Friday, February 26, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
The most obvious counterpoint to the Angel Islington is Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. In fact most people fail to realize that much of the what are thought of as canonical representations of angels in Christianity come from Milton and his efforts to “justify the ways of God to man”. If an angel is meant to be a creature of understanding and abilities far surpassing those of humans it is not surprising that an angel might overreach and grasp at some greater glory. What has always interested me about Paradise Lost is the way Milton seems put some compelling arguments in the mouth of his Satan. This Satan is more akin to a Renaissance humanist who is seeking more knowledge and broader vistas and finds himself chafing at restrictions. In Islington one feels this same strain.
When we first see Islington it's clothing is white and reflective only the eyes are dark. Gaiman carefully uses the neutral pronoun and in many ways it is preferable not only does Islington have an androgynous beauty. Like other beings that populate London below it is not human it is a creature and with any creature that is not human there is a sense of mystery about the motivations and drives which may not be human. Islington gives Richard and Door wine from Atlantis which, switching mythological metaphors to the Greek, is like ambrosia, the drink of the gods which was reserved for the gods and forbidden to humans or at a stretch like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Over-reachers have to trouble enticing others to over reach themselves. Richard and Door are intoxicated by the drink and ill prepared to handle its effects. They would have made easy prey for Croup and Vandemar if the pair’s instructions had not already changed (although they would have made easy prey for Croup and Vandemar anyway on the way to Islington).
It also becomes clear that Islington was the angel responsible for Atlantis and is implicated in some way in its fall. Atlantis, the city reputed to have created technologies and arts beyond those of any neighboring societies. It feels like the tower of Babel, the Biblical tower meant to reach to heaven that was destroyed and the builders punished by suddenly speaking different languages. Down Street is described as looking like a painting of Babel Tower turned outside in.
Striving after too much knowledge is punished. But it is not just the striving, but striving with the idea of making oneself like a god. That is why overreaching angels, drinkers of ambrosia and eaters of knowledge fruit must be punished. Their attempts to build towers to heaven threaten the diving order. Also the means by which they seek to attain their ends are often morally questionable. In Greek tragedies, it is the hubris of the central character that brings about fall from a great height.
I am also suddenly reminded of a story I heard about Milton and the control of knowledge. He taught his daughters how to pronounce words in Latin and Greek but not the meaning of the words so that late in life when he was blind they could read to him but without knowledge of what they read. (This is apparently from Professor Philip Gough but I think I heard it in a lecture some years ago.) It is the extreme opposite the transmission of knowledge, a ghastly punishment to prevent the inadvertent transmission of knowledge he might have considered unsuitable for women. It is a story that has always bothered the author of a great work of literature treating his own daughters so shabbily. Perhaps that is why Islington is so terrible it is disconcerting to see the beautiful do something so ugly.
When we first see Islington it is post-punishment. He is in his prison and that first journey to him is relatively easy but the return visit is a descent into the deepest and most dangerous part of London below. It is like a reverse tower of Babel descending below London or the levels Dante's Inferno.Finally, there are a couple of other ideas that seem to resonate well with Islington. Guy Fawkes and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and the Wim Wenders Film Wings of Desire. The Gunpowder plot is nice because it did take place underground in the cellars against a joint religious/sovereign authority in King James I. Wings of Desire pops into my head anytime angels are mentioned in popular culture because of the stark mostly black and white film making of angels in cold war Berlin observing and recording are such strong visuals that they stay in the memory. It also ties angels to a city in this case Berlin and I would argue that London (or a variety of London’s from different time periods) is a character Neverwhere. The angels in Wings of Desire are very different so I won’t push the metaphor too far but they are urban modern angels with long histories and it is fascinating to see them represented on film.
It strikes me that Islington is like another Renaissance figure, Niccolo Machiavelli, whose book The Prince was the first how to succeed at any cost self-help manual. Islington is quite successfully pulling strings from a distance and keeping his hands and his white robes clean. It is the slightly shady Marquis de Carabas who recognizes that there are larger machinations at work in the assassination of Door’s family.
Islington as a north London neighborhood is known for gentrification and being the home of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Islington Person” became a term for a socially aware middle-class person with center-left views or left views that supposedly characterized residents of Islington. Certainly being upwardly mobile, politically connected seems to fit with the Angel Islington. Of course there is the Angel tube stop in Islington, which was apparently named for the Angel Inn a pub that dated to the mid-1600s. So this brings clever naming of characters based on London place names continues and brings me back to earth after flights of fancy. Paul published some great pictures of the tube station in an earlier post so be sure to go back and look at them.
Okay I have just edited this today (2/26/2010) because I discovered more about the etymology of Islington that was not in the OED. It actually comes from either of a couple of Anglo-Saxon words Gislandune meaning Gisel "hostage" and dun "hill" or Isendone which is from isel "lower" and don "a fortified enclosure" so Angel Islingdon would (of course) be that fortified low place where you might keep an angel hostage.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Probably close to 450 - 500 people were packing in the Waubonsie Valley High School auditorium. I was lamenting to Rob that we should have postcards and banners promoting the show everywhere - so many avid and adoring fans of Gaiman's work right here and NONE of them, at least MOST of them, have no idea that they could see a flesh and blood NEVERWHERE not an hour's drive away. Maybe Gaiman would mention it himself? There was a Q&A as part of the meeting, how could we gracefully promote ourselves?
Once the man came out and got to the podium, a spell was cast and any thought of marketing to this gathering of the faithful went furthest from my mind. He is so charming and present and his sense of humor so warm and inviting, I just settled back to enjoy the art on display. He read a chapter from Stardust which was a delightful revisiting, having worked on a stage adaptation of it back in 2005 as a movement coach. He then read a chapter from Anansi Boys, the one that begins with the incredible layers of describing Fat Charley's epic hangover, and the audience was rapt.
And then the lights came up and Neil did a half hour of Q&A. The line was long quickly so I just sat and watched. Someone asked about the process of writing NEVERWHERE, and while it isn't news (Neil has written and been interviewed about this a lot) it is interesting to see how even 15 years later, the pain and frustration of writing the TV series is still very powerful for him.
His book will always be definitive, of course. We are making a theatrical adaptation of his book not because we think the source needs any improving or we want to re-imagine his story in any way but because we love the story and want to bring it to physical life. We want to play in that world, say those words, believe in that storytelling power to transport us outside of our known into the new. We respect the work, respect his process and in OUR process we do have to cut and change things.
We cannot have a giant boar set loose in the theatre, so we have to find a creative solution to making the boar feel right, feel like Neil wants us to feel when we read his words. What we can't achieve in pure details that our imagination conjures up when reading Neil's work, we will evoke and inspire our audience to create with us.
Neil ended with a reading of his poem Instructions, which will be published with new artwork by Charles Vess later this Spring. I wanted to record it but it is so beautiful and magical I just wanted to listen. It is an invitation to living creatively and courageously. Here is a clip I found of him reading it elsewhere... enjoy.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
It seems like the interest in vampires and their role in popular culture returns cyclically. There was a recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times about the current popularity of vampires and their history written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan that is well worth reading.
In Neverwhere, the Velvets, particularly Lamia, have more in common with these women than the new vampire craze. It is also ambiguous whether they are vampires in the traditional sense at all since Lamia speaks of being cold and it is more the stealing of warmth, breath and life rather than blood. They are more reflective of a temptation, a desire to be flattered and any good hero has to face temptation. This is why Richard is easily beguiled both by his willingness to still expect good from others and by the temptation to feel like he is capable and has some measure of control, especially after having gone through the ordeal and having been so lost in London below. He wants to assert himself and a Lamia makes him feel like that is possible. Alternately, it does not seem like they are intrinsically evil, they are more like alluring carnivorous plants that are designed to attract what they need to live but that it has as much to do with the victim as the victimizer.
Since I can't resist thinking about names, Lamia is a minor demigod in Greek mythology with a tangled story. One of many of Zeus's seductions her children were taken by an angry Hera and she went mad and began killing (ore eating) other children. As punishment she was turned into a snake (or a half-snake and in some versions)and cursed with second sight but unable to close her eyes. Among her children are the monster Scylla but sometimes other monsters as well.
Friday, February 19, 2010
So that went on for a while. I reread the book. I got the first draft of the script and read that a few time through. And then David and I started talking about the design. There is so much to consider for this, and it ranges pretty widely. And of course it interfaces with the other design elements - weapons are also props, so decisions about what someone fights with says a lot about who they are. Blood - it is so intrinsic to the story ("lovely, wet blood, Mr. C") but it does funny things on stage - it can overshadow an important moment, or it can reinforce it beautifully as it drips quietly from a nostril. But costumes are the most likely to be affected by blood. Lights, Set, Puppets and Projections - all of these are interdependent with the violence.
How the actors move will influence those decisions, but then once choreography is designed that will come back around and inform some of the actors' choices. So we start out asking the questions and waiting to see what sticks. Are the bodyguards' 'knacks' magic? How do Croup and Vandemar move so quickly without appearing to rush in the live theatre? If we figure that one out, how do we apply it in their fights? Hunter's weapons should be simple, because she is practical. Or they should be ornate, each one a trophy from some distant land where she killed a great beast. Vandemar is a big guy - he needs a big knife. Or wait, maybe a tiny little knife? I can see him explaining, "People think its how big the knife is that matters. It's not." The spear....ok, the spear is a big deal. It appears relatively briefly, and it is in exactly one fight...but it is a powerful artifact, so it should look cool... Oh, right...that one big fight. The one with the beast. How do we make that look cool and scary? It was already scaring me - I couldn't bear it if it looked weak and goofy in the end, and my favorite seat in the house is going to be six feet from the beast's death!
At the first couple production meetings we saw so much beautiful thinking from every corner, and that started shaping decisions. We brought a big bag of weapons to the second meeting and looked at what various choices would mean. Some of it is obvious - the quarterstaff fight with Brother Sable is a quarterstaff fight. But Hunter's staff should be a little different - maybe shorter (which will give us more room in tight quarters, and will also mean a more oriental style than Sable's European stick fighting).
Here was an interesting evolution: for the bodyguard fight we were seeing machetes - I love the shower of sparks, and the ferocious brutality of a machete. On the other hand, the fop should, by all rights, have a smallsword. On the other other hand, as much fun as the fight in Rob Roy is, I don't want the fight to be about the superiority of one weapon style over another, but rather of one fighter over another - so I want the weapons to match. Paul solved that problem - he loved our WWI bayonet. It looks and could be held like a smallsword...and it is definitely a wicked shiv... but if has the meat to stand up to a machete blow for slashing blow! So there, that does that. But wait - every choice informs other choices...and look what we just did. The Fop has this Bayonet that he thinks of as a sword, but when the fighting starts, he abandons his 18th century stance and starts hacking away... so the foppishness comes across as a thin veneer. Lets see what the actor does with that!
Well, enough for now - so many things to work out!
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I have been thinking about the title, Neverwhere. It is a place, a new adverb, a coinage and yet because we are familiar with both never and where we have an intuitive sense of what it means. To not be in a place. implies a dislocation in both time and space. But this is stronger than the no in nowhere is never as it it has never been. The other half of the word is also ambiguous. Where is an adverb used for questions. It is not neverthere but neverwhere. Where implies uncertainty.
This is further complicated by the way language develops. I looked up neverwhere in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A wondrous multi volume dictionary which gives not only definitions but also etymologies and usage in sentences from various time periods, I highly recommend perusing it.). There was a time between about 1400-1500 that neverwhere or rather newer whare or newyr quhar or neuer where was used interchangeably with nowhere. Of course where and there and that and what were all sort of interchangeable for a time. My favorite example being from the circa 1580 Towneley Plays "If thou com agane to nyght, look I se the neuer in syght, neuer where in my land." (Roughly "If thou come again tonight, look I see thee never in sight and neverwhere in my land.") This jives well with the ambiguous time period and social structure of London below.
Door uses the words "fiefdom" and "duchy" and asks Richard to whom he swears allegiance. The social structure of London Below seems to be feudal rather which is just one more incongruity which further displaces Richard.
There is a long history of displacement in fantasy. Of course when looking at the title, Neverwhere. One must also think of J.M. Barrie's Never Never Land in the Peter Pan books (in which there is a surprising hint of menace for all that the books are children's classics). The lost boys are lost. They have slipped through the cracks of their London with the real risk of never returning.
Similarly in the Welsh epic the Mabinogion, which feels akin to Arthurian tales, the knights slip in and out of magical realms without realizing it until they encounter a magical person although the shift from ordinary to magic is often signaled by the hero seeing a puzzling event like a sheep crossing the river and changing from black to white and back again.
In Shakespeare, characters often enter a wilderness and encounter the magical and are transformed. The lovers and mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream enter the forest, King Lear wanders in the wilderness, Rosalind flees to the forest of Arden in As You Like It, Prospero and the infant Miranda are shipwrecked on an Island in the Tempest.
These places that are outside the normal social order provide a place for magical encounters and more importantly transformation. Being outside the normal social order allows a character to reflect on that social order and see it with the perspective of an outsider or find that he or she has changed and no longer fits within that social order.
So both the place name and the place itself are dislocating. It is interesting however that the inhabitants of London Below call it London below. Neverwhere is not used as a place name. The place is real to those that inhabit it.
Which brings me to one other meandering thought about fantasy or more specifically the genre often called magical realism. I don't know whether those who make book classifications identify Gaiman's work as magical realist but he does share something with magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez- a grounding in journalism.
The magical in Neverwhere is simply reported, in a matter of fact journalistic style. In fact the only person to whom this world is odd is Richard Mayhew so explanations are not forthcoming. It is part of what makes the world so plausible.
We are familiar with slipping into magical worlds and the honest way the events are reported is useful for actors in performance as well who are always in search of authenticity in performance. The world has to be real for the actors and the audience even when it is paint and flats.