Monday, 7 November 2011

Days of Whining and Roses

My preference for dance over scripted theatre is most likely the result of choreography’s freedom to head of into the abstract. Notable exceptions, such as Beckett or the surrealists, only emphasise that scripted theatre, when called upon to analyse a serious matter, has a habit of blowing up into windy rhetoric or stylising the subject into an theatrical  archetype, that simultaneously lacks any sense of naturalism and fails to delve deeply.

Days of Wine and Roses is a case in point. As always, Kenny Miller directs and designs with panache, and both Keith Fleming and Sally Reid excel as the anti-heroic couple. Their age gap does remove some of the script’s bite – Fleming plays the line about meeting a young man for laughs, and while he seems to grow into the role as the action progresses, Reid is stuck in fresh youth. This makes her character’s alcoholism all the more tragic, but as naturalism is in such short supply across the production, it adds to the abstract moralising that infects Owen McCaffery’s new version.

Unlike previous productions from Theatre Jezebel, Days... has a very clear moral line: alcoholism is bad. That Fleming’s Donal receives a round of applause for his Alcoholics Anonymous confession, delivered directly to the audience, fits the tone of a story that Miller aptly stages as a series of tableaux, a modern morality play. Both actors rise to the occasion, giving life to the archetypes through subtle gestures of compassion or disgust. And it is well received: theatrically, it has all the ingredients of a good show.

The problem is in the intention. McCafferty follows the moral line, never questioning why alcohol could captivate poor Mona. The religious understanding of AA is crucial – insisting that alcoholism is an illness, not a social or psychological disorder, it abandons any attempt to understand whether there is any reason for it. Hints at Mona’s family life – teetotal parents – or the alienation of leaving home in Belfast for London are not enough to account for what appears to be a complete descent into degradation. Having demonstrated that alcoholism leads to family breakdown, Days... is content. It refuses to move the discussion forward.

This leaves me ambivalent about the production. On one level, it is a well made play, deserving of praise. It certainly made me respect Fleming and Reid, and look forward to seeing more of Miller’s productions. But something as dark as Days... can’t be classed as entertainment – the ending sees Donal return to a conflict scarred Belfast rather than stay in the same city as his alcoholic wife. And its lack of analysis leaves it short as a serious social contribution.

Add to this that it is well written, at least in terms of surface dialogue.

IMHO, the problem hits at the heart of “naturalism” within theatre. Miller does what he can to emphasise the abstract nature of the content, using self-conscious scene changes. The specific historical period – it covers the 1960s – militates against this becoming too universal (Miller’s one mistake is to date every scene precisely, grounding the action in a moment when a more fluid time scale would have strengthened the sense of a mythic narrative). Yet the script imitated natural speech: Donal’s soliloquy is framed as an AA confession, the couple’s arguments are convincingly brutal.

Unfortunately, the naturalism hampers McCafferty’s attempts to make moral points, since there is no sense that this situation is anything more than two people’s lives.  And refusing to explore the reasons behind the alcoholism undercuts the characterisation. The message and the style are at war, blunting each other. The play tries to make its point by making the characters recognisable, but balks at engaging fully with their personalities, lest they become unique and, consequently, less pliable for making Big Points.

I am broadly hostile to naturalism – hence my dance bias. Naturalism came in around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, championed by Ibsen and Strindberg. It was based on the idea that theatre ought to represent natural and recognisable characters and stories – no more mother-loving kings. It paralleled modernist innovations in the novel – Joyce was a naturalist, at least in content, and followed the lead of French authors.
Strindberg pretty quickly realised it would not work. By the end of his life, he was writing Dream Play. Theatre is naturally – hah – artificial. Much of the best theatre toys with its innate surrealism. Miller uses this to great effect. Rather than pretending that this is some kind of voyeuristic insight into a real event, the potential of theatre is unleashed when it recognises its own art. Unfortunately, naturalism hardened into “realism” – the version that sees the gritty as authentic. This disconnect with the actual nature of theatre reached its zenith with the Angry Young Men of the 1950s. It has also infected cinema.

Days of Wine and Roses is guilty of this. It imagines that showing the worst excesses of alcoholism, or at least implying that they are happening off-stage, that it is being authentic. Yet the characters have no depth, no nuance. They are symbols, both of alcoholism and the problems of a theatre that forgets its fundamental inauthenticity.

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