An Eye for an Eye? It’s All a Bit Long in the Tooth

Christopher Eccleston in Alex Cox's screen version of The Revenger's Tragedy

Christopher Eccleston in Alex Cox’s screen version of The Revenger’s Tragedy

13 May 2014. Lately, I’ve had revenge on my mind. Not that anybody need watch their back, double-bolt their doors or anything. No, what’s sparked this preoccupation is the fact that I’ve been immersed in two texts which I’m adapting for performance, both of which are, in their different ways, dripping with the vitriol of vengeance.

Of the two, John Webster’s The White Devil is the more obvious case of The Big Payback, being a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy in which virtually the whole cast (superfluous spoiler alert) is taken out with extreme prejudice by the time the curtain falls.

The other text, Dostoyevsky’s novella Notes From Underground, doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to be a tale of revenge at all. But that’s mostly because its anti-hero, who wastes his life brooding on how to make the world pay for its indifference towards him, turns out to be such a pathetically ineffectual Revenger.

To Dostoyevsky’s most agonizingly self-analytical of narrators, revenge isn’t so much a dish best served cold as a re-heated plate of leftovers from another, much simpler age. In these “modern times” (late 19th century in Dostoyevsky’s case), if you’ve got anything upstairs, you’ll recognise that revenge is not only morally unjustified, it’s also, in the end, really quite pointless. And so the Underground Man, though constantly driven by a primitive and scalding desire for revenge, gets stuck in “a fatal morass, a stinking mess” of doubts, prevarications and sheer spinelessness. He’s Hamlet reduced to a self-loathing little rat-bag rotting away in his lonely basement.

Like the Underground Man, we kind of know revenge won’t do any longer as the thinking person’s plot device, and not just because Gentle Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. It feels cheap, contrived, a bit penny dreadful. We go to the movies for those kinds of rudimentary jollies. Which isn’t to say they can’t reach the sphere of the sublime in the right hands. Can there be any more satisfying climax in any art form than Charles Bronson’s epic confrontation with a consummately evil Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West?

But even in the movies, the once simple pleasures of the revenge plot have long been getting muddier and muddier. To take a more or less random sample (outside Hollywood’s mainstream, admittedly) – Last House on the Left, Irreversible, Dead Man’s Shoes, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil – in all of these studies of the mechanics of revenge, what first seems an uncomplicated calculus of tit-for-tat soon turns into a grueling fulfillment of the old warning that those who seek revenge had better dig two graves, or at least get themselves a good therapist.

As far as writing for the stage is concerned, the revenge plot proper has more or less quit the scene. Possibly the last major play dealing with the subject was Durenmatt’s 1956 tragi-comedy The Visit, in which a billionaire attempts to suborn an entire town into a terrible act of vengeance against the man who jilted her. Not surprisingly, the prospect of this nasty little project succeeding offers absolutely no cathartic satisfaction for the audience.

Arguably the main inheritor of the Jacobean tradition working today is Martin McDonagh, whose grimly funny plays (and more recently films) are awash with retributive butchery, none more so than The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which sees the stage littered with the tortured and mutilated victims of the mother of all vendettas. But few people are likely to mistake McDonagh’s play as a serious contribution to the Revenge Tragedy tradition. Rather it’s a gleeful cackle at the genre’s ludicrous overkill, the struggle for cosmic justice finally reduced to a black farce about a psychopath wading through the blood of his enemies to avenge a dead cat called Wee Thomas.

And so, somewhat paradoxically, it’s back to the theatre’s last great Golden Age for the finest representatives of this discredited genre, The White Devil being, if you ask me, top of the bloody heap. Of course, my “adapting” this magnificent play for a stripped-down performance might well put in motion an altogether different revenge plot. Revenge of the Theatre Purists anyone?



 A Quick Word Aboot Accents

Wendy Hiller in the 1938 screen version of Pygmalion

15 Dec 2012.

How important is it that actors master accents 100% authentically (or near as demmit). This is something that’s been on my mind lately, as we’ll soon be launching into a revival of my play Cornered which, last year, brought the Manchester accent to Montreal. Local boys Chris Moore and Howard Rosenstein did a reet good job of negotiating the flat vowels and glottal stops of the rainy city, miraculously so given the three or so weeks of rehearsal. As a native Manc, I couldn’t help but be attuned to the occasional and inevitable laspse, but audiences remained convinced, for the most part, that they were hearing bona fide Mancunian.

A couple of films I recently watched also had me pondering the importance or otherwise of accents. In Cold Mountain, Jude Law and Ray Winstone both have a decent stab at North Carolina accents, but there were slips enough to crack, if not quite shatter, the illusion. In Sam Peckinpah’s war movie Cross of Iron, James Coburn starts off with a German accent then seems to think “da hell widdit” and opts for cod Irish instead. And think of Sean Connery’s “Irish” cop in The Untouchables, a performance that got him an Oscar even though he made zero effort to modify his own Scottish brogue.

Of course, some theatre critics, in lieu of having anything worthwhile to say about a play, resort to sneering at the actors’ perceived inability to deliver a convincing accent. But there’s a potential danger for egg-on-the-face in this approach. Once, while having an after-show chat with the director of a Martin McDonagh play, I commented that all the actors had admirably got to grips with the West Ireland accent – all but one, that is. The director gave me a thin smile then told me that this particular actor was the only one from the West of Ireland!

So does it matter if an actor gets just the broad strokes of an accent, or should we the audience be entitled to deliveries which accentuate the impeccable. And what, this side of Dick van Dyke, is the most unconvincing accent you’ve heard in a performance…



 Is this any way to drag up the kids?


Mado gets lippy

  Drag Races at the Fringe Park, June 2011

What culturally-savvy parent wouldn’t want to expose their kids to as much theatre as possible, particularly when it’s out in the open air, celebrates diversity and, best of all, is free? Well there’s no such thing as a free lunch, obviously – which truism became more obvious around the time that Montreal drag diva Mado LaMotte was mischievously saying “Sorry to anybody who brought their kids along…but you should have known better, shouldn’t you?” Whereupon some twenty faces turned around and gave me a look I somehow remember as a kind of good-natured malice. Well, maybe they were right. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to bring my eleven-year-old to the Fringe Park Drag Races after all.

Mado’s “apology” came somewhere at the end of an extended riff that I think had something to do with, um, let’s just say a facial moisturising procedure involving a protein-rich product. Never mind: too obscure for most little innocents, hopefully. But the liberal use of the eff words, well that was an altogether easier drift to catch. “It’s OK,” I muttered wanly to one guy cackling hysterically at my discomfort. “She’s seen South Park.”

Still, we both enjoyed all the silliness and brightly coloured campery, and particularly the antics of Hairyetta, a bearded bruiser in a frock who duetted on Babs and Donna’s ‘Enough Is Enough.’ So next time I try to persuade my daughter to join me in watching a Pirandello or a piece of post-apocalyptic meta-theatre, I can always say: “Remember Hairyetta? Same thing but with more leg room.


Funny Haw-Haw?

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A war-time propaganda cartoon aimed at British Nazi collaborator William Joyce

29 May 2011  Finally finished the first draft of a long-cherished project this week – a play that revolves around the final broadcasts by the notorious Nazi radio propagandist known as Lord Haw-Haw. His real name was William Joyce and though he was hanged by Britain for high treason, he wasn’t strictly speaking, an Englishman, having been born in Ireland and being of American citizenship.

Having spent most of the war spouting hateful drivel from one of Goebbles’ radio bunkers, Joyce finally delivered his last broadcast drunk as a skunk, the Allies’ bombs falling all around him, ranting like a Hitler-in-miniature that England would surely pay for having spurned the Nazis’ vision of a golden future. Pure theatre of the absurd.

One issue in the writing of the play, and arguably in the very conception of it, is the wisdom or otherwise of putting such a repellent little man, who went seig-heiling to his death, centre-stage. But I’ve never really had a problem with writing or enjoying plays in which the central character is some kind of a monster (Richard III, for example). More problematic has been the idea of getting away from the conventions and cliches of biodrama, but Haw-Haw’s, to say the very least, fast-and-loose way with the truth offers up an ideal way to go slipping off down all kinds of routes to alternative universes, histories, and levels of reality. In fact, it’s kind of turning into a ghost story right now, with a possibly hallucinatory, possibly Mephistophelean, possibly just shell-shocked character creeping into his bunker to offer him all kinds of temptations to be good, bad, or somewhere in between.

The play’s working, maybe final, title is The Angel of Hearth and Home, which art afficionados might recognise as the name of a magnificently berserk painting by Max Ernst. There’s something about Ernst’s crazed monstrosity bouncing around a barren landscape that reminds me irresistably of Haw’Haw’s voice howling through Europe’s seared atmosphere.


Waiting For Goldman-Sachs

March 27 ’11    What’s the best way to understand what the hell happened in 2008? The financial pages of the newspapers? Movie documentaries? Theatre? Over the past week, I’ve tried all three and I think I’m understanding it, though I’m probably not (like they say about quantum physics: “If you think you understand it, then you really don’t understand it”.) Most likely the whole edifice has been especially designed so that economic experts, let alone people who got 3% in their final maths exams at school (that would be me) will never have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding it. But anyway, I continue to plough through the newspaper articles; last night I watched the documentary Inside Job; last week I saw Michael Mackenzie’s Instructions For A Future Socialist Government Wishing To Abolish Christmas at the Centaur; and a bit ago I read David Hare’s The Power of Yes: A Dramatist Tries to Understand the Financial Crisis. With all that reading and watching, I should be pretty au fait with wha’ happened!? But ask me what a derivative is and I’ll probably go glassy-eyed and start dribbling.

But another question is “does the financial crisis make good theatre?” In the cases of the Centaur play and the Hare play, the answer is…kinda. The Power of Yes has got some pretty good jokes (it’s supposed to be verbatim reports of what various money-brains told Hare, but I’m betting he polished some of their comments to get bigger laughs in the National Theatre). And it has a neat investigative structure to it. Instructions had a clever theatrical set-up (innocent number-crunching savant meets ruthless City whizz as civilization crumbles) and some blistering Mamet-style monologues. What’s interesting is that both of them are patterned on Greek tragedy, most specifically Oedipus Rex: I’m indebted to a critic on the UK’s Theatrevoice website for pointing this out about the Hare play, but – SPOILER ALERT – it bludgeons you over the bonce in the McKenzie play.

Like it or not (and fiscal-phobes like me like it not), the sheer, apocalyptic scale of and staggering malfeasance behind the financial crisis is going to be unavoidable as a dramatic subject over the next few years, maybe decades, and it’s intriguing to see two playwrights going back to theatrical first prinicpals to deal with it. But maybe there’s another theatrical model that would suit it even better, given the way wilful delusion trumped reality on such a massive scale, and given that a kind of crazed, hysterical optimism kept everybody buoyed over the abyss before we all tumbled into it.  Beckett anyone?


Don’t Call Me Darling, You C&%t.


berkoff autobiography24 March ’11    I’m enjoying reading the first part of Stephen Berkoff’s autobiography right now (is there a second volume yet? this one came out in 1996). Like the man himself, it’s hugely self-regarding, bitchy, blistering and fruitily luvvy-ish, while at the same time being self-doubting, generous, reflective, and, as befits a working class geezer from the East End of London, hard as nails. It’s also all over the shop, whizzing from one decade to another like a pinball without any attempt at chronology or overall development of theme: which, he confesses, is quite deliberate, as he’s trying to avoid that standard autobiographical slog of early days, coming of age and then into the juicy public-private years of fame, notoriety, etc.

The last time I saw Berkoff was in his Mussolini-esque version of Coriolanus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds – not the most profound, “classy” reading, but great fun. (And anyway, Coriolanus is kind of a two-fisted cartoon of a B-movie, which pretty much suits Berkoff’s style). As Berkoff took the curtain call, he joined his fists together like a heavyweight declaring himself the undisputed champ, which would have been a ridiculous gesture from most actors, but coming from Berkoff was not only apt but actually endearing. Having always loved this play (my first real awakening to Shakespeare’s after the snoozy forced labour of Romeo and Macbeth at school), I was hoping for a forensic analysis of his approach to it in this book, but it looks like he’s saving this for the next volume. But his descriptions of his productions of Agammemnon, Metamorphosis (which I caught in London in the mid-80s with Tim Roth), East and the like are great big splurges of Berkoffian energy.

A bit depressingly, the copy of this book, which is from the National Theatre School’s library, shows that it was last taken out by a drama student in 2004. Obviously, here in Montreal, Berkoff’s name won’t have a fraction of the recognition factor he has in England (maybe he’s mostly recognised as the bad guy from Rambo and Beverly Hills Cop) And he is pretty unfashionable nowadays – even a self-parody to many of those who once got off on his bovver-boots mime and shouty sweary Shakespearean arias. But it’s good to be reminded by this book of what was (and maybe still is) great about this living legend, and it might prove quite a revelation to you if you’re coming to him for the first time. The book’s called Free Association. Give it a go.


Cowboys versus Vampires, Round Two

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17 March ’11    Great to see Sidemart’s Haunted Hillbilly is being given a re-run in Centaur’s new season next year: this was possibly the best show I’ve seen in Montreal in my five years here. How to describe it? Well, it’s a kind of Faustian country-and-western musical with gay vampires…no, that doesn’t quite cover it. It’s being described as a sort of C&W Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t quite cover it either. I think what grabbed me most about this show was that it managed that rare feat of achieving really big laughs without going begging for them. Particularly memorable was Daniel Brochu’s deliciously repulsive C&W impresario Erskine Mole, one of those instantly classic theatrical monsters like, say,Pravda’s Lambert La Roux or Richard III.


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