Friday, July 15, 2011

Divorce: A Love Story

Coincidence or zeitgeist? This week I've seen two works that use divorce as at once a lens onto the personal intimacy that shadows public policy, and as an analogy for the necessary separation of church and state. The works are as different as different can be: Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in February, and Howard Brenton's play Anne Boleyn, revived at the Globe this summer after a successful run last year. Anne Boleyn takes up the famous story of Henry VIII's dual divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Roman Catholic Church, but suggests that Boleyn was not simply the strumpet of historical repute: she was a passionate, well-read Tyndale Protestant saving the soul of King and country. Brenton has an excellent article about the genesis of the play, where he reveals that it was seeded by Dominic Dromgoole's suggestion he write about the translation of the King James Bible, which marks its 500th anniversary this year.

Theatre, like Biblical translation, depends on a scrupulously accurate choice of words; unlike Biblical translation, that choice has to be made to allow for -- even create -- ambiguities, ironies and fatal double meanings. Brenton, like Shakespeare, uses a court setting to show how assiduously language is politicked, how weighty its precise dualities can be. He also follows the conceit of lovers speaking most truly in the language of metaphor: Henry and Anne sing to each other when and what they cannot speak openly. They long, in verse, for a pre-linguistic island idyll where they could communicate without or beyond words.

Yet it is Anne's copy of Tyndale's The Obedience of a Christian Man, annotated for Henry, that provides her with life after death when James I discovers it in a secret panel in a trunk (hoary but effectively done by the brilliant James Garnon playing James as a ticc'ing, dancing, roaring cross between Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly), as the book itself preserved the ideas and words of Tyndale even when the man himself (and many copies of his books) were burnt. And this small black book containing sedition becomes an effective theatrical device, a loaded secret passed from hand to hand across time. On the one hand, it liberates Anne to follow her conscience; on the other, it liberates Henry to take total power and, just outside the timeframe of the play, leads to the rise and rise of the mercantile Puritans, to the colonisation of North America and beyond.

All this turns on a book and a divorce, on the swearing of oaths (sometimes under torture) and the promises of lovers tested against the word of God. The value of giving one's word is measured against divine and human authority on the one hand, and against the individual conscience and heart on the other. Within the closed and corrupt world of the court, it seems like neither truth is possible -- theatre relies on that slippage and impossibility, but at the same time, on the verbal contract between audience and performer that we accept these words as a promise of a complicated kind of truth, one hidden within what is seen. This art of revealed mystery seems to me to be a manifestation of Christianity (the Globe is staging the Mysteries later this summer, currently being advertised by one of those posters that makes me want to smash my head into a wall -- God as a grandad in an armchair and, oh look, sexy naked Eve, the only woman featured) -- or Christianity itself a development of the religious mystery of Athenian theatre, which itself has a strong relation to the language and form of the law courts.

That's also the case with A Separation, a legal drama not in the sense of Law and Order or even Twelve Angry Men: instead it's about how the nature of litigation pervades every aspect of life as two families become entangled in a mesh of constant cross-questioning, assertion, delayed revelation, evidence, self-betrayal, and negotiation.

This trailer has no subtitles, but its sense is clear: this is a film about argument. An argument between individuals, in a series of small rooms. People who are connected to each other not only by incident, but by the passionate debate and desperate negotiation that ensues. Here are people living through language: verbal and gestural. In the film, all the crucial action moments that would be front and centre in a mainstream film occur offscreen, loading the dialogue of each scene with tension and revelation. In other words, it's great, necessary, brilliant, terrifying filmmaking.

The film is easy and hard to summarise (Peter Bradshaw's review for the Guardian does a good job), but the opening seconds make clear that the titular separation (the full title is Nader and Simin: A Separation) is one that is prelude to a divorce, as Nader and Simin argue their case before an unseen magistrate, whose place is taken by the camera and the audience. So from the start, the viewer is pulled in to the film's talky vernacular, its back-and-forth of assertion and contradiction, of eloquent body language and unspoken secrets. We are put in the position of adjudicator.

When I say the film is "talky," it's not like Woody Allen: although people quibble about definitions and verbal felicities, although there's a fantastic small scene where Nader takes his daughter Termeh to task over an English-Farsi vocabulary test. When she offers an Arabic word for 'guarantee', a word given to her by her teacher, he tells her to use the Persian word, even if it risks losing a mark. Not only does it reveal Nader's letter-not-the-spirit prideful personality, which is one of the motor's of the film's grindingly tragic events, but also the significance of language as cultural inheritance and legal formality. Yet even 'guarantee' is not a guarantee of anything: all words are translations, and therefore treacherous.

And that brings forth a question central to the film, about the arbitration of meaning. For the opening of the film to defer that arbitration to the camera/viewer is a bold move in a country where magistrates are not only legally, but theologically, bound. When we eventually meet a magistrate, he is revealed -- like the judge in Kim Longinotto's documentary Divorce Iranian Style -- to be an intelligent, thoughtful and just man, but one operating in an impossible system. The conundrum is evident from the start, where Simin presents her case for divorce thus: she has applied for a visa to America, where she believes that she and her daughter will find more equal opportunities; Nader is blocking the move because he has to care for his elderly father who has Alzheimer's. An impossible, perfect, parable-like paradox is presented: Simin is arguing for divorce on the grounds that she is currently in a position of inequality; but divorce cannot be obtained on her terms, because of that inequality. Were there full equality before the law in Iran, she would not be seeking a divorce. Simin can travel to America alone once she is divorced, which Nader wearily (and fatefully) agrees to, but Termeh can only travel with her father's permission, which he will not give.

The giving of permission, and one's word, proves crucial as each character is asked to present their version of events on oath, most crushingly when it is Termeh's turn. As in the Tudor court, oaths are always taken under coercion, whether human or divine. Such politics of fear raises the question of whether truth can be thus obtained (as in the debate about torture); feminists have coined the term 'coercive consent' to describe the situation in which a person with less power enters into a sexual or other relationship with a person with significantly more power (student/teacher, servant/employer), where the coercion may not be overt but may relate to implicit fears such as loss of earnings, grades or even immigration status. I think a similar term can be applied to the oaths taken and confessions made in A Separation and Anne Boleyn, particularly by the women, while the men can better afford to cling to pride and honour as justifications for following the letter of the law. (Echoed in this week's New Yorker cartoon-in-search-of-a-caption).

There's no real conclusion to this post, as there's no real conclusion to either the play or the film: Anne Boleyn ends with a whimper, unable to face up to the torture and murder of its deeply sympathetic central character, or to the less savoury consequences of the Reformation and James' scholiastic rule; A Separation ends with one of the most audacious final scenes in recent cinema, one that is both a still tableau, an agony of waiting that pulls us deeper into the titular characters' as it reinforces our role as magistrate, and one that, through the placement of the camera and the use of sound, shows that a divorce -- any divorce, not just that of a king -- takes place in, and as part of, a social maelstrom of other lives and losses. Like Nader and Simin, we are all still waiting to see what could happen if a full divorce of church and state, of authority and intimacy, were to take place, and how language, truth, heritage and even love -- forged in a crucible of religious tradition that we still cannot shake -- will resolve themselves.

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