An Enemy Of The People / The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot / Never So Good
Various venues
March / April, 2008

As mentioned in my Financial Times reviews, it was an interesting experience to follow the liberal self-interrogation of David Edgar’s Testing The Echo with Dr Stockmann’s polemic against the tyranny of the majority and the stupidity of liberalism in the Arcola’s revival of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s forthright new version.  Part of Edgar’s attitude, though, and part of the implicit point of Testing The Echo, is that such interrogation is not either a manifestation of internal insecurity or an external sign of weakness.  However, people who are honest about still seeking answers are almost always going to be less magnetic than people who are convinced they already have them all.

So it proves in the Ibsen, especially when played by an actor like Greg Hicks whose mere gaze can blister the paint on the back wall of a venue, never mind when he opens his mouth in full passion.  John Peter is in the minority in claiming that Lenkiewicz has also flattened out the play’s moral and political issues, but he has a point; although we feel ambivalent towards Stockmann, we should feel even more so, to the point of feeling ourselves deprived of any locus of sympathy in the world of the play.  (That’s the kind of worldly dilemma which Stephen Adly Guirgis tries to reproduce in theological terms in The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, but largely misses.  To paraphrase Verdi, Guirgis’s piece is both intelligent and interesting; however, the parts that are more intelligent are less interesting, and the parts that are more interesting are less intelligent.)


Obviously, though, the most overtly political play of the fortnight is Never So Good.  A number of reviewers expressed surprise that an unregenerate (though not unreconstructed) left-winger such as Howard Brenton could write such a sympathetic portrait of an old Etonian, semi-aristocratic Conservative Prime Minister such as Harold Macmillan.  I suspect they are not looking at the big picture.  Susannah Clapp gets closest by stating that Brenton’s thesis is that “Macmillan was one of the best leaders the Left never had.”  For me, both the more obvious parallels in the play – such as Macmillan wondering what would be done after the fighting was over in Suez – and the less laboured ones – e.g. the references to his 1938 book The Middle Way which advocated limited nationalisation among other things – seem to function less as praise of Macmillan in his own context than as excoriation of current political orthodoxy.

The landscape has changed so much (Brenton seems to me to be saying) that a paternalistic toff such as Macmillan can plausibly personify a criticism of current Labour government policies from the Left.  His one-nation attitudes may have been more than a little patronising, but they depended on convictions about community and society which have in the intervening half-century been suffocated and replaced with eerie, pod-grown replicas consisting entirely of political jargon but without either thoughts or feelings motivating them.  Aleks Sierz is quite right to note that Macmillan’s ruthlessness and other negative elements are absent from Brenton’s account, but I think that’s because Brenton never set out to create a representative portrait, nor really a portrait of any kind.  Contrary to its superficial appearance, the subject of Never So Good is not Harold Macmillan but the kind of political-philosophical complacency that can generate remarks and beliefs such as “most of our people have never had it so good”, both then and now, and the varying degrees of justification for such beliefs.  It is not that Brenton has come in from the Left; it is that the rest of the political world has outpaced him in its move to the Right.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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