Dangerous castles in the sky

April 29, 2016

When Glenn Close first appears on stage at the London Coliseum as troubled silent movie star Norma Desmond, the audience goes into raptures of delight. Close first played Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in LA, and then New York, a production I was lucky enough to see. Now she is back, making the dreams of fans come true.

But while fans’ wishes are fulfilled, they know as aficionados of Sunset – whether the original Billy Wilder movie, or this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – that Desmond’s own dreams, thwarted and crushed, can lead to the most terrible tragedy.

The fictional Desmond has in her youth been a poster girl for the dreams of millions; but her nightmare develops when she loses the power to inspire those magical illusions. Trapped in her mansion, surrounded by self-portraits, living in an egocentric world, her fantasies are stoked by the adoration of Max, her beloved factotum (and first husband). Meanwhile, he pours his own dreams for her into the preservation of the Desmond myth, thus allowing it to keep growing, and grow out of control.

We should all be aware of Max’s errors: he is enabling Desmond to stay stuck in her fantasy and won’t help her to face reality. This isn’t hard to understand: very often, we give in to what our loved ones want, not what they need. It’s such a difficult balance to strike between our desire not to hurt the people we love and the importance sometimes of delivering true protection through some difficult home truths.

Joe Gillis, the young scriptwriter who narrates the story from beyond the grave, has his own fantasy problems. His dreams have been dashed so frequently that he has turned cynic. The stage is set for an inevitable clash as Joe cannot live through Desmond’s illusions any more than he can live out his own.

The mistake I feel is to accord such grand fantasies any importance in the first place. In Buddhist teaching, the state of sleep is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe the state of being ignorant (literally un-awakened). And the dreams we have while sleeping can symbolise fleeting desires for the unobtainable or pointlessly ephemeral, whether it be material success or the adulation of others.

We could shake off these “dreams” by living fully in the now, not anticipating some glorious future or harking back to some marvellous past. Enjoy the illusions on stage, but be grateful for real life when the curtain falls.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation