Opera for the ADHD generation

A thrilling production of Monteverdi's Ulysses by a first-time director.

Grinning wildly, a victorious Ulysses beckons a cameraman with his gun. Together they stalk the darkened house, searching out Penelope's suitors and dispatching them in a display of blood-fireworks that wouldn't disgrace Tarantino. It's legend, but not quite as we know it.

I must admit that my heart sank when, in the charged moments of silence as the lights went down for ENO's latest co-production with the Young Vic, a camouflaged survivor of Iraq or Afghanistan trudged his dusty way across the stage. It's a transposition we've seen before in the opera house; every costume department is currently awash with bullet-proof vests and burkhas - the corsetry and crinolines of our age. Yet when gimp masks and leashes made an appearance some minutes later, Benedict Andrews' new production began to reveal itself as something different.

The latest in a succession of first-time opera directors at ENO - Rufus Norris and Mike Figgis have recently taken their turn, with Terry Gilliam currently waiting in the wings - Andrews is also perhaps the most successful. Shaped by his time at Berlin's progressive Schaubuhne, his style is a coherent blend of psychological realism and stylised stagecraft. Symbols and doppelgangers jostle up against fried chicken and chrome interiors, a surprisingly natural fit for Homer's tale of petulant gods and godlike men.

Set up as a straightforward proscenium, the Young Vic's flexible theatre-space at first seemed under-exploited. When a cloth was pulled away to reveal Borkur Jonsson's glass-encased contemporary apartment, revolving gently to expose every marble-topped, monochrome inch to the audience's gaze, it became clear however that intimacy rather than immersion was to be the goal.

Two video screens flank the stage, intruding into any background action that might escape unnoticed and placing Penelope in a hellish Big Brother house: the sole contestant in a game of someone else's devising. It's all rather hectic - opera for the ADHD generation - but while Act I is sacrificed as setup, the emotional payoff in Act II is so astonishing as to obliterate memories of the process that brought us there.

Directed from the keyboard by Jonathan Cohen, Members of ENO's orchestra did their best impression of a period band (with a little help from some friends with theorbos and recorders) providing their most musically sensitive and tightly-focused performance thus far this season. If we didn't get quite the character I had hoped from passages of Monteverdi's orchestration then perhaps the challenging acoustic of the Young Vic was to blame. It certainly exposed the singers, giving Monteverdi's recitatives an unusual directness, more drama than music.

It was a space that worked well for Pamela Helen Stephen's Penelope, whose voice might be thin on colour but whose acting is beyond reproach. Shell-shocked as any battle survivor she moved stiffly around in her glass house, submitting with little resistance to the gropings and pawings of her trio of city-slick suitors. Tom Randle's Ulysses was on smoothest, soft-grained form. While baroque trills are purely ornamental, Monteverdi trills at their best can be descriptive. Randle proved himself the most heartbreaking master of these, weaving their panting gasps intelligently into his narrative; a duet with faithful retainer Eumete (Nigel Robson), all line and intensity, proved only the warm-up for the almost unwatchable tenderness of the final reunion scene.

It was an evening of fine tenors, with Samuel Boden distinguishing himself among the lovers and Thomas Hobbs all poised lyricism as Telemaco, Ulysses son. Katherine Manley was a delight as pert maid Melanto (whose breathless "For the skill of your silver tongue" was as neat as it was naughty) and Diana Montague brought all her experience to Ericlea, but I wasn't convinced by Ruby Hughes' Minerva. Pushed at the top and tending to blurt, a more controlled delivery might have given this schemer a power that brute force could not.

“Prima le parole, e poi la musica" ("First the words and then the music") was the creed by which Monteverdi composed. It's a philosophy that has been a gift to generations of directors, an invitation to (and justification for) subordinating any musical demands to the greater cause of drama. Andrews's production is all about the drama, the echoing story artists have so obsessively retold and reworked. Yet in neglecting the music, he has somehow made absolute sense of it. This is no production for opera purists, brutally cut and some of it barely sung, but it's as close as Monteverdi gets to Gesamkunstwerk , and all the inauthentic better for it.

The Return of Ulysses
Young Vic, London SE1

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.