Friday 13 April 2012
Heard It All Before? Catherine Johnson
I started this blog thinking about the play I saw last week, The Recruiting Officer, at The Donmar Warehouse, a wonderful restoration comedy that does silly wordplay, crossdressing, big truths and even bigger liars. The performances were brilliant, the actors included six actor musicians who sang and played wonderful 18th century tunes (as well as a very original request to turn your mobile off before the performance).
Then I saw a thread on Facebook concerning historical fiction, about how we are all mired in nostalgia because we are terrified of the present, let alone the future. That the vogue for historical novels and bonnets and bustles on TV is all part of a greater malaise which sees no decent current TV drama (Homeland anyone? OK that's American but it is quality) or theatre (I'll get back to this). That historical fiction is about comfort and safety.
We are all nostalgic. I think it's hard wired. Especially since we have been thrown off the land and forced to scour the world looking for ways to earn a living. It might be because we crave reassurance sometimes but the best historical stories and drama can be just as thought provoking, intelligent and shocking as anything modern.
And we've always made our own myths. The Welsh, like all Celts, are very good at this, think of Iolo Morgannwg and his drug taking, literary mates, dressing up as Druids on top of Primrose Hill in 1792 and resurrecting the Gorsedd of the Bards. Think of the annual Eisteddfod today with it's unreconstructed flower girls dancing barefoot in front of the golden Arch Druid, (no boys! why no boys?) and the (Welsh) great and the good done up in green, blue and white sheets as druids.
But I do think there is more point to historical novels, plays, and dramas than comfy cosy safeness, at least when they are done well. The best novels - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall for me - plunge the reader into strange, vivid worlds you can practically smell, but the politicking and the personal relationships are very familiar. Just like the best speculative fiction in fact. It's not just the frocks and the scenery, like every story, it's the people. And costume drama on TV doesn't have to be the visual equivalent of Ovaltine. The Devil's Whore on Channel Four a few years ago is a good example, and I cannot wait for Red Tails, the new George Lucas film about the regiment of African American WW2 pilots, to tell me stuff I don't know and (I hope) to surprise and challenge cinema goers.
Back to The Recruiting Officer. It was written by George Farquhar in 1706, three hundred years ago, and it talks about the way soldiers are perceived as heroes when needed and louts when not, as well as ultimately, their disposability. Not cosy or safe at all.
One of the tunes used in the play was Over The Hills and Far Away, and this reminded me of another play. A parallel. Set in the present, well in the recent Iraq War, using the same tune, and saying many of the same things about life in and out of the army; The National Theatre of Scotland's production of Black Watch which also had me blubbing like a baby at the end.
Posted by Catherine Johnson at 19:37