Saturday, July 26, 2008

Black Watch / Dark Knight

I saw Black Watch at the Barbican on Thursday. After all the hype, it was either going to be brilliant or unbelievably disappointing: and I'm happy to say it was brilliant! Theatrically, it was very exciting, with a wonderful blend of movement work into stylised fights, song, flying, video.... but what was truly invigorating about the piece was the way in which all this theatricality was employed in the service of a deeply humane politics. I've seen plenty of "the Iraq war is a bad thing" plays, most of which seemed to me to be stating the obvious. What was terrific here was that this was already taken to be the obvious - the consensus "back home" that this was "the worst western foreign policy disaster ever" was simply taken as read - and that freed up the production to talk about the human truth of the war. And so the play is less about Iraq than Fife: it's about male identity, about community and bonding, about belonging and about loss. I was reminded of Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme - in both plays, it becomes very clear that for the soldiers at least war is less about your enemies than your friends.

By way of contrast, the movie of the moment was my cultural fare for Friday night. The Dark Knight has much going for it - it's exciting, it's visually amazing and it's got Heath Ledger in it - and Nancy Crane, who was in Dis-Orientations crops up as a Nurse, no doubt earning far more for a few lines than she did in her entire time with us! But, as usual with Hollywood, the politics are very disturbing. Christopher Nolan's Gotham is far more recognisably New York than was Tim Burton's - and it's a very contemporary New York at that, with much imagery of burnt-out sky-scrapers and crowds running for cover: this is America post 9/11. The Joker is several times described quite explicitly as "a terrorist" - so it's particularly disturbing that, for all of Ledger's whizz-kid performing, he is given no motive. Indeed, Michael Caine as the butler and the "voice of reason" deliberately tells Batman that this enemy has no motive, but simply wishes to destroy, that he is evil. This has been the constant attitude of the right to the perceived Islamist threat, and it is a deeply dangerous attitude because, like the Joker's make-up, it de-humanises the "enemy". Add to this the fact that Batman invades the mobile phones of everybody in the city - and that when Morgan Freeman puts the civil rights case the plot proves that such freedoms are only taken from us for our own good by our wonderful leaders... and the whole thing starts to look suspiciously like an apology for the Bush regime.

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