Thursday, 1 December 2011

Joe Egg

It’s a stunning script, torn from the author’s experience of bringing up a severely disabled child. It takes the traditional soliloquy and electrifies it with stand-up comedy and music hall routines, shattering the fourth wall and allowing the actors to connect directly with the audience. It revels in uncomfortable humour and draws complex characterisation from possible stereotypes – the failing teaching, the manipulative mother-in-law. It even presents a public debate, complete with unsavoury bigotry, on an apparently intractable problem. It flickers between genres, refuses a pat finale and shows compassion to nearly all of the characters.
That A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was written in 1967, when the stage was still subject to censorship is not necessarily a cause for celebration. There has been little writing since that is so sharp, so complete, so precise. A litany of its qualities reads like a check-list for contemporary drama’s ambitions.
Not being a proper scholar, and lacking access to the latest texts on theatre practice – my disappointment is tempered by their apparent fascination with “getting back to the roots” and blathering on about tangentially related performance – my library is dominated by second hand books that were terribly modern in 1975. Having grown up as an enthusiast for radical, devised theatre, mainly thanks to the imaginative programming at Tramway by Steve Slater, these references tend to miss many of the processes that have defined my experience. Devised work is lumped together in a category called “Fringe”, alongside agit-prop, rock opera and happenings. The script is still king in 1975: one preface moans that the Arts Council has recently suggested that language is not necessarily at the heart of theatre.
I often say that “I hate scripts.” Yes, it’s a lazy line, a slogan that I roll out when I am about to explain why I am rather fond of David Harrower, or think Dunsinane is David Greig’s most important play. And there is a great deal of “performance” in my critical persona. I never really mean what I say when I am making proclamations: for the record, I have big ideas but struggle to articulate them, knowing that they inevitably contradict each other. When I say “I hate scripts”, I am really repeating the Arts Council’s 1970s declaration that they don’t necessarily form the foundation of theatre, plus a vague complaint that they are given too much emphasis. Oh, and that I have seen too many Shakespeare remixes that have little justification beyond another outing for the Bard’s poetry.
A Day in the Death... is one of those awkward plays that highlights the stupidity of my published catch-phrase. Any reservations I have about it are down to its original cultural context – the do-gooder industrialist socialist is a stereotype I cannot recognise, his wife is a cruel two dimensional bitch, and the best lines do go to the guys. It doesn’t really give a vision of the family that I can recognise – a stay at home mother? But as The Citizens’ production demonstrates, it is willing to address a serious question and still keep the jokes flowing. Writer Peter Nichols told director Philip Breen to go for comedy, not Strindberg. Yet the compassion at the centre ensures that the gags don’t become a nasty rush of spastic humour – and thanks for Ricky Gervais for bringing that one up again, to boost his flagging career and advertise his particular soullessness.
If anything, Breen is reverential of the text: he spoke at a post-show discussion about locating his version in a pop-art late 1960s, and his cast aren’t always comfortable getting down with the audience. Miles Jupp kicks off well, using them as his unruly class, and Miriam Margoyles offers a master-class as the mother-in-law: it may have been her excellence that kept her from being a one-note joke, culled from Bernard Manning’s Greatest Jibes. But Breen does bring out the comedy, holds the pathos gently. The choice not to update the action makes this a museum piece, but suits the production. A more modern take would have opened up questions about the different attitudes we now have to disability, weakening the bold strokes of the moral debate (should Joe Egg be offed?).
Of course, I am not suggesting for one moment that the play offers any special insight into disability. The real drama lies in the way that Joe Egg’s parents battle, and how Joe becomes a symbol of an intractable problem that neither science nor religion can handle and an icon for the parents’ personal failures. The father is a moral coward – his final escape is craven, somehow more morally objectionable than his attempted murder of the child. And times have changed: a piece like Girl X, created by Robert Softly, is a more bracing take on contemporary attitudes.
The Citizens are offering something important: the chance to see a classic of British Theatre, in an unfussy interpretation. It allows the script to shine – something new Citz’s artistic director Dominic Hill will appreciate, since he is all about the writing – and sets the author’s interests front and centre. Not only does this ensure that the casual audience – by this, I mean people who still cling to theatre as entertainment, not their profession – will be attracted, it offers an opportunity for anyone working in theatre to see a classic work in a clear production. There’s plenty of food for thought in A Day in the Death..., both in terms of its look at social attitudes to disability and the potential of the script as... the foundation of drama.

Footnote: Ah. I have noticed that I have fallen into one of my own traps here. I am banging on about the “theatricality” of A Day in the Death and not fully engaging with its broader social impact. I am especially guilty because it deliberately deals with an issue, and had quite a big impact in the 1970s. There’s space for a different article, that thinks about how it addresses disability, and lets dad off the hook for trying to kill his daughter. And while the most vociferous advocate of euthanasia is a caricature and obviously unsympathetic, there’s no positive reason given to keep Joe alive. The disabled daughter is an object, passed from person to person. The entire drama depends on this. That might be too.. conservative for me.
I have also added to this by calling Josephine, the child, “Joe Egg”, conflating the title and the character. If you’ve seen the play, you’ll understand why. If you haven’t... well, be a dear and see it before responding. 

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