Issue 252 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Scenes from the soaps, but how close is it to reality?|
The kick-off in the Uefa Cup match between Liverpool and Barcelona in April was delayed by 15 minutes. This normally happens only during an election, after a major catastrophe, or when the Queen Mother has a cold. But not this time! On this occasion all normal activities were suspended while the nation held its breath, waiting for a revelation that would touch the lives of millions of television viewers. Tonight we would discover--who had shot Phil Mitchell!
Phil, you see, is the villain of EastEnders. Once an alcoholic small time crook and a dutiful if oppressed son, Phil has learned some important lessons in recent times. He has multiplied his businesses, learned to beat and humiliate his wife (well, his partner, Lisa), and taken an apprentice, young Jamie, who is learning the business. In a word, Phil is turning slowly but surely into the Godfather. His eyes are firmly set on the space left by the last Brother Kray, recently buried at a great East End gangsterfest.
Even the troubled Mark Fowler has taken his voice down a register or two and learned to growl like Al Pacino when it matters. Dark tragedy has come to Walford. There is revenge, betrayal, murder and a menacing confrontation between Good (Dot Cotton of the Sorrows) and Evil (Phil, Dan and the enigmatic Steve Owen, whose edgy smiles suggest there is violence to come).
By now it will be obvious that I watch at least one television soap, along with 15 million others, three (soon to be four) nights a week. What are we all looking for? Some might argue that it's a form of escape, a kind of utopian refuge from the troubles of everyday life. But why would anyone choose to seek refuge from the stresses of daily living in a drab East End square populated almost entirely by failed small businesspeople, market traders and
frustrated launderette employees? Or a fading street with a factory at one end and the only pub in the north of England not yet bought up by JD Wetherspoons at the other?
The escape theory doesn't work for Albert Square, so what does? When Phil had completed his revenge against all those who might have wished they had pulled the trigger, he turned to his nephew and apprentice Jamie, held his chin in his hand, and said, 'Remember, you're a Mitchell.' That was the sign of what's to come. This is a world of family, of blood ties and unquestioned loyalties--treachery comes only from the outside. Betrayal is the currency of people moved only by greed or power. It's no accident that EastEnders unfolds in a square. It is a miniature urban community with its cafe and pub and shops and homes. The truth is that if such a place still existed the original inhabitants would have been replaced by upwardly mobile yuppies, and the pub would sell dozens of varieties of real ale and serve seared tuna in the evenings. But those changes haven't happened here. This is a 'community' like they used to be--a public space where we can all meet without exposing ourselves to the north east wind or the perceived dangers that lurk around every street corner.
In this small space all the great moral dilemmas are played out--passion, love, hate, envy, greed, sloth are all there. You can name your own seven deadly characters. But in Walford justice will prevail in the end. Those rough but deeply felt virtues will endure (even in the petty thieving, squabbling Slater house) beyond accident or conflict. The simpleton Barry will find love and old Dot will smoke her way straight into paradise.
In the end it doesn't really matter who shot Phil--only that someone acted as the instrument of fate and gave us all a lesson in the wages of sin. And there is some kind of reassurance in a reality that is immediately revealed to be a fiction, a construct. As soon as the programme ends the stars are in the website chatroom ready to answer questions on how it feels to pretend to be someone else. Mel and the others fill the pages of Hello! magazine and the tabloids--which offer a kind of collective revenge on the tricksters. They raise them up--then they knock them down!
Maybe it's comforting to know that all this (attempted) murder and mayhem ends with the music, because elsewhere it's all too real, and most television drama today aspires to reproduce the frightening, tense and violent reality of a world reported daily on the Ten O'Clock News. 'Real life drama' is cleverly designed to keep the spectator in a state of tension. Pehaps what EastEnders offers is that most old fashioned of cultural comforts--the absolute certainty that this is fiction, the dramas complex but contrived, the people only players.
I don't know how the Uefa cup match ended. Football never seems quite dramatic enough to bother with!
Bread and Roses
Dir: Ken Loach
|Out of the offices and into the streets|
Ken Loach's marvellous new film, Bread and Roses, is based upon the Justice for Janitors campaign in the US which is attempting to organise low paid immigrant workers.
The film starts with a number of Mexican immigrants being smuggled across the border with two 'coyotes' as guides. They are part of the lucrative trade in human traffic, and money is exchanged as the immigrants are introduced to their new 'owner'. The immigrants form part of the cheap labour in the city of LA, and in exchange for money they are guaranteed cleaning work.
Maya (superbly played by Pilar Padilla) is one of the immigrants, and she comes to LA to join her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo). Through them we are introduced to the world of the 'invisible' community--the mainly Latin American immigrants who do the worst jobs and get the worst wages. They are subjected to long hours, they have poor pay, and they are under a foreman who derives pleasure in humiliating them, well aware there is a constant threat of unemployment or deportation.
Yet all this changes when Maya meets Justice for Janitors organiser Sam (Adrien Brody). He's a full time union organiser, but is not high up in the bureaucracy and clearly derives his energy from the belief in the campaign and successful attempts to force concessions from the bosses. Sam visits Maya, and passionately explains why it is necessary to be organised and fight back. Only then, he says, will the wages be better and the healthcare forthcoming.
True to the style of Loach, the power and conviction of the cause is established by the passion of the acting. In preparing for this film Brody says he went to a lot of meetings and marches, and he spent time with union activists in the US. This clearly comes across. But what also makes it so convincing is the fact that this is based on a true, successful method of organising which has made real gains for workers in the US. So it is we see how the cleaners invade a corporate wine and cheese party and declare them the winners of the worst paying boss in town. Activists also decide to interrupt a bosses' lunch and humiliate them in public. This is combined with a series of marches and demonstrations that culminate in an occupation of one of the major offices downtown.
In Bread and Roses Loach captures the contradictions that are present in any dispute: that between the union organiser who identifies with the low paid workers and the full time union officials; the possibility that some of the cleaners are bought off by the foreman with the promise of promotion and better wages; the pressures of the family and the fear of insecurity if the strike goes down; and the power that workers feel when they take action.
There is much in this film that is as inspiring as Loach's Land and Freedom. But whereas that was set in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s, this brings the struggle to present day America. Today there is clearly a new mood of militancy present among US workers. It is a tribute to his skills as a director, and the power and conviction of the actors, that the film is able to capture this. Hopefully this film will give confidence to those who often have to fight in the most difficult of circumstances that when you organise you can win.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Dir: John Madden
|Laid out in Cephallonia, Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli's Mandolin|
In September 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, Italy tried to withdraw from the Second World War. On Hitler's orders German troops seized the areas hitherto controlled by their Italian former allies. Generally the Italians acquiesced, but on the Greek island of Cephallonia they fought back. Once they had overcome this resistance, the new German occupiers massacred between 8,000 and 10,000 Italian soldiers.
On this atrocity Louis de Bernières built his bestselling novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Middlebrow readers in their hundreds of thousands swooned over this very unevenly written love story of an Italian army officer, Antonio Corelli, and Pelagia, the daughter of a Greek doctor. But they also swallowed whole the deeply reactionary account of Greek political history offered by Bernières, a former Sandhurst cadet. He portrayed the main resistance movement, the Communist-led Elas, as a bunch of 'unspeakably barbaric' thugs who spent the war 'doing absolutely nothing' against the Germans, and who left the Italians to fight and die alone.
Naturally enough, these claims caused outrage on Cephallonia itself. The island is covered in memorials to Elas fighters who died fighting the Germans, including 15 who came to the Italians' aid in September 1943. In an excellent piece published in the Guardian Weekend magazine last July, Seumas Milne systematically shredded Bernières's historical distortions. Moreover, he discovered an Italian officer called Amos Pampaloni, whose experience on Cephallonia closely paralleled Corelli's fictional adventures--except that he was rescued by Elas guerrillas and spent a year with them fighting the Germans. Pampaloni described Bernières's portrayal of the partisans as barbarians as 'pandering to racism'.
Faced with furious criticism in Greece, the makers of the film version of Captain Corelli's Mandolin were forced to backtrack in order to get permission to film on Cephallonia itself. Director John Madden and scriptwriter Shawn Slovo (daughter of South African Communists Ruth First and Joe Slovo) have produced a radically different take on Greek history from the novel's. Much of the complex background is cut out. Corelli (Nicholas Cage) now works closely with the partisans in the lead-up to the battle with the Germans, and is rescued by them after surviving the massacre. Mandras (Christian Bale), Pelagia's fiance, is transformed from a brutal Communist rapist in the book into an improbably sensitive figure, almost a 'new man'.
The resulting film makes pleasant enough viewing, particularly since the photography captures Cephallonia's luscious beauty. If anything it is too pleasant--the massacre scene seems to have been shot on the cheap, and conveys very little of how horrible it must really have been. A generally good cast--John Hurt is predictably excellent as Pelagia's father, Dr Iannis--is rather let down by the two main stars. Penelope Cruz makes an insipid Pelagia, and Nicholas Cage, usually an attractive and dynamic actor, is badly miscast as the dreamy, musical Corelli.
Sometimes the paring down of the story is excessive. Thus we are not told that Carlo (Piero Maggio) is in love with Corelli. As a result his decision to sacrifice himself for Corelli is incomprehensible. But the biggest change the film-makers have introduced is entirely justified. They have replaced Bernières's ridiculously contrived ending, which kept Corelli and Pelagia apart for almost 50 years after the war, with something much less improbable. No doubt lovers of the novel will bemoan this and other changes as typical Hollywood vulgarisations that suppress the irony and complexity of the original novel. But for once Hollywood has got it right. Captain Corelli the movie tells a much more plausible and historically accurate story than did the mediocre and misleading novel on which it is based.
Dir: Santosh Sivan
Terrorism is a much reviled word. Popular opinion dictates that terrorism is an act of barbaric proportions, a mindless act of wanton violence perpetrated by a coward on innocent people. It can never be justified, let alone understood. So people fighting for land and justice are portrayed as mindless, vicious thugs. Their violence needs to be opposed, and if in the process the state uses force it is justified on the grounds that it is protecting people. This new film by Indian director Santosh Sivan is welcome for ripping through these lies.
Malli is a young woman who has been assigned the task of assassinating a top Indian politician. She is to be a suicide bomber in the cause of national liberation. The film is set in southern India, where the Indian state is waging a bloody, relentless war on a guerrilla movement fighting for freedom and justice. The film has obvious parallels with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, as well as the brutal war in Sri Lanka waged by the state against the Tamil Tigers. Malli, though only 19, is completely dedicated to the cause. She is totally single-minded with an iron will determination to free her people. It is for this reason that she is chosen as the suicide bomber. She feels privileged to be asked to make this supreme sacrifice, for it requires tremendous heroism and strength. She is highly respected by fellow fighters who draw inspiration from her commitment.
As Malli makes the journey to the assassination point to prepare for the assignment she undergoes some changes and experiences some self doubt. Suddenly glimpses of life outside her village and training camp confront her. Lotus, the boy guide who takes her across country to the riverboat, sees in Malli the sister he lost in war.
The film has flashbacks to when Malli rescues a comrade who was shot. As they hide in the jungle both characters share a sense of loss at the things they never experienced--love, tenderness, desire--all the sentiments war has denied them. However, Malli has to fight against such feelings. By exploring the psychological trauma Malli finds herself in we begin to understand the predicament of the lonely suicide bomber. This isolated existence means Malli has no one to turn to for comfort, seek advice from, or debate whether she is doing the right thing. In spite of the heroism the film does depict quite forcefully the sheer desperation violence and oppression inflict upon people, and explains why some individuals turn to terrorist tactics. It also demonstrates the horror of state violence. We see government troops mercilessly kill Lotus as he waves goodbye to Malli at the riverboat. The idea that there is some parity between the forces of the state, with its wholesale monopoly on the means of violence, and oppressed peoples fighting back in any way they can is ridiculous beyond belief. It is a pity the film does not fully explore this theme, as this is the serious issue at stake.
Dir: Peter Howitt
|Where fantasy land becomes reality|
Antitrust is a slick, action-packed techno thriller that centres on the fiercely competitive software industry and the search to control the world's electronic media. Ryan Phillippe plays Milo, a hotshot computer programmer recruited out of his garage outfit by billionaire Gary Winston, played by Tim Robbins. Winston's character is so obviously based on the head of Microsoft, Bill Gates, who is depicted as a somewhat old charismatic visionary turned into a ruthless power-seeking villian. Milo's friend Teddy believes that he has sold out not only on friendship but also on a vision that software should be free.
Now working for Nurv (Never Underestimate Radical Vision), Winston's company, Milo is responsible for developing a key element in the code that will deliver Synapse, which allows Nurv to rule the electronic world globally.
The designs of the sets, particularly the corporate offices, are saturated with lifestyle gadgets and flashy digital art that changes its form according to who is in the room. Milo is hooked by the material gains but realises that the company is using illegal and deadly means to obtain new software, and begins to challenge the basis of Winston's power.
At this point the film's twists and turns sometimes seem obvious and clumsy, but this is saved by the fast paced script. Robbins's performance as Winston is the best in the film and played with geeky fun, but also shows sheer capitalist greed in the race to capture more of the software market.
The intense race is on for computer companies to develop digital convergence technology, which is what the Synapse project is about.This will allow all electronic communication to be united in one powerful feed that will connect the television, internet, radio and telephone together throughout the world. What was once the dream of fantasy land is very close to becoming a reality. The film also makes some very current points on the way that the mega-mergers will link media companies, with references to the Time Warner/AOL proposals and Disney's ownership of ABC.
At the same time the corporations fight not only with each other, but also with the young garage hackers who want to produce free information and software.
As Milo says towards the end of the film, human knowledge belongs to the world. The film poses this in terms of corporate power versus open source software. Antitrust raises important questions about who should own technology and how it is controlled, and exposes in an entertaining way the very real dangers of corporate power invading our lives.
Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez
Alejandro Gonzalez's directorial debut, Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), is a complex and rewarding film. Set in contemporary Mexico City, the narrative revolves around three separate yet intertwined stories--those of Octavio, Valeria and Daniel, and El Chivo. Octavio, a working class teenager, lives in his mother's cramped apartment with his violent older brother, baby nephew, and sister in law Susana, who he is in love with. Valeria, a model, has just won a contract to advertise perfume across Latin America. She has moved into a new flat with her lover, Daniel. They seem to have everything going for them. El Chivo, although a well paid assassin, lives the life of a hobo. A one-time Communist guerrilla, he is a broken man who has given up any hope of changing the world.
Several key features connect these disparate characters. Firstly, dogs play an important part in each of their lives. Secondly, the city in which the protagonists live is a prominent feature of the film. Although the characters sometimes pass each other in the street, Amores Perros shows Mexico City to be a city of contradictions. On the one hand we see great wealth and opportunity, while on the other we see poverty, hardship and limited horizons. The everyday experiences of the characters show in clear terms the social gap.
Thirdly, the question of love and loss runs throughout the film. Octavio's search for love with Susana is a source of constant frustration. Valeria and Daniel's love for each other on the surface appears solid, but as the film unfolds they have to face up to a number of uncertainties. For El Chivo, after leaving his wife and newborn child to join a revolutionary guerrilla organisation, fights to suppress his love for anyone but his dogs. The three stories are momentarily brought together by a horrific car crash that has a dramatic effect on all their lives.
After a string of victories Octavio enters his dog into one fight too many, which triggers off a whole series of disastrous events culminating in the car crash. The money and influence dog fighting brought him ultimately cannot give him what he wants.
After the crash Valeria and Daniel's lives are thrown into disarray. What should have been the beginning of a new life together is suddenly brought to a shuddering halt. The apparent certainties around which they had based their love melt into air, as each begins to question the basis of their affair.
El Chivo is also affected by the consequences of the crash. He turns away from killing and searches out the daughter he has not seen for over two decades. Although he can't bring himself to face her, El Chivo promises to go and find the courage which will one day allow him to face up to his past. The story of El Chivo is one of personal redemption.
Amores Perros is a film that examines how people live within contemporary society. Although the film only touches upon the notion of class as a way of understanding and changing the world around us, it never fails to look at people and their relationships in a humane and committed way.
by John Barton
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, transfers to the Barbican, London, during May
|Visually spectacular theatre|
A ten-hour theatre work that was 17 years in the writing, Tantalus was announced to gasps of both excitement and foreboding. Excitement that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts were producing one of the most immense works in the history of the modern theatre. Foreboding that the whole thing might turn out to be a dreadfully dull exercise of only academic interest.
The concerns about the piece's contemporary relevance were entirely misplaced. John Barton has taken the myths of the great Greek writers and dramatists, from Homer to Aeschylus, and sought in them precisely those elements that apply to the modern world.
Compared to the Holocaust or the genocide in Iraq, the Trojan War is a grain of sand on the scales of history. Yet the sheer scope of the Greek myths, and their insights into the vagaries of human power and powerlessness, make them tremendously applicable to our times. Sadly, Barton dissociated himself from the project after co-director Peter Hall adapted the ten-part drama into the current nine plays. However, if there has been some reckless disservice done to the text it is difficult to see.
The work begins with a storyteller accosting a group of contemporary sunbathers on a Mediterranean beach. As he regales the young women with stories of the Greek gods and the human beings who are their playthings, the members of the modern chorus are drawn into the tales until they become active participants in them. They, and we, are transported to the citadel of Mycenae, where Agamemnon is planning his siege of Troy. From there this sprawling, yet always coherent epic takes us through the horrors of the Trojan War to the bitter fruits of victory and, finally, the desperate search for 'justice' of a people confused and embittered by ten years of war.
Throughout this story Barton's script has the most impressive echoes of contemporary society. Agamemnon describes the forthcoming invasion of Troy, to bring back the supposedly abducted Helen, as a 'rescue operation' rather than a war. This is resonant of such Orwellian euphemisms as 'friendly fire' and 'collateral damage'. When the aristocratic Hermione complains, 'If everyone knew everything that went on in royal palaces, our lives would be impossible', it is as if Oscar Wilde had returned to castigate the modern House of Windsor.
The staging itself is equally pertinent. The western forces' shock troops are a genuinely terrifying cross between Seattle-style robocops and Roman gladiators. Their atrocities dredge up recent assaults on civilian populations from the Balkans to Lebanon. The women of Troy, branded and humiliated, reflect a modern world in which the abuse of women remains a prominent aspect of war. These elements only work, of course, if the acting, sets and costumes are equal to the writing and directing. Remarkably, there is no truly weak link in the production.
Greg Hicks, who plays both opposing kings, Agamemnon and Priam, is outstanding. His self regarding manner mixes superbly with his constant dry wit to bring out the regal folly of his characters. Alyssa Bresnahan's Cassandra, whose warnings about the purpose of the westerners' wooden horse go unheeded in Troy, is poignantly reminiscent of those whose protests about ecological disaster or the human cost of depleted uranium weapons have been dismissed by our rulers.
Theatre on this scale cannot rely merely on language and its expression. It needs to be visually spectacular. Designer Dionysis Fotopoulos's extraordinary sets, costumes and masks measure up to that requirement wonderfully. Whether it is the ageing Priam, played on stilts to give a sense of both his power and his vulnerability, or the destroyed Trojan temple with its huge broken godhead strewn across the floor, the drama's visuals are consistently breathtaking.
Tantalus takes from the Greeks the element of human agency, the underlying knowledge that we are not simply pawns in a 'god game', and makes a powerfully relevant piece of modern drama. The contemporary chorus become engaged in, and changed by, their pursuit of the truth amidst the myths of human history. And they take the audience with them.
by Bertolt Brecht
BAC, London, then touring to Bolton and Bristol
The Mother is a story that tells of the conflict between a mother's personal love and worry for her son, and the greater issues in the society around her. It shows us that ultimately the problems of individuals can only be changed by a change in the outside world.
The story is set in Russia. It is about political change in one woman in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution. At the beginning of the play we meet Pelagea Vlassova--she is a worker's mother who is downtrodden and constantly worrying about how she can give her son a good meal. She is ground down with poverty and has to struggle for survival. It is this struggle and the love for her son which brings her reluctantly into conflict with the authorities, and ultimately into revolutionary struggle.
She is transformed from a weak and rather pathetic figure into a witty and courageous class fighter. She joins the Bolsheviks, who at the beginning teach her about class struggle, but by the end she has taught them and the audience a lot about sheer determination and how to convey your ideas through actions.
The play is performed with simple props and background because this was the style in which Brecht thought it should be done. He was a revolutionary, and believed that the audience should always be aware that they are in a theatre because this makes them think more of how the ideas affect their own lives and not just the characters on the stage. However, there are some wonderful props, like the two old printing presses that show how the Bolsheviks produced leaflets and the amount of work that went into spreading ideas.
Even though this play is set almost 100 years ago it has many parallels with today. In issues over pay, safety, the NHS and education, people are being drawn into politics because they are sick and tired of being constantly attacked by the Blair government and big business. At the end of the play a group of school students stood up and applauded. This is because they can relate to the issues raised. The fact that this play was performed and was so powerful shows that socialist ideas are back in fashion and people are beginning to see them as the only way forward, just us Pelagea did in the play.
by Sarah Kane
Royal Court, London
|Power struggle in a Leeds hotel|
We lost an important dramatist when Sarah Kane died two years ago. Blasted is being performed at the Royal Court as part of a Kane retrospective that also includes Crave and 4:48 Psychosis. The play runs for nearly two hours without an interval, and there wasn't a moment when my attention wandered.
Neil Dudgeon plays Ian, a dying middle aged hack, who invites the naive young Cate (Kelly Reilly) to a hotel in Leeds. She has accepted out of love but he abuses her kindness, ridiculing and finally raping her. The first part of the play is naturalistic, although full of awkward silences and dialogue that doesn't quite fit the conventions.
In the second part the entrance of a soldier heralds a shattering change. From this point on the horror of a war understood neither by Ian and Cate, nor by the soldier, takes over. The soldier recounts tales of atrocities he has witnessed or participated in. Armed with a machine-gun, he has power over Ian (whose handgun consolidated his hold over Cate), raping him and sucking his eyes out before committing suicide.
When Blasted opened in 1995, the press went wild, calling it 'vile', 'puerile', 'disgusting', and 'like having your head thrust in a bucket of offal'. The extreme violence depicted or described in the play was seen as a childish attempt to shock.
The critics called Sarah Kane depraved for depicting gruesome scenes, conveniently forgetting the long tradition of extreme violence in the theatre. Macbeth features child murder, Lear has eye gouging.
Nor did Kane invent the horrors that filled her plays. She was deeply affected by the wars that continued to take place, especially the war in former Yugoslavia which brought the horrors home to Europe. With the character of the soldier in Blasted, she achieved a compassionate picture of a brutal and brutalised torturer, showing him as both aggressor and victim. Her plays have complexity and depth, and her language is full of a terse, poetic beauty.
Maybe her greatest crime in the eyes of the press was to make the connection between war crimes and the everyday violence that happens in 'peacetime'. By doing so she implicitly attacked the complacent belief that evil deeds are committed by evil people in faraway countries. And in answer to the idea that 'ethnic cleansing' and war are 'un-British', she shows these things happening here and asks us what we would do about it.
Her work stands as part of the reinvention and resurgence of British political theatre, sometimes using different forms to the ones Kane used but still asking similar questions. I'm sure that the woman who became a writer because she didn't see any contemporary plays worth performing, and who despaired of Tarantino-style, glossy, postmodern violence, would have welcomed it.
by David Hare
Touring nationally throughout May and June
The Thatcher years are not popular with the arts establishment. The 1980s are characterised in the arts by attacks on the 'elitism' of institutions like the National Theatre and the promotion of 'new media'--the 'cultural' wing of the new parasites in the City.
Hare's play is about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and the problems of reconciliation, and is set against the 16 years from Thatcher's election in 1979. He traces the changes in British society through the eyes of Esme Allen, a middle aged theatre actress. The tension between the old and the new is expressed through her arguments with her daughter's husband, a new media advocate and a symbol for all that is destroying her world. At one point, the young Thatcherite gives the game away by declaring his hatred for art, stressing the popular nature of new media, television especially.
The first half of the play keeps this tension to the fore, and is the better for it. The argument put by Allen is that the theatre and a whole English way of life are disappearing--the city is colonising the country and culture. Clearly our sympathies are with her character. Allen's daughter, Amy, is the connection between the two, and her strained relationship with her mother, which is very poignantly played, conceals her philosophy (Amy's view) that all problems can be resolved if people make an effort to embrace the views of others. This 'love conquers all' theme dominates the second half of the play and tips it into mawkishness, which is only relieved by the news that the Lloyd's names are bankrupt, exposing the speculative nature of boomtime Thatcherism.
Hare stated in an interview that he wanted Amy's View to be a play about women that real women would recognise--something he partially achieves. As a political critique of the impact of the Thatcher years in the arts, however, it is interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory. Is Amy's philosophy applicable in general? The overall tone of the play is one of political pessimism and personal concession. Ultimately the City commodifies art, and there is no alternative but personal dignity in defeat.
That said, the performances are excellent, especially Susannah York as Esme Allen, and the changing cultural and physical landscapes of the 1980s are well illustrated. Perhaps it is a feature of the speed of change today that makes the choices provided in this play, only five years old, look dated.
by Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera at the Coliseum, London
In this, Verdi's centenary year, the English National Opera is staging some of his best-loved operas. Among them is a new production of Il Trovatore. In his early period from 1838 to the 1840s, Verdi's operas were openly political, directly expressing the Italian struggle for national independence. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, his operas became less overtly political. Yet the three great operas of his early middle period--Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both 1853)--either retained broad political settings or took up important social questions.
The historical setting of Il Trovatore is the civil war in the 15th century Spanish kingdom of Aragon. The four main characters are embroiled in a tragic network of love, hatred, jealousy and revenge. The Count of Luna is in love with Leonora, lady in waiting to the Princess of Aragon. But she loves Manrico, leader of the rebel forces of Urgel, whom Luna is trying to crush. Azucena, a Gypsy who is ostensibly Manrico's mother, tells him how 20 years earlier her own mother was falsely accused of witchcraft by the count's father and burnt to death, after which she kidnapped the count's baby brother. Azucena is captured by Luna, who accuses her of having murdered his brother. He sentences her to death, thus fulfilling the dual purpose of avenging his brother and inflicting revenge on his rival. Manrico attempts to rescue his mother but is also captured. Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico, but then swallows poison. Realising that he has been deceived, Luna orders Manrico's death. Azucena witnesses this and calls out to Luna, 'Manrico was your brother. You are avenged, mother.'
Verdi appears to be drawing a parallel between 15th century Spain and Italy prior to national unification. Both societies displayed problems created by the slow decay of feudalism and the late development of a modern centralised society. Italy remained fragmented into a patchwork of small kingdoms and duchies. Under such conditions there is oppression by arbitrary feudal powers, including the church. Disputes are resolved through blood feuds rather than legal means and society is in a permanent state of chaos. A sub-theme is the scapegoating of Gypsies.
ENO's production is musically very convincing. There are some fine singing performances from Sandra Ford (Leonora), Julian Gavin (Manrico) and Sally Burgess (Azucena). They, together with the chorus and orchestra under Paul Daniel, bring out the rich vein of melody and drama that distinguishes one of Verdi's most beautiful operas. The staging, however, is not quite as successful. The joint direction by Paul Daniel and ENO's general director Nicholas Payne at times lacked firmness. Conor Murphy's abstract set left a bit too much to the imagination.