Thursday, 31 August 2017

Dolly Would – Summerhall, Edinburgh


Oh look, 2016 Fringe First winners Sh!t Theatre again. What is it this time? Oh, is it unemployment? Is there a crisis? Did the government do something wrong again? No, it’s a show about Dolly Parton. We f*cking love her.

Which leaves me in a difficult position. I mean, I f*cking loved Sh!t Theatre’s Letters To Windsor House last year. I even wrote a ridiculously personal review of it, based mostly on my uncle. Sadly, I don’t have a single family member I can pull out of the hat with even the slightest connection to Dolly Parton. And my own acquaintance with her pretty much begins and ends with this cover of ‘Jolene’ by the Sisters of Mercy.

Mercifully, this being Sh!t Theatre, the piece gives critics a fair bit of room for speculation. The thing itself – as with Windsor House – is a kind of investigative reality travelogue, this time to the Dollywood theme park that Parton bought a share in and rebranded for herself and her fans in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This narrative is intercut with repeated fragments from interviews with Parton (some absolutely breathtaking male-chauvinism); digressions about Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep; a bunch of stuff about (inevitably, apparently) breasts; Parton’s secret-not-secret lesbianism; and Pigeon Forge’s other merch-laden “tourist attraction” a “body farm” where donated corpses are allowed to decompose forever in various states, presumably for the researches of CSI types and etc. All this feeds into ideas (as discussed in the Jen Harvie podcast) about mortality/immortality, Parton’s signifiers and signifieds, her semiotics, the idea of it being possible to be “more Dolly than Dolly” (as exemplified by the fact she entered herself into a Dolly Parton-themed drag contest and lost). These themes are carried on through the clone sheep Dolly, and a question of whether reproduction diminishes quality (the Sh!ts never quite get as far as quoting Benjamin, but they might as well).

Matt Trueman links this tendency to Andy Warhol – and I don’t disagree. But for me, the unshakeable image here was that of Donald John Trump, 45th President of the USA. I mean, sure, Parton seems as much like a force for good as a theme-park owning, self-merchandising singer in the genre of white supremacist music can do, but... y’know, it’s still “Country and Western,” isn’t it? Essentially: music for lynchings. (Don’t get me started on my “all folk music is essentially fascist” thing, we’ll be here all day.) It feels like a strange year for self-ironising, big-haired blondes anyway, right? Trump seems to spring from the same school of turn-self-into-brand; so is Parton basically the prolonged period of shelling before Trump’s over-the-top assault? In some sort of cultural studies meltdown, I’d say she probably is. Never mind that her Imagination Library apparently gives books to 35,000+ registered UK children; until relatively recently, we had actual libraries in the UK. Sure, books paid for by an American country singer’s private philanthropy are better than no books at all, but equally, it’s not exactly socialism either...

So, yes; I had quite a few thoughts during Dolly Would, most of them probably unrelated directly to what was going on in front of me, and a lot more related to the terrible catastrophe that is the world today. (There you go, Sh!t Theatre; you can put whatever you want on stage, I’m still going to see a depressing version.)

So, it’s not scientific, what I was thinking, and it was probably a somewhat overdone train of thought for a piece that seeks (on the surface at least) to be no more than eccentric, likeable entertainment. But that idea that you can’t switch off ideology is an annoyingly persistent one. And, while Parton herself might be Capital at its most benign and charitable, Dollywood seems to me to be a horribly prescient vision of Trumpland...

[Would end by quoting something out of that Sontag essay on kitsch if I had a copy to hand, but I’ve got a vague feeling she’s not nearly as hardline as I’d need her to be anyway.]


Paul said...

Ewan McColl? Woody Guthrie? Pete and Peggy Seeger?

I'm not sure what folk music you've been listening to but therein has been some of the greatest socially conscious music created, initially rising from within the working class and being the soundtrack to socialism from William Morris onwards.

Andrew Haydon said...

Exceptions that prove the rule? But, no, you're right; as theories go, it needs work.

Although, without linking to anything by Johnny Rebel through to Death in June (not to mention the 1975 album, Johnny H Cash), it's not an impression I just made up.