Monthly Archives: June 2009

Barack Obama’s Cairo Vision vs. The European Right – Column 6.6.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 6.6.09
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SO FAR AS THE BULK of the British media are concerned, there’s no other front-page story, this weekend, than the continuing agony of Gordon Brown, and the likely demise of his government.   But as the Westminster village writhes through one of its periodic spasms of destruction, out there in the wider world a battle-line of historic importance has been drawn this week; and all our futures are likely to be heavily dependent on the outcome of what is developing into a titanic battle between profoundly different value-systems.

For on one side, we can see ranged the forces of darkness and organised ill-will, as represented by the ultra-blonde  Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party has emerged as the second strongest force in Dutch politics following this week’s European elections.  The British government incurred some well-deserved ridicule, recently, when it banned Mr. Wilders from the UK for his blatant incitement of anti-Islamic hatred; it’s usually unwise, in my experience, to offer representatives of the far right any chance to play the free-speech martyr.

But no-one, nonetheless, should doubt what kind of politician Mr. Wilders is.   He has built his career on the deliberate fomentation of hostile and inflammatory enemy-images not only of Islamic extremism, but of Islam in general.   He appeals – without much rational argument – to a base form of knee-jerk anti-European nationalism; and he consciously foments poor relations among the various ethnic groups living in the Netherlands.

Of course, Mr. Wilders has a good right to advance his views, as does any citizen of a free country.  But to choose Mr. Wilders is to choose a dark, tribally-divided view of humanity, in which cultural cohabitation inevitably decays into conflict.  And the fact is that he is not likely to be alone in his European election success.  Here in Britain, the BNP has high hopes of winning European seats for the first time; and the same picture is mirrored across the map of the EU, as – in true 1930’s style – parties of the hard right try to turn the fear and misery created by economic depression to their electoral advantage.

And then, on the other side of the argument, we find President Barack Obama of the United States, who on Thursday in Cairo gave what one senior Arab academic described as “possibly the best speech ever delivered by a President of the United States.”   Written with great energy and lucidity, in the kind of complete, reasoned sentences and well-balanced paragraphs that almost disappeared from world political discourse during the soundbite age of Tony Blair and the stammering reign of George W. Bush, President Obama’s speech set out to review the troubled history of relations between the United States and the Islamic world, and to offer a new beginning.   And to judge by the enemies that the speech has roused to special rage – including the leadership of Al-Quaeda, among others – it has struck a note so truly progressive that it has caused serious alarm among some of the ugliest political forces on the planet.

For where politicians like Geert Wilders seek to create enemy images, to emphasise difference, to encourage fear, to discourage empathy, and to create the impression that extremist attitudes are the norm in the “other community”, President Obama set out – with a rare combination of rhetorical grace and intellectual precision – to do the exact opposite.   He made repeated demonstrations of his ability to see the situation in the round, empathising with both Arab and western heritage, and with both views of recent history.

He recognised the great cultural and scientific contribution of Islam to world civilisation.  He sought to emphasise the common ground between the world’s great faith and cultural traditions, and the human values they share, many of them also enshrined – to the President’s obvious pride – in the Constitution of the United States.   And above all, he sought to marginalise those extremists who replace those common human aspirations with creeds of death, destruction and sacrifice that most human beings find both frightening and repellent.  For better or worse, he declared himself a believer in the possibility of peace and co-operation.   And as a man who, in his own person and life story, embodies the multicultural pluralism of the American dream, he set himself up as the living refutation of the kinds of lies on which politicians like Geert Wilders build their careers.

And of course, this is a hazardous position to take.   For one thing, it makes President Obama himself  a prime target for the merchants of hate across the planet.  And for another, even if the President himself survives to pursue his aims, the chance of failure in projects like the Middle East peace process is always high.

But human history clearly shows two things.   First, it suggests that the planet has always been shared by peacemakers and warmongers; and that the warmongers have always tended to wield disproportionate power over a peaceful majority.   And secondly, it suggests that despite that power, the warmongers are not the ones who create those great flowerings of invention, commerce, intellect and civic life which push human civilisation forward.   That task belongs to those – the consitution-makers, the builders of cities, markets ands universities – who believe in the power of human beings to create rather than destroy, and to meet strangers in the excitement of mutual trade and discovery, rather than in the horror of the battlefield.

This week, on the world stage, President Obama has declared himself as a passionate and insightful friend of that kind of enlightenment.   And whether or not he finally succeeds in delivering on his high hopes and fine words, it’s surely a moment to pause and be grateful, for the presence in the White House of a man who sees so clearly which path we should be on; and who can at least offer us an inspiring vision of it, in words with the power to change the world.

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A View From The Bridge, Medea

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A VEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and MEDEA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 4.6.09
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A View From The Bridge  4 stars ****
Medea   4 stars ****

THERE’S NO SECRET about what was on Arthur Miller’s mind, at the time – in the late 1940’s and early 50’s – when he was writing his great American tragedies, All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman, and A View From The Bridge.   He wanted, certainly, to arraign American society for its heartless pursuit of material success; for giving people “the wrong dreams”, unfulfillable for most ordinary men and women.

But like his predecessor Eugene O’Neill, he also wanted to demonstrate that true tragedy could be made out of ordinary American lives, and – in Miller’s case – out of the kind of working-class experience traditionally held at the margins of  tragedy.  Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman is possibly the greatest of all modern tragic heroes, the little man reduced to a mighty despair by his failure to emerge as a winner from the game he has believed in all his life.

And he is run very close by Eddie Carbone, the decent, hardworking Brooklyn longshoreman whose life collapses around him when his passion for the niece he has raised as a daughter – a passion he cannot name, and cannot afford fully to recognise – drives him to commit an act of moral suicide, in the tight-knit New York Italian community that gives his life its  meaning.  Like any good family man of his time and place, Carbone has welcomed into his home two cousins of his wife Beatrice, illegal immmigrants desperate to make their way in America.  But when his niece Catherine falls in love with one of them, Eddie’s raging pain and jealousy drive him to an act of betrayal that utterly destroys him.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that when the great Scottish actor Ken Stott brought A View From The Bridge home to Glasgow, earlier this week, in Lindsay Posner’s current UK touring production, the audience at the Theatre Royal simply took the play to their hearts, as if it was one of their own.  It’s not only the familiar setting, in a world of hard men bred to work in docks and shipyards, that makes this a play close to Glasgow’s heart; it’s also the spirit of Miller’s determination to show the heroic passion and tragedy of an ordinary working man, a tragedy that had some in the audience gasping with shock when Eddie makes his fatal phone-call to the immigration authorities.

In truth – and despite some beautifully lit tableaux of Brooklyn life in the mid-20th-century – Posner’s production is not flawless, or even particularly imaginative.  It offers the play more or less exactly as it was first written more than half a century ago, without comment or reinterpretation.  It indulges in dreary blackouts between scenes while stagehands fuss around with chairs; and it is linked together by a frighteningly underpowered performance from Allan Corduner as the local lawyer, Alfieri, who acts as Eddie’s confidant and chorus.

But even with all these limitations – and a consequent loss of power towards the end, as the cast try to navigate the play’s torrid final scenes without much of a compass – there’s simply no denying the force of this great story; and its magnificence is etched in every line on Ken Stott’s face, as he charts Edde’s terrible, unstoppable decline from crumpled geniality into a hell of his own making.  He receives strong support from Hayley Attwell as the lovely Catherine, and from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his loving wife Beatrice.  But in the end, this version of A View From The Bridge seems like something of a one-man show; and it’s a tribute to Stott’s power and integrity as an actor that it’s unlikely to be forgotten by any of that Glasgow first-night audience, who, on a memorably sultry New York night in Hope Street, cheered Stott’s final bow to the echo.

Astonishingly, though, Stott’s is not the only performance of towering tragic stature on stage in Glasgow this week.   For up the road at Oran Mor, David MacLennan has launched his Corona Classic Cuts summer season of brief lunchtime classics with a version of Medea – adapted and directed by Paddy Cunneen – in which the award-winning acress Cara Kelly gives a truly world-class performance as the mighty pagan princess driven to a world-shattering rage by her husband Jason’s betrayal.

Like Eddie Carbone, Medea is a victim of unrequited passion, driven to an unthinkable act of destruction in her quest for vengeance; unlike him, she conforms to the old tragic metaphor which makes every hero and heroine a prince, or – in this case – the granddaughter of a God.

But with the help of a magnificently hard-hitting modern version of the text, based on Alistair Elliot’s translation, as well as a series of deft supporting performances from Candida Benson with a nine-strong female chorus, Kelly and Cunneen give us a chillingly powerful Medea, who seems, with her magnificent, searching eyes, to call every member of the audience to account for our age-old tolerance of the betrayal and discarding of women to whom serious promises have been made.   Like A Vew From The Bridge, Euripides’ mighty drama takes a passion known to almost all of us – unrequited or rejected love and desire – and explores how it can make the whole world tremble, when we refuse to suppress or deny it, or settle for less.  And if Ken Stott is giving a masterclass in 20th century tragedy at the Theatre Royal this week, then Kelly matches him step for step, in a play that goes back to tragedy’s most ancient roots, and reminds us of the shuddering power it draws from them.

A View From The Bridge at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and Medea at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 6 June. An earlier version of this review of A View From The Bridge appeared in some editions of The Scotsman on Tuesday.

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Daisies

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DAISIES (Fiendish Plot at the CCA, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 3.6.09
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3 stars ***

THEATRE IS AN art-form that often tries to be clever, in the sense of inventive, allusive, innovative, challenging; and most of the time, it’s all the better for it.   There’s none of that, though, in Lisa Nicoll’s Daisies, this week’s play in the Fiendish Plot 30-minutge lunchtime series at the CCA.   Nicoll’s play is a straightforward, heart-on-sleeve double monologue for a young couple who become parents of a much-loved and long-awaited baby daughter, Daisy, only to face the horror of losing her in a sudden cot death; and it’s a huge tribute to the quuality of the performances – from Laura Harvey and Ian Petrie – that the play achieves a real tear-jerking power, without ever sliding into soap-opera sentimentality.

There are moments when it’s difficult to see the point of this hwartbreaking short essay in human pain; and moments too, in Sacha Kyle’s production, when she lets the performance style slip too far, for too long, towards a whispered, introverted small-screen naturalism.  But the quality of Nicoll’s writing is striking, simple and emotional without cliche, and with moments of unobtrusive poetry.   And as a journey from the self-absorbed bustle of a Sauchiehall Street lunchtime to the heart of the big things that really matters in life, the show makes an indelible mark.  “A lifetime in a lunchtime,” said one audience member at the end, as people all around wiped away tears; and reader, he wasn’t far wrong.

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A View From The Bridge

JOYCE MCMILLAN on A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow for The Scotsman, 2.6.09.

4 stars ****

GLASGOW, NEW YORK.   They’re both great Atlantic port cities that once bred hard men to work in their docks and shipyards.   They’ve both seen wave upon wave of migrants, some arriving legally, some less so; and they both have strong Italian communities, grafted now into the fabric of the city.  Take all this shared experience, and add a day of the kind of steamy weather Glasgow rarely sees, and it’s perhaps not surprising that last night’s packed performance at the Theatre Royal of Lindsay Posner’s current touring production of A View From The Bridge, starring the great Ken Stott in the iconic role of longshoreman Eddie Carbone, felt like a homecoming for one of the great stage tragedies of the 20th century.

It’s not that Posner’s production is flawless, or even particularly imaginative.   It offers the play more or less exactly as it was first written in the early 1950’s, it indulges in dreary blackouts between scenes while stagehands fuss around with chairs, and – like pearls on a fraying string – it is linked together by a frighteningly underpowered performance from Allan Corduner as the lawyer-cum-chorus Alfieri.

But even with all these limitations – and a consequent loss of power towards the end, as the cast tries to navigate the play’s torrid final scenes without much of a compass – there’s simply no denying the power of this great story about a man whose overwhelming passion for the niece he has brought up as a daughter leads him to betray his family, himself, and the community that gives his life meaning.  Carbone’s response to his niece’s growing love-affair with Rodolpho, the illegal migrant whom Carbone has taken into his own home, is extreme, of course.  In his world, to betray migrants to the authorities, is a kind of moral death, greeted with gasps of shock by some of last night’s Glasgow audience.

But the magnificence of this play lies in the ruthless honesty with which it links the tragedy of Eddie Carbone with the kind of ordinary passions – desperate, unrecognised, incapable of fulfilment – that blight and sadden lives everywhere, every day; and that magnificence is etched in every line on the face of Ken Stott, as he charts Eddie’s terrible, unstoppable decline from crumpled, contented geniality, into a hell of his own making, born of his own decent inability to recognise or name the passion that is driving him.  Stott receives strong support from Hayley Attwell as the lovely Catherine, and from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his loving wife Beatrice, who understands his trouble only too well.  But in the end, this version of A View From The Bridge seems like something of a one-man show.  And it’s a tribute to Stott’s terrific power and integrity as an actor that it’s a show sometimes difficult to watch, in its relentless exposure of the hero’s pain; but unlikely to be forgotten by any of the Glasgow first-night audience who, at the end, cheered Stott to the echo.

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