Thursday, 12 May 2016

We Can Be Heroines

How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much  by Samantha Ellis 

After an argument over which Brontë sister (Charlotte or Emily) wrote the best novels, Samantha Ellis decides to revisit all the novels she read in which she found the heroines from her younger days. Approaching them as an adult she asks who has the better heroines, and to what are they teaching girls to aspire? It transpires the answer is mainly marriage and motherhood. “All the heroines’ stories seemed to end in death or marriage.”

As a child she read fairytales, in which the heroines are usually passive princesses waiting to be rescued by a man. In these stories mothers are evil, jealous harridans, and mature women are bitter, ugly old crones. Angela Carter delightfully subverts these themes in her re-imagining of the tales in The Bloody Chamber, which Ellis read with glee.

She intersperses the literary critiques with anecdotes from her family history, outlining her feelings of displacement and her struggles to fit in. She notes that the stories from her childhood were no longer satisfactory as she grew up. Whereas she identified with the feisty heroines, many of whom were creative types, she was horrified to find that Anne of Green Gables and Jo March (Little Women) both give up their writing when they eventually get married to devote themselves to ‘family life’. Instead she found herself attracted to Shakespeare’s characters, who resisted their families and broke society’s rules.

Her undergraduate reading reintroduced the notion of female passivity and that suffering had value – all the heroines did it, and it ennobled them. From Clarissa by Samuel Richardson to Miss Julie by August Strindberg or Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, all these noble women suffered terribly for their dignity, and it doesn’t go unnoticed that all these beatific portraits are written by men. Once again she turned to theatre and its inherent vitality. She loved her theatrical heroines and their environment in which there was a lot of superficiality, but also “people who were open about their ambitions, ready to live with thin skins and open hearts”.

It seems that Ellis has fallen out of love with Cathy, and has changed her mind about her heroine. “Back then, I wanted my heroines to show me new ways to be, like heedless, selfish Cathy. I didn’t want heroines who mirrored my own anxieties too accurately. But maybe I’ve changed. Or at least: maybe I’m changing.” She concludes that our tastes change as we grow older, which is natural and perfectly acceptable. “I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time.”

Maybe we read to learn things; maybe we read to escape; maybe we read to find new characters and role models; maybe we just read. And if our reasons to do so, and the characters we admire change from time to time, that seems perfectly understandable too.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Shady Russian Dealings

Sonya(Yanina Clifton); Marina (Alice Ferguson); Vanya (Jerry Hearn); Yelena (Lainie Hart)

Uncle Vanya

Canberra Repertory TheatreTheatre 3

29 April – 14 May, 2016

Director Geoffrey Borny makes much in the programme about the humour in Chekov. He claims the dark view that the Russian’s plays are gloomy affairs is a radical misinterpretation. Choosing to work with David Mamet’s fresh translation, he brings out many shades of light and dark, and subtle nuances are a relief as the play zips along under his capable stewardship.

The laughs drawn from the audience are often at what might be considered to be the blackest moments, such as when Sonya (Yanina Clifton) agonises, “We are all desperately unhappy”, or when Vanya (Sam Hannan-Morrow) is driven so far to frustration that he attempts to shoot Serebryakov (twice) and misses (twice). We are amused, rather than touched by people feeling sorry for themselves and moaning about their plight instead of doing anything about it. Serebryakov (Jerry Hearn) in particular strikes several Eeyore-like poses, and, although he is a ghastly old grump, he is a comic one.

Sam Hannan-Morrow works hard to elicit our sympathies in the titular role. His self-pity is deliberately tedious, but he mines the pathos of his anger and his feelings of rejection. He falls in love with Yelena (Lainie Hart), the young wife of Serebryakov, who is his brother-in-law, having previously married Vanya’s sister. The image of Vanya as an unrequited suitor with a bunch of winter roses is quite heart-breaking, and his understated depression is genuinely affecting. The local doctor, Astrov (Jim Adamik) is also in love with Yelena, and so visits the house much more than his professional capacities should allow. Meanwhile, Sonya, Vanya’s niece and the daughter of Serebryakov, is in love with Astrov, but he doesn’t notice her because she is plain, although she has the proverbial “beautiful hair”.

Astrov attempts to seduce Yelena with his passion for the environment. When he explains the rampant deforestation and the effects it will have on future generations it echoes his own behaviour in acting rashly for immediate gratification with no thought to the consequences. This and his realisation that he has been a fool at the dénouement are Adamik’s best scenes, as his passion is much more convincing than his comedy.

Sonya understands his work, because she has hangs on his every word. Working on the land, she understands that all of nature is connected and that we are bound by our ecosystems, whereas the vapid Yelena has no interest in anything that requires thought or philosophy. The men don’t care for brains, however; they are all in thrall to youth and beauty. Although fresh-faced and dowdily dressed, Yanina Clifton glows on stage: she may be plain (without make-up) but her expressions are gorgeous and make her eminently watchable. Her calm strength and dignity are justly rewarded in the final scene as she delivers the climactic monologue with resolute conviction.

Yelena is described repeatedly as idle, languid and lazy, yet Lainie Hart flits across the stage with none of the indolence with which she is frequently credited. She is dashing and dramatic, flirtatious and restless, and we feel her pent-up dissatisfaction and irritation with her husband. When Sonya admits her love for Astrov to Yelena, the confession is more like a daughter to a mother than an understanding between friends. Similarly, Yelena’s meeting with Astrov, after being made aware of her step-daughter’s feelings comes across as spiteful rather than innocent. Youth and its passing is a major theme, so the miscasting of ages obscures the message. Similarly, Sam Hannan-Morrow is clearly not the 47 years that are mentioned at least three times in the play, and his constant references to stagnating in old age are not credible.

Times are changing and people don’t necessarily like change when it is forced upon them. Vanya and Sonya look after the estate, which belonged to Vanya’s sister until her death, when it passed to her husband, Serebryakov. When he suggests selling up and turning them out, his complete lack of comprehension at their distress is resonant with absentee landlords everywhere. Serebryakov stays up all night writing books that regurgitate other people’s opinions – Vanya tells him, “You know nothing of art because you have no soul.” To add to his anguish, Vanya’s mother (played with intelligence and restraint by Antonia Kitzel), adores Serebryakov, respects his pedantry, and herself writes pamphlets that nobody reads.  

The family lead dull and boring lives. They eat and drink and sleep, and follow a rigid routine of sandwiches and samovars, and are terrifically unsettled when this banal schedule is interrupted. The aesthetics of this life are beautiful from the set (Andrew Kay) to the costumes (Heather Spong), but empty. It is left to the servants to provide the depth, and the richest images are drawn from the land; when the men fight, the nanny, Marina, refers to them as a gaggle of cackling geese. Alice Ferguson imbues Marina with a warmth and assurance, which implies continuity; the delightfully simple Telegin (Neil McLeod) is happy when he sees a job done well, and even the workman, Yefim (Jonathan Pearson) has a solidly enduring presence.

Those who do the physical labour are the true heart of the country. Passing passions are fleeting, but solid foundations will endure. As a doctor and an activist, Chekov understood the importance of true substance over superficial artifice; as a director, Geoffrey Borny does too. The basic humanity of this production is without doubt; it may well be worthy, but it is also well worth seeing.