David Hare

“The Breath of Life”: Boomer regrets

In David Hare's play at Portland Center Stage, Gretchen Corbett and Julia Brothers deal with loss and fear

If I were going to guess (and I suppose I am), I’d suggest that the moment Boomers in the audience will react to most immediately, probably with a snort, comes near the start of the first scene after intermission in David Hare’s 2002 play, “The Breath of Life.”

“The enemies of the bourgeois, isn’t that what we called ourselves?,” asks Madeleine, now in her sixties, still working, and still true to her leftish politics. “And how did it turn out?”

These aren’t real questions. Madeleine continues: “The obituary of my generation. We left no loft unconverted. The revolutionary project: to leave the world a little more chic than we found it. Future historians will write: ‘these are the people who took the world one notch up-market.’”

Julia Brothers, left, and Gretchen Corbett in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

Right. “We left no loft unconverted.” In Portland we might say, “We invented the Pearl District.” Or: “We planted million dollar condos on North Williams.”

Madeleine and Frances, the only two characters in the play, exchange a few more lines, and then Madeleine again:

“We imagined we were protesting Vietnam. Looking back it seems like some us were protesting their own future. A rare moment of prescience. A short carnival of revolt before the long luxury of self-improvement. Five years of protest. Thirty of acquiescence.”

This is Hare at his best, really. Sharp, acerbic, funny, keen to the dilemmas of his generation (which also happens to be mine), of the failures of politics, religion, the American empire, and then the wreckage of regret they, we, have left behind. Other Hare plays may be more satisfying as a whole—maybe “Plenty,” “Racing Demon” or “Skylight”—but “The Breath of Life” is a nicely concentrated dose of Hare. (He’s also good at thrillers: “Collateral” on Netflix is a fine case in point.)

Although the production of “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage was disrupted right before opening night when Sharonlee McLean, who was set to play Frances, dropped out of the show, it has found sure footing with Julia Brothers, who is now starring alongside Gretchen Corbett’s Madeleine.

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DramaWatch: the naked and the nude

The first two weeks in May bring Portland stages a bundle of shows straddling the territory between the real and the ideal

This Saturday, as it turns out, is World Naked Gardening Day, and don’t worry, neighbors, I’m not taking part: I’m not really much of a gardener. The revelation, however, makes me think of another spot of news I got a few days ago from my friend Gerald Stiebel, in his weekly column Missives From the Art World. Gerald was writing about Monumental, the new show of nude paintings by the 20th and 21st century master Lucian Freud, at Acquavella Gallery in New York, and in it he discusses the fine line between nudity and nakedness:

“The renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, in his 1956 book, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, made a distinction between the Naked and the Nude, considering the nude as an ideal representation of the naked body. By Clark’s definition Freud’s works are not nudes but might be called naked portraits.

An intimate theater in the flesh: Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” 1995, private collection, at Acquavella Gallery.

“Freud himself wrote, ‘Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait; a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual … when someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves; that means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent them. It is a matter of responsibility. In a way I don’t want the painting to come from me, I want it to come from them. It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone by looking very carefully at them without judgment.’”

Hardly anyone would call Freud’s often massive portraits ideals of the human form. They can seem grotesque: hills and vales and fissures and folds of flesh; fantastic landscapes of skin. And yet they hide nothing, at least visually: They exude humility, openness, a sense of natural animal humanness, vulnerable and unguarded.

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Review: NT Live’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers

National Theatre’s elaborate filmed production of David Hare’s new play evokes place better than people.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the British National Theatre’s NT Live series is one of Portland’s hidden theatrical treasures. Several times each year, dozens of theater fans flock to a well hidden auditorium in downtown Portland’s World Trade Center to see high definition, big screen productions from Britain’s National Theatre in London. The series offers Oregonians an opportunity to experience — virtually, at least — a world class level of production that no Oregon theater, not even that one in Ashland, could afford to stage. Those lofty production values are the main reason to see the current NT Live production, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which runs twice more, this Saturday afternoon and evening, April 4.

BBF

I haven’t yet read the best-selling 2012 volume of the same title by MacArthur “genius” grantee Katherine Boo, a long time favorite journalist of mine from her days at the Washington Post and Washington Monthly, but it earned critical acclaim, including a National Book Award. Now a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer at The New Yorker, Boo is featured in a short video that preceded the broadcast of playwright David Hare’s adaptation of her book, directed by Rufus Norris, and I just wish that the play itself had packed emotional poignance apparent in her brief interview and the video’s real-life Mumbai scenes. Because for all its truly spectacular acting and staging, Hare’s play ultimately suffers the fate of so many that try to put complex literature on stage — and especially those that try to dramatize a multi-faceted historical tapestry.

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