Monday 12 December 2016

Gerald Barry approves 'to berserk' (transitive)

It came to me after I'd written the bulk of my review of Gerald Barry's wondrous-rapid Alice's Adventures Under Ground - its UK premiere at the Barbican which sent most of us away in a state of barely-suppressed hysteria. I know you can 'go berserk', in homage to the old Norse berserkers of that name - noun, obviously - who went wildly into battle in a trance that made them impervious to wounds and wearing only animal skins ('berserk' equals 'bear shirt', pictured in an engraving of an historic relief above). Didn't Barry apply the technique to Lewis Carroll? So why shouldn't there be a specific transitive verb?

A picturesque digression before I get to the point. Two berserkers were set the Herculean task of clearing a route through a lavafield on the Snæfellsnes peninsula of Iceland in 982 AD, as described in the Eyrbyggja Saga - hence its name, Berserkjahraun. A fascinating place, and this is my pretext for putting up another couple of pictures of it following one of the blog chronicles about a most extraordinary holiday.

As for 'berserking' the Alice books, I applied the notion to my subheading; my editor questioned it. Maybe I'd better paraphrase his argument - put simply, he didn't think it could work as a verb. Could I come up with anything clearer? My response: 'I decided I like it. Since MacMillan has a piece called The Berserking, I think it can [work as a verb]. Let's be adventurous'. That didn't go down too well - think of the reader, was the response. Pause for a noisy interlude: I was going simply to put up the cover of the recording of MacMillan's work - his first piano concerto, in effect - but since it's on YouTube, let's have the whole thing. The composer in his note points out that the berserkers essentially shot themselves in the foot, since their stupor left them 'vulnerable to a more stealthy attack'. How very like his fellow countrymen now, he adds, in sports and politics.

Anyway while I'm usually amenable to change, I stuck fast on this, and emailed the composer - we've had friendly correspondence since he came to my Opera in Depth class to talk about The Importance of Being Earnest. Let's call it a 'professional friendship', no bar to being critical if I didn't like something he'd written (I started out not understanding anything about The Intelligence Park in the year of The Sunday Correspondent, but was bowled over by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and I still think Earnest is a masterpiece - one of the three best operas I've seen close to their premieres. The others being Adams' Nixon in China and MacMillan's The Sacrifice).

I asked Gerald, 'Do you approve of it as a verb?...In your spirit'.And the response came back (which I'm sure is straightforward enough to be reproducible) 'I certainly do approve! Berserk is THE word! Thank you!'

So there. And long life to Alice (pictured above, the male quartet from its cast of seven, looking cuddly rather than berserkish in one of two pictures I didn't get to use of Robert Allen's Barbican selection: Allan Clayton, Peter Tantsits, Mark Stone and Joshua Bloom). The UK premiere was a definite highlight of 2016 for me- (but I refuse to draw up a list just yet; we've got two more weeks of events, including a Royal Opera premiere for Robert Carsen's production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier).

A colleague thought it might be a peg below Earnest simply because Barry's genius there was to subvert a classic text, and Carroll couldn't be any wackier in the first place. I think the subversion is in the speed, selecting the most bizarre parts of the two books, removing Alice's logic and her Oxford background and whizzing through each volume in 50 minutes apiece. Now - how on earth is anyone going to execute the stage directions at such high velocity? My money would be on the company 1927, which incorporates real figures within animation. Let's see.


John Waring said...

Unbelievable lava field images.

David said...

Yes, those few days on that extraordinary peninsula seem ever more unreal. Mind you, even taking the bus from the airport into Reykjavik acquaints the visitor with a lava field, albeit a less dramatic and secluded one. It's immediately a different world.