Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Reviving Xerxes

A few musings on my recent experience, reviving Xerxes at the ENO.

Xerxes -  Rhian Lois and Andrew Watts
To revive means to give new life.  As revival director for the ENO’s classic production of Handel’s Xerxes, my job was to give new life to a piece of theatre originally made in 1985.  Judging from a show of hands on the first day of rehearsals, that’s before about a third of the people working on it were even born. 

In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes, the task of reviving the production is made all the more complex by the specific significance it had 29 years ago.  At that time, Handel was still thought of primarily as a religious composer, known mainly for his oratorios, The Messiah in particular.  He also tended to be seen as a German composer, even though he spent most of his working life in London and ended his days an Englishman.  The rediscovery of Handel as an operatic composer in the 1980s, and his appropriation into the canon of English opera, was largely a result of this iconic production, which elides Handel’s music with an English translation in the style of Restoration comedy (brilliantly done by Nick Hytner himself, often sounding close to Congreve); locates the story in a version of Handel’s own London, with the exotic world of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens inspiring the setting; and so places Handel – quite literally, in the form of his statue from Vauxhall – at the centre of the English national operatic stage.   1985 also marked Handel’s 300th birthday: the whole undertaking was characterised by a sense of his admission to the canon and commemoration as a national musical hero.  And the production is so very “English”, with its tea and cakes, its bowls and topiary, its redcoat soldiers and prim morality.

The England of 1985 was in a self-assertive mood, led by Margaret Thatcher, whose Falklands campaign had recently marked a resurgence of imperialist jingoism.  During the 80s there was a distinct nostalgia for Empire: as Salman Rushdie noted, in the aftermath of the Falklands we suddenly saw a rush of novels and TV series about British India: Jewel in the Crown, The Raj Quartet, David Lean’s film of A Passage to India.   At the V&A, the English galleries were re-vitalised, with a central place being given to the statue of Handel from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. 

Viewed from 2014, things look rather different.  British imperialism, and English assertiveness are no longer on the agenda.  A few days after we opened, the last vestige of the Georgian Empire teetered on the edge of disappearance, as Scotland voted on independence (Xerxes, it’s intriguing to note, was written just seven years before the 1745 Scots rebellion against the Hanoverians).  Thatcher said that she would never talk to the IRA: this year, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness.  Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre has reflected a nation in doubt about its internal identity and its place in the world: his first production as the National’s director was a blistering Henry V, our national epic deconstructed and questioned against the background of the neo-imperialist invasion of Iraq.  At the current moment, I could not simply re-stage Nick’s Xerxes exactly as it was in 1985.  It had to be a darker, more disturbing piece; centring on a young King whose acquisitiveness towards Empire, objects and women is both his drive and his downfall. 

The politics of gender have also shifted dramatically in the last 30 years. Xerxes remains a gender-bending opera – but Boy George and Marilyn are no longer the key icons of the queer movement.  In the age of Eddie Izzard, Grayson Perry and Conchita, the “man who sings like a woman” could not simply be a self-pitying character, but becomes assertive and powerful.  Elviro’s disguise offered new possibilities around queer ambiguities, and some freshly minted jokes. 

None of these shifts in perspective and tone undermined the production – it was still very emphatically the classic piece of work that sits at the centre of the ENO repertoire.  The hedge-clipper still popped up, the busts were smashed.  Rather, my work in rehearsals was about allowing the performers to live within that powerful framework, and in order for them to live – for the performance to be “live” – they have to be fully present in the current moment.  Without that immediate presence, that awareness of the current context, a performance is dead. 

That’s the same word ENO technical staff use when a show is taken out of the repertoire: “It’s dead.”   Nobody would want that to happen to Xerxes.  After all, it’s only 29 years old.  That’s far too young to die.

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