WHAT'S ON, London, 30 May 1990
CONFESSION OF AN AUTO-DIDACT
FOR HANGING THE PRESIDENT, PLAYWRIGHT MICHELE CELESTE WROTE IN A WHITE SOUTH AFRICAN DIALECT BUT HE SPOKE TO CLARE BAYLEY WITH AN ITALIAN ACCENT.
There are many ways that people become playwrights. Some nurture a burning desire to write from childhood. Others start by writing review sketches at university. Michele Celeste is an auto-didact. He was a classical guitarist from Italy's deep South, Gargano in Puglia but had never been given formal lessons. When he came to London to learn English, he had never been to the theatre. One day walking along the Strand, he followed a woman into a theatre where a Tom Stoppard play was being lapped up by the audience. "I had to pay £8 or £9 for a ticket, and I had no job so that was a lot. People were enjoying it but I couldn't understand why." So he went away and wrote a play (Riot Party) which won the 1982 Young Vic World Wildlife Award.
"When I arrived from Italy I was confident my English was good enough to get by. I was all buoyant and Italian, but when I arrived I tried to speak and there I was stuck on Victoria Station platform frozen, I couldn't even ask for somewhere to stay. So I told myself I wasn't going to leave this country until I knew English well. I didn't know what a huge commitment that was. I'm still here!.. Then after I won the award I thought it must be bloody easy to be a playwright. That's how I got started. Now I know it's not so easy!" Riot Party was based on Celeste's experiences doing casual work in London hospitals, working predominantly with West Indians. It was set in London's black community and written using dialect forms Celeste had picked up from his work mates. The first setback in the playwright's career came when Frank Dunlop, then manager of the Young Vic, discovered that the play was written by a white man and refused to produce it. Ever since, the immigrant from Puglia has found himself frequently in conflict with the theatrical establishment. Despite having won numerous prizes, including the coveted Mobil Playwrighting Award for Hanging The President he has rarely been produced: He is not bitter, but has clear ideas about the reasons for it.
"The `80s have been totally closed to any true alternative vision of the arts. Because of political conservatism in the last ten years, it has imposed a conservatism into the arts. And the theatres have gone along with it however much they claim they haven't. The miners have rioted, the blacks have rioted, even the painters have gone on strike, but nobody in the theatre has made an uncompromising stand. They have accepted the situation, gone along with it and adapted accordingly. As a result I feel they have just played into the hands of the government. It has left unproduced a lot of playwrights like me." Celeste has been involved in politics since his youth, a child of the `68 generation. But it is also a peculiarly Latin political fervour which is so at odds in this country, a coupling of optimism with individual initiative which is quite alien to our cynical, herd-bound northern culture.None the less, Celeste's buoyancy and sense of humour remain in tact and his fortunes seem to be picking up even as Thatcher's are flagging. Ian Brown's highly successful Traverse Theatre production of his play Hanging The President which won a Fringe First at last year's Edinburgh Festival is transferring to Battersea Arts Centre this week. Hanging The President is a violent but enlightening play set on Death Row in Pretoria, but even this was not without controversy. The Church of Scotland banned the Traverse production because of its explicitness (masturbation and simulated sex acts between men on stage).
The play is written in a thick South African dialect, an extraordinary feat for a writer for whom English is a second language. Celeste vaguely says that he "listened to a few tapes of South Africans" and that "perhaps it was easy for me because of my musical background." He went on to explain, "I had to create a language. If the play had been written in South Africa it would have been in Afrikaans. I know the South African accent has strong cadences, a strong rhythm. The dialogue in the play is a quite stark, a lot of one-liners, and no description as such. I wanted a rhythm to go on as such which at the same time would reflect the emotions and passions that are expressed with quite hard sounds." The play is about two Afrikaaners who have been sentenced to death for horrific murders, both motivated by sexual jealousy, one of which is a sexual murder. In the course of the play it becomes apparent that at root the motivation in each case has been a perverse idea of racial supremacy. Both men are angry and confused that their president, who has taught them apartheid, is now allowing them to die "like a kaffir". "When I wrote the play, I wanted someone who had never shared anything with a black to share his death. I was writing about apartheid in a visceral way, not a logical way."
Very explicit links are drawn in the play between misogyny and racism. The prisoners are dehumanised to the point where they must subjugate blacks and women equally to bolster their neurotic need for power. "Apartheid makes everyone a victim," explained Celeste. "The prisoners themselves are. The moment they deny themselves the humanity of relating to their wives or girlfriends, they deny their own humanity. They are paranoid and psychopathic without a way out. They are going to be hanged. Apartheid can only die. But those men are just as much victims, even if they are not sympathetic. They have made themselves victims." Never one to fall into the victim's role, Michele Celeste is steaming ahead, with a production of Hanging The President scheduled for the autumn in New York's Soho Rep theatre, and an Italian production appearing at the Asti Festival in northern Italy in September. Celeste himself has translated the play into Italian. "It's the first thing I've written in Italian, which is quite strange," he says with a chuckle. But how to convey the sense of Afrikaans captured so cleverly in the English version? "The trouble is that most people in prison in Italy have a Neopolitan accent, which would sound very funny in the context of the play. So we will have to find something neutral, which doesn't sound Italian or English. I'll provide a basic translation and the rest will be done with the actors in Asti." Celeste has come a long way since he arrived at Victoria Station without a word of English.