h a r r i e t m a y

Tag: Theatre

Feeling and Power

the_hedda_gabler_company-2578x1450We are at the National Theatre and the cast is on the stage, taking their final bows. Hedda Gabler has melted back into Ruth Wilson, Olivier Award-winning actress, and as the applause eases just enough she projects a few words over the crowd.

“Today is a historic day…” As she begins I am holding my breath, because she is using her platform powerfully and I am grateful. “We couldn’t march. But we march on stage.” The applause erupts again.

“How do you feel, after seeing Hedda Gabler?” As we exit the theatre into the bracing cold I know Sam is wondering because we have both been in a funk all day, wallowing in our January miseries. I did not go to the Women’s March, and I am wracked with guilt. “I feel better after that,” Sam admits, but I shake my head. “I feel the same as before,” I say, “Nothing.”

Over the last few weeks I have oscillated between feeling deflated and crushingly disconsolate, so I have not been much fun to be around. There is nothing wrong. It has merely been a feeling, like existing in a pot of tar: suspended in blackness with little ability to move.

Unable to move and at the brink of my vast irrationality. I say I want what I don’t; I throw tantrums when the innermost parts of myself are not correctly interpreted, through ESP or some other way. “Did you see yourself in Hedda?” is another thing Sam asks me, after she has flung several bouquets of flowers violently across the stage and confessed that she did not ever like the apartment in which her husband, stretched now to his financial limits, has acquired for her. Yes, yes of course. But surely a part of all of us is Hedda? (In the introduction to his English translation, the critic William Archer writes that “the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.” If it should, with a view to recent events, I know it won’t be the Hedda-types who will be to blame.)

As we walk towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge on our way to the Embankment tube station, we discuss where power lies in Hedda Gabler. On the surface, Hedda herself has very little– every move she has made freely has served only to trap her further in isolation; in her marriage, in her home, in her thoughts. What power Hedda does have lies in the way she makes the other characters, both men and women, take to her, candidly offering her information she can then use against them. It is not until she attempts this with Judge Brack that she realises she is not the only one with this ability.

And there is a power projected onto her as well: the power to bear children. The insinuation and Tesman’s hope that Hedda may be pregnant is made several times, but a child would imprison her finally and completely. When Lovborg, on the other hand, refers to his manuscript as a “child”, he refers to the product of his intellect, hard work and freedom. What Hedda wants so desperately is to be her own woman. And yet she never finds the courage to live as brazenly and as deeply as she acts.  

And what if I’m failing to live brazenly or deeply? Going to work is easy; the commute, switching on the machine, answering questions and even asking them. It’s what is expected. What no one expects us to do is to fight, if we can find a way to fight for the right things in the right way.

Tiny Dancer

3Acts1-1200Ira Glass is diminutive, so small I can squeeze him between my thumb and my forefinger. His face has become entirely his trademark glasses. “Sorry about the seats,” I whisper to Sam. We’re in the very last row of the Royal Festival Hall, which seats 2,500. The show begins in darkness and with words, as a male and a female voice discuss whether to begin with talk or dance. Talk has obviously won out, following, it seems, a trend begun in ancient texts with ‘Let there be light.’ And then there is light; mid-stage sits a tiny red velvet curtain, self-suspended within an arch; show business made a prop within the actual thing.

We love proximity to show business– even nosebleed proximity– and we’ve come to see what sort this is, what Ira Glass has cooked up with Monica Bill Barnes, who also directed and choreographed, and Anna Bass in “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”. Sam and I are big fans of Glass’s radio show, This American Life, which is a major reason we have so many internet radios in our one-bedroom flat.

“You’re very English,” Sam will say to me, thick with surprise, every so often. I think he does it just to elicit my response, preordained: “Because I am!” I have an American passport, a British one, and an accent that’s somewhere in between (“Are you from Singapore?” I was once asked in a meeting, “It’s just that you sound… international.”) I’ve spent half my life in the US and I still don’t understand Stand Your Ground laws, American football or what “quarter of” means when telling time, but then there are a heap of American things that make perfect sense: peanut butter, and The New Yorker, and NPR.

I’ll meet you at Yo! Sushi, Sam WhatsApps me before the show. We’re both cycling to the South Bank, albeit from opposite directions. When I get there Sam already has a seat at the counter, and a beer. “There was a family on the Cycle Superhighway,” he says, exasperated. “A four year-old in rush hour traffic! No one could get by!”

Towards the end of the show, Glass turns his attention to marriage. “You take their hand and walk towards a future you hope is just going to appear out of the mist,” he says, describing the decision to spend the rest of your life with one person, when you don’t know what the rest of your life is going to be. Recordings of Alain de Botton on the subject follow, filling the theatre with tips like ‘lower your expectations,’ or, that’s how we remember it. “It’s ok,” I say later, as we stalk around the flat, trying to sneak up on one another, which culminates in Sam striking an elaborate pose and my pretending to commit his likeness to canvas, “I don’t have expectations anyway.”