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Saturday 25 February 2012

Help With The Ironing

When I was young I loved to act. Ophelia in Hamlet, Margaret Roper in A Man for All Seasons … even Caliban in The Tempest. I had what my father called ‘the acting bug’ and for a time seriously considered Drama School against University.

In the end I chose the latter. Part of growing up is working out what suits you. But my past interest also explains why I am occasionally struck by admiration for – or doubts about – a performance I see.

I should be clear here. I admire an actor like Bruno Ganz. I have been a fan since the wonderful Marquise of O, Eric Rohmer’s version of Heinrich von Kleist’s short story. Ganz is probably most famous now for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, a version of Hitler’s last twelve days in a Berlin bunker.

It is hard to conceive of what he went through to play this role. Raging, banal, pathetic –the performance is also good for what it does not do. There is no poetry, no mad grandeur, no catharsis. In short no MacBeth.

But there are some horrendously revealing moments. For example when Magda Goebbels, brilliantly played by Corinna Harfouch, decides to kill her children because she cannot bear the thought of them living in the world that is coming. She doesn’t quite look at what Hitler has been reduced to, but shifts her eyes just a little towards the bunker wall as she spouts loyalty to the ‘dream’ that was.

This projection or third element in a scene is very powerful.

Yesterday I was reminded of this when I heard someone mention the reaction to Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady. The gist was that nobody had attacked Bruno Gantz for playing Hitler, and that some of the reactions were against the ex-prime minister herself.

Like the speaker I was not living in the UK when Mrs Thatcher was in power. I do remember members of the Miners’ Union visiting Spain to raise funds during the famous strike. And I know my father loathed her.

Worse, I haven’t even seen the film. I have however – it is hard to avoid – seen various clips of what is at the least a remarkable piece of mimicry on Ms Streep’s part.

Now one of the reasons for my father’s dislike was Mrs Thatcher’s manner and voice. He regarded them as hectoring and affected. This has something to do with British political and social history. Edward Heath had done something similar - that is, acquire a tone and enunciation that, say, Sir Alec Douglas-Home had not had to acquire. Heath and Thatcher had both, as it were, stepped up from fairly modest beginnings to a fruitiness beyond that of mumbling toffs. A few years later Tony Blair – and many others – would go the other way and shed the sounds of privilege.

So I was struck in the clips by Meryl Streep’s third element – Mrs Thatcher’s own projected view of who she was and what she represented. I don’t know that it will win her an Oscar. Viola Davis has also portrayed an aspect of American social and political history in The Help.

Yes, I played Viola in Twelfth Night too.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Viva La Pepa

In exactly a month’s time, on March 19, celebrations will begin to mark the 200th Anniversary of a Spanish Constitution colloquially called ‘La Pepa”. This is because March 19 is the feast day of San José (Father’s Day in Spain) and Josés in Spain are often called Pepe or, as in this case, Josefas are called Pepa.

The constitution (the first of seven since then) was drawn up by Las Cortes de Cádiz, ‘Las Cortes’ being the word Spain still uses for Parliament. The reason for Cádiz was that the rest of Spain at the time was occupied by Napoleon’s forces – indeed French troops were camped outside the fortifications on the only road that connected the city to the mainland.

At one level then, La Pepa was an act of defiance in what Spaniards call the War of Independence against the French.

At another, while Cádiz was protected by British ships and supported by British money, the constitution was meant as an enlightened blueprint for the future not only in Spain but in also in South America.

It is often called a ‘liberal’ constitution, but the word has shifted meaning. La Pepa was liberal in the sense that the Constitution of the USA was liberal – with one main difference. The Spanish chose a constitutional monarchy rather than no monarchy at all. Other matters, the separation of powers, a free press, freedom of trade and so on will be familiar.

In political terms of course, La Pepa was a failure. Fernando VII returned in 1814 as an absolute monarch, and while it was periodically resurrected, (mostly in 1820-1823), La Pepa was pushed into the utopia bin.

It remains however an influence. It influenced other constitutions. Norway’s of 1814 for example, as well as the constitutions of countries in South America that broke away from Spain a few years later.

And in a way it remains an aspiration. There is a large and pretty pompous monument to La Pepa in La Plaza de España in Cádiz, complete with lions and draped ladies, put up around a hundred years later. And now the second bridge into Cádiz from the mainland is to be called La Pepa for the bi-centenary.

But mostly, I think that first constitution is a reminder that a group of men (yes, that’s men, they talked of universal male suffrage) from both sides of the Atlantic could, when under siege, work fast and hard to translate a desire for justice into a code of words.

Next month, then, for the celebration of the bi-centenary, there will be tall ships and lots of politicians. But the attraction of written constitutions is that they frame and are bigger than the politicians who work within them.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Proof of Life

I belong to a large group of writers who consider that, once a book is published, it is no longer theirs. Yes, title and name go on but the reader takes over, to like what they read or not.

One of the most interesting parts of this change-over is the reader’s reaction to the behaviour and even fate of characters in the book. Just like the writer, the reader brings his or her own tastes, impressions and emotional life to the process.

Occasionally, someone will contact me to comment on a character. Don’t let this person go, for example. Or, as recently, ask why I let my character Cotton behave ungenerously to a girl called Anna, a Czech refugee working or trying to work in theatre during the freezing winter of 1947.

I usually have a back story for my characters. This is to help me ground them, but I don’t, of course, put all the back story in the book. The reader, if taken by the character, is free to provide their own.

My correspondent was taken with her. Her person, her difficulties and her reaction to them. She is, to use Muriel Spark’s title, a girl of slender means. She’s ambitious but trying to keep warm and to eat. As a result, she uses people and since she is ambitious, sometimes over-estimates the abilities of someone, like Cotton for example, to help her ambitions. I think it is fair to suggest that the hardness of her life encourages her to think others have much easier lives.

In the particulars of Icelight, Cotton behaves ungenerously, having returned to his flat with a newly acquired and bandaged razor wound about eight inches long on his right thigh.

In effect he passes Anna on to a dimwit with money who might be able to help her. But it does remain that he gets rid of her and does so without many flourishes.

I’d like to think this is convincing. But I may be wrong.

What I do know is that such reactions help this writer – it’s proof of life and as such both encourages me and makes me want to try harder.