Thursday, 2 October 2014
That's three on a stage in the spooky-spectacular Union Chapel the other week, and about three times that many, all in prison. But let's start with the divas. Courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature and the unfortunately-titled but really rather good magazine Intelligent Life, we were promised The Lives of Others from great dames Harriet Walter and Hilary Mantel, moderated by a less visible genius of the theatre, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, productions of whose classic Our Country's Good and of her translation of Gabriela Preissova's Jenufa remain among my theatrical highlights. All shots of the evening courtesy of Mike Massarow via the RSL.
It was perhaps only because I've seen Harriet in action before, rivetingly at the Garrick and - if I'm the right person to judge - achieving miracles of transformation as 'my' Marschallin, Prima Donna, Brünnhilde and Moses in the German Opera Discovery Day up in Birmingham, that the lion's share of my wonder this time goes to Hilary Mantel. In putting the spotlight on her I know I sidestep the theme of inhabiting male characters from the fictional or real past, about which Harriet was so eloquent. But our greatest and most versatile living novelist is also a consummate performer; I hesitate to use the word 'actor' because a lot of what she said seemed spontaneous, a direct response to questions or comments, whereas with Robert Macfarlane in conversation at the East Neuk Festival I found that a lot of his phrases came straight out of his books.
In any case I'm usually sniffy about attending literary events - I have the feeling, possibly unfair, that the writer's life's his/her work, to paraphrase Henry James. But here there was almost a sense of possession, as Mantel made clear in paralleling her work with that of her medium in Beyond Black (the first of her books I read). She began by saying how as she was about to begin Wolf Hall and wasn't sure how to, she heard a voice directly above her saying 'now get up', found herself 'in Thomas Cromwell's body - and then all the decisions about the novel had been made'. And she ended in response to an audience question about how much was imagination and how much 'what you know' in much the same seer's vein:
You may know more than you think, and there's a turning point where you recognise that, you gain authority...People suppose that imagination is an airy quality and that employing it is a genteel act that might be done on a chaise longue. But to imagine properly, you have to imagine strenuously, it involves your whole body, from feet to head.
That was richly embodied in what she said about the novel I found the most shattering of all, A Change of Climate, her Heart of Darkness which transports us back from Norfolk to Africa, in the writing of which she told us how the 'secret' had to be torn out of her.
My gratitude here to good friend and impressive novelist Anthony Gardner, who pointed me in the direction of his write-up in Intelligent Life as I hadn't written down the quotations I found most interesting. It came as no surprise to find he'd selected most of them. Read his article for more from Harriet.
Much later - I'm indebted to the charming folk at the RSL for notifying me when the interview went up on YouTube. It seems unembeddable, so click here for the whole thing.
And then we had to spoil it all by going off to a truly dismal late night Prom with Rufus Wainwright.
There's a parallel here between being so utterly swept off our feet by two whole series of the Netflix prison drama from Jenji Kohan Orange is the New Black that dipping diligently into several supposedly 'arthouse' gay-themed movies has been disappointing. If I could have done, I'd have walked out of Rufus - I couldn't because I had to write about it - and we've given up on the three films since the last Orange episode.
You think, perhaps, it's going to be a campy American equivalent of Prisoner of Cell Block H, but being based on a writer's prison memoir, a mostly less grim version of Dostoyevsky's autobiographical From the House of the Dead, it already has a claim to truthfulness. But then there's the extraordinary script, plotting and acting (every character a winner in one way or another). Our guide, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), is slammed up for just over a year for having carried drug money 10 years earlier at the request of her charismatic lover Alex (low-voiced Laura Prepon, a woman I can well imagine falling for). So this is the chronicle of Piper's 'time'.
Well, if prison is as full of characters like this, give me a sentence ('you wouldn't last a week', says J scornfully, telling me unrepeatable things about why not). While it teaches you a lot about the American prison system - not least that a cancer sufferer will probably die in prison (Barbara Rosenblat turns in a terrific performance as 'Miss Rosa')
and an old lady with Alzheimer's will be dumped out on the streets if she becomes too much bother inside - the biggest message is about the waste of talent and creativity. We all love the wit and wisdom of Sophia (Laverne Cox, a transgender actress playing a transgender prisoner). The black group hanging out together - presumably this isn't racism but just how it is - includes characters with a fabulous sense of fantasy and language (gongs, please, for Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley). So we (I, at least) get really upset when they nearly all come under the sway of one hard-nosed businesswoman, the evil Vee (superb actress Lorraine Toussaint).
I won't provide any spoilers by describing what Vee gets up to, but suffice it to say POSSIBLE SEMI-SPOILER ALERT that by the penultimate episode of Series Two I was wanting to leave the show alone because it was so upsetting. But whereas Series One ended on a bout of terrifying violence, this one wound up in more of a feelgood way.
Praising the good actors would just turn in to one long list: they include the men, not least the prison counsellor (Michael J Harney) of warped good intentions and the large guard who had us in tears of laughter rapping about his humiliation in a Catholic school to a group of nuns protesting outside the prison. The one I find most consummate of all is Taryn Manning as the appalling hick Pennsatucky; how the hell does that actress keep the gravel in her voice?
She, as much as anyone else, you're allowed to feel for over the course of time. So no-one is there for cheap laughs, at least not in the long term during which we get flashbacks to their former lives. Absolutely a case of Dostoyevsky's epigraph 'In every human, a spark of God'.