23 April 2012

Prima Donna

I was at a bookshop in West London for an Authors' Club event the other Sunday. Which sounds hella more glamorous and pretentious than it actually was. I drank some wine, ate some crisps, chatted to the Club Secretary's wife about her undergrad studies, multiple careers, retirement activities and the second-hand bookshops in Cambridge for an age, was asked in braying voices if I was a 'writer' or 'publisher' to which I looked sheepish, then awkwardly browsed the bookshelves in order to look occupied as I waited for my friend to arrive. And so it was that I was snapped by the official photographer standing all alone, holding a glass of wine in one hand, and balancing a hardback copy of Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel in my arms, totally engrossed. Urgh. The lives of Civil War-era women - governesses, milkmaids, fishwives, nuns, defenders of castles, courtesans, countesses, witches and widows - brought into vivid focus, their 'weakness' questioned.

The last time I mixed with the Authors' Club I ended up in their private members club in Soho, beside a furiously hot fire, talking about homo eroticism in travel writing, getting blind drunk on red wine, leaving abruptly and rudely, and remembering very little. I admit that I was a pretty weak vessel that evening. Well, too weak a vessel for the amount of alcohol I was pouring down my throat.

The day before I was caught reading Antonia Fraser I went to the opera. A thing I have not done before. I saw Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House. At first it was all breasts. Breasts from a birds' eye view. Flocks of courtesans, all shapes and sizes, at the Duke's court, drinking, undressing, flirting and writhing. These were raunchy, rouged girls. Then we are introduced to Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter. A pure angelic soprano in a white dress. She falls in love with the Duke who sings sweet nothings to her and steals her heart. He, of course, is a cheating philanderer. Despite knowing he's been unfaithful, Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for him. He's going to be murdered by a hired killer unless the killer can find another to take the Duke's place. So she dresses as a man (in a disguise that would only fool characters in a melodramatic and overwrought opera), enters the house where the killer dwells and is mortally wounded. I was screaming 'No, no, no!' inside my head at silly, silly Gilda. Of course she is not quite dead when her father finds her, providing the opportunity for a prolonged, though beautifully sung, death scene. She has a strong voice, and a strong force of (misguided) will, but I ultimately thought 'weak vessel'. The Duke cared nothing for her and she gave up her life for him. The Duke who sings the famous La donna รจ mobile - 'woman is fickle' - which goes on (and on) about how man is miserable if he trusts a woman, and that women are flighty, like a feather in the wind. He bloody gets away with the whole thing too.

La Maigre Adeline (1906) by Walter Sickert
THEN, a few days later, I saw a ballet. [An unusual week of treats. Though seats for £3.] I saw Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets. It was inspired by both Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper, the former being obsessed with the latter. The set was a perfect Sickert painting, the dancers artist's models brought alive and hot with blood. The ballet captures Sickert through six scenes of misogyny, passion, cruelty and murder. I was sitting in one of the upper slips, so there was a slice of the stage I couldn't see. At one point a model of Sickert is dancing in a red crushed-velvet dress. She passed out of my view then reappeared, pointed-toes first, in only a transparent slip. Very quickly this scrap of satin is also shed. The first scene depicts near-rape in a bedroom (made to look unnervingly beautiful) and ends with the woman's neck being slashed by her 'lover'. There are many more neck-slashings throughout, the dark, skin-pricklingly monstrous figure of Jack the Ripper a constant light-footed presence in the shadows of the stage.

Crimson negligees, nude slips, violent sex, women with fear in their eyes, thrusting then tortured men... And a husk of a woman, driven to madness, emaciated and balding, alone, shaking, convulsing on a brass bed in a bare room. Her wild dark eyes stared, unseeing, up into the gods of the theatre. It brought me to tears. A girl just along from me fell in theatrical swoon at the end of that scene (though she had been standing the whole time, and she probably had low blood sugar). The whole ballet was stunning and disturbing. A Sickert canvas made flesh. These women have the strongest physicality, the strongest sense of elegance and form, the strongest feel for character. It was hard to watch at times yet mesmerising. The bodies and minds that made it so are far from weak vessels.