Friday 30 May 2014

Peter Sellar’s Hercules and PTSD

This review originally appeared May 14 in Critics at Large and is appearing in his blog since both volumes of  That Line of Darkness explore the debilitating effects of PTSD although in the Great War it was known as shellshock.

Richard Croft, Lucy Crowe (ground), and Kaleb Alexander in Hercules (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The theatre is as much a social act as an aesthetic.
 Peter Sellars
The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

The spike-haired and infectiously exuberant operatic director, Peter Sellars, has always put his distinctive personal stamp on all of his productions. He is an iconoclast who is adamant about discarding the old sets and costumes and breaking down the boundaries between art and life that put the audience at a safe distance. His goal is to render the opera modern and immediate. In doing so he has both thrilled and infuriated opera lovers. The latter was upset about the recent Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) production of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules in which the captive, the Princess Iole (Lucy Crowe), is hauled on stage wearing an orange jump suit, her face hooded with a black cloth a la Abu Ghraib, by a machine-gun toting soldier, and by the final scene in which the coffin of Hercules is draped with an American flag. Some viewers regarded these contemporary allusions as gratuitous. But Sellars does not indulge in the gimmickry that his critics suggest even though he concedes that the visuals do present a “weird disjunction.” As a politically engaged artist, he deeply believes that the arts in general and opera specifically should provide a visceral intensity and the space for a contemplative experience, which he believes does not occur in the headlines approach to what is happening in our times. He also cares deeply about the music itself as the distinguished musicologist, Susan McClary, remarked in a recent symposium “Coming Home: Handel’s Hercules” held at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She contrasted him with another renowned director, Robert Lepage, when she wondered whether the huge “machine” in the New York production of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, which gave the performers so much trouble, deepened our understanding of the Ring cycle.

Director Peter Sellars (Photo by Colin McConnell/Toronto Star) 
Consider a few examples from Sellars' long career even though he is only in his mid-fifties. Not only does recognize the beauty in Mozart he also delves deeply into the social inequities and the pain that are embedded in his operas. Sellars partly sets The Marriage of Figaro in a luxury apartment in New York City's Trump Tower while Don Giovanni unfolds amid the drug culture of New York City's Spanish Harlem. When he staged Wagner’s Tannhauser, he modelled the fallen minstrel on the disgraced TV preacher, Jimmy Swaggart. Eliminating the medieval trappings, the opera is set in a Nevada motel room and the “Crystal” Cathedral. In Swaggart, Sellars echoes Wagner himself, both of whom had carnal struggles, draped themselves in public religiosity while shamelessly promoting themselves. In 2013, the COC staged Sellar’s Tristan and Isolde wherein the medieval apparatus was replaced with Bill Viola’s slow motion video of water, fire and human movement, which became as integral to the production as the music and the singers. Admittedly, it took time to adjust to watching both at the same time. Cultural critic, Robert Harris praised it as “one of the most dramatic, moving and resonant operatic experiences the COC has ever presented.”

Sellar’s one feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991), which appeared on PBS’s Great Performances, pays both homage and is a parody of its famous predecessor, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It too is a silent film but with no subtitles, coloured but flat and underlit. What we hear is the brooding music of John Adams and the ritual chants of Tibetan monks as Ramirez charts the disintegrating lives of two stockbrokers who suddenly find themselves intertwined with two disorientated street people named Dr. Ramirez and Cesar. The film could be interpreted as a prescient outcome of the 2008 financial meltdown before Obama let the nervous bankers off the hook by in effect reassuring them that no one would likely go to prison. Sellars and Adams later collaborated in audacious operas that address recent history: Nixon in China, about the American president’s historical visit to China, The Death of Klinghoffer, a terrorist hijacking, and Doctor Atomic about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who presided over the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bombs.

The foregoing is by way of background to illustrate Sellar’s aesthetic philosophy that enables us to provide a more rounded discussion of Hercules. Sellars reworked Handel’s 1744 oratorioa musical work designed as a concert piece rather than a staged operaby eliminating much of the bloodless libretto of Rev. Thomas Broughton that was encrusted with the promotion of 18th-century pious Christian virtues. In Brougham’s telling, Hercules is a likeable good natured warrior returning from war; there is no suggestion of sexual tension that existed between him and his captive, Iole. Sellars’ Hercules is closer to the raw intensity of Sophocles' Women of Trachis wherein the victorious general is a fierce vindictive demagogue. Sophocles, the only major dramatist who experienced war directlyas a generalunderstood what war could do not only to the soldier but to his family. Sellars has blended that 2500-year old drama with Handel’s eighteenth-century vision to transform a mythological hero's homecoming into a domestic tragedy for the age of Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of togas, the soldiers wear army fatigues and women in the chorus cover their hair with scarves.

Eric Owens, Lucy Crowe, & Marckarthur Johnson (Photo: Michael Cooper)
It is no accident that Sellars chose this baroque composer to explore the psychological effects of war on the returning soldier and his family. Handel understood psychic breakdown because he struggled throughout his life with “deep melancholy” and “raging fits.” Perhaps that partially explains why he was deeply attached to other people's suffering. Despite going bankrupt on several occasions to stage his operas, he plowed whatever profits he made into support for mental hospitals, prisons and orphanages. His empathy for other people’s pain was a motivation to write music that could offer consolation. According to Sellars, “The symptoms of PTSD haven’t changed over 2,500 years. Sudden flashbacks, things that keep repeating in your brain and you can’t get the trauma to go away so you obsess over it time and time again. That is the description of a Handel aria.” In an effort to represent this experience, the same line of lyric is repeated over and over again by the different characters often with different notes. The director goes so far as to argue that the thirteen arias (beautifully) sung by Hercules’ wife, Dejanira (Alice Coote), coincide with the PTSD symptoms laid out by the 2006 listings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Set against a background of broken columns surrounding a big pit of what appears to be glowing embers, and a shifting, transforming backdrop, Hercules (Eric Owens) arrives onstage late to a triumphal return. He is an American soldier in combat gear home from the maelstrom of war knowing only conflict. To demonstrate its contemporary resonance, set designer George Tsypin places the triumph in the context of a beer guzzling festival and BBQ. This scene captures the public persona of Hercules. In his private world, he is provocatively silent, especially with Dejanira, who alternates between anguish and despair, which she attempts to drown with alcohol. She rightly feels that she deserves respect for her emotional sacrifices as she awaited word about his fate. To add to her misery, he brings with him a prisoner, Iole. Dejanira becomes increasingly jealous suspecting infidelity and as a result they bicker throughout as she swallows fistfuls of tranquilizers to dull her anxieties. But instead of focusing on a love triangle, Sellars widens the context by exploring the psychological effects that war has upon both the returning veteran and the civilians.

One of the highlights of the recent symposium was the appearance of several veterans from different wars. Although none had never attended an opera before, they agreed that it had been a powerful experience and that they could relate to it. Although they did not provide details, I suspect that they could connect with a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress: the pain, the bluster, the stonewalling, the anger and confusion of Hercules who is living on a knife’s edge as he attempts to shift into civilian and family life after the life and death experience of war. Ironically, Hercules’ actions set in motion the carnage of the domestic battlefield which will defeat him in the end. He may have shut down his feelings yet Hercules makes his presence felt in every note of the three-hour opera. Handel’s greatest insight was to recognize the veteran’s silence by giving Hercules only three arias to sing. Baritone Eric Owens, who reminded me of Paul Robeson’s presence in films, made him terrifying.

Alice Coote and Lucy Crowe (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Handel’s sympathetic treatment of the civilians is communicated through his music, the libretto and the acting by extremely accomplished singers. In her first aria, mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote as Dejanira powerfully expresses her grief about not knowing whether her husband is even alive. Throughout, she acts with a raw immediacy that is at times difficult to watch. She moves in fits and starts, once even interrupting an aria to burst into tears. In hopes of reviving a relationship in which she feels she has been wronged, Dejanira gives Hercules a jacket soaked in what she believes to be a love potion, but in reality contains an acid that ravens his body causing him to writhe in hideous pain before dying. The range of emotions expressed by Owens as he lies in the pit during his death throes is one of the most searing moments that I have witnessed on the operatic stage. Iole, who says not a word in the Sophocles drama, is turned by Handel into the moral centre of his oratorio and Sellar’s opera. We first hear her in a heart-breaking aria, “Bright Liberty,” mostly from under a hood, grieving the death of her father murdered by Hercules and the devastation of her country’s defeat. But she is also capable of moments of great compassion when she sings “My Breast with Tender Pity Swells.” Hercules’ son, the physically damaged Hyllus (Richard Croft), becomes abusive with Iole, despite his love for her, after hearing about his father’s terrible demise. Hyllus on crutches is an apt directorial touch given that sons of heroes rarely can live up to their father’s expectations and Hercules’ treatment and gaze toward his son suggest only contempt. The pure countertenor of David Daniels captures the essence of the herald, Lichas, who seems unable to help in any way. Whether it’s a grieving friend, a conflicted son, a jealous wife, a tortured mistress or the psychologically ravaged title character, Sellars helps all of them achieve a depth of performance that is deeply moving and executed with complete precision of diction. Harry Bickett on the podium elicits from the COC Orchestra an impeccable period sound of Handel’s emotionally rich and at times dissonant music. Indeed, the whole production, including the chorus that comments on the action by the leads and tells the audience about the characters’ true feelings, is stellar without a false note.

The recent memory of the many suicides of Canadian veterans returned from Afghanistan made the lyrics of the final ensemble sequence praising “the theme of Liberty’s immortal song,” touch us in a way that Handel, who Sellars believes was writing for the future, could only imagine. As veterans struggle to integrate into a civilian world after the horrors of war, Sellars’ vision of Hercules is not merely relevant but carries an urgent message, one that the veterans who participated in the symposium, and Kip Pegley, a professor of music and researcher at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, communicated most forcibly: the cycle of isolation and violence needs to be broken. Perhaps Sellars assisted in that task by dissolving the boundary between art and life.

Sunday 4 May 2014

From Memoir to Film: The Railway Man

This review appeared in Critics at Large, May 14

Any director who attempts to adapt a memoir into a feature film is confronted with a myriad of challenges. The text will inevitably be telescoped but what to eliminate and what to emphasize, especially given that with the memoir genre, the author’s decision to conceal is as important as what he reveals? Should the film maintain the memoir’s structure of a chronological overview or revert to flashbacks? What about the choice of casting: should the filmmakers be looking for actors with cinematic appeal or attempt to search out individuals who closely resemble in appearance, age and mannerisms the characters in the memoir? And perhaps most important: with the choices above already made, can the film be true to the spirit of the memoir?

The foregoing issues are especially acute because Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man (1995 reissued by Vintage in 2014) is so uneven. In the early chapters, he chronicles his love for the railway in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. What follows, the treatment of POWs, is the best part. As a 22 year-old when he was captured after the British surrender of Singapore, Lomax, along with tens of thousands of POWs in1943, was forced to build the notorious “Death Railway,” as it became known, a 258-mile stretch of train track from Burma to Thailand. The rail line provided the passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. Treated as slaves, the prisoners worked in the torpid heat on a subsistence diet where diseases such as dysentery and cholera were rife. Whenever a POW flagged, he would be beaten. Over 12, 000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. (It should be noted that over twenty-five percent of the American and British Empire POWs died in Japanese captivity while only one percent of the same POWs died in Nazi camps.)

As horrific as conditions were, worse followed when Lomax’s captors discovered a contraband radio and a map he had carefully drawn of the railway line. He and five others close to him were interrogated and savagely beaten. His arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more torture followed in the days after, including waterboarding and being locked up in a bamboo cage the size of a large dog crate. Lomax was able to offer this searing account of his war experiences because he wrote an early draft while recovering from the bone-crushing bludgeoning inflicted on him by the Japanese before returning home to Scotland. It’s a wonder he survived with limbs as mangled as his psyche. (There is a ludicrous scene in the film when the camp he is in is liberated and he stands up to greet one of his liberators. In reality Lomax was condemned to a number of horrific prisons in and around Bangkok where he barely survived his injuries.) The physical damage was one thing but much more difficult was trying to escape during the next half century the vice-grip of his memories as a haunted POW characterized by terrifying flashbacks – wartime traumas re-experienced rendering it difficult to distinguish between illusion and reality – nightmares, emotional withdrawal and sudden outbursts of anger.

Eric Lomax and ex-Japanese soldier, Takashi Nagase.

Although the last third occasionally sheds important insights about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the memoir’s generally elliptical account of his post-war life leaves the reader feeling dissatisfied. Not being an introspective man, his book rarely gets beneath the surface in his psychic journey. Lomax does reveal his discomfort with ambiguity and any official demands; even paying bills became intolerable to him. He was not likely alone. In correspondence with his former chaplain in the hope of finding out more about the identity of his torturers and the “American” interpreter who supervised the beatings in 1943, Lomax discloses that the padre gave up the uncertainties of religion for the certainties of mathematics. Later when he is willing to talk and meets first with Helen Bamber who established the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and his personal therapist, the physician Stuart Turner, Lomax says more about their fine qualities than he does about his own two-year therapy and how he confronted his demons, including his deeply ingrained hatred toward the Japanese.

Throughout the memoir, Lomax was exceedingly diffident in doling out personal biographical details. He briefly alludes to the fact that he has a fiancĂ©e, then that he is married to a woman referred to only as S shortly after his repatriation when they hardly knew each other. Early on, he might have been willing to talk about his experiences but S could only think of the war as rationing, air raid warnings and blackouts. He shuts down and is not able to talk to anyone about his traumas until after his retirement as a railroad industrial relations expert. Speaking of himself in the third person, he acknowledges that “much of his emotional life was ripped out of him.” In the meantime, his nightmares begin, the couple have two daughters –a son dies a day after he is born – and they drift apart and he leaves it completely in 1981. Apart from two paragraphs about his daughters and conceding the fear that former POWs may have genetically harmed their children, Lomax says nothing, perhaps from guilt, about how his anger affected his family.

Colin Firth as Eric Lomax in The Railway Man.
None of this personal material about his post-war life enters the film, The Railway Man. Colin Firth as Lomax initially appears as a lonely bachelor, an introverted, quiet and somber man. He comes alive only when talking about railroads or railway schedules. Fittingly, he meets his future wife Patti (played by Nicole Kidman) on a train and their romance begins with him talking about the one subject with which he is comfortable. Within a short time they are married although in real time it was three years. It strains credibility that Patti only sees the first sign of his PTSD on their wedding night when she awoke to find him thrashing and screaming in pain. Firth is at least a decade too young but readily conveys Lomax’s icy silence and terrible agony. Flashing back in time, Lomax, as a younger man played by Jeremy Irvine (an excellent casting choice because he resembles a young Firth and he is also adept at radiating a steely countenance), recalls what I have already recounted from the memoir. The gruelling labor and the Japanese brutality are vividly captured and shown to be far worse than portrayed in David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s depiction of the beatings of suspected spies and Lomax’s repeated waterboarding are unflinching and difficult to watch. Some viewers might regard the frequent flashbacks as a distraction, or an annoyance, but I felt that Teplitzky might have been more imaginative in its use. Current anxiety-producing situations could have set off harrowing memories rather than inserting a fictional device in which Patti pleadingly asks one of Eric’s friends and fellow veteran, Finlay, about that time.

Teplitzky and the script writers, Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, could have made better use of Kidman in the film had they reached more into the memoir. In it Patti is more aggressive than in the film not only in searching out psychological help for her husband but in her response to the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase. He was present at Lomax’s torture and Eric focused his hatred on this man because he spoke English. Nagase published his autobiography in which he mentioned the torture of Lomax. Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband without informing him. To her surprise, he wrote back. It was these letters that set in motion a chain of events that led to the 1993 meeting between Lomax and Nagase in Thailand, both in their seventies. That rendezvous took place near the bridge over the River Kwai, the infamous stretch of Death Railway immortalized in a 1957 film. Footage from the day shows two grey-haired men tentatively shaking hands.

Near the end of The Railway Man, the film veers off in a wrong direction setting up a blind meeting as a potential opportunity for Lomax to avenge his hatred. He did nourish revenge fantasies before he met Patti and in the early period of their relationship, but that was before his own therapy, something the film does not even mention. Had Teplitzky presented this scene as an early revenge fantasy, it might have worked, and the contrast with the final scene would have been starker. The film also does a disservice to Nagase; it never acknowledges the man’s illness and his own PTSD. Deeply remorseful, he dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s to “make-up” for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In the film, the older Nagase is merely working as a tour guide; in real life, he made repeated pilgrimages to Thailand and worked for reconciliation between former POWs and Japan. It was not outlandish for him to believe that he had been “forgiven.” The emotionally difficult journey that both men took before they met each other was far more nuanced and longer in real time than suggested in the film. Initially, Lomax scoffed at the idea of reconciliation given his abiding hatred for the Japanese in general and Nagase in particular, and it took a long time before they corresponded with each other. From the book, it is possible to believe that Lomax exorcised his demons; in the film, it strains our credibility too much. Had it been directed with more subtlety and imagination what occurs in the final scene would have carried an even greater powerful wallop and been more believable.

Nonetheless despite the film’s shortcomings, The Railway Man carries resonance beyond its time and place. It should sensitize its viewers to the agony of PTSD, a condition that seems to have received public attention only after the homicides and suicides that have destroyed or severely emotionally maimed veterans after their homecoming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption (Random House, 2010) is a splendid biography of Louie Zamperini, another POW veteran who endured similar conditions and suffered PTSD after his captivity in Japan. Its author, Laura Hillenbrand, reminds us that as of January 1953, one third of Pacific POWs were categorized as 50 to 100 percent disabled. (Zamperini’s story will soon be released as a major motion picture.) The Railway Man is also a reminder that the torture inflicted upon Lomax has obvious parallels with our own times and those that mete it out can also suffer from PTSD. Although Justine Sharrock in his Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things draws upon only a very small sample of American perpetrators of torture from its recent wars and may not be representative, the monograph serves as a cautionary warning to those who mistreat others: a psychologically-damaging blowback might occur. Perhaps a better alternative for all might be to consider the last sentence in Eric Lomax’s memoir when the couple were standing in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery among the graves of Allied POWs: “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.”