Theatre: Ah Yes, I Remember It Well ; Why Has Memory - Its Uses and, Especially, Its Deceptions - Become Such a Preoccupation of So Many Writers for Stage and Film?

By Taylor, Paul | The Independent (London, England), January 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Theatre: Ah Yes, I Remember It Well ; Why Has Memory - Its Uses and, Especially, Its Deceptions - Become Such a Preoccupation of So Many Writers for Stage and Film?


Taylor, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


No film afforded me more pleasure or food for thought in 2000 than Memento. And no theatre piece afforded me more pleasure or food for thought in 1999 than Mnemonic. It perhaps is no accident that these two works (Christopher Nolan's dazzling reverse-chronology film and Theatre de Complicite's profound synaptic-sizzle of a drama) grapple with the phenomenon of memory. The tricky processes and the human significance of memory - whether on individual level (as in "recovered memories" of childhood abuse) or the collective (post-totalitarian public inquests, say) are preoccupying artists as never before.

Next month, Simon McBurney and company will revive Mnemonic at the National Theatre and later this month, there's a transfer from the Cottesloe to the Olivier for Di Trevis's sold-out stage adaptation of Harold Pinter's never-filmed screenplay of the greatest novel on the subject: Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The conjunction of the two invites a consideration of how drama has attempted to convey this crucial aspect of consciousness.

In a large proportion of memory-plays an autobiographical narrator revisits scenes from childhood. His or her past is as objectively "there" to be dropped in on as Madame Tussaud's or the National Gallery. An equivalent falsity in movies is the supposedly subjective flashback where the retrieval of history is so comprehensive and unimpeded that it actually contains information the "rememberer" is in no position to access. The fact that remembering is a complex negotiation involving what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and fearfully or desiringly anticipate of the future is largely evaded in such works.

The idea of the central figure in a memory piece as some kind of solicitous, curatorial time-traveller was brilliantly demolished in Peter Nichols's 1971 play, Forget-Me-Not Lane where the dynamic nature of recollection and the truth that it takes place in a psychological present tense are vibrantly demonstrated. The title of John Buchan's autobiography is Memory, Hold the Door, but this sounds an unrealistically genteel activity compared to what happens in Forget-Me-Not Lane where memories of the author's wartime adolescence and of a household dominated by his overbearing autodidactic salesman father (welcomed back at weekends about as warmly as if he'd been the Luftwaffe) bucket rudely through the stylised line-up of doors on the semi-circular set.

As the various resummoned characters mutinously chip back at the middle- aged Nichols-surrogate ("We are part of your mental landscape for ever, ducky") or appeal over his head to the audience, the vaudeville velocity of the piece gives the lie to any conviction that we can control our recollections or that they are unshaped by present needs. The year before had seen the premiere of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father, another autobiographical memory- play about a dominating patriarch. But while it's a vivid, funny and touching portrait of this blind, Bard-quoting lawyer, the earlier play adopts a safely conventional approach to the on-going drama of remembering.

Mnemonic and the stage version of Remembrance of Things Past both understand that one method of communicating the behaviour of memory is to create a parallel activity for the audience to experience. The Proust play has the tougher task here since the cumulative rhythms of voluntary and involuntary recollection and the stereoscopic nature of seeing into the past are far easier to substantiate in a 3,500-page first-person novel than they are in just under three hours of stage time. The results at the National are only patchily successful. The incisive surgery and the abrupt suggestiveness of the original screenplay get muffled. But bravely avoiding the easy, banal option of having an author-presenter, the Pinter/Trevis Remembrance plunges you straight into a dream-like flurry of motifs (the vital, triggering trip on the paving stones; the ringing of the garden-gate bell at Combray etc), so that, instructively, you seem to be living inside Marcel's memory before either he or you can climactically unlock the significance of these impressions for his life and his art.

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