Wednesday 24 October 2012

Way Upstream

Way Upstream is a stage play written by Alan Aykebourn in 1981 and performed several times at theatres in Scarborough and London, usually with himself doubling up as director. In 1987 it was made into a film by the BBC which is currently free online:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:
Part 5:
Part 6:
Part 7:
Part 8:
(I advise downloading it because it has never been released onto DVD.) It is about two couples who go on boating holiday together aboard a cabin cruiser on an English river. During its shows a real cabin cruiser was used as a central prop and during one performance a huge pool of water was installed on stage for it to float in, for added realism. The play is supposed to be an allegory of the political situation in Britain at the time it was written, with some of the characters representing the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others being a metaphor for the Labour Party and Liberal Democrat opposition and socialist movements; but I can see a far more sophisticated theme in it than that.
There are four main characters: Keith, Alistair, Emma and June. Keith is a very conventional "Essex man", the director of a manufacturing company. He's the dominant personality of the quartet. The moment they step aboard the boat he declares himself to be the skipper, jumps into the pilot's seat and begins giving orders to the others. He does so though in a jocular manner. His authoritarianism is very light-hearted; he is not malicious, merely foolish and ingenuous. He wears a nautical captain's hat and acts pretentiously as if he knows a lot about boats and waterway life, when in fact he doesn't know very much more than the others do; and this is a source of a lot of humour in the first part of the play. He is also something of a workaholic; despite leaving his factory under the control of a junior manager and claiming that he's going to wash his hands of the place for the duration of his holiday, he has his secretary, Mrs Hatfield, report in to him daily... in person! Mrs Hatfield presumably has to track the boat's progress up the river every day and drive to meet it via the nearest road. June is Keith's wife. She is pessimistic and bad tempered, and she constantly complains about the accommodation facilities on board the boat and anything else she can find. It turns out fairly soon that she and Keith have a very unhappy marriage, in fact they despise each other. Their matrimonial strife comes to a head when June puts on a costume and performs a dance on the upper decks of the boat while it's moored beside the beer garden of a packed riverside pub, and Keith scornfully criticizes her for "making a complete and utter bloody idiot of herself!" This results in them splitting up for the remainder of the play. Emma is a quieter and more easygoing woman than June, and she is by far the most intelligent and aware person on board. She distrusts both Keith and June and also appears to express a sense of subconscious foreboding about the situation they're in; this is illustrated by her insistence on wearing a life jacket despite the reassurances of the other three that they're all "perfectly safe". Alistair is Emma's husband and also Keith's equal business partner in the company; but despite them being officially fifty-fifty Keith is clearly the de facto boss and orders Alistair around as if he were a junior employee. Alistair is a quiet and genteel man, but also very feeble and ineffectual. He constantly voices agreement mindlessly with all the other characters, especially Keith, and never even expresses, let alone enforces, any will of his own. Emma is frustrated by his weakness but still cares for him. Alistair seems to exhibit dithering indifference towards her as his wife, as he does everything else, but later on in the story this changes.
The four holiday-makers head upstream and for a few days they enjoy a fairly normal outing. Then their incompetent navigation skills lead them to run their boat aground and they are helped out by a very handsome, charming and virile man called Vince who dives into the water and heroically pushes their boat by hand until she refloats. The four main characters are very grateful and invite Vince aboard as a guest. From the way Vince speaks it is very clear that he is extremely knowledgeable about boating and worldly wise in general. June is instantly besotted with him and when she and Keith finally separate she dives straight into his arms... and his bed. But before all that happens: Vince remains aboard and, little by little, works his way into their lives with consummate skill. If you watch the movie version in the link above you'll see how he does it. It's hard to describe in words, but in no time at all Vince has totally taken over the boat and Alistair, Emma and especially June are eating out of his hand. Keith is the one main character who refuses to submit to Vince's rule, however he has to leave the boat after a strike breaks out at the factory. He returns as quickly as he can, but Vince manipulates the others into abandoning him. After his row with June she has completely rejected him in favour of Vince. It soon becomes obvious that Vince's dashing, debonair and urbane persona is merely a facade to hide his true nature: that of a violent, controlling and sadistic psychopath. He exploits and brutalizes Alistair, June and Emma; and a new character, a friend of his called Fleur. His madness culminates in him marooning Alistair on an island and attempting to drown Emma. This outrage causes Alistair finally to break out of his apathy and fragility. He escapes from the island to rescue his wife from Vince's clutches; in doing so he ends up fighting with Vince and killing him. The play ends in a surreal fantasy scene, with the boat reaching the upper navigable limits of the river and entering an unidentified, idyllic Eden. Alistair and Emma then strip naked and swim like Adam and Eve which completes the last act of the play. 
I have never forgotten watching this film although I was only a child when I saw it. The reason it stuck in my mind was that it matched perfectly the experiences of my own family, although I don't think I knew it consciously at the time. The way the man I call "Centaur" worked his way into the lives of my family and the way he succeeded in controlling and abusing them, me especially, really rang a bell with me; see: and: Way Upstream truly is a must-see because Aykebourn has identified and dramatized the way a psychopath behaves with other people very perceptively indeed. I would find it hard to believe that this was not his deliberate intention, despite the claims that this play is merely a symbolic political satire. Vince is the closest fictional portrayal of Centaur that I've ever seen. It's painful for me to watch it because of my personal experiences, but this is a very educational film for everybody else. Beware the psychopath!
Another way of analyzing the play is to see it in conspiratorial terms: Vince symbolizes the Illuminati, the parasitic and malevolent Reptilian consciousness, preying on humanity which is represented by the other main characters. Keith and June are the prison of conformism. Keith is the consumerist and hedonist side of ourselves, hypnotized by excess materialism. June is the embodiment of our insecure spirit and broken morale, psychologically attacked and mesmerized by Vince, and made to feel inferior by Keith; and dragged down into low self-esteem and self-loathing. Alistair signifies the New Age; kind and tender, but detached and effete, incapable of action. Emma is the newly emerging spirit of awakening; she has Alistair's tenderness, but more drive and strength. From the very beginning she is intuitively aware that something is wrong with the situation and looks for guidance from the others, unsure of how to act until the end. The scenario becomes increasingly surreal as the story goes on and it reminds me very much of the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. If Way Upstream is a metaphor for the real world then how the real world will play out is currently undecided. Will Emma drown? Will Alistair be willing to intervene on a practical level? Perhaps Keith will return to the story to help. Or could June regain her spirit and fight back. Only time will tell, but remember: we are not just actors reading a script; it is our play to write and to direct.

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