Issue 273 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Theatre enters stage left

Mike Gonzalez explains how theatre can be a forum for debate and encourage collective action

The latest 7:84 production, Dario Fo's 'Can't Pay? Won't Pay!'
The latest 7:84 production, Dario Fo's Can't Pay? Won't Pay!

Recently I was rereading some of John McGrath's essays on political theatre in his book Naked Thoughts That Roam About. McGrath, who died last year, set up the 7:84 theatre group (7 percent owning 84 percent of the wealth) to create an agitprop theatre for the generation of anti Vietnam War protesters.

Of course, anyone who was around then will remember those terrible plays where someone with an eyepatch or wearing a bin liner gave a long lecture on surplus value to a willing audience. Or those interminable songs delivered with an earnest warble to three chords on a guitar that warned a complacent world that 'the new times are a-comin'.

But there was good political theatre too, the kind that McCrath was often involved in creating. His 1973 piece 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil' took on myths of Scottishness, the realities of the oil industry, and the speculators and property magnates who wanted to turn Loch Lomond into a theme park. And he did it with music, wit and laughter as well as passion. Did it affect political life? I think it did. It created a place for debate in a spirit of joyful argument and banter; it took politics into the realm of passion and gave it a common language; above all, it located theatre once again in popular traditions of cabaret, communal singing, circus and cartoons.

Most importantly, perhaps, it tried (and sometimes, but not always, managed) to put the recognisable lives of real people on the stage. It's a tradition Ken Loach has tried to maintain in cinema. But film can't reproduce that sense of intimacy that the theatre can give you, that feeling that you could reach out and touch these half-familiar people--and that they'd respond in predictable ways.

There are still people out there who have survived from those times--Trevor Griffiths, David Edgar, and some others. But in these recent weeks, as a new movement has taken to the streets and tentatively tested out new slogans, or the old ones with adaptations, you couldn't help feeling that it was time for the return of agitprop, of an unashamedly political performance that was part of our reappropriation of the world. There has already been some of it in the anti-capitalist movement--those turtles and samba bands that brought together world music, the environment and the discarded props department of some closed-down TV studio.

It is important to remember what McCrath said in his famous piece 'A Good Night Out'. It isn't enough to be politically correct; political cabaret is not a lecture delivered in a funny hat. It can be subtle and searching, tender and disturbing. Above all, as McCrath says, it has to be funny, musical, and rooted in popular traditions of challenge and satire.

You might argue that the telly has killed all those traditions--that the only humour anyone wants is Jackass and the public humiliation (voluntary or not) of ordinary people for the pleasure of others like themselves. It's what the mass media would like us to think--that the relentless narcissism of Friends, where people spend years examining their own or at the very most their best friend's embarrassment, is all there is. That we can only be moved to react by the spectacle of someone naked in a shopping mall or drowning in a barrel of beer.

But hundreds of thousands of us have left the sofa and gathered in the street. And having taken it back perhaps it's also time to make it into a cultural space again, a place of argument, debate, encounters--a place to be collective. Theatre has its place there--to inform, to argue back, to act out with others the past and the future and cross the line between art and ourselves.

In recent years, art has been taken from us as a means of understanding and expression. The artists we see and hear the most are selfabsorbed and uncommunicative. Their works are often big but they are usually private nonetheless, forged in a language that excludes an audience who can only be spectators. But look what happens when Anthony Gormley puts art back into the world-like the Angel of the North or his recent project to fill a museum space with the bodies of living people.

Theatre, too, seems to have become increasingly divided between the intensely private and the public spectacle. We go to admire and gasp, not to be drawn in. Dario Fo was one theatre maker who tried by every means to overcome that distancing and draw his audiences back into an active conspiracy with the writer and the actors. But in the end the success or failure of his work could only be measured in the rising numbers becoming active in the world.

It's time to leave Lloyd Webber and Damien Hirst behind and create an art that unashamedly connects with public questions--and work to create the open collective spaces where they can be asked and answered.


Film

OASIS IN THE TEXAN DESERT

The Life of David Gale
Dir: Alan Parker


Kevin Spacy and Laura Linney in 'The Life of David Gale'
Kevin Spacy and Laura Linney in The Life of David Gale

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States, Texas has led the way in the administration of legalised murder: 299 executions have taken place in the last 27 years and George W Bush presided over 152 of them as governor.

The Life of David Gale is a film about the death penalty and is set in a university campus, that of Austin, Texas, and is about the terrible situation of its leading philosopher, Professor David Gale, played in his usual understated style by Kevin Spacey. It was written by a real-life professor of philosophy, Charles Randolph, and directed by Alan Parker, previously best known for The Commitments and Evita.

Popular, successful and respected, Gate can mesmerise a crowded lecture theatre with a moving description of French Jacques Lacan's ethical principles and later demolish the vile state governor in a televised debate on the death penalty. Austin University is shown as a liberal oasis in the Texan desert, with Gale a the leading light of Deathwatch, a small, dedicated group of abolitionists operating from a ramshackle office.

We first meet Gale, however, when he is interviewed by reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) on death row. He has been found guilty of the rape and murder of his fellow academic and Deathwatch campaigner, Constance Carraway (Laura Linney). The drama of the film hinges on the question of his guilt or innocence as he recounts his life story to Bloom. We discover his alcoholism his egocentricity his collapsing marriage. The plot is deftly handled and a few dramatic twists ensure the tension does not let up.

Carefully wound into this narrative are a number of issues. Perhaps surprisingly, the status of the death penalty itself--whether just or unjust--is not explicitly questioned. Instead, the film focuses more on the nature of political commitment and political involvement. Where it suffers problems is in its portrayal of an exclusively white world of well-meaning activists, divorced from reality through their abstract attachments to high ideals. This seems to be missing out on what drives people to any sort of political position, which isn't simply virtuous appeals to noble causes--the civil rights and black liberation movements grew out of the actual suffering of blacks in the US. Separated from society in a campus bubble, it can sometimes be hard to feel much sympathy for the Deathwatch activists and their austere commitments. The shocking final frames make clear just how austere that can be. For all that, The Life of David Gale is a fast-paced and thought-provoking film.
James Meadway


HITTING THE RIGHT NOTES

Werckmeister Harmonies
Dir: Bela Tarr


This film is directed by an acclaimed Hungarian film-maker, Bela Tarr, whose work was recently celebrated with a retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A more appropriate title would be the name of the novel it is based on, The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasaznahorkai, as that is what the film is about. Its actual title refers to a subplot in which a musicologist is devoted to overthrowing the musical system of Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century musical theorist who believed that heavenly constellations were created by god to influence men.

The story is slim. A large number of people are standing in a Hungarian provincial town centre, freezing from the cold, angry at the privations of their lives and at the authorities' attempt to buy off their discontent by bringing a circus to town, whose main attraction is a stuffed whale, and the promise of a visit by 'The Prince'.

The elements of the plot are not very clearly delineated, but are contemplative and vague, with minimal dialogue. Much more the defining character of the film is the way the story is told, in essence, the camerawork. The photography, in monochrome, is searching and memorable, but the most lasting impression is the long takes of each scene, which allow for intricate camera movements as the characters struggle to find their way through the 'melancholy' of their resistance.

The clop clop of the leading actor's footsteps as he goes from place to place, building up the atmosphere, seems to go on throughout the film, but this does give the opportunity during the lengthy takes of his walking to note small changes of expression, growing tensions, increasing anxiety and frustration. The slow, deliberate and meditative photography and the large absence of dialogue give the work a haunting, poetic quality quite unlike anything else.
Chanie Rosenberg


TALES AND TRIBULATIONS

In this World
Dir: Michael Winterbottom


Jamal is looking for a better life
Jamal is looking for a better life

What do you get if you cross the writer of the doomed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with the director of the feted 24 Hour Party People? A moving, personal story of the plight of asylum seekers, surprisingly.

In This World is the story of Jamal and Enayatullah, two young Afghans scraping a living in Peshawar on the north west border of Pakistan. The city is home to something like 53,000 Afghan refugees (the figure is constantly changing) who fled their country first to escape the Soviet occupation, and more recently the US-led bombing campaign. Jamal who speaks English, persuades his cousin's family to pay his way to help Enayatullah reach England. But ultimately their fate is in the hands of the people smugglers.

This is a passionate film, with just enough of a voiceover to set the scene. The main source of the polemic is the journey itself. It's dusty, dusky, and shot with a handheld camera. Writer Tony Grisoni has said that much of the dialogue was improvised--the script was the route plan. The hard, repetitive and fearful experience is never glamorised or soft-soaped, and is all the more compelling for it.

The line between fact and fiction is always unclear. The lead characters use their own names, and meet people found by the crew undertaking the same journey, whose anecdotes and characters are based on accounts gathered from real refugees. Grisoni gives an example that undercuts the racist image of refugees a a malevolent threat: 'There was this young Macedonian boy...While his [asylum] case was pending, he'd managed to get some work in a pizzeria in Finsbury Park. And the manager trusted him enough to give him the keys. So in the morning, he'd arrive early, unlock and run the place. Then the decision on the asylum came through. And all his friends got asylum and he didn't. And they came for him early in the morning without warning. They came and took him out, and he was really worried because he didn't have time to unlock the pizzeria. He wasn't allowed to get in touch with anyone, he was just on the plane and back. As he was talking he reached in his pocket and took out a bunch of keys. And he said, "But I'm going back. I'm going to go back and unlock that pizzeria".'

David Blunkett and the rest of the anti-asylum brigade should be force-fed this film 24/17. At the press screening the film-makers invited the Refugee Council to distribute some myth-busting information definitely something to repeat if it reaches our town. Its strength lies in an understanding that it is virtually impossible for poor, non-white people to migrate legally to Britain. Faced with poverty and subjugation caused and reinforced by trade, debt and military policies, the distinction between economic and political persecution is often irrelevant. It's no coincidence that the largest numbers of asylum applicants come from Iraq and Afghanistan--countries we are told can be bombed to liberation, but whose people are offered only squalor and oppression from our government.

Jamal, who acts wonderfully throughout, used his wages to make the fraught crossing back to Britain in real life. He has been granted 'exceptional leave to remain' until he turns 18, when he will be deportedor so the rabid immigration service hopes.
Andrew Stone


WHAT THE TOURISTS' EYES DON'T SEE

Life and Debt
Dir: Stephanie Black


Real life in Jamaica
Real life in Jamaica

Get a taste of anti-capitalism Caribbean style. 'No money, no job. Borrowing money to lend. Too much foreign debt'--these are the words of the Jamaican reggae artist Mutabarka in the powerful documentary Life and Debt.

This film exposes the harm capitalism inflicts on a nation and its people by looking at Jamaica, where the IMF has had its claws into the country for over 25 years.

Jamaica usually hits the headlines for its famous tourist attractions or because of violent uprisings. Worst still it makes the news when racist stereotypes label Jamaicans as 'Yardie criminal gangs'. Life and Debt goes beyond the headlines to the real Jamaica by examining the cause of the island's problems.

This former British colony won independence in 1962, only to be left an insolvent economy. Jamaican self rule was never given the chance to make it Prime minister Norman Manley's post-independence acceptance speech attacked the IMF declaring, 'The Jamaica government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale.' But faced with no penicillin in the country and no wheat to make bread, Jamaica was forced to turn to the IMF for help in 1977.

From scenes of an idyllic sunset audiences are taken to the brutality of Jamaican life. The island's news footage shows protests sparked by fuel price increases to bail out bank failures ending in violent unrest in the capital, Kingston. A young pregnant woman and an 18 year old man are caught up in the gunfire and shot dead. The film is narrated by the Caribbean author Jamaica Kincaid and uses words adapted from her award-winning work A Small Place, which examines that postcolonial experience.

Life and Debt uncovers the multinational dominance of the luxury tourist industry, which brings over a million visitors to the island each year. While American tourists can enter Jamaica just by showing their driver's licence there is no escape for Jamaicans. Last year 20 percent of visitors refused entry to Britain were Jamaican.

This film asks why the Caribbean region is mired in poverty. The answer lies with the IMF which imposes crippling debt repayments.

It is a rural country with over two and a half million citizens, 20 percent of the population live in poverty. Jamaican farmers, labourers, factory workers, vendors (market and street sellers) artists and writers featured in the documentary expose the daily hardships they experience. Over 10,000 women work for just £15 per week in substandard conditions for foreign multinationals in Jamaica's free trade zones. Today even the country's food security is at risk. Big multinationals enjoying massive US government subsidies are flooding Jamaica with cheap food to wipe out local producers.

Bananas aren't grown in the US, but that didn't stop the US government doing the bidding of the multinationals Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte at the World Trade Organisation. Caribbean growers lost access to protected markets in the former colonial countries in Europe.

Life and Debt puts global capitalism to the test and the result is a damning documentary the IMF don't want you to see, because this is more than a Caribbean experience.
Theresa Bennett


Theatre

CROSSING THE DIVIDE

Crossing Jerusalem
by Julia Pascal
Tricycle Theatre, London


The Kaufmann family: a tangles mess of secrets and resentments
The Kaufmann family: a tangles mess of secrets and resentments

It's possible to interpret this riveting drama in various ways. Playwright Julia Pascal has created a fiction rooted in 'the everyday lives of Israelis and Arabs during the second Intifada' set in Jerusalem in March 2002, before the mass killings by Israeli occupying forces in Jenin. Specifically, she aims to examine the perspective of a generation of Israelis critical of their parents' Zionism and questioning Israeli government policy.

The action takes place over a 24 hour period as the Kaufmann family, a tangled mess of secrets and resentments, gathers for a birthday celebration just before 38 year old army reservist son Gideon goes off for a stint in the Occupied Territories. The mother, Varda--played by the brilliant Suzanne Bertish--is a domineering property dealer making big money out of developments on what was the Palestinian homeland. She is outraged at the suicide bombings because Israel was supposed to be a safe haven for Jews. She berates her daughter Lee, also a reservist, for wearing trousers and being unmarried and childless--which she considers both unnatural and unpatriotic--and is curiously reticent about her past.

Lee is a fiercely independent teacher at an integrated school. She loathes her mother's chauvinism and wants Jews and Arabs to live alongside one another in peace. But is it the impossibility of this ideal that drives her to a covert life of compulsive casual sex?

Gideon is having marital problems. His wife, Yael, an Arabic Jew, wants a second baby, but he can't discuss anything because he is in an agonised dilemna about the atrocities he is being asked to commit as an Israeli soldier and terrified of the shame of becoming a refusenik. So much for the Kaulfmanns--and the play is gripping as a conscientious and probing examination of generational conflict. For audiences with varying degrees of loyalty to Israel it will provoke recognition and debate, perhaps anger.

At the performance I attended, when Palestinian suicide bombers were described onstage as 'holy martyrs', some audience members laughed. But if there is an Israeli 'side', what of the Palestinian 'side'? Nowhere does the play refer to the US--the handler of the Middle Eastern watchdog that is Israel--except as a place for disillusioned Israelis to escape to. We hear next to nothing of the refugee camps, the economic and social embargoes and the massacres.

It could be argued that a work of art has no responsibility to present a 'fair' view, that there is no 'objectivity', that another play could deal with these factors. But this play does aim to present some kind of balance--and deserves credit for that. It opens with an Arab teenager, Sharif--a Hamas member coordinating some fighting. It later explores his relationship with his brother Yusuf, who works for a Christian restaurateur and dreams of scraping together enough cash to get the family over to the US. There is a sense of their constant struggle against repression and despair. But the play's emotional weight lies solidly with the Kaufmann drama and the tragedy of their destiny. The Palestinians' plight, by comparison, is hearsay.

In keeping with this dramatic partiality, the final message is one of despair. Without consideration of US policy in the Middle East and the politics of the surrounding Arab states, the 'problem' of Israel's aggression is indeed insoluble, and reflecting this, the play has little to offer political other than a series of dilemmas with vague suggestions of reparation. Like Gideon, it is racked by doubts but has no language to resolve them. It is however an outstanding drama and it creates a valuable opportunity for debate.
Nicola Field


Culture

MEME ME UP SCOTTY

Media Foundations
Adbusters


Power to the purchase
Power to the purchase

'The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of their needs, whether they arise from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference. Nor does it matter here how the thing satisfies man's need, whether directly as a means of subsistence, ie an object of consumption, or indirectly as a means of production.'

These words of anti-capitalist insight were first published in 1867, well before the dawn of the modern mass media and their exploitation for global marketing. It was also well before the vast majority of the planet's populace were forced to sell their labour as a commodity in exchange for subsistence wages.

Yet Karl Marx's observations at the opening of Capital seem to have escaped the attention of many who rail against the tyranny of that system in what they see as its distinctively 21st century guise. They seem to think that the commodification of ideas and the manufacture of 'needs' or even 'desires' through practices like advertising was not anticipated.

The Adbusters Media Foundation (www.adbusters.org) is one such exasperating outfit. The Vancouver based 'loose global network of media activists' founded by Kalle Lasn practises 'culture-jamming', stunts intended to break us out of the contrived overconsumption and waste creation that capitalism depends on. For example, they deemed 29 November 2002 to be 'Buy Nothing Day', and coordinated enough donations to buy TV audiences during the Lou Dobbs Moneyline show on CNN. The animated anti-ad featured a pig denouncing viewers credit card enslavement. Michael Moore included his own bit of culture-jamming during his live London shows at the time, getting audiences to surrender their Sainsbury's Nectar cards to him for destruction.

On the war Adbusters' lead response has been a 'Boycott Brand America' pledge, with 20,000 hits as of the eve of hostilities.

Another Adbusters stunt, 'Turn TV Off Week' is planned for 21 to 27 April. Stencil and linocut monoprint posters on their website, reminiscent of Paris 1968, invite us to unplug the addictive TV drip from our lives. With US TV being qualitatively Vauxhall Conference compared to Britain's Premier Division, most US progressives exist without TV already. So such a campaign has a different meaning either side of the Atlantic. But at best it's passive and individualist.

The most regular and visible Adbusters gets is its monthly magazine, the self-styled 'journal of the mental environment'. The November/December 2002 edition was brilliant--its overall theme was 'appetite'. In trilingual text, with a stunning variety of artwork/photography, it assembled a concentrated blast at the most elemental form of overconsumption: obesity, the triumph of fast-food excess, the repository of high fat chemicals-and-sugar crap, a diet rich in profit.

Using laboratory pictures, stats, corporate blurbs, medical analyses, plus accredited artworks, e-mailed contributions from dozens of places and altered images of all kinds, this edition makes for a breathtaking attack on corporate capital.

So where are the contradictions here? Well one of the e-mails proclaims, 'I used to be a fast food eating fat-ass until I woke up and became a vegan I lost about 100 pounds. Just goes to show what breaking off from everyday American culture can get you.' Healthy eating for those who can afford it is to be encouraged. But statements of abstinence like this could just as well be found in some distinctly procapital weight watching manual.

The first edition for 2003 is even more problematic. In conscious juxtapositions that John Berger's Ways of Seeing famously analysed as unintentionally eloquent in mainstream fashion mags and Sunday supplements of the early 1970s, a half-page shot of massed summer airport check-in lines sits above a scene of thousands of scraggy fowl hemmed in to a mirror-walled enclosure, with the slogan 'Nothing exists outside the dominant logic of capitalism'. Another infuriating and anonymous chunk of prose insists that 'Conventional revolution is an empty promise--defiance is futile against a power as great as this one.'

Yet what makes Adbusters worth engaging with is the initial spirit of Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn's manifesto of 1999. Completely contradicting the quotes above, Lasiri claims in his second sentence that 'we can change the world'. He goes on to remind us of a litany of outrageous damage that capitalism has wrought on the natural world including Honno sapiens. His search is for a culture of authenticity, a life worth living.

But when he moves from the why of anti-capitalism to the what of replacing it and the how of overcoming it, he gets pretty silly. His answer is 'meme warfare'! A meme is a sloganised idea with added potency that can 'catalyse 'collective mindshifts'. 'Whoever has the memes has the power,' he claims laughing. Traditional radical actions like sit-ins, mass protest, even riots are belittled as 'spectacles with radium half-lives'. His mentors are Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord, punk, surrealism, Dadaism and anarchism. Belligerence and risk-taking are prized. Idealism is paramount.

Lasin claims as his model of success the battle to 'uncool' tobacco, to undermine the lung cancer profiteers. Apparently, anti-smoking ads in 1969 helped force the ban on all US TV and radio cigarette advertising by 1971. The anti-smoking meme won out, according to Lasn. But he doesn't acknowledge that the pressures from the health insurance industry and corporate insurers to reduce their costs also played a part.

When the West Country satirists Cyderdelic carried their banner 'Overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer' on the 2001 London May Day event they were confirming an Adbusters point about the 'meme' power of slogans. Many commentators missed the piss-take involved in the slogan and took it at innocent face value. The globalised resistance movement is mature enough to tolerate its sardonic critics. But the general mistake of championing consumer revolt is much more debilitating than that.

When Marx also wrote that the alienating impact of capitalism was most intense where it robbed us of control over our own actual and potential power to transform the world through creative labour, he was pointing us in the direction of the strongest lever to overturn the rule of capital--the organised mass of workers producing the profits.
Nick Grant


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page