Essays: Belfast dreamer |
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Belfast dreamer

CROMWELL left so horrible a legacy in Ireland it’s no wonder the English should want the whole subject covered up. Perhaps only through fiction can they face the facts. This hypothesis was lent weight by I’m a Dreamer, Montreal (Thames), a sensitive and penetrating new play by Stewart Parker.

Bryan Murray, an engaging young actor, played Nelson, a Belfast boy who worked in a music library by day and sang with a semi-pro dance band by night. Filling his head with old songs and dreams of fame, Nelson tried to remain oblivious of his surroundings. But his surroundings wouldn’t let him. A bomb destroyed the music library. One of the band’s gigs turned out to be an IRA rally. The British Army hauled him in for questioning. The girl he had fallen for stood revealed as the mistress of a psychopath, who carved him up by way of discouragement.

Since the carving-up had been inflicted on his behind, Nelson had to stand up going home on the bus. It was late at night. He was the only passenger. The driver was singing ‘I’m a Dreamer, Montreal.’ Nelson told him the real words (‘I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?’) and the driver realised he had been singing it wrong all his life. It was too subtle to be symbolism, but there were grounds for thinking that Nelson had begun to work the difficult double trick of seeing things as they were and yet remaining unembittered.

The director, Brian Farnham, deserves high praise. Like Stephen Frears with ‘Cold Harbour,’ he transmitted the feeling of urban fright with such a delicate touch that you never felt you were being got at by anything except reality. A special nod should go to the casting director Rebecca Howard, who peopled the screen with depressingly believable looking hard cases. As the dream girl, Jeananne Crowley was just right.

Casting was one of the weak points of another interesting new play, Alma Cullen’s Degree of Uncertainty (BBC1). But Jennie Linden was excellent in the central role of Josie, a 37-year old mature student struggling to get a degree from a Scottish university while bringing up three children. At certain times Josie was struggling against some pretty stiff dialogue. Next time Alma Cullen might try to be less emphatic about making her points, which on this showing are strong enough not to need spelling out.

Josie was serious. Most of the younger students were not. Nor, alas, were some of the faculty, especially the soulful lecturer who, after he had grown tired of having an affair with her, shopped her to the examining committee for having an unoriginal mind. His was a character I would have liked to see further explored, since the ethical question involved is seldom touched upon.

Almost every university department I have ever heard of is haunted by at least one Lothario who sees nothing wrong with trying to screw the prettier students. The concept of academic freedom usually ensures that such conduct goes unpunished, even though it is patently unfair to the screwed and the unscrewed alike. Jennie Linden evinced the appropriate moral outrage.

The Serpent Son (BBC1) is a three-part series in which the Oresteia of Aeschylus is to be made available to the modern viewer in a translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. Only one instalment has so far been screened, so it would be decent to reserve judgment. But it is legitimate to convey one’s initial impressions. Among these is the impression that the heyday of the house of Atreus was an era rich in synthetic fabrics.

Denis Quilley played Agamemnon. Quilley has a classic face — i.e., finely chiselled and pugilistic at the same time. The two supreme classic faces of the twentieth century were conferred on Marlon Brando and the late Elvis Presley, but Quilley’s will do at a pinch. Unfortunately it was hard to stop one’s attention straying from his physiognomy to his apparel and coiffure. Dressed simultaneously as the Last of the Mohicans and the First of the Martians, he sported a Sam Browne belt, leather pedal-pushers, dreadlocks and a fringe. For the purpose of going away to the war and coming back afterwards, he was equipped with a suit of armour that strongly suggested American football. Perhaps the Trojan war had been transferred to the Rose Bowl.

Aegisthus also had a bulky carapace, which he seldom took off. It was studded with large nails, or small bollards. These made it very difficult for him to sit down. To prove this, the producer made him sit down as often as possible. The top girls looked no less remarkable. As Klytemnestra, Diana Rigg had a wardrobe of Pocahontas numbers for day wear. They came with a complete range of Inca, Aztec and Zulu accessories. But it was en grande tenue that she really knocked you out. The bodice of her evening gown featured a gold motif that circled each breast before climbing ceilingwards behind her shoulders like a huge menorah. It was a bra mitzvah.

Between the ruling class and the common people lay a wide discrepancy of income. While the aristos had obviously been dressed by Jap, Courrèges and Zandra Rhodes, the lower orders were clad in rags. These were not, however, ordinary clothes that through long wear had ended up as rags. These rags had been designed as rags. Male members of the chorus wore shaggy jock-straps and hairy plimsolls under their rags. Women members wore their rags arranged as lap-laps. Refugees from Alternative Miss World or the Eurovision Sarong Contest, they formed little heads-together backing groups while the men pounded out the rhythm with crooked staves. It was evident that there wasn’t a straight stave to be had anywhere in Greece.

But it was Kassandra who took the biscuit. Helen Mirren played her as an amalgam of Régine, Kate Bush and Carmen Miranda. In a punk hairstyle the colour of raw carrots and frock left open all down one side so as to feature a flying panel of her own skin, she did a preparatory rhumba around the set before laying her prophecies on the populace. ‘Now do you get it?’ she hissed, but she was too late. Klytemnestra had persuaded Agamemnon to peel down to his gamma-fronts and take a bath. Blood mingled with the Pine Essence. Fancy things were done to frame the image. The whole deal looked like a dog’s breakfast.

In the continuously intoxicating Life on Earth (BBC2) David Attenborough has reached the birds, by way of the reptiles. Among the principal reptilian attractions was a garter snakes’ group grope. Gang-banging each other compulsively, they curled and writhed in their hundreds. New garter snakes were born entire and joined in. But the Bad Sight of the Month was a chameleon eating a cockroach. It made a noise like a bottle of milk falling on a stone doorstep.

The Observer, 11th March 1979

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]