A grand old man and his dog

‘This is probably the worst fucking work I’ve done in my whole life – although there has been some real bullshit’. The scene doesn’t seem to be going well. Despite the precision of the actors, despite their sheer willingness to listen and be directed, Walcott isn’t happy.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, Walcott has been feted since his emergence onto the poetry scene more than fifty years ago. Hailing from St. Lucia, Walcott is at the forefront of the Caribbean’s cultural identity, and is a world-respected artist in his own right.

Wandering back and forth from his chair to the acting space, his large frame seems weighed down with age. His white trainers squeak across the parquet flooring.

Far from revelling in his fame and extraordinary success he shrinks from talking to us. While his actors chat and joke with us, he remains silent. Until, unprompted, he says ‘You’re from Oxford? There’s a university there as well?’ A wide grin stretches across his wrinkled face, before he recedes to his chair.

The room is grand, but battered. This is not the sandy beaches of Walcott’s epic Omeros, nor the Thebes of Sophocles’ Antigone. It is Woolwich Town Hall, and we are at a rehearsal of Derek Walcott and Peter Manning’s current operatic production of Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes.

Several hours after arriving, we are finally given the chance to talk to Walcott. He’s less than pleased. In fact he’s thoroughly annoyed. It is safe to say that all of our fantasies of inspirational, generous poetic genius are shattered.

A few minutes later, Walcott returns. Grumpy, certainly, but calmer, he asks whether he can eat his lunch during the interview. We, overly enthusiastic, offer to ‘wait until later, if it’s more convenient?’.

It isn’t. And so we begin. First he wants to know whether we are going ‘to ask a load of dumb questions’. We are, after all, from Oxford.

But the play, the play, we protest, what about the play? ‘Tyranny is an eternal thing’, he muses. Well. Fine then. It is the humanity of the Antigone, the terrible relevance of the play, which has captured him.

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Originally written by Sophocles, it recounts the tale of the martyr Antigone, whose brother Polyneices is denied burial by the dictatorial Creon. Adapted by Seamus Heaney into an epic poem in 2004, Antigone has been transmuted into operatic form, by the highly acclaimed Dominique le Gendre, the first woman to compose for the Royal Opera House.

Combining the work of two Nobel Prize winners, the rising talent of le Gendre and the skill of conductor Peter Manning, this is a project of stunning proportions. Premièring at the Globe last weekend to awful reviews, it is clearly also a contentious project.

Walcott has decided to relocate the play from Grecian Thebes to a failing Latin American republic, avoiding what he terms the ‘cliché’ of the Middle East. He is painfully aware of the violence which has disfigured Latin America. This project, hailed as a triumph of cultural diversity by the national press, is not about difference but about universality and unity.

Latin America, he tells us, is ‘my choice, my interpretation’, but ‘if you put it in China, Africa, it’ll all work’. ‘The reality of it is that it is nothing to do with being Greek, or being Colombian. The ultimate thing is the horror which comes upon a family. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what context it is in.’

But the play, the poem, and now the opera, are not to do with aesthetics, or an enjoyable experience for the audience. ‘It’s a context of violence set against a background of considerable beauty’ he adds. The portrayal of violence is something which concerns him; because ‘the horrible thing is, sometimes, violence can become a cliché’.

His ideas for direction struggle against this truism, and he focuses upon the image of ‘a dead dog at the side of the street, or in the middle of the road. You don’t see dead dogs in the street in Europe, in England, in London’.

It is a picture intimately connected with the Latin American setting, and has a powerful and defamiliarising potency. ‘If you substitute a dead dog for Polyneices, that’s what he wanted Polyneices to be’. It’s about the visceral, the brutal and the putrescent.

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‘That putrescence is central to the play, and that putrescence doesn’t really have anything to do with Greek columns, or Greek architecture…’ ‘The greatest literature happens when there is a crisis of faith in that society’, Walcott adds.

It is the faith of the audience which interests him. They cannot believe in Greek gods, in passionless acting and old bits of marble. So we must access ‘the reality not of the gods, but of a dead dog in the street, rotting; there’s been too much horror not to start there.’

Modern drama fails to confront that sense of tragedy, he feels. ‘Instead of poetry, you get neurosis… it’s not poetry, it’s a clinical, psychological thing.’ But ‘the classic is instant, the classic is now.’

We move on to questions about the operatic nature of the production. What, we ask, does the music bring to the play? Walcott shakes his head fiercely. ‘It’s not what it brings to it, you have to think of it simultaneously’. The music, he says, ‘should be simultaneous, it should be synonymous, with the text’. Peter Manning, conductor and musical director, emphasises this point further, and talks at length about the intimacy of the relationship between verse and music.

But, he stresses, it is the task of any sincere musician to fight against the cliché of ‘the poetry of music, rather than the poetic in music’. One of the major musicians and conductors of his age, Manning he is trying to ‘create a new structure’, through his company, Manning Camerata, and to act ‘to engage at a different level’. ‘That you have to create the poetic is the challenge for any performing artist’, he says.

A refreshed looking chorus have returned from their lunch break. The cast are winding up for an arduous afternoon, but they are laughing, and smiling. We gather our things, and go to leave.

‘How are we getting back to Oxford?’ Walcott enquires. ‘By coach’, we reply. ‘Coach? You have to drop such an archaic word…A coach, several horses…’ he laughs. And a smile finally slashes across his wrinkled face.