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fionn_a_bhair [userpic]

I Never Want to Go to Baltimore

August 30th, 2007 (11:43 pm)

current location: London
current mood: giddy
current song: The Cranberries

First of all, the best news possible...

I've finished my dissertation.  Finished, finished, finished as in forever.  I never have to read post-modernist theory again.  I never have to give on solitary crap about the construction of the nation again.  I can actually enjoy Tony Kushner's plays as plays and not as subjects for head scratching and analysis.

And I can write.  I can actually start writing creatively again.  I finished a short play today.   I have a children's novel to get to work on (with, admittedly, the most cracked out premise imaginable, but still...creative).  Now if only I can get a job and house sorted out by the 8th, I might not lose my mind.

But I am not thinking about those things tonight.  I am celebrating - with pizza and the Wire.  It's a small celebration, but I have to make up for earlier this week, when I - wait for it - flashed the former Literary Head of the National Theatre.  That's right, I did - because I, apparently, don't want to have a career.  Stuff like this is why I shouldn't go to events with open bars,

Speaking of theatre, it's time to catch up on my reviews..

The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill
National Theatre

Otherwise known as the night of my humiliating debauchery (okay, it was only ONE button on my blouse - but it was the crucial button).  A friend of is an extra in this play, which is how I came to see it on Press Night, though I probably would have gone anyway.  First off, it's not a very Eugene O'Neill-y play.  I associate O'Neill with words and more words...relentless lyricism and classic Irish Catholic Mammy issues.  None of those were present in this play.

The play opens with a long scene of exposition - long, and clumsily handled (by the playwright, not the actors, who did their best with the scene).  It goes on for so long that you start wondering 'Shouldn't you be fleeing from the revolutionaries who want your head already?'  But as the play continues it moves further and further away from verbal communication, relying instead on imagery, music (the music in this production  was fantastic, I can't stress that enough) and dance to convey its meaning.  Jones, fleeing through the forest, and pursued by 'Voodoo'ish spells (the exact nature of them is carefully unspecified) seems to travel back through the African-American experience - jail, lynching, the Slave Market, the Middle Passage, and ultimately the old religious observances of Africa.

Given when it was written (the early 1920s) the play is actually astonishingly progressive.  Still, there were things about the production that made me ever so slightly uncomfortable.  The play is full of black, muscular male bodies...glistening in the lights and offered up for the audience's enjoyment.  The scene in which the Witch Doctor emerges from below the stage, while amazing to watch (seriously, I can't compliment the dancing and the music enough) reminded me rather too much of Heart of Darkness to be comfortable viewing.

Admittedly, there is one brilliant moment in the Slave Market scene, when Jones speaks into the audience and asks 'White Folk, what you looking at?'  This reassured me that the director/actor was at least somewhat aware of what they were doing in this production. 

(Incidentally, the scene with the Witch Doctor was apparently written for an Alligator with a Crystal Ball in its mouth.  I almost wish they staged it that way, though I admit it would have look completely bizarre.  I just would have liked to see them do it).

The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris
Royal Court

Apparently, this play was quite a hit in the States.  I'll admit right from the top that it irritated the hell out of me.  It's a satire of upper-middle class, over-educated, over-privileged, obsessively liberal hypocrites, and on that level it succeeds brilliantly.  Clay and Kelly are monstrous...and monstrous in their utter determination not to be monstrous - to be warm and loving and kind and tolerant to every possible opinion in the world.

The cast for this production was actually very, very good, even if Matthew McFayden is disappointingly unsexy when speaking with an American accent.  The dialogue is, in some places, very brilliant - the family's discussion seeming more like a collection of monologues than actual conversation (I think everyone has had at least a few family holidays like that).  There were long stretches during the second act that annoyed me - the characters talk, at length, about what is wrong with America, seemingly unaware that they are indicting themselves.  A few moments of that is all right, but a fifteen minute stretch of the play is just way too much.

I enjoyed it - it was funny, and had some interesting things to say, and the actors played the hell out of it - but it seemed to me that the playwright set up a false dichotomy.  Either one is 'liberal' but actually hypocritical, self-absorbed and racist, or one is self-absorbed and racist (but not hypocritical, as the racism is admitted up front) - or, if one is lucky enough to be from the developing world, one is a paragon of intelligence and simple decency.

My ultimate complaint is...well it's far too easy to satirise these people.  They mouth any number of laudable sentiments - of course if you give them enough rope they'll hang themselves.  They're monsters of narcissism and self-absorption, it's true...but they don't have any real power.  (Warning: I am about to become Idealistic and Annoying, Read on at your peril).  If this family somehow became something other than obnoxious to the point of criminal negligence, what would change?  Would the world become a better place?  Not really, no.  Now, maybe if you read the family as a metaphor for America itself (and the playwright does whack you over the head with that notion several times) it becomes more comprehensible, but...from what I read in the papers, I don't think America's problem is it's too liberal

The thing is, satire is an amazingly powerful tool; remember Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner?  I just can't help but feel that it's rather artistically cowardly to use it on such a soft target - why couldn't the playwright have aimed it at people who actually have genuine power, rather than those who sit by haplessly bemoaning the nation's fate.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Arthur Miller is one of my all time favourite playwrights - one of those writers who made me realise just how thrilling great theatre can be.  So I went to this production with something of a bias - I already love the play.  Nonetheless, I have to admit, my hopes were not high.  Times have not been good at the Abbey Theatre of late - their productions have been haphazard at best, with many of them being absolutely bad.

So I can't tell you how pleased I was that I completely Enjoyed this production.  It was brilliant.  For the first time in more years than I like to remember, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the production.  (I have an unreasoning affection for The Abbey - it's where I first learned to love theatre, and to write theatre - so I want it to excel).  The set design...was creepy.  I'm not sure how the designer managed it, as the locations were essentially realistic, but somehow the set was arranged in such a way as to resemble a gallows.

The performances were excellent - including Bosco Hogan, who had taken over the part of Judge Danforth that day, as there had been a death in the first actor's family.  Now, I've seen Bosco Hogan in, oh a gazillion plays down through the years, but I have to admit, I was very impressed that he could pull out such a good performance on such short notice.  He was lucky, I think to have such an excellent company to work with - the central trio of Abigail, Proctor and Elizabeth (Ruth Negga, Declan Conlon and Cathy Belton, who I especially like) were particularly excellent.  Although I hadn't expected it to, the choice to play The Crucible with Irish accents actually worked brilliantly.  Usually, I think of Miller's dialogue as very recognisably American, but The Crucible is different. 

There are some writers, for me, who produce an effect that I can't describe except by simile - in Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's prose reminds me of the feel of cool linen sheets, or Jane Austen's of the touch of smoothy creamy paper against a pen, or...in the case of Miller in The Crucible, the sound and the physical 'jar' of flint being struck.    The language is poetic, but also muscular, and very, very spare.  Why that should work so well with the Irish accent is something I can't figure (especially as I think it actually works better than with an American accent, from what I can tell), as while Irish playwrights tend to be poetic, with the exception of Beckett, spare isn't a term I'd usually use about them.  I think I'll be puzzling that one out for a while.

The only criticism I have, is that the production did seem to lag a bit at the beginning of the fourth act (in the gaol).  That isn't really anyone's fault - the danger is already there in the script anyway - and it can be a bit of a relief, in such an unrelentingly intense play.

Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Lyric Hammersmith

I love Tony Kushner's work - hell, I wrote my dissertation about him.  I just mention it, because it's possible I came to this production with high expectations.  Expectations which were, somewhat, dashed.

Millennium Approaches and Perestroika are difficult plays - they are long, and complex, and very demanding.  Seeing both in one day was an exhausting, though worthwhile, experience.  It's partly because of this that the moments of levity, of camp, are so important.  You need them to get where Kushner wants to take you.

Still, first there is the good.  Most of the performances were excellent - especially the actress playing Harper Pitt, who somehow managed the trick of not being pathetic - more than a little difficult in a part which seems designed to stymy interpretation.  Her drawling sarcasm makes the part much more interesting than the waif Harper is usually played as.  The actor playing Belize was excellent, though he did seem to be drawing heavily on Jeffrey Wright's performance in the same part (but we give him a pass on this as a) Wright has essentially defined that role, and I don't think it would be possible to better, and b) this is one of the actor's first major roles out of drama school).  Louis was excellent - every level of nervous self-hatred and intellectual vanity conveyed brilliantly - and Roy Cohn stole the show.  He's a snarling, thrusting figure out of a pantomime, and however reprehensible he is (and he really, really is) he's definitely worth watching. 

In fact there was only one weak link in the production.  But what a weak link.  They turned Prior into someone from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  He has fabulous bleached blonde hair and bitches like Marc from Ugly Betty.  I can't even begin to express how wearied, and angered, I was by this portrayal.  This Prior never learns anything - never seems to exist on stage as a human being, as he's too busy being 'various unfunny homosexual stereotypes that the director can't get out of his system.'  They really, really dropped the ball on this, and it shows.  Prior's final speech - the summation of everything the characters and the audience have struggled through, of the horrors of the AIDS crisis and of homophobia, and the joy of a new beginning - was cut down to two lines.  And why?  Because this Prior can't believably give that speech - can't offer up that wonderful combination of renewal and grief - because this Prior is incapable of learning anything.  How can a puppet learn anything?

This, combined with occasionally sloppy direction, undermines the play to a huge extent.  It was infuriating to watch, as there were some interesting things in the production, but with a leading role as badly cast and/or directed as here, they never coalesce into anything complete.  A missed opportunity - and rather a large disappointment for me, I'm afraid.

The Wire

But yes, I've been watching The Wire, and I have to say - I never want to go to Baltimore.  I love the show - I think it's the best television show I've ever seen (hell, it doesn't even feel like TV to me, it feels like literature) - but I never want to go to that city.  It's the most depressing place in the world.

I'm early on in the third season now, and it's killing me to see Major Bunny Colvin - a good man, good po-lice as they say - try to make things better.  I just know it's all going to end horribly, just like it did with Frank Sobotka.  The awful thing is, these guys are really trying to make a difference - they're trying to protect their communities the only way they can, and their efforts are clearly doomed.  Everything is against them, and it kills me to know that they're doomed to failure, while gobshites like State Senator Clay Davis will live on in peace and prosperity.

(I hate Clay Davis more than anyone else on the show - more than the Barksdales even.  He is a corrupt, selfish, vile little man happily screwing over his own people.  He and Maury Levy are first against the wall when the Revolution comes.)

Despite how this might sound - if you have to beg, borrow or steal a copy, watch The Wire.  It's really that good. 


Posted by: Jessguyon (jessguyon)
Posted at: August 31st, 2007 07:57 am (UTC)

I LOVE your icon.....!

Posted by: fionn_a_bhair (fionn_a_bhair)
Posted at: September 2nd, 2007 11:18 pm (UTC)

It's like...so good!

Posted by: The Hebridean Queen (gnimaerd)
Posted at: August 31st, 2007 01:28 pm (UTC)

HURRAH!No more dissertation! *throws confetti and rainbos*

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