Reviewed: Sunken Garden and The Turn of the Screw

Never mind the gimmicks.

Sunken Garden; The Turn of the Screw
ENO, Barbican; LSO, Barbican

Nostalgia and novelty have collided this month in classical music. It seems strangely apt that the week in which the “first 3D opera” premiered at English National Opera should be the one in which we lost Sir Colin Davis, one of the great conductors of the 20th century. The white-tie-and-tails world of opera 60 years ago has morphed into the hipster variant, being set up in pubs, clubs and warehouses. Opera has come a long way but has it all been progress?

“3D opera” is a PR gimmick. All opera is three-dimensional, that’s the beauty of a genre that lives in the live moment, the shared breath between stage and audience. It’s an odd paradox of technological innovation that the more we chase immediacy, the further we flatten the world into the digital confines of simulation and counterfeit.

Sunken Garden, a collaboration between the novelist David Mitchell and the Dutch composer Michael van der Aa, wisely acknowledges this. A technological thriller, the story encodes its own limitations, teaching us to treat any digital Eden with suspicion, to doubt human truths that come edited and soundtracked in an artistic video package.

Yet somewhere in the creative process these two seem to have been seduced by their own illusions; Sunken Garden offers us magical visions, visual trickery and plenty to keep our hyperlinked minds occupied but what it jettisons is emotional truth. Not even the excellent performances of Roderick Williams (as the video artist Toby) and Katherine Manley (Zenna, his patroness) can find authenticity in the mirage. Van der Aa’s score delights in simulated electro beats and aural moodmanipulation. The result is a beautiful curiosity, an empty experiment, rather than the vital new blossoming opera needs to survive.

It was a telling contrast to return to the Barbican a few nights later for a concert performance of Britten’s The Turn of The Screw. Originally due to be conducted by Davis, it became a tribute to him by the London Symphony Orchestra. With its chamber forces and shorter length, fully-staged performances of Britten’s opera are hardly thin on the ground. So why perform it in concert?

The answer is one that Van der Aa could do well to ponder. This was a ghost story told in broad daylight. No shadows or ghosts could maintain their mystery on the platform of the Barbican Hall, yet such is the vivid potency of Britten’s score and the skill of its performers here, that there can have been few not stirred by the menace of the tale.

Composed as a world unto itself, barely resting its fingertips on the guiding thread of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, the score takes the pastoral musical idylls of Vaughan Williams and Bax and curdles them. The chamber ensemble is dominated by its wind, and the soloists of the LSO took up their characters as gamely as the singers. Christopher Cowie’s oboe took us from innocent folk-purity to the feral urgency of Pan, while Rachel Gough’s bassoon subverted the euphemistic beauty of Adam Walker’s flute. Directed by Richard Farnes, the orchestra may have had unusual prominence (no pit to aid illusion here) but such was their clarity of musical intent that it only aided the soloists in spinning the story.

Andrew Kennedy is a tenor made to sing Peter Quint. The ghastly, ghostly purity of his opening narration, telescoping several chapters of James’s original into a few minutes, cements the tragedy before we even begin, and once captured, Kennedy held his audience all the way through to his horrible climax. Sally Matthews’s governess was no less insidious, building from a tense start to fully abandoned psychosis. Supported by Catherine Wyn-Rogers (as an unusually lovely-voiced Mrs Grose) and Katherine Broderick (Miss Jessel) this became a strikingly female take on the tale, pitting serious vocal forces against the hollow core of Quint.

Opera desperately needs creative thinking and risk-taking if it is to survive in an ever more clamorous artistic marketplace. But with quick-thrill computer games and 3-D cinema steps ahead technologically, surely opera’s unique selling point is precisely its analogue reality. That which film, television and animation are striving to achieve already belongs to opera. We should be celebrating humanity, emotional directness, physical presence, not blindly tagging along behind these other disciplines and banishing our singers to pre-recorded alternative realities.

Above all, we mustn’t forget the music. In all this talk of “film opera” and “3D opera” van der Aa’s score has become overlooked. What both Britten and Davis understood is that if you get the music right everything else falls into place. All the budget and technology in the world will never better a thrilling live performance of a good score. I’d pick the withered lawns of Bly over van der Aa’s lush Sunken Garden any day.

The ENO's "Sunken Garden". Photograph: ENO/Joost Rietdijk

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.