Against the loss of great (as opposed to small) stories…

Interesting reflection from John Lloyd this week on an expression of nationalist pride, which sidesteps the usual stereotypes, and brought Italians into the centre of Florence or three weeks in July and August, at the height of the holiday season to celebrate their own living inheritance in the form of Dante Alighieri epic Divine Comedy written after he was banished from the city. Roberto Benigni, according to Lloyd cut out the middlemen of academia, and re-introduced ordinary Italians to the genius of the poet.

It was an extraordinary evening. A great poem had been at its centre, with a great performer recreating its meaning. It raised the thought: why could this not be done more widely? Why could those who have the talent and the following not take the canonical authors – Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe – and breathe new life into them from a public stage? If we have lost the practice of memorising and reciting, then at least we can have great tragedians, or great comics, do it again for us – to let us see, through their interpretations, something of the essence of these authors. We could have Samuel L. Jackson do Goethe. Gwyneth Paltrow, naturally, Shakespeare. Gerard Depardieu, Cervantes.

This is a real protest – against the loss of memory of the great stories, dramas and poems. It could do some real good: the recovery of a public appreciation of what has become the private pleasure of too few. It could tap that desire (a large one, it would seem, from the standing-room-only performances Benigni mounted) for understanding of texts which had become daunting – indeed, which had become just texts, not stories. And that would be a much more radical act than the blah-blah.

  • Rory

    God! That must have been something to witness. I feel a loss not to have been present.

    I do think though that Lloyd may have been asleep for quite a time. We have had wonderful interpretations of the “greats” by modern artists. I have never seen Romeo and Juliet made more alive than by Baz Luhrman in his screen adaption – and what a cast – apart from young Leonardo we had Brian Dennehy, Glenn Close and Pete Postlethwaite and the whole thing was vibrant, magical and immediate.

    Al Pacino as well has done marvels with Richard III and more recently The Merchant of Venice. I for one am convinced that the American actors have much better been able to interpret Shakespeare than Olivier and Geilgud and Richardson and certainly better than Burton or Hopkins.

    And of course we have Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of The Odyssey. Lear and Othello are constantly being revisited (though I have yet to see a convincing production of MacBeth – the best adaption I have ever seen was a black and white cinema noir gangster adaption, Joe MacBeth with Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman in the leading parts). It’s a part I would love to see Liam Neeson in – he has more than proven his mastery of the stage with his Broadway roles in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Crucible (I read that the Manhattan Ladies who Lunch were squirming in their seats like Meg Ryan, but not faking, during his performance in the latter.

    Anyway, enough from me and perhaps enough from John Lloyd until he looks around and sees the talent and effort at work all around him. Damnit! with a little effort he could even have caught yours truly here as Michael James in a much admired production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Now that would have made him sit up and take notice.

  • Rory

    Erratum re Liam Neeson: That should have read “His performance in the former” i.e. A Streetcar Named Desire.


  • Mick Fealty

    I think he’s highlighting the production’s capacity to draw in ordinary Italians… there’s a great cartoon with it that I might try and put up on my flickr site… which captures perfectly the way in which Shakespeare has been removed from the ordinary by its over veneration…

  • Martin

    I think I would agree, Rory, that the Americans certainly can bring Shakespeare to life on screen far better than anyone from these Islands. Olivier’s Henry V and Richard III look frankly embarrasing when watched today compared with the Romeo and Juliet you reference.

    On stage, however, I think we come into our own though – but I guess it is horses for courses. American actors can interpret for the screen like no-one else because it is so deeply imbedded in their culture. Ango-Celtic interpretations of Shakespeare are far too stage-bound for the screen but we are far better on, well, the stage…

  • Rory

    I take your point, Martin. American screen actors just seem to keep getting better and better. I watched a (not very good) gangster drama some years ago with Brando, De Niro and the young Edward Norton and you could almost see the generational seams. Brando was hammy (in a role that did not call for hamminess), De Niro too studied and Norton just blew your socks away. But one was only alerted to the flaws in each successive older man’s performance by the better technique of the younger (if you see what I mean). De Niro was much better than Brando and Norton outshone both.

    Certainly Anglo/Celts have the advantage in stage experience and particularly in Shakespeare but there is still a lot of excellent attempts on both sides of both little and great ponds at reinterpretation for modern audiences.