The word "deconstructs" crops up some ten or twelve minutes into Terry Eagleton's latest play, Disappearances, staged at Salisbury Playhouse by its artistic director Jonathan Church. It had to happen. The stage and screenplays of the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, and his solitary novel (whose bizarre quartet of protagonists consists of Bakhtin's brother, Wittgenstein, James Connolly and Leopold Bloom), are works of ideas, but tend to convey them through mouthpieces rather than plot; we hear concepts discussed more than we experience them.
Disappearances, his first work of fiction not to be centred upon an actual historical figure, is only a partial exception to this rule. Kaman, an internationally fêted African poet in self-imposed exile, faces the dilemma of agreeing to act as a figurehead for the opposition movement in his militarily-ruled homeland and watching the British secret services destroy his activist daughter's career in England, or appearing simply to continue in his drunken aloofness and thus earn his child's contempt – country versus family, in a no-win situation. But this conflict of grand loyalties and immediate ones is only set in motion after the interval.
Before it emerges, we see Kaman sprawling in Johnnie Walker-fuelled stupor, winding up an American graduate student, irking Cambridge dons after accepting an honorary degree, and arguing with both his agent and the opposition leader attempting to co-opt him. We hear observations like "Language is how the oppressed conceal their thoughts from their masters" and "You fashioned us in your image, so I deface the image". We grasp his global status from the business of the doctorate and a passing reference to "a gig on the South Bank with Heaney and Walcott." Only after personalities and ideas are thoroughly established do events begin to roll out.
On the press night, Rudolph Walker was frankly at sea as regarded his lines, taking innumerable prompts which crippled his pacing and characterisation. It was amusing to hear the line "If you're not a nice audience we'll come and live next door to you" delivered by a man who first found fame in Love Thy Neighbour, the 1970s sitcom about neighbourhood racism. Yet to an extent Kaman is a more refined and much more complex relative of that character: he presents an educated English writer's interpretation of an educated African's perception of the Western view of Africanness. (I promise that concept does make sense if you gnaw at it.)
Paradoxically, Eagleton's writing is most alive when it tries least to pack in the Ideas with a capital I: Kaman's first dialogue with the politico Raan (Tyrone Huggins), and most of the second act aside from the cardboard portrayal of the patrician English spook and daughter Yana's obligatory set piece on racism and sexism. When the author gives life to views and issues, rather than simply giving voice to them, the metaphysical conflicts acquire an impetus beyond merely that of dramatic power. Mostly, though, the density of intellectual substance is shackled by a lack of human vitality.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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