Today sees the final performances of the West End show, Hemingway’s Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises). If you have not been to see it, good luck on getting tickets now – I was told by the producer ten days ago that they only had ten tickets left for evenings performances, and a few more for matinées (there is one today.) There’s always a chance: details are here.
7 February 2012
by Tim Walker
Curtain also rises
Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel will attend the first night of Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall on Thursday night.
The cast of the show, which is based on his first novel, about bullfighting, were given tips on the Spanish “art” by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Old Etonian, who trained as a matador.
“I tried to convey the essence of what it is to be a bullfighter,” says Fiske-Harrison, who is courting Antalya Nall-Cain, the daughter of Lord Brocket.
I met them again at the First Night after-party at Boyd’s Bar in the old Grand Hotel and at the same place venue last Friday to listen to their excellent on-stage supporting jazz band Trio Farouche.
So I was, in some ways at least, happy when The Spectator told me they couldn’t fit my review in. The production has had largely excellent reviews, as well as selling out. However, I am most inclined to agree with Michael Billington’s review. It is worth saying that we saw the play the same night, and even discussed it before, during the interval and after. His award of three stars seems about fair, and not just because that was the same number my own last venture on stage got in Billington’s review.
Anyway, given that it is now far too late for any negativity in my piece to have an effect, I hope the producers, director, cast and crew take this in the spirit of honest appraisal it was intended. After all, being “condemned to being merely very good” is still very good, n’est-ce pas?
The Sun Is Now Set
I first read Fiesta, Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel published as The Sun Also Rises in the US, in 2008 while researching for a magazine article on bullfighting for Prospect magazine (online here). At the time I was also rehearsing to act in a play I had written in a theatre in London’s West End. Which was why I got talking to another cast of actors in a nearby pub who told me they were ‘workshopping’ a stage adaptation of Fiesta the Old Vic.
The vagaries of a life are strange, and as the scenery came down on my play, and I was once again unemployed, my literary agent suggested I turn my magazine article to a book on bullfighting and so I set of to Spain. During my two years, I went from spectator to participant, briefly becoming a torero myself.
Since publishing that book, Into The Arena, I have returned to Spain many times, sometimes to run with the bulls in Pamplona (as described in The Spectator last July) – often alongside Ernest’s grandson, John Hemingway – sometimes to get back in the training ring (no animals harmed) alongside matadors like the great Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez – great grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, on whom the matador in Fiesta, Pedro Romero is based. (In fact, the book was originally drafted as a non-fiction short-story under the title ‘Cayetano Ordóñez’.)
It was because of this ever deepening connection to that novel that, when I first heard that the director whose troop I had drunk with in 2008 was now staging a full-blown production of Fiesta at the Trafalgar Studios in London, I felt interested enough to get in touch and ask how their actor who would represent Romero was learning the external rigours and internal workings that are universal in those who kill bulls for a profession.
There is more, of course, to fighting a bull than physical elegance and inner confidence bordering on hubris, but not to have those would be to fail to represent one of the things Hemingway adored above all others: the deportment of those who possess “grace under pressure” and thus, in the words of the novel itself, “live life all the way up.”
They told me they had a “great choreographer”, to which my response was along the lines of flamenco and bullfighting being distant relatives at best. Whatever I said, I found myself invited for a drink with the director Alex Helfrecht, and the actors playing Jake Barnes, a Paris-based journalist and ‘deep’ aficionado based on Hemingway himself, and Pedro Romero.
I must admit that my confidence was not inspired during that glass of Rioja. The actors seemed very much actors – preternaturally youthful, fascinated by surface details and lacking the natural authority Hemingway imbued these two characters with. I explained that professional toreros were men who could say without a sense of irony, or even a hint of the awareness of the hyperbole, that to fight bulls is like talking to God. And they can say this because when they stand in the ring and the ‘Gates of Fear’ open and half a ton of bull charges out making the ground itself bounce, and the only sound they can hear is the relentless rolling thunder of the bull’s breath, these men dig their feet into the sand, stiffen their legs, and summon the horns toward them.
Whatever one thinks of the ethics of the corrida de toros, the 533 notable professional toreros (including Cayetano the Younger’s father) – and God knows how many unknowns and amateurs – who have died in the past three centuries clearly show the risks, and the concomitant fortitude, both physical and psychological, of those who live with those risks. That is a hell of a hard thing to fake on stage.
Despite my misgivings, when it came to the play itself, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Jack Holden nailed the arrogance and youth of a matador arriving in the spotlight, Gideon Turner caught the jaded bitterness of the wounded writer, Josie Taylor was poignantly truthful in her emotion as the self-condemned shallow lush that is Lady Brett Ashley while Jye Frasca suitably alternated weak and bullying as the fist-happy Robert Cohn. Even the jazz from Trio Farouche, who doubled as extras on set, were pretty damned good.
However, during a chance conversation in the foyer, Michael Billington – the longest serving critic in British theatre- suggested I look at the book again. And when Hemingway’s other grandchild, the actress Mariel, remarked how “bold” the adaptation was at the Press Night party, I returned to the original text.
Now, I am not a fanatic for accuracy or orthodoxy. (One of my favourite adaptations of one of my favourite novels is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now from Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness.) I don’t mind that the bullfighting was nothing like real bullfighting and that the matador hadn’t the faintest idea how to move. Nor do I object to the removal of characters due to the small stage and smaller budget. These were not why I pictured Hemingway’s bones slowly turning over and over as though on a spit in his Idaho grave.
My problem was that the adaptation was wrong – not bad – simply wrong. Fiesta is an inherently tragic novel in a way which only Hemingway knew how to write, and from the very first the characters manifest that. For example, Jake’s active dislike for his ‘friend’ Cohn which appears on page one of the novel is removed from the play, as are Brett’s multiple lovers and first husband, (along with the general tone of anti-Semitism the characters slide into when Cohn misbehaves.) In order to have more happen on the stage, filling the now orthodox dramatic convention that a ‘scene’ must have an objective and an obstacle to overcome to get to it, the heartbreakingly sad fact that Jake and Brett have tried to be lovers before is dropped. The gain is a little stage nudity –surely no longer transgressive or ‘edgy’ in 2013 – the loss is the seamless progression of the tragedy from beginning to end. In the urge to have things happen, the essential meaning of the events themselves are lost.
Hemingway’s own narrative structure, combined with his iceberg theory of writing – “the dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one eighth of it being above water” – means that his scenes begin with the fact that they are going nowhere writ large upon them, which just is their tragedy and that of their protagonists. Only by doing this can he then slowly reveal to his audience, almost sadistically, quite how much worse everything is than you had originally thought. Which is why the play, by lacking the courage in the genius of its original author, is condemned to be merely very good. Which is the West End at the moment, is quite enough for some. However, some of us want more.