Monday, April 13, 2009

Kiddies' History

In her Observer TV review on Sunday Kathryn Flett echoed something Adrian Slatcher and I were saying recently over a drink:
From Life on Mars to the recent Red Riding our screens are now regularly suffused with 1970s Hovis-coloured shades of greige ... where were the men in tightly fitting polycotton shirts repeat-patterened with drawings of vintage Rolls Royces? You never see them on TV, but they were all over men's backs like a virulent strain of psoriasis.
Yes, and what about the pinks shirts too, and the purple trousers and the red-and-yellow tartans, the hippy multicolours, and, towards the end of the decade, the womens' orange jumpsuits?

It's more than interesting, this tendency to turn the past to sepia, as we've discussed before. There's a parallel paradoxical tendency to paint the past in brighter-than-suitable colours, which I feel however comes from the same, somewhat worrying cultural impulse, and which I found in the programme notes for the production of Macbeth I saw at the Royal Exchange last week:
In Britain we have a very clear idea of what childhood during wartime is like: the excitement of air raids and hiding in shelters; hearing and being able to identify a dozen different models of aeroplane as they pass by; playing around in the debris and finding souvenirs; proudly boasting about fathers and older brothers in the armed services, smart and heroic in uniforms; being herded off into the countryside as evacuees and finding imaginary countries in wardrobes.
I got that far and I thought: 'Tell that to the seventy-odd-year-olds in the audience!' In fact, it seems on reading further that the author is agreeing with me: his point is that this is an illusion, and he goes on to state that 'writers in particular have given us a skewed picture of childhood during wartime' (and there is of course that dig at C S Lewis). But the piece here is sloppy and muddled and indeed colludes with that rosy picture of life for children in wartime Britain. As a point of fact, the falsely rosy view he describes is mainly derived from postwar children's comics, though he doesn't say so. He says: 'The softening filter of nostalgia has meant that whole generations of wartime children grew up remembering 'the good old days' and the Blitz spirit.' Who is he referring to here? There was only one generation of wartime children, after all, and it is 'whole generations' who have followed. He must therefore mean the latter: we generations who were brought up on the myths. But he muddies this by his use of the word 'remembering' (we can't remember what we haven't actually experienced) and of the phrase 'wartime children'. Thus a reader not seeing the flaws in this sentence (and indeed reading quickly at the theatre, as one does) will come away with the impression that wartime Britain was not so traumatic for children as to prevent them forgetting that it was bad at all - which was enough to make my companion, who was born during the war, throw down the programme in disgust and indeed some upset. But then perhaps that is indeed what the author of this piece is saying, since he then goes on to conclude:
Compare this to children living through wars elsewhere and... well, there's no comparison.
Well, it's just a theatre programme, you might say, and the standard of those is often pretty dubious, but when you consider that this production would be aimed at the scores of schoolchildren studying Macbeth for exams, you'd think a little more responsibility was in order. And I'd say the same for the production itself. This was a production screaming RELEVANCE - to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, with the soldiers in modern combat gear and operating modern warfare technology, and to the schoolchildren themselves, with the witches transformed into the demonic wraiths of female children raped and murdered in war. This last, by which a subsidiary theme of the original, that of the effect of war on innocents, is made a central one, is not the only way that the production radically skews the play. I'm getting pretty sick of Shakespeare productions in which actors say their speeches as if they have no idea what they mean and simply can't wait to get to the end, and compensate by shouting them, and, with the exception of a beautifully judged performance by John MacMillan as Malcolm and a (less satisfactory) one by Hilary Maclean as Lady Macbeth, this happens here. But it's made much worse by the fact that the complex psychology of the main characters is subsumed in this production's pursuit of spectacle. Macbeth is a deeply psychological play about the pull between personal ambition and guilt, which both of the Macbeths suffer, but not here: the coke-sniffing Lady Macbeth takes one frenetic angry note throughout, and Macbeth's conversion from coward to tyrant to troubled soul is, well, laughable - and the audience did indeed laugh at him at one moment during the scene where Banquo's ghost appears at the feast.

Honestly, I know this play through and through - I've studied it, I've taught it in schools (even so, I'm not precious about it, I'm always up for new insights) - but I just couldn't follow, so distracted was I by working out the modern parallels, and the flashing lights (which as a migraine sufferer I had to close my eyes to, missing some crucial moments), and the weird experience of listening to apparently garbled (shouted) speeches ringing with phrases which were so familiar to me and the meaning of which I thought I knew...

Director Matthew Dunster made some interesting revelations to Kevin Bourke in the Manchester Evening News:
It’s not, I put to Matthew, a play any director undertakes lightly.

“I probably did, actually,” he replies, confoundingly. “I was asked to do it and I said I’d love to do it, just because I wanted to have a go at it. I wanted to have a go at it in a very populist, contemporary, theatrical way ... one of the problems with Macbeth is that people do tend to come at it with this heavy weight and one of my bugbears with Shakespeare is it carries so much intellectual baggage with it. I thought, ‘I just want to make a really good show'.

"I’ve taken not scissors but a big pair of garden shears to it!,” he laughs... Where we think [Shakespeare] would benefit from our contemporary eyes saying ‘we don’t need that, that’s no use to us’, we’ve just got rid of it."

That would be the complex psychology of the tyrant, then. And, er, that's not relevant to Iraq...?

Not so much a case of teaching Granny to suck eggs, I'd say, but of teaching Granny to suck eggs when you don't even know what eggs are...

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