Issue 255 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Older and wiser?

Mike Gonzalez looks at how Shostakovich's last work recalls the revolutionary modernism of his youth
Shostakovich--the secret modernist
Shostakovich--the secret modernist

Like many people, I had always associated Dmitri Shostakovich with his Fifth Symphony, perhaps the most complete expression of socialist realism in music.Written in 1937, to the delight of Stalin, it was a confident epic. It evoked those shining tractors and inexplicably well fed peasants that filled the paintings and documentary films of the era. Of course there wasn't much about either that was realist, because in the 1930s millions of Russians were suffering scarcity and famine in the countryside, and the idealised workers they represented were a million miles away from the repressed working class that by then had been deprived of all its rights to independent organisation or control over the state--nothing socialist about that.

I knew that the great composer had offended the tyrant with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and that much of what he wrote through the rest of the 1930s seemed to be veiled apologies and assertions of political correctness (the Fifth Symphony among them). Shostakovich remained the composer most associated with Stalinist Russia. His Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad' as it's called, was central to the mythology of a heroic Soviet Union holding off the Nazi armies through bitterly cold winters, and summers without food. It was played, reputedly, by the 15 members of the Leningrad radio orchestra who still remained in the besieged city in 1941. Seven years later he was again being criticised by the Soviet bureaucracy, but he responded with two great patriotic works (in 1957 and 1961) that brought him back into favour.

Anyway, that was how I thought of Shostakovich until I went to see Theatre de Complicité's piece about him called The Music of Time. The second part of the piece is basically a performance of Shostakovich's last string quartet (the Fifteenth).

It was extraordinarily beautiful-- and it was also a revelation. This was not the official composer of Stalin's Russia. It was a meditation on death, written before Shostakovich's demise in 1975. It could be profoundly lyrical, the violins playing with half-remembered themes, quoting snatches from the Romantics of the 19th century (as he did quite frequently). Then something would interrupt this nostalgic journey, and a rich, deep and vaguely chilling note from the cello would sound like mortality. At other moments the whole thing would hesitate and each instrument would play a single rising note, suddenly cut off in mid-flight, leaving a silence before the viola or the second violin would pick it up and mimic it. Later there was dissonance, a clash of keys. Then the violin suddenly took off on a flight of imagination, until it was dragged back by the overpowering weight of the funeral march.

It was a different idea of what music should do. Where the official themes were certain and optimistic, and told a story in the sense that things moved majestically from a beginning to a climax and then a resolution, here there was no resolution, no narrative. It was a cloud of fragmented thoughts, it wheeled and circled on itself, and it seemed to have no certainties.

In its form and shape it recalled the young Shostakovich coming to music in the exhilarating atmosphere of a revolution where artists were experimenting all the time. The art that arose out of the Russian Revolution of 1917 challenged every boundary and every social frontier--art and engineering mixed and merged, music and the sound of urban living clashed and rattled, Eisenstein brought together images on film that were sometimes painfully incompatible--but something new emerged from the meeting. Theirs was a revolutionary modernism--an experiment in imagination to match the transformation of everyday life, production and the relations of power. But it was all too short lived. When the great poet Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930, his last note lamented the fact that 'the ship of poetry has crashed against the rocks of the state'. Some artists disappeared under the new rules of socialist realism. Others were imprisoned, tortured or silenced. Some, like Shostakovich's teacher Prokofiev, fled to the West and inspired the avant-garde of Berlin and Paris. But Shostakovich stayed.

He wrote what was required of him, and 'rectified his errors' (as he said in the dedication to the Fifth Symphony). Secretly he went on writing music in the modernist spirit (like many of the string quartets, or his piano preludes and fugues)--but much of that remained unperformed until after Stalin's death. Was he guilty of moral cowardice, of a willingness to dance to the tune the piper paid for? It's very hard to avoid that conclusion. The tragedy is that the revolutionary artist, the powerful, creative imagination, lay for so long buried under the fawning but much rewarded bureaucrat. Those great public pieces, written to order, proclaim their revolutionary credentials--and yet they're often trite and predictable, written to a formula. His private work--like the Fifteenth String Quartet, on the other hand--has genuinely profound things to say about that constant, restless, imaginative search for understanding and new possibilities that a truly revolutionary art must reflect and inspire.>>>ends


Theatre

TWO TYPES OF TRAGEDY

The Age of Consent
by Peter Morris
Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ay, Carmela!
by José Sanchis Sinisterra
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Dancing for their lives
Dancing for their lives

For Britain's tabloids it seems to be open season on men called Morris. No sooner had the gutter press whipped up a cynical hysteria against Chris Morris's outstanding Brass Eye satire of media attitudes to paedophilia on Channel 4 than they were waxing less than lyrical against The Age of Consent, Peter Morris's Edinburgh Fringe play about our society's damaging attitudes to children. The playwright had, they said, made a comedy about the James Bulger case. The dead child's wretched mother was, yet again, called upon to support the tabloids' agenda, and dutifully denounced a play of which she knew barely anything.

As with Brass Eye, however, the papers had deliberately, and disingenuously, missed the point. The Age of Consent is not a comic play about the murder of James Bulger, but rather an extremely considered and sympathetic piece about the hypocrisy at the heart of so much of our society's supposed reverence of childhood.

The play is a double-hander which alternates between two characters--one a desperate, increasingly dehumanised working class single mother who is shaping her daughter for fame and fortune, the other a teenage boy on the verge of release after ten years imprisonment for the murder of a child. Morris's script is a fine example of the power of the comic moment to hit the essence of an issue more poignantly than any news report. This, of course, doesn't make the play a 'comedy'. It might as well be referred to as a tragedy. In reality it is a piece of emotive drama which rings with authenticity.

The character of Stephanie, the mother and manager to the reluctant child star, is superbly observed. Her own sadness, her poisoned and distorted dreams, are the basis for her daughter's ensuing torture. She lives in a fantasy world of celebrities and stardom which is the stuff of daytime television, glossy magazines and the tabloids themselves. Stephanie's behaviour is never inexplicable--her degeneration into psychological abuse and neglect of her child is rooted in her own alienation and self loathing.

Timmy, the young man who is about to take his first terrified steps into a world of anonymity, probation officers and potential revenge killers, is at least as well drawn a character. Morris avoids a mere sociological explanation of the boy, instead creating a complex, confused prisoner of a past crime who is sometimes bitterly intelligent, other times suicidal. His monologues occasionally come a little too close to a playwright's polemic against the hypocrisy of the tabloids or the liberal pontificating of some of the broadsheets, but for the most part they are a remarkably sophisticated indictment of the mass concern/individual responsibility attitude our society has to crimes against children.

Wonderfully acted by Katherine Parkinson and Ben Silverstone, the play is a little overlong in some of its monologues. Nevertheless, Morris should be applauded for creating a drama which is strikingly relevant and well constructed. The Age of Consent should tour Britain's theatres for years to come.

From contemporary Britain to revolutionary Spain, as Gerry Mulgrew, brilliant director of the late lamented Scottish theatre company Communicado, brings us José Sanchis Sinisterra's civil war play Ay, Carmela! The beauty of this classic is that it finds a small window on the war through which we can view the whole conflict between fascism and democracy.

Cabaret artistes Paulino (played by Mulgrew himself) and Carmela (the outstanding Catalina Botello) accidentally stray from the Republican to the fascist zone. Subsequently forced to perform for Franco's troops and their captives, they are quite literally playing for their lives.

Full of bitter comedy, Chaplin-style political slapstick and almost unbearable tension in the face of fascist terror, the play is brought to life beautifully by Mulgrew. His Paulino is believably drunk, lecherous and self protecting. Botello's Carmela is deliciously truculent, unwilling and heroically defiant. Both feel disgust for the act demanded by their Italian fascist 'director', in which a lewd doctor denigrates the Spanish Republic by means of sexual innuendo, but their lives depend on going through with the performance.

The raw human emotions of the play bring home powerfully the huge ideological clashes of the Spanish Civil War. They also illuminate the universal questions, easily recognised by any Genoa protester, regarding the justification of fear and the basis of courage. A brilliant play, nicely produced.
Mark Brown
Future dates for The Age of Consent were being negotiated between the play's producers and theatres as we went to press. Ay, Carmela! is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 5-8 September.


FATHER'S DAY

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Lyttleton, National Theatre, London

After ten years of trying, All My Sons was Arthur Miller's last go at writing a hit play. Its success gave him 'a new freedom to create'. The classic plays Death of a Salesman, View From the Bridge, and the bitter parody of McCarthyism, The Crucible, followed.

All My Sons is set in the garden of Joe Keller, a wealthy manufacturer living in smalltown America a few years after the end of the Second World War. On a warm Sunday morning Joe, his son Chris, and passing neighbours gather and shoot the breeze. The Waltons or the start of Blue Velvet come to mind. Life seems to be ideal except for the shadow the Kellers' other son, Larry, casts over the household. Larry, a pilot for the air force, is missing in action and his mother, Kate, cannot accept that he is dead.

Chris wants the family to move on from Larry's death and 'stop waiting for a train that's never going to come'. He has been writing to Ann, Larry's former fiancee, and has invited her up from New York to ask her to marry him. Ann's family were forced to move away when her father was sent to prison for knowingly supplying the air force faulty engine parts. The result was the deaths of 24 pilots who flew the planes. Her father was the friend, neighbour and foreman of the Kellers. Joe was also tried for the crime but was found not guilty, and has recovered from the scandal to be richer and more successful than ever.

Chris trusts his father and knows he wouldn't have let faulty equipment out. Ann, estranged from her father due to the trial, loves and trusts Chris. Even Kate's objections to the marriage seem to be overcome. There are plans for a meal, dancing and getting drunk. The arrival of Ann's brother shatters the illusion of calm. The truth about Joe's guilt and Larry's death is exposed.

Money is mentioned throughout the play: 'Did they ship a gun or a truck outta Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It's dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace; it's nickels and dimes,' Joe argues in his own defence. Also Miller wanted to show that Joe Keller was not the only one at it: '...a lot of illicit fortunes were being made, a lot of junk was being sold to the armed services.' The drive for greater profits is starkly counterposed to myths of everyone irrespective of class getting together for the war effort.

The play was condemned by the right as Communist propaganda. Its presentation to US troops in Germany was banned by their commander. Standing up to the anti-Communist witch-hunt was a courageous and risky thing for Miller to do.

This is a great production of a great play. See it.
Pete Gee


Film

A RIGHT SONG AND DANCE

Moulin Rouge
Dir: Baz Luhrmann

The Bohemian revolutionaries
The Bohemian revolutionaries

The power of art versus the power of money and patronage is at the heart of Moulin Rouge. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a budding playwright in the Bohemian mecca of Montmartre at the close of the 19th century. He falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the showgirl who is the star at the nightly cabaret at the Moulin Rouge. In order to have their 'spectacular spectacular' produced they have to accept the financial backing of the leering Duke of Worcester. However, as part of the deal the duke demands both control over the content of the show and Satine as his wife. Christian writes a show that mirrors their story. The playwright becomes a musician and the duke is represented as a maharajah. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie are of the cast ruthlessly satirising the maharajah in rehearsals whilst the duke very slowly realises who they are really aiming their ridicule at.

Many people will be familiar with director Baz Luhrmann's work through his updated version of Romeo and Juliet made in the mid-1990s. In Moulin Rouge he employs much of the same technique, with fast camera action and faster editing. This, coupled with a garish set design and a bizarre juxtaposition of music, may not be to everyone's taste, but it is without doubt a stimulating assault on the senses.

Moulin Rouge has been billed as an attempt to revive the old Hollywood musicals. Indeed, this is a remake of a classic musical from the early 1950s of the same name. However, the musical form is used for a quite different effect here. The songs themselves are a hodgepodge of popular songs, from 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' to 'Like a Virgin'. They are performed for laughs with heavy irony, and later in the film are used to much darker effect. For example, 'The Show must Go On' is overlapped with a scene in which Satine is forced to sleep with the duke so that the show indeed can go on.

Throughout the film, issues of class and the illusion of artistic freedom are taken up quite strongly. For example, the Moulin Rouge itself is supposed to represent the coming together of the poor artists and performers of the ghetto, and the Parisian rich who come to watch the show. Yet from the opening sequence it is clearly a deeply uncomfortable coming together. The showgirls have to constantly fight off drunken leering men in their top hats and tails during the show, whilst having to offer themselves as 'courtesans' to these men for the night. Satine is rebelling against this by rejecting the duke in favour of Christian. The tension builds up throughout the film to an almost explosive climax. This film is not about class harmony.

At the start Christian and his friends, including the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (a hilarious performance by John Leguizamo), sing about the 'Bohemian Revolution' they are engaged in. In almost every respect superior to the aristocrats and businessmen who are their patrons, they think they can use art as a way to get back at them. This forms the overriding feeling of the first half of the film, and is supported by the over the top expressiveness of Luhrmann's direction. Interestingly, in the second half as the duke begins to assert his control over the show and over Satine through his superiority of money and power, the film adopts a much more naturalistic feel. The dream is over--back to reality.

Unfortunately, in spite of taking these themes quite far, it ultimately fails to resolve them. Instead we are left with the duke receding from being a truly threatening character to merely a buffoon. Instead of pointing to any kind of solution to the contradictions that are raised we are left with 'true love', not even artistic integrity, as the answer. Nonetheless the film is a treat for the eyes and ears, and provides a truly fun night out.
Simon Behrman


WHO EDUCATES THE EDUCATORS?

Aguirre, Wrath of God
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Dir: Werner Herzog

A festival of Werner Herzog's films at London's National Film Theatre gives us two very different productions, both filmed in the early 1970s, which hint at more than the plain story put before the audience. Aguirre, Wrath of God sets out to deglamorise the image of the Spanish Conquistadors who conquered Peru. Forty of them are despatched to find the lost city of El Dorado after the main expedition gets lost in the jungle.

They set off on rafts down the river and the film grimly follows what becomes the expedition's desperate progress, as reality loses out to hallucination, and the mental and physical destruction of the expedition members. The second in command, Aguirre, splendidly played by Klaus Kinski, takes command of the disintegrating force and ends up, his wits scattered to the four winds, on a raft crawling with monkeys while his human companions lie dead around him. The film is powerful and the camera shots of raw nature are brilliant.

The second film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, covers the well known true story of a boy who appeared on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, having apparently spent the entire 17 years of his life shackled in a dark cellar and fed on bread, water and meat by an unknown jailer, unable to walk or speak. It follows his 'education' by those who adopt him. Throughout the film, the audience is made to see the world with Kaspar's simple vision, which sometimes turns out to be oddly wiser than his 'educators'.

Kaspar is inexplicably murdered some years later, and a postmortem finds certain deformities. This proves a great relief to those around him in that the oddness was in him, not in them. Guilt is indeed what the film is about--the guilt of each in relation to all the world's Kaspars. The film, as all Herzog's films, is thought provoking long after viewing it.
Chanie Rosenberg


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