“The Commitments”, Or, Give Me Some Space

In an attempt to explore Matt Trueman’s recent ruminations on criticism as a “team sport”, I’ve decided to try and experiment with focussing on particular aspects of certain productions. I won’t do this for all shows I see, but will use the form when it feels right. I’m hoping they’ll take the form of semi-academic, semi-journalistic essays critiquing a certain aspect of a production. For this first one, I’ve decided to consider the relationship of space to the new jukebox musical The Commitments, which has just opened at the Palace Theatre.

There’s an odd moment towards the end of The Commitments when Killian Donnelly’s frontman Deco looks out to the marble and onyx lined grandiosity of the Palace Theatre’s auditorium and shouts “Put your working class hands together”. In this instant, the audience is cast as the band members’ friends and families, the inhabitants of an urban and decaying Dublin of 1986. But though the power of collective imagination doesn’t stop this from being an idea which is realised cognitively, there is something unsettling about this address. With top price seats of £67.50, it’s unlikely that many of spectators sat in the audience would now describe themselves as working class, even if they once were. The audience is asked, by both the creative team and its producers, to forget that they are within the confines of a marbled, grand nineteenth century theatre which they have forked out a non insubstantial sum of money to enter (even those in the £10 cheap seats may have spent a decent amount on travel, dinner and drink) and instead buy into a lie. There is nothing wrong with this per se, of course – audiences are used to being cast as Mark Anthony’s followers, for example, or an army marching on a castle – but within this context it feels uncomfortable. We are voyeurs of a working class culture which is being presented for commercial gain, made all the more obvious by the disconnect between the message on stage and the reality in the stalls. In short, The Commitments is unaware of the space it inhabits.

The musical originally began as a novel penned by Doyle in 1987 (a year after the events of the book take place) before being adapted for screen in a version directed by Alan Parker in 1991. Doyle has a closer involvement in the musical (he was only one of three screenwriters for the film), which is directed by Jamie Lloyd and designed by Soutra Gilmour. The plot revolves around a group of working class Dubliners who, taking lead from ‘manager’ Jimmy, form a band to play a back-catalogue of soul music (some with altered lyrics to make more sense in an Irish context). They go through a series of ups and downs (not least due to the entire band’s affection for one of their back-up singers, Imelda), but ultimately the music brings them together. Though it may seem farfetched, space plays a central role in our understanding of this jukebox musical, and by looking at Ireland as a postcolonial space, domestic and urban spheres and the radical roots of soul music, I hope to explain why.

A consideration of space in any context is important because, as Henri Lefebvre explains in The Production of Space, “To underestimate, ignore and diminish space amounts to the overestimation of texts, written matter, and writing systems, along with the readable and the visible, to the point of assigning to these a monopoly on intelligibility” (62). In his eyes, to neglect space is to allow those in control of it to have more power by spinning text (of all forms) to serve their own purpose. Space, then, is underestimated as a source of power and is often overlooked in study. In the case of The Commitments, which is so defiantly rooted in the urban landscape of Dublin, is just as much about soul music as the people who play it, and which has inhabited different types of cultural space (literary, cinematic and theatrical), a consideration of its relationship with space is imperative.

According to Timothy D. Taylor, Ireland of the late twentieth century has been viewed by many as a postcolonial space, uncovering and shaping a new identity since breaking free from British rule. This is exemplified by one of the novel’s most famous lines, which subsequently appears in the stage adaptation. Fairly early on in their career, Jimmy tells the rest of the band that “The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads. An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland.” The characters in The Commitments are thus rendered as outsiders forging their own path in a space which was previously dictated by oppressive forces. They break free from the traditional constraints of the Irish Renaissance by looking towards popular culture and soul music in an attempt to understand their own identity and their relationship to their country’s past. Referencing the novel, Taylor suggests that “Jimmy’s weapon against his postcolonial condition—and the weapon he tries to arm his musicians with—is soul music. According to Jimmy […] soul is, variously, the rhythm of sex, the rhythm of the factory, revolution, the rhythm of the people, democracy, community” (294). In the musical, however, little to none of this comes through, as the soul music we are presented with is often sanitised and officialised. We get glimpses of the workplaces of these men (never the women) but Doyle’s book fails to articulate how and why it has led them to this path, which means the “weapon” against the postcolonial condition is at the very least blunt, if indeed it exists at all.

Gilmour’s set for this production is one which opens up discussion about domestic and urban space in The Commitments. If experiencing the design literally, it consists of three towering estate blocks enclosing a central courtyard. In the abstract, it’s an evocation of an urban space dominated by breeze blocks and concrete, which could represent any inner-city residential area built in the years since the Second World War. Crucially, walls and doors open up or slide out to reveal homes, flats, garages, bars and office space, ensuring that domestic and urban space are seen as fluid, slotting into one another and remaining constantly responsive to people around them. We never see beyond this area of Dublin which, as Brian Donnelly points out, “is a self-contained world within an actual historical city. Here chronic unemployment constitutes a personal or a family crisis, never a serious political issue” (20). This rings both true and false in equal measure, for while Doyle (and the production) understand that politics doesn’t necessarily mean directly affecting the lives of individuals, he fails to acknowledge that political space interacts with urban and domestic spaces just as freely and abstractly as the urban and domestic interact with one another. This observation comes across loud and clear in Gilmour’s rendering of the band’s local community hall, which unlike every other locale we experience is created by stand-alone set pieces and a shabby curtain. Here we witness a rejection of the idea that the political has an effect on people’s lives, for the community hall – arguably the most politically charged space in the piece – is seen as separate from the urban and domestic spaces around it.

One of the most problematic aspects of The Commitments, however, is its relationship to soul music. Throughout, the leading members of the group explain that soul is ‘music of the people’ which has sex as its most basic, primal appeal. Though this may be true, once we take a closer look at the genre’s formation and relationship to space, the representation of soul in the musical is demonstrated to be verging on exploitational. Mark Anthony Neal explains that “black liberatory expression was initially inspired by the desire to create covert spaces that, on the one hand, would provide the physical parameters in which to recover humanity, but also the space to develop more meaningful forms of resistance.” This ‘covert space’ can be found in the music itself, which through its “polytonal expression […] represented the reconstitution of community within the parameters of aurally defined social space” (119). In Lloyd’s production, soul does, on a basic level, create some kind of “reconstitution of community”, with big numbers like Mustang Sally bringing the whole cast on stage and audience members jumping to their feet (but only after it is suggested by cast members) to experience a collective euphoria. On the other hand, the idea of soul ‘recovering humanity’ is somewhat quashed by the petty squabbles and in-fighting within the band as many of them fail to think about anyone other than themselves and lack basic respect. Similarly, the story is about a group of (mostly) young people who have no interest in overthrowing or questioning present structures and instead are only concerned with minor fame and music-for-music’s-sake. Any form of resistance given potential by this space is thus rendered meaningless. Interestingly, as Taylor points out, Jimmy and Joey reject jazz as a musical genre due to its aestheticisation stripping it “of its potential for political meanings […] It’s music officialised” (295). The same is true, however, of soul music in The Commitments, which has managed to shed and hide its radical roots by creating a space where the music can be enjoyed on a shallow level without consideration of its political implications. Neal sums it up perfectly: “Divorced from its politicized and organic connotations, “Soul” [becomes] a malleable market resource merchandised to black and white consumers alike” (119).

Returning to Lefebvre, Sophie Nield explains his belief that “to change the social, you must change space” (53). While it is perhaps wrong to presume that Doyle and Lloyd’s objective with The Commitments is to ‘change the social’, the emphasis on soul as ‘music for the people’ and on communal euphoria suggests a desire to create some sense of being-together at the very least. Forgetting, however, that “Space, while being produced and shaped by human actions, is able to reciprocally shape and direct human activity and experience” (Neild, 54), they allow the strange sensation of being in both working class community hall and grand middle class Victorian theatre simultaneously to cloud our understanding of events on stage. There is something honest and affirming about The Commitments and its contemplation of community (it’s no coincidence that those two words share their first four letters), but the extravagant theatrical context renders this all but meaningless.

In an early scene located in the community hall, we see the set of an amateur dramatic production of South Pacific littered around the stage. In these cut-outs lies all the possibilities of what The Commitments could have been but fails to achieve by virtue of its spatial context. This crappy looking set embodies the potential that a communal, collective experience can contain within it, where the space inhabited is absolutely crucial to the effect felt. After this moment, the thought of Doyle and Lloyd’s production being toured to similar spaces is one which seems infinitely preferable to where we now witness it, subverting the spatial dynamics exerted by its present home.

 

Bibliography

Donnelly, Brian; Roddy Doyle: From Barrytown to the GPO; Irish University Review (2000)

Lefebvre, Henri; The Production of Space (1974)

Neal, Mark Anthony; Sold Out on Soul: The corporate annexation of black popular music; Popular Music and Society (1997)

Nield, Sophie; There is another world: Space, theatre and global anti-capitalism; Contemporary Theatre Review (2006)

Taylor, Timothy D.; Living in a Postcolonial World: Class and Soul in The Commitments; Irish Studies Review (1998)

 

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