Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, unpublished novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1000 articles, reviews, and other writings online. Carole Di Tosti writes for Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites; Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years until the site changed its focus and Blogcritics which is archived. Carole Di Tosti covers premiere film festivals in the NY area:: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NY, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF. She also covers SXSW film.
A guest reviewer on this site, Michelena Hallie saw the inimitable Heidi Schreck in a production that began Off Broadway and landed on Broadway because of the show’s great currency during this time when our government is under siege from an Executive Branch that would vitiate our rule of law codified in the Constitution. Citizens and tourists alike have flocked to the show and by word of mouth have spread its popularity and forward momentum. Here is Michelena Hallie’s review.
‘WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME’: A Personal Look at History
by Michelena Hallie
What the Constitution Means to Me is in part a civics lesson on the strengths and weaknesses of this bedrock document of our democracy. It is also in part a funny and poignant overview of the history of the women in Heidi Schreck’s family and their strength and oppression. And it is in part a searing critique of the Constitution’s failure to protect women and other oppressed groups over the course of this country’s history. But it is the sum of all these parts that gives the play its true power. By making history personal, Heidi Schreck – who wrote and stars in the production – brings history to life and forces us to truly analyze it with all its flaws and wonders.
Schreck begins the production with some funny and poignant background. She explains that when she was fifteen, her mother urged her to compete in American Legion contests on who could most ardently defend the Constitution. It quickly became her passion, and ultimately paid for college. While her opponents in Wenatchee, Washington provided the standard tropes such as “the Constitution is a patchwork quilt,” Schreck’s presentations were much more impassioned. On the other hand, she declaimed, “The Constitution is a crucible!” It is, “A fiery cauldron of energy and messy unpredictability!”
The dichotomy within the Constitution is introduced right away. In the guise of a reenactment of her youthful debates, Schreck launches in to a description of the Supreme Court Dredd Scott decision – most probably the worst decision to come out of the Court. Scott was an enslaved black man whose “owners” took him from the slave-holding state of Missouri to the Missouri Territory which had been designated free. There he married Harriett Robinson. Robinson and Scott were brought back to Missouri by Scott’s “owner” and Scott sued for his emancipation arguing that he was a free man in Missouri Territory and that freedom should be recognized. The Supreme Court, however, denied him his day in court. Persons of African descent, the Court ruled, were not “citizens” under the Constitution and therefore had no right to sue. Moreover, even though not necessary since they threw out the case on this initial ground, the Court also ruled that emancipating Scott would deprive his “owners” of their property in violation of the due process clause of the Constitution. It was a truly dark point in time for our Constitution and our country.
Schreck then pivots to the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution which provides: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” People – not just citizens – are protected under the Ninth Amendment (despite the ruling in Dred Scott). And therein lies the paradox that Schreck focuses on throughout the play. Indeed, in the production I saw, she brought it even closer to home. She pointedly referred to the relevance of the protection of “people,” not just citizens, in this week’s news. Clearly in this performance she was referring to the immigration/asylum tragedy unfolding throughout the county, and most probably the president’s racist tweets demanding that four members of congress (all of whom are U.S. citizens and 3 of whom were born here) go back to the countries from which they came. I dare say she updates this reference each evening.
But the story quickly gets personal, as Schreck uses her family history to bring home the oppression suffered during the history of our country. Schreck tells us of her grandmother’s and mother’s abuse at the hands of the men in their lives. Her grandmother died of melancholia at 36. Her mother testified about the abuse of her stepfather only to have her own mother turn on her and deny the claims out of fear of more abuse. She delineates the history of the white men who oversaw and controlled her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. And she underscores that the white men on a larger scale oversaw and controlled the interpretation and implementation of the Constitution.
Then Schreck plays the audio from the oral argument in the Supreme Court review in 1965 of Connecticut’s ban on contraception. It is remarkable! Though the Court ultimately ruled in Griswold v Connecticut that the ban violated the right of privacy, the unease of the all-male Court in discussing contraception was palpable with lots of throat clearing. Their discomfort was particularly amusing when Schreck explained that four of those men were, in all probability, cheating on their wives and trying to protect their mistresses’ right to have an abortion, if necessary.
Perhaps the flaw in the Constitution, Schreck suggests, is that it is a negative rights document. It enumerates what a “person” has the right to avoid, but is deficient on enumerating what persons have an affirmative right to expect. To bring this deficiency home she ends the show with a debate with an ardent 14-year-old debater on whether the Constitution should be abolished. After all it was written by dead white men and our needs and times have changed. Perhaps it is time to scrap it altogether and start again with a document that speaks to our current issues!
While the debate is clearly contrived, it does entertainingly bring home the magic of the document. Would we then have to abolish and rewrite the document each time the mores of society change? How would we decide when that time has come? How would we assure that the new document sufficiently meets our updated needs? Who would decide? How would we protect the basic “inalienable” rights that have been borne out of this flawed document? Even with its deficiencies, even with its poor execution over the years, even with its inability to protect the oppressed, the Constitution does root us in our deep faith in democracy.
The production may not be theater in the classic sense. As she herself concedes half way through the show, Schreck does digress into the personal, sometimes at the expense of the arc of the play. And the monologue by the American Legion officer who throws off his uniform and delivers a heartfelt description of the discrimination he has suffered as a gay man is touching but a bit sanctimonious. However, the play does make us think. It forces us to reflect about the spotty history of this country; the evolving definition of democracy; the prejudice innate in the birth of our country that continues today. And it encourages us to consider the ideals – however flawed – on which our country was founded. In some ways the production is as much an interesting and educational lecture as a play. But when art can educate as well as entertain, it is a treasure.
This Obie Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle winner traveled from San Francisco in May 2018 to Off Broadway in September 2018. Its initial limited Broadway run was extended after critical acclaim. It will start its national tour in the Fall. Its producers have also teamed up with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (https://www.gilderlehrman.org/) to provide free tickets for middle and high school students for an invaluable lesson in history and great theater. It is precisely the type of production that should get this broad audience. Particularly in this troubled time, grounding our thoughts in our country’s complex history will help us deal with our present. And our future.
What the Constitution Means to Me is playing at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44 Street, New York, New York 10036 through August 24, 2019. It runs 100 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Michelena Hallie and I saw Kenny Leon’s production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the first offering of the 2019 season of Shakespeare in The Park. We attended on June 18, Tuesday evening during a light rain that the actors marshaled through with brio and professionalism. As a guest reviewer on this site, she weighs in on the production.
Much Ado About Nothing: A Glorious Antidote for Our Troubled Times
by Michelena Hallie
The divisive times we live in have inspired artists to articulate our anxieties, fears and anger, in an attempt to help us focus those emotions in a productive way. Or at least let us know we are not alone in our pain. Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Delacorte Theater, is a stunning example of just such art. Placing the immortal text of Shakespeare in the volatile 2020 election year marries the battles, treachery, love and community of this classic with the turbulence of our times.
Leon’s legendary directorial portfolio is brought to full effect in the production. Placing the play in an African American suburb of Atlanta, Georgia in the Spring before the 2020 election explodes the themes of the play into the present. And the production wastes no time introducing its themes. A “Stacey Abrams 2020” sign is prominently displayed on the stately house which forms the backdrop of the play. Our heroine Beatrice masterfully performed by Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black, The Color Purple), appears on the balcony above the sign and, together with friends, opens the play with an inspiring mix of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (“Mother, mother There’s too many of you crying. Brother, Brother, Brother There’s far too many of you dying”) and “America the Beautiful” (“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain”). Fast forward to the group of men returning from a battle carrying signs such as “Hate is not a Family Value” and “Restore Democracy Now.” The specifics of the battle are not explained, but the tie to the presidential election and Black Lives Matter is unmistakable. This is not our grandparents’ Shakespeare.
The play then deftly switches from the divisive political backdrop to the more personal. We meet the starry-eyed lovers, Hero and Claudio, and the sharp tongued “adversaries” Beatrice and Benedick, as they dramatically enact their relationships.
Claudio, a young Lord who was one of the heroes in the reported battle, is smitten with Hero, the daughter of Leonato, the patriarch of the household. Leonato readily agrees to Claudio’s and Hero’s marriage and the wedding date is set. However, the evil Don John attempts to destroy the happy event by suggesting to Claudio that his beloved Hero is unfaithful, and offering to provide proof of her infidelity. Instead of defending his betrothed, Claudio responds that if he sees anything that would suggest he should not marry Hero, he will shame her at their upcoming wedding ceremony. And when Don John takes Claudio to the location where he has staged the false tryst, Claudio falls for the staging, and follows through with his threat. Without giving Hero an opportunity to defend herself, Claudio condemns her in front of the people gathered to celebrate their wedding. And Hero’s father joins the hasty condemnation. Only Beatrice, Benedick and the Friar question the accusation. The wedding is canceled and Hero is despondent and disgraced.
And then there’s Beatrice and Benedick – the sharp tongued would be lovers who hide their attraction for each other by throwing insults. Through machinations of their friends and family who want them to be happily married despite their protestations, Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. Brooks’ explosive performance and Grantham Coleman’s (“Buzzer,” “As You Like It”) energetic, funny and endearing turn as Benedick, depict the relationship as one of strength between equals. The couple are clearly not only very attracted to each other, but respect each other as peers. A stark contrast from Claudio’s treatment of Hero. In a particularly dramatic scene, Beatrice asks Benedick to avenge her dear cousin Hero’s mistreatment by killing his friend Claudio. The monologue Beatrice delivers on her inability to act because she is a woman is searing.
During these battles of the sexes and good and evil, it is friendship that keeps the communal bonds together. Beatrice never doubts her cousin Hero’s innocence. And through her vociferous defense she highlights the sexism that led Claudio to doubt his betrothed and Leonato to doubt his own daughter. What a powerful representation of the need for and power in the #MeToo movement. And through her pain and betrayal by her lover and her father, Hero too finds her own inner strength in a dramatic turn when Claudio realizes the falsity of his accusations and the innocence of Hero. Leon is able to inject Shakespeare’s story with staging of today’s hot topics, and bring vibrancy to both. And nowhere is that more dramatically exhibited than in the last scene of this masterful production. It may be a Shakespearean comedy, but the final scene pointedly returns us to the tumultuous times in which we live. A reminder that no matter how powerful our community is, we cannot live in a vacuum separate from broader society.
The production’s staging and modern day unspoken elements (Shakespeare may have been bawdy but even he would blush if he saw some of the moves between Beatrice and Benedick) are indeed masterful. But what also contributes to this amazing production is truly extraordinary acting. Brooks’ energy, passion, humor – and extraordinary voice – have molded Beatrice in to a modern day heroine. Coleman’s hyper, confused but lovable Benedick transforms the character from an arrogant and delusional oddity so often depicted in productions of the play to an endearing protagonist. And then there is Chuck Cooper (“The Life”) as Leonato, the warm patriarch who is temporarily blinded with a sexist assumption that his daughter Hero is impure, but is swiftly persuaded to test that assumption, clearly wanting to believe his beloved daughter is innocent.
Jason Michael Webb’s music and Camille A Brown’s choreography add to the drama of the production. At weddings, at celebrations, at memorials, the music and dancing not only introduce another contemporary element to the story, but move us to a higher emotional level. The vibrant music, the beautiful voices and the energetic dances leave the audience dancing and applauding in their seats.
The production is a masterful combination of the timeless words of Shakespeare and the powerful political, sexual and artistic forces of our times. It is truly the best of great art – it entertains and educates us. It is Shakespeare at his timeless best.
Much Ado About Nothing is 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. It runs through June 23, 2019 at the Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West. For tickets and the lottery check the website by CLICKING HERE.
Enjoying my week in Oxford and London, UK just before Christmas, I was happy to see the town in fancy dress, perhaps even more so than New York City. Especially in the West End, London shimmers with lights and sparkles with hope. I discovered why Bridget Jones bemoaned eating 40 or so mince pies (pastries that are like amuse bouches) a mouthful of deliciousness that you can’t just have one of. And we continually treated ourselves to the mulled wine (Oxford pubs serve this) and Christmas punch (in London proper) a heated wine with herbs and various liquors which takes off the chill while you are walking rain dampened London pavement.
The shows that happened to be in town when friends and I traveled to London were many. Musicals abound. There is Christmas fare for families. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is setting children’s faces ablaze with wonder. And Hamilton recently opened with lines going around and around. On his Instagram page, I noted that Lin Manuel Miranda was in town the same week we were, which probably contributed to the lines. Oh, to get a glimpse! Was there a lottery? Or cast entertainment beforehand? Knowing Lin, absolutely!
I have seen Hamilton 7 times, 5 times with the original cast in NYC, at the Public twice, and on Broadway. By happenstance I saw Lin Manuel Miranda workshop the production’s evolution at Vassar in 2012 when it was Hamilton Mixtape. Afterward, when I spoke to Leslie Odom Jr. about this at his guest singing appearance for the Morris Jumel Mansion autumn festival a few years later (he was inhabiting the role of Aaron Burr to accolades) he told me that he, too, was in the audience at Vassar. So was Ron Chernow, whom I recognized having read his exceptional biography of Hamilton in 2004. The three of us were “In the Room where it Happened” before Lin conceived of the fabulous song in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris Jumel Mansion a year later.
As Ron Chernow waited to speak to Lin Manuel, I boldly walked up to Ron and told him that he would sell a lot of books when the show went to Broadway. This was before the path of the show was determined and before some songs had been written, i.e. “The Room Where It Happened.” And indeed, the artistic director was adamant against even my adoring review of what I saw that day. All was “hush-hush!” Hamilton was waiting in the wings to evolve from Hamilton Mixtape. And what resulted, I do believe even stunned Lin Manuel Miranda, not taking away from his prodigious efforts and those of Alex Lacamore and the cast to make the show an unparalleled success, which some individual, older critics in the US begrudge. I don’t think they get the majesty and brilliance of Hamilton. I am a huge fan.
Now, it’s 2018. Ron Chernow continues to sell his biography of Hamilton to a London theatre crowd. And well they should purchase it; Miranda based most of the musical on Chernow’s writings. My prophecy is still unfolding. Surely, the book will continue to generate sales as the production tours globally and the film eventually screens when its last edits are made.
Friends and I chose tickets we could get at the last minute. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton tickets are pricey. So we decided upon The Ferryman, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Ink, and Barber Shop Chronicles which was at the National Theatre. As it turned out, our choices in two instances were spot on. Whether our exhaustion after hitting the ground running from Oxford to London finally caught up with us toward the latter part of the week, the last two productions proved problematic.
And so it went enjoyably with the initial two we saw, the first of which I will review in this post. I thought The Ferryman and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, were gobsmackingly good, and typical of what I anticipated to be superb London Theatre.
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth (also wrote Jerusalem), exceptionally directed by Sam Mendes has been described as an epic in its themes about The Troubles. It is indeed epic in its breadth of sweeping emotion, its contrasts of dark and light, its conflicts that erupt with striking grandeur and spew violent rage and seething silence. Over swirling undercurrents and chasms of grief, the primary characters leap with defensive mechanisms to forget, to submerge raw feelings. They cling to and embrace any joys they can muster. As the arc of development rises toward the denouement, these joys become fewer and fewer.
Emotional drift is the backdrop that reverberates throughout the shock waves of Northern Ireland, County Armagh, 1981, Butterworth’s setting for The Ferryman. It is a land begrudged to British usurpers as vengeance peaks around every blade and stalk of greenery. For some who would farm, swords temporarily have been beaten into plowshares. Nevertheless, bellicosity and primal urges lay subsurface. They can be stirred up by those looking for redemption or death prompted by tribal disagreements laden with guilt.
Butterworth presents doom in the opening salvos of the play. Darkness clarifies. The sinister presence of the IRA leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and compromised priest Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) meet to discuss the conundrum. A body has been found in the bog. It is Seamus Carney, Quinn Carney’s brother. He had gone missing for a decade. Clearly, the man had been murdered, a bullet hole through the back of his head. His body had been consumed forever by the bog, until it wasn’t. On one macabre moonlit night, it had risen like a hulking ghost to haunt the murderers and exert its power through kin to secure a fitting revenge. Thus, with the atmosphere broiling of promised bloodshed, Father Horrigan must deliver the loathsome news to brother Quinn Carney (Will Houston) and wife Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene) that Seamus has been found in recognizable glory. The bog preserved him whole. It is an unfortunate reckoning for those who dispatched him like subalterns ensnared in colonialism’s sedate barbarisms.
This is the gruesomeness of Northern Ireland in 1981 when the struggles cry out for retribution to enforce Republican rights and autonomies. This was the time when Bobby Sands was in the midst of his 66-day hunger strike which was to end in his death, followed by additional hunger strikes which ended in 9 more deaths. It was the time when you were either a supporter or a traitor, or became invisible and melded with the land. Nevertheless, as the political forces ranged they determined one’s stance. Either you were complicit with those who risked their lives for freedom, or you were a masking coward, who stood back and watched in pretense, remaining “un-involved” while surreptitiously aiding the enemy.
These categorical role antitheses, polar opposite political postures are drawn on the surface of the play. However the political maps are secured, we understand that hearts side with hearts. As the story arc indicates, un-involvement is a brutal impossibility. Whether one acknowledges it or not, to live in Northern Ireland is to be immersed in the brawling conflict. There are two avenues and choices are made; the signs are omnipresent and most know where their neighbors stand.
We meet the protagonists Caitlin and Quinn who enter the empty Carney kitchen playfully and enact a sensual dance. This alluring fun between a man and woman is mysterious. They are archetypal lovers, revealed later to be Seamus’ brother and his wife, Caitlin Carney. Both have the most to lose and gain with the deliverance of Seamus Carney’s body. In their blindfolded dance (symbolic) we note an ineffable, unfathomable bond. Perhaps they share a longing for closure about Seamus’ death, a conjoined sadness, memories of happier times. Yet we intuit an affection worthy of partnership, only to discover their love possibly has never been consummated. Because of this perhaps such a physical union may be all the more desirable.
As the priest finds his way to the Carney household, the activity of life proceeds and they joyfully conclude the harvest season. We meet the Carney family and their friends who gather in the kitchen to rejoice that their labors have brought forth visible goodness. In the “horn of plenty” scenes we appreciate the raucous celebration as a natural and wholesome connection to the land. The crops have ripened to their greatest yield and have been plucked. The seasonal cycles are healthfully and refreshingly balanced. Friends and family join in harmony sharing the fruits of their labor in a homely, comforting scene.
The Carneys have birthed an enthusiastic brood of children ranging in ages from 5 to married with a child. Indeed, a 10 month old LIVE baby makes an appearance and stuns with radiant beauty and wide-eyed, well-behaved sweetness. And when each of the Carney children come down the stairs one after the other, again and again, the effect is humorous. We wonder at the couple’s faith in humankind to produce such a brood of strapping, gorgeous children. They must have great courage to raise them in these times which try Northern Irish souls, souls which feed the maw of the revolution and spread blood throughout every bog. every town that can boast that their folks disappeared or were torn, battered and demised by civil strife.
When Quinn’s wife (initially we thought Caitlin was his wife) Mary comes down the steps, she is taciturn and immovable. Her demeanor is vacant, dim. We discover the reason she gives for this is that she is sickly, which causes her to be reclusive, a vanishing presence in the household. Perhaps. she is recovering from her child-bearing years. Do we believe this? Her oldest daughter does not. Nevertheless, the remoteness runs to a darkness of the soul that she suppresses and later reveals in an aria beautifully parsed toward the play’s conclusion.
In a rollicking, joyful dinner, we note with amazement the family and in later kitchen scenes (there is one set, the sprawling Irish kitchen) they are joined by friends. There are the Carney siblings Michael, Honor, Mercy, Nunu, Shena, and JJ. There are the adults whose revelations of time and place run to deep oceans of sadness and self-harm caused by circumstances they cannot control because civil torments tear up the land and society. Farmer Dad Quinn has a secret past known to Muldoon. Young Aunt Caitlin runs the household while Mary (Catherine McCormack) remains alone harboring secrets and mucking around her bedroom. There is old Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) whose sense of history resides in myths. And there is the wistful, visionary prophetic Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who tells of the violent elfin wars that somehow parallel the present Troubles and forebode new dangers to be heaped upon their heads.
And for the historical reality, there is Aunt Patricia Carney who is emotionally haunted by the death of her brother in the Easter rebellion, a memory as alive as today and impossible to reconcile. Her bitterness drips with ironic humor continually; and as she relates she doesn’t know who Quinn’s wife is anymore; indeed, it could be Caitlin. We are grateful for her clear, grounded presence though the children find her discussion of the injustice of The Troubles exasperating. They have not yet gathered to their hearts the violence that seethes throughout their culture and society.
Finally, there is Quinn’s and Mary’s nephew Oisin, Caitlin’s son, a young and beautiful teenager orphaned of his father. Seamus the missing has blown an emotional hole through his and his mother’s hearts. These are bleeding wounds that Quinn attempts to staunch by caring for them as his own, while Mary suffers in silence upstairs. Nevertheless, with the missing, there is no finality. Daily the questions of Seamus Carney’s whereabouts and what happened to him float like unspoken filaments in their memories. These they cover over with hackneyed or jovial conversation or deeper poetic and mythic references that proclaim truths hidden beneath the surface of homely interaction.
For example during the scene of motley gathering, there is discussion of the ferryman who spans life and death. He is the arbiter and controller of dead souls who seek peace, souls banned from passage on his boat for they have not been properly buried. Such souls wander on the shores of the river unable to cross to the land of the dead. Wanderers howl in pain seeking an implacable rest never given to them. This is the torment of the spirit’s soul, the torment of the family’s souls for their missing loved ones. Such is Seamus Carney’s torment.
Reference to Seamus’ disappearance brings a pall to the kitchen conversations. We understand that Seamus and the family cannot have peace until he is properly found and buried. The irony is we know the conclusion of a chapter of savagery is coming to its finality. However, we watch as the family still hovers in yearning in darkness and light. What will happen after Seamus is finally buried in his proper resting place? Will revenge be sought?
The undercurrents remain hidden as the family raucously cheer on their successful efforts, dance, drink, tell stories and more in various celebratory scenes. The churning lives and friendly gatherings which include the Cocorans, and Tom Kettle (Ivan Kaye is outstanding as the slow-witted Englishman orphaned as a child, raised by an Irish family) intimate no abysses of darkness. For in this brilliance of light and life, all is well. But the news must come when it comes.
The play fuels the darkness soon enough as Butterworth slowly unravels the mysteries surrounding Seamus’ death, Quinn’s secrets, Mary’s vanishing presence and Caitlin’s fondness for Quinn with no hoped for closure. With immediate, powerful truth leveled by the conclusion, we see what has been hidden and how that information gives rise to manifesting the latent nature of Quinn Carney.
There is a supreme irony that the climactic scene is one all have been waiting for when Muldoon shows up and revels in the pure clarity of his justified brutality years before. It is at this key revelation that tragedy occurs. Innocents misled by the tide of times are swept up by their inability to make reasoned choices. What was thought to bring closure evolves into additional loss and retribution. At a pivotal moment Quinn Carney seeks the depths of his own soul and unleashes the ancient primal, tribal ethic which demands an “eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.” Forgiveness becomes an impossibility of bloodlines, the verbal domicile of masking priests and reverends, the untoward retreat of widows and old Aunts. Forgiveness is not the portion of fighting men forced to take sides.
Revenge feeds off itself. With the series of acts which began before Seamus Carney’s murder and will continue beyond the Peace Agreement which occurs years’ later, Butterworth’s characters sculpt a monument to destruction with their own miry human clay. Washed in Irish/English blood, it is a memorial to intolerance, injustice and economic oppression which can never be answered by bloodshed that stains the land during The Troubles or stains any land soaked with the entrails of civil strife.
Butterworth’s play shepherded by the able sensibility of Mendes and the emotionally solid cast portrayals illuminates the poignance and helplessness of a family in duress. We watch stunned at this family that measures out their lives’ suffering through everpresent loss and the aftermath of sectarian violence which spreads chaos and injustice without surcease. The production is a must-see for the acting, the staging and set design (how are 20 people able to move onstage with fluidity?), and the wrangling of an absolutely adorable goose and rabbits which Tom Kettle brings.
The themes leave one considering. Not only must we bare up each other’s losses, but we must attempt to understand each other’s rooted sorrows. This in order to prepare for a day of reckoning which comes for everyone. For the protagonists of The Ferryman, their day of reckoning comes after they have been lulled to believe they’ve reconciled grief, which they learn they haven’t. The reckoning descends swiftly and starkly and we are shocked by our own wrong assumptions because of our dim-wittedness to understand the stakes. As a fitting addendum to further shift our unsettled emotions, Aunt Maggie Carney Far Away provides the last line of the play, symbolic, searing, foreboding.
If you are in London, this is one to see. It runs until 19 May 2018 at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, Soho, London W1D 6AR. You may purchase tickets here.
One of the finest pleasures in traveling to a locale one has not visited before is in the interest of witnessing a renowned playwright’s history in the making, his radical shift from well-worn success toward a risky endeavor which might not be received or understood. Alan Ayckbourn’s prodigious and prolific body of work has been solidified for our times because he has found a ready and willing audience.
There are not many writers who would try their fans’ patience and tastes in a crucible of newness and novelty. Creating a work with vastly different settings, little easy wit or humor, austere sci-fi tone, innovations in dramatic technique in a scary departure from one’s previously successful canon? This is not for the writerly faint-of-heart. Did anyone suggest Ayckbourne is faint-of-heart? Not I, after seeing The Divide.
Ayckbourne’s adventurous desire to evolve as a writer is laudable. He has been wise in his choice to present his latest work, which is a galaxy away from his profound sardonic, human comedies, at the most popular of European festivals. And he has done this at a time when this eclectic festival is celebrating its 70th amazing and innovative anniversary.
The Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 began in 1949. Since then it has swelled to its current amazement. Attended each August by global citizens who revel in the beauty of the Royal Mile, the Scottish castle at one end and the Holyrood Palace at the other, the hairy-wild pubs, reasonable Scotspeople, thistles, bagpipes, kilts, haggis, lochs, tartans, shortbread, this festival exemplifies at heart the frenetic energy of youth and family, and the peppery vitality and wisdom of older individuals.
Artists and creatives young and old hail from the farthest corners of the planet to share in the festivities and present their crazy, fun, revelatory artistry expressed in a multitude of forms. Audience and artists alike are there to drink the spiritual potions of life’s goodness and wellness. Is there a better place to premiere one’s groundbreaking work amidst such effervescent pleasures?
Thus, Ayckbourne’s The Divide was a dual celebration: 1) of the festival as a sustainable artifact exemplifying all that is unique about an exceptional artistic global community, 2) of the playwright’s launch into creative wilds where he could explore a multi-genre approach to an intriguing subject with mammoth metaphoric implications: a doomsday scenario that is portentous and relevant to our own culture today.
Was his endeavor a success? Does the clock tick the next second and the next forging onward? The question is how and why this work succeeded when, if you attempted to explain what Ayckbourne was doing, figuring in the calculus of his other 75 or so successful plays, you would surely have predicted at best lukewarm critical and audience reception and at worst, frustrated audience walk-outs .
Ayckbourne’s presumptions with The Divide Parts I and 2 would creep out even risk-prone, uber wealthy Broadway producers: I’m just sayin’! It is three hours long over two days; that’s four acts with two intermissions. There is music and a singing choir, though the music is haunting, atmospheric, atonal at times. It immerses one in a frightening oppression that suggests there is no escape from the dire dread of events. It conveys an irony of tone and fog that the characters are compelled to drift through. Indeed, the music propels the empathy we experience for the characters as if we are experiencing the same terrors they experience. The music does not contain your light, upbeat melodies that soar and float you on the wind to be easily dismissed and forgotten later. Precisely.
The cast is large; there are weebly visual projections, minimal sets in two stark palettes for the mainstay of the production (black and white-the colors relate to the symbolic themes, which the less astute theater-goer will miss), a small orchestra. Structurally, the play comprises a convoluted, opaque “dystopian” plot, developed rimarily through the protagonist’s novelesque narration and commentary by a few other minor characters. And unfortunately as if that weren’t enough to tank The Divide, which requires one’s time investment of six hours over two days, has been diminished by droll critics to be The Handmaid’s Tale meets Romeo and Juliet. Whaattttt?
I disagree. Ayckbourne has created a work that is rich in irony, humor and chilling resolution. If one is able to put aside self-righteous ego outrage at its correlation to the current state of political, governmental connivance in the UK, US, Western Europe, and the rebellious matrix of religious and social narrowness that has been propped up by the average malevolent, exploitative terrorist (whether radical ISIS/ISIL/Taliban, etc. or US bred white supremacist), one will find in it much to extol.
The play drives the audience to remain focused and alert while delivering concussive blows upon the main characters with whom we become inexorably attached as they navigate an alienating culture and society without the redeeming necessities of entertainments, the arts or romantic love from members of the opposite sex.
Heavily interlaced with narration and exemplifying scenes to clarify, the action wends slowly and rapidly as time moves when much happens and nothing happens. The through-line is raw emotion. It is our own reaction to the events, to the bleak, doom-laden setting, to the emotionally deadened characters and to the youthful and contagious hope and determination to embrace immortality whether through spiritual belief or lasting historical record that the protagonists’ actions foment.
The opening of the play, is an introductory history lecture referencing how the country (England or any western European or first world country in the future) eventually transcended the frightening era when it was “necessary” to segregate men and women and only allow them to establish relationships with members of the same sex for safety and health. A professor initiates the lecture and plays a video tape of an elderly woman telling her story.
The action flashes back to the past and the woman on the video tape dissolves into the darkness as the lights come up to shine on a youthful Soween (the old woman in the film). The young Soween relates the journey of her life with the principal intention to reveal how her family initiated the revolution which eventually delivers the individuals in the bleak and austere society from the plague. The contagion has forced the government (“administration”) to create “the divide” which forbids interaction of any kind between men and women. If there is to be interaction, women must wear a hazmat type head mask to guard against contagion.
Soween, is portrayed by the incredible Erin Doherty who inhabits a range of emotions with great moment-to-moment feeling and depth. She brilliantly draws us into the post apocalyptic, portentous setting. She discloses how her family operates in a state of suspended life. She enthusiastically elucidates the turning point and beyond where she and her brother perform exploits of belief and imagination. Gradually, through reportage which sets up scene events we come to understand how human impulses embracing life and truth unravel an “administrative” social engineering “experiment” that for a time succeeds in keeping the entire populace oppressed, controlled and overwhelmed by autonomy-killing, soul nullifying folkways.
The folkways have become living creatures in themselves, multiplying fear and dogmas of behavioral perfection as a cultural ideal for men and women, itself a hazardous plague and contagion. On the surface the mores create a social matrix that pits everyone against each other and consequently snares and stifles human emotional response and empathy. Especially, amongst Soween’s classmates we understand how these controlling mores daily energize jealousy, brutality, abuse and torment. Below the surface, the mores infect and wipe-out those who allow their own souls to become infected.
It is only when victimized, love-starved Soween is shepherded by Giella (a superb Weruche Opia) that hope arrives. Giella presents her with an ancient, historic novel, Jane Eyre. Through its reading and identification with Jane, Soween mentors Eyre’s resilience, inner strength and courage. She is inspired to love Giella in a sustaining hope and determination, which answers her yearning to make an authentic, loving connection unachievable with her family and tribe of so-called “friends.”
The development of the storyline is effected by Soween’s narration and supplemented by visual projections in white against a darkened screen. The projections, documentary-style identify dates, ages of Soween, her brother Elihu and other salient information and serve to move along her reportage and segue into elucidating events. The arc of plot points journey from Soween and her brother’s tween years and conclude with events that take her to Soween’s eighteenth year and Elihu’s sixteenth.
During this tide of times the jettisoning of the doomsday culture gradually evolves and we are thrilled to witness how her family becomes the fortuitous linchpin that pulls down the artificial matrix of folkways. Who says that one or two or three individuals cannot overcome the noxious exemplars of humanity who would devastate through malfeasance and incompetence the finest core of what makes people entirely wonderful, creative, imaginative and worthwhile?
As one key theme Ayckbourne presents the hypothesis: if various humans, who to retain power, become fearful and genocidal, the inevitable counterpoint will occur. is Others will rise up to initiate redemption and release in a stunningly glorious display of sacrificial truth. In the “destruction” is the reaffirmation, recreation and rebirth, but only in those buffeted by the matrix that has been created by the fearful power-hungry. These misguided social engineers, because they are on the wrong side of truth, cannot partake of that redemptive beauty and thus, face oblivion.
Soween describes her family and how it non-functions. She has a younger brother Elihu (Jake Davies in a masterful performance), the venerated male who must be protected from contagion by women, principally contracted through sexual and romantic contact or any contact for that matter. So in due season, he will be sent away to the north, estranged from the family forever. Rounding out the family are Ma (Claire Burt is excellent as the haphazard, confounded and resigned mother) and MaPa (a terrific Thusitha Jayasundera) who is the family’s paternal figure.
MaPa and Ma are partners in raising the children that have been “begotten by artificial insemination” because sexual relations or male/female contact kills off the males. The women are inextricably the carriers or black widows that infect the males who are implacably destroyed. Thus, the men and women remain apart and women must wear masks defacing their beauty and identity to prevent contamination. Men may only partner with men, women with women to sustain the human race and keep men free from the doomsday weapon, women’s genitalia.
If the tone, music, production values, austere sets and brilliant acting weren’t so oppressively believable (and indeed why do we so readily believe this fantastical plot?) we would be laughing at the intense ironies Ayckbourne has constructed with his setting and the parameter of his “divided” world. This is the blackest of Ayckbourne, but somewhere in the latent attitude of The Divide he is snickering at us for we are not finding this comical. If we allow ourselves to acknowledge his finger-pointing, we will recognize the ancient Greek mockery (of Aristophanes) and laugh as well. However, the evening I saw the production, few were laughing and the silence was daunting. The audience awestruck and subdued, though appreciative.
In order to remain uplifted in this time of sorrow, tragedy, guilt, remorse and paternalistic female condemnation, there is the “Book of Certitude” from which all wisdom, cultural law and mores may be gleaned. The political conservatives in the council meetings are adherents of the Book (in it do I hear the will-o-the-wisps of Sharia law, literal Christianity or Wahabism?). The liberals extirpate much of it and resist, we discover, behind the closed doors of their homes. Giella’s is one enlightened family that lives according to its own inner music.
However, MaPa and Ma adhere to The Book of Certitude with great fervor. In their lives there is no room for flexibility or doubt. Ayckbourne’s point is not focusing on religions per se, but any thought process, any line of reasoning and set of mores which allow no questioning but demands unwavering loyalty and adherence to its own brand of group-think. Science and religion may be equally inflexible as we see in The Divide.
In Ayckbourne’s social construct, doubt is verboten for the conservatives; certainty is the coin of the realm. There is no questioning of The Book of Certitude’s truth. It is doctrinaire dogma, fueling an anaerobic atmosphere. One’s being cannot survive there, let alone thrive. It is this atmosphere and system of belief that eventually undermines the extreme logic of MaPa’s scientific life as a doctor; it snuffs out her adopted world view. When she makes a grave error that causes destruction for others, she cannot forgive herself and commits suicide, the end road of such Book of Certitude adherents. Ayckbourne suggests the death of the soul occurs by unequivocally accepting lies and embracing a path where one refuses to seek the distinction between the two and ultimately finds out not only is there a difference, but lies and error cannot be maintain in living human beings for very long.
How does redemption from this dystopian future evolve for humankind (stated in the play’s opening)? Ayckbourne keeps it simple. It is always the simplistic answers, the ones staring us down daily that are the hardest to recognize. Love, belief in love and emotional relationships are our salvation, even if they cause heart-break, physical suffering or death. The point Ayckbourne makes is very clear. Without such love relationships, we are destroyed: our souls, our emotions, our spiritual beings.
When an older Elihu and Soween some years later both fall in love with Giella, we imagine the worst for Soween. Giella and Elihu have found one another. In a symbolic moment that is beautifully rendered, they couple in a pool of water in a secret place in the woods. The background light actually turns a different color and such advances in colorful lighting grow stronger from this turning point until the play’s conclusion.
Theirs is a sacred act, a veritable trial by fire in a watery place, though Elihu is accepting that this act of love may even result in his death. He has gained an experience for a lifetime wide enough to face death. He could care less, for he loves. Once again Ayckboune’s ironies abound; in being consumed completely by loving another, we do die to ourselves. For her part Giella believes that all will be right in their love, for love is its own determination, answer and truth. At this point Part 1 of The Divide concludes.
Ayckbourne keeps the plot twists gyrating as events careen in another direction by the third act, the second day of the production. Elihu’s and Giella’s love is the immortal fuse that prompts them toward the sacrificial act which leads to the ultimate discovery that the contagion is manufactured. How Ayckbourne gets us to that final revelation is a story-telling convolution that holds the most enthralling scenes and dynamism of the production.
Are they punished for their unlawful and illegal coupling and marriage, a marriage which Giella’s liberal family approves of and a coupling that MaPa deems is Giella’s murder of Elihu? Does Elihu have the plague? The Book of Certitude stipulates he does for the act presupposes contagion regardless of the facts. Their intimacy is discovered; Elihu is whisked away to quarantine so that no one in his family can speak to him. MaPa petitions Giella’s death sentence because she knows what she has been told all these years must be true. Meanwhile, Elihu and Giella know otherwise. That truth is revealed to the culture at large in a final act of whistleblowing that explodes the “divide” because it endangers and exposes the “powers-that-be.”
You will just have to fly to London, UK to The Old Vic and see The Divide or purchase a copy of the play when it is published. It may not be mounted in the US. The production is replete with humor, though one must move beyond the tropes and metaphors relating to the worst mores and actions of global cultures, religions and politics to appreciate how society effects its own self-torments. Ayckbourne suggests this is innately laughable, if one can move past one’s own self-important ego and judgments of others. Of course the play is a clarion call on many levels for our times. But more importantly, in its themes Ayckbourne suggests we must not take ourselves so seriously that certitude conveys our emotions and not the brightest force of all: empathy/ love
The production will be running from 30 January through 10 February in London at The Old Vic. And it probably will find another home in another country, maybe the US.