Archive for June, 2012

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

June 24, 2012

An obvious quotation from James Fenton

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

What the book contains

The book contains a Prologue and an Epilogue and in between these 22 short chapters named after the chief character/s of that chapter.  Alternating chapters are devoted to the Gardener, so we get (P)GXGX…GX(E).  The Prologue describes the geological processes by which the lake was formed upon which the house that is the centre of the book stands, while the Epilogue decribes the demolition of the house.

The story of the book

We start off near a lake in Brandenburg, not so far from Berlin.  The old mayor, whose ancestors have been the local mayors since 1650, has four daughters: Grete, Hedwig, Emma and Klara (their mother died in childbirth).  None of them succeeds in getting married.  The old mayor sells off Klara’s Wood (meant to be her inheritance) in three parts:  one to a coffee and tea importer, one to a cloth manufacturer, and one to an architect from Berlin.  This is illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Next the architect buys the Jewish cloth manufacturer’s portion for a full half of the full market value when the latter tries to flee the Nazis.


After the Jews within reach have been murdered and East Germany has come into being, the architect and his wife (they never intended to have any children, though he did have a son by his first marriage) find themselves constrained to leave for the West, and the property passes to a husband and wife pair of writers, who spent the war in the Soviet Union and who put their son in a children’s home because it seems the appropriate thing to do.

They do succeed in having a family, with ramifications as shown in Figure 3 below.


We also have another married couple living on the property, a pair of keen sailors where the husband, a factory worker, tried to escape to the West as a young man by swimming.  At the end of the book, the granddaughter is hiding in the concealed closet from estate agents and potential purchasers the same way that the architect’s wife hid there from the Russians decades earlier.

Why I liked this book

I was very impressed by Erpenbeck’s ability to know what to leave out, especially when compared to The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which attempts to do the same kind of things but insists on making everything explicit and underlining it as well–or so it seemed to me, and the result was that I found the book unreadable.  The idea here is that you have to fill the spaces between the episodes with yourself, not have everything told to you.  In fact you could say that the whole problem is that the characters cannot fill the spaces between them with love or any feeling (maybe this doesn’t apply to the Jewish characters), which is why things turn out the way they do.

Some of the individual episodes, such as the Holocaust embodied in Doris shut up in her dark chamber in the cleared Warsaw ghetto or the architect’s wife laughing and telling jokes and boiling crabs for twenty years so that she doesn’t know which year is which, but While she was spending her whole life laughing, her blonde hair imperceptibly turned into white hair,–or the evocation of a Russian village in the backstory of the Red Army officer–are absolutely lovely and exemplary in themselves.  As is the defamiliarisation, so that the Holocaust is Doris in the dark room and the prices her family’s belongings are sold for.

I’m not so sure about the overtly fairy-story type elements, such as the architect’s wife growing fatter throughout the War as though pregnant with disaster.  And I wasn’t too keen on the geological prologue or the demolitionary epilogue either–I’d rather they had been captured within some frame so as to put them on the same level as the rest.  Say if at the beginning a little girl had read the geological passage in an encyclopedia and at the end someone had told her brother about the demolition in schoolboy-pleasing detail.

But what an achievement, to get a whole encyclopedia of German life (and, what is more serious, mentality) in 150 pages (in the translation at least).

About the translation

The translation (by Susan Bernofsky) has been universally hailed by all commentators and they probably all know more about German in general and German translation in particular than I do.  It is certainly the case that the translation normalises the style and makes it more conversational, which is probably a good thing from the point of view of securing a readership.  But this rather blunts the force of some passages, for instance the sheer strangeness of the description of wedding customs at the beginning of the book.

The translation is of course into American English, and as ever I’m not entirely sure about the wholesale replacement of European plant names by American equivalents or pseudo-equivalents.  But my ignorance of gardening is pretty complete…


Translation Original Comments
P1 saber-toothed cats Säbelzahnkatze Sabre-toothed tigers, surely
P18 cottager…cottier Büdner, Kossäthen Search me!
? Basically it’s a matter of framing the view Im Grunde kommt es ja immer darauf an, den Blick zu lenken. ‘Leading the eye’ rather than ‘framing the view’
P36 Zeiss Ikon, a key meeting the highest safety standards Zeiß Ikon, Sicherheitschüssel security standards’, surely?
P26 pine tar Teerfarbe This turns out to be quite right
P28 fieldstone Feldsteine Quite right again!
P31 coneflowers Waldblumen Maybe…looks like ‘woodland flowers’ though
P35 Why is there Lametta hanging on the tree? Why does Lametta hang on the tree? [in English!] ??
P36 potato beetle Kartoffelkäfer But it’s ‘Colorado beetle’ in English!
P36 a dock einen Steg Surely this is a landing-stage,which is what ‘der Steg’ means? The description a bit later certainly sounds like a landing-stage.
P38 Abraham’s sausage pot Abrahams Wurstkessel But this isn’t an idiom in English..’a twinkle in your father’s eye’??
P57 apiary for twelve colonies Bienenhaus für zwölf Völker This is OK
P77 seed was being sowed Better ‘sown’?
P102 clover press Kleereibe ‘clover huller’–‘clover press’ is for making coffee!
P112 paddleboat Paddelboot ‘canoe’ rather than ‘paddleboat’, which is something different
P116 Giant Mountains Riesengebirge Normally just Riesengebirge in English!
P118 statistics Statik ‘statics, structural engineering’ not ‘statistics’
P113 convenient to shopping Convenient for shopping
P143 milk glass panes Milchglasscheiben But ‘Milchglas’ is just ‘frosted glass’

Spring Awakening, Brockley Jack 20 June

June 22, 2012


A flyer distributed to homes in the vicinity of the Brockley Jack

I think I would advise anyone thinking of going to this to consult the synopsis on Wikipedia first. As they summarise it:  (puberty, sexuality, rape, child abuse, homosexuality, suicide, abortion).  Not that any of this is going to shock people in South London, but a catalogue of issues is what we got here, in a production set in the no particular time and no particular place you expect from a room above a pub.  My humble suggestion–given that I’ve really no idea how to make it stageable–would be to go for really exaggerated clutter and detail in depicting late nineteenth-century Germany, in which case repressed sexuality breaking out with disastrous effects might actually make some sense.

There was a lot of elaborate play with light projection, but I’m not sure if it added or distracted.  At the beginning it seemed to be telling me Ein wenig leben ist eine gefahrliche Sache (It is a dangerous thing to live a little), which seemed quite appropriate, but then it turned out they meant learning not living and it was the obvious quote from Alexander Pope.

On the positive side of things, I thought that Ana Luderowski was very good as Wendla Bergman and on occasions uncannily like a blonde 14-year-old classmate of mine from many decades ago.

(The rest is silence.)

Minsk, 2011 A Reply To Kathy Acker, Young Vic 16 June

June 16, 2012


Another show I would have liked to like but couldn’t.

At the beginning, the ushers repeated No filming, no photography very insistently presumably to get us into the mood for state repression.  Then there followed a number of scenes illustrating life in Minsk:  arrest of peaceful demonstrators, official approval of an erotic dance routine, and explosion on the Metro and blood mixed with sugar, a workers’ canteen by day becoming a wild nightclub by night, the river Nemiga and its associated street (like the Fleet River in London), the sexiness of scars and how the speaker got them, Katya who wanted to avoid sex while being an erotic dancer and dies of anorexia.  That last one sounded quite Kathy Acker, but most of it was sub Vladimir Sorokin.  The argument about the authoritarian regime repressing sex which meant that everything became sexy was never really made–at least not so that I understood it–and I thought the thing fell between two stools.  On the one hand, the scenes weren’t sharply defined enough to make up a brightly-coloured mosaic–the actors were also guilty of mumbling at each other and relying on the audience reading the surtitles–while you didn’t find out enough about for instance Katya to engage with her either.

At the end, the cast recounted their own experiences from 2011 and sang a Belarusian folk song.  That was good, and moving.  And after that there followed the ‘Please put money in the bucket’ speech, traditional for British theatre and surely much more urgent here.

A special message from Belarus Free Theatre:

“We wanted to share with all of you who came to see our performance of Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker that all of our actors and team managed to get back to Belarus by different flights and trains and will get together this week to start to perform underground in Minsk.

Every night I came on stage to ask for your help so that we could continue to perform for underground Belarusian audiences. Your generous donations to our bucket collection will allow us to perform in Belarus for an entire month. We can’t wait to come back to you, to perform for you and hear your great applause that inspired us and gives us the strength to perform in the last dictatorship of Europe.”

Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, Founding Co-Artistic Directors of the Belarus Free Theatre

La Traviata, Goldsmiths College 9 June

June 10, 2012


I set off to see this production by OperaGold, Goldmiths College’s student opera company, purely out of curiosity.  Absolutely the last thing I expected  to encounter was an absolutely stellar Violetta (Chien Chun Lin) who had not only mastered her very demanding vocal part but also proved to be a consummate actress (and a strikingly attractive young woman as well).  Her combination of absolute commitment to the role with singing on the note rather than somewhere nearby put me in mind of Ermonela Jaho or Irina Prokina…

And there were other things to admire about the performance:  some very precise direction (by Nan Christie) made a lot more sense of the crowd scenes than is normally the case–I was especially impressed by the leader of the gipsy dancers who danced with the correct controlled abandon as well as singing and striking her tambourine.  This may sound like faint praise but it’s not meant to–you see far too many Traviatas where the crowd scenes are merely an embarrassment or at best an excuse to display whatever bling can be found in the store cupboard.

The orchestra played very soundly under Tim Hooper and the ultra-traditional production concept confined to a rather thin strip of stage worked very well, simply because it was so well-thought-through and precisely executed.

There were some less outstanding contributions that I will pass over in silence, but generally I was very very impressed…

Even Cheaper Salome 11 June

June 7, 2012

Covent Garden write as follows:

We have a very special last minute offer for you for David McVicar’s ground-breaking production of Salome.

The last few remaining seats in the Orchestra Stalls are now only £50. (Usually priced at £120, £111 and £106).

Religion, sexuality and perversion are a potent combination in this passionate drama, set to complex, fascinating and richly-textured music by Richard Strauss. The Metro praised McVicar’s production as ‘the real thing’ and described the music as ‘gorgeous’.

Salome truly is live theatre with The Royal Opera at its most intense and gripping, with McVicar’s handling of the tormented heroine both realistic and profoundly sympathetic.

Watch the Salome trailer

Read a selection of tweets from the opening night of Salome

Please note that this production contains violence and scenes of a sexual nature, which reflect the adult content of the opera.


  • To book, follow this link and select 11 June performance, type ‘baptist’ into the ‘Do you have a code?’ box and click ‘update‘.
  • You can also call the Box Office, +44 (0)20 7304 4000 and quote ‘Baptist offer’ when booking.

Stars In The Morning Sky, RADA 5 June

June 6, 2012


To start with the important stuff:  90 minutes without an interval, and you need to sit on the barstools at the back to see the whole of the production, which involves some long-drawn-out entrances and exits behind the backs of most of the audience.

As everyone knows, this play is about Moscow prostitutes being rounded up and dumped out of the way before the 1980 Olympics.  But I think part of the point the text wants to make is that it’s all rather a hole-and-corner affair; it’s a hut they’re sent to stay in while the police and pimps still want to extract from them what advantage they can.  In fact, we saw something more like an abandoned barracks or hospital ward as the setting.

After an large amount of musical Soviet kitsch, the play began with an exchange in really rather good Russian between Laura (Molly Gromadzki) and Valentina (Alexandra Guelff).  In fact Ms Gromadzki’s Russian made her sound rather more like the self-deluding Blanche DuBois character Laura is meant to be than her estuarine English did.  And why was Valentina speaking with a North Country accent, especially when her son wasn’t?

I don’t think any of the young actresses really got on terms with their parts, and in a way it would be worrying if they had, but I’m not sure that the play gave them a great deal of help either.  As far as I can see, it’s performed quite regularly in Russia these days but with extensive changes each time, showing a certain lack of confidence.  At least Pia Laborde Noguez  as Anna managed to suggest she was older than the others…

I’m all for bashing the Olympics, but I also think this piece may have outlived its relevance.

See here for other Russian plays in London that I know about.