Walcott’s “O Starry Night!”: Cut him out in little stars

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ANDRE BAGOO reviews Walcott’s ne w play for Trinidad’s Newsday.

POET Derek Walcott’s new play is a closet drama. That is, it is perhaps meant to be read and not necessarily performed: its language is what you would expect from the Nobel laureate – rich, seductive, scopious, with lines echoing Shakespeare at one moment then scatological the next; yet always perfectly, poetically devised for the page.

But we are still grateful to have O Starry Starry Night staged, as it was last Thursday at the Central Bank Auditorium, the start of a four-day run.

The play covers Paul Gauguin’s two-month visit to Vincent van Gogh at Arles, France, 1888. The terrain covers the period when van Gogh’s painting style changed to what we now associate him with: bright, impressionistic with short and sharp brush-strokes, like a melting stained-glass window. (The painting that gives the play its title was actually done after the visit, but nonetheless in the manner devised by van Gogh during it.) But most famously, it was during Gauguin’s visit that van Gogh did that which he became most famous for: cutting off a bit of his left ear after a row with Gauguin.

“Tell him I love him,” van Gogh begs the proprietor of a local cafe near the end of the play after the row is over and Gauguin has left. Elsewhere, after deliberately estranging himself from van Gogh, Gauguin writes a kind of response in a letter, “Tell him nothing except I loved him. But I had to go.”

Though the subject matter is old (painting, two key figures from the 19th century) the play itself is post-modern. It is not concerned in a conventional sense with plot and narrative arc. Instead it paints a picture, sets a mood: it is a mood poem. This means it does not always take off in the way you would like a play to take off. Something of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot —with its pair of two human beings feeding off one another —flows through the veins of this. Beyond the glimmer of the stars, candles, street lamps and paintings onstage are questions of loneliness; of love. At moments you can’t help but chuckle at Walcott’s deadpan and often sly sense of humor. Van Gogh, after cutting his ear, has a weird, deranged soliloquy comprising a critical discourse and analysis on the merits of his painting style and Gaugin’s. Even some critics will agree that the speech is madness!

This is a play well-worth seeing, if only for Walcott’s language. It is certainly a play worth reading. The production at the Central Bank was sound. The use of Gene Lawrence’s cuatro was a rare, magical treat. The stage backdrop and set were also stars, as were the stars themselves: Brian Green and Wendell Manwarren. It’s not easy to turn language as rich as Walcott’s into natural-sounding dialogue, though, and this is what the production lacked. However, both actors understood the crisis at the heart of the matter, and sometimes found ways to project this through body language.

Here is a play about love, not necessarily in a carnal sense but about creative tension; about what we leave behind after we die; about who we love and why; who we are permitted to love; and who we permit ourselves to love. The question at the heart of the proceedings is whether love, in whatever form, is not itself a kind of ecstatic madness. Both characters are in an eternal dialogue: one is concerned with ideas, another pragmatism. Neither would have been the same without the other. The ultimate play about one of history’s most famous bro-mances.

For the original report go to http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,186293.html

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