Rosamicula (rosamicula) wrote,

  • Music:

the roar of the greasepaint

I have seen a lot of plays lately, but have been far too lazy and distracted to write about them, even though they were all well worth recording. I seem to have lost the habit of updating, perhaps because life is generally sweet and therefore dull to write about.

In the company of the delightful, and delightfully-good-at-organising-theatre-tickets webcowgirl, I saw two different perspectives on the 1950s: Absolute Beginners at the Lyric in Hammersmith and The Entertainer at the Old Vic. Absolute Beginners was tame and uninvolving. The set was pretty and clever set but this adaptation had a weak actor in the leading role and a script whose perspective was far too 21st century to cast any light on the middle of the 20th century . I found myself grinding my teeth when one of the racist fights was choreographed to some contemporary (but probably nowhere near as contemporary as the inevitably white middle class twerp who chose it thought it was) hip hop. Given the context reggae would have been at least vaguely contextual. Using rap or hiphop as a signifier of black identity is just so bloody lazy and hackneyed and reductive.

The Entertainer was much better and much more involving, as it should be given that it is, quite simply, a brilliant play. It is a marvellously bitter depiction of the gulfs between generations, classes and genders at the time of the Suez crisis and a portrait of the fissures and untruths and silences at the heart of family life that works for pretty much anytime. The way that booze is used as both a mask and a truth serum is a compelling part of it. It focuses on the figure of Archie Rice, a sleazy, washed-up, cynical music hall comedian. He is a sort of Anti-Falstaff and one of my all-time favourite literary figures (and one of the very few characters I've ever felt the remotest sense of identification with - I used one of his best speeches as my National Youth Theatre audition piece - a very damning indictment of my state of mind at fifteen, especially given that the other one was a big chunk of Blanche Dubois shrieking about not flashing an electric light on her wrinkles). Robert Lindsay was good but a little too sympathetic, giving the impression that Archie was naturally charming behind a mask of cynicism, rather than the other way about, but he was blindingly good at the music hall scenes. Pam Ferris, who has received rave reviews, seemed way too hammy and strident and televisual for his downtrodden wife. The chappie playing the grandfather was marvellously curmudgeonly and pathetic. I'd probably want to play him nowadays.

I bought steer three sets of National Theatre tickets for his birthday. We saw the revival of The History Boys by that national treasure, Alan Bennett. It was funny and touching and very simply produced with the focus firmly on a fine script and the way that the characters' understanding of themselves and each other develops. It's about a group of pert grammar school boys studying for the Oxbridge entrance exams in teh 1980s and thus peppered with snippets of 80s music. Steer thought that the depiction of the school seemed more dated than the eighties. Many of the critics of the original production thought the same, and suggested that it was actually a depiction of Bennett's own schooldays in the 1950s. I disagree, as it was not all that dissimilar from my own education and evoked happy memories of the atmosphere of minusbat's school, though I suppose that's because the education we recieved and the pupil-teacher relationships some of our friends enjoyed were something of an anachronism at the time.

Then we saw Attempts on Her Life which, despite being a revival, was terribly modern and new-fangled, with a nameless cast constructing a series of vignettes of the life of an Everywoman who is variously Balkan, French and South American; a mother, a terrorist, an artist, a mistress, a child and an alien; suicidal and murderous. They make attempts on her life by filming each other acting epiphanic moments and projecting them onto a giant screen behind them. This was nowhere near as bad as it sounds. The opening was incredibly engrossing and it had moments of genius with some dazzling performances but it was too long for me and the ending disappointed, fizzling out somehow. Steer and I both reacted in a similar way to the play, not so much enjoying it, exactly, as being glad that we had seen it. I found some parts of it truly harrowing, because when it worked best the video technique didn't distance the audience but brought us intrusively close to the characters. The play was somewhat marred by two technical breakdowns which brought it to a complete halt and left the actors with nothing to do but sort of bob about like so many pigeons sitting on a fence, distancing me a lot more than I would have liked and making it hard to re-engage when the glitches were sorted.

The NT production I was most looking forward to was A Matter of Life and Death because I love the film and was intrigued to see how it would be staged. commonpeople said that in general, those who knew the film didn't like the play. I tried to like, honestly I did. The beginning reduced me to tears, just like the film. Much of it made me laugh and some aspects of the staging made me gawp in awe and astonishment at their beauty and cheekiness. I enjoyed it all the way up to the staging of the trial, although I did think that neither of the romantic leads was particularly compelling or convincing.

Briefly, a young airman knows he is going to die because his plane is falling apart and his parachute is shredded and in what he thinks are his dying moments he talks to a female controller on the ground. She knows he is going to die, too, and thinks he has. But he hasn't, miraculously he survives, because the agent sent to conduct him to heaven gets lost in the fog (or this is just perhaps what his injured brain constructs as a reason) and because, in the few moments they spoke to each other they fell in love,he wants to stay on earth even though his number is up. The trial takes place in heaven (or in his fevered unconscious as he has brain surgery he may not survive) and it is the most important part of the film. The stage adaptation ran out of steam by the time it got to the trial, which was sketchily conducted, with none of the panache of the preceding scenes, and used as a rather leaden anti-war message (the destruction of Dresden and of Coventry are exactly the same) and then the whole ethos of the story is undermined and the trial made completely pointless by having the airman's fate decided by the toss of a coin, because death is war is a lottery and arbitrary, doncha know? I'm afraid by that stage I was inwardly shrieking 'Oh for fuck's sake. If I had wanted to watch a bunch of acrobats I could have gone to a fucking circus.' It was clever and pretty and beautifully choreographed but ultimately much more satisfying for the actors than for the audience.

Perhaps I was expecting too much to want the adaptation to be faithful to the spirit, if not the letter of the original. The film, which came out in 1946 was not, could not have been, an anti-war film. Instead it was a pro-life (in the literal, not the lunatic sense) and celebrated the individual at the expense of the national, delighted in the eccentric and rejected the conformist - all heady stuff at the time.

There's a transcript of the brief opening scene below the cut. You have to suspend all your cynicism and imagine their voices being tinny and mono, her soft New England accent and his remorselessly stiff upper lip and the growling of the Lancaster's engine gradually becoming a deathj rattle.

Transcript of
A Matter of Life and Death.
Powell & Pressburger

J: Request your position, request your position, come in Lancaster, come in Lancaster

P: Position Nil, repeat nil, age 27, 27. Did you get that? That’s very important. Education interrupted, violently interrupted. Religion church of England, Politics conservative by nature, labour by experience. What’s your name?

J: I cannot read you, cannot read you, request your position, can you see our signals?

P: Oh give me my scallop shell of quiet, my staff of faith to walk upon, my strip of joy immortal diet, my bottle of salvation, my gallon? of glory hope's true gauge and thus I’ll take my pilgrimage. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that, I’d rather have written that than flown through Hitler’s legs.

J: I cannot understand you, hello Lancaster, we are sending signals, can you see our signals? come in Lancaster, come in Lancaster,

flying noise

P: But at my back I always hear, times winged chariots hurrying near, and yonder all before us lie, deserts of vast eternity. Andy Marvel, What a Marvel. What’s your name?

J: Are you receiving me? repeat are you receiving me? request your position. Come in Lancaster

P: You seem like a nice girl, I can’t give you my position, instruments gone, crew gone too, all except Bob here my sparks, he’s dead, the rest all bailed out on my orders time 03.35, d’you get that?

J: Crew bailed out 03.35

P:Station Warrenden bomber group A G George, send them a signal got that?

J: Station Warrenden bomber group A apple G george.

P: They’ll be sorry about Bob we all liked him.

J: Hello G George, Hello G George, are you all right? are you going to try to land, do you want a fix?

P:Name’s not G George its P Peter, Peter D Carter, D’s for David, Squadren Leader Peter Carter. No I’m not going to land, undercarriage is gone, inner port’s on fire, I’m bailing out presently, I’m bailing out. ……Take a telegram.

J: Got your message, received your message, we can hear you,

P: Telegram to my mother, Mrs Michael Carter, 88 Hamstead Lane, London North West.

J: 88 Hamstead Lane, London

P: Tell her that I love her, you’ll have to write this for me but what I want her to know is, that I love her very much, that I’ve never shown it to her, not really, but that I’ve loved her always, right up to the end. Give my love to my two sisters too, don’t forget them

J: Received your message, we can hear you, are you wounded? repeat are you wounded? Are you bailing out?

P: What’s your name?

J: June

P:Yes June I’m bailing out, I’m bailing out but there’s a catch, I’ve got no parachute,

J:Hello, hello Peter, do not understand, hello hello peter, can you hear me?

P:Hello June, don’t be afraid its quite simple, we’ve had it and I’d rather jump than fry. After the first 1000 feet what’s the difference I shan’t know anything anyway, I say I hope I haven’t frightened you.

J: No, I’m not frightened

P: Good Girl

J: Your sparks - you said he was dead, hasn’t he got a chute?

P: Cut to ribbons, cannon shell. June? Are you pretty?

J: Not bad... I …

P: Can you hear me as well as I can hear you?

J: Yes

P: You’ve got a good voice, you’ve got guts too, its funny I’ve known dozens of girls, I’ve been in love with some of them but its an American girl whom I’ve never seen and never shall see who’ll hear my last words. Its funny, its rather sweet. June, if you’re around when they pick me up, turn your head away

J: Perhaps we can do something Peter, let me report it.

P: No, no one can help, only you. Let me do this in my own way. I want to be alone with you June. Where were you born?

J: Boston

P: Mass?

J: Yes

P: That’s a place to be born, history was made there. Are you in love with anybody, no, no don’t answer that.

J: I could love a man like you Peter

P: I love you June, you’re life and I’m leaving you. Where do you live? On the station?

J: No in a big country house about 5 miles from here, Lee Wood House

P: Old house?

J: Yes very old,

P: Good I’ll be a ghost and come and see you, you’re not frightened of ghosts are you? It would be awful if you were.

J: I’m not frightened.

P: What time will you be home?

J: Well I’m on duty until 6, I have breakfast in the mess and then I have to cycle half an hour, I often go along the sands. …This is such nonsense.

P: No it not it’s the best sense I’ve ever heard. I was lucky to get you June. Can’t be helped about the parachute, I’ll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones. I hope they haven’t gone all modern I’d hate to have a prop instead of wings. What do you think the next worlds like? I’ve got my own ideas

J: Oh Peter

P: I think it starts where this one leaves off or where this one could leave off if we’d listened to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus. With all our little earthly problems solved but with greater ones worth the solving. I’ll know soon enough anyway. I’m signing off now June, goodbye, goodbye June

J: Hello G for George, hello G George, hello G George, hello……….

Of course if you imagine that it is 1946 and you are in a darkened cinema in grey, bombed out and rationed London and that you have just sat through another newsreel of concentration camp atrocities and stil no hint of when the rest of the British conscipts are going to be demobbed and allowed to come home. Imagine further that you are woman who has lost a husband, lover, fiance or even bloke-you-had-a-profound-crush-on-who-didn't-even-know-you existed, then the impact of that opening scene is even greater and your desire - need, even - for a life-affirming happy ending is intense. You would have no need of a reminder of the arbitrary nature of death in war or that life is a kind of terrible lottery. And because of the complexity of the film and the ideas it covers, it doesn't simply convey that love can, indeed, triumph over death, but that honesty and reason can triumph over prejudice and unreason. The stage adaption lost so much by destroying that and undermined its own exuberance and vitality to no purpose at all.

I am off to see Avenue Q tonight which has muppet pornography in it. I had better smuggle steer in carefully in case he is mistaken for a member of the cast.
Tags: a matter of life and death, absolute beginners, attempts on her life, films, plays, postmodernism sucks, the entertainer, the history boys, the national theatre, the war
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