Monday, 10 June 2013

Barkin' Mad (Sigh)

It's only one of the completely uninteresting ironies surrounding my consumption of the media that it takes me a very long time to read a newspaper: a copy of The Metro can provide me  with toilet reading and paper for a week, although I sometimes throw them out after I mess up  the easy sudoku. Consequently, I get most of my  political understanding from Nick Cohen. Since I buy his books from Oxfam, I'm only now getting around to having an opinion on the invasion of Iraq. 

I regard Cohen as one of the great political polemicists of this, or any, age. That's because he shares both my instinctive distrust of Conservatism and an outraged disillusion at the failure of the left to provide a moral opposition. There are times when he loses me - usually when he calculates how the left reaches a particular nadir of intellectual bankruptcy by reciting their various opinions. And he frequently uses 'liberal' when he is talking about movements inspired by the SWP. I might pose as an anarchist,  but I don't see the SWP as being part of the same tradition as Gladstone, or Nick Clegg. I suspect he's doing a "Real Scotsman" argument there, to disassociate his instinctive socialism from the opportunist left.

At the heart of my political ignorance is a splendid idiocy. I insist that theatre must be politically and socially engaged, citing The Trojan Women as the prime example of how the stage can comment on immediate events. Then I have barely any idea of what the actual issues are, unless Kieran Hurley, AJ Taudevin or Rob Drummond have written about them. And when they do write about them, I become suspicious if I agree with them, fretting that the artistic community shares common political assumptions and is unlikely to challenge the audience with startling ideas. 

I have been especially petty about a superb sequence in Hurley's Rantin. I ought to acknowledge, as Hurley does, that the piece was a collaboration between four artists, including Taudevin and the wonderful Wounded Knee. But this scene - in which a young checkout girl bemoans both her teacher's lack of faith in her intelligence and the increase in automatic tills in the local supermarket. Sitting on a hill, overlooking her town, the young woman decides to take a golfing iron to the machinery, realising that the machine is taking away her job and that she is part of a bold history of direct action.

This moment - the most explicitly political in Rantin and a rare moment in Hurley's work where the rage equals the compassion - has changed my shopping habits. My father has always refused to use those automatic tills (he even threw his shopping basket on the floor in anger once). Now I aspire to his revolutionary activism. After years of berating him at Sunday lunches for his failure to address systemic inequality, I accept that his tiny actions of resistance are more powerful than my rhetorical bellows about injustice.

Apart from this being a brilliant theatrical moment, it also attacks the consumerist false  consciousness at a point that encourages meaningful action. I was asked a direct moral question - am I going to ignore a tiny change without acknowledging the impact it has on people's livelihoods?
I mention this episode again and again because it is a model for what political theatre means to  me. It doesn't expect me to join a lofty cause, or dwell on a fashionable assumption about the bad guys in the modern world. It connects daily life to the political. And it is very well written, coherent and angry.

As I trawl through the Fringe brochure, I am confronted with a large number of plays that present themselves as political. I'm always enchanted by the possibility that a play can present a resolution  to the mysteries of the world. Having spent a weekend watching Howard Barker's Victory (seriously, it is a long play), I was reminded of theatre's potential to make incisive points about big ideas, marrying the intellectual rigorous with an emotional immediacy. Rather like Nick Cohen's polemics, and the opposite of the news reporting in the Evening Standard that is serving duty in the Vile Bog this week. 

The newspapers - or the BBC website,or Radio 3, or the political magazines I buy when I have to get the bus to a staff meeting at The List offices in Edinburgh - hide their bias behind the moderate tone that symbolises objectivity. Of course, the news uses this bland measure in the way that Live Art uses nakedness - to signify something that it can then avoid. Theatre emotive intensity operates to alert the audience to potential bias, even as it gives concepts a powerful impact.

If Victory has a theme, it is less about the corruption  brought on by power than the corruption necessary to get power in the first place. It reverses the equation: King Charles II, usually the cheery chappy who restores the monarchy and gets saucy with the actresses, is pictured as an East End  Thug. Barker identifies the oppression of women, then reveals their complicity in the oppression. There's killing and raping, all performed with a degree of  emotional detachment. Seduction is, as some feminists suggest, on a continuum with sexual assault. 

Using the Restoration as the context, Barker cracks open the jolly version of history taught in schools, and makes the monarchy a distillation of the state's innate savagery. God, who inspired both the revolutionaries who devised the Commonwealth and the monarchists, comes in for a pasting. But this isn't the predictable  contemporary antagonism towards Christianity. Barker's critique might take in the specific protestant theologies that made Merrie Englande turn into battlin' Britannia, but God becomes a symbol of any creed based on absolute values. And these are revealed are toothless in the face of nature's urgings. 

Somehow, all the brutality avoids nihilism: the heroine's quest to collect her husband's broken corpse gives her a new, tractable husband and a baby. Her daughter learns Latin, despite her mother's attempts to keep her ignorant (although that education is probably going  to cause more trouble). Barker picks up on Brecht's vision of Mother Courage. In spite of the total shit-storm that engulfs humans, they maintain. But while Brecht's vision still has saints and heroes, Barker has survivalists. 
Brecht is easier on the mind. His Marxism allows for a justified death by sacrifice (Mother Courage's daughter does an impromptu drum solo to warn a village of impending invasion, gets shot but dies doing the Right Thing), and hints at a future society of equality. Barker prefers a bleaker vision: sure, there is hope, but its operation is mysterious. 

Barker is quite clearly political, but he avoids any hint of partisanship to either side of the monarchic/republican divide. And unlike the newspapers that I slowly digest, he isn't writing politics shaped by the format or the hidden consensus of western opinion. He might give his characters a dialect that is grounded in the language of East End gangsters ("poetry is dick" being my favourite line), but he respects the values of the historical period. God, for example, is a going concern and motivation. It's another contrast to Brecht, who takes real  liberties in Galileo, trying to convert a renaissance entrepreneur into a scientific saint who battles the tyranny of a church more contemporary than historically accurate in its fundamentalist anti-modernism.

In this ostentatious display of theatrical brilliance, Barker reminds me of why I am so slow to engage with the newspapers: they are driven by the need to be current. Back in the early days of the War on Terror, public opinion flip-flopped between opposition to Blair's plans and support. There was a massive demonstration (Not In My  Name, et c), then a quiet support when Our Boys were Over There. When Blair's chat about Weapons of Mass Destruction was exposed as a pornographic sheen of glamour, support waned. Rationality went out the window, with both sides changing their justifications for their positions more frequently than their shreddies. 

The complexity of Victory, meanwhile, means that different audience members are going to read it in different ways in different contexts. At a quick reckoning, I could see a justification of the Restoration (the republicans are generally undersexed intellectuals who hide their inability to relate to each other behind Big Ideas), a critique of monarchy (the King is an over-sexed thug), a tract that fits nicely within the tradition of misogyny (women are whores and shallow), an analysis of the way men abuse women by reducing their physical bodies to a symbol, a sardonic interlude on the virtue or arrogance of poets, a defence of being a sycophant, a message of hope through procreation. Plus it has the most creative use of swearing outside of a rant by Gordon Brown when he forgets to switch off his microphone. 

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