Sunday, 23 October 2011

The joys of the theatre

Ej blot til lyst

There's a marvellous scene at the start of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, where the camera slowly pans down from the proscenium of a toy theatre to its stage, with the paper cut-out dramatis personae gesticulating, and the footlights flickering; and then, destroying the illusion, the scenery parts to reveal the face of Alexander, the master of puppets, his huge dark eyes looking out at the viewer in ennui, deep and impassive.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Derby. In the marvellous Georgian Pickford's House Museum, narrow, cantilevered grey stone stairs lead upwards from the well appointed, genteel morning room and dining room, up past the first floor to the low, spare attics where the servants lived.  Off these stairs, a door leads into a tiny room full of display cases; and in these cases, quite unexpectedly, a collection of toy theatres.

'Ej blot til lyst' reads one of them; the same inscription as on the toy theatre in Fanny and Alexander - in Danish, copied from the National Theater in Copenhagen. I think this is the same toy theatre we see in the film, though I might be wrong.

One of the things that fascinated me about the exhibition in Pickford's House was that many of the theatres were set for a particular play, with the right scenery and figures - a jail scene, a romantic robbers' glen, from classical tragedy or from nineteenth century melodrama. This is theatre history - the theatres were not mere toys, but ways of re-enacting at home the same plays that occupied the metropolitan stage.

And there's something magical about these theatres. It's partly the effect of perspective; like peep-shows, there's something magical about looking into the world of sliding flats, a world foreshortened and logical at the same time. That's something that's always fascinated me about Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, with its perspective street seen through an arch (though actually, the scenery is the work of Scamozzi, not Palladio). The perspective makes the theatre into a different world from ours, one in which natural laws seem to work in a more rarefied, more schematic way; it's a heightened world.

But it's also a world of meaning. A world in which meaning can be manipulated, as it was in the masque of Charles I's court under Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson (it's interesting that I automatically mentioned the designer first, the dramatist second; this was a theatre of spectacle, display, and conspicuous consumption - a baroque drama, aimed at the glorification of the monarch), as it is in Fanny and Alexander with its layering of fantasy sequences and reality.

In which sense, that motto on the toy theatre is interesting. 'Ej blot til lyst' - 'not only for pleasure': theatre is of course a pleasure for its colour, its intensity, its very theatricality. But it isn't only a pleasure. It is, if we let it be, a monument to meaning. And at the same time, it isn't only meaning; the very fact that we are imagining things, that we know that we are imagining, or participating in a work of imagination, is significant. In a world full of earnestness, the demand for 'role models', for honesty of a peculiarly pedestrian sort, the very existence of fiction is a reminder that civilisation is about lightness and delicacy; that it is about the ability to play, to create illusion, to divide the overlapping, translucent layers of different realities and unrealities. It is a reminder that truth is not always single, and that things are at once more difficult and more intriguing than they might at first appear.

A few favourites:

  • The Markgraefliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth. Not to be confused with Richard Wagner's Festival Theatre, this delightful baroque opera house is a perfect miniature, with its Margrave's box, fine ornament, and deep stage, designed by Italian master Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. (Currently closed for restoration)

  • The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire. You couldn't get more different from Bayreuth - a bourgeois playhouse, intimate and rather plain, but with the amazing treasure of Britain's oldest theatre scenery, the 'woodland scene' of  the 1820s.  (Lovers of the British stage should also visit the Georgian Theatre in Bury St Edmunds, dating from 1819.)

  • Drottningholm, the Swedish royal theatre, retains some of the original stage machinery, including the wave machine. I've only seen it in video but really must get round to visiting it. It still stages baroque and classical opera on the original stage; built in 1766, it's just right for staging Mozart.

  • The Globe, London. Of course this isn't a historic theatre - it's a copy of one. And it's as far as you can get from the illusionistic stage painting and aristocratic perspectives of the royal theatres; instead, it takes after the medieval mystery plays and strolling players' performances given on carts and in the yards of galleried inns - the scenery is minimal, the illusion purely verbal. Perhaps there's a reason that we have Shakespeare and Dryden, while the Italians have the opera - the drama of 'words, words, words' against the drama of spectacle and illusion.

  • visits the same theatre - with a video of the opening of the film - and has more information on toy theatres, including a quite surreal picture of G K Chesterton cutting out figures for his toy theatre.

Friday, 14 October 2011

New post on Velvet Escape

I regularly write for London Hotels Insight and a number of other blogs, and I'm pleased to have contributed a couple of guest articles to Velvet Escape;

As  a former Londoner I've always particularly loved the countryside around London - the Chilterns, the North Downs, the great forests of Essex (Epping, Hatfield). True, it's no longer the green city it was in the nineteenth century, but London still contains great tracts of greenery - Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, Greenwich, Richmond Park... and of course the Royal Parks. Apart from Paris, with the Bois de Boulogne, the Luxembourg Gardens, the park at Versailles, I can't think of many capitals that have so much parkland within the city and around it.

Cities have different relationships with nature. Norwich was described in the seventeenth century as "a city in a garden", and it's still a city punctuated by plains and open spaces, mature trees giving it much of its character. Some German cities and towns included huge spaces of farmland and orchard within the walls; in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, as soon as you turn your back on the much touristed main drag, away from the town hall and impressive gate tower, the walls overlook farmyards and gardens, a vision of bucolic Germany from a Grimm fairytale.

Italian cities, on the other hand, are urban and urbane, setting their face determinedly against the suburbs and the country; there may be gardens, but they're enclosed behind high walls. Florence is a city of narrow alleys bounded by cliff-like palace faces, or grid-like squares surrounded by arcades; Alberti's vision of architecture excludes medieval pragmatism and spontaneity as well as dirt and squalor, but it also excludes nature - it is a triumph of art.

In India, there's no city; the boundaries of dwelling and desert seem random, permeable. You may find a bunch of houses along a road, then nothing till the next batch of houses in a few hundred yards; city gates may once have been an attempt to demarcate the city, but they're now swallowed up in the general chaos. Only in New Delhi is there a nicely marked distinction of lawn and yard, garden and building, and that's somehow very, very English. Mumbai seems not a city so much as a collection of villages, which haven't completely stopped being villages; I wonder if London was such an agglomeration in Dickens's or Mayhew's day?