Tuesday, 6 December 2016
Review Thebes Land
by Sergio Blanco
Translated and adapted by Daniel Goldman
Based on a literal translation by Roberto Cavazos
An Immodest Proposal
Before the days when TLT had her own little theatre reviewing jalopy to transport her, she well remembers the trudge to Belmarsh from Plumstead station. At the time, TLT was a press agency reporter and Belmarsh is not only a high security jail but also part of a complex including Belmarsh magistrates' and Woolwich crown court.
So that shows TLT is well-qualified to review a show created by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco which centres, in this translation and adaptation by director Daniel Goldman, on visits to a Belmarsh Prison inmate. And you should of course take every one of TLT's words as gospel. 😇
Thebes Land, we are told, originated as an attempt to give an authentic audience experience - a lifer convicted of murdering his father, on stage in a cage at the Arcola Theatre after a commission by an off-stage character called Mehmet Ergen.
That authenticity apparently was eventually undermined by the authorities withdrawing permission. So an actor Freddie replaces prisoner Martin (both embodied by actor Alex Austin) to act out a script put together by the increasingly odd and fussy playwright "T" (Trevor White).
If it sounds somewhat far-fetched, well we think it's meant to be. Imagine the headlines in the newspapers if a serving prisoner, a murderer to boot, were allowed on a London stage, given a platform to voice his views, even pre-scripted, and then paid a fee. Compare the uproar over possible profits for Mary Bell, the family of Fred West and fee-charging government public servants out of literary exploitation.
As you may have guessed, and will definitely realise if you are sitting in the audience, this is all a fiction with "T", a forty-something career playwright, serving as the unreliable narrator, inquisitor, and maybe even implicit self-ordained father figure.
Not only unreliable but as the piece goes on (and it does go on for about two and half hours), he and his presentation to us of Martin definitely gets weirder and weirder, imbued by an over-active literary and art history imagination. The writer "T" may well be totally bonkers.
In fact, read this carefully, we will say this only once - this play seems constructed so that "T" seems less a writer - even if he draws on, amongst others, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Franz Kafka, an apparent Wikipedia entry on the fork, Whitney Houston, a popular Mozart piano concerto, a song by the Foals. a quote from French philosopher Georges Bataille, a paraphrasing of FIBA basketball rules, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Roland Barthes, Freud and Sophocles's Oedipus plays - but an actor taking on the persona of a writer and still succeeding in the playwriting world of the play.
So "T" tells us he meets prisoner Martin at Belmarsh in court. Not one of those courts to which TLT used to trudge, but a basketball court. In a cage. Watched on cameras by prison wardens.
Does HMP Belmarsh have a basketball court or is it purely a snatch from American television prison dramas, we indeed wondered? After a google on the internet, yes indeed, since at least 2014 HMP Belmarsh has a basketball court. They've obviously watched those American serials as well.
However we are quite willing to countenance also that there is maybe something to be said about the gambling competitive tactics of the sports field and the adversarial nature of courts, if that is the reason for placing the meeting there. But in any case we are in danger of overweening pride in our ability to google and our multi-faceted superior knowledge of human nature 😉.
So we have to confess: We have read Crime and Punishment but not the Brothers Karamazov and didn't know until we googled that its author, Dostoevsky, suffered from epilepsy; We didn't know the origins of the fork; We've never been overly keen on Whitney Houston; We'd never heard of the Foals; We'd only vaguely heard of Georges Bataille and, we hang our head in shame, our knowledge of basketball rules was formerly confined only to the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon.
"T", who admits his moniker is deliberately Kafkaesque (Hurrah, we possess and have read the Penguin complete short stories and novels!), nevertheless doesn't admit to a sense of humour, Kafkaesque or otherwise. Even though we are invited to laugh at his asssumptions and pretensions as he whips out his notebook to note down his subject's (or is it his object's?) words.
There's a glance at the tug of war between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (although it leaves out the ambiguous feudal role of the Lord Chancellor). The constant mention of the governor, we realised, is a tease in itself. There are various types of governor in a prison. So without actually lying, our playwright is possibly hoodwinking us into thinking his contact is the highest in the hierarchy. But to what end?
The problem with any such satire, for that is what it surely is, is that it is in danger of becoming that which it seeks to deconstruct especially as it relies on a certain background knowledge.
The unreliable narrator, the playful undermining narrative, the attempt at documentary authenticity is of course nothing new. It's the stuff of many a centuries' old novel and many a students' conversation into the wee small hours.
But we're now in the age of the internet, of "fake news", where we can be suspicious and gullible, trickster and tricked, all at the same time. And it made us wonder whether this play was fundamentally anti democratic. Surely in our times it is possible to find a new form or adapt an old structure in a manner rather more generous towards its audience and less secretive about its politics and literary allusions than in a previous more censored age.
Of course in the old days of Cold War censorship, pre-internet, it was much simpler. The audience of the oppressed was more homogenous, shared a common vocabulary and metaphors could bring a satisfying urgency, immediacy and catharsis.
We don't know, naturally, how much is Sergio Blanco and how much has been added and subtracted in translation and adaptation. The acting is committed, detailed and altogether excellent but the premise feels well-worn and, despite a glance towards digital content at the end, rather dated in its concept.
We did perk up at the mention of press censorship, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
We were waiting for some clever development of this and also the possible influence of American dramas. reality TV and television drama in general on the justice system. Which may be there but, if so, it's vastly diluted in an overlong piece.
As it is, the play seems to remain very much mired in the process and drawbacks of verbatim playwriting and workshopping, a certain type of bureaucratic artistic creation (fuelled, in part, some would say, by the turning of writing and acting into over-subscribed, impossibly competitive mass graduate professions). In other words, not particularly engrossing for a general audience, unlike, for example, Edmund White's prison drama Terre Haute which we remember enjoying some years ago and which, we suspect, would stand the test of time.
We guess if the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (gosh, we had to google hard to find that latest incarnation of the old Department of Trade and Industry!) had put pressure on us to award our most coveted rating for the sake of cheap oil, we would have had to submit for the sake of the nation. 😉 As it is, it's an amber light for a play, the content of which would have been far more persuasive if it were shorter and any wit compressed.