Fear eats the soul: cast members of The Crucible at the Old Vic. Photo: Alastair Muir/Rex
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Mark Lawson: What would Arthur Miller have made of Operation Yewtree?

Two of the standout London productions of this year are the scorching version of The Crucible at the Old Vic and the Young Vic’s brilliant rethinking of A View from the Bridge.

Dramatists can rapidly go out of fashion, as Arthur Miller painfully learned when he was largely spurned by Broadway during the last three decades of his career. But, ahead of next October’s birth centenary, a traditional point for re-evaluation, Miller’s reputation stands staggeringly high.

Two of the standout London theatre productions of this year are the scorching version of The Crucible that opened on 21 June at the Old Vic and the Young Vic’s brilliant rethinking of A View from the Bridge, which closed earlier that month. The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park also recently staged a sharp All My Sons.

Great writing is often acclaimed as timeless but the greatness of Miller’s plays resides in being constantly topical. Drawing on the example of his Norwegian literary hero Henrik Ibsen, the American dramatist set out to write moral parables for his times. The Crucible used the witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts as a metaphor for the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, while the protagonist of All My Sons is an industrialist who has knowingly shipped shoddy aircraft parts to the Second World War front. In A View from the Bridge, a Brooklyn longshoreman, from motives of racial and possibly sexual insecurity, shops illegal immigrants to the authorities. Each involving some form of tragic betrayal, the plays end in a variety of violent deaths: execution, murder, suicide.

Although historically located, their central situations – an atmosphere of hysterical accusation, the consequences of corporate malpractice and the suspicion of new arrivals in society – remain current in most countries. Nor has the governing worry of Death of a Salesman – capitalism’s indifference to human cost – become archaic.

So The Crucible, whenever and wherever it is produced, warns against the risks of groupthink and injudicious pursuit. When, at the Old Vic, John Proctor, whose wife has been charged with witchcraft, asks, “Is the accuser always holy now?” the words have obvious and painful relevance to the media, the Crown Prosecution Service and businesses in a culture where a pointed finger can become a weapon against which facts or innocence are considered irrelevant.

If he were around for the Old Vic staging, Miller would perhaps note that, while the jailing of three celebrity paedophiles (Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris) represents a necessary correction of earlier inaction in this area, a succession of others have suffered damage to their health, reputation and finances over public accusations of sexual offences that either never reached court (Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Freddie Starr) or were rejected by a jury (William Roache, Michael Le Vell, Nigel Evans).

In this context, it’s intriguing to consider the question of whether John Proctor is a sex offender. The Salem farmer, Miller specifies, is in his mid-thirties, while Abigail, the ex-mistress who calls Goodwife Proctor a witch, is 17, although the playwright admits in an afterword to having raised her age above that of the historical model. So, with typical moral perspicacity, Miller has understood that sexual error is often an aspect of a flawed personality – although there may be some in the audience who take the view that Proctor deserves to hang for seducing a teenager, regardless of whether he danced with the devil.

The recent revivals have shown that Miller’s texts can take – and gain from – innovative presentation. The Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was sensibly permitted by the estate to ignore the stage directions and set the action in modern dress on a bare stage that climactically rained blood, reconnecting the play with its origins in Greek tragedy.

And, in her version of The Crucible, the South African director Yaël Farber locates the play in a place of mud, shadows and darkness that has more in common with settings of Macbeth than the designs Miller described in 1953. But the fear in Salem that “private vengeance is working through this testimony” echoes down the centuries and decades. Farber makes the play both timeless and topical. 

In a Straits line

Captions are a tricky calculation for art curators: thumping footnotes can irritate the knowing but novices may be thrown by the gnomic. The comments beside works by Ryan Gander in “The Human Factor”, a survey of figurative sculpture at the Hayward Gallery in London, adopt a curious attitude. We are told that his bronze bodies involve a “quotation” from Degas’s dancers but not that two of his titles – which include the words “Come up on different streets . . . ” and “When we made love you used to cry . . .” – draw from the Dire Straits song “Romeo and Juliet”.

The possibilities seem to be that the Hayward anticipates a clientele that needs nudging on Degas but has no trouble with a Mark Knopfler lyric; or that the curators are too highbrow to have picked up Gander’s pop culture nods. If the latter, it seems appropriate that Gander called one of his books In A Language You Don’t Know and even more fitting that he adapted that phrase from a pop lyric (by Low), as well.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser