Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chimerica and the man who stood up to a tank

We live in an age when the question of the extent to which the individual is free to to challenge authority is daily in the news. Societies, even those in Democratic countries, impose increasingly authoritarian controls on Citizens’ Rights and create increasingly secretive systems within which the rights of citizens for information are heavily curtailed. Large organisations, whether they be Governments, Quasi Governmental bodies (like the EU) Multinational corporations – especially Media companies – employ hoards of lawyers to ensure that they disclose the minimum they have to to protect their freedom (as they see it)  to do what they

The big battalions have power and money to protect their interests. The individual usually has neither. But there is an often bloody-minded determination on the part of some nevertheless to challenge the system. Whatever we think of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and their ilk nobody should doubt their courage. Perhaps they went too far when they not just challenged the system but broke the law in doing so. But what Freedom Fighter in history did not do this ? Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned four times and Nelson Mandela spent half his life in Jail for his beliefs.

The great fighters for freedom were usually part of a group or a structure with others helping them – if only by standing along with them in their struggle. But occasionally a protest is just one individual who, rather like Howard Beale in “Network” say “ I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!”.

The “Tank Man”  is the nickname of an anonymous man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989 in Beijing the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. His action produced one of the most iconic photographs of that hideous event – and it has now produced an extraordinary play “Chimerica”. Who the man was and what happened to him is unknown – whether his was a planned protest or more serendipitous we do not know and probably never will. “Chimerica” offers one plausible story – it doesn't pretend to be true but like all good drama it throws light on the underlying truths not just of this one event but of the more fundamental issues of freedom, power and the individual.

The staging of the play at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End is remarkable. Scene changes take place continuously and this and the special effects keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The performances are good as well. Stephen Campbell Moore – one of the graduates of “The History Boys”  drama school – is excellent as Joe Schofield an American photographer who was one of those who took the famous “Tank Man” photograph. Benedict Wong plays the central character “Zhang Lin” who we see both as an activist in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and as a teacher of English in Beijing in 2012. The action switches back and forth across the 23 year gap and there is a counterpoint between the “Capitalism with a Chinese Face” of today and the beginnings of this back in the later 1980s. The central question – can you have capitalism without democratic freedoms is addressed, though not answered. Largely, I think,  because the question is itself rhetorical.

As well as going backwards and forwards in time we move between Beijing and New York with a subtle “tale of two cities” interplay. And we are reminded at one point that it is by no means the case that a New Yorker is unquestionably more free that a resident of Beijing – as one of the characters finds to his cost. Power corrupts at times in America as much as it does in Authoritarian China and man can be in chains in both countries. One character caught up as the contemporary story unfolds is Tessa Kendrick a well- crafted example of a modern day marketer. She is English,  smart, quite sassy and clearly earning some nice consultancy fees advising the Chinese and western companies operating in China. I enjoyed Claudie Blakeley's portrayal of this very credible character who also rather movingly becomes Schofield’s love interest as well. This is far from gratuitous and you do actually care about there relationship. 

If the “Tank Man” battled briefly against insurmountable odds back in 1989 so Joe Schofield battles as well as he tries to pursue the “Tank Man” story today. His employer, a New York newspaper, first encourages him to pursue the story and then backs off. The latter because they are part of a media organisation that has interests and ambition in China. How very true that rings!

“Chimerica” is another example of just how rich the talent is at the moment among young female British playwrights. Like Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” (which stylistically it resembles) and  Sam Holcroft’s “Edgar and Annabel” at the National Theatre this is an exceptional play. Lucy Kirkwood has an astonishing talent for plot and language and with the Almeida Theatre’s director Lyndsey Turner she has worked successfully to create an un-missable night at the theatre.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

John Ogdon in 1984–an historic recording

On 20th November 1984 I went to the MacRobert Centre Stirling to attend a concert at which the great British pianist John Ogdon was playing Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto. The Orchestra was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk. The venue is quite small and my seat was quite close to the stage and therefore to Ogdon. J.O. at piano

When he came onto the stage I was slightly shocked. I knew him as a sublimely talented artist but when this huge untidy shambling man appeared it seemed incongruous and unlikely. In particular I noticed his huge hands! How could those massive fingers navigate the keyboard for this at times very fast and intricate piece? I need not have worried!

As soon as Ogdon sat down, after rather a lot of fiddling with the piano stool, and Maksymiuk started Ogdon was transported into another world. The sounds that came from his piano were truly magical. At the time I did not know this Concerto well but its extraordinarily depth, melodic journey and contrasts imprinted themselves on my brain and today it is probably my favourite Concerto - thanks largely to that great introduction by John Ogdon.

The performance was broadcast live and I had set my cassette recorder to tape it whilst I was at the concert. I still have the cassette and have now digitised it and posted it for download here! It is not really top quality but you will get a feel for the excitement of the performance.