Wednesday, November 11, 2009

MADAMA BUTTERFLY – OPERA FOR EVERYONE FROM THE COC


The Canadian Opera Company is in its 60th year of existence and in its fourth season at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The new venue may not have put Toronto on top of the operatic world but it can probably stand its ground against most opera houses. The new opera house is almost completely sold out for most performances and it is a world away from the old, unlamented O’Keefe/Hummingbird/Sony Centre.

The seven operas offered for the 2009-10 season are nicely spread out over the year instead of the old method of feast or famine. Full houses have resulted in additional performances and the present looks bright.

The COC offers Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale for the fall season which runs from September 26 to November 5, 2009. The next two operas, Carmen and Otello will be shown from late January to the end of February, 2010.

Madama Butterfly is a familiar favourite whereas The Nightingale is a new creation by Robert Lepage. It premieres on October 17 and with Lepage as the force behind it, the tickets for the eight performances are all but completely sold out.

Butterfly is an approachable work and can be enjoyed by the neophyte as well as the opera aficionado. In fact there was a little girl sitting on a seat booster across the aisle from me. The COC’s revival of its 2003 production makes it an even greater pleasure to see and hear the opera. Director Brian Macdonald has opted for a simple and very attractive production. He eschews any attempts at making it ‘different’ and the result is a terrific night at the opera.

The COC has two casts for the main characters. The night I saw it the role of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) was sung by Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu in her COC debut. What one notices again is that Butterfly is an opera for a soprano with a bunch of visitors thrown in. Pinkerton, Sharpless, Suzki and Goro come and go – Cio-Cio San is on stage most of the time and she has a job to do. Nitescu has the vocal and acting equipment with which to do it. From “Un bel di” to her dramatic farewell to her son and suicide she delivered a moving and beautifully sung performance. She is physically suitable for the role. She does not exactly look like a 15-year old Japanese girl but if she did she would probably not be able to sing or act.

Newfoundlander tenor David Pomeroy was the swaggering Lieut. Pinkerton who is a heartless naval officer in the first act and a remorse-ridden man in the final act when he finds out that he fathered a child with the child geisha. Puccini does not overwork the tenor in this opera but Pomeroy gave a fine account of himself from the Act I aria and duet to the final trio. No doubt we will see more of him.

Baritone James Westman was a very sympathetic and well-done Consul Sharpless. He sang well and interacted very effectively with Butterfly. The pain and sympathy he felt for her was palpable and that is high praise for a singer who may be more interested in the notes than in the acting.

Puccini’s plush music was brought out by the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra conducted by Carlo Montanaro.

Monday, November 9, 2009

THEATER OF ANCIENT MESSENE TO REOPEN



Nikos Dionysios Planning Production in 2010

Plans are afoot to reopen the Theater of Ancient Messene.

Nikos Dionysios, director, actor and choreographer, has organized the Dionysios Theater Company with a view to producing ancient drama at the site as early as next summer. In fact he wants to stage Euripides’s The Bacchae and hopes to take the production on tour.

Dionysios, with his deep roots in Messinia, wants nothing less than a cultural revival of the south-western corner of Peloponnesus. He envisions not just theatrical productions but exchanges with other companies, workshops and conferences on the theater.

Your knowledge of the prefecture Messinia may go no further than eating Kalamata olives and you may not have heard of Ancient Messene and its theater at all. You are not alone. Systematic excavations of the site did not begin until 1986 and there is still much work to be done.

Ancient Messenia did not have particularly cordial relations with its neighbors, the Spartans, and its citizens ended up as helots of the latter. In 369 BC, they achieved independence and the Theban General Epaminondas built the city of Messene as the new capital.

Ancient Messene is the best-preserved city of southern Greece. It is located in the Municipality of Ithomi about 20 kilometers from Kalamata, and was probably the most-ignored site in Greece. Ancient Messene has a stadium, an assembly hall (Vouleftirio) and a theater. The stadium is useable as a theater and can hold up to 7000 people according to Dionysios. The assembly hall can accommodate about 700. The theater should be ready for use in two years and will hold about 4000 spectators.

“I want to capture the poetry of Ancient Greek tragedy” said Dionysios in a recent interview at a café overlooking Ancient Messene. “Greek tragedy is poetry, music and movement” he added “and we need to reach back to those elements even in translation”

“Take the Chorus, for example” he continued. “They spoke in unison, they chanted and they danced. You rarely if ever see Greek Tragedy performed that way these days.”

Dionysios trained and worked under the legendary director Karolos Koun. He has performed in theatres ranging from the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Epidaurus in Greece to venues in Europe, Hong Kong and North America. Ephemera, his first work as writer and director was distinguished as the Best Production of the Year.

He has also created Masks, a production based on ancient poetry, and Bolero, a play based on the life of Isadora Duncan, among others.

In 2003 he directed Aristophanes’ The Birds at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. That was the first time that the Festival had staged Aristophanes in its fifty years of existence.

In 2007, he directed and choreographed Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes with the Corfu Regional Repertory Company. In 2008 he directed, choreographed and acted the role of Dionysus in The Bacchae with the same company. The production was seen and well received in Albania and in southern Italy.

Kostas Georgakopoulos, the mayor of the Municipality of Ithomi, sees a great opportunity for the cultural and commercial development of the area. “It will be easier to go from Athens to Ancient Messene than from Athens to Epidaurus when the new highway is completed” he pointed out as he looked at the ancient site and on the spectacular vista of hills beyond.

“We want to enhance and promote the cultural life of the area” added the mayor. “We want to put Ithomi on the cultural map of Europe.”

Christos Athanasopoulos, the President of the Council of Ancient Messene nodded in agreement.

Excavation of the theater at Ancient Messene revealed the startling fact that it had a moveable and removable stage. The stage was mounted on large wheels and it could be moved forward towards the audience. The stage was as much as five meters (15 feet) off the ground. The reason for the construction of a moveable stage is not certain according to Petros Themelis, the archeologist who has spent more than 20 years excavating the site.

It was thought that the moveable stage was a Roman invention that the Greeks had copied after the conquest of Greece by the Romans. This appears not to be so and in fact the theater at Ancient Messene proves the reverse: the Romans copied the idea of a moveable stage from the Greeks. The stage was also completely removable. It was put away in storage at the end of the performance.

“I don’t expect to have a moveable stage” commented Dionysius “but I do want to see prominent theatrical companies from Europe to stage high-quality productions in Ancient Messene. It would be marvelous for people to see how other directors and actors treat Greek tragedy” he said.

Asked about how he plans to finance his vision, Dionysios commented that productions in ancient Athens used to be paid for by wealthy Athenians called “chorigoi”. “In fact there was a very rich and powerful family here called Saethidas during Roman times. They spent a lot of money to preserve the theater. I am checking out if there are any of them still around to repeat what their ancestors did two thousand years ago” he said. “If not we will have to rely on modern day Saethidases and local support.”

“Look what Herodes Atticus did. He built a theatre to commemorate his wife and two thousand years later his name is still a household word for theatre lovers in Greece. Not a bad monument!” he continued.

“Culture is good for business and business is good for culture” he added. Just imagine what even a few thousand visitors to an area can do for its economy. You can look at any number of examples from Canada to Europe where cultural events give a tremendous boom to a community” he concluded.

Mount Ithomi had a sanctuary in honour of Zeus Ithomatas. In the 16th century the Monastery of Voulkano was built over Zeus’s sanctuary. There was also in all likelihood a sanctuary dedicated to Dionysus, the god of the theater.

“We have pagan and Christian representatives close at hand” commented Dionysios with a smile. “With local help and maybe a modern Saethidas or Herodes Atticus, the theater of Ancient Messene may be up and running again after a couple thousand years of darkness.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

HITS AND MISSES OR THE 57th SEASON IN REVIEW


In its 57th season the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is well into middle age and we have every right to expect a varied programme of old and new plays done to very high standards. We don’t have to like everything that they do but there must be production standards and values, and a selection of works that can compare favourably with any theatrical company in the world.

After some rough patches following the retirement of Richard Monette who was Artistic Director from 1994 to 2007, management of the Festival is now in the hands of Antoni Cimolino as General Manager and Des McAnuff as Artistic Director. Cimolino was second in command under Monette and McAnuff comes with considerable theatrical experience most notably in the production of musicals. The photograph in the programmes shows Cimolino cracking a smile with his arm resting on McAnuff’s shoulder. McAnuff sports a broad smile with his arms firmly crossed. Is there a message in the body language?

The Festival offered a total of fourteen productions this year in four theatres. I saw thirteen productions (Ever Yours, Oscar, a one-man show by Brian Bedford about Oscar Wilde being the exception) and now that the season is entering its final weeks it may be a good time to give it a brief look-over.

FESTIVAL THEATRE

There were four productions at the flagship Festival Theatre: two plays by Shakespeare, (Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), West Side Story and Cyrano de Bergerac. If the Festival were to be judged solely by the quality of these productions it would not fare very well.

Macbeth had the acting and star power of Colm Feore in the lead role and the boss himself, Des McAnuff directing the season opener. It was clearly intended to be a showpiece production. Unfortunately despite some good moments the production fell flat on its face.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comic Shakespeare directed by David Grindley fared little better in what appeared as an all-out attempt to kill Shakespeare. Grindley gave a punk production with some laughter evoked by the artisans but precious little else. The mixture of punk rock, gratuitous violence and 1950’s overtones resulted into a pretty bad night at the theatre.

With Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac we moved to 19th century French drama with the super-nosed poet and swashbuckler played by Colm Feore and directed by his wife Donna Feore.

The result is a passionless production of a play that is full of passion and passionate longing. Donna Lisman is colourless and unconvincing as Roxane in the great balcony scene. The final scene where Roxane realizes that Cyrano is her true lover evoked laugher instead of pathos. That’s as bad as you want to get.

With West Side Story the Festival hits a bull’s eye. We are treated to a muscular, energetic and simply spectacular production directed by Gary Griffin. Paul Nolan as Tony and Chilina Kennedy as Maria perform the main roles exceptionally well with Jennifer Rias doing an outstanding job as Anita. Brandon Espinoza is the athletic and agile Riff, leader of the Jets and Andrew Cao is Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. There are visceral instrumental pieces that require a highly capable corps of dancers to perform them. The production has an excellent group of dancers and singers to do the job.

AVON THEATRE

There are three productions at the Avon Theatre and the odds of seeing a superb one here are two out of three. The Importance of Being Earnest is the best comedy of the season and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a rollickingly well done musical. The bad news is that Julius Caesar is really bad.

Forum has witty dialogue, melodious songs and a fast-moving and utterly entertaining plot. Director Des McAnuff invents much comic business and he has a tendency to go over the top. He could have gotten more with less but nothing can take way from this thoroughly enjoyable production.

Stratford is lucky in having Brian Bedford to direct and play Lady Bracknell in the almost perfect comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Bedford’s directing is impeccable and the performances by the main players almost flawless if one ignores the issue of imperfect English accents. Productions of Earnest are fairly frequent; outstanding ones like this one are a rarity
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Now for the bad news. Julius Caesar directed by James MacDonald and designed by David Boechler can best be described by borrowing a few of the author’s words from Hamlet as “weary, stale flat and unprofitable.” No one can accuse the cast of taking any pleasure in Shakespeare’s words or of bothering much to share that pleasure.

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

The choice of plays for the Tom Patterson Theatre is more adventurous and the productions far more successful. The adventurous part is the offering of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and Jean Racine’s Phèdre, both for the first time. What took them so long? Chekhov’s Three Sisters may not be adventurous but it is a good choice.

If Earnest is confined to the elegant drawing rooms of Victorian England, Bartholomew Fair encompasses life in London in the 17th century in all its variety, humour and exuberance as seen at a raucous fair.

The plot includes a pickpocket, a horse dealer, a whore, a pimp, a wrestler, a pig-woman, an urchin, a stilt-walker and others. The play presents an atmosphere and a world of its own and this is what Jonson created and director Antoni Cimolino captures so successfully.

Last year Stratford presented Euripides’ Trojan Women. It was a good start that should have been continued. It was not and we are given the next best thing with Phèdre. I found Seana McKenna’s performance outstanding and the production excellent although I took issue with the choice of translation which struck me as prosaic.

Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters directed by Martha Henry was the other high drama at the Patterson. The finely nuanced production showed what a first-rate director can do with an excellent cast.

STUDIO THEATRE

The results at the Studio Theatre were not as edifying as the productions at the Tom Patterson. Morris Panych’s new play, The Trespassers, directed by the author highlighted his virtues and his failings. He can write fine dialogue and develop characters but he has difficulty with structuring a credible plot. The play would have benefitted from the hand of a strict dramaturge.

Rice Boy by Sunil Kuruvilla struck me as a shapeless and boring play even though on paper it looks like a great choice for Stratford. It is a play with Canadian content and encompasses India and Canada. Geographical and national aptness were not enough to save the day.

Zastrozzi by George F. Walker is the third Canadian play offered by the Festival. It is one of Walker’s early plays and was first produced at the Toronto Free Theatre in 1977.

It is a strange, indeed bizarre play. Its full title is Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline and it is supposed to take place in “Europe, probably Italy” sometime in the 1890s. There is nothing in the production to indicate the date or place of the play and it could be located anywhere.

Zastrozzi (Rick Roberts), the main character, is a German master criminal. His friend Bernardo tells us that the play is not about passion or obsession or ideas or emotions. It is much worse than that: it is about revenge. Zastrozzi informs us that he is a man who has no weaknesses and is simply extraordinary.

Zastrozzi’s archenemy is the Italian artist and dreamer Verezzi (Andrew Shaver) and he wants to get rid of him in order to avenge what he, Verezzi, has done to his mother and to wipe off his smile.

We will see nudity, sex, swordfights, killings, and a lot of insane behaviour. The play is called a comedy of revenge and I cannot even give a decent plot summary. The characters are certainly cartoonish, perhaps even escapees from a sci-fi novel. They can almost be found in some episodes of Star Trek but without a visit from Captains Kirk or Picard. They are sometimes funny but by no means funny in any conventional sense. Are they ridiculous? In a way, yes but also macabre and no doubt out of this world.

The “feel” that director Jennifer Tarver gives us encompasses all of the above characteristics and I must admit that it left me simply cold. Walker has created an insane and unique world and characters that I could not relate to and I could not figure out what the initial appeal of the play was or the reason for reviving it. Surely there are better Canadian plays by Walker and others that are more worthy of production or revival than this one.

With a looming deficit, the impulse may be to produce safe plays. It would be wrong. The Festival should show gumption in producing less known works from the classical repertoire. If they do them well, the world will notice and people will fill the theatre. The Festival should create and nurture an audience as much as entertain the existing theatre goers.

And so, until next year.

(Photo is of Stratford's "Three Sisters")

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE AND ALBERTINE IN FIVE TIMES AT SHAW FESTIVAL


The playwright who lends his name to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake gets only two of his plays produced there this year. That’s not quite 20% of the eleven productions. The two Bernard Shaw plays are The Devil’s Disciple at the Festival Theatre and In Good King Charles Golden Days at the Royal George Theatre.

Shaw described The Devil’s Disciple as a melodrama in three acts. There are melodramatic elements in the play but one should never take Shaw at his word and expect a conventional potboiler.

The play takes place in 1777 in New Hampshire during the American Revolution. Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung), an unorthodox character and the devil’s disciple, finds himself in the house of The Reverend Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz) when British soldiers come to arrest the latter. Dudgeon pretends to be Anderson and he kisses the latter’s pretty wife Judith (Fiona Byrne) as he is led away to be hanged by the British. Dudgeon is tried by General Burgoyne (Jim Mezon) and Major Swindon (Peter Millard) and he escapes hanging.

The first two acts are incredibly ineffectual. The play and the production seem to creak and it is hard to say where the fault lies. Is the play that bad or is director Tadeusz Bradecki not able to bring out its strengths? Bradecki opens the play with the supposedly startling image of a man being hanged, something that Shaw did not think of. Even that does not work.

The final act is the trial of Dudgeon by Major Swindon and General Burgoyne. Jim Mezon does a very good job as Burgoyne as does Millard as Swindon. Shaw has fun taking swipes at British aristocracy, arrogance and incompetence and the audience joins in. There is Shavian wit and wisdom and the pace picks up.

Bradecki takes some liberties with the text going so far as to add a few lines about Butlersburg becoming Niagara-on-the-Lake, something not mentioned by Shaw. This does produce a laugh but surely it is an unnecessary interpolation but some people may consider it a clever way of reaching out to the audience and making the play relate to them. After all, 300,000 loyalists did come to Canada after the American Revolution and they were the ones who started Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The relatively minor role of a British Sergeant is given to Richard Stewart who seems to belong to another play. A British Sergeant should sound somewhat, even slightly like a British Sergeant. Jonathan Widdifield, on the other hand, is good as Christy, Dick’s doltish brother.

A production that can be summed up as one third good and two-thirds so-so is not what one expects from the Shaw Festival.

The Canadian content of the Festival is Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times at the Court House Theatre.

When the lights go on we see five women. The oldest will sit centre-stage and the other four will sit around her. The five actors represent one woman, Albertine, at the age of 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70. Her sister Madeline will also appear and will talk with her sister. The five actors will talk with each other but we know of course that they represent one person and whatever each actor says represents the memories or experiences of Albertine.

It is a brilliant device. Representing a single working-class woman over five decades of her life simultaneously is an inspired idea. I don’t think the execution is as successful as the inspiration but it is a play that makes you stop and take notice.

Albertine at 70 (Patricia Hamilton) has just returned home from the hospital and she muses that she will be better off there. She appears calm, at peace with herself in old age.

We learn that Albertine, the waitress and mother from the working class district of Duhamel had two children, Therese and Marcel. Therese misbehaved and at age 11 was allowed a paedophile to molest her. Albertine at 30 beat Therese to a pulp and apparently did not shed a tear about it. Regret and guilt if not tears come later and she has to live with the memory of her action. At different stages of her life she tries to forget, resign herself to her fate or take drugs. It amounts to a tragic life over five decades that are spread out before us.

Madeleine (Nicola Correia-Damude) provides a counterbalance to Albertine. Not all men are monsters, she says, and she is able to find love or is at least able to cope better than her sister.

Unfortunately the play is not always clear or easy to follow. Albertine at 70 can look back on her life, remember her past and have a dialogue with herself at different stages of her life. Albertine at 30 can have little to say to Albertine at 60, though she can correct lapses of memory, I suppose. Madeline died before Albertine reached 70 and yet she is on the stage talking with her. This is not a play that one can digest on one viewing.

Albertine at 30 is played by Marla McLean, at 40 by Jenny L. Wright, at 50 by Mary Haney and at 60 by Wendy Thatcher, doing good work in rather static roles. The play is directed by Micheline Chevrier.

In the end you end up being fascinated by the idea of the play and your attention is riveted but the fascination falls short of making this an enjoyable production. The play and the production fail to cross the thin line of “that was interesting” to that was a great evening at the theatre.

Monday, August 31, 2009

PHÈDRE - SEANA MCKENNA GIVES SUPERB PERFORMANCES IN RACINE PLAY AT STRATFORD


Last year, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival made one of its infrequent forays into Ancient Greek drama with a highly successful production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women. It would have been nice if that were the beginning of a trend but it did not happen. The closest we get to Greek drama this year is the production of Phèdre, a neo-classical tragedy by Jean Racine.

The production is billed as a World Premiere and they do not mean the 1677 play itself but a new translation of the work by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. Racine expressed the intense passion of Phaedra and the high drama of the story in tightly-knit rhyming couplets. Stratford however has chosen a prosaic translation for this production.

That is clearly not the mode of expression chosen by Racine and Wertenbaker’s translation, while it is clear it a ling way from Racine’s elevated language. Director Carey Perloff has the actors speak in a heroic style otherwise there are sections of the play that would sound more melodramatic than tragic, more akin to daytime television than poetic drama.

The language or mode of expression is even more important than the plot and one cannot get away from the fact that there is a huge difference between poetry and prose. Just imagine “To be or not to be” being rendered as “I just can’t make up my mind whether I should live or commit suicide.”

Phèdre tells the story of the love of Phaedra for her stepson Hippolytus. She is the wife of Theseus and is fully aware that her passion is completely improper. The problem is that her knowledge of the impropriety is not sufficient to control her passion. The tragic result is inevitable.

Phèdre has as its backdrop a complex political situation. Theseus is away from his kingdom and Hippolytus has fallen in love with Aricia, an Athenian princess and the last in line of the royal family that Theseus displaced as rulers of Athens. Hippolytus himself is the son of an Amazon, a foreigner, and there may be issues about his right of succession. Phaedra has children with Theseus and they may have a superior claim to the throne.

The real thrust of the play however remains the overwhelming power of love over rational thinking. Stratford is lucky in having Seana McKenna in the name role. She has extensive experience in Greek tragedy including a signature performance as Medea. She walks on the stage slightly crouched over with one hand on her stomach and the other stretched out for support. She is in the throes of all-consuming love that cannot be admitted and she gives a superb performance as the tortured queen. Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus looks young and innocent and contrasts perfectly with the much-older and disheveled Phaedra.

Tom McCamus gives a very dramatic and polished performance as Theseus, the blind father who curses his son. In one of the most dramatic deaths in mythology, Hippolytus is killed by a bull that rises from the sea. This a reference back to the bull that Phaedra’s mother had sex with and gave birth to the Minotaur, Phaedra’s half-brother. Theseus killed that bull with the help of Ariadne, Phaedra’s sister whom he married and later abandoned. Things do not get more dramatic than that.

Phèdre requires some heavy-duty supporting cast and the production is exceptionally well-served by Roberta Maxwell as Phaedra’s nurse Oenone, Sean Arbuckle as Théramène and Claire Lautier as Aricie. Wertenbaker seems a bit schizophrenic in her use of French names for most of the characters rather than relying on English equivalents such as Aricia, Theramenes.

The costumes suggest the confined atmosphere of the 17th century theatre rather than the town of Troezen by the sea where the play is set. There is a suggestion of rocks on one side of the stage but aside for some water in a well there is no other scenery. The sea is a major element in the play and there should have been some suggestion of its presence on the set.

According to Perloff “this is a version for North American actors” which sounds like this is “Racine for Dummies”. Wertenbaker’s translation is described as an unrhymed 10-syllable line but it sounds like prose. McKenna and the other actors are more than capable of handling complex poetry and people who go to Stratford for Shakespeare and Ben Jonson should not be patronized with “North American” versions. To paraphrase the comment made about Alexander Pope’s treatment of the Homeric texts, this is a decent rendition of the play but we must not call it Racine.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM AND WEST SIDE STORY AT STRATFORD

Reviewed by James Karas
If you have to produce musicals at a Festival that bears Shakespeare’s name then choose from the best and do a great job. That is what the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has done this year. The musicals of choice are West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
If you had to list the best Broadway musicals on the fingers of one hand, West Side Story should be one of them. It has an incredible provenance being the product of some of the finest creative talents of Broadway in the 1950’s. The idea for the musical belonged to the great Jerome Robbins. He choreographed the original production making the musical into a virtual ballet.
The book was written by Arthur Laurents who of course based it on Verona’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The feuding Montagues and the Capulets become youth gangs of New York. They are the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks who have territorial wars on the crowded streets and alleys of the west side of Manhattan.
The lyrics were written by a young man named Stephen Sondheim and the music by the prodigiously talented Leonard Bernstein. West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and it, as they say, has never looked back.
The Stratford production directed by Gary Griffin is muscular, energetic and simply spectacular. Paul Nolan as Tony and Chilina Kennedy as Maria are strong leads with vocal and kinetic power. Jennifer Rias is outstanding as Anita. Brandon Espinoza is the athletic and agile Riff, leader of the Jets and Andrew Cao is Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. There are visceral instrumental pieces that require a highly capable corps of dancers to perform them. The production has an excellent group of dancers and singers to do the job.
The under-used Stephen Russell plays the humane druggist and Bruce Dow is the blustering Officer Krupke. Don Chameroy plays Schrank and Mike Nadajawsky is Glad Hand.
The brilliant choreography is by Sergio Trujillo with Joshua Bergasse as co-choreographer. Rick Fox is the musical director and he brings out all the muscle and lyricism of Bernstein’s music.
A Funny Thing Happened has roots that go much further back than Romeo and Juliet. It is based on the comedies of Plautus (about 254–184 BC) from which Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove took characters and materials to shape a wonderful plot about a wily slave named Pseudolus (Bruce Dow) who will do anything to gain his freedom. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical was a great hit in 1962 and it is still thoroughly entertaining.
The plot is hilarious. Hero (Mike Nadajewski, is in love with the lovely virgin Philia (Chilina Kennedy), the girl next door, who has been sold to the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus (Dan Chameroy). “Next door” is the house of Marcus Lycus, (Cliff Saunders), who is a seller of courtesans. And you should see some of his samples!
Pseudolos and chief slave and collector of pornographic pottery Hysterium (Stephen Ouimette) must find a way of breaking the agreement of purchase and sale with Miles. He will not be dissuaded and arranging for the feigned death of Philia seems like the only solution. But where do you get a body for the ruse especially now that the usual body-snatcher just died and his body was snatched?
And then there is the subplot of Philia mistaking Hero’s horny father Senex (Randy Hughson) for Miles and being ready to surrender herself to him. A cup of mare’s sweat comes in handy in derailing his plan.
Dow is a natural comic and makes the role of Pseudolus all his own. Ouimette is perfect as the dour-looking and “puritanical” Hysterium and Randy Hughson is hilarious as Senex. Chameroy is not pompous enough as Miles but that’s because he goes for cheap laughs.
The dialogue is witty, the songs melodious and the whole thing fast-moving and utterly entertaining. Director Des McAnuff invents much comic business and he has a tendency to go over the top. Hero and Philia can be played straight and there is no need to invent comic stunts for them. Why dress the all-purpose Proteans with modern sailors’ hats? He could have gotten more with less but nothing can take way from this rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable production.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

FYROM v. GREECE - FROM THE STREETS TO THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE



HOW TO HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO


In September 1991, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, one of the constituent parts of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, held a referendum and subsequently declared itself an independent and sovereign nation under the name Republic of Macedonia. It quickly sought international recognition. Greece objected to the recognition of the new nation under the name Republic of Macedonia claiming that it implied territorial claims against the northern Greek province of Macedonia. The new Republic claimed that it had no territorial claims against Greece while at the same time adopting Greek symbols. Even a picture of the White Tower, the symbol of Thessaloniki, appeared on some souvenir currency printed by fervent nationalists. In FYROM the line between state affairs and private enterprise can be pretty blurry.

Feelings and tempers rose on both sides of the border and even more so in the Diaspora. A temporary solution was found in April 1993 when the United Nations granted membership the new country on condition that it will be “provisionally referred to for all purposes within the United Nations as ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ pending settlement of the difference that has arisen over the name of the State”. (UN Security Council Resolution 817 (1993).

FYROM and Greece signed an Interim Accord on September 13, 1995. The Accord opens with some grandiose and fulsome statements about refraining from the use of force, being guided by the spirit and principles of democracy and the desire to establish peaceful relations and promote future cooperation.

The first section of the Accord is entitled “FRIENDLY RELATIONS AND CONFIDENCE-BUILDING MEASURES”. Considering what happened after the Accord was signed this is ironic to the point of being comical. So much for wishful thinking.

The bizarre part is that the Accord does not mention the name that is acceptable to Greece for “the Party of the Second Part.” Article 1 states that Greece will recognize “the Party of the Second Part as an independent sovereign state, under the provisional designation set forth in a letter of the Party of the First Part of the date of this Interim Accord.”
Annexed to the Accord is a very short letter from the then Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Karolos Papoulias which states that “Greece recognizes the party of the second part within its internationally recognized borders, with the provisional name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, pending settlement of the difference that has arisen over the name of the State.”

Astounding as it may appear, the most crucial part of the Accord and the issue that will dominate relations between the two nations was incorporated by reference to a sloppily drafted letter that solved almost nothing.
Rather than posing positive obligations on FYROM (“You will do or you will not do …”), the woefully worded Accord imposes an obligation on Greece not to object to FYROM’s application to join international organizations of which Greece is a member. If Greece is a member then FYROM can only be called FYROM. The clear implication is that if Greece is not a member of that organization, then FYROM can join as the Republic of Macedonia.

Even worse, the Accord says nothing about FYROM asking nations around the world to recognize it as the Republic of Macedonia and putting itself out as the Republic of Macedonia. In fact, the use of the name FYROM, except at some international affairs, has almost disappeared. In Greece, itself FYROM is almost invariably referred to as Skopje.

We should be clear about one thing: when FYROM signed the Interim Accord, its constitutional name was Republic of Macedonia. By signing the Accord the “Republic of Macedonia” was clearly admitting that there was a problem with that name and that some modification will have to be made down the line. To date FYROM has refused to budge and insists on the name Republic of Macedonia. In other words, it wants to have its cake and eat too. Agree to negotiate the name and then refuse to negotiate the name.

Greece kept its part of the Accord by not objecting to FYROM joining a number of international organizations including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization and others.

Negotiations and meetings followed in an attempt to resolve the name issue but no solution could be found.

In the meantime, FYROM mounted a three-pronged attack on the problem: on the diplomatic front, the international front and the home front.

On the diplomatic front, it approached nations with a request for recognition as the Republic of Macedonia. Whatever the letter and spirit of United Nations Resolution 817, FYROM asked for and was granted recognition as the Republic of Macedonian by dozens of nations and by now that number has risen to well over one hundred.

On the international front it has launched an all-out campaign to convince the world community that it should be recognized as the Republic of Macedonia. It showed complete intransigence to any names proposed by Matthew Nimitz, the UN appointed mediator and continued and continues pushing for nothing less than complete recognition as the Republic of Macedonia while paying lip-service to the Interim Accord.

On the home front it has mobilized its educational system from kindergarten to university in the teaching about “unlibertaed brothers in Greece” and in painting Greece as its heinous enemy. This reached a pinnacle when in April 2008 photographs of Greece’s Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in a Nazi uniform were distributed widely.

FYROM’s internal and external policies were examined in detail in Macedonianism: FYROM’S Expansionist designs Against Greece after the Interim Accord, (1995). Iakovos D. Michailidis, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki shows FYROM trying to do nothing less than to re-write history to suit current political needs, to promote territorial claims against Greece and to create a national mythology based on Greece’s cultural legacy. So much for the provision of the Accord that “Each Party undertakes to respect the sovereignty, the territorial integrity and the political independence of the other.”

The argument came down to the use of the word Macedonia. FYROM wants nothing less than recognition as the Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks refused to allow the use of the word Macedonia in FYROM’s name. Greece eventually backed off its original position and agreed to a qualified use of the word – call it New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia or something like that to differentiate it from the Greek province. All Greek political parties except for the extreme right wing LAOS agreed to the compromise. FYROM refused to budge.

The issue came to a head in April 2008 when FYROM attempted to join NATO. They had a powerful advocate and supporter in President George W. Bush and the FYROM delegation went to the Bucharest Summit assured of success. Greece had made it perfectly clear that it intended to veto FYROM’s application. Many thought that American and some European pressure would prove too much for Greece. It did not and FYROM was not invited to join NATO. The fury of the FYROM and American delegations was palpable.

While continuing its efforts on the diplomatic, international and home front (including ads in major newspapers and CNN) FYROM has decided to take another approach: an Application to the International Court of Justice for an order forcing Greece to withdraw its objection to NATO’s invitation to FYROM.

FYROM’s argument is based on the wording of the Interim Accord, which states that Greece will not object to FYROM applying to join international organizations. Greece in fact only “reserves the right to abject to any membership.” As mentioned above, Greece has not objected to FYROM joining a large number of such organizations until the NATO issue came up. Greece’s position seems to be that “enough is enough” If the name issue is not resolved FYROM can stay out of NATO and out of the European Union.

The Application to the International Court of Justice was filed on November 13, 2008 by the Republic of Macedonia. The opening sentence of the Application reads “The Republic of Macedonian (being provisionally referred to for all purposes within the United Nations as ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 817 of 1993) brings this application…..” The International Court of Justice is a body of the United Nations. Yet even there FYROM pays only lip service to its provisional name. The Application is signed by Antonio Miloshoski, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia and the seal of the Republic of Macedonia is affixed. So much for the former Yugoslav Republic being known as such even at the UN.

Greece has not filed a reply to the Application. The Court ordered FYROM to file its legal memorandum by July 20, 2009 and it has done so. Unfortunately I have not received a copy of it for review. Greece has until January 20, 2010 to file its reply.

In the meantime, the war of words continues and FYROM continues to identify itself as the Republic of Macedonia except when forced to do the opposite. At the opening of the Olympic Games, for example, its athletes enter the stadium under the letter “f”. Despite thumbing its nose at Greece and the UN, FYROM wants to appear as the aggrieved party and is going to the ICC asking the Court to make Greece behave. Once again, it wants to have its cake and eat it too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

TONIGHT AT 8:30 AT SHAW FESTIVAL


PRODUCTION OF COWARD'S TEN PLAYS AN OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT FESTIVAL

by James Karas


In 1935-36 Noel Coward wrote nine one-act plays to be produced in groups of three under the title Tonight at 8:30. He added a tenth play called Star Chamber but it was performed only once before he withdrew it. The first nine plays have been produced in bits and pieces at the Shaw Festival over the years but never all ten together.

In what can only be described as a bold move, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has decided to produce all ten in one season. It is a venture that is worthy of loud applause and a chance to see the plays that is simply not to be missed.

There are three groups of three plays and one, Star Chamber, is shown alone during lunchtime. As may be expected, the boldness in selection is not always equaled in the quality of execution of the first three one-acters but the overall result is still enjoyable and, repeat, not to be missed.

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

The first three plays are presented at the Festival Theatre under the title Brief Encounters. Still Life and We Were Dancing are about brief and illicit love affairs. Hands Across the Sea has an almost farcical plot about mistaken identity.

Still Life is perhaps best known as the film Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Laura Jesson (Deborah Hay) quite accidentally meets a Dr. Alec Harvey (Patrick Galligan) in the refreshment room of a railroad station. The doctor removes a speck from her eye and the two, married and reserved middle-class English people, fall in love. They continue meeting at the railroad station and make one pathetic and unsuccessful attempt at consummating the affair but we only see them in the refreshment room.

A dingy railroad station, and two reserved people make for a poor source of fervent expressions of grand passion. You take the two of them at their word that by reserved English standards they are deeply in love and the sad end of the affair is inevitable. Coward does show us the other side of English love in the lower class workers at the railroad station who are far more demonstrative but what do you expect from the lower classes? I found Hay more convincing than Galligan but I wished that some more of their passion came across.

For We Were Dancing Coward takes us to a country club setting on the exotic Island of Samolo. This is no railroad station and Karl (Patrick Galligan) falls madly in love with Louise (Deborah Hay) right in front of her husband Hubert (Thom Marriott). Karl and Louise were dancing and were swept off their feet with love. Unlike, Laura and Alec, they show no reserve, not even a modicum of good manners, as they declare their passion for each other. This love affair dissipates as quickly as it arises and there is no time to consummate it. Issues arise, problems appear and the course of their love comes to a fork in the road. We Were Dancing is broadly comic and the love affair is more farcical than passionate.

Hands Across the Sea has a different texture from the first two plays. It is set in a fancy flat in London where some well-travelled and well-heeled people act and overact in very silly ways. The Gilpins (Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan) are expecting some people that Lady Gilpin met in the Far East. Mr. and Mrs. Wadhurst (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo) arrive and they are generally ignored or spoken to in very strange ways. There is clearly a problem here as the busy Gilpins and their friends flit around and the result is some good comedy.

The playlets have a charm of their own but they do require a finesse of acting and accent that is frequently lacking in Canadian actors. In the end we know what they are getting at and appreciate the effort while all the time knowing that the type of comedy that Coward wrote is at times out of their reach. The plays are directed by Jackie Maxwell.

PLAY, ORCHESTRA, PLAY

The second trio entitled Play, Orchestra, Play, consists of Red Peppers, Fumed Oak and Shadow Play. The three playlets are funny, charming and have a tinge of sadness all their own. Red Peppers is about song-and-dance couple (Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson) who are bickering as their way of life is disappearing. The movies have arrived and the music hall is on its way out. The wife makes a mistake during their exit and the two start arguing over it only to be interrupted by the house manager and turn their energies on him. The fight gets worse when the conductor arrives. It is funny and touching.

Fumed Oak presents a henpecked husband (Steven Sutcliffe) who lives with his bitch of a wife (Patty Jamieson), whining daughter (Robin Evan Willis) and an even worse mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher). His submissiveness for fifteen years gives way to an explosion of energy in which he tells his wife and mother-in-law and daughter to stuff it. He has saved some money and he is going on a ship to anywhere but where he is. Comedy framed in a very sad situation with fine performances.

Shadow Play is about a couple on the verge of divorce. They have found other lovers and Simon (Steven Sutcliffe) tells Victoria (Julie Martell) that he wants a divorce. She has just taken three sleeping pills and dreams of happier days with Simon. The play has eleven characters and half a dozen musical numbers as it moves through moments in the lives of Simon and Stella. Quite a beautiful production.

Play, Orchestra, Play is skillfully directed by Christopher Newton at the Royal George Theatre.

STAR CHAMBER

Star Chamber, at the royal George Theatre, is a hilarious gem that will strike a chord with anyone who has attended a committee meeting. To make things worse, these are all actors who are meeting about some charitable cause. No one is on time, they talk to each other instead of listening and leave when they feel like it. Neil Barclay is outstandingly funny among a very entertaining cast directed by Kate Lynch.

WAYS OF THE HEART

The final trio of plays is staged at the Court House Theatre under the title Ways of the Heart and consists of The Astonished Heart, Family Album and Ways and Means.

The Astonished Heart has a complex structure for a one-act play. It is divided in seven scenes and moves back and forth in time. It tells the story of a renowned psychiatrist (David Jansen) who falls in love with Leonora (Claire Julien), a worldly woman and his wife’s worldly friend.

It is a dramatic piece about passionate love, betrayal and ultimate disappointment. Laurie Paton is the plump, faithful wife in a marriage that has seen better days. Julien is the femme fatale that oozes sexual attraction and knows how to get her man. The end is disastrous but the performances under the direction of Blair Williams are superb.

In Family Album, the large Featherways family is gathered shortly after Papa’s death and the reading of his will. They are a stuffy Victorian family who display grief and reverence for the dearly departed and then decide to have a toast. One toast leads to another and they all break into song. More toasts and more songs and the somber atmosphere dissipates into revels.

The large cast is excellent with notable mentions of Laurie Paton as the older spinster Lavinia, Patrick McManus as Jasper and Lisa Codrington as Emily. Being a family gathering and a funereal occasion, the characters are dressed alike. Michael Ball has the small role of the servant Burrows. He practically steals the show as he staggers in carrying drinks and is hard of hearing, especially of things he does not want to hear. A delightful piece.

In Ways and Means we move to more familiar Coward territory, the world of the sophisticated and somewhat eccentric upper crust on the Riviera. Stella (Claire Jullien) and Toby (David Jansen) are having breakfast in bed, wearing silk pajamas, in a fancy house on the Côte d’Azur. They have lost their last franc gambling and are at the end of their mooching rope.

They bitch and bicker with wit and sophistication as they search for a desperate remedy for their impecuniosity. Jansen and Jullien carry the whole thing off with aplomb. Patrick McManus is very good as Stevens, the former valet who was unceremoniously dismissed from his former position which included servicing the wife of his employer. Jenny Young makes a short appearance as the Russian Princess Elena and manages a horrible accent. It is one thing to be less than perfect when doing an accent but this was really bad.

In the end, the production of the ten plays amounts to an outstanding achievement.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

ELIA KAZAN AND ARTHUR MILLER



THE DIRECTOR, THE PLAYWRIGHT AND NAMING NAMES

By James Karas

In April 1952 Elia Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and gave the names of eight people who were fellow members of the Communist Party during the 1930s. They were blacklisted.

In 1956, playwright Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to testify before the same committee and he refused to disclose the names of leftists or Communists that he had associated with. He was found to be in contempt of Congress, fined $500.00 and sentenced to one month in jail. The decision was subsequently overturned.

HUAC was established as a permanent Committee of the House of Representatives in 1945 with the aim of weeding out Communists or “reds” from American society. It paid special attention to the movie industry which it felt was dominated by Communists. Under Senator Joseph McCarthy the hearings became infamous witch hunts where guilt by association, the trampling of democratic rights and coercive interrogations were the norm.

Kazan and Miller were close friends and their decisions to name names and not to name names respectively put an end to their friendship and were to play pivotal roles in their subsequent lives.

Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan had a lot in common. Both were the children of immigrants, were raised in New York, espoused leftist politics, went into the theatre and were exceptionally successful. Kazan was brought from Turkey in 1913 at age four, the son of Greek immigrants. Miller, born in 1915, was the son of Polish Jews.

Miller’s first major play, All My Sons (1947) dealt with corruption in business and treachery. Joe Keller, an airplane parts manufacturer sells defective cylinder heads to the Air Force during World War II. He and his partner are arrested but he is exonerated when he puts the blame on his partner. When his son, an Air Force pilot, finds out of his father’s activities, he commits suicide rather than face his father’s treachery. Joe insists that he did what he did for the good of his family. When the full extent of his moral cowardice and treachery are revealed, Keller commits suicide.

All My Sons was directed by Elia Kazan.

In 1949 Kazan directed Miller’s Death of a Salesman, one of the greatest American plays, and the two men became friends. In his autobiography, Timebends – A Life, (1987), Miller wrote that Kazan was a man “whom I loved like a brother.”

Both men produced significant works illustrating or justifying their actions before HUAC. Kazan directed the film On the Waterfront (1954). Miller wrote the play A View from the Bridge. The play and a stage version of the film played in London a few months ago and I was able to see both productions on successive nights.

A View from the Bridge is a riveting play about love and betrayal played at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre. It is about Eddie Carbone (Ken Stott) an Italian-American who betrays Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant, to prevent him from marrying Eddie’s niece Catherine. Eddie harbors an illicit passion for Catherine. Rodolpho, who is also related to Eddie, falls in love with her and Eddie calls the immigration authorities. The play is a vivid condemnation of such treachery and it has the expected tragic finale. Eddie is condemned by society for his conduct and after Rodolpho’s brother spits on him he screams “I want my name back.” He is killed in a fight with Rodolpho’s brother.

A short distance from the Duke of York’s, On the Waterfront, the stage version of the famous movie with Marlon Brando played at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It is a play that justifies naming names.

Kazan had to appear before the Committee in April 1952. He met with Miller in early April and told him that he had decided to cooperate with the Committee. Miller in his autobiography writes of Kazan’s decision to name names to HUAC: “There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying: unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad either. If the theatre remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore; he wanted to deepen his film life, that was where his heart lay, and he had been told in so many words by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the Committee.”

Miller tries to convince Kazan that the witch hunts could not go on indefinitely but then comes to the terrible realization that “unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them.” Miller sympathized with Kazan’s predicament but at the same time “was afraid of him. Had I been of his generation, he would have had to sacrifice me as well.” Kazan would have done to Miller what Joe Keller did to his partner in All My Sons: betrayed him for his self-interest.

As indicated, Kazan appeared before HUAC in April 1952 and gave the names of eight people, including playwright Clifford Odets, who were blacklisted. Kazan showed no remorse for his action but commented that “there's a normal sadness about hurting people, but I'd rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot."

That statement may show more bravado than moral certainty. Kazan obviously had some misgivings about his testimony before the committee. He took out an ad in the New York Times in which he wrote A Statement “to make my stand clear.” While a member of the Communist Party for about a year and a half (1934-1936), he had “firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control” and that left him with “an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always.”

The problem is that he did not act on his conviction to resist Communism until he was called to testify before HUAC sixteen years later. His explanation for the delay was his concern for the reputation and employment of the people he would expose – people who had done exactly what he did many years before. That consideration went by the board when he realized that these people were a danger to free speech, free press etc. He never explains what menace Clifford Odets and the others posed to those cherished American ideals nor does he reveal when that epiphany came to him. Was it in the spring of 1936 when he left the Communist Party or in January 1952 when he was called to testify before HUAC?

In 1954 Kazan directed On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg with Lee J. Cobb in the cast. The movie is an attempt to justify the informer for snitching to the authorities. Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Schulberg testified before HUAC and named names.

Schulberg has adapted the screenplay of the 1954 movie with Stan Silverman for the stage. Steven Berkoff directs the current production and plays the role of Johnny Friendly, the heavy. The acting is stylized and at times choreographed. About half a dozen men are the chorus and they act as the dockworkers, Crimes Committee and other parts. There is some serious overacting by Berkoff and Simon Merrells as Terry Malloy. Were it not for the stylized acting the whole thing would have ended up as melodrama but it is quite effective and dramatic theatre.

On the Waterfront is about corruption and crime by organized criminals on the Port of New York. Johnny Friendly and his cohorts are corrupt thugs who are running the union local and skimming from the wages of the workers. They do not brook any dissent and when one person attempts it he is murdered by being pushed off a building. One of the participants in the murder is Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who is not too bright. Terry’s boxing career was cut short by his brother Charley (Cobb in the movie, Antony Byrne in the play) when he was asked to throw a match because they had bet on the other fighter.

Terry falls in love with the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint/Bryony Afferson) and when he witnesses another murder he learns a new word: “conscience.” He is subpoenaed by a commission investigating crimes on the waterfront and he must decide about giving evidence against his brother Charley and his cousin Johnny Friendly.

Terry follows his conscience and gives evidence against the criminals. He is severely beaten but is able to get up and presumably be followed by other longshoremen on the path of justice and resistance to the mob. Naming names, in this instance, was the right and noble thing to do.

On the Waterfront is considered on of the best films ever made. It won eight Oscars in 1954 including Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando) and Best Supporting Actress (Saint).

Kazan made no secret that he considered the film his revenge on those who criticized him for naming names before HUAC. In his 1988 autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life he remembered getting the Oscar as follows: “I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. On the Waterfront is my own story, every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood.”

Surely there is a difference between giving evidence against criminals and giving the names of people who belonged to the same organization as you did many years before the testimony.

Miller was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1956. Spyros Skouras attempted to convince him to cooperate with the Committee. Miller stood his ground but he himself realized that his moral courage was affected by this: “Privately I thanked my stars that I worked in the theatre, where there was no blacklist; as a film writer, I would now be kissing my career goodbye.” In the end, he refused to testify because if he did he would be breaking “an implicit understanding among human beings that you don’t use their names to bring trouble on them, or cooperate in deforming the democratic doctrine of the sanctity of peaceful association.” He realized that if he did not buckle he could be sent to jail but he considered HUAC so morally corrupt that he was willing to take that risk.

Lillian Hellman was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1952. She asked the Committee if she could testify about herself without naming others. The Committee refused and she issued the following statement: “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable.” Helleman was blacklisted and her career suffered.

In 1999, the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to bestow an honorary Oscar to Kazan for his achievement in film. The decision was hugely controversial. There were those who never forgave Kazan for informing on his former associates and folded their arms in protest when he stepped up to receive his Oscars. There were others who thought that it was time to bury the hatchet and applauded warmly. The moral issue of informing on your colleagues was not resolved. Interestingly enough, the fact the Kazan belonged to the same organization as the people he named had no adverse consequences on him. The informer, in this case at least, was absolved of his sin the minute he named the other sinners.

The emblematic example of acting on principle over expedience is that of Sir Thomas More as seen by Robert Bolt in A Man for all Seasons. More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor when the king broke away from Rome so that he could annul his marriage to Catherine, his first wife, and marry Anne Boleyn. More, a devout Catholic, refused to recognize the king’s religious supremacy. Being a lawyer, he tread carefully and refused to state his position and relied on his silence for safety. The king insisted on More’s support. He was charged with treason but there was no evidence on which to convict him. Richard Rich, an ambitious young man and, at least, an acquaintance if not a friend of More’s, provided perjured evidence and More was convicted.

There is a magnificent scene at the end of More’s trial. After Rich has given his perjured evidence, More notices that Rich is wearing a chain of office. He asks what the chain represents and he is told that Rich has been appointed Attorney General for Wales. More gives the great reply that separates principal from expedience: “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … But for Wales!”

“Wales” could be career (Kazan), family (Joe Keller), misguided love (Eddie Carbone) or any number of reasons.

What is left in the end is each person’s epitaph in history if not eternity. In A Dictionary of British History, Richard Rich is given a one-sentence dismissal: “His provision, while solicitor general, of false evidence at the trial of Sir Thomas More was instrumental is securing More’s conviction for treason (1535).” He is a perjurer forever. More gets a whole paragraph where he is described as a renowned scholar, lawyer and saint who was convicted on the perjured evidence of Sir Richard Rich.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

MACEDONIANISM - THE MACEDONIAN ISSUE FROM INSIDE FYROM


by James Karas
On September 21, 2007, shortly after the general elections in Greece, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the Republic of Macedonia. More than a hundred nations around the globe had already done that and his gesture should not have been all that startling. But it was, especially for Greeks. The act sent shockwaves to Greeks in general and the Greek communities of Canada in particular. It appeared and remains a gratuitous and unnecessary act for which there seems to be no rational explanation.
It took a few hours for very much information to trickle through once the news had hit the airwaves. Initially it was thought that Canada had granted full recognition of the name. As it turned out the recognition was to extend only to bilateral relations and would not affect Canada’s position on the international scene. When we deal with you alone, we will call you Macedonia; when there are other nations involved we will refer to you as FYROM, is the Canadian position.
The problem of the name to be adopted by FYROM has proven thorny and contentious and the United Nations has been attempting to find a solution. Matthew Nimitz has been appointed as a mediator in an attempt to find a resolution. In other words, a mechanism was in place for finding a solution and there was no need for the Canadian government to offend the Greeks of Canada and curry favour with the much smaller “Macedonian” community. If there was a rational reason for Harper flaunting international conventions and offending Greeks, I am not aware of it.
His recognition galvanized Greek communities into action and the Canadian-Hellenic Congress called for a protest rally on Parliament Hill on October 27, 2007 to register their disapproval of the recognition. The Greek communities of Toronto and Montreal arrived in the nation’s capital on that rainy Saturday morning in dozens of buses and private vehicles. There were representatives from smaller cities also as well as other provinces in addition to the Greeks of Ottawa. Metropolitan Archbishop Sotirios refused to participate and the advice from Greece was “don’t do it.”
There was a sea of placards sticking over the umbrellas and plastic ponchos on Parliament Hill reading “Macedonia is Greece” and variations on that theme and community leaders and politicians addressed the crowd. I was one of the speakers in my capacity as President of the Pan-Macedonian Association of Ontario. My position was that the Government of Canada should have respected the process that had been put in place by the United Nations rather than acting unilaterally, offending Greece and the Greeks of Canada and causing more harm than good.
Most speakers stayed on the high ground but, unfortunately, the tone of the rally descended into anti-Harper diatribes and insults that did little to advance our message.
Canada did not change its position and the negotiations continued with Nimitz proposing names and Greece and FYROM disposing of them as fast as he proposed them. Then a bright light was shone on the problem by Greece accepting FYROM’s right to use the word Macedonia in its name provided that it was modified in some way to differentiate the country from the Greek province. New Macedonia or Upper Macedonia were acceptable. FYROM refused to budge and insisted on Republic of Macedonia or nothing.
In 2004, after his re-election, President Bush recognized FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia and the young politicians that had been elected to run the new nation felt they had an almost invincible ally. The matter came to a head last April during the NATO summit in Bucharest. The United States demanded in no uncertain terms that FYROM be admitted to NATO regardless of the name dispute with Greece. Greece made it clear that if the issue of the name was not resolved, it would exercise its right to veto FYROM’s application for membership.
The United Sates and FYROM went to Bucharest firmly convinced that the might of American diplomacy will have its way and Greece will be forced to accept FYROM as a member of NATO. FYROM sent a large delegation to Bucharest and they were ready to celebrate their admission into the large alliance. Greece exercised her veto and the fury of the Americans and humiliation of the FYROM delegation were palpable. The war of words has intensified since then and Nimitz is still trying to find an acceptable name.
That much is visible to all who wish to follow the vagaries of the issue. But there is another side to the problem. What is happening within FYROM? We all know that they are and have been for some time in the process of nation-building. But what exactly are they doing?
The task of looking at that has been taken on by the Society for Macedonian Studies in Thessaloniki with funding from the Karipis Foundation for Macedonian and Thracian Studies. Under the aegis of Professor John Koliopoulos, Professor of Modern History, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of Greece’s most eminent historians, three scholars have been appointed to examine FYROM’s policies vis-à-vis Greece.
The result was ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΣΜΟΣ - Ο ιμπεριαλισμός των Σκοπίων 1944-2006, a well-illustrated study published in Greek and a shorter version of the book in English under the title Macedonianism: FYROM’S Expansionist designs Against Greece after the Interim Accord, (1995). The three scholars examined a wide array of official state documents, atlases, school textbooks, internet sites, proclamations, political manifestos and just about everything else they could lay their hands on, it seems, in order to determine FYROM’s position towards Greece.   
The lead study, entitled “Irredentist Policy: FYROM Official State Papers, 1944-2006,” is by Iakovos D. Michailidis, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In the English version of the book the time frame has been reduced to 1995-2006.
From 1944 onwards, according to Michailidis, FYROM (or the People’s or Socialist Republic of Macedonia as it was before 1991), has followed a three-pronged approach in its policy towards Greece.
First: Macedonia, Greece was renamed ‘Aegean Macedonia,’ i.e. an integral but unliberated part of FYROM.
Second: it advanced the claim of “the existence of an oppressed ‘Macedonian minority’ within Greece”.
Third: it proceeded with the creation of a ‘national history’ through the appropriation of Greek symbols and emblems. Ancient Macedonia was the focal point and myths such as Alexander the Great was not Greek, the Ancient Macedonians spoke another language and the like began to proliferate. They claim that there has been a distinct Macedonian nation since ancient times and that it has continued in existence until today. The presence of Albanians in FYROM is neatly explained: they are the heirs of the ancient Illyrians.
Michailidis shows that the above noted aspects of FYROM’s foreign policy towards Greece are neither haphazard nor accidental. The attempt is nothing less than to re-write history to suit current political needs, to promote territorial claims against Greece and to create a national mythology based on Greece’s cultural legacy. There are numerous maps, for example, that show graphically and dramatically, the ‘Macedonian nation’ stretching all the way to Thessaly. As Michailidis points out, these maps of Greater Macedonia flooded the country and “were reprinted in school textbooks, sent as postcards, and were even used as stamps.” The idea was to reach everyone and no doubt they did. 
The idea of an oppressed Macedonian minority in Greece is promoted inside FYROM but even more importantly and effectively, outside its borders by supporting and funding publications of newspapers and magazines and organizations such as the Union of Societies of Macedonians from Aegean Macedonia.
The indoctrination takes some very subtle forms such as in the questions asked of students who are applying for entrance to university. Students are asked questions about the enslavement of Macedonians in neighbouring countries, their struggle for freedom and union with the fatherland and about their descent from Alexander the Great. This, writes Michailidis, “is not merely quaint; it is positively dangerous”.
Stavroula Mavrogeni, who is described as a specialist member of the teaching staff of the University of Western Macedonia, writes about “FYROM’s Primary School History Textbooks.” The approach taken on the national and international level described by Michailidis is also pursued in the teaching of history at the primary level.
Students are given the impression, for example, that Macedonia existed as a separate entity even in pre-historic times. There is a clear distinction drawn between Greece and Macedonia and the Balkan Wars are viewed as ‘wars of conquest’. The Ottomans were driven out of Macedonia during the First Balkan War and “Macedonia was conquered and partitioned among Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria” according to a grade 7 textbook. In the end, “the territorial and ethnic unity of Macedonia was disrupted” according to the textbook. The textbooks make some staggering historical assumptions but in the process of nation-building and myth-making, historical accuracy can be of slight importance.
The students are also taught about the oppression of the ‘Macedonian’ minority in Greece and coverage is given to World War II and the Greek Civil War and more recent events. All teaching has the same underlying assumptions about the united Macedonian nation, the enslaved brethren in Aegean Macedonia and the longing for their liberation.
Vlasis Vlasidis, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Western Macedonia, examines “Irredentism on the Internet”. Not surprisingly, the number of websites dealing with FYROM is legion. Vlasidis has found some quaint trends that tell as much about present political events as they do about historical facts. There are scant references to relations with Russia in the 19th century, for example. That was the era of Pan-Slavism and the Treaty of San Stefano. One would have thought that there would be praise for Russia and damnation of Great Britain, Germany and the Treaty of Berlin. “The silence is deafening” notes Vlasidis, but it is not surprising. When you are currying favour with the Americans, you do not praise the Russians.
Equally interesting is the demotion or, let’s say, the marginalization of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs in favour of St. Paul. This means that ethnic Macedonians existed in the peninsula well before the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century A.D. The latter, according to the new mythology, were simply incorporated in the existing Macedonian ethnic group.
Greek symbols and maps are used on web pages the same way that they are used in other publications and in the school textbooks as described by Mavrogeni.
Two organizations, the United Macedonian Diaspora and the World Macedonian Congress have major websites. “They engage in an overtly aggressive policy against Greece and Bulgaria and cherish the idea of a Greater Macedonia” notes Vlasidis. The Canadian Macedonian Historical Society comes in for special mention for its “competent presence” on the internet.    
The essays in the English version of the book take up 40 pages, including illustrations. There are more than 100 pages of reproductions of documents, including numerous maps, book covers, government decrees, magazine covers, statements by officials, posters and many more. Here you will find the cover of the book All Saints of Macedonia. The book states that “St. Demetrius was an ethnic Macedonian.” Along with the cover of the book, there is an excerpt of the entry about St. Demetrius but only in Macedonian. This holds true for most of the documents reproduced in both versions of the book. No doubt the intent was to show their existence but it would have been immensely interesting to read a translation of all of them. 
The English version under review was produced quickly in pocket book format to have it available for the diplomats at the Bucharest summit last April. A full version of the Greek book was published in English later and it is available on the website of the Society for Macedonian Studies at http://www.ems.gr/ekdoseis.php. I only have a copy of the pocket book version for review purposes.
The Greek and English versions of the book are not without their faults. A number of illustrations are reproduced more than once and the captions for others are unsatisfactory. Some thirty pages of the Greek version are taken up with copies of the outlines for teaching history and geography in primary school and sample examinations. All of this is in Macedonian with only a few lines of explanation. Some of the documents appear to be printed more than once, but I cannot be sure of this.
The Greek edition is printed on large, almost coffee-table size paper, and runs to 229 pages. The English edition is a much smaller, trade paperback with only 167 pages. As a result the illustrations are smaller and some of the text in the reproduced documents is almost unreadable. What is worse, a number of pages at the beginning were simply missed by the printer. That is unfortunate, because it is non-Greeks who should be reading the book as much as Greeks. It is hoped that the larger version that has been published will be made available widely for those who are not keen on reading books on a computer screen.
The contents of the books should be startling for everyone interested in the Balkans. Few people could have realized the breadth and depth of FYROM’s myth-making in its attempt at building a nation. Its attitudes and policies towards Greece are dangerous and destabilizing. A generation of children is being raised with a mythology about an evil Greece, a neighbour that holds their brethren enslaved and occupies territory that belongs to their beloved Republic of Macedonia. In fact Greece is one of the biggest investors and creators of jobs in FYROM; it is helping FYROM financially and wants to maintain good relations. None of this receives any mention at all.
Last November FYROM started proceedings against Greece in the International Court of Justice in the Hague claiming redress “for flagrant violation of its obligations under Article 11” of the Interim Accord signed by the parties on September 13, 1995. FYROM wants the Court to order Greece to withdraw its veto to FYROM’s application for admission to NATO. Greece has a strong position on the wording of the Interim Agreement alone but seeking a juridical solution to a political problem is probably not the wisest course.
 FYROM is one of the poorest countries in Europe and needs investment, economic development and jobs for its citizens. National mythologies, patriotism and even judicial proceedings may be fine for making speeches and arousing the public; good jobs, high standards of living and good relations with one’s neighbours are much better.

Monday, August 10, 2009

WAITING FOR GODOT and DUET FOR ONE - IAN MCKELLEN AND JULIET STEVENSON IN GREAT PERFORMANCES


Reviewed by James Karas

Estragon and Vladimir, Samuel Beckett’s pair of tramps, have been Waiting For Godot since 1953 and tantalizing scholars and audiences. One can see or read the play repeatedly and find new meanings or no meaning at all as the two men do nothing and have nothing to do but wait for the mysterious Mr. Godot who will save them if he ever comes. Save them from what and to what is one of the many mysteries of the play.

Waiting for Godot can be a very entertaining play with the right actors and the right director. It is actually quite funny as well as intriguing and, if you will, confusing. Many actors have tried their hands at the play but few can match the talents of the present stars doing the play at the gorgeous Theatre Royal Haymarket in London. With Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Simon Callow as Pozzo you have thespian talent that would be difficult to match.

This is a landmark production that will no doubt be remembered by those who saw it. McKellen’s Estragon is an old and rather nasty man. He has a deep and sonorous voice that makes every word resonate. Estragon shuffles across the stage but can get fairly energetic when necessary. He looks as if he has been around for a very long time and one of his few choices in life, if that’s what it is, is to hang himself from a tree if only he had the means.

Stewart’s Vladimir is far spryer. He dances and sings and hops about. Of course, he is no less desperate than Estragon. Stewart’s lighter voice is a perfect foil for McKellen’s mellow bass and the two make an unforgettable pair. Simon Callow does a superb job as Pozzo. Ronald Pickup is the hapless Lucky who gets to stand on stage most of the time but he does get his moments of superb acting.

The detailed movements and vocal intonations that we get for every line are the work of director Sean Matthias. He seems to have stage-managed the whole thing with meticulous care and the result is undeniably superb. Interestingly, the play is supposed to take place on a country road with a barren tree.

This production is set in a city that has been bombed or destroyed to pieces. There is a huge wall standing in the background but the foreground shows destroyed buildings. The rock of the script is in fact the cupola of a pillar. The wall has a door and this was at one time, perhaps recently, perhaps in the distant past, an inhabited place.

A memorable production.

Stephanie Abrahams wheels herself into the office of Dr. Feldmann. He is listening to some virtuoso violin playing on his fine stereo. So begins Tom Kempinski’s brilliant play Duet for One now showing at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. It is a two hander and Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Stephanie is worth the trip to England.

Stephanie and the psychiatrist will meet over six sessions. We will start with the self-confident virtuoso violinist who has been struck with multiple sclerosis at the height of her career and end up with a degraded human wretch on the verge of suicide.

Stephanie thinks that she can cope with MS by her strength of character: she will do things, teach and run her husband’s business.

These hopes and plans prove illusory and she blames the doctor as her condition deteriorates and fissures develop or appear in her life. She becomes embittered as she delves into her past, looks at the present and tries to imagine the future. She degenerates into not bathing and having casual sex with a junk dealer. He picks up scrap metal and she is reduced to buying metal in order to give him a reason to visit her.

The play depends almost entirely on Stevenson’s riveting performance. She deteriorates in front of our eyes and we see an actress who can deliver fear, pathos, courage, despair and stinging remarks with surgical accuracy. Henry Goodman is in the unpleasant role of being the straight man. He does get a dramatic scene where he defends himself and his profession and gives a superb performance.

Kempinski does not provide an answer to those afflicted with MS. Abrahams is not an ordinary person. She is a supreme artist for whom music is life and life is or was music. When the doctor suggests an endless number of things that she can do she recalls that her father tried the same approach when he was trying to dissuade her from taking violin lessons. The father and the psychiatrist become in her words “employment agencies” to a woman who knows no employment.

An unforgettable performance.

Friday, August 7, 2009

DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN MEETS LAW AND ORDER


CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS IN WAGNER’S CYCLE

By James Karas

Where are the police when you need them?

Dozens of crimes were committed in full view of about 3500 people at Lincoln Center recently and not one person rose to object or called the police. They did rise with calls of ‘Bravo” and thunderous applause but no doubt it was not for the crimes. In fact at the end no one made even a nominal objection.

I am talking about the crimes committed again by those characters in Der Ring des Nibelungen during all performances including the final revival by the Metropolitan Opera of Otto Schenk’s production a couple of months ago. Leitmotifs be damned, the plot be excoriated – there is no respect for law here. We need Detective Lennie Briscoe and District Attorney Jack McCoy from Law and Order to pay close attention to the legal implications of what those gods, giants and dwarfs are doing. Most of them should be arrested before the curtain goes down and hauled off to Rikers Island.

Let us examine the legal conduct and misconduct with or without Messrs Briscoe and McCoy. The three Rhinemaidens are happily swimming around the bottom of the river when the lascivious dwarf Alberich appears. He immediately begins harassing the young maidens and asking for sexual favors and I do not mean the latest issue of Nibelung Hustler. With shameless resort to alliteration in the English translation he wants to “freely frisk and frolic” with them. This is criminal watching and besetting, importuning and harassment even if the ladies ridicule the horny dwarf away.

But Alberich does not stop there. Heaven knows what he would have done if he had caught one of the scantily dressed maidens on the slippery slopes of the riverbed. He tells one of them that he wants to “with ardent caress nestle against your soft breast” which without consent is sexual assault if not attempted rape.

When all his efforts end up in a fiasco he turns uglier by calling the pure maidens “worthless, sly, sluttish, dissolute wenches!” They are none of those things and this is defamatory libel, a criminal offence. The maidens can also sue for slander in civil court and get a pile in damages.

That is just the beginning. The hormonally-overactive Alberich switches gears and decides to forego sex for gold. He steals the hoard that the maidens are guarding in clear view of them. This is grand larceny with three credible witnesses to identify the stolen goods and the robber. We can eliminate the investigation part of this episode of Law and Order and go straight to trial where there can be no chance of acquittal.

From the bottom of the Rhine we go to the top of the mountains where we meet Wotan, God Numero Uno, and his wife Fricka. The couple has just built their dream house on top of a mountain and Wotan is just delighted. His more rational wife reminds him of how the joint was built. Wotan hired the Fafner and Fasolt Giant Construction Corporation to do the work. Price: his sister-in-law Freia. Fricka fully freaks out fearful that Freia will be forfeit to Fasolt and Fafner and this alliteration will continue.

She is right about Freia’s fate because no sooner is she through with the nauseating alliteration than the two lumbering giants, accompanied by their dramatic leitmotif, arrive asking for payment. Wotan never intended to pay them. Contract law means nothing to him and only others are bound by it. After some negotiating, the giants agree to accept payment in gold and Freia is off the hook. But the giants are not totally stupid. They take Freia as a surety until Wotan delivers the gold.

The contract which provides for the construction of a palace at the stipulated price of a goddess, namely Freia is clearly unenforceable. If Wotan had gone to his lawyer he would have been advised to refuse payment and let the giants sue. The trial judge would have thrown them out of court because the contract is unenforceable as being against public policy. Remember when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh from Antonio in The Merchant of Venice because he had a sealed contract? It took a whole scene of chicanery by a judge with no legal training to save Antonio’s skin when he could have relied on good contract law and thrown Shylock out.

Same principle applies in the case of Fafner and Fasolt v. Wotan. Fafner makes the same argument as Shylock: we have a sealed contract – what do you mean you don’t intend to honour it?

Instead of consulting a good lawyer, Wotan goes to the scheming and crooked (but not legally trained) Loge for advice on how to weasel out of the contract.

A lawyer would have found a solution and the gods may have postponed their dammerung. With Loge as his adviser, the only solution Wotan comes up with is to go underground and steal some gold with which to retire the giants’ debt.

Loge and Wotan go to the subterranean home of Nibelheim where the brothers Alberich and Mime have stashed the Rheingold.

The police and the Department of Labour should be called immediately. We have harassment, assault and abuse of workers on a level unseen since the chain gangs of black and white movies. The happy workers of Nibelheim used to make trinkets and ornaments; now they are forced by the brutal Alberich to work like slaves on his gold. The steelworkers’ or some other powerful union should be there organizing these workers.

Mime has made a magic cap for Alberich that can turn him into anything he wants. Alberich (not the swiftest of dwarfs) proudly demonstrates that he can become a monster as well as a toad. Well, Loge loses no chance and he captures Alberich qua toad, puts him in handcuffs, steals the gold and returns to the upper floors. This is unlawful arrest, unlawful detention and false imprisonment. It is followed by grand larceny as the gold that Alberich stole from the Rhinemaidens is in turn stolen from him. No law enforcement agency in view anywhere. Is there no law left in this land?

The lumbering Fafner and Fasolt return to Wotan with Freia in tow. It is like a meeting of Mafia bosses from The Godfather but it is to be noted that even criminals have manners: F and F have not laid a finger on Freia while they kept her as surety for payment.

The giants grab the entire loot and Fafner immediately kills Fasolt. Another murder in front of witnesses and the police does nothing about it.

It’s getting late and people have to go home so Wotan decides to do the same and finally spend a night in his new pad, Valhalla. Fafner and Fasolt forgot to provide access to the joint which is on top of a mountain. There is no evidence of the structure being approved by the Department of Buildings and there is another lawsuit available. But there is no time for that so Donner, Wotan’s son, and the god of thunder, decides to throw up a quickie bridge in the form of a rainbow.

This is a boatload of lawsuits waiting to happen. Donner is the god of thunder and has no qualifications or experience to build a mud hut let alone a bridge. He has no permit from the Department of Buildings and the material he uses would not fool the most crooked inspector. Look what happened when the best British engineers built the Millennium Bridge in London. It had to be shut down as soon as a few hundred people tried to go across the Thames. If we didn’t have three more operas to go, the gods would have fallen off the bridge right there and then and it would have been good-bye Die Walküre, farewell Siegfried and arrivederchi Gotterdammerung. We have to trudge along but some justice is done: we never hear of Donner again! In Gotterdammerung, Hagen does order that a goat be sacrificed for Donner but that may be more for dinner than in honour of this god.

On with the legal issues in Die Walküre.

Woody Allen’s description of his brain as his second favorite organ, may apply to Wotan as well. He seems to have used his favourite organ with the Earth Goddess Erda enough times to produce nine Valkyries and with a Volsung woman to produce a set of lovely twins named Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan’s sexual prowess was clearly not matched by his parenting skills and one is surprised that he was not hauled into Family Court on a regular basis. He should have been charged criminally for failing to provide the necessaries of life for the twins. In any event, Siegmund and Sieglinde do not know of each other’s existence and the young girl is forced to marry the lout Hunding. (Was Wotan there to give the bride away? we ask parenthetically)

Siegmund and Sieglinde grow up and the wounded Siegfried straggles into the Hunding hut and before Act I of Die Walküre is even nearly finished, the twins are madly in love with each other.

This opera should carry a warning label. A brother marrying his sister is incest and that presents a cartload of legal, moral and religious issues. What is worse is that Siegmund starts coveting his neighbor’s or at least his host’s wife before he learns that she went through a shot-gun wedding. In other words they have broken the Ten Commandments, the criminal code and society’s total disapproval of that type of relationship! And how does Sieglinde feel about knowing her brother in the biblical sense of the word? Her only regret is that she was defiled by Hunding before she met Siegmund! He too is shameless. “As Wife and sister you'll be to your brother. So let the Volsung blood increase” says he to her.

I have no idea who to call at this point but somebody better do something. Bring down the curtain, fast.

The only bright light in this moral swamp is, believe it or not, the cuckolded Hunding. He obeys the laws of hospitality be giving food and shelter to his enemy and then challenges Siegmund to a duel. Dueling is illegal but if it was good enough for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, it will have to do for us.

Siegfried and Hunding will duke it out but the question is who will live to tell about it? The strongest will win, right? Not quite, because the gods have a stake in the duel and the final outcome will rest with them.

The legal and moral lines of battle are drawn as follows: Wotan is not too fond of Hunding and he wants Siegmund to win. He is his son after all.

Fricka, Mrs. Wotan, whose son Siegmund is not, begs to differ about the outcome of the fight. In fact she has “firmly promised to punish the behavior of that impudent, blasphemous pair who have openly wronged a husband.” Fricka is the goddess of marriage and even though we may suspect her objectivity, legally she is quite right.

Wotan’s wishy-washy defense of “Love's magic bewitched them” is met by Fricka calling him stupid and reminding him that the issue is the holy vow of marriage which has been vilely flouted. At least we are becoming cognizant of the legal and moral implications of our actions.

When it comes to adultery as a matter of philosophy and practice, Wotan is on very shaky grounds. As far as he is concerned, the word fidelity applies only to high end audio equipment and certain banking institutions. But in this case he is asking for it, as they say, and Fricka delivers a lengthy harangue that would send any husband seeking for cover. Needless to say, she wins the argument, humiliates Wotan and he agrees that Siegmund has to go. He orders Brünnhilde to insure that Hunding wins.

But Brünnhilde has no intention of obeying her father and she tries to save Siegmund’s life. She cannot and Wotan is furious with her for trying. Brünnhilde manages to save the pregnant Sieglinde who will eventually provide her with a nephew who will be named Siegfried.

In the meantime Wotan is fit to be tied and imposes punishment on Brünnhilde. He gives a sentence of mortality and life asleep until rescued by a fearless hero. This is complete denial of due process and procedural fairness. Wotan is prosecuting, defending and judging but in an opera of a mere five hours there is no time for trial by jury.

By now it is almost midnight and with Brünnhilde nicely resting in her ring of fire, the audience is ready for a snooze as well and it’s just as well that the curtain comes down.

Siegfried opens with an egregious example of cruelty to a foster-parent, Mime, including use of abusive and offensive language and assault by the boorish Siegfried. He brings a bear from the forest to frighten the daylight out of Mime and thinks this is jolly good fun.

In comes the aptly named Wanderer a.k.a. Wotan who would rather be anywhere after the drubbing he got from his wife. The serial philanderer’s mistresses must be on holiday so he is forced to spend some time with the dwarf Mime. He decides to have a Riddle Competition, an early version of Jeopardy, with a nasty twist – if you don’t know the answer you are kaput.

Siegfried reappears and continues with his crime spree. He kills a dragon and that may have been OK with the likes of St. George due to his relationship with God but anyone who kills, maims or wounds an animal these days without a lawful excuse is guilty of a criminal offence. In this case, the charge may be upped to murder because Siegfried talks to the dragon and if he had a bit more brains he would have realized that the talking dragon is a disguised person.

Siegfried then kills Mime. There is no defense for this and the fact the Forest Bird warned him about Mime will not stand up in any court. The only possible defense would be temporary insanity – how compos mentis can a man be if he kills on the advice of a bird? Breaking Wotan’s spear may also constitute an assault but this chap’s record is long enough without it.

One can just imagine the following cross examination of Siegfried in court:

Lawyer: Mr. Volsung do you talk to birds?
Siegfried: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: And do birds talk to you?
Siegfried: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: And what do they tell you?
Siegfried: They give me advice.
Lawyer: Can you give us an example of the advice you have received from a bird?
Siegfried: Well, the Forest Bird told me where to find a wife. It said I should go to the top of a mountain where I will find a woman asleep, surrounded by a wall of fire.
Lawyer: Thank you, Mr. Volsung. Your Honour I submit that the witness is loopy and in serious need of psychiatric help so he can get some grip on reality.

Loopy or not, Siegfried does find the sleeping woman who turns out to be none other than Auntie Brünnhilde. Her heaving breasts, his rush of hormones and his intent to “suck life from those sweetest lips, though I die in doing so” give fair warning that family tradition will be followed and the Censor Board should take heed. After a very long duet, the two retire for their honeymoon night.

We leave them alone for the night and return for Gotterdammerung the following evening.

We find them the morning after the night before coming out of their lair of pleasure and we must now consider the delicate question of conjugal rights versus conjugal obligations. The question here is legal, religious and moral. It was mostly a one-way street at one time: the husband had all the rights and the woman all the obligations but the man did bear some responsibilities to love, honour and protect the wife.

The tamed Katharina of The Taming of the Shrew has given a succinct description of the relative position of spouses:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, …
[women] are bound to serve, love and obey.


Well, that’s pretty clear. And if a woman does not like what her husband demands? That question was answered by Lady Alice Hillingdon as follows: "I am happy that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England."

We cannot speak of denial of conjugal rights by either of the honeymoon couple here but we can more accurately discuss performance. Whatever attempts were made by Siegfried to exercise his rights and Brünnhilde to fulfill her obligations, the result was a conjugal disaster.

The opening scene of Die Gotterdammerung between Brünnhilde and Siegfried can perhaps be uncharitably described as the spiritualization of a rather disastrous carnal experience. They are both very kind but if she waited on top of the mountain for the hero to save her and give her sexual pleasure and if he slew dragons in order to learn what sex means they were both in for a big disappointment.

They step away from the honeymoon rock at dawn and Siegfried is fully armed. Brünnhilde takes the lead in trying to save our hero’s pride for his pathetic performance. She will send him to perform new heroic deeds, she tells him, and luckily he is too thick to get it. Like the smart woman she is, Brünnhilde blames herself: I am just not good enough for you! I gave you everything but you deserve more.

He tells her that she gave him more than he knew what to do with and even though she tried to teach him a few tricks, he is so dense he did not learn a thing: “More you gave me, wondrous woman, than I know how to husband: do not be angry if your teaching has left me still untutored!”

Let us not forget that she is his aunt and we hope that she ate lots of Freia’s golden apples and retained her youth. Otherwise we have to imagine an old woman and a young hunk rolling pathetically on the rocks. This is so embarrassing. Let us move on.

We now meet Dame Grimhilde’s boys, Hagen and Gunther Gibich in their mansion on the Rhine. Hagen’s father is Alberich so you know he is bad news. Hagen goes immediately into action: he wants to find a husband for his sister Gutrune and a wife for Gunther. Method: the administration of a noxious potion that will cause the victim to commit matrimony. In fact the potion is so powerful, promises Hagen, that it will make Siegfried, the only candidate for the position, forget that he has ever seen a woman before or that a woman has even come near him. After what Siegfried went through the night before, this may not be such a bad thing.

Gutrune serves Siegfried the potion and with unerring irony Siegfried drinks to
Brünnhilde intoning “to you I offer this first drink to faithful love!” and promptly forgets her. Under the influence of the potion (thus establishing a defense of temporary insanity or automatism) Siegfried promises to get Brünnhilde for Gunther if only he can have Gutrune for himself.

Matters get complicated as Siegfried impersonates Gunther and claims Brünnhilde for the latter. This is the crime of fraudulent impersonation with intent to gain advantage for himself and another person. Siegfried gets Gutrune and Gunther gets Brünnhilde and this is bigamy. Gunther makes no comment; Brünnhilde is in shock and Siegfried has temporary amnesia. He simply forgot that he was married. We may borrow a line from Oscar Wilde that is a propos. “The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.” So were the criminal courts.

Brünnhilde is furious and she wants revenge. Erase all memory of the love duet in Siegfried because the scorned Brünnhilde will betray Siegfried by giving away the secret to Hagen –the secret of how to kill Siegfried. This makes her an accessory to murder. Siegfried is taken hunting and quite literally stabbed in the back by Gunther. He wants to pretend it was an accident even though there were twenty of his people watching. The most incompetent detective will be able to break through that thin tissue of lies. The stabbing does have a salubrious effect on Siegfried: his amnesia disappears and he remembers Brünnhilde.

The end is near and none too soon. This world of lawlessness, immorality, incest, bigamy, treachery, murder and sexual incompetence is beyond repair.

Brünnhilde takes a torch and sets the biggest fireworks since the burning of Rome and everything is burned to the ground including her. Just as well – she would be guilty of mass murder and arson.

© James Karas 2009.