The week in culture: Why dream tickets are often a yawn

 

Talking about his new play to a journalist recently, Stephen Poliakoff said this: "If this works as I want it to, it will be like a vivid dream."

He presumably felt this would be a recommendation, which is slightly odd, really, given that being told someone else's dream is a widely accepted benchmark of tedium. For me, that line worked more like a warning flag than a come-on, promising, as it did, that coherence and plausibility were not going to be a guaranteed element of the evening. I suppose the word "vivid" offered one kind of mitigation – the suggestion that My City would be lively enough to make good whatever it lacked in narrative coherence. Or perhaps Poliakoff was relying on the fact that having a dream remains a universally popular experience, however reluctant most people are to hear about someone else's.

I think he got his wish anyway – My City begins with what looks like a moment of skewed social realism, as a young man encounters a former teacher lying on a bench on the Embankment. It's an odd moment that, but not an incredible one. As the play continues, though, with young man and teacher meeting up for a drink which then turns into an all-night wander across the city, things get stranger and stranger. Two other former teachers arrive, apparently unaltered by the passing years. And there's something otherworldly about the settings. They meet initially in a bar five floors underground in a shopping mall, and when one of the exit doors is opened a blaze of infernal light floods across the stage. Is this some other plane of existence?

Unfortunately, this feels less like having a dream yourself than being told one – at considerable length. We don't know these people after all, and if our only means of getting to know them are these oneiric scenes, then we can't reliably get to know them anyway. What they say may be evidence of psychology. Or it may just be part of a delirious chain of consequences generated by a mind that isn't even available for our inspection. Who is doing the dreaming here, after all? It can't be us, or the bafflement would be alleviated by familiarity – that being the characteristic texture of dreams. For Poliakoff, this may well feel like a liberation after 12 years of working within the relative literalism of film, which will always ground the action in some kind of reality however much you strive to lift it free. But for us it's a bit more trying.

It's not as if Poliakoff's never successfully brought off a vivid dream before. That, surely, is what Caught on a Train is – his 1980 television film in which Michael Kitchen plays an arrogant young businessman effectively hijacked by Peggy Ashcroft's German dowager. But Caught on a Train, rather literally, runs on tracks by comparison with My City. Its dreamlike quality exists not in any internal surrealism or flickers of register but in the powerlessness of the protagonist, who finds one thing happening after another against his will. And it's not as if you can't successfully do theatrical dreams either. Caryl Churchill's done it more than once, though she takes the precaution (if that's the right word for a writer so headlong) of keeping things short and keeping things very strange indeed. Her play Far Away enfranchises you from the task of trying to make sense of things as you sit in the theatre because it's patently obvious you will fail. My City, by contrast, is so teasingly close to a naturalistic narrative that you spend quite a bit of time attempting to close the gap. You'll fail of course, because Poliakoff – to be fair to him – had no interest in creating such a thing in the first place. He wanted, I guess, to make something that would tug at the unconscious. Unfortunately, he's also filled his play with speeches about the pleasures of telling and listening to stories, which only serves to underline the fact that dream narratives can be like a magician's knot, a complicated set of loops and involutions which ultimately pull taut to reveal... nothing. The lights come on and you blink and the details fade, however vivid they were while you slept.

A long wait for the spy to come in from the cold

More than one critic made the point that Tomas Alfredson's new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy took some risks with its pacing, and made the point admiringly too. It's a film that's prepared to let a scene stretch so that the viewer thinks "maybe I haven't seen everything there is to see here?" and begins to feel a little paranoid. These things are always relative though. Slow now is not what it was. I was intrigued to see that at least one viewer who'd been inspired to revisit the 1979 television version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by the release of the new film was startled to find it sluggish in its pacing. The performances were still as good, the storytelling still precisely faithful to le Carré's original. But to a sensibility attuned to contemporary tempos it felt curiously protracted and leisurely. I experienced something similar recently when trying to persuade a teenager to watch Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven. Everything I'd loved about the series when it first went out was still there, but even to someone predisposed to be patient it felt astonishingly slow. In many cases it amounted to little more than a second or two extra on a shot, but all those seconds, sifting steadily down, accumulated into the same sense of frustration you get when you're trundling through a motorway contraflow. Did we just have more time back then or has television permanently re-engineered our inner clock?

No need to gloss over a portrait

Here's a thought experiment. A London gallery runs a portrait competition and invites the public to vote on their favourite picture, so that a popular choice can be revealed alongside the official jury selection. Do they go for the works of stunning photo-realism or the more painterly works that take a looser approach to depiction? It isn't just a thought-experiment, of course, because the BP Portrait Award does just that – almost invariably demonstrating the deep affection gallery-goers have for works of art, which seem to wish to conceal they are works of art at all. There's something captivating, for a lot of people, about the erasure of all evidence that a human hand was ever involved. I say "almost invariably" though because this year's visitors' choice turned up a surprise. The winner, by Jan Mikulka, looks amazingly like a studio portrait photo as does the third place painting. But in between them is Nathan Ford's "Abi" in which the subject's rheumy eye stares out at us from the epicentre of a wild scuff of dark paint marks which, very roughly, give us the subject's wildly tangled beard and hair. No way of knowing whether it's a good likeness or not, but there's something heartening in the fact that its definition of lifelikeness seems to appeal to the public almost as much as photographic gloss.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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