Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Dearth Of Tintagel

It's been a while since we finished The Death Of Tintagel, but as promised here's another review:

The Times Literary Supplement
Reviewer: Alex Burghart
5th November 2010

When Rilke reviewed La Mort de Tintagiles, he wrote of its author: “the theatre to come will have him as its founding father and will celebrate and proclaim him”. Maurice Maeterlinck was a Nobel prize-winner, a guiding light to Symbolists and surrealists; admired by Mallarmé, Chekhov and Yeats, his work inspired an opera by Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande) and music by Vaughn Williams. Today the playwright’s name is more likely to be greeted by shrugs than proclamation, perhaps because - as Patrick McGuinness suggested in Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre (2000) - although “his originality was amply recognised, he had no immediate successors, and no dramatist built on what he had begun”. Now, more than seventy years after Maeterlinck’s death and more than a century after the original’s publication, Vik Sivalingam has taken Peter Morris’s adaptation in hand to show us what we’re missing.

When La Mort de Tintagiles first appeared in Paris in 1894 as one of three petits drames pour marionettes, it was at odds with the lavish literalism pervading French theatre and immediately recognized as setting a new standard in sparsely bleak dramaturgy. Spread over five very short acts, the play traces the arrival of a boy prince summoned back to the castle of his birth by an old, unnamed Queen. Greeted by his sisters, Ygraine and Bellangère, and an old man, Aglovale, Tintagiles is snatched by the wicked Queen’s three servants and taken to the depths of the castle. Ygraine gives chase and finds herself separated from he boy by a large door. Through the tiniest of cracks, Tintagiles can see the light of her lamp before it breaks. The Queen, unseen and unheard, quietly murders him, leaving his sister howling in the dark.

The play left Rilke “possessed by the odd idea that there may be space for an entire plot in a single fear”. by evoking primal emotions on a mythic scale, Maeterlinck combined psychological complexity and minimalism. Morris’s script acknowledges this achievement but chooses not to replicate it, instead wrapping the text in a creepy-funny rhyme scheme. This bounces the play along in the direction of Roald Dahl (particularly good is Bellangère’s gleeful description of a murdered Pomeranian lapdog) and gives the original an added dimension of comic irreverence.

Morris brings out - and supplements - the stirring sexuality of the lead, who is part symbol, part hero. Tintagel is, among other things, the personification of the Arthurian castle; he is “more than a boy now, not yet a man”, and Freddie Machin’s unsettling, Tim Burton-ish portrayal is both naïve and curious. Occupied by sisters who have had only an impotent Aglovale (a wonderfully fey Adrian Gillott) for company, the castle is a hostile place; a ghostly voice whispers “futility” whenever “fertility” is mentioned. As Tintagel is spirited towards his fate by the three bee-like servants, he appears to suffer a reverse birth, sucked down into the dungeon which doubles as the womb of the all-consuming queen.

The Freudian imagery may be a little laboured, but it casts its spell. Ygraine was King Arthur’s mother, and this is a glance at her pre-marital past. Legend casts her as the wife of the Duke of Cornwall and occupant of Tintagel, where she is seduced (raped) by Uther Pendragon and conceives a son, Arthur, later given to Merlin. For Ygraine, castles are embodiments of first matriarchal, then patriarchal terrr, destroyers of innocence and innocents - and Vera Chok’s pitiable portrayal lets us feel her puppet-like vulnerability at the hands of fate.

Morris, Sivalingam and their cast have done theatre a service. Maeterlinck deserves better than the obscurity into which he has sunk, and this inventive staging of a sparky adaptation is long overdue.

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