Watford Palace Theatre
Opened 18 February, 2008

John Amery, the son of cabinet minister Leo Amery, made radio broadcasts in support of the Germans during World War Two; after the war, back in England, he was hanged for high treason. The “what” in Ronald Harwood’s play is never in doubt; the subject is the retrospective “why”.
The title is significant: at the core of the personalities of both father and son are fervent notions of what qualify as English values and behaviour and what do not. The core meaning of “tragedy” – the story of a great man brought down by a single flaw – applies here to Leo Amery’s decision to suppress the fact that he was half-Jewish in order that his career as an English politician might be unhindered by prejudice. This sense of values at odds mutated, in the unstable John, into a rabid anti-Semitism; Harwood even suggests he pleaded guilty at his trial, and thus in effect committed suicide, in order to purge the world of his own part in the “plague” of Judaism.
The ideas are intriguing, and no doubt gain for being presented in a dramatic rather than an essayistic form. However, that is not to say that the drama works as such. It is a very talky piece: John talks to an interrogator, to his parents’ lawyer, to his final-night prison guard and at the last to his parents; they, in turn, talk to the lawyer and to a psychiatrist (who was not allowed to examine John directly – this is a rare instance of hearing such a character say, in effect, “Tell me about someone else’s childhood”). John even talks to his beloved teddy bear. No-one is short of an opportunity to raise a point, tell an anecdote, expatiate on an ideological or moral position or exhibit a psychopathy, as required.
Nor does Di Trevis’s production, played out on a gigantic fractured swastika of a set, do much to elicit a sense of organic growth or flow. Jeremy Child and Diana Hardcastle as Leo and Bryddie Amery often seem to strike moods according to cues rather than being given the wherewithal to develop them more naturally; John raves on so many fronts that Richard Goulding is scarcely called upon to find any continuity anyway. In journalistic terms, this is a “think-piece” rather than a “story”.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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