When Music is Indistinguishable from Drama by Jack Buckley

Hugh Grant tells the tale of when he was playing the part of the presumed husband of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) in the hugely entertaining film, he asked director, Stephen Frears, whether the man was an adventurer after Foster Jenkins’s money or genuinely in love with the woman who was living a passionately dedicated life of self-deception. How should I know? replied Frears, You’re the actor.

You can see how there are various levels of deception at work there, some of them so successful, they disqualify as deceptions.

My friend, Paul Wilson, invited me to Whitgift School’s Performing Arts Centre in South Croydon for The Sneeze: a collection of four one-act comic vaudevilles and four short stories by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Michael Frayn. The players were sixth formers with actors from Croydon High School for the women’s parts. Paul has formerly been Head of Music as well as Head of Drama at Whitgift, preceded by a career as an opera singer and training as an Oxford English Letters graduate. That glorious mix was very much played out in these productions along with the all-important contributions of Simon Hudson, who directed four of the eight stagings.

One player stood out from all others. Charlie Barber gave a monologue about the addictions of smoking. The concept of addictive smoking immediately brought to mind the operetta of Wolf-Ferrari, Il segreto di Susanna. (Susanna’s secret was that she was a smoker.)  But there is no Victorian teatime gentility in Chekov’s melodrama of all-consuming addiction, even if a flash of humour here and there proves irresistible to the great Russian.

Mr Barber has made this demanding role all his own: frighteningly so. He had the audience in his hands from the word go. Nor would he let them go. I have rarely seen such power in an actor, let alone one aged seventeen. This came across as a plea to the audience to try to understand something he could not understand himself. There were layers of misunderstandings which outdo Shakespeare’s Edmund (in King Lear) or Iago (in Othello). The audience held their breath in horror and disbelief.

I was quite sure that Paul Wilson had not invented the choreography of the scene. Paul later confirmed this. The movements were coming from Charlie’s gut. Paul gave himself the advice which Francesco Siciliani gave to Luchino Visconti: wait to see what Charlie’s body does and let him tune in to the unspoken music which this creates.  It’s always the unspoken music which is the most powerful.

[Explainer: Callas arrived at a Siciliani audition with Isolde’s music. Very nice, Signorina said the Maestro, but I don’t think this is ideal for your voice. Please take this and let me hear it in a fortnight. He handed her a score of Norma. He then convinced his friend, Leonard Bernstein (who had never conducted an Italian opera) to conduct this Norma with a young, unknown Greek girl who has the ideal voice for this role. Visconti was brought on board as stage director. He and Callas fought like cat and dog; Visconti was interrupting the Greek girl every five minutes because of some minutiae which the director thought didn’t belong to his production. Siciliani invited Visconti to lunch and agreed that Callas was totally inexperienced. But he continued, please try to see that her understanding of this music is something extraordinary. Just let her do what she FEELS and build your production round that. Visconti did. All this was at La Scala. The rest is history.  Everyone said that Visconti had taught Maria how to act. It wasn’t long before Maria herself was saying it. Triumph all round!]

You can see how Paul Wilson was the Siciliani of this episode: stand back and watch how Charlie Barber’s body roots out the musicality of the drama. Then encourage this. (A young musician approaching a Mozart sonata for solo instrument ought to be be encouraged to proceed along the same lines. That is assuming that the young musician has the same gut sensibilities as Barber. A big assumption.)

Talking with Charlie and his grandfather after the show, I asked the boy if he intended to pursue a career in acting. His reply was beautifully measured. Maybe, but first I want to take a degree in music and English (literature) And where was he going to take this degree? York, he instantly replied. Grandfather said that they came from York. In the 1950s when I was Director of Music at Wennington School, just down the road from York, Wilfrid Mellers was Professor of Music and with two daughters at the school, and Hermione Lee was Head of English. Wilfrid was always encouraging us from the wings. I’m reliably informed that both subjects are still impressively staffed at York. It sounds like the right stable for our young stallion.

But I must be presumptuous enough to offer some advice to Charlie. And since the depth of the advice is musical, it ought to be one he could easily implement. He has the most unfortunate trait of dropping his voice at the end of sentences, so that some twenty percent of his words are inaudible. Like many great actors, he is so convinced of the realism of his act that it ceases to be an act. Fine. But those of us at the back of the auditorium cannot hear you. The secret is in the magic art of projection. Please listen to the recordings of Montserrat Caballé where the quieter the voice becomes, the greater its power. It’s all a question of breath control; aiming the voice at the theatre’s back wall and diminishing its volume while proportionally increasing its support. Try it. Know that Caballé did not accomplish this in one day. Remember that stage whispers are not real whispers. They are fake. Gloriously faked. And for real.

There is some admirably successful faking going on in Ben Goldby’s acting out of an alcoholic in The Inspector General. Ben doesn’t just deliver his confused thoughts. Charged with shocking emotion, he makes sure that the words arrive in OUR throats. And I was sitting on the back row, overcome by his dilemma and unable to do anything about it. This was exactly the prison sentence he wanted me to experience. His anger, of course, was faked, as acting talent demands. But was it ever REAL! Simon Hudson has to be applauded for giving the right direction to Ben’s outstanding performance.

A Frenchman and a Russian sat down to dine …….  So begins Chekhov’s joke in The Alien Corn. And we all know that delivering jokes depends on timing. As well as charm. And the two boys, Adrien Chatriot and Eduard Nelson had excellent timing. But the material Chekhov hands them is so puerile and unfunny (and yes, I know that Chekhov can sometimes be funny with the unfunny) that not even Nish Kumar would be able to raise a laugh from this trash. Whatever was responsible for this script – be it translation or if Chekhov himself – it was a time when he was unaware of Orwell’s rule, never use a metaphor which you are used to seeing in print, for which substitute joke for metaphor to avert the stylistic error under scrutiny.

The two boys did their best with this cliché-ridden script. An accomplishment itself in these unhappy circumstances.

But wait. There is what may look like a counsel for the defence of the trash. But I shall have to retain my counsel for the prosecution to present it. A woman sitting in the row in front of me not only had a forced laugh, but she force-laughed herself nonstop throughout the whole evening. Why are forced laughs always so irritating? Or is that just me, Milord? I would hate to set myself up as President of the mercifully as-yet inexistent British Board of Humour Regulation. Doesn’t humour have to come from within us, Milord? Going to a chemist for it or consulting your doctor can surely only abolish it. I rest my case, Milord.

In the early 1960s, William Walton received a commission from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to write a one-act opera for their new Aldeburgh Festival. Walton was asked to revisit the wit and humour of Façade in which he had famously captured in music the original charm of Edith Sitwell’s poems. The Bear was first staged at The Maltings, Aldeburgh in 1967. The correspondence between librettist, Paul Dehn and Walton is revealing. Walton required Dehn to get rid of the many repetitions in the short play and to soften the grotesque caricatures of the three dramatis personae to something closer to English irony. That accomplished, the one-act was declared the huge success of Walton’s stage works.

Smirnov is owed money by widow Popova’s husband. He is at first refused entry by servant Luka, when he comes to try to collect his debt. But he finds his way in anyway, and makes his demand. The widow responds, first in dignity, then shock, then anger, which in turn angers Smirnov to such a degree that he agrees to fight a duel with pistols. But the pair have meanwhile – almost unbeknown to themselves – found admiration each in the other, to the point of finding themselves in love.

There is fifty-eight minutes for all this to happen. What holds the opera together is its wit and charm, qualities of which the Chekov play is utterly void. And more especially if you don’t cut the repetitions. The opera moves with Walton’s sure-fire rhythms. The play gets bogged down in its own repetitiveness.  It might work in Russia with an audience of Siberian alcoholics. But it doesn’t have a chance with a bourgeois audience of Whitgift parents, overruled by a forced-laugh visitor.

Things fared much better in The Sneeze. That is probably because Neil Simon has made necessary adaptations to the Chekov text. We are all familiar with how Chekov gets the extraordinary out of the ordinary. This is always brought about by a sleight of hand. Here we meet an Army General (Jacob Rose) at the theatre with his wife (Holly Bain). Behind them is an officer of inferior rank (Archie Day) with his wife (Megan Deniran). All the dialogue is between the men. The women utter sweet-nothings which irritates everyone except the inferior rank’s wife, who is the chief contributor to this prattle. Misogynist Chekov gets away with this. You would have got away with it too in Victorian England.

The second scene of the play has the General in his office, as bored with everything and everyone, as in the first scene. The lower order arrives to see the General. But he can’t for the life in him remember why he came. This is too much for the General. He gives the fellow a good shaking. Wouldn’t you too? Chekhov seems to be asking the audience.

Archie Day was outstanding as the General, helped by his being the only character with something worthy to say of his rank. The ensemble reactions of all four players was admirably paced.

The inferior’s main offering to the play is an almighty sneeze in the theatre, for which he spends the rest of that scene apologising. All right, I suppose. But somehow not a patch on a Marx Brothers’ gag. What scores highest in this presentation is the interplay of the rhythms which the actors extract from Neil Simon’s crisp, well-chosen words.

The Sneeze very much left me with the feeling there was something missing. And that something was at least some bars of Shostakovich’s music. There is a disturbingly close relationship to that composer’s The Nose which is based on a Gogol absurdist story. Shostakovich is studiedly simplistic in his music. That is a defining element of his charm. Some bars of the finale of the concerto for trumpet and piano, strategically placed, would have added greatly to Paul Wilson’s direction.

In the opening sketch – Drama –  Simon Hudson admirably directs Yasmin Irving’s charmingly exaggerated melodrama as an uncalled for audition for a writer who doesn’t want to be disturbed. This showstopper makes Ms Irving the evening’s leading lady. In pulling out all the stops she is clearly enjoying herself. More importantly, that enjoyment communicates directly with the audience. Jude Willoughby convinces as the bored, do-not-disturb writer, and finally concedes that the dame may have something after all.

Jude Willoughby convinces again in the final sketch –The Proposal – also directed by Simon Hudson with an ironic sense of wonders never cease. I found Mr Willoughby even more convincing in this final role with Connie Upchurch as his better half.

During the evening the four narrators/storytellers were all a little too matter-of-fact for my own taste  – not enough of the enigmatic that Chekov always gives off in all his earthy moments.

Jack Buckley

This report is about performances on 20th and 22nd of March I saw at the Performing Arts Centre of Whitgift School.

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