Sometimes West End theatre can be a real pain in the backside. Literally. I’d seen the repeated assertions that the West End’s seating needs upgrading to the standards of the 20th century (let’s not get carried away and expect it to keep pace with the calendar!), but I’d not felt qualified to comment, since I’m, well, rather broad in the beam, and so most seats feel on the snug side to me. Last month, though, I realised that it’s not simply a matter of botty room. Thanks to cramped leg-room (to which my fatness is irrelevant), I emerged literally bruised from the circle of a major theatre. I was forced throughout the evening to alternate between injuring my knees by jamming them up against the seat in front, or injuring my hips (and incurring the grave suspicion of the person sitting next to me) by splaying my legs out so as to allow my knees breathing space. Arguably, it made me feel more immediately part of the situation onstage, since the play in question was Frank McGuinness’s hostage drama Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. Mostly, though, what it made me feel was pain, and for days afterwards; when I found myself allocated in the even more constricted space of the Shaftesbury’s circle a couple of nights later, I was physically unable to contort myself in such a way as to fit, so asked to be assigned alternative seating. Luckily, a bare week after its opening, The Far Pavilions was far from packed in the stalls.
I disagree with most of the reviewers about The Far Pavilions: I think that it frequently is bad enough to be enjoyable for that very reason. I not only scored consistently high in my mental games of guess-the-rhyme, but sometimes was even able to sing along to a couplet I’d never heard before. Sometimes, to be sure, Stephen Clark is being deliberately camp in his lyrics, as when the denizens of the British compound at Rawalpindi sing, “She’s skittish/He’s British”. But it’s often hard to draw the line between intentional and inadvertent absurdity.
It’s as well to find enjoyment where one can in the show, for it is just as possible to find offence. Mollie Kaye’s novel is clear in its condemnation of the casual racism of the British in India, but it relies equally, and unconsciously, on a patronising sense of the exotic. The stage production can’t help but take the same tack. However, it’s one thing to play this contradiction out in one’s head as one reads the novel; it’s quite another to see it physically realised in the same space, in a world 150 years on and far more socially complex than that in which the story is set. Pretty much the most effective way out is precisely to camp it up behind any kind of seriousness. Gale Edwards’ production does not have the courage to go all out for this kind of Carry On Up The Khyber – The Musical option, although it’s possible that the right kind of audience pressure could force the cast to change their emphasis. (I once saw A Doll’s House in the Abbey in Dublin on a night when the audience insisted on treating it as a comedy of middle-class manners; we could pinpoint the moment when the blackmailing Krogstad visibly shrugged and decided to go with the flow.)
Despite those ramifications, though, The Far Pavilions was almost the least political show I saw during the fortnight in question. The more I think about it, for instance, the more I think history will bear out Alastair Macaulay’s claim that the most significant development in theatre in recent years has not been “in-yer-face” writing (which was never more than a convenient umbrella term to allow Aleks Sierz to lump together a generation of playwrights in one book-length study) but the growth of verbatim drama, from the personal of Alecky Blythe’s recorded-delivery work to the public of Richard Norton-Taylor’s edited tribunal transcripts... indeed, the personal and political often intertwine more challengingly in such dramatic reportage than in any amount of fictional extremity.
Even in the Northern Irish Unionist culture in which I grew up, it was unquestioned by any thinking person within a few very years of the event that the victims of Bloody Sunday had almost certainly all been innocent, and that the actions of the British army had either been the result of an immense cock-up or a staggering miscalculation in policy. Norton-Taylor’s edit of the Saville Inquiry transcripts bears out that much, but goes further. My parents, God rest them, would be utterly unable to believe that there could be such a thing as sympathy for, or identification with, the ultimate Republican bogey-figure of that era, Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin). Yet, in Norton-Taylor’s script and Sorcha Cusack’s performance, I could for the first time begin to see that even such an unflinching hardline position as McAliskey’s could have an understandable foundation in events. The play’s achievement is the more impressive in that it eschews the big-name cachet of including any of the testimony of Martin McGuinness.
Conversely, that other McGuinness’s play has always been less political
than it looked. Those reviews which lament that it has “dated” since
the routine of hostage-taking in the Middle East has changed in the dozen
years’ interim miss the point. It has always been a chamber piece,
just one in an unusually dank chamber. Even the national stereotypes
(overplayed for too much of the play’s duration by David Threlfall, I feel)
are merely means to an end; they are complexly subverted and reinforced
at once as the central issue is explored: what it is to be a man, stripped
of social structures and conventions but still intelligent, articulate
and many notches above mere atavism. (And having said all that, sometimes
the immediate circumstances are still relevant. A few months after
September 11th 2001, I saw a student production of the play in which, I
discovered several days later, the Irish hostage had been played by the
son of Charles Glass, the real-life American Beirut hostage of that time;
this had been Ed Glass’s way of trying to understand at least a fraction
of what his father had gone through.)
I have far more reservations about My Name Is Rachel Corrie. None of them however, are about the bias of its agenda: it’s a propaganda piece, and it works powerfully as such, and I have no problems with that. No, my reservations concern the play’s emotional rather than its political manipulation. The trouble is simply that, as portrayed in Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s script, Rachel is too perfect a protagonist for a solo play: a young woman who couldn't walk down her main street without thinking of the salmon run piped beneath her feet, a compulsive listmaker (thus allowing lots of naked information into the play) whose "Five people to hang out with in eternity" are topped by the poet Rilke! I'm not for a moment doubting the genuineness of every word of this assemblage. But this is a case where life is in places too implausible for art. And its emotional manipulation becomes more and more blatant: the e-mail in which Rachel considers her future, which you just know, even without the gradually tightening lighting effects, is going to be the last main segment of the play; her final exit walking (literally) into the light, followed by an audio-taped extract of a colleague's account of her death, and topped off with a winsome video snippet of fifth-grade Rachel making a school speech about ending world hunger. By the end, I was having to remind myself that Rachel Corrie was a real, dead person, not simply an amalgam of dramatic devices. In that respect the piece does her a disservice even as it commemorates her and her beliefs.
I found myself defending Deborah Warner’s Julius Caesar against an incandescent young friend who was inveighing that all its modish touches added up to nothing: the crowd being kept behind or let through the crash barriers as proved convenient, the flickering back-projections in the second half suggestive of a media-mediated war (if you see what I mean), and so on. Suddenly I thought that a plausible case can be made out that these things are precisely part of an overarching conception, which is precisely the modern parallel with the atomisation and directionlessness of politics. As democracy shades into empire; as things become a matter of celebrity rotuals for public consumption (such as the festival of Lupercal which begins the play); as members of the crowd are from the first allowed through the barriers in order for the politicos to make points; as those politicos alternately gladhand the people and, in private, demonstrate their utter disconnection from and lack of understanding of the people; as government – even on the battlefield – becomes the obscene combination of wooing and oppressing the people, not by turns but simultaneously... we’re shown at every point precisely how much Caesar’s world had in common with our own. Such a reading might also explain why I felt so little from the production: not because the play did or didn't draw parallels with the contemporary world offstage, but because it was identical with it to the point where I saw no shakespearean drama there, just everyday life.
One final, passing and digressive thought: those who find Miranda Sawyer’s reference to an Aphex Twin video itself gratuitous and modish, consider the extent to which popular culture is routinely ignored in reviews. Virtually every review of Tristan And Yseult mentions the obvious Wagner: not one notes that the climactic, half-deapairing romantic pas de deux is performed to the accompaniment of a recording of Nick Cave, who’s hardly an obscure or minor figure himself.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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