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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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