Issue 263 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Christiania incorporated

Has the dream of the hippy commune now turned into a nightmare? Mike Gonzalez investigates

Up in smoke
Up in smoke

Twenty five years ago groups of hippies and squatters took over a military barracks in the centre of Copenhagen and announced the creation of a 'free territory at the heart of the city'. It was called Christiania. Walking through it today, the marks of the Christiania commune are still there--the makeshift huts surrounded by plants neatly set inside tin cans, the military blocks occupied by squatters and, in one case at least, turned into a halfway house for the homeless. There are notices everywhere reminding the visitor that no hard drugs, weapons or bikers' uniforms are allowed; lean-tos house workshops for carpenters and candle makers, weavers and painters. There's a small lake with houses scattered around the banks, most made of wood and leaning dangerously to one side--the unmistakable mark of the amateur builder. And then there's Pushers' Street, where hash and grass are set out on open stalls for sale. In the cafe people are reading Sunday papers over coffee with very large joints in their hands. On the walls, peeling notices announce district and general meetings for the 1,000 or so permanent inhabitants of the commune.

Yet not everything is what it seems. For a decade and a half Christiania defended itself against repeated police assaults and attempted evictions. Jan, the Danish comrade who is showing me round, remembers a demonstration of 4,000 students, workers and young supporters answering the call to defend the commune. Even the social democratic unions defended its right to exist. In any event, the commune survived. Today, while its occupants pay no taxes, they pay for electricity and gas. And while the drug squad hovers constantly, Christiania has become a curiosity. The website advertises guided tours, and an expensive restaurant occupies one large building near the entrance. The commune is now a magnet for tourists--half a million stroll round it every year.

Around the lake newer houses gleam with new materials and elegant woods. It seems there is a new population--of lawyers and politicians who like having a radical address. And there's another building, newly built, that seems strangely out of place. I found out later that it was put there without the agreement of the commune committee. It's a concrete and brick three-storey block--the gate has a security lock and a number pad. The man I saw coming out and pulling the gate closed behind him had a shaven head and shiny new (and pretty big) boots. There wasn't much communal spirit in his aggressive demeanour; he was much more likely to belong to a very different group that has lately taken to Christiania--hard drug pushers who have muscled in, just as they have in Amsterdam, to put their profiteering stamp on the gentler communards.

At its best Christiania was a dream--Haight Ashbury, Woodstock, the rural idyll rolled into one. Of course it began with a confrontation with the state and periodically returned to the stand-off (it's less than a kilometre away from the parliament building), all of which it survived. The odd thing was the residents'conviction that this island of collective living could survive in the heart of a successful capitalist economy. Why did they imagine they would be allowed to get away with it ?

Maybe they felt, in the beginning, that capitalism would accept an island of socialism at its very heart. It's an idea that has seduced idealists for decades--centuries even. In fact, even a tolerant European social democracy like Denmark sent armed police into Christiania. That didn't get rid of the squatters, so they moved to the other option and incorporated them, turned them into a circus sideshow and found ways to profit from them. Inside the fence, people spoke of solidarity and consensus, of love and gentleness. Outside the walls, racists are winning more votes and global capital imposes its labour laws and its conditions of survival. Inside Christiania they're carving wood and sowing hemp and recycling their paper.

The socialist tradition looks forward to a society where love replaces conflict, where a collective ethic prevails over aggressive individualism. But that happens when a revolutionary class has transformed itself in the course of seizing power and changing the world. It's what Marx called the 'coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstance'. Some comrades over the years have substituted changing the self for changing the world--the old argument about personal politics.

What Christiania taught me was not that the critique of capitalism--of its competitiveness, exploitation, individualism, fabrication of false needs and violent desires--was wrong. The criticisms were right. But the final irony was that Christiania, like so many of the communes and alternative life experiments of its time, simply turned its back on the world--as if the dream could transform reality by sheer moral weight. But the world, and capitalism, just went on growing--and took Christiania back just as soon as it found a way of marketing it. The point, as the old man said, is not just to interpret the world--but to change it.


Theatre

GRIM FAIRY TALES

Shockheaded Peter
by Heinrich Hoffman
Albany Theatre, London


A weird and wonderful collection of misfits in Shockheaded Peter
A weird and wonderful collection of misfits in Shockheaded Peter

Shockheaded Peter is billed as junk opera. It's a musical with songs like you've never heard, and it looks like a cross between a sinister Victorian play written by Roald Dahl, and a film directed by Tim Burton and starring the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It's dark and sinister but it's also extremely funny. The show is based on a collection of German children's stories called Struwwelpeter, written in 1844 by Dr Heinrich Hoffman. Dr Hoffman wrote the stories for his own child after he had tried to buy a book for him and found that the only books available for children were turgid morality stories--'long tales, stupid stories, beginning and ending with abominations like "the good child must be truthful" or "children must keep clean", etc'. He wrote the Struwwelpeter stories as a parody of these.

The main story of the show is the story of Shockheaded Peter himself. He is born to the perfect couple, living in the perfect house, and they want the perfect baby to complete their family. What they actually get is Shockheaded Peter, a bizarre looking child who doesn't fit their ideal at all. They are ashamed of him and hide him under the floorboards so as to forget about him. Unfortunately for them, skeletons in cupboards and under floorboards always come back to haunt you. They are driven to drink and madness by their guilt and only find happiness at the end of the show. They are reunited with Peter and welcome him as their child when they have become such social misfits that no one else will accept them. They are finally transformed into the opposite of the perfect family they had once aspired to be.

All this sounds a bit grim, so to lighten the mood the main story is interspersed with other shorter stories. We meet, among others, Harriet who plays with matches and burns to death, Augustus who won't eat his soup and starves to death and my particular favourite, Conrad, who persists in sucking his thumbs and has them cut off by the very scary scissor man. Oh, he bleeds to death. The show is visually great--instead of flashy modern special effects, the production makes very effective use of puppetry and lighting, creating an atmosphere of decaying Victoriana. The band are particularly bizarre--rising up from beneath the stage they look like they've risen from the dead, and perform sinister Cajun-style songs throughout the show. The real star of the show is the narrator, a scary, skeletal figure who aspires to be a classical actor and feels he is demeaning himself by performing in the popular theatre.

Every day now, we get pronouncements from New Labour on how wicked children should be punished. Shockheaded Peter is a terrific antidote to all the talk of parenting classes and punishments. If you like humour on the dark side, go and see this. But I'm not sure I'd take the kids.
Sue Jones


HEAD ABOVE THE REST

Richard III
by William Shakespeare
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield


'If you believe no one is born bad, that it's the world that makes them bad, then Richard III becomes a fascinating play about the human condition.' So comments Michael Grandage, the director of a recent sell-out run of Richard III at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre.

The actor who plays Derby in the production also comments that 'people are not physically beheaded in England (today) for disagreeing with whoever's in power, but they are politically beheaded.'

This production of Richard III was only partially successful for me. The first half of the play did not unravel or rise above the complexities of the plotting and infighting of the Plantagenets. Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Richard was witty, sharp and incisive, but the humour only served to make Richard look entirely evil and cynical--a bastard with a sense of humour! Grandage stated that this was not his intention: 'It's too easy to dismiss him as evil and think we have no responsibility to hold a mirror up to ourselves. Shakespeare shows us a man who feels compelled to rise above his lot in life.'

Branagh's portrayal of Richard's disability, however, was excellent. The staging of the play also worked well. The design team used the unusually deep stage space to the full with simple but imposing pillars and lighting effects.

Over a number of years Grandage's contribution to directing and programming at Sheffield has led to several excellent productions of classic plays. Earlier this year he was appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London to take over from Sam Mendes. He will continue his involvement at Sheffield Theatres. Look out for Grandage's productions in Sheffield and at the Donmar Warehouse.
Karen Mee


FEN AND GAMES

The Night Heron
by Jez Butterworth
Royal Court Theatre, London


Jez Butterworth's second play is set in the wilds of the Cambridgeshire fens, in a bleak world where the main characters have fallen back on blind religious faith to sustain them. The night heron in the title is a bird rarely seen--there is cash for a verified sighting--and like Godot in the play of that name never makes an appearance.

For Griffin and Wattmore, two Cambridge college gardeners eking out their lives in a wooden hut made of ships' timbers, there is the promise of a fortune to be made from a poetry prize. They enlist the help of their woman lodger, Bolla Fogg, with this in mind, but by the end of the play their hermitage of a home has been invaded by the righteous bigots of the town, who are determined to bring their co-religionists to book for their deviancy.

If this seems reminiscent of the modern classics of Pinter or Beckett that's because Jez Butterworth invites the comparison. He writes outstandingly well, well enough to sustain a mood of Old Testament prophecy in a play that is actually a black comedy. Like his earlier work--Mojo--all the characters have been damaged by the world and are seeking to survive on the margins.

The dialogue is powerful and accurate, even if some of the religious fanaticism seems contrived, helped by fine acting from Karl Johnson and Ray Winstone and, particularly, from Jessica Stevenson--a revelation for those who only know her from her cameo role in The Royle Family.

If there is a problem with this play, it is the one that surfaces in Mojo. The comedy, and it is real comedy, sometimes sits uneasily with the huge life and death themes that the author wants to address. However, Butterworth is a genuinely poetic writer who has the ability to invoke the most powerful images.
David Beecham


Film

WAR AND PEACE

No Man's Land
Dir: Danis Tanovic


Sometimes you see an image so often that it becomes familiar and meaningless, and the scenes of wars we see on television are one example. During the civil war that consumed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a television reporter would talk to camera in front of armoured personnel carriers full of UN peacekeepers, the sound of shelling going on behind them. But it does not take much to make an apparently familiar situation seem new.

The action in No Man's Land takes place almost exclusively in a deserted trench between the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim front lines, where two soldiers from the opposing sides have ended up, not knowing how to get out. Rather than towns being bombed or people driven out of their homes, we simply have two representatives of the opposing sides, forced to talk because each is reluctant to kill the other outside of combat. And they can do this because they share the same language--indeed a short time before lived in the same country--and even discover that they have a mutual friend. But they are still sworn enemies.

I felt for a moment when watching this film the strangeness that people in Yugoslavia must have felt seeing places and people they knew transformed by the context of war. In No Man's Land we are shown war from the ground up, from the point of view of stranded soldiers who panic because they fear for their lives. At a couple of points they argue over who started it and which side did what. But mostly they are trying to get out alive, even if that means working together in order to do so. They are neither bloodthirsty monsters nor reluctant participants.

The UN peacekeepers have no peace to keep. Their commanding officers are cynical and the soldiers at a loss for what to do. The television crews are hunting for the next exclusive, the dramatic scene to capture ratings from their competitors. The portrayal of the UN soldiers will not make comfortable viewing for anyone who thought they could help to resolve the conflict. And you do not have to have read or seen that much about the war in Bosnia to care about the characters or understand what is happening, because the story focuses on a few individuals, without turning them into some typical embodiment of the Bosnian Serbs or Muslims.

At times this is a weakness in the way the plot is set up. There is a limit to where you can take the brief relationship that develops between the two soldiers. The film is too realistic to have them look up into the sky and suddenly realise the errors of war and nationalism before embracing in common brotherhood. But the flipside to this it that it is not too hard to work out how the situation is likely to end up, thus narrowing the scope for dramatic tension. Despite this, I found No Man's Land to be a thought-provoking film that avoids some of the traps other depictions of the Bosnian war have been caught by, mixed in with moments of irony and humour.
Nicolai Gentchev


Music

DON'T SIGN UP FOR WAR

Red Clydeside
by Alistair Hulett
Jump Up Records


The years 1915 to 1919 saw a huge explosion of working class militancy in response to the First World War which brought Britain almost to the brink of revolution. One of the most important centres of struggle was Glasgow and the Clyde. Red Clydeside, a CD written and performed by Alistair Hulett, celebrates its foremost protagonist, John Maclean, and the men and women who contributed to this often neglected period of our history.

Hulett, who has an impeccable CV as a singer-songwriter of socialist and traditional folk material, has a rich, yet gravelly voice and a skilful, percussive guitar style. Dave Swarbrick, veteran folk-rock superstar, provides fiddle accompaniment to complement Hulett's guitar in spare arrangements that draw the listener to the lyrics.

These are songs that not only put across an uncompromising political message, but have an authentic feel that is firmly planted in the roots of traditional music. They give an insight into the politics of the period and the enormous contribution Maclean made to the history of the working class.

Maclean famously opposed the war, holding regular rallies outside the army recruiting office in Glasgow, and was arrested and jailed five times between 1915 and 1920 under the Defence of the Realm Act for his anti-war activity. In Hulett's song Maclean says, 'A bayonet that's a weapon with a working man at either end, Betray your country, serve your class. Don't sign up for war my friend.'

This is an interactive CD. The lyrics sit with a glossary of the Scots words alongside, and there are links to references and reading for those who want to explore the period further. Hulett has thoroughly researched his subject with a meticulous eye for detail--his words remind us of John Maclean's message as he stood in the dock during his trial for sedition in 1918. 'I am not here then as the accused: I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.'

This CD is available by mail order from Jump Up Records, Germany--e-mail jumpup@t-online.de or from Red Rattler--e-mail a.hulett@btopenworld.com. Make the effort to buy it because this is both politically inspiring and an interesting and enjoyable way to learn about these struggles.
Susan Ross


Art

THE BEST BRAND AROUND


Leon Kuhn's The Proud Parents
Leon Kuhn's The Proud Parents

Artists Against The War (AATW), is a loose collective of artists, producers, theatre, film and video makers who first met in October 2001 as a direct response to the bombing of Afghanistan. Our aim was to create artful protest against the inhumanity of war and international acts of state-controlled terror.

We believe that in times of conflict artists should be at the forefront of the movement to speak out against inhumanity. We are trying to create a language that will provoke and inspire a better vision of the world. AATW are members of the Stop the War Coalition and we hope that we have and will continue to play an important role in the growing tide of social protest--we have been engaged in a variety of artistic anti-war activities.

Artist Leon Kuhn created a piece of art with a disfigured monstrous child representing the new Afghanistan held in the arms of his parents Bush and Blair. He also did a piece which showed the links between the US military and the British government (below).

In our exploration of bringing political consciousness to public spaces and institutions we decided to target the shopping mall--which has become the heart of consumer society. A group of nine artists went to the Starbucks cafe in a shopping centre to carry out experiments in invisible theatre. We spoke to people about asylum issues in order to reclaim a space for social debate--more forum theatre exploits are planned.

We have leafleted the National Theatre and other West End venues to engage the industry with the anti-war movement and presented a petition to Downing Street. We built a huge puppet for the 18 November anti-war demo and plan other displays of anti-corporate and anti-war creativity. We are a growing network which has attracted the interest of a normally conservative arts press. There is great satisfaction in sharing and communicating a 'brand name' when there is nothing to purchase and that brand name is a political statement.

We hold regular meetings in London for anyone to attend. Since the network was created we have received countless poems, lyrics, diaries, messages of solidarity, videos, digital artwork and cartoons which we are trying to make accessible through our website and other means.

Artists have the power to fight against the destruction of our world with creativity.We all have the responsibility to protest against what is being done in our name. If you would like to make the voice of dissent even louder and more colourful please get involved.
Emma Schad

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