Sunday, February 5, 2012

War: What Is It Good For?

The glorification of war has been a life-long pursuit for many writers. Whether lionizing a military figure like Alexander the Great or General George S. Patton, the cult of the warrior hero has always been a safe place to anchor a story.

Yet there is great folly to be found in waging a war from which no one emerges triumphant. In 1963, Joan Littlewood created a satirical musical revue entitled Oh, What A Lovely War! which featured such popular World War I songs as "Belgium Put The Kibosh on the Kaiser," "It's A Long Way To Tipperary," "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag," 'Keep The Home Fires Burning," and "The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling." The first verse of 1917's "Oh! It's A Lovely War" reads as follows:
"Up to your waist in water, up to your eyes in slush,
Using the kind of language that makes the Sergeant blush.
Who wouldn't join the army? That's what we all inquire.
Don't we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire."
The following clip from 1968's Star! finds Julie Andrews (as the young Gertrude Lawrence) and a chorus of music hall girls performing the song's popular refrain:

Although I saw a performance of Littlewood's show when it reached Broadway in 1964, I was too young and naive to appreciate its satire. Last year, BlackEyed Theatre toured its production of Oh! What A Lovely War around Great Britain.

When Richard Attenborough brought Littlewood's show to the silver screen, he did a splendid job of directing the Christmas Truce of 1914 for the film.

Unfortunately, war never really goes out of fashion. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is gearing up for this spring's special screenings of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece, Napoleon.

Meanwhile, two works about the impact of war (written by two of England's greatest playwrights) are being presented to Bay area audiences. Surprisingly, each work seems quite a bit different from what one might have imagined it to be.

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For decades, high school students have been introduced to the plays of William Shakespeare through study guides for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and occasionally A Midsummer Night's Dream. No one in their right mind would have thought that the strongest way to capture a young audience's imagination might be through the lesser-known tragedy of Coriolanus (which was written early in the 17th century).

But Coriolanus has everything young students can relate to: blood and guts, hatred and destruction, a lust for power, and the ability to reflect today's gruesome political realities. Magnificently reconceived and directed by Ralph Fiennes (who stars as the brilliant military general who is lacking in political skills), this new adaptation uses Shakespeare's language in a tightly condensed screenplay by John Logan that grips the audience by the throat within the film's first 20 seconds and never lets go.

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) listens to the pleas of his mother,
Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in the thrilling new adaptation
of Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Fiennes (who played Coriolanus onstage in 2000) knows the character intimately and has a thorough understanding of Shakespeare's script. As he explains in the film's production notes:
"I believe that Shakespeare is in so many respects extraordinarily modern. Taking aside the question of the language, what's happening in Shakespeare's stories is always relevant -- they’re active as stories. Whether it's a comedy about love; or it's about a young student who can't make up his mind about what he should do about the death of his father; or it's a tragedy about a man who's constantly killing to get his way to the top: everything Shakespeare describes is going on right now. Coriolanus, particularly, is always going to be pertinent because the power plays of politics will always be with us. Structurally, and in terms of vocabulary, there is an expressiveness and athleticism in the original that, I would argue, you couldn’t achieve in modern speech. It’s a difficult part to play in the theater because his rage erupts many times and it’s challenging, vocally, to find the variation within the rage. But on film, I believed the interior life of Coriolanus could be explored and what is not said could be as meaningful as a speech."
Poster art for Coriolanus
"With Coriolanus, Shakespeare takes a really hard-ass man who despises the people and makes him the protagonist (which I think is thrilling, dramatically). Coriolanus comes into the opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I think we in the audience decide we don't like this guy based on that simple fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave, almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn’t want it at the same time."
Menenius (Brian Cox), Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), and General
Cominius (John Kani) stride through the halls of power in Coriolanus.

Shot in and around Belgrade, Serbia, Coriolanus (in which Fiennes makes a smashing debut as a film director) has been updated to modern times. Rather than the Rome that is romanticized by the tourism industry, the film's depiction of Rome resembles any modern city in which there is a dangerous gap between the poor and the wealthy. Cell phones, computer monitors, and graffiti are everywhere; television "pundits" are often seen delivering text that might otherwise have been spoken by minor characters in Shakespeare's tragedy.

Gerard Butler costars as Tullus Aufidius,
the bitter enemy of Coriolanus

To his credit, Fiennes has assembled an astonishingly strong supporting cast that features Vanessa Redgrave as his mother Volumnia, Jessica Chastain as his wife Virgilia, Gerard Butler as his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius, Paul Jesson as Brutus, and Brian Cox as the politician, Menenius. The use of Serbian locations to represent a war-torn capital works brilliantly.

Over the years, I've seen many of Shakespeare's plays (and operas based on Shakespeare's plays) updated to different historical periods in a director's attempt to make these classics more relevant to modern audiences. Simply stated, it doesn't get any better than Fiennes's film adaptation of Coriolanus.

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Famous for his comedies about the double standards in British society, George Bernard Shaw set Arms and the Man (1894) in far-off Bulgaria during the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. In its first scene, a frightened Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian army climbs through the window of a young Bulgarian woman whose fiancé is a Bulgarian war hero.

Unlike the stereotypical military hero, Captain Bluntschli (Craig Marker) is far more interested in chocolate than ammunition. When danger has passed, the pretty young Raina (Maggie Mason) and her socially-conscious mother (Lisa Anne Porter) manage to sneak Bluntschli out of their home disguised in a housecoat.

Although Raina is engaged to the pompous and clearly moronic Major Sergius Saranoff (Gabriel Marin), in her brief brush with danger she has become smitten with the man she likes to call her "chocolate cream soldier."

Captain Bluntschli (Craig Marker) with Raini Petkoff (Maggie Mason)
in a scene from Arms and the Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Once the war has ended, and Major Petkoff (Michael Ray Wisely) has returned home, life returns to normal (if there can be such a thing in one of Shaw's social comedies) The family's two servants, Nicola (Aaron Murphy) and Louka (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), are clearly unhappy with their social status and financial futures. But Louka is aware of Raina's crush on the mysterious soldier and is not about to dismiss the advances of the vain and foolish Sergius.

Raina (Maggie Mason) is pursued by her fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff
(Gabriel Marin) in Arms and the Man (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Bluntschli arrives unexpectedly to return the housecoat which saved his life, he is quickly befriended by Major Petkoff and Sergius as a fellow soldier. The news that his father has died and left him an extremely wealthy man destroys Raina's romantic fantasy about Bluntschli being a poor, starving soldier. She quickly comes to realize that Bluntschli (whom the Petkoff family thinks might well be the Emperor of Switzerland) is a much better match for both financial and social-climbing purposes.

Raina (Maggie Mason) and her mother (Lisa Ann Porter) try to comfort
Major Petkoff (Michael Ray Wisely (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a unit set designed by Kelly James Tighe and costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall, Nancy Carlin has directed Center Rep's new production of Arms and the Man with such a broad approach to its farcical elements that the scenes in which Shaw focused on the inequity between social classes almost seem to be coming from an entirely different play. That occasionally leaves the evening feeling off balance, despite the cast's obvious enthusiasm.

While Maggie Mason, Craig Marker, Michael Ray Wisely, Kendra Lee Oberhauser, and Lisa Ann Porter all contributed to the fun, it was Gabriel Marin's outlandish portrayal of Sergius that stole the show. Mincing, prancing, and bringing new levels of buffoonish behavior to the simple act of signing his name on a document, Marin joined a long line of actors (Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Kevin Kline, Len Cariou, Raul Julia, and John Gielgud) who have triumphed in the role.

Gabriel Marin and Kendra Lee Oberhauser in Center Rep's
production of Arms and the Men (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Arms and the Man continue through February 25 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here to order tickets).

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An interesting side note about the historical significance of Arms and the Man: According to Wikipedia:
"When Shaw gave Leopold Jacobson the rights to adapt the play into what became the 1908 operettaThe Chocolate Soldier, with music by Oscar Straus, he provided three conditions: none of Shaw's dialogue, nor any of his character's names, could be used; the libretto must be advertised as being a parody of Shaw's work; and Shaw would accept no monetary compensation. In spite of this, Shaw's original plot, and with it the central message of the play, remained more or less untouched. Shaw despised the result, calling it 'a putrid opera bouffe in the worst taste of 1860,' but grew to regret not accepting payment when, despite his opinion of the work, it became a lucrative international success.

When Shaw heard, in 1921, that Franz Lehár wanted to set his play Pygmalion to music, he sent word to Vienna that Lehár be instructed that he could not touch Pygmalion without infringing Shaw's copyright and that Shaw had 'no intention of allowing the history of The Chocolate Soldier to be repeated.' Only after Shaw's death was Pygmalion eventually adapted by Lerner and Loewe as My Fair Lady."
A program note from the Lyric Opera of San Diego reveals that Leopold Jacobson died in in 1943 in Theresienstadt (the Nazi concentration camp that was supposed to be for privileged Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria).
"...The camp was publicized by the Nazis for its 'rich cultural life.' Inmates were forced to participate in and attend the concerts and theatrical productions which was the face presented to the public. In reality it was as horrible as all the other concentration camps. Most Jewish artists, writers, scientists and jurists, diplomats, musicians, and scholars from Germany and Austria were sent there."
Jacobson didn't live to see MGM's 1941 release of a movie musical adaptation of The Chocolate Soldier starring Rise Stevens and Nelson Eddy. Here are some musical clips from the film (including Oscar Straus's "My Hero!" and "Sympathy," Modest Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea," and Richard Wagner's "Evening Star" from Tannhauser):

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