Modern dress and other distractions

Article by Brian Sewell

It was perhaps, not the most serious of misfortunes to have been introduced to Shakespeare not only at my mother’s knee, but in the open air and played in modern dress.  I had seen pantomimes, Peter Pan and an appalling exercise in jingoism for children called Where the Rainbow Ends, all in costume of a kind, all thrillingly different from real life, but here was Shakespeare, incomprehensibly unfamiliar in spite of the Tales retold by Charles and Mary Lamb for their Juvenile Library, with actors who looked exactly as though they had dropped in on my mother for a drink.  I did not ponder the problem at the time, for I cannot have been more than eight and Regent’s Park Theatre in gusting wind and rain was not the place to debate the mysteries of drama – besides, one brief adventure among the storm-drenched bushes that shaped that auditorium was not enough on which to base opinion – but now, most of a lifetime later I have concluded that men’s trousers mark the death of art – in every form, from monumental sculpture to grand opera.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, there can surely have been no concept of historical drama as we now see it on television, with painstaking accuracy in costume and set (though not in script and idiom) – for him Twelfth Night and even Julius Caesar must have been in some sort of modern dress.  In the centuries between, the evidence of the designs for masques by Inigo Jones is that the theatre had taken a great leap into the realistic representation of mythology and allegory even in Shakespeare’s later day, though only in the theatre of the Stuart Court, not in the public playhouses; the evidence of the many Georgian painters of the theatre suggests that historic costume, when not derived from the Commedia dell’Arte, was pretty well that of their present day, but made preposterous by extravagant materials and ludicrous bedizening.  There were grotesque absurdities – an ancient Roman “kilt”, worn with body-formed breastplate and plumed head-dress, all possibly derived from Inigo Jones but certainly not from antiquity, were the costume of the tragic hero for two centuries, though Garrick parted from it in 1758 when, playing an ancient Greek, he wore the costume of a Venetian gondolier based, no doubt, on a painting by Canaletto, wrongly convinced that all gondoliers were of Greek origin, and therefore that their bonnets and exceedingly baggy pantaloons must be authentic ancient costume.  On the other hand, John Hoppner’s portrayal of Dorothea Jordan, mistress of William IV, as Viola in Twelfth Night when pretending to be a youth, records her in a modern costume that could easily be that of a late 18th century British hussar, so distant is the sense of period from post-medieval Illyria.  “Correct” historical costume was of interest to both Kean and Kemble early in the 19th century and came into full vogue in Queen Victoria’s day – so much so that by the century’s end increasing pedantry had begun to militate against the drama it was intended to support.  It was in tentative revolt against such bookishness that modern dress productions were occasionally attempted between the two world wars.

Twelfth Night was the play that I saw that summer evening in Regent’s Park, presented as though it were French without Tears by Terence Rattigan – all English flannel, long cigarette holders, high-heeled court shoes and Brilliantine.  I do not know if it was risible, only that it was considered daring, fashionable and smart, as much a poke in the eye for the bourgeoisie as smoking Balkan Sobranie or driving an Alfa-Romeo.  The hint of naughtiness about it then has long since worn away and the modern dress production, though not a commonplace, has lost even the faint sense of outrage generated when Shakespeare is removed to Japan, ancient Greece or the Wild West – though not quite yet with opera.

Modern dress in opera is more hazardous than with conventional drama; with opera the audience must suspend so much more disbelief, must accept singing in an alien language in place of English speech, must believe that the fat are slim, the old young and the ugly handsome, and must credulously assent to plots constructed of absurd improbabilities.  All this was possible with Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto at the English National Opera, perhaps largely because the Chicago of the Prohibition years has itself taken on an historic cast and seems a period or two ago in history, sufficiently distanced from our day to be credible rather than anomalous.  It was not possible with the Othello of Tom Phillips, a Bosnia-cum-Angola-cum-Sierra Leone setting that grated intolerably harshly against the original characterisations and the plot.  I have seen Carmen as a ballet set in the steamy south of Tennessee Williams, and been utterly convinced by it, and Cosi fan Tutte dressed in pale suits crumpled enough for Martin Bell and Peter Langan seemed as mellifluous as any in the court dress of Bourbon Naples, but Wagner’s

Ring at Covent Garden, with Norns dressed as slatternly charwomen and a Ford Capri as a pun on deus ex machina (the machina was the equipment that lowered gods onto the stage of ancient Greek theatre), seemed monstrously abusive and ridiculous.

It is perhaps not the costume that matters but, for want of a better word, the respect paid to the original plot and music of the opera.  The music must have absolute primacy – better Parsifal in a concert performance by which our imaginations are so much unleashed that we see what we hear and the mind’s eye sets the scene, than see it on the stage betrayed by the mechanics of production teetering on the brink of the absurd, sublime music jeopardised by the impossible requirements of the staging and of singers who, as actors, must lend conviction to the unperformable.  Direction and production must never be so obtrusive that they affect our concentration on the music.  I have seen the curtain rise on sets so beautiful that the audience has instinctively applauded – and why not, when we applaud the orchestra? – but these have invariably been sets that complemented and enhanced the drama, sets that within seconds have subsided into being no more than sets, taking their place in the hierarchy of interest once the playing has begun.  The problem comes when some detail of production, to put it bluntly, gets in the way – as it does with Jonathan Miller’s insistence on a realistic portrayal of Violetta’s death from consumption, febrile and sweating, lying on a bed designed by Tracy Emin; even as late as my boyhood there was widespread belief that consumptives on the point of death experienced one last guttering burst of energy, and then, burnt out, expired – nonsense to the wise Dr Miller, who prefers the literal trust, but no doubt believed by Verdi and perfectly portrayed in the music and libretto of La Traviata.  The simple point is that there is no place for literal trust in high romantic drama if it works against the plot and wrecks the sense of period – and the nearer a production comes to our own day, the more inclined we are to wrestle reason into both, yet reason in the context of opera is a lie.

Trivial detail with some particular period connotation can be as disturbing and disruptive as the wholesale removal of an opera to another time and place – perhaps even worse.  John Copley, a quarter of a century ago, was in charge of Aida at the ENO  at precisely the time when black leather and steel studs were coming into open fashion as sexual accoutrements, and an otherwise unremarkable production was stricken by the helpless giggling of the audience whenever Radames came on the stage, for he was not only plump, but so short that he needed high heels to reach Aida’s nipples, and yet Copley had dressed him in the leather harness, straps and other bits and bobs of the games played by sado-masochists.  It was enough that the audience had to suspend its disbelief in a

hero so unheroically short and fat and almost naked, but dressed as a cross between Humpty-Dumpty and Miss Whiplash, he was an irredeemable absurdity on podgy pale and hairless legs. Ah, legs… “He has a fine leg,” his courtiers said of the Emperor Charles V when mounted on his stallion (they could hardly praise his prognathous jaw, rotting teeth and halitosis), but a fine leg is granted to few who pace the stage – many actors with noble heads enhanced the life of Queen Elizabeth I as reconstructed by Dr. David Starkey, but when we saw them walking, they turned out to be spindle-shanked, knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, hopeless and hapless in tight hoses their dignity undone.  This is as true of baritones and tenors.

There was a time, quite recently, when the ENO could hardly mount any opera without introducing monstrous rubber dildos (not, I think in Suor Angelica) or some other irrelevant affront. Why, for example, did the executioner have to sodomise the Persian prince in the first act of Turandot, such an odd respond to the crowd’s plea for mercy?  And this year it has suffered extreme opprobrium for Calixto Bieito’s production of A Masked Ball, played at first to half the audience that conventional staging might command.  It was in modern dress and set in Spain just after General Franco’s death in 1975 – and why not, when the original was based on the assassination of Gustav III, King of Sweden, in the Stockholm opera house in 1792 (a comparatively fresh event when Verdi wrote the opera in 1858 and politically sensitive), the king transformed first, by order of the censors, into a Duke of Pomerania and subsequently into an English Count of Warwick, appointed Governor of Boston, Massachusetts, at a time when gypsies and witchcraft were unremarkable there.  If 1692 or 1792 why not 1892 or 1992?  If Stockholm, if Stettin, if Boston, then why not Barcelona or Madrid?  Why not indeed, for a Spanish setting suits the preposterous story very well and even the present day might be compelled to fit it without excessive incongruity.  But then the Coliseum’s propensity to outrage its audience came to the fore and we had to have the curtain rising on a row of doorless lavatory cubicles – a feature familiar to British public schoolboys of a certain age but with no known Spanish connotation – and be spectators of a homosexual rape for which there is authority in neither libretto nor music nor in contemporary Spanish behaviour.

“Toilet humour opera down the pan,” was one broadsheet headline, “Adults-only opera barely flushed with success”, another – and no doubt there were more incorporating chain-gang, tubes and round the bend.  This production was crowded with ideas that did not impede or obscure the opera, but lent it logic in its later 20th century context; it contributed greatly to my understanding and acceptance of what has always seemed, in costume, one of the sillier of Verdi’s plots, and in this body of the dead boy, garrotted after his rape by four soldiers, played a particular purpose, lending reality, rather than a spectre to Amelia’s vigil in the orrido campo of Act II.  This was a production that the press took to be typical of the ENO’s dependence on an adolescent quality of shock, often as offensive and irrelevant as deliberately saying ”bugger” during the Lord’s prayer, but the press was in grave error – it was a production that made sense, that had in its 20th century allusions a vile and sinister beauty that has always, by period costume, been denied it.

That said, it is better, by and large to do too little rather than too much to help an opera along: there is a rough and ready law that the more the business on the stage, the more coming and going the more raising and lowering, the less the music matters and the fewer reasons the audience has to stay in its seats other that the hope of calamity.  Covent Garden’s Semele was so animated and energetic that stage business and machinery eclipsed the singers and the orchestra, and the Cirque du Soleil could have learned a turn or two from it.  Forbearance is not an absolute law – Carmen needs the crowds and frantic activity the Coliseum gives it – but experienced audiences who often know better than inexperienced directors, know at once when a production is as gay as the king’s candle.  This is not to suggest that we should invariably resist the radical restaging of a classic opera, for many of the most popular are sufficiently universal (an overworked word in this context) to survive unscathed in all essentials almost any shift in time and place, and some have been enlighteningly enhanced – and we must not forget that stealing plots and crossing the county boundaries with them to avoid discovery is precisely what librettists have always done, dramatists too.  Shakespeare, taking the plot of Hamlet from the 13th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus via the Histoires Tragiques of Françoise de Belleforest late in the 16th century, left it in Denmark, but could easily have removed it to ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, for in equal measure it is imbued with Sophoclean inevitability and Webster’s morbid humour. If the thirty-six operas employing the plot between 1789 and 1987 (eighteen in the last half century) only two moved any distance from it, and they as well as all the others have been forgotten – a pity, for a modern operatic Hamlet might have had its moment as successor to West Side Story.

The re-staging, re-dating, re-setting argument is very simple – if it offers an opera no significant new insights, it should not be done.  If its purpose is no more profound than the gratification of a director’s vanity and self-indulgence, it should not be done.  If it does a violent mischief or even merely militates against the gravity, dignity, beauty and integrity of the original, it should not be done.  Opera is not the equivalent of a colour reproduction of the Mona Lisa in the hands of some musical Marcel Duchamp who can give her a moustache and glasses or write rude words on her without blemish to the original – every performance is original; every performance should be true to the composer as the first.  Opera is not the equivalent of gardening and interior decoration and directors should not seem to emulate the work of Charlie Dimmock and Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen; opera can stand on bare ground and in a naked shell and still be wonderfully beautiful; opera’s needs are extremely simple – only voices and an orchestra, not makeovers and modern trousers.