Pants on fire!


“Liar, liar etc..” says the chorus chanted in the playground.  We are careful to teach our children the difference between truth and lies.  I can remember saying to my children, “I won’t be cross as long as you just tell the truth.”  The deal suggested was sometimes hard to stick to and many times led to a long explanation about rights and wrongs which was probably so boring as to be punishment enough for both my offspring and myself!  It might have been more effective to have a good rant and tell him/her off, for pushing the other child or snatching a favourite toy but of course that would have made a liar out of me and my promise.


Great store is laid in keeping our word, trusting people, “cross my heart and hope to die” is one of the more common, if drastic promises.  “I swear on my mother’s grave” is another oft-quoted pledge.


It is against this background of telling the truth at all costs, that we seem to love storytelling.  Our appetite for fiction has been apparent since stories were exchanged around the campfire and now we have a plethora of choice from modern novels, crime fiction and historical fiction to romance.  These can be enjoyed as a paper book, on our e-readers, on TV real time or on catch up and we can choose to watch films at the cinema or at home via a download. Such a wide variety of content and media!!  I can’t get enough of the various Scandi noir series on TV, whether the original language is Swedish, Danish or Icelandic. I love the glowering landscapes and the sophisticated (if rather violent!) societies reflected in them.


At my book group we have the monthly treat of being issued with a library book to read. Sometimes an old classic to read for the first time or re-discover, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; a popular writer such as Margaret Atwood with yet another best seller; or an unknown author such as Kawakami and her ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’.  In my head at any one time I have the plot of a couple of books I have on the go, as well as the story of any TV series I’m watching week by week.  No wonder I breathe a sigh of relief as the next episode starts with a precis of the key points so far.


Our suspension of disbelief allows us to forget about truth-telling for once.  Stories give us permission to leave the truth behind and be carried along on a cloud of lies, many times not even set in the real world (soaps being the exception to this rule) but with enough emotional truth in them to make the story believable.  I love the feeling of disappearing into a fictional world, losing track of time and forgetting the real world for a while.  I’ve just finished reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, yes I know it’s been out for years, how did I miss it…?  It’s an absolutely gripping book in full gothic horror mode and although I can’t tolerate horror films, this novel had me firmly sucked into its awful fantasy world from the very first chapter.


This weekend, I was reminded of this contradiction between telling the truth and welcoming a world of storytelling.  I was lucky enough to go and see the ENO’s production of The Magic Flute.  It tells the story…well the plot is pretty far fetched.  Our invaluable opera guide called the plot a ‘splendid muddle’ and indeed it is a mixture of a man on a quest for love, a captured maiden, a scheming mother and the powerful leader of a cult.  This was played out on a fairly bare stage, with the minimum of scenery and a large platform used variously as a sloping hill, a roof and a floor.  It even opened a trapdoor at one time, for the happy couple to go through as they rose above the torments intended for them.  So far, so conventional.  What stood out was the addition of certain realistic detail in order to modernise the staging.


The orchestra was not hidden away in a pit but raised up to stage level and celebrated by being seen and being part of the opera.  One of the flautists even came out of the orchestra onto the stage to play some of the key themes.


On the right hand side of the stage was a sound effects booth, not hidden away as usual. The operator was fully visible and an interesting addition to the action on stage.  I saw her blow into bottles to make a melody as the actor on stage mimed doing the same.  She moved her feet to make scrunching steps and her hands to tip a box back and forth for particular effect.  Key announcements of acts, scenes and pointers to particular characters were made via a chalk board, also visible, this time on the left hand side of the stage.  One man drew the words or arrows in chalk and these were then magnified and projected onto the stage.  It’s simple, child-like quality contrasted well with the fancy surroundings of The Coliseum.


The overall effect of performing on a stage which proclaimed that we should all be aware of the artifice of storytelling, gave a sense of irony and self awareness which was not lost on the mainly adult audience.  My husband, son and I were all impressed with how clever it was. Although I usually prefer to enter wholeheartedly into the illusion of story telling, in this case the addition of a reminder of the real world, enhanced the magic and made the evening all the more special and memorable.

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