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.

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood