Sunday, 27 June 2010

Some thoughts on the original Morrissey

There's nothing I like better than working my way through the wilder reaches of a filmmaker's oeuvre, especially if their work gets more obscure and more unpopular as their career - well, you can't say progresses, I suppose carries on regardless is the best option. I've an idea that an artist produces their best work when they fall out of public favour, or at least their most uncompromising and honest (which, for me, are synonyms of 'best'). In the past few weeks, I've been looking at some of the later films of Paul Morrissey. Morrissey rose to prominence as the filmmaking crony of Andy Warhol, and it is generally considered that the majority if not all of the filmmaking on such groundbreaking classics as Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys is Morrissey's. His best known films as credited director are the late 60s/early 70s trilogy Flesh, Trash, Heat, which all feature the awesome Joe Dallasandro (a hustler and porn performer elevated by Morrissey's camera and his own extraordinary cinematic presence to international stardom). These films remain a high-benchmark of American independent cinema, of gay cinema and of cinema realism – but this latter is highly deceptive, as although the films appear on the surface as rather haphazard and improvised things, they are meticulously constructed and artificial works (Flesh, for example, is a series of variations on the theme of human flesh as a commodity).

Morrissey is a strange bird, as although his whole career has been devoted to the "alternative" and the "underground", he himself is a political conservative. Here he is talking about Flesh on the DVD commentary:

“A day in the life of somebody living a silly, absurd life. The simple story is of someone who is living some sort of family life in an age where they are no more rules which apply to anything at all, let alone family life. At the time, it was a story which seemed unusual but that kind of story has become the only kind of story left for filmmakers to tell. I can understand why so many of them want to avoid it. Life today is pretty pointless and has little if any meaning. Unless someone sees the humour and comedy in it,  it's better to avoid the subject altogether and go into violence or special effects or gangsters screaming and making faces at one another. But modern life is a little too depressing and can only be treated well with humour."

Morrissey is an avowed authoritarian Republican and, although no longer a practising Catholic, the religion of his childhood seems to haunt him. He's a contrary figure, because although in his interviews and DVD commentaries he affects to despise his characters and their lifestyles, his films have a celebratory mood and certainly his camera adores to the point of sacred love his performers, so despite the scabrous and critical stance he ostensibly takes, one comes away from most of his films feeling that life has been affirmed. He is a peculiarly American filmmaker and it is hard to imagine anyone in Europe matching his style; in Europe, we've a tendency to become unloving when our critical hat is on.

That said, the film Morrissey made around the same time as the Flesh trilogy is perhaps his least likeable – Women in Revolt is a mean-spirited and scabrous piss-take of the women's liberation movement, acted by a lead trio of transvestites – Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them try to break free from the patriarchal chains that bind only to find themselves worse of as a result; as the DVD jacket says, they end up "exploited, derelict or abandoned." There's an extraordinary scene where Darling goes to audition for an agent with whom she impersonates Hollywood starlets, gets on the casting couch and gets cast in cheap pornography – Morrissey's wry comment on career advancement for women in the entertainment industry at the time. Structurally, the film has something in common with the multi-strand women's pictures of the 1930s, most obviously George Cukor's The Women. Cukor became quite a fan of Morrissey's films, campaigning to get Woodlawn an Oscar nomination for Trash and inviting Morrissey himself to appear in the final Cukor film, Rich and Famous. It is in the way in which the two directors film their performers that the link between the two is most obvious, the performers are caressed and adored  in such a way that when the films are projected, they become icons. However, Woodlawn's contribution to Women in Revolt is really repellent, playing a nymphomaniac whose violent and humiliating sexual encounters threaten to burst a number of scenes into anarchy and who ends up a homeless alcoholic urinating in doorways. The sheer virulence of the film's attack on contemporary feminism probably has much to do with Valerie Solanas' shooting of Andy Warhol after the publication of her SCUM manifesto. The attempted assassination (which probably did contribute to Warhol's eventual, relatively early, demise) had a traumatic effect on the Factory crowd, and Women in Revolt as well as Lou Reed's much later Songs for Drella number I Believe are a testament to this unhappy event and the rancour it caused; the whole thing feels rather sad and tawdry to me, at this remove.

Morrissey's later films split into two types: historical/literary aberrations (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, an unusual and much derided collaboration with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on The Hound of the Baskervilles, a piece of eurotrash depicting Beethoven's Nephew) and contemporary satirical melodramas which continue the themes and feel of the Flesh trilogy but with somewhat better production values.

There has been a noticeable cross-fertilisation between Morrissey and another of my other favourite film-makers, John Waters, who surely wouldn't have made his films with Divine without the influence of Morrissey's earlier transvestite romps; but Waters' influence on Morrissey is evident in 1981's Madame Wang's. In this rather prophetic work, an east German spy attempts to infiltrate Californian culture and inspire a revolution in the USA. He decamps with a group of talentless, fat transvestites living in a pretend family relationship in an abandoned Masonic Temple in LA, a metaphorical image of America if there ever was one. The transvestites dream of stardom at the title character's punk rock club but their hippy/showtune/disco hybrid act is behind the times; the spy himself has more of an opportunity for success when his penchant for masochistic self-harm goes down a treat with the denizens of Madame Wang's, yet our 'spy who stayed in the cold' Soviet is having none of the lures of the American dream; he retreats back to the GDR despondent of America ever becoming a communist state. I've read that Morrissey admires the Soviet bloc "for suppressing liberalism, rock and roll and other modish fatuousness" [1] making it is possible to read the German hero of this film as Morrissey's self-portrait; certainly the scenes of Patrick Schoene's Lutz looking around Wang's club appalled and bored at the antics of the punk crowd are staged to encourage the viewer to be equally judgemental at the silliness and human waste of what is going on, yet the film also allows the girl who lives with the transvestites to counter-accuse Lutz of not being able to let his hair down and enjoy himself. Morrissey is a sophisticated enough artist to allow the viewer to mull over both points of view.  Madame Wang's is often very funny; its portrait of absolute no-talents insisting on their chance at stardom looks forward to the American Idol/Big Brother society of our own time; that they are mostly morbidly obese makes the film even more prescient. One scene, in which the German drives a fat tranny to MacDonald's as she eulogizes Hamburgers is as funny and grotesque as anything in Waters' oeuvre, if less inclined than the Baltimore genius to admire the dysfunctional lifestyle of the character.

1984's Mixed Blood is probably Morrissey's finest post-Warhol achievement. I can remember its release being greeted by a bemused review on the BBC by Michael Parkinson, whose bovine reactionary brainlessness was filling in for Barry Norman's affable banality on Film '84. Parkinson was particularly appalled by lead actor Richard Ulacia's line delivery, which on viewing the film all these years later certainly is unusual. Ulacia honks out every line like a vicious goose, without a single variation of intonation or level; in his defence, he is playing a character who is clearly remedial but I can see why connoisseurs of fine acting might be offended. Yet Parkinson's aggressively performed heterosexuality prevented him from seeing the main merit of Ulacia's screen presence – he is probably the best-looking man to ever grace a cinema screen, with a raw sexual energy to go with the looks. Morrissey's camera stares at Ulacia as if it were caught in the headlights, amazed, appalled and intolerably attracted to what it sees. Perhaps Morrissey's cinema is really only appreciable by women and gay men? Most of his films are transfixed by the beauty of their male protagonists and, loathe their actions as Morrissey and his target audience might, neither he nor they can help but be seduced by their physical perfection. This is certainly challenging and does something intriguing to Morrissey's moralistic stance, making it amoral despite itself.

Mixed Blood is another film highly relevant to contemporary viewers: in it, gangs of ethnically-defined teenage drug dealers shoot and kill each other as the stooges of adults who make a profit from their trade; the kids are quite without moral compasses and their cold-bloodedness is chilling. The film is set in Alphabet City before its regeneration and the gangs live and deal in a maze of derelict buildings. In the DVD commentary, Morrissey reads from contemporary newspaper reports of the drug dealing and crime in that neighbourhood; he took most of his incidents from journalistic reports (kids throwing each other from buildings, too young to be tried for murder, drugs dealt as if they were candy). Morrissey gives a valuable insight into his creative process and aesthetic tastes, saying that journalism translated directly onto film would be boring, so he combined it with classic Hollywood storytelling, the plot of Mixed Blood being somewhat derived from the Pepe Le Moko film Algiers. There's also elements of White Heat about Mixed Blood, as Ulacia's gang leader is under the thumb of his possessive mother, played for all she is worth by the legendary Marília Pêra from Pixote. Morrissey emphasises why he tells his shocking tale with a comic tone – "no modern story is worth taking seriously" – and then elucidates why: America is a wealthy and developed country, and if it wanted to do something about a social situation like Alphabet City, it could; it doesn't, so it becomes funny. This rather reminds me of Orton stating that "I developed a mocking, cynical way of treating events because it prevented them from being too painful…" [2] This seems to be a prevalent tactic for a number of intelligent gay 20th century artists and the really telling thing is that, as opposed to sentimental mainstream artists who might pretend to "care" whilst never really mentioning the horrible truths about society, the likes of Morrissey, Orton or Albee (another similar case) pretend not to care whilst never failing to mention the terrible truths…

Mixed Blood, like most of Morrissey's films, is acted by a cast mixing amateur with professional performers. In the case of Mixed Blood, the non-acting of many of the youths playing the gangsters becomes a statement in itself, as in reality on the streets of the world's cities, children and youths play out versions of gangster films, so the ostensible amateurishness of the acting in the film is actually closer to realism than many mainstream films with professional actors on the same subject. It is again intriguing how many gay filmmakers – Pasolini, Waters, Jarman as well as Morrissey – use non-actors in their works, as if to emphasise the very queer idea that everything in reality is a series of acts, and poorly performed acts at that…

Lastly, I watched Morrissey's most recent fiction film, Spike of Bensonhurst, released in 1988. This has the feel of the same period Waters films, with the filmmakers working on a higher budget with more professional actors in the cast, some of them well-known names. The eye-candy at the centre of Spike of Bensonhurst is Sasha Mitchell, ex-Dallas regular who went on to star in the Kickboxer sequels, and he is supported by Ernest Borgnine as a mafia kingpin. The plot is a kind of amoral Rocky combined with Married to the Mob. Spike is a gorgeous, affable idiot who wants to be a boxing champ but doesn't want to get his face damaged, so he hopes that a local mobster will take him under his wings and fix fights for him; things becomes complicated when Spike falls in love with the mobster's (Borgnine's) daughter. This mobster is a morally confused gentleman who gives money to (corrupt) liberal politicians but savours the idea that the local ethnic populations spend all their welfare on the drugs his minions deal; he wants his daughter to marry a WASP lawyer but likes Spike's threats to beat her up if she gets out of line. The film revels in the moral idiocy of its characters; Spike encourages the local Puerto Rican community to clear out the drug dealers but doesn't understand that these dealers are working for the mob he valorises. Morrissey's film understands only too well the way in which legitimate politicians, drug dealing gangsters, very poor ethnic communities and the fools of faux-individualist ideologies are meshed together in contemporary Capitalist societies; he may be a Republican but his films are socially cannier than all of the liberal Hollywood social-conscience filmmakers put together, as well as being a thousand times more entertaining. Spike of Bensonhurst is, despite its perhaps unpromising subject matter, a gloriously feel-good film, almost as joyous an experience as Waters' contemporaneous Hairspray. Spike's fabulous Coati Mundi soundtrack helps keep things buoyant. A shrewd Broadway team might manage to make as successful a musical from Spike as Shaiman et al did from Hairspray (although perhaps they'd have to fillet the film of its soul, as happened with Waters' paean to miscegenation and dance crazes).

Some of Morrissey's films are still not available on DVD, which is particularly saddening for me in the case of Forty Deuce, which imdb gives perhaps the most promising plotline I've ever seen for a film – " A young hustler tries to get drug money by selling a boy to a middle-aged man; his plans are disrupted when the kid dies." No doubt Morrissey and his star, Kevin Bacon, make this as rib-tickling as it sounds…

Since Spike, Morrissey has only co-directed one documentary, released in 2005. A sad note at the end of his imdb biography reads

"He was always responsible for his films in their entirety, working consistently with mostly young unknown actors, writing and directing with no outside interference of any kind. Once financing from "independent" sources no longer allowed him the freedom from interference that he previously enjoyed, he stopped making films."

I fear that we're unlikely to see many films of the likes of Morrissey's again, as although the ready availability of digital technology makes possible, the difficulties of distribution make it extremely difficult for completely independent filmmakers to get their films shown to wide audiences.  Thus are genuine, unmediated voices of truth denied a place in the mainstream in advanced Capitalism; at least, if we search them out, the films of Morrissey and those like him can show us that once such truths were possible to be told.

[1] Yacowar, Maurice The Films of Paul Morrissey (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14

[2] Orton, Joe quoted in Lahr, John Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (Allen Lane, 1978), p. 153

Monday, 21 June 2010

Something's Rotten to Motton in the state of UK Arts

The playwright Gregory Motton has written a scathing polemic against the UK theatre and arts establishment, entitled Helping Themselves: The Left-Wing Middle-Classes in Theatre and the Arts. Needless to say, the book has had precious little publicity (I haven't been able to find a single review online) and I only heard of it on the recommendation of a friend who mentioned it in his facebook status. I grabbed a copy from the National Theatre bookshop and read it quickly – it is, like most polemics, a speedy read. It is a frustrating, inspiring, annoying and important book, the which central argument of which does nail a certain awkward truth about our artistic elite; I say this despite finding much to disagree with in Motton's screed.

Motton's central point is that the last half century has seen a consolidation of middle-class power in the UK (and elsewhere) and that this has been achieved partially by the middle-classes defining themselves as left-wingers at the same time as taking the substance of left-wing argument away from an economic critique of Capitalism, away from advocating the advancement of the working classes, concentrating instead on identity politics and pseudo-liberal nods towards "progressiveness." In Motton's reckoning, Britain has gone to hell in a handbasket since the 1960s and the blame for this lies squarely on the permissive society ushered in at that time and valorised ever since; the main beneficiaries of the eroding of previous hierarchies and deference have been the said middle-classes and the main mugs in the game have been those less privileged. This Motton links with the rise in neoliberal economics:

"The urban middle classes' identification with left-wing ideas ought to be seen, then, in the context of the middle-class revolution which has taken place. For it is notable that many of the aspects of this new leftwingism coincide with another sort of liberalisation – the kind required by consumer capitalism." [1]
Motton goes on to identify the faux-individualism encouraged by consumer capitalism with a popular idea that the arts are a form of self-expression, a development of the Romantic ideal. I say "faux-individualism" but Motton just uses the idea of the individual as a negative, which is all very well when complaining (as complaints have to be made) about the individualistic, selfish society that advanced Capital encourages but dangerous if not nuanced as the polar alternative – collectivism – is full of many of its own dangers, as evidenced by the failures of Soviet and Maoist communism.
After identifying the root of modern artistic ideology in the near-forgotten writings of Herbert Read, Motton goes onto the main body of his attack, on that central institution of new theatre writing the Royal Court. Motton gives a potted history of the English Stage Company, full of satirical digs, with the only artistic director having he good word said about being Oscar Lewenstein; Motton is particularly scathing about the reign of Max Stafford-Clark:

"…the stylish head-prefect who drove a Jensen Interceptor, introducing the dead hand of 'play-development into the Royal Court, and it might be fair to say that his tenure marks a low-point in the status of the writer at 'the writers' theatre'." [2]

Motton is pretty much appalled by the majority of the work produced by the Royal Court over the years; god knows I'm not an uncritical fan-boy of much of it myself, but in developing his argument that this is a middle-class hive of public school educated liberal bullies poisoning the nation with half-silly, half-sordid repertoire of rubbish feels a bit like Motton throwing the baby out with the bathwater (it is worth adding here that a number of Motton's plays were produced at the court during Stafford-Clark's fiefdom, one of which – The Terrible Voice of Satan, I saw; it was quite enough to make me vow never to see a Motton play again…).  Of John Arden's Live Like Pigs - the author of which is introduced as "an architect educated in an all-boys boarding school called Sedberg…" - Motton writes

"A pretty good play this one, which exhibits the middle-class writer's contempt for any feeble working class pretentions to bourgeois  comfort and sophistication, and makes a big noise of supporting the neighbours from hell. I loved this when I was thirteen. We can see now what has happened on the housing estates, where one family can easily terrorise a whole neighbourhood' where, just for an example, a family with 80 criminal convictions can pursue a campaign of terror against a whole community, and end up slaughtering and torturing to death two hapless students. (Not quite so fucking funny now is it, Mr Architect?). The Royal Court has to accept its share of blame for its role of architect of our modern society…" [3]

Now I don't know how most other people have taken Live Like Pigs but it seems to me that Motton here is reading the play as if he were still thirteen. The point of the play surely is not that the pikey Sawney family should be allowed to terrorise their neighbours with official sanction but that the town planners who moved the working classes as  a mass onto poorly designed housing estates were creating this kind of problem of mismatched pseudo-communities in doing so. Arden himself wrote of the play

"I approve outright of neither the Sawneys or the Jacksons. Both groups uphold standards of conduct which are incompatible…" [4]
Soon after, Motton attacks Edward Bond's Saved as "a play whose only achievement is to show how vile and horrid the working class has become" and which casts a "strange spell (…) by its inertia." [5] There certainly are criticisms to be laid at the door of Saved, most of which are encapsulated in Howard Barker's statement
"I'd gone to see Saved on the strength of a review we'd read saying that this was life in South London epitomized. We just didn't think that this was so – we didn't understand much about what Bond was trying to do with the language of the play." [6]

Many working class people were and are much more vocally and intellectually florid, as well as more ethically grounded, than Bond's characters are in Saved. But to attack the play solely on these grounds seems to me to be ignoring its strengths (it is an almighty structural achievement and is surprisingly very funny when performed well) as well as mistaking its actuality as a theatrical statement in and of itself for a realistic, generalised portrait of how the working classes are. Bond is not a realist writer but rather the creator of theatrical experiences/events. It could also be facetiously added that many of those events have since referred to how horrid the ruling classes are. Any individual play of his should be seen as being a part of a body of work by a major artist (for whom self-expression is not the modus operandi) as well as being works in dialogue with the other theatre of his time and, of course, his society.

The reason I take these two examples is because this seems to me to be a major fault in Motton's book; he lumps a lot of individual playwrights together as a mass of Royal Court writers and then beats them all with the same stick. I can say that for me, as a working class teen coming from a Romford council estate and "educated" (if you can call it that) in a local comprehensive school, Bond's plays (along with Orton's and Barker's) were inspirational. Attending the Royal Court during the late 1980s through to the 2000s, I did get the feeling of a lot of not very individual writers putting out plays which were the result of a hive consciousness, offering me some of the most boring evenings I've ever spent in the theatre; lately things seem to have got somewhat better. Ultimately, whilst I agree with the gist of Motton's nailing of the theatre establishment, I find his approach rather scattershot. Motton at least has the grace to concede that by the early 80s Bond (who is himself of working class origin) had left the Court, having

"gone too far and become a Marxist. Not only did this make Bond an embarrassment to their new ideology, it also meant that he rejected the middle-class grip on power IN THE THEATRE, and God forbid, wanted to control things himself when it came to the production of his plays!" [7]

After publicly dissing his old stamping ground so conclusively, Motton then goes on to blame the OZ trial for the rise in pornography and sexual violence, aligning himself with the moralistic/Christian right and certain feminists in the process – there isn't enough space here to go into what I think about this but suffice to say for me both anti and pro pornography arguments are usually too simplistic to deserve the final say on what is certainly a vexed area of human expression.
Motton is at his worst when writing about academia and what he sees as the rise of postmodern philosophies and thinking in the universities. For one, he massively over-exaggerates the pervasiveness of postmodernism in our universities (one of the main points of the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign was that the axed department at Middlesex was about the only centre in the UK at which contemporary European thought is focussed upon, which gives a lie to Motton's paranoia that it, like reds under the bed in 50s America, is everywhere). Even more irritatingly, Motton doesn't actually seem to know what he's talking about when dealing with postmodern thought – he has a de rigueur pop at Derrida but then goes on to give an account of a rather lame argument he had with a university lecturer friend, over whether Bram Stoker's Dracula should be taught as "late nineteenth century anxiety over the end of Empire and racial mixing" which Motton dismisses as "a load of bollocks" [8]. Now, whatever the merits of discussing Stoker's novel in these historical/cultural terms is (and I have to admit that it wouldn't interest me very much to think of the novel entirely in such a way), this has absolutely nothing to do with Derrida and deconstruction. Derrida's interest is in reading a cultural product in a complex way so that it is never reduced to less than the sum of its parts. Motton also mentions Foucault in passing; again, if he knew anything about Foucault's writings on power, he might find an ally in his own analysis that "For while certain older forms of hierarchy have certainly been removed, these have simply been replaced by similar new ones" [9]. But I don't suppose that Motton has actually read enough of Foucault to know anything other than he's a johnny foreigner whose crazy ideas have contributed towards the corruption of our youth…

More seriously, Motton says that "Access to culture and knowledge is snatched away" [10] by contemporary university education. I have no idea how he "knows" this (the book is entirely unbothered by the dreary business of citing sources - probably too close to the sort of wicked things universities encourage working class yoof to do) but I do know that everyone I know who works in academia is striving very hard indeed to provide students with growth, skills, knowledge and access to culture in very trying circumstances, especially given how poorly equipped by their schools and colleges many students who come to us are. In the education section, Motton comes across as a mouthing-off down-the-pub silly bollocks, raving in an even more generalised fashion than in the rest of the book and thus proving Blake's adage that "To generalize is to be an idiot." [11] For most of this section, Motton prattles on about something he calls "common sense" – common sense might have advised him to know something about a subject before railing against it.

This tendency to uninformed opinion-making hazards condemning Motton's book to that bonfire of vanities preserved for the likes of Nick Cohen's What's Left? and Peter Hitchens' The Abolition of Britain, works which were clearly written in a fever of excitement encouraged by an over-wheening belief that something must be worth typing and having published merely because the author believes it. But, its many and manifest faults aside, it would be a shame if Motton's mistakes blinded us to the importance of his better observations. His is a contribution best taken in the spirit of a democratic debate which is prevented from existing by the non-democratic nature of arts leadership in this country, a leadership whose rudder-work prevents a plurality of voices, methods, schools, ways of seeing and doing. Motton is right when he talks of an establishment which tends to marginalize and ignore anyone who disagrees with its avowed ideological or/and artistic stance, condemning any dissident as

"a sinister villian with an obscene agenda, a real enemy of good society, an enemy of the people, a failure seeking to aggrandise himself, a reject with personal problems, deluded, megalomaniac." [12]

I've mostly concentrated here on what irks me about it but I'd heartily recommend Motton's book is to anyone with a passionate interest in the Arts in the UK. It has the sense of being a cultural grenade lobbed through the glass window of that invitation-only coffee shop which the chattering classes have turned the Arts into in this country; like any grenade, its effects are scattershot and for ever palpable hit there's half a dozen undeserving collateral damages. But cultural grenades are easier to get over that actual ones; only wusses should be afraid of catching this one for fear of it going off and losing them face.

[1] Motton, Gregory Helping Themselves: The Left-Wing Middle-Classes in Theatre and the Arts (Leveller's Press, 2009), p.18
[2] Ibid., p. 122
[3] Ibid, p. 108
[4] Arden, John Three Plays (Penguin, 1964), p. 101
[5] Motton, p. 113-114
[6] Barker, Howard in Trussler, Simon (ed.), New Theatre Voices of the Seventies (Methuen, 1981), p. 186, cited in Rabey, David Ian Howard Barker: Politics and Desire - An Expository Study of his Drama and Poetry, 1969-97 (Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 20
[7] Motton, p. 105
[8] Motton, p. 191
[9] Motton, p. 19
[10] Motton, p. 188
[11] Blake, William Annotations to Reynolds in Keynes, Geoffrey (Ed.) Blake Complete Poems (Oxford University Press,  1966), p. 451
[12] Motton, p. 136

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Defending the indefensible? Paradise Found at the Menier

By coincidence, a week after I saw the opera Paradise Lost in Wrocław I saw a new musical called Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The musical has a book adapted from Joseph Roth's novel The Tale of the Thousand and Second Night by playwright Richard Nelson, and songs adapted from the waltzes of Johann Strauss II which have been festooned with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. The musical has been more or less universally abused by critics and bloggers; I went to the theatre with a fair amount of trepidation, thinking that I was going to see something in the same league as the much (and deservingly) maligned Ernest Hemingway musical Too Close to the Sun. It surprised me that I came out at the end having actually liked some of Paradise Found.

I have ambivalent feelings about musicals and only booked for this as it has been co-directed by Harold Prince, whose 1980 Drury Lane production of Sweeney Todd was one of my formative theatre experiences, and the other shows I've seen of his have also been staging miracles – hell, he even managed to make Phantom of the Opera into a show I enjoyed, and I usually hate the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  During the first 20 or so minutes of Prince's new production, I felt that I was going to be in agreement with those that have derided it – it seemed a sloppy, leering and rather absurd musical about the Shah of Persia coming to Vienna in the late 19th century in order to cure his "ache" at not being able to raise an erection with any of his many wives or indeed with anyone in his homeland. The story is set up with such vulgarity that it's like being stuck in a confined space with a third-rate Zero Mostel impersonator who insists on telling you about his love-life, gestures and all. The Shah brings with him his head Eunuch (played by Mandy Patinkin in a performance of such counter-intuitive strangeness that I couldn't help but be spellbound by it) and this Eunuch is taken out on the town by a Viennese Baron whilst the Shah lies in bed nursing his lack of a hard-on. The poor old Eunuch is dragged from brothel to boudoir to what seems to be a 19th century heterosexual sex club complete with maze, as all the time with the cast sing with oomph these Strauss knock-off songs.

It was around 35 minutes into the show that I realised that I was actually, despite myself, rather enjoying it. By the time the Shah had raised himself from his bed, dragged himself to a Ball in his honour and got a stonking hard-on for the Empress, in response to which the Baron and the Eunuch conspire to dress a prostitute up as Her Majesty, disguise the brothel as a palace and satisfy the Shah by pretence I was veritably intrigued. The show seemed to be a rather extraordinary way of talking about the idea that desire can be fulfilled through illusion; I could see what had attracted intelligent theatre makers like Prince, his co-director Susan Stroman and others Broadway royalty to the piece, which far from being the old-fashioned froth which most people have dismissed it as seemed to me to be very much tuned into our age of promiscuity and readily available pornography, Vienna standing in as a bourgeois world par excellence in which anyone with the cash or a credit card can get themselves off to an illusion that they are shagging the object of their desire but where it is all being done by proxy. In this sense, Paradise Found seems to me to a remarkably postmodern work, dealing not only with the sense that reality and illusion are to Westerners now just as good as each other, but also postmodern in the sense that the songs were not so much adaptations by deconstructions of Strauss' music, making them sing about what their lavishness excludes – the dirty truth about the sex-industry economy which was the Vienna they were written for.

The second act of Paradise Found becomes stranger still, as the characters who have just been behaving like frantic cartoons in an end-of-pier sex farce reveal that there have real emotions and suffer real consequences for their behaviour. The tone of the show now veers wildly from the lubricious and vulgar to the heartfelt and stricken and it can't be said that the change of gear is a success aesthetically, except that such an awkward gear-change does make the proceedings much more like life. In refusing consistency of tone, the piece attains a kind of crazy realism (audiences and critics hate this kind of thing, which is an interesting phenomena worth thinking about in and of itself). The final quarter of the show is over-ambitious, to say the least, in trying to hang a late-Shakespearean All Is Forgiven and Redeemed ending on the piece, a la Pericles (which is also set partly in a brothel). The ending is mostly unsuccessful because the actor playing the Baron, Shuler Hensley, is so convincing at showing us a man whom circumstance, society, drink and lack of character have brought to a bad place, a place which there's no getting up from; the Broadway musical's traditional requirement for a happy resolution is shown to be in an irresolvable tension with what actually happens to people in society – which again is interesting in itself but kind of makes the show commit hari-kari before the audience's appalled eyes.

Paradise Found
was, for me then, a mind-boggling experience and all the more fascinating for it; I found it more intriguing than many musicals that get audiences or critics or both salivating with raptures. Somewhere in his diaries, Joe Orton pours scorn on the idea that there can be such a thing as "an interesting failure" – yet with the right amount of mulling, some failures do give the mind much to be interested in.