Issue 264 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
The trauma of ER is not just medical. Mike Gonzalez gives a diagnosis.
|Patching up life's real problems|
You know before it starts that one person will die and one or two be saved, that a group of people you vaguely recognise from the bus stop will mill around in the background, that it will rain unseasonally, or snow, that Carter will agonise and Dr Green and his surgeon partner will barely hold their lives together. You know that some group of people will arrive bleeding and broken wearing Viking helmets or the togas of a gospel choir. And you know that everyone will talk at once, probably in several languages, and that the doctors and nurses will slam electrical paddles on someone's chest and shout for injections whose names you can't quite catch and stare miserably at X-rays which, from the chair where you're sitting, look like overexposed aerial views of the Blackwall Tunnel.
What is it about ER and programmes like it that defies every ratings war? It isn't like it used to be when Dr Finlay always found time to fill a pipe and discuss the evening's fishing before rescuing the dying shepherd from the stream where his foot was stuck in a rabbit trap. Then there were his younger American equivalents who wore those white tunics just recently arrived from the laundry--Ben Casey and young Kildare. For a while the nurses were the selfless nightingales who briefly replaced the maternal care that in the end was our best hope.
In the Emergency Room (ER), on the other hand, the laundry doesn't get done, the blood spurts in rising columns, needles are weapons and everyone's in pain--from the patients to the doctors. There's an urgency, a despair, a sense of a world full of threat and menace. Everything here seems to hang by a thread and only the experts, the people with this curious knowledge that is expressed in a language as mysterious as the liquid in the bottles that hang everywhere, stand between us and disaster.
At one level, the ER faithfully describes this paradoxical world of endlessly refined technology, on the one hand, and vulnerability and powerlessness on the other. In this wild rushing between emergency and emergency, between one trauma and another, there's no time to explain, to understand, to plan some safer route through this dangerous city. When Green or Elizabeth make it home to the baby, they have made it only for that day; the dependency others have on them is no guarantee of respite. After all, they're stuck too when the subway crashes; inside the ER they have some power, limited and temporary, but outside they are no better armed than the next.
The power of the drama is that week after week they'll face the same ethical and medical dilemmas, they'll perch on the edge of personal disaster. You wait to see if they'll survive this potential catastrophe, knowing they'll face another in the next episode. It's a curious twist that in this counterfeit life the dramas seem so much closer, the sense of impotence and panic so much more authentic, than in all those 'reality shows' that actually show a life controlled, contained, measured by rules and overseen by mediators and judges. In the 'real real' world, like the casualty section, the foremen and the overseers (Big Brother in a word) are never there. They're at a fundraising lunch for the mayor, or they're negotiating tax-evading sponsorships for half a nurse with some multinational that's busy selling tobacco to the Third World. In the 'real real' world the points crack and the computers stop functioning and the shop at the corner has run out of milk. The guys in the ER are a thin line against chaos, but their own lives are often flawed and confused. That's probably what makes them fascinating. But there's another side to this. In the ER the people who fight to achieve some degree of control over their lives--the firefighters, the factory workers, the bus drivers--become powerless. It's significant that in the US they can watch the medics--in Britain they wait outside. But either way they watch and wait, suddenly impotent and afraid. Isn't that the other face of all these programmes and series that deal with emergencies--that we are presented to ourselves as ultimately vulnerable to some arbitrary event, a falling pylon or a bus out of control, that we can't predict or control?
It's true that at the extremes we will have to put ourselves in the hands of others and wait. But I can't help feeling that what that feeds is the conviction that in the end ordinary people must rely on experts speaking in strange tongues and hope that theirs is a real understanding. In an emergency, that may be true. But health, safety, adequate care and knowledge are not provided in a crisis but are part of the shape of our everyday lives--they evolve and are built through time. And there we can have collective control--identify potential dangers, prepare a collective response to them.
It might mean sacrificing the dramatic tensions of the ER, and stepping back from the brink of catastrophe. Still, that would give Carter, Abby, Green, Benton and Weaver a little more time to finally sort their own lives out.
Tate Modern, London
|Self protraits of Picasso and Matisse|
This exhibition has been acclaimed as 'momentous' and 'tremendous' and 'the first major exhibition of the 21st century'. For once, it is an event that lives up to the hype. The masterpieces are worth the pricey £10 entrance fee by themselves. But seeing Matisse and Picasso's works placed next to each other, seeing how they learnt from and fed off each other across the decades, is a revelation.
The paintings and sculptures are exhibited as though they are in conversation, and sometimes argument, with each other. Matisse commented that the two men were as 'different as the North Pole is from the South Pole'. Matisse was neat and careful while Picasso was wild and unruly. Their art is usually seen as just as divergent as their personalities--Picasso, the master drawer, an artist of fragmentation and new perspectives; Matisse, the artist of colour and decoration, whose paintings are full of life and harmony.
When they first met in Paris in 1906, Matisse was leader of the avant-garde Fauve movement while Picasso had not long arrived from his native Spain and was just establishing his reputation. A period of intense rivalry and artistic innovation opened up. Both men revisited the classical nudes painted by the great French classical painter Ingres in the early 19th century. He painted women in exotic, eastern settings and Matisse's reworking of them became known as the 'Odalisques'. They were a perfect subject through which Matisse could explore the decorative Islamic styles that influenced him so heavily.
In contrast, Picasso was influenced by African art and his nudes, situated in brothels, became increasingly aggressive, confrontational figures. At other times his nudes adopt classical poses and are sensuous and erotic.
Their still-life paintings also show their differences. Matisse delighted in painting serene and joyful pictures, based on the use of bright and beautiful colours. His work does not expose details of his own life. His lemons are lemons, oysters are oysters, goldfish are goldfish.
Picasso's still-life paintings are full of skulls that remind us of our mortality and overt images of sexuality. They tell you about the artist, his state of mind, his desires. One extraordinary painting called 'Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table' is full of erotic curves and phallic shapes. It was painted soon after Picasso met a new, young lover.
In the years before the First World War, Matisse developed from outrageous fauvist to respected leader of his own academy. He used colour and space to great effect creating vibrant, exciting paintings. Picasso, on the other hand, worked with his great friend Georges Braque to break new ground. Together, they developed cubism. Cubism was characterised by muted colours and fragmented images. It developed a way of presenting an object or a person from many different perspectives at the same time. Matisse commented, 'Picasso shatters forms, I am their servant.'
Yet even though they were exploring different styles, Picasso's canvases show the patterns and decorative shapes that were strongly identified with Matisse. And Matisse, in his portraits of Yvonne Landsberg and Madame Matisse, showed that he was influenced by cubist ideas of shape and structure. The two artists were in a creative dialogue with each other. The relationship between the two men is shown in two pictures painted in 1941. Both men are responding to the Nazi occupation of France. Picasso lived through what he called these 'dark and dismal days' in Paris, under constant surveillance, painting dark still life pictures that constantly alluded to death and disaster. The 'Still Life with a Sausage', for example, shows a simple meal that is actually deeply sinister, full of threatening violence and disembodied limbs.
Matisse lived in the south of France, but his wife worked for the Resistance in Paris. He responded to the Nazis and his own cancer, diagnosed in 1941, with ever more exuberant celebrations of the joys of flowers and fruits and above all of colour. His 'Still Life with a Magnolia' is a luscious reaffirmation of life. In their very different ways, both these paintings contain a sense of resistance and hunger for freedom.
In old age, their rivalry turned into a friendship, albeit a grumbling, cantankerous one. They must have been a bit like the odd couple. When Matisse died, Picasso was devastated. He lost both a friend and a source of the inspiration that helped him develop his wonderful art.
Picasso's 'Studio at La Californie' was painted in 1955, months after Matisse's death. It is a painting of loss and grief, full of references to Matisse, with open windows looking out onto a garden. But they are painted in the dark shades of mourning rather than Matisse's characteristic bright colours.
Picasso once said, 'You've got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings more closely than I and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.' This exhibition is worth looking at very, very carefully. It is exuberant, mouth watering, beautiful and challenging.
Barbican, until 15 September and transfers to the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, in October
|Come play with me|
The Game On exhibition, an exploration of the culture and history of videogames, is very timely. It comes at the start of a new wave of consolidation in the games console industry. Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's Game Cube have just been launched in Britain, where they will be pitched against Sony's PlayStation 2.
At the Game On exhibition it is the 200 playable games, dating from the 1970s right up to the new X-Box and Game Cube, which steal the show. Although the exhibition is grouped into 16 sections, covering different aspects of gaming, almost every room has several consoles or cabinet-style video games to play with. This is a hands-on exhibition aimed at fans of video games.
One thing that is apparent from this exhibition is that, despite the hype that accompanies the launch of new consoles, there are strong elements of continuity since the first commercial games developed in 1971. Most games fall into simple categories (racing games, shooting games, flight simulators, etc) and follow well established patterns of play. The massive advances in computing power have merely increased the realism, complexity and speed of the games. It is also clear that, although they may claim to offer escapism, most computer games reflect the capitalist society they are produced in. Much has been made of the violence of most games, but this exhibition also demonstrates the sexism of many games. For example, in the popular Tomb Raider series of games the main character, Lara Croft, has gradually changed shape over the years to assume ever more ridiculous supermodel proportions.
Nestling among the games are a number of art installations, most of them parodying computer games. 'Insert Coin' by Mark Dean is particularly good. It shows video footage from recent wars with a rotating disk, rather like a coin, superimposed and a looped sample of the Nico song 'I'll be your mirror' playing. As well as being eerie, it manages to capture some of the horror of war, while also reflecting the way that recent wars have been presented like computer games on our television screens. The other installations are much less inventive. 'Alien Invasion' is interesting as it tries to examine the media portrayal of immigration. It takes the classic 'Space Invaders' game and replaces the alien space ships with rows of identical caricatured black and Asian faces. Unfortunately, as well as being a rather heavy-handed attempt at satire, this is also unoriginal--parodies of 'Space Invaders' have been around as long as home computers.
One other factor in the development of the games industry, which is touched on but not really developed in this exhibition, is the convergence between forms of popular culture. Today's games usually feature film-like sequences linking together the action. A few, like 'Tomb Raider' or 'Resident Evil', have been made into movies. Increasingly the soundtracks for games are custom produced by leading musicians or will use existing hits. The influences go the other way too, with movies like The Matrix modelled on the style of computer games. Underlying this trend is both the increase in computing power and the cross-media consolidation taking place in the entertainment world. Companies like Sony or AOL Time-Warner now have a stake in the film, computing and music industries.
Sadly, the wider importance of gaming--the massive economic growth and consolidation of the market, the portrayal of women in computer games and so on-are not emphasised enough in this exhibition. Yet it is a fascinating museum and showcase of video games, which the enthusiast will greatly enjoy.
Manchester Art Gallery
Mosely Street, Manchester
|Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Astarte Syriaca'|
The Manchester Art Gallery has recently re-opened after a £35 million refit. The neo-classical section has now been expanded to almost twice its original size. The gallery has a number of permanent exhibitions with themed 'stories' and displays which highlight how historic and contemporary art and design has been woven into the fabric of the city. Works by LS Lowry and Adolphe Valette are complemented alongside works by artists and designers working in the city today.
Approximately 1,300 objects will be on show, including ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, costume and textiles, toys and dolls' houses. An innovative play space aimed at children aged 5-12, the Clore Interactive Gallery, houses artworks including a 17th century Dutch still life painting by de Heem, contemporary video work, historic Japanese armour and modern glass.
Fine art exhibits include a large collection of 19th century pre-Raphaelite paintings including Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Astarte Syriaca', and Ford Madox Brown's great Victorian Painting 'Work'. The gallery spaces in the new wing are dedicated to 20th century British art including works by Briget Riley and David Hockney, two artists who are currently campaigning for more money to be pumped into regional arts.
The inaugural exhibition includes a massive installation by Michael Craig-Martin called 'Inhale/Exhale', a single painting that wraps its way round the space from floor to ceiling and is seen as his most important project in Britain for over a decade.
Biggie and Tupac
Dir: Nick Broomfield
|2 young to die|
In September 1996 Tupac Amaru Shakur (2Pac) was shot dead in Las Vegas. Six months later Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls aka Notorious BIG suffered the same fate in Los Angeles. In the period before they were killed, the two men were arguably the biggest rap stars on the planet. To this day neither murder has been solved.
The conventional account of the murders was that 2Pac and Biggie went from being good friends to being deadly rivals attached to fiercely competing record companies and gangs. This led to 2Pac's murder, which was then avenged by Biggie's death. This extraordinary film by British documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield retraces the lives of the two rappers and re-examines the circumstances in which they died, including revealing new evidence which suggests the blame lies elsewhere.
Broomfield uses a highly effective mixture of interviews and archive footage to tell his story, skilfully interwoven with rap music and threaded together with narration by Broomfield himself, both on and off camera. Initially his style reminds you of Louis Theroux, but Broomfield is a more subtle and brave director-journalist. His unassuming yet persistent style yields some extraordinary admissions from interviewees ranging from bent cops, to the rappers' families to gang bosses.
In other hands a film about 'gangsta' rap might have fallen into the trap of either moralising about or else simply glorifying the world it portrays. Biggie and Tupac credits the viewer with more intelligence, making for a compelling investigative piece which also manages to be a marvellous portrait of a hip-hop business and culture that goes to the heart of the tensions festering under the surface of US society.
The early part of the film, dealing with the earlier lives of 2Pac and Biggie, is fascinating and moving. We are left with a picture of two complex individuals, far removed from the media caricature of the one-sided monstrous gun-toting 'gangsta' rapper. 2Pac's mother and stepfather were both members of the Black Panthers. 2Pac is shown to be a charismatic, fun-loving and sensitive character, who studied dance and poetry and won acclaim for his acting, while at the same time being a volatile man, prone to violence and misogyny. His songs' lyrics reflect this, glorifying the 'thug life' at the same time as attacking the endemic racism and poverty of America.
Biggie's Jamaican-born mother, Voletta Wallace, is a sympathetic and warm presence throughout the film, and her testimony, along with interviews with Biggie himself, shows a marked contrast to the dramatic ghetto persona that was the Notorious BIG. It reveals a thoughtful, wry and much loved character.
In both cases we are left feeling that the violence and thug talk are played up by a record business which is happy to sell the worst aspects of the lives of ordinary black Americans back to them. The two souls of black music are unveiled--a culture that can unite, empower and reflect some of the reality of life, or else a means of getting rich enough to escape the ghetto. The latter path is that taken by Suge Knight, boss of 2Pac's label Death Row Records. The film shows how Knight, a multi-millionaire made from selling 'gangsta' rap records, ruthlessly played up competition with the New York based Bad Boy label of Sean 'Puffy' Coombs (aka Puff Daddy), in order to boost sales. At the same time Knight would turn vicious the minute any artist tried to take their music elsewhere. Remarkably, Broomfield manages to get an interview with Knight from the prison where he was serving a nine-year term for parole violation. Broomfield's close up camera enables the viewer to judge the truthfulness or otherwise of his subjects, and what might have been a bleak journey is frequently punctuated with humour, usually springing from the director/narrator's banter with his interviewees. Whether you're a fan of rap music or not is irrelevant. Anyone could enjoy this utterly engrossing film.
I'm Going Home
Dir: Manoel de Oliveira
I'm Going Home is a French film by the little known but prolific Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. Michel Piccoli's protagonist, Gilbert Valance, is an ageing and principled actor who meets tragedy one night after the show. Like many recent French films I'm Going Home opens with the scene of a play, in this case Inonesco's Exit the King in which Gilbert is the lead. The metaphor soon becomes clear. After the curtain falls he learns that his wife and daughter have been killed in a car accident. He is left alone with a small grandchild whom he tries to comfort and be comforted by. Gilbert meanders through his days and the Paris streets before going to the theatre. He becomes completely distracted by a beautiful new pair of shoes he has purchased and seems happy to discuss his shoes with his agent who enquires how he is dealing with the tragic and untimely deaths of his family. After persistent questioning he eventually retorts, simply, 'I live.'
Gilbert is an actor who wants parts to believe in. So when his agent offers him a role in an action packed, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll television drama about a middle aged man seduced by a young woman he is appalled. Thus enter John Malkovich, playing an American director making an adaptation of Ulysses. Gilbert reluctantly accepts the part of Buck Mulligan, a part for which he is really too old. He struggles with the lines and the petty humiliation he suffers whilst rehearsing. There is a very moving scene where he is being made to look younger for the part--we see him staring vacantly at himself in the mirror as a wig of 'younger hair' is fitted and make-up applied. The despair of a broken man forced to compromise his integrity and dignity for a part he resents is palpable.
His desire to stay close to home, to his grandchild and the familiar slowly becomes clear. Suddenly on set he announces, 'Je rentre a la maison,' or 'I'm going home.' His detachment, numbness and desire to hold on to some 'normal life' reaches the viewer intensely. So intensely in fact that it leaves one hoping for some final emotional outburst in contrast to his almost unrealised loss. If a criticism can be made, then it is this failure; the distance from his suffering is never contrasted with more conventional expressions of human grief. I desperately wanted him to let go.
This is the story of ageing and loss, of a man's attempt to stay within a world he has inhabited and believed in for so long, and about his courage to face a different future.
Dir: Frank Darabont
|Bogart and Bacall go and give evidence in support of Hollywood film makers|
In the US in the 1950s thousands of actors, film-makers, writers and technicians had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by an anti-Communist witchhunt. In an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, many of those accused of Communist sympathies named their friends in order to avoid being blacklisted themselves. The studios willingly joined the frenzy, passing on the names of longstanding staff who then had to face the inquisition. Hollywood's cooperation with the show trials has been a shame from which it has tried to make amends on many occasions. The Majestic is it's latest attempt.
Jim Carrey stars as the non-political screenwriter Peter Appleton who is ordered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as a suspected Communist. He is immediately sacked from his job and finds that former friends will now have nothing to do with him. In his despair he takes to the bottle, and while drunk sets off on a journey in his car. Predictably, this leads to a terrible accident and Carrey is washed up on a beach without any memory of who he is. He is carried to the nearby town of Lawson where he is mistaken for Luke Trimble, who had enlisted to fight in the Second World War but had never returned from the battlefield.
Lawson is a town that is licking its wounds--every shop window carries pictures of the other sons who never came home from the war. Carrey's miraculous return is a chance for the town to heal and he quickly becomes the focus of attention. Luke's father is the owner of a cinema (The Majestic) that has been disused since the war when 'folks gave up on laughing'. Carrey sets about reopening the cinema with the help of the entire local community, while re-establishing Luke's relationship with his fiancé. The sentimentality is laid on thick and small town life is glorified. During the 1950s US society was being turned upside down by the struggle for black civil rights, but the battles seem to have bypassed Lawson. The cinema's usher is the film's only black character--he lives in a squalid basement under the cinema and yet is treated with dignity and respect by everyone.
The opening of the cinema starts a process whereby Carrey's memory starts to return, just as the FBI, who have been searching for the missing 'Hollywood commie', find their man. Carrey faces the HUAC and has to choose between naming names to get himself off the hook, or standing up for what he knows is right, even if that means going to jail. The Majestic is unequivocally on the side of the victims of the blacklist but nevertheless fails in a number of respects. The witchhunts are presented as the product of the irrational prejudice of various Congressmen acting against the wishes of the majority--the question of why the liberal establishment failed to stand up to them is never asked. The Majestic presents the studio bosses as supportive of those accused, yet it is impossible to understand how the blacklist operated without recognising the creation of an anti-Communist, mass hysteria. In this, Hollywood duly played its part.
by Tony Kushner
Young Vic, London
|Kika Markham in Homebody/Kabul|
This ambitious and powerful drama is set principally in Kabul under the Taliban. In the aftermath of the 1998 American air strike ordered by President Clinton, the mullahs are in full control. The Homebody of the title has travelled in the hope of finding the ancient Afghanistan, the exotic, historic crossroads of civilisations that she has read of in books. She disappears, apparently murdered, and the efforts of her daughter and husband to discover her fate lift the veil on the reality of modern Afghanistan, a crossroads of the drug trade, political ambition, international terrorism, and the war for oil.
A crude summary does not begin to do justice to a play that has earned great praise in the US since its first performance in December last year. First because of its extraordinary structure--the first hour is devoted to a monologue in which the neurotic unfulfilled life of the Homebody is counterposed to the drama, mystery and poetry of Afghan history, starting 'at the very dawn of history, circa 3000 BC'. This amazing opening scene shifts like a kaleidoscope from modern London to ancient Macedonia, from the first murderer, Cain--in legend the founder of Kabul--to the modern murderers, by way of the Moghul emperors.
There has been nothing quite like this in the theatre for some time, and one criticism of this play might be that it cannot sustain the same level in the subsequent scenes. However, that would be to overlook the way in which Tony Kushner intertwines the lives and fates of his main characters with the fate of Aghanistan.
Not the least of his achievements is to depict the fate of Afghan women under the Taliban with a rage that literally transcends language. The burqa is the least of their problems, though it is the most visible. Their minds are cut off, atrophied. In the words of Mahala, a librarian who is seeking to flee the country, 'They close library! Library! This is Islam?... To leave is a terrible thing. But I must be saved. Yesterday I could not remember the alphabet.'
Kushner's play is already celebrated for another reason. Written well before the 11 September attacks, it seems to forecast the events. 'We must suffer under the Taliban so that the US might settle a 20 year old score with Iran. You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York.' Yet as the author, himself a New Yorker, points out, you did not have to be psychic to anticipate at least the broad outline of the consequences of US foreign policy.
For the Wall Street Journal this play 'might as well have been created by a Taliban playwright'--an insult as grotesque as the politics of the Taliban themselves. What the play does represent is the best sort of political theatre: questioning, moving and linking the fate of individual men and women with great world events. Kushner says that his 'greatest hope for a play is always that it might prove generative of thought, contemplation, discussion'. This work certainly justifies that hope.
by Jeanette Winterson
National Theatre, London
|Fiona Shaw and Saffron Burrows in The PowerBook|
The PowerBook is a brilliantly staged adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's examination of the clash between love and social convention. The play is part of the Tranformation season which is currently playing at the National Theatre. The play revolves around the fate of two women lovers, played by Saffron Burrows and Fiona Shaw. They collide on an evening in Paris. One is married, unwilling to take the risk of leaving the security of an exhausted marriage to be with her lover. The story of their love, its power and weakness, force and uncertainty, is interrupted by a series of other stories about other lovers: Lancelot and Guinivere, two Italian Renaissance aristocrats, a 16th century Turkish princess, and an Everest climber and his wife. The recurring theme examines the way that social mores and institutions corrode and inhibit the love that arises between human beings, men and women in any combination. The play accepts no 'natural' order. In a brilliant performance Fiona Shaw, comic and tragic by turns, dominates the action as both the protagonist in the central love affair and the narrator who marshals all the other stories that compose the mosaic of the action. Those who want a conventional plot and standard character development will be disappointed. But in its place is a love poem translated onto the stage. This production achieves a marvellous combination of text that passionately affirms the power of love and a series of striking visual tableau.
The first of these historical reminiscences of love is perhaps the most engaging. We join a girl dressed as a boy who brings two tulip bulbs, hidden in a place that gives their carrier the appearance of being male, across the Mediterranean to Holland. This flower of manhood is captured by pirates and delivered to a Turkish princess to instruct her in love before she is married. She conducts us in a raucous and boisterous essay of love and sex.
But most affecting of all is the staging of the story of Lancelot and Guinivere. While the story is narrated to us by a disembodied voice, Guinivere slowly undresses and climbs onto a bed encased in a glass walled room. Her image is caught in the glass and reflected back at us, while beyond the glass wall the mailed figure of Lancelot stands with his back to his lover. The conventions that stand between them--Guinivere's flight to a convent, Lancelot's inability to overcome the enemy of social conformity--are all caught in this striking image. As the tragic story of their love unfolds a glimpse of a white horse, an image of freedom, moves across the backdrop.
There is a developing power to these fragments of history as they are interwoven with the story of the modern lovers. They show that while contemporary society potentially allows greater freedom it still takes courage to love in defiance of the accepted and traditional social expectations. Love need not be blind, but it must be brave.
Vincent in Brixton
by Nicholas Wright
Cottesloe Theatre, London
In case you didn't make the connection, Vincent in Brixton is indeed about Van Gogh. But it is not about Vincent the famous painter who only decided to become an artist at the age of 27 and shot himself at the age of 37 (in 1890), but Vincent aged 21, who was transferred by a Dutch art dealer's firm to work in its London branch. He rents a room in a Brixton house with a Mrs Loyer and her daughter, and another lodger, Sam.
The play is about what happened over the three years he lived, left and returned there. The writer, Nicholas Wright, constructed the play out of family myth, a suggestive six month gap in his frequent letters to his younger brother Theo and parents, and imagination. The result is a simple, engaging and moving love story between the ardent and passionate young Vincent and his landlady lover Ursula Loyer, nearly 30 years his senior, who eagerly responds.
That is all we need to know to make the play worth seeing. But the embellishments to the story are all relevant and well directed, and very much enhance its absorbing quality, such as the set, whose centrepiece is the old kitchen table taking up most of the available space and an important participant in the action surrounding it; the evocative clothes worn by Ursula, black for loneliness and gay colours for love, and by Vincent, more or less scruffy according to the current emotion.
The acting is magnificent. The Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf is superb as the innocent yet eager impulsive young Vincent, and equally so Clare Higgins as Ursula Loyer, whose gliding between despair and joy is tremendously moving while being sensitively underplayed. A sort of subplot relating events at the time of this play to Vincent's later fame is played out in the relationship between Vincent and Sam Plowman, the other lodger, who is a house painter but has ambition, encouraged by Vincent to go to art school, and Vincent's growing interest in art and early attempts at drawing. Everything about this play is sensitively thought out, making it an undemanding but pleasurable night out
National Theatre, London
|One of the many masks in Baccai|
This astonishing play by the youngest of the three great dramatists of ancient Greece is both very primitive and very modern. The story Euripides took as the basis of his play was a traditional one, well known to its audience. Pentheus, king of Thebes, disguises himself as a woman in order to witness the women-only sacred rites of the followers of the god of wine, Dionysus. Unmasked, he is torn to pieces by his own mother who in her frenzy believes she is killing a wild beast. Yet Euripides handles this traditional story in ways that are modern to his times. The characters argue and express themselves in very human terms, using all the dialectical reasoning typical of the development of Greek thought in the period. Above all, he uses the illusions of theatre--the fact that actors are playing parts, that they use disguise--to explore the limitations of our understanding of our own motives and our own power.
The play starts with the god, Dionysus himself, declaring his determination to impose his wild religion on the city of his birth (his mother, Semele, is Pentheus's aunt; his father, the king of the gods, Zeus). He disguises himself as a priest of his own cult in order to force his cousin Pentheus to honour the new religion.
Pentheus questions the very idea of Dionysus's divine origin, seeing in the new cult a new way for the priests to extract money from the credulous. So the scene is set for a clash between scepticism and religious belief. But this conflict between reason and madness is not only a conflict between the internal order of the city and the external disorder which threatens to invade it. It is about the very terms themselves. After all, Dionysus is not an outsider--he is part of the family. Maybe it is Pentheus's 'order' which is disorder. Maybe Dionysus's religion of ecstatic release in wine and dance has its own justification.
The central confrontation between Dionysus (disguised as his own priest) and Pentheus plays out these ambiguities and contradictions. Pentheus's determination to clamp down on the new religion becomes an obsession in its own right, a form of madness. His desire to see the secret rites of the women is a consequence of this obsession. He passes from contempt at the 'womanliness' of the new cult (personified in Dionysus's own feminine appearance) to dressing as a Bacchic woman. This disorder becomes a disordered form of perception in which he sees two suns, two cities, two totally different worlds. But he also sees the disguised priest in one of the god's forms, seeing, as Dionysus ironically puts it, clearly where he was blind before.
So Pentheus's passage into disguise and disorder is also a passage into discovery--a discovery which will end in destruction. So though at one level the play is founded on the traditional notion of divine punishment for mortals whose pride sets them against the gods, at another level it is Pentheus who is responsible for his own self destruction. These are themes which we are now very familiar with--and the production, with its very colloquial and rather free translation of the original, emphasises them too much in its wish to make the play 'relevant' to our times. It is irritating to see the clash between Pentheus and Dionysus as in some sense a clash between the West and fundamentalism from the East--concepts which would have been alien to the ancient Greeks. (And dressing Cadmus, Pentheus's grandfather, and Tiresias, the old blind priest, in modern linen suits looks decidedly odd.)
Yet the production is often compelling and moving. Following the ancient Greek convention, only three actors play all the roles (including the female roles). Wearing masks is therefore essential--a device which allows the actors to concentrate on making the language, rather than facial expression, carry the force of the often horrific emotion. Having the same actor who has played Pentheus play his mother in her one scene at the end, when she enters with his head on a spike, adds an extra dimension. And the actor who plays the dominant role, that of the god, is stunning.
The music, composed by a leading modernist, Harrison Birtwhistle, and the Chorus, who speak and dance, are excellent. Despite director Peter Hall's desire to play down some aspects of the play's historical specificity in the interests of enhancing its modernism, this production reveals the extraordinary power of a masterpiece from the dawn of theatre.
The Arcola Theatre has established a reputation for bold and imaginative productions. Open for just over a year it occupies a disused warehouse in one of London's poorest boroughs, Hackney. Peter Gee spoke to Mehmet Ergen, the theatre's director
What made you set up the Arcola theatre in a disused factory in Hackney?
I was teaching in this area and was fascinated by Hackney and became aware of the lack of theatre in this area. I stumbled across this factory and converted it into a theatre within weeks and started to do plays. There were no grants--just the free labour of hard working, theatre loving people. It appeals to me that theatre can be anywhere, and a factory is a good location. We are all working in it--we are all workers. Also we don't need things to be glossy--it's the show that counts.
The Arcola has been praised for attracting audiences who usually don't go to the theatre. How have you achieved this?
You need to serve the needs of the local area, at the same time avoiding just being a local community theatre. By creating shows by major writers like Shakespeare and Chekhov, and presenting them as professionals. At the same time we commission writers like David Farr to write Crime and Punishment in Dalston and also get in contact with writers who write pieces that are relevant to the local community. Also the 'pay what you can' night on Tuesdays is an absolute must. There is no financial barrier to coming to the theatre. People can pay £1.20p--whatever--no questions asked.
How are theatre and politics linked?
It's always been very close. Politics and theatre go hand in hand. Particularly in the English theatre, the so called political theatre of the 1960s and 1970s died away. They became unpopular. But I don't find plays by Brecht and Grass dated--they are documents which need to be presented anew.
I am planning a season called 'Revolution' next year. There will be plays from the Russian Revolution, the industrial revolution and from across the world. It's important to get across social issues through theatre