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Archive for February 11th, 2010

Three Sisters

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Apparently it was Anton Chekhov’s 150th birthday last Friday. I didn’t notice but I did accidently go to see a production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. This is the only one of his four major plays I’d seen but all those had been fairly traditional productions. This production by Filter is not. As Paul Taylor puts it in the Indy:

Even the finest productions of Chekhov in this country can sometimes make you feel that the English are treating him as an honorary English gentleman and misrepresenting his world as a pre-revolutionary sepia-tinted Edwardian ideal, in that platonic summer-before-the-war that has everything to do with us and little to do with him. So it’s immensely refreshing that the excellent Filter collective have here collaborated with Sean Holmes, the new artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, on a production of Three Sisters that scraps all the pseudo-refinement, the costume-drama safety net and the microclimate of understated realism. But don’t think that they have put on a manual on deconstruction where the mood-swinging bipolar spirit of the play should be or that they have replaced with a set of crude larks the enormous subtlety with which the play orchestrates its shifting conflicted atmospheres and its sense of conversation as the criss-crossing of competing monologues.

This matchs my impressions, the production is much more liberated than any other I’ve seen. It is tempting (but probably stereotyping) to think of it as madly Russian; not bipolar but manic-depressive, jagging between laughter and tears. If this leaves it slightly rough and ready that is part of its charm, althought he splinters so add up.

Guardian critic Michael Billington was perhaps thinking of Taylor’s introduction when he recently wrote:

Mention of The Seagull reminds me of yet another myth currently gaining credence: that English Chekhov productions are full of swooning nostalgia for our own lost rural past. This is rubbish

His own view of this production:

This is certainly not your standard Chekhov. Jointly directed by Sean Holmes and the experimental troupe Filter, it is stripped down, spartan and sonically strange. But while it skirts sentimental cliche and has moments of psychological sharpness, I missed the textured, symphonic realism and emotional fullness of vintage Chekhov productions.

There is something of the world weary critic who has seen it all in both his pieces but Billington actually has positive things to say about pretty much every aspect of the play. The comments are much less generous, including one that says: “Romola Garai was so appalling in Trevor Nunn’s The Seagull that I cannot believe anyone would want to see her as Masha.” I thought she was rather fine, her “sexily anguished Masha” – as Taylor puts it – well matched by “John Lightbody’s ecstatically frustrated Vershinin”. In fact, all the actors where impressive, with the notable exception of Poppy Miller as Olga who was hopelessly emphatic and actorly. It was one of those productions: good in most ways but flawed in all areas, the freshness of some touches tempered by moments of clumsiness which seemed amateurish or, as in the use of the stage technician to play the non-speaking roles, contrived. This was probably the inevitable price for the informality of the piece.

Billington mentions the sound design at length and it is true it was more miss than hit (by the time I saw it they seem to have jettisoned the motif of ‘There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’ that several of the reviews mention). Otherwise the design was excellent. The third act in particular is staged very well, the set clumped into the middle of the otherwise bare stage, the actors occassionally having to break its claustrophobic confines. The customing is also very well-judged: the evolution of the members of the household matched by their clothes, the sharp divide between the soldiers and the ragged civilian men, even Farapont swaddled in his crash helmet (although why is the comic relief always Northern?).

Written by Martin

11 February 2010 at 23:48

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‘Hard Science Fiction’ by David G Hartwell

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There’s no messing about with that title. Unfortunately, the introduction itself is less direct – there is a short introduction to the introduction – and I actually fell asleep during my first attempt. Here goes round two.

As with the other two introductions, there are so many assertions to rebut that it is hard to know where to start. Take, for example, the three paragraph pre-introduction which pre-empts discussion of what hard SF is with discussion of its component parts:

When we read a work of fiction, we test its details against our experience of the nuances and gestures of everyday life… When we read a work of sf, we also test it against our scientific and technical knowledge… The attitude that underpins science fiction is that there is a reality beyond appearances which is knowable through science. (30)

The first sentence is unobjectionable (even if that isn’t the way I would have phrased it), the second sentence I merely disagree with, the third sentence I simply don’t understand. That is to say, if it means anything that I can understand it to say then there is no point saying it.

Then we are into the introduction proper – ‘The Pleasures And Problems Of Hard SF’ – which immediately makes a surprising admission:

This anthology presents examples of the way science functions in science fiction throughout the history and development of the genre… focusing primarily upon the type known as “hard science fiction”. (30)

Putting aside the fact that it is strange that Hartwell feels he needs those quote marks, you will note that the anthology will only focus primarily, not exclusively, on hard SF. This is, let us not forget, a book subtitled “The Evolution Of Hard SF”; what other purpose can it serve?

Returning to the pre-introduction, Hartwell seems to genuinely believe science fiction can simply be cleaved in half into science and fiction. Wondering at the fact The Ascent Of Wonder is the first science fiction anthology to concentrate on hard SF, he muses at the possible reasons:

Perhaps this is because there is a general prejudice among readers who never read science fiction against science in general – science is not fun for them to read – and so it has been traditional for anthologists to emphasize the fictional fun. But not only is the science in science fiction the foundation of science-fictional delights and entertainments, it is in fact chief among those delights. We believe that this needs to be said strongly now (30)

Who is “we”? As a point of housekeeping, Cramer has already had her introduction and – although I would have preferred a joint introduction from the editors (and Benford’s sole contribution to be fictional) – Hartwell is writing as an individual here. As a wider point, Hartwell’s facts aren’t my facts. And just look at that absolutely barking first sentence: people who don’t read SF are prejudiced against science! Not only is it absurd but he seems to have instantly forgotten he was discussing anthologies aimed at SF readers. Christ, I’m only on the first page of the introduction, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

Hartwell embarks on a string of assertions about hard SF which seek not to define it but to highlight its characteristics. Thus we get the oxymoronic suggestion that “Hard sf relies, at some point in the story, on expository prose rather than literary prose, prose aimed at describing the nature of its particular reality.” (31) Because, of course, literary prose would never do that. A remarkable number of his characteristics are, like this one, generally seen as types of bad writing. This doesn’t strike him as a criticism though, he is safe in his binary; hard SF is about science, not fiction. Hartwell soon returns to the idea that if people don’t like hard SF it is not because it is badly written but because of their scientific illiteracy:

one must be able to summon up a basic knowledge of the scientific laws and principles by which our contemporary world is believed to operate. Sad to say, this last condition prevents enjoyment of the work by many otherwise educated and experienced readers (32)

There are eight more pages of this but I’ve made myself depressed and I’ve given myself a crick in the neck from typing those quotes so I am going to stop now before I do myself any further physical or mental damage.

Written by Martin

11 February 2010 at 23:00