Archive for theatre

Brown Bread: Miriam Karlin

Posted in Books, Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

“The sequinned grande dame of British theatre, a Jewish legend and Equity terrorist.” Anthony Sher

“I can’t imagine being anything but left-wing. I was brought up in a home where justice was the most important quality. I’m part of a race that has survived 2,000 years of persecution. I think, if I’d had any ambition at all, I would like to have been the first female British Prime Minister. I would have been a rather lovely English Golda Meir, a benevolent dictator. I am, shall I say, a Utopian socialist. I have an idealistic dream of a wondrous socialist world where there will be a real brotherhood of man. I know it will never happen, but it doesn’t hurt to have such belief, and it keeps me going.” Miriam Karlin

Miriam Karlin, who has died of cancer aged 85, was a pillar of the British acting establishment who was also a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. During sixty workaholic years, she acted in every area of the performing arts except ballet and the circus, and is fondly remembered as the truculent, whistle-blowing shop steward Paddy (complete with her catchphrase “Everybody out!”) in the classic TV sitcom The Rag Trade. Parallel to her life as a performer, she was a dedicated political activist, spurred on by her lifelong socialist beliefs and an unerring sense of justice, promoting broadly leftwing causes as a member of the council of the actors’ union Equity, and as a campaigner for the Anti-Nazi League, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Soviet Jewry.

She had been unwell for a number of years, suffering from peripheral neuropathy for a decade.

Here is the last page of her 2007 autobiography Some Sort of a Life, based on conversations with writer and director Jan Sargent:

I don’t think I’ll last much longer. I have to say that the contemplation of my own death only frightens me if I think it’s going to be painful and if I can’t control how I go. The idea of not being here only frightens me in terms of my vanity: I hope that I die looking good with my teeth in and that people won’t say awful things about me. I hope that the obituaries will be nice. Perhaps what I am writing now is my own; that’s what it feels like, some sort of a life story.

I don’t want another 20 years in pain; I can’t contemplate very much more of it. I want to say that’s enough, thank you, been there, done that, got all the T-shirts, let’s now finish it in a dignified fashion. I don’t want to die throwing up everywhere; I would just like to die nice and quietly. If only I hadn’t given that damn “Do It Yourself” book to somebody who never gave it back …

I love conversations and talking on the phone, but it’s probably because I have always lived alone. I’d miss gossip, not being here. I’d miss going to wonderful concerts listening to beautiful music. I don’t believe any longer in heaven; I don’t think I am going to hear beautiful harps in a mystical place. I think this is all there is. I’d miss music and my friends. I’ve got some wonderful friends that I’ve had for a very long time, and of course I’d miss my brother, my sister-in-law and my niece Vivien. I can’t really say “I’d miss” because I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t know how to; but if one could, those are the things I’d miss.

R.I.P. Miriam Karlin (Miriam Samuels) 1925-2011

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So, you don’t like Wagner?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I first heard Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde nearly 30 years ago, hadn’t much of a clue what was going on, but the music gripped me like nothing else has ever done. I got to know all the mature operas very well, over time, but now many moons can pass by without hearing a note. However, once I almost reluctantly, and even with resistance, put one of his great dramas in the CD player, I am swept away all over again.

It’s intoxicating, heady, almost dangerous stuff, but that feeling of being swept away is like nothing else in all music.

I don’t care about Wagner’s family, his character, his beliefs, or what he liked for breakfast. I only care about the works. For me, they’re the greatest and most intense theatre pieces that I know, fathomless, inextinguishable and indestructible. I’ve seen them done superbly well and excruciatingly badly, and I regret more than I can say all the thousands of productions that I never saw and never shall see.

Many contemporary performances of Wagner seem wilfully to flout his intentions to the point where the music and theatre are almost divorced from one another. An “historically informed” production would be an interesting idea (as long as the orchestra also made use of gut strings, etc.) but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Wagner himself was a progressive thinker (at least concerning music and drama) who probably would not have approved of the petrification of his legacy begun by Cosima and continued by their descendants.

The question is whether whatever continuing relevance Wagner’s work has to other times and places is best served by attempting to reproduce his explicit instructions or not. For example, the action of Der Ring des Nibelungen takes place in a kind of mythical primeval past where time is only measured by the events of the story. Is this “timelessness” best expressed by using the pseudo-mediaeval trappings of its early productions? Or do we now have a different idea for what “timeless” might mean? (Wieland Wagner, for example, used the model of Greek tragedy.)

I wonder how many people, on hearing any piece of music for the first time, respond to anything other than the music itself? I bet they don’t usually go around asking whether the composer had beliefs they find repugnant, beat his wife, did even worse things to other people, had his music hijacked by other people who used it for nefarious ends, was a murderer, swindler, you name it … Obviously, if you start looking into the situation further you may well find out that sort of thing, but I doubt that initially it would colour your appreciation of any artist.

Why go to an opera house?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Have you ever met anyone who greatly prefers to experience opera by listening to complete audio recordings at home as opposed to seeing the whole theatrical event in an opera house?

There seem to me to be two different breeds of opera goer, albeit with some overlap. There are those, like me, who basically go for the total experience, music, drama, and production, and we are often disappointed. The other group can accept shortcomings in some aspects, as long as the singing is good, in fact some opera fans are really just enthusiasts for their favourite singers, the voice is all.

It’s now some time since I went to ENO or Covent Garden, as I have endured so many perverse productions that I really cannot face any more. It would be nice if recorded opera made up for my loss, but recent offerings have been disappointing, mainly due to multi-mic balances and other forms of over-produced sound engineering. I still enjoy opera sets from the late fifties and sixties more than recent ones.

This is a very complex subject. Perhaps part of me rather resents the emphasis on opera at the expense of orchestral and chamber music, especially when you consider how few decent large concert halls we have in this country.

While the music is by far the most important part of opera for me, I still go to live opera as often as I can, despite the fact that I sometimes do not like the productions. The sound of live opera simply cannot be replaced for me. I have relatively good stereo equipment, but there is something completely different about the sound in the opera house and the thrill of hearing the orchestra and singers live. I love to see productions that enhance the music for me, but often I would simply be happy if the production did not make it hard for me to concentrate on the music.

Brown Bread: Pete Postlethwaite

Posted in Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

An awful start to 2011. Pete Postlethwaite, born in Warrington, has died of cancer aged 64.

The obituary in the Times was shockingly poor. They enlarged the photograph to fill out the page. Basically a list of his work. Nothing about the man.

Obituaries are in theory written well in advance and updated to reflect events (which is why so many of the Guardian obituaries of opera singers are by Alan Blyth, years after his own death). So it may be more to do with the fact that Pete Postlethwaite was not the sort of actor who appealed to the Rupert Murdoch world-view.

Anyway, Postlethwaite was one of our finest actors, I loved him with Sean Bean in When Saturday Comes. I was only talking about him the other day and I am very saddened to hear of his passing.

The great thing about this man’s acting is when watching him you never felt he was acting; everything was very real and natural to me which is what made him a cut above the rest.

I look at Ben Kingsley or Ian McKellen and I find it all so much ham and am personally unable to enjoy all their work but with Pete Postlethwaite I’m engrossed from the moment he is on the screen.

In my twenties I went to the the Royal Court to meet a girlfriend. I was always about an hour late for anything in the hazy days of my youth, so I didn’t see the play. I finally found her and she invited me to a party which was around the corner from the theatre. I got there and felt awkward, lots of older people and actors, one of whom was a very kind, down-to-earth Pete Postlethwaite. He saw that I wanted to be anywhere but with those people, and invited me to the pub round the corner. So we left the party. I had no idea who he was, in those days. I have never forgotten that gesture, although it was many years before I realized it was Pete Postlethwaite.

He’ll be sadly missed by all people who enjoy great acting.

R.I.P Pete Postlethwaite 1946-2011

Gay Composers

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

It seems to me that everything in an artist’s life informs his/her art in some way, not just sexuality, but class, race, privilege, education, and all the other usual suspects. But the influence is in varying degrees and according to the whim of the artist.

For instance (to take an example from the trivial art that I prefer), Arthur Sullivan was a notorious womaniser (even keeping a record of the number of sexual encounters in his diary); but I have seen it asserted recently that he was gay (there does not seem to be any real evidence for this). Question: does his music settle the point either way? Is it notably “straight” or particularly “gay”? I’m open to contradiction, but I personally would answer “No” to all the questions I’ve just posed myself.

I would even argue that most of Oscar Wilde’s writings are not specifically “gay”. For instance The Importance of Being Earnest (A Trivial Comedy for Serious People), if we set aside the occasional “underworld” joke negligible in the fabric of the whole, is a frivolous amusement 100% in line with the Victorian farcical tradition, in which romantic love is formalised just as it is in most Victorian drama.

But Wilde would not have written what he did if it were not for every element of his character that made him what he was. I state the bleeding obvious, for the sake of completeness.

Brown Bread: Natasha Richardson

Posted in Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , on March 19, 2009 by Robin Gosnall
Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson (1968)

Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson (1968)

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
(Christina Georgina Rossetti, When I am Dead)

Full coverage: Natasha Richardson

R.I.P. Natasha Richardson 1963-2009

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