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Tom Stoppard's "Darkside" Reviewed

the secret to life

“Who’s to say he didn’t save a serial killer? Or a mad bomber on a date with destiny? Or just people who fuck you up normally? Geography teachers or ticket inspectors or boyfriends who shag your best friend? People who write the small print, see over the penalties? People who go ‘I’m telling you for your own good’ and ‘can’t you read we’re closed’? All of them saved…” That speech happens on “On The Run – Darkside” -a song? an except? a part of a greater good…

Can a radio play be a rock and roll album? “On The Run – Darkside” sounds like a stand along song even as it exists as part of a play, by placing the speech at the beginning of the track and a couple run away, you can return to it again and again the way you can “That’ll Be The Day”. Since “On The Run” was initially an instrumental anyway, it has the cadence of a lead rock vocal plus back up singer. A thriller. In  hands of Tom Stoppard, the man who wrote the best play of the 20th century “Arcadia”, pop and theater are one and the same.

Stoppard was commissioned by the BBC to write “Darkside”,  celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s prog-rock masterpiece The Dark Side Of The Moon.It aired on BBC Radio 2, August 26th, 2013, featuring Bill Nighy and Rufus Sewell and starring Amaka Okafor as Emily McCoy, a college student questioning ethics and the “juggler on the radio” who slowly goes insane. The play has the entire album in the back or foreground, sometimes with the words to the songs removed; the connection between the songs and play can be a little iffy from time to time but altogether it is a thrilling and exciting 55 minutes.

The play and the original album open with the sound heartbeat before Darkside roars in, there is a runaway train careening towards where a bridged got washed away in a flood, death for everybody on board, but “Let me through, I’m a moral philosopher” shouts Ethics Man, who changes the trains track, everybody is saved on the train but a boy playing on the other track is dead. Should Ethics Man have done it? It is a thought experiment being taught in a philosophy class but Emily McCoy, a student, doesn’t agree, she can’t figure out exactly what is the greater good and it leads her to madness.

The trip to madness is enjoined with the boy on the tracks, other stick figures, such as the fat man on an air balloon thrown overboard to save three thin people in the balloon, go on a trip to the land where the characters who die in thought experiments, while Emily figures out the good, in a land where all the greed has destroyed everything (punning on “consumption”) .  Her conclusion about good (“you just know”) might well put moral philosophers out of business.

Along with the thought experiments come to live is an additional moral quandary about the survival of the planet that is a little out of the place and a romance.

And something that isn’t really spelled out: an overwhelming metaphor for Stoppard’s concept of popular music. I always find it fun to discover a subject I know more about than somebody who seems to know a lot about everything. In an interview in the New York Times Stoppard nonsensically “I can only answer by saying that I can’t remember ever not listening to pop music from the time I was 12 or so. I just liked it. When I was 20, in 1957, and maybe you would say I was old enough to know better, but nevertheless I was completely nuts about Buddy Holly. And I loved pop bands that had absolutely no intellectual pretensions whatsoever. I loved the Monkees.” He seems completely unaware that Holly was a a greater genius than Stoppard is. This is not a new subject for Stoppard, people mention “Rock And Roll” but really, go back to  the first act of “The Real Thing”

So Stoppard has written a play in which moral philosophy is a metaphor for pop music and Stoppard’s claim for pop music that whether it is as intellectually satisfying as classical music or not, it is still good music. That you just know what is good music.

That is good stuff but I wish there wasn’t all the environmental go green stuff, I much prefer the thought experimental becoming real life stuff. Still, it is funny (“accounting… accountability” on “Money”), smart, the dialogue can be brilliant and the sheer brilliance can be blinding. Amaka Okafo has a great voice and you want her to speak. If Darkside is an album, listen to “On The Run”. If it id  play, it is a good one. If it is a tribute to Pink Floyd’s take on fame and madness, it does its jobs.

Grade: A-

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