The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002

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Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Canongate Crime

Robert Edric

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at Hull Central Library
Tel: 01482 223344
E-mail: [email protected]

{ Critical Eye – on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth
McCoy's Coffee Shop, 22 November

Do I turn off my mobile phone, or should I just leave it switched on? This is the first thought to cross my mind as I take my seat at a table in McCoy's Coffee Shop. After all, the artists staging this event want their performance of Luigi Pirandello's The Man with the Flower in his Mouth to briefly surface above the ordinary goings on in the café. Those ordinary goings on could involve my phone going off, but in the end, in deference to the performers, I decide to play it safe, and switch the mobile off.

I sip my coffee, smoke a cigarette and look suspiciously at the people around me. Has it started yet? I suppose those two dapper-looking chappies over there near the corner of the room could be the performers. Their romantic and appropriately foppish attire gives them away. So, too, does their slightly mannered speech. And the fact that they are reading from scripts. Oh, yes; and the bloke pointing a camcorder at the pair also lets the cat out of the bag somewhat.

I realise that I have caught the tail end of the play-the team is doing a series of performances throughout the day. I finish my coffee and wait. Suddenly there is a great thump-thumping as someone drags first one, then another wheelie bin up the flight of stairs that runs through the middle of the building. Ah, this must be the start of the show, I think to myself, but no-it is just the kitchen staff, getting on with their chores.

We are soon invited to relocate upstairs, which rather took the 'accidental encounter' element out of the event. The show begins, and the aforementioned gentlemen proceed to chat about apparent trivia. It transpires that theirs is a chance meeting caused by a missed train, an interesting parallel to the fact that our being present at this event is also supposed to be an instance of happenstance. The two men moan about women, theatre and trains, and fret over the safety of a package left in the parcel room. As the piece proceeds, however, a dark profundity behind the apparently frivolous chit-chat slowly begins to reveal itself. I realise that one of the characters is more talkative, more neurotically charged than the other. He speaks of patients in a doctor's waiting room, each "hugging their secret sickness," seated on chairs that benevolently open their arms to receive them. He bestows upon his companion's failure to catch his train the grandiose poignancy of a "grave misfortune."

The 'flower in the mouth' of the play's title refers to the garrulous man's incurable oral cancer. If death were an insect, he says, and that insect chose to settle upon your lapel, how wonderful it would be if a stranger would come up to you and politely ask permission to pluck it off and cast it away from you. The man has, in coming face to face with the dreadful fact of his own mortality, developed a more acute awareness and a singular appreciation of all the small things in life. His parting words to his companion advise him to look closely at a clump of grass, imagine each blade to represent one of the days he has left to live, and to make sure, before he does so, that he selects a good, big tuft.

Undoubtedly, the writing is lovely. The location, with remnants of its elegant architecture still apparent, provides an appropriately decadent setting. However, in this sort of interventionist event that seeks to present art slap bang in the middle of everyday comings and goings, actors have to work very hard to focus and retain their audience's attention. One wonders if the work would have been better appreciated in the more quiet and controllable environment of a theatre. This would have allowed the audience to concentrate on the words being spoken, but this would also have defeated the object of the artists involved. Perhaps had they been more practised in live theatre work, and more familiar with the highly specialised skills required of an actor, they would have found their task more effectively executed. Being without their scripts would also have helped them to achieve the curiously paradoxical and almost impossible feat of blending into the background while simultaneously standing out from it. As it was, the performers had to compete with a food-bearing waitress on her quest for "number ten, please", along with a family's discreet attempt to leave their table, while the irrepressibly funky pop strains of Streetlife oozed tinnily from the café's sound system.

Taking the art to the people, whether they want it or not, is laudable, as there is always the chance that someone will discover that they do, indeed, want it very much. One imagines that hypothetical someone, sandwich arrested mid-air in its journey from plate to mouth and back again, and their inward cry of "Eureka! This is what has been missing from my life. Henceforth I shall endeavour to seek out more theatre, more literature, more art!" Whether these intrepid souls were successful in achieving these ends remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the desire to create an opportunity for someone to accidentally encounter something beautiful while gobbling down a hasty lunch is praiseworthy in itself.