
This is why I'm drawn to go back to Peer - I see a trilogy of productions with the same small cast.  A double bill of Everyman with a radically cut Faustus, and a new production of Peer Gynt.  Maybe next year.  Or, more likely, 2017.  I've got other fish to fry in 2016.

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