Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
by Brendan Behan
|An unlikely jailer|
Brendan Behan once described himself as 'a Communist during the day and a Catholic at night'. He was also a committed Republican who in his youth served time in both English and Irish jails. It is these experiences that provide the background for his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and his autobiographical prose work Borstal Boy.
Michael Bogdanov's creditable revival of The Hostage leans very heavily on the famous production by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1958, despite a declared intention of going back to Behan's original Gaelic version of the play, An Giall. The plot is deceptively simple--a young British soldier is captured and held hostage in response to the imminent execution of a Republican prisoner in a Belfast jail.
His unlikely prison is a Dublin brothel where Pat, a veteran Republican, and his consort Meg preside over a household of whores of every sexual preference and persuasion.
The play is a mixture of song, dance and invective. Serious political issues are raised through the medium of music hall and burlesque. Bogdanov puts the musicians at the centre of the stage to create the effect of an Irish knees-up. Behan believed that if you could make an audience laugh they would be more susceptible to the serious points that you had slipped in through the back door. He is particularly effective in exposing the sentimentality and nostalgia of Irish nationalism. His contemporary IRA men are humourless and incompetent, but Pat's attempts to contrast them with the 'good old IRA' is filtered through copious drink and Meg's sustained ridicule.
Bogdanov understands the complexity of Behan's technique. The audience is drawn into sympathising with the working class English prisoner as he disowns his own country's imperial ambitions, but the sympathy is undercut when he mouths racist abuse against 'niggers and wogs'. The most effective character, Monsewer, brilliantly played by John Woodvine, is an aristocratic Englishman who has become more Republican than the Irish. He wears a kilt and embraces the Irish pipes and Gaelic language, but he can never escape his background and provides one of the most poignant moments of the play when he recites the lament for 'the Captains and the Kings'.
The play is full of irony and history has added an extra dimension. The current IRA ceasefire makes Behan's reflections on the futile aspirations of Irish nationalism all the more telling. His sympathy for the ordinary people at the heart of political upheaval would undoubtedly be extended to those on both sides of the border whose lives will remain blighted whatever any 'political settlement' is arrived at. But Behan's insight has a more optimistic side to it. There is no doubt that he made his own inimitable contribution to the new Ireland that has emerged south of the border in recent years. The revolution in sexual attitudes and the loosening of the Catholic church's stranglehold is reflected in his anarchic celebration of gay and straight sexuality and his onslaught on sexual hypocrisy.
On a more critical note there are real problems in staging a play like this in a mausoleum like the Barbican. It's ironic that the theatres with the resources and facilities to stage elaborate productions are not necessarily the venues most likely to provide either a sympathetic backdrop or audience for the play. There is also a problem with the pacing of a play that constantly shifts from fast moving farce to moments of nostalgic reflection. Occasionally this production flagged and lost momentum.
These reservations apart, this production is worth watching. It is a reminder of how much more Behan could have achieved as a writer had he not died prematurely as a result of a combination of diabetes and drink. He had the rare ability to write about Irish politics and history in a way that cut through the myths and sentimentality of nationalism. I wonder what he would have made of the present!
The Hostage plays in repertory at the Barbican Theatre, London
The Day the Bronx Died
by Michael Henry Brown
|Two of a kind?|
There is an image of black America, prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic, which stresses violence and gang warfare. This play seeks to identify the roots of this mayhem in the unforeseen outcome of the struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on the Bronx district of New York we are introduced to Mickey both as a teenager in 1968 and as a successful professional today. Through his eyes, the author draws out the central contradiction of the legacy of the civil rights and black power movement--namely how it was that only a minority of the black population benefited from those struggles.
Instead of 1968 being the year which marked a high point in the struggle, for Brown, in hindsight, it becomes the beginning of the end of New York as the melting pot, where blacks and Jews could join together in common struggles for justice--and when black people could see the need to unite against the enemy, white racism.
Mickey is not an easily categorised individual. On the contrary, the pressures and decisions he makes in his life reflect his social environment in the Bronx. His best friends are Alexander, a black kid who heads a youth gang called the Gladiators and Billy, a Jewish kid. All three live in private houses as opposed to the 'projects', and as such they harbour many of the prejudices against people living in public housing.
Mickey's mum, an admirer of Martin Luther King, wouldn't mind seeing an atom bomb dropped on the project and the area turned into a big park for black and white kids to play in together.
She still has the hope of integration into white America on equal terms, and as such wants the best for her son. She works in the house of a middle class Jewish family and explains to the young Mickey how blacks and Jews are both ancient peoples.
Alexander on the other hand has little time for Jewish people who he characterises as worse than the average white--his not so latent anti-semitism is sharpened when his father loses his job and they have to move into the projects. It is also a turning point in his friendship with Mickey as he graduates into the criminal gang world and falls in with the arch hoodlum, Prince, who uses the project as his base for seemingly terrorising the whole neighbourhood.
Soon a black cop is dead, and so too is Alexander. But when King gets assassinated in Memphis in 1968 the Bronx truly 'dies'. The days when Mickey could go to Billy's Barmitzvah and be treated like a son by Mr Kornblum are apparently lost in a whirlwind of anti-white violence. By the end of the play it is the older and richer Mickey who is trying to come to terms with the shooting of his son more than 20 years later. His rage is now not directed at the society that Dr King tried to eradicate--capitalism and the racial oppression it generates and perpetuates--but instead at the lawless black men from whom 'we have to take back our civilisation'.
But although the play concludes with a tone which fits exactly with both the black establishment's 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' mentality and the anti-black law and order campaign, it nevertheless provides us with powerful illumination along the way. The impact of this play in New York, against the background of the Crown Heights rioting between blacks and Jews and the anti-semitic posturing of the Nation of Islam and others in the early 1990s, must have come as a timely reminder of the reality that working class black and Jewish people have to and do in fact live together.
Gordon Edelstein's direction makes for a tight piece of storytelling. Although the full potential of 1968 is not explicitly explored, or even the fact that thousands of Jewish kids joined the Freedom Riders down south, the sense of dashed possibilities comes across powerfully. We are to some extent left asking--where do we go from here? The Day the Bronx Died does not pretend to have much of an answer, which is perhaps a fair reflection of the crisis of black leadership in America today.
The Day the Bronx Died is at the Tricycle Theatre, London
Dir: Zhang Yimou
To Live marks a significant departure from recent Chinese cinema. It's a folksy, often funny and unashamedly melodramatic story of a family's life across four decades, surviving everything that life throws at them.
Fugui, the father, is a perennial loser wandering through the film with a permanently bewildered look on his face. The son of a landlord family, he loses the family home gambling, becomes leader of a puppet show troupe, and is drafted by the nationalist army during the Civil War.
He's then captured by the Red Army after the rest of his unit has run away. The contrast between the two armies is all the more stark for being understated, and these early scenes give a vivid insight into why Mao's victory in 1949 was welcomed by the vast majority of Chinese.
But they also show the limits of that victory. Both before and after 1949 history is something that happens to the family, never something that they make. The relationship between Fugui and his wife, Jiazheng, becomes ever closer as one hardship follows another, and is the one constant in an increasingly bewildering world.
Most of the film is told in three episodes set in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The overall message is familiar enough--things were bad in the 1950s, got worse in the 1960s, and improved after Mao died in the late 1970s. But the film brings a fresh and unexpected perspective on each period. This is partly done through a close attention to the detail of everyday life in each period, particularly food and clothing.
Mainly, however, it highlights the unexpected events that flowed from each period. During the Cultural Revolution scenes, for instance, Fugui and Jiazheng are out shopping one day when a neighbour tells them that the Red Guards have arrived at their house. They rush home fearing the worst.
What they find is their daughter's suitor and his friends decorating the house! No Chinese film director, to my knowledge, has ever tried before to show the horrors of the Cultural Revolution through farce, but it works brilliantly. And the final tragedy is all the more shocking for the comic scenes that have preceded it.
On the surface the film's theme is nothing more than the survival of the human spirit against adversity. All the family want is to live in peace. In other hands this could have been unbearably trite, but Zhang Yimou's genius is to draw you deeply into the lives of his characters.
Yet underneath the resignation and the happy ending there's a deeper, more radical, message--people shouldn't have to live like this. This deceptively innocent film gives a marvellous insight both into how people survived the years of Mao's power, and into the deep wells of anger that built up during those years.
Dir: Ken Loach
|Up against the odds|
This is an agonising story, all the more harrowing because it is true. It is a not uncommon tale of a single parent and her struggle with social workers and courts to maintain and eventually regain custody of her children once social services have deemed her an unfit mother.
Maggie, the main character, has suffered at the hands of an abusive father and a series of violent partners. She is wary of forming a new relationship but she meets Jorge, a Paraguayan refugee who has witnessed scenes of cruelty and repression in his own country. He identifies with Maggie's suffering and recognises it is the cause of her distrust and self-destructiveness. They become lovers. He becomes entangled in the web of bureaucracy that surrounds and threatens to suffocate Maggie's life.
Ken Loach is well known for Cathy Come Home and the recent films Riff Raff and Raining Stones. He depicts the lives of working class men and women in a manner that is neither sentimental nor idealised. Here he gives us, in collaboration with writer Ruth Munro, an acute and penetrating portrayal of real life.
The main characters are played by two newcomers to film. Crissy Rock plays the role of Maggie and Vladimir Vega, a Chilean exile, enacts the part of Jorge. It is a tribute to Loach that he can inspire in them the confidence and strength the roles require.
This film appears at a time when the Tories have placed single mothers under scrutiny. Peter Lilley would have us believe that single parents are greedy and conniving, jump the housing queue, and are responsible for all manner of social ills: youth crime, falling educational standards, a general decline in 'moral standards'. The victims of poverty, homelessness, violence and abuse are blamed for their situation instead of being offered support.
Ladybird, Ladybird goes a long way to expose this. Occasionally it comes across as more documentary than drama but combines fact and fiction successfully. It examines the role that the social services play in these cases. Cold, brusque officials fail entirely to comprehend that Maggie's seemingly unstable behaviour is a result of distrust, frustration, anger and fear. Their interpretation of her actions only serves to reinforce their opinion of her status as an unfit mother. At best they are over zealous, at worst their methods only serve to confuse and intimidate those they claim to be trying to help.
In the court scene the expressions 'stable background' and 'safety of the child' are bandied about but seem to bear no relation to reality. Who decides, and on what criteria, who is an unfit mother?
The film also highlights the racism that Jorge experiences. Incisive scripting illuminates the lack of expectations that women of Maggie's background and experience hold.
Ladybird, Ladybird paints a bleak portrait of contemporary Britain but is not altogether pessimistic. Its optimism emerges through the determination of the characters themselves--the tenacity of Maggie, the patience of Jorge, their joint perseverance to be a family. It is through this struggle that we gain hope.
This is a tremendous film, to which words can hardly do justice. My first response to it was overwhelmingly emotional. It deserves more than the awards it has already gained and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Dir: Joel Schumacher
There is clearly a problem with transferring John Grisham's best selling novels on to the screen. Both The Firm and, in particular, The Pelican Brief fail to capture the suspense you feel when reading his books as you eagerly read chapter to chapter, pulled along by the speed of the story. At least with The Firm there were some subtle twists to the story and the film did deviate in a number of places from the book to help the suspense.
The latest film, The Client, however, follows the book exactly and this is one of the reasons for its shortcomings. The plot is weak and the story is, on the whole, predictable. It starts well enough when 11 year old Mark Sway and his brother witness the suicide of Mafia lawyer Jerome Clifford. But before he kills himself he tells Mark the location of the body of Senator Boyd Boyette. And so Mark has information that the FBI wants--for without the senator's body they are unable to prove the crime. The Mafia need Mark to keep quiet as Jerome's client, Barry 'The Blade' Muldano, has been indicted for Boyette's murder. That's the story, and the film follows the attempts by the FBI, headed by the conceited agent Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), to force the information from Mark, and the threats of the Mafia to keep him quiet.
To defend himself Mark turns to lawyer Reggie Love--played by Susan Sarandon of Thelma and Louise fame--to help free him from his dangerous dilemma. If he reveals the location of the body he will be killed by the Mafia--if he doesn't he is guilty of hindering the investigation of the FBI. The consequences of that, explains one police officer, 'is that they have electric chairs especially made for small children!'
The incompetence of the police and the FBI is one of the more amusing features of the film, in particular the court scene where the FBI use a court order to try and force the information from Mark, but instead face the wrath of the local judge who's not too keen on these big city boys telling him how to run his court.
Mark's solution to the threat of police and Mafia is to locate the senator's body to confirm what the lawyer told him. He escapes from custody and, with the help of Reggie, finds that he is indeed the one that the FBI needs--a bargaining chip for his final escape.
Unfortunately The Client is one of those films where halfway through you are more or less certain how it will end. There are no twists, no hidden or unexpected turns that put the fate of Mark or his family in doubt and so keep the audience in suspense--not a very good recommendation for a film that's meant to be a thriller.