There is a famous scene in the noir classic The Third Man in which Joseph Cotten returns to his hotel and is swiftly bundled into a cab that speeds off recklessly through the streets of Vienna. His kidnapping comes minutes after he has been fingered as a murder suspect by the locals, and once the car screeches to a halt he emerges, a nervous wreck, to encounter a gathering he’d forgotten about, or more precisely, never bothered to remember in the first place. His destination is the British Council, whose fool of a director had mistaken him, a writer of pulp cowboy fiction, for a serious author worthy of headlining their literary evening on the state of the modern novel. With the irony done to a blackened crisp – the British Council as bathetic punchline for the fate-worse-than-death trope, Cotten introduced as ‘Holly Martens from the other side’, and the flailing around when asked if he ‘believes’ in the stream of consciousness – it is only natural that the name of James Joyce should crop up. ‘Where would you put him?’ an audience member enquires insistently. ‘In what category?’
Whether Vienna, occupied or otherwise, ever hosted roomfuls of Joyce-obsessed Anglophiles is another matter. Earlier in the week I had asked a friend in the university’s English department where, for want of a better phrase, the Viennese put James Joyce, and learned that the city has a couple of specialists and Ulysses is given a full public reading every Bloomsday, quickly qualified as a fringe event. That would seem to tally with this bizarre evening at the Theater an der Wien, which assumed total lack of familiarity with Ulysses and accordingly dumbed it down to the glib, digestible level of a sitcom, full of cliché and slapstick. To translate, adapt and make accessible this of all books is no enviable task, but this attempt simply seemed condescending.
For more (this event also featured Evelyn Glennie), click here. Ach, liebes Theater an der Wien, of all the masterpieces to mutilate, why this one? The first thing I did on returning home last night was take Dubliners from the bookshelf to read ‘The Dead’ while nursing a glass of wine. Were the TadW to stage that the opening would likely involve every syllable of ‘literally run off her feet’, however that might be rendered into German, lingered over with lots of winking; perhaps Markovics might also feel compelled to drive the symbolism home by producing a lily from his pocket. But the Viennese of all people are sufficiently morbid in outlook to get this stuff without aids. Ulysses too translates surprisingly well into German, certainly enough to leave the sledgehammers at home. Bold projects and concepts are great; Vienna needs more of them and fewer Stardirigenten-Jasager like the Musikverein’s Thomas Angyan. But too often they are spectacularly misconceived, and only one thing needs noting from the programme booklet here: ‘Gesamtidee Joyce-Projekt: Roland Geyer.’
I hope to report much more positively from the TadW next week, what with their Wiener Phil Manfred concert and Claus Guth’s Ulisse. The Monteverdi premiere this evening got rather upstaged by Angela Merkel at the Staatsoper but I expect it will be one of the highlights of the season; if you are in town and get the chance, do go.