Talking Movies

November 25, 2011

Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley’s acclaimed one man show returns for another sell-out tour, playing short runs at the Olympia Theatre and the Civic Theatre.

Dooley has been performing this solo tour de force all over the world since 2003. Originally conceived as a 15 minute ‘Living History’ piece for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich it grew to its present length after the publication of Michael Smith’s 2002 book Tom Crean: Unsung Hero. We’re told at the outset that Crean never wrote a diary, unlike Scott and Shackleton, so that he was largely forgotten in histories of the polar expeditions of his two iconic commanders until the last decade. Dooley creates for us a version of the man from Annascaul, deriding Corkmen in a broad Kerry accent, mixing stoicism with wit, and demonstrating the unwieldy gear worn by the polar explorers as they dragged cumbersome supplies across the ice.

It’s surprising to see the much ridiculed Captain Scott being depicted with so much affection as a brave taciturn man, who sends Crean back from the final suicidal assault on the pole by muttering about Crean’s bad cough rather than telling him directly that he can’t go on. The personalities of the ship are well conveyed, from the unpopular officer being chased by a leopard seal who finds his subordinates cheering on the seal, to the young officer who sensationally admits on the trek back from Scott’s final base that he made a navigational mistake, and what’s worse made it three days ago, before belaying Crean’s obvious impulse to retrace their steps with an equally suicidal decision to keep going, and ski down an uncharted slope. The later discovery of Scott’s tent and the frozen bodies of his final team makes for an unexpectedly moving first act finale.

The second act relates the ill-fated voyage of the Endurance, which showcased Crean’s courage and remarkable physical stamina. Shackleton, the wry commercial mariner from Kildare, is less cripplingly class conscious than Scott of the Royal Navy, and his priority is keeping his men alive once their ship is crushed by pack-ice as their original simple plan is scuppered by ruinous events. Dooley downplays Crean’s heroism in volunteering for an expedition in a modified lifeboat that had about as much chance of succeeding as Captain Bligh finding dry land after being thrown off the Bounty. Instead he’s adamant he volunteered because trying to keep peace between mutineers and loyalists on the island base would have driven him demented.  Shackleton seriously states “I’m afraid I don’t know much about sailing” as they sail away towards South Geogia, but somehow Crean survives to marry and open his own pub; so that every morning he starts working at The South Pole

A fascinating insight into unsung heroism at the ends of the earth, recreated with warmth and humour, this is top notch theatre.


July 12, 2011

New Approaches to Richard Yates

I delivered my paper ‘Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’ to the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference held in Goldsmiths University of London in June last year. With that paper since revised and submitted as a journal article, I thought I’d look back at the illuminating proceedings organised by Leif Bull and Catherine Humble.

Saturday 5 June

Plenary Speaker: Jo Gill (University of Exeter)
‘“The Important Thing Was to keep from Being Contaminated” –
    Suburban Malaise in the Fiction of Richard Yates’

Session 1: An Old Fashioned Realist

‘The Metarealism of Richard Yates’
Leif Bull (Goldsmiths University of London)

‘What’s Wrong with the Suburbs: Living the Dream Down Revolutionary Road’
Catherine Humble (Goldsmiths University of London)
Session 2: Revolutionary Road on the Big Screen

Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

‘Undermining Hollywood: Richard Yates’ Project of Exposure’
Kate Charlton-Jones (University of Essex)
Session 3: Suburban Dreams

‘Generational Confusion in the Work of Richard Yates’
David Fernley (University of Nottingham)

‘Liquid Lunch: The Collapse of Capital and the Rise of Suburbia and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Yates, West and Ellis’
Dean Brown (University of Sussex)
Summary Note: Leif Bull
Richard Yates’ long and shameful neglect by a modish academia is thankfully coming to an end and this conference demonstrated that far from being easily dismissed as a ‘mere realist’ there is in fact rich grounds for many critical schools in the work of the Yonkers native. Indeed it was striking that even though a number of us covered the same text, the inevitable Revolutionary Road, our papers all approached it from radically different angles. Plenary speaker Jo Gill noted the language of disease used by Yates to describe suburban psychological malaise on the part of men and women in Revolutionary Road and a number of other texts, and incisively located this in both the explicit health concerns behind the rise of suburbia in post-war America and the coded racist concerns about desegregated education post-1954. Catherine Humble gave a rigorous Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of Revolutionary Road that saw the infamous symbolic picture window receive appropriate scrutiny, as well as bringing out the difference between Frank’s rebellion, satire of society without change, and that of April. I read debts to the high modernism of F Scott Fitzgerald into Revolutionary Road’s temporal fluidity, ironic tone, characters with shifting identities and ambiguity of plot, while examining how Sam Mendes’ film simplified precisely those elements to achieve Hollywood realism. Dean Brown placed Revolutionary Road in continuum with The Day of the Locust and American Psycho and dazzlingly contextualised the progress of the rise of credit consumerism contemporary to each text allied to decline in self-generated identity in their characters.

Other speakers focused on other works with equally kaleidoscopic approaches. Leif Bull examined Disturbing the Peace and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness to show Yates’ blending of objective reality and literary history delivering satirical black comedy with an emotional weight and meta-textual awareness that anticipates the new postmodernism of DF Wallace. Kate Charlton-Jones used the short stories ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ and ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ to illuminate Yates’ abiding concern with the damage done to people by imitating cinematic archetypes which amplified a simplistic political message of hope and re-invention. David Fernley persuasively used Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, and Young Hearts Crying to rescue Yates from being a spokesman for the 1950s by showing Yates satirising in his work characters who foolishly fossilised themselves in constructed generational roles. Richard Yates is not just a realist linked to his time. He can be subjected to hard-core theory, explored for modernist currents, located in the material realities of his time, and read for meta-texuality and characters that resist easy categories. Richard Yates studies, long delayed, is here in force now…
Goldsmiths College is located near enough to Greenwich on the Tube for a Master & Commander fan like me to connive to stay in Greenwich and exult in the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, looking at old ships, old naval clocks, and even the coat Nelson was shot in. If you’re staying in Greenwich I highly recommend the lovely (and highly literary) B&B where I stayed, No 37.

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