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Shivers & delights of great art

At last, at last, a truly dull and boring piece of music in the wonderful wall-to-wall Schubertiad filling the BBC Radio 3 airwaves all this week: a live (make that half-dead) performance of Schubert's Octet in F, a piece I've never liked but now dislike intensely.

Otherwise, it's been joy and jubilation all week, the first time I can remember having four radios and two televisions tuned simultaneously to the same station all over the house so I miss as little as possible from dawn to late afternoon.

There have been expert vox pop contributions from Richard Wigmore (who published my Maggie Smith biography when he worked at Gollancz years ago) and one of our few genuine cultural polymaths, Jeremy Sams, while Simon Callow has chipped in with juicy biographical snippets here and there.

And how moving it was yesterday morning to hear the greatest exponent of Schubert's lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, long retired and 86 years old, speaking on the telephone from Berlin about how he felt he never sang a single item perfectly, always missed something.

It's a particular facet of Schubert's utter genius that there's always something tantalisingly "beyond" what you both hear and play; as I know only too well when I stumble through his Moments Musicaux and Impromptus on the piano; I've long given up trying to serve any sort of justice on the brilliant and difficult piano sonatas. But I enjoy reading them.

Primed on the easiness and radiance tinged with sorrow of this magical music, it was a real shock to run slap bang wallop into The Duchess of Malfi on Wednesday night, one of the most thrillingly cynical and violent plays ever written.

It certainly made one reflect on the purpose of art. There are great stretches of great, macabre poetry in the John Webster tragedy, but the play also operates as a political thriller, a horror story, a blood bath and an uncomfortably vicarious experience of death by strangulation.

The killing of the Duchess and her maidservant Cariola is even more horrible and ghoulish than the murder of Lady Macduff and her little ones in Macbeth. And the Old Vic production doesn't pull its punches: Eve Best chokes and coughs slowly to death's door while the assassins pull tightly on their ropes, like heavyweights in a tug-o'-war contest; then Madeline Appiah -- who could, indeed, be a lot 'appier -- protests she is pregnant as the noose tightens before the murderer loses patience and snaps her neck like a chicken bone.

What are we meant to feel at this moment? What do people feel when they watch public executions, in real life, or on the internet? The same question is posed, more obliquely, in Philip Ridley's new play Shivered at the Southwark Playhouse. Indeed, Ridley is in some respects the most Jacobean dramatist we have these days, toying with our tarnished sensibilities and vile instincts to such an extent that one or two reviewers have felt dirty and seriously demeaned while watching his new play.

But this sort of illicit reaction, a form of catharsis, surely, was always the point of the Jacobean theatre, where people lived much closer to the realities of crude power and sexual politics than we do today. In a curious way, Ridley reminds us what Webster was really on about; that life is nasty, brutish and short, and that salvation might be glimpsed only in the moral beauty of the best -- or indeed Eve Best -- and the artistic licence and expression of the worst.

The misery, penury and illness of Schubert's own short life stand in tragic conflict with his music. It's the same thing with Chekhov, in whose plays happiness is always tinged with a sense of loss and regret.

The new Uncle Vanya at the Print Room in Westbourne Grove -- opening exactly one week before the next new Uncle Vanya, at Chichester -- is an irresistible reminder of this quality. One of my favourite actors, Iain Glen -- shaking the dust of Downton Abbey from beneath his feet -- leads a wonderful cast that includes his real-life partner Charlotte Emmerson, former RSC titan William Houston, Caroline Blakiston, and David Yelland as the snappily superior professor ("Come along, everyone," he cries as he rings a bell to summon a meeting).

It was quite a flashy first night in Westbourne Grove last night, with RSC artistic director elect Gregory Doran supporting the writer/adaptor Mike Poulton and his RSC colleague Lucy Bailey (co-artistic director of the Print Room), publisher Nick Hern with actress Jane Maud, Lady Antonia Fraser perched splendiferously on the front row and critics strewn everywhere.

I happened to be seated next to one of the Print Room volunteers, drama graduate Harriet Creelman, who was seeing her very first Vanya. She nearly fell off her cushion when Vanya turned up with a bunch of spring roses in the middle of Astrov embracing Yelena.

How amazing it must be to discover this play "cold" as it were. "What was your first Chekhov?" casting director Joyce Nettles asked me as we left the theatre. I missed the famous Vanya at Chichester starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave; but I'll never forget The Seagull at the Queen's starring Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Finch, Vanessa Redgrave, George Devine and Peter McEnery...

As you grow older, you live with Chekhov characters, as with Schubert's music, as a constant, a beautiful, happy/sad backdrop to the highs and lows of everyday existence. Chekhov and Schubert really do make life much more than bearable; they make it worth living, because they share so much of their own, and reveal their souls.


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