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Archive for July 6th, 2010

July 6th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Praying for Christopher Hitchens

Given that God’s existence can’t, according to Pascal, be proven by reason, a person should, he said, wager that He exists. What is there to lose? Hence, during the coming weeks, I’ll be praying for Christopher Hitchens. Wishing him good health as he undergoes treatment for cancer of the esophagus. Apt this praying, I’d say, in light of what Paul Horowitz writes here about Hitchens:

"Hitchens is a man of such unruly contradictions that it may be said of him, as Dr. Johnson did of the metaphysical poets, that he has “the ability to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together.” Opponent of America’s war in Vietnam and supporter of America’s war in Iraq; libertarian defender of free-market capitalism and unabashed admirer of Trotsky and Marx; friend to Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative hawk, and to Victor Navasky, an apologist for the Rosenbergs, Hamas, and Alger Hiss.

It is not only incompatible ideas and comrades that Hitchens comfortably embraces, but modes of being. He is both a political renegade and keeper of the flame, a ferocious partisan and practiced ironist, a postmodern skeptic and romantic nostalgist, a passionate moralist and calculating operator, a hard-headed critic and dewy-eyed sentimentalist, a serious thinker and attention grabber, irreverent contrarian and serenader of the choir, one-dimensional polemicist and literary polymath, self-styled Man of the People and accomplished social climber, and — most inexplicable — an Oxonian gentleman with conservative manners who is also a master of vitriol and ad hominem.

If there is one thing to be discovered in reading Hitchens’s memoir, it is that there are not many things you will figure out about Hitchens that he has not already thought of himself. Thus his chronicle opens with a wonderfully realized account of his origins, containing portraits of his conservative naval father and romantic mother, “two much opposed and sharply discrepant ancestral stems: two stray branches that only war and chance could ever have caused to become entwined.” On the one side the rebel who refused to know her place; on the other the man Hitchens calls the Commander, who defended Britain in the war and of whom he says in tribute, “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.”

Throughout this narrative, we are alerted to Hitchens’s pursuit of “the Janus-faced mode of life.” As the Roman god of temple doorways, Janus looked both ways and is depicted with two faces in the statuary honoring him. Grabbing the horns of his own enigma, Hitchens observes that the doors of the temple were open in time of war, and war “is a time when the ideas of contradiction and conflict are most naturally regnant,” and that the most intense wars are civil, and the most rending conflicts internal. “What I hope to do now,” he says of the text before us, “is give some idea of what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time.”

July 6th, 2010 • Posted in Authors and Books

Review: Tempest at Stratford has legs



Once you’ve had a man with no legs, Eddie Murphy tells us memorably in the movie Trading Places, you never go back. The same might be said of novels by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of Shakespeare on the London stage. Nothing compares to it.

I was lucky enough to see Robert Stephens as Falstaff in the early nineties, and more recently Simon McBurney’s encore production of Measure for Measure. I wont bore you with superlatives; suffice it to say that I left the theatre exhilarated, grateful for the experience, filled with the life and energy of Shakespeare’s genius.  Problem is, such knowledge – that theatre can be this good  – makes one, like Eddie’s ex-girlfriends, very hard to please.  

What makes it ‘this good,’ I think, is that every cast member is uniformly comfortable/suited/natural/convincing in their respective roles. There are no weaknesses. This is what allows each to shine – each to pull, and together, keep the audience engaged in the play. It also enables the truly talented to excel. Very few troupes are capable of presenting this uniform level of performing excellence. 

Des McAnuff’s isn’t. Which is not to say that the production is not satisfying, or that it doesn’t please. Christopher Plummer’s is a capable, natural, at times, moving performance. Others’ are very funny, some are unquestionably competent. What keeps Plummer from greatness here however is this uniformity business. His effort is hampered by those around him. It only takes a few. Trish Lindström’s Miranda, for instance, seems unnaturally awestruck by her father – perhaps by Plummer himself – this stilts their rapport, makes it overly formal.  Lindström’s monotoned intensity makes it difficult to accept a bond that is supposed to be close, loving, touching, comfortable. She needs to relax in order to deliver Shakespeare’s lines as they were intended; to bring a varied playfulness to them, to speak her words as if they originate from the mind and mouth of the enchanting character she inhabits.

Delivery is what flaws this and so many other Shakespearean productions: lines spoken without emotional range. Anger, for example, appears to be the only feeling Timothy D. Stickney’s Sebastian is capable of expressing. Despite undeniable presence, his performance is uni-dimensional and over-acted. His is not the lead character. Ariel, despite a radiant, contagious smile, appears overly childlike, her lines sound read, memorized, instead of true. She looks too much like a sprite just sprung from a Circe du Soleil stage cannon. This heralds another concern: the clash, on stage, of incongruous cultures, spartan traditionalism versus sparkling Andrew Lloyd Weberism.

One must, I suppose, consider the wishes of the tourist; and the show does, with its musical song-and-dance numbers and sumptuous, skin-tight scaly costumery. A noisy start sounds more like something out of Titanic [the engine room], than any 17th Century sailing rig. Thunderous waves drowned out much of the early dialogue.

And yet, despite these flaws and incongruities, this play, this production, is worth seeing. - Stephano’s tartan stockings particularly – are ‘worth the price of admission’ and the Spirits’s gowns are seriously sensuous. Fools Stephano and Trinculo are both good for many laughs, respectively drunk and effeminate. Prospero’s brother Antonio is well played by John Vickery. Plummer’s sure handed gentleness and Ariel’s beaming innocence stick in the mind.

In all: a decent production, albeit a bit leggy.