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.
The event didn’t reflect so flatteringly on either the considerable acting talent gathered for the evening – Nicholas Ofczarek, Karl Markovics and Corinna Harfouch are household names in Austria – or on the evening’s musical component. Dame Evelyn Glennie, having worked the concerto circuit for a number of years (most notably with James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel), now devotes herself mainly to her own projects, many of them collaborative. Glennie has built up a reputation as a hard-working artist and that ethic was readily apparent in her unfussy and coolly focused playing last night, but the predominantly new-agey aesthetic of her musical choices fell flat. When Ulysses is reduced to weak Father Ted-style farce the only accompaniment required is the canned peals of a laughter track.
But even if one could ignore the desecration of Joyce it soon became clear the music was not without its own tinges of banality: Glennie’s opening number, Ilijas by Nebojša Jovan Živković, offered little more than sub-Karl Jenkins sequential movement around the marimba, while Joyce’s Eumaeus episode segued incongruously into a corny rumba straight out of a Thomas Cook commercial. Askell Masson’s Prim, described as a ‘robust snare drum solo’, built to a roaring barrage of a climax as these snare drum things are wont to do; Improvisation on Michi by Keiko Abe offered trippy marimba riffs. As hypnotic as Glennie’s zen-like calm can be, much of the music got tediously repetitive all too quickly.
It seems with this conceit that the Theater an der Wien’s artistic management got enthusiastic about two things: the first the devising of a Joycean tie-in for their new production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, the second the engagement of an non-traditional artistic personality who has not appeared on a Viennese concert platform since the mid-1990s. But as admirable as unconventional programming is, this was really two events, unhappily yoked together, that might have stood more of a chance had they been kept separate.
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