DANCE WE MUST
The plot can be hot, simply teeming with sex
A gay divorcee who is after her ex
It could be Oedipus Rex
Where a chap kills his father
And causes a lot of bother.
Dietz and Schwartz, ‘That’s Entertainment’
This Sunday afternoon we have our first performance of Coco at Sadler’s Wells, and on Tuesday night Antigone opens at Southwark Playhouse. So it has been a very full, somewhat ‘dichotomous’ week, flitting – via Thameslink and the Jubilee line – between Chanel’s Paris and Sophoclean Thebes. On Friday I sandwiched a rehearsal of Antigone between two sessions of Coco. The day before, I fitted in a haircut to satisfy my two disparate characters – a challenge for any barber, as for any actor. I am still struggling a little with Teiresias – even the smaller parts in these huge Greek tragedies need more maturing and marinating, musing and sheer practice time than is available. But for all our ancient and modern travail in the rehearsal room, the play comes over powerfully; it is wonderfully constructed and moving at the end.
I first played Teiresias thirty-seven years ago in my own production of Euripides’ Bacchae for the Actors’ Company. On the eve of playing the blind seer a second time, and in view of my current unique mergence of Greek tragedy and musical comedy, I append here an extract from Slim Chances on the theme of Bacchic and Broadway choruses:
‘Dance we must,’ says Teiresias and it is important that the play should be almost always on or over the threshold of dance. The chorus certainly dances; even Pentheus, once he is under the god’s spell, is essentially dancing. Only the messengers, gravely, do not dance, and the cessation of any possibility of dance pervades the conclusion of the play with a terrible desolation, so that Dionysus himself has at last an awesome, shocking stillness. He appeared high up in a massive golden cloak and his stillness was accentuated by the curious ecology of the Wimbledon Theatre which invariably caused the stage smoke to hang about him in utterly still streaks of cloud, lit as if in a sinister sunset.
As anybody who has tried knows, the chorus is the most difficult thing to get right in staging Greek tragedy. Harold Hobson, when he saw our production at Wimbledon, declared it far more successful than the National Theatre’s two years earlier; he was particularly impressed with the chorus, believing we had created the requisite Dionysiac spirit as opposed to the Old Vic’s ‘Fraserian savagery’. ‘Yet they do this,’ he said, ‘without manifestly forgetting their civilized origin. They belong to a race which conceivably could have built the Parthenon, or written the lyrics of Sappho.
There is no template for the Bacchic chorus. I’ve explained my acquaintance as a seventeen-year-old drama student with the challenge of the Bacchanal. It was a godsend that Sheila Reid and Helen Cotterill were both singers and could dare to hazard a way of singing some of the chorus’s lines. They adapted the kind of close harmony they used in popular songs. I can hear them boldly singing as no man or woman had ever sung, ‘Thebes you are blest!’, miraculously betraying neither their tune’s nor their harmonic’s origins, nor striking any note of the pretentious.
At the reverie stage of my researches, and in a negative light, I remembered an opera chorus I had seen a long time ago. What struck me about them was that, in spite of their robes, one could too easily imagine them all going prosaically home on the bus afterwards. By contrast, as I write, I am remembering some dancers standing on a sunny street corner in New York in the 1980s, all dressed, it seemed, in their wacky rehearsal wear, but each carrying a change of clothes in a trendy bag; special creatures communicating, not so much in their banter and gossip, but by the way in which they inhabited that piece of sidewalk, but mostly because of the way they inhabited their own bodies. It would not have diminished their collective or individual personalities a jot if they had dispersed by disappearing onto public transport – they were part of the street life after all – but the hours they spent dancing, whilst other New Yorkers went about their business, had marked them.
|Photo by Edward Petherbridge.|
There is, I discover, an unlikely parallel between the ancient chorus at the first performance of The Bacchae two-and-a-half millennia ago, which I have tried to imagine so many times, and the opening number of A Chorus Line, which I have just now revisited on YouTube. I saw the American cast in London and walked as if on air out of the theatre, despairing of ever having anything in common with anyone who did not love the show.
|A performance of A Chorus Line, 1976.
Photo by Martha Swope.
The YouTube audience seemed to have passed, through dint of familiarity with the show, to the status of ecstatic acolytes at a quasi-religious festival; they burst into applause within seconds of the opening number (teams of dancers looking like the ones I saw on the street, auditioning for jobs in a Broadway chorus line), but this was not the only ‘Bacchanalian’ attribute of what I was seeing on the potent little screen. Fate seemed to be a character and a demonic demigod too, a glorious one, driving the dancers to perform heroic terpsichorean feats whilst they found the breath to sing, letting us in to their internal stream of consciousness: ‘I really need this job – please God I need this job,’ recalling Teiresias’ line, ‘Dance we must!’ The audience saw the auditioning dancers as victims of Broadway, superb in their struggle both to beat and join it, and finally – as no one can ever forget who saw the show – triumphant in spangled costumes, singing the praises of some wonder leading lady we could neither see nor care about. They were the apotheosis of the show, celebrating the sacrifice to the God of Broadway, as we were compelled to acknowledge the worship was glorious.
A short video compilation of images from my Actors’ Company production of The Bacchae and its companion pantomime piece, The Beanstalk:
Postscript on Coco
Our wonderful Coco (a role created by Katharine Hepburn) is Sara Kestelman who, incidentally, is featured on the £1 postage stamp in the recently issued Royal Mail commemorative set to celebrate the RSC’s 50th anniversary; she is depicted as Titania in Peter Brook’s production A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970.
Another member of our company is musical veteran Myra Sands, a vivid sartorial presence amid the chilly Victorian stone high Gothic of St Martin’s, Gospel Oak. She rides a bike to and from rehearsal, but does not wear a helmet and needs, she says, to make sure she is seen! She kindly posed for this iPhone photo: