Monday, May 18, 2015

Life Is What You Do While You’re Waiting to Die: Wolf Hall, Part I and Zorba!

Lydia Leonard (left) and Nathaniel Parker (right) in Wolf Hall. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Anticipation of a two-part, six-hour Royal Shakespeare Company spectacle based on the Hilary Mantel historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set during the reign of England’s Henry VIII, evoked happy thoughts of the RSC Nicholas Nickleby. But Wolf Hall, recently imported to Broadway from the West End, isn’t that. For one thing, Mantel is hardly Dickens. I plodded through the first of the two books, but her style is gluey and, oddly enough, most of the characters aren’t especially complex or colorful. Mantel provides a handful of ideas about, say, Sir Thomas More (a sadist motivated by as rigidly doctrinal a view of scripture as a Spanish Inquisitor’s) or Anne Boleyn (spoiled, vengeful and paranoid) or even Henry himself (a savage narcissist with debilitating insecurities), but instead of developing them she just keeps repeating them. And since some poor convicted heretic gets burned every twenty-five pages or so, after a few hundred pages the narrative becomes oppressive, a gray, grim mass. The RSC adaptation, written by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin, tones down the violence and softens More’s character – he’s now closer to the principled protagonist of Robert Bolt’s dully respectable play and screenplay A Man for All Seasons – so it’s certainly not unpleasant to endure. And it’s perfectly proficient. But nothing about it, not the script, not the direction, not the ensemble, is memorable in any way. I liked the staging of a bit where Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) – the hero of the story, a lawyer who begins as the right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey (Peter Eyre) and then (after Wolsey falls from the king’s favor and dies) becomes an adviser to both Henry (Nathaniel Parker) and the newly crowned Anne (Lydia Leonard) – rides down the Thames in the wee hours with his son and servants after the king has called on him to interpret a scary dream. Herrin manages the death of Cromwell’s beloved wife Lizzie (Olivia Darnley) from the plague cleverly and poignantly: immediately after a jocular but fond conversation between them where he promises her faithfully not to die and abandon her, he reaches out to touch her and she slips lithely beyond his grasp and disappears. (Lizzie’s demise was the one scene in the novel that touched me.) Nothing else about the way the production looks or moves, except for Christopher Oram’s impressive abstract set, stands out.

Ben Miles, whom I’ve seen twice before on stage – in justly acclaimed revivals of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal – is a fantastic actor and here too his finesse as a stage performer is admirable. But he didn’t hold me this time, and neither did anyone else in the cast. Parker is particularly disappointing as Henry: he seems to be acting under the misapprehension that shouting equals charisma. My mind kept returning to actors who have made a meal of this character: Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. The show is like an uninspired Masterpiece Theatre miniseries for a built-in intelligent middlebrow audience. After Part I, which ends with the execution of Thomas More, I felt I’d had enough and ambled over to City Center, where Encores! was presenting the last musical of its season, Zorba!, and managed to score a returned ticket in the front row of the orchestra. I figured that John Turturro and Zoë Wanamaker were more likely to keep me engaged than the morbid, largely indistinguishable crew of Mantel’s late-Medieval melodrama, and I was right.

Zoe Wanamaker and John Turturro in Zorba! (Photo: Joan Marcus)

No one in his or her right mind would call Zorba! a good musical – and, having seen it on its first go-round, in 1968 (I was an undergraduate at Brandeis when it visited Boston en route to Broadway, in those days of out-of-town tryouts), I knew it wasn’t going to be, but it had been nearly half a century since I’d seen it, and I was curious. It was the show the book writer Joseph Stein wrote after Fiddler on the Roof and the songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote after Cabaret, and it’s always felt like a failed stretch for material that might contain some of the musical and dramatic qualities of one or the other. Especially Fiddler, with its flawed but vibrant, life-embracing hero: the musical, which Stein adapted from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel Zorba the Greek that had already, four years earlier, become a famous art-house movie, was written for Herschel Bernardi, who had followed Zero Mostel into the role of Tevye. It even begins with a thematic ensemble number, as Fiddler did: “Life Is,” sung by a modern version of a Greek chorus that sets the stage for the story of the repressed American, Niko, who learns how to take a big bite out of life from the title character when he inherits an abandoned mine on the island of Crete. (In the movie it’s a repressed Englishman – Alan Bates, in one of his first major roles – which plays a little better.) I understand that Kander and Ebb are going for an earthy effect, and that Zorba teaches Niko, among other things, that death is a part of life and should be met head-on. Still, what could possibly have driven Ebb to move from “Life is a cabaret, old chum” to “Life is what you do / While you’re waiting to die?” The lyrics to this opening number – like “Having if you’re lucky, wanting if you’re not / Looking for the ruby underneath the rot / Hungry for the pilaf in somebody else’s pot / But that’s the only joys you got!” – are risible. (“Hungry for the pilaf in somebody else’s pot ?” Seriously?) And the second-act elegy for a dying character, “The Crow,” is just as terrible. To put it kindly, Zorba isn’t Kander and Ebb at their best, though there’s one lovely tune, “The Butterfly.” Nor is it Stein at his best.

The movie contains its share of fakery, too: the scenes involving the villagers, with their vendettas and xenophobia and vulture-like grasping for the leavings of the recent dead, are about as rigged and unconvincing as the ones at the other end of the spectrum built around the sainted poor and dispossessed in The Grapes of Wrath. Almost as theatrical (in the derogatory sense) are the scenes where Oscar-winning Lila Kedrova, as the decrepit one-time courtesan, Madame Hortense, demands the pity of her final swain, Zorba (Anthony Quinn) – as well as ours. But the director, Michael Cacoyannis, and the cinematographer, Walter Lassaly, do wonders with the Greek landscapes – the film is shot in rapturous black and white – and Quinn is mesmerizing. (It was the last of his fine performances; for the rest of his career, all he did was recycle bits from it, a classic case of a Hollywood star spiraling into self-parody.) Then there’s the magnificent – and staggeringly beautiful – Irene Papas as the widow who beds the Englishman (called Basil in the movie). When she’s on screen, the movie really does claim, briefly, the legacy of Greek tragedy.

John Turturro and Santino Fontana. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The Encores! version was directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed with unfortunate self-consciousness by Josh Rhodes. The dancers in “Life Is” looked like hippies in a dance class circa 1968, committing themselves solemnly to the life force. That isn’t to say that they weren’t skillful, just that their skill was upstaged by the silliness of what they were given to do. The Leader of the chorus was played by a bizarrely miscast Marin Mazzie, with a long black wig that streamed almost down to her waist, making faces and over-enunciating to make a point about the character’s vitality. Niko was Santino Fontana, appealing as the young Moss Hart in Act One last year but awfully wan here, though the role may be more to blame than the actor. The role of the widow is so underwritten that it barely registers, but I found Elizabeth A. Davis in it remote and unyielding in it.

Still, it was great fun to watch Turturro as Zorba. He’s too witty an actor not to make a bit of a burlesque out of the character’s grandstanding, but there was sweetness mixed in with the humor, just as there was in his performance in last year’s movie Fading Gigolo (which he also directed). Turturro is so youthfully fit and slender that I was tempted to write that he’s too young for the role, especially the “Grandpapa” number, where he shows his physical prowess to the belly dancer who makes fun of his age in a café. But then I looked up his age, and, astonishingly, he’s fifty-eight, as opposed to Quinn’s forty-nine and Herschel Bernardi’s forty-five when they played it. Turturro isn’t a singer, but he threw himself into his songs, and when he had to dance (in “Grandpapa”), he more than got by.

Wanamaker was a superb Ranevskaya in the National Theatre Cherry Orchard in 2011, and she was perhaps even better in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play in the West End in 2013. She seems to be more amazing every time I see her; in any case I’m more in thrall to her. As Hortense, she treaded the fine line between ridiculousness and enchantment, a feat as much of sympathetic imagination as of theatrical know-how. When Zorba goes off to the city to buy supplies for the reopening of Niko’s mine late in act one, Hortense, in a duet with Zorba called “Goodbye, Canavaro,” begs him over and over again not to forget her in the few days they’ll be apart. After he’s departed, following repeated assurances that he won’t forget her, Niko asks her why she’s so sure he will. “Oh / I don’t know / They always do,” she replies, and in Wanamaker’s rendition of the lyric, self-pity gives way suddenly to self-awareness, and she catches us up in heartbreak and even terror.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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