Well, I have had one of the worst evenings of my life in the theatre. It’s the Edinburgh Festival, and of course that is to be expected, but a bad night there is usually stumbling into a hopeful group of students doing the Medea on roller skates in a church hall performing to an audience of four. It is not going to the splendid Festival Theatre to see a play that has received pages of press coverage and is sold out.
This was James III: The True Mirror, the third part of a trilogy about the early Stewarts. James was a useless king who irritated his nobles by promoting favourites and neglecting business and was eventually killed- i.e. he was a little like Richard II and Edward II, and though you can’t expect any dramatist to use language like Shakespeare or Marlowe, you would think they could learn a bit about structure and tension and narrative drive. But instead of, say, alternating scenes of a frivolous king with the powerful plotters against him,, there were endless going-nowhere soap opera domesticities of him talking to his wife the Danish Queen Margaret (played by Sofie Gråbøl from The Killing, who made her likable) fighting over custody of the children, a whole meandering pointless mass of boneless characters, sweiry words and button pushing jokes that got knowing laughs – eg – James to his missus – “all I got with you was Orkney and Shetland”. James III was presented as an anarchic guy pissing round, like Russell Brand and the play was as intellectually light-weight.
The staging of a high wall with a tier of benches for the meetings of the Three Estates was rather grand and looked promising. Then it began. A red-haired laundry maid tells a bloke that she’s heard James the King is gorgeous. Then discovers she is in fact speaking to James. Squeaks from the maid, and his wife tells James that he’s been doing his man of the people act again. This was the first ten minutes, with dialogue so self-conscious, slack and banal I wanted to leave at that point. At the interval my friends and I discovered that we were all having a bad time, and what the hell was everyone laughing about? But we hung on to the end, and that’s when we got to the worst part of all – cringe-making, boag-inducing awful – a final speech from Queen Margaret who has become regent and tells the Scots lords (who rhubarb aye, aye) that she is a rational Dane from a rational country and they are heaps of manure, but aren’t they a lovable lot, and Scotland could be a nation again, and never fear for the future – in short a party political broadcast for the Yes side of the referendum. Oh how the audience loved it- tell us we are rogues with a bad attitude but lovable and we’ll lap this like Irn Bru.
There are other shows dealing with this matter of Scotland, all pro-independence, which is to be expected as Yesses are full of vision and enthusiasm and poetry, while Noes are grumpy. I did stumble on a comedian, Erich McElroy The British Referendum. He’s an engaging American guy, a naturalised Brit, who is evidently put out and a little puzzled that his newly adopted country could lose one third of its land mass. With some easy laughs comparing British talking head politicking and American raw gun-shooting advertisements, he did get a few digs in the referendum’s vitriol, with pictures of what a nationalistic country looks like (ie an American flag-lined street). And facetiously warned Scotland that the USA could have interesting designs on an oil-rich country with no defences. There were a few Noes in the small audience, relieved that someone was speaking to them.
The death of Lauren Bacall (pictured above with husband Humphrey Bogart leading a 1947 march against McCarthy’s witch hunt of leftists and liberals) robs us of the last great star from Hollwood’s ‘golden age’ and a brave liberal – in the best sense of the word. She described herself to TV host Larry King, in 2005, as “anti-Republican and a liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
I can’t resist the opportunity to show you a clip of Bacall in her first film, Howard Hawks’ 1944 ‘To Have And Have Not’, in which she sings the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer number ‘How Little We Know’, accompanied by Hoagy himself at the piano. For many years it was thought that Bacall’s singing was dubbed by the young Andy Williams, but Hawks confirmed (in Joseph McBride’s book ‘Hawks on Hawks’) that although Williams’ voice was recorded, it was not used because he (Hawks) decided Bacall’s voice was good enough.
The late Robin Williams was, by all accounts, a good guy. He was certainly on our side:
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (‘Le Sacre du Printemps’) opened 100 years ago in Paris, to derisive laughter that quickly developed into a riot. The orchestra was bombarded with vegetables and other missiles, but kept playing. Nijinsky’s choreography, featuring dancers dressed as pagans, caused as much outrage as Stravinsky’s polyrhythmic and dissonant score.
The critics (and some fellow-composers) were savage:
“The work of madman …sheer cacophony” – Giacomo Puccini
“A laborious and puerile barbarity” Henri Quittard, Le Figaro
“If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon!” – Camille Saint-Saëns
It was “a revolutionary work for a revolutionary time” as George Benjamin writes in today’s Graun.
‘Riot of Spring': Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint, here.
Above: Stephen Malinowski’s animation of Part 1 ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ (from NPR)
After a long search, I’ve just obtained a deleted CD by my favourite singer, the now nearly forgotten Lee Wiley. It originally appeared in the mid fifties as a 10″ album called Lee Wiley Sings Rogers and Hart and the CD includes an added bonus: the original sleeve notes by George Frazier (no, not the boxer, but one of the finest jazz writers ever). As one of our missions is to bring you great writing from perhaps unexpected sources, I thought I’d reproduce the notes here. The Youtube clip, by the way, is of Lee singing Rogers and Hart’s Glad To Be Unhappy, but from an earlier (1940) recording, with Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Joe Bushkin (piano) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax) in the band:
George Frazier wrote:
Lee Wiley is one of the best vocalists who ever lived, with a magical empathy for fine old show tunes and good jazz. Indeed, I know of no one who sings certain songs quite so meaningfully, so wistfully. She is, however, an artistic snob and, consequently, simply awful when (as is blessedly rare) somebody persuades her to experiment with mediocre material. When she doesn’t get a lyric’s message, you might as well call the game because of wet grounds. But given a number worthy of her endowments — well, she is miraculous, as, in fact, she is here.
This is a portfolio of songs by Rogers and Hart — not Rogers and that other fellow (who would be Oscar Hammerstein II, who, no disrespect intended, no Larry Hart, he). These are haunting songs — songs that have withstood the ravaging headlong rush of the years, the fickleness of public taste, and the debasement of the lyric to the nadir where we are subjected to, forgive the expression, Be My Life’s Companion. But whatta hell, whatta hell. The gratifying thing is that Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (who, although dead and buried these many years, is more artistically alive than the no-talent author of Be My Life’s Companion) turned out some lovely, lovely stuff and that Lee Wiley has a superb affinity for it. To my mind, indeed, she is the definitive interpreter of Rogers and Hart.
I do not in the least mind admitting that it gets me livid when most girl singers make it big, for it is my dour conviction that, by and large, they have plenty of nothing. Lee Wiley, however, is an artist. About the vast art of Miss Wiley there is a sophistication that is both eloquent and enduring and utterly uncontrived. Technically, she may leave something to be desired, but artistically she’s simply magnificent, projecting emotion with dignity and warmth, expressing nuances with exquisite delicacy, and always making you share her bliss or heartbreak. She came to New York from Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma, and before long all the right people were bewitched by her incomparable magic. There is no room here to catalogue all the individuals — that is, the prominent ones — who are Wiley devotees, but right offhand I can think of Bing Crosby, Dorothy Kilgallen, Ted Straeter, Victor Young, Louis Armstrong, and Marlene Dietrich. It is my feeling that they, along with a great many other people, will be grateful for this anthology. To my way of thinking, no better Rogers and Hart collection is available. Since de gustibus and so forth, I should probably mention at this point that I rather wish Miss Wiley had substituted, say, The Lady Is A Tramp or the rarely-heard Imagine for Give It Back To The Indians, but this is carping and, in any event, you cannot really fault Indians. As for my enthusiasms, the rendition of Glad To Be Unhappy is marvellous — a great love song interpreted in all its dark splendour. It is all the love affairs ended, all the marriages put asunder, from the beginning of years. It is Fitzgerald’s rich boy walking into the Plaza that stifling Saturday afternoon and suddenly coming upon his girl of once upon a vanished time, married now and big with imminent child. It is an ineffably haunting song, robust yet gentle, and this is its finest reading. It explains, I think, why Miss Wiley is an unqualified enthusiasm with such not-easily-impressed critics as, for instance, Roger Whitaker of the New Yorker, George Avakian of Columbia Records, and Jack O’Brien of the New York Journal-American.
And here, along with Glad To Be Unhappy, are such other small (and maybe not so small) miracles as My Heart Stood Still, Funny Valentine, It Never Entered My Mind and Mountain Greenery, all of them redolent of the suspenseful moments when the house lights lowered and the curtain went up on another show by Rogers and Hart. These are literate tunes, civilised tunes. Where, if you will, is there a more nearly perfect lyric than in It Never Entered My Mind? To me, it seems the greatest lyric ever written, but until I heard Miss Wiley do it, I never realized that it is the greatest by a prodigious margin.
Right about this point, I suppose, there should be the department of how-about-a-great-big-hand-for-the-boys-in-the-band. As it happens, this is a fine little ensemble, providing an accompaniment that is cohesive, rhythmic and gratifyingly unobtrusive. Its members are all, as Professor Kitteridge used to say of Sam Johnson, good men and four-squares. I would, however, like to put in an extra word or two about the stylish young trumpet player. His name is Ruby Braff and, to my ears, he sounds rather in apostolic succession to the late Bunny Berigan, who, coincidentally enough, accompanied Miss Wiley when she recorded a Gershwin anthology a decade or so ago.
Indeed, if I have any objection to this portfolio, it is that it will doubtless assail me with bittersweet memories — with the stabbing remembrance of the tall, breathtakingly lovely Wellesley girl with whom I was so desperately in love in the long-departed November when the band at the Copley Plaza in Boston used to play My Heart Stood Still as couples tea-danced after football games on crisp Saturday afternoons, with reawakened desire for the succession of exquisite girls with whom I spent many a crepuscular hour listening to cocktail pianists give muted voice to Funny Valentine, of the first time I saw Connecticut Yankee, of — Yes, of the first years of my marriage and listening to Lee Wiley late at night. My wife, who knew more about show tunes than any woman has a right to know, had a special affection for You Took Advantage Of Me and she always sang it when her spirits were high. Afterwards, when she had long ceased to sing it, when a judge had severed that which no man is supposed to put asunder, I lived for more than a year with a girl who I had hoped would make me forget. She was not witty or talented or, for that matter, particularly pretty. But she was very, very sweet and she tried very, very hard, even pretending to appreciate the Wiley records that I used to play over and over again as I clutched at the past and, for a little while indeed, it would actually seem to be kind of wonderful, with the mournful, wailing tugs in the river below and in the distance the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge stretched like a giant necklace as we sat there listening to the songs of heartbreak. There were even moments when I rather fancied myself falling in love again. But always such moments fled, because when Miss Wiley sings, there is nothing affected. So I would sit there and hurt more and more with the remembrance of other, never to be recaptured nights in the same room. Lee Wiley can do that to you — damn her! But damn her gently, because she is, after all, the best we have — the very best.
NB: “She drank like a fish, cussed like a sailor, could treat musicians abusively, and had no qualms about stealing married men – including the star trumpeter and bandleader Bunny Berigan, with whom she recorded. ‘They had a pretty torrid affair,’ says Dan Morgenstern, the celebrated jazz historian. ‘Bunny’s wife hated her.’ But Wiley got away with a lot, for she was a dish, with smoldering sex appeal and dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders.”: from a rather more critical take on Ms Wiley, here.
It’s almost a pity that he will forever be remembered for one particular role:
No question, of course, of which party the well-meaning, but deluded and self-righteous middle class prat Tom Good would have been founder-member.
Marvin Hamlisch, film-score and Broadway composer and arranger, born June 2 1944, died August 6 2012
From the Telegraph obit:
A classic moment in Academy Awards history occurred in 1974 when, aged 30, Hamlisch picked up three Oscars in one evening — two (for best score and best song) for The Way We Were and one (for best musical adaptation) for The Sting. Appearing uncharacteristically abashed by the windfall, he stepped to the podium, looked out at the audience and observed: “I think we can now talk to each other as friends” — a characteristic wisecrack that earned him a new sideline as a sought-after guest on chat shows.
I had always understood that Hamlisch’s comment was ‘addressed’ to the shade of of Scott Joplin, the original composer of the music used in ‘The Sting.’ Anyway, Hamlisch deserves credit for reviving interest in ragtime as a whole and Scott Joplin in particular. I’d always assumed that Joshua Rifkin was the pianist on the ‘Sting’ soundtack, but I now understand it was Hamlisch himself.
I was going to post a clip of Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer,‘ the jaunty theme tune of ‘The Sting,’ but I decided that the hauntingly beautiful ‘Solace – A Mexican Serenade’ (1909) was more appropriate. I think the pianist here is Rifkin:
New York Times obit, here.
The Hollow Crown series has been marvellous in direction, acting and settings.
Jeremy Irons, who played Henry IV, also presented a thoughtful documentary about the three Henry plays in the series. This includes footage of different productions especially those at The Globe and you get an idea of how those plays worked up their audience with contrasting scenes – a comic bit, followed by a love scene, followed by a fight.
I am glad that the plays have been set in medieval times, when these dynastic discords occurred, and that the actors are wearing chain mail or robes. The battle scenes, in snow or through bare woods, are excellent, as the warriors get into single combat and go to it clanking sword againstsword. Single combat always makes a good spectacle. Why else employ light sabres in Star Wars?
That is a problem with modern settings of Shakespeare. How do you make the fights work, especially when the dialogue constantly mentions swords?. Baz Luhrmann‘s production of Romeo and Juliet tried to get round this by making the camera zoom in on the brand names Sword and Dagger printed on the guns that the Mafia style gangs fought with, but it was a clumsy fix. Two recent modern productions, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus managed to sneak in a little hand to hand engagement from the blood-thirsty combatants, however unlikely that would be in the age of ballistics.
Macbeth and Coriolanus were both updated to be political thrillers, and they worked well. But it can be annoying to have modern parallels pushed at you. I once saw a production of Coriolanus with the main man goose-stepping, which infuriated me because (a) Coriolanus isn’t a Fascist, just a general bad at democratic politics; (b) even if he were, I don’t want the director holding up Think Mussolini! signs like that It’s slightly insulting, like being harangued about politics by Rory Bremner.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find parallels in your own times. Young Prince Hal goes slumming among the low-life and I thought of a rich boy, the son of a CEO or banker, hanging out with rappers, Falstaff being the veteran MC and the Godfather of the Dive Club.
The talking heads in the Jeremy Irons documentary agree that, as King Henry IV wishes Hotspur was his son, so Prince Hal is seeking a father figure in Falstaff. That is neatly symmetrical, but while there are lines where King Henry says that of Hotspur, there is not one to suggest Hal regards the reprobate Falstaff as anything but a playmate. Hal is eloquent, quick witted, – one of Shakespeare’s smart-arses, like Hamlet, a great world-wielder -and his and Falstaff’s exchanges are duelling performances as each out-nouns and out-adjectives each other.
Hal: I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,—
Falstaff: ‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,—
Tom Hiddleston as Hal suggests lithe and young energy and is an eyeful lounging with the bad ass Poins (David Dawson) in the bathhouse scene.* He gets all of Hal’s moods – his enjoyment of his own talents and pranks, the splinter of ice that observes coolly his low-life chums while acting as one of them, the growing awareness that one day he will have to do the equivalent of graduating from Harvard and taking his seat on the board. His knowledge that his wild ways are a gap year before returning to his real life make him unlovably cool and self-contained. Prince Hal has to grow out of Falstaff, put on the armour and start fighting as a modern privileged roaring boy starts wearing the suit, tapping the blackberry and spending his days in a glass tower to maintain his position in the world.
Simon Russell Beale was a sound fat Falstaff. with his mixture of intelligent cynicism, warmth and the pathos of one feeling age approaching. Age presses more and more on him while his corruption becomes less amusing as he accepts bribes from the press-ganged working men and exploits the daffy Mistress Quickly’s affection for him (Julie Walters, good, but isn’t Mistress Quickly a marriageable forty or so, not sixty?).
Prince Hal and Falstaff are both complex characters that could come from novels, in that we are given much of their thinking as well as their words. Around them are simpler and vivid characters – the king, Hotspur, Glendower, Pistol, Justice Shallow.
Jeremy Irons as the king, sick and furrowed with anxiety and guilt is superb. Joe Armstrong, playing Hotspur as a touchy, scrappy whippet of a Geordie lights up every scene he is in, whether rousing his troops, undercutting the operatic Owen Glendower’s grandiosity or teasing his wife. The scene when Glendower’s daughter sings in Welsh by the fire in the Great Hall while Hotspur and his wife (Michelle Dockery) are together for the last time is very poignant.
This scene’s poignancy is echoed later by Falstaff’s last hours with Doll Tearsheet ( Maxine Peake). I liked her fierceness and also her tenderness, but in late medieval England surely even a cut-price whore would wear some finery, not just a torn hempen sack.
When Hal and his father go off to do serious business together, i e. put down a rebellion, Hal speaks his father’s language. The rapping has stopped:-
Henry IV: How bloodily the sun begins to peer
Above yon busky hill! the day looks pale
At his distemperature.
Hal: The southern wind
Doth play the trumpet to his purposes,
And by his hollow whistling in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and a blustering day.
I have not seen the Henry IV plays before. They are as rich and complex as the great tragedies. The old feel themselves failing and dwindling and fear the burning young waiting to take their place in the world. Is there any scene in literature about ageing that is as sad as those between Falstaff and Justice Shallow (a lovely thin reed, David Bamber) talking of their youth? The powerful use the less powerful and then discard them. Power colours every relationship – father, son, spouse, friends, comrades.
*Totally gratuitous, as the stage directions just say “A street” but they are fine male specimens.
Nicol Williamson, actor. Born 14 September 1938; died 16 December 2011
A wild, erratic talent:
“Nicol Williamson, whose death of oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 has been announced, was arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation, but one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting. Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1969, by apologising to the audience and walking off the stage…” The rest of today’s Graun obit here.
Rather eerily, here he is on the Frost On Saturday show (London Weekend TV, circa 1968 at a guess) talking about death…
That was when chat shows didn’t insult your intelligence.
Here’s one of his finest filmed performances, The Bofors Gun (1968, dir: Jack Gold):
Note the young John Thaw and David Hemmings
Finally, as Jack Gold notes in the Graun, “if ever there was a piano handy, he was immediately seated there, singing ballads, blues, rock, jazz. He loved the great musicians and improvisation. I think that, latterly, that is where his heart truly lay.” Listen to him singing I’ve Got The World On A String: