Burning the Blood: 50th Anniversary Production of Heathcote Williams’ The Local Stigmatic

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As Nabokov’s long buried story, The Enchanter was to his great novel, Lolita, so Heathcote Williams’ The Local Stigmatic is to his pyschedelic masterpiece AC/DC. Chiefly, the progenitor of a greater glory, but a piece still redolent of the private, scorching flame that birthed it. The title, as in all plays is crucial to it’s understanding: the local stigmatic is a perfect euphemism to describe the action conveyed beneath it. Michael Toumey’s fiftieth anniversary production at the Old Red Lion Theatre pub in Islington, running until May 28th, captures the burn of that flame, but grasps little of its beauty.

The production is short, sharp and efficiently directed for the limitations of the space, but Toumey has encouraged his youthful and dedicated young actors to roar and blaze through the piece, doubtless to convey the immediacy of it’s language and situation, while missing much of the subtleties that lay beneath. The play is concerned with the need to matter to the people and world that surround us and the realisation that when we do not or are found wanting on that account, the only recourse our despair can give us is violent retaliation against anything or anyone close to hand. This means that we need to be led into that predicament and not just thrown or forced; not so we may examine the whys and wherefores in a cold, academic sense, but so we have time to quantify the relevance to our own lives and responses when watching the play.

Two South London dreamers, Graham and Ray, co-exist in a heavily  inferred homoeroticism in clearly reduced circumstances. Both are eager to make their mark on the society that is catching sparks around them. The play was written and set in the mid 1960’s, Williams’ sophomore effort after his debut novel, The Speakers and the text deliciously if economically refers to the downside of those glorious summers. The boys have nothing and nowhere to go. The opening exchange about Graham’s experience at the dog track is a bewildering start to a play when reading it for the first time, but it is the key to understanding the problems it’s protagonists face. When a play gives you sparse stage direction it is because the writing is telling you, consciously or not, that the text is king and all you need to do is follow it. The lack of safe substance from which to draw interpretation means that all answers must be found in the text.

This production starts with a scene setter; pre-recorded sound of the racetrack with Graham improvising his reactions to the race. He swears, struts and swaggers. The house music of popular sixties doom anthems overprepares us for this; The Stones’ ‘Paint it Black,’ The Animal’s ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, The Velvet’s ‘I’m Waiting for the Man,’ so before the play begins, we have been lead down one path of interpretation and it is down that path we remain.

My own belief as a director is that one has to realise the text and not impose on it. I recognise in saying this, that it is a view not shared by others and that there is nothing wrong in providing audiences with some context, especially those for whom the play is unfamiliar. Indeed, Stigmatic has long been an almost mythic text, rarely performed, published in this country in the long out of print Traverse Plays collection and only recently available in its filmed version on an Al Pacino collection released in the US, as the play, as has been noted elsewhere, has long been a pet project and point of obsession for him. But my point still stands; if you start a play with recorded sound – as many do on the fringe and indeed elsewhere – you begin, in my view, with a false moment. When the language and style is as rich and as dense as true theatricality demands – as it is in this play – all you need do is release it, explore it and allow your actors to direct it’s true focus to those watching, thereby allowing the world and context of the play to be established through that language. This observation comes not from criticism but from devotion to the play and what I believe theatre can do. It’s all subjective of course but this is what reviews are for and productions also.

What Mr Toumey and his cast have done is to paint the scenes all in close shades of the one colour. The actors shout and declaim from the off and Graham’s desperate vigil at the dog track is then followed by a solitary Ray seeking to attack the armchair and bedsit around him, without provocation and simply as a display of the uncontrolled rage which clearly fuels and infects him. These two impositions, which I name as such because they are not in the text, no doubt allowed the actors to access the energies required to take them through the play but they also rob it of some of its truer sensations. If Graham and Ray are shown to be unbalanced from the start we cannot begin to understand them. Especially when the play is as short as this one. Other reviews have praised the ‘What the Fuck’ quality of the production. To this, I can only add the belief that ‘Why the Fuck’ is as important. If theatre is to create a world we need some explanation for it.

There is a pleasing chemistry between the two lead actors, Wilson James and William Frazer, who as young men have all the charm, appeal and swagger a younger audience will appreciate, but swaggering young men can also a closed door. To sacrifice the notion of their vulnerbility and humanity, however warped, is to sacrifice the true horror of recognition. Society’s monsters are not cartoons. They are the people drawing the pictures we all crave to look at.

The two young men are followers and proto-stalkers of the famous. At one point, Anna Massey, Shirley-Anne Field and the Duke of Bedford are listed as among Ray’s favourites. This shows unbalance to some degree, of course, but the comedic value of the targets is somewhat coarsened by the unrelenting machismo on offer. When the two men confront the target of their attack, a British film actor, David, played by Tom Sawyer, their coquettish display and front are overly exaggerated, almost lampoonish and therefore the interplay is robbed of subtlety and the chill factor of real disturbance is thawed. Taken at such a pitch of distortion, there is no dramatic reason for David to remain in their company as they proceed to chat him up and ply him with drinks.

In his interview for IT, Michael Toumey related that his favourite line in the play occurred when Graham asks David what he’s drinking. When he’s told campari, he refers to it as ‘port and lemon in disguise,’ and then says, ‘you’re sewn up, ain’tcha?’ If the true coldness of this threat is to be grasped it needs to come from an unexpected place, the result of two outsiders battering their way in from the void, only to find ruins at every quarter.

The ‘boys,’ have a need and compunction to matter. Attractively dressed and styled, their misfit nature is unexplained but still needs to be legitimised. Ray is always being thrown out of pubs, particularly the Earl of Strathmore in Earls Court, a queer pub, whose banning of him, he finds ironic. While this does not imply the Graham and Ray are gay in actuality, there is nothing to substantiate the opposite and when a young woman that Ray is sleeping with is said to be coming round to their flat to visit, Ray quickly decides to ‘cut’ or cancel her, and go out with Graham instead. To my thinking, this adds to the dreamscapes within which the two roam, playing with identities in the same way as immortalised by those compromised celebrities and serial killers, who do not possess any of their own. I was looking for a stumble, but all I found was strut.

Essentially of course, these are small details but they are transformative ones. A slight unsteadiness would have shown a semblance of dislocation from the confidence of 1960’s London happening around them that went some way to explaining why they descend into a state of near murder. I wanted the boys’ nervousness, and frailty to seep out through their sweat. A young Shirley Anne Field would pump the blood of any young man in the immediate vicinity and certainly, Anna Massey had her charms, but the Duke of Bedford? Instead, with everything pumped up to the max, it all seems a foregone conclusion. What I required was more space given for the ideas and meaning behind the language to breathe. This is particularly important in a small and smoke tinged room where the observer’s mind often lingers on the surface.

Of course, to some extent a one act play does not give you much room to manouver, but the production uses the cramped space extremely well. It is brilliantly lit by Tom Kitney in its three main areas of bedsit, bar and street for instance, but the point remains: One act plays bare the same relation as short stories do to novels; you may not have the expansion but you have the subtle shades, the details. To push the analogy into painterly terms: when the canvas is small, you must begin to consider the brush.

I didn’t believe the attack on David captured the shock effect of the violence as unravelled by the play. There is a prefiguring scene, when an unnamed MAN in interrupts Graham and Ray’s nightly walk between pubs. Here, he is blind and lashes out with his cane, forcing the boys into a series of animalistic and stylised movements. When he is persuaded and shouted off, it is done so through a door upstage left on the back wall and this expands the stage space well. But when David is kicked and beaten by Ray, the actor falls and remains downstage at the feet of the audience. This wouldn’t matter so much for the fact that at the end of the scene, the actor leaves, destroying the image and resonance of attack. The intention was clearly to connect the audience to the violence, but if the image is discarded this isn’t achieved as fully as it could be if placed elsewhere. Particularly if we are feel it coming. We already know that it is, through reading or listening to the play,(something audiences rarely do) but when it does, it should shock us with it’s fury and ugliness. I felt those vital energies were spent before the moment of attack, leaving us with a sense of containment and a lightly stylised series of actions. With the body draped in a coat there is a silent placing and grinding of the foot, first on hip and then crotch, and the facial gouging with a flick knife occurring under the coat receives no movement or scream. I needed volume and shock here and not in the pages and minutes before. I wanted the attack to be on us, as an audience so that we could see the true affects of self destructive thinking writ large on the man’s face or page. The return to the flat which follows therefore forgives or excuses our aggressors, rather than allowing us to see them as the wild and somewhat neglected dogs pushed back into their own cage; dogs who are forced to run their own race against the society around them, which thinks so little of them, that they are not spared even a scrap of attention.

The argument for subtlety in some places allows for savagery in others. Small theatre spaces like the Old Red Lion can become  immersive, almost cinematic experiences if the levels of delivery are artfully poised.

The production was also song heavy, hammering the isolationist point home somewhat needlessly as it is there in the text. Along with the aforementioned opening salvo, The Kinks’ ‘I’m not like Everybody Else,’ The Walker Brothers, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,’ The Who’s ‘The Kid’s Are Alright’ all underlined an unesscessary literalism. Williams’ work has it’s own music. His is the play-list I’d rather hear.

The young audience enjoyed it greatly on press night, as I’m sure all others did, and that of course is to be celebrated as it gets the play and Williams’ name out to new generations. But literature should educate and entertain and to my thinking the production was soaked not in the cold blood of remorse and helplessness of real character, but in the slick oil of the cinematic psycho. Perhaps that’s inescapable these days. We’ve had so many of them after all, from Friday the 13th to Casualty, but there was a chance here for something else.

The monsters among us commit their atrocities, if not quietly, then with certain levels of discretion and/or lack of control. Perhaps that is not possible in these unenlightened times when we are more than a little distanced from the simple power of the word, but I believe it should still be something to strive for.

At a time when new plays at the fashionable theatres last little more than an hour, The Local Stigmatic at 50 minutes is in the truly modern tradition of the One Act Play as defined by Pinter, Bond, Brenton and Snoo Wilson in the sixties. It stands its own ground. I felt that certain decisions in this production has reduced the play rather than expanded it. Here were speakers belting it out in the closed rooms of the oncoming night. I wanted whispers or even moans in those neglected shadows. Wilson James’ Graham was in a constant state of committed and unblinking psychopathy from the get-go, but performed with impressive energy and attack. William Frazer’s Ray had more colour and style but less gradation and modulation in his changing states, and Tom Sawyer’s Man and David were finely wrought studies of persecution if a little over and then underplayed respectively.

This critique is offered with respect for mounting and recognising the anniversary of a seminal play and effectively placing it within a vibrant theatrical context.

I merely wished for a closer scrutiny, which is always the province of a studio theatre; an ability to see the blood within the vein, worrying itself to the skin.

True rage and dissatisfaction are cold and can often empty us. Once the fire has cracked, only then does the burning begin.


David Erdos, 7/5/16
Illustration: Claire Palmer  

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