Friday, August 18, 2006

Theatre Review: 'Stuck Here Like That Little Bitch In Oz'.

The poster of a Munchkin clutching an over sized bottle of whiskey while peering up Dorothy's skirt summarizes the irreverent attitude of Babylon Heights. If the land of Oz lies over the rainbow, the spotlight here is on its far from pretty underbelly of lurid sexual violence, personal betrayal and drug dependency. Describing the Wizard of Oz as an 'indispensable part of our cultural heritage in the west,' Welsh's production with the Attic Studio, exposes the nadir where personal ambition is exploited by major studios, as humiliation and self abasement is forced on four Munchkin extras.

Welsh has spent much of his literary energy piercing the bubbles of comfortable modern fables. Just as Renton's 'choose life speech' in Trainspotting ruptured the materialist values of Thatcher's Britain, so too does this latest stage project with Dean Cavanagh roll a hand grenade under the door of popular American culture. Judy Garland's allusion to tales of drunken sex parties and drug abuse at the Culver Hotel, where the nearly two hundred Munchkin actors were segregated from the main cast, created one of Hollywood's most persistent urban myths.

These rumours of debauchery were given a typically frantic Chevy Chase treatment in a 1981 movie called 'Under the Rainbow.' Here they are exhumed afresh by a collaborating duo obsessed with the darker rumor that a Munchkin corpse can be seen hanging from a plastic tree in one scene. Taking myth as reality, the play constructs a manic hallucinatory reality at the heart of an enduringly innocent Hollywood fantasy.

In the past Welsh was fully capable of expressing the cultural zeitgeist of the acid house generation but recent coverage of this latest effort remain obsessed with these lurid tales of drug abuse and successfully manage to side line deeper concerns weaved into his work, such as the fracturing of traditional class identity in a novel like Glue.

Using regular sized actors against an enlarged scenario, Welsh strove to avoid pandering to 'a sniggering herd mentality' by provoking the sensationalist media surrounding this controversial topic. While it the play raised the goat of some disability organizations, its worth noting his previous exploration of disability. In one of the chemical romances in Ecstasy, a maladjusted Thalidomide victim manipulates a lover into extracting revenge on a company director responsible for the callous promotion of the devastating drug. Here the portrayal of the experiences of four actors of diverse backgrounds thrown together after being hired by a vaudeville retainer, is far from an elucidation of victim-hood for simple comedy as some critics have lampooned.

The 'palm trees, flora and fauna' that attracts one of the actors to Hollywood, are overshadowed by a set of towering bunk beds that quickly induce a paranoiac cabin fever among the characters. Routinely patronized for their small stature by a booming off stage voice representing the abusive and abrasive studio, underpaid and fed false promises of custom made homes after the shoot, these four characters have no possibility of clicking their heels and going home and as one exclaims they are 'stuck here like that little bitch in Oz' bent to the will of more powerful entities beyond their control.

The first half of the play is full of predictable gags that veer towards belittling the subjects at hand but ultimately these sit alongside some hilarious caustic commentary on the shooting of Oz. The comedic highlight is a self referential monologue on the use of the word 'cunt' as a precision piece of language to be carefully rationed, yet one punctuating so much of Welsh's work. The actors performances throughout are frantically goofball, at times a little overbearing and nearly collapsing into pantomine. Despite some a lack of dramaturgical depth, the play remains a brave but somewhat disjointed black comedy nightmare of the actual gap between Hollywood glamor and reality.

Finally joining the ranks of bloggers published in real time, this Soundtracksforthem review first appeared in edited form in the latest edition of the
Village Magazine. Babylon Heights will be running at the Mill Theatre in Dundrum untill August 17th. Tickets are 18 squids and can be booked here.

The best review of the play I've found: Ozmosis: by Chloe Veltman in the SF Weekly
An associated press review all over the net:
Jill Lawless 'Munchkins run amok'

Other thoughts: I've been meaning to write something on Irvine Welsh for some time now, I'd even concieved the idea of writing my thesis for Equality Studies using him as a platform to explore the changing nature of class identity in post-modern society. Much of the coverage around his latest works have stunned me with their lack of any semblence of intellectual rigour. On one hand the British Tory press have attempted to re-cuperate him as a Cameroon supporter despite his own admission in one of the Sunday culture supplements, maybe the Sunday Business Post (you know how they all blur together..) where he stated he 'wouldn't vote for Cameroon in a month of fucking Mondays.' What I find interesting about Welsh is that behind his raver hedonism and acid casualty cynicism, a lot of his work chimes in with a broader left wing conciousness and the creation of popular narratives of class. For example the TV play 'Dockers' along with Jimmy McGovern, played an integral role in popularising the Liverpool Dockers dispute.

Something I've noticed among a lot of the angsty lefty young men I went to college with was a shared early teen propensity to both Irvine Welsh and The Manic Street Preachers. Lines like ' the difference between me and those fucking wimpy arsehole socialists. I don't want the Tories out, I want them fucking dead. Just because I've got a bus pass doesn't mean I'm part of the system. An anarchist with a bus pass is still a fucking anarchist' from Smart Cunt have always stuck with me as an articulation of a non-dogmatic socialism rooted in the social realities of what he calls elsewhere the 'long dark nights of late capitalism.'

This is a socialism increasingly needing an expression on the level Welsh could aspire to. The rant on the how getting up early to sell a couple of papers in a shopping centre is not being the best way to chill out after raving' drips with the bitterness of one faced with the destruction of proud working class histories at the hands of Thatcherism and the futile games of the Trotskyist left. There are more extracts from him posted at a discussion at Meanwhileatthebar. I'm interested in what Sinead has to say about both the play and his new book.

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Hey there

Time and work have gotten in the way of me writing reviews of the play and novel, but I was disappointed by both, even though I've been a fan of Welsh for years. I was particularly disappointed by the play, which seemed like a great idea on paper.

I thought it had so much satirical potential that comes with Welsh's anarchy and energy but instead it was (I thought) quite lacking.
Had the play been seriously edited - and I mean if it were to lose half an hour - it would have packed a more dramaturgical punch.

Instead it meandered flabbily along and it was genuinely hard to stay interested, particularly in the first act.

With the book, I think it might be more about how I feel about Welsh these days. Having read Trainspotting in 1994 (a gift from a Scottish man), I hoovered up everything he wrote and loved most of it, but I think I'm just a bit weary about many of topics he covers and the way he approaches them. It feels as if his relevance as waned, but then that's very much a personal view.

Your point about the "bitterness of one faced with the destruction of proud working class histories at the hands of Thatcherism" is very relevant to the protagonist in the Bedroom Secrets. The difference is that he has joined the establishment, has done the blue collar yoke and works in an office, but still he is thwarted by (class?) feelings of inadequacy which fuel his drug-fuelled boozing and ultimately lead to the Machiavellian thrust of the plot.

Thanks for the heads-up on the review, it's great to see arts stuff like this on an Irish blog.
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