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The Bread & The Beer: Barleycorn Revives

Tristan Bernays resurrects a modern mythology in this powerful piece

A basement under a train station makes a sensible setting for a play about earthly redemption. Not unlike a heartbeat, the trains rolling overhead provide an almost seismic motion to a piece that focuses attention on the timeless quality of humanity’s wants, and the subsequent destructive position of our prevalent conformity. As the narrator opens the dialogue with the exhumation of a god, we breathe the chalk air of a basement as a scenic backdrop. The affect of this staging adds depth without complexity.

The choice of both topic and title are not accidental. John Barleycorn is a near forgotten character in English mythology; the personification of the spirit of the fields; he is the vegetable turned animal. An immortal blessed with the gifts of the field, he bleeds beer and is made of bread. The Barleycorn myth is therefore the perfect foil for a criticism of prevalent societal false gods.

To be relevant, mythology must remain dangerous. A child’s fairytale loses power when menace is diluted. Stories don’t transcend to myth unless they lock the audience with ageless danger. And so in this staging we are given the exhumation of the demigod, a staging of a rebirth myth, and a trial in a prison cell. Naturally, no modern impediment will hold a god; we watch as that near pagan deity transcends past petty human restriction. This then sets stage for a cathartic chapter of rage and freedom expressed through a feral piss up and revolution, before a conclusion that finishes on an elegant drop: “you might forget the forest, but the forest will not forget you.”

There is a message in all of this, of course: of God and false god, modern versus pastoral values, of soul and not soul. This play, like the Barleycorn Myth it reports, offers messages of moral and choice. It suggests them rather than selling them, which underscores the quality of the script.

So powerful, deep stuff, served up in a subterranean near theater in an unknown venue under a railway track. Of course, it is events like this that have and will forever render London eternal. But why watch at all, when it might be easier to ride home semi conscious and exhausted in a red train carriage only feet above?

Perhaps because watching someone talk, really talk – from baroque, to modern, to slang – is good for you. Maybe to put your phone down for an hour and watch another person, or to hear a myth told well is just better than anything you will ever watch on a screen, forever. Or because real acting, like mythology, conjures respect in the sheer courage it takes to confront danger in the form of an audience so close that they can, and do, touch you.

Playwrights are the chemists of emotion. To watch one who also has an actor’s strengths of communication and audience grip is a pleasure. Bernays is a talent to see today.

The Bread and The Beer is at the Vault Festival through 15 February.


Dahl Does Dante At Sam’s Chocolate Factory

A modern morality play scores points in London’s West End

Sam Mendes is a talented director; though perhaps over spun by the hype merchants behind the show’s playbill, he has nonetheless delivered a strong showing in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like you, I was skeptical of what I saw as a “kids production”, but came away pleasantly surprised by an acidic message buried in a saccharine wrapper.

What Mendes has conjured from this show is a ruthless morality message, and it’s made better for its severity. Mendes wastes no time in this delivery. The curtain rises to Charlie playing in a junkyard, coveting the wrappers from Wonka chocolate. We are presented Charlie’s family as economically destitute but not morally bankrupt or criminal: in lacking possession they are rich in intangibles. The show moves swiftly to a familiar parental quandary: the child wants, the parent seeks to deliver; only here, the probability of delivery is constrained by a sheer lack of economics. As opportunities are won by ever more wealthy personifications of the deadly sins, Charlie’s desperation draws a further toll on his already over stretched family. Left offstage is Charlie’s probable lobbying. Instead, Charlie is presented as winning his ticket through a fortunate windfall validated by subsequent moral quandary: having made enough of a good faith effort to return the abandoned money, Charlie duly wins his gold ticket. Goodness is thus rewarded with opportunity, and the curtain falls on the first act.

In the second, the moral message is hammered home. The flawed competitors swiftly fail to their lackings: gluttony, sloth, avarice, and greed. Mendes draws the catharthis long and the climax short, setting up the defining moral chapter of the show nearly at curtainfall: it is Charlie’s calling off of his Grandfather’s demand to be paid that leads to the mercurial Wonka’s decision to pass on ownership of the chocolate factory. Charlie’s recognition of the value of intangible benefit, and his conscious rejection of personal reward, swing Wonka to see the boy as his logical successor. Other directors have brought this forward, to enable a basking happy ending, but not Mendes: this is a parable of human flaw, a criticism of the human condition in which the sinners are flayed in a modern paean to Dahl doing Dante.

At halftime, the general consensus was that the show was better than expected, and that view held to the final whistle. But it is only on further reflection that the quality really shows. Veruca Salt is, of course, perfectly appalling; but the scripting of her father demanding to buy assets from Wonka presents a perfect defence for the value of artisan work: “these squirrels are not for sale… I cannot value them” Wonka says, and Veruca soon stumbles to her demise. “I cannot get my daughter on the cover of a magazine” says another distraught parent, after said daughter has literally exploded on stage; the ultimate ironic twist being that the bonfire of false gods was lit to satisfy their own supporters.

And this is ultimately what Mendes gets right about Dahl: the author knew his young audience did not lack for compass. He’s nothing but consistent in acidic observation, a feature the director gives us. And in embracing that, Dahl’s work remains relevant to readers today. Mendes gives an update in style, but is honest to source. And for this reason, there is strong argument to see it. This is not a candy coloured, technicolor dream lacking in spine, but an accurate, sharp imaging of a relevant story.

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes, is at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

The Raucous Caucus

A Republican move to the political center will have costs. That isn’t automatically bad.

You may not like Jeb Bush, but you need to know that he is a reasonable man. Speaking to investors the afternoon following Mitt Romney concession of defeat in the Presidential election, Governor Bush took a pragmatic line; his questioners, many of them angry Republican voters, often came across as less reasoned in response. And in this debate lies the challenge for the modern Republican party: how to string together a diaspora of radical and centrist voices under a single banner, without selling out the core to acquire the margin.

To understand the Republican position, and it’s timing, let’s look first at how it evolved, and then from there analyse how it might change going forward.  Read more…

The Morning After the Night Before

What comes next in Egypt?

Watching North Africa shake itself from dictatorship has been nothing short of inspiring. The inerta of the public will was enough to convince the Egyptian Army to get behind a new leadership model, just as a similar exercise in tiny Tunisia beheaded a rapacious regime. In Egypt, the Army is supervising an interim government. Protests linger in both countries. But after the hyperbole quiets down, what will unfold in Cairo?

Within the investment community, there are two dominant schools of thought. The first has the Army upholding a modified constitution, and acting as a safeguard to the new Republic, which leads to free elections, an immediate upswing in growth, followed by  a kind of renaissance for Egyptians everywhere. This view, with its unlikely casting of Egyptian generals as Jedi Knights, is seen as blissfully naive by more pessimistic observers. They note both that the interim government isn’t wildly different from the previous one, and that less savoury players in Egyptian politics have not yet spoken. To the pessimist observer, it is inevitable that the Ikhwan (known in the West as the Muslim Brotherhood) will poll well in the election, and once in power will cease to relinquish it – a time immemorial habit of Egyptian leaders. Since the outside world (and their investors) tend to like beer , shaving and culinary diversity, the theory goes, it is only a matter of time before Egypt sees more, potentially violent upheaval.

Iran is nobody’s model

The pessimist’s view is not without merit. Remove the previous policing of Egyptian politics and you will end up with a less pasteurised debate, in which a broader – and presumed more radical – series of voices will gain bandwidth. The fact that no polarising figure has yet emerged as a credible presidential candidate is less meaningful, since the regime did not tolerate rivals to the Great Hosny before the latter’s ignominy. Several observers have posited the view that Egypt will have an “Iran moment” when the popular movement will collapse on intellectual exhaustion and open the door for a radical religionist voice. These voices tend to be remote to the national experience: No Khomeini will sweep into the country because there is no Egyptian equivalent. Read more…

Achilles’ Heels & The Liberal Icarus

Nobody loves the coalition more than Ed Miliband.

On the 6th of May, David Cameron’s Conservative party polled 36% of the popular vote to secure 306 seats and became the largest party in Parliament, but did not crush the Labour Party, who finished with 258 seats. The Liberal Democrats retained 57 seats despite winning 23% of the popular vote. The result was a pyrrhic win for the Liberals, who saw their leader launched into the Deputy Premiership, and his deputy named to the relatively minor post of business secretary. What is obvious is that the Liberals negotiated poorly: a coalition between Labour and the Liberals seemed more credible to their electorate than an alliance with the Conservatives. The resulting lack of LibDems in senior government has contributed to a trampling of LibDem flagship issues, which is now undermining the party’s popular support. While this plays into Labour’s hands, they have chosen to focus instead on attacking Conservative headline policy while limiting attacks on Liberals to more withering individual criticism. Why?

For two reasons: first, the Liberals have entered a position from which they can exit only by dissolution or defection, and thus can only play to Labour long term advantage, and second, Labour needs time to allow the Coalition time to execute changes to social welfare. Labour knows it cannot make these changes, but does not contest that they are needed. Labour’s complicity is evident in the weak opposition offered currently.

Labour’s strategy is clear. The party intends to be in a position to force a coalition crises within two years. To do this, it amplifies its issues with Conservative policies, thus forcing toxic headlines onto the weaker coalition member by association. This erodes the Liberal power base, a move which might result  in lethal obscurity for the Yellows. Grinding the Liberals could trigger an insurrection in the coalition – an event which would swiftly return Labour to power. The unlikely way out of the trap would be for the Conservatives to acquiesce to proportional voting, a key Liberal issue which is toxic to Tories. Read more…

A New Deal for the UK

A Manifesto: Making great again is possible

Someone once said that the British Prime Minister is a democratically elected dictator; that in exercising the will of the people, the leader has the ability to make a great impact on the country as a whole. Harry hopes this is true, as the country has been battered and bruised both by external events but, more worryingly, by weak policy. Like a sclerotic disease, bad policy has accumulated in the UK to a point where a major rethink is needed.

With a general election forecast for this summer, Harry wonders if any of the political parties are capable of delivering anything like a required vision. The Labour party manifesto offers all the fiscal imprudence the country doesn’t need, while the Conservatives are trying to tap collective frustration by playing the alternative ticket: ‘we are not these guys’. LibDem policy appears to form in a muddle.

So into this vacuum, it’s only appropriate to suggest some priorities for policymakers in the new Parliament. The intention behind these proposals is threefold: first, to reinforce the country’s competitive advantage, second, to more ably protect that advantage, and lastly to raise some civic pride into the country.

Here is what I think government should be focusing on in the new year:

Read more…

UK Election Season Begins: Apathy Leads Early Polls

With Brits going to the polls sometime in 2010, the nation’s election machine is spinning up. Brits are tired of the current crop of idiots and would prefer real change. Sadly, they won’t get it.

2009 ended on a relative high note for Comrade Brown and the other Downing Street bunker dwellers; the decision to deflect national ire at stale government and hopeless overspending in favor of class war against the nation’s primary source of export revenue has resulted in brief poll stabilization and the hope of electoral stalemate this summer. Playing the class war card was a piece of political mastermind, in that it offered a double dividend: a distracted populace could then be ‘rescued’ by misplaced vindictive taxation from Westminster while the Patrician opposition were pushed into uncomfortable positions. Should Labour lose the next election, then the Conservatives will be forced to cut spending aggressively, an outcome not missed by Labour’s spin doctors. Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics are local; in the UK, the entire country would fit into the back corner of Utah, so the plurality manifests as a single locality. All politics here, it appears, are simply lowest common denominator. Read more…