Gethsemane / Othello
Various venues
November, 2008

The cast page of the programme to Gethsemane carries a note by Hare: “Gethsemane is my third recent play at the National theatre drawing on public events. The Permanent Way is pure fact, transcribed. Stuff Happens is one-third transcribed, two-thirds imagined. Gethsemane is pure fiction.”  And the surprise is that people interpreted this at face value and even more so. 

I have surprising problems with irony on the page (I never appreciated the tone, for instance, of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop until I saw a stage adaptation of it), but even I realised that he didn’t mean it absolutely literally.  Yes, it’s accurate in that no real, named figures appear on the stage, but beyond that, I’m amazed that only Aleks Sierz considers Hare’s remark to be ironic.  (Aleks notes that the audience when he saw the play included Neil and Glenys Kinnock; my night included former Conservative Home Secretary Leon – now Lord – Brittan and “awkward” Labour MP Bob Marshall Andrews.)


Still, I concur less with Aleks’s view of the play overall than with those who find it disappointing and reductive.  A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a colleague about Alan Ayckbourn.  My friend remarked that he thought Ayckbourn’s mastery as a writer began to diminish when he started writing occasional children’s plays; after that (he said), the playwright’s characters tended to divide more clearly into goodies and baddies.  I think the same can increasingly be said of Hare… although the mind boggles to imagine a children’s play by David Hare.  The viewpoint figure in Gethsemane is, as the title itself indicates, not just saintly but almost divinely immaculate in her views.

And the baddie…?  Complaints have been raised (inevitably, most stridently by people who haven’t either read or seen it) that the character of Otto Fallon, as portrayed by Stanley Townsend, is anti-Semitic.  They are committing the basic logical error of assuming that two elements must be causally connected.  Fallon is dodgy; Fallon is (played here as) a Jew; that does not mean that he is portrayed as dodgy because he is Jewish, or vice versa.  Frankly, he’s played as Jewish because the character is an analogue to Lord Levy, and there’s an end on it.


More imagined villainy in Frantic Assembly’s Othello.  Several reviewers find the element of race adequately present; I’m with John Peter and Jane Edwardes in begging to differ.  Once the action is translated to a working-class, urban Yorkshire pub, ideas begin to unravel.  How can there be such explicit racism in going out to bash the local Turks and yet no question (except insidiously by Iago) of Othello’s leadership of the otherwise white gang?  Pass.

I’ve recently been reading Ammon Shea’s highly entertaining book Reading The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes a number of wonderful, arcane words (e.g. gound: the gunk that collects in your eyes when you sleep).  I was all ready to use one such – snirtle: to suppress a laugh – in a review, when I realised that I hadn’t encountered it in Shea’s book, but in Christopher Hart’s review of Gethsemane.  Damn.  Good word, though.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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