Great stories never end, says the Belfast International Arts Festival.
The stage is littered with bodies. At the front, the heroine lies in a splatter of her own blood; the hero is cowering at the back, sobbing. Everyone you were rooting for is either traumatised or dead. The bad guys have won, everything worth fighting for is lost, and if this was an episode of a popular TV show, Twitter would be a torrent of anguished rage-tweeting:
We have to wait until next week / next April to find out? THAT’S IT, I’M DONE WITH YOU.
But you know they’d come back when they’d cooled off, because they have to know how the story ends. Because this depressing bloodbath can’t be the real ending, surely?
Wrong. The music stops, applause thunders around me, the main lights flood the hall and the actors file forward to take a bow. Yes, this is how this particular production of Puccini’s Turandot ties things up: tragically, hopelessly, with everything and everyone utterly damned. Judging from the noise being made around me, it’s a hit – but I also see more than a few shellshocked-looking faces. I wander back to my hotel and have an extremely stiff cup of tea. What just happened?
Well, what just happened is how Puccini left the story in 1924, at the end of a spectacularly unfortunate couple of months that started with a diagnosis with throat cancer and then, on 29th November, a fatal heart attack. He left two completed acts, 36 pages of sketches for a third act, and a profoundly unfinished story. The version that was performed two years later was completed by another composer – but when on the opening night conductor Arturo Toscanini reached the critical part in the third act, he halted the orchestra, turned to the audience and said something along the lines of:
Qui termina la rappresentazione perché a questo punto il maestro è morto. (“Here the performance ends, because at this point, the maestro died.”)
And down came the curtain, and for this opening night alone, Turandot ended without narrative closure. Further performances would go with the completed, more upbeat ending (not that upbeat – Turandot says some impressively bleak things about the nature of obsession and power) – but the first time the opera played out, it ended with the story equivalent of Frodo turning to Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom and moaning, “I can’t go on, Sam,” and collapsing in a heap. Fade to black. Credits roll. The End.
That’s what I’ve just watched, that original, 100%-Puccini version. It’s the work of Spanish theatre director Calixto Bieito, who has taken the opera’s Chinese backdrop and wrenched it into the communist era, the scenery a bleak landscape of cardboard, concrete and metal, the lighting either harsh or lurid – and the violence truly disturbing. First there’s the blood. By the end, just about everyone is spattered with their own gore. It’s a night out in Hull turned up to eleven. Then there’s the imagery: women with their mouths duct-taped shut, bodies clingwrapped, hung from the ceiling in chains, while an enormous, impassive face projected on the back wall has various beautiful and disturbing things happen to it.
And while the cast do a magnificent job, the people they’re playing seem either suicidal in their unbending defiance or monstrous in their apparent lack of humanity, and the one you’re encouraged to root for – Anna Patalong’s hopeful, passionate Liù – ends up killing herself, front and centre, just before the end.
(Oh yes indeed, it’s a right old knees-up. How we laughed and laughed.)
Is there a place in the modern world for this kind of unflinching, graphic realism, this willingness to engage with the worst cruelties, the most heartbreaking tragedies, and present it to mainstream audiences as entertainment? Do we truly want stories like this?
The answer, surprisingly, is Hell Yes.
Why Hold An Arts Festival?
I’m at the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival – and it’s making me think about what arts festivals are actually for.
Consider the scale of it. Nearly a month of events, from 9th October to 1st November – 134 of them, curated from 23 countries and representing a colossal amount of talent, energy, and money. The schedule is intense (have a read through it here) and features all the things you’d expect from an arts festival – theatre, dance, performance art – but it also includes a lot of rule-bending.
Take The Kitchen, which used the Grand Opera House (the same venue as Turandot) to trap the delicious smells billowing out of a cauldron of payasam – cooked during the show, fed to the audience at the end.
Take The Wolf And Peter, which was ballsy enough to rewrite one of the world’s most beloved musicals and, as the title suggests, make the wolf the most interesting character on stage. (The bad guy as the sorta-kinda hero? Sounds familiar.)
I could go on and on. The schedule certainly does.
Take all the entirely new productions. This year saw 18 UK and Ireland Premieres, 9 Northern Ireland Premieres, 3 Irish premieres and 2 world premieres. That’s a lot of new art. And that’s partly what these festivals are for, to launch new careers – the same way the Edinburgh Fringe launches comedians, the same way SxSW propels apps, acts and entrepreneurs into the mainstream. Of course, it’s also about bringing money into the city. Festivals are great times to visit places and spend money because everyone will be on their best behaviour and everything will be on sale.
But they’re also opportunities to bend and break the rules, just to see how people respond. Turandot is clearly an example of this philosophy in action. It’s designed to provoke and unsettle its audience as much as it delights and thrills them. More, maybe. It’s designed to push at the boundaries of expectation and taste.
(In my case, it’s done a great job. One strong cup of tea isn’t enough.)
You don’t need a festival to do something a bit different. Take Belfast’s Cafe Conor, which turns classic Penguin book covers into wall paintings:
It’s the work of artist Neil Shawcross, and I’m calling him out as a genius. He’s a genius. Yes.
But at festivals, there’s more leeway to experiment. The mainstream is supposed to demand stories with recognisable endings that make people care; this corner of this festival is making a argument for not always having them. You could argue this moves art a lot closer to life itself, which never ends anything neatly. You could argue that stories may influence and guide like nothing else, but they’re artificial, like a kind of existential placebo, a human coping mechanism for random chaos. They may work on us, but that doesn’t mean they’re right.
You could argue all these things, and that’d be great – because that argument started with a piece of art. So that’s another thing an arts festival is for.
But arguments are one thing, and tastes are another. I may have been gripped all the way through Turandot, but if you asked me right now whether I liked that sort of thing, I’d probably mumble something about fairness, justice, happy endings and how I need a bit of a lie down, thanks. I’m pretty well versed in storytelling, but in my experience that was a really bleak ending (non-ending). I feel the same way I did after watching 1984 and Dancer In The Dark. It’s a lot to take in.
So what about mainstream audiences? Could they love something this dark and powerful?
Sure they could – because they already do.
“That’s It – I’m Out.”
When the last episode of season 5 of Game Of Thrones finished airing, its fanbase of 20+ million people lost their minds.
Hell, even some of the cast lost it.
This isn’t new territory for the show. It’s been delivering plot twists like this from the beginning, with Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, Stannis Baratheon’s tragic daughter, the list goes on. This is a show that provokes its audience to the brink of acceptable taste, and occasionally a good way beyond it. But everyone comes back. Given enough time, they always come back.
Game of Thrones is changing the way stories are told on television. It’s densely serialised, requiring an all-or-nothing approach if you want to follow along. It’s brutal, raw, sensual, callous and cynical. And it’s devastatingly unfair. The reason it’s so unfair is that George RR Martin tore most of the pages out of the rulebook for writing fantasy novels, and filled them with adaptations of real historical events. It’s pure fantasy, but Game of Thrones is also horribly real – complete with tragic, broken endings aplenty.
As a result, every season of the show draws a bigger audience. People love being upset like this. They also loved being upset by Serial, the podcast that had millions of listeners gripped, and then ended….without really ending.
No doubt the viral success of Serial is partly due to the deft and suspenseful storytelling of its makers at ‘This American Life’, a weekly National Public Radio (NPR) show, of which Serial is a spin-off. But the show’s producers are responsible only for part of the story; their skill lies in leaving its seams unfinished.
– Katherine May, “Happily Never After“- Aeon
This kind of storytelling is really hot right now, partly because it’s seen as a refreshing antidote to all the over-plotted, too-predictable TV & film arcs that all seem to follow the same template. It seems new – but it really isn’t. We’re also getting back into our tragedies: entertainment that revolves around suffering. They never really went away, but they’ve also never been this fashionable in popular culture since….well…
Contemporary with Shakespeare, an entirely different approach to facilitating the rebirth of tragedy was taken in Italy. Jacopo Peri, in the preface to his Euridice refers to “the ancient Greeks and Romans (who in the opinion of many sang their staged tragedies throughout in representing them on stage).” The attempts of Peri and his contemporaries to recreate ancient tragedy gave rise to the new Italian musical genre of opera.
It’s stories like Turandot that led to stories like Game Of Thrones – and this festival is a sly reminder of it, being held in one of the key locations Game of Thrones is filmed.
(This is a photo I sneaked of Belfast’s Titanic Studios, where the fate of Jon Snow may have been decided and filmed earlier in the year:
You’re not allowed anywhere near, security’s tight, so I pressed my phone against the inside window of Titanic Belfast and took a long-distance shot.)
So, tragedy turned into opera, and opera has become Game of Thrones. It’s all one thing. And it’s festivals like this that remind the world of where their favourite stories came from, and maybe lay the groundwork for the next yarn that will enthrall – and traumatise – millions of people. That’s an ending everyone can get behind.
Do you keep going back to Game Of Thrones? What pulls you back in, every time?
Note: my time at the Belfast International Arts Festival was supported by Discover Northern Ireland as part of the Must Love Festivals project. All opinions, outrageous stories and broken endings are entirely my fault.