30 April 2007

Solveig: A Christian voice in Ibsen?

Before I took part in last week’s performance of Peer Gynt my knowledge of Ibsen was shaped entirely by Hedda Gabler and The Doll’s House. So I came to Peer Gynt expecting more of the same. Imagine my surprise when the climax of the play refused to live up (or down) to my expectations. Instead of the curtain closing on a scene of hopelessness and despair, Solveig’s response to Peer manages to infuse it with a sense of hope and (dare I say it?) redemption.

Peer himself approaches the final scene of the play in despair. All his dreams of worldly success have turned to dust and ashes. He returns at last to Solveig hoping that she will condemn him. When she refuses to do so, he asks her a riddle: ‘Where has Peer Gynt been since last we met? . . . Where was I? Myself – complete and whole?’

Solveig’s answer takes him completely by surprise. ‘In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.’

Her answer took me by surprise as well because of the way it resonates with certain fundamental aspects of a Christian world-view. We are only truly ourselves in our relationships with others. To be human is to be a nexus of personal relationships. ‘We relate, therefore I am.’

Granted this is not an immediately obvious element of Christian thought. Rather it arises out of a relational view of the Trinity such as that developed by the Cappadocian fathers when juxtaposed with the idea that we are made in the image of God (thus made in the image of a God who is one by virtue of being three in relationship).

But in spite of being less than obvious it turns up in some interesting places. For example, Luther defined sin as a state of being incurvatus in se, i.e. being turned in upon oneself. Real life is the opposite of this: a state of being turned outwards towards others, of being in relationship. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?' asked Cain. And, for a Christian like Solveig, the correct answer can only be ‘Yes, I am.’

Or one might think of C. S. Lewis’s reflections on the death of Charles Williams. Lewis felt that it deprived him not only of Williams himself but also of aspects of Tolkien, Barfield, etc. that were only brought out by their relationship with Williams. We are not isolated individuals who can realize our identity apart from others, but social beings who only find our identity in our relationships.

Or again the seventh-century Orthodox theologian Maximus the Confessor built an entire theory of redemption upon the notion that it is about the restoration of broken relationships. To be precise, a fivefold restoration of the relationship between God and humankind, between humankind and nature, between man and man, between man and woman, and between man and himself (and with that last point, possibly anticipating modern psychoanalysis by more than a millennium).

25 April 2007

Peer Gynt

Last Saturday was the RSNO Chorus’s final concert of the 2006–7 season: a performance of Grieg’s complete incidental music for Ibsen’s poem/play Peer Gynt. What set this apart was that the music was performed in the context of an abridged production of the play itself by actors from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

I found the orchestra’s contribution to the evening quite enthralling: no mean feat given the overexposure of so much of the music. Stephane was conducting and as usual his presence seemed to have an inspirational effect on the rest of us. I am reliably informed that the chorus was also very effective (particularly our dramatic appearance for the first time during the scene in the hall of the Mountain King). Much of what we had to do sounded deceptively simple – ascending and descending scales in unison – but the difficulty lay in the relatively complex rhythms and the fact that we were singing in Norwegian (it took us weeks to get the music for the night scene right). To make up for that, we also got to sing one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the entire piece: an unaccompanied Whitsun psalm.

Sitting behind the orchestra meant that we didn’t get the best view of the actors. My impression was that they did pretty well given the difficulty of staging this work. The result was quite pantomime like in places and yet very moving elsewhere. Some aspects of the production did not work particularly well; for example, the silly voices and a mysterious decision to have two actors play the part of Peer.

But those are just quibbles, the evening as a whole was memorable (and the reviewer from The Herald seems to agree (here)).

23 April 2007

Impossible Stories

Another book review of mine has just gone online. This one is of Zoran Zivkovic’s remarkable collection of story cycles, Impossible Stories. You can find it here on the Infinity Plus website.

20 April 2007

A new displacement activity

For various reasons, I have moved my desk from our spare room to our living room. Surprisingly the move has actually turned both rooms into better spaces. However, the living room has much bigger windows than the spare room: windows that look out onto trees that to some extent screen our block of flats from the rest of the city.

Watching the feathered inhabitants of those trees is the new displacement activity of the title. I can resist the temptation well enough when I am working (i.e. meeting deadlines and my obligations to my clients) but the temptation seems stronger when I am trying to make progress on the novel.

Mostly we get the usual garden birds, though the trees do seem to attract the odd treecreeper. And, for some reason, we seem to have more than our fair share of magpies. But the real temptation is to keep an eye open for the most recent residents of the trees on the hillside below us: a pair of sparrowhawks! I didn’t believe it at first, but the other day I got a very clear view of the male, perching on a branch just a few yards away. The female is not so easy to spot – she seems to keep more to the undergrowth – though I did see her just miss a very lucky pigeon a couple of hours after I had definitely identified the male.