Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Street of Crocodiles
by Theatre de Complicité
Bruno Schulz was a Polish Jewish artist and writer of short stories who was killed by a Gestapo officer in 1942 in the ghetto of his home town. From his short stories the Theatre de Complicité have created the narrative of a life based on Schulz's own.
We start with the narrator, Joseph, in a gloomy warehouse cataloguing books to offstage commands in German. As he leafs through them his imagination takes wing and his past comes to life. There is his childhood, his love for his large family and particularly his eccentric father, the family drapery shop, his less than competent teaching career, his erotic feelings, all of which interconnect in one continuous dream-like flow.
Visually the play is stunning, an extraordinarily imaginative use of theatre to evoke memory. One character walks down the back wall, defying gravity; one emerges from a bucket used to collect drips of water from a leaking roof, and others from the block of books Joseph is cataloguing. Memory rises above the constraints of the present. Brute matter is endlessly transformed by stage magic. Books are transformed into fluttering birds; school desks become the shop counter; a desk top that opens with a bright light from within turns into the trap door into the family house attic where Joseph's father breeds birds. 'Lifelessness', he tells cousin Emil, 'is only a disguise within which lie unknown forms of life.'
But the play is more than technically inventive. It is not difficult to see in this recreation of individual memory an image of the way in which Jewish life in backward Eastern Europe coped with and survived the constraints imposed upon it. The image is both funny and pathetic. The father's obsession with birds is comic (in the end they are slaughtered because everyone gets covered in bird shit). So is cousin Emil's endless reminiscing (in Spanish) about his travels. There is, indeed, a touch of magic realism about his obsession with the latest scientific gadget (here an electric bell) and Father's concern about musical cloth. This is a Jewish community assimilating itself into the modern world but coloured fantastically with folklore and tradition (if there is a visual parallel, it is the work of the Russian Jewish painter Chagall).
However, the pathos derives from the ultimate brutality of the modern world it is encountering. The use of the German language symbolises this. The commands we hear at the beginning are, we suppose, those of Joseph's Nazi tormentors (we never see any Nazis, though we hear the tramp of soldiers' feet) and they and the sounds return at the end in his death. As against that, however, German is also the language of culture, symbolised in the mother's reading of a famous poem by Goethe, which recounts a father trying to outride the giant Erlkönig's pursuit of his sick child. The father sees what his feverish boy cannot: that it is death and not a bright world of delight that awaits him. Memory and imagination may transcend the limits of existence, but they cannot overcome mortality.
The father/son relationship dominates the play. Joseph's tenderness for his father is bound up with the grief he feels for his father's death and hopeless wish to bring him back to life. When Joseph is shot (again, enacted only in imagination) he strips to his underpants and socks and is passed like a baby from one member of his family to another, as if the only way out is by returning to the long vanished world he knew as a child.
The play is an elegy for a way of life that was snuffed out in the Holocaust. It is impossible not to be moved by what you see on the stage, particularly because the acting is so extraordinary, even if the dreamy sense of defeat leaves you with a slight sense that we must reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of disaster. This production should not be missed.
The Street of Crocodiles runs until 20 February at the Queens Theatre, London
by Liz Lochhead
'Oh no! I forgot to have children!' If this was a farce, then that would be this play's subtitle. But it is not a farce and is billed as a romantic comedy. Perfect Days deals with the pressures women are under to have children and how this affects their lives. Liz Lochhead, who wrote the play, is known as a feminist and as someone on the left. So how does she deal with these issues?
Nowadays the majority of women work, and women who have children are doing so much later in life. But nonetheless having children, albeit delayed, is still seen as the natural thing to do. The play centres around Barbs, a Glaswegian hairdresser from a working class background who's done very well for herself, appearing on television and living in a trendy penthouse. She is funny, sexy, single and she's just turned 39.
The first scene opens with Barbs regaling her friend with tales of her failing love life. She says very lightheartedly that she wants a baby--a revelation which is shocking as she has always been adamant that she has never wanted children--but she still makes us laugh at how hard it is to get anyone to sleep with her. The issue of children keeps coming up. Her best friend Alice admits to a 25 year old son who she secretly had and gave up when she was a teenager. Her mother Sadie talks about how she frittered away her life by having children. Her separated husband Davey announces he's going to be a father.
Perfect Days is by turns funny and sharp and then sad. The relationships between the women are the most interesting and the most powerful. The mother and daughter have a fierce relationship. Barbs is just like her, 'one helluva gal', as Davey puts it. They are two very strong women who have been brought up in different times. Sadie felt she had no choice about her life. She was a widow by the time she was 30. It is not so much that she did not want to bring up children alone, but more she did not want children at all. She's proud of her daughter's successful life and attributes this to her childlessness.
There is a lot to like about the play. It is engaging and well acted. Siobhan Redmond, for whom Lochhead wrote the role specially, is outstanding as Barbs.
Talk of biological clocks is common currency, alongside feelings of emptiness and loneliness. But the alienation we experience under capitalism goes further to explain such feelings. A discussion on the changing circumstances of women's position in society, and how it is tied to child rearing, is important. Unfortunately the conclusions of the play ultimately go along with mainstream ideas about what is real fulfilment for women (even though Lochhead would probably say otherwise--that this is just one woman's choice).
With Sadie and Alice talking about how difficult and fettered their lives have been because of children, the potential for an examination of the issues was great. In the face of the bulk of society pressurising women to feel unnatural if they don't go down the route of motherhood, the conclusions, which reflect the status quo, mar what is otherwise an enjoyable and polished production.
Perfect Days tours in Scotland throughout February and March