Archive for April 22nd, 2015

Experiential Review – Early Days of a Better Nation – Coney at Battersea Arts Center/Four Thieves

April 22, 2015

(This review is a work of semi-fiction but also a work of semi-reality.)

It was hard work to get to the meeting of the peoples of Dacia. On the islands, where I live, the anarchy and fighting that have been taking place in the mainland have seemed fairly distant to my reality. We rode through the rise and fall of the Dacian dictator in the same way we deal with all of the crises across the straits – still having coffee with friends, still going to work, engaged but separated. In fact, I only heard of this plan to have an all-country meeting to decide our future at random, while having lunch with a friend who happened to invite visionary (and fellow Islander) Annette Mees as one of our talkative crowd. When she told me about this chance for me to come as a representative to help reform Dacia – to help it make it past our current time of difficulty – I thought it was well worth the effort, even knowing the ferries were no longer running and those of us who choose to attend would have to borrow private boats to make it. With my degree in political theory, it seemed I was practically obliged to contribute to this event, for the sake of all of Dacia as well as to slake my own curiosity.

However, it seemed malign forces – whether of fate or of perhaps the pro-fascist element still alive in Dacia – was set against us doing this, for the People’s Hall of Battersea, where our conference was to take place, burned some weeks before the event. This left us reliant on email to keep in touch while we all traveled to the mysterious new home of the event, a lovely former performance hall now known as the Four Thieves. Oddly, I only knew one of the other Islanders who appeared at our initial meet up, and our facilitator seemed to be … well, not dedicated to Dacia’s success as much as to cheerleading the Islands. Yes, we have a different form of governance in each hamlet, including direct democracy, rotational leadership, and other radical approaches – but with our small population, high level of education, and social cohesiveness, this has been fairly easy. We still have our infrastructure in place, the Bug racing through the refugee camps in Dacia’s plains hasn’t touched us, and there’s more than enough food to go around.

When we got to the big conference room, we were faced with a pretty major decision: did we want to take help from the European Commission, and get food and other aid but have foreign troops in Dacia? Somehow, we weren’t even able to agree how to vote on this issue – the three facilitators for each of the areas seemed more interested in promoting their personal visions than listening to any of the people they were “supposedly” representing – and the whole thing seemed to descend into them shouting at us while none of us concerned citizens were able to do anything to work together. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “It’s time for us to abolish the borders!” and it was if I had seen a light: sure, we were sitting in a room divided by the areas we had came from, but every citizen of Dacia was my concern, not just those relatively privileged few of us on the islands. My brothers and sisters were living in tents, fighting for their lives, lucky if they could feed themselves, and we’d let these false prophets turn our meeting into a fight over details when we had obvious, big picture issues to address. They didn’t seem to have the basic precepts of how to chair a meeting much less how to build consensus. We were rushed through to a decision based on a false dichotomy created by the selfish leaders and at the end, I saw our chances for working together, and even the chances for easily being able to feed our nation, destroyed, as they chose to declare that we’d voted against the European Help despite the fact the numbers were NOT on their side. It’s clear that those who control the media control policy far more than any individual, as even a big group of individuals was steamrolled but all the news channels said was that we’d said no.

It was heartbreaking to reconvene a year later (mind you this time with beer) and discover how far we’d fallen. I’d been shielded from it, again, in the Islands, but the situation in the Plains and the Cities was even worse – pure chaos. Somehow, in this environment, we needed to come together and figure out what to do with the few resources we had. The result and attitude were both gamed, as we were handed out single tokens and essentially divided into three again, but I decided it was time to break through the borders and sat with the Cities representatives. What we needed was to understand each other and to see what need we had, and to change our divisive attitudes to truly rebuild ourselves as a nation. An effective moderator finally emerged from the representatives, and we began to support her, as she slowly worked her way around the room, ensuring each voice was listened to; but at some point, the anarchic situation we were in reasserted itself and a large portion of the voting counters were stolen. But we seemed to agree, at last, that we needed to feed the nation, and that the richer areas could do with less in order to stabilize the poorer … and then the moderators attempted to cut off our attempts to reach consensus (a slow process) and rush us through. Sure, the lights were going out, but our will was strong: and some daring women discovered the thief who was attempting to make away with control of the mines to his own benefit and decided to bring him to justice. It was a great moment, but it appeared that the Powers That Be were more interested in ending this bizarre commingling of Dacians and abruptly declared our decision making process over, then gave us a pre-scripted story about what the outcome would be from the votes we had made – as represented at a point in time that was convenient to them.

But I am here to tell you the true story of Dacia, not the tale that news agent, paid by relics of the old regime, spread on that evening. We, the room of us, agreed that feeding our country and controlling disease were a must, and that, while we needed to hold on to the mines, restarting them was not as important as keeping our citizens from dying. The people from my home, the Islands, agreed that giving up some of our easy living in order to ease the situation for the Plains and the City – to help Dacian farms become productive again and to give our people stability – would lead to a long term best outcome. Because this wasn’t about us and them: it was about all of us. We’re all struggling but everyone has nearly enough to eat now and the political situation has stabilized.

The citizens of Dacia who came together that night saw that what was best for all of us was the right choice – not what was easy or fast or philosophically interesting, but that which decreased human suffering. We needed to make Dacia function, starting with the basics of survival. Now, three years later, we’ve just started up the mines and we’ve arranged the jobs they provide so they’re benefiting people across Dacia – and ensuring the income generated by the minerals is invested in the people and infrastructure of our country. The women who ensured our mines remained national property were true heroes and while the lynching was ugly, it saved our country’s people from a far worse fate.

I’m glad I had this opportunity to tell the truth about what happened that night. Every day people built a new nation underneath the noses of the vested interests of the old regime and the greedy grab-guts who wanted to steal our patrimony away for themselves. I didn’t know if it could work, but it did, and I’m glad I took the chance to get out of my comfort zone and help build a future for all of us.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, April 21st, 2015. Early Days (of a Better Nation) continues at Battersea Arts Center through April 25th. It then tours through May 14th: for details see the Coney site.)


Review – Ah, Wilderness! – Young Vic

April 22, 2015

I’ve really warmed up to Eugene O’Neil since seeing his Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo some years ago. I’d previously thought of him as a writer of go America rah-rah schmaltz (based upon reading the script for Wilderness in high school, apparently), but now I see him as a modernist with a well-honed ability to create characters with real depth. Maybe that’s the secret to the great American dramatists of the 20th century – being born to families that were deeply, deeply messed up, providing them with rich source material to build their semi-fictions upon. However, there’s none of his usual grimness visible in this play, which is quite accurately described as his “warmest, most delightful play” (some slight references to alcoholism do NOT take it to the “dark undertow” stage). Instead, what you get is a family where the mom (Janie Dee) is absolutely devoted to and protective of her children – while being aware of their faults – and a father (Martin Marquez) who claims to be willing to wallop his offspring and yet chooses to give up the main advertiser for his paper rather than punish his son unjustly. How can _that_ be a dark world?

The Young Vic’s Ah, Wilderness is set in a clapboard house with sand spilling through every door into a pool on the stage, where Old Eugene (David Annen) watches his younger self relive his memories. Now, Old Eugene is not a character in the play – he’s used to read bits of description and to occasionally show emotion in response to things that happen – but he effectively adds layers of sadness and nostalgia to what happens, in this house that’s full of memories and near the beach, the ocean sand covering nearly everything a metaphor for all of the overlayers of years and passing time. Young Eugene – er, Richard Miller (George MacKay) – is a hysterically overemotional teenager who reminded me of nothing so much as a modern day Goth kid. Who’d think the trappings of rebellious, literate teenagerdom would be so exactly the same in 1906 as in 2015? He’s reading Oscar Wilde, talking about taking the rich away in tumbrils to the guillotine while waving around his copy of Carlyle’s French Revolution … all he needs to do is start carrying on about Morrisey and wearing eyeliner. My friend and I were practically in tears in the opening scene, as his family debates Richard’s tastes in literature while butchering one British word after another (I thought “gaol” was pronounced “gay-el” as well before I moved here) and an elder brother declares to all that Wilde’s great crime was bigamy. Oh God. When Essie Miller came in at the start of the scene complaining about her son’s “awful books” I would have never thought I’d have read all of them or that it would be the springboard for such a moment of shared literacy (and laughs) amongst the audience. (For details on his horrible books, this author did all the homework for me.)

For good comedy, not having everything be funny is key: and underneath this play is the pain of lost love, suffered temporarily by Richard and eternally by his uncle Sid Davis (Dominic Rowan), both of whom address their ills with alcohol. Sid’s bender with his brother in law leads to an uproarious dinner scene with Sid chewing on lobster shells and making fun of both his sister and her husband to great effect; but his funniness loses its edge when we realize he’s drunk himself into unemployment and out of a marriage both he and Lily (Susannah Wise – dad Miller’s sister) want. These four characters – the mother, the father, his sister, her brother – are all likeable and yet none of them perfect; on stage, their interactions speak of lives that have touched each other for ages before and will continue to be entwined into the future. They’re masterpieces of writing and absolutely pitch perfect on stage, each one of them, the actors inhabiting them as if they carry them around like their own skin when they walk out of the building.

In fact, the only real complain I could have about this show is that it’s a bit too happy. Nobody I know has an entire family familiar with Omar Khayyam and able to leap to the defense of an overreaching youth on an instant’s notice; running out of work, especially when you live in a small town (and have been run out of your work) is much more of a tragedy than this show plays it. And we all know that this is not his life he’s showing us, and somewhere bubbling under the giggles is the wretched truth brought out in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But this is the play that rewrites the facts of O’Neill’s life to find comedy and warmth; and there’s more than enough misery out there, in real life as well as on the stage, that I think it’s okay for us to take the opportunity Natalie Abrami has given us to sit back and enjoy ourselves for a while. Here, it’s the Fourth of July; put your rose-colored glasses on and join me on the moonlit beach and let’s watch the fireworks for a while and just live in the moment.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 20th, 2015. It continues through May 23rd. I suggest sitting so that you’re slightly on the right side of teh stage – if you’re facing it – so you can see Sid’s face during the dinner scene. This play is an excellent value at £20 and a good night out at £35, with bonus value if you want to have a good laugh and walk out feeling like the world isn’t such a bad place after all.)