Cultural tourist

Notes from the arts world
June 18, 2005
The trials of Hecuba
Laurence Boswell (known in theatreland as "the slug") started out confidently on his RSC production of Hecuba (publicity material put his name over the star: "Laurence Boswell directs Vanessa Redgrave") but by press night in early April he found himself all but barred from the theatre. Redgrave refused to perform if he was in the building. Who could blame her for losing patience with a man capable of giving a direction like this: "A doorway isn't a door, it's an orifice; you don't walk through the door, you penetrate it." But perhaps it was Boswell's open mockery of his star that pushed Redgrave to the edge. The critics duly savaged the production and soon after press night, translator Tony Harrison took over. Already, he has worked wonders, salvaging Hecuba's last few performances, and by the time it transfers to Washington and then New York, few traces of Boswell's directorial input will remain. Why the RSC has asked Boswell to direct another production, in its winter season, is a mystery.

But, darling, wasn't it all about the war?
If it's still unclear how many voters abandoned Labour because of Iraq, just look at the confusion in the liberal ranks of theatreland. Hecuba is just one example. In Tony Harrison's translation the Greeks are called "the coalition forces," but which side do they represent? After all, if the Trojans are meant to be Iraqis, why are the references to the city's "burning towers" so explicit? This is what happens when political theatre allows its allusions to free-associate. It is even worse in another classical theatre blockbuster, Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar, which, with its starry cast and 100 extras might be brilliant—if only Warner would make up her mind about the meaning. The programme is full of images of Bush, Blair and their soldiers, and the second half of the production looks uncannily like Iraq. What has a civil war in Rome to do with the invasion of Iraq? Nothing, says Warner, officially. But it's rather confusing, given all the production's unmoored political signifiers. At a recent post-show talk, the audience was baffled when the Barbican's John Tusa asked Warner why she had chosen not to make the play political. It sounded like a question designed to lead her away from waffle. But she chose this moment to reveal that the army fatigues the cast wore had arrived from Iraq, with real blood and bullet-holes. She even announced that the Iraq war had "released the play" for her to direct. Now, there's something to be grateful for.

Kurt Vonnegut cited as evidence of too much equality in America
In Kansas, the state supreme court is hearing a case about the future of school funding which would not detain us here were it not for the fact that attorneys have cited a story by Kurt Vonnegut as evidence of the danger of making people equal. The 1961 story, "Harrison Bergeron," takes place in 2081, the year total equality is achieved. "Nobody was smarter than anybody else," the attorneys quoted Vonnegut as writing. "Nobody was better looking than anybody else." It might be as bad as that in Kansas, too, the attorneys suggested, if local districts aren't allowed to raise their own taxes for schools—a measure that would widen the disparity between rich and poor districts. Be free to tax, they argued, lest you end up in Vonnegut's nightmare America in which clever people have to wear radios that emit distracting noises, and athletic people are weighed down—all at the command of the US "Handicapper General." Vonnegut, now 82, has himself pitched in, claiming that the attorneys have misinterpreted his story. "It's about intelligence and talent," he said. "Wealth is not a demonstration of either." The author added that he wouldn't want children deprived of a good education because they were poor.

Mobile homes
There was confusion at a recent performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when the company manager asked the audience if they would switch off their mobile homes (and drive away?).