Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright Socialist Review

Arts Review

Cultural currents

American standoff

Mike Gonzalez examines two paintings which reflect the tensions of US society Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks'

In the Chicago Art Institute, two of the three best known American paintings in the world (according to Robert Hughes) face each other across the 'American Room'. It struck me that as visitors filed past very few spent more than a second or two looking at Grant Wood's 'American Gothic'--yet they stopped and peered deeply into Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' that hung directly opposite. It was as if these two most American of paintings provoked a kind of revulsion in one case--and curiosity in the other. No--more than that--some level of understanding, or sympathy. And it wasn't only because of the subject matter--there was something in the act of painting, or at least in the play of light and space, that partly explained the different reactions.

Grant Wood's 'American Gothic'

Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' was painted in 1930, though it became famous four years later when Time reproduced it. In 1934 the US was emerging from the Depression years; the legacy of 'hard times' was an American insularity, a square-jawed affirmation of the rural version of the American Dream--Johnny Appleseed planting the first trees and the pioneers establishing their rights over the wilderness (once the Native Americans were removed from their ancient lands). The two figures--the models were the painter's sister and a dentist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa--occupy the foreground. And occupy is the right word--they have taken possession of a place and stand defiantly, scowling, defending the two storey homestead behind them. Between them is that pointed, Gothic-style window that reappears so often in cartoons and adverts. It suggests a church as much as a home--and the plain surrounding wood says much about the times. There is suspicion in the man's eyes, his hand is menacing on the upright pitchfork he holds. But the ordered world behind them, symbolised in the geometry of the house, is an American Eden they will defend.

The message these figures give out is that you should be on your way; this utopia is private property, guarded by these two resolute and joyless figures holding off whatever barbarian hordes may try to make it theirs--or take it back. It is in the very language of the painting--the crowded foreground with no way through, the figures at the very edge of the frame. And you sense the rest of their bodies curling under and around, and the hard ground under their feet to which they have claimed rights of ownership. It seems so harshly realist yet, like most of Wood's paintings, it is an artificial and imaginary place.

Hopper's world, by contrast, invites you in--but makes no promises. It is not that the four figures at 'Phillie's' all night cafe beckon to the world outside the window. They are each absorbed in some intensely inward thought, thrown together in this place by some accident or coincidence. The solitary man has his back to us; the man behind the counter looks towards the street. And the couple may be together--their hands do seem to touch--yet each is lost in reverie. The fingertip touch makes the evident loneliness of 'Phillie's' four late night figures all the more poignant. It expresses yearning rather than companionship and echoes the characters that populate Hopper's other canvases--often occupying the same space and yet alone--like the couple in the 'Room in New York' of 1932.

'Nighthawks' was painted in 1942. Urban America was the reality, not the midwest where Grant Wood spent his life. And the Depression had given way to a new time of economic growth and advancing prosperity. And yet the dreams of the 'nighthawks' are clearly not shared--even within this pool of light surrounded by darkness--they are separated, distanced and alone.

The special hypnotic quality of the painting, however, arises from the space between the painting's immediate surface and the great glass window. Like all Hopper's paintings there is an interplay of light and shadow; the light is harsh and unforgiving, yet it does not reveal very much. The absorbing preoccupations of these solitary coffee drinkers are still a closed book. The empty bright space in the foreground might hold the secret--the shadowy doorways on the other side might offer a closer vantage point. We are drawn nearer, into the painting, in search of some explanation.

That was the paradox. The American Dream seemed to repel and exclude. But Hopper's drama of a crowded city full of isolated individuals, like the characters of John Dos Passos' great 1926 New York novel Manhattan Transfer, was disturbing; it left you with questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved. And it invited the spectator to stop and think about an America that most of them would recognise.


Film

Sayles into a storm

Limbo
Dir: John Sayles

Joe reflects on what the future holds

John Sayles has made some of the very best radical films of recent years: Matewan, the story of a coal strike in West Virginia, and Lone Star, a tale of racial conflict on the Mexico-Texas border.
Limbo shares some of these films' strengths, notably their power to portray a community wracked by political and economic stresses. The sense of a class-divided community is cleverly and convincingly invoked. Limbo focuses on a declining fishing town in Alaska. The fears of workers in a cannery plant contrast with the local entrepreneur's hopes to turn the area, indeed the whole of Alaska, into a theme park.
The film also shares with Sayles's best work an intense sense of character. The leading figures in this drama are not stereotypes, neither heroes nor villains. Sayles's favourites are damaged and embattled individuals fighting to find some hope and love in difficult lives. Moving through this Alaska town is Joe (David Strathairn), an odd job man since his previous life as a fisherman came to an end when his boat sank, drowning two crewmen. Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a singer in the local bar with a string of failed affairs behind her, and a daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), with whom she finds it increasingly difficult to find any common ground.
The first half of the film is as good as anything Sayles has done. It makes you remember how enjoyable a serious adult drama can be, and how fleeting are the pleasures of even the better of the Hollywood mainstream. To watch the portrait of the community emerge in the background, as Joe and Donna tentatively feel their way into a relationship, is to see a carefully constructed but completely convincing account of individual lives shaped by their past and their surroundings.
The weakness of the film comes in its second half. Joe, Donna and her daughter are on a yachting trip with Joe's half-brother. A slightly awkward thriller element is introduced into the plot. Joe's half-brother is in trouble with drug runners who board the yacht, forcing Joe, Donna and Noelle to swim to a nearby island. The murderers follow them but, unable to track them down, abandon them to the Alaskan elements.
What follows on the deserted island is a conflict between the forces of nature and the three castaways. The dramatic theme is that, abandoned in this natural environment, the three have to confront their fractured selves. The problem is that this premise sits uncomfortably with the first half of the film, in which the characters and their problems are so convincingly interwoven with the community of which they are a part.
There is still much to admire. Even the details in a Sayles film are as arresting as half an hour of footage in most other films. In Limbo, for instance, Mastrantonio does her own singing, and her interpretation of songwriter Richard Thompson's Dimming of the Day is as good as anything that Thompson's greatest interpreter and former partner Linda Thompson achieved. The acting is first class throughout the film. The scenes in which Donna's daughter appears to read from a diary they find in an abandoned hut are spellbinding.
The end of the film is truly courageous. For once it is true to say that it is too surprising to reveal. But ultimately this part of the film feels thin in comparison. Nevertheless, if this is a film flawed in its composition, it is still more interesting and more enjoyable than most other directors' successes.
John Rees


Sound of the suburbs

American Beauty
Dir: Sam Mendes

Cutting away at family values

Reports of the death of US culture are proving to be an exaggeration. The release of American Beauty, the latest production from Stephen Spielberg's DreamWorks company, has been greeted with a critical fanfare and nominations for a fistful of major international awards.
American Beauty takes us beyond the picket fence facade of Middle America and reveals the emptiness at its heart in a bittersweet tale of midlife crisis and spiritual renewal. We are introduced to Lester Burnham (a very likeable Kevin Spacey), a dead man walking who narrates events leading to the failure of his American Dream. After 20 years of feeling 'sedated' in a dysfunctional family who hate him and a boring career to match, Lester quits his job and relives the 1970s of his youth evoked through lava lamps, a spliff habit and a soundtrack of Dylan, Free and Who numbers. His revived sexuality is focused on his teenage daughter's glamorous classmate, Angela (Mena Suvari), while Carolyn, his estate agent wife (a wonderfully brittle Annette Bening), fans the dying embers of her own faded powers with an affair with the local king of real estate and visits to a gun range.
Jane (Thora Birch), his surly offspring, takes up with mysterious new neighbour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), whose obsessive videoing enables him to see beyond the phoniness of his middle class surroundings. Like the others, Ricky is searching for American beauty and he finds it in the hidden depths of plain Jane rather than her glittering pal.
The movie unpicks the web of deceit spun around power: who has power in society and who doesn't, who thinks they have it and how those who don't go about getting it. It questions the myth of sexual power supposedly possessed by nymphet cheerleaders who are really self doubting virgins, and the macho delusion of control over one's life through gunplay. It especially shows up the vacuousness of those irritating affirmation tapes, with Carolyn repeating her mantra, 'I refuse to be a victim', until faced with tragic material reality. Carolyn articulates the confidence trick, 'In order to be successful one must project an image of success at all times', an image whose lack of substance Ricky constantly challenges.
Extensive rehearsals allowed British theatre director Sam Mendes to create the intimacy of ensemble acting on screen without it being stagey, the actors revealing the layers of their complex characters in some mesmerising and subtle performances. Veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) milks every drop of a terrific script by Alan Ball, and delights the eye.
In rejecting the consensus that there's nothing significant left to criticise at the 'end of history', artists are rediscovering an endless pool of material from which to draw instead of the stream of corporate crap in which talent is generally forced to paddle. Hopefully, this movie marks the head of a new wave rather than a blip in business as usual. Dissent as a marketable commodity? Probably, but enjoy it while it lasts.
Anna Chen


Not all light in the garden of good and evil

Loss of sexual innocence
Dir: Mike Figgs

The critics haven't seen much in this film, apart from a reworking of the Adam and Eve story set alongside episodes from a film maker's life. What the two strands have to do with one another seems to have escaped them.
The film opens with shots of a white boy in colonial Kenya who is drawn to the native culture. We later see him as an adolescent at a funeral reception. He catches his drunk girlfriend being seduced by an older, more sophisticated young man. It is his first experience of treachery, linked to loss and death. In the background we can hear voices on a radio report on British troops in Northern Ireland. Patterns of personal and social, sexual and colonial conflict superimpose themselves on one another.
Yet there is still a dream of innocence, of life before the fall, in the garden of Eden. Figgis cleverly uses inverted images of reflection to suggest the inverted relationship of this dream to experience. We watch a naked, black Adam and a naked, white Eve emerge from water in some radiant African setting (a kind of replay of the opening harmony between black and white). Their innocent physical exploration of one another contrasts with the unhappy, sexual relationship between the film maker (now an adult) and his wife, the latent violence of whose relationship emerges in dream form. Part of their unhappiness is the way his commitment to his film-making work intrudes into their rural, holiday retreat (another image of Eden, perhaps). Eventually, Adam and Eve lose their innocence and are expelled from the garden--now heavily guarded private property--and subjected to the ferocity of the media's gaze. They are now seen in our image, the image we have created for them.
Everything has its double, its twin--literally so, in the character of the film actress who is also a model. Her picture appears on the glossy cover of a fashion magazine among veiled north African women of the desert, suggesting both her complicity in exploitation of native cultures for the benefit of a profit-driven West and the fact that she is herself exploited, cheated on by her philandering boyfriend. At the film's climax she suffers retribution for his murderous act at the hands of the very veiled women who feature on the magazine cover.
With its minimal story line this is a difficult film to follow. Maybe it tries too hard to use symbols to provide meanings. Mike Figgis may not be as overtly political as Ken Loach is, but he doesn't forget how even our most personal feelings operate in interwoven political and social contexts. That makes the film's complexity worth exploring. See it if you can.
Gareth Jenkins


Music

Proud and loud

Stand up and be counted
Various names

Stand up and be counted

This collection of 1970s funk is immediately distinguished by its cover, which pictures black US athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. The spirit of resistance that they embodied as they held their arms aloft in a clenched fist salute is present in every track.
In the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated and 110 ghettos exploded. The optimism of soul music from the early 1960s had started to give way to more militant lyrics and a grittier sound.
James Brown had shunned the growing radicalisation created by the struggle of the civil rights movement and those resisting the Vietnam War. In an effort to keep black people in their homes after King's assassination, his concerts were broadcast live on television and he toured some of the ghettos urging restraint. He even played for the troops in Vietnam.
Clearly something changed his view, because later that year he recorded 'Say It Loud, I' m Black and I' m Proud' . The song, which contained the lyrics 'We' d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees', was a pathbreaker.
Other artists who were already making records with a political message suddenly found that the commercial success of 'Say It Loud' opened the doors of the bigger black record labels.
For James Brown, black power meant the right for black Americans to climb the ladder, start their own businesses, get to the top universities, and be elected to public office. It did not mean the right of poor blacks to attack capitalism.
But other artists were championing this right. Curtis Mayfield, who with the Impressions had backed the civil rights movement with records like 'Keep On Pushing' and 'We're A Winner', was now questioning poverty and the war. In response to 'Say It Loud' he made the fantastic 'Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)', which talks about the power that blacks and whites would have if they united together.
Other tracks, like Mike James Kirkland's 'Hang On In There', Eddie Kendrick's 'My People... Hold On' and Archie Shepp's 'Blues for Brother George Jackson', follow the movement for black liberation as the state cracked down, assassinating and jailing leaders of the Black Panther Party. They urge people to stand firm.
The fact that the songs collected here are still so powerful is testimony to both the brilliance of the artists and the fact that the system they fought still oppresses us today.
Yuri Prasad


Television

Is the joke on us?

The 11 O'Clock Show
Channel 4

Sacha Baron Cohen's creation Ali G is a typical wannabe gangsta, familiar to urban Britain. But the flickers of truth which spark the best humour have recently lit a controversy under Ali G. Gary Younge in the Guardian and the black weekly New Nation have asked, 'Should we laugh at Ali G...or is the joke on us?'
Cohen has certainly been daring in achieving this notoriety. He insists on fusing the actor and the role, by not doing interviews which would expose the man behind the Tommy Hilfiger uniform. Ali G is only let out late at night to enliven the dross in the 11 O'Clock Show, or do his own show, on Channel 4.
Ali G doesn't sidestep the homophobia and misogyny, the talk of 'battymen' and 'bitches', which are the most pathetic elements of the identikit mix. Most courageously, when he laments to a copper, 'Is it 'cause I is black?' I would argue that this is a conscious confrontation with the kind of Louis Farrakhan inspired anti-Semitism that Muslim Ali G wannabes in particular have no problem with. On top of that, Ali G manages to spoof 'yoof' TV with his guides to Staines and celebrity interviews. He recently got Neil Hamilton smoking a fake spliff!
He doesn't allow the audience an easy ride. The shocking crudity of some of his observations becomes a carefully worded trap that makes an ass of the interviewee. We laugh first at him, then with him. This whole ruse has a limited shelf life, of course, once more potential victims realise what his game is.
Nobody seems to have made this point about a Jew playing a Muslim. Nor have I heard anyone blast Rory Bremner for his very dodgy take on Trevor MacDonald. Cohen is not dealing with race in the truly offensive manner of Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning, where it is enough just to be black--or gay or Irish--to have the piss taken. Ali G is taking on the real phenomenon where young males of every ethnic origin willingly adopt a version of blackness that is attractive in terms of vocabulary, dress, posture, gesture, music and behaviour. He is more threatening than the 'Kiss my chuddies' pair from the BBC's Goodness Gracious Me because the joke is not always on him, but it is rooted in similar observations.
Historically the interactions of black and white identities in popular culture throw up complex contradictions. In the US from 1840 to 1895 the cakewalk evolved as a musical dance performed by blacks imitating whites, who were imitating blacks, who had been imitating whites! In British Victorian music halls 'coon' clowning was apparently perceived as a pisstake of the Protestant work ethic. This was precisely echoed in Ali G's meeting with Tony Benn. Benn thought the unemployed, like miners, were being denied work. Ali G insisted they just wanted to chill out.
The danger with Ali G is that greater exposure to a younger, less worldly wise audience will give him a heroic rather than comic meaning. The laddist excesses will appear merely natural. Like Harry Enfield's brilliant Loadsamoney, Ali G could best be dealt a swift death while the going is good.
Nick Grant


Exhibition

Renaissance man and his flying machines

The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance Engineers
Science Museum

The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance Engineers

The Renaissance, the 'rebirth' of intellectual life that began in the Italian city states and spread over a century to the rest of western Europe, is often seen primarily as an extraordinary flowering of arts and literature. This exhibition shows that it was just as much a revolution in technology. In fact, many of the 'artists' who led the radical renewal of painting, sculpture and architecture were also engaged in activities that today would be defined as engineering. One of their key motivations was finding solutions to the practical problems of society.
Leonardo da Vinci excelled as a scientist and engineer as well as being a brilliant artist. Although on the one hand generally seen as the personification of 'Renaissance Man', da Vinci is also often viewed as someone 'ahead of his time'. By situating his work in its proper context, the exhibition shows that Leonardo's 'universal' genius was not an isolated phenomenon, but the culmination of a social movement that stimulated all sectors of human endeavour.
Something not stated explicitly here is that the roots of the Renaissance lay in the contradiction that existed in the Italian cities at the time between the old feudal order and the newly emerging merchant class. Yet it was this class who would bankroll projects like the fabulous dome of Florence Cathedral, where Leonardo first began work as a young apprentice.
Overall, this is a fascinating and unusual look at a period that saw the birth of capitalism. The spectacular working models, based on the drawings by da Vinci and his contemporaries, are particularly successful in bringing these ideas and inventions to life.
John Parrington


Time Bandits

The story of time
National Maritime Museum

This exhibition is an attempt to look at how we have experienced, used and measured time throughout the ages, and how this affects our lives. It does this by recognising that the way time is measured or viewed is not only a product of various human societies and their beliefs, but also the needs of those societies. So the earliest stone calendar exhibited is from ancient Greece and attempts to provide both astronomical information and a probable weather forecast for every day of the year--invaluable for anyone growing crops.
The measurement of time has varied depending on different political and historical situations--every Chinese emperor introduced a new calendar to mark the start of his rule, after the first French Revolution the government introduced a new decimal calendar, and it took the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to bring their calendar into line with the rest of the world.
With the development of capitalism, time needed to be measured more accurately. There are plenty of exhibits to show how and why this was the case--clocks to improve time keeping, help navigation and measure the manufacturing process.
There is even a small section showing how the measurement of time is used in modern warfare--from the small clocks used to calculate trajectories for shells from battleships to the timing device of a polaris nuclear missile.
One section shows how time affects us as humans--the ageing process, the regular beats of the heart, the 'body clock', and how beliefs that we are influenced by the 'clockwork' movement of the sun, moon and stars have influenced different societies. Unfortunately there is a tendency for an element of mysticism to creep into the exhibition. In the section on death it is declared that 'the need to believe that something will survive beyond the end of time is fundamental to human nature'.
This exhibition has some objects of great interest--from a Salvador Dali picture to Beethoven's metronome that he used to help compose his music. Numerous sculptures and paintings illustrate the main points of the exhibition. At times, though, many of the most interesting exhibits suffer from poor explanations, and often the context of the exhibits isn't clearly explained--so Einstein's notes on his special theory of relativity are shown without any real explanation of why this was such an important scientific breakthrough. Nevertheless, this is an interesting exhibition which is well worth seeing.
Martin Empson


Planning for the future

Message to the Mayor
Museum of London

Message to the Mayor

'Message to the Mayor' is not so much an exhibition as a political manifesto. It has four essential demands which it makes to the candidates for mayor: Don't sterilise our city; No macho solutions; Save us from over-simplifications; and Let's keep London messy. Which, translated from museum speak, means the exhibition is actually an attack on the notion of largescale strategic planning for London, and the displays have been chosen to illustrate how unwise planning is.
There is, for instance, an art exhibit, 'The Westway Triptych 1987', which is clearly an attack on the Westway flyover. More interestingly there is a scale model of Bermondsey, part of the Abercrombie plan for the postwar construction of London in 1944.
This and other exhibits are contrasted with some text by Charles Lamb on London in the early part of the 19th century, which is a hymn to the coffee shops and the street life of old London, revelling in the higgledy piggledy state of things that is the laissez faire approach to urban life.
Now the concept of planning has been treated with suspicion when argued for by socialists, being associated with the hideous constructions of Stalin or corrupt town planners. Having lived within spitting distance of Rowan Point I'd say it's easy to buy into that idea. But for socialists planning is a key concept. In the 19th century the unplanned expansion of towns and cities during the rise of industrial capitalism had created intolerable conditions for the working class. The coffee shops of Charles Lamb have to be contrasted with the open sewers, unlit streets and poorly built slums which were the day to day experience of ordinary people.
Even middle class reformers felt that something had to be done if massive social and political conflict was to be avoided. Victoria Park in east London was created in an attempt to ease the tensions, many of which were becoming political, in one of the poorest parts of the city. From Robert Owen to William Morris the accepted wisdom was that no real improvement in people's lives could be made without large scale reorganisation of people's environment.
What the disasters of the 20th century have shown us is not whether we should have planning, but whose plans should we have. The plan of the London Docklands Development Corporation has been to serve the interests of big capital.
For socialists there is an alternative--socially democratic planning, in which plans are made accountable to ordinary people and where economic, social and cultural needs are met in pleasing human environments available to all.
Johnnie Clark


Theatre

The Gospel Truth

The Amen Corner
by James Baldwin
Tricycle Theatre, London, and Nottingham Playhouse, 16 February-4 March

This play is a passionate portrayal of a strong black woman's attempt to deal with racism and poverty in 1950s America. She struggles alone to bring up her son David according to the Bible, hoping to protect him from the society that wrecks the lives of so many around her.
The Amen Corner is set in a small storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem. The stage is split level, with the church upstairs and the living quarters below. The small, intimate setting emphasises the closeness and insular nature of the characters' world, bound in by racism and god's word. Sister Margaret is the pastor of this church. Sure in her faith, she holds her congregation together, rejecting 'the world' outside, the only salvation being the way of the lord. Her son David plays piano for the gospel songs and tambourines that rock and bring this small church in Harlem to life. The music, sung by a real gospel choir, is a constant theme. Joyful and infectious, it adds to the feeling of intimacy.
The return of Sister Margaret's deserting husband, Luke, a broken down jazz musician, ill and reeking of the outside world, blows this intimacy apart. For the first time David questions his mother's authority and Margaret, who has worked so hard to protect her son, sees him go into the world 'to say something that has not been said'. She expresses her fears to Luke--she has seen 'young men proud as horses' broken. Racism is ever present in the play.
At the end Margaret seems to have lost everything, but she has learnt that life, for all its dangers and sadness, is for living, and happiness and love can be found in the outside world too. I would recommend anyone to go see this play. Harlem comes alive in a small corner of north west London. Sister Margaret is completely believable as she struggles to deal with her collapsing world. This play touches on death, loneliness and racism. But these 'big' themes are played out in an intensely personal and moving way in Sister Margaret's life, that leaves you with a sense of hope and pride in a human being's ability to cope.
Kelly MacDermott


Curry in a hurry

Balti Kings
by Sudha Bhuchar and Shaheen Khan
Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, then touring nationally

The heat is on during a performance of Balti Kings

'Father and son are Muslim, but now money is new god' is the perceptive comment of one of the kitchen workers in this latest tragicomedy from Tamasha, the company responsible for the successful play turned film East is East.
Take a Pakistani baltihouse kitchen, put it on stage together with tandoor oven, sinks, gas hobs, and then take a look at a day in the life of all those who work there. Smell the onions being chopped, the kebabs being cooked, see the samosas being stuffed, and the naans being baked, while the staff prepare for a new promotion, a 'curry-oke' banquet with 35 dishes. Eat all you like for £5.95--it is an attempt by the owner's son to put his rivals down the road out of business. Bollywood stars are expected and the tension mounts as crowds of diners (unseen, as we never leave the kitchen) gather outside in expectation. Then things all start to go seriously wrong for the teenage sons of the restaurant boss.
But revealed in this comedy is the cutthroat world of small business. Family members exploit their relatives. The cook is given a free flat above the restaurant, but only so he can act as unpaid caretaker.
The two women in the kitchen both come with their personal tragedies. The samosa stuffer harbours resentment at how her dead husband was financially taken advantage of by the boss. The Bosnian refugee, who also works in the kitchen, shares her religion with her boss and the other kitchen workers, but finds this offers no protection to her. In the chef's hands lies the success of the whole evening together, but this does not spare him being threatened with the sack.
Here lie exposed contradictions between the ethics of family ties and of religion, and those of small capitalism. In my job as a GP I see many patients who work in their relatives' restaurants. This play lays bare the exploitation of their kitchen work, but also explains the glue of family relations that in part humanises this exploitation but is also put under increasing strain, almost to cracking point. It rings true. This is a lighthearted and entertaining evening with a serious insight into the realities of one group of workers' lives.
Kambiz Boomla


Present in a bottle

Dublin Carol
by Conor McPherson
Old Vic, London

There's an Irish saying about someone who is the life and soul of any pub or party but unbearable at home: 'he leaves his fiddle on the door'. John Plunkett (played by Brian Cox) is such a man, in many ways the archetypal Irish alcoholic father who has spent his time 'bullshitting for Ireland' in bars all over Dublin. We meet him on Xmas Eve in the undertakers where he works, a miserable office where the scrawny Xmas tree and desultory decorations only serve to accentuate the bleakness of the place.
The play is in three parts. The first part sees John with his young assistant Mark after a funeral. In the second Mary, his estranged daughter whom he hasn't seen for 10 years, arrives with news that her mother, John's wife, is dying of cancer. Mary (brilliantly played by Bronagh Gallagher who many will remember from the film The Commitments) is a tough 30 year old who loves her dad but is in no doubt how much damage his drinking caused her, her brother and mother.
This part could have been gruelling as John is forced to face his past, when he dragged his young daughter into a pub and collapsed drunk on her as she sat on the floor reading her school books, or when he went on a bender in a dead man's clothes, 'I'll never go this low? I'd managed to go even further', he says. But John, a sensitive and humane man, shows how he felt compelled to drink although he could see how he was hurting people. Mark returns for the final part. He has had a dreadful experience with his girlfriend and they drink together as John reminisces about the past which has been dredged up by Mary's visit.
This is a play that after only 90 minutes leaves you filled with the memories, regrets and banter of John's whole lifetime. The language isn't as obviously poetic as fellow Irish playwright Sebastian Barry, but in some of the best monologues, such as when John describes the three day cycle of an alcoholic drinking binge, it is enthralling. It is also, in parts, very funny.
One weakness is the set. It is distracting, though perhaps it is churlish to complain--the play was meant to open in the (still unfinished) refurbished Royal Court Theatre. Instead the audience is led up the sides of the darkened auditorium of the Old Vic and actually onto the stage where temporary seating is racked up facing backstage. There is also too much paraphernalia on stage.
The Xmas theme is perhaps too heavy handed. The owner of the undertakers who took John under his wing and saved him is named Noel. The Carol of the title is also the girlfriend who looked after John on his binge, 'a drink angel'. But the play is never sentimental. It ends on a silent but optimistic note with John alone on stage. After all the talking there is only the sound of a Xmas carol on the radio as he waits for his daughter to return.
Judith Orr


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