On The Ceiling / Romance / Two Thousand Years /
Playing With Fire / The Dragons' Trilogy / Hair
Various venues
September, 2005

The Financial Times didn’t have time to run Alastair Macaulay’s review of On The Ceiling before it closed, though (with no disrespect to Mr Macaulay) there’s little need for one more record of so thoroughly overstretched and disappointing a show.  Nigel Planer’s writing wore his research on its sleeve, right down to making his protagonists two genuine historical figures from the supporting cast of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel undertaking.  This repeated parading of knowledge sat uneasily with the one idea behind the play, that of presenting these Renaissance artisans in modern demotic – the characters may have had the status of a Michelangelesque Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in Stoppard’s play, but they sounded like Pete & Dud in The Dagenham Dialogues.  Only without most of the humour.  More than enough said.


As misfires go, however, nothing in London at the moment can beat David Mamet’s Romance.  The reviews reprinted here are poor enough, but to get the full flavour of its reception you should visit and listen to David Benedict, Charles Spencer and Matt Wolf in discussion with Mark Shenton on the play.  Charlie: “It’s a much, much better production [than the play was given for its New York première]; it’s still shit.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate the stupefaction on press night, the incredulity that Mamet could turn out anything this bad.  Where Oleanna took a scalpel to ideas of political correctness, Romance knocks them around with a big inflatable shillelagh.  Maybe it’s a matter of cultural difference.  Britain never quite had the broad burlesquing tradition of America ( “burlesque” in the sense of that particular kind of parody rather than that of ecdysiasm… although, sure enough, the judge does do some stripping in Romance).  Moreover, as I’ve noted before, the UK has never suffered anything like the PC strictures of the States, and so all the grotesque cartoonish attitudes on show here lack a satirical element for us: we laugh at the gags, but feel nothing behind them.  The result is that, without this spice of satire, it feels like the crassest kind of 1970s TV sitcom – Love Thy Neighbour, or Mind Your Language, where being different was in itself a cause for derision.  And I fear that much of the laughter (as it built slowly from a stunned silence) may have been of that kind as well: not laughter in scorn of the attitudes being lampooned, but rather at the gags cracked from within those attitudes – the easier laughter, too, of an audience that wasn’t at all having any of its preconceptions threatened… except for the one about Mamet being a consistently decent writer.

Mamet fairly evidently wanted to confound expectations by writing something very different from his normal fare.  Oddly, I’m reminded of Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed’s 1975 double album that consisted entirely of feedback.  Reed wanted to confront his audience’s expectations too.  But, like Mamet here, he did so with a load of rubbish that seems to treat the audience with contempt.  And that, forgive me, is  not politic.


A little more surprising is the relatively easy ride given to Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years.  Again, the Theatrevoice discussion is instructive, with the panel speculating more openly that on this occasion perhaps Leigh simply turned out to be a prisoner of his devising process: that, relatively late in the (blissful!) 18-week rehearsal process, he may have realised that things simply weren’t going to come together in prime dramatic shape, and so had to go with what he and his company had fashioned up to that point, and turn it into as finished a script as possible.  This would also explain the cancellation of some early previews.

I maintain that if this show had been seen at, say, the Hampstead Theatre, playing to respectable but not packed houses and written by a half-known playwright, it would have received reviews to match.  Those reviews would have said that the play is thoughtful and occasionally entertaining, but it’s all talk and no action.  Even within the domestic arena which is this play’s focus, the debates about Jewishness seldom progress much deeper than the discussions of Middle Eastern and other world events as reported in the Guardian to which the family subscribes.  The only difference is that the conversations about son Josh taking up an observant, rather than his parents’ secular, strain of Judaism are more impassioned; they’re not inherently any more dramatic.  (And by the way, several reviews mention the line “It’s like having a Muslim in the house”, but no-one picks up on what to me was the most evident characteristic of Josh’s conversation with his parents: that it was conducted in exactly the mood, and with almost exactly the vocabulary, of classic coming-out conversations – all the bewildered, trying-to-understand-but-in-fact-faintly-distasteful questions such as how long have you felt this way and what do you actually, you know, do, struck me as hilarious when applied to religion rather than sex.)  Those reviews would have said that, however trite the appearance of Samantha Spiro’s self-obsessed sister may be, it makes for the only drama of the evening.  They would have questioned the non-ending, which on the one hand shows a kind of reconciliation but on the other seems to imply that Josh has relapsed into his base state of ineffectual inactivity.

More worryingly, in the twelve years since his last stage work, and the twelve years since the one before that, it’s just possible that Leigh may have lost the knack of structuring a play.  Quentin Letts comes close to the nub when he says that Leigh “brings cinema tricks to the stage”, but some of the tricks he seems to want to use won’t translate.  Between the numerous short scenes of the first act (the second is more continuous), Gary Yershon’s atmospheric score plays through blackouts.  These blackouts are at best excessive, at worst utterly unnecessary for scene changes on a single set such as is used here.  What I think these interludes are meant to do is function like scene changes onscreen, when a few seconds without dialogue at the end of one scene will cut into the establishing shot of the next whilst the incidental music tootles away, providing tonal continuity.  But without visuals to keep the flow going – with just the music playing to a darkened stage – the dramatic pace is crippled.


Many would say the same about the pace of both Playing With Fire and The Dragons’ Trilogy.  I disagree in both instances.  Granted, David Edgar’s play seems to switch from satire to Richard Norton-Taylor-style judicial reconstruction to dystopian drama, but the shifts are superficial.  Nor is he targeting Blairism in particular with his tale of how a Whitehall wonk tries to overhaul a northern English city council by introducing diversity and accessibility targets and the like.  The key is almost thrown away in a line from David Troughton’s sly but ultimately principled council leader: when money and revenue sources are limited, he laments, the funding for initiatives to help the worst off must sometimes come from areas of benefit to all.  Sometimes, in such situations, when folk feel they’re losing out at others’ benefit, it’s because they actually are.  But add the rhetoric of strident begrudgery, in an environment where too often multiculturalism means living alongside other communities rather than with them, and the brew becomes volatile.  The play is not about a regime, but about our society; not an indictment, but a grim exhortation.  And, for me, Edgar pulls off the achievement here as in, say, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, of animating the big picture by following individuals as they try to find, or sometimes to cut, a path through the ideological thicket.

Reviews of The Dragons’ Trilogy seem to use “soap opera” as a derogatory term.  It’s worth remembering not just that soap operas are the only regular form of dramatic engagement for many – perhaps most – of the country’s population, but also that viewing figures show that soaps fall in popularity the more routinely overwrought they become.  The soaps that are jam-packed from beginning to end with high-tension, improbable events are the ones that burn out their audiences.  Ordinary events, such as in much of Robert Lepage’s play cycle, are fine.  So what else might be meant by the term in this context?  That it goes on a bit?  Oh, come on, five and half hours (with three commercial breaks) is trivial compared to, say The Warp.  Even comedy is discovering the marathon: on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, comedian Mark Watson covered the entire Anno Domini era in performance at the rate of one minute per year: 2005 minutes, some thirty-three and a half hours.

That said, I must admit that this presentation felt somehow colder than the work’s 1991 Riverside outing.  I remember that as being a more intimate affair; remaking the Barbican Theatre into a massive traverse hangar accommodates the play as spectacle, but distances us from being able to feel the story as an organism.  (This reconfiguration of the space for works in the Young Genius strand subsequently proved catastrophic for The Knight Of The Burning Pestle: see next issue.)


And coldness seemed to be the keynote of Daniel Kramer’s reimagination of Hair at the Gate.  Kramer has written of wanting to reinvigorate the show as the political challenge it represented in 1968, but – leaving aside the specific updates of Bush and Condy, Abu Ghraib etc. – that challenge had power because it also embodied some kind of hope, even in the ironic finale of “Let The Sunshine In” sung over the body of the dead Claude.  Without hope, there is simply confrontation.  Without a specific tribal ethos such as hippiedom offered, the young people in Kramer’s production are shrill, unlikeable attention-seekers.  Indeed, without a single dominant youth tribe, he has to resort to a diversity of looks, of quiffs, cuts and shaves as all these young folk sing about how proud they are of the long hair that not one of them is sporting.  The title number contains a few bars of Star Spangled Banner parody: “Oh, say, can you see/My eyes? If you can/Then my hair’s too short!”  Without such an emblem, the song becomes as much gibberish as the “Tooby ooby walla/Nooby abba naba” of “Good Morning Starshine”.  And without the viable alternative that hippiedom seemed at least briefly to offer, the story of this musical simply becomes a struggle between competing generational unpleasantnesses.  There has to be a promise of sunshine in order for us to let it in.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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