It is 11 am. I am at work, up to my eyes in marking and up against the looming apocalyptic shadow of dozen deadlines closing in like ringwraiths.
My phone — which I probably shouldn’t have had so close to me or on which I should have had set self-obsessed book notifications turned off — lights up.
S_____ has tagged you in a post!
‘Dude, do people get really excited over there about a royal having a baby?’
What’s my reaction to a royal having a baby?
I’ve been abroad through a royal wedding, a jubilee celebration (Yaa-aaa-aaay. She’s still alive. And we’re still supporting her. Whooooo) and two royal births and haven’t been bothered enough to send two congratulatory shits as a wedding/Christening gift.
And if that sounds excessive, it is borne of the incredulity of a family, generation upon generation born and born again to abundance and plenty and disconnected from reality, continually supported by tax money and (and) by the tears, sighs and mental and emotional investment of thousands of supposedly thinking and rational individuals worldwide.
It puts me in mind of Woody Harrelson’s journalist character in the decent if a little worthy 1997 cinematic tendenzroman, Welcome to Sarajevo, who jadedly asks his British counterpart, played by Clive Owen, if the top British news stories of the day were indeed about ‘the duke and duchess of Pork, or something?… by the way, your queen… she’s the richest woman in the world, but what does she do?’
The comparison is apt. Sarajevo was getting the bejeezus bombed out of it. Hundreds of innocent Bosnians were dying and the British journalist’s network’s (I’m looking at you BEEB, hmmm?) main story was a royal divorce.
Not even the royal divorce.
Let’s compare for a second.
Right now — at. this. second — a self-obsessed egomaniacal billionaire with the temperament of a trapped wasp, the likeability of a route canal and the vindictiveness of the kid who realises they all only liked him for his expensive toys (because really who has that many GI Joes?) has the power to blow up the planet.
And probably several others.
And a moon.
And just last week, he got bomb happy. Our military dropped $50 million worth of missiles and explosives near to Damascus, killing dozens, but appearing to have resulted in a very expensive, but not bigly effective operation if the goal were to damage Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons.
I’m not even saying that there is a better solution to Assad or the moral problem about doing nothing while bad things happen to innocent people.
But isn’t a better solution what we should be talking about?
The Republicans have throttled the life out of the country while we’ve been distracted by our own garishly iridescent neon display of pomp and circumstance in an oversized suit. Isn’t it worse to add in someone else’s powerless head of state whose family has also been conferred wealth and power through no legitimate means?
Not so according to statistics and surveys stating that 23 million Americans tuned in to William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011 (okay okay I saw some of it. WTF was that weird gesture she had to make every time he waved to the crowd. Weird). 33 million watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. And 3 million US viewers currently salivate over the Netflix period drama, The Crown. One in four Americans has a favorable impression of Prince Charles and that number doubles when asked about Kate and Wills.
We were supposed to reject the monarchy back in 1776, but here we are, two and half centuries later obsessed and distracted by inherited privilege and aristocratic pageantry, both at home and abroad.
But to answer your question, dear compatriots, eh, a little, but only in an uncritical resigned acceptance that someone else has a lot of money and a lot of land at the expense of the rest of society. Then again many of my British friends are republicans (they vote for Trump? Those heartless bastards… hey waaait, obviously republicans here means supporters of a representative republic and an end to the inherited privilege of the monarchy).
And it’s not as though the royals are evil or unlikeable. Is that what we’re jealous of? We don’t mind inherited privilege as long as those with privilege are likeable and marry American movie stars? Prince Charles is a well informed environmentalist and Harry does immense charity work and referees basketball games. In New Jersey. (#Jerseystrong #Jerseyreprezent)
And I know everyone loves a real live fairy tale!
But must we lose our dignity to slavish, peasanty period drama envy? Can’t we acknowledge the validity of an archaic and outdated historical institution without getting our Downton Abbeys in a twist over it? Unless they’re giving us a day off to get squiffy drinking Pimms in the street with our neighbours toasting the royal baby or Harry and Meghan — which they’re not — can we just move on?
Well done to this BBC reporter for doing so, or at least being unfazed.
Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.
Flying back from Dublin. Self-satisfied and smug, having sourced a helluva deal on a return to Newark with Aer Lingus for the upcoming annual summer sojourn to the Homeland. I haven’t flown Ireland’s national airline across the pond in years. But they’re cheap this year and if the movie listings for international flights in Cara, the inflight magazine are anything to go by (I mean The Shape of Water? Blade Runner 2049? I don’t get out to the movies very often) as well as the generally pleasant, friendly and efficient service so far, the experience promises to be pretty sweet.
I must have missed a thousand pithy punchlines in the process of being starburst/chewy sweet peeler for the missus, I muse (the fecking things are wrapped so fecking tightly!). It’s my special job in the first and last half an hour of any flight while ‘er next to me winces in pain and looks — and probably feels — like that false explosive head in Total Recall that keeps glitching on ‘Two. Weeks.‘ as Schwarzenegger’s character is passing through Martian customs. I take a moment to mourn the lost inspiration as my beloved grits her teeth and grunts ‘for fuck’s sake keep the ’em coming! This is bloody painful!’
Just keep peeling…
In the last twenty minutes as we can feel the rumblings of the landing gear underneath, I excuse myself and my geriatric bladder in a 39 year old body to pee. I make my way shakily to the back of the plane.
Left restroom: vacant. Open door, squeeze in, side strut. Jump back promptly. Immediate horror. I don’t want to know who has used the bathroom sink in an airplane to wash their hair but they’ve left it clogged to shit and they’ve got the sense of accountability and the personal hygiene of a university freshman.
Leave. Unacceptable. I’m too old to accept standards like this in my toilet experiences.
Across the aisle. Slide latch. Open door. Side strut squeeze in. Latch lock. Sink? Not clogged. Good. But oh fuck.
But I grin. I bear it. I relieve myself, wash my hands, molar kernel incrementally moving back and forth like a stubborn pebble resisting the undertow.
Shudder. Open the door. Slide out and return to seat. Smile composedly and imitate normality to wife.
Resolve self to re-check British Airways flight prices when we get back within wifi range.
Relationships and love. These, not satellites or legislative chambers or oilfields, will be the battlegrounds of the 21st century. Everything else is detail.
All our worries about gender fluidity, violent impulses, a lack of understanding and a world constantly mediated through technology and an ever growing number of interfaces will come down to our ability to relate to each other and connect as people.
And that feels like the common and vital thread in the presentation of new writing by Islington based Underexposed Theatre in their current run at The Old Red Lion in Islington, in which they, as they state in their mission statement, ‘explore and challenge the overlooked stereotypes that exist in our society.’
There are a number of plays that poke gentle fun at post (and pre?) truth America, Gun Jr, affably taking aim (that one was intended) at the Gun Culture. It is fun and presents us with the not unheard of scenario of a boy who feels out of place in a gun-toting red blooded American family and yearns to be free to leave home and exercise his creativity being a chef in Paris. It is enjoyable, with Stephen Riddle’s energy driving the comic value and the hyperbolically fun nonsense of Trump-voting America to its highest level and most ridiculous as the broken hearted Mr Gun trying to convince his son to follow in the family tradition.
And although brighter minds than mine continue to ask if we have reached an age that is the end of satire, I don’t think the problem is the jokes we’re writing. I think it’s the fact that we feel out of targets. So we turn to the few that are left and presenting themselves as the easiest left to ridicule, the left. Although Joe Starzyk tries with ‘For The Love of Noodles’ to capture the craven ludicrous efforts of one hippy dippy couple to appear accepting of their daughter’s choice of partner, it already begins to feel stiff and a little done by the time the punchline (aforesaid choice of partner) walks on stage.
The piece that does manage to incisively present us with a poised and beautifully balanced portrait of the smug middle class is ‘Wholefoods’ by Charles Liepart. Set in the very gentrified location of a brownstone in Brooklyn, it is a subtly written dialogue between a young twentysomething coming from the gym via the titular organic hipster fave retailer and her young black neighbour. Although it begins in those very cliched parameters, both Sadie Pepperell, playing the Nora Helmer-like wife with a cagey sense of frustration and an utterly convincing sense of yearning, and her philosophical neighbour Malcolm present through a deftly constructed chemistry between them, a tension and a pathos for a woman who is as trapped as she appears to be privileged.
The second half really pulls us right into the moral heart of the stage though, with Gaby Curtis’ and Clare Langford’s ‘The Petal and The Orchid’ confronting us uncomfortably with a value judgement between the sexual victimhood and white privilege, boxing us into an impossibly uncomfortable choice from which, as in today’s so easily simplified headlines, there are no easy answers. Curtis and Rina Mahoney as the manager of a charity that works to improve the lot of vulnerable women in third world countries give utterly enthralling performances that draw us in for a rivetingly bitter exchange.
One of the cleverest gems of the night though was a gentle comedy written by Charlotte Stanton called ‘The Pit and The Pretender’, in which an apparently bitter and burnt out, whiskey swigging writer comes onto a radio show to promote his new book, agreeing to an interview by someone with whom he has history. Nick Pearse, and his commanding and energetic presence on stage make a welcome return to Underexposed and again, the chemistry between him and the charismatic Texan actor Rachel Scurlock (playing radio host Daphne) is pure magic. There is an intelligent and refreshingly heartwarming twist at the end that wraps itself into the audience’s hearts.
Oddly enough for a world so culturally focused on the Trump’s bombastic America these days, this night of theatre hits its highest points when it’s not aiming at perhaps the most bigly target in the world right now. Theo Hristov’s Coming To America is gut wrenching and full of conviction and the sledgehammer like blows it lands against the robotically bureaucratic Immigration officer denying the protagonist a visa to bury his mother with Kafkaesque abstraction.
But it lacks the humanity and subtlety of Richard Woulfe’s delicately gentle piece A La Carte, a meeting between a grieving man played with an intriguing and pathos inducing angst by Chris Pybus, and the man with whom his recently deceased husband had been having a longstanding affair. The waves of grief and the chemistry between Pybus and Edwin Flay make this piece a haunting contemplation of loss, desire and the attempt to fill the emptiness of the heart.
Underexposed’s night of relationship-themed pieces and the explorations at the margins and the in-between spaces of life is truly a compelling celebration that feels very now, is wonderfully smart and brimming with a well judged sense of humour, albeit sometimes a dark one.
See it at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington and later on in the year on 8 July at the Southwark Playhouse.