When The Night Begins / Macbeth / Adrenalin...Heart /
Continental Divide / Red Sun / The Dark / Some Voices
Various venues
March, 2004

A colleague was talking tangentially at a press night a while back about the theatre reviewer’s emotional equivalent of Murphy’s Law: that the first show you see after suffering a bereavement, and probably several after that as well, will inevitably involve gloom, grief and terminal illness aplenty. Obviously, the reality is that one’s simply more likely to register such things feelingly in such a sensitive state. (Though it gets hard to keep believing that: as J. Edgar Hoover remarked, “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”) When it comes down to it, after all, pretty much every drama boils down in the end to love/sex, death or both.

Or so I thought until last month’s run of shows focused on power of one kind or another.  True, power can itself be analysed in terms of sex and/or death, but often that’s not really the point.  For instance, the sexual abuse, whether real or imagined, in the back-story of When The Night Begins is just the catalyst; the fuel that drives Hanif Kureishi’s play is the switchback of dominance and submission between Cecil and Jane.  That’s the fuel, but the engine’s missing several crucial parts and my God, how it splutters. Kureishi has no idea what he really wants to say, and no discipline about saying it plausibly.  He fancies blue-collar Cecil (blue-collar Cecil!) coming out with a lapidary phrase in the middle of all his demotic?  Out it pops.  And Anthony Clark’s direction does nothing to smooth out such blips, or to give an organic flow to the back-and-forth shift in the power balance.  I’ve been loath to jump on the Hampstead-bashing bandwagon, believing that such a comprehensive change in the theatre’s character and approach needs time to bed down.  But sometimes it gets damn hard to stay perched on this fence, and frankly, sod it, this inchoate muddle had no business being produced there.

Lack of brilliance

At the time of writing, I have just exited from a student production which at one point featured a dominatrix and her leather-masked slave performing scenes from Macbeth.  A full report on the National Student Drama Festival, plus samples of the writing of the winners of its student criticism awards, will follow in Issue 07.  For the moment, it’s simply relevant to note that this conceit may not be viable at any length, but it pinpoints the sense that even the central couple’s relationship is one which eroticises power rather than politicising sex.  As for Dominic Cooke’s RSC production, it’s hard to find specific fault: the problem lies more in a generalised lack of brilliance.  Greg Hicks is not a man for all roles, but Macbeth is one of those for which he is best suited; and he acquits himself honourably, though not extraordinarily.  Likewise Sian Thomas as Lady M.  The underrated Louis Hilyer makes a surprisingly fine Banquo, bluff and martial without becoming Brian Blessed. And yet, and yet, and yet.  As the first stage of artistic director Michael Boyd’s plan to rattle through the tragedies as a step towards reinvigorating the RSC’s core ethos, it feels worryingly like a production for the set-text market.  The truest phase is in the latter acts, when Hicks’ Macbeth feelingly conveys the fatigue and emptiness he feels now that even his villainy is a matter of routine rather than enormity.

How to fill that kind of void if not with wickedness?  Leigh, played excellently by Fiona Bell, finds one answer in Georgia Fitch’s Adrenalin…Heart, deservedly given another airing at the Bush after its brief première some eighteen months ago.  Not a terribly articulate answer: fill it with something, anything – love/lust for Angel, then for the drugs he peddles in his small, desultory way.  But to say Leigh isn’t articulate is absolutely not to make the same accusation of Fitch; the writer gets both of her characters’ thoughts and feelings unobtrusively spot-on, while also keeping the play bobbing above the swamp of grim linear directness by playing with notions of soliloquy, storytelling and memory drama.  And Bell’s performance is unobtrusively remarkable: without leaving the stage during the 70 minutes of the play, she manages physically to transform from pert and perky to haggard.  In some ways this is a converse to Macbeth, in that it’s quite hard to put your finger on what’s so impressively right about this first play, other than simply a comprehensive absence of wrongness, if you see what I mean.

Overblown oratory

Ah, wrongness.  Bite the bullet, Shuttleworth, and come right out with it: the Barbican outing of David Edgar’s diptych Continental Divide was pretty much six hours of wrong moves.  For as much as thirty or forty minutes into the first play, Mothers Against (although they can be watched in either order), I tried to consider the possibility that director Tony Taccone had chosen to marshal his cast into an orotund, “public” style of delivery in order to bring off some kind of Verfremdungseffekt: divorce us from the human action so that we can focus on the ideological aspect.  But no, because this kind of delivery makes it harder rather than easier to tune past the style into the content.  In Mothers Against, which is essentially an extended-family drama, Taccone could and should have gone for American stage naturalism rather than this overblown oratory.

Perhaps he made the choice in view of the latter phase of the other play, Daughters Of The Revolution.  Now, there’s no reason why a British playwright such as Edgar shouldn’t address himself to American political culture and generational questions such as those here; in this case, he had clearly done his research so well that I spent much of Daughters’ back-story about the 1960s New Left radicals identifying particular individual members of the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground who had been diaphanously fictionalised in this account.  But as matters crawled past the quaggy New Age tree-hugging phase, Edgar became less and less able to rein in the passion of his sympathies with those standard-bearers of his own generation of radicalism.  You could feel his heart in the position the viewpoint characters espoused.  Then, conscientious writer that he is, he felt obliged to raise the game of the antagonists as well, just to be fair.  By the final scenes, characters were basically delivering stump speeches at each other.  This is the kind of writing that demands to be delivered as from a soapbox.  As Verdi remarked of the Ring cycle, Continental Divide has its wonderful moments, but also its awful quarter-hours.

Peeling off

If you’re going to mythologise, do it with a David Rudkinesque rigour.  A whole generation now of reviewers as well as theatregoers knows Rudkin, if at all, merely from the Young Vic’s 2001 revival of his early Afore Night Come.  There’s no sense abroad of his delight in deep history, in archetype, in peeling off the epidermis of the present day to reveal attitudes and appetites unmediated and almost atavistic.  So when, in Red Sun, he serves up a story that’s part Golem legend, part creation myth, with hints of corporate planet-rape and/or Holocaust in the background and even a whiff of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Circular Ruins, it’s unsurprising that younger, unacclimatised critics respond like the schoolboy in the Gary Larson cartoon: “Please, sir, may I be excused?  My head is full.”

Rudkin’s core theme can be summed up in a reference to another cartoon, The Amazing Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  In the case of Wana-Apu, the shaman who makes a man out of clay, it is accepting the risk that his creation may not simply be his passive creature, and also taking on himself the burden of a kind of murder when the new being grows transgressive; in the case of the created Adamu, it is the moral consequences of setting himself up as a tyrant in succession to the wicked regime he was called into being to crush.  And yes, this is dense stuff, particularly when written largely in a kind of pidgin (those who have encountered Ken Campbell’s enthusiasms for authentic Pidgin are at a distinct advantage here, in terms of both patience and lateral thinking). And yes, there are a good twenty minutes in the first act that are dramatically and atmospherically necessary but in themselves constitute a serious longueur.  And yes above all, ajtc’s [sic] staging is sparse and simple, so that there’s nothing in the presentation to distract (or provide relief) from the substance of the piece.  But dammit, we should just be glad that such a morally and intellectually improving writer is still turning stuff out.
(If I were the sort of person to go over and over the same territory – instead of the sort who discreetly but smugly points you towards where I said it the first time – this would be the point at which I mention Peter Flannery’s Singer at the Tricycle.  Likewise, Continental Divide would be more or less twinned with Homage To Catalonia.  But my individual reviews of those shows are elsewhere in this issue, so ’nuff said.)

Us and Them

Almost the diametrical opposite view of power and responsibility pervades Charlotte Jones’s The Dark: every character in three adjoining houses is impotent in the face of grinding reality.  Even fourteen-year-old Josh, who breaks into his neighbours’ houses, masked, and terrorises them until they frankly admit to their fear of him, is creating a fiction to try to disguise his true status as just another undistinguished dweller in that urban terrace, amid the arguments, secrets, infidelities, insecurities and despairs.

Most reviews of Jones’s play ranged from lukewarm to disappointed, but I would go further: it made me morally angry.  I think she’s ended up writing precisely the opposite kind of piece from that which she intended: instead of a play about Us, she’s written a play about Them.  Instead of saying, “Well, it can be fairly grim, and we’re all a bit put-upon and have our unreasonable episodes, but we can in the end still communicate with one another,” I think she’s quite inadvertently said, “My God, the Daily Mail headlines are true: they [i.e. everyone but you and me, and I’m not too sure about you] really are all evil and depraved, or at best just insane, and you’re not even safe in your own home!”  And I think that’s both ideologically and factually wrong, and I think it’s dangerous.

Compare and contrast Joe Penhall’s 1994 play Some Voices, in which pretty much everyone is indeed mad, bad and/or dangerous to know, trying in vain to find a corner that they can control for themselves in a too-brutal world.  Reviewers have noted both the quality of Penhall’s unjudgemental view and the extent to which this piece can now be seen as a pre-echo of his Blue/Orange, and they’re right.  What I think merits lengthier mention is the quality of Matthew Dunster’s production.  In much the same way as Mike Bradwell with Adrenalin … Heart, Dunster simply did not a thing wrong.  His vision of the production was both complex and precise in its detail, right down to the selection and timing of soundtrack numbers that commented upon the action, and he succeeded in realising that vision to a remarkable degree.  Dunster has for a while been making interesting choices as an actor (he can currently be seen on stage at the National in The Permanent Way), and latterly been making forays as a writer that I’m told (I’m afraid I haven’t seen any) are adventurous if only erratically successful.  But on the showing of this, his first outing out of the Young Vic’s scheme for young directors, he has more than mere talent in terms of helming a production.  He seems to have an intuitive knowledge of what works.  And knowledge is power.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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