Monthly Archives: October 2013

This House

This House long ‘This House’ by James Graham at the Cottesloe

16th October, 2012

‘A Conservative government always eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power, and Labour governments always fall because they don’t.’

Can one make a satirical play centred on the fragile coalition politics of the 1970s?  These were the years of industrial unrest, spiralling inflation, but an absence of spin doctors and 24 hour news. James Graham’s drama emerges as a result of a National Theatre commission soon after the 2010 election delivered a hung Parliament.  At just 30 years old, Graham wasn’t born until three years after the events of the play, yet with thorough research he creates his own version of the political playground tribalism.

Most of the action takes place in the Labour and Conservative Whips’ offices, where much of the wheeling and dealing goes on – the dark arts of politics.  This is a time when the Labour government’s precarious ability to survive a hung parliament and a wafer-thin majority creates most of the play’s dynamics. The Labour Party whips have to fight for every single vote to pass legislation and win over as many as they can, including those MPs from minority parties. Eventually, every MP is required to be present in Parliament for every division to avoid losing a vote of No Confidence. The absurd lengths to which Whips go to ensure that their party members appear on the floor to vote is a fault line of our parliamentary system.

So, Philip Glenister as the formidable Labour Deputy Chief Whip, Walter Harrison, needs a controversial pairing of MPs, to save the Labour majority. For the uninitiated, pairing simply means that if, for example, a Tory MP is known to be unable to appear for a vote on a given day, a Labour member agrees by gentleman’s agreement not to attend the session and therefore sit out the vote. Continue reading This House


jerusalem650‘Jerusalem’ by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court Theatre

July 2009

‘And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the Holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’


The play’s title, of course, is a nod to Blake’s 1808 poem but it becomes a hymn of identity and nationhood and belonging, set in a fictional Wiltshire village on St George’s Day.  The tune is the most chosen in Britain at both weddings and funeral.

On one level, the plot is simple: the story of Johnny Byron’s last stand against the philistines who would evict him from his home is set largely within a period of 24 hours.

The start is explosive. A solo rendering of William Blake’s Jerusalem by Phaedra (a missing 15 year old) front of curtain crashes into the noise of the rave at Johnny’s the night before the story starts. Continue reading Jerusalem


19841984 :a Headlong Company adaptation of George Orwell’s novel at Richmond Theatre

24th October, 2013

‘The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly  exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been.’

                                                                                                     (Arthur Koestler, ‘Darkness at Noon’)

Most people have heard of Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101 and Thought Crime, but how they fit together in Orwell’s 1984 eludes many. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s ambitious adaptation of the dystopian masterpiece, opens in 2050 after the autocratic Party has fallen. We are eavesdroppers on a book club from the distant future discussing a document from the past – Winston’s diary. They believe, as the Party would have wanted, that Winston Smith never existed.

Our perceptions of reality are never stable, for the year 1984 initially runs concurrently with the book club discussions. Winston is seen struggling to write a diary ‘for the unborn’ – a ‘thought-crime’ punishable by death. As he writes the audience watches a close-up of the words on a big multi-media screen above the stage – we are inside Winston’s head. Continue reading 1984

Another Country


‘Another Country’ by Julian Mitchell at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester

17th October, 2013

‘The love that never falters
The love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted
The final sacrifice’

In 1980, months after Anthony Blunt’s exposure as the dubbed fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring, Julian Mitchell sat down to write Another Country and explore the possible origins of their national betrayal.  As Mitchell writes: ‘People usually become traitors for one of three reasons: money, ideological conviction or revenge.’  He settles on revenge for the institutionalised and hypocritical homophobia.  In our current climate, there is an irony in the idea of oppressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain driving someone towards Russia where homosexuality is portrayed as a danger to children and the family.

 Set in an unnamed 1930s, public school, the investigation focuses on the young privileged elite such as Guy Burgess (Bennett in the play). Burgess was an Eton-educated Foreign Office official, who passed secrets to the Soviets before and during the Cold War as part of the Cambridge Five spy ring – eventually defecting to Moscow in 1951. The play’s revival is timely with the publication of ‘In Spies We Trust ‘By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones. Here, class is paramount, rank reigns. Continue reading Another Country


Race‘Race’ by David Mamet at Hampstead Theatre

13th June, 2013

Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?’


The added nuance that comes from these lines is that they are written by a white American writer who, literally, puts words in the mouths of black people.  Within this context, we do have to remember that American life and public discourse in the United States is very formal, albeit anodyne, and not just on the issue of race. Even on network television, you are not even allowed to use the word like ‘bloody’ and follow up questions are rare.  Race is just a taboo subject. As Mamet proclaims: Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. We need also to be mindful that the play hit Broadway in 2009 when the country boasted a newly-elected African-American president – a period in its history that could dare to call itself post-racial. David Mamet’s Race slams on the brakes just in time before any sense of being self-congratulatory kicks in.

Over fifty years ago in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ a black man accused of raping a white woman is necessarily found guilty by virtue of the colour of his skin.  Rules are reversed in ‘Race ‘ which begins as a crime mystery, when two high-profile lawyers, Henry Brown(Clarke Peters) who is black, and the white Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) debate whether to defend a wealthy, white, racist client, Charles Strickland(Charles Daish) who is charged with the rape of a black woman.  Strickland admits that he was intimate with his accuser but claims it wasn’t rape, insisting that the sex was consensual. As one of the characters remarks, it is an almost impossible case for the defence to win. Underpinning this is a barbed jibe at  the exoneration of O.J. Simpson, despite forensic evidence linking him to a crime —an early indicator of the mid-nineties mind-set that informs the play. On the fringe emerges an attack from a young, black, female lawyer, Susan (Nina Tousaint-White)who highlights further how lawyers navigate the unspoken value systems of the jury. Continue reading Race

If Only

IfOnly‘If Only’ by David Edgar

27th June, 2013  Minerva Theatre, Chichester

‘It would be more surprising if there was not a ripple of anxiety across both parties.’ Nick Clegg

Orwell’s ‘1984’ may have been visionary enough to sustain it beyond the date of its title but this play was a risk with the ever shifting political seismic plate.  David Edgar could not have foreseen the  dystopian success of UKIP in the local elections last May which was needed to reflect this latest shift in British politics. In an age where we saw Masa Serdarevic, who became the face of the banking crisis when she was pictured on the front pages leaving the Canary Wharf offices of Lehman Brothers for the final time in 2010, making a big impression on Sir David Hare: it led to The Power of Yes, his own take on the crisis. I expected more from David Edgar who has made his reputation as a political playwright.

Structurally, the play is threefold, beginning in April, 2010, the day after the first televised prime ministerial debate; it jumps forward in time to imagine what might have happened by August 2014. The drama opens in Malaga in Spain where a Labour special adviser, a Lib Dem staffer and a Tory MP, who ran into trouble over the Telegraph Expenses scoop, find themselves stranded at the airport as a result of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud. The dilemma of negotiating the journey home was as plausible as I remember experiencing.

All three of them already recognise that the election could lead to a hung parliament and they discuss what might happen.  It is all so potentially explosive in conversation that the three of them write down a secret that would end their political career if it were revealed, and entrust it to another to ensure that their conversation isn’t leaked.

Ruth Sutcliffe provides a realistic backdrop of constantly changing flight boards which part to allow a clapped-out Peugot 205 convertible to emerge and take centre stage on the revolve. An added frisson is the acquisition of a fourth passenger; an A-level student who is also trying to get home, and holds up  a mirror to the covert negotiations, supposedly offers the challenge of what a first-time voter might think.  The script grates considerably with this caricature of youth with the word ‘like’ inserted at every opportunity.

There are some strong performances from all three key players – Charlotte Lucas, Jamie Glover, and Martin Hutson – as well as from Eve Ponsonby but all  were constrained to type.

When we’ve had ‘Yes Minister’ in the past and the more recently ‘West Wing’ and Denmark’s ‘Borgen’, England’s  Lucy Prebble’s ‘Enron’, this is disappointing. I found the earnest political theorising so dull that I did fall asleep from time to time. Yes, there is wit in identifying the lunacy of the language that’s used and the identifying the authorship of the different manifestos though like Bernard Shaw, Edgar does go on a bit.

As with the dilemmas of the Cameron/Clegg coalition, the topicality of the play does mean it’s unlikely to last despite it warning message. The production is billed as a “witty exploration of the morals dilemmas” that affects coalition parties. If only Gordon Brown had switched his microphone off. If Only…..


Routes-photoweb‘Routes’ by Rachel De-lahay

Jerwood Upstairs (Royal Court Theatre) 4th October, 2013

‘I don’t understand. I’m British. – Technically, you’re not.’

Ironically,  the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer coined the phrase; ‘The Angry Young Men’ to promote John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger. The label was later applied by British media to describe young British writers who were characterised by disillusionment with traditional English society. The word ‘angry’ is probably inappropriate as it was more a drive to raise awareness for what they perceived as the hypocrisy and aspirations for genuine change.

Similarly, Rachel De-lahay’s Routes is driven predominantly by anger – at the bureaucratic absurdity of the immigration system. Here, we home in on the human cost suffered by migrants coming to the UK from Africa.  The message is, thankfully, devoid of Daily Mail sensationalism or sentimentalism and, no doubt unable to engage support from any UKIP member of the audience. The politics are sound and profound.

Simon Godwin’s 70 minute production is slickly directed. Paul Wills’s angular stark set of two plain chairs as the only props prevents any distraction from the issues explored. Through two interlocking narratives, De-lahay juxtaposes the grim experience of those facing deportation from the UK with that of those trying to come here illegally. Continue reading Routes

Othello: Cheek by Jowl

othello‘Othello’ by William Shakespeare: Cheek by Jowl

Riverside Studios, November, 2004

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.’  

The basic plot of the tragedy  of ‘Othello’is well-known: Iago (Jonny Phillips), jealous that he’s been passed over for military promotion in favour of Michael Cassio (Ryan Kiggell), plots revenge against his general, Othello (Nonso Anozie). From beginning to end we have a sense of entrapment.

Declan Donnellan’s modern-dress production, staged with the audience seated on either side of an acting area that runs the whole impressive width of the Riverside auditorium Nick Ormerod’s design is virtually non-existent, consisting of nothing more than five wooden ammunition boxes. The audience is forced into an aural landscape of Shakespeare’s language – the clues to character and situation that any reader or actor needs. The clues are not necessarily in the meanings of the words. We are drawn into the rhythms of the language: the patterns and sounds of the words that contain a great deal of valuable information. Continue reading Othello: Cheek by Jowl

Othello – NT Live: Chichester New Park Cinema

othello_ntlive‘Othello’ by

William Shakespeare

28th September, 2013

‘One that loved not wisely but too well.’
(5.2.390), Othello

Here I go again. I’ve lost count of the number of school visits to Shakespeare productions. I tried to resist seeing this production, despite a kind invitation to do so by a friend. I remember subjecting students to the filmed version of Laurence Olivier’s 1965 production in the 70s when videos were a new teaching tool. I writhed in deep embarrassment as Olivier hammed for England, his white eyeballs rolling madly in a weird blue / green / black greasepaint-shiny face with a slash of bright red lipstick. Such was the histrionic style: I puzzled over the Black & White minstrelsy.

Seduction is effective if prolonged so how could I resist Adrian Lester (last seen in Henry V, 10 years ago) and Rory Kinnear, coupled with one of my favourite directors, Nicholas Hytner whose direction of the anti-Iraq Henry V and  later, Hamlet  I loved. Once again NT Live affords me a missed opportunity.

The play opens to the news that Othello is recently married to Desdemona, half his age. He is appointed leader of a military operation to defend Cyprus from the Turks. Iago, his ensign, is passed over for promotion in favour of young Cassio. Immediately the importance of rank and hierarchy that provokes such envy casts a shadow over events to come.

Iago (Rory Kinnear) remains the invidious catalyst throughout. ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am.’ Iago finds that people who are what they seem are foolish. Kinnear’s camp-thuggish tones are so finely tuned that his dark humour engages the audience who then immediately revile him for his moral vacuity.  We are drawn, too, into Iago’s sporting with Roderigo (Tom Robertson) who is in love with Desdemona. Robertson’s portrayal of the gullible, wimpy, privileged nerd adds a welcome touch of comedy. Continue reading Othello – NT Live: Chichester New Park Cinema