Monday, 25 August 2008

An Ideal No Man's Land

Two wonderful productions are on show in Dublin at the moment and I've been to both recently. An Ideal Husband is at the Abbey Theatre, running until 27 September 2008, and is directed by Neil Bartlett. Wilde's Husband dates from 1895, though it was written in 1893. It was during its performance in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, that Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and his association with the play was suppressed. It is very hard not to watch the play with this somehow in the background, and when Sir Robert Chiltern says to his wife that no man should be entirely jugdged by his past, it resonates. The play's poster has a simple picture of Wilde with a red strip just covering his eyes: "We all all have to pay for what we do". Bartlett has done a marvellous job, and he has rendered the play richly and subtly. He has also drawn some wonderful performances, in particular Derble Crotty's chilling Mrs Cheveley and Mark O'Halloran's Lord Goring, frivolous one moment, poignant, searing, honest, the next. The rest of the cast are quite marvellous, and the way that the scenes change with the domestic staff changing props is very enjoyable. There are startling moments too. While the play's stage directions call for Mrs Cheveley to curse ("A curse breaks from her") as she tries to take the bracelet off, Crotty's Cheveley shouts out "Fuck!". It works, kind of. Mrs Cheveley is no lady but passes judgment on the ladies of London and the difficulty of "the season". The contrast could not be sharper. This is a complex and troubling play and the Abbey production brings out its very great strengths.

The Gate production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975), was first staged in 1997 as part of the Pinter season. This production (running for just four weeks), directed by Rupert Goold, boasts an all-star cast, David Bradley, Nick Dunning, Michael Gambon and David Walliams. This "tragi-comedy", as it is often described, is full of mystery and menace and the laughter is of the nervous kind rather than the hilarious. There is such an enclosed and suffocating sense in this play, and Nick Dunning's Briggs is a gem of barely restrained menace and anger. I'm not sure that Walliam's Foster is quite right, though I think I see what he was doing. He is certainly, however, ingratiating and his time onstage is very uncomfortable. David Bradley and Michael Gambon as Spooner and Hirst are compelling presences onstage, both so suave, both failures, one with nothing to lose, the other, with everything to lose. And each in some place they both see as a no man's land.

Both productions are very much worth going to see. So go!

Egan's Gold

By Al Bello/Getty Images(L-R) Kenny Egan of Ireland kisses the gold medal of Zhang Xiaoping of China following the Men's Light Heavy (81kg) Final Bout held at the Workers' Indoor Arena during Day 16 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 24, 2008 in Beijing, China.

This wonderfully composed photograph is on the front page of the Irish Times today. It shows Ireland's boxer Kenny Egan kissing the gold medal of China's Zhang Xiaoping, the light-heavyweight champion, who won 11-7 in yesterday morning's final. I find this image very beautiful. There is such tenderness in the gesture, such respect. Not just for the Chinese boxer, and it is clearly a compliment to him, but to the medal itself, to the place of the gold medalist. There is such beauty in the way these two boxers, men who fight for a living, at the moment of highest emotion and greatest pride, express themselves with such poise and dignity, with a kiss. And Zhang Xiaoping's face is entirely reciprocal. I see no triumphalism in his expression. It is an expression of understanding, of having been there, and there is grace in it. There is something very moving, too, about the way that Egan's own silver medal is just peeping out from under his elbow, just an arm's length away. There were lots of memorable moments in these Games, but this is the one I'm most moved by, and, in a peculiar way, that for which I am most proud of Egan.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan (2008)

Approaching this film was a matter of some trepidation for me considering the huge amount of of hype. How was one to appreciate the film and not be distracted? Some feel it is merited, others, not. That is a banal thing to say, but then a lot of what has been written has been to feed the beast, rather than to ruminate on the film. The death of Legder creates a pall; it was sudden and avoidable and very sad. His performance is quite simply extraordinary. He plays the Joker, and the picture of this insane and psychotic killer is drawn with disturbing lines. He goes places for this performance that I am sure are not happy.

Gotham City has a new Distict Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Echkart) and he's been very successful in putting away criminals. The biggest challenge is going to be the capture of the Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious crazy killer who sets himself up (eventually) as an ally of the city's mob to kill Batman. Batman's job is to capture the Joker before he kills more innocent people, and Harvey Dent wants to capture the large amount of money belonging to the mob. This is all done with the help of James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the city's only good cop. Bruce Wayne wants to retire and settle down with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love of his life, but she has taken up with Harvey Dent. Things take a turn for the worse when the Joker sets his sights on Harvey and Rachel, and you know things are not going to turn out well.

I think that this film is very good. Excellent, even. What most moved me most was the exquisitely powerful meditation on Justice, at once most awesome and most brittle. The rule of Law, of Batman's sacrificial position as upholder of the law while also being outside the law, are delicately treated. And Fortune, fickleness herself, is another character, so vividly seen in Harvey Dent's two-face coin. He makes his own fortune (both sides of the coin are the same), but Fortune catches up with him, or rather he himself almost becomes the figure of Fortune. The Joker, too, has two faces, one hidden underneath the make-up, hiding and making manifest. All triangulating with Batman's two faces (I like how Bruce Wayne sports a rather beautiful Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso, that is, a watch with two faces).

All the fortune stuff is foremost in my mind because at the moment I am reading the extraordinary Daniel Heller-Roazen, Fortune's Faces: The Roman de la Rose and the Poetics of Contingency (Batimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). It is exhilerating.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Tom Phillips, Dante's Inferno

In April of last year, the Bodleian Library announced that it had acquired an archive of material belonging to the artist Tom Phillips, mainly concerning his translation and set of lithographs of Dante's Inferno. Some of this material was displayed in the Three Crowns Exhibition (which I posted about here). Readers of the rather wonderful The Poet's Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) will recognize the above Phillips as their frontispiece. I have recently come into possession of the Thames & Hudson 'facsimile' of the amazing 1983 Talfourd Press livre d'artiste edition and have been immensely enjoying making my way through it. I would love to see the original (I don't even know where to look), but the facsimile is not bad at all and I think it would be very good to teach with. There is something very appropriate about Phillips's relationship with the book and his work on Dante coming together, being a kind of Limbourg Brothers working on what must be like a Book of Hours for many of us.

The book figures prominently in the Comedìa. The word 'libro' interestingly only appears twice, first in the great Inf V 137, 'Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse'; and again in Par XXIII 54. The word with a higher register and prestige value is volume and it is only used to refer to God's book, the Scriptures, or His created universe. It is for this reason that the single appearance of the work outside Paradiso is so interesting. In Inf I. 84 Dante, speaking to Virgil, talks about the 'lungo studio' and the 'grande amore | che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume'. Here volume refers to the Aeneid. In Paradiso, the figure of the book appears eight times in all, though of course Dante uses the imagery of the book with other words, like quaderno or squadernare. In Pd II 76-8, 'sì come comparte | lo grasso e 'l magro un corpo, così questo | nel suo volume cangerebbe carte', where the moon is compared to a book whose pages are of varying thickness. In Pd XIII 121-3, 'Ben dico, chi cercasse a foglio a foglio | nostro volume, ancor troveria carta | u' leggerebbe "I' mi sono quel ch'i' soglio"', the volume refers to the Rule of St Francis, a big word for a small rule. In Pd XV 50-51 there is the 'magno volume | du' non si muta mai bianco né bruno', where the volume refers to God himself, or divine foreknowledge. This use of the figure of the book for a divine vision is repeated at the end of the Pd, at XXXIII 85-87: 'Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna | legato con amore in un volume, | ciò che per l'universo si squaderna'. It all comes together in the end. The apocalyptic Book appears in Pd XIX 112-14, 'Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi, | come vedranno quel volume aperto | nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?', where the echo is to Rev 20: 12, Et vidi mortuos magnos et pusillos stantes in conspectu throni; et libri aperti sunt, et alius liber apertus est, qui est vitae: et iudicati sunt mortui ex his quae scripta erant in libris secundum opera ipsorum' ['And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works.']

There are occurrences of the word volume and volumi which are from the Lat. volvere, at Pd XXIII 112; XXVI 119; XXVIII 14.

For more, readers may wish to turn to: John Ahern, 'Binding the Book: Hermeneutics and Manuscript Production in Paradiso 33', Publications of the Modern Language Association, 97 (1982), 800-809; John Ahern, 'Singing the Book: Orality in the Reception of Dante's Comedy', in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Amilcare A. Iannucci, Major Italian Authors (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 214-239. Specifically on Dante see the article by Antonio Lanci, 'Volume' in Enc. dantesca 5: 1146. A simple search on the Dartmouth Dante Project will get lots of interesting material to chew over.


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