Pathos: Tom Morris’s 2012 production for ENO. Photo: Rex Features
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Those most offended by John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer haven’t seen it

It's a case of knee jerk by proxy, says Nicholas Lezard.

Here we go again: another controversy about The Death of Klinghoffer. This opera, about the murder of a wheelchair-bound passenger on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, has been giving nervous observers conniptions since its composition in 1991 – largely because it gives the Palestinian terrorists who killed Klinghoffer singing roles, and dares to suggest a parallel between the postwar fate of exiled Jews and the postwar fate of Palestinians uprooted by the creation of Israel in 1948. All this is a pity, because in many people’s opinion, including mine, it is the greatest opera of the second half of the 20th century. Its only competition, many also say, is Nixon in China, written by the same team of John Adams (score) and Alice Goodman (libretto).

The interesting, if depressing thing, is that the people who would wish to prevent audiences from seeing Klinghoffer, or companies from performing it, have not only not seen it: they have made a point of not seeing it. Or hearing it. The latest brouhaha has involved the Anti-Defamation League and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met will be staging the work later this year but will not, as it does with other major productions, be simulcasting it in cinemas around the world. Here is what Abraham H Foxman, national director of the ADL in the United States, has to say on the matter: “While I haven’t personally seen the opera, numerous experts on anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict on the ADL staff have, and our objections are based on their analyses and a full reading of the libretto.”

You could say that a self-appointed censor who has not seen the work he wishes to suppress is not doing his job fully; but perhaps he doesn’t have to, for this is how the mind of the self-appointed censor works. I would also query the use of the phrase “full reading”. I think the suggestion is that they read it and gave it their full understanding. Which would suggest they had not read the bits that give eloquent voice to the victims of the terrorists’ outrages – specifically, Klinghoffer and his wife, who has the last, most moving, word.

It is in and around the complexities of individuals caught up in history that Goodman’s two libretti have worked so far (she’d have continued in this vein with her and Adams’s treatment of J Robert Oppen­heimer in Doctor Atomic, but withdrew from that project after a year). It is perhaps unwise of Foxman to use so many weasel words in such a short paragraph when Goodman’s works are masterpieces of poetic concision. I would also query his use of “personally” in this context, which is a very loud leper bell announcing deep stupidity. Could he be said, then, to have seen it impersonally?

People who denounce a work of art without having seen it cannot, under any circumstances, be said to have made up their own mind. More worrying is the role of the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, who is, never mind cutting the potential worldwide audience for Klinghoffer by at least three million (roughly a thousand times its seating capacity), also presiding over an institution on the verge of crisis, trying to cut the pay of his unionised (and non-subsidised) performers while working out how to stop his audiences from dying of old age.

The irony is that it is precisely works such as Klinghoffer which show that opera is an art form capable of wrestling with the modern world; which bring young people to opera even at the risk of offending sensibilities (Melanie Phillips’s, for one; she calls the work an “obscenity”; when I asked her if she’d seen it she told me she’d “read the entire libretto”, which is not exactly the same thing. I love that use of the word “entire”; it comes close to “personally”. And reading the libretto takes up so much less of one’s evening, don’t you find?

The objections to Klinghoffer are bipartite. 1. It traduces the memory of its titular character and his wife. This is the objection raised, loudly and often, by their daughters, and deserves consideration, but no one who has seen the opera will say that the Klinghoffers are treated with anything other than sympathy, respect, dignity and tenderness. 2. It is anti-Semitic, an objection so fatuous that even Gelb – who, Alice Goodman says, “has handled this with incredible stupidity” – doesn’t use it. But the ADL does like a fight, as does the conservative pro-Israel press, and even Goodman’s “apostasy” (born Jewish in Minnesota, she is now an Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire) has been cited against her.

The last staging of Klinghoffer took place at the London Coliseum in 2012. I saw that production. The theatre had feared demonstrations but went ahead anyway. In the end, a lone Hasid stood quietly outside, his poster couched in the bathos-ridden form of the solitary protester. No one in the audience felt moved to anti-Semitism, or rushed to join Hamas, or cursed Israel. Instead, many of them were moved to tears.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.