Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Little Illness Music

I've got this cold or flu kind of thing. You can't count on a regular cold pattern anymore, apparently--they seem to have their individual characteristics, and ups and downs. But I've never been a suck-it-up and soldier-on type. I don't get sick very often, but when I do, I do it up big. I stay in bed longer, and the rest is resting. "Feed a cold" is also advice I've made into a lifestyle.

So I don't do much. This time around I spent several hours watching a VHS tape I made from TV programs in the 90s, back when the A&E cable channel actually tried to be an Arts & Entertainment channel, and Bravo! was about performance arts. Now they all play the same CSI reruns and have their own perverse "reality" shows. But there was a time that one or both of them ran imported programs from England, where an interviewer called Melvyn Bragg did interviews and so on with notable actors and other theatre artists.

I watched his interview/lunch with Albert Finney, and two fascinating pieces following Ian McKellen (then a youthful 45) in rep at the National Theatre over a season, and Judi Dench rehearsing and playing in A Little Night Music. The McKellen piece was a good insight into that life (in which he might be playing one part, rehearsing the next play, and learning lines for one after that on the same day) as well as a peek into his working process. One of the plays he was working on was Michael Frayn's translation and edited version of Chekhov's first and unproduced play, which Frayn dubbed Wild Honey. As he rehearsed, McKellen was driving himself crazy trying to understand the character he was playing, even going back to a full translation of Chekhov's script, with many long philosophical speeches. He was afraid he would be a disaster and bring down the production. He noted ruefully into his tape recorder that Frayn had shown up for a run-through and had simply grinned. But when the play opened, McKellen was astonished to hear the audience laughing--they had just revealed to him that the play was a comedy. It was also a hit. (Frayn himself tells this story about McKellen in the introduction to his "Plays: Two" volume.)

The Dench piece went back into her acting history with some wonderful clips from old productions. Olivier's "cry" as Oedipus is well-known theatrical legend, but Dench as Lady MacBeth let out a truly terrifying and prolonged scream that deserves its own fame: it said volumes about the character. Dame Dench played Mother Courage in 2005, which must have been something to see, and hear. In this film piece, director Sir Peter Hall says that Dench was blessed with an extraordinary voice, "and in theatre, voice is very nearly all."

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