These pieces are listed in order. Just scroll down to find them. – The Deep Blue Sea / Reasons to be Pretty / The Arsonists / Dancing at Lughnasa / Old Times / Far Away / Faith Healer / Iron
A Look Back at ‘The Deep Blue Sea’
Most of the reviews and analysis of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ focus on Hester Collyer’s broken marriage and her unhappy relationship with the ‘feckless’ Feddie Page. The play is understood principally as a love story, and some critics even see it as a roman à clef about the suicide of an ex-lover of Terence Rattigan’s.
I think that, really, it’s about the aftermath of the Second World War, and the unsettling changes to post-war British society. Remember that it’s a play from 1952, only seven years after the end of the war, when many of the old pre-war values and certainties were being swept away. As part of this change, Rattigan’s elegant drawing-room productions were about to be usurped by the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of John Osborne and the ‘Angry Young Men’ generation. ‘Look Back In Anger’ opened in 1956, just a few years after ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, and Osborne’s powerful new vision suddenly made Rattigan look old-fashioned and out-of-touch. But it seems to me that – despite superficial differences – both plays are actually about the same thing.
Rattigan’s central character is Hester Collyer. Characters’ names are often indicative, and ‘Hester’ is from the Greek – meaning ‘Star’ or ‘Beacon’. She’s a beacon of the social and sexual developments that were starting to occur. ‘Collyer’ is derived from collier. Hester’s estranged husband Sir William is a judge, but his ancestors were probably miners – what a social leap his family has made! No wonder he wants to keep the pre-war status quo.
Ironically, Hester has ended up in the same sort of run-down flat that Jimmy Porter inhabits in ‘Look Back In Anger’. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, while Jimmy’s wife Alison is the daughter of a retired Indian Army Colonel, back home after years “commanding the Maharajah’s army” before the Partition of India in 1947. Hester and Alison: two upper-class women, who have both broken with their families and ended up living with damaged men.
Damaged. Hester’s Freddie is obviously suffering from what would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress. He’s been a Spitfire pilot in the war, so has probably killed many men, and seen a lot of good friends killed. Now he’s alcoholic, and unable to commit to a steady job or to an emotional relationship. Not uncommon – Freddie’s ex RAF pal Jackie Jackson seems pretty damaged, as well.
Jimmy Porter is an intolerable bore and a bully, but he’s suffering some form of Post-Traumatic Stress too, like Freddie. Jimmy wasn’t old enough to be in the war, but as a youngster he spent a whole year watching his father die of wounds (and probably the effects of torture) sustained as a fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Now Jimmy can’t settle for ‘normality’ and ‘peace of mind’ – he rails against what he sees as the lack of authenticity, of real feelings, of any discernable change, in post-war Britain – and especially in his wife. Freddie and Jimmy: two men living with women more upper-class than themselves. Notice how in both cases their names are diminutives – Jimmy, Freddie – like two small children hard to take seriously.
The post-war, post imperial world has been turned upside down. 1956 was the year of the Suez debacle, remember – that harsh lesson about the shrinkage of British power. Alison’s parents spent most of their lives in India, serving the Empire, and Alison herself has lived a life of sheltered comfort and privilege. As she says to her father – “You’re hurt because everything has changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it”. Hester’s father and her husband are pillars of the Establishment, but she’s desperate to find some authenticity (that word again) – in her own life. She’s broken away from her marriage because she has emotional and sexual needs that her husband can’t satisfy. The trouble is – her lover Freddie can’t satisfy them either, and she’s at the end of her tether.
Jimmy went to University – not the kind you ‘come down’ from at the end of three years, but good enough to give him an education that has widened his intellectual horizons and lifted him out of his class. But he hasn’t got the family money or connections to build a satisfying career on the back of his degree, and so he’s running a sweet stall in a Midlands town. The huge expansion of post-war education didn’t change Jimmy’s life prospects – just made him unsatisfied and resentful, and he takes out his anger on his wife.
So we have a pair of plays featuring couples whose lives have reached a dead-end – almost literally, in Hester’s case. It needs an external agent to get their lives moving forward. In Rattigan’s play it’s ‘Doctor’ Miller. Miller is German – referencing the war again. He might be homosexual, or perhaps it was political, but for whatever reason he left Germany in 1938 and was interned as an alien on the Isle of Man. He’s served time in prison, too – remember that being gay was still a criminal offence in the fifties. Like Hester, he’s left an intolerable situation and struck out for change, regardless of the cost. He’s a survivor – his message to Hester is that she must be a survivor too.
In ‘Look Back In Anger’ it’s Helena. Alison’s upper-class actress friend comes to stay in their bedsit and manages to pull Alison away from Jimmy’s anti-establishment life and back towards her family and the Church. After the pregnant Alison has left, Helena’s happy to bed Jimmy (it seems that opposites attract) and become his surrogate wife. But when the real wife returns, after she’s lost their baby, it’s Helena who deliberately takes herself out of the equation, leaving the couple to rebuild their relationship after Alison’s finally had her real (authentic) experience of suffering.
Two plays that are almost mirror images of each other. They are historical documents, too. Small, intimate domestic dramas giving us a perspective on the tectonic shifts taking place in British society sixty years ago. At the time they were written, John Osborne was considered to have totally eclipsed Terence Rattigan, and the Angry Young Men were in the ascendant throughout the Fifties and Sixties. From a twenty-first century viewpoint, though, it seems to me that Rattigan wrote more realistic, rounded characters, and his themes are more universal and timeless. ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ seems the better play, and significantly, in recent years it’s had a number of revivals – now including ours.
Published in the New Venture Theatre newsletter – April 2017
Rats in a cage – ‘Reasons to be Pretty’ by Neil LaBute
It’s the buzzer that does it for me. Loud, harsh and completely inhuman, it breaks into Greg and Kent’s conversations in the staff-room, insistently summoning them back to work. If they don’t move pretty quickly it sounds again, menacing, causing Kent to worry that if they’re late they are “gonna get written up” by their manager.
This is the reality of shift work in a twenty-first century capitalist economy. The guys work in some kind of warehouse or distribution centre – it’s not specified but the exact location doesn’t matter – what matters is that their time, a lot of hours out of every day, is not under their control, it’s not their own. In the scenes at work, we only see the staff room, but we hear them talk about the outside; about pallets of products that have to be dealt with, and some of their interactions with other workers. It’s like ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’, but instead of Elsinore offstage, it’s Amazon or Wal-Mart.
They’re working-class men without a decent education and with no obvious career prospects. As are their women – Greg’s girlfriend Steph works in a hairdresser’s and Kent’s wife Carly is working in security at the same warehouse as the guys. Like all office and factory security staff – a uniform, a badge and a torch, and you do the rounds at night checking the doors and windows. Another dead-end job.
The monotony, the boredom and the purely physical nature of the work give these people no sense of fulfilment. But they’re human beings, so they need to carve out a personal identity somehow. Carly has a baby coming, so she will soon have an identity as a mother. Steph, though, is overly concerned about her appearance, her need to be as beautiful as it’s possible to be: as she says – “I don’t have that much going for me, not all educated and smart or anything, and not completely gorgeous, not like some girls out there – but I like what I’ve got and so I’m gonna protect that”
Kent puts his energy into activities outside work – a space where he can exert some power and influence that his job doesn’t allow. Like a lot of men, he finds that power in sport, captaining the company’s baseball team, and he finds it in sex as well. He’s proud that his wife is beautiful – or rather, he’s gleeful that other men find her attractive – but he’s driven to chase other women too. He’s sleeping with a newly employed young woman at the company, and it’s unlikely that this is Kent’s first extra-marital adventure. He’s totally self-centred, constantly trying to put down Greg, who’s supposed to be his friend, and he never allows himself any time for reflection.. A psychiatrist would probably say that Kent is a ‘driven personality’, but it’s the buzzer that defines him for me – he’s trapped, he’s a laboratory rat in a cage.
The main plot device of ‘Reasons to be Pretty’ concerns a remark Greg has made about his girlfriend, suggesting that, though he loves her, her looks are – ‘just regular’. Steph’s devastatingly angry response – screaming abuse, threatening to kill his fish – is incomprehensible to Greg … but then Greg’s not completely hung up on physical appearance. He has wider horizons than the others, he reads classic literature during his meal breaks – Swift, Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving. Greg will escape the cage – at the play’s end he’s got himself enrolled in a university. As he says – “I could stack boxes all my life, but eventually I’d have to buy a rifle and come through here killing everybody and that just seems excessive” A joke, of course, but with an uneasy edge to it.
One of the best things about a theatre like ours is that we are exposed to around a dozen plays a year. If we’re working on them we get to see them close up and we can examine them in detail. I knew nothing of Neil LaBute’s work until Tim McQuillen-Wright started work on ‘Reasons to be Pretty’, but as a result I’ve now read seven or eight of his plays. This piece isn’t a review of Tim’s powerful production – I worked on the lighting so I’m too close to comment – but it’s some thoughts about the economic system that LaBute is describing for us.
Neil LaBute has a reputation of being a misogynist writer. I disagree – there are any number of anti-female and anti-feminist lines in his plays, but they’re all spoken by stupid, badly-educated, self-centred men. The playwright seems to specialise in writing men like Kent, but my feeling is that his real target is not men per se, but rather the economic and educational systems that lead to men and women living lives completely devoid of meaning. As Kent tells his wife, while checking the time – “I don’t like doing a shoddy job, is all. If I do then somebody notices and I’m not the guy they call for the extra shifts or the holiday hours or that type of deal … and you know you like the money”
Money. Driven by the fear of not having enough money to take part in consumer culture. The culture of cars and clothes and being ‘beautiful’. But a culture where the pressure on women to resemble catwalk models produces thirteen-year-old girls suffering from anorexia.
In his introduction to ‘Reasons to be Pretty’, LaBute says – “The play talks a bit about our country’s (and by extension, the world’s) obsession with physical beauty, but it’s really the first coming-of-age story I’ve written. A boy grows up and becomes a man”. In an era of call centres and zero-hours contracts, that story of growth and escape is hopeful. This is a very timely and relevant play.
Published in the New Venture Theatre newsletter – November 2015
Here’s a poster I designed for the production. It didn’t fit the director’s vision of the piece but for me it sums up all the underlying anger, featuring lipstick – something usually used to enhance beauty.
Some burning questions – ‘The Arsonists’ by Max Frisch
This isn’t a review of our production of Max Frisch’s play – I worked on the lighting design so I’m too close to give an unbiased opinion (though I think Sam Chittenden produced a superb result) – but it’s some thoughts about the play’s themes.
I was struck that some audiences laughed a lot at a number of the lines and situations in ‘The Arsonists’, while others did not. If there weren’t enough people to set the laughter off – like kindling starting a fire – then the humour of the piece didn’t … catch. Frisch’s play has some very funny moments, but it’s a dark sort of humour, and it’s almost as if we need permission to laugh. It seems we censor ourselves, and tailor our emotions to what the whole group is thinking.
That’s what the play is about, really. Biedermann is a bourgeois – a prosperous businessman, a homeowner, an upright citizen, a pillar of society. He’s used to being correct in his opinions, to not having his judgments questioned. He has no real sense of community and he sees everything solely from his own point if view – he’s quite prepared to cheat his long-term employee out of his due reward, denying the man any profit from his own invention. At the play’s end, when he can first hear the sirens of the fire engines, Biedermann’s response is – “At least it’s not our house”.
So once the arsonists have talked their way into his house, into his very attic, Biedermann can’t admit to himself that he might have made a mistake. Even when he’s faced with the obvious clue of the drums of petrol, he wilfully denies the evidence of his own eyes. Significantly, when a policeman arrives in the attic and sees the drums, Biedermann has a perfect opportunity to raise the alarm and remove the threat, but he chooses instead to concoct an alibi – that it’s drums of hair-restorer. He’s saving the arsonists from arrest, certainly; but more importantly he’s not admitting his mistake in front of the authorities. Biedermann’s sense of being correct – of living up to his image of himself – won’t let him.
Max Frisch understood psychology very well. This shows very clearly in the way the arsonists deal with Biedermann. When the first arsonist arrives at Biedermann’s house, entering the dining room unannounced and unwelcomed, the homeowner is outraged. Instead of any apology, though, with his first words the arsonist introduces himself – “My name is Schmitz”. From that moment, Biedermann has to treat the intruder as another human being – a person – rather than just as an object or annoyance. Schmitz has made contact, and from then on he never lets go of his prey. He also flatters Biedermann, praising him as a man who “unlike most people” isn’t narrow-minded and has a great sense of fellow-feeling. The kind of man who’d offer a homeless person a place to sleep. Biedermann’s self-esteem won’t allow him to deflate this generous self-image.
The second arsonist is equally skilled at manipulation. When he is discovered in Biedermann’s attic, again unexpected and uninvited; Billy’s opening response, after introducing himself (once again that human contact) is to side with the homeowner against Schmitz – “What! You mean you didn’t tell him?”. Within seconds of being discovered by Biedermann, Billy has almost become the man’s ally. Brilliant tactic.
Frisch wrote ‘The Arsonists’ in 1953, and apparently it’s about the rise of Hitler, and how the German people did not allow themselves to see what was happening in front of them. It works on other levels as well, though.
Climate change is a good example – global warming, rising sea levels. So is the general destruction of swathes of the natural environment, and the loss of so many species of animals that scientists talk of a Mass Extinction, on a par with the cataclysmic meteorite strike that killed off the dinosaurs. But most of our political and business leaders can’t see any problem – choose not to see any problem. That’s partly the profit motive, but also that they don’t want to admit – even to themselves – they were wrong.
I wonder what the UKIP people would think of the play, in the current atmosphere of hysterical Islamophobia? Here we have a couple welcoming strangers into their home, in spite of dire warnings in the newspapers, an action which ends up in a conflagration that burns down most of the town. I tend to see the arsonists as Anarchists rather than Nazis, but they could represent any group seen as ‘alien’. Muslims?, Immigrants? Foreigners? Remember the racist Enoch Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech?
And the constant scrutiny and warnings of the Firefighter Chorus, which Biedermann resents as an intrusion of his privacy, feels like the Government demands for total surveillance. CCTV cameras everywhere, GCHQ snooping into our phone and internet traffic. I wonder what Edward Snowden would think of ‘The Arsonists’?
I don’t know anything about Frisch’s politics – he was German-Swiss – but it’s the mark of a great work of art that it can be interpreted in many ways. His play posed more questions, more moral dilemmas, than anything I’ve seen for quite a while.
Published in the New Venture Theatre newsletter – July 2015
More than just dancing – ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ by Brian Friel
I’ve seen several productions of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ over the past few years, and they all seem to treat Brian Friel’s play as some kind of Irish family saga crossed with ‘Riverdance’. The posters for the productions, too, almost exclusively feature exuberant women dancers, high kicks and swinging dresses, and – just occasionally – the 1930s Marconi wireless whose music they are dancing to. Sounds like perfect West End family entertainment; five bonny Irish lasses, the Mundy sisters, looking for love – and husbands – in a heartwarming yet tragic family romance, intercut with some great dance routines.
But Friel is writing about much deeper and darker themes than that. The action takes place just outside Ballybeg, a village in Donegal, in the late summer of 1936. The first day of August was traditionally Lá Lughnasa, the festival of Lugh, the old Celtic God of the Harvest. Pre-Christian, of course – Pagan if you prefer – and a source of great unease to the staunch Catholics of the Irish republic. Because the bonfires of the Lughnasa festival still exert a pull on the population up in the hills – and out of sight of the church.
As Rose Mundy tells her sister Kate – “First they light a bonfire beside a spring well. Then they dance round it. Then they drive their cattle through the flames to banish the devil out of them”. Kate is a stiffly Catholic school-teacher, and horrified by – “talk like that in a Christian home, a Catholic home”, but later she reveals she’s heard that – “They were doing some devilish thing with a goat – some sort of sacrifice for the Lughnasa Festival”.
The Mundy sisters have a older brother, Jack, a priest who left Ireland many years before to work as a missionary in Africa. Father Jack has recently returned home, ostensibly for ‘health reasons’, but it’s becoming apparent that he has been sent back in disgrace after ‘going native’ and adopting the religion of his Ugandan tribe. As Jack explains to his sisters, he and the others – “offer sacrifice to Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish. Or maybe to get in touch with our departed fathers for their advice and wisdom”.
Father Jack tells how the ceremonies – “begin very formally, very solemnly with the ritual sacrifice of a fowl or a goat or a calf down at the bank of the river. … Then the incantation – a chant, really – that expresses our gratitude and that also acts as a rhythm or percussion for the ritual dance … And then we dance – and dance – and dance – children, men, women.”
Magic and dancing – doesn’t sound too different to the goings-on outside Ballybeg. The Mundy sisters dance ecstatically too, in their kitchen, but they are driven by a different form of magic. In rural Ireland it’s the newly acquired radio that is calling up the dances, songs and culture of the Irish people, only recently freed from English imperial domination. Michael, son of one of the sisters and the play’s narrator, tells how – “I remember my first delight, indeed my awe, at the sheer magic of that radio. I remember the kitchen throbbing with the beat of Irish dance music beamed to us all the way from Dublin.” Eamon de Valera is mentioned in the play, and his nationalist vision for the Irish had people ‘dancing at the crossroads to the old Irish songs’. Kate herself, Michael tells us, had been “involved locally in the War of Independence”.
It’s 1936, remember, and radio is working its cultural magic not just in Ireland but all across Europe. Michael’s father Gerry is going off to Barcelona to fight in the Spanish Civil War, against the nationalism of Franco but also against the rising Fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. All of these dictators used radio to tap into ancient tribal feelings and loyalties in their populations. The year before, the Italians had invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), intent on incorporating that country into a new ‘Roman Empire’. Rose is ‘a bit simple’ (now there’s a term you don’t hear any more) and although she’s thirty-two her first words in the play are a song that she’s heard schoolchildren chant –
“Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come? Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun. Mussolini will be there with his airplanes in the air, Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come?”
In ‘Understanding Media’, Marshall McLuhan wrote that – ‘England and America had been inoculated against radio by long exposure to literacy and industrialisation. The more earthy and less visual European cultures were not immune to radio. Its tribal magic was not lost on them, and the old web of kinship began to resonate once more with the note of fascism.’ In Ballybeg as in Barcelona, industrialisation is unsettling the existing social structures and people seek reassurance in older cultures and beliefs.
Sisters Rose and Agnes Mundy have been scraping a living as home workers, but later in the play the narrator tells us that – “The following night Vera McLaughlin arrived and explained to Agnes and Rose why she couldn’t buy their hand-knitted gloves any more. Most of her home knitters were already working in the new factory and she advised Agnes and Rose to apply immediately.” They don’t apply, of course – Rose would never be able to keep up with the pace of factory work – and so without any employment the family’s income is cut even further. Soon the two disappear; like so many others, they’ve left to look for work in England. Brian Friel is weaving another – economic – strand into his narrative.
Schoolteacher Kate loses her job too. In her case it’s because the parish priest, who also heads the village school, is horrified by the revelations about Father Jack, and her brother’s disgrace extends to the whole Mundy family. She has kept badgering Jack to begin celebrating the Catholic Mass again, and he keeps putting off the moment.
Near the end comes what seems to me to be the climax of the play. Rose has a cockerel that she regards as a pet, and as the stage direction puts it –
(Rose enters the garden from the back of the house. At first nobody notices her. In her right hand she holds the dead rooster by the feet. Its feathers are ruffled and it is stained with blood. Rose is calm, almost matter-of-fact.)
“The fox must have got him”, says Rose. Her sisters act very calmly, so as not to frighten Rose, asking – “Did he get at the hens?”. Being ‘a bit simple’ can save an awful lot of horror sometimes. It would seem that Father Jack finally got round to performing his religious ceremony, just not the one that everyone was expecting …
And yet – Kate may be horrified by Father Jack’s ritual killing of the rooster as a substitute for the Mass, but what is the Mass itself other than the ritual consuming of the flesh and blood of Christ? Further – as an old Republican, even she must have been aware that the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had no hope that it would succeed in itself, rather they saw it as a ‘blood sacrifice’ which would inspire the Irish people. Staging the Rising at Easter increased the symbolism.
So that’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’: Comparative religion, media studies and economics – with some dancing …
“I remember you dead” – ‘Old Times’ by Harold Pinter
“So what in God’s name was it all about?” I can’t remember any production that caused such confusion as to its meaning – if indeed Pinter’s play has one. Director Steven O’Shea wisely decided to avoid trying for any interpretation, preferring to play it absolutely straight and let Pinter’s enigmatic lines speak for themselves.
I’ve read the text a number of times while working on it, and subsequently read criticism and analysis of the work. Some critics suggest that the action takes place in one of the character’s minds, or that one of them is dead, or Anna and Kate are the same person, or that Anna represents parts of Kate that aren’t reconciled to her marriage. Personally, I think that Pinter has put enough clues into the text to make a coherent story, so here’s my take on it, for what it‘s worth …
I think that Deeley met Kate in London when she was a vivacious, exuberant young secretary, and subsequently married her and took her to live deep in the country. He’s a dominant, controlling personality, and over the years of their marriage he has crushed all the spark out of his wife. At the start of the play, Deeley and Kate anticipate the arrival of Anna (supposedly Kate’s old London room-mate from twenty years before); but – significantly – Anna is present on stage by the window throughout this section, while the couple discuss her.
If Anna was truly coming to visit, why have her present on stage before she arrives? But it makes sense if Anna is actually Kate’s younger (London) self. Not exactly a split personality per se, and certainly not two different people or a ghost, but something more like Kate’s memories from that previous time. A lot of the dialogue is taken up with Anna’s exotic life in Sicily, and I feel that this represents the future that Kate could have led, or hoped and expected to lead, before she met Deeley.
Anna constantly refers to the vibrant cultural life that ‘they’ led as secretaries in London, while Kate responds that – “I was interested once in the arts, but I can’t remember now which ones they were.” Deeley occupies himself – who knows how? – except that it takes him away from Kate for long periods. He’s certainly not the world-renowned film-maker that his increasingly fantastic inventions suggest – “As a matter of fact I’m at the top of my profession, as a matter of fact … I wrote the film and directed it. My name is Orson Welles.”
He gets angry and dismissive about Sicily – “I’ve been there. There’s nothing more to see, there’s nothing more to investigate, nothing!” – as Kate questions Anna about her life there – “Do you drink orange juice on your terrace in the morning, and bullshots at sunset, and look down at the sea?” Sicily seems to be a metaphor for all the excitement that Kate isn’t having in England.
Anna tells Deeley about Kate devouring the arts review papers when they shared a bedsit, and how one Sunday they went together to some obscure cinema and – “almost alone, saw a wonderful film called Odd Man Out.” But five minutes before, Deeley has recounted how he first saw and picked up Kate, on a Sunday afternoon in a cinema watching ‘Odd Man Out’, with Kate the only other person in the cinema.
Now obviously only one of these accounts can be true, so it’s possible, as Anna says, that – “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” I think that Pinter is planting a false clue here, trying to lead his audience to think that all these ‘memories’ are false. But if ‘Anna’ is actually the part of Kate’s psychological makeup that was the culture-vulture before she met Deeley, then it’s reasonable to think that both parts of Kate/Anna went to see ‘Odd Man Out’, but that Deeley met only the one woman, who was (of course) named Kate.
Early on Kate tells of Anna stealing her underwear. Later, Anna recounts how – “I borrowed some of her underwear, to go to a party” where “a man at the party had spent the whole evening looking up my skirt.” And that – “from that night she insisted, from time to time, that I borrow her underwear … and each time she proposed this she would blush, but propose it she did, nevertheless.” But a few minutes before this, Deeley has insisted that he had met Anna long ago, and that he had taken her to a party where he had spent the evening looking up her skirt.
If we think in terms of Kate/Anna, then Anna would seem to be the more sexual, adventurous part of the joint personality; the one that Kate suppresses – kills off – later when she starts a serious relationship with Deeley. A major theme of ‘Old Times’ is the man who appears one night in Kate and Anna’s room, who sits sobbing in a chair before standing over both women’s beds, looking down at them in the darkened room. Finally he leaves, returning later to be seen by Anna lying across Kate’s lap on her bed. Anna recounts the story first, in Act One, and it’s returned to by Kate at the play’s close. But Kate’s ending is different – she says (to Anna) – “But I remember you. I remember you dead.”
Kate continues – “I leaned over you. Your face was dirty. You lay dead, your face scrawled with dirt … After all, you were dead in my room.” Significantly, Kate refers to ‘my room’, not ‘our room’, and later she talks about the man – “When I brought him into the room your body of course had gone.” … “We had a choice of two beds. Your bed or my bed. To lie in, or on.” Kate has made a choice. As the saying goes – you make your bed and then you lie in it …
Dirt as a metaphor for sex? Interesting that Kate takes a long bath in Act Two, and that Deeley is obsessive about how clean she gets herself, and whether she’s ‘properly dry.’ Kate goes on – “He thought I was going to be sexually forthcoming … I dug about in the windowbox … and plastered his face with dirt. … He would not let me dirty his face, or smudge it, he wouldn’t let me. He suggested a wedding instead, and a change of environment.” Is this why Deeley was sobbing?
This would seem to be the moment in Kate’s life where she decided that her future lay with Deeley, and that she would have to give up the more vivacious aspects of her personality – possibly the more sexual ones, too. Deeley himself talks a lot about gazing at women’s thighs and their underwear, but doesn’t seem to mention much actual sex (except the prostitutes in his film-maker fantasies). It’s probably significant that Kate and Deeley appear not to have produced any children.
And a final thought. Given that Anna is actually Kate’s memory of her pre-Deeley life in London, and represents her unfulfilled hopes for how her life might have been, the whole play could be seen as an extended argument between the couple about the state of their marriage and life. Maybe they have this same argument every night …
Published in New Venture Theatre newsletter Feb 2014
Once upon a time – ‘Far Away’ by Caryl Churchill
Everyone agrees that Caryl Churchill’s ‘Far Away’ is a dystopian vision of a nightmare world convulsed by violence and war. Its setting is unspecified, but it can’t be that far in time or location from our own – people go to college, watch television, drive trucks and have pet dogs.
The story is told in three acts. In the first, young Joan is staying with her aunt Harper, and sees something outside during the night. She gradually reveals more and more details of the horrific scene she has witnessed – people being herded into confinement and beaten – and her aunt weaves ever more complex and improbable explanations of what has occurred.
In the second act Joan is grown to womanhood. She must be in her early twenties as she has recently finished college, and she is working in a factory designing and constructing elaborate hats. In conversation with Todd, who has been a hatmaker there for several years, it gradually becomes clear that the hats are to be worn by prisoners on their way to execution. We are obviously in some kind of police state, with State Trials and executions of large numbers of people, and we see a procession of them; ragged, beaten, chained, wearing their preposterous hats. The young people are not concerned with this, however, but are obsessed with the internal politics of the factory and the finances of the hatmaking industry.
The third act is the most obscure part of the play. It’s several years later, and a war is in progress in which both Joan and Todd (now married) are taking part. They are meeting at Harper’s house, and we see the three of them discuss a surreal conflict in which not just people but animals, vegetation and even noise and light are mobilised. The general critical consensus seems to be that this is meant to symbolise people’s helplessness when faced with modern war – a sense that everything is out of joint and that there’s no meaning left.
On the surface each section is very different, especially the third act, but I think that there is an underlying theme linking each part, and which gives a coherence to the whole play. It seems to me that ‘Far Away’ is about the stories and evasions we tell each other, and ourselves too, to obscure terrible things we don’t want to think about, or to screen us from unacceptable truths.
Young Joan sees people being herded into a shed and beaten, and her aunt Harper spins evasion (“…that’s just friends of his your uncle was having a little party with.”) after evasion (“One of the people in the lorry was a traitor … then he attacked your uncle, he attacked the other people, your uncle had to fight him.”) to befuddle the little girl (“…You’re part of a big movement now to make things better. You can be proud of that.”). So who are these people, where are they living and what is going on?.
For me it has the taste of the recent Balkans, with paramilitary militias carrying out massacres and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of rival populations. It’s not a military operation – the people arrive by night and in secret, and Joan’s uncle doesn’t appear to be a regular soldier. Joan has just arrived at her aunt’s house, but there are hints that her own home and community has experienced violence and she may be a refugee herself ( “I’ve been to a lot of places. I’ve stayed with friends at their houses. I don’t miss my parents if you think that.”) and (“Do you climb out of the window at home?” … “I can’t at home because – No I don’t.”)
At first sight it’s Harper’s increasingly inventive explanations that hold the audience’s interest, and the fact that, by the end, the little girl is prepared to be convinced and in fact wants to help, but I am struck that Joan may not be as clueless as she seems. She holds back her own information (“I heard a noise”) and lets her aunt spin an explanation before raising the stakes (“It was a person screaming.”). She does this repeatedly, almost as if she is leading her aunt up towards something that she knows is terrible, but that she wants to have made safe for her. I wonder who is really in control in this scene?.
The second act brings to mind the Show Trials in Russia, Hungary and other Iron Curtain countries in the fifties, where ‘Enemies of the State’ confessed to all kinds of sabotage and anti-social activities in rigged judicial performances. These were organised to browbeat the population into obedience, and also to provide a legal fig-leaf for the liquidation of opponents of the regime. That’s obviously happening here (“I stay up till four every morning watching the trials.”) and is endemic (“I’ve been doing parades for six years.”) so that Joan and Todd know very well what is going on (“It seems so sad to burn them [the hats] with the bodies.”) but they never discuss the executions at all.
This is real Orwellian double-think. Joan and Todd obsess about the design of the hats -(“I don’t understand yours but I like the feather.”) and finance (“…we could expose the corrupt financial basis of how the whole hat industry is run.”) but they have pushed the bigger picture, of what they are doing and how the hats are used, right out of sight. Psychologically, they have blocked out everything that they presumably would be horrified with if they faced it full on. But they also compete in making up stories and fantasies, as if their brains need to be constantly diverted from the awful horror that threatens to overwhelm them. (J. “Your turn.” … T. “I go for a swim in the river before work.” … J. “Isn’t it dangerous?” …T. “Your turn.” …J. “I’ve got a pilot’s licence.” …)
Act three makes perfect sense if we think of it in these terms, with the themes and treatments being consistent throughout the play. A war is in progress – again somewhere like the Balkans would fit the case, and rival populations are being murdered. They may well be neighbours – think Bosnia, Beirut…or Belfast – and so the perpetrators need to put some psychological distance between themselves and their victims.
‘Vermin’ is a good start. Nasty, dirty creatures – getting rid of them becomes a public health project. ‘Dogs’, ‘Rats’, ‘Pigs’, ‘Snakes’, ‘Insects’, ‘Shit’ will all do. Good riddance to all of them. After all – ‘They breed like rabbits’. ‘They breed like flies’. ‘They follow like sheep’. ‘They live like animals’. The Nazis used ‘Untermensch’ – sub-human, but what about ‘Gooks’, ‘Yids’, ‘Blacks’, ‘Yellow Peril’, ‘Rag-heads’, they have all been used extensively – anything will do so long as it dehumanises the human being you are about to abuse or kill.
So I think the third act is all about euphemism. (“You were right to poison the wasps” … “Yes, I think the wasps have got to go.”) We can’t face the enormity of killing close neighbours so they become, in a grotesque version of the game Joan and Todd played in the hat factory, (“The car salesmen.” … “Portuguese car salesmen.” … “Russian swimmers.” … “Thai butchers.” … “Latvian dentists.” …) and so on until they get to the truly bizarre – (“The Bolivians are working with gravity, that’s a secret so as not to spread alarm. But we’re getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar.”)
Seen from this perspective, Todd’s speech about his experiences becomes really chilling.(“I’ve done boring jobs. I’ve worked in abattoirs stunning pigs and musicians and by the end of the day your back aches and all you can see when you shut your eyes is people hanging upside down by their feet.”) It would seem that Todd’s speciality is in some kind of torture or extermination camp. Names in plays are often relevant, and I’m struck that Todd is very close to Tod – ‘Death’ in German. (“I’ve torn starlings apart with my bare hands. And I liked doing it with my bare hands.”) Suddenly I can see Todd called ‘Death’ by his fellow fighters, and probably with that reputation among the prisoners, and needing a drink after a long day’s killing …
Similarly, Joan’s final speech, viewed through this lens, is actually about the war. When she talks about crossing the river, I think that what she is actually talking about is taking part in the war. Joan is a killer now; she has developed from the innocent girl of the first two Acts, but she’s not sure how the river (the war) is going to turn out – “it might help me swim or it might drown me” She has to take part, though (as her whole community is doing), so – “at last I put one foot in the river” … “When you’ve just stepped in you can’t tell what’s going to happen.” You are going to end up killing people ( as her uncle had done in Act One ) and it may be for the good, or maybe not – but you can’t help being involved … “the water laps round your ankles in any case.”
As with all wars involving rival clans or ethnic groups – think Bosnia, think Lebanon – alliances coalesce and fracture. Last month’s allies become today’s sworn enemies. Sometimes it happens so quickly that you can’t keep up with who you should be hating. Here Todd hasn’t yet learned that ‘the deer’ have come over to his side, and Harper is quick to jump on any hint of dissent with the current line. Orwell did this in ‘1984’, with the ‘hate meeting’ where the alliances changed during the duration of the speeches, and so suddenly the banners were naming the wrong enemy and had to be pulled down. Orwell, of course, was involved in precisely this situation during the Spanish Civil War, with internecine fighting between different Republican and Anarchist groups, and alliances shifting week by week.
So this play is actually about creating stories, to cover over events that are too terrible to confront head-on. These people are telling each other, and possibly more importantly – themselves, what are essentially fairy tales. The main purpose of fairy tales is to allow children to examine adult realities of loss and exclusion in a medium that is both comfortably foreign and a safe distance from the real events. Traditionally, fairy stories locate themselves at that safe distance by the opening line – “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away …”
Calvary – ‘Faith Healer’ by Brian Friel
‘Faith Healer’ is described in my Faber edition of Brian Friel’s work as ‘a complex metaphor of the artist who is possessed by a gift over which he has no control ‘ , and ‘how return home out of exile leads to death’, where ‘ the men who kill the faith healer are intimate with him, for their savage violence and his miraculous gift are no more than obverse versions of one another ‘. It’s about ‘the closeness between eloquence and violence’ which always ends in disappointment ‘all the more profound because it is haunted by the possibility of miracle and of Utopia’. All true, I’m sure, but I think that there is another, richer, possibility that the text is showing us.
The play is the story of Frank Hardy, who plied his intermittently successful trade of healing the incurable around small halls in Scotland and Wales, before returning to his native Ireland, where he met his death at the hands of a group of men in a pub yard. This much, at least, is certain. These few bare facts recur in the four monologues which compose the play.
The opening and closing monologues are spoken by Frank Hardy himself, and the others by Grace, his long-term, long-suffering girlfriend (or maybe wife), and by Teddy, his long-term manager. These two have been pulled into Frank’s gravitational field and seem unable to leave. Grace gave up a career as a solicitor and left a respectable middle-class family to follow Frank, and while Cockney Teddy remembers his previous showbusiness acts, he seems to have devoted himself solely to Frank for a number of years, travelling around the country with the other two in an old van.
Like the four Gospels of the New Testament, these accounts are often at odds with one another over facts and interpretation. For example, Kinlochbervie, a village in the north of Scotland, is where, according to Grace, she delivered her stillborn baby which Frank buried and raised a cross over the grave. In Teddy’s account, Frank was absent and Teddy himself helped to deliver the baby, burying it afterwards and then painting the wooden cross. Frank mentions Kinlochbervie only as the place where he heard that his mother was dying. Again, Frank straightens a deformed finger on that last night in the Ballybeg pub, but in his version he does so because he was asked, while Grace insists that Frank offered, afterwards turning to her with “That’s just the curtain-raiser”.
Frank’s father Jack is a police Guard in his monologue, while he is a storeman in Grace’s version. Kinlochbervie during their stay was rainy in Grace’s account, while for Teddy it was sunny. And so on. Interestingly, the three accounts of the return passage to Ireland are not just in complete agreement but are word perfect, as though some latter-day Council of Nicaea has fixed on the Authorised Version. For my feeling is that what we are being given here are in fact a set of gospels, incomplete and often contradictory, which are meant to bring to mind the Gospels which record the life of a much greater Healer.
The parallels between Frank Hardy’s life and that of Jesus are too many to be coincidence. Both heal the incurable, Jesus more successfully (but of course those stories are the ones that made it into the Gospels) and both attract disciples – for that’s really the only word to describe Grace and Teddy. Frank’s father, it seems, was called Jack. Now Jack is not the commonest familiar form of Joseph, but it’s not unknown either, so his father could well have been Joseph. And his wife, Frank’s mother, was Mary.
Frank’s little party never spend time in England; they wander round Wales and Scotland, provinces of England as Galilee and Judea must have been to the Romans. Villages, mostly – ‘Hardly ever cities or towns because the halls were far too dear for us’ says Frank, bringing to mind a line from T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of The Magi’ – ‘and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly’ – until they get to Kinlochbervie, where Grace gives birth in the back of a van – that being the closest modern equivalent of a stable.
But Frank’s baby is stillborn, of course. This is no Bethlehem and there are no Magi. Just the words ‘Infant Child’ painted in white on a wooden cross. Not just ‘Child’, but ‘Infant Child‘, with capital letters, pointing us both to Nativity paintings and also to the letters themselves – I.C. which is often how J.C. is written or carved. Kinlochbervie, too, is not simply a northern Scottish village, it’s an important fishing port where catches from Iceland are landed and processed and must have been occupied by trawlermen and their families. (“I will make you fishers of men …”)
And finally Frank returns to Ireland, that land which has felt the heavy hand of Empire well into the twentieth century. Friel is steeped in the details of Irish history, from the Ordnance Survey by the British military in 1833 (in ‘Translations’) to the Troubles of the 1970s ((in ’Freedom of the City’ and ’Volunteers’) and the final section of the play, where Frank enters the yard behind the Ballybeg pub, reads like a description of an execution ground. “…just after dawn. The sky was orange and everything glowed with a soft radiance – as if each detail of the scene had its own self-awareness and was satisfied with itself. The yard was a perfect square enclosed by the back of the building and three high walls.”
Was this how it looked when they shot the leaders of The Easter Rising ? – MacDonagh and MacBride, and Connolly and Pearse – as Yeats lists some of them. The 1916 Rising, whose protagonists knew that it would fail in military terms, but who recognised that a ‘blood sacrifice’ would have a moral and political resonance far beyond the events themselves, so that ‘a terrible beauty is born’ .
It could also be Calvary, of course – “in the corners facing me and within the walls were two mature birch trees and the wind was sufficient to move them.” Whatever happened to Frank in that yard, he had on either side of him a tree, stationed like the two subsidiary crosses next to The Cross. That was a blood sacrifice, too, where Christians believe Christ gave himself to save humanity.
There was doubt at the Crucifiction as well. Jesus cried out, asking if he had been forsaken, but it seems that for Him the moment of doubt passed. Frank had always had doubts about his power, his gift. – “Faith healer – faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility. Let’s say I did it … because I could do it. That’s accurate enough. And occasionally it worked – oh, yes, occasionally it did work. Oh, yes. And when it did, when I stood before a man and placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation. … because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless and because I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself.”
Was Jesus himself also undermined by doubts? Was he sure of his mission and his destiny? Was the Passion not in part a chance to prove himself, to put his own faith on the line? For years Frank had kept a newspaper report of a night when he healed ten people in a small church hall in Wales. “Never knew why I kept it so long. Its testimony? Its reassurance? No, not that. Maybe, I think, maybe just as an identification. Yes, carried it for years; until we came back to Ireland. And that night in that pub in Ballybeg I crumpled it up and threw it away.”
Frank, in that yard, having to face up to his doubts – “And although I knew that nothing was going to happen, nothing at all, I walked across the yard towards them” – and experiencing the same relief as his moment of doubt also passed. “As I offered myself to them, then for the first time I had a simple and genuine sense of home-coming. Then for the first time there was no atrophying terror; and the maddening questions were silent. At long last I was renouncing chance.”
So what in fact happened? Brian Friel leaves the final act open to conjecture. Obviously Frank was killed by the men, but did he allow it to happen, willingly, to sacrifice himself – offer himself as a sacrifice – to make McGarvey whole again?
Was McGarvey restored to health?
Nobody says. This is a play principally about doubt – the doubt of the individual that their talent, their gift, is real, and that it remains potent. But it’s also about the doubt inherent in any record, how it only approximates to the truth at best, and may well be completely false. By setting up the unreliable accounts of the life of Frank Hardy against the often contradictory accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Friel makes us question our response to both.
Perhaps finally it’s all a matter of faith.
Whodunnit – ‘Iron’ by Rona Munro
The front of my copy of ‘Iron’ carries a picture of a young woman, presumably Josie, seated at a table holding a garden trowel. The play is mainly concerned with the relationship between Josie and her mother Fay, who has spent the last fifteen years in prison for the murder of her husband, Josie’s father. There are various scenes set in the prison garden, and Fay tries to get her daughter to remember the garden in the house where they once lived, so initially I assumed that the trowel was a visual reference to the play’s gardening themes.
Well-written drama carries multiple layers of meaning, though, and it soon becomes apparent that ‘Iron’ is a play about memory. Josie can remember nothing of her life prior to the murder of her father when she was aged ten, so she has come to see Fay to dig into her past and get some answers about her parents’ life. Her mother has never revealed anything to anyone about the murder, and Josie also needs to know what can have driven her to kill.
One interpretation of the play sees Fay as a manipulative murderer who has never admitted her own guilt, but for this reader at least, the text is far from clear on who the murderer actually was. Josie’s total lack of memories points to some incredibly traumatic event which has taken place, and this is the central device of the play; child abuse is of course a possibility though never mentioned, but there are a number of references to her father’s violent behaviour towards her mother. My feeling is that, whatever the motive, Josie herself killed her father and her mother is protecting her from the memory of that terrible moment.
I also think that there is a more coherent narrative development this way, with a working-out of events that were not obvious at the beginning. Otherwise we simply have an angry murderer who is finally badgered into admitting that she lost control. Not much of a journey for the character.
When Josie first appears at the prison, she is dressed smartly, though rather formally, in black, and she seems to have had an unhappy emotional life and very few friends. She is troubled, and in great need of finding memories to give her back her past. Her mother is keen to supply details of their earlier life with her father, but steers well clear of anything to do with his death. Fay is very adept at painting word pictures which bring the past alive for Josie, and ecstatic that she has regained her daughter. She will remain in prison, but she wants to live vicariously through Josie, and keeps urging her to go out and enjoy herself.
But Josie wants more. She wants to reopen the trial proceedings and go over the events with her solicitor and a psychiatrist. She thinks that her mother might have been justified in killing her father and therefore eligible for appeal and release. This is the one thing that Fay fears. In the hands of a psychiatrist, Josie’s role as killer might well come out, and she wants to save her daughter from that knowledge above all else. After all, if Fay had indeed killed under overwhelming stress then why has she remained silent for fifteen years? She could have appealed years ago and probably been released, but her overriding need was to protect Josie, and to that end she has remained silent and sacrificed her freedom.
At this point, there is a very significant stage direction (page 92) – ‘A long pause. Fay is just looking at Josie, a very, very painful decision is forming in her.’ After this moment Fay changes tack and forces Josie to relive the murder of her father, taking the role of his killer for herself. Her plan is to plant a false memory in her daughter, and Fay skilfully uses all the stock tabloid newspaper images of killers to do so:
“I’m probably already in the early pub by the docks, swallowing my rage.”
“I was just sitting, just sitting in my chair like a coal burning in the fire, so full of anger I couldn’t move. I felt like I was scorching my own clothes but I never made a sound.”
“I felt my lips pull back from my teeth in a snarl like a dog’s.”
“I bared my teeth like a wolf. Like a demon.”
“I felt there was a devil in me.”
“I felt I was the devil.”
“I think I was the devil then, or his dog.”
“I had a kitchen knife in my hand. I don’t remember picking it up but it was in my hand.”
“I stuck it in him.”
“You should remember your Dad and go away from here and never come back.”
This is the stuff of hysterical journalism which sees ‘Evil’ as something tangible and completely irrational, a form of demonic possession. These are the stock phrases that Fay will have found in press accounts of murders, and she stitches them together to create a picture that her daughter will believe. And it works; Josie leaves, never to see her mother again, implanted with a fake memory to protect her against the past and open up her future. Authors often give their characters names which are significant, and I don’t think it’s by chance that the family’s name is Kerr, making Fay … Fay Kerr. Faker.
And the name Fay itself is a variation on ‘fairy’, along with ‘faerie’, ‘fae’ and others. A common trait of fairies is their use of magic to alter or disguise the appearance of things, just as Fay does here. The one thing which can harm fairies, and which is used for protection against them, is … iron. The good-luck superstition of nailing an iron horseshoe to a house door is actually for protection against fairies. Rona Munro has chosen her names well.
We see Josie one last time, when she comes to make financial arrangements for her mother, and it is obvious that Fay‘s deception has borne fruit: ‘Lights up on the interview room. Josie is waiting. She looks quite different. She’s wearing red. She has large earrings on, she looks as bright and sparkly as anyone could get away with, she’s still on the right side of classy. She looks very good.’
In the last scene, Fay is in the prison garden with one of the guards, and is discovered smuggling a stone into her cell. We’ve learnt earlier in the play that prisoners use these to sharpen metal objects to kill themselves. (The bedstead that Fay will open an artery on is of course made of – iron). The guard’s response (she hates Fay) is to let her keep it: “Just keeping your options open, Eh? Och well, what’s life without choices?”
Indeed. What is life without choices? Finally, Fay has done all she can. Like so many mothers before and since she has sacrificed herself for her child. She has given her daughter back her life, and now she can take her own. This way there will be no second thoughts, and both of them will have peace.
Published in New Venture Theatre newsletter Oct 2011