Talking Movies

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

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A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

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December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

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G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

September 24, 2013

Berkhamsted Revisited

‘Only beggars and gypsies say that one must never return where one has been before’ – Soren Kierkegaard

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Prof. Peter Evans and Dr. Fergal Casey

The annual Graham Greene Festival at Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) is about to kick off, so I thought I’d cast a belated backward glance at the 2012 Festival. I travelled to Berkhamsted at the end of September to collect two prizes in the Festival’s Creative Writing awards. I won best short screenplay for Sir Joshua’s Macaw, a comedy of bad art criticism, and best prose fiction for my comedy of workplace anxiety, ‘For Whom H.R. Tolls’. I had previously won the best prose thriller category in 2011 for my story of murderous identical brothers ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’.

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where two different branches of the extended Greene family lived, and Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though and returned to it imaginatively in the last decades of his life in books like The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival includes film screenings and gala dinners, and many talks by both academic Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his work. It has become a venue for launching new works of Greene scholarship, and having completed a PhD on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in 2007 in UCD such a milieu of intense discussion of an English Catholic writer feels very familiar.

I was aware of Greene’s great liking for Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill but had never studied Greene academically, remaining merely an avid reader and fan of works like The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man. I didn’t attend any lectures last year, but in 2011 I had the good fortune to hear Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, which was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. His patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own (occasionally mischievous) purposes was one of the most dazzling lectures I’ve ever attended.

A major draw of the festival’s programme for me was a day-long creative writing workshop with two of the judges of the creative writing awards, novelist Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and screenwriter William Ivory. The creative writing awards emulate Greene’s own range and include screenwriting, travel writing, and two prose categories – for fiction and thriller; much like Greene’s inimitable distinction between his novels and his ‘entertainments’. 2012 saw Lattin-Rawstrone and Ivory focus on Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man and his short story ‘The Basement Room’ to examine the importance of story and character in their talks on how to write convincing characters, who are then sent on meaningful journeys. The importance of tactile detail in communicating emotion was hammered home, as was the equal importance that when an important event befalls a character the reader should also viscerally feel just how important it is. The workshop includes an intense practical component in the afternoon. I did the screenplay option with Made in Dagenham screenwriter Ivory, who is a true disciple of Greene in his use of philosophical and theological concepts in his gritty screenplays. He also throws his pupils in at the deep end, plotting out an original movie scenario and characters from some pictures of actors; and then asking everyone to write a sample scene after some group discussion to fine-tune the characters and plot.

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Lee Langley and Fergal Casey

Away from this intensive writing in the basement theatre of Berkhamsted School (irresistibly reminiscent of UCD Dramsoc’s now lost LG1 space), in the Civic Centre I greatly enjoyed seeing on a big screen Lee Langley’s 1980s adaptation of Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ into the complex and tense film The Tenth Man starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas; not least as Langley had presented me with my Creative Writing prize in 2011 and the exhortation to keep writing. As an added bonus director Jack Gold was on hand to discuss the film, revealing some of Anthony Hopkins’ acting mannerisms along the way. Once all the prizes had been given out, the birthday toast proposed, and the talks concluded it was time for the Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School, with an after-dinner talk by actor Clive Francis. I had the good fortune to be seated for it alongside Cathy Hogan, a previous winner in the writing awards, and Dermot Gilvary, previous director of the Festival.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

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