Walcott’s dramatic art

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This article by Simon Lee appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian.

The young man who rose before the sun to compose the poetry and drama which in middle age won him the Nobel Prize for literature, and who is now a venerable octogenarian, brings his latest play O Starry Starry Night to the Central Bank Auditorium for its T&T premiere.

Much like the tempestuous lead characters in his play—no less than the post-Impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin—St Lucia-born Derek Walcott has alternately enjoyed (or fulminated against) his stormy relationship with Trinidad. He was here as a young man when he was commissioned to write the script for Drums and Colours, which was performed at the inauguration of the ill-fated Federation of the West Indies in 1958.

The following year he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a company of actors (including the recently-deceased Stanley Marshall) for whose leading members (Errol Jones, Albert Laveau, Nigel Scott) he wrote roles in his major plays including Dream on Monkey Mountain, Ti-Jean and his Brothers, The Joker of Seville and Pantomime. Despite eventually breaking with the TTW, Walcott has never severed his links with Trinidad, which embrace both family and friends.

Both his mature poetry and his drama reference Trinidad and his Nobel acceptance speech introduced the world to T&T’s unique creolised Hindu epic folk drama, the Ramleela.

However, his latest work is set on the other side of the Atlantic in 19th-century France, in the southern town of Arles where in the summer of 1888, Gauguin spent a nine-week sojourn with an unbalanced van Gogh in the famous Yellow House. This rendezvous culminated in the Dutchman threatening Gauguin with a razor blade, before cutting off his own earlobe and presenting it to a prostitute.

If this nano-synopsis doesn’t send you hustling to the box office—especially after the mediocre performances and trite scripts of the recent local elections and the St Joseph by-election—then maybe the facts, that Wendell (3 Canal) Manwarren plays Gauguin and TTW veteran Nigel Scott (who’s been treading the boards for Walcott longer than he probably cares to remember) plays van Gogh’s brother Theo, will. Joining these Trini-based actors are Paris-based Trini Brian Green as van Gogh, St Lucian Natalie La Porte as the prostitute Lotte and English actor David Tarkenter as proprietor M Ginou.

O Starry Starry Night (the title of van Gogh’s most famous painting executed during his hospitalisation for the breakdown already simmering during Gauguin’s visit) premiered in May at the Lakeside Theatre, Essex University in England, where the indefatigable if ailing Walcott is currently a visiting professor. In August, it travelled for its Caribbean premiere to the playwright’s native St Lucia.

As Nigel Scott remarks, bringing the production to Trinidad has presented financial challenges (“although the bottom line i: you get it done”). Although Scott as an actor might have preferred the Little Carib (“For sentimental reasons”—as this was the spawning ground of the TTW) or Queen’s Hall, “due to availability,” the choice was the Central Bank Auditorium “a nice intimate space.” The opening night on Thursday is a gala event, the proceeds of which will fund a scholarship in Walcott’s name at UWI.

Those familiar with Walcott and his lifelong interest in visual arts (manifested in his many watercolours) will not be surprised by his subject matter. If we delve into Gauguin’s background, we find regional resonances, which can only provide further layers of significance to the intensity of the relationship enacted onstage.

Gauguin spent five years as a child in Lima, Peru, where his mother’s family came from. The year before his visit to Arles, after having spent a couple of weeks working on the Panama Canal, Gauguin played recluse in a hut outside the then Paris of the West Indies—St Pierre in Martinique, during its glory days before it was wiped out by the Mt Pelee volcanic eruption of 1902. His later days, when he went native in Polynesia, were fictionalised by another Nobel laureate, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, in his novel The Way to Paradise.

Well received both at Essex and in St Lucia (where academics attending a Caribbean literature conference “sat in total awe,” according to Scott), Walcott himself thinks his latest play is one of his better works, while Scott assesses it in the class of Dream on Monkey Mountain and Joker of Seville. While the local politicians whom he has often excoriated in the past may not be clamouring for front-row berths, this production by one of the Caribbean’s most gifted and prolific writers deserves to be a sold-out affair, particularly in light of Walcott’s age and ailing health.

O Starry Starry Night runs at the Central Bank Auditorium from November 7-10. Tickets are available from the Central Bank box office; the Alliance Francaise, Alcazar Street, St Clair; and Paper Based bookshop, Hotel Normandie, St Ann’s; or call 681 3358 for delivery. 

For the original report go to http://guardian.co.tt/entertainment/2013-11-04/walcott’s-dramatic-art

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