Thursday, October 2, 2014

Poems staged, Plays recited

For many years TACT the Actors Theatre Company has been offering rehearsed but unstaged reading of plays four times every season for its subscribers in what it called the Salon Series.  Other companies have been doing similar events more recently.  I get a tremendous satisfaction from these performances in which the actors, seated or standing, read from the script held in hand.  Far from seeming or sounding incomplete or preliminary like the first rehearsal, the plays recited on stage without the paraphernalia of set, property, or costume tease and engage the imagination of the audience, the way radio plays I grew up on in my teens back in Japan did; and therein lies, I am convinced, their very special attraction. 

Recently, I attended riverrun, the multimedia staging of the last pages of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, adapted, directed, and performed by Olwen Fouéré, actor and performance artist from Dublin.  In her performance she was superb, highly disciplined, articulate and expressive, quite engaging all along the 60-minute event.   Still, I felt — to put it bluntly — cheated.  So much of the richness of Joyce’s exceptional writing was obscured by the actor’s vocalizing and acting.  For one, given the nature of the meditative soliloquy, almost a dream, declaiming it as a public enactment goes perversely against the character of the writing.  I wrote previously on Fiona Shaw’s staged reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, accompanied by the dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, the theatricality of which detracted from the poem’s already amply dramatic text.  With Finnegans Wake, the staging was even more detracting.  Joyce’s prose is surely melodic, and his puns are often clearer when read aloud and heard as his own reading attests.  But Joyce also writes many visual puns and they are lost when the text is not followed by the eye.  Poems can be recited as Dylan Thomas, for example, did so inimitably and effectively; but they alter the work substantially when staged.  
One can, of course, call staged readings of poems adaptations.  Adaptations, as from stage to screen or vice versa, or from the novel to the stage or screen, are always new works in a new genre, removed from the original except in its most basic components and should not be judged by the standard set by it.  Granting this, then, staged reading as an adaptation should be taken for what it is; riverrun was so designated, The Rime was not. 
The day after riverrun, I attended Beckett’s Embers, another multimedia presentation by PanPan Theatre, which consisted of a colossal wooden sculpture of a skull which moved and illuminated variously through the performance; two actors read the lines mostly inhabiting the interior of the skull behind the eye sockets, and an elaborate sound design created a complex multilayered auditory environment.  Gavin Quinn, director, spoke of the work as “an installation of sculpture with words.”  Ironically, Embers was Beckett’s 1959 radio play, that would have fully engaged the imagination of the listeners hearing only words and sound effects.  At least, the company described the play was as Embers reimagined.  It was also reconstituted, not for the better in my opinion.