Hecuba / stoning mary / Mammals
Various venues
April, 2005

Well.  When I revisited my hobby-horse about editorial disrespect paid to arts coverage one more time in Issue 05’s Prompt Corner, little did I suspect that some of my remarks would be taken out of context and misrepresented with some bitterness in the mainstream press.  A detailed rebuttal was published on the Theatre Record web site, for those interested.  As for this magazine itself… in the words of Bernard Levin to a television studio audience after being punched by one of its members on a live programme, “Can we concentrate on non-violence, you and I?”

Hollow shell

In fact, I don’t think we can, given that two of the fortnight’s major openings are intimately bound up with conflict and violence.  To begin with Hecuba: oh, dear.  Our cover caption is irreverent, but it’s no more than this production deserves.  I know Ian H disagrees and finds some redeeming virtues in it, but sometimes that old contrarian has the generosity of a saint.  A number of reviews remark that one has to respect Laurence Boswell for trying to stage the play with a formality and musicality comparable to its original presentation as a kind of Athenian civic ritual.  Well, yes, let’s respect the attempt, by all means.  But let’s also not shy away from deriding it for simply not succeeding in generating anything like a comparable tone or atmosphere.  Much of this production is simply dreadful, not least Tony Harrison’s text.  It’s over twenty years now since he was lauded for producing a flinty version of the Oresteia for Peter Hall’s masked NT production; at times, this sounds like a parody of that earlier work.  Indeed, if I’d been sitting on an aisle, I might have left after about thirty seconds, as soon as the white-body-painted ghost of Polydorus in his opening speech referred to the hoard of Trojan gold as “a hush-hush stash”.  Puh-lease!

One of the first productions I ever saw in the West End was the transfer of the 1986 Young Vic production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Alving.  She was electrifying (no Greek-tragic pun intended).  The woman playing Hecuba is unrecognisable as the same actress.  Her performance here is a hollow shell of technique: at this point I pause, at this point I make a vague gesture towards Agamemnon’s knees because bloody Harrison has left in those literal references to rituals of supplication, and so on.  Darrell D’Silva’s vaporous mid-Atlantic accent as Odysseus is matched by Redgrave with the vaporous mid-Irish Sea burr which her brother Corin often uses: desultory indications of an oppressor people and an oppressed one, and not even matching indications at that.  Vanessa’s is by some way the less exciting and accomplished Redgrave performance to have been seen in the West End in recent weeks.

Verbal riffing

More high-concept brouhaha in debbie tucker green’s stoning mary at the Royal Court.  This is a play, which, interestingly, depends for its success on audience racism.  Its point is apparently to challenge us by portraying situations we more readily associate with the less developed parts of the world, but enacting them with white characters who are recognisably of the country in which it is staged.  (Which rather begs the question of what happens if it’s ever staged in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, but anyway…)

Yet this only works if one makes the association with “the Third World” in the first place.  I didn’t, not even with the help of big, declaratory captions projected on to Ultz’s cobalt-blue wasteland of a set.  “The AIDS Genocide”: yes, it’s killing the human race – “genocide” perhaps a slight exaggeration, but nothing racially specific there.  “The Prescription”, two AIDS sufferers with one medical scrip between them: and here we are in a UK election campaign in which the top issue is a health service with limited resources – how many of us have heard the phrase “postcode lottery”?  “Stoning Mary”: yes, an appetite for more fundamentalist forms of justice is growing in many parts of the world, including supposedly the most developed country of all.  “The Child Soldier”: I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, so armed and irresponsible youth isn’t something I see as remotely exotic.  If one doesn’t think of these things as other (usually darker-skinned) people’s problems, but recognises from the first that they apply to us as well, the play’s entire mechanism fails.

What’s left is a tedious verbal riffing: “…to hold that – onto that – to have that, into that, to have and to hold that.  To have that to hold… Having that to hold on to.  Having that.”  It’s all style over substance, and irritating even to someone like me who enjoys listening to Philip Glass.  When the condemned Mary began to list various types of women who had not signed a petition for clemency for her – “underclass bitches, overclass bitches” – I wanted to join in, “…wombling free bitches.”  I look forward to the day when tucker green makes the scales fall from my eyes regarding her strength as a playwright, because so far I just can’t see it.

I’d appreciate your input

I think the point of Amelia Bullmore’s Mammals hasn’t quite been hit in reviews either.  In my view, it’s not simply that we keep falling back into basic animal instincts (to many people between, say, 25 and 40, the very word calls to mind The Bloodhound Gang’s one-hit wonder: “You and me, baby, ain’t nuthin’ but mammals/So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”); it’s that our most determined efforts to transcend that mammalian level are the very things that keep driving us back.  The narrative engine of the play is that everyone keeps (eventually) telling each other the truth about their actions and appetites, trying to be creatures of reason and honesty.  And it doesn’t work.  Jane Hazlegrove and, especially, Helena Lymbery steal all their scenes as grown women playing little girls; surely, though, what we’re being shown is the corollary of this, that the adult characters are in fact no more mature, and have no more self-control, than these great infants: we’re all just overgrown kids, at best.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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