AS BRITAIN heaves itself though what looks increasingly like a terminal spasm of old-style nationalism, out in the bigger world something else is happening. It’s not new, exactly; ever since the dawn of recorded culture, some young people have been inclined to build their identity partly through affinity with certain writers, artists, or music-makers, of whom their home community may know nothing. And now, in the age of the internet, that process of finding new global tribes only intensifies, whether they’re shaped by bands, gurus, or online “influencers”.
I Can Go Anywhere, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****
So it’s more than interesting that leading Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell decides – in his short but brilliant new play at the Traverse – to focus his drama on the character of Jimmy, an asylum-seeker in the UK, who says he identifies not with his own past, nor with the country from which he has just come, but only with the idea of himself as a Mod, and with the strand of English music that implies. He arrives – dressed in the full kit of big anorak with RAF target and arrow – on the doorstep of Stevie Thomas, a wrecked Glasgow academic whose lover has just left him, and whose book about the Mod cultural movement and British white masculinity has not been a great success.
For Jimmy, though, Stevie’s book is seminal, a kind of holy writ of Mod-ism; and he wants him to write a reference for the Home Office explaining why Jimmy cannot live his chosen life as a Mod anywhere but in the UK. There follows a tense 75-minute dialogue in which Stevie writes the reference, gets ever more drunk, withholds it again, and finally reduces Jimmy to a poor pleading thing suffering a ferocious stress flashback; and every twist of the conversation intensifies its exploration of how those with power, however outwardly liberal, tend to abuse it as a way of venting their misery, and how those without power will attempt every kind of self-deception and suppression of painful truth in order to give themselves a sense of belonging, and of hope.
And in the end, there is also the recognition that the music, at its best, truly does contain its own new truth, binding people together across time and space. “In the end, I just them told my story…” says Jimmy. The point of this terrific play, though, is that his story includes the music, and the dream it evokes in him; and to fail to recognise that is to miss something vital about human hope, creativity and change.
Until 21 December