Thursday, 30 June 2011

you say you want a revolution, well, you know...

I've wanted to see Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley for years; that the chance should finally come after a period of immersion in Clifford Odets felt apposite. If Odets' Group Theatre plays are songs of a certain socialist innocence, Wesker transposes those songs to a key of experience. One of Wesker's characters, Ada, finds the place that Odets longs for in Golden Boy – where poverty is no shame, where there's no war in the streets – but she finds it in a rural isolation with her husband. Pained, even poisoned, by a sense of betrayal, Ada's disillusionment with socialist endeavour makes her vitriolic: she decries the girls she works with as “lipsticked, giggling morons”, and the “splendid and heroic working class” men that her husband fought alongside in the Spanish civil war and second world war as animals with no sense of social conscience. She just doesn't care for them any more. Everyone in the theatre laughed at Ada's barbed fury, but I can't think why, unless it's only me who frequently shares such feelings of misanthropy.

Where Odets calls for free and equal love between two people, Wesker is interested in that care we can share more widely. Ada denounces her mother Sarah's “stupendous, egotistical audacity” for thinking she can care for society at large. But it's Sarah who is the most sympathetic character in the play: indomitable, enthusiastic, faintly annoying Sarah, always bustling and fussing, needling and nagging. Her final speeches in the play are extraordinary: I could feel her hand gripping my wrist and dragging me into kindness, conscientiousness and solicitude.

So I'm still a communist! Shoot me then! I'm a communist! I've always been one – since the time when all the world was a communist. … But it's different now. Now the people have forgotten. I sometimes think they're not worth fighting for because they forget so easily. You give them a few shillings in the bank and they can buy a television so they think it's all over, there's nothing more to be got, they don't have to think any more! Is that what you want? A world where people don't think any more?

Dominic Cooke's production at the Royal Court is odd, and not just because it didn't live up to that five star review from Michael Billington (I had the same problem catching up with Clybourne Park in the West End). A scene will be electrifying in its liveness – and then suddenly the plug gets pulled and it becomes inert, every word, every gesture, leaden with contrivance. The first instance of this came early for me: the opening scene, when the characters prepare to march against Mosley's blackshirts, was so vivid and exciting I wanted to climb on stage and grab a flag myself. But something goes wrong when the characters start naming comrades killed in Spain: it ought to be desperately moving, but the moment of contemplation and sorrow is so deliberate, forced even, that I ended up squirming at the staginess of it. The awful, awful, there-for-the-sake-of-argument scene later in the play between Sarah and Monty, now a greengrocer in Manchester doing very-well-for-himself-thank-you, was redeemed only by the fantasticness of Bessie's 1950s catalogue-girl outfit: from the top, ruffled curls and slick-backed ponytail; red lips; mint-green jumper; flared skirt with, naturally, poodles frolicking across it; patent leather heels. Sigh. (Secretly, of course, the thing I love most about seeing plays set in the early mid-20th century is the chance they give me for ogling frocks. I spent a lot of time at Rocket to the Moon trying to work out the construction of Belle's dresses with a view to copying them at home. Sarah isn't nearly so glamorous, but even her dour yellow jumper/brown tweed skirt combo from the first scene was covetable to me.)

I saw Chicken Soup on Tuesday and woke up on Wednesday with a hankering to listen to Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump for the first time in ages. It wasn't until I heard myself yelling along to the chorus of The Crystal Lake – “I've got to get out of here, I've got to get out of here and find my place again, I've lost my place again” – that I knew why. It's an entire album about feeling out of kilter with the world and your times, searching for an alternative but not being sure that the alternative is a solution, feeling disappointed with people but horribly lonely without them. There are, of course, no answers. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep on fighting, keep on searching.

As a postscript: I appreciate that there is some irony in the fact that I've written this on a day when people across the country are striking in protest not only at specific Conservative policies but the very repugnance of Conservatism. I should be out there joining in; instead I'm at home, being self-indulgent. I'm doing what is in my heart, but is that enough?