ďWe may admire political theatre,Ē I wrote in an essay last year in Prospect magazine, ďbut it works, when at all, through the theatrical rather than the political component.Ē In other words, no matter how engaged we are, we donít go to the theatre for politics, not even if weíre Bertolt Brecht. And so, to make sufficient drama out of a line of political argument, a writer needs to push certain other thematic or narrative buttons.
This should preferably be done with a degree of subtlety. For instance, Andy de la Tourís Question Time at the Arcola seemed to be shaping up quite nicely throughout its first half, then at a stroke it set me seething so much I had to spend most of the interval walking my semi-coherent rage off around the streets of Dalston.
De la Tourís principal thrust is an intelligent excoriation of the apostasy of Blairism from any meaningful mainstream of Labour thinking, and of the insidious lure of careerism in party and parliamentary politics of this kind; the family drama is really a pretext for the ideological debate. But he makes it work, as far as it goes. The problem is that, in order to ratchet up the dramatic content even further, in the final seconds of Act One he simultaneously presses the buttons marked ďChildrenĒ, ďSexĒ and ďComputersĒ. Itís simple, itís crass and itís like letting off a psychological stinkbomb. It doesnít matter precisely what flavour of child-sex-computer business is thereby introduced, nor that he rows frantically (or cynically) back from it in the second half; once you press those three buttons Ė the Ctrl-Alt-Del of contemporary societal hysteria Ė youíve forced a reboot of the entire operating system, as it were, and the session simply canít continue as before.
Consequently, de la Tour lost me. However sympathetic I might have been to his political thesis, his desperation to make it dramatically sexy was utterly alienating. Even after Iíd stopped fuming, Iíd become too occupied with trying to figure out why writers resort to such blatant tactics to be bothered following the play anything like as closely. Which is a pity, because Mary Jo Randle and the esteemed Bernard Kay were doing a fine job of putting human faces on to a play of ideas. What reduced them to two dimensions was not after all the politics, but the sensationalism.
Space to reverberate
Altogether more discreet in this respect is Steve Waters in World Music. His M.E.P. protagonist does not fall into bed with an African refugee; he is cajoled into it because, to him, she and the experience constitute a rediscovery of his ideals and his vitality. We, of course, can see that what in fact are being fuelled are his illusions about his own especial connection with and insight into The Issues in the region in question.
That kind of metaphor works, because it allows for a complexity beyond whatís written, either on the face of it or perhaps even in terms of intention: Waters leaves space for matters to reverberate in ways that even he might not have explicitly envisaged. Itís for this reason that I feel better disposed towards World Music than a number of the reviewers in this issue. Why, itís been argued, go to within an inch of spelling out that this is about Rwanda, and then stop short? On the contrary, my feeling is, well, whatís in a name?
The target of the dramatic indictment is a variety of western attitudes, in the entangled areas of charity and politics; the identity of the Africans in question is largely incidental to this. That, in itself, is disquieting Ė perhaps outright horrifying Ė and part of the point. Even near-genocide can be grist to the mill of petty party machinations, or simply of an individualís mid-life crisis. As the working title of TV newsroom satire Drop The Dead Donkey put it, dead Belgians donít count.
A universal given
Obviously, they do if youíre Belgian. Dead people closer to home naturally count for much more. This, in turn, is part of the reason why I conversely felt (and continue to feel) quite lukewarm about David Hareís The Permanent Way: it goes about things the other way round. (I know thereís no reason to write about this play in this issue, but it both fits in with the train of thought, no pun intended, and seems particularly apt as I write this on a delayed Great Western rail service, currently stationary at Reading.)
Hare indicts on the specifics: the shattered nature of rail privatisation, and the litany of fatal incidents in the years since. But he doesnít address our responses, whether as an audience or a community, to any significant degree. Rather, he takes our shared outrage and despair as a universal given. His opening scene, staged by Max Stafford-Clark as a parody of 1970s agitprop, exemplifies this point: itís playful, but its playfulness works because weíre all already onside, and have been from the start. In this respect, The Permanent Way articulates a deeply held attitude, and one which probably is almost as common as the play assumes, but it doesnít actually tell us anything, much less show us anything new. Letís hope that Hareís forthcoming play about Gulf War II, Stuff Happens, doesnít operate from a similar standpoint of preaching to the converted.
The Permanent Way will not endure as a play. Itís not written that way; itís of its time. Hareís grand trilogy might seem more lasting, but even there... In 1999, I saw a student production of The Absence Of War which has stuck in my mind not because of the quality of the show itself, but for what it indicated about the fluidity of political culture. A mere six years after that play had premièred, the young people who revived it simply couldnít conceive of the world it was describing. They portrayed fictional Labour leader George Jones not as a man who repudiated media manipulation in favour of honestly expressed conviction only to find it a terrible misjudgement, but as a ditherer who was simply incompetent at letting himself be moulded. To these students, spin was a given; it didnít occur to them that there might have been a real choice in the matter but a little while ago. The dreadful ďLolitaĒ business aside, this is the same point Andy de la Tour is making in Question Time, albeit from the other side: by now, his retired union leader Eric Hargreaves (as played by Kay) is clearly a man out of time, and the change is to be deplored. Itís similarly a play for today, not for the ages.
But what happens when a work outlives its political component? Dickens was a fiery critic of social injustice, and Oliver Twist aimed in particular at the systematic depredations of the Poor Law of 1834. Without that keen relevance, the masterly storytelling and character sketches survive, but to what end? Neil Bartlett opts (I think rightly) to retain or regain as much of the Victorian shadow as possible in his Lyric Hammersmith production. Even better, he works largely through suggestion rather than explicit portrayal, with Rae Smithís dimly lit peepshow box of a set (which also gives the show a Polish air at times: the opening tableau reminded me forcefully of Wisniewski), and the grisliest moments taking place offstage, or half-obscured, or being covered by freezing the action. And yet itís still the sentimentality that dominates. Paul Hunterís Beadle Bumble does not terrify as a parish despot; heís a cuddly hen-pecked wobble-belly. Despite the coda detailing various unhappy fates, including that of the Artful Dodger, it still feels like a happy ending because little tow-headed Oliver is safe in the bosom of his comfortable family. Itís easier for us to shake off the bleakness and horror, because at such a remove they operate only on an aesthetic level, rather than being powered by immediate and palpable social iniquity. Itís all pretend.
(I wonder whether the same is true in its own way of a show I didnít see last month, Jarman Garden. Derek Jarman used his burgeoning status to become an increasingly stroppy queen Ėdidnít there use to be a T-shirt with that as its slogan? Ė on the important issues. However, what survives of him has come to assume the iconic quality he sought to capture in much of his work. Thereís the Dungeness garden, and the man canonised as Saint Derek by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the work itself, including a film shot in Latin decades before Mel Gibson got all passionate. But the iconic is also simplistic. Does Jarman Garden locate the sense of what drove its subject? See Ian Herbertís verdict at the back of this issue.)
Moreover, as another saying from the era of my infancy has it, the personal is political. At this point itís worth revisiting another play covered in a previous issue: what Edward Albee does in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is precisely to foreground the pushing of those buttons I mentioned earlier, and to make us interrogate our own reflex attitudes. Why, indeed, draw the line at goats? (See John Grossís review in Issue 03 for a precise demarcation of the case of Sylvia from less disturbing forms of zoöphilia.) The untroubled response which some critics perceived here is the obverse of what was apparently a discernible element of the New York reception. There, a number of people went to the show in order to be, within acceptable limits, shocked; in Islington, itís alleged, the problem is people being equanimous. (Yes, it is a proper word.) Each response misses the point. Itís not how you answer that matters; itís how you question yourself.
What, then, to make of Charles Spencerís review of On Blindness? It reads as if he got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, to find furthermore that someone had widdled on his cornflakes. Glyn Cannonís play about perception, lust and the male gaze, like The Goat, asks questions, but this piece does so in a variety of languages. With its simultaneous signing, captions, voice descriptions and multimedia components, it asks us to watch and listen in different ways, to pay different kinds of attention... and because language informs thought at least as much as vice versa, we may therefore approach the content and concerns differently also.
It would be dreadful form to indulge in armchair psychoanalysis, besides which I both admire Charlie as a reviewer and value him as a friend. Nevertheless, his review is so out of kilter with other critical evaluations of the piece as to constitute, for whatever reason, an entirely different genus of response. Iíll restrict myself to hoping that, if he ever meets Mat Fraser socially (described in his review as ďa chap with very little in the way of armsĒ), I might be fortunate enough to be a spectator. Not to wish any ill on a comrade, but it could be interesting: Iím told that Mat has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do...
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2004
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage