Theatre

Masonic bodge

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

Left-wing groupie Paul Mason has written a costume drama about the suppression of the Paris commune in 1871. We meet Louise Michel and her all-female gang of arsonists as they’re carted off to jail for setting fire to the Tuileries. After a harsh stint in the cells, they’re shipped out to the French colony of New Caledonia, in the eastern Pacific, where they live in an open prison. Things aren’t too bad. They mingle with the natives, enjoy the local hooch, and sing comradely songs about ‘spilling the blood impure’.

Escape is on the agenda. A committee of anarchists is said to be making swift progress across the ocean in a rescue ship. But when the women discover that the anarchists learned their nautical skills in Switzerland they begin to doubt the success of the mission. The post arrives. A nice intellectual in Paris has sent them The Philosophy of Poverty by Proudhon. The author is instantly denounced as a pacifist and a traitor. But wait. The book contains a smuggled missive from Comrade Bakunin, the founder of collectivism, who announces that a bout of depression has driven him from front-line politics. ‘There is no revolutionary hope among the masses,’ he says, simply, without clarifying whether this is a symptom of mental illness or common sense. Louise gets to the heart of the matter. ‘He’s a man. Men are useless.’


Abandoning the struggle in Europe, she sets about radicalising the local Kanak tribesmen. These groovy rustics pass their days lounging on the beach and swapping ‘stories about nothing’. Fashion-wise they sport the ra-ra skirts and big hairdos once favoured by Bananarama. They speak a dialect of English known to philologists as ‘Poetry Corner’. ‘The ways of the old world are sacred,’ declares one Ukip-leaning native. ‘A long sleep in the treetops’ is the Kanak term for death. ‘In the spring of the waterfall my father’s spirit dances,’ says a teenage boy in a leather boob tube. Louise decides to enrol in the Kanaks’ free survival classes but she’s unsettled by their casual misogyny. ‘In our tribe the word for woman is nothing,’ says a scantily-clad warrior as he teaches her to spear an octopus for lunch. Later he concedes that a woman may attain the level of ‘a useful dog’. When he invites her to ‘listen to the wisdom of the birds’, she says tartly, ‘My hearing was impaired by cannon fire.’

Her great hope is that these lazy javelin-throwers will rise up against their French overlords. Eventually they do. Soldiers are butchered, women raped, a priest beheaded. Told of these horrors, Louise expresses nothing but satisfaction that the disorder is spreading. Later the women return to Paris where they await the next phase of unrest.

Paul Mason’s stilted script may be short of humour but its sincerity isn’t in doubt. Radicals across London will find it highly gratifying. For a simple reason: ‘martyrdom envy’. One of the frustrations of western lefties is that the authorities refuse to imprison or brutalise them, so they lack the somatic evidence of beatings and electrocutions that their comrades from harsher regimes are able to display with pride. And it’s natural for Marxist wonks to idolise their revolutionary heritage. That explains this student-union fantasy about a squad of feminists who firebomb a public building, get imprisoned and threatened with rape, and are then transported to a tropical paradise where they incite the laid-back locals to rise up against the white man. It’s the ultimate gap-year video diary. One thing surprised me. The programme listed the male actors first and gave the women, who carry the bulk of the play, subordinate positions. As Lenin said, the revolution must be permanent.

A successful playwright faces the danger of the over-indulgent producer. Duncan Macmillan, author of People, Places and Things, has followed it up by adapting two works, a Paul Auster novel and a graphic novel by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Auster. The convoluted script sets out to examine the interrelations, and the impediments to those interrelations, between the careers of the detective, the novelist and the literary historian. There are some interesting thoughts about Don Quixote and Cervantes’s laborious efforts to ascribe its authorship to an obscure Arab. But that’s as good as it gets. The staging is eccentrically managed. The main character, a Narrator, is delivered as a prerecorded voice-over, which creates distance rather than immediacy in a theatre. Towards curtain-fall the tale becomes a bizarre journey into ascetic vagrancy undertaken by a character whose multiple identities defy classification. I had no idea what was going on by the time the main actor stripped naked and lay on the floor of the apartment that he had every, and no, right to occupy. This is a must for Paul Auster devotees. For the rest of us, a mustn’t.

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