14 February 2013

More moustache-wax, sir! The Hamburg Players stage Arms and the Man.

     Go see this production if you like, enjoy the fin-de-siècle not-quite-decadent if you can, the officer with the handle-bar moustache greedily groping his fiancée’s servant — a mood of rich silliness only counteracted by Jonathan Greenman's portrayal of Bluntschli as an obnoxiously reasonable progressive thinker — but don't expect any new ideas from this staging of Shaw's clapped out, socialist-snobbish script. War's not glorious, sermons Shaw — hammering out his message as if afraid the thickies at the back won't get it — it's a bloody business where underlings take part in cavalry charges against walls of guns & other such PTSS inducing activities, for the simple reason that they're scared of disobeying their officers, because these officers possess a higher social status. And this — post the 1st and 2nd Gulf Wars, post eleven years of western troops in Afghanistan — is meant to be news? Hands up all those who've already seen or who intend to see this production, who have a romantic or glorified picture of war? Even the warmongers in Germany and abroad no longer sell their violence in places like Libya & Mali as romantic glory, but rather as sombre & technocratic endeavour, actually something only really the experts can understand, but still essential for reducing the terrorist threat (sic) on the streets of our European metropolises.
     There is occasional interesting detail about the world of the 1880s/90s. Greenman's Bluntschli tells Raina, played upper-middle flauntingly by Poppy Tirard, that the most common injury sustained in a cavalry charge are not bullet wounds but broken knees, as the riders, scared shitless, press their horses too close together in a reflex attempt to avoid what's going to hit them. Yet these curious little finds should not excuse the Hamburg Players' decision to work hard on a complacent play for a complacent audience.
      A disconnect, BBC Radio 3's word of the month, a monstrous series of disconnects, that's what's going on here, a disconnect between what the individual actors & directors in the team choose to present on stage & their real life experience, a disconnect between the Hamburg Players & their audience, a disconnect between what that audience thinks it wants to see in the theatre, & the daily life they go out into the morning after. It's obseqious to give your middle-class audience — the people in society with just enough education to be able to begin taking responsibility — another chance to see a play wearing the 'socially critical' badge. They can see it, then give themselves a good pat on the back. Didn't just sit on their arses watching Jungle Camp, no, dragged themselves out to watch something ... anti-war ... anti-authoritarian, even, well, or so it was, back in the 1890s. Before getting up the next day to lives in which they'll continue either not to vote at all, or vote for parties who've done nothing to stop the continued involvement of German troops & weaponry in Afghanistan. More to the point, some in the audience will get up the next day to go out to work for Airbus, or any one of Airbus's numerous satellite companies in the greater Hamburg region.
      As the epitome of Hamburg-disconnect regarding the question of arms and the man, and as one of the principal reasons why so many English native speakers from all over the globe come to Hamburg, the Airbus world is a subject I'd far rather see on a Hamburg Players' stage than this, Shaw's ignorant & racist fantasy about how Bulgarians, a people whose language he couldn't even speak, might relate to one another. Airbus Military is a business unit of Airbus, which produces five different types of military transport aircraft. None of these planes' final assembly takes place in Hamburg, and nevertheless Hamburg's 10 000 strong Airbus workforce play “a decisive role in the development & engineering of all Airbus aircraft.” i Is that ethically acceptable: to assist in the production of bizarrely expensive aeronautic long goods vehicles, ferrying soldiers, guns & even small fighter aircraft around the globe, so long as you don't make the bullets & bazookas yourselves? And what about the fact that Airbus is in the middle of an infinite fusion with EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Company, one of the world's biggest arms manufacturers, & a major backer of the fearless Eurofighter planes? Something for the Airbus dads — who wear their Airbus T-shirts to the artistic celebrations of the local Steiner-Waldorf school where my eldest daughter goes — to be proud or to be ashamed about?
      Hamburg is a city in which the disconnect about militarism is inside all of us. Why weren't the main actors & directors involved in the production interested in exploring rather than concealing that disconnect? I'm party to the disconnect myself: my main income comes from teaching English in the south of Hamburg, where a sizeable minority of the Airbus workforce live; the regularity & size of my income depends in part on a kickback from Airbus's mountainous profits, engineers & purchasing managers with an overly-comfortable salary in their pockets, wanting to buy the language-skills edge to the next promotion from yours truly. Were the Hamburg Players using a strategy similar to the one I use, when the conversation in my English classes is headed towards the north German arms industry? — (as a recent Hamburger Abendblatt article demonstrated, Airbus is just one of many players) — steer clear of the topic, because it's risky? i.e. stage an anti-war play, but not so that it can be seriously experienced as an anti-war play, as you don't really want to trouble your audience?
      Isn't it a far greater risk for Hamburg Players to cling so tightly to their middle-brow agenda, because by doing so they permanently alienate younger generations of theatre goers in Hamburg, for whom competent delivery in period costumes just isn't where it's at? Why don't they commission new work from English native speakers living in Hamburg who, for a minimal fee of something like € 100 - 150 would feel privileged to bring a new piece of art onto the stage? I'm luckily not in a position to be able to write such work myself, but know of half-a-dozen such writers with a track record of print publication who'd jump at the chance of having a proper stage for their ideas. Finally, what's the story with the younger members of the cast, Eddie Gray, Tamaryn Sutherland & Poppy Tirard, none of whom look a day over 26: why do they want to put all that effort & the acting skills they unequivocably have into such an unambitious project? Is it just for that warm feeling you get from sitting on one of the higher seats in an ex-pats' club, or have they at least worked on their own personal cultural-conservative philsophies to guide such actions? And there I am, the audience member, “getting angry, getting angry, with so many questions unanswered.” (Norman MacCaig) 

i Quote from Airbus's own website.