Sunday, May 06, 2007

3 Plays

Two weekends ago - A Fine Balance: Any stage production of this magnificent Dickensian book was going to be difficult. But Tamasha failed on a number of accounts, not all of which were their fault. The book works fine entirely in English, but on stage it needed to be very much more multilingual than it was. There was something incredibly odd about watching slum dwellers, beggars and street workers in an Indian city talking to each other in English. I couldn't help thinking that the play would have worked fine if it had been performed entirely in some non-Indian language - Japanese say, or Russian. English is problematic precisely because it's an Indian language, spoken by only some Indians. The actors spoke in Hindi when they addressed children and animals, but that's exactly the sort of thing Upper Middle-Class English Speaking Indians would do. (For the uninitiated, here are some UMCESI rules for multilinguality: animal and baby-talk apart, scatological terms are always in the vernacular: Salman Rushdie was the first person, as far as I know, to write 'susu' and 'kakka' into English dialogue (this single fact secured him a permanent place in my personal pantheon of writing giants); romance is often discussed in English: whatever the language of the conversation, you will always say that so and so had been 'hugging' and 'kissing' long before their 'love marriage'.) Tamasha's production was not multilingual enough and when it tried to be, it did so in a peculiarly UMCESI way.

But can drama be multilingual, particularly when it's playing to a largely British gallery? There are of course all sorts of technological fixes - surtitles and the uber cool personal display screens that I have seen only in the New York Met. But even without these, I would venture the (possibly bold and foolhardy) suggestion that the audience doesn't have to understand everything. Immediately. When asked at a session at Hay-on-Wye last year whether he would translate the Australian slang that he frequently uses in his novels, Peter Carey was resolute in his refusal. No one told me what a chevy was when I was growing up reading American novels, he shot back (a quaint example perhaps, because everyone knows what a chevy is now, but his point was that we have gotten to that stage without any writer having explained this to his readership). The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo frequently uses Gikuyu words in his work (these appear untranslated in the English translations of his novels), and you can only guess at their meaning from context. But whatever you lose in momentary incomprehension, you gain in the experience of being immersed in a place as it is - not translated for you, the foreign reader. After all, when we visit the faraway places in which these novels are set, everything about those societies isn't fully accessible to us - even if we have a language in common - so why should we expect to understand a book or a play in its entirety? Of course the work has to strike a delicate balance between staying true to whatever it is trying to represent and making sure it hasn't lost its audience. And that audience will, in all likelihood, comprise people with different kinds and levels of knowledge.

What puzzles me is why the book works for me entirely in English, whereas the play does not. Why is it that when I'm reading the book, I'm quite prepared to believe that all the dialogue I'm reading in English is 'actually' spoken in Hindi or Gujarati, while on stage I feel the need to hear those languages (even though I don't fully understand them)? (In fact, I thought Monica Ali's attempt at multilinguality in Brick Lane fell completely flat. The protagonist's sister in Bangladesh writes her a series of letters that I found terribly burdensome to read because they are written in a strange sort of pidgin English. If the sister back home is writing in Bangla, I wished that Ali had written the letters in the same English she had used for the rest of the book, leaving it to her readers to imagine that they were written in Bangla. If the sister is writing in bad English, I wished that Ali had used a more credible pidgin - not one that was full of wonderful, evocative nouns strung together with rubbish verbs and grammar.)

The answer to the book/play puzzle, I think, is that the stage production was aiming for a sort of realism. With all that careful attention to dress and posture and etiquette and accent (though, to make things worse, one of the actors playing a hair-seller spoke in very jarring RP), and particularly given the attention paid to getting class-specific nuances and idioms right, the use of English (itself a class-specific language) by everyone, blew the whole thing apart. If this were a play entirely about the UMCESI (if this were Family Matters, for instance), it could have worked very well in English. But if you are trying to present a cross-class slice of India on stage, and if you're trying to do so in a realistic genre, you cannot escape multilinguality. Books, being books, leave more up to the reader, and in doing so, offer more scope for the suspension of reality. That's not to say that theatre has to be realistic, but this play feels obliged to, I think, because it's based on a book that is so empiricial in its examination of social relations across classes in a particularly dark period of postcolonial Indian history.


Last weekend -
Equus: I went to see this for all the wrong reasons, we got to the theatre late thanks to late latif NN, and I hadn't slept very much the night before. Not a very promising start. In fact, I was nodding off somewhere in the middle of the first act when Richard Griffiths spat out the word 'normal' and had me absolutely riveted for the rest of the performance. Peter Shaffer's spell-binding script tells us at the outset that Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe) has blinded six horses. He is taken to psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Griffiths) who agrees to treat the boy for whatever it is that's troubling him. Strang has a passion for horses - a passion that is so fierce, erotic and all-consuming that it interferes with his ability to form relationships with people. As Dysart learns more about his patient, he begins to doubt himself. Strang's wild abandon forces him to confront the tame, precise and contained life he has always lead, so that the notion of restoring the boy to 'normality' begins to seem tragic to him. Griffiths is brilliant, as always. The 17 year old Radcliffe has successfully exorcized Harry Potter and pulls off this incredibly challenging role with maturity and conviction. And he has a great body. Anyway, here are the most unforgettable lines in the play (big thanks to NK for excerpting this):

Dysart: All right! I'll take it away! He'll be delivered from madness. What then? He'll feel himself acceptable! What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! ... My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband -- a caring citizen -- a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost! ... Let me tell you exactly whatI'm going to do to him!

[He steps out of the square and walks round the upstage end of it, storming at the audience.]

I'll heal the rash on his body. I'll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that's done, I'll set him on a nice miniscooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I'll give him the good Normal world where we're tethered beside them -- blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I'll take away his Field of Ha Ha, and give him Normal places for his ecstasy -- multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He'll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening -- and one thing I promise you: he will never touch hide again! With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he'll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! ... Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.

[He addresses ALAN directly in farewell.]

You won't gallop any more, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You'll save your pennies every week, till you can change that scooter in for a car, and put the odd 50p on the gee-gees, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits and little losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.

Sometime last year, Stephen Fry made a
documentary on bipolar disorder, in which he asked a number of people whether, if they could push a magic button to end their condition, they would do so. Amazingly, a majority of those interviewed said no, because they felt that their creativity and passion was inextricably bound up with their manic depression. I was too frightened to understand this at the time I saw it. MM had not been keen on medication and I know that many of us continue to wonder whether things would have turned out differently if she had stuck with it. I know people who are on medication and who are making fantastic successes of their lives against the odds. But as I applauded the cast of Equus, I could not help saying to MM wherever she is, I don't agree with you and I probably never will, but I am beginning to understand.


Yesterday - Called to Account: the indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq. I went to this thinking it could turn out to be a deeply satisfying but essentially one-sided leftwing rant against Tony Blair. Instead, we were treated to an evening of sober, dispassionate and rather technical analysis of the lead-up to the war on Iraq in 2003. Earlier this year, two lawyers - Philippe Sands for the prosecution and Julian Knowles for the defence - interviewed around 15 witnesses on the circumstances surrounding Tony Blair's decision to take Britain into the war on Iraq. These witness testimonies were edited and gathered together into a piece of 'verbatim theatre'. That two-and-a-half hours of witness interviews could make for absorbing theatre is testimony to the gravity of the issues being discussed, and (for me) the shockingly unaccountable ways in which the most serious decisions are made at the highest levels of government in what is supposed to be one of the world's oldest continuously functioning democracies.

What makes the material gripping is that it comes straight from the mouths of many pertinent horses. There are familiar names such as Clare Short (uncannily well-played by Diane Fletcher), Richard Perle and Scott Ritter, and less familiar but nonetheless significant ones in the highest decision-making echelons (MPs, civil servants, ambassadors, journalists). All are played credibly and sympathetically - I did not find myself warming to some witnesses more than others, despite my ideological predispositions against some of them (e.g. Perle). The stage was arranged so that the actors addressed the audience as judge. No votes were taken at the end, no verdicts delivered, thereby saving the event from degenerating into a propaganda exercise. Indeed, the actors did not even appear for a curtain call. You were meant to leave with the feeling that you had witnessed a genuine hearing.

Despite the open-ended nature of the proceedings, I would struggle to understand how anyone who had listened to the testimony we heard, could have left the theatre thinking there was insufficient evidence for an indictment against Mr. Blair. It might be argued that the selection of witnesses was biased against the PM, but I think the dissident and usual anti-war suspects were more than balanced out by pro-intervention witnesses (an Iraqi exile, MPs who voted for the war and of course Perle). In any case, most of the witnesses were not questioned on their views regarding the legitimacy of the intervention, but on the specifics of the decision-making process leading up to the war.

The great virtue of presenting these testimonies as a single piece of theatre is that they piece together stories that we have been seeing in the media over the last few years - the sexed-up dossier with its 45 minute claim, the Downing Street memo, the Hutton and Butler enquiries, the resignation of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, etc. - so that we begin to see a bigger picture. (One witness memorably slammed the government's frequent claim that it has been exonerated by four enquiries by pointing out that the remit of these enquiries has always been narrow enough to prevent anyone from looking into the really important questions. It's a bit like claiming to investigate a murder by saying you've looked at the churchyard, the weapon and everything else but the accused, he said.)

For me, the most disquieting revelation was that in all the scores of Cabinet meetings that preceded the formal decision to go to war, the Attorney General was present on only a couple of occasions, suggesting that the legal status of the proposed intervention was not a major concern for Blair. The other incredibly puzzling issue is why the AG's legal advice changed dramatically from the view that the invasion would not be legal (given on March 7, 2003) to the position that it would be legal since Iraq was in material breach of the relevant UN resolutions (given on March 17, 2003, three days before the invasion). The law on the use of force did not change between those two dates. What points of fact could have changed? And where were those 'facts' obtained from, given that neither Hans Blix (then head of the weapons inspections team) nor ElBaradei of the IAEA were able or willing to certify that Iraq was in material breach. And of course there is the further question of why, if the US and the UK had intelligence on WMD (as they repeatedly claimed to), they did not share this with the UN inspectors, so as to facilitate their work? For more on the 'wretched legal advice', see chapter 11 of Philippe Sands' explosive book Lawless World.

About the letters in Brick Lane, Amardeep Singh writes:

The pidgin English in Brick Lane is troubling at first. But it quickly becomes clear that Ali isn't using it to represent a person who writes poorly in English. Rather, the character of the sister (Hasina) in the novel writes poorly in Bengali. The pidgin is not necessarily a comment on an uneducated women's command of English so much as it is an attempt to represent a character whose literacy is limited. Obviously, Ali is quite different from her character Hasina -- we wouldn't have this novel if that weren't the case -- but given the social conditions of Hasina's life in Dhaka, the use of Pidgin seems appropriate. It is in keeping with Ali's realism, and it is far from disrespectful.
hey nakul, thanks for the comment (and the equus lines)! i hadn't considered the possibility that the letters might have been intended to suggest someone who wrote poorly in bangla. i'm still curious, though, about the kinds of sentences you would tend to write if you spoke a language reasonably well (and i'm assuming she would have, since this is presumably her first language), but didn't write very well. i think you'd probably make spelling mistakes and things, but that your grammar would be pretty sorted. i don't know... maybe i'm splitting hairs. i think i just didn't like brick lane all round. there was something dissertation-like about it, particularly when she says something on the lines of 'this is a story about agency' somewhere in the first 50 pages. i thought, you don't have to tell us that in so many words, you know...
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