Comment: THE DIARY - When the KGB asked my mother-in-law to strip
Sunday 28 November 1999
When you hear Katherina play, or more to the point when you watch her play, pouncing on the keyboard like a lioness, you wonder why you ever thought Wolpe's music, or Schoenberg's, difficult or even dissonant. On either side of Wolpe she plays a Brahms intermezzo and fantasia. After Wolpe you have to adjust your ear to Brahms's luscious assonances.
Coming out of the concert I find that my car has been sandwiched between two huge outside-broadcast vans, both of them no doubt relaying the Tory party's verdict on Jeffrey Archer.
At the Evening Standard awards luncheon on Tuesday, my wife, Kika, and I are seated at Donald Sinden's table. I'm sitting next to Diana Sinden. "Everyone knows," she tells me, who is always ignorant of what everyone knows, "that Jeffrey was taking the blame for Lord X. It was X who'd been having it off with Coghlan, but Thatcher didn't want X's wife to be hurt, so she asked Jeffrey to fix it by paying off Coghlan, which he did, and now, poor man, he's carrying the can for it." Everyone has a theory, it seems.
I FEEL very strongly that Henry Goodman should have won the best actor award. I didn't see Stephen Dillane's winning performance, nor any of the other contenders, so I can't compare them. But Goodman's Shylock was a once-in-a-lifetime performance. He makes you understand things you've never seen before.
Why, for instance, a persecuted and embattled community must so jealously guard its own cultural inheritance against what it feels to be the contamination of an alien majority. We normally tend to believe that cultural cross- fertilisation is all to the good. But Goodman's playing in the National Theatre's Merchant of Venice makes you realise that here is one of those moments in history when, as Marx said, a higher culture can be overwhelmed by a lower one. When Shylock is forced, at the end of the trial, to convert to Christianity, it is shattering.
My mother-in-law, Olive Markham, whom Kika and I visit down in Ashton Forest on Wednesday, must be the only person alive to have been arrested by both the Gestapo and the KGB. Over lunch she told us that the KGB were far better-educated than any other police force.
She had been separated after capture from her husband, David. Her great fear was for him. He'd done a term in prison during the war as a conscientious objector, and she didn't think he'd survive another. Then, down the corridor she heard him laughing with his inquisitors. They were discussing his interpretation of Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, in which he'd played most memorably in Gielgud's production at the Lyric Hammersmith. "Imagine that," she says, "policemen discussing Chekhov!"
She herself was made to strip naked, which her interrogators thought would humiliate her. "But it didn't work," she says cheerfully, "because I never mind taking my clothes off."
ON THURSDAY night we have a very enthusiastic audience at the Gielgud Theatre. It includes my mother, a critic from the New York Times and a man who laughs very loudly at moments when no one else in the audience is laughing. Perhaps he is drunk. Or perhaps, as Vanessa says, like Tennessee Williams he laughs in his own very distinctive way at those moments which the rest of us find sad but he for that reason finds hilarious.
We've been sent a review of our production of Noel Coward's Song at Twilight from Le Figaro, and it's the best appreciation I've read. Agnes-Catherine Poirier calls us "L'evenement de l'automne theatral Londres" (how much more imposing that sounds in French!). "This is not the English Sacha Guitry, the dandy of the epoch between the wars with his silk dressing gown, his golden cigarette holder, and the gestures of a charleston dancer. It is an ageing playwright looking back at his past."
Song at Twilight not only happens to be Coward's final play, but like Shakespeare writing The Tempest he knew it was his last. Coward, writing in 1965, two years before the Sexual Offences Act, is also looking ahead. At one moment late in the second act, Hugo Latymer says to Carlotta, who believes that the law against gay men will soon be replaced: "Maybe ... but even when the actual law ceases to exist, there'll still be a stigma attached to the love that dares not speak its name ... it'll take more than a few outspoken books and plays and speeches in Parliament to uproot moral prejudice from the Anglo-Saxon mind." You can feel the audience stir in reluctant acknowledgement.
Last week Peter Wildeblood died. His book Against the Law did more to change the law than any other. But brave as he was, his talent was cramped and confined in relative obscurity by the weight of that English moral prejudice.
FRIDAY MORNING. Someone to cheer. Yelena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, has denounced the Russian bombardment of Chechnya calling it what it is - a brutal act of genocide and pouring scorn on the official lie that Chechen Islamic terrorists planted those bombs in Moscow and the provinces. That was a provocation, she says, to create a pretext for war. Bonner is among the first in Russia to say these things unambiguously, but her voice will open the way for many others.
`Song at Twilight' is at the Gielgud Theatre in London (tel: 0171-494 5065)
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