Saturday 29 June 2013

The talented Mr Ripploh

I thought I must have seen Frank Ripploh's Taxi Zum Kloh during my closeted but curious student days in the early 1980s, so talked about was it at the time. But if I had, I would have remembered at least the scenes which made it notorious then and which still had us sometimes squirming and looking away last night*: non-simulated sex which makes the grubby rendezvous of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox in Patrice Chéreau's  Intimacy - and what a surprise we got stumbling into that one out of the heat of a Paris July - seem tame, a shock through a lavatory glory-hole (I'm too prudish online to show you what happens next below, as our hero sits on the bog casually marking school work),

a golden shower, a graphic clinical inspection for STD and a surprising take on child abuse. That last is thankfully moral: two of the gay characters waspishly comment on what would seem to be a genuine German film-warning to children to beware paedophiles with the same repugnance we feel, while Frank fends off an over-frisky pupil who's there for home tuition in the kitchen.

None of the extremes, the censors decided at the time, could be thought of as pornographic because all support, if sometimes contradict, the tender love story at the heart of the film.

There are no drums and trumpets for any of the things that just happen to the characters, as they do in life (Ripploh, playing himself, claimed that most of the incidents were autobiographical). Still surprising is how natural and funny it remains as an, ahem, warts and all picture of one type of gay life - or maybe two running parallel - lacking the gym-worked bodies and soft centres of later movies as director, writer and protagonist Ripploh tells us how it was for him in 1980s Berlin.

The anti-hero is a good teacher and the classroom scenes delight through the smart responses of the kids. One wonders how much they were told about the film they were in. But then this was West Berlin in the early 1980s, where, we're told, everyone took such things in their remarkably tolerant stride.

Frank is unapologetically promiscuous, and frankly the kind of shit who wouldn't have hesitated to pass on a deadlier virus in the AIDS era then to come (hospitalised for six weeks, he's off to the nearest Herren Klo, which of course is men's toilet, at the first opportunity). His lover Bernd is sweet, homeloving, dreams of a retreat to a farm; it ain't going to work. Or is it? I said to J halfway through, 'I'm going to love this film if no-one has to die at the end'**. So I love this film.

It was a huge hit in the astonishingly direct-speaking Germany of the period. Heterosexuals went in droves to see what the gay life might be like. Sympathetic as the UK censor seems to have been in 1981, there was no way he could give any kind of certificate to the more outlandish scenes. The director of London's ICA at the time agreed with him that cutting would deprive the film of its balance, and ran it under film-club conditions with black pen scrawled over one sequence which could have been against the law.

Police and councillors up in Edinburgh threatened to seize the reels and destroy them. As the print happened to be the only one with English subtitles, done at the cost of thousands, each reel was bagged the minute it finished, plonked into a car at the back door of the cinema and driven off to a secret Morningside address. The threatened impounding, in any case, failed to happen, though a wild party to celebrate resulted in several arrests.

Success seems to have gone to Ripploh's head. That made his mentor Rosa von Praunheim, pictured above in 2008, very sad. Von Praunheim and other friends who remember Ripploh in an accompanying documentary on the DVD testify to a man who was funny, spontaneous and enthusiastic, but fundamentally as unreliable as his screen self. The next couple of films were by all accounts (and to judge from the handful of clips shown) absolutely terrible. But as von Praunheim records without rancour, Taxi Zum Klo remains infinitely more popular than any of his own more earnest this-is-what-it's-like-to-be-gay-in-today's-society homilies.

Ripploh died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52 , but his masterpiece lives on with a vitality missing in all gay-themed movies I've seen of late (anything by Ferzan Özpetek before the recent disappointment of Magnifica presenza, in which the gay element is in any case a given, honorourably excepted). On Pride Day, when it turns out that there's still more to fight for than we thought ten years ago and much of the bigotry which had gone underground has now popped up, especially in France, to try and beat up the marriage issue, we need a film as insouciant and in-your-face as this more than ever. And who's making them now? German trailer follows.

*The evening had begun with an attempt to watch Written on Skin again, this time as televised on BBC Four, and maybe write about it for The Arts Desk. But only minutes in, I confirmed my existing opinion by finding it every bit as frigid and pointless, magnificent performances notwithstanding, as I had when I went to see it at the Royal Opera. So there was nothing more to say, and I switched off after 20 minutes. All the human interest missing therein was to be found abundantly in Taxi Zum Klo.

**At least in Behind the Candelabra it isn't the victim who dies. I enjoyed its quiet coda as well, of course, as impeccable performances by Matt Damon, Michael Douglas and Rob Lowe.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Monreale 1: mosaics

Dresden's baroque treasures are still glinting in my mind's eye, clamouring for the attention they'll eventually get, but Palermo and surroundings haven't been dislodged since our March visit. To whit, I've just finished reading  John Dickie's Cosa Nostra, which places the city unequivocally at the centre of 150 years' mafia hell recently brought to light. So much for the legend that what turns out to be a precisely rooted secret society, a kind of horrifying shadow state with murder as its main tenet, has been part of the Sicilian mentality for time immemorial.

Dickie - that rare bird*, a scholar capable of writing an impeccably researched book that reads like a series of high-level thrillers - mixes savage indignation with celebration of the heroic men and women who laid down their lives in the hope of a better future, among whom Borsellino and Falcone stand only as the most conspicuous because the most recent.

In every one of the western Sicilian territories there have always been these brave souls, including courageous priests to counter the corrupt ones. Don Gaetano Millunzi of Monreale is merely listed in one of Dickie's remember-this roll calls, but he helps redress the balance of mafioso skullduggery in that town so discrete from Palermo, and yet so inextricably linked with it.

Monreale's greatest glory was born of rivalry at the highest level. Building on the old establishment of a modest bishopric away from Arab-invaded Palermo before the Norman conquest of 1072, King William II created Monreale's supremacy in a power struggle with the English Bishop Walter of Palermo, his former teacher and would-be master.

Walter 'of the mill' (Offamilias) was still having Palermo's cathedral built when William quickly outstripped it with the duomo of a new monastery in his Monreale hunting grounds, finished by the time of the  young king's death in 1189. Without, it's far less remarkable than Palermo Cathedral. What make it one of the wonders of the world are both the mosaics - similar to those in the Cappella Palatina of WII's grandfather Roger II, but on a larger scale if less refined - and, above all, the no-two-the-same capitals on the 216 marble columns in the massive cloister. Since those truly are unique, they'll get an entry on their own in due course.

What stunned about the interior on our arrival at around 4pm was that the sun was blazing in through the west window, passing straight through the nave to ligh up the eastern apse with its colossal half-length figure of Christ.

Below the giant figure (13 metres across and seven metres high, if you want to know) are the Virgin and Child, flanked by saints and angels.

Just like the cycle in the Cappella Palatina, the Old Testament narrative in the nave runs first in one strip along the top of the south and north walls, from the seven days of creation to Noah receiving the command to build the ark, and then below in the same sequence, from the construction of the ark to Jacob wrestling with the angel. Thus close to the twin beginnings on the south wall,

a detail of Noah building the ark,

part of the north nave wall

and a segment with Adam, Eve, serpent, God and fig-leaf shame above, angel preventing Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and Rebecca offering Isaac water below.

and that's only a fraction of the nave's riches; scenes from the New Testament up to Mary Magdalene's washing of Christ's feet similarly enrich the outer arcades. There's even the first known representation of St Thomas à Becket, murdered at the command of William II's father-in-law Henry II of England. The two side apses are mosaic-ed to the respective glories of Peter and Paul; here's one final glimpse of Christ from Peter's side.

But clearly I should have bought at the time a lavishly illustrated, reasonably scholarly volume on the mosaics I found in a bookshop in Palermo; I briefly tracked it down on the internet back home and lost it before I decided to splash out. Anyway, this marks the tenth of 12 'chapters' on the year's Sicilian experience and I am duty bound to see it all through eventually (unlike the Bach cantatas project which, some of you will have noticed, lapsed dismally as soon as we started spending Sundays away. Next year, I promise).

By the time we came to catch our bus back to Palermo, the whole of Monreale was out for a Saturday evening promenade, just like in any Italian town. It seemed so impossible to believe in a population cowed. Nor elsewhere - except, perhaps, for the smashed-up hotel in the Madonie mountains - did we catch a glimpse of mafia consequences. Only in a good way, perhaps, in the results springing from the numerous stickers applied by Addiopizzo, a Palermo organisation fierce in gathering together to refuse to pay the pizzo or mafia 'tax'/protection money. The text reads (if my translation is correct): 'an entire people which pays the pizzo is a people without dignity'.

Many shops now bravely sport the Addiopizzo insignia.

If you have anything to say, do leave a message of support on the website linked to above. And bear in mind the splendid couplet quoted in Dickie's superlative study, written about the lethal Don Calò of Villalba who 'rebirthed' the dormant Cosa Nostra at the end of the Second World War. It might just as well apply to Berlusconi, whose supposed connections with Italy's secret society may yet come to light: 'Cui avi dinari e amicizia, teni 'nculu la giustizia' - 'He who has friends and cash, can take justice up the ass'. Fortunately there's quite a movement in the new Italy, for all its seeming chaos and systematized corruption, which is trying to make sure that doesn't happen. Though it looks as if Berlusconi will never serve his prison sentences.

While I'm on my high-horse campaign to set the world to rights, finally, can I urge you to sign in solidarity with magnificent teenager Malala Yousafzai, about whom I hope I don't need to tell you, in her tireless fight for worldwide children's education? A woolly-liberal old friend of mine, when I sent the petition out to a select few, said 'but I don't know that we in the west should be interfering in other cultures'.

Goddamn it, does a girl have to be nearly killed for wanting the noblest thing in the world? Does one third of the world's married women have to suffer abuse within their relationships, as a recent survey pointed out? Such shame has nothing to do with a truly evolving Islam. Away with false scruples and parallel universes/centuries on the planet we share, please. And it's so easy to offer your name at the click of a button.

LATER: one big wrong in the world righted, 83 year old Edie Windsor and the late Thea Spyer vindicated. Susan Scheid broke it, to me at any rate, giving  the pith of the judge's summing-up before I could check the news. One extraordinary aspect I hadn't realiased was that Clinton introduced the iniquitous DOMA (Defence of Marriage Act - to which I would add, with no idea whether it's been written a thousand times already, there's dumb and then there's DOMA)  now quashed. But I'd rather celebrate with this picture history of a 'great American love story'. Now got to get the above DVD from Bless Bless Productions.

*no wordlink was consciously intended between 'Dickie' and 'bird' when I wrote that.

Sunday 23 June 2013

The importance of composing comedy

Great comic opera, that is. Let's say it with carnation flinging and shout it through megaphones: the filleted-Wilde, stylised anarchy that is Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest has to be the best work of musical theatre since MacMillan's The Sacrifice. At times it's tear-jerkingly funny, always contradictory and unexpected (in the first of Stephen Cummiskey's production photos above, that's Miss Prism on the left as played by Hilary Summers, not Lady Bracknell, who's the pin striped gentleman in the ensemble).

Lucky those who were present at the already historic Barbican concert performance last year. As was my hard-to-please Arts Desk colleague Igor, who wrote a dazzling review of it but was less impressed by the first UK staging in the Royal Opera's Linbury Theatre. I couldn't fault it as a production. We got into the final performance yesterday evening only at the last minute, when nice Emily Benson in Kasper Holten's office found a couple of tickets to buy (the show was sold out the minute booking opened). And was it worth it.

As the best chamber opera, surely, since Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Barry's Earnest could not be better placed than it was in the Linbury, on Ben Clark's stage of shallow steps with the superlative Britten Sinfonia's ensemble of 22 players, flawless under Tim Murray, taking up half the space and the singing-actors, along with minimal props including a plate-rack and vases of white flowers, the rest.

Since the music goes against the grain of Wilde's crisp if subversive Victoriana, scattergunning a perceived subtext of rage, director Ramin Gray underlined the absurdity with an everyday contemporary look going increasingly awry - but not, dramatically speaking, out of control or overegged. Lady Bracknell was taken for granted as a megalomaniac businessman, the lovers ordinary young people - until they opened their mouths. Franz Peter David's quick-change lighting was a stripped-down version of the wonders Mimi Jordan Sherin is simultaneously achieving in the main house's Gloriana - what a parallel universe - and Christina Cunningham's costume colour scheme clashed deliciously.

Barry's style is now unmistakeable: the text is pattered out, sometimes robotically, on regular beats while the wind- and brass-dominated ensemble burps and shrieks between the words. The fury beneath what's said or sung is blatantly exposed. I first realised Barry's genius, having been totally baffled by his first opera The Intelligence Park at the Almeida, when English National Opera got Richard Jones to stage The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: now there was a Prelude to grab you by the scruff of the neck.

The abrasive style could quickly become wearing and/or enervating. But Barry is a master of scenic contrast. Lady Bracknell and Jack repeat some of their lines to a G&S jig-duet; there are two hilarious non-Beethovenesque settings of Schiller's Ode to Joy for bass and contralto in first and second acts respectively (if the Ninth Symphony has been re-ordered therein, I couldn't make it out); and many of the orchestral interludes grab the imagination. Horns buzz like monster-mutant flies or bees in between the Act Two pastoral and there's a refrain punctuating one-note declamation which for some odd reason reminded me of Strauss in Ariadne mode, very memorable. The four-note refrain in the introduction to Act Three is unforgettable, and the players' vocal participations a delight.

Hysterical highlight, though, is a Cecily v Gwendolen bitchfest as funny as in the Australian two-hander Wilde production I saw in the Barbican's Pit, where drag Gwendolen was a bunny-boiler from the start. Timed declamation through megaphones is punctuated by the ear-splitting smash-up of plates by percussionist Helen Edordu (above with Stephanie Marshall's Gwendolen), complemented by mallet, welly boots, buzzer, pistol shots and wind-machine: the wildest operatic percussion tour de force since the mould-breaking chase in Shostakovich's The Nose.

The vocal writing is of an insanely wide compass. The two singers who coped with it most flawlessly were the dazzling high/coloratura soprano Ida Falk Winland (above) and tenor Paul Curievici, more impactful lovers than the perfectly good Marshall and the OK Benedict Nelson (below,  Curievici with Marshall).

Alan Ewing's Bracknell and Hilary Summers's Prism, consummate actors both, had a bit more trouble with the upper reaches; but then Barry probably wants the sense of strain. Anyhow, the musically irreproachable ensemble work's the thing. Though, sadly, the Linbury performances are now over, this opera will run and run. Must get hold of the full score and can't wait for the NMC release of the Barbican concert recording, scheduled for release later this year. On a more pressing note, finally, don't forget the livescreening to cinemas around the world of the Royal Opera Gloriana tomorrow. There's a link which should eventually get you to venues at the foot of my Arts Desk review.

28/8  Trying to track down the plate-smashing duet for Sue Scheid, I found various short clips in amongst interesting talking heads, but perhaps the most intriguing snippet is here with Gerald Barry demonstrating alongside Thomas Adès. Stephen Fry seems fixated on the play in this five-minute precis of a 28 minute conversation and hasn't seen the opera, but he does come up with the treasurable image of Barry's applying a machete to a soufflé.

Friday 21 June 2013

Birthplace of the rose-bearer

Strictly speaking, it should have been to salute Wagner's Dresden era in his anniversary year that I returned to the Semperoper (pictured above) after 23 years; I last saw Joachim Herz's so-so production of The Love for Three Oranges here, and still have one of the foam oranges chucked at the audience to prove it. That was a bonus to a recording-session visit for Gramophone; the occasion was Haitink's EMI recording of Der Rosenkavalier in the Lukaskirche, with Kiri te Kanawa and Anne Sofie von Otter (the highlight for me was getting to talk to the Staatskapelle Dresden's then first horn, Peter Damm, whose Kempe recording of the Strauss concertos I'd long adored). Subject for another entry must be the transformation of this once-beleaguered city that's taken place in the interim.

My Strauss Leibsoper - or is that Ariadne auf Naxos or Intermezzo or Daphne, I can't decide - had its first performance here in 1911, and this time we had a chance to catch it at home. Below, Robert Sterl's painting of Ernst von Schuch conducting at the opening run.

The prompt was our good friend Peter Rose, giving his latest showing of the role which has truly become his own, Baron Ochs; but he'd have to have paid my air fare and hotel to see him, say, with Simone Young conducting - as she so often seems to be, and I'm truly sorry not to think more highly of one of the few maestras on the scene - or a less than diamond cast. But the Marschallin was the glorious Anne Schwanewilms, her Octavian Elina Garanča (whom I also saw in Vienna years ago when Peter should also have been singing, but had to pull out). Thielemann was conducting, too, and he knows the score inside out.

So what could go wrong? Well, truth to tell, not enough to matter to the essentials, but all-round perfection, alas, it was not. By no means the biggest drawback was that the sets had got stuck in the floods and for some reason I didn't understand never made it even for the second performance. Elbe waters were still high after the heroic salvation of the city the previous week by sandbagging Dresdeners, but all else seemed back to normal and the locals were breathing huge sighs of relief by drinking and/or picnicking on the riverbanks during two perfect summer evenings.

I don't think we missed a great deal, having seen Uwe Eric Laufenberg's underanimated production WITH the sets on DVD; the 1950s costumes are the thing, and everyone wears them with style. Only occasionally was the perfunctory back wall, globe lamps above and shabby doors beneath, a liability. In the first act it helped throw the action forward, giving three fine singer-actors space to operate and impress. Photographer Klaus Gigga's images for the Semperoper often capture that superbly.

Garanča is such a hyper-feminine mezzo that she seemed more in her element as 'Mariandel' than Octavian, though always singing with that unique and connected upper-range fullness that makes her one of the world's top opera stars (and, for me, THE best Carmen). Peter has enlarged his repertoire of grins and tricks, making Ochs a more than usually lovable country cousin in his rustic get-up while singing the parlando with incredible elegance and beauty of tone when the opportunity arose. He told us he'd added some business with the naughty pugs in the levee scene mainly for our benefit, and sure enough I laughed so loud that the dowdy Dresden bourgeoisie around us cast disapproving looks. Below: cutting short the Italian tenor (Bryan Hymel, not visible here but excellent, though having to be followed by the orchestral players rather than following them) with 'Als Morgengabe!'

I complimented Peter first on the apparent rapport with Thielemann, but he told me they'd got by on just one rehearsal. Can you imagine? The conductor's one of the very best, but collegiality would not seem to be a forte; he barely acknowledges his singers offstage and sometimes trips them up with the marvellous but seemingly capricious flexibility for which he's famous (this information not from Peter, by the way, who got the thumbs up from the pit on more than one occasion). It's standard for continental repertory opera - not so the EXTRA rehearsal with the orchestra alone - but contrasts markedly with the Glyndebourne Ariadne, for which Jurowski was present from the first at the seven week of rehearsals.

Schwanewilms, anyway, was beyond sublime in the Marschallin's Monologue - phrases so delicately inflected that you strained to catch them - drawing an audience in is always a much greater art than reaching out - and such pointing of the German text that I never expect to hear it bettered. She certainly brought on the heartbreak and the tears in her changed-mood misalliance with her uncomprehending Quinquin.

Well, what can I say? Wanderer (see previous blog entry; and see now - 22/6 - his own take on the evening, capturing far more eloquently than mine the essence of heavenly Anne, which I should have highlighted more) and I couldn't stop blubbing in the interval. It's singing-acting on a level very few achieve. And throughout the interval we had the balmy Dresden evening to enhance the bittersweetness,  not to mention the astonishing view across the Theatrerplatz to Augustus the Fat's Hofkirche - an unpopular Catholic riposte to the citizens' Frauenkirche, about which more anon - the Residenzschloss and the Hausmann Tower, a great ensemble complemented by the Zwinger Palace out of sight to the right.

The location gave as much to gawp at as the crowds (though I have to say I've never encountered a more frigid audience, which seemed more local than international. They did, it's true, give a standing ovation at the end).

Oh, we were so anticipating the Presentation of the Rose, but from the minute the Sophie opened her mouth I knew we had a liability on our hands. Ungainly of phrase, lacking charm in sound and appearance, useful only for her top notes, Daniela Fally was not on the level of her colleagues. And frankly, you do need a bit of scenic glitz - even if it's nouveau-riche Faninal bling - for the famous Hofmannsthal-concocted ritual. At least the splendid Irmgard Vilsmaier, whose Hänsel Mother had made such an impact at Glyndebourne and who is also a Brünnhilde as you could tell, made some amends as a full-voiced Marianne Leitmetzerin (pictured on the right here).

Bit parts were a mixed blessing. Apparently Thielemann had sacked some of the house singers on a single hearing, putting the Dresden admin in a funk to find international replacements double-quick. For every plus there was a minus: vivacious Helene Schneiderman as a stylish Annina was let down by her unfunny, self-conducting Valzacchi (no name needed). The Faninal (also nnn) was a cipher; the Police Commissar in Act Three, house bass Peter Lobert, more than stood up to Peter vocally and demonstrated how threatening this usually saggy bit of the drama could be if it were moved back from Laufenberg's setting to the 1940s. Excellent pint-sized tavern owner from Dan Karlström; the footmen at the end of Act 1 the usual gabbled mess. The extras in the Lerchenau retinue wambled around grotesquely and without discipline.

But the main thing is that without a sympathetic Sophie, in effect the Marschallin's younger self who escapes the older woman's fate of a loveless arranged marriage, you do miss the senior soprano for an act and a half. Her comeback in Act Three was, naturally, highly emotional, and Peter made the most of Ochs's dashed hopes in that fascinating disentanglement before his waltz-exit: his 'mit dieser Stund' vorbei' gave the final threesome's entanglement a run for its money.

Trio? To be fair, Fally sang well enough and was even rather touching as a forlorn schoolgirl standing apart; Schwanewilms crowned it with hyper-pathos and Garanca provided lustre, though I inwardly groaned when she missed a big phrase - Thielemann-anxiety, perhaps? - and the magic took a while to return. Again, I just don't think this sort of thing would happen given Glyndebourne or even Covent Garden preparation time. You have to hand it to these international singers, exposing their reputations to an audience who knows nothing of the rollercoaster circumstances. Although Thielemann still gets results, and no-one does late-romantic rubato quite as easily as he does, the collegial way is surely better.

Anyway, we filed out with hearts tugged at, though not so much as in Act One, and wafted past the 19th century homages to Roman grottesco style in the foyers

down the stairs to the bust of Wagner (I wanted to find another to Strauss, but the attendants denied knowledge of one),

out into the fragrant Dresden summer night

and on to a meal with Peter and co. Our Dresden experience had only just begun - I have much more to write about the bewildering treasures we saw the next day - but our reason for being there was already fully vindicated.

In the meantime, my very long eulogy on Richard Jones's Royal Opera staging of Britten's Gloriana yesterday evening - a well-nigh perfect entertainment from first to last - is  up on The Arts Desk. Shame I didn't make it to Aldeburgh for an against-the-odds amazing Peter Grimes beach show on Monday, but a migraine peaked at just the wrong time, and it was a fair old trek to north London for the press bus - shudder - and back in the wee small hours.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Strindberg in Friedrichshagen

Since I went to see and write about Dances of Death, Howard Brenton's Strindberg adaptation at the Gate Theatre Notting Hill, the peculiar Swedish master - self-photographed above circa 1892* - has been popping up in various contexts. The first was musical, which I'll relate as a listenable footnote. The second was to find that he'd once, very briefly, stayed in a house virtually at the bottom of the garden owned and so beautifully tended by our Berlin-based friend and soprano extraordinaire Debbie along with husband Derek whom we've yet to meet (he was off working on the Ring in Milan).

Friedrichshagen, founded as its name suggests by Frederick the Great in 1753 to encourage cotton spinners from Silesia and Bohemia by giving them five-window houses with plots of land and planting lots of mulberry trees, was merged into Berlin in 1920, but still feels like a place apart, surrounded by woods and water. That's especially the case when you reach the end of Bölschestrasse (named after natural history writer Wilhelm Bölsche, central figure of the 'Friedrichshagener Dichterkreis'), take a left turn by what was once Berlin's biggest private brewery and the Müggelsee, Berlin's biggest lake in and out of which flows the River Spree, lies before you.

As I can think of few things more delicious than lake bathing, I was determined to take a dip in the Müggelsee on the evening of the most delightful birthday I can remember. The mosquitos had to be braved, but there was no problem about freezing water; the temperature, once in, turned out to be just right. The below shot's just about distant enough to pass muster for public consumption. You will note that I am not in the buff, as was the wont of Rudolf Steiner, another distinguished Friedrichshagen resident who arrived there in 1897 and walked around the lake starkers. The Germans still think nothing of it.

Strindberg came here in the autumn of 1892, taking the S-Bahn just as we did from Friedrichstrasse (in our case after a disappointing Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle performance of Britten's War Requiem, which was after all only an optional extra in the little holiday shared between Berlin and Dresden). The old, 'zerissene Berlin' map which hangs above the sofa in Debbie and Derek's biggest room shows you how far out Friedrichshagen was, and is, from the centre. It's defined here by its nearest neighbour, the similarly left-wing, free-spirited Köpenick where residents put up such a brave and, of course, fatal resistance to Hitler.

Strindberg lodged with fellow-writers Ola Hansson and his German-Baltic wife Laura Marholm at 2 Lindenallée. 'My boldest hopes exceeded here!' he wrote home, noting 'a little more air under my wings now I have a bigger fatherland than frightful Sweden'. Berlin lionized him and his plays, but personal relationships were as fragile as ever: after six weeks, surprise, surprise, he fell out with the Hanssons and moved on, holding court at an ordinary pub he called 'Zum schwarzen Ferkel' ('At the Black Porker'). The home at Lindenallée, however, handsomely restored after the fall of the wall, is the only Strindberg residence in Berlin to have survived the bombings of the Second World War, so this plaque is to be treasured.

I'm indebted for much of the above information, incidentally, to a book full of the most beautifully reproduced images - was there ever a more  photographed turn-of-the-century artist than Strindberg? - given to us by Swedish friend Carl Otto, The Worlds of August Strindberg. The pictures of productions at the Intimate Theatre in the early 1900s are especially startling, and the text is full of salacious new details.

At our household on Fürstenwalder Damm, all was exceptionally natural and harmonious. How could it not be, spending most of the birthday as we did in the garden surrounded by peonies


and Johnson's Blue geraniums in full bee-adored midsummer glory.

Here's a shot towards the house, a massive project bought for a song - and as much for the garden as anything - which can be a little spooky when you're living on floors between ghosts. Very forbidding from the main road, but not at all from the haven at the back. And so much light, too.

Table decorations newly gathered for the day, my only duty, were a necessity

and then our guests arrived: the famous Wanderer (strictly speaking lower-case 'w'), Australian blog-ally and now very real friend along with partner Kim, who had ferried us to Dresden and back, and in whose company we spent three very happy days, and Debbie's UNESCO friend Annie. I have some lovely portrait shots, but they'd be out of place here, so let's make do with a distant shot from the stairwell of the big house:

Sustenance was simple** but of the essence and absolutely fresh: white asparagus, potatoes, salad from the garden, later strawberries, cherries and cakes from one of no less than three quality bakers on the main street. The Oz-men departed for their dose of War Requiem - their later verdict was much the same as mine the previous evening - and our dear Orfeuo, who has just started work in Berlin, arrived in time for our evening jaunt around the Müggelsee.

Bliss. Even the few mosquito bites I'm trying not to scratch are pleasant souvenirs. And now, back to Strindberg's married bloodsuckers and their favourite music, though it hardly suggests more than a little genteel barbarity. We have a vivid report from the director of the Intimate Theatre, August Falck, of Strindberg acting out the role of the Captain in The Dance of Death (to give its original title):

What he particularly liked to act  was the powerful scene when Alice [the wife in the nearly 30 year old central relationship], with a bored expression, plays the march 'The Dance of the Boyars' [sic] which incites and hypnotises the Captain [her husband] to dance - wildly and clumsily, terrifyingly. At such moments he was an excellent actor - a great dramatic talent. His vivid impersonation remains for ever in my mind's eye and echoes in my ear.

I found this in the Michael Meyer biography only a day after I'd been working on notes for an EMI 13-CD box of performances by the late, great Paavo Berglund. And I'd been especially struck by a work I'd never heard before, Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen's Entry March of the Boyars. Inspired by a visit to Romania, Halvorsen's encore-worthy number was also arranged for piano by Grieg.

This is the piece to which Falck refers. Strindberg felt it was integral to any production, though the fact that there's no music at all in the Gate Dances of Death, only handclapping and footstomping, is perhaps even more effective. Berglund's performance isn't on YouTube, but the below one from Iceland will do. Entry March of the Boyars is halfway to being Wild Rumpus music for Where the Wild Things Are - though nothing will replace the favourite I play alongside readings to infants, the Dance of Chuzhbog and the Seven Monsters from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

*very proto-Expressionistic, isn't it? But then little about Berlin in the 1920s, the era seized on for the image of Weimar decadence, wasn't happening in the 1890s. Strindberg visited a gay dance bar and wrote about it with extreme distaste (probably because he was a bit of a closet case).

**somewhat indignantly, J reminds me that this was his first attempt at making a far from simple Hollandaise sauce for the asparagus, so under the cosh I add - albeit sincerely - that it was delicious.