Daily Archives: August 9, 2008

Nocturne, Borderline, Absolution

4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)
3 stars ***
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)

HERE ARE THREE SOLO PLAYS  about men who live in lonely rooms, somewhere on the frontier between sanity and madness.  Where they differ is in the level of awareness they bring to their plight; and it’s interesting that the finest of the plays is the one in which the speaker – himself a writer – is most able to move in and out of the heartland of his own pain, and to achieve a certain kindly perspective on it.

Adam Rapp’s Nocturne – an exquisite monologue about the aftermath of family tragedy, already acclaimed in New York and London – arrives at the Traverse in a memorably intense solo version produced by the Almeida Theatre in London, and given an entrancingly powerful, engaging performance by Peter McDonald.   At the beginning, our speaker tells us how he ran over and killed his little sister one day when he was 17, driving an old Buick Electra with a failed brake line; at the end, an utterly absorbing 100 minutes later, we see him return from his lonely but creative life as a penniless writer in New York to reach some kind of accommodation with his dying father, and to sit with him through his final hours, in the bleak ruins of what was once an outwardly happy all-American family.

The arc of the story is intensely conventional, almost to the point of sentimentality; and the play’s long final scene, in Matt Wilde’s production, is so deliberately muted and static that it almost seems to exclude the audience.  But despite the occasional writerly tendency to wallow in description when narrative is required, Rapp has created a beautiful and moving monologue, which – like all the best solo shows – leaves audiences feeling that they have just experienced a magnificent full-length movie of the mind.

The hero of Culturcated Theatre’s Borderline, by contrast, achieves a sense of perspective about his own behaviour only fitfully.  Sometimes – in Rob Benson’s fascinating and sometimes frightening performance of his own solo play – he seems sensible, calm, even witty about his plight as a lifelong sufferer from borderline personality disorder; at other times, he “loses it” completely, raging and fighting, rejecting the medication that keeps him stable, and entering into a dark fantasy-world full of violence, delusion, and self-destruction.

Benson’s play shifts perspective so violently, and begins with a passage of such wild disturbance, that it’s difficult, initially, either to grasp the situation, or to empathise with the character’s pain.  But this is a show performed with passion, and stuffed with sharp observation and anger about the plight of people with mental health problems in a society that’s not only unsympathetic to their attempts to restart their lives, but also stuffed with temptations in the shape of drink and illegal drugs, and full of supposedly sane people leading lonely, autistic lives, to the solitary musical soundtrack of their personal players.

The lonely man at the centre of Owen O’Neill’s monologue Absolution, playing at the Assembly Rooms, speaks from a prison cell, as he recounts the series of brutal punishment murders he has carried out on four priests who sexually abused young children.   In Rachel O’Riordan’s production, O’Neill’s text has a driving narrative energy so fierce it almost smells of burning flesh, and his performance is both intensely physical, and vocally compelling, as he evokes the mind of a man still totally caught up in his own deranged dream of vengeance.   In the end, though, O’Neill seems not to know what to do with the rage that drives the story; and he finishes with a gratuitous, spiteful twist in the tale that fails to add anything to the narrative, and tends to undermine the integrity of what has gone before.

Joyce McMillan
Nocturne and Borderline until 24 August, Absolution until 25 August
pp. 218, 187, 180.


Beijing Olympics and Human Rights: It’s Not About Us – Column 9.8.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 9.8.08

THE THIRD TEMPTATION is the greatest treason: to do the right deed, for the wrong reason.  That was T.S. Eliot, in Murder In The Cathedral; but it’s a text that could just as easily be applied to the current worldwide debate on human rights, thrown into high relief by yesterday’s opening of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing.  As I write, the opening ceremony is in full swing, and the smog-veiled city in triumphant mood; but all the talk among the political commentators is of who is there, and who has decided to stay away.   Vladimir Putin of Russia and Nicholas Sarkozy of France are there, but Angela Merkel of Germany is not; George Bush is there, but the President of the European Commission has stayed at home.  And Gordon Brown – in a classic example of the indecisiveness that now seems to plague his government – has decided that he will not attend the opening ceremony, but will attend the closing one; decode that, if you care enough.

The problem lies, though, in the way that the debate on human rights is often framed in the west; for although everyone seems to agree that it would be a good thing if the Chinese government were to allow full freedom of expression, and to stop imprisoning people for their political views or religious beliefs, that is roughly where the agreement stops.   A slightly startling alliance of campaigners – some from the left, some from the hard anti-communist right – believe that we in the west have a duty to use whatever power we have to bring governments like the Chinese one up to the moral mark; they believe we should boycott, denounce and expose until reforms are made.

Others, though, see this view as breathtakingly arrogant, and argue that the Chinese – their culture, their system – are entitled to massive respect, not least because of their recent stunning success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty into relative affluence.  Some suggest that we should not lecture the Chinese about “freedom”,  because – so they argue –  it is a concept that means relatively little to them.  And all agree that we should address the Chinese as equals, or risk finding that we are soon not invited to address them at all.

And the difficulty is that both of these groups are wrong, because both make the mistake of believing that the human rights agenda is somehow about us – about western culture, and about our right, or lack of it, to “impose” our ideas on others.  The people who believe that the west should take a firm stand with China on human rights are the ones who would do the right thing for the wrong reason; they are right to think that Chinese people deserve the best in terms of justice and freedom, but wrong to imagine, as many seem to, that this is a matter of “the west” bringing a higher sense of civilisation to less morally developed parts of the globe.  And the others would do the wrong thing for the right reason.  They are right to show a high respect for the cultures of others; but wrong to accept, as a genuine manifestation of other cultures, the self-serving argument of authoritarian governments everywhere that  international law on human rights has no place in their society, because their people have no need for such protection.

So how should we think of the human rights agenda, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the European Convention, and half-a-dozen other founding documents?  The short answer is that we in the west must learn the art of cherishing it, without claiming special ownership of it.  Instead, we should face the sharp truth that whether on not western lawyers were the first to draft the codes that now form the bedrock of international law, these ideals – these dreams of a free and fair society, of the true rule of law, and of a world in which every human being has the opportunity to fulfil his or her highest potential – belong to all humankind, and must therefore be owned, administered and renegotiated by all of us.

Most westerners today know so little about other faiths and cultures, beyond a few scare-mongering stereotypes, that they simply have no idea how much those traditions could contribute to global debate on the full meaning of human rights, of democracy, and of self-determination for every individual.  And most of us, sadly, have also lost all sense of historical perspective about our own culture; how recently we in the west abandoned many openly repressive customs and practices, and how often we still treat the whole idea of human rights as a politically-correct joke.

As with the debate on climate change, in other words, we might be better employed in plucking the substantial motes out of our own eyes, when it comes to human rights, than in trying to browbeat the Chinese into removing the beams from theirs.   In that vast country, there are literally millions of people now willing to risk their lives, or at least their liberty, in the cause of freedom of speech, thought and association.   We should give them what support we can, as organisations like Amnesty International do every day.   But we should also, in the end, have the wisdom and humility to let them lead the movement for change from within, rather than seeking to shape it from London, Brussels or Washington.  Because when a new age of freedom in China comes, it will not come in precisely the form designed by the western allies back in 1945.   It will come in a form that absorbs, understands, and takes on board the cultural inheritance of more than a billion people, across the most populous country on earth; and it will be all the more robust and enduring for that.