Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Don't Ruin It, Critic!

For the record, what I am about to get into is not the business of a critic. The critic's job is to observe and assess quality, not to explain how the director could have fixed up his work to make it better. In other words, a critic doesn't say 'the play needs the last twenty minutes cut', but 'the play is twenty minutes too long'. Identify the problem: if the creator cares, they can mend it. 

For another bit of the record, I have few complaints about Anthony Banks' direction of Strangers on a Train. There's a bit where Charlie falls over that reminded me of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's pratfalls, but that's about it. Oh yeah, the last scene in the train-yard had an unconvincing bunch of trains at the back - they looked a bit cardboard - but one moment that I thought was a bit rough (when Ann gestures in a stilted melodramatic moment) that turned out to be pretty clever (it reminded me that Ann was a melodramatic character, the lovely virtuous heroine).

But I'm interested in the way that the script - and presumably Highsmith's novel, flickers between melodrama and tragedy. It has elements of both genres in it. I'd like to suggest ways that a different director might tip its balance one way or another.

Buried in the redemptive narrative of Guy, the architect who gets involved in a deadly conspiracy to murder due to a chance meeting with Charlie, is a tragedy. It's the tragical tale of Charlie, who is pretty much the bad guy - he describes strangling Guy's first wife with a bit too much relish and when he visits his second wife, he brushes her hair away from her neck in a way that subtly expresses his menace. It's really nicely done, making Charlie's murderous side explicit without turning him into something out of a slasher flick.

It's pretty clear that Charlie is a repressed homosexual. I'm not entirely happy listing the features that make this clear (he sends flowers, he is a bit too close to his mother, he throws camp tantrums, he goes on about wanting to 'live inside' a house built by Guy), because they are a bit stereotypical. But it comes obvious that his desire for Guy motivates him to kill Guy's wife, then move in on his happy home, forcing the architect's complicity in his criminal scheme. Now, it might just be that Charlie has an Oedipus complex (he wants to kill his dad), and Highsmith was writing at the height of Freudian psycho-analysis in 1950s' USA. But the way he goes on about 'knowing' Guy, and finds an almost erotic thrill in killing his wife and... well, every so often, there is a mention of him seeing a woman and it's completely unconvincing (one time, it's a cover for the fact that he was hiding in Guy's bedroom). 

There is a worrying link between this repressed desire and Charlie's apparently psychopathic behaviour. It's like a subtext that points to homosexuality as the source of all the evil in the play. I don't think Craig Warner was deliberately putting this in the script adaptation to make that point. I reckon he was being faithful to the novel, which is steeped in the kind of naturalism that seeks motivation in psychology. 

Anyway, this gives Charlie a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall: unable to live a free life (something that he blames his father for preventing), he turns inward and goes on a rampage. By the end, it's a relief when he shoots himself, because Guy has become a bit of a hero (unlike Charlie, he feels terrible about killing). But the tragedy is there, and I'm interested whether there is a way of directing the play that would make that more explicit.

In the first scene, when the two meet on the train, it's obvious that Guy thinks Charlie is joking about the murders. He's also a bit distant towards Charlie, who imposes himself on the taciturn architect. Charlie's subsequent belief in their shared intimacy is delusional. Guy just didn't like him that much.

But what if Guy was more into Charlie on the train? What if there was a hint that they did a bit more than chat? Then, Guy's later rejection of Charlie would be more vicious and unkind. 

As it goes, I don't think Warner's script has enough sympathy for Charlie to really follow the tragedy: it's one reason why I ought to be a critic and not a director, because I might try stupid interpretations like this and ruin the delicate balance of the script. I think there's enough evidence in the play to recognise Charlie's tragic traits (and he's played by Christopher Harper with tonnes of charisma), but not so much that it interrupts Guy's movement towards redemption. 

I'm not always keen on historical readings of plays, but I'm wondering whether there isn't an implicit condemnation of 1940s/1950s North America in this: the problems in the play are caused by repression. In the end, it's the safe heterosexual relationship that draws back Guy into life, away from Charlie (who shoots himself), but it is left a bit uncertain in Banks' ending. Guy is reaching but not quite touching his wife's hand. 

There's something lovely in the way that Banks leaves these threads hanging: it is possible to read the play as having a homophobic subtext, or as an allegory for the USA's love of repression. He manages it well enough that the culture on stage becomes transparent, exposing its flaws and its aspirations. That ambiguity is what gives it a tragic tone, and I'm not sure my attempt at going full tragedy would make it better. 

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