Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was an incendiary, lengthy scream from the counterculture of the mid-fifties which bled well into the sixties, resulting in an obscenity trial. It was an incantation to the dissolute,the outsiders, holding up a mirror to the Beatniks’ greatest societal fears and passions, at a time of great civil unrest and political fragmentation. Sound familiar?
Artist/director Drew Taylor homages, pastiches and draws parallels between, the poem itself and our own current societal malaise, but in spite of its righteous indignation, HOWL(ing) approaches its subject matter with a warm, lowkey tone, enlisting folk band Julia and The Doogans to soundtrack it with a couple of songs at the end.
Another figurehead of resistance, albeit from the mid-sixties, Bob Dylan is also referenced at the beginning, with the deployment of more recognisable (for most people) cue cards from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ which reinstates the Greenwich Village coffee house vibe as much as the flowers, ethnic rugs and autumnal colours gently littering the set. But where Ginsberg flailed wildly, spitting out acts of homosexual lust, decrying organised religion and seeking out some deeper kind of truth, calling industrial civilisation ‘Moloch’, Taylor and his fellow performers/writers David Rankine and Leyla Josephine scrutinise Scotland as a whole, then turn their monologues inward, into personal odysseys.
From the conscpicuous consumption of the Waitrose set, if you will, into artisan bread and farmers’ markets, whose main problem is deciding on where to holiday in Europe; to the people relying on food banks for day-to-day survival, such juxtapositions would be uneasy only if there wasn’t such a sense of preaching to the fully aware. The Yes and No campaign arguments are also aired equally. This Scotland, beautiful, gritty and complex as the people who populate it, Taylor suggests, is no longer a land of the cliches fed to us in tourist board advertising of purple heather and bonny flamehaired lads and lassies. But this assertion merely elicits a shrug. No shit, Taggart. Occasionally, Josephine ‘s overemoting feels manipulative and a little contrived.
Where HOWL(ing) rings most true is during its volte face in the second part, when we get apologies for chestbeating patriotism and Gerard Butler, and the individual personalities cut through: in Taylor’s own self- awareness he is a cliched artist in wirerimmed glasses and hipster beard,underfunded, swooning to Morrissey; Rankine’s honesty in confronting his vulnerability, Joseph’s deadly and deadpan comic timing. Much of the writing in general is very fine indeed, with ticklish aphorisms like ‘pissed their orange toxins into the waters of democracy’ that Irn Bru sponsorship won’t arrive anytime soon…
Nothing wrong with any of this, and the dry humour and pretty, plaintive acoustic music (Doogan’s voice is gorgeous) mostly works but Taylor, so fired up in direction and scathing dialogue in previous Arches show, the excellent 44 Stories is capable of so much more and a virulent attack with more political stringency would have had much more impact. It could only suffer in comparison. An enormously likeable humane performance, nonetheless.