Sunday, 8 May 2011


I often worry that the older I get, the less I am able to distinguish between 'good' (i.e. original, engaging, profound) and 'entertaining' (not original, not profound, but engaging). I worry whether my good opinion of a book I've read or a performance I've seen is mistaken. When I am wrong, it's embarrassing: on a second reading or even a proper moment of thought, the value I saw dissolves like wet candyfloss. I hope this happens to other people, too. What, apart from a lazy mind, makes a first reaction so clearly wrong?
Last month I went to the Arcola to see The Piano Removal Company's final performance of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as retold by Helen Edmundson. None of the reviewers had liked it that much so I had relatively low expectations. But, I ended up being totally enthralled by the exuberant final performance. I laughed, and cried and felt for Anna and Levin. Edmundson's play has each telling their stories to each other, which enhanced both to an intensity I haven't seen in a while. And it was played with such utter and charming commitment that it swept me away completely (I love it when that happens). It didn't bother me that none of the physical theatre devices they used – chairs turning into other things, folk songs and dances, fast changes in dramatic perspective, minimal props and lots of mime – were original. A horse race could be a sex scene, a marriage proposal and a divorce could happen in the same moment because two tables were set up the same way on stage. A crop harvest scene could be superimposed onto a Moscow drawing room. It didn't bother me on the night. But the following morning, like a hangover, it did.
Theatre doesn't last, I suppose, it isn't built to, but I can't help feeling a bit cheated that it's a hazy sadness, the odd set piece and how young and beautiful all the actors were, rather than the play itself, that I remember best. I remember loving the fact that they played a rock and roll version of the Tetris theme tune at the beginning of the second half, and that at one point later a hooded man (death?) dances a bullfight with Levin. Totally engaging at the time, but not enough now to disguise that the second half should have been half as long. I didn't need to see Anna die on stage. I didn't need to see her cry quite so much. The birth and death scenes, so effective in the first half, felt a bit overdone in the second.

But it still made me go out and buy the book

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