Reviews - 30 May 1985
The fortnight's review of cinema, theatre, art, music, television, radio, booksCinema - A Big Movie
Let Francis Coppola loose with bags of money and you're gonna end up with a BIG movie. The Godfather movies were big movies, Apoocalypse Now was a big movie. So is his latest offering, The Cotton Club. The canvas is as vast, the production as lavish, the storyline as commplex. But there the compariisons end because the earlier movies were not just big, they also had something to say, some viewpoint on the human condition if you will. The Cotton Club doesn't. It's big alright but it just kind of sits there.
What effect Coppola inntended with The Cotton Club is far from clear as it seems to be at least four movies rolled into one. It's set in and around Harlem's famous Cotton Club in the late twenties. Owned and run by white gangasters, it preesented the cream of black entertainers in a palatable show-biz setting for the delecctation of a rich, exclusivelyywhite audience whose pennchant, at that time, was "slumming up to Harlem". A fascinating sociological phenomenon that could easily lead into a broader look at "the race problem". But Coppola barely sets foot on the Documentary History Movie road.
He does go a fair way down another road: that of the Hollywood Musical. The Club is the scene for accurate recreations (by John Barry) of the music of Duke Ellinggton, Cab Calloway and others accompanied by superb song and dance routines featuring in particular, the jazz tap of Gregory Hines, Honi Coles and Co. This is undoubtedly the aspect of the movie that works best.
The Club also becomes the battleground of numerous feuding mobsters including Dutch Shultz and Lucky Luciano. There is here a Gangster Movie trying to get out; almost a prequel to The Godfather as the petty, inefficient mobs are superrceded by the Mafia.
But Coppola and his three co-writers, despite giving some of the best scenes to a brillliant bunch of actors (notably Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Nicholas Cage and Fred Gwynne), keeps it all relaatively light-hearted, more colour than substance.
All these potentially-rich themes have to coexist with the Love Story between the "stars", Richard Gere as the nice white musician Caught Up With The Mob and Diane Lane as the hard-edged moll Who Wants To Get Out. It pans out as corny as it sounds and fails to give the movie any much-needed shape.
Four movies for the price of one. Indeed, with the inntroduction of Hollywood stars like Chaplin, Swanson and Cagney into the final scenes, a fifth movie is hinnted at: the kaleidoscopic "faction" along the lines of Ragtime. A veritable cornuucupia then, as they say, but the whole is less than the immensely enjoyable parts. One fears that Coppola has over-reached himself this time.
Theatre - Robust Comedy
George Farquhar's The Reecruiting Officer, as Frank McGuinness points out in his excellent programme notes, is very much a play about women. It concerns the roles that women play in a world where sexuality is constantly equated with war, where language becomes a game and where things are never quite what they seem.
It is also a play about the confusion of identities in the brittle world of formalisms and sexual stereotypes.
Thus Sergeant Kite beecomes the Jewish fortuneeteller, literally dictating the futures of those who he has duped. Sylvia must adopt the role of the male lover to participate meaningfully in the world that she moves in. Increasingly we see that Farrquhar's characters are searchhing for identities in a formaa-lised world where sin beecomes a refusal to wear one's mask at the appro,pfl:aJe~,t'ime, to conceal one's titre' identity.
There are several references to actors and theatres in the play and these work to reinn"force this idea of confusion of identity. What is an actor after all except one who conceals his own identity for the sake of an aesthetic end. The difference here though is that Farquhar's characters are confusing identities for the sake of possession of one kind or another. The officers can play whatever part is necessary at any time to fool the peasants they connscript. But if war is to be equated with male sexuality - and it constantly is in this play - it becomes obvious that the same tactics must be used by the women characcters to achieve their ends.
It is in this context that the strikingly subversive femiinist implications of the play begin to work themselves out. A cursory glance at Farquuhar's world and the characters in it seem to indicate that the men are the ones with all of the power. The play is peopled with all influential army officers, judges, wealthy merrchants and rakes, all of whom are male. This seems to allow a situation where men are in .contro l - but as the play develops we see that most of this power is a gaudy surface and that most of the men are vulgarians or fools. It is the women who are intelligent, resourceful, caring, of assisstance to each other, forgiving and, perhaps most importanttly, able to take men on in terms of their own "maleeness" and win.
This phenomenon is at work on almost every level of the play but it is expressed most strikingly in Sylvia's ability to out-recruit the recruiting officer, even with all of the odds stacked against her.
Farquhar negates much of this by his ending, which has Sylvia and all of the other women returning to the world of male power and submitting to it. Nevertheless all works of art, especially all drama, have implications which do not easily vanish with the fall of a curtain or the end of a chapter - the political implications of this play go on and find their own relevance. Sadly for us, the anti-feminist society that we have construccted will go on providing a context for works like this.
The problems about this play are the values and attiitudes of the production. Peter Brook in his important book "The Empty Space" posits four dramatic categories. One of these he names "the Deadly Theatre" and he writes that "we see . . . plays done by good actors in what seems like the-proper way - they look lively and colourful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just as they are supposed to be in the best of classical theatres. Yet secretly we find it excruciatingly boring - and in our hearts we either blame [the author] or theatre as such, or even ourselves. "
This, in a very real sense, is the pro blem of the Gate production. Restoration Draama has its own strengths. The power of its language, for instance, and the way lannguage is used to say one thing eloquently but to simultaaneously say something else with more subtlety. In many Restoration pieces language is used as a game, a sort of verbal tennis volley, with characters returning the shots cleverly and consistently. Anyone who has seen Peter Greenaway's excellent film "The Draughtsman's Conntract" will be familiar with this idea of the subtle yet devastating power of restooration language. Yet in the Gate production this underrcurrent of meaning is almost constantly lost. Patrick Mason has opted for emphasising the robust comedy of the play at the expense of its full truth.
The overall effect is one of seeing an attractive, lightthearted surface view of Farquhar's reality with almost no substance to it. The form's sense of hollowness works against the play's deeply quesstioning content.
The production does have its strong points though. Joe Vanek's set is really quite overwhelming and there are some very solid performances by Ian McElhinney, Eamon Morrissey and particularly Barbara Brennan. Ultimately though, the contradictions imposed on the piece by the production values and the fact that even the enthusiasm that Mason is aiming for does not always work, make for a mildly entertaining pantoomime-style evening and not for the powerful theatrical experience it could have been -.
The Dublin Youth Theatre are currently producing Willy Russell's play Our Day Out at the Project Arts Centre.
Again, Peter Brooks writing is a useful starting point in understanding the play. Brook writes with admiration about what he calls "The Rough Theatre" saying "it is always the popular theatre that saves the day. Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is only one factor that they all have in common - a roughness . . . The Rough Theatre deals with men's. actions, and because it is' down to earth and direct ˆbecause it admits wickedness and laughter - the rough and ready seems better than the hollowly holy."
The Dublin Youth Theatre production of "Our Day Out" is Rough Theatre at its irrreverent basic best.
The costumes are rudimenntary, the set almost nonnexistent, the music supplied by a single pianist - but the very sparseness of the producction involves the audience's' imagination powerfully and actively until it becomes a real and essential part of the play. When this happens drama, as a creative force, really works.
The plot concerns a day trip to Cork organised for the Progress class of a Dublin school. This is a class made up of slow learners and remeedial pupils - "for if you're backward like" as one characcter puts it. The two senior teachers, Mrs Kaye "a woolly minded liberal" and Mr Walddron, a convinced sadist, acccompany them on the trip Ðone to make sure they have some fun, the other to make sure they don't. By the end of the day Mr Waldron has been changed, albeit tempoorarily, into a fun loving liberal too, having saved one of his pupils from jumping over a cliff. Shakespeare it isn't.
Nevertheless, the utter ennthusiasm and considerable acting skill of the Dublin Youth Theatre would put many of our experienced actors to shame. All of the schoolchildren characters are excellent, especially Greg Whelan as Milton, the kind of kid who makes adults foam at the mouth because he knows everything. Alison Whelan is a very talented actress, conveying the pathos of her part without ever falling into sentimentality or over indulgent sweetness. Jennifer Creevey and Patricia Eastman are hilarious as two streetwise bored girls who find every single initiative that their teachers come up with "bleedin' borin'."
But the piece has its serious side too. Originally written for a Liverpool setting, the Dublin Youth Theatre have adapted "Our Day Out" to a Dublin context. The heroes and heroines of this play have been marginalised and thrown on the scrap heap from the day they were born. They have been conveniently swept under the carpet by establishment mores, labelled as "animals" and troubleemakers by those in authority who neither understand them nor care about them. This is a day out, but that is all. And the relative tranquility and happiness that the chilldren find on the trip ultiimately serves only to throw into sharp relief the miserrable world that they have to return to when the whole thing is over. The last powerrfully dramatic scene emphaasises this. What we have seen in the play is one moment when youthfulness and vitaality were allowed to express themselves. But it's only a fantasy in a whole lifetime of real alienation and despair.
Dublin Youth Theatre's production of "Our Day Out" is funny, persuasive and finally powerful. Every poliitician and journalist in Ireland who has ever mouthed glib platitudes about Our Young People should be made to see it. It would be an education as well as an excellent piece of theatre.
Rock - Vocal Brilliance
The absence of new albums of quality provides a wellcome opportunity to draw attention to the excellent Associates album, Perhaps (WEA Records) which was released three months ago, before this column started, and was unfairly neglected by radio and press.
Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine were the original Associates who produced two fine long-players in "Sulk" and "The Affectionate Punch". Three years after the release of the latter platter and having split with Rankine, Mackenzie has grouped togeether a new band, but the essence of the Associates reemains his own vocal brilliance which shines through all ten tracks on "Perhaps".
Born and still living in Dundee, Billy Mackenzie posssesses a voice of magnificent range and expression. He is the Scott Walker of the 1980s, and about as underted now as Walker was two decades ago when he set out on his brave, uncompromising solo career. "Perhaps" could and should have been the perrfect showcase for Billy Macckenzie's perfect voice. There is enough purity and style there to sustain the simplest, most basic arrangements, and he need never have recourse to the fussy, overblown prooduction work which less talennted artists use to camouuflage their inadequacies. The production on "Perhaps" is busy, very busy. Too busy, in fact, on some of the tracks, and Mackenzie himself is not blameless in this respect. He co-produced or co-remixed half the album with Dave Allen, while Martyn Ware of "Heaven 17" and the proliific Martin Rushent were res-· ponsible for the other tracks.
Perhaps he was setting himmself a personal challenge, to test his voice against a mass of sound and excessive elecctronics. In which case he has succeeded, because even the weaker, over-produced songs are carried by his own glorious voice. Hear him soar to deliirious heights as he declares "But when you fire me I want for nothing in this world" on the opening track "Those First Impressions", one of three singles on the album.
He is just as comfortable on the title track, taking on not only a powerful producction but also a frenzied vocal backing, or working with nonnsensical lyrics (his own) on "Helicopter Helicopter" as he lets that astonishing voice loose to virtually dignify the content of the song.
Side two is by far the better half of the album, opening on the sublime single, "Breakfast", a great piece of late-night listening when the lights are switched down and the lush keyboards of Howard Hughes accompany The Voice as it explores its way through word s used principally, I imagine, for their sonorous quality.
Mackenzie wrote all the" lyrics for this album, and the music for half of the tracks, with guitarist Stephen Reid using his pen for the other five. Clocking in at 55 minutes and 42 seconds, "Perhaps" is longer than most recent albums and cerrtainly provides unusually good value for money.
But it takes much longer than an hour to get through side two alone, where the temptation to keep on reepeating the first three tracks is irresistible. "Breakfast" is followed by the blissful "Thirrteen Feelings" and then, the record's outstanding song, "The Stranger in Your Voice" which, ironically, has the most elaborate production. Martin Rushent's work here is worthy of Phil Spector in his heyday, and a thrilling wall of sound builds as Billy's voice swells with that affecctionate punch.
"Perhaps" gives a tantaalising foretaste of how Billy Mackenzie could excel on a cleaner production and, perhaps, lending his unique vocal style to other people's mateerial. Now that his professsional and personal life apppears to be better ordered than before, it's unlikely that we will have to wait another' three years for that next album,
Television - TV Ga Ga
Welcome to the most hyped programme in the history of broadcasting, said Liam Macckey, introducing the most hyped programme in the hisstory of broadcasting, TV Ga Ga has been charging up the other side of the hill for so long now, tootling its bugle and promising relief from the slings and arrows of outraageous programming, that when it breasted the hill some of us wouldn't have been surprised to see more toot than bugle, not so much a troop of cavalry as a bunch of extras banging coconut shells to gether.
Surprise, and welcome,
The whole thing was as reefreshing as Mackey's intro.
Worst fears were warmed up when the opening clips appeared, with The Youth (our nation's greatest asset: copyright C. Haughey, G. FitzG, D. Spring) telling us how alienated, frustra ted, talented, hopeful and bored they are. Then they stopped telling us and began showing us and the fears abated.
The next annoyance was the short glimpse of Tomi Ungerer. This old bore has spent the last couple of months telling us how conntroversial and su bversive he is and begging Dublin's femiinists not to disrupt his exxhibition. So far it seems most Dublin feminists have better things to be doing than assissting Mr U advertise his scratchings. And so had TV Ga Ga.
Quick cut to the Pogues, a London folk group more subversive than Mr U could dream of being. Seconddgeneration Irish, getting off on the music from the oul' country.
The programme had an admirable lack of respect for national boundaries and treaated London as an accessible peninsula of Irish youth cullture. The interview with Richard Branson sequed efffortlessly into a swipe at Aer Lingus' skyway rob bery prices for a flight to London. Aer Lingus joined in the spirit of the programme and the semi-state body dyed its hair and put a safety pin in its nose and answered 'Crap!"
Now and then there were snatches of uncredited coraeedy, some of it a bit slow but the kind of comedy that has been prowling around th~ edges of the stage up to now and we're going to get lots more of it (please) and it's going to get better.
The Village, from Waterrford, would probably be upset if anyone this side of 30 thought their music was great but it was. And those of us who think poetry is as useful as a quill and who head for the lav when someone starts spouting poetry to camera were a bit confused when someone called Louis blazed across the screen a couple of times and we found ourselves hoping ffe might come back a time or two,
The topper was a filmed interview by Joe Little that any current affairs or features programme would have swoppped its auto cue for.
Breda was a single parent who concealed her pregnancy until the night she went into labour. Not so much from shame as from fear of hurting her parents, she had planned to go to Cork and have the baby there. Forced to literallly and figuratively awaken her parents, she found them caring and supportive. Gettting the interview was good work in itself, and the handdling of it was superb.
The ensuing studio disscussion, with the audience joining in, started off awkkwardly. For a few minutes it seemed like it was going to be an imitation of one of those old Bunny Carr shows, where he got The Boys And Girls into the studio To Talk About Life. Then it got going and everybody just talked a bout life.
Liam Mackey and Flo McSweeney should have looked nervous and worried. Instead they looked capable and relaxed. Even Mackey's spoonerisms were welcome because of the sensible way he ignored them and ploughed on.
Is there nothing wrong with this programme? Probably there is, but there's so much right that it doesn't matter. There are bumps and cracks which can be fixed, but the substance and attitudes are fine. The only fear now is that they put too many eggs in the first basket and they may have a job keeping up the standard. And when they're in their tenth season they'll be regretting picking such a silly title as TV Ga Ga. But the Late Late Show was a silly title, and look how we got used to it.
Gaybo has nothing to worry about and nothing to do except come back next autumn and keep on keeping on. And maybe smile a little. Because it just might be that the desert around him will sprout a few blades of grass. Perhaps the second generation of producers and presennters has finally grown up.
Hell, they'll probably blow it next week.