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


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.

Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II
Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.


Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

Christopher Eccleston in Antigone – National Theatre, London

Tiptoing around a tyrant – Eccleston as Creon in Antigone

Antigone is a short, intense and deeply political play, as relevant now as it was two and a half millennia ago. Though it is set in a society alien to our own, the issues it explores are universal.

The production I saw at the National Theatre is set in a nuclear bunker of sorts, closely modelled on the photograph of Obama and his aides receiving the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. You can smell the stale cigarette smoke and sweat of a bloody conflict barely ended. Greek tragedies are prone to claustrophobia, since ancient views on dramatic unity decreed that they should take place only in real time and space; i.e. a single location. But this production makes those limitations into a strength, and although the mental collapse of the protagonist Creon happens frighteningly quickly, it never feels  at all contrived.

This is a credit not only to Sophocles’ writing and Don Taylor’s translation, but to the particular intense qualities of Christopher Eccleston, who is outstanding in a role that he seems born to play. He begins as the voice of reason, quickly taking control of a society’s fragile return to normality, and his implacable decree that the body of the enemy’s leader should remain unburied seems justifiable, if a little harsh. Clearly, these are harsh times.

But Creon’s decree is an affront to the gods, and therefore an even greater threat to social order than the recent war. Antigone, sister of the unburied man, defies Creon in the full knowledge that it will cost her her life.  A collision course is set between public and private morality.

Creon remains implacable, and slowly reveals that his main course of strong leadership comes with a poisonous side order of cruelty and sneering vindictiveness. His son, betrothed to the condemned Antigone, pleads with him to show mercy. They end up having a punch-up on the floor. The Chorus of staff gradually, fearfully, begin to express their reservations. But it takes the arrival of the blind prophet Teiresias, and his stomach-churning speech against angering the gods, to articulate the full implications of Creon’s hamartia.

Eccleston’s Creon is a bomb waiting for the appropriate detonation. You walk on eggshells around him. Even when voicing sweet reason, there’s a manic glint in his eye that makes you cross him at your peril. He spends the play receiving reports of disasters that threaten his authority, and his reactions are subtle but telling. A slight tightening of the jaw, a hardening in the eyes, the suggestion of a nervous tic; all these are manifested within a body that appears, to the casual onlooker, to be utterly controlled. But the electricity of unpredictable tyranny fills the stage.  Those who think of Eccleston as a working-class hero might be surprised by how completely he embodies worldly power here.

But Creon is not a monster, though ever since the Romantic period productions have tended to present Antigone as a feminist icon, a freedom fighter or at least a beautifully devoted sister. Creon is trying to establish something we can recognise as a modern state, governed by human wisdom and expediency rather than custom and religious observation. We can identify with such a goal, even if he does not arouse our sympathy.

It is inevitable that the gods will exact their revenge. Greek tragedies were performed as part of a religious ritual, after all. But the source of their enduring power is that they challenge us to consider both sides of an eternal conflict in a nuanced way. What actually happens to Creon, and breaks him – the suicide of his son in Antigone’s living tomb, is arguably a logical consequence of his own actions, yet the spectre of divine retribution is the motor that drives the play towards its grim and inescapable conclusion where Creon, bloodied, stripped bare of all pretence, becomes totally vulnerable and says simply, “I ought to be dead.”

This is a fine reading of a magnificent play, the antithesis of the derivative and superficial entertainment that has become ubiquitous in our society, and it’s a pleasure to see it packing a theatre. Eccleston embodies the Arisotelian definition of a tragic hero, invoking both pity and terror. Although his fine work in Doctor Who is unmentioned in the theatre programme, it is possible to see a common thread between the two roles, both of which explore a character capable of god-like powers, but only too aware of the cost, both to self and to society, of indulging such impulses.

 Review from The Arts Desk website

Sweet Music – The Subtle Seductions of South Pacific and Shakespeare

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice – Act V, Scene 1

Last night, we saw the much-praised Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. We’ve had the tickets for months and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a superlative production – there’s so much talent on display, not just in the obvious singing, dancing and acting departments but also in the imaginative staging, lighting and perfect period design. No amplification, no special effects wizardry, just old-fashioned, honest talent. And everybody left the theatre on a high, singing “those wonderful romantic songs.”

But the interesting thing is that, though it’s packed with romantic set-pieces and numbers, South Pacific is not a romantic show. Absolutely not. It begins with an expatriate, whose murky past includes murder, calculatingly eyeing up a woman half his age. In the next scene, we meet Bloody Mary, an enterprising native woman whose sidelines include trading in shrunken human heads, and a raucous chorus of US Navy troops who flood the stage with sex-starved testosterone. In this world, everything is currency – a theme personified by Bloody Mary herself and her American equivalent, the blue-collar Luther Billis, who ruthlessly exploits any economic opportunity and would like nothing more than to blag his way onto a neighbouring island, get an exotic native lay and plunder their culture for marketable souveniers.   We’re introduced to the nurses – there are only six of them, nowhere near enough to go around – and the message is clear – they’re the officers’ property.

This is not an idealised world. Quite the reverse. And this modern production brings that right out into the open, juxtaposing the glorious songs with an occasionally sordid reality to great effect. Good popular music is extremely potent, particularly when combined with a 25-piece orchestra at the top of their game and luscious tropical settings. If that’s all you want, you’ll go away satisfied. But there is more, and it’s there for anyone who wants to look for it. South Pacific still has important things to say, and painful things can be said enjoyably; it’s the dissonance and ambiguity that make it rich.

Most problematic of all is the subplot regarding the heroic Lieutenant Cable and his beautiful Polynesian partner Liat. Bloody Mary happens to be Liat’s mother, and as far as she’s concerned her daughter is just another commodity that can be offered to the troops. Remember that heart-stoppingly beautiful, romantic number, Younger than Springtime? Cable sings it straight after he’s had sex with her, a girl handed to him on a plate by her mother, probably in her early teens, clearly frightened of him and unable to have a conversation with him because of the language barrier. He’s absolutely sincere when he sings about her youth and joy invading his arms – just as Pinkerton was in Madam Butterfly. In the second act, sensing that she’s losing her best customer, Bloody Mary gets Liat to perform for him to the charming little tune, Happy Talk. Believe me, it’s no academic affectation deconstructing this kind of thing. Its subtext is up there, along with the corn, as high as an elephant’s eye.

At the interval, my husband turned to me and said, “It’s just like Shakespeare, isn’t it? Full of quotes.” I realised he was onto something. South Pacific has a lot in common with those edgy, unsettling comedies that Shakespeare wrote in mid-career. Particularly, I felt, with Much Ado About Nothing, a story that also features military men on the lookout for partners (or just sex) and sometimes behaving badly. Both shows have two contrasting romantic couples – one sparky and delightful to watch, but ultimately raising few issues other than the usual one of how long it will take them to get together, and another one that is far more problematic. We laugh along to Beatrice and Benedick, delighting in the sparring, but few modern audiences could feel entirely comfortable watching the cruelty of Claudio denouncing Hero as a whore on the flimsiest of evidence and humiliating her on their wedding day, or her apparently willing capitulation when he barely has the decency to apologise. It might have been entirely acceptable to contemporary audiences, but it’s a major issue for any modern production.

Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day - 1861 illustration by Marcus Stone

In a previous review of The Merchant of Venice, I wrote about Shakespeare’s audacity – the way he seemed to delight in surrounding his audience with the trappings of conventional romance, using every theatrical device available, only to pull the rug out from under their feet. In the final act of The Merchant, a glorious tableau of soaring verse celebrating moonlight and sweet harmony rapidly degenerates into a bitch-fest about a mislaid love token that wouldn’t look out of place on The Only Way is Essex. Shakespeare, it seems, is saying the same thing as Rogers and Hammerstein – you think you’re getting romance, and you are – but romance is an illusion, just like the theatre. The reality is sex as currency, and relationships as transactions. And shadows surround the happy couple centre-stage at the end. In the case of South Pacific, it’s the memory of Cable who doesn’t come back from the mission, and in The Merchant it’s the heartbroken Antonio and the devastated Shylock, who loses both his daughter and his ducets to a morally bankrupt society.

Every time a show is revived, whether it’s four hundred years old or sixty, artistic choices have to be made between accommodating the realities of what audiences found acceptable at the time of its composition, and what layers are inferred by the writers but present for future audiences to see. South Pacific is more than worthy of this treatment, and for those who look beyond the schmaltz there are many issues, some of them disturbingly relevant, to explore.

You’re never alone with a clone – “Futureshock” reviewed

Imagine being forcibly woken after eight hundred years of suspended animation, to be faced by a heartless corporate clone informing you that the programme you signed up for has run out of money, so you’re going to be turned out into a society you can barely comprehend with no support whatsoever. This is the unenviable position that Laura, heroine of the play Futureshock, finds herself in. Back in 2030, with Earth going to hell in a handbasket, NASA funded an exploratory mission to an alternative planet many light-years away. To encourage people to sign up, they promised to deep-freeze their loved ones and reunite them in a thousand years’ time.

But NASA went bust centuries ago, Laura discovers that she’s the only person who survived the revivication process, and her partner’s mission won’t reach its destination in her lifetime. Worst of all, perhaps, humanity has found alternative solutions and nobody really cares.

Laura’s an appealing character, if a little dogmatic at times. A poet, passionate and romantic, she believes that she has been betrayed and that, regardless of the current circumstances, society is morally bound to honour the sacrifices that the original explorers made and underwrite them, regardless of cost. It’s an argument that cuts little ice with the glacial, cloned manager of the facility, Nicoletta. In her world, clones are accepted as completely human, legislation protects them from offensive language and the imperfections that, Laura feels, make her uniquely human are despised.

Between these two extremes, a male mediator, Stampfer, proposes a compromise. Laura will be humanely killed but everything about her, both physical and emotional, will be uploaded into a data file and made available to her partner, if and when he returns. The only alternative is for Laura to stay alive and live a miserable life on the fringes of society with no means of supporting herself.

What would you do?

"I look like him..." Rose Tyler (probably) isn't buying it

If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you might have come across this dilemma before. Back at the end of the 2008 series (we won’t go into details) the Doctor managed to grow a second version of himself, one that “had the same memories, same thoughts, same everything,” and left him in another universe with the woman he loved, as a kind of consolation prize. The storyline split Doctor Who fandom down the middle. Many saw it as a happy ending, giving those who appreciate such things a whole imaginative universe to play in. Others were appalled – how could you really love someone, and then settle for his double, while the original person continued to live and suffer without you?

For all its laughable plots, Doctor Who has often shown an uncanny  knack for asking the questions that challenge us to define what makes us human. Futureshock does the same. Laura’s objection to the proposed solution is that the data file “won’t be the real me,” because already she’s had experiences, and laid down new memories, that won’t be included. But eventually she goes along with the proposal. I’d love to have seen a second act where we heard the arguments from her lover’s point of view, assuming he eventually got home.

Science fiction and theatre aren’t natural bedfellows. Maybe it’s because we tend to think of it as epic and spectacular. By contrast, Futureshock, a three-hander on a minimalist set, is a very intimate piece. But, in addition to establishing three characters who were more than just representatives of conflicting positions, it opened up all kinds of cans of worms, shedding light on the preoccupations of contemporary society. There was satire of the way that inhumane, financially-driven government welfare cuts are couched in impersonal language to remove their sting. There was commentary on our idolization of physical perfection and the fickleness of celebrity culture. However, it’s Laura’s philosophical dilemma that stays with me.

If you believe in the concept of a unique human soul that survives after death in a recognisable form, you’re going to have problems with Laura’s fate. On a personal level, what interests me was that I thought it was a humane, pragmatic solution. I understood, without really endorsing, the arguments of the future society that they couldn’t commit in perpetuity to expensive promises made centuries ago for reasons that were no longer relevant to them. This was very different to the way I’d felt about Rose being left with the duplicate Doctor. Admittedly, I’d had years, rather than minutes, to get emotionally invested in the characters in Doctor Who. And I resented being expected to settle for pragmatic compromise. I saw the narrative as an epic romance, and such an ending jarred and did not sit well with me. It was a bit like Aragorn acknowledging that really he’d been a bit silly to go around mooning after an Elven lady for so long, and settling for a quiet life with a nice village girl instead.

That suggests that, when it comes to whether or not we’ll buy into an ending, the tone of the narrative is all-important. Some stories stick up their fingers in a glorious WTF gesture to real life and glory in being an alternative to it. Others make it clear from the start that they’re about ideas rather than feelings. That’s an over-simplification, of course, and the best ones should aim at doing both. Whether or not they succeed is, of course, another matter.

And then there’s post-modernism, and the self-aware narrative. But that’s another story.

Futureshock – review