Friday, 22 February 2019

The Man Who Sees Ghosts – Friedrich von Schiller

 “THE EVENTS that I here set down and to which I myself was for the most part a witness will for many seem beyond belief.”

No, I’m not about to divulge more “tales of orchestration,” of “accidental” Tom encounters or secretive jaunts that “the others can’t know about!” Instead, these are the opening lines of Schiller’s one and only novel, The Man Who Sees Ghosts. Despite its title, the book is not a ghostly, supernatural tale, but more a tale of intrigue and political games. There are some supernatural elements to the story, but they do have a reason and an explanation. Whether serendipity led me to this book following recent eye-opening events, or it’s just the simple fact that it is a novel by Schiller and has a Venetian style drawing on the front which I was rather taken with, I will leave to you to decide!

“At nine o’clock he died!” In the opening chapter of Schiller’s book, a mysterious figure known as The Armenian delivers a prophetic message to an unnamed Prince. The opening sequence of Schiller’s novel is heavily reminiscent of the doom-laden witches of Macbeth, but both prophesies related to the present, and not the future. The Prince, the hero of the book, will discover that his cousin did die at nine o’clock and consequently he now stands to inherit the throne. As the pages unfold a plot of dramatic proportions, the reader is left remaining unsure of what is real, and what is a clever game of political gain.

From Cult to Conspiracy…

In a lot of Schiller’s work, nothing is what it first seems, many character’s appearances bring a show treachery with them. Venice becomes the perfect backdrop for a tale of games and duplicity; it is a city famed for its masked inhabitants walking the streets and squares, people who impersonate the characters they adopt so flawlessly; like diamonds they sparkle and entice those who witness them. Venice was also of course a political powerhouse at the time the book was published, and The Man Who Sees Ghosts, gave rise to the creation of “lodge novels” exemplifying the fascination with secret societies during this period. Of course, it is easy to see the central theme in these books relating to these secret societies is to “guide” and seek control of the hero and enlist him, in this case The Prince, for the societies purposes; whether those purposes be good or evil.
Schiller’s novel sticks to the Gothic tradition of questioning the moral behaviour of The Church. The book came out in Germany during a period when the sect of the Illuminated was beginning to rapidly expand. The ignorant or superstitious were targeted and seduced by stories of incredible supernatural powers. In 1789 when the book was published, the theme of the occult was becoming highly fashionable, and Schiller’s haunting narrative is a darkly dramatic questioning of the freedom and will of people, as the net is cast in this tale of political intrigue and religious conspiracy which will head towards its climatic violent ending.

There is a beautifully haunting cinematic quality to Schiller’s writing, and this novel screams out for some talented writer to bring it to stage or screen.

The book is split into two parts, in the first part The Prince finds himself stuck in Venice, waiting for money to be sent to him so that he can return home. He has been living a quiet, unobtrusive life until he crosses the path of a masked man, The Armenian. After The Armenian delvers his cryptic message regarding the death of someone The Prince’s life starts to unravel. He attends a séance, a theatrical event designed to show the power of The Armenian, the show however, is quickly dispelled as a fake. At the stroke of midnight, The Armenian disappears – is it a cheap conjuror’s trick or is he part of something much darker and dangerous? Only “The Sicilian” (apparently modelled on a well-known occultist of the era) a conjuror with ties to The Armenian knows the truth, but The Prince is impressed with the spectacle he has witnessed, despite his conflicting emotions of incredulity.

A second séance, lacking the theatricality of the first, describes a flashback to another time when a young man mysteriously disappeared before his wedding day. But this was no ordinary wedding, it was a wedding of status and great importance, so his family engage the Sicilian conjuror to connect with the ghost to confirm he his death…and what befell him. “…my neighbour pointed out a Franciscan monk standing as motionless as a stone pillar…you realise now that all three, the Russian, this monk and your Armenian are now one and the same person.” A dead body of the groom is discovered at the bottom of a well, his brother the murderer, but then fate plays its part and takes revenge, the brother has a fit and dies.

Torn between superstition and scepticism – both The Prince’s need to believe in what he has witnessed but still retaining that reality of doubt – The Prince becomes an innocent abroad. He is not the type of person to tell a tale one week and deny all knowledge of it a week later. But by the time he hears the tale of the second séance, The Prince is not so easily fooled as he was at the first séance, he rejects the actions of a charlatan, and he slowly descends from disbelieving in the supernatural, to losing his faith – both his religion and of those around him. As he becomes more sceptical of all he sees, his moral behaviour takes a downward descent towards indifference, to gambling and women. By the second part of the book, we hardly recognise The Prince. But then he falls in love. It is the love of a woman which seeks to turn him back, to convert him back into being a believer, a man with a soul. Love is a dangerous thing, and once again The Prince is The Armenian’s victim, and by now it is apparent he is an agent of the Inquisition.

The Devil Walks Amongst Us

Sadly, Schiller never finished his one and only novel. It seems unusual for someone of his calibre to give up, so we do not know for sure whether The Prince would have been converted back permanently, or whether he would once again turn into a degenerate. The Armenian set out to destroy The Prince’s faith in the supernatural in the same manner that we are led to believe that the Devil does not exist, making it easier for him to walk amongst us, destroying all that ventures in his path. In his various works, whether plays or short stories, Schiller has always examined people, he has tried to explain us to ourselves. He looks at gender, identity, love, exile, the things that matter to people. His words are still relevant in todays society, the books are not to be thrown in a corner gathering dust, we can learn a lot from what he writes. Lies, deceit, the manipulation of people exists today in the world of politics – and political agendas are not just found in the halls of Westminster…they are found in day to day life where people feel they have a need to have power over someone else, for whatever their shallow reasoning might be.

Maybe Schiller had difficulty in finishing the novel because he had his own doubts. For someone who had spoken out for humanity (despite its cruelness, violence and egotistical flaws) maybe he hoped by writing The Man Who Sees Ghosts he would find the right path to follow…but maybe he also realised there is no correct path, that humanity does what it desires. The audience has therefore been granted the power to decide what the outcome is in this mysterious tale of adventure and deception…did The Armenian win his game over The Prince, or was The Prince just a victim of his lack of principals?

The Man Who Sees Ghosts is published by Pushkin Press

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Lady Vanishes - Theatr Clwyd

The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s greatest movies; so, would a screen to stage adaption retain the magic of the various adaptations, or would it be a bridge too far bearing in mind nearly all the action takes place on a train?

The hush of the auditorium is broken by the fanfare-like strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and this sets the tone for the rest of the production. As the curtain rises, we are transported back to Nazi Germany, soldiers and passengers throng a dreary railway station, swastika flags hanging down towards piles of suitcases. A stern Nazi officer barks in German at the confused and frustrated passengers who are waiting for their train to Zurich which has been delayed by an avalanche.

On the platform we are introduced to the characters of the play, and Juliet Mills steals these first few moments as the lady in tweed, Miss Froy. Even though she is only sitting, calmly reading her newspaper and eating a sandwich, whilst the rest of the passengers get more and more irate by their delayed journey, you can’t help but be transfixed by her presence.

The screenplay was originally adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel, The Wheel Spins, but Hitchcock radically revamped the tale into the well-loved story we now know, creating two of cinema’s most loved comic duo’s, Charters and Caldecott, the two English gentlemen, so ensconced in their love of cricket, that they are blissfully unaware of most of the events happening around them. Both Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon add an air of daft fun as they charm their way through the play with witty cricket banter and dismay of the interruptions that may cause them to miss the final day of the test match at Old Trafford.

As the train is set to depart, Iris, receives a knock on the head. As she makes her way to her train compartment, she is looked after by the mysterious Miss Froy.

The sides of the station cleverly fold in on themselves to form two train carriages of Morgan Large’s imaginative set. This is where the majority of the action will take place, however, when the doors of the carriages are closed, they create the windows of the dining car, whilst tables and chairs are placed in situ for some of the most important scenes in the play.

As drunk by a million Mexicans!

Miss Froy suggests that Iris takes tea in the dining car with her. Miss Froy ensures she has a cup of her favourite Merriman’s Herbal Tea, as drunk by a million Mexicans, and she pulls a packet from her bag to hand to the steward. Iris has difficulty hearing Miss Froy’s name as she introduces herself, so she writes it in the steam on the train window. These seemingly innocuous acts add to the twists and turns as the journey progresses. Following a nap, Iris awakes to find Miss Froy has disappeared on the moving train…but no-one else aboard the train can remember ever seeing the old school governess on board.

Of course, railways have been synonymous with romance and seduction (think Brief Encounter or a trip on the Orient Express) so of course, Iris must bump into someone she can share an intimate moment with! Max, a musicologist, travelling around the Balkans collecting folk songs could be her ideal beau, however, Iris is traveling to the UK to marry an aristocrat so will not entertain the idea. Instead the couple bicker and argue in a humoristic British fashion as Iris (Lorna Fitzgerald who EastEnders fans will know as Abi Branning) tries to convince Max that she has not gone mad…Miss Froy really did exist.

Dr Hartz (Maxwell Caulfied formerly of Dynasty fame) blames Iris’s confusion on the blow she sustained to her head, but Max, played by Matt Barber, finds evidence to suggest that Iris is not insane and together they try to find out what really happened to Miss Froy.

A first class thriller!

The first half of this production is as fast paced as the train thundering down the tracks in this remarkable production, directed by Roy Marsden, who many will be familiar with in his role as Adam Dalgliesh in the ITV series by P D James. The second half becomes even more thrilling, and this is where I started to regret sitting on the front row, a hairs breadth from the stage!

The sword fight that went on in the luggage compartment had me sitting back in my seat for fear that I might lose an ear, but I needn’t worry, the choreography led to a stunning fight scene in which you waited to draw breath. As the thriller bowled along, the last fifteen minutes become physically charged with a tense shoot out and me jumping out of my skin every time a gun-shot rang out (and there were many!)
The actors bring together a play full of warmth, energy, tension and humour which keeps you gripped to your seats throughout.

It’s a first-class thriller and one you should try to catch as it rumbles into town!

Remaining 2019 UK Tour venues

Edinburgh Kings Theatre, 18 – 23 February
New Brighton Floral Pavilion Theatre, 25 February – 2 March
Blackpool Grand Theatre, 4 – 9 March
Richmond Theatre, 11 – 16 March
Malvern Festival Theatre, 19 – 23 March
Bromley Churchill Theatre, 25 – 30 March
Chesterfield Pomegranate Theatre, 1 – 6 April
Stoke Regent Theatre, 8 – 13 April
Inverness Eden Court Theatre, 15-20 April
Barnstaple Queen’s Theatre, 23 – 27 April
Doncaster Cast Theatre, 3 – 8 June
Llandudno Venue Cymru, 10 – 15 June
Lichfield Garrick Theatre, 17 – 22 June
Aberdeen His Majesty’s Theatre, 24 – 29 June
Glasgow Theatre Royal, 1 – 6 July
Crewe Lyceum Theatre, 8 – 13 July
Cardiff New Theatre, 15 – 20 July
Leeds Grand Theatre, 22- 27 July.