An Iphigenia for the Jerry Springer age

Pina Bausch's interpretation of Euripedes.

The programme to the late Pina Bausch's dance-opera Iphigenie auf Tauris says of her pieces that they "consistently relate to things every member of the audience knows or has experienced physically". Well, I'm not so sure how many of us have experienced Iphigenia's particular domestic problems since she comes from the sort of dysfunctional and frankly murderous family that would make even our own Jerry Springer blanch.

Offered up for sacrifice by her father Agamemnon, she is rescued by the gods and whisked to a safe house in Crimea under the dubious stewardship of a dodgy Ukrainian. Meanwhile, back at Agamemnon Central, her mother (Clytemnestra) slaughters her father, only to be bumped off, in turn, by her brother Orestes. And now, to cap it all, the dodgy Ukrainian is strongly insistent that Iphigenia kill her own matricidal brother.

Hardly the stuff of everyday life, but I think I know what the commentator means. Bausch has a knack for keeping things brutally simple, and she uses choreography like a scalpel to flay off any excess. Her dancers have a pliancy, but it's the pliancy of steel, as they carve out the emotional heart of the matter: expressions of friendship, of love, and sorrow. This we relate to.

And yet, in some ways, this production is an immodest embarrassment of riches. The Greek myth, as interpreted by Euripedes, is the inspirational lode for Christoph Gluck's heady 1781 opera, which is staged here at Sadler's Wells complete with full orchestra in the pit and a full complement of soloists and choir, who are positioned out of sight in the boxes. The dancing on stage is but the final layer on this most moreish of cakes.

The dancers themselves are preternaturally silent, and there is a clear dissociation between voice and movement. This is a curious state of affairs: many in the audience were craning to see the singers, and struggling with the synopsis to work out who was who. But when the singers' molten notes pour from on high it's like the gods themselves have given the characters voice, which is a neat touch when we're dealing with the top-down control of the Greek pantheon. (And even those with limited German could get the emotional voltage spike when the siblings recognise each other: "Mein bruder!" "Meine schwester!") At the same time Bausch has a knack of suggesting a very human nervous energy behind the dancers' repetitive rituals; they appear to be locked into behaviour patterns by their anxieties and desires. Iphigenia and her tribe, as in all good Euripidean drama, have an inner life.

Initially the cool neutrals and minimalism of Bausch's pared-down aesthetic seem just a little too much like a 1990s Calvin Klein campaign: the Greek boys -- Orestes and his lover Pylades -- are stripped to their teeny white boxer shorts, while Iphigenia and her priestesses are all kitted out in tasteful slips. Gradually, however, the monochrome design reveals subtle intimations of colour and variation to suggest culture and statehood: a little Hellenic cut here, a swirl of Russian capes there.

As for the boys in briefs, the exposure of their bodies in this way makes them acutely vulnerable, for all their powerful musculature, and there's a feel of tenderness and softness in the scenes between the two men. From the moment the pair first appear, it is clear their fates are as entwined as their limbs: at one point their bodies are slung on a slab, and it is not clear where one starts and the other finishes; at times their co-ordinated attitudes and steps are like images from a Parthenon frieze, as they dance their way to immortality.

The stark beauty of Bausch's subdued palette is at its most powerful in the final act, when a huge white screen is lit up as the background for the impending sacrifice. This is also the moment when the music, the singing and the dancing stop, as a votary walks with excruciating slowness across the stage and places her white flowers on the altar.

In this story Orestes' death is averted, but the inspirational Pina Bausch herself died last year, and there is an elegiac quality to this show, as performed by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. The dance plays out like extended Greco-Roman funeral games, somehow. And it is indeed testament to her work that this piece, originally devised in 1974, if a little decorous, still feels fresh and modern.

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear