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When we were young

For all its sassiness, Lena Dunham's new show "Girls" seems to speak to an older audience.

Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls (Mondays, 10pm) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Do I mean this in a good way or a bad? I don’t know. To be Dunham-ish about it (she is all about ebb and flow), I’m having a bad time today and the thought of it is making me pretty mad. Why do young women – any women! – always have to be portrayed as so bloody ditzy? But two days ago, when I was feeling more benign, I loved it. It took me right back to the dread days when I used to ricochet around London, a silver ball in a bagatelle board. I’m one of those people – like the nurse at the women’s health clinic in episode two –who would not be 23 again if you paid me. I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be, and I had so little clue about who I wanted to sleep with that I, well . . . I should perhaps draw a veil here.

Lena Dunham writes Girls and she stars in it, and sometimes she directs it, too – which would be enough to make you sick if she wasn’t so talented. She’s a good actor, warm(ish) and natural, and her writing has the ring of truth about it, a fact I find moderately surprising given how precociously successful she is; after all, the stuff she dishes up for the delectation of horrified subscribers to HBO (Sky Atlantic in the UK) has mostly to do with failure. The failure to get one’s parents to subsidise one’s kooky Brooklyn life. The failure to get a job worthy of a graduate. The failure to sleep with a male of the species who is anything less than physically repulsive. Her character Hannah’s current boyfriend, Adam, is straight out of The Name of the Rose. She likes him well enough but her affection is shot through with low-level gratitude and a weird passivity most women will recognise. When they have sex – his foreplay begins and ends with the words: “lie there”, and he is prone to shouting “dirty whore” at her during the act itself – the expression on her face is one of mild interest, almost as if she were watching herself from across the room. He’s more of an experiment than a boyfriend. But you sense that he has the capacity to hurt her nonetheless. This feeling I really remember. Oh, the men who made me cry when I didn’t even like them!

Girls wears its pop-culture references on its sleeve, in the manner of hard-won Girl Guide badges. Think Manhattan, think Clueless, think Sex and the City. Especially Sex and the City. But where Candace Bushnell gave us archetypes – the brunette square, the blonde sex maniac, the red-headed workaholic – Dunham gives us something more blurry. It’s brilliantly knowing the way she plays wannabe writer Hannah sitting, Carrie-style, on her bed, her laptop open, only for her to type the words “diseases you can get from the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms” into Google. She and her friends Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Marnie (Allison Williams) even look alike, all four of them being brunettes.

Their sisterliness is kindly, but it’s also flexible and therefore realistic. When one of them requires an abortion – wow, an American TV show that allows having an abortion to be about as traumatic as going to the dentist – they pitch up to the clinic together. On the other hand, they think nothing of being late for one another should circumstances (ie male attention) intervene.

They’re not especially likeable, these girls. They’re entitled. They’re not hard up the way most people are hard up. Hannah is the spoiled only child of college professors and her face when they told her they would no longer fund her perma-intern lifestyle was ghastly to behold (another actor would have looked horrified straight away, but Dunham smiled first, as if at a private joke). However, in the right mood, this suits me fine. I don’t hold with the drippy school of thought that insists fictional characters must be likeable. And besides, which of us didn’t behave badly, or at least stupidly, when we were young? That’s the really weird thing about Girls. For all its sassiness, for all that it was written by a 26-year-old, it seems to speak mostly to an older audience – to those of us watching it from a position of safety, an extra decade having reduced our foolishness to grim memory.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis