Thursday, 2 October 2014

Extraordinary women

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'.


Susan Scheid said...

There was a time many years ago when I went to readings, and one of them featured Hilary Mantel. I didn't know much about her back then, hardly anything in fact. She came out on the stage in a plain frock and wore sensible shoes, wholly unassuming in her demeanor. We didn't know what to expect. The minute she began reading, it was electrifying. The book she read from was The Giant, O'Brien, which I ended up not being able to get through. But Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, well, those I lapped up.

David said...

So you know exactly what I mean, Sue. As Hilary herself said, it's about the energy, because the voice itself is not so lovely compared to Harriet's and Timberlake's. The Giant, O'Brien is the only one of hers I've not finished, so probably with you on that one. You prompted me to add a bit about A Change of Climate, which is the one closest to her, I get the impression.

Susan Scheid said...

So now I'll go back the right post and report in. As it happens, it was rainy today, so no sit-out on the porch tonight (I can't begin to describe how glorious this fall has been--hopefully you'll be able to join us here one day). We started in on Orange and are so far finding the characters very well-drawn. We're not terribly keen on the protagonist, but I suspect that will come in time. After all, I'm assuming that our nuanced understanding of other characters actually comes through her eyes. The Russian (is she that?) cook captivates me, with her back story. I'm eager to know more.

David said...

I hope it isn't a spoiler to say that one isn't supposed to entirely like the protagonist - her faults will be hauled over the coals often enough, and how prison toughens her up is, I think, interestingly done. One of the things it took some getting used to was the fact that the other characters, though they all interact with her to some degree, aren't seen through her eyes because a cardinal rule is that no-one is asked about their crime or divulges their past; WE get the clever flashbacks. I like the actress who plays Red, but the Russian accent is the one phoney element for me.

Turned cold, squally and autumnal last week after a glorious September in the UK. Advanced autumn in Stockholm, complete with colours; still late summer here in Lyon, where I've been for a Flying Dutchman that for the most part disappointed. Not least the incoherent 'story-line' from the visually stunning Catalan company La Fura dels Baus.

Ah, the great American porch, I'd love to experience such an evening.

Susan Scheid said...

Actually, not a spoiler at all, and I like that approach--we're not being manipulated to like her. I hadn't cottoned on yet to the flashbacks as our window in to the back stories that won't be available to the characters themselves. Interesting approach, and it's working for us so far. (I'm not enough aware of what a Russian accent sounds like to be disturbed, but it may amuse you to know that, while we thought she was Russian, J also thought she might be Italian!) So, yes, off soon to the front porch (it's really a front deck, so not old-style Americana). Wish we could send you some of our glorious weather (though we are in for it this coming week, it appears). Would love to see Stockholm in autumn. And now you're in Lyon--too bad about The Flying Dutchman, for sure, though, as I recall, there are many compensations to be had in Lyon. Hope you have time for some.

David said...

Thanks for keeping the comments here alive - no-one else seems interested, though obviously if you haven't seen a series, you refrain from remarking on it. Odd, though, that no-one wants to chip in on our greatest living British novelist...

Yesterday in Lyon was wet, so our happy trabouling trip experience was not replicated. But I did walk down to a weird new zone south of the station, deserted like Canary Wharf in its infancy, to look at a giant orange cube with an equally gargantuan fruit inside it. And best, finally had a first-rate bouchon type Lyonnais two-courser in a neat, unpretentious restaurant called Le Traboulerie.

Susan Scheid said...

I am surprised others haven't commented on Mantel. It's a rare author who can handle historical material so well in a work of fiction. So many get fascinated by their research and never come out the other side to imagine fully the characters and story line. With the Cromwell books (my insufficient shorthand), not only is Mantel a master of the history about which she writes, but she's breathed life into the era and told of it from a unique and unexpected point of view. I can't wait for the third volume of the trilogy. The only other author I can think of who managed this is Pat Barker, with her WWI trilogy--though it certainly wasn't on the scale of Mantel's.

As for Lyon, ah, too bad about the weather, and so weird about the orange cube! But the restaurant sounds just the type of haven one would want and hope to find in Lyon.

David said...

Yes, I'd forgotten momentarily about Pat Barker - her trilogy is superlative. Time to return to it, I think. Did you see the film of Regeneration with Jonathan Pryce? A very fine and moving piece of work.

Susan Scheid said...

Yes, we loved that film (called "Behind the Lines" here for no earthly reason I can name). Must report that we're quite addicted to Orange now, though we both thought the denoument of the screwdriver episode didn't quite work . . . but it's a great series, and thank you for noting it. (Meanwhile, we seem to have gone utterly cuckoo over my way, and the Edu-Mate may have capped it off with her alerting me to the cuckoo letters in the Wipers Times . . .).