Wednesday 31 August 2016

Post-fact Postcards: History, History, History – Forest Fringe at Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

[seen 17/08/16]

I first saw Deborah Pearson’s History, History, History as a one-off, one-hour scratch performance last year at Forest Fringe. This year, it’s a one-off, one-and-a-half-hour, “finished*” piece, showing at Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema (in which I’d never set foot before).

The basic set-up is that, prior to emigrating to Canada, Pearson’s grandfather was a Hungarian film star, and played the title role in a big-budget Hungarian wryly satirical comedy caper about a fraudulent pen salesman who is mistaken for a famous footballer.

In this version of the piece, Pearson plays the whole film – much of it on the vast cinema screen behind her, as she sits at the front of the auditorium with a desk and a mic. Variously she shows the film in its original form (with English subtitles), then, there are points where the proper subtitles are replaced by a much funnier made-up meta-commentary – seemingly made by the Hungarian-speaking stars of the film about the situation in which they find themselves. Then there are point where the soundtrack is replaced by a tape of Pearson’s mom doing a live translation, and other points where an audio of conversations with her grandmother are played. Sometimes the film even departs the screen altogether, onto a little screen on Pearson’s desk, and is replaced on the main screen with lo-fi documentation, pictures, photos, drawings, etc. all telling the story of how Pearson’s grandfather and grandmother fled Hungary in the wake of the 1956 revolution.

And I do think the whole is marvellous. But, here in “The West”, we have a pretty firmly established dual-relationship with “revolutions”. On one hand, we romanticise them (particularly when they've revolts against "our" ideological enemies); on the other hand, we firmly abhor them, and “recognise” that successful revolutions “inevitably” lead to worse violence than whatever is being overthrown (mostly whenever they're mooted as a possibility here, or against US client states). This is perhaps due to the deliberately ideological teaching of a very partial world history. [The success of Cleisthenes’s overthrow of Hippias, the tyrant son of Pisistratus, and the foundation of Athenian democracy, is, for example, strangely absent from our mental list of notable revolutions.]  Interestingly, through her very North American enthusiasm for “democracy”, and her somewhat rosy view of Hungary’s history (“occupied by Germany in WWII” – not really; Hungary’s ruling fascist party allied itself with Hitler’s Nazis well before the German invasion of Poland... etc.), Pearson allows us to at least partially understand Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to crush the anti-Soviet uprising in 1956 so violently. When you consider that Hungary was one of the fascist countries that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the brutal response to [what could be read as] a reactionary, anti-communist putsch becomes infinitely more understandable, if not necessarily forgiveable (there were, after all, a lot of murders). And, I’ll admit it, this bugged me. Much more than it should have done. Yes, yes, I know the Soviet Union wasn’t perfect, but the implied preferability of nations *actually founded on genocide* still rather sticks in the throat. It’s interesting, too, that her grandfather returns to Hungary a few years later.

The piece itself, however, is a complete delight. It’s funny, witty, insightful (caveats about Hungarian history (and indeed the complete absence of its near-fascist present) notwithstanding), and perhaps introduces many to a fascinating sweep of history. There is also the interesting fact that, in accordance with her grandmother’s wishes, Pearson doesn’t say anything bad about her grandfather. So there’s also a level of transparent self-censorship in the piece itself. Given that this is a piece about a man starring in a not-very-well-disguised political critique of Hungary client-Communism, this is an intriguing extra level of irony. I would love to see the uncensored version. Perhaps that’s the uncomfortable thing here? Watching a piece that’s at least in part “about censorship” which itself self-censors. Perhaps the inferred equivalence teaches us something uncomfortable about the totalitarianism of the family? An ideal model in which to learn about loyalty and things that will remain unspoken.

I’m not going to defend the Soviet Union, but in the current febrile atmosphere of (elsewhere) unthinking and hysterical condemnation of Russia, I find pieces like this worrying. These attacks on Russia (while not baseless), seem also to have the effect of projecting an idealised version of Britain/Canada/USA/The West, which is at odds with the reality of life in these countries under their present regimes.

[Basically: sure, the Putin administration does some ugly things, but, Christ alive, so does the Obama administration. I’d rather not have to go to war with 143 million Russians because both sets of leaders think it’s unavoidable.]

*I’m sure every Forest Fringe artist rejects the notion of “finishedness” as a concept, etc.

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