The (Scandinavian) Emperor's New Clothes?

Oh boy, I’m going to annoy some of you today.

It’s a question I keep asking myself so I thought I’d ask it here on the blog, to set the thoughts down and see how they might look in black and white.  It’s not a deep moral question – mine rarely are – but sometimes the more trivial questions can lead on to the deeper truths.  

Not this time, mind you, but never mind.

Why are we all watching Scandinavian Drama and, perhaps more interestingly, is it really as good as we all like to think it is?

Annoyed yet?  Hang in there.

Actually before I go on, I need to place myself firmly in this picture.  I love Scandinavian Drama.  Saturday nights, Beeb Four, I’m there with my can of beer, lapping it up (the drama, not the beer)  (well…).  So I’m not on the outside, looking in here, I’m on the inside_  you get the picture.

We recently finished watching ‘The Bridge’ and Patricia and I really enjoyed it.  This was more fun for me that The Killing if only because my wife stayed along for the ride instead of falling into a semi-comatose state within minutes of Sarah Lund appearing on screen.  So, yeah, we watched ‘The Bridge’ and Saga took a while to warm to and Martin was loveable but a bit of a dog and we thought we knew who did it but we didn’t really and it was all good.  When it was over, we looked at each other and we agreed that it had been good and then I went on Twitter and agreed that it had been good and then we met our friends and they had quite like it too (although don’t tell them the end cos they had Sky Plussed the last two episodes).  It was all good.  Roll on the second series.

Yes, but how good was it really?  Eh?

After it was finished, I got to thinking about an ITV Sunday Night series called ‘The Bridge’.  Two hours a week for five weeks.  We would watch it, sure we would, we would give it a good chance, but would we like it?  If it was the same story, the same script, the same quality of acting, would we similarly adore it?

I don’t think we would.

I think we would probably come to hate it.  We might find the characters over-simplified, we might bemoan the lack of sophistication in the script, the woodenness of some of the lesser character actors.  We might also worry about the promising sub-plots unceremoniously dumped along the way, the jarring tendency to incidental melodrama, the ‘Relationship 101’ approach to affairs of the heart. 

You get where I’m coming from now.  You’re getting annoyed.  I can tell.  I'm like that kid, in the crowd, shouting at The Emperor, "Hey, I can see your willy!" (Which, in Scandanavian Drama, is often the case anyway).

But, remember, I like all this Scandinavian Drama, just like you do.  I’m on your side.  Hell, I even wrote a whole blog thing about The Killing over here.  So please don’t shoot me, I’m just asking the question.  Sit down again for a moment and let’s think some more about it.

The answer, as it often is, is simple.

It’s Different.

That’s it, isn’t it?  It’s good but that’s not the main reason we migrate towards it.  We go there because it’s Different.  It’s a different world.  They speak a different language for a start but that’s only one thing.  All the actors are new to us, we’ve never seen them before, it’s like they’ve dropped from a different planet.  The landscapes are markedly different, cold and bleak and wild and cold and, oh, I said cold, and cold and cold and cold. 

Even the doors open the wrong way for Chrissakes!  It is Different and that’s why we, myself firmly included, love it so much.  It’s good too, if it wasn’t good we wouldn’t be there, we’re not stupid.  But it’s not quite as good as we may think it is, it’s the Difference that makes up for that.

I think the subtitles play their part too.  Obviously they contribute to the Difference but it’s a little more than that.  They simplify things considerably.  You’ll have noticed that the characters on screen often seem to be saying much more than the subtitles are.  They use each other’s names a lot and the subtitles hardly do this at all.  My pal Jason Arnopp has written an enlightening blog post on the art of writing subtitles for film, here’s a link.  Everything is pared down to the quick.  I think this becomes an attractive aspect of the Scandinavian Dramas too, this simplification of the text.  We get the pure drama without the embellishment of the everyday nuances.

I loved The Killing and The Bridge and I’m loving Borgen at the moment (I’m late to it, I know).  Borgen is sharp and witty but it’s no West Wing for sharpness and wit, yet is seem almost comparable because it is so Different.  That’s a little illustration of my point right there.

That’s it.  Now I’ll just read this back and see how it sounds.

Tak and goodnight.

Druid Murphy Starts a New Conversation on a Hot May Evening

Our waiter is all business and intuition.  “You’re going to Druid aren’t you?  Don’t worry we’ll get you out of here on time.”  Galway is proud of Druid and rightly-so.  Even the waiters conspire to assemble the audiences in a timely fashion. 

This evening was the opening performance of an epic run for Druid Theatre Company.  ‘DruidMurphy’ presents a cycle of three of Tom Murphy’s most acclaimed plays in a tour that will take them to New York, Washington DC and Tuam, to name but a few.  Tonight, I was lucky enough to be in the Town Hall Theatre (on time) to see ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ for the second time in my life.

‘Conversations’ holds a special place in my heart and memory.  When I met my wife-to-be in London, she was newly arrived there from her hometown of Galway and, before leaving, she had seen Druid do ‘Conversations’ in Flood Street.  She told me all about it and, when it finally arrived at the Donmar Warehouse in London, she brought me to see it.  Then she bought me a linen-bound edition of the text which I have here on my desk now.

I had to explain that.  I had to explain that I can’t really tell you about the performance I saw tonight as an isolated event.  I can only tell you about the amalgam of the play I saw over twenty-five years ago and the one I saw this evening.

For me, ‘Conversations’ is about many things.  It’s about going-away and coming-back, failure and embitterment, friendship and enmity, small town morals and big city vacuums.  It is, above all else, an utterly ‘Irish’ play.  More specifically, it is a ‘Galway’ play and the subtlety of the writing can make us believe that we actually know real people who are the actual doubles of the characters in this play.

I thought the original cast were Definitive and did not see how this (mostly) new cast could carry this play off again for the old-timers like me.  Indeed, for the first five minutes-or so, it was as if the Theatrical Ghosts of McGinley and Stafford hung over the characters as they assembled in the bar.  Not for long though.  Rory Nolan as Junior was the first to win me over.  God, he was so like Trish’s brother Enda, it was unbelievable.  (He wasn’t, really, I suppose, but Enda is Real Galway and so was Junior.. Real Galway).  Aaron Monaghan as Liam was simply outstanding.  His descent from marginalised compadre towards belligerent drunk was recognisable to anyone who has ever spent time in an Irish bar.  Like a Crumpled Pacino or a Displaced Bada-Bing Back Room Sidekick, he radiated shady dealings and dubious integrity.  He was a black hole for respect and affection.  A wonderful performance.

Garrett Lombard as Tom had the harder sell.  Tom is not the most likeable character but he is, perhaps, the one we most identify with.  He wraps himself in rhetoric and cynicism but the overriding fact of his existence is that he has failed and this failure has crept up and blindsided him and left him solid and lost in the corner with his borrowed newspaper.

Marty Rea is Michael, the returned friend.  He gets to deliver the killer line of the play, which I wouldn’t dare throw away here.  As a moment, it was extremely effective and Tom’s reaction to it was equally so.

The wonderful presence of Marie Mullen onstage gives this new production this deeper context of time passing.  Marie was here twenty five years ago too, being just a brilliant and funny as ‘Peggy’ as Eileen Walshe is now.  Now, however Marie plays this aged ‘Missus’ and the sight of her (playing older than she is) in Pat Leavy’s role is nonetheless our own personal sucker-punch of nostalgia and aging.

Garry Hynes directs the play with precision.  The sequential placing of pint glasses on tables seem almost musical at times and the choreography of chairs and cigarettes and money and drink is an integral part of the whole.

‘Conversations’ puts us in a place where a licence is granted not just to serve alcohol but to argue and berate and fight and curse and laugh and hate and love.  A place where you can finally admit that everything is ruined and without joy only then to wipe it all on the doormat on the way out the door to stumble home and perhaps come back and do it all again another evening.

‘Conversations’ isn’t always easy.  It’s preachy at times because the characters in it tend towards the preachy.  It’s rather bleak in its outlook and there is real sadness in so many of the characters therein.  But there is recognisable truth in it and that is always ultimately uplifting.

Congratulations to Druid for bringing back ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ with even more weight and depth and truth than it had twenty-five years ago.

And that’s saying something.

A Fifteenth Duck Variation – A Bit of David Mamet Fan Fiction

I like David Mamet very much.  He is, for me, the consummate playwright.  This week, I’ve been rereading one of his earliest plays, ‘Duck Variations’.  I’d like to read it aloud sometime with someone, I might get onto my old acting buddy Eamon and see if he would come out and play with me, 'have a little read-through.

‘Duck Variations’ is a two-hander.  Two guys sit on a park bench and watch the ducks.  They talk and sometimes argue about the ducks, their lives, and their relevance to their own lives and life in general. 

It’s funny.  It’s like a sort of a ‘Waiting for Goduck’.

There are fourteen ‘Duck Variations’ in all.  As with variations in music, they are all on the same theme (Ducks) but each takes a slightly different approach.

Given my policy of ‘blogging what I’m thinking about this week’, I thought I would mess-around-a-bit and try to write my own ‘fifteenth duck variation’.  Damn it all, if Harry Potter fans can do it, why can’t I?

Who knows, maybe David Mamet will come by and kick my sad little ass.

That would be cool, right?

(That ‘Less is More’ Thing)

George:  Well?

Emil:  Well what?

George:  It’s been a while.

Emil:  It certainly has.

George:  We ain’t getting any younger.

Emil:  We’re certainly not.

George:  You must have something.

Emil:  The Ducks?

George:  What else?

Emil:  Well.

George:  I knew it.

Emil:  It ain’t much.

George:  I bet it is.  I just bet it is.  I wish I came sooner now.

Emil:  Don't overexcite yourself.

George:  Tell me.  Tell me right now.

Emil:  The thing about the Ducks is.

George:  Yes? Yes?

Emil: The thing.

George:  About. Yes.

Emil:  I got nothing.

George:  What?

Emil:  Nothing, I got.

George:  All this time?

Emil:  All those years.

George:  Nothing?

Emil:  I know.

George:  It’s a crime.

Emil:  I know.

George:  Against Humanity.

Emil:  Against Duckdom.

George:  Against?

Emil:  Duckdom, I know.

George:  But wait.

Emil:  I’ve let you down.  I’m sorry.

George:  But that’s not bad, not bad at all.

Emil:  What?

George:  What you said.

Emil:  The ‘Having Nothing’?

George:  The ‘Duckdom’ thing.  Where have we heard that before?  When has it been spoken?

Emil:  I don’t know.

George:  Never.  That’s when.  It’s an original thought.  Right there.

Emil:  Are you sure?

George:  I have never been more sure of anything in my entire life.

Emil:  Really?

George:  Well…

Emil:  An original thought.

George: About Ducks.

Emil:  From me.

George:  Go figure.

Emil:  I know.

George:  Duckdom.  It’s good.

Emil:  I might have another.

George:  That would be difficult to believe.

Emil:  I was too shy to say, at first, but I feel encouraged now.

George:  To speak.

Emil:  To take the leap of faith.

George:  It’s inspiring, is what it is.

Emil:  Thank you.  You’ve raised me up to this place.

George:  And?

Emil:  And?  Oh yes.

George:  In your own time.

Emil:  Well.  All right then.  The Duck, in one respect at least, is like the very antithesis of the Iceberg having, as it does, over sixty-six percent of its body mass above the water line at all times.

George:  Hmmm.

Emil:  Well?

George:  Hmmm.

Emil:  What did you think?

George:  I preferred the first.  The Duckdom one.

Emil:  Did you?

George:  Yes. 

Emil:  Is there a reason?

George:  It’s like that thing.

Emil:  Thing?

George:  Less is More.  That ‘Less is More’ Thing.  You know.

Emil:  No, I don’t.

George:  You should look it up.  It’s good.

Emil:  I will.

George:  You should.

Emil:  You can count on it.

George:  Good.

Anyway, check out the original. It's obviously better. 

As a foot note, if you have a penchant for the art of two characters speaking to each other, you could do much worse than visit Jim Murdoch’s blog ‘The Truth About Lies’.  Jim uses his characters Aggie and Shuggie to ponder, in turn, each of the reviews his excellent books receive.  It’s a very funny device and very well done.  Click here for an example.

Good Art - Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown and Treaty – A Sort of a Review

It’s a point I consider often.  Art and, more specifically, how your appreciation of it can be enhanced by having some knowledge of the person who creates it.

I tend to think it breaks down in one of two ways and which way it goes largely depends on the Art.

If it’s not Good Art, then the knowledge of the person adds a specific burden to it.  A requirement to be kind, perhaps dishonest, perhaps kindly dishonest.  I know you, you’ve made Art, I don’t think all that much of it.  So what do I say to you?  I want to encourage you, to be your friend but, hey, it ain’t all that great.

That’s the downside.

The upside?  Well the upside far-outweighs the downside.

When you see Art done by someone you have some knowledge of, and it’s Great, and it’s Bloody Great, then the Art is enhanced a number of times over.  It’s wonderful.

I’ve never met anyone from the band Sweet Billy Pilgrim, not in person, but I’ve been talking to some of them for some years now.  Yes, of course I’m talking about Social Media, the wild animal that is as valued by its users as it is reviled by its non-users.  I’ve talked with some members of Sweet Billy Pilgrim quite a bit, enough to know them to be smart, funny, moral, deeply-human, talented, dedicated, grounded and, well… sweet.

In among a number of nice things people have recently tweeted about me, someone called me ‘unassuming’.  I think that’s a word that actually describes me quite well.  I don’t tend to ever assume much, especially in terms of friendships-and-such.  So I can only say I feel I am friends’ with some members of Sweet Billy Pilgrim and, without assumption, I hope they are ‘friends’ with me too.  So this, then, is a prime example of what I’ve been saying for some time.  That Good Art is that bit better when you know the Artist. 

Sweet Billy Pilgrim have a new album out called ‘Crown and Treaty’.  I like it very very much indeed and this liking is deepened by what little I know of the good folk behind the sounds.

Would I have found this album if we hadn’t ever exchanged words? It’s tricky to say.  Possibly not.  I tend to move in very restricted musical grooves - pretty eclectic, yes – but also pretty limited in its own way.  I like what I like and I am lazy about moving out into new musical realms.  This tendency is worsened by the fact that I don’t often like new things at first-hearing. It takes me time to adapt and fall in love with something new.  This also means that, when I find something I really like, I tend to cling to it and never let it go.  So, no, it’s fair to say I might not have found this album, not this early in its lifespan, at any rate.

And, supposing I had found it, and had not known any of the people involved?  Would I have liked it still?  That is much much easier to answer.  Yes.  I would have loved it.  As I do.  I would have loved it.  Because it’s Great, you see.  It’s brave and moving and engaging and inventive and I feel considerably better whenever I listen to it.

Bad Art by Friends can make you a slightly lesser person than you are.  It can make you practice avoidance and deceit in the name of friendship, it can bring you down.  Thankfully the converse is also true.  Good Art by Friends raises you up.

I suppose I should say something about the music rather than speak in fancy generalisations all the time.  That’s what the music-press do, isn’t it?  They draw comparisons and pick out moments to illustrate their points.  Sometimes reviews feel like an exam answer, “I think this and here’s the bit that made me think it.”  I’m not sure I am equipped to do that.  My response to music is not really set on a verbal level.  It’s the same with visual art.  I am sure there are words which would reflect my reactions.  I am even sure that I know those words.  I’m just not sure which ones they are or what order they go in.

There’s certainly a fun game you can play with this album.  A sort of ‘Spot the Influences’ thing.  I can’t help do it myself.  The music is so utterly original and yet it seems to nod, now and again, to things which have gone before.  I could sense Thom Yorke, in places, Tom Waits, Mark Isham (in early Wyndham Hill days), Pink Floyd, Blue Nile, on-and-on.  I bet you could find your own, if you listened.  Come and play.

Lyrically, too, it is beautiful.  Off-beat, informed and never-ever obvious.  I know more about words than music, perhaps, and this stuff gets me in that regard too.

So may I recommend this album to you?  Can I give it five stars like most of the real music reviewers have already done? Not because I’m trying to get a sale-or-two for people I know a little about or neither because I’m trying to ingratiate myself with them.  None of the above. Just because I like this album a lot and I think you might like it too. Seek out a bit of it, on YouTube, at the bottom of this post, or streaming somewhere and see what you think.

I have quite a number of online friends who I owe reviews to. Friends who, by continually making Good Art, and by my knowing them a little bit, make my life more full and more fun.  People like Jim and Andrea and William and Rachel.  I jumped to Sweet Billy Pilgrim because they are in my head now with their wonderful new music and it helps to write about what’s in my head. 

It always helps.

Lost My Sense of Humour

Love means nothing to a tennis player.
The Dirty Rat.
Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy’s really just a cat.
That horse’s face, it ain’t so fucking long.
I’ve lost my sense of humour now you’re gone.

Wing the Wong Number?
Fancy that.
That Chicken crossed the road cos he’s a Prat
What goes up a chimney down? That’s just fucking wrong.
I’ve lost my sense of humour now you’re gone.

Don’t ‘Knock Knock' me,
I’ll ‘Knock’ your bloody head
I’ll make you wish that you were bloody dead.
You’ll say ‘Who’s there?’ then find that it’s just me.
Then you’ll be ‘Funny Fucker RIP’.

That Young Girl from Madrid
can simply go away.
There’s no place for dirty Limericks here today
There’s no Tweetment or no Oinkment to put on
I’ve just lost my sense of humour now you’re gone.

Way To Go

There are quite a few photographs and they are good.

But words often spark more memories in me than photos do, so it’s important that I write down a few words, really just for myself, about Dad’s 80th Birthday Party which, as most of you know, we had about six weeks ago.  

I could do it privately and put the words in a drawer somewhere but this blog incites me to do my writing and to do it a little better. Besides, I like sharing my words with whoever cares to read them so this seems best, to me.

* * * *

I’m not usually the one who wants to celebrate anything. I’ll go along and I’ll generally love it but I won’t be the one pressing to organise it, to get it started. This time, though, I was right at the front of queue.  This one, I felt, was worth celebrating. Very few people, you see, had expected Dad to reach 80 years old.  There had been so much heart-trouble, so many operations, it just didn’t ever seem terribly likely. Yet here he was, smart and strong, independent and enjoying life more thoroughly than he had in many years.  It was something to celebrate for sure.

So, on the eve of his 80th birthday, we all gathered to eat.  “Let’s go to that usual place,” I said, “we all enjoy it and it will be perfectly fine.”  Some of the others wanted a bigger deal.  “That lovely place which overlooks the lake.  It’s a bit of a drive but who cares?  It’s an occasion.”  So we went there.  I’m so glad we did.  We had a private room, overlooking the lake.  The early evening was beautiful.  The fishermen in the group, Dad included, must have looked wistfully down upon the lake and the island and pictured themselves out there in their boats.  Even I did a bit of that and I was not one of the fisherman in the group.

The food was spectacularly good. If it was longer ago, you could be forgiven in thinking that I am viewing this evening now with rose-tinted spectacles but I’m not. It was only a few weeks ago and I remember it clearly.  That’s why I’m setting it down like this. So, yes, the food was very good. We had two tables in the room and there was much chatter and even photographing of each other’s dinners. That was new to me. In between courses, we went out onto the balcony to sniff the lake air and Auntie Della’s cigarette smoke, then we came back in for more.

At the end, Dad made a little speech. Can you believe the perfection of it?  He got to make a little speech. Nothing grandiose, he just thanked us all for being there and said how it meant a lot to him. Then we got pictures taken. He looks good in the pictures, happy that we’re all together and having such a nice time.  That’s what I think anyway.

We had started dinner early so, by eight thirty, we were on the road again, convoying back into town. The pub had set aside the entire rear section for Dad and his family for a few drinks and an open invitation, for anyone who cared to, to come and have a drink and say ‘Happy Birthday.’

They came in droves. People we see every day, people we hadn’t seen in years. Dad and Berney and Della set themselves up in a corner and sort-of ‘held court’ while wave upon wave of well-wishers landed, greeted, laughed and joked, remembered, then mingled among themselves and chatted and drank.

The pub laid on sausages and chips. If Jesus had them when that multitude showed up for his gig, he wouldn’t have needed any miracle. There was plenty to go around.  Soon the place was buzzing with friends and family, old work colleagues, neighbours, fellow-Rovers-fans and God knows who else.

Late in the evening, there was a big cake. It was a lovely cake. It showed Dad on his boat on his lake, wrapped up warm in his Rovers scarf, having hooked a friendly shark-like fish who was popping out of the blue water to wish him a Happy Birthday. The cake was much-admired then cut and enthusiastically demolished.  The noise levels got louder and then, eventually, quieter as the congenial evening slipped away from us. Dad enjoyed it all, his friends, the fun. I could always tell when he wasn't enjoying something, I always knew. He enjoyed this evening. He enjoyed it.

Sometime after Midnight, I had to go. I had to get back to my boys. Dad was still holding court in the corner, so I went over to see him.

“I have to go.  How are you doing?”

“Oh fine.  I’m thinking of going home myself fairly soon.”

“You should, you’ve done all you have to do now.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

It wasn’t the worst conversation to have had.

That’s all I know, first hand, until the morning.

I know he stayed a while longer. He needed to get a big black plastic bag to put all his presents in.  A bar man obliged. He brought them home and he and his daughters opened the presents and exclaimed over the thoughtfulness and kindness of people.

Then he got ready and went to bed, in fine form. He curled up and went to sleep.

And that’s how we found him in the morning. Curled up and asleep. Sometime towards morning, he had slipped away. He hadn’t been expected to ever hit 80, but, at midnight, he had. He'd done it so well we hadn't been expecting him to go.

I was glad I was there, that morning. Otherwise I never could have believed that somebody could die so peacefully. I would have thought there must inevitably have been some moment of pain or discomfort before you’d go. But I was there and there was nothing but deep sleep.  Deep sleep.

Even in the first moments of shock, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful way it was to go. To see everybody, share a last meal untroubled by any foresight, get to tell everyone what they meant to you. Celebrate, socialise, make plans for a little trip in the days to come and then go home and go to sleep.

I’ll have it that way too, please, when my time comes.