Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Boer War was fought by the British government for motives that have become bloodily familiar throughout the century--crucial economic resources (in this case the gold of South Africa's Transvaal) and control of trade routes (in this case round the Cape to India). The war produced the usual share of myths, lies, and 'glorious heroes' like Baden-Powell, General Kitchener, Lord Milner and Cecil Rhodes. Many of these men were overt racists.
The Boer War 1899-1902 by David Smurthwaite (Hamlyn £20) contains hundreds of images of the conflict. Unfortunately this book at times gives a distorted view, despite the use of pictures. A crucial test of any photographic history of the war is its coverage of the concentration camps. These were set up by the British to prevent Boer women and children from helping Boer fighters. Around 28,000 women and children eventually died from disease, malnutrition and lack of care--one in ten of the white population of the Boer republics. But the book devotes just four pages to them.
The Channel 4 series The Boer War is well worth watching. The freshest programme is the fourth (Thursday 14 October), about the black concentration camps--written out of history by both the British and also the Boers, who wished to reserve for themselves the mantle of suffering during the conflict. The programme discloses fascinating material about the way black people were treated by both sides, and their attempts to fight back. Caught between a brutal British imperialism and the brutal Boer regimes, black people suffered terribly. The final settlement gave them nothing.
The series does, however, spend much too long on overdetailed reconstruction of battles, which means it is easy to lose the overall political thrust of what is happening. There are some eyewitnesses of the events. Some of these people are wonderful. Anna Molakeng, for example, was a black inmate of a British concentration camp and still vividly remembers her 'hard war, chewing on worms and roots to survive'. But others simply recycle old imperialist propaganda. The series makers should also have been more careful about their repeated references to the Boers as 'freedom fighters'.
Giles Foden's novel Ladysmith (Faber & Faber £9.99) centres on the 118 day siege of the town near the start of the war. At times it is excellent, but Foden crams in such a vast range of characters from the actual events--including Gandhi and the Irish nationalist John MacBride--that they only have a very fleeting part. Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War (Abacus, £12) is not new, but still the best account of the conflict. It points towards the economic roots of the conflict and unmasks most of the myths about the British 'heroes'.
Eyes Wide Shut
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Maverick director Stanley Kubrick's final film is about how sexual fantasy and desire can disturb an apparently ideal marriage. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play a middle class New York couple (the Harfords) who seem to have it all--precocious kids, nice paintings and a huge Central Park apartment. Suddenly, nine years into their marriage, they start obsessing about sex with other people. For a few tormented days and nights everything seems threatened.
The crisis is triggered by a flirtation at a society dance, but the trouble really starts afterwards, when Kidman's character confronts her husband with her own secret desires and challenges him to deny that he is attracted to other women. Both characters are stirred into a fearful exploration of repressed passion. Dream and reality then seem to blur, and William (Cruise) ends up involved in a bizarre ritual at an upper class sex party.
As usual, Kubrick tries to drive his film into territory Hollywood would normally avoid. The first half is genuinely uncomfortable, and not just because of Tom Cruise's wooden acting. Kubrick touches nerves and anxieties surrounding the modern family as it contends with the claims of sexual freedom.
You can see why critics call Kubrick the most completely cinematic of directors. His stunning use of sets, lighting, crowd choreography and music create an engrossing world of obsession and threat. But all Kubrick's cinematic vision can't overcome the weaknesses in the material, and in the end the film cops out badly.
It may have been a sophisticated ploy to cast two actors as asexual as Kidman and Cruise in an erotic fantasy, but if so it fails flat. In fact, despite the hype and the many dramatic set pieces, the film is oddly stilted and tame.
Neither lead actually has sex in the film, and it is hard to sustain a sense of drama for two and a quarter hours on just the thought of sexual infidelity. But what is really disappointing is the very conventional opposition set up between 'illicit sex' and what we have to assume goes on in the marital bed.
The threatening images of sex outside their marriage are mostly seedy and exploitative, in simplistic contrast to their caring, respectful relationship.
Eyes Wide Shut could have really explored the tension between sexual desire and the particular kind of trust implied by monogamy and the ideal family. Instead, the cloying resolution suggests a trite moral with a Freudian gloss about controlling and understanding our darker sides to preserve stability and happiness. It is an unsatisfying end to the working life of one of Hollywood's most interesting directors.
Dir: Jasmin Dizdar
Beautiful People is set in London in 1993, in the midst of the war in Bosnia, and follows the lives of Londoners and their encounters and relationships with Bosnian refugees.
The film begins with unnamed Bosnian Serb and Croat refugees (originally from the same village) fighting each other on the streets of London and ending up in hospital beds next to each other alongside a Welsh cottage bomber recovering from burns. Their paths cross with Pero, another Bosnian refugee, who has ended up in hospital after being hit by a car. There he meets Portia, the daughter of a Tory MP, and they form a relationship. In another hospital Dr Mouldy, an obstetrician, is seeing a couple, Izmet and his wife, Dzemila, who is pregnant. They plead with him to allow them to have the baby aborted as Dzemila was raped by soldiers. However, once she is born the parents feel reconciled and name her Chaos.
Meanwhile, Griffin, a teenage football hooligan, and his mates go off to Rotterdam after mugging a black man for the air fare to watch England's world cup qualifier against Holland. After the losing match Griffin, high on drugs, wanders off towards a UN aircraft preparing for Bosnia. Next thing he knows he is in the middle of the war zone, with locals and bombs around him. He comes across Jerry, a BBC foreign correspondent, who mistakes him for a UN soldier and takes him to a Bosnian field hospital. Griffin offers his heroin supply to a wounded man needing a leg amputation in the hospital, where there is no anaesthetic available.
Beautiful People has a large cast of characters, which might suggest a superficial treatment of personalities, but far from it The film manages to go through their many intense human emotions--trauma, loneliness, despair--and it does so with a very real sense of both humour and tragedy. The director manages to encapsulate the essence of the Balkan spirit as the perspective of the film.
The Bosnian characters are from all ethnic backgrounds, but the film makes a point of bypassing such distinctions--choosing instead to focus on similarities between them rather than differences. Through the theme of encountering Bosnian people, the film also portrays well the social and class diversities of Londoners--from the working class areas where immigration officials come searching, to middle class marital strife and demanding professions taking their toll on doctors and journalists, to upper class dinner parties and the hypocrisies of English politeness. Although some of the characters could be seen as being overly caricatured and many scenes surreal, this is necessary in order to show how damaging prejudices can be. The underlying message of the film, though done in good humour, is to be wary of labelling and judging those who are seen as 'different'. Tragedy and humour, it seems, transcend all such boundaries, which, despite the pain of many of the characters, makes Beautiful People ultimately an optimistic film.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Dir: Michael Hoffman
'The course of true love never did run smooth' is one of the most famous lines from William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The new film adaptation of this play certainly brings out the comedy and tragedy of the love affairs of the play's main characters. Hoffman takes the film out of its ancient Greek setting to Italy at the end of the 19th century. He uses lavish sets and impressive costumes, music from Puccini and Verdi, and a big name cast to bring to life one of Shakespeare's best known comedies.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream there is the sense of a changing world being in conflict with traditional ideas. This is expressed through the lovers' relationships. Hermia's father is the old authoritarian who insists on the convention that Hermia must honour a marriage deal to wed Demetrius, despite her love for Lysander. Hermia is distraught that she has no say in her own future. She knows her refusal to marry means becoming a nun or being condemned to death. She doesn't want to submit to her father's authoritarian rules, so at night she and Lysander flee the city for the forest.
In the forest all the usual laws are subverted. The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, rule, not humans. Here the relationships of Hermia and Lysander, who are followed by the scorned Demetrius and his pursuer, Helena, can be turned upside down by the intervention of the mischievous sprite, Puck. Here even the fairy queen can be tricked into lusting after a commoner--the weaver and aspiring actor, Nick Bottom, who has been magically transformed into a donkey.
With daybreak the fairies have to put an end to the anarchy. The fairy queen is restored to her king and Bottom to his old human form. But the old order does not prevail completely. The two young couples return to the city having established partnerships for love, not duty. Duke Theseus, the image of the enlightened ruler, sanctions the individuals' choice, ignoring the protests from Hermia's father. Shakespeare also uses the play to present the voice of ordinary people in the characters of Nick Bottom and his companions, who are all craftsmen as well as actors in a theatre troupe. These characters are a great source of comedy in the play. But they are also presented as down to earth, dedicated working men.
Shakespeare was not one of these poor jobbing actors but part of the new merchant class. In his plays you see the tension between the dissatisfaction with the way society is and the desire to prevent chaos and preserve some of the existing order. Just 30 years after Shakespeare's death, that conflict between the old order and the new emerging forces was to explode in a way the playwright had not imagined--the English Revolution.
by Maxim Gorky
Royal National Theatre
Maxim Gorky's play was written less than a year before the 1905 revolution in Russia. A group of middle class people are gathered at a country holiday home, as was increasingly the fashion in this period. But all is far from well.
Why should such relatively well to do people be so dissatisfied? As the writer Shalimov says, 'How the devil can you write, when you don't understand what's going on in the world? Everything seems to be changing shape... slipping and sliding... nothing has any solidity.'
Russia had experienced rapid growth and the emergence of capitalism in the last decade of the 19th century. The characters in the play are part of the new middle class of lawyers, engineers and local officials that this produced. They are out of place in the rigid and aristocratic hierarchy of the old order. But they are equally ill at ease when it comes to thinking about what to replace it with.
Some want to cling to the way things are, or at least wash life's problems away with wine. Others are desperate for change, even if they do not know what this change should be. Perhaps it should be a society where everyone works for a living, where the peasants are raised out of their miserable poverty. Or perhaps it should be 'living in truth', a revolution of manners and morals.
Summerfolk is not the only play to depict this sort of situation. Anyone who has seen a play by Chekhov will recognise the characters, the setting and the motifs. There is the arrival of the writer, who is expected to provide insight and answers, but disappoints. Kaleria, the lawyer's sister, fancies herself as a poet, but her mysticism is a parody of art--full of 'clouds, skies and mountains', because she cannot engage with human beings. A play is staged within the play by a local amateur dramatics group. One character attempts the obligatory suicide, but only to attract attention.
At times, Summerfolk seems like a send up of rather, than a homage to, Chekhov. Instead of the duel which kills Tuzenbakh in Three Sisters, there are jokes about duelling. Gorky was a socialist and for a period a Bolshevik, had none of Chekhov's tenderness to this class of Russians, and preferred to poke fun at them. Another contrast is that in this play the poor are not invisible, though in the context of a middle class retreat they can only have a walk-on part.
The strength of this production lies in some excellent performances. Vlass (Raymond Coulthard) retreats into acting the clown because he cannot bear most of the guests. But his infatuation with the radical doctor Maria Lvovna (Patricia Hodge) forces him to be serious to impress her and declare his feelings. Simon Russell Beale and Roger Allam's acting also stand out. Another strength is the way in which the obnoxious sexism of some of the men is challenged.
But the weakness of the play is that it gives so much space to characters who the author understandably finds lacking. This produces comic moments, but still these mostly irritating people dominate the three and a half hours of the play.
Gorky is left to put words into their mouths which are his rather than theirs. When the fourth rate poet Kaleria declares that politics is out of date, Varvara gets cross and says that politics is the only way forward. Yet Varvara is an isolated figure with no apparent interest in politics, and her comment is left hanging in the air with nowhere to go. This is not to say that the only valid way to depict the Russian middle class at the turn of the century is Chekhovs reverence. But in sticking too closely to this format, Summerfolk ends up as just a variation on the theme.
The Jew of Malta
by Christopher Marlowe
Oxford Playhouse, transfers to Almeida, London
Christopher Marlowe's play, written shortly before Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, raises a host of issues of relevance both historically and currently. It is set in the middle of the 16th century, when two great superpowers, the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and the Muslim Sultanate of Turkey, were locked in a struggle for territorial and ideological hegemony in and around the Mediterranean. The Jews of Malta are ordered by the Christian governor to pay in full a huge tribute due to and demanded by the Turkish sultan.
Early aspiring capitalism, dominated by the monopoly of usury practised almost solely by the Jews--as religious hypocrisy prohibited both Christians and Muslims from indulging in it--is thus manipulated to the advantage of the Christian and Turkish rulers and against the Jews.
Barabas, the central Jewish character, steers his way ruthlessly through this morass in an attempt to outwit his tormentors and preserve his profits at the expense of all else. The result is a rich, black, satirical and also quite shocking drama of intrigue which conjures up numerous associations with the current unravelling of capitalism, such as ethnic cleansing (the Jews were forced to wear the Yellow Star of racial indignity and were ethnically cleansed from Britain in the 11th century), sectarian violence, sexual and financial corruption, the hypocritical abuse of power, cynical political careerism and much else.
The play, directed by Michael Grundage, is brilliantly acted in a clever stage setting which allows for the smooth, unbroken progress of the scenes at different levels. Ian McDiarmid is outstanding as the scheming Barabas, dominating and unifying the action throughout.
by Russell Lees
Bridewell Theatre, London
On the evening of 7 August 1974, Richard Nixon, mired in the corruption of Watergate, summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the Lincoln Sitting Room at the White House. No one except Kissinger and Nixon knew what was discussed, but the next day Nixon became the first US president to resign from office. It is this intriguing question of what occurred during those three hours that Russell Lees's fascinating play Nixon's Nixon attempts to explore.
The play cuts to the heart of the paranoia and corruption that was central to the Nixon presidency, and challenges the attempt since Nixon's death to whitewash him of any wrongdoing. For the Nixon of Nixon's Nixon, the rewriting of events, particularly the Watergate affair, as simply an 'error of judgement' would be most welcome. In his manic state he constantly refers to figures of history such as Napoleon and Lincoln, and demands his right to be placed alongside them in moments which reveal the full truth of his megalomania.
Through the long and harrowing confrontation between Kissinger and Nixon, we see that not only was Nixon the head of the most brutal superpower, he was also a part of the international ruling class, whose power struggles combined to destroy the lives of millions.
Through flashback sequences we are able to experience Nixon's meetings with Brezhnev and Mao. The symmetry of the Soviet Union's bureaucracy and the US elite is displayed in the consultations between the Russian premier and Nixon. The similarities between Russia's brutal moves to stamp out the advances towards democracy signified by the Prague Spring and the US's intervention in Vietnam are evident. When the heads of these states meet on a personal level they meet as brothers, and [yet] the false war between their nations led to disaster for millions. Lees makes use of an innovative technique of allowing the actors playing Kissinger and Nixon to flow into other characters during the play.
Attempting to extricate himself from impeachment, Nixon comes up with an insane scheme of provoking an international crisis with the help of other rulers which will cause mass destruction, but allows Nixon to be seen as the only person who can solve the crisis and save his position. He and Kissinger rush around the stage in a frenzy of excitement, taking great glee in the amount of cities they will destroy and people they will kill. Lees manages to draw clear parallels between their lust for power and the way that the present day US president uses global terrorism to keep his own grip on power in times of crisis.
While Lees's attempt to humanise both Nixon and Kissinger and show the men at the heart of these monsters is well done and plausible, it falIs down with the conclusion of the play--that Nixon was simply a man caught up in something that he could not control, and that the power he held corrupted him.