Monday, 18 March 2013

A week of living culturally

Despite the impression you may get that I rarely leave the keyboard, perhaps breaking off from blogging only to scratch my gentleman's areas and moan at students in the flesh rather than passive-aggressively through the medium of blogging, I do occasionally look up from my cultural gutter to the stars.

Last week was like High Culture Boot Camp: Rutherford and Sons at the New Victoria Theatre, then Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at Symphony Hall on Saturday, and propitiating the ancestors by marking Lá Fhéile Pádraig on Sunday, sandwiching a birthday dinner with Days of Enlightenment. I didn't wear my meggings or Velcro shoes once in several days. My dears, the enlightenment!

Rutherford and Son is the latest Northern Broadsides play to be toured round the country. Written by Githa Sowerby in 1912 and updated by Blake Morrison. Having attended plays in the Midlands and North for a couple of decades now (filling in time between NASCAR seasons), I'm quite familiar with the sub-genre of Bitter Northern Industrialists' Broken Family Melodramas, and Rutherford and Sons is a very superior instance indeed (later American analogues would be Death of a Salesman or O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night). Mother's dead, the sons are useless, the daughter's repressed and pater Familias has subjugated his morality and his family's emotional well-being to the service of the family firm. So the main themes are the division between outward respectability and emotional decay, with a side-order of proto-feminism and critique of the deforming effects of capitalism on all concerned. Leavened, I should say, with some very funny one-liners though the lingering effect is that it is indeed Grim Up North.

The performance was superb: set in just the Rutherford family's parlour, the actors compressed a world of conflicting emotions into tone of voice and short sentences, clothes and body language bearing the weight of meaning as much as the dialogue. The villain of the piece is the father, who has destroyed all trace of empathy and understanding in himself as he seeks to extirpate it in his family and work. Only Mary, the cockney wife his son has shamefully hitched himself to is capable of resistance: at the cost of everything good about her.

Rutherford and Son is touring now: catch it while you can.

The other High Culture event was The Flying Dutchman, performed rather than staged by the CBSO and Chorus with top-notch guest singers. I should say that I'm not in general a Wagner fan: the mid-to-late nineteenth century is my classical music blind spot, I'm not keen on the coloratura warbling of the Grand Classical style, and Wagner's reputation as a reactionary has rather put me off too.

However, I enjoyed this performance immensely. Largely because it's astonishing what the singers can make the human body do. The text is largely misogynistic nonsense: a man is condemned to wander the seas for eternity until he can find just one woman who'll be faithful to him. There's some good ghostly horror stuff to balance that though. The only thing that slightly undercut the drama for me was the use of English surtitles. Even if your German is quite good (mine is just about passable), the powerful delivery convinces one that they're singing about the eternal battle between good and evil. With the electronic surtitles giving the English translation, you realise that the first 40 minutes features blokes singing about the weather and how they got there. Much like men at parties exchanging advice on how to avoid the A40 at rush hour and swapping stories about the rain, only with ships instead of Ford Focuses (Foci?).

Here's a clip of an American production:

Anyway, it didn't matter: the virtuoso performance of orchestra, conductor, choir and singers held me rapt. Any orchestra can do power and volume, but the CBSO is special because it's so good at dynamics: no subtlety escapes them.

Right, that's enough from me for a while. I'm teaching Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons this afternoon, getting some marking done, going over to Stratford to interview a Fencing Regional Hub Officer this evening, teaching an extra class on religion and multiculturalism tomorrow morning, then one on Farrell's Troubles and seeing dissertation students. It's going to be busy. Hopefully I'll find the time to revert to normality and slump in front of my normal diet of Jeremy Kyle, Geordie Shore and Pointless at some point too. My IQ can't cope with all this clever stuff.

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