Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 22 September 2018

How to be Down and Out... and win

  • Down and Out in Paris and London, New Theatre, Dublin

  • I See You Theatre Upstairs, at Lanigan's, Dublin

Phelim Drew in his adaptation of 'Down and Out in Paris and London'
Phelim Drew in his adaptation of 'Down and Out in Paris and London'
Roxanna NicLiam and Amy De Bhrun in 'I See You'

Emer O'Kelly

George Orwell was not a nice man; but he was a superb writer and chronicler. And it's the latter that concerns Phelim Drew in his stage adaptation of Down and Out in Paris and London.

In 1933, Orwell worked as a "plongeur" (dishwasher) in a series of sordid cafes, as well as in what would now be classified as a five-star hotel in Paris. Backroom conditions differed little, save that the cafe owner allowed his plongeurs two litres of wine per day: he felt that if he didn't they would steal three litres.

That more or less sums up Orwell's experiences - a kind of brutally pragmatic camaraderie where a 15-hour day was the norm, and when work was scarce, they would live on bread and slops for days at a time.

There was Boris, the huge Russian, perennially looking forward to being a head waiter; there was Charlie, "a curious specimen" weary of the world at 22, and living on telling the story of having paid the vast sum of a thousand francs in order to be left alone in the dark in a whorehouse with permission to "do what he liked" with the girl on the bed: nobody would hear or see. (He viciously raped her and considered it the "happiest day" of his life.)

In a state of collapse from deprivation, Orwell returned to London, where he went on the road as a tramp. They slept in "spikes", locked in at night, three in a cell five feet by eight, without beds. He learned about all sides of humanity as he listened to the stories, and realised that the liberal intelligentsia, who could understand them, never met them. Poverty, he found, is "merely squalid".

Phelim Drew brings it all wonderfully alive with a series of vignettes of vividly memorable characters. But there is a certain wry hypocrisy as well. While Orwell was "practising" destitution, he had quite a large sum of money on deposit in a London bank. And while his fellow plongeurs and tramps could never turn away from their destitution, Orwell could (and did) return to his mother when his health, unsurprisingly, broke down.

When he had been a police officer in India during the Raj, George Orwell thoroughly enjoyed whipping his "boys" to within an inch of their lives. And he refused to pay for surgery for his first wife when it was needed; she died undergoing a delayed hysterectomy. His passionate empathy was at best selective.

But that's not Phelim Drew's fault, and his adaptation is a joy to watch; he's directed by Michael Tuomey, and it's playing at the New Theatre in Dublin.

*******

Mary, Lady Heath would seem like a good subject for a play. She was from Limerick, and as a small child, witnessed her father beat her mother to death. (He was declared insane and incarcerated). She was reared by her grandparents, studied science, drove an ambulance in World War I, and divorced her first husband for cruelty. (He later committed suicide.)

Her second husband was Sir James Heath, who bought her her first plane, and she flew solo from South Africa in 1925, becoming a celebrity even before Amelia Earhart. Heath was 40 years her senior, and she married him only for his money.

A crash over Cincinnati almost killed her, and she lived with a plate in her skull afterwards. She also took to the bottle, then married a jockey of Jamaican origin, his colour being the last nail in her social coffin. She died in 1939 after falling down the stairs of a London bus, and following frequent court appearances for being picked out of the gutter.

Amy De Bhrun has taken this promising saga, has set Mary against a 21st century apparent prototype, and has them commune on a spiritual level. Except I See You doesn't work; 21st century Mary is a working class battered Dublin wife, whose baby was stillborn after she was pushed down the stairs by the boyfriend who had promised her mother he would look after her. No connection, no nuthin' as might have been said in Cincinnati.

What I See You is really about, is an excuse to whinge/rant: Lady Heath, indulged with every luxury her husband could buy, hates Amelia Earhart for having surpassed her. Twenty-first century Mary thinks men are what's wrong, while admitting that her mother filled in her CAO form, and the person who ridiculed her in school was her female teacher. (She dropped out of university after six weeks... because she hadn't made any friends.)

Throughout the play the two women break into choral duets of rage at being put down in a male-dominated world. The advice for other women is: "You can be anything you want to" - a sure-fire recipe for frustration, disappointment and despair: maybe even a road to suicide.

The world is tough, success isn't guaranteed: in common parlance, s**t happens, so get used to it.

I See You, with the author and Roxanna Nic Liam playing the two Marys, is quite clearly a deeply-felt piece. But instead of inspiring one with resentment of men past and present, it rather makes one feel sorry for them. And sadly, it's boring as hell.

It's directed by Helena Browne at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's on Eden Quay in Dublin.

Tom Murphy remembered, Main section, page 6

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