Daily Archives: August 25, 2007

Gun Crime And The Mourning Of Rhys – Column 25.8.07


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.8.07

MAN WAS MADE TO MOURN, said Robert Burns; but the truth is that in the 21st century, we don’t do it well.  Faced with the tragedy of untimely death – not least the terrible shooting in Liverpool on Wednesday of 11-year-old Rhys Jones  – we rage, blame, protest, launch campaigns, demand fresh legislation; sometimes, when all else fails, we even formulate grand conspiracy theories.  But what we do not do is to allow a simple decline into grief; a long period of tears and withdrawal marked by the wearing of dark clothes, and a reduced level of public and professional activity.  And by and large, this is a positive development.  No longer browbeaten by the kind of religion that once demanded a passive acceptance of our lot, we rage against the dying of the light in fine style; and our anger at the pain of needless death has helped to fuel a whole range of massive medical advances and social reforms.

The paradox is, though, that as we become better at outwitting and avoiding untimely death, we become steadily worse at handling it when it does happen.  Robbed of the old, fatalistic repertoire of sayings and cliches – it was God’s will, what cannot be cured must be endured – we thrash around for ways of expressing the emotions aroused by terrible events like Rhys Jones’s death; and all too often we move instantly from grief to rage, particularly in the case of deaths caused by criminal violence.  Anger against the killer who carried out the crime is, of course, a reasonable reaction; but in our rush to deflect the grief, we seem incapable of stopping there.  Within hours of Rhys’s death, anger was being expressed against everyone from Gordon Brown and his Home Secretary, to assorted liberal-minded chief police officers, and the entire British judiciary.  And if some of those people have genuinely failed in their duty to protect the public, even that expression of anger is not enough for some of Britain’s more sensational media.  Instead, they go on to turn their rage against 21st century Britain itself, a nation which has allegedly undergone a terrifying transformation from the harmles Ealing Comedy country that emerged from the Second World War, into what one red-top paper calls “Violent Britain”, a bleak urban desert plaged by gangs of heavily-armed “feral” youths, in which no citizen can walk in safety.

And it’s at this point, of course, that the debate loses all contact with reality, and instead becomes part of that strange rhetoric of decline and despair – we used to be a great and beautiful nation, now we’re a mess – that is such a marked part of Britain’s post-war conversation with itself.  In point of fact, deaths caused by gun crime peaked, in England and Wales, in 2001, when almost 100 people died; last year, the figure was 58.    In 1995,  there were 44 violent killings of young people aged between 5 and 16; last year, the figure was only 20.  There is some troubling evidence that the victims of gun crime are becoming younger; the eight young people shot dead in Britain this year are clearly eight too many.  But there is, as yet, no huge and advancing wave of death by gun crime affecting young people in this country; and we do ourselves no favours if we persist in acting and reacting as if there was.

So what should we do, in response to such a horrific event as Rhys Jones’s murder?  First of all, we should be adult enough to do nothing for a while; to support the police in tracking down the killer, and to let the law take its course.  Politicians, of course, can never resist the temptation to generalise wildly and misleadingly – about our society, about the law, about necessary future measures – on the basis of these extremely rare and untypical incidents; David Cameron takes the cake, this week, for producing an entire speech full of half-baked policy ideas and recommendations within 36 hours of Rhys Jones’s death.  But if politicians cannot resist trying to make political capital out of this kind of incident, then we should start acquiring the wisdom to ignore them when they do so.

Secondly, we need to think hard about the failure of our society to socialise a significant minority of its young men, who risk becoming drawn into a counter-culture that measures human worth purely in terms of violence inflicted, and goods acquired and displayed.  To grow up well, young men – even more than young women – need a sense of belonging to a society that places some value on their strength and abilities, and has a useful, respected, and economically viable  role waiting for them, provided they live broadly within the rules.  Our society needs wholeheartedly to resume responsibility for providing that, particularly for youngsters whose own families have failed them; or to learn to live with the consequences.

And then finally, we need to face the truth that whatever action is eventually taken as a consequence of Rhys Jones’s murder, nothing will ever bring that lovely, happy boy back to his parents, or help to diminish the pain of their loss.  We shouldn’t lose our sense of outrage at what has happened to them, of course.  But this weekend, it’s our quiet prayers and thoughts that should be with the Joneses, and with all bereaved parents, everywhere.  And if we can bring ourselves to give grief its time and place, in the aftermath of such tragedy, then we may be better able, come next week or next year, to respond in ways that make sense; rather than reacting in knee-jerk haste, and living to repent at leisure.


Mabou Mines Dollhouse

Mabou Mines Dollhouse
4 stars ****
King’s Theatre

TAKE A FEW IMAGES that you might always have associated with the idea of Ibsen’s Doll’s House, the story of Nora Helmer and the dramatic end of her bourgeois 19th century marriage, which she suddenly sees to have been a humilating sham.  Then cut, slice and splice those ideas through the imagination of a director obsessed with fierce variations of theatrical form and voice; and there you have Mabou Mines Dollhouse, as mind-blowing a version of Ibsen’s great play as Edinburgh is ever likely to see.

Set on a stage surrounded by chocolate-box layer upon layer of red plush, on a set like the cramped upper slice of a doll’s house, the play is accompanied from the start by the kind of sentimental live piano score associated both with Victorian melodrama and with early silent movies.   It also contains wild, disturbing elements of toy-box imagery and Punch-and-Judy puppet theatre, nightmare Nordic images borrowed from the Ibsen of Peer Gynt, and a famous twist of theatre of the grotesque, in that all the men are played by very short, child-sized people, as if made small and absurd by their false presumption of superiority.  And at the end, when the veil of romantic illusion is torn from Nora’s eyes, the show tranforms in a disturbing coup-de-theatre from puppet-play into opera, as if questioning whether any art-form born of the age of red-plush theatre can survive the harsh light of modern reality.

Just how interesting this compulsive investigation of theatrical form can be to a general audience is hard to say; and the actors’ cod-Norwegian accents seemed to me like a bit of a cheap shot.  What’s clear, though, is that Lee Breuer and his remarkable company take one of the great, dusty monuments of European drama, and turn it into as continuously astonishing a piece of theatre as I’ve ever seen on the Festival stage.  And Breuer’s partner and co-adapter, Maude Mitchell, gives a performance as Nora of breathtaking boldness, invention  and courage.  In her transformation from pouting domestic doll to naked, hairless woman facing the world utterly alone, she is never less than fascinating; and in the end, her metamorphosis is as moving as it is strange.


Macbeth – Who Is That Bloodied Man?

Macbeth: Whio Is That Bloodied Man?
3 stars ***
Old College Quad (Venue 192)

NOTHING MUCH HAS CHANGED, in the aesthetic style of the fabulous Polish group Biuro Podrozy, since they first astonished  Edinburgh audiences a decade ago with their Carmen Funebre, inspired by their horror at the war in former Yugoslavia.   It’s stil the same mind-blowing combination of fire, music, and huge, sinister stilt-walkers looming from the darkness; and this year they bring it to bear on a brief 75-minute version of Macbeth, played out in the superb setting of Old College Quad, with its grand, looming walls of dark stone.

As versions of Macbeth go, this one often seems more confused than illuminating.  There’s a Banquo but no Macduff, a coronation scene but no banquet; and Macbeth finally dies not in battle – although there is a memorable evocation of a battle engine rattling with the skulls of his slain enemies – but by locking himself up in his fortress and setting it on fire, after discovering Lady Macbeth hanged by her own hand.  The text is largely reduced to the odd scrap of booming voiceover, and the First World War-style battlefield motorbikes used to transport the cast around splutter and skid on the deep gravel surface.

In the end, though, the show has two memorable assets.  There’s a fabulous score, sung live by a soprano perched high on a windy ladder; and there is that visual imagery, mad, wild and beautiful.   The image of eight great stilt-walkers in single file suddenly emerging onto the stage, touched by an eerie blue light, and representing all the generations of kings descended from Banquo, is almost worth the ticket price in itself; and helps to confirm Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s status as one of those inimitable companies whose work, once seen, is never to be forgotten.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 218


Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13 and 14

Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13, and 14
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

IT BEGAN, two-and-a-half weeks ago, with just a couple of dozen new writing fans eating rolls and drinking coffee in the small space of Traverse 2.  Now, it’s packing 300-strong audiences into the Traverse main auditorium every morning, and the breakfast operation has expanded to the point where it puts a severe strain on bacon supplies around Lothian Road.  Ravenhill For Breakfast, in other words, has become one of the surprise smash-hits of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, charging less than the price of a mediocre stand-up show for breakfast plus a 25-minute script-in-hand reading, by top actors from around the Festival  and Fringe, of a new play each day by one of Britain’s leading playwrights; and what Ravenhill and Paines Plough, the producing company has done may, in time, begin to change the face of Edinburgh Fringe theatre for ever.

In the first place, and most importantly, he has written a superb piece of contemporary drama in the form of 17 daily instalments, like a new Charles Dickens for our times.   His theme is perhaps the most important on this year’s Fringe; the question of how the powerful and affluent of our planet relate to those less fortunate.  And his cast of characters are simply unforgettable, from the three affluent “Women of Troy” of the first play, babbling about their juicing machines and organic food preferences, through the headless soldier who reappears in script after script as image or nightmare, to the hungry people of starving cities patronised by well-meaning aid workers, and the roaring, keening mothers of the dead.

Secondly, he has made the Traverse each morning a magnificent crossroads for all the theatrical talent that converges on Edinburgh in August.  The season has involved dozens of actors, from Brian Ferguson of Black Watch to the fabulous Dolya Gavanski, star of the David Greig hit Damascus; and directors from Vicky Featherstone of the National Theatre of Scotland and Mark Thomson of the Royal Lyceum to Paines Plough’s own Roxana Silbert.

And finally, he has raised once again the key question of what 21st century audiences want from live theatre.  Do they want to see big sets, actors in costume, perfectly-rehearsed reproductions of some aspect of life?  Or do they prefer the immediacy and authenticity of a script-in-hand performance hot off the press, as infinitely preferable to the highly-edited version of the world inflicted on them by most of the broadcast media?  There are no easy answers, of course.  But Ravenhill For Breakfast has opened up a brand new range of possible responses, in work that has often been of heart-stopping quality.  On Thursday morning, the superb Scottish actress Kathryn Howden, directed by Sulayman Al Bassan of the United Arab Emirates, quietly described the long emotional death-by-inches that is her own western life, while a starving woman died unnoticed in her arms; as an image of the tragedy of our times, I have never seen a stronger one, anywhere.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 218