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