A Fortnightly Review.
Love, Loss and Chianti
A dramatization of two texts by Christopher Reid
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, 101 Queen Caroline Street, W6 9BN
25 February- 17 May 2020 (public assembly laws permitting)
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
THIS IS AN evening of poetry given a theatrical twist. To paraphrase briefly: Christopher Reid has written verses, brought together in a book called A Scattering, that were completed in the three years that followed the death of his wife Lucinda in 2005. This is an exequy or elegy in four parts, the first, written while she knew she had only a short time to live, was begun during their last holiday together, on Crete, the second, describing her bravery in the hospice, the third a series of meditations on bereavement, and the fourth in which the poet addresses Lucinda directly, seeking resolution. This text, dramatized, comprises the first part of Love, Loss and Chianti – which is currently being performed at Riverside Studios. The second half of the evening – The Song of Lunch – was written directly after A Scattering was completed and it’s a snappy, satirical account of an imagined meeting with a former flame in a London restaurant that is not quite as fashionable as it once was.
Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson are the players – who appear in both parts – so Rebecca represents Lucinda in A Scattering and the former flame in The Song of Lunch. Chianti is consumed in both pieces. Bathurst is excellent as the gloomy, grieving poet who becomes savagely critical of dates and dining later in the evening. Rebecca Johnson is fascinating as the dying woman who becomes a wraith who is then transformed into the potential flame for an affair which might or might not be reignited by lunch later. As the author himself pointed out, it’s an unusual way round, since in traditional Greek theatre the comic satyr play would precede the tragic drama. The evening is directed by Jason Morell with a minimalist sense of what performance can do with a couple of chairs and ingenious but simple movement. Both texts are accompanied and considerably enhanced by the projected animated designs and drawings created for the evening by Charles Peattie. These are ingeniously transformative with wave patterns suggestive of ancient Greek or Cretan designs morphing into the graph of life indication or wonderful evocations of Soho turning into inextricable mazes. These animations are a key element in the success of the production.
For all the overall coherence afforded by these animations, this show is very much an evening that divides into two parts rather than a single integrated event. The first half is sad, with some beautiful lines, but, it has to be said, it is not dynamized by dramatic impetus. Grief is very difficult to share. Perhaps the poetry of loss works better on the page than in the auditorium. I did not know Lucinda. However much the actress seeks to epitomise her, her death is not a tragedy. Tragedy is a theatrical device, which may involve some hero or heroine destroyed by some flaw in their nature. This ironic juxtaposition helps the audience engage with the personality figuring in the tragedy. Lucinda was a real person, and her death left a gap in the poet’s life, no doubt about that, and the loss was felt deeply. However, as the first half drew to a close, I felt that the applause was somewhat dutiful, obligatory perhaps, but not the emotional outcome of a dramatic experience.
In complete contrast, the second half of the evening is savagely funny, acutely observant, full of twists and turns. Never has London felt sleazier. The rendezvous of these two former lovers sets the scene for a dual of personalities, and because Rebecca is still Lucinda, at least for those who have witnessed her as Lucinda in the first part of the evening, something spooky affects us. Irony and ambiguity take over in an intensely dramatic way. We could be going back in time rather than forwards. Outrageously flirty, yet still playing hard-to-get and shielded now by marriage, Rebecca brings the former flame to life in way that cannot be achieved with the sad subject of A Scattering. The writing drives home its nails with assured wit and accuracy. You could feel the audience at the edge of their seats, and there was no way that you could not share the mirth, farcically cruel as that mirth may have been. As The Song of Lunch reached its conclusion the applause was resounding and the house deeply satisfied
So the evening requires a considerable shift of gears, from sympathy with mourning to a crisp and appreciative perception of lunching London. Maybe you are more capable of empathy than I am. I recommend that you go along to Riverside Studios and make up your own mind.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).