Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Two Meanings of Destination

I had an encounter, many years ago, with a fellow student, one whose style - scruffy clothes, unkempt beard, smelly sandals - signalled a determination to eschew the prevailing fashions and, as it turned out, the niceties of social etiquette that go with them. One of his theories - one which seemed profound to me at the time - was that travel for its own sake is pointless: journeys of the mind are the only ones that really matter. This argument is, of course, demonstrably flawed in its assertion that there is no mind-expanding benefit to be had from travel.

I haven't travelled anywhere for the past two weeks - not that I'm complaining: I have been to the theatre and cinema to experience journeys of the vicarious and mental varieties and the upside has been enjoying the company of friends and comparing notes with them over a drink or two before retiring to the comfort of home. And we have 'travelled' to a variety of places in the process.

Justin Kurzel's film Macbeth was shot in the Isle of Skye, the beach at Bamburgh Castle and Ely Cathedral - all of which locations seemed perfectly to enhance the visceral mood of the production - and are all places I have been to. It was hard to resist the temptation to whisper, "Ooh, look. It's..." but the dialogue was rather mumbled at times so it was important to concentrate. And the story, familiar as it is, doesn't so much challenge the intellect as illuminate the evils of unfettered greed and ambition.

Ridley Scott's The Martian was also shot in a place I've been to - not Mars, obviously, but Wadi Rum in Jordan. I've read that the science on which the story relies is, to a large extent, feasible. If true, the film is more sci than fi, and I was left questioning only whether I possess the same degrees of ingenuity, gumption and will to survive as Matt Damon.

The setting of Denis Villeneuve's film Sicario is a place I haven't been to and don't have any inclination to visit: a desolate stretch of the US-Mexican border - a desert peppered with ugly settlements overwhelmed by the violence perpetrated by drug dealers. The movie is action-orientated but it does raise the important - and seemingly unanswerable - question of how to end the drug-fuelled cycle of corruption and violence. Incidentally, it also raises the question of why Emily Blunt was cast in what seemed to me a stereotyped character marginal to the plot. The answer is easily deduced: ticket sales.

I didn't go far with Sarah Gavron's film Suffragette: its setting is London's East End - albeit dressed in 1900s grime. And the story, being historical, answers more questions than it asks: it's a film that might help a class of schoolchildren grasp the importance of the enfranchisement of women to the development of social mobility and equality. It might even persuade them of the need to pay attention to politics.

But there were no classes of schoolchildren in the cinema, unlike in the theatre where I saw Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play which, like Hamlet, is on school curricula. The setting is as well-known as the play itself - although no one has ever been there except in their mind's eye. It's a desolate place, nondescript yet universally recognisable. The meaning of the play has been interpreted in political, philosophical, ethical, Christian, Freudian, Jungian - even homoerotic terms: as far as mental travelling is concerned you may take your pick of destinations, although one reluctant 'traveller' simply wrote in the comments book "Not my cup of tea".

But the main protagonists - scruffy clothes, unkempt beards, smelly footwear, going nowhere - somehow took me back to a place and a time.

Waiting for Godot is touring the UK and Ireland until 28th November.

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