Tom Sutcliffe: I miss the shock of the new

Friday 26 February 2010 01:00

It's traditional to adopt a knowingly superior attitude to the first English reviewers of Ibsen's Ghosts – The Daily Telegraph's apoplectic response having a place of honour when it comes to furious fulmination. The play, that paper's critic famously wrote, is "an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publically". He went on to condemn its "almost putrid indecorum". His colleagues weren't a lot kinder, either. "Revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous," wrote one. "As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre," concluded another. And, as I say, our response to these accounts of what has become a play you could safely take a maiden aunt to, is expected to be mocking or pitying. Sitting watching the latest London production at the Duchess Theatre the other night, though, I found myself envying that early audience.

It isn't that I think they were right. Or even that I think they were righter than we sometimes allow. One's fantasy, with groundbreaking artistic works, is that one would have been among the far-sighted minority, emerging from the performance defending it against the scandalised roars of the mob. The fantasy, incidentally, is very rarely justified. Ninety nine out of a hundred of us would have booed the first night of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and joined in the riot at the premiere of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. And if we hadn't booed or catcalled – obedient instead to some self-conscious alignment with the avant-garde – we might well have inwardly flinched anyway, since the soil that ground-breaking works cut into is us and our comfortable expectations.

That's why I envied those first audiences the other night. Or more precisely "what" I envied them. Their unwitting resistance to what they were watching and the sense of shock it must have provoked. It's pretty near impossible for Ibsen now to scandalise us – since the work brought about the change it sought. So, if you're to regain anything of its original impact you have to watch it in a kind of mental fancy dress, kitting yourself out in Victorian garments.

This isn't to say that the play can't operate now, or has become redundant, like some once-marvellous piece of farm machinery. But it is to acknowledge that some kinds of plays (socially challenging ones) have their own version of radioactive half-life. What was once so dangerous it had to be contained or segregated steadily decays over time until a child could handle it.

As it happens, Ghost is doubly susceptible. It's not just that now we're all well-schooled in the duty to challenge convention, expose social hypocrisy and mistrust comfortable piety. It's that the core scandal of Ghosts has become a kind of museum piece in itself. In 1891, when the London premiere took place, syphillis was the skeleton in the cupboard. It pointedly – as one of the characters in Ghosts says – visited the sins of the fathers on their sons (or daughters). Now, I wonder whether some younger members of the audiences would even know what it is that Captain Alving has done to Oswald. The metaphorical element of the hereditary taint may remain vivid to current audiences while the real medical component, which so appalled those first reviewers, has faded to the point of invisibility.

Not that you can safely assume all electrical charge has been switched off. By accident of timing, the scene in the final act when Oswald reveals he has a box of morphine tablets and implores his mother, Mrs Alving (played here by Lesley Sharp), to use them if he becomes incapable came hard on the heels of some very high-profile cases of maternal mercy killing. Suddenly, the play was plugged in to our preoccupations and our anxieties in a way that made theatrical history irrelevant. It was very exciting – but just imagine what it would feel like to experience the whole play with that amount of voltage running through every line.

* I may have judged too complacently when writing about Tom Ford's film A Single Man last week. The argument I put, in the context of Alexander McQueen's suicide, was that the film's much discussed surface gloss shouldn't have been applied to the suicidal preparations of the lead character. That, I suggested, was to ignore the desperate reality of suicide that involves loss of control rather than the exercise of it. Looking back on it, with a real suicide filling the screen so to speak, it seemed an error to have George's sense of style expressed even at the moment when he could endure his despair no longer. Since then more than one reader has written – in terms of courteous correction – to point out that my understanding of suicide was simplistic. One drew on his own experience of a family suicide that was accompanied by preparations almost identical to those George makes. Necessary papers had been neatly laid out along with full instructions about the funeral arrangements. Another cited a case in which someone changed into a smart suit before taking his life. In both cases the people in question had set their affairs in order, in limited mitigation – I guess – of the pain and distress that would be caused. To be honest I'm quite glad not to have a greater expertise in this sad field, but it seems only right to acknowledge that it may not have been the film that was shallow in this regard, but me.

Seating beauties

Strictly speaking, I suppose you could call the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican a furniture show. It contains chairs and seating, lighting designs and shelving by the Israeli-born designer, some of them one-off objects and some mass-produced. But that description doesn't begin to do justice to the pleasure the exhibition delivers, or to how beautiful some of its "chairs" are. Beauty alone doesn't account for how exhilarating Restless is, though. The pieces in the show are certainly covetable and a lot of them are unmistakably art (Arad is a friend of Antony Gormley and has named a kind of biomorphic chaise-longue after the sculptor). But it's the sense of invention that thrills, an ingenuity which has little do with function and everything to do with ideas. To describe a chair as a philosophical essay would be a short cut to Pseud's Corner, so I won't. I'll just say you might be surprised at how pensive some of these chairs are, and how generously they repay mental interrogation. Best of all, the Barbican has acknowledged that visitor's buttocks should be allowed to judge the designs too, with a large area that allows you to try out Arad's more industrial designs. The cliché for exhibition attendance involves turnstiles, but if ever a show deserved to put bums on seats, it's this one.

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