TELEVISION / Facing out the enemy

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The Independent Culture
'ANOTHER Night of Rubbish on the Telly' announced the credits for Screenplay's production of Manfred Karge's play 'Man to Man' (BBC 2). Come, come - it was a bit trying here and there but not as bad as all that, surely? Karge's play, or rather Tilda Swinton's performance, was a chatterer's favourite at the Edinburgh festival a couple of years ago - one of those events which maddeningly become both unmissable and inaccessible. Now everyone who had to endure the malicious enthusiasm of those who went early ('You really must see it but I hear tickets are very hard to get') had a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Well, not quite of course. In the compressed, sweat-lodge atmosphere of the Traverse Theatre's tiny auditorium, Swinton's nagging, button-holing performance must have been inescapable and so correspondingly more powerful. On television, the equivalent of three other theatres are available at the lazy flick of a finger and you don't have to climb over anyone's knees to get out to the bar. John Maybury's solution was to keep faith with the essential spareness of the play (Tilda Swinton, you might say, provided not just the whole cast, but the scenery and sets as well), but to use television technology to fidget on behalf of the viewer. So, if Swinton's monologue (as a woman who disguises herself as her dead husband to keep his job) palled a little, you could spend some time admiring her spectacularly ravaged teeth, courtesy of a pin-sharp close-up which broke with the conventional etiquette of camera positioning. And if, from time to time, you found the strident artificiality of Swinton's performance embarrassing you could take refuge in the snowfall of motifs which supported her story of survival through the war.

The video effects were sometimes mysteriously beautiful (when Swinton, shrunk by arthritis, was recollecting the death of her husband, black and white footage of an ice-skater dancing with a dwarf swum into vision); sometimes a touch too neat (as she recalled the children pissing swastikas in the snow, she was seen through a frosted frieze of crooked crosses). But Maybury was in control of the electronics rather than the other way round; the most powerful shock in the film, an abattoir drench of blood which left Swinton dripping, was decidedly low tech.

Earlier in the evening on BBC 2 States of Mind had continued its run with a depressing portrait of Philadelphia, a city whose up- beat, Coke-inspired adverts ('See what people who believe in the power of each other can do,' sings a choir, as a black man high-fives a small white boy) are belied by the reality of coke-inspired depression and civic bankruptcy. Russell England's documentary used tourist ads and mayoral campaign broadcasts to stinging effect in a film which relied on close profiles of citizens to represent the city. His subjects ranged from Thacher Longstreth, 'the last WASP to hold elective office' in the city (and a man prepared to wear a tiger tail to a Princeton class reunion), to Barbara Smith, a campaigner in a neighbourhood anti- drugs group, who had taken to shouting at the dealers through a megaphone. Both were fine citizens in their way, corroboration that the ad-man's fantasy has its roots in the truth. But for some reason the remark that stayed in your mind was the dismissive bark of a radio talk-show host: 'The human race . . . the more I see of it the more I like my dog.'

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