Issue 277 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review




Cultural currents

Arresting heart of darkness

ER's visit to the Congo was revealing in unintended ways, writes Mike Gonzalez

UN troops failed to bring peace in the Congo
UN troops failed to bring peace in the Congo

ER recently took a holiday from the urban nightmare of Chicago on the verge of collapse. Doctors Carter and Kovac, the intense and melancholy leads, went off instead to taste (briefly) the more tangible violence of the Congo, in the episode called 'Kisangani'.

As always, it was well made, well acted, tense and urgent. The violence was suggested, if not actually shown--and most of the episode shot in a kind of threatening semi-darkness. A week later Sam Kiley's Dispatches on Channel 4 walked through an eastern Congo in blazing, brutal colour. He walked in and out of makeshift clinics where human beings with severed limbs talked with a strange kind of blankness about their own terrible experiences. On the news bulletins the Liberian tragedy was represented by lines of frightened and paralysed people waiting for rescue. They didn't seem to know that those they were looking to for hope had fuelled and often financed the violence that was destroying their lives.

It may well be that ER sent its good-looking heroes to the Congo with the best of intentions. After all, it has a liberal take on urban America and a healthy distaste for managers, corrupt politicians and the exploiters of the poor. But in the end it is always about individuals and their choices rather than the external realities that shape and limit those choices.

Perhaps there was a thought that the insular US, which has even less knowledge or understanding of the continent than the ex-colonial European powers, might learn something about the horror that was Africa. But if that was the intention it failed. Instead, yet again, it emerged as a kind of rerun of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In the novel--still a startlingly powerful insight into Europe's visions of the Other--Kurtz has become mad, or at least violent and primitive, as a result of entering the 'heart of darkness'. His later reincarnation, Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, transformed him into a Special Services officer 'gone native' in South East Asia.

However it was reinterpreted, the 'darkness' of Conrad's universe was a place of moral bankruptcy, a wilderness without the civilising rules of the west. Critics have argued for years over whether Conrad's vision was racist. It seems pretty clear that it was. Of course, the writer was making a general point about what happens when people lose their moral focus, their ethical judgment. The consequence was barbarism. But it was equally clear that for him the moral world was firmly established in the west--and it was the primitive world of the colonies that still harboured those powerful forces and instincts that brought crisis and destruction in their wake.

Viewers should not panic, however. I see little danger that Kovac or Carter will strip to a loin cloth and paint themselves white like Brando's Kurtz--although there is a darker side to Luka Kovac which occasionally surfaces in drinking bouts and monologues in Serbo-Croat.

Because, in the end, Africa is a backdrop--the real interest is in their personal dilemmas. Carter needs to shrug off the burden of class and his overly delicate sensibilities--he needs, in a word, to become a man. Luka is shrugging off his demons there--and incidentally experimenting with sex in a tent. Africa here is not reality but a metaphor for their inner turmoils. Once resolved, they'll return to that other, urban, jungle and get on with holding off chaos there.

'Kisangani' purported to confront the violent reality of Africa. In fact, it presented a blank sheet imprinted with Carter's guilt and Kovac's bad memories. In the real Kisangani (once Belgian Stanleyville), however, the huge hospital buildings paid for by western aid that mostly went into the private bank accounts of the dictator lie empty. In the east of the country, as Sam Kylie showed, educated men in shirts and ties organise massacres.

The simple response would be to see all this as a confirmation that Africa is a wild, savage and barbaric place. The reality, of course, is that the organisers of mass murder are often articulate and invariably western-educated men, like Charles Taylor in Liberia. What's more, they are usually engaged in a commercial war for the enormous wealth that those endless pictures of poverty and desperation conceal. The weeping men and women have nothing to eat--but under the ground there are billions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold and oil--'diamonds in the soles of their feet' as Paul Simon put it once.

The savagery that we are presented with as a kind of cultural practice is in fact a very modern war fought with modern arms over the commodities that fuel a global economy. The 'heart of darkness', the source of moral corruption and violence, may in the end be much closer to Chicago than Kisangani.



Pugilist Specialist
by The Riot Group/Adriano Shaplin
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

The Riot Group contemplate war
The Riot Group contemplate war

Leon Trotsky argued that cultural creations, whether they be novels, paintings or plays, should be considered first in terms of what he called 'the laws of art', rather than simply 'the laws of politics'. This is a lesson which should be learned by a number of writers and companies who brought work to this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The aftermath of 9/11 and the US's ongoing 'war on terror' were, unsurprisingly, major themes in many of the plays. However, the quality of the work was massively variable. Some pieces were little more than one-dimensional polemics, and would have been better written as pamphlets than plays. Others grasped the central importance of aesthetic sophistication in the making of powerful political theatre.

The best of the anti-war theatre by some distance was Pugilist Specialist, the latest work by acclaimed young American ensemble The Riot Group. The company has already had sell-out audiences, and picked up a clutch of awards, for their 1999 play Wreck the Airline Barrier and last year's brilliant satire of the US news media's response to 9/11, Victory at the Dirt Palace.

This summer they blew audiences and critics away with Pugilist Specialist, a wonderfully complex, satirically revolutionary image of a US marines 'black operation' to assassinate a key figure in Bush's so called 'axis of evil'. From the very first lines of the play, when female marine Lieutenant Stein peels away at her role as 'military spokesmodel', we know that we are getting more than a standard left wing demonisation of the US invasion forces.

Writer Adriano Shaplin (who also plays the part of repressed, seemingly ultra-macho Lieutenant Freud) has created a carefully and densely written political comedy which excavates, among other things, questions of gender, race, obedience, deception and personal motivation within the US military. US history and literature form a subtle and intelligent backdrop as personal and political schisms begin to develop within the assassination squad. Shaplin has set his drama up perfectly for his searing final comment on US imperialism's profound need for enemies.

The good news for socialists and anti-war activists is that a British tour of Pugilist Specialist, from Brighton to Glasgow, and many places in between, is currently being planned. No one who likes to see superbly written, beautifully acted radical theatre should miss the opportunity to experience one of the most talented ensembles and one of the genuinely great writers working in theatre today.
Mark Brown


Edward II
by Christopher Marlowe
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

Edward II
Edward II

The hugely enjoyable production of Edward II condenses 23 years of action into just under three hours of stage time, and it successfully conveys Marlowe's vision of the interplay between personal tragedy and historical process.

The play addresses Edward's efforts to revoke the banishment of his lover Piers Gaveston with the help of his wife, Queen Isabella. This leads to the defection of Edward's brother and close ally, the Earl of Kent. The balance of power subsequently shifts and gives momentum to the play's second movement--civil war. After Edward's defeat of the rebels, and the flight of Isabella's ally Lord Mortimer, the play's final movement begins--the hunting down and death of the king.

Marlowe's play (first performed around 1592) relentlessly questions prevailing social conventions and places Edward's and Gaveston's relationship in an entire network of power struggles within the social order. Although the historical Gaveston was a member of the gentry, Marlowe lets him rise through the ranks from the peasantry, which combined with his homosexuality enrages the nobles to the point of plotting his abduction and murder.

Even Edward's wife and son turn out to be no more trustworthy than his allies at the court. When dispatched to Normandy to defeat the French king's invasion, they immediately start to plan the assassination of Edward on their return to England. In the hands of a playwright with a taste for cruelty, the characters' individual sufferings are dramatised as intensely physical, and Edward's murder is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of onstage violence in English drama.

The doubleness of the main characters--Gaveston, a loyal lover of the king who also exploits his position, Queen Isabella, the apparently sad wife of an indifferent husband, but also an adulteress who suggests various assassination plots--are vividly portrayed by the all male cast.

The Globe's informal atmosphere and the open air venue contribute to the appreciation of Marlowe's dramatisation of class conflict, splits in the ruling class and sexual politics.

In addition to its well established all male productions, the Globe has for the first time this year introduced a women's company, which will be performing Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew as part of its season of Regime Change.
Berit Kuennecke


Hobson's Choice
by Harold Brighouse
Young Vic, London, then touring

When I heard that the Young Vic was planning to do radical things to Hobson's Choice I wasn't happy. My only previous contact with the play had been the wonderful David Lean film version in 1953. I'm very loyal to that straight retelling of the stage play, which has a magnificent central performance by Charles Laughton as the grotesque patriarch Henry Horatio Hobson.

The play was originally written by Harold Brighouse in 1916, apparently inspired by the sight of lines of servicemen on their way to be slaughtered on the battlefields of France. A shocked Brighouse wanted to write a play where convention was overturned and people with no choice--Hobson's Choice--took control over their own lives.

The original play is set in turn of the century Salford in the successful boot shop owned by the boozy and pompous Hobson. The woefully oppressed but talented Willie Mossop makes boots people want to buy and Hobson's eldest daughter Maggie does everything else. Hobson, busy drinking away the profits, is confident that things will continue like this for ever. Maggie has other ideas and sets about changing her--and Willie's--life completely. To do so she has to overturn every convention and obligation that Edwardian society expected from a woman and it makes for a great play.

The version by Tanika Gupta updates the story to the Asian community in modern day Salford. Harry Hobson becomes Hari Hobson, owner of a tailor's shop that specialises in exquisite saris. Maggie becomes Durga (the eldest of his three daughters) and Willie becomes Ali Mossop--the object and subject of Durga's plans of transformation. I shouldn't have worried. The play works splendidly in its new environment. The performances are outstanding, the sets fantastic and the whole production brims with creativity and dynamism.

It could be argued that the message of the play is that anyone can 'make it' through hard work, thrift and education. Yet I think that is only one interpretation. This is a play about the possibilities of transformation and change, even as the original play has been transformed. The appearance of a sexy and confident Ali in the final act, light years from the timid and exploited mouse earlier in the play, has everyone cheering and is the key to the play for Tanika Gupta: Hobson's Choice is the journey of Ali Hobson's Choice is the journey of Ali Mossop. He displays the inherent potential of all human beings to transcend their origins, condition and position in society.'
Sasha Simic



The Boy David Story
Dir: Alex McCall

The Boy David Story follows the life of a baby born in 1974 with a horribly disfigured face--a big hole where a nose should have been, half a mouth and two normal eyes. He was abandoned in a Peruvian forest. He was found and taken to hospital in Lima where the long saga of rehabilitation and plastic surgery began, covering in all 85 operations (70 before he was 14), mostly performed in the US, for which there were few precedents to help the surgeons. Just one of these--using bone from his skull to build a nose--took five hours.

The surgeon was a Dr Jackson, who had to devise all the medical and surgical steps and who in the process became emotionally involved with the child, so that when he became old enough for the US immigration authorities to start intervening and refusing to allow him to stay in the country, Dr Jackson and his wife Margery decided to adopt the boy. But this also presented problems. The authorities, both American and Peruvian, would not budge without a birth certificate for the boy.

And so began an amazing journey by Margery Jackson back in the Peruvian jungle to try to find David's parents. Travelling vast distances, through jungles, over mountains, over lakes, on roads largely unmade, Margery amazingly managed to find David's family.

Now the Peruvian authorities made difficulties, a new law due to be enacted making conditions for adoption almost impossible. Margery had five days to the deadline. She travelled 500 miles a night to reach the little village where David's parents and eight siblings, a poor family, lived. With the help of the president of Peru and his wife, the birth certificate and other legal requirements were obtained.

By this time the case had become headline news, and the Jackson family converged on the village from Scotland, Canada, the US etc to celebrate. The adoption was granted by the judge 12 hours before the law changed. This tense scramble with the immigration authorities of the US and Peru is the highlight of the film.

David went to an ordinary school between operations, but children can be cruel. Besides jibes, he was made to eat his lunch facing the wall, so as not to 'upset' other children. However, he was, aside from his disfigurement, a healthy, lively, sporty, friendly and very bright child. He was excited at the prospect of getting 'a real nose', and after its appearance he went from strength to strength. He did well at school and went on to graduate from an art school. He got a graphic design job with a firm, and after successfully dealing with customers, set up on his own. One unresolved issue is whether he should endure further operations to perfect the plastic surgery, as his current appearance is a remarkable transformation but not yet completely natural. Whatever the case, he seems very happy with his circumstances.

The film, photographed over 20 years in Peru, Spain, Britain and the US, is a remarkable testimony to what can be achieved--as the film says, 'a miracle of surgical skill and of what love can do'.

Indeed so. Which makes one think.

I would call a current equivalent of David Lopez the Iraqi 12 year old Ali Abbas, who lost both arms and was badly burned in the Iraq war. Newspapers and charities are vying to help him, and he has been flown to Britain to get the best treatment. The Guardian article about him tells the true story. It is headlined 'One Ali Saved, But Thousands More Are Suffering'.

And what about the thousands of children with HIV in South Africa and elsewhere who miss out because the drugs are too expensive and the drug companies fight to keep them so? Do the president and his wife bless them with love and technical skill to cure them?

This film is very moving. If it inspires a fight by Third World people for much more medical aid from first world governments it will serve a useful purpose.
Chanie Rosenberg



Goodbye Swingtime
Matthew Herbert Big Band
Accidental Records £13.99

Matthew Herbert
Matthew Herbert

Being any kind of conscious artist under 21st century imperialism is fraught with contradictory tensions. Aesthetics v politics? Art v propaganda? Individual v the masses? Local v global? Innovation v tradition? Particular v genre?

This CD is an exciting attempt to grapple with all these questions in a musically intricate and arresting work which deserves huge recognition. As he explains on his website, 'At a time of war, it is a difficult task to know where to place music. Contemporary music, like much western culture is again at a crossroads. Does it describe, critique and contribute to the urgent political questions of the day, or provide an alternative, prescribing different rules and espousing its own values?'

Matthew Herbert works under various guises. He is Wishmountain, Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy or, simply, Herbert to a techno/house audience and is a globetrotting club DJ. But he's also a precocious musician, touring Sweden with his own Glen Miller style big band at 16, having played violin and keyboards from the age of four. With his father a BBC sound engineer, it's little surprise that he tends to define himself very much in relation to technology.

His 'Personal Contract for the Composition of Music' is an aesthetic manifesto which bars the use of any already existing sound, especially sampling other tunes. No synthesised instrumental sound can be used where the financial and physical possibility exists of using real instruments or musicians. Any preset FX must be edited out of all programming technology to be used. Sounds that can be used must be generated as found sound by the composer/performer. All technical equipment used must be listed and made public.

Prompted by DJ Gilles Peterson to put this project together for the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival, the bulk of recording was undertaken in the infamous No 2 studio at Abbey Road in July. The acoustic possibilities of the four trumpets/trombones/saxes, piano, bass and drums line-up plus vocalists were fleshed out with arranger Pete Wraight, then augmented by thousands of recordings Herbert made over the following ten months.

These recordings were largely structured by anti-war literature and protest. They include London marchers on 15 February, printing-out data from anti-capitalist websites, and quotes from Chomsky, Pilger, Palast, Moore, et al.

Goodbye Swingtime therefore manages to look forwards and backwards, spinning so many of the plates of artistic contradiction simultaneously. Explicitly attempting to rescue big band swing from its connotations of decadence and opulence, Herbert is also exploiting the creative sonic possibilities of cutting edge gizmos.

He is also adamant about avoiding the corporate structures of the music business. The work is wholly controlled by the artist and its contributors from conception through distribution, licensing, publishing and performance. Herbert refuses to market or merchandise. The liner notes state, 'If you'd like a T-shirt/ record bag/ mouse mat/ mug/ pencil/ SUV with our names on, feel free to make it yourself.'

There is wonderful vocalising and playing, arrangements which echo musical strands from Brecht/Weill, Archie Shepp or George Russell to Frank Zappa and Charles Mingus, as well as the percussive and melodic construction of musique concrete. The sense of political struggle is expressed most through harmony v dissonance rather than lyrics, and it is very much as art rather than propaganda that it works so well.

Herbert's manifesto can be read at
Nick Grant

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