Sunday, 21 February 2010

rainy season [w jose agualusa]

Rainy Season is composed of 9 sections, each of which consists of several miniature chapters of their own. The book seems at first somewhat lop-sided. The early sections are given over to an account of the life of a female Angolan poet, Lidia do Carmo Ferreira. (The author's use of the figure of a lost female poet having uncanny resonance with the work of Bolano.) Then the narrative moves forward in time, towards the seventies and the event of the Angolan revolution, when the Portuguese were overthrown. A host of characters are introduced, including Lidia's daughter, Pauleta, her flatmates and fellow political activists and local characters. The narrative feels somewhat random, and becomes hard to follow. The narrator's first person voice gradually becomes more important, and his story begins to be told.

For a while it seems as though the author's material is in danger of spiralling out of control. Rainy Season is a concise book, and the shifts from character to character, from Luanda to Lisbon to Berlin to Olinda and back to Angola seem too much for the narrative to bear. And then the story focuses in on the aftermath of the revolution. When Lidia, the narrator, and all the other sundry characters, become political prisoners, their lives at the mercy of whichever faction is dominant within the new Angola, riven by civil war.

In this coalescence, this pulling together of its divergent strands, the book changes gear, and like a puzzle where the pieces finally find their home, a terrible clarity emerges. The short, precise chapters offer all the information that the narrator has at his disposal. Information takes on a different quality within the confines of a prison, a prison lost in a lost conflict. Timelines are immaterial, and blurred. It might be a year between chapters, it might be ten. Information is a current that flows, rather than a clear chronology. Things are lost along the way. Some remain constant - such as the narrator's awareness of Lidia's fate; such as the presence, although not the pre-eminence, of death. The fate of tangential, marginal characters reveals as much as the fate of the figures at the heart of the story, a story whose tendrils stretch across the devastated land.

I think that I commented earlier about Agualusa that I wondered how his work might tackle the events of Angola's recent history. That at times his style seems too gossamer, too fragile. Here, those qualities are revealed to be a by-product of a world where there is no real expectation of survival, and the notion of history has become the loosest of dreams. The fragility of day-to-day existence permitting little space for reflection on what has caused the chaos, or where the chaos might lead. A time when everything seems marginal, precious, slight. Agualusa's book is like a spider's web, which somehow encompasses fifty years of history, a history which at any moment might have been blown away. In its opaque way, it reveals as much about the tragedy of political imprisonment, and the vicissitudes of late twentieth century living for so many societies, as many a weightier tome. In a world where words and stories are dangerous, his book suggests that even used sparingly, they retain great power, and his narrative reveals that a tragic order can be constructed out of what appears to be chaos.

I read it in stages, never quite knowing where it was taking me, finishing it on the train to Ipswich yesterday, astonished at its capacity to move me, something I'd never have guessed as I tried to make sense of the early sections, never knowing the power of the connections that would come to be revealed.

Monday, 15 February 2010

marat/ sade [d peter brook; w peter weiss, adrian mitchell)

This is a film of a stage play. The play takes place in a single room. It is not inherently cinematic. Watching it offers a partial, exacavatory experience of one of the most significant European theatre productions of the last century. Far from a satisfying experience, it is nevertheless compelling, and offers a fascinating insight into the career of Brook himself, the fate of British theatre, and the destiny of theatre per se. And if theatre be a mirror to the times, then it tells us a great deal about the way our society has evolved in the past fifty years.

Firstly, the play itself, is a minor masterpiece. Whilst it's well known that it deals with the French revolution, notably the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday, and it's also well known that the play is an enactment staged by the Marquis de Sade within the madhouse of Charenton, what is perhaps less well known is that it's set fifteen years or so after the events of the play have taken place, during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. As such, Weiss not only creates a play within a play, but the temporal shift allows him to play with varying perspectives on the violence that the revolution generated. In 1964, when Brook staged the play, the issue of the role of violence as a tool to transform society was still one that could at least be contemplated; not least in a world where colonialism was still an oppressive force. Whilst we know that the French revolution was the cause of bloodshed, war and suffering, it was also the mechanism by which, in theory at least, France began the process of transformation into its modern state.

Theatre directors might have their philosophical streak, but they are also, by inclination, showmen. Brook takes the implicit agendas of Weiss' play and creates a vivid, non-stop carnival of theatricality. The stage is littered with the bodies of madmen and women who at any given moment might choose to lay their claim to dramatic attention. The film perhaps does not do full justice to the latent anarchy, save for the explosive final scene, (reminiscent of the end of that other great radical sixties work, Zabriskie Point), when chaos is allowed to reign. Brook's showmanship, and the rigourous brilliance of his cast, honed as a group within the RSC over the course of various productions, offers Weiss' intellectualism all the flesh and blood it needs to confront the audience with the consequences of the issues the script addresses; the limits of libertarianism, the inevitability of governmental constraint, the madness that underpins utopia. Whilst Marat/ Sade is perhaps conceived as something of a hymn to European radicalism, it would be easy to present the counter case, that Weiss and Brook are arguing for the importance of societal control over our more anarchic instincts which lead towards violence. Violence will always have a part to play in the ordering of society, and the question then becomes one of how that violence is managed. A Foucaultian thesis which is strengthened by the fact that De Sade's reference to the savage execution of a prisoner in Royalist pre-revolution France sounds identical to the example used by Foucault at the opening of Discipline and Punish.

Whatever the politico-philosophical arguments, what's clear is that at this point in its history, as it backed its greatest director, the RSC was an organisation prepared to engage with a kind of daring, neo-intellectual theatre, one that sought to examine and comment on its times. In retrospect, it might be seen to be the high point of its existence as a cultural body. It's not entirely the RSC's fault that it has subsequently become something of a factory, producing work which is primarily there to keep the tourists happy as they pitch up at Stratford for their dose of Shakespeare. It's more a reflection of the way British society has evolved, a country trading on its past in order to earn a living in the future, an attitude that is inherently conservative. Within this context, the notion of theatre being a medium for examining the philosophical framework of the culture/ society still survives, but within carefully demarcated zones. The madness has been placed under control, allowed to parade itself from time to time, but on the whole a policy of stability is pursued, in a bid to minimise risk and ensure steady if unspectacular returns.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

the gate [w francois bizot]

Some people flirt with danger, some people become acquainted with it, and some have lived with it. Bizot undoubtably belongs to the latter category, as his book documents the time he was held captive by the Khmer Rouge, barely escaping with his life.

The Gate is an eye-witness account of the early days of the Cambodian genocide, written by a French Buddhist scholar whose love affair with the country turned spectacularly sour. However, his affection for the people of that country shines through, and is even discernible in his relationship with his chief captor. The young Bizot develops a complex relationship with Douch, a man who would later find his inner mass murderer. At the time Bizot knew him, the revolution had yet to take on its full genocidal scale, but the conversations documented between the prisoner and his guard go some way towards revealing how an attitude that most would describe as inhuman has its origins in a warped idealism, the by-product of a terrifying faith.

John Le Carre writes an eloquent introduction to the book, and it becomes clear that something of a myth grew up around Bizot. Much of the book feels like a somewhat regulation account of remarkable times, but on occasion there are flashes of insight into the terror that is engulfing Cambodia, a terror that is latent not to a culture, but to humanity, that add another dimension to Bizot's recollections; reminding the reader that he has known things which we, should we be lucky, should never have to confront.

C.I.C.T. (d. peter brook)

I recently had a go at reading Moonlight, Pinter's last play. It had its moments, but I couldn't engage with it. There's something strange about the last work of those who might be genii. The ghost of what has gone before, allied to the constant desire to convey. I also wondered if art isn't, to some extent, age specific. Things that appeal in youth perhaps pall in middle age. If this logic is valid, then those works aimed at old age are the ones least likely to be understood, both because the elderly remain marginalised within our culture, but also because old age still seems so distant to this writer, even if it's not as distant as it once was. To phrase a truism.

Brook's new play, the first of his I've seen, deals with Colonialism and its attitudes, faith, and, to a certain extent, the meaning of life. Although many of the all male cast are youthful, at the heart is the notion of the legacy or inheritance a prophet leaves behind.

The stagecraft has the light touch one would expect from the master of the empty space. Yet, it's also obvious that imaginative gestures which were breathtaking thirty or forty years ago, have now become commonplace. The simplicity that Brook unearthed has become integrated into a mainstream, if not always at the level of the big budget theatres, certainly within any T.I.E. show, or international touring piece. The likes of Cheek by Jowl, Goold, Meckler to name but a few, have all taken on board Brook's ability to play with realism and space, creating an alternative theatrical universe, and what was once new is no longer.

The play itself explored both the notions of faith and French colonialism in early 20th century West Africa. The seeds of key conflicts of today are apparent within the text as it probes a localised, pre-emptive clash between mystical Islam and Western values. The audience at the Barbican seemed only barely engaged. All of us had come to pay homage; listening to the play's words was a secondary exercise. Some of the dialogues about the nature of faith and the meaning of life became abstract, and hard to follow. More than one punter dozed.

At the end, the actors left the stage. The lone musician, surrounded by his tools, let the music still. The audience sat in silence. No one knew if there was another trick up the director's sleeve, or if this silence was all that remained. The silence held. No one knew what to do. The uncertainty contained a kind of magic. It's the simplest of devices but all the same, after treading water for an hour and a half, suddenly we were in at the deep end, having to take responsibility.

The applause, when it arrived, was fulsome.

Friday, 5 February 2010

precious (d. lee daniels, w. geoffrey fletcher & sapphire)

New York, in the early 80s. Pre-Giuliani and zero tolerance. Closer to Carpenter's Escape From New York and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. A time when there was still a sense that the city had that edge which it could be argued is part and parcel of a great city, the product of classes nuzzling up to one another, the presence of what could be deemed an underclass, the knowledge that whilst for some, life is a treadmill in the shadow of affluence, for others it is still, as has always been the norm rather than the exception, a battle for survival.

Nowadays, these cities are more likely to be found in the emerging economies, which are producing great wealth, but the majority of whose populations still live in a poverty which those in the West, even the poorest, might struggle to understand. New York, from what I can understand, has been cleaned up. The poorest of the poor have become invisible, as they are in my city. The argument isn't whether this is for the better or the worse, not here at any rate; merely to observe that Precious harks back to that time. In spite of its grittiness there's an element of nostalgia at play in the film, which is a paean to another time, another New York.

As such, there's a warmth to the film, which far outweighs the supposedly off-putting material. The characters who Precious meets, and who contribute to a kind of redemption, from her classmates to the male nurse to the social worker, are all sympathetic and humane. After emerging from the abusive hell of her family, Precious discovers that goodness does exist, indeed it is all around her. There's something Dickensian about the story, as the inarticulate and morose teenager finds her voice, and discovers that thing which Obamaites might term 'hope'.

Lee Daniels, the director, in association with his screenwriter and Sapphire, the author of the original novel, use restraint to ensure a fidelity to this journey. The director isn't afraid to let a long scene play itself out, allowing the full horror of the reality of what's happened to Precious to register on the face of her social worker. The film is given a muted grade, dulling the colours of the streets through which Precious passes. Some critics seem to feel that the film shows an exploitative attitude towards poverty, but this seems to miss the point. It's not the story of how someone was abused; it's the story of how someone discovers a way to recover from that abuse. The fact that 'the city' is a key player in the process perhaps adds to the sense that in spite of the city's greater poverty in that day and age, with all the ills that poverty brings with it, there might also have been a greater stock of kindness within its walls. Although that attitude too could be nothing more than a misplaced romanticism, something all nostalgia flirts with.