Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pinter's Krapp

On 15 December at BAM Harvey I attended the performance of Samuel Beckett’s 1958 One-Act Play, Krapp’s Last Tape. John Hurt was Krapp, and in his performance he was precise and chilling, making Krapp rather ascetic and acerbic. In the conversation after the performance Hurt said that he didn’t play the role for laughs though comedic elements are in the opening scene with a banana and the skit of jumping in and out of the spotlight and darkness.

My first experience of Krapp was on the Italian television RAI. As I remembered it, Bert Lahr was Krapp who, in my fading memory, was warmer and more relaxed. I could not find Lahr as Krapp in any performance record. I looked up the Italian title, L’ultimo nastro di Krapp, and I was wrong. Glauco Mauri performed Krapp in 1961 on stage, it must have been telecast shortly later. I was in Italy from January 1962 to August 1963. I was overlaying Lahr in Waiting for Godot on Krapp.

While searching Krapp on video, I discovered that Harold Pinter performed Krapp’s Last Tape at Royal Court in 2006, only two month before his death in December of that year. After ten performances, it was videotaped, and this was available on YouTube in five installments, about ten minutes each. In another YouTube, Ian Rickson, who proposed the event and directed the play, explains tellingly that the the actor started rehearsals soon after a major surgery, and ten performances were absolutely the limit. He acted seated in a motorized wheel chair, and the opening banana and light-and-shadow sequence was evidently omitted (in the video, anyway).

The depth of feeling Pinter brought to the character of Krapp was extraordinary. Pinter, of course, admired Beckett since his youth, but his age and closeness to death may have made the performance especially poignant, though this was probably less than relevant given the superb acting he accomplished with minimal movements, the economy which accords with Beckett’s writing.

The video was shot as a film rather than as a filmed stage play. In general, a stage performance on video is less than satisfactory.  But Krapp is an intimate play, best experienced in the first row next to the stage. Watching the videotaped performance of Pinter’s Krapp, I was struck by the intensity of the play and the performance on the screen which I attribute, first, to the use of closeups and, second, on the camera movement. Combined with the gliding movement of the wheel chair, the fluid camera, visualized the inexorable flow of time better than the image of the stage that remained static in its total composition.

The camera, moreover, brings out the facial acting -- subtle but terribly expressive in Pinter’s performance -- in the closely calculated movements of the eyes, the mouth, the cheeks, and now and then the hands. And we listen to the tape as we watch him listening as though we were sitting close to his face rather than watching him listening as a fixed framed picture. As we listen to the tape and Krapp’s reactions and his soliloquies with a concentrated attention (alone rather than sitting among the audience in a theater), we masticate each and every word of Beckett’s carefully weighted writing which passes too quickly in a staged performance as experienced from a seat in the auditorium.

Beckett’s own choice of actor when it was first performed was Patrick Magee, and later Rick Clutchey and John Hurt, among others. I watched them on YouTube, and they are all good in different ways. But Pinter’s Krapp is, in my opinion, unsurpassed.

There is also a YouTube video of an interview in which Pinter comments on Krapp (available, apparently, only with Spanish subtitle), and another of Pinter talking about Beckett earlier on in 1990 when he was 60.

Harold Pinter in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape:

Ian Rickson on directing Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape:

Alan Yentob interviews Pinter on Beckett and Krapp's Last Tape:

Harold Pinter tallking about Beckett in 1990:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sick Sick Qif

My cat Qif suffered a severe diarrhea and vomiting some eleven days ago. On the morning of Friday 2 December, I found the mess she had made overnight all over the place. All day Friday she didn’t drink or eat. She is now fourteen years old, and she has never been seriously sick in her life. She always had a healthy appetite, and she ate well the night before.

Saturday morning I called her vet. I suspected gastroenteritis but I was mostly worried about her dehydrating. I was not able to take her, however, until Monday morning. She had not slept much for two days. She was apparently in pain; her forepaws folded, she stared out vacantly all day. On Monday, the doctor, after a preliminary examination, administered blood tests and radiograph. He then advised that that Qif stay at the clinic overnight for enema. The next day, he reported that she was not constipating but that he suspected pancreatitis. After two nights at the clinic, she was cleared of pancreatitis but there was no diagnosis. On Thursday morning, after paying $1366 covering consultation, examination, tests of all sorts, and lodging for three nights, I picked her up; she was not eating at all, I was told, and might do in the comfort of her home. Back home, she still didn’t eat but she slept, and slept well for the next two days. Friday evening, she came to the kitchen and meowed faintly begging for food. I put a spoonful of her usual salmon treat in her dish; but just sniffed and didn’t eat. I forced water into her mouth with a syringe. I was not successful giving her any of the pills I was instructed to administer. On Sunday, I finally saw a good sign; I saw her drinking water from her water bowl. These two days, she has been eating a bite or two during the whole day. This morning she had three bites; so, she is definitely on the mend.

I sorely missed Qif these three days she was away. It was especially sad the first night; I felt forlorn without her who comes up to my bed and sits on my chest and purrs for a while before retiring to the foot of the bed to lean on my leg to sleep. She is an old cat, and sleeps most of the day; but she is ever present in the fringe of my field of vision. The dead silence in her absence was chilling. I realized, though it was no surprise, how deeply I am dependent on her. I know someday she is going to die and leave me behind but thinking about it gives me shivers.

PS It’s now 14 days since the attack of what seemed like gastroenteritis. Qif is now eating a little more than a few bites several times a day. Three days ago I put some dried food -- small pellets -- in a bowl, which I always had for her snacks, even though I thought she wouldn’t be able to eat them. But she did -- more than her favorite gourmet salmon. So, she is steadily on the mend, though slowly.

PPS Three weeks have passed since Qif took ill. I added water to the salmon paste to make a sort of puree; she didn’t even sniff at it. I gave some raw eggs, well stirred; she didn’t touch it. She threw up once but started eating more of her favorite salmon. Her loss of weight is visible in sagging skin. But I think she is steadily regaining her health.

Merce Cunningham Legacy

I attended three consecutive evenings of Merce Cunningham: The Legacy Tour at BAM last week, the final performances by the company.

The choreographer’s six seminal works, among many, were performed -- three works before 1990 (RainForest 1968, Second Hand 1970, and Roaratorio 1983) and three later works (Pond Way 91998, Biped 1999, and Split Sides 2003). I saw another Legacy performance earlier this year in March at Joyce Theater; this included Antic Meet 1958, Quartet 1982, and CRWDSPCR 1993. Then, in July, at Merce Fair held at Lincoln Center, I saw Squaregame 1976 and Duets 1980. I have been to many Merce events, too, before his death on 26 July 2009 at 90.

Three days of immersion in Cunningham’s choreography brought me some (to me) new and more clarifying observations.

First, his dancers in his dances, in particular in his later works, are noteworthy in avoiding facial expressions and histrionic or even mimetic gesticulations. Their movements are therefore emphatically graphic, created as geometric configurations; his dances are totally non-mimetic and strictly abstract in this sense.

Secondly, in contrast to the works of many other choreographers, Cunningham’s dances are geometrically fully three-dimensional in conception. Dancers, of course, occupy a three-dimensional space and they do move sideways as well as in depth and in diagonal directions. But there is more often in other choreographers works a feel for the audience on one side -- outside the proscenium arch or the fourth wall. Cunningham makes us learn to see his dance group configurations in a fully abstract space without any walls. It is little wonder that he choreographed some of his dances in an open outdoor space. On the other hand, he is sparse in the use of vertical movements -- jumps and leaps.

Thirdly, Cunningham’s dancers, even in leotards or minimal covering, do not exhibit their bodies in their sensuality. Human bodies as bodies do not seem to concern him; he views bodies as composite lines. This makes sense in the light of the process of choreographing his Biped, of which, I believe, it was said that he first choreographed the movements of the legs dissociated from the torso, then the arms by themselves, and finally the torso -- all using the diagrammatic stick figures on the computer. This kind of anatomical disjunction counters the natural counterposition that is the basis of classical contrapposto (as seen in classical sculpture) in which the lines of hips, legs, shoulders, and arms are placed for balance as nature demands. When we lower the left shoulder, the right shoulder rises naturally, and the head counters it in the opposite direction. Cunnigham mechanizes the human figure but also, by forcing it, makes it dynamically charged.

Thirdly, I saw a fundamental source of excitement in Cunningham’s choreography in what I characterize as the seeming repetitiveness which harbors infinite variety which on close and repeated viewing effervesces out of the sameness. In this regard, it occurred to me that those who find Cunningham’s dances boring are most likely those who find Philip Glass’s music repetitive and boring. The works of both these artists reassembles fragmented units into a complex web. In Cunningham’s dances, the dancers often form small groups and perform moves that are unrelated to those of other groups. He explains, as does John Cage, his longtime companion and collaborator, that we experience our natural everyday environment as an assemblage of many unrelated events occurring simultaneously. Viewed this way, most curiously, Cunningham’s dances are so abstract and yet so fundamentally natural.

An elemental piece of this aesthetics is also what I find intensely appealing in Francis Alÿs’s Sheep and the sets of ceramic cups by Emund DeWaal (of The Hare with Amber Eyes).

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Cherry Orchard for Laughs

The Cherry Orchard, featuring John Turturro and Dianne Wiest, is surely entertaining. But that is the bane of this production by the Classical Stage Company. The casting was good; aside from the leads, it had Alvin Epstein as Fiers, Juliet Rylance as Varya, and Daniel Davis as Gaev. The lines were delivered clearly, and the course of events was easy to follow. But the director Andrei Belgrader’s view of Chekhov is apparently slanted toward comedy. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called the production “heartbreakingly funny” and applauded it.

Chekhov himself called the play “a comedy in four acts.” But to understand the word comedy in the modern sense as understood in the age of television, I believe, is a distortion. The Cherry Orchard is more a satire, but this production rinsed out the irony. First of all, the new translation by John Christopher Jones was colloquial for easier understanding of the text; but it failed, for that reason, to portray accurately the upper class of the Ranevsky household. Dianne Wiest’s Ranevskaya lacked class; she made her a fool rather than a sympathetic anachronism out of step with the changes that had happened during her absence. So, John Turturro made Lopakhin into a clown, a bit too vulgar for Chekhov, a vaudeville act. They both performed well, and in consort with them, all the other characters, each in her or his own way, performed for laughs. Roberta Maxwell’s Charlotta, the governess, after repeating her line, “There is no one I can talk to,” continues saying “No one” more than once after her exit as an echo to squeeze laugher (successfully) from the audience. There was consistency among the players; so, the interpretation is evidently the director’s.

What was lost at the expense of clarity is complexity of interpersonal relationships. It is not a simple failure of communication that these Chekhov characters suffer. It is not that they don’t hear each other; they hear but somehow partially, each in her or his own way. The production, eager to create comedy, missed on Chekhov’s poetry, “elusive poetry” in the words of Michael Billington of The Guardian in his review of Howard Davies’s production in London earlier this year. Aura of elegy was sorely missed. It was like a Sung landscape cleared of its mist.

Entertaining as it was, this was The Cherry Orchard for vaudeville, a good histrionic Chekhov, a crowd pleaser.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December now

Leaves around my feet
race with me frolicking
the northerly wind


Under the bright blue sky
black overcoats everywhere
winter is icomen in