littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

An evening with the Z.E.N. Trio

What is the magic that binds a chamber music trio – that causes three individual musicians, on different instruments to play as one? Maybe the answer is love. Each member of this trio lives in a different country – so it is rare to have the opportunity to come together to rehearse. Violinist, Esther Yoo says, ‘Regardless of how little or how much time has elapsed in between our meetings, we are always able to pick up right where we left off. It is quite easy for us to talk for hours, so we have to keep track of time – especially in rehearsals!’ Even with time together being so precious, just like good friends, the trio makes time to go to movies or shopping together and, each being a solo artist, to attend each other’s performances. ‘Z.E.N.’ is an acronym formed with an initial from each trio member, and a philosophical statement about their performance style.

Above everything else, at the concert I attended last Saturday, I was blown away by the music-making of this trio – a combination of utterly brilliant technique (I’m not sure I have ever heard such clear, crisp, brilliant piano work, or such mellowness on the high register notes of the violin) and breathing and performing as one.

Pianist Zhang Zuo is known as Zee Zee. She started her piano studies in Germany at the age of five, then returned to her native China, completing her studies at the Shenzhen Arts School. She was then invited to the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School (New York). She continues to receive guidance from Alfred Brendel. She has made recordings with prestigious orchestras such as the Philharmonia.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan seems to have played with most of the major orchestras of the world. His list of recitals and orchestral performances is most impressive. He was mentored by the late Rostropovich. He has won many awards, including First Prize at the Aram Khachaturian competition. Narek was born in Armenia and in 2017 was awarded the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’.

Violinist Esther Yoo’s interpretation is widely praised. She was born in the US, then was educated in Belgium and Germany – her heritage is Korean. She made her concerto debut at the age of eight.  Esther has performed concertos with celebrated conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. She featured prominently on the soundtrack of the film On Chesil Beach.

Thus each member of Z.E.N. is a virtuoso soloist. I think it’s quite exceptional that as well as being brilliant solo performers they can meld together to create the sublime music we heard on Saturday night.

The first item was a trio by a composer new to me: Arno Babajanian (1921 – 1983). He is Armenian – hence the interest of Narek, the cellist. The piece seemed to me a mixture of some familiar Russian music – Rachmaninoff, for example, although some of the folk melodies captured in the music are, apparently of Armenian origin. I particularly enjoyed the lively third movement, reminiscent (to me) of Kossak dancing.

Matthew Laing

We then had a world première performance. Australian composer Matthew Laing (b 1988) had been commissioned by Musica Viva – Graham Lovelock and Steven Singer – to compose his piece Little Cataclysms. Matthew Laing (who was present at the concert) was able to explain: ‘Piano trios naturally lend themselves to large-scale works, so I wanted to try and recreate that, just in small timeframes’. He said that the music is about ‘intimate, personal disasters in miniature form – like a deep-seeded memory awoken, reimagined changed or unchanged, then gone, where the reimagining informs the memory in the silence that follows’.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Z.E.N.’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op 90, ‘Dumky’. I am familiar with the trio, but this performance brought out aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. So poignant, so majestic and at times, so lively. I wanted to go away with the themes singing in my brain and was momentarily dismayed when, after much applause, I could see that the trio planned to play an encore. I didn’t want to tarnish the beautiful memory of the Dumky. The encore was the well-known Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d never heard it played like this. Such rippling joy! It was a fitting end to this memorable evening.

Z.E.N. Trio with Matthew Laing

Come Rain or Come Shine

This play, based closely on a short story of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, was performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It received mixed reviews. I liked it very much.

Ishiguro’s story is in an anthology, Nocturnes, published in 2009. The stories all have musical themes. The text of the play follows the short story almost punctiliously — much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the story. Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, reviewing in The Guardian, summed it up: ‘an entertaining, if occasionally disappointing, way to spend a couple of hours’. She found the songs ‘unmemorable’ and the play ends ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/jun/27/come-rain-or-come-shine-review-a-fine-cast-shines-in-tim-finns-clunky-musical

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and I obviously have very different musical tastes. I find American jazz songs such as ‘Georgia on my Mind’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ some of the memorable, most beautiful music I have ever heard. The title of the play (and story), ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ is the title of a song (the theme of which is, I’ll love you forever, no matter what) and when they are at university, friends Ray (played by Angus Grant) and Emily (played by Gillian Cosgriff) argue about whether Ray Charles’ version of the song is superior to Sarah Vaughan’s. And I think this is what Ishiguro is saying about friendships forged during the formative undergraduate years of university — no matter what you do in life, that bond of friendship will be there. Ray and Emily, as undergrads, seem as close as close can be — they dance to the music, they argue about it, they love it — and (although this isn’t said in the story) maybe the friendship would be sullied if it were to become sexual — maybe Ray senses this. He looks at Emily as though he is in love with her. They dance, they snuggle together on the sofa.

Ray and Emily

As happens, Charlie (played by Chris Ryan), Ray’s flatmate at university ends up marrying Emily. There is a poignant song, written by Tim Finn, which Ray sings as best man at their wedding. All of the music is brilliantly handled. It is a combination of old recordings of Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland and music composed by Tim Finn, played by an on stage band. As Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in The Guardian acknowledges: ‘The small band, under the musical direction of Jack Earle, is terrific, supple and evocative; their presence is glimpsed rather romantically through the slats of an apartment upstairs’. What no one else mentions is that the performed music segues seamlessly into the recorded music and vice versa — it must have been so difficult for the on stage band to be perfectly in tune with the recordings of Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles — but they are.

In my experience, those friendships made at university are lifelong. Inevitably, everyone turns out differently — the corporate lawyers in their BMWs, and writer/ researchers like me on their bicycles. But there is a lasting understanding — and even after years apart the friendship picks up and continues. By the time they are in their late forties, Emily and Charlie are consumed by the corporate rat race — they see Ray (who is an ESL teacher) as a bit of a loser and they imagine that they can reform him. Charlie imagines that if Ray stays with Emily for a few days she will come to appreciate that, in comparison, he is a great success and their marriage, which is shaky, will blossom once again. But these things won’t happen and no matter that Emily might write ‘groan’ in her notebook when she knows Ray is coming to stay, we know that in the longterm, nothing will change.

For me, what is perhaps intended to be the climax of the play, is maybe its weakest point. Ray finds it hard to stand up for himself and when it is going to be clear that he has been sneaking a look at Emily’s notebook that she left on the kitchen table, he goes, with Charlie’s prompting, along with what they hope will be an elaborate cover-up. He has to end up wrecking Charlie and Emily’s pristine London apartment pretending to be an unwelcome dog. Of course, Emily arrives home before the act is complete and assumes Ray has ‘lost it’. But they are soon relaxing with glasses of Bordeaux and then, prior to much tidying up being done, they are in each others’ arms dancing…

The Guardian review sums this up as: ‘What’s meant to be absurd realism plays out as a confused and confusing comedy of errors’. No — I expect the dog-wrecking routine (also in the short story) is there to add some drama and some humour. It helps to highlight weak aspects of Ray’s character. And Giselle says that the play ends, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. How does it end? I don’t have before me the exact words of the play, but it faithfully follows the short story, where Emily and Ray are arm in arm dancing to Sarah Vaughan’s version of ‘April in Paris’. And, in Ray’s voice: ‘for another few minutes at least, we were safe, and we kept dancing under the starlit sky.’

I believe that says a great deal about friendship. Ray and Emily will always have that bond, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’.

A CONCERT: SOUNDS OF WAR

This is, sadly, an appropriate time for a concert entitled ‘Sounds of War’, which opened the Australian National Academy of Music Chamber Music Festival on Friday 24th June.

Three works were performed. I was familiar with two of them: Stravinsky, L’histoire du soldat (a Soldier’s Tale) and Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The other work, Janȧček’s Capriccio, chamber music featuring piano written for the left hand, was new to me.

The Stravinsky is written with a libretto, based on a Russian folk tale where a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil in return for wealth. The piece was premièred near the end of World War I. On this occasion it was played purely as a piece of chamber music for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass. The strange combination of instruments (strings at either end of the pitch range, one single reed and one double reed wind instrument) gives a devilish timbre to the music. The ANAM students performed this superbly, without a conductor — the clear, precise rhythms brilliantly executed. The playing was so expressive that there seemed no need for a narrator or an outline of the story.

I’ve never been drawn to Janȧček’s music, but I can only say I was gobsmacked by the Capriccio. In the end Janȧček wrote it for pianist Otakar Hollman, who lost the use of his right hand during World War I. Hollman joined left-armed pianist Wittgenstein in seeking the composition of more works that could be played by unfortunate victims of the war. Apparently Janȧček was initially reluctant to oblige, saying it would be like creating a dance for a person with one leg. He apparently labelled this resulting work Vzdor, meaning ‘defiance’ and although there are various ways this might be interpreted it did seem to me that the work is so fiendishly difficult that Janȧček may have intentionally placed further barriers before the aspiring pianist. To his great credit, ANAM student Leo Nguyen played the part superbly. The piano doesn’t always have the lead but when it does, the left hand must execute rippling arpeggios, scales and trills over the full compass of the instrument. The extraordinary instrumentation adds to the uncanny, at times spine-chilling outcome: flute, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone and euphonium.

The final work, Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It is believed that these were the instruments available to Messiaen when he was in a German prison camp during World War II. The lack of solo piano parts in the piece may be because the Germans provided a poor quality piano. In 2014, at the Edinburgh Festival, I had attended a talk by Peter Hill, an emeritus professor and well-recognised interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music who worked closely with the composer before his death in 1992. Hill suggested that Messiaen wrote a work to transcend war, looking to eternity and the life beyond. Before his capture by the Germans Messiaen was a medical orderly at Verdun. (He had poor eyesight and was therefore assigned a non combative role.) He chose to go on watch at an unpopular time, the early hours of the morning, so that he could hear the bird call, which he transcribed. The third movement of this piece is: Abîme des oiseaux. Peter Hill pointed out that in this work the end of time is literal as well as figurative. In the final movement, as the piece slows to the end, it becomes so very slow that it kind of runs out of rhythm. It is infinite slowness. Thus, the end of time.



Macedon Music in Late Autumn

I have written before about the beautiful setting of Lowland Farm Mount Macedon for chamber music concerts. Yesterday we had the first concert for about 2 years, thanks to Covid. A tranquil, crisp late autumn afternoon and beautiful music from the Seraphim Trio (Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayers and Tim Nankervis), joined by violist Christopher Moore.

The first item (for piano, violin, viola and cello) was by a composer I hadn’t heard of, Dora Pejačević (1885 — 1923) who in fact was a Croatian countess: Countess Maria Theodora Paulina. Her landmark composition seems to have been her Symphony in F sharp minor, considered to be the first modern Croatian symphony. She was also the first Croatian composer to write a concerto (for piano). A film has been made of her (partly fictionalised) life: Countess Dora, 1993.

On this occasion we heard Pejačević’s Piano Quartet in D minor, Op. 25. Four fairly conventional movements: Allegro, Adagio, Minuetto/ Allegretto/ Trio, and a final Rondo/Allegro. From the opening strains of the first movement this was clearly a late Romantic piece — lyrical and contrasting themes, returning from time to time so that they sang in my head as I was transported to my imaginary early 20th century aristocratic Croatia — a drawing room after a dinner of several courses. The liveliness of the final movement was conveyed by spirited pizzicato. Pejačević also wrote many lieder, piano solos and chamber music, mainly for strings and piano.

Dora Pejačević

My favourite work on this program, by Brett Dean (b 1961) had been commissioned by the Seraphim Trio. Dean seems in touch with and able to express significant elements of our present lives, such as climate change, palliative care, and now Covid. This piece of nine interconnected short movements was written in London when Dean was recovering from and sheltering from Covid, having caught it in the relatively early days of the pandemic (March 2020). Most of the short movements of this piece were characterised by a bouyant rhythmic drive — energetic and optimistic, but there was also a stillness, shade and depth, such as in a middle section that was a tribute to Dean’s teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, John Curro. And in another of these sections of quieter profundity we had the chilling confrontation of playgrounds without children.

Brett Dean

The final item on the program was Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor K478 and as we listened, we could see, through the expansive windows, a golden autumnal sunset.

Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, Melbourne Theatre Company

When I was attending my privileged independent school in Melbourne I genuinely thought that it was good to make toffees to sell at our stall to help support a mission school for poor Aboriginal children up in the Northern Territory. I thought that we should try to give them something that approximated our own education. It didn’t strike me until decades later that we could learn a huge amount from the First Australians — indeed, their relationship with and knowledge of the land is integral to our attempts to understand and try to navigate the world out of the disasterous consequences of climate change.

Joshua Harmon

Members of the Melbourne Theatre Company audience are very much a replica of the people this play is about: mainly white, well educated, middle class, with ‘progressive’ opinions. Indeed, in the play all of the actors are white — we never see the people of colour who are, we are told, a significant part of their lives.

Admission Manager’s Office

The setting for the play is Hillcrest, an elite, New Hampshire boarding school. The stage set shows a library of oak bookshelves holding 19th century tomes and the admissions manager’s office has solid antique furniture. In the first scene, a teacher is reprimanded by the admissions manager for producing a prospectus that ‘looks too white’ — she is trying to build up ‘diversity’, which means attracting more students of colour. But as the play progresses we come to realise that it is the ‘look’ that is important rather than the values.

Charlie argues with his parents

Everything blows up and truths seep out when a Hillcrest student of colour is accepted into Yale and the admissions manager’s son (who is white and got good grades) is not. Charlie, the son, brilliantly played by William McKenna, is initially put out by the news — in the usual rivalling way when a friend wins something and you don’t. But then he decides that he doesn’t want to go to a prestigious college and he wants the money his parents would have spent on his Yale education to go towards a scholarship so that some less privileged student can attend Hillcrest. His parents absolutely refuse. There is no way that they will accede or even listen to their son’s arguments. In a typical privileged way the mother starts to make enquiries and pull some strings totally against her son’s wishes. It is far more important to the parents that their son go to Yale than that a student of colour get a scholarship to Hillcrest.

William McKenna

Would I do the same thing if I had a son who didn’t get into Yale? I hope not — but I have a sneaking feeling that I might be torn towards such behaviour, or I might just offer some token donation to salve my conscience. Altogether a brilliant play.

Syzygy Ensemble: a concert of four world premières

I’ve written a post about the Syzygy Ensemble before, but that was back in March 2020, the last concert they gave before we plunged into the thick of Covid-19, lockdowns, and very little work for artists. How exciting to attend this concert two years later — to hear that their superb music-making is as good as ever inspite of the drought of performance opportunties, and to experience four world première performances, all composed since that concert of two years ago.

The concert was entitled ‘Revive’. As pianist Leigh Harrold says in his program notes, ‘We’ve been here before’. In other words, the ensemble has been trying/ hoping to put together a concert for some time and with so many set-backs — new strains of the virus, new regulations, there’d been a feeling of cynisism as to whether the concert would ever eventuate. Congratulations Syzygy — it was a memorable evening.

Zinia Chan

Recently I’ve been fascinated by writers and composers I’ve come across who draw their inspiration from the study of plants. In this case, in Weaving Threads, composer Zinia Chan draws parallels between the relationships of fungus and plants and the symbiotic nature of human relationships. Chan says, ‘I wanted to explore the current time and also the importance of human connection and to draw the comparison between the Mycorrhiza network and humans; how although trees are seemingly separated and distanced, they are in fact connected through a mass of thin threads, known as mycelium (fugus).’ Her music explored these connections. It had been commissioned for Melbourne Recital Centre by Jane Kunstler.

The piece that bowled me over for the evening was by Australian/ British composer Keyna Wilkins. The program notes told us that Keyna’s music is characterised by a fascination with astronomy, First Nations culture, jazz, dance forms and intuitive improvisation. Her piece, Virago(meaning female warrior), celebrates women leaders. Keyna had taken four contemporary leading women and short sound bites of their speeches were incorporated into the composition: Greta Thunberg ‘We will not let you get away with this…’,

Greta Thunberg

Grace Tame ‘Share your truth it is your power…’,

Grace Tame

Jacinda Ardern ‘It takes courage and strength to be empathetic and I’m very proudly an empathetically-driven leader…’

Jacinda Ardern

and Angela Merkel ‘Anything that seems to be set in stone or unalterable can, indeed, change…’ The music reflected the energy and wisdom of these words.

Angela Merkel

Another favourite for me was a piece that had been especially composed for Syzygy and commissioned by the Echo Commission, founding donor, Dr Rosalind Page. Composed by Anthony Moles, The Tower, celebrates Sydney’s inner west, in particular the Petersham Reservoir, which is an interesting structure where a kind of nested tower structure is built over the old, covered, reservoir of 1888. The tower also depicts a tarot card — a tower with no obvious entrance. There was vibrancy and energy in the music — strength in the face of adversity — destruction of the old and emergence of the new. The piece is written in memory of composer Louis Andriessen.

Anthony Moles

The final item by Cyrus Meurant was also a memorial, commissioned by writer and former ABC producer Mark Wakely for his dear friend Steven Alward. To me, the music was a little more conventional than the other items but was nevertheless a beautiful tribute, with inspiration from Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, each movement depicting the crossing of a sea: The light that glows on the sea waves — Love, Amduat — Loss and Our different worlds — Transformation.

Steven Alward
Cyrus Meurant

A CONCERT OF SHOSTAKOVICH AND BEETHOVEN

Dmitri Shostakovich

This concert was performed in the Adelaide Town Hall as a part of the Musica Viva program. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Shostakovich programming seemed highly appropriate. More poignant when the brilliant Russian pianist, Konstantin Shamray, gave a short opening speech saying that whereas some of his fellow countrymen were afraid to speak out against Putin, he was not.

Konstantin Shamray

The programming seemed appropriate to me because I associate Shostakovich with quiet, underlying rebellion. In 1934 he wrote an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite early success, Lady Macbeth became the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich’s music  by the Communist Party in early 1936. After this, much of the music he wrote seems superficially celebratory – supposedly celebrating the great success of the Soviet government, but there is underlying discord. For me, this is the case with Shostakovich’s one piano quintet. The program notes state that this piece ‘lacks the autobiographical references and the touches of irony which can be identified in many of his other pieces’. I disagree. The third movement is a Scherzo – which suggests ‘playful’. But this is not entirely in joyful major chords – every-so-often it is slightly off key.  It is, in fact, one of my favourite pieces of music. The same happens in the energetic finale. It was wonderful to hear this executed by the Australian String Quartet and the fantastic technique of Konstantin Shamray. The program was rounded off with the Third Razumovsky Quartet of Beethoven.

Australian String Quartet

Le Coq d’Or

Composer Rimsky-Korsakov

The opera, The Golden Cockerel, was performed at the Adelaide Festival. The music is by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). It was directed by Barrie Kosky. How could anyone have known, when programming this opera, of the present situation in Ukraine? Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – it is a political satire about Tsar Nicholas II, who was deposed in 1917 and assassinated in 1918. Tsarist censors forbad performance until 1909, so Rimsky-Korsakov died without witnessing a performance of this work. And further irony – the part of the Tsar on this occasion in Adelaide was sung by Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka and other lead characters, such as the tsarina he falls in love with, are Russian.

The ineffective tsar goes off to war

The music reminded me of Scheherazade, with melodies wafting like those from one thousand and one nights – many beautiful woodwind themes. The libretto was inspired by a Pushkin tale. The main focus is a stupid old tsar, who falls in love with the tsarina of one of the countries he wants to conquer – she makes fun of his bumbling love-making.

The one set was stunning. It reminded me of the Sorrento surf beach – no sea but what seemed like sand dunes with tussock grass, a driftwood-like tree at the top of which perched the silvery golden cockerel who warns the tsar when his country is in danger. I’ve never before seen a performance of this opera, but I expect that the chorus of soldiers is usually outfitted in colourful military uniforms. In this case, the soldiers wore horseheads – all dark grey. There was little colour, and this was effective reminding us of a sombre side as the tsar made his foolish and ultimately abortive attempts to rule. I was surprised that over the two hours (without interval) the set didn’t change. But I guess there was no need for anything more than an oppressive backdrop.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan

I admit that I can remember when, 50 years ago, a homosexual university lecturer drowned when thrown into the River Torrens. No one has been convicted of this crime. It was whispered that he was on a notorious gay beat – I’m not even sure that we used the word ‘gay’ then. Now there is an oratorio commemorating this event. The music is by Australian composer Joe Twist and the libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas.

An oratorio rather than an opera is appropriate (quite apart from requiring less stage space). It provides a certain reverence and restraint – there’s some action, but also the Adelaide Chamber Singers who, in a subdued choir-like way sing: ‘The night’s offerings are of sweat and spit and cum’. In those days gay sex was illegal, all very hush hush. Dr Ian Duncan (he used the name Ian, not George) was a quiet, studious loner who had recently taken up a post at the Law School of the University of Adelaide. The curtain rises to an ingenious set with a foreground of water and a screen onto which are projected appropriate images – photographs of the scene and newspaper accounts. A Jesus-like man descends on a cable – crucified, I wonder?

Back in the 1970s, even the New Scotland Yard Report describes the incident as a ‘frolic’ gone wrong. And there’s some lyrics about whether or not ‘faggots’ can float. There seems to be absolutely no respect for queer love.

I left the Dunstan Theatre thinking, on the one hand, of how far we have come from those days of clandestine whisperings: Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, etc… and that Dr Duncan’s death – the death of an academic – at least motivated these developments. But then I was absolutely gutted to think of all those young men who drowned in the river in complete anonymity. As the lyrics say, only the river remembers their names.

My only reservation about this oratorio is that it is very localised. It has a message that is pretty much universal, but would it work in Melbourne or Sydney, let alone New York or London?

Leopoldstadt: A National Theatre film of the play by Tom Stoppard

Leopoldstadt is about a Jewish family in Vienna across six decades, it has been filmed live on stage in London’s West End.

Although he had always known he was Jewish, Stoppard found out only in the 1990s that he was ‘fully Jewish’ and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps. The play is not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play. In an interview with the director, Patrick Marber, Stoppard says that it felt like ‘unfinished business’.

https://www.onthetown.net.au/national-theatre-lives-interview-with-top-stoppard-about-leopoldstadt/

Tom Stoppard

Stoppard’s mother died in 1996. The family had not talked about their history and Tom didn’t know what had happened to the family left behind in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, he found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in TerezinAuschwitz and other concentration camps, along with three of his mother’s sisters.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a factory owner and baptised Jew now married to a Catholic, has moved up in the world. In the play we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews, those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust.

1938

Rather than a play with a plot, this is a narrative of a Jewish family group in Vienna over the period 1900 to 1955. The main set is the drawing room of a well-to-do family. There are five acts, occurring in the years 1899, 1900, 1925, 1938 and 1955.

  • 1899 This is the family Christmas (complete with Christmas tree).
  • 1900 One of women takes an unrequited fancy to a cavalry officer whom she meets at tea with a family member. And that family member succeeds (secretly) in having an affair with the officer, subsequently producing a son.
  • 1925 Post-war conversations and circumcision celebrations (the mother vacillating between whether or not her infant son should be put through this rite – ultimately it is carried out).
  • 1938 The year of the Anschluss. The family’s home is requisitioned by the Nazis and the family must leave to be transported the following day, taking limited possessions.
  • 1955 Post war gathering, with a diminished cast, many having died in The Holocaust.
1955

I had been unsure of how I would cope with this film of a play, having been put off by early (1950s) films of Shakespearean plays and films of opera where the camera is aimed fairly statically to the centre of the stage. A movie of The Magic Flute where these constraints are thrown aside (I think it was the one directed by Ingmar Bergman) proved to be an exception. For some reason that I find hard to articulate (Stoppard’s brilliance, probably) I feel that the filming of this play was superb. To have conceived this as a film where we might see the family in all appropriate contemporary trappings moving through the first half of the twentieth century would have had far less impact. We are with the (changing) family in their living room for over two hours, from the children’s excited preparations for Christmas in 1899 (the family’s liberal blending of Judaism and Christianity conveyed brilliantly when a young child places a star of David at the top of the Christmas tree), to the diminished gathering in 1955. When necessary we are reminded of significant events such as Kristallnacht with sound effects.

According to Stoppard the play ‘took a year to write, but the gestation was much longer. Quite a lot of it is personal to me, but I made it about a Viennese family so that it wouldn’t seem to be about me.’

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