Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW
Published November 1998
Copyright © Socialist Review
Writer Tariq All and playwright Howard Brenton have taken on New Labour in a new political satire, Ugly Rumours. Beccy Reese spoke to Howard Brenton about the play and the arts in Britain today.
Howard Brenton feels that there is a gap in the theatre as far as political satire is concerned. 'Tariq said to me in February, "Are you sick of them yet?" and I said, "Yes I am." So we thought right let's have a go. Because there didn't seem to be, and there still doesn't seem to be, an opposition in the arts.'
Brenton sees the New Labour project as heading down the wrong track. 'The play tries to dramatise why we think it's gone wrong. It's like something strange has overcome the country. They're really continuing the Thatcher project. It's done in such a way that is rather new. I think it's to do with this managerial nightmare which seems to have overcome public life in the country. You see it in the BBC, in schools and the NHS.
'I don't want to use the word authoritarian because that is an absurd comparison with Stalin or Nazism. But it is something nasty that we've grown in this country. You don't have this managerial thing in the States--their boardrooms just run the companies. It's savage, but you don't have this attempt to block everything into a universal way of looking at things. If you talk to people in the BBC and the NHS, it's the same mentality. We're trying to get at that and see how it works in the satire.'
Labour in government has turned out to be quite different from Brenton's expectations. 'I thought they would be a social democrat government. I thought it would be the usual choppy ride and I didn't expect this smoothness, the attempt to destroy politics. It's like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You say to someone in the Labour Party, *How do you think they're doing?" and you suddenly see a look in their eyes and you think, oh my god, they've gone vegetable. It's part of this new managerial takeover, which is to do with careerism. They say politics is about managing things sensibly, so you must have sensible people--so the first question is, are you sensible? It's much more pervasive than Thatcher's famous, "Are they one of us?" And Thatcher was a politician, fighting a class war, whereas this is an attempt to smarm over everything.
'The "managerial nightmare" is also becoming clear in the theatre, when building work becomes more important than actually producing plays. I think there's something horrible about lottery money. So many theatres have closed to do wonderful rebuilding and have gone into debt and are finding it difficult to open again. Managers, who are really artistic directors, are turning into building managers. Half the theatres in Glasgow are being redone with lottery money and aren't open. The money doesn't go to performers, it's just to put a few more lights in the bar. I think the poshing up of theatre is always its death. Theatres should be comfortable, friendly and as easy to go to as the pub.
'The reaction of the National Theatre when the play was offered to them was that they didn't want to rock the boat and they rejected it. There was a sentence from a letter I had, which was chilling. It basically said we don't want to offend the government. It's a nasty feeling you get at the moment and you get it everywhere that in some way this government's intimidating and you can damage your career if you step too far out of line. And that's not healthy.'
Ugly Rumours certainly will rock the boat, with characters directly parodying Blair, Brown and Mandelson, although the writers were giving little away before the play reaches the stage. Their ambitions go beyond writing one play. What would be great would be to get a satirical show like this to work and then found a satirical theatre in London. Other cities in Europe have them and we've never really had that in London. Ugly Rumours may turn out to be rather ground-breaking. It may stop the drift to poshness, bland pomposity and inflated musicals.'
Ugly Rumours plays at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn until 28 November
Sting in the tale
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
'The power of speech is the greatest gift of all and to exercise it to its fullest is our duty and right.'So proclaims Haroun in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. This is a story set in a make believe world of Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. The central characters are Rashid and his son Haroun who live in the mythical land of Alifbay (alphabet).
Rashid is the shah of 'Blah' who has the 'gift of the gab' for telling any story your heart desires. He is a storyteller of extraordinary qualities, weaving funny and sad tales into a magical whole including princesses, wicked stepmothers. sorcery and powerful potions for all occasions. In this make believe world there is the amazing city of Gup (gossip) where it is always light and the terrible land of Chup (quiet) that is always dark.
To his son, Rashid is the 'best thing since sliced bread'. But Haroun's world is turned upside down when one frightful day his father loses his ability to spin a yarn before a political convention. It is also on this occasion that his wife, Soraya, leaves him to run off with Mr Sengupta, a man who has nothing but contempt for Rashid's power of speech. The source of Rashid's gift is in the ocean of the sea of stories but this is being polluted by the Prince of Silence, Khattum Shud (completely finished). The only hope lies in Haroun travelling through the valley of K and the Twilight Strip to the wishing water with which he can restore his father's gift. In this venture he is accompanied by the water genie called Iff and a mad bus driver named Butt.
This is a fairy tale written for children and the stage production is very vivid and stunning. The special effects and sets are brilliantly simplistic yet effective. This performance, by a very talented multiracial cast, allows the audience to make full use of its imaginative powers. The lively production is a rich fusion of contemporary western dialogue and jokes with traditional music and dance styles from the Indian subcontinent.
However, this is more than just a children's story. Rushdie wrote this story for his son but it was written a year after the fatwa had been imposed on him. The themes of censorship and tyranny are all too obvious. The prince of Silence, Khattum Shud, is the foe of all speech. He wants to plug the well of stories. In his grand design to control the land of Alifbay, he even kidnaps a princess and renames her Khamoush (silent) because her lips have been sealed by his henchmen.
Rashid becomes depressed during his period of silence and by the loss of his wife. This clearly alludes to the privations faced by the author himself.
But just in case anyone forgets that this is just a story, there is a fairytale ending, with Rashid recovering his 'gift of the gab' and Soraya returning to her family, realising that the philistine Sengupta is boring and dull! This is an excellent production that is true to the spirit of the original novel.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories plays at the National Theatre, London, until 6 January
Time for justice
Guiding Star by Jonathan Harvey
Nine and a half years ago, while I was working as a counsellor in a Liverpool FE college, students and workers at the college who had attended the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest football game at Hillsborough visited me and my colleagues to seek help with dealing with the aftermath of that disastrous day. Each person had their own experiences to recount, but what they had in common was the need for their stories to be heard, for their pain to be acknowledged and for their anger to be accepted. In particular their anger was directed at the lies and slanders that were being spread by the Sun and the Daily Star. Many also made clear their anger at the actions and attitudes of the police that day. I was therefore particularly interested in seeing a play which purported to deal with these experiences.
The central character is Terry, a Liverpool worker who attended the Hillsborough match with his two sons. He is still traumatised by the event but unable to communicate his inner pain and turmoil to his wife, Carol, and their two sons, Lawrence and Liam. Each year around April (the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy) the family know what to expect. Terry withdraws ever further, locking himself into his own pain and guilt. Counselling is suggested but refused. So withdrawn is he that he is unable to recognise the problems his sons are having with their own burgeoning sexuality and, in Liarn's case, his sexual orientation. Their next door neighbours, Marni and her husband, Charlie (Terry's best mate), are also having their own problems--they have a son with a disabling disease and a marriage that is failing apart.
For light relief the author introduces Gina, a sparky teenager, and Lawrence's girlfriend. She has as her role model Ricki Lake, the chat show host. Gina causes wry, amusement by her persistent use of the psychobabble she hears on the show.
The problem I had is that the play is not so much about the impact of the Hillsborough disaster on its survivors but the dilemmas brought about by the lack of communication within families. Harvey seems to be making the point that firstly the family is the main haven in a heartless world (the 'guiding star' of the title is the star that leads us home). The point is also made that Terry should take responsibility for his life and move on. Lawrence tells him to stop blaming the Sun for his psychological problems. His wife accuses him of a lack of fight; In making these points the play seems closer to the Ricki Lake show than the author intended.
Yet Hillsborough was not only about the pain and trauma of individuals, great though that was. The people who went to that match know that a huge injustice has been done and that the injustice continues.
In the programme for the play there is a fine article by a local journalist. Peter Grant, which seems to contradict the points the play is making: 'The heartache goes on, so too does the anger. Only when justice is seen to be done can those whose families and friends are left behind finally move on with their lives.'
While a play exploring the pain of a Hillsborough survivor is to be welcomed, it is a pity that the wider social context is virtually ignored.
Guiding Star is at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, until 31 October and then transfers to the National Theatre, London from 11 November
Slice of rural life
The Weir by Conor McPherson
The Weir received rave reviews when it was first performed at the Royal Court last year and was so popular that it is now back for an indefinite rerun.
The play is set in a small, rundown pub in a rural backwater in Sligo in Ireland. Outside the wind is howling. inside the Guinness tap is broken and everything creaks.
Jack, an ageing garage owner, his mate Jimmy, and the barman Brendan exchange jokes and barchat. You feel nothing has changed there for years. The weir, which brought electricity in 1951, 'was a big thing' for the village.
But things are not always as they seem. Farming is on the decline and now the money's in the German tourists who flock to the village every year. And when Valerie, a woman from Dublin, comes to live in the village on her own, she stirs up the ghosts and disappointments from the men's pasts.
The play successfully combines oneline retorts and jokes with long monologues which capture the tragedy and the failed hopes and dreams of the characters. There are some great characters and some great acting. Jim Norton is particularly good as Jack--in turns witty, sad and, in his words, 'a contrary bollocks'. Jack is funny and irreverent. When he goes off for a piss, it's 'up against the pillar of the community'. He is just as good when he shows how, beneath all the one liners, his life is filled with disappointment. He still regrets he did not move to Dublin to marry his girlfriend over 30 years ago. 'There's not one morning I don't wake up with her name in the room.'
Finbar, played by Dermot Crowley, is a swanky local businessman who fancies himself and looks down on the 'country fellas'. He boasts that the other men 'are jealous because I went to the town to seek my fortune. And they all stayed out here on the bog picking their holes.' But Jack retorts, 'You didn't have very far to seek. Just a quick look in Big Finbar's will.'
This is a play driven by character and dialogue rather than action or plot. And as such it is funny and entertaining. The audience cheered at the end of the performance I saw--a tribute to the quality of both acting and dialogue.
The Weir is playing at the Royal Court at the Duke of York's Theatre, London
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