FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe. Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
Pollina and its built-in theater
Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together. Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – A discussion about the vicissitudes of modern theater and the theater as a social action, taking place under the scorching sun of Sicily amongst the trees and vegetation of the small Fraginesi artists’ retreat outside this town was the moment I had in mind when I earlier spoke of the TrinArt association while writing about the turtle event last week. The panel took place on Wednesday, and opened my eyes to yet another cultural aspect of life in Sicily.
Some of the spectators in the round at the panel
I attended because Ornella Bonventre, representing TAC Teatro, was invited to speak on the panel, as she fit in perfectly as a director and actress who comes from Castellammare del Golfo originally – actually, she was born in nearby Erice – and now also has copious experience of theater also in Milan, Paris and elsewhere. The panel also featured the illustrious Emma Dante, who is based in nearby Palermo, but is also internationally known, having worked regularly in places as far apart as Paris, Edinburgh, the United States – where her play “The Sisters Macaluso,” was staged in 2017 – and many other places. Also on the panel were Laura Castelli, an actress from Milan, a couple of actresses from the Palermo-based company, Barba à Papa Teatro, and Maria Tesè, the deputy in charge of culture for the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.
The event was attended by a healthy sized audience of perhaps 25 people – given the relatively remote location of the retreat – and among those in attendance was Nicola Rizzo, the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.
Video: Ornella Bonventre talking about theater and society at the panel session in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily
How fabulous to find such cultural energy amongst the rugged, parched landscape, and to contrast it in the mind with the works these people normally do in theater spaces. TrinArt is an artistic association founded by Simona Nasta, a Sicilian artist, but which is not only about art but also about taking in and harbouring refugees and other people with social problems at the retreat.
Opening words of Ornella Bonventre’s article on Rodari
Perhaps that is where the social theme of the theater came into it. In any case, given the crisis that theater has been going through since the beginning of coronavirus, it was also not surprising that a lot of the discussion revolved around the problems that theater is facing today due to the virus. But there were also discussions about the general health of the modern theater itself, and what attracts people – or not – to the theater today. Ornella gave an inspiring talk about how theater is and always has been a social tool, a tool for social transformation. I won’t go into the details of what she said, because I told her I thought she had the basis for her next article for publication. (Ornella’s latest article appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Italian education industry magazine called Pedagogika, and it is a wonderful piece about the popular writer and educator, Gianni Rodari, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the centenary of his birth.)
In any case, it was a great pleasure to attend in this panel discussion, and I look forward to reporting about further such cultural activities from this summer in Sicily….
Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.
Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company. But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.
Marine Lefèvre and the old woman
That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.
We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.
When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.
Poster for Première Etape in October
We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.
Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.
Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.
Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.
During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves
Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.
When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.
Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show
I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.
The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.
And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.
ALCAMO MARINA, Sicily – The last thing I imagined finding myself doing yesterday evening as the sun set on the Mediterranean was to be standing on the vast sandy beach of the Alcamo Marina playing songs to save the lives of unborn Loggerhead sea turtles. But that is precisely what happened, thanks to an invitation from TrinArt, an association based in Castellammare del Golfo, that in turn had been invited by the association – called Thalia – that was interested in protecting the turtles after a recent attack by vandals of the beach site where the turtle eggs are buried.
I will likely be speaking more in the coming days about TrinArt and its artist founder, Simona Nasta, but for the moment back to the event on the beach to save Claretta’s eggs! Claretta is the name of the turtle – no doubt for its scientific name of Caretta caretta – that laid the eggs on the beach. The site was cordoned off with the help of various associations, including the World Wildlife Fund, but when some idiot man went and allowed his dog to go in and tear apart the nest, destroying some of the eggs, it was time to draw attention to the fact that the eggs needed protection.
So TrinArt set up an event to invite artists to the nest yesterday to perform and attract attention to the turtles. These sea turtles are in a precarious situation in the area – in fact, it is an endangered species – so it has been celebrated whenever they have been laying eggs anywhere. The beach that Claretta chose, however, is a very popular one for vacationers, and is, in fact, lined with vacation homes. But only a very small fraction of the turtles that will be hatched from the eggs is ever expected to make it to adulthood, once it leaves the nest and goes into the sea. So any disruption to the already perilous process is highly to be discouraged.
Nasta had invited Ornella and me, and so it became a TAC Teatro experience, and I brought along my guitar to play music with the other artists. Strangely, the first musician who played stole two of the songs I had planned to play, which I considered on theme: “Stand By Me,” and “What’s Up!” with its strong and appropriate line: “What’s goin’ on?!?!?”
So I decided when it was my turn, at the prodding of Ornella, to do “Mad World,” and “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere,” finishing off with my own song, “Borderline.”
Nasta led a blindfolded ritual painting with the public, and I have decided to show the result of that work here – done by her, and several members of the public, who led her blindfolded to the canvas in front of the turtle egg nest.
For TAC Teatro, it was a nice moment tying together with the company’s past, as Ornella has led theater research projects along with the World Wildlife Fund in the past, and this reminded her of those great moments. For me personally, as we drove back to Castellammare del Golfo, I suddenly remembered the last time that I had taken part in an artistic event to save a species. Unfortunately it dates back to what is now more than 40 years! I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, and I was invited to perform an act with my ventriloquist’s dummy, Peter McCabe at a “Save the Rhino” event. I guess that worked out pretty well for the Rhino, even though they still have big problems. I only hope this event yesterday will save the sea turtle – or at least Claretta’s eggs….
Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s
An exterior view of the balcony from which the phone fell. It is the first balcony on the left.
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – The people of this small Sicilian town on the shores of the Mediterranean have a higher belief in magical events than most modern world peoples, I believe. They still have magicians who help with family problems and health, and they consult other seers and foretellers of good and bad fortune, and believe many superstitions that I do not. I won’t get into that any deeper. But last night I suddenly felt like maybe there had been an almost supernatural phenomenon occurring when Ornella’s iPhone survived a fall of about 6-meters, landing glass-screen down on the rough pavement of the road and then sliding at least 20 meters with the same glass screen face down, before coming to a rest in a busy intersection where no cars passed until after Ornella recuperated the phone. It was a completely unprotected phone – i.e., no protective case or cover or screen protection. Both of us were certain that there would be NOTHING left of the screen or the phone. In fact, it did not have a single scratch on the glass or anywhere else – except maybe a tiny smudge on a side corner – and it functioned perfectly thereafter. How was this possible!?!?!?
The iPhone slid from the balcony along the pavement to the intersection precisely under the spot where the closest car is located in this photo.
Do you remember Ripley’s Believe It or Not!? Well, for me, this is a case for that franchise of weird phenomena! I think if you look at the photos here and see the fall it did and then you look at the photos of the phone that I took today, you will also find this nearly impossible to imagine how it could have happened. How many phone screens have I broken by dropping a fully protected phone just a couple of feet!?!?! This was an unprotected iPhone 7 that she bought last year. It remains in impeccable condition.
How on earth was this possible? Ask Ripley. But again, I must say as I did in yesterday’s post, that we feel blessed to be in Castellamarre del Golfo. And even more so now!!! (Could the iPhone’s survival be because generations of Ornella’s entire family on her mother’s side once occupied all the buildings on either side of the street where the phone fell, and they are still with us in spirit now, watching over her? Oh, geez, I’m starting to transform into a local!!!)
A couple more angles of the iPhone in perfect condition after its 6-meter fall.
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How many times during lockdown in Paris from March to May this year did Ornella and I say to each other that if we managed somehow to get to our favorite summer retreat again this year we would feel blessed? No doubt too often to count. In any case, we have now been here for three weeks, and we still feel blessed every day. After the confinement of lockdown we find ourselves in an average of 30 degree temperatures, cloudless skies and warm, smooth Mediterranean waters. Still, it might be the calm after the storm, but I am reading the Italian press daily to keep an eye on the possibility of rough waters to come, and a storm after the calm. Needless to say, it is a holiday like none before….
But this small former fishing village of Castellammare del Golfo – the castle on the sea – on the north coast of Sicily, less than an hour’s drive from Palermo, is about as good – and for the moment safe – as holiday locations can come. Sicily was not as badly hit as the rest of Italy with the virus, suffering still to date fewer than 300 deaths, and around 3000 infected (that’s a pretty high percentage of deaths per infections, though, isn’t it?) Since we came here, though, the town of 15,000 people is filling up rapidly with tourists from the rest of Europe, and we hold our breaths and wear our masks in an effort to believe that things will not this summer get out of hand here as they have in some other vacation spots in Europe, such as southern Spain.
We chose to give ourselves a quick escape method should things go wrong, by having driven here from Paris in my old Ford Focus, taking the ferry boat from Genova to Palermo, with the car aboard. It was a peaceful, fun, in fact magnificent journey, topped off on the boat by a fabulous seafood pasta in a restaurant that only we and an English couple, and perhaps another one or two people, decided to use. So there was little worry about the virus spreading there! The point was that if the pandemic grew back into the danger zone, as it has in Spain, we could just jump in the car and drive back to Paris or some other country. (Plus the flights were getting really expensive.) A Free Music Performance in Castellammare del Golfo
We feel so blessed to have had this summer in Sicily, in fact, that this year we decided that we would live it a little differently than in past years: This year is devoted to staying as much at home and at the beach as possible, while avoiding the center of the town as much as possible on the weekends. The reason for that is that if you are currently aware that there is a virus out there, you would be entirely unaware were you to venture out into the nightlife of Castellammare del Golfo this summer: It is difficult to find any bars or restaurants not bursting with clients wearing no masks as if there were no cases of the virus at all on this island. (And, yes, that is actually almost true: the known daily cases are rising in single digits at the moment…but….)
In years past we had decided that every year we would discover a new part of this historical jewell of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. But this year, as I said, we are staying put and feeling blessed. Personally, I decided that I would use my experiences of learning about the island in the past years as a base for a new project: Reading the daily Giornale di Sicilia not only for the coronavirus statistics, but also in order to practice my Italian, and make a real, strong effort to finally learn the language as well as another way of exploring the local culture and getting to know the place of Ornella’s birth and childhood upbringing much better.
And what an education it is turning out to be. In addition to reading stories all about the places I have visited in the last few years with Ornella each summer – Marsala, Palermo, Trapani, among other cities, and such ancient archaelogical sites as Segesta or the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento (which is also the home of Pirandello, Camilleri and Sciascia), as well as Scopello and Erice, the medieval town on the hill – I have found the second most comprehensible stories for my limited Italian to be those about all the local crime. Yes, like any such local newspapers, the Giornale di Sicilia – preferably my local Trapani edition – brings me daily news of mafia arrests and crimes.
This is particularly interesting to follow as it turns out that this beautiful small town of Castellammare was itself the birthplace of many of the figures of the legendary New York City mafia in the 1920s and 1930s, including Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, Salvatore Maranzano, Vito Bonventre, and was the base in Sicily of Don Vito Ferro who decided to try to take over control of the New York mafia from Giuseppe “Joe The Boss” Masseria – who had the famous future boss “Lucky Luciano” on his side – and they all got into a battle that became known as the Castellammarese War – named after this town, yes – that lasted from February 1930 to Apr. 15, 1931. The faction from this town won that war, by the way, but then the whole crime syndicate would change form, leading to the so-called sharing arrangement set up by Luciano and called “The Commission.”
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily
Falcone and Borsellino
I see this beautiful little seaside town more like a future Monaco, however, and I hope it takes as long as possible before any such transformation happens. But the nightlife grows every year, the real estate value grows, and the boats keep getting bigger. For Ornella and I, as I say, we are enjoying the calm, the sun and the sea. And it turns out that there are numerous free concerts and other events – notably, and partly on the theme of this blog item, we saw a theatrical production the other day about a fictional interview with famous Palermo anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, who was assassinated by the mafia in 1992 (weeks after his fellow Palermo anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was also assassinated)….
So, after the storm, a break. Let’s hope it continues. I’ll check back in as soon as possible with more news about virus life from here or elsewhere….
Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo
PARIS – It took me decades, but I have finally attended a Peter Brook night at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. On Friday, I went to the last day of a three-day run of a work-in-progress by Brook and a handful of actors, at the theater that he has occupied since 1974, although he ceased running the place in 2008. Brook will turn 95 next month, so perhaps it was significant that the work-in-question was “The Tempest,” considered one of Shakespeare’slast plays, and one that is full of commentary on the very art of drama itself that both Shakespeare and Brook devoted themselves to. And what a pleasure and spellbinding moment it was to see and hear Brook himself.
The Bouffes du Nord was opened as a theater in the 1870s, and had a long history of trying to find its raison d’être, until Peter Brook took over the place and made it the seat of his International Centre for Theatre Research, which he founded in 1970, along with Micheline Rozan. Just sitting in and exploring the theater itself is a great experience – I had been only once before, for a Rickie Lee Jones concert – as it was refurbished by Brook years ago, but not redecorated. So the walls, seats, stage area, everything has a feeling of being lost and left in time to rot. (You can get a small taste of it from an opera scene in the 1980s film “Diva.”)
The show was called “Shakespeare Resonance,” and consisted of a demonstration by a handful of actors of “research” that they had done on “The Tempest” over the last couple of weeks, under the impetus of Brook and his collaborating director, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Ultimately, it was about 1 hour and 10 or 20 minutes of excerpts of The Tempest woven together to make a play. I’ll get into that part of the evening in a moment, but for me the thrilling part of the evening was to see and hear Brook talk about the work before the show.
He came to the stage along with all the actors before the demonstration of work, and he was seated in a chair, with his actors at his side, and he took a microphone and spoke to the audience about his vision of the theater, and this work itself. Notably, he spoke of the resonances between the actors on stage and the public watching a show. And he immediately asked one of the actors – Marcello Magni – to involve the audience in one of the exercises that Brook caught him doing backstage to warm up the other actors. It was about finding those resonances with our hands and whole body.
Ornella and I arrived about 20 minutes before the show was set to begin at 19:00 and already by then we had a highly reduced choice of seats to sit in, having to settle for the first floor balcony. It turned out to be a great place to sit as we had a full view of the stage area, but most importantly, our seats were very close to the loudspeaker that projected Brook’s somewhat weakened voice through the mic.
Other than that, Brook was wonderfully in possession of all of his intellectual brilliance and passion for the theater, clearly. So it was the treat of a lifetime to have finally gone and witnessed this moment of a colossus of world theater.
As to his – and Estienne’s – directing what was most extraordinary was the choice of the actors and the reasons behind that choice; and, of course, the stage actions were captivating throughout – especially the use of some basic props, such as the filthy, heavy-looking carpet that Caliban rolled himself up in.
Magni, who comes from Bergamo, in Italy, but has lived and worked in Britain for 40 years, played Ariel, and was clearly the doyen of the actors. I never pictured Ariel as a grey-haired man of something like my age! But, of course, it worked well, as Magni brought the character to life and the poetry did its work. The other actors included Hiran Abeysekera, playing both Caliban and Ferdinand, Maïa Jemmett, playing Miranda, and Ery Nzaramba as Prospero, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan of India.
What was really wonderful to behold was the huge disparity of origins of the actors. Prospero, or Nzaramba, is of black-African origin, although he has grown up in British theater, training in Birmingham, and having worked with Brook before. The delightful Abeysekara is from Sri Lanka, and after winning praises in his own country went to Britain and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked extensively in British theater.
His were among the most fun performances to watch, especially when he rapidly climbed up a supporting pillar – or pipe – that runs up the side of the base of the proscenium arch, giving a different level to the stage area. We saw him briefly after the show and Ornella asked if that moment had been planned from the beginning or something that was incorporated into the piece through improvisation. He said that he had climbed up the pole once outside the creation and Estienne asked him to do it as part of the show.
But this very aspect of a wide variety of nationalities among the actors was precisely at the center of Brook’s relationship with The Tempest. The first time he had directed it was in a Stratford production, and he was disappointed with it. The problem for him, was that he found that working with actors of the western temperament and background was limiting for a play in which there is a magic, spiritual, ritual side.
So in his next production, in Paris in 1968, he used actors from around the world.
“I found it interesting to take scenes from the play as a base and to see how we could rediscover it together,” he writes in French in a simple program for the show last week, that I translate here. “The result went beyond our expectations.”
“In Shakespeare’s era, in the Elizabethan world, the links with the natural world had not yet been broken, ad ancient beliefs were still present and the sense of marvels was very much alive,” he says. “Western actors have all that is needed to explore in the works of Shakespeare that which concerns anger, power, sexuality and introspection. But when it comes to touching the world of the invisible, things become difficult and everything gets blocked up. In so-called “traditional” cultures the images of the gods, of witchcraft, are natural.”
This is clearly the approach he took again, and I left the evening feeling as if I HAD seen “The Tempest” with another eye.
An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.