Letters – Issue 85

Marsh in production

In his review of Joanne Drayton’s Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (NZB, Summer 2008), Murray Bramwell regrets the lack of anecdotes that would give some “sense of Marsh’s strategies and style as a director”. On my first visit to New Zealand, in winter 1957, Marsh was directing Henry V with the Canterbury University College Drama Society (the elegant programme was designed and printed, I believe, by Denis Glover’s Caxton Press). My wife as a schoolgirl had seen Marsh’s 1943 Hamlet and insisted on our not missing Henry V. Afterwards she noted that Marsh had read all the critics and scholars whom she and other English majors had studied at CUC, given credence to the best of them, and synthesised a highly intelligent and coherent interpretation.

We both remember the ending as one of the most effective theatrical moments we have witnessed anywhere. That final scene brings the French and English courts together as peace is assured through the betrothal of Henry to the Princess Katherine. There were minimal props, but the courtiers were lavishly clothed, the English in red and the French in blue, and there were a lot of them filling the stage and making for an agreeable spectacle.

There is a good deal of rather boring political dialogue as the play draws to its end. Suddenly we noticed something that deserves the term “transformative”. A slight movement to the rear of the stage caught our eyes, which then were startled to register that all other movement, from the back to the apron, and from wing to wing, had ceased. Kings, queens, courtiers and all, even the hero and his bride-to-be, stood or sat motionless as in the game that children call “Statues”.

The mover at the back of the stage was the actor whose role had separated him from the rest all along, the audience’s intermediary, the one-man Chorus. His costume was utterly different from the rest, being of roughly (or accurately) wrought Elizabethan-style garments: brown trousers tucked into boots, a dark leathery-looking vest, and brilliantly showy, full-length white sleeves gathered at the wrist in frilled-out cuffs. In each of his prior appearances, the actor had waved his arms expressively, and spoken his lines so as to make them, as he says, “on your imaginary forces work” – just short of that sawing of the air that Hamlet warned against

These earlier appearances did what they were written to do: transporting the audience from the little “Wooden O” across the Channel to France, onto the battlefield of Agincourt, and, in a 47-line tour de force opening Act V, prompting our “imaginary forces” to follow Henry and his real forces all over France, then back to a hero’s welcome in England (where he modestly refuses to carry his sword before him in the victory parade through London), and finally over to France again for the pre-nuptial negotiations

In his last speech, the Chorus confines himself to a perfect Shakespearean sonnet beginning: “Thus far with rough and all-unable pen/Our bending author hath pursued the story,/In little room confining mighty men/Mangling by starts the full course of their glory”. He moves on to the unhappy succession of Henry VI and the other Kings “Which oft our stage hath shown”. His final bid for applause asks somewhat oddly: “And for their sake,/In your fair minds let this [play] acceptance take.” The point that Marsh’s flamboyant Chorus made, at every appearance but never more insistently than in her setting-up of his final speech, was that we should remember we were watching a play: these were actors, not the real people of history, the stage was only a temporary construction, and so forth.

But the thrill of realising how these great truths about theatre were demonstrated through the vitality and vigour of the poetic imagination asserting its power in that brilliant final entry and speech is something we have never forgotten. We do forget whether Ngaio Marsh as director came out for a bow, but in a sense the Chorus had done it for her. Her “strategies” had worked, and her “style” in this production was both simple and brilliant.

John M Ridland and Muriel (Thomas) Ridland
(Santa Barbara, USA)


For the birds

I have just read Steve Braunias’ review of Charles Fleming’s Cape Expedition Diary: Auckland Islands, 1942-43 (NZB, Summer 2008), and I was not impressed. As one who has appreciated Braunias’ advocacy for birds in the past, I feel this review has let him down. He appears more interested in his own worth than the book he was reviewing.

First, his history of the welcome swallow in New Zealand had nothing to do with the Fleming diaries. Second, the mention of Graham Turbott was irrelevant. Third, when he finally did get to the diaries, he suggested they lacked feeling and were basically worthless.

What author Mary McEwen did was simply publish the diaries of a scientist living in a desolate place over a year during wartime. She did nothing more and nothing less. She wasn’t writing a story, as Turbott might have done. She simply published the writings and sketches – as she found them – of a scientist on an off-shore island. Sure the contents of the diaries were the “jottings of a serious birder”, but isn’t that what diaries are? They are not memoirs or works of fiction. And many of the notes and sketches were reworked to later appear in many a Fleming paper over a number of years, thus illustrating their usefulness and how every small detail is important to the scientist.

No, these diaries weren’t “the left-overs”. They were interesting accounts, and I for one am glad they were published.

Stuart Chambers


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