Australian Arts

Genesis of a Dreamcoat

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Just the other day came the announcement that a new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was to open at Melbourne’s Regent on November 11. It’s early Andrew Lloyd Webber and it has the charm that comes from a composer and lyricist –Tim Rice in this case – fiddling with a musical form without self-consciousness or grandiosity.

The Joseph story from the book of Genesis has such a ravishing romance-like shape that it seems itself in any version and the Webber/Rice musical is the most handy and the most infectious though baby boomers might have experienced it in some colour picture book re-telling or indeed as a Classics comic. Back in those postwar years you could get a two volume bound set of the Bible as what we would nowadays call a graphic novel. and kids would pore over Bible stories with the same voracious energy that they could bring to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or Moby Dick, shorn as they were of that lush plumcake prose – as Edmund Wilson called it – which made such books hard for eight-year-olds to assimilate where they could cheerfully dash through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

The Joseph story is moving, though, in any version, including the Old Testament one, which could be read aloud in – what? – an hour or so. The coat of many colours, the envy of the brothers, the way he is sold into Egypt, the encounter with Potiphar’s wife, and the way Joseph effectively becomes Pharoah’s great counsellor and prime minister. The magic of the story is there in the original Genesis version which is unlike anything else in the Hebrew Bible and nowhere more moving than in the late encounter with the brothers, with the youngest, Benjamin, then with Joseph’s father Jacob. And it is a thing of wonder that this beautifully shaped, profoundly poignant story remains the same story in Thomas Mann’s huge and grand tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers.

This massive and elaborately echoic masterwork tends to be the dragon at the gates for many readers of the twentieth-century master who is probably the most variegated and versatile of all the modern giants, even if he is the least experimental in terms of linguistic fireworks. Then again, the Joseph books are written in an elaborate pastiche of Luther’s German and one of the things that defeats many readers is that Mann’s original translator Helen Lowe-Porter went to such elaborate lengths to find an English equivalent. This was something she also did in Doctor Faustus. She was so acutely aware of the resonance of the pastiche that she would go back beyond the King James Bible to the English of the earliest, arguably the greatest, Reformation Bible translator William Tyndale.

All of which can get a bit much for many readers so it’s fortunate for them that there’s also a version of Joseph and his Brothers by John E. Woods which is a bit easier in terms of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and aims to make the narrative faster and less full of the grandeurs of bygone periods.

Some of us prefer the elaborate labyrinth of Helen Lowe-Porter who is so intent on re-creating Thomas Mann’s biblical epic as a linguistic object. There’s the argument that – all things being equal – a contemporary translation is liable to be superior to one done many years later because the earlier translator will inhabit a world made up of the same figures of speech. If a novelist says, ‘The glory is departed’, the contemporary translator – Constance Garnett with Dostoyevsky, Scott Moncrieff with Proust – will get the biblical reference and the resonance that goes with it.

It’s open to question how this works with film. Everyone seems very impressed – almost in spite of themselves – with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. The Elvis of the movie is virtually a double and Luhrmann’s Vincent Minnelli-like capacity to make film theatrically, as if everything he touched was a musical waiting to happen, has found its ideal subject. It’s interesting how much of an enchanter Luhrmann has always been, even if you’re not keen to have the youthful Leonardo mouthing blank verse as Romeo. (You do get the consolation prize of Miriam Margoyles’ wonderful Mexicana Nurse.)

And what about his Great Gatsby? Can’t you argue that it has precisely the opalescent verve, the sheer energy and artifice of Scott Fitzgerald’s spectacular and desolated vision? Gatsby is so intent on re-creating the past and DiCaprio’s performance is electrically open to every illusion.

Some people, of course, will always remain loyal to the earlier version directed by Jack Clayton with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Redford couldn’t believe the way critics said he was stiff and artificial because he had put such a concentrated effort into simulating those qualities because they’re how Gatsby is described in the book.

The script of the earlier Gatsby film is by Francis Ford Coppola who according to legend wrote it in a week. That serves as a reminder that James Caan died the other day and that his performance as Sonny in The Godfather Part I is one of those legendary bits of casting for which we will forever be grateful. Caan did other things of course. There’s his extraordinary performance in Misery with Kathy Bates which depicts Caan as a writer in the power of someone who wants to destroy him and it’s probably one of the very finest adaptations of a Stephen King story not least because of the power of Caan’s performance. Caan whose parents were German-Jewish immigrants, was always wonderfully amused to be mistaken for an Italian-American. But that was because of the animation and the accuracy of his performance in The Godfather. It’s strange to think that he almost played Michael Corleone instead of Al Pacino.

In times of momentous events arts columns must dip their lids to the world of history and politics. Whatever his faults, was there ever a more consummate performer than Boris Johnson?

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