Thursday, 30 July 2009

Turning Back Time.

A strange night of theatre going. First to the National to see Caryl Churchill's short Three More Sleepless Nights performed with verve and intelligence on the Phedre set. I was thrown a little by the man next to me wearing a mask. I wondered if he'd got swine flu and was protecting us, but on asking him I found out he was 'just being careful!' Is it going to come to this in the Autumn?

Next, down to the Young Vic, to see Anamaria Marnica perform Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis as a monologue. The play itself has a kind of iconic mystique in the hindsight of Sarah's suicide a decade ago. It was found amongst her things and swiftly, but beautifully, produced as a memorial by her director of choice, James MacDonald, at the Royal Court. Nobody knows whether it was meant for performance, but back then collective grief gave it allure and the production seemed to beg us to find the reasoning that had escaped Sarah and to go on living.

In contrast, this latest production, seemed to me, cliched in its confrontation and entirely lacking nuance or irony. In fact gone was any sense of the poetry that marked Sarah out as a breathtaking, uncompromising and complicated talent and we were left meanly scratching about for autobiographical clues. I wish she hadn't been ill; I wish she hadn't died and for those reasons I wish this play didn't exist, but still I sat with the rest of the audience engaged in cultural voyeurism of the worst kind. It was dumb of me to go.

So to side step this spectre here's Carol Ann Duffy's brilliant poem, written to commemorate the passing, over the last fortnight, of the last two World War I veterans: Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. It was published this morning and seems a fitting final word.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin

that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…

but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood

run upwards from the slime into its wounds;

see lines and lines of British boys rewind

back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-

mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers

not entering the story now

to die and die and die.

Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.

You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)

like all your mates do too-Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-

and light a cigarette.

There's coffee in the square,

warm French bread

and all those thousands dead

are shaking dried mud from their hair

and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,

a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released

from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

You lean against a wall,

your several million lives still possible

and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

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