The humanity of humans, a review of The Pretenders, Look back in anger and Dusk rings a bell.

I’ve just arrived home from the 2011 Edinburgh fringe festival, ( having seen three compelling plays which all comment in one way or another about human relationships, human frailty and the human condition. One of the more interesting things that struck me (amongst many, many uninteresting things) was that despite apparently being more ‘developed’ and ‘advanced’ than ever before humans are walking contradictions. We have a tendency to both assert our own individual choice and so called logic, whilst deep down feeling more than a bit insecure and seeking answers to many of life’s deepest questions which seem so fundamental to our being.

The Pretenders (performed at the Underbelly, produced by El Toro Theatre and starring Andy Godfrey), is a one man, visually enhanced show about a man about to be married who has, by his own admission, lied quite a lot to himself and others, not least his forlorn fiancé. As Godfrey states honestly and fervently throughout, he seeks the satisfaction and acceptance of others by quite literally making up achievements, friends and so on. What is particularly sad is that the main character is not seeking pleasure from his lying, but acceptance and love (the latter being somewhat ironic, given his current predicament). Indeed, whilst this is sad, it is nonetheless something I’m sure we can all identify with in one way or another; indeed it is this ability to relate with Godfrey which makes this particular offering such a compelling watch.

What was perhaps more mystifying was the way in which the play ended. Whilst to some extent accepting his lying was a problem, and adding an entertaining twist in asserting that all what he had said about his life thus far could have also been a complete fabrication, he also noted that we all lie and pretend in our own lives. What he was implying from this I’m not too sure, was this a problem indicating the frailness of man, that needs a solution beyond the capabilities of mere humanity, or was this just an invitation to accept this as an inevitability, thus something we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about? I’d firmly side with the former, but as seems to be the tradition with many works of this ilk, Godfrey may be asking us to make the judgement, something I’m not too sure about given how man is portrayed in this offering!

Indeed, whilst this play was almost entirely a monologue, looking at the frailty of man in terms of the internal and personal, the other two plays focussed on the more relational. Dusk rings a bell, written by Stephen Belber and performed at Edinburgh University’s Assembly George Square looks at one level at least at the relationship between two people, Molly played by Abi Titmuss and Ray, played by Paul Blair. Interestingly, this play looks at something which humanity would consider as something a whole lot graver than merely lying, namely the hate murder of a homosexual male with which one of the two main characters plays a key a part. Yet intriguingly, despite very few human beings being involved with the above many of the themes raised in The Pretenders come out very clearly here too. Human insecurity for instance appears to be central to the play, and something to varying degrees both the main characters struggle with and seek to remedy in various ways, whether it be through the art of verbal communication and expression (which one of the main characters considers themselves to be something of an expert in) or therapy (which the other character has gone through in order to attempt to understand the reasons and motivations for their past actions). None withstanding the fact that both of these things can be to varying extents useful in helping us understand our imperfections , it is telling that this play seems to be typified by a great unresolved struggle to ‘get the bottom of things’. Indeed, by looking to both themselves and each other in order to achieve this, they end up with more unresolved questions than answers to their longings and queries.

If the third of the plays, Look Back in Anger, shows us anything it is that these human struggles, longings and queries are nothing new. Indeed, this play put together very ably by SJC productions shows us that in whatever context mankind finds itself in, whether it be in a modern society, or in this case in 1950’s kitchen sink Britain, similar themes relating to acceptance and finding a purpose in the world will always be pretty central to it’s struggle. In this instance, Jimmy Porter, played with appropriate arrogance and competence by Alistair Norgate is an educated young man, relatively fresh out of University, and newly married yet is quite obviously far from satisfied by his lot. Indeed, he is frustrated that he nothing to live for, the traditional bastions of social status and importance are being challenged by a ‘new age’ of rationality and reason (one need only look to the above to see how far that has got us!) and there is also no war and no freedom requiring fighting for. As a consequence Jimmy and his counterparts have become rather restless. Jimmy takes out this restlessness in a number of ways, which made the play a gripping and powerful watch throughout. Indeed, in his battle to acquire meaning from something, Jimmy attempts to provoke the other characters, sometimes viscously, into something apart from their stoic resistance to Jimmy’s antics, and whilst as already alluded to, this made Look Back in Anger a particularly gripping watch. It also exposed how broken human relationships can become, and how without any meaningful purpose, social situations and structures can become increasingly fragile and volatile.

Thus, it is my contention that these plays show us as the title suggests, the humanity of humanity. That is, as useful and effective as some human based solutions can be regarding the dilemmas of value, acceptance and purpose on a temporal level, we will ultimately keep on failing if we keep looking to ourselves for solutions to life’s most central dilemma’s. This may sound depressing, but if we look to something other than ourselves, namely God, as shown in the Bible, we will find more satisfactory and permanent answers to the problems raised in these plays than we ourselves could ever imagine. Indeed, if we look to something that is thousands of years old, The Bible, we find something special. We encounter a God who despite seeing our human failings time and time again seeks to reconcile humankind to himself by mercifully giving his son Jesus Christ to die for us and our human frailty (or sin). Indeed, by doing something that may appear counter cultural for us, acknowledging our weakness in front of God, we can indeed enter a relationship with a God who through Jesus Christ, can accept us despite our many failings. This then is crucial, although our failings won’t disappear, we can gain something that promises so much more than man made solutions, a hope and a relationship that begins now, develops in this life and is made fully complete in the next.

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