Don’t Tell

Eastern Star, written and directed by Guy Slater, with David Yip, Michael Lumsden, Julie Cheung-Inhin and Patrick Pearson, Tara Arts, Wednesday 12th September, 7.30pm

Events have somewhat overtaken this play, given that it recounts, or deals with, an encounter from 2013 during which is discussed an event which occurred in 1988 (confused?), and though a couple of its characters are in the news currently it’s for entirely different, though no less controversial, reasons, so if theatre, by definition, exists unequivocally in the now (the now of the play that is), old news needs a pretty good excuse, a powerful case for its presence, if it wants to grab you by the throat. It’s not an accident that news is new. 

What’s more, this is a tele-play, (or radio play even, given that the original news reports on the BBC World Service were spoken word only) that’s been squeezed, or crow-barred, onto the stage, complete with beds, tables, soup, wine, chairs, stools, tears, histrionics, all completely superfluous really. What it actually lacks is what television is best at - the replay of footage from the time, vision of the brutal fact of a military dictatorship in full flow.

And given that we’ve all become very used to the idea that bits of television showing violence and bombing, or the results of such actions, can represent actual news, just as since the time of David Lean (filmmaker of note) we’ve all accepted very happily the concept of one or maybe two characters can stand for an entire social, political, artistic, philosophical situation which may unfold over years, it’s not really a surprise that this play should take the form it does. What I’m trying to say is that whatever is onstage, it is totally overwhelmed by the current situation in Myanmar involving as it does genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi, jailed journalists, not to mention that Christopher Gunness, one of the plays central characters, is now the head of a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees which has just had its funding removed by Donald Trump.

I am in no way qualified to hold forth in print on any of these situations, the Palestinian right of return, the Rohingya people, the popularity or otherwise in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi (who makes an appearance of sorts), what I’m actually here to do is talk about a theatre piece which does what I guess everyone expects the theatre to do, ie. give a platform to some self-expression; shed a few tears, shout a bit, talk about feelings, show some emotion, get it off your chest, spread a bit of empathy or sympathy; whatever; be about the individual, a particular person or two.

In the play, Christopher Gunness, Oxford graduate and real person is a green but enthusiastic young BBC reporter (Clark Kent anyone?) sent out to Burma now Myanmar because there were rumours that something might be happening. The BBC World Service (radio) is listened to widely in Burma, so young Chris has an influence he perhaps doesn’t entirely appreciate. He enters the country ‘under cover’, pretending to be a tourist, a backpacker, and stays in a fleapit hotel where he files his stories to the BBC (I assume on a public telephone) at the top of his voice and for the amusement of all listening military dictatorship spies and others. He is contacted clandestinely by the ‘others’ ultimately by U Nay Min, also a character in the play, a local human rights lawyer, who, along with the leaders of what would become a student-led uprising, feed Christopher various titbits, effectively using the BBC World Service as their very own communications network. You can imagine how this goes down with the military. (Sounds like a Graham Greene novel you may say.)

All so interesting. The uprising happens. The crackdown happens. There is bloodshed, prison. Myanmar is an international pariah for more that twenty years. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, in 2013, Christopher Gunness goes back to Myanmar for the first time since the uprising. And he meets U Nay Min, again for the first time since 1988. U Nay Min has been in prison for 16 years, 8 years of those for attempting to contact Christopher. Chris knew about the attempted contact but was advised by the Foreign Office not to reply. So Chris feels a little guilt. Feels. Eight more years in prison for his friend, being tortured. Pretty heavy. Lots of night sweats and bad dreams.

Worse is to come. Much worse. Spoilers. What I will say is that the play is about one character’s guilt and the other character’s anger and resentment. But emotion butters no parsnips. Emotion isn’t performative. Emotion, no matter how intense, isn’t the basis for drama. There is no real interaction. Each is locked in his own emotional situation. The most interesting thing about their relationship, that the young reporter was manipulated by the older lawyer, just as he manipulated the students and the wider situation, as he worked to keep out of the front line of the revolution, to keep anonymous, to stay out of prison and then wasted his life blaming his dupe for his misfortune. This is almost ignored, or at best, simply talked about.

Paul Corcoran

How Big Can You Get?

FACES PLACES (12A) 2017 France 94mins. Directors: Agnès Varda and JR.

Just when you despair that maybe film can only do one thing, and that not a thing which seems to be the most important thing in our times of rampaging isolation and loneliness (speak for yourself), along comes a film from someone, a person indistinguishable from the nouvelle vague, a person you would have thought most likely to be focussed on the inner life, who comes up with a film which gives an answer to the question: if not that, what?

How can film turn its attention away from the inner life, from the great turning inwards that seems to characterise our benighted age, and look toward something outside, something larger, something which connects rather than isolates? Can image be put to such a use? Or are images, as the situationists contended, fundamentally destructive to society? Are we doomed to live vicariously, forever playing our own film on the inside screen of our mind’s eye?

Agnès Varda and JR (not Ewing) tour the French countryside in JR’s especially kitted out van, searching for likely subjects, people in their location, in their milieu, where they maybe interact or make a difference, where there is some kind of connection to the larger story of place.

JR’s van is a reverse or anti-photo booth, in the sense that it is a photo booth but rather than the result being a tiny, passport size or slightly larger, picture, it prints out gigantic, enormous images, pictures the size of the side of a house or even the size of dozens of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. This isn’t exactly a simple thing, either technically or in terms of person-power (JR seems to have a large team in the background) but the result is wonderful. People scaled up to a size suggestive of their true place in the scheme of things.

JR is a man who wears sunglasses, at all times, and there is an ongoing gag, a sort of needling relationship between Agnès and these glasses, which is resolved in a very satisfying way. I say no more, other than it suggests a kind of renunciation, or rethinking perhaps, of those ideas to which she ascribed in the ‘60s, in the mythic days of the Left Bank.

This is an unusual, but very satisfying, and funny film; a kind of exclamation mark writ large to an historic moment in film culture.

Paul Corcoran

Drama Turned Inward

A MASTER BUILDER (12) 2014 USA 122mins, from a play by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Wallace Shawn, directed by Jonathan Demme, with Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory made two films with the French director, Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street; A Master Builder (with different director) completes a kind of trilogy, an exploration of sorts of their relationship and obsessions, both together and severally. There is a progression: in the first film, set in a restaurant, Andre Gregory is a theatre director, urbane, educated, dissatisfied, searching for truth; Shawn is an actor, inquisitive, in need of a good meal (which he gets), eloquent, individual, thoughtful, concerned. Both have a sly sense of humour, an intent in the direction of self-parody. By the film under review, Shawn has graduated to master (the eponymous Master Builder) and Gregory represents the older generation (the architect surpassed), cast off, disregarded, treated with disdain. There is still the sense that they are taking the whole thing with a grain of salt, that the overall project is to prick the bubble of self-aggrandisement, to make somewhat ridiculous the whole idea of presenting the theatre as a realm of personal exploration, personal affirmation.

There’s no doubt that My Dinner with Andre has entered the pantheon of films which everyone (everyone who is interested in film maybe) has heard of, if not seen. It’s a kind of post ‘60s hippy-ish exploration, to exhaustion, of the idea that creativity is all about the search for one’s inner life. In Andre Gregory’s case, his search extends to a theatrical guru, Jerzy Grotowski, Polish and famous, again in certain circles, for his explorations in the fields of ‘Poor Theatre’ and ‘Holy Theatre’, concepts made widespread by another theatrical saint, Peter Brook, in his book, The Empty Space. (Who cares about this stuff, you may well ask?)

Theatricality, the word, the concept, doesn’t really have a good press. If there’s one connecting theme or spirit in all three films, it’s an attempt to undercut the very idea of theatricality, to make theatre everyday, accessible (the word du jour), not highfalutin. Wallace Shawn, in his quiet way, is a familiar face and voice (though most people wouldn’t recognise his name) in many popular films, Toy Story, for example, despite his background as almost New York royalty (his father edited The New Yorker magazine for many years).

So, A Master Builder: Ibsen, just as Chekhov as discussed re. The Seagull, was writing in a time when what we would call melodrama was the style du jour. In other words, the theatre was a place where audiences were accustomed to a certain exaggerated method of expression. Film hadn’t yet been invented. There was no such thing as a ‘close up’. Exaggeration was another way of saying ‘this is for everyone, this is how we relate to each other, this is a picture of our society’. It was external, ‘out there’ as it were, the opposite of an inner, contained, life.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, in these films, seem to be searching for a way to make theatre, theatricality, acceptable for these times. A Master Builder is presented as taking place entirely inside the mind of the dying architect. The exhortation to idealism, which takes theatrical form in the original, is presented on film as an inner morality, an inner search for the sublime.

As much as I have enjoyed all three of these films, there is an unresolved conflict, a sense perhaps that no one involved really knows the answer to the burning question: how do we deal with the great issues of the day when the only thing on offer is to look inward, that the answer, if it doesn’t lie inside, where does it lie? We as filmmakers know there’s a problem but we have no idea how to confront it. I guess that’s really what gives these films their charm, their honesty.

Paul Corcoran