The difficulty of being good all the way through

13th April 2009 | Concerts, Musings | 0 comments

We went to the Orange Tree Theatre to see the premiere of a play, ‘The Story of Vasco’, translated and adapted by Ted Hughes from an original play by Lebanese writer Georges Schehadé. Hughes’ adaptation had never before been performed in its entirety; the director had rescued it from Hughes’s papers in an American university library.

For at least the first hour of the play we were fascinated and delighted. We couldn’t tell whether the humour and imagery of the script were Schehadé’s or Hughes’, but either way it was like being suddenly whisked into a charming, surreal and poetical world where every character was amusing and touching. It was set in the midst of a raging war. Caesar the scholar kept out of its way in his caravan in the forest with his collection of stuffed dogs, and resigned himself to wandering the world with his charmingly deranged daughter, searching for the real-life versions of men she met in her dreams. The timid barber Vasco, whom she meets in a dream, is chosen for a special military mission precisely because he is so inconspicuous that nobody will suspect him, but having reached his destination in the enemy camp, love inspires him to become a hero after all, at which point he becomes visible to the enemy and is shot dead.

But despite these dramatic events, the final half hour of the play wound down like an old-fashioned clock. Pauses opened up between tableaux; characters seemed to wait uncertainly for the next line. The author seemed lost in the forest too. The tempo flagged, people in the audience started to shuffle, and when the final attitude had been struck, we all rose up without ceremony and departed without stopping at the bar. The play had loosed its grip on our attention, even though the start was so enthralling.

This seems to happen so often, not only in the theatre of course. How many times have I and my colleagues discussed what a pity it is that the last movement of a musical work is so weak or rambling compared to the rest? It’s actually very rare for the Finale to be the best movement. You can feel the composer setting off at the start of the first movement with tremendous drive and determination. Somehow, it often disperses by the time the fourth movement arrives. I used to think it would be a problem simply solved by not having a fourth movement, but then something else would become the last movement, and maybe it is the lastness that’s the problem.

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