Monthly Archives: January 2012

Film Review: Creation


I suspect most people wouldn’t have heard of the film Creation – I just caught it in October 2009 before it was taken off and replaced by An Education which no doubt contains more popular subject matter.  Starring Paul Bettany,  Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch, Creation explores the relationship between Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his wife Emma Wedgwood (Jennifer Connelly – also real life husband and wife).  The film could have been another crude portrayal of the division between religion and science but it was not, owing to Bettany’s excellent way of delivering his inner questioning of God and genuine turmoil about what belief in God actually constituted.  His family’s world falls apart when daughter Annie dies – his wife turns to God even more devoutly while he wrestles with science even more fervently and the age old arguments of evil and suffering are explored.

It is a complex film in that little is explained, and the flashbacks of Annie can be confusing but overall do a clever and effective job at showing Darwin’s troubled mind.  His guilt and doubt result in his being ill and seeking advice from the specialist Dr Gully, in the form of actor Bill Patterson (another reliable actor appearing in Little Dorrit and Criminal Justice).  He is a jolly, optimistic character but just when you least expect it, he turns around and says, firmly, to Darwin: ‘You say you don’t have religion; that’s all very well…but do you have faith?’  I smiled to myself and was warmed inside at the film’s intelligence and risk taking.  Darwin and his wife have their own ‘religion’ but does that give them belief and moreover, does it give them life and belief in themselves?  To bring it bang up-to-date (not that the film needs qualification as it is relevant to a modern audience) an American film actor said something very similar: ‘You spend so much time chasing staying alive, you won’t live.’* It is ironic that Darwin is concerned with the origin of life but struggles with living his own.

Yes, the film is a cry for the human spirit to understand that faith in God is not about dogma and never challenging tradition, but it also takes a step further and translates the problem of trying to do away with either religion or science into the need for humans to look at themselves and their relationship with others before trying to tackle God.  You think you are going to see a film about the ‘supposed’ division between science and religion but discover that the film is about the far more devastating difference between religion and faith – far too many of us have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.  Darwin’s marriage comes to breaking point when they seemingly hit the point of no return because of their diverse views but when it comes down to it, the doctor’s question about faith takes on a whole new meaning and the message of the film is that what applies to their marriage can also apply to religion.

Neither of them – Darwin or Emma, have faith in themselves because they spend their lives feeling guilty about the loss of their two children (another dies after Annie) and knowing that this is probably because they are first cousins.  Religion divides them like it has done in the world ever since time began.   After they admit how they feel about themselves and each other (that they have hated themselves and each other) they find unity within their difference, realise how much they love each other and the marriage survives.  Their marriage is a model of how our world might be and is something the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks talks about in his book ‘The Dignity of Difference’.  Difference is a gift and humans have it within them to seek unity within this.  The film is about what it is to believe and believe in life, not whether or not there is a God.  Out of much turbulence comes a real love and appreciation between Charles and Emma for what one gives the other: the subject matter is science and religion but also the human condition and how we might get over not so much the barriers between these two faculties but the barrier within religion itself, which so often stems from the fragmented nature within the human person, and disconnecting God from love for one another.

*Patrick Swayze – you may only think of him as star of Dirty Dancing and Ghost but he should also be remembered for what he said about ‘real life’ too.


Film Review: The Way


Some films have those ‘one-liners’ in the script that aren’t lived up to by the rest of the film’s contents;  ‘The Way’ is certainly not one of those films.  “You don’t choose a life.  You live one” is the quote on the film’s poster and said in the film early on by the character Daniel – played by the film’s Director Emilio Estevez – son of Martin Sheen in the film and in real life.  (Martin Sheen’s real name is Ramon Estevez – he is half Spanish, half Irish, with an American accent).  Sheen plays Tom, an eye doctor in California, but is called to walk The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) after some tragic news.

The film starts out as Tom’s painful journey but quickly becomes the journey of all who join him – including those in the cinema audience – their pain, their search for themselves, their frustration with each other.  Tom’s 800 kilometre walk to reach the cathedral is also the walk of many other pilgrims – some who join and stay with him – much to his annoyance at first.  There is the overweight, excitable and ever supportive Dutchman Joost, the depressed, sensitive and empathetic Canadian Sarah (who herself has a tragic story which she realises is not so far away from Tom’s) and the very talkative, seemingly scatty (he is far from scatty) Irishman Jack who has writer’s block (James Nesbitt).  And I think ‘seemingly’ is an important word here – all the characters are quite private (apart from maybe Joost the Dutchman who appears uncomplicated) about why they are on the pilgrimage – they discover bit by bit about each other and in turn learn why they themselves might be there.  What binds them is their kindness to each other and the fellowship they share – often unknowingly.

The journey they end up doing together is none other than inspirational and very moving.  Accompanied by an amazing soundtrack featuring Coldplay, David Gray, James Taylor and Alanis Morissette  it quickly makes you feel lucky to be alive because of the unusual sense of ‘realness’ the film creates.  These four travellers (I call them seekers) are not on the surface religious and don’t talk about God very much but visibly display enough sense of inward emotional struggle with themselves and their purpose in life to make the viewer feel that they are everyman.  Most of all the unbreakable chain of friendship that grows between them is hugely moving.  Tom pushes them away as he struggles with his pain and self-blame but they never desert him.  They stand by him, often coming to his rescue.  By the end, the introvert Tom tells Jack (Nesbitt) to write his book truthfully – tell it as it is – something Tom would never have said at the beginning.

Tom contemplates his journey

The film is a fable of journeys lost and found, of fractured lives being rebuilt and of understanding that although we are all unique people, we share the same tears, fears and need for a listening, non-judgemental ear.  At one point, Jack the Irishman says to Tom that he (Jack) needs to get back to the real world – Tom’s reply indicates that he himself is now questioning why this journey is not the real world or at least why it cannot be part of the real world?  Just because it has been labelled a ‘religious’ journey – it has been no less a journey, and we each make those every day of our lives.  You get the feeling that after they have reached the goal – the awesome Cathedral at Santiago – they go their own separate ways.  It seems a shame, but reinforces another of the film’s messages that it is the fleeting experiences in life that often mean the most – the challenge is to take the feelings created by them and the people that helped you and lived with you during those fleeting moments, into the rest of life.

You feel that whatever the pilgrims were searching for, they found it – just look at the expressions on their faces once at the Cathedral (particularly Nesbitt’s).  If they thought they were searching for nothing, they were given something unexpected.  An Oscar winning actress recently said that the arts are where people go to when they need their broken hearts mended – this film is an example both in its art form that does this and in its subject matter.  Whether or not you believe in God, I’d urge you to see the film – it is a tapestry of honest human experience and preaches nothing other than making the most of what you have, who you have around you and to laugh with them (the film made me laugh and cry in equal measure).    Another of the people Tom meets along his journey says that what he is participating in is nothing to do with religion, but something beyond.  By the end of the film, you understand what this is.

Dancing your Way to Truth


One weekend in August 2009 I was fortunate to spend a Saturday matinee at the Victoria Palace watching ‘Billy Elliot’ and a full day Sunday with theatre company Frantic Assembly doing a workshop on Physicality.  Both events tied in brilliantly, unplanned.  They both stated two things.  ‘Billy Elliot’ is resounding in its push for the arts and the expression of every human (within the context of the arts and outside it).  The workshop echoed this (though it wasn’t articulated verbally) and we all ‘moved’ our way into being ourselves.  Lee Hall (book and lyrics for Billy Elliot) says: ‘whilst we might not all become ballet dancers we are capable of finding moments of real profundity and creativity whatever our circumstances.’

You can only work with what you’ve got.  Acting, like dancing, is about being, and bringing your own truth to a part enabling you to explore a character.  If you’re not yourself before you try to be someone else, the character you are playing will be false, unreal and ‘performed’.  Performing is only the term we use for expressing a character – in visual terms, it is like wearing a mask but if the face underneath isn’t settled, relaxed and grounded, the face won’t be able to keep that mask on.  This is my metaphor to show how I perceive the difference between acting and being.  Billy sings in the audition he goes to for the Royal Ballet when asked how he feels when he dances: ‘I can’t really explain it.  I haven’t got the words.  It’s a feeling that you can’t control.  I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are.  And at the same time something makes you whole.’

For me, body informing emotion is particularly effective.  Billy Elliot not only shows one boy’s desire to succeed in this particular art form but the show is such that it transforms emotion into dance and we feel that, amazingly, this is organic and not rehearsed (which it obviously is of course!).  When he can’t move on in his dance practice because of the obstacles of the miners’ strikes and his family’s inability (financial and emotional) to support him, his frustration is articulated in his feet and this is incredibly dramatic.  ‘All art comes from terrific failures and needs that we have.  It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected.  Art is a way of recognising oneself.’  (Louis Bourgeois,, an art psychotherapy website).

The activities with Frantic Theatre encouraged me to work from movements – automatically encouraging a theme or emotion to develop: it’s actually a two in one deal – move in the space and whatever you need to establish will happen and no one will have imposed it, least of all yourself.  Then put it together with a partner and you have a scene without a word of how to construct it.  It is the most natural way into theatre and in fact mirrors life – one doesn’t plan how one reacts, one just does; using your body to initiate this in theatre compiles a planned scene which has been reached by an unplanned method.

I can’t finish the article without a quote from Elton John, composer to Billy Elliot: ‘The show demonstrates everything I love about the power of art.  It can inspire you.  It can transform lives.  Art can make you look at life in a way you never have before.  And it can take you to places well beyond your wildest dreams.’

Searching for the Real


It is ‘awards season’ and I always get excited during this time. It’s not the dresses or even who ‘wins’ but because I am genuinely pleased that good, wholesome films, plays and musicals are promoted all over the media and it is likely many people will see them. It is a time when stories with a message or a theme may affect people. The film industry is glitzy and not tangible to most people, but when the red carpet of drama presents subject matter that is about everyday life as well as major historical events, it is a triumph.  I found the awards season in 2010 particularly interesting in what it made us think about…

Those who control the industry are wedded to the idea that people want to pay money to escape from their lives, and that is often true. But sometimes new vitality in the cinema depends on the notion that real parts of life – real characters, real language – can rise up before the viewer and just sweep them away. They are knocked out by the novelty of seeing something deeply true, deeply recognisable, making it into the mythic reality of cinema for the first time.’ (Andrew O’Hagan, The Evening Standard, 29th January 2010). The film Precious rightly had a list of Oscar nominations to its name and unsurprisingly took the USA by storm. Mariah Carey, who plays the Social Worker of the girl Precious, is more ‘real’ in this acting role than in her day job as a pop singer. Paul Hunter of The Fahrenheit Twins Surrealist Theatre Company, says: ‘I much prefer a theatre where I say “We are hot and sweaty and this is hard work and I can see you and you can see me.” And that often can, oddly, be much more real than real life, where so often you have to pretend to be someone you’re not.’ (The Metro, 23rd September 2009 – well done Metro for printing this in a newspaper that is read by the London commuters often caught in the unreality of their own routines).

The fascination for me is how this is true of many actors: the theme or message they communicate on the screen or on the stage is more realistic and honest than what is communicated, or what is acceptable to talk about, in so-called real life. Ironically, within the framework of pretence and under the label of fiction and entertainment, we are presented with a picture of how people really are. I was in America when The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock was released and the critic Jim Ferguson from ABC-TV commented ‘A true story that’s so good, it seems like fiction’ (quoted in The New York Times, 24th December 2009). We’d do well to pay attention to ‘story’ in whatever format it is told and in whatever art form.

Scene from Precious (Precious with her Social Worker)

It seems that it takes creativity to bring us to our senses but is ‘creativity’ so very external? I will try to answer this. In Channel Four’s series The Bible: A History, various well known people are looking at faith in the modern world. I was particularly interested in Howard Jacobson’s episode (24th January 2010) where he was investigating creativity and religion. He said he wanted to access the imaginative necessity that drives people to believe and concluded that mystery, uncertainty and doubt were the very elements that make creativity: creativity roots us in our own drama. Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks goes further and says it is man’s search for God that is the driving drama in the Bible. Jacobson seemed to be saying that it was the creative process one goes through to find faith that is important and what one then does with this. He says: ‘Novels matter…because they show how each individual life feels to the person living it. Until we are able to enter into another’s understanding of himself, we are imaginatively deaf and blind. Not to be sure is not cowardice…not to be sure might very well be where you arrive, intellectually, after a lifetime of troubled and conscientious thought. In our unstable and too, too brutal world we need more people willing to admit they are unsure, not fewer.’ (Radio Times, p.31, 23-29 January 2010). I can’t do the programme justice here so it is worth seeing it if you can to see and hear philosopher AC Grayling and others.

So it strikes me that the ability to ‘wonder’ is key to our existence to be meaningful. As Jacobson illustrates, not to explore or to search is synonymous with not having an imagination and we can’t live without this. My point? The institutions of Belief (all religions) and the institutions of the Arts are more closely related than we think – the entry audition to both requires one element: imagination. I’ve explored this in previous articles so won’t go on too much here, but if we don’t search, we can’t ‘be’, and therefore don’t give ourselves the permission to be ourselves. And the searching (for what is real) is what makes good drama because it is an ongoing process. Children do it for the first few years of their lives and then they become teenagers and adults and forget how to play. They act ‘grown up’. I love the quote from the American actress Fanny Brice, 1891-1951, (famously portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl) who says: ‘Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then who are you?

Sir Richard Eyre wrote an article in The Independent (13th November 2009) giving us reasons why the arts are necessary. ‘The arts… are part of our life, our language, our way of seeing. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and each other and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don’t…Just because art doesn’t look or sound like we expect it to, it may be precisely why we need it – because it uncovers new meanings…There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art – as there is in every human. In art, reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy the chance to be commonplace. What’s human is unique, it can’t be digitised. The art of theatre is an expression of that humanness: it’s an art that can never dispense with its reliance on the dimensions of the human figure; the sound of the human voice, and the desire to tell each other stories.’

Art uses what is real and what is present: the human person, takes us into the world of pretence or ‘out of the ordinary’, in order to bring us back to what is real, or in the words of Bruce Springsteen, make us feel the impact of our own existence. Anish Kapoor said on Imagine (BBC1, 17th November 2009) that an artist doesn’t set out to make something beautiful just as the artist doesn’t set out to make something spiritual. But it does happen, and whether it is spiritual is to do with space and actually having very little to say. Kapoor doesn’t have a great ‘message’ to communicate from his work but he does dare to go where he does not know and hopes the audience dare too.

We don’t just need to explore what we know. Artists (of all art forms) are interested in the unconscious. The artist Odilon Redon says: ‘My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.’ One could replace the words ‘music’ with ‘drama’ of course. It is the unknowability of something that makes it interesting, as Eyre endorses above. Even if our questions are not answered, we need platforms from which to ask them and perhaps it is consolation that the ambiguities remain: to go back to the start of this article, it is the search that is important as this is what creates the journey – the journey being possibly one of faith or just a greater sense of what is actually real. Once an actor grasps what is real he/she can then communicate this in the ‘make-believe’ setting of the stage or the film set.

To finish, I will talk about the exhibition ‘Identity’ which was on at the Wellcome Collection in London (April 2010). There are eight rooms focusing on nine lives and one of these is the actress Fiona Shaw. There are two groups of actors. The first group believe they are the character they are playing, sometimes off stage too. The second group ‘just act’ with their true selves remaining, with a detached view of the impersonation they give. Shaw falls into this second group; she is a transformative actor – she says ‘the ones who can reveal something about the world that they could not as people.’ Her acting is, she says, a gradual process of ‘becoming herself’.

Courtesy of Prospect Magazine

So we have come full circle – we become real by exploring the unreal or the intangible. If we can do this or watch others do it, I do think we can benefit our individual lives as well as the world on a wider level: ‘Great civilizations are measured not by the rise and fall of businesses or the changing tides of commerce, but by the art that distils the tenor of the time and the spirit of the people. Our world is marked by upheaval and uncertainty, and the art that is being created today is challenging, reflecting that anxiety.’ (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Oregon, USA)

Imagination and the need for Creative Space


The London School of Economics Literary Festival is relatively new – I attended for the first time in 2010 and having heard just how many subject areas were covered in a short space of time I hope to attend the one in February 2012. In this article I plan to review the areas of the two talks I attended, showing how they had a natural relation to drama and possibly belief/spirituality.

‘The Imagined Mind’ was a joint talk between the Institute of Social Psychology and the Department of Anthropology, focusing on the need for imagination, now more than ever before in the digitised world we live in. In the world of Developmental Psychology, research shows that adults have strong emotional reactions to the untrue, e.g., fictional films. Such genres help us to develop our moral judgement.

For this kind of moral development to take place, therefore, we need an imagination: we use fiction to consciously or unconsciously help us make moral decisions and judgements about real life situations. It is through images that we explore other minds – fiction in theatre, film, art and literature provides these images. The author William Fiennes (author of The Snow Geese and The Music Room) explained that in his view there is no need to divide creativity and science. The more specific a story, the more general its message because we all draw different things from it – this, he said, is the transcendent aspect of story, whether the written word or performed word. Likewise, the Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach (author of Bodies and Fat is a Feminist Issue) explains that the analyst has to study her/himself in order to reflect on the patient. One must watch the mind being aware of itself. Every moment in fact is both a real and imagined one because we don’t see things all the same way.
I think this is the same process in theatre and faith.

It could be said that our minds have begun to work like the gadgets we use in society – our minds can be like computers, categorising into groups, and we find ourselves less able to cross-pollinate. We are in fact constrained in the world of ‘free choice’, simply because the creative space between ourselves and the outside world is vanishing. A commercial world has taken over and we face ‘prescriptions’ on how the body is, not what it might be (Dr Sandra Jovchelovitch), and the only medium left which gives us space (and indeed where space is a necessary pre-requisite) is the arts. Being able to interpret gives possibility, even if we discover some uncomfortable truths. As Thomas Dewar says, “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

‘Theatre of Action?’ was the second talk, given by theatre director John Caird (RSC, National Theatre, musicals such as Les Miserables) and playwright Matt Charman (‘The Observer’). The talk focused on the political nature of theatre in its search for truth. Caird cited the Preface to Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant’, 1898, as his springboard: “The theatre is growing in importance as a social organ. Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches; for modern civilization is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church. Public and private life become daily more theatrical…”

Caird’s belief is that one can’t look to the church or politics for the truth because both always have an axe to grind that isn’t the truth. Good theatre however does not have an agenda so can provide this kind of guidance because it is able to debate with itself about what life could be – a bit like the mind needing to have a conversation with itself in Orbach’s illustration above. Great plays trouble and confuse – they celebrate ambiguity. Charman points out that audiences do not want answers, rather they want an accepted space to ask questions. In Howard Barker’s superb book Arguments for a Theatre, 1989, he takes this further and says: “A braver theatre asks the audience to test the validity of the categories it believes it lives by…”. Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Hare’s Plenty tackle idealism but neither comes loaded with an agenda and instead they allow the audience to step in to the character and make them wonder what they would do. Each member of the audience has to imagine what it might do and this is what makes political theatre.

In an article on the film director Michael Moore (controversial because he offers truth), Andrew O’Hagan writes: “Moore has built a global audience by remembering one of the basic premises of cinema: it was not invented to sedate people (though it very often does) but to inflame them … It’s worth remembering that when he was a child, Michael Moore wanted to be a priest, and as a film-maker, and as a character on film, he is full of evangelical brio. He wants to tell the truth, and part of the joy of his film outings is in watching the efforts…that corporations will go to in trying to shut him up.” (Evening Standard, 26.3.10, pp.34-35).

Similarly, Sebastian Shakespeare in his article If a film is good, must it take pains to be true?, focuses more on the psychology that “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth” (Picasso) and illustrates again the need for imagination and for the audience to do the work – it’s not about the actors and writer (and could be likened also to the church and its congregation: it’s not just about the Bible or priest but what the listener does with the words): “In the end it doesn’t matter whether a film is true or not, it only matters whether you believe it to be true” (Standard, 5.3.10, p.15). Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter if the words of the Bible or a sermon are true or not (I happen to think it does matter but this is another article) – I am however talking about the psychological process and saying that being ‘truthful’ is different from the truth.

I’ll explain: The Hurt Locker, for all its Oscar glory, was said to have portrayed EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) troops wrongly. It is however a brilliant film and director Kathryn Bigelow deserved that recognition. In many ways, however, Avatar and District 9 are more truthful as they engage with geo-politics, oppression and exploitation, through the giant prawn figures in the latter and the blue creatures resembling humans in the former, in a metaphorical and allegorical way. The fact is, “the plight of the Na’avi is being replicated all over the world, from the Amazon to Angola”: we know the victims are not blue and flying on huge bird-like creatures, but we also know that we ourselves are destroying the planet and this message is even greater in the film because of the fantastical way it is told to us. It is simply a paradox not only that drama can be more truthful than anything we consider non-drama, but that “our imaginations are the nearest we can get to reality” (Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target, 2002).

So long as there is humanity, there will be need for drama, in the many ways it can happen.  After Avatar was released, statistics show that there was an outpouring of depression from people.  This is no coincidence.  People quite literally wanted to be part of that world of Avatar and not the one we all live in.

Bertolt Brecht said ‘Ghosts’ became irrelevant as soon as syphilis became curable. The play is not about syphilis Mr Brecht, and as Samuel Beckett replied, “You are human and there’s no cure for that.”

Film Review: Everybody’s Fine


The trailer for this film is provocative: ‘Sometimes the only way to get the truth is to go out and find it.’  Actually, that statement couldn’t be more truthful.  The film is one that makes you think ‘one day this could well be me’ – as a child dealing with an ageing parent and as a  parent, dealing with your children who  have grown away from you.   Frank played by Robert De Niro, recently widowed, invites his four children round to dinner.  De Niro quickly becomes the dad figure most viewers could identify with – warm, kind and realising that he hasn’t always been right, and desperately now wanting to do the right thing.  But, having done the shopping and bought the best wine and steak, his children one by one ring him to give their excuses.  Everybody is not fine – although Frank’s children do not want him to know really what the main problem is.

He begins the journey of calling upon them one by one and not telling them he is coming.  On his way to see David, his artist son in New York, we see him embark on the first of a series of long train and coach journeys – it’s on these journeys that the reality of his life is shared with strangers.  We learn that he worked with telephone wires – the bold irony being that communication is his family’s biggest problem.  These lines become an essential metaphor throughout the film – conversations are had amongst three of the children about Frank and we learn the real story about David through them.  As Frank reflects, the lines are ‘his work’ (his day job while the children were growing up) – he put the PVC coating on them but those closest to him can’t use the connection the lines provide to be honest to him.

David is not at his flat – Frank leaves a note – and catches sight of a striking watercolour by David, in the gallery next door.  He proceeds on to Chicago to see his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), ‘high up in advertising’ – only to be greeted by her son Jack: ‘I’m online’.  De Niro, this time everybody’s granddad, replies ‘ok, you do your thing’ in the most understanding of ways…don’t we all just take our grandparents for granted and then regret all the lost time with them.  He can’t stay long at Amy’s (she has to fly to see David in prison in Mexico of which Frank knows nothing and makes some other excuse).

Frank does not have any deep words with Amy, but his sadness at the station when he leaves is easy to see.  De Niro has a super expressive face and is superbly natural emotionally – it’s easy to forget he’s acting.  He journeys on to see Robert in Denver (the very convincing Sam Rockwell) whom he believes to be a conductor but in fact learns is ‘only’ a timpanist.  Robert hints that dad always expected too much: he saw his children in certain careers and is now struggling to see them as life has turned out.  But, the film is too intelligent to lay blame over lack of communication and lost dreams on Frank – he is simply the parent who wanted the very best for his children, felt he never really knew them as they only talked to their mother, and now realises that most of the time things don’t work out as planned.  And, Robert sees this and they part (Robert again making excuses as to why he can’t spend time with him) on good terms, with Rockwell looking on conveying all too well the realisation that parents get old and the time you had with them will never come again.

Frank’s final stop is Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer in Las Vegas.  On the way, there is what I found, a heartbreaking scene in the subway when Frank gives some money to a seemingly homeless young man only for this to backfire and his medication is stamped on and destroyed.  De Niro, by now showing visibly hurt signs of feeling rejection from his children, conveys the vulnerability of age and loneliness.  But he is determined and is cheered, temporarily, on arrival in Vegas to see Rosie flourishing in the dancing career she dreamed of, with a lovely apartment…and a mysterious baby who she tells Frank is her friend’s.  Barrymore, out of all the children, is the one who most relishes the time with her dad and it is Frank who takes an early exit and must return home to restock on his medication.

One of the most poignant devices in the film is the use of flashback – when Frank sees each of his children for the first time, he first sees them as the children they once were.  Then suddenly they are the successful adults they have become but with the baggage this has brought.  By the time Frank leaves to go home it is clear that all is not well to him and he doesn’t make it home but instead has a heart attack on the plane and finally, in his hour of need, the children are at his bedside when he wakes, to tell him about David.  The news is worse than he could ever have imagined.

The film is not sentimental or over-done in any way – the performances are grounded and real and you feel that this is how it is for many a family.  It is De Niro’s film however and he doesn’t make it hard for us to have empathy with him as dad, granddad, widower and man suddenly feeling he has lost touch.  The ironies are bold – perhaps too bold some would say – the telephone wires he has been a part of and which now don’t offer comfort or honesty, the fact that his children all work in the creative and ‘communication’ industries but tell him little…but these ironies are used well and make a seemingly light-hearted film very meaningful and all too realistic that it is the younger generation who have lost touch with their older generation, not vice versa.

Puppetry as Reality in War Horse and beyond: why the Arts are important


The idea for this piece of writing came from watching the extraordinary stage production of War Horse at the New London Theatre in 2009 (now a major film), followed by a lecture at Central School of Speech and Drama with the South African Handspring Puppet Company (HPC) – the people behind War Horse when it originally played at the National Theatre.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of the HPC, believe puppetry has something particular to offer to a contemporary audience.  Most people acknowledge that the moment Joey the horse walks on stage in War Horse is a moment of awe, enchantment and often making them cry.  Kohler and Jones discussed the philosophy of this – why does an inanimate object make us emotional?  How is it that puppetry is so perceptive?  Because a puppet is a lifeless object longing to live.  It is an inanimate figure trying to live – and actually although we are not dead, we too do this – we are living on and off stage, but we often lose our presence and immediacy.  ‘Absence of being in the moment’ in life could be described as not exactly living.

A puppet’s struggles are essentially the same as ours – we live but we need to be authentic to be truly ourselves.  The puppet is a verb, not a noun.  Topthorn (Joey’s companion in battle for so long) dies – is this a puppet or a dead horse?  That puppet has already lived and we now believe this, and have been living its world with it, so it has transformed itself and our imaginations.  The audience works to make this meaning – the audience is the author.

The most interesting aspect of HPC’s philosophy is ‘Puppet as Deity’.   Although there is a lack of belief in God around these days, there is a religious impulse which resides in puppetry.  Kohler and Jones comment that theatre does in this in general anyway, but puppetry does this in disguise.  The puppeteer is a priest to the horse in the way that the puppet is used to illustrate the situation (as a priest uses bread and wine to tell a continual story).

It strikes me that puppetry is a search for an unknown language of emotions and the mystery of human nature (if you see War Horse you will understand) which faith also presents to us.  It is no accident that Handspring Puppet Company came out of a culture where the need for a shared language was sought, and it was well received in South Africa where human language was not always uniting black and white.

Why is it that it was a boom year for theatre last year?  People don’t acknowledge it, but most of us seek something which we can’t name.  What we can’t name can, by default, feel unreal – so therefore, should we bother to seek it?  Well, yes.  It is my firm belief that there is more truth in the perceived unreality of make-believe than there is in the hard reality of life.  Whether we like it or not we all have imagination and this is not an accident – this is the thing which makes us human.

The artist Chagall says: ‘All our interior world is reality – and that perhaps more so than our apparent world.  To call everything that appears illogical, ‘fantasy’, fairytale, or chimera – would be practically to admit not understanding nature.’  Years later, Salman Rushdie says the same: ‘If you grow up in India, you grow up surrounded by magic being a normal aspect of literature.  You realise that kind of writing is just as capable of getting to serious, truthful human realities as realistic writing is’ (The Metro, 13.10.2010).

Chagall painting

You find that most actors have something to say about the meaning of their job.  Kevin Spacey’s dedication to the Old Vic (rightfully gaining him a CBE) is because he believes culture is ‘the magic of life’ – a generator of economic as well as spiritual wellbeing (The Evening Standard, 4.11.2010).  The artist Paula Rego says that she tries not to ‘do art’ but rather ‘tell a story’.  Like any good acting, the intention behind it is what makes it truthful: one acts the situation, not the emotion.  And like the actors, it seems the audience feed off the stories – why has ‘The King’s Speech’ been such a hit (other than Firth and Rush being terrific)?  Because it is a story of the obstacles which we all have within ourselves which we think will stop us achieving and being the human we want to be.  The arts have this capability of being completely universal in meaning.  ‘It’s important for society to be able to reflect itself through storytelling.’  (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Guardian, 7.11.2010).

Cumberbatch in War Horse the film

What is tangible is not always what is and it is not always the solution to our living well.  There were a series of talks in 2010 at St Paul’s Cathedral on Death, Happiness, Love and Suffering.  In all four, similar themes came out: we are fixed on having, not being.  The USA and the UK spend more on advertising than any other country in the world; we also have the most cases of mental illness.  Revd. Mark Oakley, on one of the occasions, talked about the ‘perversion of Descartes’ which is ‘I’m seen, therefore I am’ (rather than, ‘I think, therefore I am’) – he established something very disturbing: ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.’  Who benefits?  Nobody.  We are in a world of instant information – everything is graspable – which means nothing is graspable because once we have something we realise we don’t need it and it doesn’t make us happy.  There was a case in the press recently of the man who had 541 friends on Facebook but not one of them realised he was dead.  As George Eliot said, the texture of wisdom is different to that of information, yet it is the former we lack.

When we see or feel realness, we feel a jolt: we are out of the zone of information and in the zone of deeper wisdom where something we can’t pin down has got to us.  It’s not for nothing that Frieze Magazine in Contemporary Art and Culture brought out a complete issue in November 2010 entirely devoted to Religion and Spirituality (Issue 135).  Its opening article, ‘Believe It or Not’ by Dan Fox brings together a lot of the above:  ‘Art is a faith-based system.  Religious conviction is taken to be a sign of intellectual weakness, and yet meaning in art is itself often a question of belief.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides.  Why does the search for some kind of spiritual fulfilment in secular art persist?  Is the idea that art has nothing to do with faith or religion just a lie we tell ourselves to hide the fact we crave something to believe in?’ (pg. 15).

But nor do I believe that we create something because we ‘crave’ for it.  I think the ‘something’ is already there – it is the thing we can’t pin down so tend to think it doesn’t exist since it’s not tangible.  The arts are a way of manifesting what doesn’t easily come to the surface naturally.  I mentioned ‘The King’s Speech’ – explicitly it’s about a public man who stammers – but implicitly it’s about an obstacle that makes him feel inadequate.  I can think of many paintings and sculptures that display explicitly a scene, but actually are about a bigger universal theme.  I think of Vaughan Williams’ music and it so vividly describes the English countryside as it was (and still is if we look after it) but it reaches further also to evoke a time of great loss of life and heritage (i.e. two world wars) which will never be tangible again.  The people and that way of life are gone.

Call art, music, dance and drama, signposts, but I think they are more as they contain meaning as well as pointing beyond.  Likewise I think the way we illustrate faith is very similar.  Unfortunately belief about God is more complex (and I actually find talking about faith hard as everyone gets so offended these days) but if you think of the Bible stories, yes they are about something, but always point beyond to a larger theme.  Every good sermon does this.  ‘We still rely on artists, curators and critics to act as interpreters of contingent meaning, aesthetic creeds or art world ‘ethics’, just as rabbis, imams and priests do.  People go to galleries on Sundays instead of churches.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides’ (Dan Fox, Frieze Magazine, pg. 15).

Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

In conclusion, I come back to War Horse and puppetry.  Joey and Topthorn are many things: lifeless objects with no emotion until moved by a human, living beings which move humans to tears, not only taking us back to a catastrophic time in human history but reminding us of our vulnerability and our own capacity for evil.  The puppets move, and work with our imaginations to make us feel compassion for all the horses that received horrific injuries and died.  So, quite clearly our imagination in this instance is not to make something magical into a truth – it is the reverse – portraying something truthful in a magical setting (the stage).

We need these arenas that the arts provide therefore – to do precisely this: present something which is truthful, in a truthful way (i.e. story) through the medium of imagination to show us that just because something isn’t immediately graspable, doesn’t mean it is not there.

Peter Brook in ‘There Are No Secrets’:

‘Truth can never be defined, nor grasped, but the theatre is a machine which enables all its participants to taste an aspect of truth within a moment; theatre is a machine for climbing and descending the scales of meaning…Theatre is an external ally of the spiritual way, and it exists to offer glimpses, inevitably of short duration, of an invisible world that interpenetrates the daily world and is normally ignored by our senses.’