Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.

This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.

Make/Believe installation view

Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.

Make/Believe installation view

McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.

Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.

Make/Believe installation view

The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.

Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.

Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).

Make/Believe installation view

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

The Pink Standard: Legally Blonde at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Okay, I am blond, gay and European. So it isn’t all that difficult for me to relate to this year’s summer season offering at the Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. “Positive” and “Omigod You Guys,” it’s Legally Blonde: The Musical. Ever since I relocated, for love and legal reasons, to this little Welsh town – from an island, no less, that has Broadway running through it – I have not missed a single one of these seasonal spectaculars. After all, they are often the only indication that summer actually takes place here. And since that very first show – which was Oliver! back in 2005 – I have been coming back to the scene it would be a crime to miss.
I’ve also seen the summer season grow up over the years, and the characters along with it, from a criminally mistreated but dutifully hoofing and oh-so-adorable Victorian orphan to a stylish, twenty-first-century Harvard Law graduate who seems to be fighting a lost cause but ends up winning her first case and her true love besides. 
In Legally Blonde, justice is served as in Dickensian days, except that what you deserve is no longer dished out as a helping of destiny. I won’t say that either way is “So Much Better” than the other – for entertainment purposes, at least – but it sure is about time to have, at the heart of it all, three persevering females who don’t have to suffer Nancy’s fate so that the Olivers of this world can enjoy the twist of their own.
Legally Blonde does its part to “Bend” if not quite “Snap” the long string of boy-meets-girl plots of theatrical yesteryear; at the same time, it cheekily pays tribute to the ancient laws of Western drama, right down to its cheerleading Greek Chorus. The conventions are not discarded here but effectively “Whipped Into Shape.” And what it all shapes up to be is an updated fairytale of boy meets girl in which girl ditches boy since boy doesn’t meet the standards girl learns to set for herself.
The lads, meanwhile, perform parts traditionally forced upon the ladies: they are the chosen or discarded partners of the women taking charge. Unless they are objectionable representatives of their sex, like the opportunistic Warner Huntington III (convincingly played by Barnaby Hughes), the men of Legally Blonde are mainly paraded as sex objects, flesh or fantasy.  Exhibit A: stuff-strutting Kyle (inhabited by a delivering Wade Lewin).  Exhibit B: gaydar-testing Nikos (gleefully typecast Ricardo Castro, returning to Aberystwyth after last year’s turn as Pablo in the divine Sister Act).  Come to think of it, even the two dogs in the show are male – and how well behaved these pets are in the hands, or handbags, of the women who keep them.
Not that it looks at first like the women have a clue or a fighting chance. I mean, how can a gal be oblivious for so long to the connubially desirable qualities of gentle, reliable if fashion-unconscious Emmett Forrest (played by David Barrett, who was unmissable as Mr. Cellophane in the Aberystwyth production of Chicago)? That Elle Woods ultimately finds her way and gets to sings about it is the so not gender-blind justice of Legally Blonde.
And that we side with the spoiled, seemingly besotted sorority sister is to a considerable degree owing to Rebecca Stenhouse’s ability to make Elle mature in front of our eyes, from bouncily naïve and misguided to fiercely determined yet morally upright. And, as her character gets to prove, a valedictorian is not just Malibu Ken’s girlfriend in a different outfit. Legally Blonde demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be pretty and “Serious” in pink, even though I, personally, have failed on both accounts.
Depending on Elle’s success in getting her act together is the life and career of Brooke Wyndham (energetically played by endorphin-level raising Helena Petrovna), a celebrity on trial whose fitness empire is endangered by a dirty secret of a potential alibi. And if you are a cynic out for a hanging, just wait and see what Brooke (and Petrovna) can do with a piece of rope.
As it turns out, Brooke does not have to make a case for orange being the new pink, which of course was the old black. Ultimately, not wardrobe but a serious case of TTP saves the day, for which the production hairdresser can take some credit. Follicles play nearly as big a part in Legally Blonde as in Hairspray, to name another property Aberystwyth Arts Centre has laid its skilled hands on in recent years. And if that production had a showstopper in “big, blonde and beautiful” Motormouth Maybelle, Legally Blonde has down-but-not-out stylist Paulette Bonafonte, a role Kiara Jay makes her own with warmth, knowing and extensions in her voice that reach from here to “Ireland.”
Legally Blonde is not without its share of injustices. It takes a seasoned professional like Peter Karrie to accept a plea bargain of a part that allows him to be the villain of the piece but denies him the moment his Phantom-adoring followers may have been hoping for. It was Karrie I saw in that memorable Oliver! production, and he is back here as Professor Callahan, a suave shark with a nose for “Blood in the Water.” Like Fagin, he is a law unto himself; but unlike Fagan, the professor is ill served by a book that bars him from tunefully “Reviewing the Situation” once he gets his just deserts. Not that you won’t be gasping at the scene that constitutes his downfall.
Now, had I a Manhattan-sized “Chip on My Shoulder,” I could object that, if “What You Want” to produce is a musical, you might consider putting a few instruments back into the pit. I mean, with sets as swanky as Acapulco, why should the singing be practically a cappella? The overture out of the way, any such objections are largely overruled, given the plain evidence that these troupers hardly depend on orchestral crutches. “Break a leg” to all of them – dancing, skipping and rollerskating – for keeping the pace brisk and making Legally Blonde such an infectiously high-spirited show.
This was the first season I attended as a legally married blond, gay European – and I think it is no overstatement to say that, for all their heterosexual pairings, shows like Legally Blonde have helped to take on patriarchal bullies, to rethink masculinity and what means to “Take It Like a Man.” It’s not the American flag alone that is prominently on display here. Whatever your angle, I can bear witness to the fact that, by any standard – gold, platinum blonde, or otherwise – the Aberystwyth Summer Season is in the pink.

Nuns Ablazing: Sister Act at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Farrah Fawcett as thou art in heaven!” This is a good time to dust off your “F. M. boots” and shake your groove thing right on down to our local Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. You know, F as in Funky and M as in, well, Mary, Mother of Grace.  Or, FM as in radio, tuned to the station that gives you Diana, Donna and … Deloris.  Deloris Van Cartier, honey, the diva that dreamed of a wearing white fur and ended up in a nun’s habit.  Yes, it’s Sister Act, the musical. The one about the convent where the mother’s superior and the sisters supreme.
In this production, Mother Superior is played by Lori Haley Fox, whom I previously saw perform here in Chess and Hairspray.  There is a bit of Velma Von Tussle in Mother Superior—but her Sister Act character has some depth, which comes across in Fox’s rendition of “Here Within These Walls.” You don’t just get to hiss and laugh at her, but get to understand her struggle to restore the order that wasn’t meant to be a reformed one. It’s a fight against the trivialization and exploitation of her beliefs.  To be sure, it’s a tall order to deliver such conviction in a play so invested in that very trivialization. But if there are false notes in this musical, they are not coming out of Fox’s mouth.  Nor out of Jenny Fitzpatrick’s, for that matter, who is great in the wear-your-Jackal-and-hide part of Deloris “Sister Mary Clarence” Van Cartier, a diamonds craving tramp with the proverbial heart of gold.  Or a golden larynx, anyway. And Fitzpatrick sure got that, and soul besides. Make that Philly soul.  After all, the scene is set in Philadelphia, the town to which the bastard of Disco can trace some of its heritage.

My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.

I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan.  I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks.  Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong.  Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that.  And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent.  Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.

Brother, it must be tough for any man to assert himself in a place where all those rapping and von Trapping sisters are doing it pretty much for themselves (and the Almighty); but Robert Grose as Curtis Jackson and Aaron Lee Lambert as Eddie Souther are giving it their best shot—and I’m using the metaphor advisedly.  Grose is at his smarmiest best singing “When I Find My Baby,” a creepy number worthy of Sweeney Todd and likely to give you the heebie-Bee Gees. Meanwhile, in “I Could Be That Guy,” Lambert makes a transition that rivals the costume change endured by Deloris – albeit from plain to fabulous, so that the twain can meet somewhere in between—and he doesn’t get a phone booth or even a Hong Kong Phooey filing cabinet to do it in. So, props to him! Then again, why call props when Velcro and virtuosity will do?
There are echoes of Kiss Me, Kate in the trio of thugs—The Three Degrees of separation from the baboon—who are making apes of themselves for our amusement in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Never mind Earth and Fire; these guys are pretty much all Wind. That said, Andrew Gallo as Joey has more moves in his eyebrows than most wannabe Travoltas have in their polyester-clad hips. George Ray as TJ does four-eyed cute as well as Rick “Suddenly Seymour” Moranis ever did. And Ricardo Castro is just bueno as Pablo in a Brüno kind of way.  Meanwhile, for those who prefer their eye candy unwrapped, there are a couple of highly distracting boy dancers, competing though they were, temporarily, with an audience member in front of me who insisted on noisily unpacking her own treats. Sure, Toffifee is retro, but a flask is more discreet.
Dancing boys and their legs apart, this is still a play in which the sisters have the upper hand; and glorious Jodie Jacobs as Sister Mary Robert and fierce Andrea Miller as Sister Mary Lazarus prove that “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” So what if Sister Act’s pastiche.  Why reinvent the Disco Ball? I, for one, am glad to be having the sisters “Here Within These Walls” of Aberystwyth Arts Centre to “Spread the Love.”  I’ll be back for another audience with them—and that adorable Pope—just as soon as I get the platforms redone on the F. M. boots I wore out tapping along. “Fabulous[,] Baby”!

If only the Squirrel: A Word on Plays on Words as Plays like The Realistic Joneses

I don’t get it.  No, I take that back.  I didn’t get anything from it.  No, that’s not it, either.  I didn’t really like it is more like it, really.  Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, I mean.  It’s one of those plays that are nothing more than wordplay.  The Joneses aren’t really Realistic.  That much I got, and not much else.  The characters are just worders, if that’s the word for it.  If it were a word.  They are not word made flesh.  I’m not sure whether they are mouthpieces because I’m not sure what they were meant to mouth, other than that we are mostly words to one another.  Words that are no reliable access to thought or feeling, that are no substitute for flesh, for sensations and experiences.  A playwright who says as much as that – or as little – has got a real challenge.  But that may be too charitable a word for a playwright’s “I’ve got nothing, really.”

The Realistic Joneses, to me, is a bad play.  Even the wordplay isn’t that good.  It is of a sitcom caliber, and the characters are a bunch of near flatlining oneliners.  I mean, ‘Ice cream is a dish best served cold’? Seriously, is that bit of lame rhetoric – a cliché made obvious as a commonplace – a substitute for a plot twist? I didn’t feel the play was a moving comment on the increasingly disembodied state of twenty-first century humanity, much less a sensitive portrait of toxic malaise. I didn’t feel.  That’s just it.

The Realistic Joneses is a play on the hollowness of words, and I don’t feel that that is a valid point to make in a play.  Not any more.  Not even for the middle-aged with a nostalgic yearning for some old-fashioned post-modern self-reflexivity.  Well, post-modernism isn’t what it used to be because it just isn’t anymore.  Or oughtn’t to be.  The tongue has to come out of the cheek eventually, and it has to learn to speak again and say something other than, say, “What’s there to say?” Not just some piffle passing for the absurd.  To me, surrealism isn’t anything goes nothing, at least not in the theater.

I walked out of the Lyceum Theatre thinking that I had just spent what amounts to a buck a minute on a rotten piece of ephemera – like that dead squirrel Tracy Letts picks up and throws into a trash bag, or the spoilt food Michael C. Hall takes out of the refrigerator – with little else but these few words of mine to show for it. If only that food had been served hot.  If only the squirrel had lived.  If only.  Or maybe not.

One Tough Act One to Follow

Theater ought to make for good theater.  Noises OffA Chorus of Disapproval.  Stuff like that.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t because it doesn’t quite become stuff.  And when it ain’t stuff, it fails to matter.  The Lincoln Center production of Act One drives that home.  And what a slow drive it is.  You just sit there, or I did, thinking: when will it stop? Incredulous, I kept checking my watch to see whether time had stood still and I was stuck in the mind of a playwright who hadn’t quite stopped revising, who hadn’t quite figured out just where to go and how to end.  And the end, when it came at last, couldn’t have been less of one.  You could have spelled it out in six letters.  THE END.  It’d be quicker that way. But that doesn’t make an ending feel like any conclusion to draw from.
 
Granted, the question of how and where to finish is always a tough one when it comes to autobiography, a life unfolding and not wrapped up retrospectively. If only Moss Hart had done the adapting of his 1959 autobiography, the play might have had, if not necessarily a structure but at least an urgency, a currency that this nostalgic exercise in pointlessness woefully lacks.  Instead, we end up with an adaptation that, in its second act, is mostly about the act of adapting.
 

That’s just the problem with the second half of James Lapine’s reworking of Hart’s book.  It tells – rather than compellingly dramatizes – the story of how Hart and Kaufman collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930).  Watching two guys sitting around drafting a play isn’t nearly as riveting as experiencing that play or the evolution of it.  And, to me, at least, it didn’t help matters that, several years ago, I saw a lifeless National Theatre production of Once in a Lifetime, starring David Suchet.  What should have been sheer madcap felt drowsily close to one nightcap too many.

 
“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” Hart wrote.  It’s a line from Act One, the book, that makes it into Act One, the play, and it makes you aware how little blood there is in the latter.  It is altogether too glossy to make us believe in the curative potency of make-believe, felt by someone brought up in “unrelieved poverty,” as Hart put it.  Such urgency could turn theater-crazy Aunt Kate, charmingly though she is played by Andrea Martin, into someone akin to Blanche DuBois.

 

If the play, in this production, at least, isn’t quite a cure for drama dependency, that may be because it isn’t sufficiently catching to be an antidote to theater madness.  It has a cuteness about it that is merely subcutaneous.  It doesn’t prick you, or hook you, or infuse you with the passion of which it can only speak in borrowed words.

Double Hedda: Friel, Ibsen, and the Business of Giving It One’s Best Shot

“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband.  The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original.  Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.

Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference.  Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?

“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.”  That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.”  Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation.  Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language.  Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.

To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male.  Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language.  “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.

Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.”  Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language.  It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.

As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.”  Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen.  It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern.  Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.

That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose.  “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.”  Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.

“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another.  Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …

Stiff Competition: A Hairspray to Defy the West End Elements

Funny thing about prejudice: if you let it take hold, it can deprive you and those around you of a real good time.  That, in a shiny Aqua Net shell, is the message of Hairspray, the musical.  And, boy, did I deprive myself . . . until now.  Sure, others around me still had that good time, but when Hairsprayhit Broadway back in 2002, I was as set as an untamed cowlick.  I would have none of it. My Aqua Net days were long behind me by then, and I was not going to splash out on a rehash of a late-1980s cult comedy about early 1960s culture-clashing teenagers, told in songs that a Porter and Gershwin kind of guy like me is not inclined to hum while wearing a shower cap. Well, Kiss my Kate! Last Friday, I finally woke up and smelled the coiffing.  “Good morning, Baltimore!” Andoh, never mind “beautiful”what a colorful morning it is.

Funny thing, too, that I only had to travel about half a mile to learn that musical lesson; no subway ride down to 42nd Street, no walk through London’s West End via Leicester Square (and TKTS).  Just up the hill, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is staged that, as a tourist attraction, is far more reliable than our windswept seaside.  Over the years, I have seen eight of those summer seasons come and go, from Oliver! to Chess.  Boasting a cast whose list of combined Broadway and West End credits is way longer than I am in the tooth, this year’s production tops them all.

Its readily translatable story of teenage rebellion aside, Hairspray may not be the easiest piece of Americana to transplant to Wales.  Never mind references to Allen Funt, Jackie Gleason, and the Gabors, names not likely to ring for today’s young, British audiences the bells I and Tracy Turnblad can hear.  The Director’s Note in the program about Rosa Parks, whose image flashes on a big screen during one of the numbers, fills in some of the blanks.  This, after all, is American history, no matter how much John Waters it down.

Then again, it may not be the easiest thing, either, to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a musical riot without becoming as crude or politically incorrect as John Waters used to be.  But, whatever your own sense of otherness and experience of xenophobia might be—and “I Know Where I’ve Been”—Hairspray gives you enough of a whiff of those ill winds to make you investigate whence they blow.  “Run and Tell That”: if any production can communicate a shakeup without making anger the primary colour of the emotional rainbow, Unholy Waters! this can can.

You might expect—and forgive, too—any glitches or leftover curlers on opening night; but there were none here: upon pulling the lid, this Hairspraywas as solid as a freshly lacquered beehive.  Andrew Agnew is marvelous as Edna Turnblad, a part I identified so much with the fabulous Divine that I couldn’t face watching John Travolta in a latex mask.  Agnew makes you forget both—and he plays Edna in such an understated way that her big number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” makes you understand what, to someone of my certain age, is the warm heart of this show.  It’s a heart whose Beat you’d can’t stop without making Hairspray lose its maximum hold.

Edna might have missed every boat except the one she pours the gravy from; but she is not too old to kiss—and kick—the past goodbye and say “Welcome to the 60’s.”  This transition requires more than a new do or a swift costume change; and Agnew achieves it by centering Edna in the 1950s, a woman who loves Lucy though she might not like Ike—and who not only loves Tracy from the remove of a generational gap but gets her, too.

Tracy, of course, is her daughter—the embodiment of that new age—and Jenny O’Leary inhabits the role with the confidence and youthful energy for which it calls.  Tracy may not quite grasp just how seismic the event is in which she plays her part, an event—this much she knows—far bigger than “Negro Night” on the Corny Collins Show; but she approaches integration with the I-don’t-get-it naivety that has many of today’s youngsters baffled at their parent’s definition of marriage as a strictly segregated affair.

Hairspray leaves no doubt as to who “The Nicest Kids in Town” are; “nice” simply ain’t.  It is self-serving conventionality, a meanness of spirit that lingers under the neat surface like something you fight with lice shampoo.  How else to approach “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” Velma Von Tussle, a nasty piece of work done justice by Lori Haley Fox—and done in by the sheer force of Motormouth Maybelle, a woman who, like Edna, has seen better days, but whose better days were lived in times much worse.  

Marion Campbell, who plays Maybelle, comes on stage late to belt out her showstopper of a number—and her presence hits you like, say, Mahalia Jackson’s in Imitation of Life: a voice to be reckoned with, especially in a fight for equality.

Though the actress playing Tracy Turnblad receives top billing, it would be wrong to call the rest of the cast “supporting.”  Hairspray demands a great many good voices as it gives most of its characters the chance and challenge to shine, and everyone in this cast is living up to that challenge: Arun Blair Mangat as Seaweed, Samantha Giffard a Penny Pingleton, Morgan Crowley as Wilbur Turnblad, Hugo Harold-Harrison as Corny Collins . . .

The list is longer than that—but I’d be bald by the time I were done honor roll calling.  Besides, if I’m counting anything it’s the days until my next trip to the salon for another hit of Hairspray. Yes, funny thing about prejudice: once confronted, it can yield such eye-opening, ear-popping surprises.

So, toodle-oo to stiff upper lip! Stiff up yer quiff instead.

Don’t Dress for Dinner: Six Characters in Search of a Round Table

The prosaically named American Airlines Theatre on Broadway has about as much intimacy and sex appeal as a departure lounge.  The long entrance hallway, which barely opens up to a space resembling the lobby of a two-star hotel, makes you feel that, once your ticket has been scanned, you are a mere hour’s worth of taxiing away from takeoff.  That said, it wasn’t the venue that made the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Don’t Dress for Dinner such a terminal bore.

Farces are all about frustrated desires, about wanting to take it off and waiting to get it on, about fooling around the longest way round and never quite getting around to it.  In this case, though, the exasperation I sensed was all mine.  As the characters got together for their scheduled assignations, the actors seemed to be heading off in different directions.  Watching them move around on the stage was about as scintillating as staring at other folk’s suitcases circling the baggage carousel, which aroused in me nothing but the suspicion that this was going to be a wearisome cat-and-spouse game indeed.

Not since Tony Randall’s 1991 production of The Crucible had I witnessed such a spilled ragbag of irreconcilable acting styles.  Their task being merrily to prolong the unwanted dinner party at the expense of hoped-for dessert spooning—and to make all this falling apart come together for us—the assembled cast members were in desperate need of a round table, not a dinner table, and a director, not a waiter, giving orders rather than taking them.

To be sure, Marc Camoletti play is no Noises Off; and the fact that I had seen Michael Frayn’s farce-to-end-all-farce only a few weeks earlier made Don’t Dress seem like a morning after.  Camoletti, best known for Boeing-Boeing was ill served by a translator whose lines are so threadbare (yes, cooker does rhyme with hooker) as to deserve nothing more than booing, booing.

The male leads, Ben Daniels as Robert and Adam James as Bernard came dressed for office, not play. A third male—make that macho—role was so indifferently cast that the ending, in which alone the character featured, fell as flat as postage stamp on a card reading “Wish I were anywhere but here.”

The ladies were livelier by far; but whereas classy Patricia Kalember as Jacqueline seemed to have expected a Noel Coward soiree, brassy Jennifer Tilly as Suzanne was fitted out for a Vegas dinner theater . . . or a romp with Chucky.  Meanwhile, the energetic Spencer Kayden as Suzette—who reminded me of Elizabeth Berridge and her role as the maid in the glorious if short-lived ‘90s sitcom satire The Powers That Be—brought to the proceedings a verve and a timing well suited to the inspired slapstick that Don’t Dress so desperately lacked.  Alas, you can’t have good comic timing all by yourself.

What you can have by yourself is the last laugh, scoffing at what elicited nary a chuckle in the first place.

The Lion in Winter Wonderland; or, What’s That Fir?

Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, my better half and I make the seemingly interminable journey from Wales to London for some seasonal splurging on art and theater. Now, I don’t travel all the way east to the West End to waste my time on pap like Dirty Dancing. This isn’t snobbery, mind; I simply can’t thrill to a feast of re-processed cheese and the prospect of paying for it through a nose bigger than Jennifer Grey’s old one. Besides, why raid the bottom shelves of our pop cultural cupboard when I’ve got a heaping plateful of squandered opportunities to chew over? During the days of my graduate studies in English and American literature, I had little money to spare for Broadway theatricals, which is why I now tend to seek out revivals of plays I missed the first, second, or umpteenth time around—drama with some history to it, be that pedigree or baggage. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter has a bit of both.

As an added attraction, the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production also has the ever Ab-fabulous Joanna Lumley, whom I first saw on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Bête. Lumley plays caged lioness Queen Eleanor opposite Robert Lindsay’s Henry II, the husband who keeps her under lock and key.  Witty and fierce, The Lion is a domestic drama fit for the tryingly festive season. All the same, the darn cat is in a confounded state of seasonal disorder.

What those stepping into the auditorium from the audio-visual onslaught that is Christmas time in the city cannot but gasp at is that even Henry’s halls are decked: his French chateau, anno 1183, features a regal Tannenbaum, no less. It certainly had my eyebrows raised to the alert level of WTF: you might expect a Green Knight, surely, but a bebaubled evergreen?

The proud Lion is prepared to pounce, though, ready to defend itself against “turbulent” critics crying bloody murder in the cathedral of culture. Goldman acknowledged that his “play contains anachronisms” such as the “way . . . Christmas is celebrated.” As he states in the notes duly reprinted in the playbill, the ahistorical trimmings are “deliberate”; “though it deals carefully with history,” The Lion “remains a piece of fiction.”

Towering over the assembled branches of Henry’s living family tree, the familiar, dead one serves as a reminder of the storyteller’s presence.  The needling transplant from our present day tells not only of the author’s intervening re-inventiveness but also of his obligation to make that past relevant: the dramatist does not simply stage history; he fashions it. To withhold evidence of this intervention would mean to falsify, to deny the hand and mind involved in the process of transcribing.

Goldman was nonetheless concerned that this never-evergreen might overshadow his research and cast doubt on his responsible interpretation of verifiable historical events. “This play,” he pointed out to his audience, “is accurately based on the available data.”

The elephant of a dislocated trunk aside, The Lion is refreshingly unself-conscious; it is a deluxe soap free from the by now irritating additives of postmodernist reflexivity. For all its modern day translations—of which only its pre-gay lib treatment of the 19th century construct of homosexuality struck me as dated—it affords a close look at historical figures that rarely seem human to us in the accounts of battles and political maneuverings.

If Goldman reduces the sweep of history to an intimate first-family portrait, he chose a subject that warrants such an approach; as historian John Gillingham argued, what “really mattered” to Henry II “was family politics,” in the belief of the failure of which he died. Far from being a Peyton Placeholder, Goldman’s “Christmas Court that never was” has been assembled to bring historical intrigue home.