Friday, 16 December 2011

long after tonight is all over

Jimmy Stewart, an anthropologist from Mars, analyses love and happiness in humans (and rabbits). Who could resist a title like that? OK, maybe if you don't know who Jimmy Stewart is: I met two people at BAC last night who hadn't a clue, which made me feel horribly old. Jimmy Stewart! It's a Wonderful Life: he's so disillusioned, so tired of life's burdens, he considers suicide, so an angel called Clarence comes to earth and shows him how the world would look if he actually went ahead with it, makes him appreciate all the big and tiny differences he makes to people's lives (it's a romance, so Stewart's character is humbled and awed, rather than crushed by the weight of responsibility). The Philadelphia Story: he's the soft-nosed newspaper reporter who wants to be a novelist, caught between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who has a drunken fling with the rich girl and almost misses out on his own true love. Harvey: he's a bumbling alcoholic whose best friend is a six-foot-tall rabbit that no one else can see, whose every waking act radiates his firm belief in the value of kindness, politeness and generosity. The Shop Around the Corner: an obscurer one this, and one of my favourite films ever, a love story set in Budapest, exquisitely directed by Ernst Lubitsch, about two shop assistants who snipe at each other constantly, unaware that each one is the anonymous pen friend to whom they write idealistic, intellectual, courtly love letters. And that's just the fluff (relatively speaking). Vertigo, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – perfect in every one.

Tassos Stevens isn't much like Jimmy Stewart to look at: he's big and beardy, like a friendly bear (Addis Berner Bear, maybe). He has a hat like one Stewart might have worn, though: more on that later. He's also spent considerably longer dissecting what makes Stewart brilliant than I have: I've always been too preoccupied by adoring him to form any more high-minded thoughts. All this is slightly by the by, because while Tassos is sort of playing Jimmy Stewart in this show, he isn't really: he's riffing on Stewart's “everyman” reputation, considering what it is to reflect society while at the same time seeming somewhat apart from it, mysterious and remote. His Stewart is from Mars – because that's where men are from, aren't they? And if he can't find his way home, he needs to find a way to settle on Earth. How do humans settle? How do we find our place in the world? For most of us – or is it just for the super-lucky? - it happens through love.

By happy coincidence, I saw Jimmy Stewart... in the same week that I've been doing a lot of thinking and talking about The Taming of the Shrew. The multiplicity of perspectives on this play is daunting: is it inherently misogynistic, or is that an interpretation imposed on the text? Is the relationship between Kate and Petruchio abusive or transformative, sadistic/masochistic or mutually supportive? Is their love damaged, or just different? It is impossible to know, or understand, because their relationship – like all relationships – is unique, and comprehensible only from within.

Tassos's Jimmy Stewart, however, wants to understand. He's listened to pop songs and begun to recognise the difference between “love” and “in love” (oh I've had trouble with that one in my time – and listening to pop songs, particularly from the 1950s and 60s, was instructional and ruinous in roughly equal measure). He talks to rabbits and people in bars and discovers that love's meaning isn't general or universal but singular, personal, individual. He pulls out of his hat – no, silly, not a rabbit – a pile of index cards on which we and people who have seen the show before us have defined, if only briefly, what love means. Some describe romantic incidents, and some mention love for their children. Some quote from pop songs, and some sound confused. Their words are luminous, fiery, acute. The poignancy of this sharing with strangers is immense.

This is such a magical show: tender, questioning, hopeful and sad. I was quiet watching it, because there were just three of us with Tassos, nestled round a wood stove in a drawing room at BAC (a room that, in my other life, I know as a buggy park from when I take my kids to the Bee's Knees playspace), and although I was spellbound from first word to last, I felt slightly too self-conscious to react too visibly. But in the hours since seeing it I've been laughing (the faintly autistic measurement of love in units of Chaka is unspeakably genius), marvelling, shivering slightly, most of all thinking: of the times I have felt, and still feel, “in love”, of the intensity of my love for my children, and how I would never actually define “love” as love for them, but love for my husband, of the ebb and flow of that love, its fragility and durability. And I know, know absolutely, that every time I hear You Always Hurt the One You Love (Taming of the Shrew again!) or Roy Orbison sing In Dreams, or Chaka Khan's I Feel For You, I'll be transported right back to BAC and Tassos's side.

And for those who don't know, the title comes from this song by Irma Thomas, one of the most romantic expressions of explosive falling-in-love as shooting-for-Mars that pop music has ever produced:


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