HOME  UP 

THEATRE


Moliere and Corneille welcome theatregoers to the Municipal Theatre at Avignon

 

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS

Author Title Theatre
David Edgar Testing the Echo Library Theatre Manchester
Lillian Hellman The Children's Hour Royal Exchange Manchester
Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot Library Theatre Manchester
Arnold Wesker Roots Royal Exchange Manchester
David Williamson A Conversation Royal Exchange Manchester
Noel Coward The Vortex Royal Exchange Manchester
Brad Fraser True Love Lies Royal Exchange Manchester
John Osborne The Entertainer Royal Exchange Manchester
August Strindberg Miss Julie Royal Exchange Manchester
Richard Bean The Heretic The Lowry Salford
Rodney Ackland Too Clever by Half Royal Exchange Manchester

 

RELATED REVIEWS & ARTICLES

Author Title  Reviewer

Alan Dent

Clifford Odets & American Theatre

 

David Cregan

Three Plays

Alan Dent

Martin Crimp Attempts on Her Life Stella Jonrose
Richard Eyre Changing Stages: British Theatre in the 20C Alan Dent
Martin McDonagh The Beauty Queen of Leenane Stella Jonrose


 


Testing The Echo
by David Edgar
Library Theatre Manchester and touring. 
                                   
I could have sat through this one-hour-forty-five minute, sixty-eight  scene, whistle-stop exploration of the idiocies, intricacies and absurdities of testing Britishness simply for the pleasure of the acting. Max Stafford-Clarkís Out Of Joint are superb. David Edgar is equally excellently served by Matthew Dunsterís intelligent, sensitive and disciplined direction. This is a marvellous show which combines serious ideas, wit, satire, revue-style nail-on-the-head almost sketch-like scenes and still manages some subtle characterisation. Itís the work of a mature dramatist in command of his medium and the writing is pacey, bracing and attention-holding from start to finish. Its subject, the straight-from-outer-space lunacy of a definition of what it means to be British through an arbitrary set of general knowledge type questions, is of course a symptom of a wider malaise. Christopher Lasch called it the revolt of the elites. Edgar, in something akin to agitprop technique, closes in on his prey. In spite of the questions this piece raises, running through its veins is a beating contempt for the condescension, arrogance, prissiness and sheer stupidity of the current drive to churn out British citizens like Cowley used to produce runabouts. There is almost a sense of disbelief in the playís conception. And in fact, that such a play needs to be written is a measure of our contemporary tragedy. Just as this production fills you with delight and admiration at the skill, commitment, intelligence and imagination of our actors, so it makes you sick to the pit of your stomach at the time-serving crassness and dull-witted conservatism of our politicians. This is a play about the crisis of democracy. It should leave you appalled, angry and wanting to act ( in all senses). 
                       
Edgar enlists the experiences of various characters who, for one reason or another, want or need to undergo the Britishness test. The very fact of widely varying motivations undermines the standardising intention. Probably the most convincingly drawn character is Emma Goodman-Lee, played  wonderfully by Teresa Banham. Emma is an ESOL teacher and Banham renders exquisitely her enthusiastic competence and lightly worn expertise. She is required to integrate Britishness into her language teaching, a nice example of how education can be manipulated to serve ideological ends. Late in the play she finds herself accused of bullying and discrimination by Nasim, a Muslim who supported the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, for what are innocent classroom procedures.  Easy-going, liberal, a product of those post-war values which produced CND, Oxfam, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Jack Jones ( the trade unionist, not the singer) even the youíve-never-had-it-so-goodism of  Harold MacMillan who, reputedly, built more council houses than Nye Bevan, itís a lovely and frightening irony sheís accused by a past supporter of  murderous intolerance.  Kindred points are made by Pauline, an articulate, cynical, funny guest at the ESOL dinner-parties who points up the obvious dubiousness of protesting in the streets of London against the invasion of Iraq along with a component of radical Islamists who want to build a society where such protests would be impossible. Itís a good point, if easily rebutted: the best defences against any form of tyranny are thoroughly democratic institutions and the rule of law, including international law. Yet Edgar is right to raise these revealing dilemmas. They show us how choices are seldom commensurate and the achievement of one desirable end may require the attenuation of another. Life doesnít deliver up babyishly simple choices, which is why a simple test of Britishness is so risible.  
                       
At the heart of the play also is Mahmood, a Brummy, who is voluntarily undergoing cold turkey. This is Britain. This is Britishness. Drugs. Guns. So-called feral kids. What has this to do with the distance from John OíGroats to Landís End ? Mahmood wants to pass the test to avoid difficulties over property ownership when he goes back to Pakistan. But heís a junkie. So is this what it means to be British in 2008 ? In demolishing a single, universal , reduced definition of Britishness Edgar reveals whatís really sinister about the test: it encourages us to see our primary definition in our nationality rather than our humanity. A national identity which is easily defined isnít worth having. We `are human beings first and as such may feel more affinity with people of our own ilk on the other side of the world, or from a past century, than with our neighbours. Whatís wrong with that?  Everyone has to make his or her own agreement with existence. We do so out of a shared social identity, but within that identity are many and often very finessed variations. An identity worth having is one that celebrates the variety which exceeds it.  
                       
The identities in this play, Jasminka the Kosovan prostitute, brilliantly played by the remarkable Farzana Dua Elahe who conveys her coldly manipulative but lusciously irresistible sensuality with terrifying accuracy (that she doubles as the child Muna and can switch in a jiffy to vulnerable and charming innocence is testimony to her versatility), the Ukranian Tetyana, played with consummate confidence by Kirsty Bushell, also portraying Pauline beautifully, who wants British citizenship to protect her from being deported if her marriage ( which she wants to end anyway) is revealed as a sham, Derek, played by the excellent Robert Gwilym, a red-top reading, football chant barking, typical working man Brit who revels in his low-level interests and anti-intellectualism, and the other twenty or so, are inspiringly unalike. Surely it is difference which is delightful ? What has happened to us as a society, what has happened to our Britishness that it has become so insular, fearful, inward, withdrawn, suspicious ? What has happened to us that we need to test people who come to live here, who bring their difference which should make us rejoice ? This is the bigger issue adumbrated here. John Berger once remarked that totalitarianism is characterised by the reduction of reality to the proof of a single idea. We might also say, by the reduction of identity to the proof of a single test.
 
Alan Dent
 



The Childrenís Hour
by Lillian Hellman
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester,
5th March Ė 5th April 2008.
                       

This is a play about the nature of deception: the most effective lie contains a grain of truth. In its final scenes, it also raises the Kafkaesque spectre: accusation engenders guilt in the accused. Falsely accused, by a disturbed pupil, of sexual relations with her colleague Karen Wright, Martha Dobie begins to wonder if there was some fire behind the smoke. Did she love her fellow teacher in more than an affectionate sense ? Had the child spotted something ? Hellman is very astute about the way imputations play on our minds. It is every bullyís delight to sow the seeds of self-doubt and watch them grow into self-hatred. In this case, the bully is a child. She is more than a bully, she is seriously demented. One of those personalities which sees everyone as a mere extension of itself to be manipulated, she is conscienceless, incapable of remorse, vicious, cunning and utterly plausible. What has made her so terrifyingly inhuman ? All we know is that her father killed himself and she is being raised by her grandmother. Were Mary Tilford an adult, she would be horrifying. That she is a child makes her thoroughly diabolical. Malicious accusations against teachers are, of course, commonplace and have ruined may careers and lives. Few though can have been so coldly calculating, clever and deadly as this.  
                       
Karen and Martha have worked hard to establish their school and have been running it for eight years. They are committed, kindly, dedicated. Like all teachers, they can take their role too seriously, but they are noble women. Why does Mary want to destroy them ? The absence of discernible motive is disturbing. Mary wants to destroy because she wants to destroy. Her tantrums, her wild accusations of victimisation are no reason. They are part of the drama she must always be the centre of. She exists only in crisis. Without a terrible injustice sheís the recipient of, sheís a cipher. Like all such people, walking a tightrope over insanity, she is utterly oblivious of the damage she does to others. Others donít exist, after all. Mary has control of her peers because of her willingness to use violence and her clever emotional torture. When a conversation between the teachers is overheard and over-interpreted  by two girls, Mary seizes her little opportunity and exploits it with all the wickedness of her perversity. She takes her story to her grandmother. But canít the adults deal with this wilful and twisted child ? 
                       
Amelia Tilford is a brilliant creation. Faced with her grandchildís wild stories, she dismisses her as foolish, self-indulgent, ridiculous. She responds firmly and without a hint of exaggeration or sentimentality. She is the very model of a good carer: calm, judicious, able to absorb the hysteria of her ward and to respond with plain good sense. Any ordinary child would give up in seconds. But Mary knows her grandmotherís weakness. Like Iago insinuating vile lies into Othelloís mind, she whispers the devastating rumour to the old woman. Why does she believe her ? Why doesnít she dismiss this as readily as the rest ? Because it is too vile. Because in her own mind are a horrible fear and disgust which when ignited burn away all her strength and judgement. She acts on her fears. The results are devastating. 
                       
The one man caught in this maelstrom of female machination is Dr Joseph Cardin, Ameliaís nephew. She summons him. He is appalled at what she has done. He reviles her. Throughout the play, he remains steady in his love for Karen and resolutely rational in the midst of rampant irrationality. All the same, his life is destroyed. The slow working out of the terrible logic of destructive falsehood, the impotence of truth against the catastrophic hurricane of lies tinged with plausibility, the dreadful, irresistible attraction of such lies, an attraction far more compulsive than mere veracity, ensures that all that was sure becomes doubtful, everything noble, suspect, everything genuine, questionable. Like The Crucible, this play asks who can speak honestly when a mania for lies is abroad ? Here, it is a small community wrecked by falsehood, but why not whole nations, entire civilizations ?  
                       
Karen and Martha go to law and lose. How difficult it is to establish our innocence. Karen notices tiny changes in the way Joe relates to her. That he might believe the rumours, even for a second, even in some tiny detail, undermines her trust. Their love goes begging. The school is lost.  An Ibsenite off-stage gunshot puts an end to the tormented Martha. Amelia, too late, repents her gullibility and seeks to make amends. It is always too late. The human mind is so constituted it will respond to fabrication so unhinged it would have no connection to reality, except for that tiny, hard, irreducible grain of possible truth on which it depends for its effect. The Jews were to blame for the economic ills of the Weimar Republic ? Dreyfus was a traitor ? The Zinoviev letter was authentic ? Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ? The bullies, sociopaths, psychopaths and goons flourish on the tragic fact that lies are easy to believe, comforting, uplifting. Amelia Tilford begins her campaign in a spirit of moral certitude and rectitude. Children are being educated in an atmosphere of corruption ! She is of her time. Lesbianism is beyond the pale. Sunk in a conventional set of values, as most people most of the time, she takes them for an over-arching truth and justification. Another tragic facet of the human mind.  
           
This not usually thought of as Hellmanís best play, but it is real drama and high tragedy. Its exposure of the frailty of truth and the permanent potential for vicious lies to hold the public mind is accomplished at the highest artistic level. 
           
Sarah Frankcom introduces quasi-expressionistic elements into her direction to overcome some of the difficulties of representing a school. Excellently done. The whispering pupils surrounding the stage, the beautifully choreographed suspenseful moments of collective action, are highly intelligent uses and enhance the sinister undertones. Franckomís direction of the actors is of the highest order too. She elicits wonderful performances. Maxine Peake (Karen Wright) and Charlotte Emmerson (Martha Dodd) appear on television. All to the good that a wide audience can appreciate them. But their gifts are wasted on that reaching-down medium: they are both superb, especially in the subtle modulations of emotion necessary as their worlds fall apart. Kate OíFlynn as Mary Tilford carries off a remarkable performance. From the moment she comes on stage, you canít take your eyes off her. Her Mary is thoroughly obnoxious, utterly, flesh-creepingly convincing. There is one point when seated and lying through her teeth, she forces her toes against the floor and arches her feet in tension: a beautiful metaphor for her inner twistedness and perfectly executed. Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Rosalie Wells) is also exquisite. Aided by her striking beauty and brown, innocent eyes as big as plates which convince you she really is fourteen, she  evokes the terrified, shifting, bewildered innocence of a healthy young girl at the mercy of a monster. If you donít fall in love with her you havenít got a heart. Milo Twomey (Joseph Cardin) is perfect as the brisk, down-to-earth physician whose confident reason is battered by the lunacy of murderous tittle-tattle. And at the heart of these performances of international stature is June Watson (Amelia Tilford). She judges every detail perfectly: accent, gesture, intonation. This is a thoroughly first-rate performance, acting of extraordinary poise, grace, intelligence and finesse.
 
A pity this runs for a mere month.

Alan Dent.
 
 



                                  
 
WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
Library Theatre, Manchester. 
                       
Beckett is reputed to have remarked that only an Irishman could understand Godot. Here, Estragon and Vladimir speak with Mancunian accents. Does it alter the lines ? Probably, because accent is neither superficial nor arbitrary. Imagine Prince Charles in his best RP saying: Is it your round ? and the same words being spoken by Wayne Rooney. Is there a change in meaning ? Even if you didnít know PC was a royal the ďposhĒ accent implies social status and authority while the Liverpudlian tends to suggest the opposite. Speaking isnít just about denotative meaning and tone of voice makes all the difference. Accent is a variety of tone of voice and it carries meaning. Try speaking in a ďposhĒ accent and youíll find the corners of your mouth pull down ever so slightly. There is a sneer contained in RP because itís a class accent. In the same way, thereís a warmth a friendliness inherent in native Mancunian. Itís an accent forged in close, working-class communities where mutual support was a cherished value. Part of the reason middle-class southerners think of northern accents as gormless is because they contain this emotional tenor of easy-going camaraderie: itís not the way go-getters speak. Even an eminently middle-class girl like Joan Bakewell who hailed from posh Cheshire worked hard to eliminate any trace of the northern from her speech in order to get on in the media. A Mancunian accent implies Mancunian attitudes, and in Manchester they vote Labour as naturally as folk in Reigate toast the queen. I think Beckett intended Gogo and Didi to be Irish when the play was performed in English. The French version is, of course, another matter.  Some of the lines are distinctly Irish: Get up while I embrace you isnít said in Salford. So the accents take something away and part of it is comedy, for as Irishmen, Gogo and Didi are historically marginalised. It is natural they should be waiting. Colonised peoples donít act. Usually, the play is taken to have no social context: it speaks of existential matters. The existential tag arose partly because the play was first performed in Paris when Sartre was the most famous intellectual in Europe and his philosophy was dans le vent. There is little in the play which speaks of existentialism as a self-conscious philosophy. Rather, there is regret for lost opportunity ( We should have done it a million years ago, when we were young. Hand in hand off the Eiffel Tower. We were respectable then.) and longing for change in a situation of stasis. Beckett was born in Ireland at  time when people still lived on the road and slept in ditches. The image of Gogo and Didi must have been implanted young. During the war, Beckett had to flee south to avoid the Gestapo and worked as an agricultural labourer. Boring work, waiting for the war to end, the cruelty. And itís when cruelty makes its entrance in the guise of Pozzo that this production takes off. Russell Dixon is perfect. He speaks snooty RP, he is pompous and high-handed, his perfunctory politeness conceals a vicious character. And he is English. Dressed for the city, for posh milieux, he lords it over his shabby interlocutors whose dearest wish is a hayloft bed. Pozzo has cooked food. A chicken leg. Lavish compared to the carrots and turnips Gogo and Didi exchange and confuse. He throws the bones to his carrier.   Pozzo  is distinguished by property. Unlike Gogo and Didi, he doesnít wait: he advances. He drives Pozzo. Not his destination but the fact of his going is the source of his power. Even when he loses his sight he remains in command. He shortens the rope. Yet as he is driven so he is led. His slave pulls him along. His property makes him arbitrary and cruel. He has to live up to it. Dixon captures all this perfectly. Pozzo, like Gogo and Didi is a man doing what he has to do. He is locked into his fate. He goes on. He drives his slave. They wait.
           
The arrival of the boy introduces a curious note. He comes from Godot who is, therefore, no mysterious, inaccessible force. He brings a message. Godot sends his apologies. Gogo and Didi are waiting for a real person who is lax in meeting his promises. Godot employs the boy and his brother. He is a man of at least a little property. He is violent towards the boyís brother. Gogo too gets beaten. Daniel Shaw captures the timidity and bewilderment of the boy excellently. He is a go-between with a simple message and no answers. Didi takes his frustration out on him. He sees him as a conduit to Godot. He treats him harshly. On his second appearance, the boy has to flee ( in the original French comme une fleche Ė like an arrow). He is rightly wary of the adults. He is made use of and has to find his own space.
           
The famous remark that this is a play in which nothing happens twice is cuter than itís accurate. The second act, though almost as long as the first, has the feeling of an appendix. There are one or two moments where Beckett struggles to move it along in keeping, perhaps, with one of the most telling lines: Pozzo declares petulantly, Havenít you finished tormenting me with your accursed time (in the French, Vous níavez pas fini de míempoisonner avec vos histories de temps). Beckett, of course, had studied Proust. No doubt he had also absorbed the 20th centuryís relativistic view of time. The old certainty that the onward march of time leads towards a desired destination and the temporal faith in progress, or in what Ortega y Gasset called uchronianism, have collapsed. The result is disorientation. This production captures well the loss and longing of Didi and Gogo. Itís a good Godot. But those Mancunian accents speak of a warmth and community at odds with  their loneliness in a world of apparently arbitrary cruelty.
                                                                             
Alan Dent
 



ROOTS by Arnold Wesker
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 

Itís odd that a play taken to be about working-class life should have been set amongst a disappearing rural workforce at a time when the industrial working-class was on the cusp of a period of high influence. This is partly, of course, to do with the play being drawn from the authorís own experience. Nevertheless, from a twenty-first century perspective it raises a sense of mild inappropriateness. Wesker has said the play is about self-discovery and from that point of view, the class question barely matters. Beattie Bryantís need to find her feet is every young personís and particularly, every young womanís. Yet the theme of socialism, of unemployment, of being put on casual labour, of the bosses responding to every increase in pay with sackings, this theme which hovers at the edge of the play and bids for a full admission the playwright denies, tantalizingly suggests that world of car park strike votes, of ďwildcatĒ actions, of trade union leadersí tanks on prime ministersí lawns, which is remote from the backward rusticity of the playís  setting. Beattie is full of life, but only because she no longer belongs to this agricultural world whose slowness, absence of intellectual values, cultural impoverishment and plain bovine dullness she wants to subvert. She lives in London. Sheís in love with Ronnie, the argumentative culture-loving leftie we never meet but whose ideas she recycles. Sheís experienced the excitement of city life. She wants to educate her family. She wants the thrill sheís known to enliven their mud-on-the-boots existence. In this she is attempting the impossible. Perhaps this is why the play was so unthreatening to even conservative critics. Bernard Levin called it ďthis great shining playĒ. There is a sense that Beattie is trying to push water uphill. She wants to educate the apparently ineducable, to bring culture to the resolutely ignorant, to make these poor, exploited folk see not merely the sense, but the joy of socialism. Itís hopeless. When she speaks the word ďequalityĒ, her brother-in-law jumps up and calls her a communist. To people like Levin, a play showing the futility of trying to improve the cultural landscape of the poor and ignorant must have been very reassuring.  

Joan Plowright loved the role of Beattie and it is justly remarked that Wesker created marvellous female roles, the like of which had never been seen on the English stage. In a sense, this is a one-woman play. Itís almost a monologue with interventions. Apart from Beattie, who is a remarkable creation, a woman itís impossible not to admire and love, only her mother comes into real focus as a character of significance. Itís between these two the genuine drama is played out. Yet the battle is very unequal, for Mrs Bryant lives like a horse in a gin. The best she knows of culture is slushy radio pop. And here is another theme contesting for space: the condescension and exploitation of a slick, commercial popular culture which assumes the masses are worth no better and want no better and so diligently and cynically feeds them superficial, cheap, ephemeral kitsch which leaves their minds as poor as their pockets. Against this, as against the cruelty of the exploitation of her fatherís labour, Beattie struggles with the second-hand ideas and the post-war, urban cockiness she has absorbed from Ronnie. Yet from the very start we know her attempt at transforming her folksí conditions of life will get nowhere. Dramatically this works excellently, for in the final, exultant apotheosis in which Beattie at last speaks for herself  we feel that the only possibility for her has been realised. She can escape. She can leave her rural roots behind and take her place as an articulate and thinking young woman in the urban culture which will offer her some opportunity. Itís impossible not to celebrate this. She has triumphed. She has railed against her lack of roots, the failure of her family and its culture to provide her what she needed to fulfil the best in her, yet she has found herself. She has done, in fact, just what the incipient meritocracy of the 1950s prescribed: she has got out of crippling conditions. The socialism she has embraced postulates something else: the elimination of those conditions through collective action. Weskerís honesty as socialist sympathiser, is to acknowledge that at the time and in the prevailing circumstances, individual escape was possible but social transformation a different matter. Had Beattie waited for the revolution, she would have ended up like her mother.  

Dealing naturalistically with the lives of the agricultural poor inevitably pulls the play into slowness. Its naturalism is excessive: the frying onions of the opening, the stage business with crockery and tin baths. Claire Brown, a wonderfully good actress who endows Beattie with exactly the right combination of exultant expectation and post-adolescent naivety, takes her clothes off for the bath scene. Itís delicately handled so her dignity is preserved and sheís a physically delightful young woman; but is such absolute naturalism necessary ? Wouldnít it have been easy for her to disappear behind a screen ? The naturalism distracts.  The first two acts suffer from the conventionalism of Weskerís conception. He has acknowledged the play is not in the least formally innovatory. Perhaps it is a little too much of a well-made-play. At the time he wrote it, the ninety minute drama hadnít been perfected. Would a dramatist addressing this material in 2008 write three acts ? The form of the play seems dated. There are moments in this production when no lines are being spoken and domestic tasks are being fulfilled in such a naturalistic way you might have wandered into your neighbourís kitchen. My guess is modern audiences can fill in quickly from dramatic hints and the staging needs to take that into account. The pace of the first two acts is also very slow. Given that everything is driving to Beattieís final speech, to her life-enhancing moment of escape both from the oppression of her familyís narrow horizons and Ronnieís insistent tutoring, there is no need for so much insistence on the dim, depressing round that makes up the Bryantís life. At one or two moments, you can almost hear Wesker straining to find the next line. The problem, again, is the naturalism. Nine-tenths of what is conveyed in conversation is transmitted non-verbally. When characters exchange banalities, there has to be something significant behind them. At one or two instants the dialogue comes dangerously close to the flat transcription of soap-opera.  

The Bryantís lives are impoverished in every way but the terrifying aspect of the play is their impoverishment of spirit. A decent income will lift them materially, but how will they rise in other ways. Wesker is straying into some of the territory of The Uses Of Literacy. He was writing at a turning-point. The expansion of education, a rising disposable income for the working-class, the arrival of television in many homes inspired the hope of an improved culture for the majority. Hope rather than glib historical optimism is where Wesker places his faith. But the commercial interests werenít going to miss the opportunity, and we all know what happened. Historical hindsight imbues the play with a predictive wisdom: it saw the cultural decline on the horizon and was seeking to defend against it.  
This is a fine production. The qualms about naturalism arenít a criticism of Jo Combesís direction. She gets the best out of an excellent cast, especially Claire Brown and the remarkable Denise Black as Mrs Bryant whose ability to reveal how a painfully restricted domestic routine carried through in straitened and emotionally crippling circumstances can set the limits of a womanís life is as stunning as it is heart-rending. David Beames exudes the care-worn exhaustion of Mr Bryant: when he comes on stage you really believe he has just finished a hard stint on the farm. Owen Oakeshott conveys the resigned, quiet tragedy of Jimmy Beales and Caroline Devlin is superb as his accepting wife whose tolerance, insight and compassion havenít been crushed by having to cope with unmarried pregnancy and a loveless marriage. John Cording enlivens his scenes as the crippled, cynical, drunken Stan Mann whose sense of humour and vigorous love of life gain the most vulgar expression and Lorna Lewis and Patrick Connolly provide thoroughly poised support as the exceptionally conventional and predictable Pearl and Frank Bryant.  
Roots occupies a central place in twentieth century British drama. A revival is always welcome. The flaws in the play donít prevent it being a landmark, above all for the character of Beattie. She is magnificent and we could all benefit from some of her joie de vivre, hope and resilience.   
                                                                        
Alan Dent
 



A CONVERSATION  by David Williamson
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 8th December 
                       
David Williamson is a prolific Australian dramatist whose work has been well received in his home country and abroad. His themes focus on the gap between Australiaís perception of itself as a country of openness, freedom and opportunity, and the reality of its inequality, violence and unease. A Conversation is exactly what it says: the play recreates a restorative justice session in which Derek and Barbara Milsom meet the family of the sociopath, now in prison and refusing to take part,  who has raped and murdered their daughter, Donna. The purpose of such a session is not to heal all the wounds, but to permit the aggrieved to gain sufficient purchase on the tragedy for their lives to regain some degree of worth. Williamson gives us eight characters seated in a circle and lets the resentments, tensions, grief, anger, bitterness, aggression but also understanding and compassion play themselves out. It sounds like it might be dull and hard going but the writing is sufficiently sturdy and the structure dynamic and subtle enough for it to be compelling. Williamson also cleverly weaves in the prevailing theoretical views of sociopathic behaviour and its treatment or punishment. This is potentially perilous in a play but he is astute enough to undercut the possibility of preaching or  parched philosophising by enlisting the anger or defensiveness of the characters so we swallow the dry cracker of theory with the rich butter of raw emotion.  
                       
The Milsoms are middle-class. Donna has been privately educated. Scott Williams, the killer, was raised in poverty by a single mother who worked sixty-five hours a week to provide for her three children. Has Scott been damaged by deprivation ? Yet his sister Gail has turned out well, been to university and has a high-powered job working for a government minister nor does his brother Mick show any signs of the unhinged violence Scott was capable of. Coral Williams, his mother, blames herself. Mick wishes his brother dead. Gail accepts the horror of his actions but insists there are ďfactorsĒ. Derek Milsom is consumed by desire for revenge and wishes the attack Scott has recently suffered in prison had been fatal. Barbara Milsom feels essentially the same. She and Derek are splitting up because every time they look at one another they recall the day of Donnaís murder. Overseeing the meeting is Jack Manning, the facilitator. His role is relatively reduced. He intervenes only when he must to prevent the meeting collapsing prematurely. The form of the play ensures that whatever the preconceptions of the audience, they will find them first confirmed and then undermined. This happens so quickly is forces you to think through your responses on the fly and the effect of this is liberating. What you are left with is the sense of how little we understand, how much we have to learn, how easily we rest comfortably with unchallenged preconceptions and how tragic are the results of our complacency. Perhaps the crucial character is Bob Shorter, Scottís uncle, the man in his life who let him down by sacking him from his business after his first offence, by encouraging his macho attitudes, by telling him, in one of those moments of masculine conspiratorialism that are as common as they are stupid that ďsometimes girls say no when they mean yesĒ.
                        
What makes the play excellent is Williamsonís skill in raising all the questions but providing no answers. Finally, he leaves us with the sense that our pity, though not availing in and of itself, is the best of us.  
                       
The acting is of the highest standard all round. Jonathan Hackett conveys perfectly the distraught bewilderment of the conventional, middle-class Derek faced with a side of human nature he has never had to confront, except in the newspapers. Margot Leicester is superb as his bereft wife who makes in the course of a couple of hours a crucial journey into forgiveness and Susan Twist gives a truly remarkable performance as Coral Williams, a poor, uneducated woman who has done the best she can but has been cruelly torn apart by a quirk in her sonís brain and the violence permeating her culture.   
                                                                                
Alan Dent    


TRUE LOVE LIES

By Brad Fraser
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. 

            Brad Fraser has a fruitful and enduring relationship with the Royal Exchange and its most notable director, Braham Murray; the kind of collaboration that is good for everyone and especially the theatre-goers of the north-west. His plays usually explore some aspect of homosexual life. This one is no exception but it also stakes out the territory of the middle-class nuclear family and among the themes it chips out of the long grass is the destructive culture young people find themselves trying to build an identity from.  Madison and Royce are the disoriented offspring of Kane and Carolyn, parents so sensitive and intuitive they smoke dope with their kids as if theyíre sharing ice-cream or pancakes. Royce is a bullied nerd obsessed by the idea of his ugliness who turns out to be asexual. Madison has to get into bed with every man she meets. Kane had a homosexual relationship with Dave before he married and when the latter comes back to town to open a restaurant where Madison tries to get a job a Pandoraís Box of doubt, suspicion, mistrust, loneliness and recrimination is opened which destroys just about everything.  

            Fraserís dialogue is snappy and bright. The jokes are brilliant and the structure of the piece masterly. He is an excellent dramatist and this is a superb little play enhanced by lovely performances by all five of its players. Jonny Phillips exudes the strenuous physicality of an ageing homosexual defending himself against the encroaching possibility of neglect. He delivers his lines with perfect intonation and his comic timing is impeccable. John Kirk hits exactly the slight inauthenticity of the dutiful pere de famille who has never quite convinced himself itís what he should be. Teresa Banham is remarkable as the busy, up-to-date, keep-up-appearances mother whose world crashes like bank stocks as the flimsy basis of her emotional investment is revealed. And Amy Beth Hayes and Oliver Gomm as Madison and Royce simply take your breath away; young players of such expertise and composure you wonder where on earth they were trained and how they mastered their skills so completely so early.  

            Subtract the homosexual sex and this is a variation on the old theme of sexual manners. At the heart of the play is a simple assumption: deceit corrodes trust and trust is essential to all relationships. Fraser is exploring the same topography as Congreve. And as with the latter, he is astutely aware that sexual behaviour is culturally mediated. These characters are trying to orientate themselves in a culture which claims to uphold family values on the one hand while permitting the most degraded material to be available free on the Web on the other. Royce surfs to find pictures of David as a porn performer. Why did he do it ? For the money. Fraser doesnít labour the point, but pornimagery is driven by the profit motive. Deregulated capitalism doesnít merely lift the restrictions on what bankers can do, it flattens all the barriers which protect us from the worst in ourselves and presents a social landscape of such heartbreaking desolation we are lost at the first turn in the weather. ďItís all just sex,Ē says one of the characters but Fraser is onto the fact that whatever your orientation, a demanding ideal which exacts insight, courage and staying power is indispensable. David accuses Madison of having no ďinternal sensorĒ. Her intrusive bluntness speaks not of confidence and conviction, but of regression and narcissism. That David is fool enough to fall for her seduction is indicative of his own confusion and immaturity.  

            The reduction of sexual experience to mere sensation and the illusion that sensation can replace the requirement of maturity and its demands is spiked by Fraser as he whips us through this tragic-comic exploration of the middle-classes, mapless in a desert of their own creation. When it ends, Kane and Carolynís marriage in is ruins, Royce is drugged to the eyeballs and in therapy, Madison is as compulsive as ever, Kane is alone and at a loss, Davidís business is failing and the two men share a meal, the first decent food Kane has a had for months. They are back where they began. The pettiness, the manipulation, the lying, the refusal to face lifeís tough questions has robbed their lives of meaning. A moral fable for our times, abreast of the superficial ideologies and the sycophantic cowardice of a corrupt flight from sustaining values by a self-serving elite, this is a compelling two-hours traffic which enhances Brad Fraserís already high and well-deserved reputation. 

Alan Dent


 

OSBORNEíS TAKE ON ENTERTAINMENT STILL ENTERTAINS 

 

THE ENTERTAINER by John Osborne
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
4th November-5th December 

            First produced at The Royal Court in 1957 under the direction of Tony Richardson and with Laurence Olivier in the role of Archie Rice, Osborneís play famously employs the decline of music hall as a metaphor for Britainís changing world status. He thought of music hall as a ďfolk artĒ and considered its decline a loss. Nevertheless, this Greg Hersov production makes clear the superficiality and corruption of the entertainment world. Archie, the struggling comedy, song and dance act, is proud not to have paid tax for twenty years and his father, Billy, may look back nostalgically to a more noble epoch, but this comes across as longing for a mythical Golden Age. Archie brings his work home, maintaining a strenuous cheerfulness and unceasing attempt at repartee in the face of domestic agony. He is a serial adulterer who tramples his wifeís sensitivities, a booze-sodden fantasist unable to face the truth of his failure. His step-daughter Jean, who arrives unexpectedly, is in trouble in her relationship with the higher class Graham, his young son Frank stokes boilers for the NHS and Mick is away fighting in the Middle East. The background to Archieís professional redundancy and the familyís domestic heartache, is Suez, described by the historian Corelli Barnett as ďa complete follyĒ. This is Britain at the crossroads and the focussing of the social and political crisis on a family struggling to maintain some semblance of unity in the face of atomisation works well. ďI have a goĒ is Archieís catchphrase and the sense it conveys of keeping going in the only way you know how, while the world around you is changing radically and demanding a new response, pervades the play.  Hersov succeeds in making the play feel abidingly relevant; the choices facing Britain in 1956 are essentially those which face us today and the role of entertainment is still to deflect and comfort. What does comes across powerfully, however, is how racist attitudes were still respectable at the time (the characters use derogatory language about ethnic minorities unthinkingly) and have now been driven to the margins; a nice example of how social change irresistibly transforms mentalities. David Schofield is excellent in the role of Archie, bringing exactly the right quality of pained defeat and fighting upwards. He is well supported by David Ryall as his father and though Roberat Taylor captures the downtrodden survivalism of Phoebe, Archieís wife, she delivers some of the lines in a slightly too naturalistic manner which detracts from the dialogueís demand for stylisation. A young actor to watch is Oliver Gomm who brings Frank Rice superbly to life and Laura Rees as Jean is thoroughly in command and riveting. It would be churlish not to mention Harriet Barrow whose role as the near-naked Brittania demands only one line but a great deal of aplomb.

 Alan Dent.


 

MISS JULIE 

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester 11th April -12th May 2012. 

            This production is based on a new version of Strindbergís classic by David Eldridge from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund. The standard translation is Michael Meyerís, which was used for the 1965 National Theatre production with Albert Finney as Jean and also for the subsequent 1971 RSC production with Helen Mirren which was then made into a film. Meyerís translation is getting on a little and itís understandable that the Royal Exchange wanted something newer; but why not commission someone who knows Swedish ? Eldridgeís version is not simply an updating, itís a downgrading: this is Strindberg as soap-opera. For example, at the start of the play Jean reports to the maid Kirstin that Miss Julie is behaving madly. In Meyerís translation: 

            Jean:Ö.But as soon as she sees me she rushes across and offers her arm for the ladiesí waltz.  

Eldridge turns this into her putting her arms round him ( I donít have Eldridgeís script so am working from memory; apologies for what I misremember). You can see what heís doing: the ladiesí waltz is outdated; letís say something more attuned to a modern audience. Should we change Shakespeareís  Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbracedÖ.his stockings fouledÖ..and down-gyved to his ankle to Lord Hamlet with his shirt undone, his socks dirty and round his ankles ? Doesnít the anachronism help the audience ? Doesnít the fact that she offers him her arm for the ladiesís waltz and that contains a degree of indecency invoke just how touchy people were in Sweden at the time about contact between aristocrats and servants, and indeed just how strict were the rules of propriety a young woman like Miss Julie was expected to observe ? Isnít that useful to the audience ? Isnít it in fact essential ? Eldridgeís version suggests that she has gone too far in putting her arms round him, but had she done so there would have been a scandal. This is a midsummerís celebration on an aristocratic estate in Sweden in the late nineteenth century not a Friday night disco in the West End. Miss Julie is overwrought precisely because of the constricting corset of neurotic convention; to play it down, to mistakenly believe that pitching the proprieties somewhere in the suburban 1950s might make things more relevant to a modern audience shows how wide of the mark Eldridge is and how naÔve and manipulative his reading of the play. When Kirstin sets Jeanís food in front of him he says, in Meyerís version: 

            Jean: Lovely ! Ceci est mon grand delice

Eldridge leaves out the French. Why ? Because a Manchester audience is too dim-witted to cope with a bit of GCSE foreign language ? The fact that Jean knows French is important; it wasnít a commonplace accomplishment among Swedish servants at the time; it gives him an edge; it is part of what inspires his willingness to relate to Miss Julie as an equal, and even more, to become a bully once heís seduced her.  A few lines later, Jean tells Kirstin the red wine isnít sufficiently chambrť. Eldridge drops this and has him say itís a bit cold.  Yet he changes Meyerís I was a wine waiter at the biggest hotel in Lucerne to I was a sommelier.  These choices are bewildering and they suggest Eldridge has a taken on a task beyond him. I could enumerate many more examples, but what is really disturbing is that in the exchanges immediately before and immediately after Jeanís decapitation of Miss Julieís pet finch the audience was reduced to laughter. Were is the fault; in the play ?; in the production ?; in the acting; in the adaptation ? This is the point in the play where Miss Julie is on the verge of losing her mind. She and Jean are about to elope. It is a desperate and hopeless strategy. Jeanís heartless killing of her pet is a metaphor for his capacity for ruthless destruction. It brings her momentarily to her senses and makes her delay. She moves towards the chopping block on which the bird lies dead. In Meyerís translation she says: 

            Miss Julie: ÖÖDo you think I canít bear the sight of blood ? You think Iím so weak Ė oh, I should like to see your blood, your brains, on a chopping block Ė Iíd like to see all your sex swimming in a lake of blood Ė I think I could drink from your skull, Iíd like to bathe my feet in your guts, I could eat your heart, roasted ! You think Iím weak Ė you think I loved you, because my womb wanted your seed, you think I want to carry your embryo under my heart and feed it with my blood, bear your child and take your name ! By the way, what is your surname ! Iíve never heard itÖ.. 

The greatest laugh came when she asked for his name, but thatís because Eldridge has tried to improve on Strindberg; something of a perilous undertaking for a tenth-rate dramatist. He doesnít have her ask for his surname but say something ludicrous like, Whatís your name by the way ?  The audienceís amusement is because of the adaptation. Meyerís translation is taut and astringent, Eldridgeís version drags us towards Coronation St. He fails to understand that form and content, like energy and matter, are different manifestations of the same thing. This is a moment of intense tragedy. It is an individual broken on the stupidities of conventions she has tried to subvert and the effort has left her bereft. The audience should be very far from laughter at this moment. Itís like laughing as Lear holds Cordelia in his arms. Of course, tragedy and farce are contiguous, as Joe Orton understood. It requires only the merest adjustment of language to render the tragic hilarious. Orton makes us roar at the murderous Fay McMahon, but Strindberg is trying to do something else: he wants us to understand how the conventions ruling relations between the classes and sexes can drive people to madness. At this point in the play, we know Miss Julie is doomed and wish we could save her. Eldridgeís version does Strindberg a disservice. The audience laugh because they arenít convinced. They have been led up the garden path and at this instant of high tragedy when they are asked to follow the twists of Miss Julieís mental instability, they experience her as simply whimsical. She pleads with Jean to kill her, which is of course a neurotic exaggeration, but she is at the extreme of experience. She curses the moment of her conception. All this is easily turned into silliness if it isnít tight and bitter. Eldridge, in keeping with the limpness of post-modern culture in which there can be no tragedy because all hierarchies of value have been eliminated, tries to modify Strindberg in the direction of the commonplace melodrama of tv you can watch while eating your Big Mac and fries. No wonder the audience laughs.    Eldridgeís adaptation also gives the remarkable Maxine Peake, at this crucial moment, a difficult task. Her acting is extraordinary and unforgettable. She captures perfectly the emotional condition of a beautiful young woman, disappointed in love, who knows how she can bewitch men. Lost, she is behaving with extreme provocation. In her wildness is not merely a contempt for men but also for herself, for her sex, for the bare fact of sex itself. She acts as if she is unassailable, as people always do when they are too hurt to accept their vulnerability. In goading Jean she is toying with a social inferior. She is trying to humiliate him as she has been humiliated. In her misjudgement, Strindberg exposes the emptiness of class distinction: once Jean has seduced her, his lower social standing offers her no defence. Her ability to command him rests on an illusion broken by seduction. Maxine Peake captures all this with acute intelligence. Miss Julie is her motherís daughter, confused by an upbringing based more on ideology than love and turned against herself by a woman who never wanted to give birth to her and who hated men. Her teetering on the edge of madness fits exactly with her exaggerated confidence, her wild arrogance and importunity. Watching Maxine Peake bring all this to life is like watching a high-wire performer who never wobbles. Her last appearance at the Royal Exchange was as Karen Wright in The Childrenís Hour in 2008. Excellent in that performance, she finds in Miss Julie (who she has played previously at the Haymarket Theatre) a character who allows her talent to rise to its highest pitch. Joe Armstrong is a solid Jean, but he is outshone by Maxine Peake and struggles a little (probably because of Eldrigeís adaptation) to give his character the right edge of menace, cockiness, cruelty. When Kirstin pulls Jeanís hair affectionately after she has set his food in front of him early in the play. Meyer has him say with anger: 

            Jean: Donít pull my hair. You know how sensitive I am.  

Itís a crucial moment as it reveals his extreme touchiness and lack of sensitivity. In Eldridgeís version it passes off weakly as something of little significance. Joe Armstrong never quite hits that tone of resentment getting its own back which is at the heart of Jean. Miss Julieís forcing him to kiss her foot is a metaphor for the power sheís always had over him and about which heís had to bite his lip. He is a proud man and he wants to hit back. Miss Julieís fatal mistake in having sex with him gives him his chance. Itís important that he isnít a kindly man. Had he been, Miss Julie might not have been so tempted to taunt him. What attracts her is that she can see he is not merely physically well-made and desirable, but has a bitterness in him that matches her own. Joe Armstrongís Jean is a little too flat to capture this.  

            The play is really a two-hander. Kirstinís role is peripheral. She is more of a typical maid than a fully realized individual, but she permits Strindberg a little extra weight in the pan of humiliation on the emotional scales after Miss Julie has surrendered herself to the man Kirstin loves; and the latterís lack of fuss about the matter is accurate: woman in her position have to put up with such things. Carla Henry plays her very well, with the right mixture of innocence, romanticism and unflinching realism. But this witless adaptation is rescued by Maxine Peake. She makes this production unmissable. Itís one of those performances you could watch every night of its run and still want to see it again. The Royal Exchange has made exactly the right choice in casting her as Miss Julie: she holds your attention in every word and gesture and never falters for a second. The pity is only that such a fine acting talent should be served by such a confused and disappointing adaptation. There are moments too when the direction is too naturalistic: there is no need for ten seconds of silence while Jean sits at the table and Kirstin dishes up his food. Strindbergís naturalism is always pushing at the Expressionist door. The naturalistic stage business is of no importance, what matters is the language.  

            One of the marvellous things about theatre is its transience: the moments come and go. You have to be there, as they say. Just as Albert Finney gave us a classic Jean in 1965, so Maxine Peake delivers an exquisite Miss Julie. No-one who loves theatre should miss this.  

Alan Dent.

________________

MR BEAN GOES T0 THE THEATRE

 

The Heretic by Richard Bean at The Lowry. 

            This is a play about science. It isnít science, itís a play. As science it is invalid: scientific papers must be peer reviewed; it has to be possible to respond to them. As a play, this is a dogís breakfast. Bean is one of our leading dramatists. We are truly in trouble. He doesnít write drama, he puts actors on stage to tell his jokes. He canít structure a play. Parts of this appalling show are sub-soap-opera melodrama  (when the helicopter arrived I wanted to laugh out loud, though this was one of the moments Mr Bean was trying to be serious. ) Beanís problem is he wants to write about science, not about human dilemmas. Science is not the stuff of drama because it canít tell us how to act. Even if the science of climate change is correct, we could choose to carry on burning fossil fuels because weíd rather live well for a short time than survive for centuries. Science wonít provide us with the answer; all it can do is give us the evidence and its hypotheses. I canít judge how good a scientist Bean is, but my guess is, pretty poor. He can bandy scientific terms like any literate science undergrad, but there is no evidence in this play that he has any originality as a scientist. There is plenty of evidence, however, that he knows very little about drama.  

            Bean believes there is no respectable science behind the claims that human agency is significantly responsible for the warming which may have serious consequences. His play is heavily one-sided: all climate change advocates, those who say we should stop burning fossil fuels, are either eco-fascists, frauds or lunatics. At one point, Bean has his professor suggest that climate change advocates want to go back to nature, at which his female academic reminds us that nature is cold, harsh and cruel; but many of those who say we should stop burning fossil fuels argue in favour of nuclear power. Bean leaves this out because it doesnít fit with his sermon. It is truly depressing to sit in the theatre and be lectured to. It would be just as depressing if the lecture took the opposite view. What the theatre should provide is drama. Bean canít get a drama out of his material because at its heart is a scientific debate. Brecht didnít write about Galileoís science but about his dilemma in having to deny the truth to save his skin; Durrenmatt didnít write about Einsteinís theory of gravity but about how itís impossible to put the genie of science back in the bottle. Bean should have thought about this. If he was a dramatist, he would have. He isnít a dramatist, heís a stand -up comic who bolts irrelevant jokes (many of them too corny for words) onto wooden characters and a ďplotĒ whose central conceit is that the climate change deniers have science on their side.  

            True comic drama embeds the jokes in character and action. This is truly a play in which nothing happens, twice. It is stasis put on stage. The laughter canít arise from the action because there is no action, merely manipulation of puppets. Nor can it emerge from characters speaking more than they know, giving themselves away in the manner of Lady Bountiful or Inspector Truscott, because Bean canít create character.  Diane Cassell, his Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics lecturer who is studying sea level in The Maldives and is convinced there is no climate change crisis, is a mouthpiece for Beanís opinions and a conduit for his cheap jokes. At one point she says something to the effect (the lines arenít memorable) that she hasnít enjoyed herself so much since watching hard porn. The vulgarity and thoughtlessness of this is shocking. Bean has no idea how to make his characters says what they would be likely to say. Richard Yates imposed a hard discipline on himself: his dialogue must always hit on just what the character would say in the specific circumstance. But Yates was a real writer. Bean isnít interested in the hard work of creating character because there is only one voice that matters: his own. Why would his lecturer watch and enjoy hard porn ? Women tend not to. Almost all pornography is aimed at and sold to men. Even the porn specifically aimed at women sells to homosexual men.  Bean throws in this line  because heís playing to the gallery; but on the Saturday night I was in the Quays, the gallery wasnít impressed. In spite of  a barrage of one-liners worthy of Bernard Manning, hardly anyone laughed. The level of the jokes is infantile. Ben Shotter, the monosyllabic, dumbed-down undergrad lives on a narrow boat. When heís asked what itís like, he says itís a bit narrow. It would have been a better joke if heíd said itís a bit wide. But the real criticism of this joke, as of almost all the jokes, is that itís super-added; it doesnít fit with character and action. It is Bean showing off, behaving like the stand-up he once was, playing on the audienceís prejudices and desire to be flattered. If there is one sin a real writer must never commit, it is flattering the audience. Bean is a phoney comic writer. Think of Orton; he winds his audience in through laughter the better to shatter their preconceptions. What Bean is doing here is advancing a dubious argument which belongs elsewhere and trying to win over his audience by throwing in a  shoddy joke every few seconds. The disconnect between character, action and these free floating gags is dispiriting, This pretence at drama has at its heart the scientific debate over climate change, which canít be turned into drama any more than Einsteinís scepticism over Quantam Mechanics can, because science is about the laws of the universe, not about choice, intention and action. Science can tell us how to carry out terminations of pregnancy but it canít tell a pregnant woman whether or not to have her baby. Thatís a choice beyond the limits of science. This is Beanís problem: he doesnít understand that the determinism of the universe throws up the contingency of human motivation. In short, he doesnít understand mind.  

            Diane Cassell is Beanís supposed heretic. She wouldnít be a heretic in America, in spite of Al Gore. Tens of millions of Americans believe the earth is six thousand years old. Cassellís view would be very welcome among the Texan oil billionaires but also among many of the poor rednecks who vote for the hard right. Bean presents climate change advocates as a ruling majority, as if across the land people are leaving their four by fours in the garage, refusing to get on planes, switching off the central heating and huddling under blankets on the sofa. Hardly anyone is so convinced by the climate change advocates they are willing to change their behaviour radically; yet Bean puts on stage a nineteen year-old who thinks of killing himself to save the planet ( and then has him switch in a matter of minutes, under the influence of Cassell, to a thoroughgoing climate change sceptic.) No-one over the age of four could be convinced by this. Nor could they believe that the down-to-earth, friendly Geoff Tordoff, the university security man, could suddenly be revealed as potential kidnapper and the solitary figure behind the ecological militia which has been sending Cassell death threats. But Bean has no care for believability: he is contemptuous of his audience, as he is of his characters and drama itself.  

            In Ibsenís An Enemy of the People, a man makes a scientific discovery, of a banal kind; but the play isnít about how many bacteria there are in the water, but about how dishonest and self-interested people deny the truth in order to defend their interests. You could get a good play about climate change out of the same material,  but it would be likely to spike the oil companies, the rich, the climate change deniers who will do anything to protect their privilege. Tree-huggers may be wrong-headed, but they tend not to be greedy and vicious. Animal rights activists may use violence, but the Green Party is democratic and Friends of the Earth not known for making death threats to academics. This is what makes Beanís play silly. It may turn out to be true that human action has made little difference and what we are seeing is a natural cycle of warming and cooling, but whatever the cause, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and the effects may be severe. Might it not be sensible, in the face of that, to minimise the amount of CO2 we produce, just as a precaution ? And might it not be possible that in doing so, we might improve our lives ? Yet all that has nothing to do with the failure of this play which fails because it is poor drama. How good Beanís science is has to be judged elsewhere. What is feeble in this piece is the hopeless characterisation, the clunking excuse of a plot, the attempts to manipulate the audience and the spatchcock melodrama intended to work up some genuine emotion and failing utterly. Cassellís daughter Phoebe is anorexic. Bean explains that he uses this as an analogy for the way we will starve our society of energy if we reject fossil-fuels; but anorexics donít choose to starve themselves (though he comes close to suggesting they do when Cassell has a rant against the notion that her daughter suffers from a genuine disorder rather than being simply selfish and self-obsessed). Anorexia is a very poor analogy for the choice to stop using fossil fuels and the drive to find alternatives. Anorexics do not find alternatives to fish and chips. His use of anorexia is cruel. It is thoughtless and cheap, which is in keeping with the essence of Beanís play. The rank melodrama occurs when Bean has Pheobe suffer a heart attack after an unmotivated and unconvincing attack on her mother. As the girl lay on the floor and her mother tried to revive her, I couldnít have cared less if she lived or died, which is exactly how you would expect melodrama to work; it is a form of narcissism. It plays on self-regard. It fails to connect to ideas and emotions that go beyond infantilism. The girl is saved because the security guard, who has been hiding upstairs waiting his chance to kidnap comes down and give her CPR. Yes, a kind-hearted psycopathic kidnapper.  It stretches credibility so far you want to go to sleep. And then the helicopter ambulance comes chugging in and you really feel you are watching something conceived for the 6th form concert.  

            This is probably the worst play I have  seen on the British stage but beyond its failure arises an important question ? How come Bean is thought of as a major dramatist ? You would have to be insane or utterly uneducated to put him in the same category as Shaw, Sheridan, Miller, Tennessee Williams, Pinter, Beckett, Orton, Arden, Mamet, Odets, Congreve let alone Shakespeare. He doesnít come anywhere near even a minor dramatist like David Cregan. What has happened ? I suppose we shouldnít be surprised: in decadent cultures, everything is decadent. Aggressive dumbing-down and infantilisation have been with us for at least thirty years. We have a Prime Minister educated in an expensive public school and at Oxford who canít have a stab at translating Magna Carta. Bean was born in 1956. He would have been starting university just as the oil price rise hit and inflation went through the clouds. He would have been in his early twenties when Thatcher came to power. Bean claims his play is a defence of science, Science must be objective. People who push for fossil fuels to be phased out are activists not scientists. At one point in the play the opinion is expressed that science and activism canít live together; but didnít Einstein campaign against the atom bomb ? Arenít scientists also citizens ? And many climate change campaigners have degrees in science like Bean. He isnít a scientific genius, just a common or garden graduate. He talks about the science of climate change not being proven; but science is about disproof. He argues that though CO2 is a greenhouse gas just how much it may have pushed up global temperature is unknown. Exactly why some smokers get lung cancer and others donít is unknown. Science is always a work in progress. What is going on in the play has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics. Since 1979 we have seen the destruction of the social conditions which permit people to be heretics. Try being a teacher and a heretic about Ofsted. If you want promotion you lick arse, or at best keep your mouth shut. A culture of fear and bullying, especially in the workplace has robbed people of the ability to stand up to power. The result is conformism, identification with wealth and power, adulation of empty celebrity, widespread corruption and what Christopher Lasch accurately called the culture of narcissism. This is the culture which Bean identifies with. Ironically, it rejects all objectivity and asserts the subjective as the only good. It is the source of the post-modern refusal of a hierarchy of values. There is plenty of evidence of this in the play: casual drug abuse, references to casual sex and pornimagery, a kind of Jeremy Clarkson big-mouth dismissal of anything which might be seen as potentially pretentious. Bean has made his way as a writer by submitting to the narcissism of his time and its post-modern confusion of values. If he is concerned to defend the objectivity of science, shouldnít he be concerned about objectivity per se ? His Professor Maloney launches an assault on sociology and psychology. Maybe Bean sees these as pseudo-sciences. Yet, who could seriously argue that the work of Richard Sennett isnít rich and provocative ? And psychology has laid the ground for neuro-psychology which seems to be breaking new ground. This play doesnít defend science. It doesnít have enough dramatic power to defend or attack anything. What it does is to validate the sloppy thinking, emotional regression and silly petulance of our narcissistic culture. It is a kind of corruption. Bean corrupts drama in order to use it for cheap ends. Is this different from the corruption in the banks, the newspapers, the police, the political system ? In all these arenas the corruption is a refusal of objectivity, a denial that a hierarchy of values is both possible and necessary.  Bean manipulates his characters and his audience. The only real voice in his play is his own. He controls his characters as surely as Mrs Thatcher controlled her cabinet. He is shy of the effort to let them live as genuine characters. He lacks the imagination to find his way into how they genuinely feel and think. They are his marionettes. Nor does he work to give his play a convincing structure. If What The Butler Saw is a piece of Chippendale furniture, this is an orange box. Art, like science, should be objective. Bean, however, is fully signed up to the miserable subjectivism of our time. 

            Artists always try to structure their work so it will endure beyond the polemic which comes and goes with its time. Arthur Miller may have written about McCarthyism but he did so in a way which evoked a permanent possibility of human society. I hope it turns out that Bean is right about the science and there is no strong evidence that human activity has pushed up global temperature because if the opposite turns out to be true he will go down as the biggest nincompoop British theatre has ever produced. That will be bad for him, but tragic for the theatre.  

                                                                                       Alan Dent.

 

TOO CLEVER BY HALF

Alexander Ostrovsky adapted by Rodney Ackland 

told by an idiot

at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

10th July Ė 17th August.

 

            Ostrovskyís 1868 comedy was originally entitled Enough Stupidity In Every Wise Man. Its current title is the most preferred these days, but the original has a greater hint of exasperation or even despair. Ostrovsky was, of course, a very serious dramatist who held a view of the artist at which most people would baulk today: 

            To pronounce something clever and honest is not such a big dealÖFor a statement of truth to be effective and for it to make people wiser, it has to be filtered through a soul of the highest quality, the soul of an artist. 

The notion of an artist as a superior soul whose work can make people wiser sits ill with the radical marketisation of art of our times. Yet in this production Paul Hunter  succeeds in wedding brilliant entertainment with high seriousness. Set in the sixties and with a soundtrack of instant nostalgia for those of us who were teenagers at the time ( and on the evening I was there that would have been a fair proportion of the audience); adorned by gloriously inventive and playful set pieces, this is a classic production. Itís the funniest show Iíve seen at the Royal Exchange since Braham Murrayís Loot in 2001. Itís also the second excellent production Iíve seen by Hunter: his Accidental Death of An Anarchist at the Bolton Octagon in 2006 was marked by the same non-malicious subversiveness and joyous mischief.  

            The play emerged from the period of Russian history when the much-delayed advance of the merchant class was in full swing. The reactionary sections of Russian society regretted the abolition of serfdom which created the essential condition for the development of capitalism: wage labour. Ostrovsky didnít identify with their hopeless clinging to the past, but he did believe that the self-seeking and the corruption which accompanied the rise of the mercantile class could be resisted by an appeal to simpler, traditional Russian values. There is, however, no sign of that in this play. Itís the tale of the social-climbing Gloumov who tries to flatter his way to the top. His gullible superiors are easy prey, in particular Kleopatra Mamaev, wife of the wealthy Neel who is a relative of Gloumov. Mamaev is duped into giving Gloumov a leg up and even encouraging him to get a leg over, with his wife; and though the ambitious young man is able to take in the widow Tourousina who is away with the fairies in her vaporous spiritualism and convince old Kroutitsky, the dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the discarded regime, that his feeble ramblings are worthy of being put into prose, itís his seduction of Kleopatra which is the central cruelty of his scheming. His real aim is Mashenka, Tourousinaís niece who brings with her a dowry of 20,000 roubles. His cynicism is well-placed: marriage among the upper classes is a transaction ( as Kant  ruefully observed, a contract in which each partner has exclusive use of the otherís sexual organs) and only fools would put love before advancement. Poor Kleopatra, however, shows us that we trick ourselves when believe we can live without mutual affection. Marooned in a marriage as cold as the steppes, she falls like a besotted teenager when Gloumov praises her youth and beauty.  Like Gloumovís other victims, she is unable to distance herself from her self-complacency. Exquisitely played by Hayley Carmichael, who can convey radical emotional change in the most subtle expression or shift of demeanour, she is utterly ill-used , impossible not to sympathise with, but also a sad product of the shallowness of her class. The moment Gloumov declares his love for her provides Hunter with the best set-piece of the production; an unforgettable mixture of mime and choreography it is pitched just right: it shows how the most sincere feelings can gain expression in the most hackneyed ways and makes us laugh at what we know about ourselves: our most essential needs  can lead us into the most ludicrous behaviour while we think we are being utterly noble and dignified.  

            Gloumov is betrayed by his diary, the only place he can be sincere. The fact he must set down his true thoughts and feelings is a metaphor for our need for honesty; yet Ostrovsky is fully conscious of the impossibility of absolute honesty in human relations. To say what we think without the restraint of kindness and delicacy would render life intolerable. The play is founded on this recognition; we are all flatterers in that none of us neither dares nor wishes to be utterly frank with others, just as we wouldnít wish others to tell us unreservedly about our weaknesses. If a certain degree of dissembling is necessary, the question is, how much ? Does Gloumov simply push the boundaries too far ? Do we condemn him not for his hypocrisy but for its excess ?  We all expect others to flatter us to some degree. Gloumov is able to get away with his outrageous behaviour only because his victimsí need for flattery is extreme. When his diary is discovered and heís unmasked, he rightly berates his fellow citizens for their failure to detect his dishonesty. He is right that they need him. For Gloumovís behaviour to be impossible, people need to rise above their self-complacency. The genius of this play is that it confronts us with the persuasive justifications of a man we would like to dismiss. Yet like the little community, we canít. Gloumovs are always amongst us, some of them individuals, some of them institutions; we are safe from their manipulations only if we have sufficient self-knowledge and discipline to perceive that whatever flatters us is likely to deceive us. At the same time, Ostrovsky is spiking a form of society: when peopleís self-esteem depends on their social status and opportunities are limited, we shouldnít be surprised if Gloumovs abound. The denouement is utterly serious; Ostrovsky wonít let his audience off the hook and a hundred and forty five years after the play was written it is as pertinent as ever. Itís a very uncomfortable moment when you are forced to agree with Gloumov and a very disheartening one when you witness the ultimate cowardice of the community he has fooled.  Yet this emerges gently from the humour, charm and wit of this thoughtful production.  

            The acting is strong. Hayley Carmichael makes the best of some clever gags and is always in command of her character. Dyfan Dwfor is excellent as Gloumov, giving of youthful cockiness, ambition and endowing his dubious character with irresistible charm. Nick Haverson is remarkable as Kroutitsky. His old manís gait, fumbling and confusion are beautifully realised and the moments when this codger evinces extraordinary athleticism, stunning and hilarious. Carla MendonÁa is a suitable prissy, sniffy Tourousina  and to mention these is to take nothing away from the rest of the cast : Richard Braine is a pompous Mamaev, Penelope Dimond convincingly complicit as Gloumov's mother,  Lisa Hammond captures Maniefaís smoke-wreathed pseudo-spiritualism, Debbie Korley switches fluently from Mashenka to Golutvin, Nitin Kundra makes his minor roles memorable, Dharmesh Patel  captures the confusions and defeats of the Hussar Kourchaev with great aplomb and the young Calum Finlay is confident and astute as Gorodoulin. Not wishing to insult him in any way, but Murray Bait who was ill and couldnít play the servant Grigori, was ably replaced by various members of the cast and this worked extremely well,  even providing the opportunity for an extra gag.    

            A week before the production began, the public were invited to attend a rehearsal. I went along and not only was that experience itself enlightening and enjoyable but it greatly enhanced the full staging. It should be done more often. Itís an excellent and bold idea, typical of Told By An Idiot  and its democratic and inspired co-directors Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael.