Tag Archives: Political History

Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1


Oslo – National Theatre

Toby Stephens in Oslo, National Theatre by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When we look back at the last 100 years of world history, all you really see is battlefields and bombs. From the first total mechanised war to the modern day, our history seems to be the invention of new forms of death, of fear and an increasing inability to know who the villains really are. But behind all of the things that you think have shaped the world we know, there is one startling fact, that change didn’t really happen in any of these places of death. It germinates there, it is the trigger, but change and the tide of history that accompanies it, really happened in a succession of secret rooms, among a select group of privileged men (mostly men) sitting round a board table with the fate of their countries in their hands.

There is the Versailles Treaty of course at the end of the First World War, an ineffectual conclusion that only paused European hostilities; There was the Wannsee conference, dramatised so well by the BBC in 2001, which brought together the various German war leaders and administrators to chillingly agree the Final Solution; There was the Potsdam meeting with Stalin, Attlee and Truman at the end of World War Two, and in 1993 there was Oslo, the secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government that offered the first real possibility in 50 years of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.

For lovers of political theatre, the autumn season has plenty to offer with the West End transfer of Ink opening next week, James Graham’s other new play Labour of Love opening for previews before the end of September, despite a rapid recasting, and this hotly anticipated production of J.T. Rogers’s Tony-award winning Oslo arriving from Broadway with a fresh cast for a brief showing at the National Theatre before it takes up residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the rest of the year.

The new season has definitely begun, and the National Theatre is bringing out its big hitters, with the incredible Follies opening to a slew of 5-star reviews and Ivo van Hove directing The Network with Bryan Cranston in November, Oslo is the latest of its big sell-out shows this autumn. Even with Press Night some days away, it’s already clear why America loved Rogers’s play, a fascinating insight into a secret negotiation process that started as a forum for economic cooperation but became the main channel for peace, unexpectedly put together by a Norwegian academic and his wife in the Foreign Ministry.

It’s 1993 and Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen develop a plan to aid the Middle East peace process that is floundering in Washington. With the wrong people at the table, too much distance between the principle players and officious American control, Mona and Terje secretly bring together representatives from the PLO with a couple of economics professors from Israel for unmonitored face-to-face discussions. Terje’s charm and Mona’s Foreign Ministry connections ensure progress is rapid, forcing both sides to see each other as people, putting their enmity aside for the chance to achieve something historic. But as more senior Israeli ministers engage in the process, the demands increase with both peace and secrecy coming under threat.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Oslo has made a very easy transition to the expansive Lyttleton stage, giving a sense of the smallness of the people around a tiny table in a grand room making huge decisions. There may be greater intimacy when it transfers to the Harold Pinter, but there is something about the scale of what Juul and Rod-Larsen were attempting that fits this space so well. Sher ensures that the roundness of the characters, their foibles and frustrations, as well as their political views are not lost in the space, and the audience sees a surprisingly human story of a big political moment.

Political theatre is never easy to pitch, but Rogers has this just about right with narration throughout from Mona who talks to the audience, explains some of the events happening in the region as well as introducing the key players. Her guidance offers just enough context to those who know nothing about the conflict, supported by projected maps, photographs from the war zone, video footage and some ornamental designs to give a sense of venues changing from the negotiating room, to the Larsen’s flat, to a restaurant. The rapidity of this helps Sher create a sense of pace that bleeds scenes together and makes the 3-hour run time pass unnoticed.

Although this is a play about a major political event, it feels like a character piece and its strength lies in defining the unlikely collection of people it brings together. It was, we are told, Terje’s idea to create a sense of bonhomie where outside the negotiating room the men would talk only of families, drinks and food. And it is in these moments that the audience gets to know them as well, and as the need for narration fades, the humour, warmth and genuine desire to achieve a lasting settlement in each man becomes clearer. People who were once sworn enemies, finding a way forward becomes the play’s dramatic drive.

The question that hangs over it all, and remains delightfully unanswered, is why Mona and, particularly Terje, did this at all. We know that the idea for Oslo came when Rogers met Terje and became fascinated by his, now forgotten, role in this peace process, but Rogers leaves his motivation open to interpretation. Toby Stephens plays this ambiguity perfectly, channelling the mix of ego and desperation that seem to explain Terje’s investment in the business of other countries. Still boyishly handsome, Stephens utilises all the gentlemanly charm that Terje needs to keep everyone onside, smoothing every ripple as the ultimate genial host. But there is a darker undertone to Stephens’s performance, suggesting Terje ultimately wants to be known as the architect of peace in the Middle East which results in occasional outbursts of temper, as well as fear that his military guests might turn on him.

Less overtly ambitious is Lydia Leonard as Terje’s diplomat wife Mona who, unlike her husband, has an official role in the foreign policy of her country. Having previously played Anne Boleyn onstage in the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Leonard has plenty of experience of holding her own on a stage full of men and Oslo is no exception. A softer presence than her husband, Mona is a level-headed force throughout, tactfully navigating the explosive characters in the boardroom and thinking fast to solve unexpected problems. But she’s also carefully balancing a need to protect her career, and Leonard ensures we see that Mona is more than a competent administrator, but someone who’s also risking everything in the affairs of others.

With a large cast surrounding them, it would be easy for the key figures to blend into one another, but Rogers play deliberately gives real insight into the men around the table, and what begins as a series of shouting matches about various contractual sticking points, slowly evolves into growing friendship and believable camaraderie. Leading the Palestinian contingent is the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie desperate to establish the legitimacy of the PLO and make the territorial gains he needs. But, he is also full of a humour, enjoying Norwegian hospitality and finding unexpected commonalities with his enemies to which Polycarpou gives warmth and feeling, both charting shifts in Qurie’s opinions while demonstrating the appeal of his own character for others.

Philip Arditti as Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, arrives half-way through the negotiations as the first senior figure to get involved. Initially he’s a pretty cool customer, unwilling to make concessions, but like Qurie, develops a genuine investment in the people and the outcome of the talks. Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold do well as the vital Israeli Professors unceremoniously cast aside by their military superiors and resenting their usurpation, while Nabil Elouahabi as Palestinian communist Hassan Asfour and Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) add considerable texture when ideals meet cold hard process, turning their dreams of peace into practical reality.

At the end of Oslo as the characters explain to the audience what happened next, both politically and personally, and you’re left in no doubt that however long peace lasts, it is the decisions made in rooms by small groups of people that explain how history happens. So often, these hinge on the mixture of personalities brought together unexpectedly with a common will to enforce change. But, Rogers wants us to know that these processes are also fragile, that they depend on individuals to keep them on track, and once those people move aside, everything they’ve gained is once again up for grabs. Ultimately though even if the players change, the game remains the same and whether its terms of surrender or the cessation of war, decisions aren’t made on the battlefield but in the boardroom.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October – 30 December, tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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