Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

I, Daniel Blake directed by Ken Loach

This fascinating film was viewed in a hall on a cold evening. The event had been organised by local campaign group Wirral Against Benefit Cuts. It seemed a million miles away from the Cannes Film Festival where the gritty drama secured the Palme d’Or last year. Nonetheless, warm tea was served and the enabling technology worked at the third attempt.

The debate which followed the film reached few solid conclusions. Nonetheless, the discussion touched on local government cuts, electoral politics and the ideology of Ken Loach. It was noted that I, Daniel Blake had a documentary feel. It was also observed that the film was not really sentimental. Further, the pertinent comparison with Cathy Come Home was made.

One criticism made of the film was that it was negative. However, optimism can be generated through political action. Thinking about the dreadful way we live now can lead us to act to enhance our future. Not everyone is an admirer of Jeremy Corbyn, but voting for Labour in upcoming elections is in accordance with the thinking of Loach.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht

This overtly political play is seemingly relevant in the era of Donald Trump. It tells how a dubious figure can rise to the top because other people consistently underestimate him. While the drama is set in Chicago during the 1930s, the themes of capitalism, protectionism and corruption remain pertinent to this day.

The content of the drama leans heavily on the calamitous rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Hence one of the characters represents the leader of the Brownshirts, while another stands in for an elderly general who helped the Nazis to progress. However, the influence of Shakespeare is important as Ui gets training in the art of oratory from an actor fascinated by the Bard of Avon.

The play was composed in 1941 and this means that Brecht could not be sure of what would happen to the fascist project. Although the authoritarian populism of Trump might not be the same as the politics of Hitler, it could be as well for Americans to heed the warning of Brecht:

 

“So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then:

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead by Simon Armitage

This play superficially seems to be an enjoyable fusion of The Thick of It and The Odyssey. However, a close study of the text shows a degree of unpleasantness behind the liberal philosophy and the classical references. The comedy appears to have a brittle edge and the digressions about contemporary international politics carry a subtle menace.

The dark side of the text seems to be inherent in the assumptions made about Turkey and the Arab League. While English hooliganism is denounced, an Orientalist fear seems to lurk behind the lines of the play.

There is something quintessentially English about the text. This is evident in the pervasive idea of the threat of barbarism within and without. It would have been nice if the great thinker Edward Said had lived to analyse this odd, ill-timed and unnecessary concoction.

The Hook by Arthur Miller

This frenetic American drama was composed in the immediate post-war period. It focuses on corruption in the unionised workforce on the docks in New York. Instead of being a conventional play, the script is intended to be shown on the screen, but it originally ran into trouble with the authorities because of its overtly political content.

The production in question is on show in a Liverpool theatre. The docks in the city might not be as important economically as they once were, but the lack of regulation of the local labour market make it an ideal place to witness the gritty drama.

The pace never slackens and there are numerous plot twists. The narrative shows how hard it is to translate growing class consciousness into genuine working class power. During the performance it is hard not to be affected by the suspense, but afterwards it makes you think of the vagaries of the Labour leadership campaign. One question has been asked by the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn- is the bureaucratic and stalled Labour Party ready to become a social movement once again?

Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida: reviewed

The oddness of life, reading, and philosophy was highlighted in this provocative text. Jacques Derrida, arguably a champion of making things too complex to be politically constructive, has indicated that he saw value in the work of Karl Marx. This was of interest because the practical philosopher had endured criticism for being deterministic, teleological, and inaccurate. Nor was Marx someone who was much praised by postmodernists in general.

However, the approach of Derrida to Marx was idiosyncratic. It involved focusing on some of the lesser works to a high degree. Nor was the reading made much clearer by the stress on competing translations of Hamlet, for example.

Nonetheless, when Derrida concentrated on commodities and their powers the reader was made to perceive some of what was at stake. The peculiar nature of the commodity was underlined and intriguing points about the changing values of commodities were driven home. As Derrida wrote:

“we can perhaps return to what Capital seems to want to say about the fetish, in the same passage and following the same logic…By rendering an account of the ‘mystical’ character and the secret…of the commodity form, we have been introduced into fetishism and the ideological.”

The Scottish Play at The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool: reviewed

‘Macbeth’ is a familiar tragedy, not as large in scope as ‘King Lear’, but powerful nonetheless. The innovative production at The Everyman challenged the audience to the extent that the applause was tepid at best.

The text had not been treated with reverence. In fact, it was used as a mere framework for a musical and visual extravaganza.Traditional fans of Shakespeare seemed alarmed at various aspects of the production. The postmodern inclusion of a book of study notes did provoke laughter, but some people were left cold by the performance as a whole.

In short, the production was a nod to the avant-garde in a city which has conservative tastes. As such, few will mourn the fact that it was the last night of the play. However, those behind the production should be praised for their attempt to avoid the sterility of repetition.