Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Rookery Nook" at the "Theatre by the Lake" in Keswick. Frantic and over-acted

“Rookery Nook” is a Ben Travers farce originally produced in 1926 and set in that time. It has been occasionally revived in the post war era but as with the other “Aldwych farces” it is perhaps too dated to be produced often in our very different times. However the “Theatre by the Lake” has included it in their 2014 summer season in a new production directed by Ian Forrest. The excellent Keswick Theatre has built a fine and deserved reputation and in recent years has often included a farce in its repertory. Farces by Joe Orton, Michael Frayn, John Chapman (“Dry Rot”) and Philip King (“See how they Run”) have been successfully produced - but this is the first farce from the inter-war years and from the Aldwych.

Farce is one of the most difficult of theatrical genres to pull off. There is, as in pantomime, an agreement with the audience that they are not meant literally to “believe” what they are seeing. But a more modern farce, like Ayckbourn's “Bedroom Farce” or Frayn’s “Noises Off” just about hold on to reality. That is not the case with “Rookery Nook” not because the raw situation is particularly farcical but because the characters and especially their attitudes are. The plot is slight:

The young Rhoda Marley is thrown out of her house in her pyjamas  by her angry step-father, a pantomimic German, for eating wurtleberries. She finds herself at the house of newlywed young man Gerald Popkiss, who is visiting his in-laws the Twines. She cannot leave without causing a scandal unless she finds a dress to wear. Gerald's unmarried cousin Clive likes the look of her, and attempts are made to get her some clothes, firstly from the Twines and then from her own house. Clothes are eventually exchanged with a local  and rather raunchy caller Poppy  a lady selling flags for the lifeboats. When Gerald's snooty wife Gertrude turns she finds the scantily-clad Poppy woman in his bedroom – you get the idea! Possibly!  It all ends happily of course.

I may have missed some of the subtleties of the plot, but I don’t think so as there really aren’t any. For the modern audience the premise, that a young woman could cause a scandal in these innocent circumstances just doesn’t work. Presumably it did in 1926 which in a way was odd as only the year before Noel Coward had presented “Fallen Angels” which although controversial with its theme of infidelity was accepted. Anyway with farce we shouldn’t get too bothered if the plot is preposterous – they always are!

The reason that this production of “Rookery Nook” failed for me was in the performances – which is really to say that the failure was in the direction. Without exception the actors over-act. There are extravagant gestures. The dim-witted Harold Twine, Gertrude’s husband, is straight out of a cartoon book in his gaucheness and his ineptitude. Gertrude herself is another comic-book character a sort of Margo Ledbetter on speed – and twice as nasty. Rhoda is silly, with a high-pitched voice and a style more suited to a nine-year-old than a (reasonably) mature young woman. The German is straight from central casting – as if a Drama School exercise had been “Play an archetypical German”. And so on.

The “agreement with the audience” I felt was broken form the start. Not because the plot lacks believability – that we expected - but because the characters did. In the theatre you usually need at least one hero (and often one villain) – one to care about and the other to boo and hiss. In this production we didn’t really care about any of the characters and I’m not sure that we believed in the villains either. It was all too silly. It’s a long play and sadly it dragged on what was a production well below the “The Theatre by the Lake’s” usual high standard. It was too frantic and too over-acted. A couple of days earlier they had excelled in “The Comedy of Errors” – also arguably a farce. Or maybe it was just that Shakespeare was a better writer than Ben Travers!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

"Jerusalem" a fascinating look into an eccentric poet's mind. But not an English Anthem!

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

The first verse relates to Christian myth that Jesus ("those feet"; "holy Lamb of God") once came to the land that is now England. Blake does not pose it as a question. There is an exclamation mark not a question mark at the end of the single sentence verse. So it's a statement - perhaps a parable in Blake's eyes linking the green mountains and the pleasant pastures with a pacific view of Christianity. "Lamb of God" has both a link to the pastoral idyll of English topography and to the idea of sacrifice.

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

The "Countenance Divine" is God's face and the conceit is that God looks down approvingly except, that is, at the "Satanic Mills"  (the ultimate opposite of God, Satan, created the industrial revolution with its smoky, sooty factories). Both sentences in this verse are questions so Blake is asking us whether it is possible to build Jerusalem among the industrial detritus. A metaphor which relates to the idea that the Christian Faith can be a comfort even though the environment and the daily toil are despoiled and arduous.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

In this verse Blake is moving from the pacifist to the warrior. He is arming himself to fight those who are despoiling his land. 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

And finally, having established that God is on the side of the greenness and the pleasant and against the satanic spread of industry, Blake feels empowered to fight. He has weapons to try and enforce the rightness - these include logic and reason (the "mental fight") as well as a sword to go with the bow and arrows, the spear and the chariot. Again all this is metaphor, for Blake was an unlikely soldier. The suggestion is that the new Jerusalem may have to wait for Jesus's second coming - though this is perhaps not as clear as some commentators would suggest.

English Anthem?

"Jerusalem" is a distinctive and unusual Christian poem. Blake's personal Christianity was singular and non-conformist. It reveals two Englands, the pastoral - which is approved of, and the industrial which is reviled. This was in around 1800 so there was a lot more of the Industrial Revolution to come in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Satanic can be seen to have won. 

In the 21st Century the idea that "Jerusalem" can be any sort of English National Anthem is preposterous. Even when set to Parry's splendid and lively music. Why would we take as our anthem a two-hundred year old paean to the pastoral from an eccentric poet who never intended that he was writing patriotically at all? His verses are not primarily a celebration of England but an early warning to those who were, as he saw it, destroying its greenness and pleasantness. 

Modern England still, thankfully, has it's rolling hills and it's green fields. But it also has its great cities and its huge urban conurbations. Both are valid, but far far more of us live in the latter than do in the former. We are overwhelmingly an urban not a rural society. And we are multicultural as well. To have an eccentric Christian poem, however charming and uplifting it may be for some, as a National Anthem is inconceivable. A modern anthem should be secular celebrating modern England and Englishness. "Jerusalem" does not and cannot do this.