Monday 8 February 2016

Unsent Postcards: Linda – Royal Court, London

[seen 02/12/15]

I will say first of all that the above cartoon has haunted my view of this play since I saw it, since it pretty much encapsulates my entire problem with the play.

I didn’t like Linda one bit. Not the play, as I understood it, not this première production of it.

Which is odd.

I mean, it seemed well-written (Penelope Skinner). I personally wasn’t so into the plot, or the characters especially, but that could easily be put down to a) my being a man (although I’d argue that it wasn’t that, on the simple grounds that I wouldn’t have liked any of it any more for the characters being men) or b) to my being an implacable cynic about capitalism, advertising, Dove soap (here thinly disguised as “Swan”), beauty products, advertising again, etc.

It does seem like quite a good one of the thing it is (ostensibly realist plays about people with middle class jobs and their problems maintaining their lifestyle). It’s just not a thing I especially like.

Similarly, I think it would be hard to fault the production (Michael Longhurst). The acting seems to be first-rate. The largely believable characters are acted believably.

The issue – that women are treated badly by society, and worse when they’re over 50 – is important.

So all I can do is say why it didn’t really work for me, and you can all make your own judgements about whether this middle-aged white man’s viewpoint is really relevant in this context.

The first thing we learn about Linda is that Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall dropped out of the production “on doctor’s orders” and has been replaced by Noma Dumezweni. Now, I have no idea whether or not the “doctor’s orders” bit is true or not. I will speculate, though, that this substitution is responsible for injecting a great deal more warmth and complexity into the piece than may otherwise have emerged. Linda the character is a woman-over-fifty who works in advertising within a cosmetics firm.

There’s a bit of an elephant in the room regarding the substitution. Cattrall is movie-star-famous and white. Dumezweni is black and is much less famous. And isn’t seered onto an unwilling public consciousness for playing a much-quoted American sex addict for ten series and two movies.

I was all for “colour-blind casting”, but I take my views under advisement from people who know more than me. In the case of “colour-blind casting”, I was very interested by Vinay Patel’s recent essay on Master of None. In it Patel lays out a stage-by-stage chart of ways that ethnic minorities can be depicted. Stage one is basically “grudgingly” and stage four is Main Character with full ethnically-inflected background (personally I’d propose a fifth stage, where ethnic minorities are so integrated in to mainstream culture that they can abandon it in irritation and start making “unwatchable” avant garde theatre, but...). Anyway, Dumezweni’s Linda is squarely Stage Three. That is to say, nothing about Linda’s background is specifically the experience of black women over fifty in Britain. It’s not not, either, if you see what I mean. In the casting here, Linda even has a mixed-race daughter from a previous relationship (and a white daughter with her (current) white husband) whom she lectures glibly about just ignoring racists. That is to say, the original casting can be read as colour-conscious (if that’s the opposite of “colour-blind”). A few years ago, I think I’d have applauded the idea that we can have a black actor playing a character on a British stage in a modern naturalistic play whose only issue with Britain was sexist ageism. Now, I’m not so sure. I mean, isn’t there an irony that in a play where the lead character protests the way that she gets ignored because of her age, that her race is *completely* ignored? Isn’t race a bit more of a live issue for everyone than this suggests?

Irrespective of all this, Dumezweni’s performance is powerful, compelling, watchable and also maybe more *likeable* than the script requires. Or maybe that’s good. Maybe that introduces an extra level of complexity.

I don’t really know what we’re meant to do with a play like this. The play itself is wildly judgemental. Or rather, all the characters in it are. And all the situations they find themselves in have not inconsiderable moral dimensions, even if those dimensions aren’t always considered by the characters. Dramamatically, it is a bit like a starter pack of ethical questions you might ask a child in a pupil referral unit to see if they have registered any traditional sense of right and wrong. Sure, in this modern world of rampant relativism on one side and rampant capitalism on the other, the fussy idea of “right and wrong” seems as mad, old-fashioned and reactionary as an Enid Blyton story, but there it is. I’m old. And possibly old-fashioned. I still think in terms of right and wrong. And, well, basically everyone in this play is wrong. All of them. The whole lot are completely selfish. Damaged, yes; unhappy, sure. But Christ, it’s heavy going spending time with them. Especially as what we’re spending time with is a compilation of all their worst moments and decisions. I had no idea what I was supposed to be getting out of having been introduced to any of them.

[And, yes, I realise there’s something obnoxious about someone as privileged as me saying, “Bleugh. I don’t want to watch plays about the awful people who choose to advertise cosmetics because I find their whole existence worse than pointless, and clearly counter-revolutionary”. In mitigation, I’m only saying it to playwrights, directors, artistic directors and designers. People, in short, who have also worked incredibly hard to ensure they never have to become senior advertising executives at cosmetics companies. People, indeed, who think that cosmetics companies are fair game for their allegorical satires on sexist ageism simply because they appear to be institutions that feed and feed off precisely this malaise. And, with that analysis, I’d tend to agree. What I find weird, is that, based on age and gender, we should nonetheless start to feel sorry for them when the ugly world that they’ve contrived to construct spits them out. If we’re really going to go to the logical end-point of this train of thought, we might as well be watching a play called “Poor Kapo” about a washed-up inmate-guard in a concentration camp.]

I also wondered a lot about the presentation. Es Devlin’s set seems to function as a metaphor for the problems of society, and also for the problems of this production. It is a glossy, white scupltural thing on a revolve, which – with many levels on two sides – presents a shiny kitchen, a shiny office, a shiny bedroom, another shiny office, etc. Apparently it went six times over budget. The idea of spending money you don’t have on perfecting a glossy, vacuous outward experience seems to speak directly to the core of the play. I mean, yes, the set did look great. And perfectly captured the horrible, bland, corporate meh-land in which its action is set. But. Well, you see where I’m going with this. Why perpetuate the awfulness? Why reproduce all the problems AGAIN and then make us spend time feeling oppressed by them? Doesn’t this play reinforce all these ideas? Isn’t it really a triumph of right-wing, patriarchal, capitalist propaganda?

The play seems to present Linda’s situation as A Classical Tragedy. What happens at the end is ambiguous, but it seems from the script as if she chucks herself off her expensive office’s expensive balcony, having tried to be both a mother and a successful advertising executive. The problem with this is that it feels like some sort of Victorian morality play. We’re used, in theatre, to seeing our tragic heroes undone by a fatal flaw. Linda has no such flaw. Arguably society does, but then, does it seem anti-feminist to suggest that actually millions of women actually do prosper and thrive? Even over fifty? “There aren’t enough roles for women over fifty” is a problem. But having the first high-profile play to address this having the central character being defeated by their age and gender was if those were their fatal flaw is a depressing remedy. It is simplistic to want these representations of women over fifty to be positive. But, if they’re not going to be positive, can their situation not at least be a bit more Richard III or Macbeth than just falling prey to a Daily Mail article about how a woman can’t have it all?

Also tragic is the fact that Longhurst and movement director Imogen Knight, who did such a spectacular job on Carmen Disruption have, for whatever reason, allowed their wings to clipped here. Is it cynical or fanciful to imagine that the reason is “commercialism”/“viability”? I honestly don’t know. But then, I don’t get “the public” or theatres’ perceptions of “what the public will wear” either. It seems to me that the British public often has better taste than they are given credit for, and that the possible avant garde version of Linda – the ripped apart, fractured, critical, antagonistic approach to the text, would have been a million times better (see also: A View From The Bridge, etc.). But, no, that’s not the production we’ve got. Which is a shame. Instead it feels like a cramped, self-fulfilling prophecy.

More than anything, Linda reads like a parable for New Labour. A decade ago or so, she was apparently having modest success in advertising, making things a tiny bit nicer for the world, while ignoring that the whole edifice in which she operated was absolutely rotten to the core and built on insupportable values. Now the edifice which she helped sustain has turned on her, another party is in the driving seat, and she sees that all the cosmetic progress she apparently made was entirely superficial. The problem was never “what sort of adverts?” after all, but the entire point of advertising. As such, on one level it’s even difficult to sympathise when a cruel system that she helped perpetuate has turned on her. There was never an attempt to address systemic injustice and the result is therefore that a lot of selfish people continue going round and round on their shiny white iceberg forever.

So, in answer to the cartoon. No. I completely support feminism. But the triumph of a feminism that only seeks equality of women and men within capitalism, and, less than that, no further social movement – so that upper-middle-class women will be equal with upper-middle-class, and working class women will only be equal with working class men – and a feminism that doesn’t also address the appalling racial inequalities still absolutely entrenched in every institution in our society is a pretty hollow victory. And I don’t think I believe that, just because I’m a white middle class man.

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