Monday, 27 May 2013

The Slash My Father Swore

The decision to play The Sash as a period drama, despite it recounting a relatively recent period of history, isn’t necessarily a confession that the script has lost its relevance. In the period after the Good Friday Agreement, the vivid descriptions of terrorist attacks and the sporadic racist references are more likely to connect to the current War on Terror and Islamophobia than the battle for a united Ireland, yet the core prejudices on display – sectarianism from protestant and Roman Catholic - are still, sadly, part of Glaswegian life.

Most strikingly, the obnoxious behaviour comes from both sides of the divide. The aging Orangeman is given the most melodramatic, and comic, bigotry, but his Catholic neighbour gets in a fair few digs. Even today, there is something outrageous about hearing this kind of language on stage and the message – that the conflict in Ireland was originally not about religion but freedom – is supported by both sides insistence on a loyalty to a parents’ values.

Perhaps the differences between 1973, when the play was written and set, and 2013 are in the aspirations of the younger characters. There is a rejection of older values, with a protestant son wanting to discuss the historical truth behind the myth of Good King Billy and the pregnant Catholic daughter rejecting the certainties of her faith’s moral teachings for a socialist alternative. And the rare reference to the Soviet ideal of Russia is jarring. The aftermath of the USSR might not have revealed the propaganda of the USA as accurate, but it undermined that nation as a shining example of universal brotherhood.

Yet the conflict between the generations, and the final failure to find an honorable solution, lends The Sash its relevance. Its vision of the Orange Order as a fading presence might have been premature, but the arguments between son and father have an almost archetypal ferocity. Snippets of information about William of Orange’s allegiances and conduct contextualise his hagiography by the Order into a brutal history, and the details of bombing in Ireland locate the action in a period when paramilitary activity was intense: yet the intergenerational throw downs could come from any year in the past fifty.

Because the conflicts described in The Sash `are still present in Glasgow, it doesn’t quite slip into a complete period drama: the issues are more immediate than those in the political plays from south of the border written in the same period. It carefully charts the way that political upheaval impacts on personal life. A relationship collapses, a father tumbles out of a window, a Catholic aunt berates her niece for being pregnant outside of wedlock and the vitality of Irish Republicanism and Orange Pride are gradually ossified.

The question of whether The Sash would make much sense outside of Scotland is pertinent: when intellectuals talk about Scottish identity, they conveniently ignore the sectarian divide even though it is one of the most distinctive qualities that distinguish English and Scottish cultures. There are enclaves in England, such as Manchester, that have a similar relationship to the past. However, the mutual loathing of Billy and Tim is rarely so noticeable in the south.

Rapture are being difficult by restaging this classic. It would be far easier to put The Sash in the same category as The Bigot and The Pavilion pantomime, relics of a by-gone age. Unfortunately, the numbers in the audience attest to its popularity, and the nihilistic vision of culture – nobody wins the argument, and only the final song, which insists that once men were “neither orange men nor green” is a tattered flag of hope – is a bracing counterblast to the optimistic predictions of the contemporary politician. Respecting the way that the play itself is awkward, being neither clearly political nor personal, historical nor contemporary, this production, Michael Emans lets the story tell itself, not even flinching at the unappetising attitudes it displays towards religion, women and the idealism of the young. 

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