'Anglo: The Musical'? It's a demo on stage
CULTURE SHOCK:Ideally, a piece of political theatre should be both brilliantly theatrical and potently political. But mainstream Irish theatre has struggled with politics for a long time. It is probably unfair to expect that a commercial production, with none of the luxuries of public subsidy, could suddenly emerge with the perfect fusion. Anglo: The Musical is a very long way from doing that.
Which raises an interesting question: would you rather have a polished musical with bad politics or a rather ropy one with the right message? In normal circumstances I would have no hesitation in choosing the former. But these are not normal circumstances. Anglo: The Musical’s virtues lie much more in what it says than in how it says it.
Right now that’s enough to make it worth seeing.
Anglo is in some ways a strange beast: the first piece of communist theatre to be staged in a 2,000-seat commercial venue in Ireland. By “communist theatre” I don’t mean that its content is a call to Bolshevik revolution. I mean, rather, that it is rooted in a tradition that came from the early Soviet Union. Agitprop – the term combines agitation and propaganda – was an overwhelmingly left-wing form that flourished in much of Europe between the 1920s and 1970s. Its presence in Ireland was largely limited to forays by British companies like 7:84. Who’d have thought that it would hit Ireland in 2012 via the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and the creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly?
In agitprop the medium is not the message: the message is. The form comes with a loudhailer as standard. The basic dramatic approach may sometimes look innovative, but it is rooted in two 19th-century terms: melodrama and music hall. There are bad rich people: the nasty protagonist in Anglo, Mark O’Regan’s Rich, is the evil baron who, in an early silent movie, would have been tying a virgin to the train tracks. And there are innocent poor people: Anglo, in one of its better ideas, makes the plain people of Ireland the inhabitants of Inis Dull, a place that lies about halfway between Craggy Island and Myles na gCopaleen’s Corca Dorcha.
The funniest parts of Paul Howard’s script are those that establish the extreme gormlessness of Aisling and Diarmuid, the naive occupants of a “homestead cum hovel” whose lives will be torn apart as Anglo Irish Bank’s billions transform the island into a Hong Kong in the Atlantic.
As for music hall, Anglo functions essentially as a variety performance, with hand puppets, impressions, songs and dances. It has, indeed, a certain “hey, kids, let’s put on a show” charm. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t really function as a musical. The music is uninspired, the lyrics are sometimes inaudible, and there are only two strong voices, those of the excellent Stephanie McKeon and Sharon Sexton. There are two good numbers: We Are Where We Are and There’s Nothing Wrong With Bacon and Cabbage; a few decent ideas that don’t quite work; and half a dozen songs that could usefully have joined the one dropped for legal reasons. As for the dancing, the best that can be said is that there’s mercifully little of it. Even with the skilfully made puppets there is no very clear sense of why they are being used beyond the fact that they’re fun to look at.
Judged purely as a piece of theatre, then, the show is a rueful warning of how hard it is to make a good musical. But, of course, it’s not purely a piece of theatre. Howard and his collaborators have stepped bravely into the empty space where a much bigger set of artistic reflections on the implosion of Ireland ought to be. This is itself an act of public decency.
Anglo feels less like an entertainment than a communal ritual: a collective shaking of the fist at the idiocy, greed and fecklessness of the Irish elite. It’s a demo on stage.
And this is one of the reasons why it struggles as a “show”.
Howard is angry: too angry to make a piece that will simply give us all a good laugh and send us home humming a nice song about how we all partied. Raw rage and deep despair are howling in the wings, and they gradually encroach on to the stage. The second half of the show becomes ever darker and more grotesque. The audience is more likely to be disturbed than amused. And, in this case, good. Yes, it’s agitprop, but there are, in our present state, much worse things to do to audiences than agitate them.