“Not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” Getting stuff done in “This House”

How far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action?

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That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other….We are not built for co-operation.

As Teresa May brokers another messy compromise in her attempt to quell the ever-shriller voices of thwarted Brexiteers and hold the Conservative Party together, it is tempting to regard these days as the most febrile and chaotic in British political memory. My husband always has an answer to that, “It was worse in the 1970s, they were wheeling MPs in on their death beds to vote then.”

James Graham’s whip-smart play, This House takes us right inside those turbulent times, when Labour would stop at nothing to defend their minute majority, when political life was dominated by deals and counter-deals with minority parties and rebels were begged to put personal idealism aside and toe the party line. It is astonishing that the final Callaghan Labour Government hung on for four-and-a-half years before losing a no-confidence motion by a single vote. Poised between a musical, a tragedy and a farce, it almost seems too entertaining, but there is a grim hilarity as the bodies, quite literally, pile up.

Westminster is a notoriously adversarial place. Probably the thing everyone remembers from a tour of the Palace is that on the Commons floor the Government and Opposition benches are separated by a gap precisely the width of two drawn swords. Incipient violence is contained by a web of arcane custom and gentlemen’s agreements. For example, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a forthcoming division, he can request a “pair” – that is, a member of the opposing party agrees not to vote. Most of these arrangements have grown up through custom and practice and can only survive if everyone follows their unwritten rules. It seems to work, most of the time. When it doesn’t, you get Heseltine waving the Mace around in fury and all hell breaks loose – perhaps gentlemen’s agreements matter more than we like to think.

The engine rooms of politics, particularly in a minority or hung Parliament, are the Whips’ Offices where individual convictions are hammered into party unity, superficially at least. Graham takes us deep into these hidden but vital centres of power. Often Labour and Tory whips face one another across the stage. And as the exhausting compromises wear on, the brutality of class warfare becomes more and more apparent.

James Graham writes brilliantly about the last days of Old Labour (and indeed Old Conservatives). This House shows us a collapsing political order on the cusp of seismic change, as the Conservatives back Thatcher as their leader and Labour rely on ageing Trade Unionists, who command loyalty and respect but are physically drained by years of manual labour and hours in smoke-filled rooms. It is truly shocking to see such giants staggering in to vote, one in a blood-stained shirt just hours after surgery, another in a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder. It is also extremely funny, though at times one feels guilty for laughing.

Several decades later, the haircuts and the music are different but a great deal remains the same. What I took away from this fascinating story was a reminder that, despite all, MPs are human beings, and there is an unexpected and moving gesture of fellow feeling between Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his Conservative opposite number, Jack Weatherill, at the very end. The final question is, how far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action? That argument is still continuing as the House limps toward an ominous new world order.

This House is currently on tour. I saw it last week at The Lowry, Salford Quays

 

Country House Shakespeare – Twelfth Night at the RST

Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn?

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Dinita Gohil, left, as Viola and Kara Tointon as the besotted Olivia in the RSC’s new Twelfth Night – MANUEL HARLAN

And so to Stratford-upon-Avon, for the third time in six months, to see the last performance of the RSC’s Twelfth Night. I have very happy memories of Stratford in general, where I did an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, and in particular of the RSC’s 2014 productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, which were set either side of the First World War. It was a period setting that brought out new layers of meaning in both the plays, further enhanced by Christopher Luscombe’s sumptuous country house setting and Nigel Hess’s joyous musical pastiche of Edwardian pomp and circumstance giving way to the Jazz Age.

Quite rightly, it packed the house out for weeks and so it was natural enough that the RSC ordered more of the same for Twelfth Night, this time setting it rather arbitrarily in the 1890s and packing it with a pianola, an Indian Sebastian and Caesario, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers and rather a lot of Oscar Wilde, green carnation stuff. All this was sumptuously recreated at great expense; Olivia’s gowns alone must have set the RSC back thousands, and there was even a scene in a London railway terminal.

Twelfth Night is a broad church (although if you make it too contemporary there’s some highly questionable treatment of mental illness). It can stand a lot in the way of updating, particularly when it’s as beautifully produced and performed as this, but there was a whiff of opportunism about the amount of late Victoriana we were being subjected to here. Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn? In the setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is itself festooned with bunting and restaurants offering cream teas as Mad Men era music plays in the background, it did rather come over that way. I’m surprised that the normally commercially savvy National Trust hasn’t co-funded this production, since it takes a local property as a design reference (the wonderful Arts-and-Crafts house Wightwick Manor).

Stratford, at least the Shakespearian bit, is a living temple to Englishness as it is generally viewed by the rest of the world. The Chinese pound is doing a great deal to keep it in business these days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the local Council to lay on basic Mandarin courses for hospitality and retail workers. I saw the Birthplace Gift Shop lose a substantial sale because a lady was unable to understand a request to enter her PIN number. I remember from my MA days that on the late-evening train back to Birmingham you were as likely to hear Polish spoken as you were English. I noticed a lot of businesses advertising for staff.

Post Referendum, I’m inclined to take a rather jaded view of all this chintzy Englishness. The RSC offer a varied programme, and everything they do is first-class, so it would be churlish to complain about them offering the occasional crowd-pleaser. But if I have to sit through one more production featuring a pert scullery maid bobbing to her betters in a mob cap, I’ll start missing Maggie Smith. Christopher Eccleston is up next as Macbeth. Given his forthright views on social class when pressed on the reasons why he quit Doctor Who, I can’t help wondering what he made of Twelfth Night. There are some terrific Shakespearian insults in it.

What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.

 

Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X

 

How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)

 

 

 

The Almighty Sometimes

 

Norah Lopez Holden as Anna and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee in The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Fever (Royal Exchange publicity photo)

Anna is bright, gifted and angry. Like many 18 year olds she thinks she knows everything. But she also suffers from bipolar disorder. For the past 7 years, with the support of her mother and psychologist, and a lot of medication, she’s been stable. But now she’s discovered that if she stop taking the pills a whole world of creativity opens up to her and she feels wonderful…for a while.

The problem of lack of support for children facing mental illness and their families has rightly had a lot of publicity recently. What is perhaps less well known is that when those children reach the age of 18, they become adults in the eyes of the law and are expected to transition smoothly from child to adults’ support services, taking responsibility for their own condition and therapeutic pathways. Anyone who has lived with an 18 year old will recognise some of the dangers of that approach.

Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Anna’s mother, desperately worried by her daughter’s escalating mood-swings but barred by Anna’s hostility and rules on confidentiality from accessing the help her daughter so clearly needs. It sounds like a grim story and in some ways it is. This play pulls no punches about the agonies of mental illness and the social stigma that those who suffer it have to cope with. It’s also extremely honest about the monstrous self-centredness of someone in the throes of mental instability, and how that can combine with the natural wish for independence to push vulnerable young adults over a precipice. Renee, Anna’s mother, is no saint, and there’s a lot of warmth and black humour in this play, but ultimately it’s about a mother and daughter having to negotiate a devastating situation with no easy answers.

It’s brilliantly written and beautifully acted. Hesmondhalgh rightly has caught the headlines – she’s brilliant – but Norah Lopez Holden is also remarkable in the very demanding role of Anna – swinging from feeling that the universe is in the palm of her hand to a crippling depression so severe that she’s too exhausted to pick up a hairbrush. Glorying in her uniqueness yet desperate to be accepted as an ordinary person, she is impossible to live with, challenging and alienating all those who care for her, yet  invokes our deepest pity. Her creative potential is clear, but it the cost unacceptable – to herself, her loved ones, and society in general?

This is everything new drama should be – entertaining, thought-provoking, challenging and completely involving. With the epidemic of mental distress now facing young people, it is also highly topical.

The Almighty Sometimes is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24 February. Box Office 0161 833 9833

All’s Well?

 

Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.

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Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage

 

 

My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age

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Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.

 

I Am Thomas

Ian Johnstone

Composer/performer Iain Johnstone in “I Am Thomas”

Thomas Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University,  was the last person in Britain to be executed on a charge of blasphemy, at the tender age of 20, when a lot of young man say things they will live to regret. The historical record doesn’t specify whether he was drunk, attention-seeking, or an icon of atheist integrity when he announced in an Edinburgh pub that the Bible was a load of nonsense, and got himself arrested. The sentence of hanging passed on him by the Lord Advocate James Stewart seemed to come as a shock to his contemporaries even at the time. Aikenhead’s last recorded utterance was:

“it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure… “

Fighting talk. But one man’s blasphemy is another man’s credo, and vice versa. In these days of religious intolerance, when an offensive cartoon can lead to an extra-judicial death sentence, it’s rather surprising that it’s taken so long for someone to make a play about Aikenhead. Now a small revue/drama company with a growing reputation and the brilliant name of, “Told by An Idiot” have put together just such a show, with lyrics by Simon Armitage. Last night we went to see it at the Lowry Centre, Salford Quays.

We begin with a haunting and shocking incident, the full significance of which doesn’t become apparent until about halfway through the play. A devout elderly couple are judicially drowned, clutching their Bibles, for refusing on grounds of conscience to sing, “God Save the King.” It’s the time of the Glorious Revolution, with Jacobite insurgency as much of a threat to the peace of the realm as Islamist extremism is today. It later transpires that the unfortunate pair are none other than the parents of Lord James Stewart, the man who condemns Thomas Aikenhead to death.

As far as I can gather (and I’m no expert on this complicated period of Scottish history) this isn’t based on historical fact, although the custom of such executions comes as no surprise. But it serves a useful purpose in the narrative. It makes it clear that the condemned dissident doesn’t necessarily have the monopoly on truth. The man who passes sentence may have equal grounds for uncompromising morality, seasoned with the fear that if you don’t clamp down hard you risk the social order unravelling. Or, as Javert puts it in Les Miserables:

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
Those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall as Lucifer fell
The flames
The sword

I’d be doing the show a disservice, however, if I presented it as a straightforward narrative arc, with Aikenhead as hero and Stewart as traumatised orphan hell-bent on revenge. It’s more like a Brechtian meditation on the the nature of blasphemy, and if it comes to any clear conclusion it is probably that nobody’s truth, however sincerely held, is worth killing another human being for. If that sounds too heavy, I should add that everybody in the eight-strong company takes it in turns to play Thomas and that (for reasons I don’t altogether understand) there’s a lot of 1970s pop culture on display, including a very funny interpolation from the Bay City Rollers. I’m not sure all the jokes come off, but there’s is a wonderful spiky number set in the kirk which runs through all the hideous tortures awaiting those who deny the Almighty, followed by the refrain, “For the God above is a God of love.” Another high point for me is the ballad Roll Up, expressing wonder at the universe seen through a telescope, beautifully performed with a simple piano accompaniment by composer Iain Johnstone, reminiscent of a Tim Machin cabaret number without the snark.

There’s no real attempt a realistic, chronological narrative. In fact, the clue is probably in the name, Told By An Idiot – the ambiguity lies in the details, the apparently trivial signifiers that turn out to be unexpectedly significant. Aikenhead was condemned to death on Christmas Eve 1696: the appearance of the Magi is genuinely touching, but also serves as a comment on the mythic nature of faith and the way it interweaves with culture in a way that provokes deep feeling and defies rational analysis. One thing I liked very much about this approach is that it doesn’t take the easy route of hammering home Significant Contemporary Parallels. Yes, they are there – but a “Je Suis” T-shirt doesn’t make its appearance until the last scene.

My partner came away frustrated, wanting more background and verifiable historical detail. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be very much of that to go on, although Aikenhead’s inditement can easily be tracked down on Google and alleges with unintended irony that, among his other crimes, “….he preferred Muhammad to Christ.” I think the show is best appreciated as a poem rather than a story. You might get more out of Yeats’ Second Coming if you know about the 1916 Easter Rising, but his observation on political demagogues that, “the best lack all conviction and the worst/Are filled with passionate intensity,” has a timeless resonance.

Do look out for I Am Thomas. It’s touring Britain until the end of April and makes a bracing, much more economical, alternative to overhyped West End blockbusters.