Monday, September 26, 2005

ambushed by the unexpected - again

The arts column: ambushed by the unexpected - again
(Filed: 07/09/2005)

Does anyone else remember a silly-season story some time ago about a little old lady who had seen the film of The Sound of Music a record-breaking 643 times? She lived in Southampton, I recall, and went to the cinema every afternoon after a light lunch at the Kardomah café.

I've probably got the details wrong, but she's a figure who haunts me, for two reasons. One is that by accident rather than design I am probably the only person in the world who has never seen The Sound of Music. The other is that, to a lesser degree, I suffer from her affliction - if I like what I see, hear or read, I want to experience it over again, the sooner the better. In fact, I'd far rather go back than risk something new.

As a professional critic, I'm fortunate in being able to indulge myself in this foible - not just because I have the money to do so, but because I can tell myself it's part of my job. Once is never enough; once can never do justice. Virginia Woolf used to read every book she reviewed twice: the first time surrendering to the author, the second questioning every point and not letting him or her get away with anything. It's a practice that every critic should follow.

The point about the return visit is not the infantile pleasure of repetition, but the possibility of surprise. A good work of art never stays quite the same: it ambushes you, outwits you. A first exposure can provide the primitive excitement of wanting to know what happens next, a second provides the opportunity to register details, a third brings a sense of the underpinning joints and girders that make up the structure. And so it goes on.

Live performance has a particular protean power. I've read Mansfield Park five times, and must have watched Sunset Boulevard at least twice that; I've been nipping into the National Gallery to look at Goya's haunting portrait of Wellington since I was a teenager. But in certain respects they remain what they are, essentially static: I may change, but they don't. In the theatre or concert hall, however, art is brought to life by an unpredictable element of human fallibility and circumstantial chance that can make each encounter substantially different.

Recently, for example, I've seen Phyllida Lloyd's superb production of Schiller's Mary Stuart three times. Because of nuances in the way that Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer play their roles, the first time I was totally carried away by Mary's plight, while at the second I sympathised with Elizabeth's realpolitik. The third time proved even more interesting, because a cynical student audience laughed uproariously and turned tragedy into black comedy.

Actors, incidentally, are very interesting on the subject of repetition. Contrary to popular belief, there's no such thing as autopilot on stage, simply a matter of good performances and bad, with the latter dominating the longer the run, and lightning often striking the evening after the dry run of a matinée.

A production remains a sensitive organism right to the end, which is why I much admire the director Deborah Warner for sitting through almost every performance of her shows, always ready to fine-tune.

Repetition can pall, of course. The process isn't infinite. I sometimes have the feeling that I've scraped the bottom of the barrel, even if it contains a masterpiece. It's as though a conversation stops. I'm afraid I currently have nothing further to ask of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

It's told me all its jokes and played all its tricks, I've examined its nooks and crannies. No more surprises, so farewell. I wonder if that little old lady in Southampton ever got fed up with Julie Andrews and moved on to The Godfather.

Occasionally, too, one witnesses something realised at such a degree of perfection that nothing else can measure up. Twelfth Night has been complete for me ever since I saw Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in John Barton's production about 35 years ago, and after Die Walküre this summer at Covent Garden, I don't think I can ever hear another Sieglinde without the ghost of Waltraud Meier interposing itself.

But there's so much with which I still have unfinished business - works of art which, as one feeds one's own developing experience into them, elude one's grasp as they alter their shape and meaning, as well as those whose perfection one continually contemplates.

I shall never fathom the mystery of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, I shall never tire of the Kingdom of the Shades scene in Petipa's La Bayadère. Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety: they are my life's benchmarks, and among my dearest friends.


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