Shadowlands / Glengarry Glen Ross / Rent / How To Curse / The Country Wife
Various venues
October, 2007

It’s a very British characteristic to look down on nationalism, or even mild patriotism, when it’s used as the basis for a particular point of view.  But it does seem to infect us all now and again when we write… and not just the Brits.  The International Herald Tribune column in which Matt Wolf addressed both Shadowlands and War Horse is a fine barbed example of what has made the Anglo-American “special relationship” what it is today.  Surely we can do better than arguing “my sentimentality’s better than your sentimentality”?  Then there’s Quentin Letts, also on Shadowlands, also disparaging other nations’ temperaments in terms (“emotional incontinent”?) that tend to corroborate my occasional suspicions about English emotional repression being a by-product of excessively severe toilet training in infancy.  He also praises “a repressed, bookish Englishman of the 1950s”, C S Lewis, who as a matter of fact was Northern Irish… and that’s my nationalism coming out.


Similar transatlantic pushing and shoving is visible in the reviews of Glengarry Glen Ross and Rent.  With the David Mamet play, the prosecutor-in-chief is Christopher Hart, but by the time he comes to back his claims up he has stopped listening attentively enough. “The dialogue strains to sound naturalistic,” writes Christopher, citing the line “He couldn’t find his own dick with two hands and a map”.  The actual line, as written by Mamet and delivered by Matthew Marsh, is “Cop couldn’t find his dick two hands and a map.”  Those differences may not look much on the page, but when spoken they result in an entirely different rhythm, pitch and demotic feel, which Marsh gets and Christopher misses.  I’m familiar with the rhythms of these lines from having acted in a production (since you ask, I played the no-hoper Aaronow), and I could detect none of the hesitation in dialogue that Christopher remarks on, although (as I’ve written) one or two characters occasionally mis-steer their lines.  But Mamet is a poet of spoken rhythms in the same way as Pinter and, in music, David Byrne.

With Rent, it’s the respective champions of Englishness and Americana again.  Matt says there’s a lot to commend this revival, without actually citing anything, whilst Quentin is once again exercised by blasphemy and imagined leftieness.  Frankly, there’s more than enough to damn the show on its own terms.  To be sure, many of us were less than wild about the show on its previous London outings (I always felt the lyrics strained, without success, to find the same tone as the successfully rocky score), but we can still compare those favourably with this polished, sanitised, meaningless razzle-dazzle.  I know I’ve already let bullets fly at this production in my FT review, but Rent is the second of the two shows I mentioned in last issue’s Prompt Corner as having enraged me by the rank insensitivity with which they commandeered the memory of the dead, in this case by use of a scrolling LED display of AIDS victims.  This revival’s creative team are, we are repeatedly reminded, the people behind the current success of Kylie Minogue.  One might have thought that their closeness to her during her recent battle with breast cancer would have given them some appreciation of how a potentially fatal illness may, and far more to the point may not, be referred to in media and commercial contexts.


In case it seems as if I’m only pointing the finger at others here, look at the reviews of How To Curse and it’s pretty clear which of the reviewers remembers their own adolescence as bookish and emotionally crippled.  Yes, I plead guilty, and that’s no doubt why the play resonated so strongly with me.  But I don’t disavow my opinion of it.  I also don’t remember being particularly alone in that precious kind of teenagerdom, so I refuse to buy the complaints in other reviews that Ian McHugh’s 17-year-old characters are too given to allusion.  (Their age is mentioned in the text, contrary to Fiona Mountford’s claim, though it is done obliquely: when Miranda protests that she’s old enough to hold a driving licence – 17 in the UK – it’s implied that she is no older than that since she has no further legal rights to boast of.)  I’m also surprised that I was the only one to register a feeling of Philip Ridley in this world where grime and magic meet and stories are virtually holy.

But then, there are several matters this issue where I could use that beloved “I’m amazed that no-one else…” gambit.  For instance, amidst all the praise for the vigorous language of The Country Wife, I’m amazed that no-one registered the extent to which it has been modernised for Jonathan Kent’s revival. True, the double entendre of “he is coming in to you the back way” is original Wycherley, but so many other expressions had been updated, and so unsubtly, that the little bell in my head whenever I heard such tonal dissonance was ringing so constantly that I thought I was developing tinnitus.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with updating a text per se – in the West End at the moment, Rupert Goold has discreetly revised a few of the more arcane terms and references in Macbeth – but in this case it was, as I say, so frequent that I feel it’s a little naughty not to acknowledge it with at least a passing remark somewhere in the programme.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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