Secular Liturgies

Tom Sutcliffe has had better nights at the theatre

 

Alistair McDowall's play X, at the Royal Court, was supposed to be science fiction. The publicity went on about it taking place at a research base on Pluto that seemed to have lost touch with its controllers (presumably on Earth), or for some inexplicable reason had been abandoned by them. This was much further off beam than Pomona, his remarkable first play, which was set on a concrete motorway island near Manchester. The theme of X is the end of everything. It might also have been exploration of memory and imagination in the failing mind – breakdown, dementia, and escape from reality into some imponderably unresolvable context.

McDowall has compelling fluency. But the problem with writing about the end of everything is that it is fundamentally uninteresting and uncreative. The badness that is happening to people in McDowall's play is simply not their fault. Somebody else has done nothing or something – failed to send a space ship to relieve them, or failed to help them sort out what's falling apart in their base (which seems to have no culture, and almost no nourishment or sense of ongoing purpose to justify the routines to which McDowall's characters are vaguely committed without being fully up to the mark). This was not really science fiction; and life stopping or changing on one planet is not the end of being: extinction is complex mutability.

What McDowall shows could have been happening on an experimental branch of Crossrail in a sector that got somehow partially finished and abandoned by the planners. Badness is much more worth staging than nothingness. At the end of King Lear we do not have much hope that anything will get better soon – even if the bad people have had their comeuppance alongside the good and not so very good. In X, near the end Gilda says, ‘My mother. Was the last tree... People came from all around to see her. To hear her speak for the past... And everyone would listen and listen, and cry and cry... for how things used to be.' So this is really another play at the Royal Court Theatre being hopeless about ecology.

McDowall's Pomona was promising because it looked at various mixed-up individuals in mystifying contexts and actually found them and made them somewhat interesting. X, on the other hand, shows him navigating a shortcut to a Samuel Beckett-ish situation with no very precise or creative imaginative discipline, and no acute feeling for language as nourishment. McDowall is not Irish and seems to have none of Beckett's sense of Christian tradition – of a world redeemed and lost – that the Irish imbibe with baby milk, faith being something that, having had, you can afford to forget. Because nothing's to be done does not mean that nothing matters. Can we get closer to nihilism than we've been taken by Shakespeare and others? Boredom is arrested adolescence, not tragic. X is in the same vein as Pomona, but cleaned up and too self-conscious. Surviving success is every artist's challenge.

Meanwhile, Katie Mitchell's new production of Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden was a disaster. She and her designer Vicki Mortimer presented this immaculate and superb Donizetti masterpiece with a sequence of two room-scenes next to each other on stage – a sort of dolls' house approach that they used to show us what was happening in the story offstage (which the librettist and composer had chosen not to present) as well as the scenes that they did intend us to see – except that the big moments (Edgardo's interruption of the party celebrating the betrothal of Lucia and Arturo, and Lucia's memorable entrance covered in her stabbed husband's blood) were denied a full-stage dramatic presentation in which the most important actions and deliveries could achieve crystalline focus. Of course this directorial approach denied the fundamental link in an opera between the music and what is going on. It also destroyed the characterisation intended by the composer and librettist, which is a delicately conceived blending of words and music with actions and acting. Kasper Holten (the prematurely departing opera director at Covent Garden) should have prevented this aberrant approach. Games like these may appeal to people using toy theatres; but in fact they simply ruin the show.

So Mitchell showed us on the left-hand room-set Lucia, helped by her companion Alisa, murdering Arturo during the scene where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel on the right hand room-set. The murder took a lot of work: Arturo kept coming round – Mitchell seems to think it's not easy for wives to murder husbands. There was much laughter from the audience too, at the premiθre. The strain made Lucia, pregnant with (we assume) Edgardo's child, miscarry. This proceeded as she sat on a WC in the bathroom next door, before descending to shock the assembled crowd with after-birth trailing from her white petticoat. Earlier we had been entertained to a scene where Lucia and Edgardo had sex during a scene set among the family tombs.

There was no proper alliance between music and imagery. Lucia lacked the innocence that is so central to her character, and that has a knock-on effect on her brother Enrico, and on her beloved Edgardo. Yes, there were some decent voices – but no Italians in the cast, just as there were no Russian speakers in the recent production of Boris Godunov. Ludovic Tezier is a fine French baritone, Diana Damrau is a hardworking German soprano, and Charles Castronovo is a well-trained American tenor – but none of them provided that sense of bel canto stylishness that distinguished the great casts at the Garden from 1959 onwards. Joan Sutherland was Australian, and Maria Callas was Greek-American – but each embodied Italian tradition drawn from the work of the superbly stylish conductor Tullio Serrafin. Daniel Oren, maestro this time at the Garden, had nothing to offer. ND

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