Issue 272 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Picturing the horrors of war

Picasso's 'Guernica' depicts the cost of conflict. Mike Gonzalez explains why it's time it was discovered again

Pain captured on canvas(section of 'Guernica')
Pain captured on canvas(section of 'Guernica')

We are surrounded by images of war. Real, imagined or remembered conflict is a constant in the kind of films that are shelved under 'Action' at Blockbuster's. Very few computer games have gone beyond the simple binary of good and evil, friend or enemy. Newspapers regularly carry stark and terrifying photographs of the victims of war in some unnamed place--as if only fear and terror can really be dramatic. And then there is the machinery of warfare, drawn out in loving scientific detail on the nightly news. Thus war is made part of our natural experience.

But now something has changed. War has been unmasked as an instrument in the hands of small and ruthless bodies of men. The impulse to violence is anything but natural--people die because someone decides they should die. And at that moment, none of the images we are given will do. They cannot express the revulsion millions of us expressed on that glorious 15 February.

At times like this every generation rediscovers Guernica, Pablo Picasso's scream of rage painted in 1937. Of all the paintings that have represented war, it is this one that seems to echo through every generation (closely followed, I admit, by Goya's terrifying Disasters of War). But why does this painting still seem to possess a power beyond its time and place? And why does this painting, even in reproduction, feel so much more profound than even the extraordinary photographs of Don McCullin or Robert Capa?

On 26 April 1937 the planes of the German Condor Legion set out to bomb the Basque town of Guernica. They were under the general orders of Mola and Franco, the leaders of the military insurrection that had sparked the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was not militarily significant; but it was the ancient seat of a Basque culture whose independence was a constant provocation to the fascists whose aim was to recreate a centralised, Catholic, traditionalist Spain.

The bombardment lasted three and a half hours, and left a town destroyed and many dead and injured. A week later Picasso began work on a painting commissioned by the Republican government, due to be shown in the official pavilion at the Paris World Fair later that year. The title commemorates the destruction of the ancient Basque city. Yet there is nothing in the painting to link it to a date or a time. Its central images are torn and broken figures. The painting seems to work with sound, or the absence of sound, the voiceless screams of the wounded horse and the woman at the centre of the canvas. Though it is a painting full of bodies, they have lost their integrity. Wherever you see hands or feet or mouths, each laid over the other, they are twisted and have lost their function. All that is left is a sense of pain.

This is a painting emblematic of modern art, yet it is curiously traditional. Its central images belong to a language of myth--the horse, the bull, the broad sword, the Madonna and child on the extreme left of the picture. This is not a vocabulary of a modern world, but of an art which believes it can say universal things about human experience. And all of these core images had been central to the language of Picasso's work for many years. The bull occurs over and over again--perhaps, as some people believe, as a representation of Spain, but in my view as an expression of sexual power and masculinity. In the painting the bull looks away, apparently impassive, the only face in the picture not twisted in agony. But it is also the only eye that does not see (or will not see) what war has done to everything that is human--a mother's love, desire, heroism, everything. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the bull has undergone a different kind of death--a kind of moral emptying out, until all that is left is this expressionless mask.

The other curious thing about Guernica is that it is in black and white--and that the horse at the centre of the work is marked until it looks almost like newsprint (recalling a technique Picasso and the Cubists used regularly, of pasting paper onto the canvas). In a way, this narrow range of colour--or absence of colour--gives the painting an air of permanence, of timelessness, as if it were locked in granite rather than painted on canvas.

Perhaps it's that feeling of weight, of noise, of pain that makes it work for every generation. In the end, despite its reputation, this is not a directly political painting about Guernica or the Spanish Civil War. It is a gasp of pain, of distress, frozen in the air. Perhaps that is why its impact is greater than a photograph--because in the end it does not tell us how war is, or even how it begins or ends, but captures how it feels to understand, in one blinding painful moment, that everything human is destroyed when the bombing begins.


Film

PALER SUN

Solaris
Dir: Steven Soderbergh


Back from the dead in 'Solaris'
Back from the dead in Solaris

The first film version of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction story Solaris was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Thirty years later Steven Soderbergh--the man responsible for Erin Brockovich and last year's re-make of Ocean's Eleven--gives us his version. Both films use the bare plot of Lem's story and develop themes implied in it, but the difference between the two films is startling.

The story is set in the near future where world-weary psychiatrist Chris Kelvin is contacted by his friend Gibarian, the commander of the space station Prometheus, to ask for help. Prometheus is orbiting the beautiful planet Solaris in an attempt to assess its commercial potential. Something is happening on the station but Gibarian is reluctant, or unable to describe what the 'something' is. Kelvin, living a pointless existence on earth, agrees to go to the station. What he finds when he gets there and what role Solaris plays in the events make up the body of the story. It's something that's not fully explained in either film and it's this ambiguity which makes the story genuinely disturbing. But a plot is only the skeleton of a film--the execution of it is everything.

Tarkovsky's film, which unfolds at a leisurely 165 minutes, is a powerful poetic work which explores the major issues of subjectivity, memory and regret. There's even an ecological subtext. It's a story about revelation and pain in inner space, rather than adventure in outer space. What makes his version so absorbing is the demands the film makes on its audience. We become participants in the search for meaning and actively contribute in wresting understanding from the unfolding story. No doubt censorship in the Soviet Union--where Tarkovsky shot his film--made ambiguity a creative necessity. Nevertheless it's a work which credits its audience with an active intelligence.

To be charitable, Soderbergh's version has some things going for it. A beautifully designed work, it's a tender film suffused with melancholy. But he has chosen, probably for commercial reasons, to narrow the focus of the story down. The themes that Tarkovsky takes up are there, but are peripheral to a love story which now takes centre stage. This Solaris abandons all Tarkovsky's delicious uncertainty. Worse still, it doesn't trust its audience. The technical brilliance of the slick special effects is let down by a clumsy finale which includes a hitherto unused voice-over from Kelvin just to make sure we've all understood what's happened. It's Solaris-lite, not a patch on Tarkovsky's version, and they've even given it a happy ending!
Sasha Simic


BEAUTIFUL PICTURE

Frida
Dir: Julie Taymor


Geoffrey Rush and Salma Hayek as Trotsky and Kahlo
Geoffrey Rush and Salma Hayek as Trotsky and Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was an extraordinarily colourful character--in her own right as a popular and unconventional painter, but also as the wife of one of the greatest modern painters, Diego Rivera, and sometime lover of one of the greatest Russian revolutionaries, Leon Trotsky. It is therefore no accident that her life has been celebrated in many books and plays. This rendering, Frida, directed by Julie Taymor with Salma Hayek as Frida, is a very worthy addition to the list. Filmed entirely in Mexico, largely in the buildings inhabited by the people in the drama, it has an air of intimacy and authenticity. Salma Hayek is magnificent as Frida, and strikingly beautiful, as Frida was. Grandchildren of Diego Rivera and Trotsky have attested to the resemblance of the actors to the people they portrayed.

Frida Kahlo's life was determined by a terrible bus accident she suffered as a teenager, which frequently put her in hospital, required numerous operations, and often caused her great pain. All this suffering entered into her paintings, making them very real and sometimes painful to look at. She was a very independent, freedom-loving, courageous person who, as soon as she was able to walk again, had the audacity to seek out Diego Rivera, already one of the greatest of the great Mexican artists, to get a professional critique of her work.

Diego was renowned not only for his painting but also for his sexual philandering, and when they meet it is clear he expects to behave with her in his usual manner. In a sensitively constructed scene Frida carefully but insistently fends him off, demanding his artistic critique alone. This meeting turned out to be the defining moment in their lives, Diego admiring her painting enormously, and being charmed by her tenacity and beauty, and Frida being swept off her feet. But the relationship, and marriage a few years later, was open, both agreeing that they were free to have relations with whoever they pleased.

Frida, in fact, was bisexual, and had numerous affairs with both men and women. This is illustrated in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, where Frida outdrinks a number of men to win a dance with a beautiful woman. Frida and the woman take to the floor in a captivating, sexy dance which unmistakably stamps her bisexuality.

The two artists respected each other enormously, but the marriage was never smooth. Diego's affair with Frida's sister put too much of a strain on even Frida's tolerance, and they separated, each going their own way.

One of Frida's more well known affairs at this time was with Trotsky, for who Diego had assiduously worked to gain asylum in Mexico, and who he had invited to stay at this house, having asked Frida to remain for this purpose. Trotsky's grandson disputes the fact of the affair, claiming that Trotsky was never free of his bodyguards for long enough to be able to conduct an affair without their knowledge. The film, however, endorses the common belief of their affair. Trotsky, played by Geoffrey Rush, is probably the weakest character in the film. He fails to make the impact that the most important leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 after Lenin, well known for his knowledge and brilliance, should. His appearance in the film is fairly brief. That could have enabled a glittering and memorable impact to be made, worthy of Trotsky's stature. Instead he appears as hardly more than a footnote in Frida Kahlo's life--which is probably inevitable in a film about her--but a colourless footnote unworthy of its author.

On the other hand, Salma Hayek, who is also one of the film's producers, is outstanding in her role. Completely devoted to her subject, whose art she always admired, looking remarkably like Frida, and wearing the beautiful clothes and jewellery Frida always sought, she lives the part and carries the film with great elan. Her nomination for an Oscar is richly deserved. Alfred Molina is splendid beside her, and also looks like Diego Rivera, whose role he plays.

One of the main things about the making of this film on the part of the director and the rest of the film makers is their respect for and devotion to the subject. This gives the film an intimacy and authenticity which enhances its enjoyment.
Chanie Rosenberg


FLOWER POWER

Adaptation
Dir: Spike Jonze


Charlie Kaufman(Nicolas Cage) knew Orlean(Meryl Streep)
Charlie Kaufman(Nicolas Cage) knew Orlean(Meryl Streep)

Adaptation is a multi-layered black comedy by director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose previous offering was the wonderfully inventive Being John Malkovich.

The film is based on the true ordeal Kaufman encountered while trying to adapt Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief. The latter is a passionate study of wild orchids and focuses on a charismatic jack of all trades named John Laroche, who is busy hunting for orchids in the swamps of Florida.

Writing the screenplay posed a number of problems for Kaufman as he struggled to make a movie about exotic flowers into a critical and engaging success. Stress, depression, panic attacks and writer's block set in. Kaufman resolved his dilemma by turning his struggles to adapt the book into the actual screenplay and as a result becomes the main and pivotal character. So effectively the screenplay he is writing in the film is the one we are watching simultaneously on the screen. This is a bizarre but clever device.

There are some excellent performances on display. No doubt Nicolas Cage--who plays Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother Donald--will get the lion's share of the praise, as it is one of his best acting achievements to date. But let's face it, Cage has provided some mediocre and lacklustre performances in the past. Meryl Streep (who plays Susan Orlean) also puts in an impressive performance, though I am sure everyone will soon tire of the trailers showing her mimicking a telephone dial tone while spaced out on drugs. However, the most believable character is Chris Cooper's semi-toothless rogue John Laroche.

Adaptation has two main plot lines--the romantic developments between Streep and Cooper, and the comical and depressing relationship of the Kaufman twins. Donald Kaufman is also a budding screenwriter but is fairly talentless, sapping his brother for plot lines and characters. After attending a 'how to write a screenplay' course he churns out an awful, cliche-ridden murder mystery.

Charlie is the mirror image of his brother. He doesn't want car chases, guns or drugs in his screenplay but wants to be honest to the characters in Orlean's book. This difference in approach provides a welcome sideswipe of the Hollywood studio system. Each year this industry churns out dozens of formulaic films like Donald's. This is not surprising as the studios' primary motive is to make a healthy profit. As a result Hollywood tries to avoid any risky ventures and is keen to fund tried and tested genres. Special effects and star names are the order of the day, along with truckloads of tied-in merchandise.

One of the slight let-downs of the film is that the last half hour descends into the cliche Kaufman claims he wants to avoid, such as the car chases, the guns and the drugs, so that the film becomes a mad gumbo stew of David Attenborough's wildlife programmes, Crocodile Dundee and Deliverance.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging and intricate film, albeit one which at times is difficult to keep up with. It rapidly moves from one story to another, jumping back and forth in time, with an odd clip of Darwin and the mass extinction of the dinosaurs thrown in. Interestingly, the studio executives had no idea Kaufman had written such a bizarre plot and believed he was delivering a straightforward adaptation of Orlean's book. The failure of Hollywood is that although it can sometimes produce highly original and well crafted films such as this, they are as rare as the very orchids Orlean's hero, John Laroche, is trying to track down.
Mubin Haq


War

SHOT FOR A PURPOSE

History of American war films


Apocalypse Now(and then)
Apocalypse Now(and then)

Darryl F Zanuck's The Longest Day was very much a Nato film. It was made during the 1961 Berlin Wall crisis and reflected the US's need of its European allies in the Cold War with Russia. The film went out of its way to show the British, French, German and American experience of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944. The Allies were shown working together and those 'decent' Germans who had fought bravely and were not Nazi fanatics were rehabilitated. There was, of course, no mention of the Russian contribution to the defeat of the Nazis.

Zanuck brought in four directors from each nationality involved to shoot the experience of their side, and the armed forces of each country made a substantial contribution in the form of loaned equipment and soldiers. The French, in particular, provided 3,000 soldiers as extras and US troops took part in the restaging of the Omaha beach landings.

The contrast with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan could not be greater. By 1998 US triumphalism was at its height and Spielberg's invasion of Normandy is accomplished by the Americans without anyone's help. The US's awareness of its military superiority was so overwhelming that a major Hollywood film like Saving Private Ryan could not even imagine that it had ever been different.

There is, of course, nothing new in the idea that war films reflect the time they are made rather than the time they are made about. In the US this reflection has almost always been an official one deriving from the exceptionally close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon.

This close relationship broke down in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The divisions that the war opened up in American society had a profound impact on Hollywood. A mass anti-war movement that had the open support of thousands of servicemen shook the country. The war was widely recognised as an imperialist adventure in which the US military machine wantonly slaughtered thousands upon thousands of defenceless Vietnamese, in which US troops had committed fearful atrocities. And, moreover, it was a war in which the US had been defeated by poorly armed guerrillas. Much of Hollywood--actors, actresses, producers, directors, production crew, writers--came out against the war.

Hollywood's Vietnam films fall into two camps. There are the right wing ultrapatriotic films that portray the war as a war betrayed. The Rambo and Missing in Action (MIA) films are the classics. The war could have been won, indeed really was won, but the politicians and bureaucrats sold the fighting men out. This betrayal even extended to abandoning hundreds of US prisoners of war (POWs), left behind after the war, to be slaves of the Vietnamese. The Hollywood right fastened onto the MIA myth, the myth that Nixon used as an ideological club against the anti-war movement. In this world of mirrors, Americans became the victims and the Vietnamese the victimisers. On one celebrated occasion two Hollywood stars, Clint Eastwood and William Shatner, were actually persuaded to help finance a mercenary expedition into Laos looking for hidden POW camps. According to Eastwood, President Reagan promised a full-scale invasion if any were found. One consequence of the astonishing potency of the MIA myth is the refrain of today's American war films that no one must be left behind.

Opposing the right were two sorts of film, those that showed the war as madness (Apocalypse Now) and those that attempted to show it realistically, at least as far as the Americans were concerned (Platoon). Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, moved sharply to the left, and made one of the best American anti-imperialist films, Salvador, before putting his Vietnam experiences on the screens. Appalled by the fascist mentality of the Rambo and MIA films, he attempted to show the war as it was for the Vietnam veterans, both the suffering they experienced and the atrocities they committed. Brian de Palma's Casualties of War was even more uncompromising in this regard. These films and those like them did not have Pentagon approval. What was missing, of course, was any films actually supporting the Vietnamese struggle.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War went a long way towards exorcising the ghost of Vietnam. US triumphalism was rampant and this inevitably infected Hollywood. Three very different Hollywood war films are good examples of this triumphalism. Saving Private Ryan we have already looked at, but it is worth noticing that, while its opening combat sequence attracted considerable acclaim as showing the experience of 'everyman' under fire, the rest of the film is straightforward American flag waving. Moreover, it is based on a lie. It attempts to humanise a US military, discredited by Vietnam, by showing a fictional concern with the life of one soldier. On top of that every scene is pillaged from earlier war films, including the ending which is taken from John Wayne's Back to Bataan.

We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson, is a Vietnam War film made for the new age of triumphalism. The Air Cavalry it celebrates was previously featured in Coppola's Apocalypse Now where it received considerably less sympathetic treatment. The film presents the American victory as a result of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. But the book it is based on is quite clear that the battle was won by overwhelming American firepower including B-52s. The scene where US commander Hal Moore is debriefed by Westmoreland and McNamara, and tells them that the US cannot win the war against opponents like these, was cut from the film.

The film that best exemplifies the changed context is, however, Black Hawk Down, George W Bush's Triumph of the Will (a 1934 documentary about Adolf Hitler). Directed by Ridley Scott, the film focused on an American operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, that went wrong. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, the troops sent to rescue the crew were cut off and a large-scale armoured operation was mounted to extract them. At the end of the fight 19 Americans were dead and hundreds of Somalis. The way the film portrays these events is one of the most blatant and unashamed displays of racism and colonialism in modern cinema. Brave, decent, white soldiers, who are only there to help, are shown fighting off hordes of crazed black Somalis. The moment when some of the heroes are overwhelmed and disappear beneath the mass of black savages is absolutely appalling. Black Hawk Down makes The Alamo and Zulu look politically correct. Predictably the film had the enthusiastic support of the Pentagon. At the end of the film the names of the 19 dead Americans appear on the screen. The hundreds of Somalis who died never get a mention. Originally the text included a statement that many of the US soldiers who fought in Mogadishu and were extras in the film were now involved in the invasion of Afghanistan, but this was cut.

Black Hawk Down was rushed into the cinema to cash in on the upsurge of patriotism that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks. It caught the tide. The anti-war films that Hollywood could still make in the 1990s (Wag The Dog, Three Kings) are now a thing of the past, no longer possible in the new climate. Even a rather anodyne spy thriller like Tony Scott's Spy Game had scenes showing the CIA as a terrorist organisation cut in response to 11 September. What we have to look forward to instead is Rambo IV, in which Stallone apparently hunts down Osama Bin Laden, due out later this year. You have been warned.
John Newsinger


DVD

WHEN YOU HEAR THE WARNING

The War Game
Dir: Peter Watkins


With Bush's recent adoption of a pre-emptive nuclear strike strategy, and the increasing anxiety we feel about living in a more unstable, conflict-riven world, the DVD release of The War Game could not have been more timely. The War Game, produced 38 years ago, is a drama documentary about a 'limited' nuclear attack, and still retains its political impact and urgency.

The War Game, set within the times of bristling aggression between the Great Powers, imagines a period of 4 months leading up to a nuclear attack. In a dispute over Berlin the US launches a pre-emptive strike of tactical nuclear weapons. The madness of the situation spirals when in retaliation the USSR launches an attack against Britain. The War Game then goes on to expose the flimsy and comical nature of the civil defence measures for ordinary citizens. The critique is sharpened by drawing on the disaster wrought by the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima. The ineluctable descent into mass killings, maimed bodies, psychological trauma, mass civil unrest, mercy killing, disease and food riots, are given the most vivid realisation. This chronicle of terror almost places The War Game in a genre of its own--the 'political horror' movie.

Watkins deploys all the techniques of the traditional newsreel to the most subversive effect. Shot in grainy black and white imagery, with sudden zooms and an expertly wielded cinéma vérité camera style, it creates a rare immediacy. Juxtaposing quotes from pro-bomb establishment sources, graphics and title, overladen with a wonderfully deadpan mock-authoritative voice-over, serves his purpose powerfully. The vox pop interviews are so natural and emotionally naked that it is hard to believe that these amateur actors from Kent are actually performing.

The War Game is suffused with moments of raw passion and a rare intensity of vision but also dry sardonic humour. The following sequence encapsulates the approach. A firestorm wreaks its terrifying damage on an estate. An awesome windstorm blows through and a juddering out of focus camera just manages to capture the scene. A voice-over calmly states a family is burning alive in one of the houses. Then crash cut to a quote from the Catholic church stating that they believe nuclear weapons can be used with wisdom.

The power of the filmmaking is beyond doubt, and not surprisingly it garnered awards worldwide, including an Oscar. Here Watkins' work is liberated by a decent budget and a brevity that is sometimes lacking in his later but still impressive projects. Efforts at the time to marginalise The War Game as somehow artistically feeble are clearly exposed as politically motivated. There have been many attempts to mimic Watkins' approach in this documentary but his work here is unmatched.

But there is another story here, narrated in this DVD special feature, namely the controversial banning of The War Game by the BBC until 1985. When the BBC saw this chilling exposé they took soundings from the Home Office, Ministry of Defence, the post office, military chiefs of staff and the secretary to Harold Wilson. For all their much-vaunted avowal of independence from government control, the BBC followed the advice of the state and promptly refused The War Game a broadcast. Most of the press, of course, argued for its suppression. 'Brilliant. But it must stay banned. It is a brilliant film, a brutal film. But I would never let any son of mine see it', said the Daily Sketch. Kenneth Tynan of the Observer was more insightful when he described it as a 'warning masterpiece'.

If ideas are weapons then this is a smart bomb into the heart of the nuclear war game strategy.
Stephen Philip


Theatre

TEMPESTUOUS TEXT

The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
National Theatre, London and touring


Charles Edwards and Janet McTeer in 'Duchess of Malfi'
Charles Edwards and Janet McTeer in Duchess of Malfi

Whenever a new production emerges of this famous Jacobean political thriller--stuffed with sexual intrigue, ritual torture, multiple murder and religious hypocrisy--audiences flock in, eager for a new twist on the bloodthirsty plot and tempestuous text.

The original story comes from an Elizabethan tale by court writer William Painter. The duchess, a widow, is forbidden to marry again by her brothers Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal because they want to control her wealth. Ferdinand hires Bosola, an assassin, to spy on the duchess. But with the help of her lady in waiting Cariola, she disobeys them by marrying her steward Antonio in secret and having three children with him. When Bosola finds this out all hell breaks loose.

Ferdinand and the cardinal plot the seizure and murder of the duchess, Antonio and two of their children, which Bosola, with the help of soldier-police, doctors, priests and executioners, organises. The plotters themselves then turn on and destroy one another, and the duchess's baby son is held up as the hope of the future.

The play's moral message condemns the misdeeds of the nobility and 'allurement' in women, reflecting a society in upheaval over the rising fortunes of a new merchant and the spectre of women with property seeking social independence.

There are plenty of nightmarish treats here. Janet McTeer dazzles as the eponymous heroine, revelling in her sexuality, romping like a lioness with her children, undercutting her brothers' mercenary coercion with affection and rationality. Lorcan Cranitch is brilliantly pragmatic as Bosola, double-crossing and double-crossed, in thrall to his treacherous craft and his fear of retribution. Ferdinand, played by Will Keen, sputters with repressed incestuous and homosexual feelings, full of fury, ambition and guilt. The language explodes like fireworks.

The staging is an auditorium, mirroring the theatre itself, with benches separated from the main action by a glass partition, creating a combination of gameshow and zoo. More surreally, terrifying projected montage image sequences blare out as the duchess is tortured, hinting broadly at an artistic descendant and admirer of Webster--Harold Pinter. Both dramatists deal with the chilling conundrum of love among tyrants and despots.

The play was virtually unseen for 200 years, cast off for smuttiness and 'perversity'. Only with the arrival of the 20th century could audiences relate once more to its grisly depiction of historical upheaval, the collapse of the old state order and the visceral competition for social power. Feminism has uncovered another layer--why is the duchess not permitted to control her own body and property? And what recourse does she have when even the moral base of the church upholds her oppression?

Contemporary audiences can also get their teeth into the problem of the play's sexual morality--if the duchess is a victim of corruption, why do she and her children have to die for the tactics she adopts to survive? The starkest clash between religion and the female occurs when the cardinal kills his adulterous mistress to stop her spilling the beans about his crimes, by smothering her with a poisoned Bible.

Watching the play was a thrilling, sometimes puzzling, yet gruelling experience.
Nicola Field


PRIDE BEFORE THE FALLS

A Night in November
by Marie Jones
Tricycle Theatre, London


Kenneth Norman McCallister is a Protestant 'dole clerk' living in Northern Ireland. He has been brought up to believe in the inherent superiority of Protestants over 'pope lovers' and 'Fenian bastards'--his Catholic neighbours who he has been told to patronise and dislike. But there is a problem. For all his fake pride, he realises his job is less secure than he was told, and he is beginning to question his attitude towards Catholics.

The moment of revelation comes when he accompanies his father in law to a football match between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Kenneth is disgusted at the bigotry--the screamed obscenities and abuse, and the shouting and taunting of Irish players with 'trick and treat' (the words uttered by Loyalist gunmen before they massacred Catholics in a Belfast pub).

Quickly Kenneth's identity--as a proud Protestant--unravels. Condemning his father in law he says, 'Sixty five years of salt in the earth bigotry and 65 years of being at the bottom of the heap.' The rest of his life soon follows. He resents his wife's refusal to confront the foulness of 'Ulster bigotry', and he builds a friendship with his Catholic supervisor, Jerry, at the dole office--who he has worked with for 15 years. At one point he humiliates an unemployed Catholic man who comes in to sign on, making him wait for a nonexistent appointment. When the man returns the following day and bitterly complains, 'How you could treat another human being like that?' Kenneth is left facing his sectarian upbringing. He resents himself for refusing to act. 'If I wasn't such a stupid, soulless man,' he says.

The second part of the play is his transformation. From the fragments of his broken life he takes on the bigots all around him. The ignorance of his community and the petty mindedness of his wife shock him. At his 34th birthday party he asks his assembled friends what they thought of the behaviour of Protestant supporters at the football game. To their astonishment he launches a blistering attack on bigots and the cowards who don't speak out--at last he has found the 'fucking balls to condemn them'.

When Kenneth takes Jerry home he drives for the first time along the Catholic Falls Road, between tanks and families. Taught to patronise and look down on Catholics, he ends up admiring Jerry: 'I live in the same country as him, but I envy him.' He envies his freedom from bitterness and hate, and his love for his wife.

The final part of the play sees Kenneth drive across the border to Dublin and fly to New York for the World Cup game between Ireland and Italy--'to be', he declares, 'an Irishman.'

This is a startling and brilliant play about the regeneration of a broken and crooked humanity. It is told through the story of an 'ordinary' man who finds the 'fucking balls' to condemn his old world.

Marty Maguire gives an astonishing one-man performance, playing by turns the drunk football fan, the crowds of Irish supporters in New York, and his revolting father in law. He does it on an almost empty stage, bare except for three steps painted red, white and blue. The play walks a tense and exhilarating tightrope between moments of great humour and poignancy. As the playwright, Marie Jones, confesses, 'I write about ordinary people. The people I write for are the people in my plays. I love to be described as a populist playwright.' Her plays are explicitly about working class life in Belfast, and the poverty, despair and hope shared by both Catholics and Protestants.

At the end of the play Kenneth tells his Catholic friend who he met for the first time on the way to the States about his true identity. As the lights dim in the theatre he announces, 'I am a Protestant but I am an Irishman.'
Leo Zeilig


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