Two mini-reviews for shows that are going to be hard to see, as one has only happened twice in five years and the other is coming to the end of its run and is fully sold out.
The night after an election in which a racist candidate pushed an anti-immigrant campaign seemed like an excellent time to see the Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope, about a Somali immigrant and refugee who goes to South Africa in search of a better life. The play was full of the outstanding singing, lively dancing, and endlessly cheerful marimba playing that marks the Isango Ensemble’s work (and strongly justifies the £35 ticket price, which to be honest nearly kept me from coming as I’m really struggling financially right now). But I’d just been listening to an NPR story on how Somali Muslim immigrants are being demonized across the US and I was feeling particularly curious about what the truth was of these people’s experience. The degree of violence people who lived in Somalia in the 80s and 90s experienced is really amazing; I can see how that would have been producing some pretty unusual brain patterns (having your mom shot in front of you; being forced into a militia at 15; rape galore in the refugee camps). And there’s no doubt there were some seriously different cultural issues going on here than anything I’ve seen (although I question which ones were being highlighted as a matter of interest either to the people who make up the company or as a matter of interest to the South African author of the book this show is based upon): for example, how marriage works in Islam; the deep rooted feeling of hospitality that is extended to people of your extended family; how you make a living in a world where there is so little to go around (serving tea? translating? people smuggling?).
And then BAM in your face, the prejudice of the South African townships to the people who had moved there. We’re not talking just calling names – we’re talking wide scale murder, setting people on fire – a level of violence that goes far, far beyond my imagination of how people who hate immigrants treat them. And then there were the cops not coming to help them, but then again not coming to the townships at all – part of the overall problem of post-Apartheid South Africa not delivering for its poor citizenry. The lead character managed to hold on to his sense of self, but by the end of this story he has really just lost so much, over and over again, that I felt burdened with the knowledge that we as a world are just so full of hate for others I barely know how to take a single step forward. But there, I had a chance to get to know what the life of a Somali refugee/immigrant might be like, and in what ways I might perhaps find him very different from me and my experience …. but also how people in a township might be people I would find extremely different from me. But the hatred of the mob seemed too, depressingly, universal.
On the other hand, there was the nearly-sold out performance of the Carl Davis score to the silent movie Napoleon, which I wanted to see as one of those life-list things. Not just the longest movie I had ever seen (two PM to 10 PM with two 15 minute breaks and a 1:50 dinner break), but a genuine epic day and night of art PLUS I’d heard some rumors about how it was shown with three projectors at the same time and WOW. I had failed at River of Fundament and Einstein on the Beach at a mere 5 hours each; could I somehow soldier (HA HA!) though this five and a half hour marathon? I figured if worse came to worse and I left at the dinner break, I’d still have got £20 worth of cinema, especially given the whole thing was being done with an ORCHESTRA performing the score (no feeble solo piano tinkling along to this masterwork!).
Learning from my lesson from Einstein, I packed as if I were going hiking: flapjacks, crunchy candies, Doritos, a bottle of water, and a candy bar. I had a cup of chai (thank you Southbank Beanie Greeny) beforehand and a tea for the first two intervals, but avoided alcoholic drinks. I also made sure to have preventative toilet trips before the lights went down – important, as it turned out, since we weren’t allowed re-entry for rather a long time. I also allowed myself a nap about 90 minutes in during a sequence I had seen in 9 1/2 millimeter earlier in the summer; while a little bit of the beginning seemed different, most of the content before the first interval was very close to what Kevin Brownlow had shown from his home movie set of reels and I had found the Corsica section kind of dull (despite the amazing camera work during the horse chase scene).
The upshot of this (aside from possibly irritating my neighbors and losing a beautiful pair of gloves in my mad race to the start line) is that I found this film highly enjoyable from end to end, and sat eagerly waiting the next bit when we came to the end of each interval. It’s got some serious problems with over heavy symbolism (oh, the eagle in the school scene! and all of the other scenes!) and a bad case of hero worship that rendered many scenes unintentionally comic, but MAN. Did I buy in to Napoleon as a leader able to come up with excellent strategy and incredible levels of leadership during some piss poor times in French history? Damned straight. Did I think he was a hero who led his country to the heights? Well, not so much. And did I find Josephine unexpectedly enchanting? Um, no. But this movie, I found it enchanting – partially as a work of propaganda (but an unfrightening one, unlike Leni Riefenstahl), partially as the focused work of an incredibly creative mind. OH the revolutionaries of France’s terror and their hurdy gurdy player and the pet bunny! OH the crazy, crazy Violine, with her own personal altar to Napoleon, dressed as a bride and praying and MAD! OH Napoleon’s ridiculous lack of a sense of humor! OH the shimmering silks and nudity and madness at the Victims’ Ball! And you know, I think I came out of it with a slightly better understanding of French history. So while it wasn’t perfect, there was… oh wait, I forgot … THE MOMENT WHERE THEY OPENED THE CURTAINS AND THE OTHER TWO PROJECTORS CAME ON AND THE SCREEN WAS SUDDENLY TRIPLED IN SIZE. Fuck you Stanley Kubric, fuck Lawrence of Arabia, here’s sixty musicians and a screen the width of a football field AND A FUCKING ARMY ON THE SCREEN. And all the way through it the orchestra SERIOUSLY heightened the experience.
And there was a moment when Napoleon said that he had a vision …. of a Europe where every one was free … of a Europe where there were no borders. And the audience as one clapped and cheered. What an experience.
So three more days to catch Isango Ensemble, and Napoleon is apparently