Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Unexpected Journeys: Bluets and The Secret Garden

Emma D'Arcy in Bluets. (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

The stage adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s 2009 book Bluets by Margaret Perry, directed by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court, begins as its source material does: “Suppose I were to begin saying that I had fallen in love with a color . . . in this case the color blue – as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.” Nelson’s short book is uncategorizable, a series of short paragraphs that function most powerfully as commentary on two melancholy, indelible events, the end of a love affair and the paralysis of a woman, a close friend of the heartbroken lover, after an unexplained accident. But these events, which are poetically linked – the paralysis of the injured friend is a sort of actualization of the writer’s mental paralysis in the wake of her romantic loss – take up less than a third of the text, which imagines the color blue less as a metaphor for the writer’s feelings than as a gathering place for them, an environment in which we grow to comprehend them. Nelson banks a wide range of references that include Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose hero’s suicide in the blue coat in which he first danced with the woman he loved spawned hundreds of young men to mimic him; Joni Mitchell’s album Blue and her painting Les Bluets; Leonard Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat” and Billie Holiday’s recording “Lady Sings the Blues”; Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie; the lapis lazuli in the mines of Sar-e-Sang in Afghanistan; and the male satin bowerbird, which strews his bower with vestiges of blue substances – including the feathers of other birds he has savaged – in order to attract the female of the species. It’s one of the most strangely compelling books I’ve ever come across.

Mitchell’s stage production, a symbolist, mixed-media abridgment of the book, is just as strange and even more compelling. Three actors (Ben Whishaw, Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle) stand behind music stands, sharing the text in exquisite hushed readings. Perry has removed all the gender pronouns, so the speaker and the vanished lover and the quadriplegic friend are both female and male and thus the tragedies have a universal quality that they don’t in the book. Behind the actors are five screens on which are projected cinematic images – sometimes clips that accompany the allusions in the text, like nature-documentary footage of the bowerbird and a few bars of the title song from Joni Mitchell’s album sung by a male performer in “heartbreaking drag” (Nelson’s phrase is apt); sometimes evocative locations like a bridge or a tube station or a deserted beach; and sometimes the three actors are layered onto those locations. Visually the piece is simultaneously fragmented and in the process of creating a collage: our eye wanders from the movement of part of an actor’s body to the same physical choice against the filmic background, where it finds its true meaning.

Nelson writes that she has fallen under the spell of blue. Watching Bluets, you fall under the spell spun by Nelson and Perry and Mitchell and the three actors. (All three are marvelous, but Whishaw is extraordinary.) The piece is devastating – it seems to crystallize the emotional state of the most tenderly wounding parts of the book and of the many sources of the prose, like Billie Holiday’s ravaged voice and the unnamed drag performer who appears for only a moment but whose stabbing intensity  haunts you long after you’ve left the theatre. The experience of the play recalls some of Beckett’s short plays and two sublime essays on film, Chris Marker’s 1982 Sans Soleil and Bruce Weber’s 2001 Chop Suey. It does what theatre rarely attempts to do – it moves toward abstraction, toward jazz and abstract expressionist painting. Yet, mysteriously, it’s also dramatic. It’s ineffable.

Hannah Khalique-Brown and Theo Angel in The Secret Garden. (Photo: Alex Brenner)

The best productions at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park have an endearing homemade quality: complicated visuals that are understated and made to look childlike, complex themes hidden under fairy-tale narratives, the magnificent natural resources of the setting mined in unexpected ways. Nine years ago I saw an adaptation of Peter Pan there that was framed against the background of the Great War; the directors, Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, refashioned the beloved James Barrie story into as powerful and heartbreaking an anti-war drama as I’ve ever seen on a stage. The current version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel The Secret Garden, dramatized by Holly Robinson and the director, Anna Himali Howard, opens with a wall that extends across the playing area and what seems like a Reader’s Theatre approach – the ensemble tells the story to the audience, finishing each other’s sentences and disputing among themselves how it began. But that’s just the introduction: the chorus is always around, moving the plot along and commenting on it, but it’s the principal characters who act it out. The wall itself recedes, though its importance to the tale never diminishes. It’s a symbolic representation of the wall that the grieving Archibald Craven (Jack Humphrey) erected after his wife’s death to block off the garden she had created and loved. It’s an act of destruction, but the garden fights back when his niece Mary Lennox (Hannah Khalique-Brown), orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, comes to live with him, discovers the hidden garden, and with the help of her friend Dickon (Brydie Service) and Craven’s crippled son Colin (Theo Angel), restores it to life. Colin, too, has been locked away and denied the life-giving qualities of nature, but her doctor, Craven’s brother (George Fletcher), can’t find a convincing argument against her insistence on leading him into the light and the warmth of the sun. One of the dozens of inspired touches Howard and the set designer, Leslie Travers, lay over the material is a pair of doors in the wall that, opened, reveal some of the grandeur of Regent’s Park. The magnificent trees we glimpse through the doorways are a promise of the magic of nature that Archibald Craven has attempted to close off.

In Robinson and Howard’s version, magic is a metaphor too. Burnett gave her wonderful book a joyous ending that sits right on the edge of the supernatural, but this Secret Garden modifies it, though without losing its redemptive and healing qualities. This is a Secret Garden for a 2024 audience. It also introduces a racial subtext: both Mary and Colin are the children of white Anglo fathers and Indian mothers, and it adds an eleventh-hour character, their surviving sister Padma (Archana Ramaswamy),who brings the wisdom of the east onto Craven’s Yorkshire estate. But it isn’t didactic, and these new narrative strains don’t feel imposed on the story but rather an expansion of it.

Visually the production is enchanting, full of theatrical embellishments like grace notes. When the children, with the aid of the old gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Richard Clews), make the garden bloom, the ensemble garlands it with streamers of different shapes and colors. (The beautiful lighting by Jai Morjaria underscores the transformation.) Craven, who is traveling the world in search of a cure for his ailing son, is glimpsed only once on his journey – in Russia – and he appears in an overgrown downstage corner of the stage, ironically linked to nature in his quest. The robin that guides Mary to the clandestine garden is played by an Indian actress, Sharan Phull, with a red mark on her palm – she’s like a puppeteer who carries her own puppet in her hand.  At the end, when Craven comes home and the children escort him into his wife’s reconstituted garden, Phull dances over to him and places her palm on his cheek. The moment is ethereal.

– 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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