Cut and paste baroque

Peter Brook's response to Mozart.

In this week's issue of the New Statesman, editor Jason Cowley devotes the "Notes in the margin" column to some reflections on Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute" at the Barbican. Brook, he wrote, "continues to experiment with form as he seeks to get ever closer to the essence of the dramatic art". Here, our theatre blogger GIna Allum offers her take on what she thinks will be Brook's "swansong".

So the old innovator comes once more to London. At the age of 86, after 70 or so productions and a clutch of films and books, Peter Brook is finally bowing out, and A Magic Flute is his swansong. And since we know the work as The Magic Flute, what, we might ask, is in an indefinite article?

Well, a good deal, as it happens. The title signposts the piece as a personal one; one man's response to Mozart - or, more properly, one collaborative team's response to Mozart. This is cut-and-paste baroque, pick'n'mix singspiel, with the original three hours' worth of music pared to a bare 90 minutes. Arias à la carte are spliced with dialogue in demotic French, and there are swingeing cuts to music, structure, characters and orchestra (it is performed with one piano only).

Austerity opera, maybe. Certainly the numerical underpinning, the triple symbolism of Mozart's Masonic allegory (three temples, three boys, three flute solos), is shrunk. Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, instead concentrate on the doubling that informs the story: the hero Tamino has a coarse counterpart in Papageno, who is also in want of a wife; Papageno himself gets his own clone -- the object of his uxorial quest, Papagena, is dressed as his doppelganger.

Then there is the competition for hearts and minds between the binary powers of Sarastro (male, rational, enlightened) and the Queen of the Night (female, vengeful, destructive). The magic flute itself has a bloody duplicate in the Queen's red dagger. Brook, for all his chops, chose to keep and enshrine the narrative pattern of women as surrendered wives and pale imitations: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him a woman steps out of her sphere." We are still all lodge brothers together, apparently. This is where the lack of an orchestra, with its plurality of voice and possibilities of equivocation (lyrical woodwind to counterpoint Sarastro's priestly pronouncements, for example), flattens and thins the opera.

The set design is a simple arrangement of bamboo poles: a phallic, bristling forest of giant flutes, which becomes a porcupine thicket for Tamino's rescue-quest, and is rearranged architecturally for Sarastro's temple. When the Queen of the Night knocks the pillars down in her hissy fit, the entire cast finally restores the masculine order by picking up these outsize spillikins for their, as it were, re-erection.

What we gain from this reduced, deboned and hashed opera is a certain intimacy and fluidity: actors have tiny interactions with the piano, or stop the music altogether (to get the straying Papageno out of the audience). A constrained Mozart, against a severe backdrop, still shines with startling clarity. The diminutive Malia Bendi-Merad sings the Queen of the Night's fiendishly difficult aria, "Der Hölle Rache", which demands the tessitura of a lark, with pinpoint delicacy. The sound of the cast's voices, unbuttressed by instruments, is an unexpected pleasure. Their movements, too, have been stripped of excess and honed by Marcello Magni to a debrided, graceful minimum.

Costumes bear the Brook hallmarks of the timeless and placeless -- namely, ecru and baggy -- though they are primped with vaguely oriental touches; incarnadine flashes denote the Queen's bloody doings. The lighting is stealthily beautiful. Admittedly sometimes the drive for simplicity can cause the childlike to slip into the childish: when Tamino and the rescued Pamina undergo trial by fire and water it is a slow strut up and down the stage, done with all the gravitas and self-importance of kids dressing up and making-believe.

Brook's casting is typically described as colour-blind, but perhaps colour-sensitive would be more accurate. The two black actors are the only ones who don't sing, and don't have a named role. They are by turns "gracious spirits" who further the action, and stagehands who shift the scenery. That said, William Nadylam is such a strong, attractive presence, that the action appears to revolve around him. He is the one who conjures the magic flute's appearance and disappearance, and when he stares down the cast at the end of the play, it is as if they are all creatures of his imagination.

The Magic Flute proved to be the composer's swansong, too, so it seems fitting that Brook has chosen it as his last project. Mozart haché it may be, but the dialogue between the two men is an interesting and at times delightful one. While we may not be getting essential Mozart, we are surely getting essential Brook.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism