John Guare and emotional truth

John Guare is the playwright best known for Six Degrees of Separation, which became a terrific film starring Will Smith and Stockard Channing and is now being revived in London. There’s a funny and insightful interview with him in today’s Guardian, including his thoughts on his current obsession, Amanda Knox:

“She’s a complete blank,” he says. “You can project anything on to her. Is she Henry James’s Daisy Miller, an innocent young girl who goes to Europe for experience? Or is she Louise Brooks, the woman who takes what she wants and destroys everything? Or is she Nancy Drew caught up in Kafka?” … “When the police started questioning her, her response was to do cartwheels and the splits. I love that. That’s when I fell in love with the story. That’s when I thought” – he smiles, potential building – “this is my kind of murderess.”

Guare’s plays haven’t always been successful, but they’re always ambitious. And he’s a passionate advocate of the importance of emotional truth over literal accuracy in drama:

[Guare] combines the fantastic and humdrum in accordance with the Henry James principle of the “balloon of experience” – that is, “an audience will go anywhere with you as long as you, the writer, keep your hand on the string. You don’t want to lose the balloon. I love that image.” … When he first saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he was amazed and disappointed. “Where is the revolution?” he asked. Now, he says, “What I hate about kitchen-sink dramas is [this idea] that the set is real, therefore you’re going to be seeing truth. You have to earn truth. Truth can’t be a part of the fact that people appear to talk that way and live in that room. You’re looking for the poetry in something, and I don’t mean poetry in the fancy sense. Naturalism believes by just replicating a thing you give the truth, rather than earning the truth.”

Theatre in Britain at the moment is great shape, partly because it’s happy to aim higher than reality (and which is why Enron is a better play than The Power Of Yes), but our film and television often (with honourable exceptions like Lynne Ramsay) feels hamstrung by its determination to feel “real”, and its reluctance to soar beyond the everyday. While this is well-intended, it’s short-sighted: Doctor Who and Torchwood, with their manipulative politicians, over-weening corporations, secret prison systems, sweat-shops and eco-collapse feel like more accurate barometers of Britain in the Noughties than a slew of more “realistic” television dramas, just as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later feel like truer reflections of our times — and our fears — than any number of more supposedly “authentic” portrayals of contemporary life.

One of the few things that truly differentiates humans from animals is that we talk naturally in metaphors. Metaphors are, in essence, the application of emotion to fact: not “this is what I saw” but “this is how it felt”. And that’s really what stories are: the feeling of what happened.

So let’s hold onto that balloon.

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Enron and The Power of Yes

Two plays, two authors, two theatres, each trying to explain the complex mess we’re in. At the established National Theatre, veteran playwright David Hare with The Power of Yes; at the rebellious Royal Court, young star Lucy Prebble with Enron, directed by theatre’s man of the moment, Rupert Goold. So which best illuminates the crisis, and how?

Enron is certainly the most talked-about of the two, already booked into the West End following its Royal Court run. It has big musical numbers, flashy electronics and a a pack of angry raptors on the prowl. But does this extravagant theatricality disguise a hollow heart? Is the flim-flam there to hide a lack of substance?

Absolutely not. This is thoughtful, and thought-provoking, drama, combining a forensic level of analysis — what went wrong, why did it happen, and what were the character flaws that made it possible — with a rich theatrical imagination. Whether you’re familiar with the Enron story (over-familiar, in my case) or new to the culture and characters involved, Prebble delivers an awesome amount of information without ever giving the impression that she’s showing off her research. All the lead players are here — Ken Lay, Andrew Fastow and, in a quietly terrifying performance, Sam West as Jeffrey Skilling, the nerd who became a bully, and set out to change the world. But as well as dramatising the characters, Prebble dramatises the ideas: the raptors in the basement, seen here as literal dinosaurs, are Fastow’s own term for the complex financial constructs used to hide the company’s losses: constructs that outlived their usefulness, and started to bite back.

For much of its length Enron plays as comedy, albeit of the blackest kind. But there’s no doubt of the tragedy at its core. Most treatments of the story have been one-sided, quick to damn: this is perhaps the first real attempt to dramatise both the brilliance of the company and the exhilaration of its initial success. This was a company rooted in the Texan oil tradition, infused by the spirit of the Western pioneers. Every day brought new invention, breaking ground that regulators couldn’t comprehend; it was not, at the beginning, that Enron was breaking the law, more that it was ahead of it. But success — and the praise that went with it — led to hubris, a fatal sense that everyone else was just too stupid to keep up. And this is where, with real feeling, Prebble explores the personal tragedies of the characters involved: what it was about them that created the company’s triumph, but that also led to its doom. As with any financial disaster, those at the helm blamed “the market” and “events beyond our control”. This play suggests the opposite: that the tragedy of Enron lay not at its edges but its centre, at its flawed, self-dramatising heart.

Also self-dramatising — literally, this time — is David Hare, who puts himself at the centre of his new play at the National, The Power of Yes, which is subtitled A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis. And which is pretty much what we get: a series of reconstructed interviews between Hare himself (played with eerie accuracy by Anthony Calf) and a series of participants and experts (bankers, analysts, journalists) as Hare tries to figure out just what went wrong.

If that sounds a bit dry — well, it is. I’m a huge fan of David Hare. I loved his painful, funny monologue Berlin earlier this year, and I admire his commitment to putting the contemporary world on stage. And there’s a lot that’s good about The Power of Yes, including a spiky, funny performance from Claire Price as a bitchy Financial Times journalist and a chilling final meeting with George Soros, the man — let’s not forget – who almost brought down Britain in 1992. But overall it’s a missed opportunity. This is partly because, unlike Berlin, The Power of Yes reveals very little about Hare himself: his character here is a dogged, witty reporter but little more than that. This is disingenuous: Hare is a well-known public figure, married to an internationally-known designer. What did the crash mean to him, how did it affect his psyche? If you’re going to put yourself at the centre, you have to fill the centre in.

But even more frustrating are the ghosts of Hare plays we might want to see, just poking through. There’s the play about Fred Goodwin — the best segment of the show — or the bonkers Adam Applegarth, former chief of Northern Rock. Or there’s the play about the Queen’s controversial visit to the stock exchange earlier this year, mentioned here almost in passing in a section called The Queen’s Question: “why did no-one see it coming?”, she asked, and no-one was able to offer an answer. Or, indeed, the play about George Soros, global super-villain turned philanthropist and sage. All of these feel like start-points for a classic Hare drama, but none of them is quite delivered in this investigative, intelligent but, in the end, infuriating play.

Berlin by David Hare

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Future generations are going to judge us, and they’re going to judge us harshly. Between 1989 and 2001 the West missed its greatest opportunity … Between the ending of the Cold War and the beginning of another, between the defeat of Communism and its replacement by militant Islam as the West’s readily convenient enemy, there was a real chance. International relations, the creative remaking of relations between countries irrespective of wealth or ideology was briefly possible. Briefly. Nothing got done. What new world order? — from Berlin by David Hare

I’m obsessed by Berlin. Or by the Wall. Or by Communism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s partly, if I’m honest, romantic: John le Carre, Graham Greene, a dash of Kurt Weill and the Weimar. It’s partly political, torn between the idealism of the philosophy and the wretchedness of its execution. And it’s partly a kind of continuing awed horror at the complete futility of it all: at the cruelty, the privation, the surveillance, all in an already bankrupt cause. When I finally went there last summer with the brilliant SP we found a city ill at ease with itself, oddly nostalgic for past evils and fearful for its future: a city that longs for commercial success but fears for the loss of its “poor but sexy” soul.

David Hare’s new performance at the National is a mesmerising, hour-long reading covering thirty years of visiting the city, from radical Seventies playwright to distinguished screenwriter of The Reader, which shot there just last year. It’s angry — what a golden opportunity we missed — questioning and very funny too, as he gets lost in the city one night, “expecting Peter Lorre to appear at any moment and kill me for drugs”. He’s searching for the heart of the city. What is Berlin about? Is it culture? History? Despair? Or is it just hanging out with your friends? Like SP and I he has been told how cool the city is these days, how great the clubbing is —

Have I been to the Kit-Kat Club? No, I don’t think so. Is that the one where they fry poo in the basement? I think I’d remember if I’d been there.

— but a finds a Berlin cloaked in memories, glittered with reminders of the horrors of its past. Like us, he’s also amazed how well he’s treated as an Englishman, a country whose Prime Minister said in 1943 that “The Germans should be made to suffer in their homelands and cities, let them have a good dose where it will hurt them most”. A 1941 Bomber Command memo said that, “attention should be concentrated on working class houses … although [the government] has accepted the principle of bombing civilians for moral effect, it is probably wise to pretend to the world that it is military or economic targets we are really attacking”. And a Mr O’Neill of the German department of the Foreign Office wrote in 1945: “I think we can agree that it is in the interests of this country if the German birthrate declines — I hope it will not seem too shocking if I suggest that we might consider whether there are any means at our disposal for assisting the decline of the German birthrate after the war.” As Hare says, with reference to British films about the war, “is it only the Brits who like to pretend that there can be such a thing as a war which is moving without being upsetting?”

Hare’s performance ranges over the city’s history, architecture and economy, sometimes all at once: as he notes wryly at one point, “Some of its attempts to offset its debt by disposing of its assets have not been successful. Joseph Goebbels’s country house did not sell”. It’s complex, sweeping, but never complicated, as he leads us from one story to the next, now with laughter, now with rage, and it’s a superb piece of writing craft, blending personal, historical and philosophical into one. I don’t think everything he does is brilliant — I’ve been pretty horrible about The Reader — but even in his lesser work we need him: passionate, provocative, political, always searching for the truth.

No Bounty for Gold Men

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The fabled “Oscar bounce” — the traditional box office boom for the season’s most nominated films — has barely materialised this year, according to The Big Picture, which offers an interesting analysis of the possible reasons why. It’s partly the economic climate: tough times make grim viewing hard to sell. It’s partly the current Hollywood distribution pattern, which loads all the big fun exploding stuff into the summer, and all the pompous arty stuff into the nomination-friendly winter months.

And maybe too it’s partly that the two have become so separate. There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of movies. There are movies that people enjoy: the traditional Hollywood fare of thrillers, comedies, action movies etc. There are movies that people admire: the traditional Oscar fare of historical dramas, literary adaptations and plays wrenched from Broadway to the screen. And then there are the movies that people love: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Shawshank Redemption. Some of these win awards, but many never trouble a jury until the bandwagon has passed. You can’t set out to make these popular classics — some had the most tortuous production histories in Hollywood — but you can see what they have in common: a relentless narrative drive; a blend of the comic and dramatic; a cheerful embrace of sentiment, if not outright sentimentality; and boldly-drawn characters at a moment of crisis. These films are about people with everything at stake. 

At best these things are as true of the Oscar movies as they are of the summer movies. Frost/Nixon, on film even more than on stage, dramatises just how much is at stake for both its lead characters: it’s a far more gripping thriller than the thudding, interminable nihilism of last year’s box office champion, The Dark Knight. But too often it feels as though popular acclaim and critical acclaim have become separate entities, and separate creative ambitions. As a result our summer films have no taste, and our winter films too much. You watch a film like The Reader longing for a spot of vulgarity: something to puncture the stifling politeness of the thing. Like so many literary adaptations, it feels less like a movie than a waiting room, a place for slightly embarrassed people to flick through magazines while trying to avoid eye contact. Even its much-debated eroticism seems like porn for people who hate sex. 

All of which is why, if I were voting, I’d want Slumdog Millionaire — the one movie that certainly has had its commercial Oscar bounce — to win tonight. It has all the qualities of a great popular classic; it has become the embodiment of its own underdog spirit; and it points the way to the future of movies, and the reuniting of the heart and head.

The craft of … David Hare

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David Hare is on characteristically combative form in today’s Guardian, including a feisty defence of what he calls “the central claim of fiction: that by lying you get to the truth”.  

Hare is a divisive figure, attacked by the right for being too left, and by the left for being too right, but he’s one of our most ambitious dramatists, committed to addressing the issues of the day. He once said that “the most important playwright’s gift is to hit your time and speak to your time,” and has certainly achieved this with plays such as The Absence of War, The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. He also has a continuing engagement with the long term impact of the Second World War, with plays such as Plenty and his film adaptation of The Reader. 

The Reader has had mixed reviews in the UK, including a savage critique from Peter Bradshaw, which Hare responds to directly in his interview — you can read Bradshaw’s riposte here. Essentially the question boils down to this: should drama attempt to understand the actions of the Nazis, and if so how should it dramatise those actions? The Reader certainly does the first of these, but in Bradshaw’s view chickens out on the second: it analyses the motivations of an Auschwitz guard, but ducks the reality of her crimes.

Personally I think Hare was right to avoid flashbacks to the camp. We no longer need to see what happened to appreciate its evil: the brilliant Conspiracy is proof enough of that. But Bradshaw does have a point. The film is too sympathetic to the character’s defence of, in essence, “I was just obeying orders”. Paradoxically, rather than making her more sympathetic, it just makes her less interesting, and her tragedy less powerful. Ultimately, as Mark Kermode has argued, the film, though beautifully written, is just too polite. I wanted more of Hare the polemicist, the writer willing to confront an audience and make them question their own beliefs about themselves. He once wrote that “There is still a place in the cinema for movies that are driven by the human face, and not by explosions and cars and guns and action sequences . . . there’s such a thing as action and speed within thought rather than within a ceaseless milkshake of images,” and he was right. The problem with The Reader is that its thought lacks the speed and sharpness of his own best work.

Whatever its flaws, though, The Reader demonstrates another central Hare idea: that history is not general but specific, and that the time in which we live is an essential part of who we are. As he says in the interview: “I dislike what I call bell-jar writing. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything called “the human condition”. Who we are is hugely affected by where we live, when we live, what happened before we were born, who we meet, the culture that we grow up in. If you’re a Chinese peasant, you will feel yourself to be significantly different from the people in this audience. I like history to be blowing through the room.”

At his best Hare writes brilliantly about how people navigate their time. And that phrase, “I like history to be blowing through the room” is as good a definition of his craft as any. With his latest play Gethsemane playing at the National, as well as his own readings of his monologue Berlin, there’s rarely been a better time to explore his ambitious and provocative career.