Thursday, February 12, 2009

Living Abroad Matters 10 - Exhilarating Show

Billy Elliot Fires Me Up!

I am a working class girl, schooled in Labour politics in the industrial backblocks of Melbourne. I understand the workers’ struggle against oppression and the rage of political protest. I know what it is to have a fire in your belly for a better life. That’s why every fibre of me lit up with the gritty and gutsy musical Billy Elliot.

Superlatives like electrifying, pure magic and exhilarating can barely express the astonished thrill I felt one otherwise-dull Monday night while drinking in this defiant celebration of robust physicality and triumph over a prescribed life of poverty and drudgery.

The language is rough and uncouth, at times incomprehensive in the heavy accent of County Durham, where only masculine aggression and determined guts could prepare you to step into a cage and be lowered into the ground every day of your life; where only hard drinking could numb the bleak despair.

This smash-hit musical, based on the inspirational movie, is all the more exciting because it tells of recent history. I remember the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Coal miners across England went on strike to protest the Tory government’s proposed pit closures and massive losses of 20,000 jobs.

I remember the violent clashes of picketing strikers and truncheon-wielding coppers. I remember the belligerent intransigence of the Maggie Thatcher Government that refused to capitulate to the miners’ demands. In a famous speech, Thatcher condemned the strikers as “the enemy within”. I remember the news that filtered across the ocean to Australian TV screens; footage of posturing, pampered, self-righteous politicians with hearts of stone towards the prolonged suffering of families.

Proud members of the National Union of Mineworkers knew that solidarity was power, They knew that every scab who broke ranks weakened the collective strength of the strike. Whole communities across the north of England and South Wales relied on the coal mining industry for their livelihood for decades up until the 80s. Going down the pits was every boy’s unquestioned future, and marrying a miner at 17 was the life script for every girl. This generational way of life, the only one they knew, was under threat.

Set amid this harsh class conflict, is the story of one gangling, unformed boy, who finds a spark within himself and struggles to escape his suffocating fate and find self-expression through dancing.

When Billy asks his senile old grandma what his grand-dad was really like, Nan lets it rip in a geriatric cameo performance par excellence. Her song, We’d Go Dancing spills the beans on what the good ol’ days were really like; the reality of an incorrigible drunken, abusive husband who’d spend all the housekeeping money on booze, where the only brief respite was a the Saturday dance when “He’d hold me tight. He was air. He was water. He was breath. He was light…and it was bliss for an hour or so.”

Billy’s furious dance through the streets when his dad forbids him to audition for the Royal Ballet School expresses his tortured anguish, while his freedom dance with the vision of his spectacular adult self is breathtaking. It makes you gasp.

Billy’s tough, nuggety father is torn between the security of the old ways and the glimmer of hope he sees in his son and he portrays his conflicted emotions in his bittersweet ballad: Deep Into the Ground…."Once I was a young man, I looked over vales and hills, And I saw myself a future of riches and of thrills, But on my 15th birthday, I paid my union dues, and they sent me deep into the ground.”

Billy’s feisty ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson has the grace and sense to forcefully break his sentimental guilty ties to his old town and she releases Billy to a grander life. And the young man lets go of grief over of his dead mother, free to be mentored by other parent-figures in his pursuit of excellence.

What a feast of imagery. Porky pre-pubescent girls, prancing in tutus, share the stage with burly miners with booming voices. Billy’s gay mate, Michael is such a mischievous, loveable character. The hilarious scene where the boys dress up in women’s clothes asserts everyone’s right to be an individual, free from social constraints. The contrast between the cultured London toffs and the earthy working man and son show the deep class divide in English society.

For all of Elton John’s myriad successes; his endless string of hits, his sell-out shows, composing the score for The Lion King and Aida, and his heart-breaking performance at Princess Diana’s funeral, writing the music for Billy Elliot is the pinnacle of his eminent career; a masterpiece. Billy Elliot gets to the essence of what the iconic performer stands for; the triumph of the individual over a soul-destroying system and the power of music and the arts to elevate ordinary humans to beyond the mundane.

For the show’s writer, Lee Hall, who grew up in the North East of England, Billy’s story parallels his own journey. In his own words: “If Billy Elliot is about one thing it is that we are all capable of making lives for ourselves which are full of joy and self-expression, whilst we might not all become ballet dancers we are capable of finding moments of real profundity and creativity whatever our circumstances.

“But more than that, we have a duty to ourselves and each other to create a society where this possibility in all of us is nurtured and can flourish. We owe it to the next generation to create a world where it is possible for the Billy Elliots as yet unborn to have the chance to succeed rather than be fed to the machine which grinds us into identical pieces only fit for consumption. If Billy Elliot conveys any message at all I hope it is that it is possible to fight back and resist and it is possible to move on without forgetting where you come from.”

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