Tag Archives: political theatre

Tikkun Olam – Riverside Studios

Tikkun Olam (by Tom Grace Portraits)

Political theatre most often means governmental and national politics, exploring the structures of leadership, the top level functions of parties and, usually, the life of the Westminster set. David Hare’s stage and television dramas like I’m Not Running and Roadkill are about the machinations of leadership, while even Netflix’s adaptation of Sarah Vaughan’s novel Anatomy of a Scandal looked at the consequences of a rape allegation made against a cabinet minister. So, the world premiere of Teunkie Van Der Sluijs’s Tikkun Olam performed simultaneously in the small studio theatre at Riverside Studios and live streamed to an international online audience, offers something a little different, a community-focused story about the building of a Holocaust memorial which stirs up local protest and questions the integrity of a Labour candidate running for their seat. With a focus on identity, privilege and the extent to which history is imposed upon us, Van Der Sluijs’s 90-minute play has much to say about the local / national balance.

Part of Riverside Studio’s mini-festival of new writing in partnership with Original Theatre Company, showcasing the three shortlisted contenders for the Originals Playwriting Award, each performed once over three nights, Tikkun Olam is the last to take to the stage as a script-in-hand reading. The drama establishes three sets of character perspectives – Labour candidate Steve Alexander and his researcher Dan championing the memorial for ambiguous, possibly entirely point-scoring reasons, influencer and activist Leah who they to convince to support them and Mary who heads the community protest group hoping to save their small plot from redevelopment.

For much of the play, these groups interact in clearly demarcated ways, combinations of which establish the political and personal dramas that emerge as a Public Enquiry into the build looms. It is conventionally structured with scenes taking place in domestic or office locations primarily, and requires some speechifying to establish the opposing positions. But Tikkun Olam‘s subject matter proves the starting point for a number of knotty debates that morph across the period of the play, continually shifting perspectives on the memorial, its meaning and its consequences.

Though perhaps the least fully explored, the initial focus is on the nimbyism of local residents objecting to the proposed Holocaust memorial largely, it seems, because it is being built in their park which, due to its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, is interpreted as a form of political profiteering, making a local space into a national tourist attraction. With statues already celebrating the Suffragettes and acknowledging the slave trade within their small patch of greenery, Mary’s views are eventually made to feel narrow and obstructive, protectionist in all the wrong ways.

But it doesn’t start that way and Van Der Sluijs tries to give them more depth as the story unfolds, creating a balance in the text that openly explores the appropriateness of a commemorative monument to an international event when Britain fails to acknowledge others in the same way. Van Der Sluijs, it seems, is working through these varied arguments for himself including the propensity to build on the few remaining spots of green land and through Mary (played by Diana Quick), he also looks at the pressure of urbanisation in large cities where space is precious so residents like Mary with no gardens must reconcile themselves to losing outdoor recreational areas for the greater good. It is this part of the play that is most concerned with the local, micro perspectives in which concerns about facilities and access are pitted against big society requirements and political party game playing.

In testing these views in the mouths of his characters, it is not long before Van Der Sluijs decides that Mary’s perspective must fall away, sidelined towards the end and curdling into a failure to recognise she is living in a different kind of present. It creates a more cliched view of local protest driven by bigotry, lack of compassion or understanding and a desire to cling to antiquated notions of a Britain that never was, championing achievement rather than choosing to look at an ever-present reminder of death as Mary argues. It is almost too easy to reduce and typecast the character in this way and to dilute these local concerns by equating them entirely with intolerance. Perhaps in a future draft Mary could be just someone who doesn’t want to cut down trees to build anything, and perhaps giving her a companion would even-up the stakes a little. Extremism may be more dramatically entertaining but winning over the moderates is the hardest part of local politics.

The bulk of Tikkun Olam focuses on the relationships between Steve, Dan and Leah instead as they join forces to make a case for building the memorial. And here it is Leah, played by Debbie Korley, who is the driving force of the drama, the person who needs to be convinced to harness the power of her social media following to back the campaign and to emerge from the safety of her own online anonymity to stand up for the things she believes in. There are a couple of quite interesting layers in Leah’s story, the first exploring the value of internet activism and its effect on political decision-making, something which the politicians hope to harness initially to pressure decision-makers into approving the memorial plans but also to bolster’s Steve’s profile ready for the next election.

The extent to which Leah’s head is turned by the power she has is well managed across the 90-minutes, and while Van Der Sluijs doesn’t explicitly ask questions about her vanity or desire to influence – Korley plays Leah as a rather sober, straightforward creation – her (slightly unconvincing and sudden) proximity to Dan in particular starts to blur the boundaries of her integrity, although the romance subplot adds very little to the overall story. Why she is so easily convinced to help them is unclear, is it that she trusts their sincerity or is merely won over by the appearance of it, the relationship with Dan may overcome her objections or perhaps it is just a cause she wants to fight? Nonetheless, as they form a coalition, the play does raise some unanswered questions about the cost of that for Leah in the period after the Public Enquiry and whether any of it was worth putting her reputation on the line.

Leah also asks some valuable questions about the nature of identity and how far these are aligned to physical geographical boundaries, as well as cultural and religious commonalities. As a black, Jewish woman, the concept of singular heritage that Mary, and to an extent Dan, cling to are challenged by the different experience that she brings and how it reflects on the collective symbols of history all around us. Much of this is a deliberate counterpoint to Mary’s arguments, and where she sees a lack of connection or culpability between the Holocaust and her leafy grove in Westminster, Leah gives voice to notions of silent complicity and memorialisation as a reminder of inactivity both during and after the Second World War, asking the age-old question of who and what are these monuments for – a focal point for bereaved survivors and families, a national symbol of sacrifice and tragedy for those who weren’t there or a prod to the conscience and understanding of future generations.

And this leads neatly into Steve and Dan’s motivation for championing the creation of a Holocaust memorial, something which remains ambiguous for much of the play as political cache contends with career ambition and the demands of constituency politics, and Van Der Sluijs is interested in that interaction between Steve’s personal beliefs and values with his immediate plans for advancement, using the memorial project as a springboard to greater things. Yet, Jake Fairbrother’s Steve is probably the least explicit character, held back for much of the play and hardly revealing his motivations that give the actor little to work with beyond the gravitas of authority. There is much more that the writer could say here, not least about the fleetingly referenced Antisemitism within the Labour Party that should have far more space in the text given the subject matter, expanding Steve’s own reference to allowing the Party to use his race to get onto the ballot and the effect of Steve’s position as a candidate rather than an elected official seeking endorsement throughout could add valuable contrasts to a character who largely sits on the surface.

Dan is quite a different proposition, more fully formed than Steve but a junior party member open about his lack of interest in the memorial other than as a tool to get them noticed. Dan’s trajectory is perhaps an unexpected one given his early enthusiasm for the project, his kindness and the developing relationship with Leah, but Dan comes to typify a self-aware white privilege, one that proves equally toxic. Played by Luke Thompson, his Dan is as quietly ambitious about the future as Steve and potentially dangerously under-invested in his role. He is competent, kind, even likeable and Thompson, in his first contemporary play for some time, is at ease with Dan’s humour and fast-talking amiability, lulling the audience into believing Dan is innocuous before a few gasp-inducing comments prove that beneath his charming and decent surface he is ultimately just as out-of-touch and uninterested in the constituents as Steve – Van Der Sluijs’s most savage comment on the hot-housing of politicians and their successors.

It is significant that a new writing competition has been given an important online platform by a theatre company who have specialised in innovative filming and streaming techniques in the past two years – particularly as most other efforts to share content online have been quietly forgotten. Simply staged by Director Michael Boyd using a series of chairs and benches, Tikkun Olam does have a lot to say from the enclosed, issue-based dissent of local communities to identity formation, how selective history is memorialised and represented, the alignment of political campaigning with digital outlets and platforms, and how all of those issues meld together. At heart this is a play about the intersection between local and national politics, and the ways in which elected representatives both use and ride rough shod over constituents if they think they know better, and clearly it has a much long life ahead and probably in an expanded form where more of its arguments and characters can be fully developed. Whatever the outcomes of the Originals Playwrighting Award, and in addition to his Artistic Development work for the Young Vic, we can expect to see more from this first time playwright.

Tikkun Olam was performed at Riverside Studios and streamed online on 2 July as part of the Originals: Live at Riverside series. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Bubble – Nottingham Playhouse

Bubble - Nottingham Playhouse

The pandemic has had an incalculable effect on the theatre industry, the cost of which may not be known for many years, but as venues slowly reopen it has encouraged greater innovation as productions seeks new ways of engaging with audiences. When the National Theatre launched its free At Home series back in April it predicated what may yet be one of the most significant shifts in the way we consume and engage with live theatre. The hybrid model of live performance and online streaming through Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms is fulfilling a demand for culture that local lockdowns and travel restrictions continue to impede. Whether this is a temporary change as ‘needs-must’ or true democratisation of the form resulting in a longer term change to the way theatre is created and shared remains to be seen.

During the summer it has been regional theatres who truly grasped the nettle, simultaneously maximising the opportunities presented by social media and video calling platforms to produce new work in line with social distancing regulations while promoting their name in what is too-often a London-centric industry. The potential impact of this should not be underestimated and while the in-person experience is virtually impossible to replicate (although the Old Vic’s In Camera version of Faith Healer did just that), being able to watch a show from London, Glasgow, even Vancouver for a reduced ticket fee without the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodation has done much to welcome new audiences. If we want the landscape of theatre to look different in the post-pandemic world, be more inclusive of different voices and support a new generation of theatremakers then this more flexible approach to accessibility will be vital.

With a number of venues across the country now partially reopened, the theatre business model has certainly changed and last week Nottingham Playhouse began its three-week Unlocked Festival with a series of dance, music, comedy and theatre performances allowing Covid-safe attendance in its auditorium. One of the highest profile events is a hybrid production, performed in-house and live streamed over the weekend to a potential international audience – a new James Graham comedy about life in lockdown.

Bubble is described as a ‘scratch’ production, running for just three performances with minimal set and props presented in paired back style. This simplicity allows for social distancing on and off stage while foregrounding the text and the audience’s ability to remember and imagine the familiar scenarios of recent events. Like David Hare’s new piece for the Bridge, Beat the Devil, the human impact of the last few months are explored, staged against the larger canvas of political shifts, medical urgency and social change that frame the lives of Ashley and Morgan who decide after one date on the eve of lockdown whether to quarantine together.

A James Graham play is always distinguished by its impeccable structure, a strong frame that keeps the audience safely within the world of the story without ever having to worry where the playwright is taking us, while creating solid support for the development of scenarios within which the charactersisation can operate. Bubble has two supporting walls, one is an alternating ‘Bubble’ and ‘Apart’ narrative that charts opposing versions of the same relationship depending on the couple’s initial decision. The other, as in Hare’s play, is time, using the chronology of the pandemic to situate moments in the play as external realities play-out against the developing personal connection.

These interlinking effects are extremely successful in building consistent personalities for Morgan and Ashley across the two timelines while detailing the effects of claustrophobia and disappointment that being trapped at home alone or together engenders. Initially, there is a straightforward switch between the parallel plots which is replicated on stage by Director Adam Penford who spotlights the actors and has them switch places on the stage to give the audience a visual clue to the relevant scenario – also flashed as titles onto the rear wall throughout. At first the side-by-side box effect of the Zoom camerawork misses that signposting until the operator cuts to full-stage mode between scenes, but the play’s structural clarity means it is clear enough and perhaps would be even more intriguing without it, as the emotional ebb and flow between the protagonists morphs and overlaps as these two experiences emerge.

Graham also begins to explore variety within his structure to create greater complexity, running two perspectives from the same scenario back-to-back with a momentary beat between them to indicate time passing, or sometimes opposing versions of the same month have just a breath between them, as though one conversations flows neatly into its complementary interpretation. Keeping track of which part of the relationship we are in and when becomes part of the fun as neither evolves quite as you or the characters expect given they begin as virtual strangers (and in one scenario remain virtual strangers of another kind).

Much of Graham’s work in the last few years has focused on the anatomy of major institutional and societal structures, looking particularly at where power lies and how it is used to benefit those who hold it. This House and Labour of Love were concerned with the all-to-compromised business of government at Parliamentary and local party level, while Ink and Quiz considered the influence of the media and the uneven distribution of justice. By necessity and purposefully, Bubble has more in common with Graham’s earlier, more intimate work largely presented at the Finborough Theatre and other fringe venues that more sharply focused on personal interactions between individuals against a political background that less overtly intrudes into their lives.

Plays such as The Man that used a box of receipts as the basis for a revealing personal monologue and the beautiful Sons of York, about three generations of the same family navigating death and masculine expectations of grief, considered the impact of close relationships with partners and family members that are affected by external economic and social contexts but the plays themselves were not overtly concerned with exploring them. And while Bubble appears on the large Nottingham Playhouse stage, Zoom at least, gives it an intimacy redolent of these earlier works as two people navigate almost fearfully towards and around one another without any certainty about what they will find in their chosen partner or ultimately what it will reveal about themselves.

But the political still persists in the air around Bubble which, like Hare’s play, will remain a valuable insight into the day-to-day experience of the pandemic as the characters respond to its unfolding. Morgan and Ashley argue about reactions to the Prime Minister’s illness, they debate the devastating consequences for the hospitality industry, job losses and the disproportionate effects of poverty while George Floyd’s death sparks an passionate discussion in both timelines about physical participation in the Black Lives Matter protests. Much of this is managed with far more sophistication and conversational flare than Hare’s angry but clunky recitation of facts, addressing some of the biggest issues in a way that the feels natural, albeit slightly different, for both sets of characters.

Other classic Graham traits are evident throughout including plenty of references to pop culture as the couple compare opinions on Love Island and Bake Off, discuss Eurovision, dance, joke that video calling equates to the villains’ prison in Superman and check they have enough toilet roll and pasta to survive. Eight months on, we may be hazier about how odd the rapidly evolving language of the pandemic seemed in March, but Graham finds plenty of comedy in scenes where the characters try out words and phrases like ‘furlough’ ‘Zoom’ and ‘social distance’ for the first time, while mocking the idea of talking to colleagues and friends on screen before, later, becoming jaded by the intensity of living through a camera.

Ashley is perhaps the easiest character to sympathise with, at least initially, who in both scenarios is more laid back and in some ways more rational. Owning a ‘micropub’, in the bubble scenario she is clearly unnerved by Morgan’s studio flat with its lack of privacy which leads to a more contentious experience than expected. Not openly romantic, Pearl Mackie plays Ashley as more level-headed, able to stay relatively calm despite the encroachment of her personal space and better able to navigate Morgan’s changing moods and needs as time drags on. Mackie also makes Ashley seem braver in the bubble, increasingly voicing her opinions and intentions with certainty as the close proximity to Morgan becomes more frustrating.

There are consistencies in Mackie’s performance in the ‘apart’ timeline, retaining that same independence and positivity but tempered by long periods of enforced loneliness and fear of the outside that reduce some of the choices she had made in the bubble version. Mackie makes Ashley’s responses more varied as she is both inhibited by the distance from the woman she is trying to know through a webcam, leading to disagreement, but also more willing to explore her feelings as the pair develop a different kind of boldness that gives them a freedom to explore their romantic and sexual connection, something which barely figures in the parallel world of permanent proximity.

Jessica Raine’s Morgan seems less at ease with herself and her over-excitement in the early stages of both scenarios makes it harder for the audience to warm to the character. But during the play’s 70-minute running time, the performance becomes a little calmer and Morgan emerges more clearly. In the bubble strand, the initial elation and enthusiasm quickly wane as the reality of a stranger in her home becomes clear and their considerable personality, lifestyle and financial differences manifest as a growing disappointment in Morgan as Raine explores regret and obligation in her character’s responses. Later, this grows into a frustration as Morgan returns to work as a teacher and Raine introduces a barrier of fear using her role as a reason not to take more risks.

In the alternative ‘apart’ sections, Morgan is, like Ashley, both more reserved and more willing to take chances. With Graham providing a date-like structure, Raine is able to offer a version of Morgan at her best, free to display a more relaxed side to herself in the time-limited interactions with Ashley fueled by alcohol and her need for human connection. But that too changes over time and as the pair become more familiar with one another, Raine’s Morgan develops expectations and demands that her partner cannot fulfill, bringing the two versions of her summer experience in line.

It may be an urban myth, but everybody knows someone who knows someone who locked down with a stranger back in March and the ways in which Graham imagines how this story might have played-out is an enjoyable alternative to the Covid monologues. Above all, Bubble is a reminder that the events of 2020 will profoundly shape who we become, whether it be theatres finding new ways to reach their audiences, social movements making their mark or individuals reassessing their personal choices. When we eventually try to make sense of all this, Graham will be the playwright to do it.

Bubble was performed at Nottingham Playhouse on 23-24 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre


Beat the Devil - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

The Bridge Theatre is the first West End venue to offer socially-distanced indoor performances, welcoming audiences back to their still beautiful space with a series of what are essentially one-man shows between now and late October before deciding whether to resume their pre-advertised autumn season with Marianne Elliott’s take on They Shoot Horses Don’t They currently scheduled for November. The first short play opens this week with David Hare staking first claim to what will surely be a new genre or at least a familiar theme in the coming months – the Covid monologue. As an established white, middle class, male playwright Hare is in a better position that most to get his plays staged and for some this new work will epitomise tension between the politics of the theatre and the separate quality of the play.

Considering Beat the Devil is the story of a writer who contracts Covid-19, the safety measures in place at the Bridge Theatre are stringent and reassuring. Audience members are not only issued with digital tickets (which can be printed), but to control the flow of people through the foyer and auditorium each ticket will specify a recommended arrival time to allow audiences to reach their seats while passing as few people as possible. There is a socially distanced queue into the venue as well as a thermal camera checking everyone’s temperature, a one way system, hand sanitiser and ushers reminding attendees to keep their face covering in place throughout.

The auditorium itself has always benefited from plenty of individually fixed rather than long banks of seating so the Bridge Theatre team have extracted any chairs not in use to ensure that seats are socially distanced in blocks of two or three with a few singles if you are fast enough to find them. So unlike the older West End theatres such as the Palladium where Andrew Lloyd Webber had to block-off seats using antimacassars printed with an X, the physical flexibility of the Bridge removes any possibility that audiences members can change places during the performance. Just as with Regent’s Park, you really couldn’t feel safer.

David Hare is a renowned political playwright although his most recent work has not attracted the unerring critical praise of his most celebrated plays. The hugely disappointing I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018 suffered from hollow characterisation in a not entirely credible Labour leadership contest scenario while his detective series Collaterol had some interesting narratives but wasn’t quite able to pull its various strands together. Yet prior to these Hare scored notable successes with high quality adaptations of George Simenon’s The Red Barn (2016) and the 2015 Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. But Beat the Devil is for many reasons his most personal play in years, exploring his own experience of the disease while charting the political course of the pandemic.

Creating fictionalised versions of themselves is something writers often do, from Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time recalling scenes from the author’s younger days to the active entry of Laura Wade into the middle of The Watsons as the frustrated writer trying to get the characters inherited from Jane Austen to behave, there are many biographical elements to be sought in the output of novelists and playwrights. And while this is often left to the academics of English Literature and Theatre Studies to debate, Hare removes ambiguity and guesswork by making Beat the Devil a systematic account of his experience of catching, suffering with and recovering from a disease that has affected millions of people around the world.

Structurally, this 50-minute show is a sequence of diary entries read aloud with touches of the retrospective dramatist’s omnipotence. So as the character of David discusses his symptoms or the government response to the pandemic, Hare allows some forethought to come in, his protagonist is both reliving and recounting the months of lockdown from a point of current safety, with the knowledge of his own survival and of later social or political events rather than an unfolding account. Hare indulges this side of his writing, creating a story in which the audience, the lead and the writer know the outcome and uses that sense of confederacy between us to insert facts about the disease and its effects that he could not have know at the time of his illness, as well the consequences of governmental decision-making in the ensuing months.

The result is a piece that relies on the audience’s knowledge of our very recent history, peppered with references to particular moments in which the nature of the pandemic and its management shifted, often for the worse, and the personalities who have been its public face. In one sense, Beat the Devil feels like an act of historical record where the physical effects of a worldwide epidemic were met, in Hare’s view, with gross political incompetence and, worse, inhumanity by our leaders. None of this is especially insightful or surprising to anyone living in the UK in recent months but Hare has captured it in a way that prevents that vagaries of time from eroding the day-by-day experience. Whether Beat the Devil has any future as a play is another matter – it is so topically rooted in the exact sequence of events, the people and the dramas of Spring/Summer 2020 it is hard to know whether anyone would care to revive or revisit the play in the years or decades to come when this government and Covid-19 itself is a distant memory.

Whatever your expectations, Hare does a convincing job of representing himself onstage and the play has an intimate warmth that quickly creates a strong bond with the audience. Its very best moments recount the progressive experience of illness, the little anecdotes and unexpected developments that have made this such a difficult disease to control, and as Hare speaks with candour about the false lightness of the first week, the fuzzy lungs, nights sweats and delirium followed by uncontrollable vomiting, worries about mortality, physical frailty and sudden return to consciousness you can have nothing but empathy for anyone who seems to have experienced its full impact or close to it.

What is surprising is just how comic Hare’s voice is in retelling these experiences and wry humour is not one of the most pronounced traits in his earlier work. But in Beat the Devil Hare allows much more of his own personality to emerge and, it turns out, he is pretty sarcastic, taking pots shots not just at the every-growing list of government failings and its inexplicably weak personnel, but also at himself as he recalls the quirks of personality and amusing examples of contradictory behaviour. Refusing to go to hospital at the height of his sickness is because, he quips, wards are full of people with Covid, while eventually emerging from the disease his over-emphatic delight in the taste of water and frustration with the behaviour of men in action movies leave him shouting at the television. Running through the show from beginning to end is a lightly sardonic humour as the character of David finds incredulity at every turn, perhaps this is another long-term effect of the disease, Covid makes you funny.

Hare hasn’t entirely dispensed with his old habits though and one of Beat the Devil’s more frustrating elements is the clunky insertion of facts which crop up repeatedly. It is a frequent problem for the one-man show (and some multi-person political pieces), and whether the performer is re-enacting the life of Judy Garland, highlighting the effects of homelessness or discussing Covid, it is very difficult to make the recitation of facts feel like natural speech. Partly this is because conversation just doesn’t happen like this either in your own head or with an interlocutor, and, given the structural premise here, statistical facts are not something personal diary keepers tend to record.

These are, of course, Hare’s soapbox moments, an irresistible opportunity to reiterate government incompetence, death rates, the disproportionate effects of the illness on ethnic minorities and the failure to sufficiently support the NHS, all of which occasional feel like he’s trying too hard. And facts in an ongoing situation can be slippery, quickly making a play feel dated (and therefore not worthy of revival) if science discovers that the make-up of the disease is not what we think it is, or that its impacts on particular groups were not as disproportionate as first thought. But here, they make the play feel heavy-handed and while Hare is clearly impassioned and not necessarily wrong-headed, these moments feel more like acerbic stand-up than theatre, places where Hare the writer and David the character are detrimentally indistinct.

Since up-ending his serious romantic lead image with In Bruges in 2008, Ralph Fiennes has been able to reveal his comic side with roles in God of Carnage (2008) as well as Man and Superman (2015) alongside more serious projects. Here, his timing is wonderful, guiding the flow of Hare’s words to their humorous crescendo, making the jokes feel freshly minted and unrehearsed while subtly adding gestures or facial expressions that boost the comic power of the moment. These are used sparing so they don’t detract from or unbalance Hare’s more serious points, but Fiennes strikes an excellent balance between light and shade within the production.

His performance is one of the big draws of Beat the Devil, imbuing his character with plenty of charisma and a winning charm. Fiennes is an actor with the rare ability to hold a big room in the palm of his hands and make it seem effortless. Anyone who saw his Antony in 2018 alongside Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra will wonder at the Olivier Theatre’s formidable reputation as Fiennes stood alone on its vast stage to deliver Antony’s suicide speech in captivating style. The Bridge Theatre is equally sizeable and speaking to the threadbare audience permitted by the regulations, his debut appearance on this stage is a hugely successful one.

Much of the warmth and humanity in this piece comes from Fiennes’s performance and this ability to create connection with the room, reaching out across the vast space and socially distanced community to create a collective experience. It is a big ask for an actor to be alone on stage for almost an hour, a hugely exposing experience and one that many long-established actors will not be used to, but he finds the subtleties within the piece, the periods of flow and directional movement, using the chapter-markers to regroup as Hare shifts the time frame.  Most importantly, Fiennes keeps the audience there in the story with him as it segues between political rants, building the comic chain of events and fusing the elements of the show together as a single consistent character experience.

You won’t necessarily leave Beat the Devil thinking it was the finest play you have ever seen or even that Hare deserves this vast platform to tell his own story – the cultural tides are shifting so fast at the moment that any number of voices could arguably have used these resources to make the theatre landscape more equitable. But neither is Hare’s play an unmitigated travesty and there is much to take away from the show. Political theatre is there to hold the Establishment to account and Hare uses his personal journey to consider the management of the pandemic. The diagnosis for Hare and for the UK may have been spookily aligned, but while the writer has recovered, the country may not.

Beat the Devil is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Hansard – National Theatre

Hansard - National Theatre

Writing a play about the political experience of the last three years may seem an impossible task, not because the events don’t naturally lend themselves to drama but because if you saw it on the stage you would think it all so ludicrously unlikely, every twist and turn so perplexingly farcical that audiences just wouldn’t believe it. But we are living proof that truth is stranger than fiction, and while that may give comfort to future historians unpicking every aspect of our socio-political activities 30 years from now, how do contemporary playwrights begin to anatomize and reflect on one the of the biggest constitutional issues of our lifetime when the story is far from over – the answer is to look to the past.

Like James Graham before him, who used the 1970s setting of This House to draw parallels with the coalition government of 2010-2015, Simon Woods’s smart and affecting new play Hansard returns to 1988, to the height of the Thatcher government as an active member of the Government and his  Labour-supporting wife tear each other to pieces on a Friday morning in the sanctity of their Cotswold’s home. It’s a play about many things, about the fundamental theoretical difference between the approaches to citizenship and care in the two major parties, about the nature of political and personal legacy, about the traps and sore spots created by decades of marriage, and about the fundamental failure of Robin and Diana Hesketh (becoming ciphers for their own parties) to truly act for the causes they so passionately espouse. Woods’s brilliant 90-minute play is a searing assessment of our national dilemma and of who we have become.

But first, as with all two-handers, you will notice how smartly Woods has constructed his play to create waves of activity that manage the changing levels of intensity and tension between the characters, while cumulatively taking the audience deeper into their marriage. Woods writes with a real understanding of genuine conversation, with its loops of meaning and circular arguments. It is crucial to the overall effect of Hansard that at no time do Robin and Diana ever say anything unnatural that make the play feel theatrical or false in its presentation of a particular moment in this relationship. Woods makes you feel like an interloper, listening with a glass to the wall in this private presentation of real pain and there is not a single clunky moment as the conversation turns corners or changes direction.

Instead, Woods rather masterfully controls the simultaneous unfolding of the Hesketh relationship and their life together as well as using their experience to reach the viewer, engrossing us in their Friday morning in order to see ourselves a little better in their reflection. And while Hansard is a deeply political play, its most striking reference is to Edward Albee’s campus drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imagine George and Martha on a quiet night in  when there are no guests to play to, Robin and Diana are somewhere here. Woods has the same ability to write dialogue that runs through a number of topics, introducing new strands as needed to revolve the action, but like Albee, he is able to loop the entire discussion back to the one or two fundamental issues, recurring motifs that anchor the play. And it is the eventual unveiling of this central secret, the true reason for the bitterness in this very broken marriage that hooks you in.

Hansard is often very funny and you will cry with laughter at the brilliant jabs that Woods lands on old-Etonian Ministers and their perspective on the world, shaking your head in amused recognition at how expertly he skewers the ruling classes on both sides of the House. Yet, what really emerges from Woods’s writing is a compassionate comprehension of the many forms of suffering that two people with such knowledge of one another can casually inflict. Like George and Martha, this is situated in the complex interior life of his characters and the clarity with which he sees them both so, however much you resist, their actions become comprehensible even if they are never exactly likeable.

It begins with a fairly clear distinction between the Left and Right positions on the purpose of government – is it to provide a maternal protection by shielding citizens from difficulties or should it be a paternal facilitation that allows each member of society to face and manage hardship without recourse to outside assistance. Woods uses his characters, initially, as physical forms of this debate, Robin the typical Conservative politician whose patrician principles extend beyond the legislation he helps to enact – in this case Clause 28, voting to prevent homosexuality from being discussed in schools – to his behaviour at home, as well as his entire outlook on life. Woods uses Robin to demonstrate the Thatcherite concept of meritocracy, of learning to stand on your own two feet and grasp opportunities for yourself, that natural talent, hard work and ambition will be justly rewarded.

It is an opinion that for much of the play will provoke your anger, and we learn to dislike the smug Robin for all his self-deprecating wit, and through the well-directed scorn of his wife, we come to understand that this view of the world is one born from privilege, of entitlement bred into him at public school and because no barriers have been placed in Robin’s path to power. It’s not hard to align this impression of Robin as pertaining to the lack of compassion we see in our modern governments. But the story Woods is telling is far more complicated than that, and over the course of the play, told in real time, our perspective on Robin shifts as Diana’s own failings come into focus.

Most of the time, the audience will applaud her, the years of bile erupting into a series of beautifully and heroically delivered snipes that champion the vulnerable and dismiss the overgrown schoolboys she believes work with her husband. But Diana’s own position becomes equally untenable in Woods’s narrative, a suggestion that personal weakness undermines her political passion leading to a crucial discovery that affects her role in the play. Through Diana, we see how the high-minded ideals of the Left and her demand for kindness as a starting point for all policy becomes as naive a strategy for government as Robin’s dismissive approach seems cruel, and while Woods clearly has no time for the glut of self-serving Right-leaning politicians, neither does the play suggest, has the woolly liberalism of the arts and the series of “geography teachers” who headed the Labour Party until 1988, served the nation any better. Here we are then as an audience caught between Diana and Robin, but also as a society of citizens trapped between Left and Right, facing the failure of both doctrines to create the levels of social support needed. This is very smart writing.

Yet, it is also very emotional writing and Woods never lets this political conundrum diffuse the reality of the people he is creating, and through this marriage we are asked to also consider the individual’s deep yearning for legacy. Robin is overly preoccupied, as many modern leaders have seemed to be, with manufacturing his place in history, in ensuring his work, his presence and what little influence he has amassed is remembered. He is comforted by the existence of Hansard – the political diary that records every moment of the House of Commons – which will mark his contribution. But Robin’s legacy, like his marriage and house is rotten. Looks around the edges of Hildegard Bechtler’s excellent set, the ceiling is lightly dusted with mold, the skirtings and corners are decayed with age and there is a hint of damp beneath the beautiful middle-class facade with its extensive garden and fitted AGA. Even the walls are bare of pictures, of anything that denotes that real lives are lived in this house, physically and metaphorically there is nothing inside.

Instead of creating history, Diana and Robin are haunted by it and they have become frozen in this cycle of reproach and recrimination. She uses the origins of their relationship in an affair as evidence that his now cheating again, the fact of his mysterious Wednesdays something he never confirms or denies however often she needles him, while he resents her blatant alcoholism and refusal to behave appropriately on public occasions. For the Heskeths the past is weaponised, their lives like Hansard an exact diary of former hurts and humiliations, their legacy full of destroyed electoral promises played out across damaged personal loyalties and conspicuous clashes. The child they barely mention sits between them which, like George and Martha, takes the game to a level beyond which either wants to play. By the play’s conclusion the Heskeths (and we) are clear on how we all got where we are, even if we have no way to fix it.

Director Simon Godwin knows well how to control the rise and fall within these relationships and his recent Antony and Cleopatra on the Olivier stage was superbly managed. Diana and Robin are similarly matched and played with relish by theatre titans Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. Godwin fills the long Lyttleton stage with their trauma, positioning his characters as far apart as possible without ever losing the captivating intimacy of their relationship. One moves towards the other, so Godwin has the other depart instantly for the opposite side of the stage, it becomes a routine so embedded in the rhythm of their life together they are barely aware it is happening, and even at the conclusion where all the battles have been played out, they find no physical intimacy in the more hopeful aftermath.

Alex Jennings is superb as the beleaguered Robin, devoted to his Prime Minister and more than willing to vote as instructed if it will further his own career. Robin truly believes the views he espouses, with no hint of self-awareness about how his comfortable life has been created through the inequalities he sustains by his actions. Yet, Jennings very slowly introduces Robin’s humanity and while as a character he claims to have no time for Freud or for the need to bewail his lot, there is an active psychological direction in Jennings’s performance that ultimately leads to a sensitivity that is quite moving in the play’s final moments.

Lindsay Duncan is equally magnificent as Diana, a trickier prospect in some ways, shut off at home and restricted by the opportunities for late middle-aged women in 1988 unable to effect the kind of change she needs for herself and the nation. There is so much to enjoy in Duncan’s delivery of every put-down and jibe, but, like Robin, it becomes clear that Diana is hiding a frailty that Duncan draws out as the morning draws-on, a need to purge her life of the poison that has effected their marriage, one which gives Diana strength as well as fear. Unlike her husband, Diana is filled with a need to expurgate the past, to release the demons that hold them back which drives the drama as the chemistry between Duncan and Jennings ignites.

Woods has written a scintillating new play where the dialogue never stops, there are no moments of silence to pause or reflect, and even when characters momentarily leave the room the other continues to address them. In just 90-minutes this creates a continual flow that is both fascinating and enthralling. Hansard is a great political play, one that tells us everything about the society we have become and why the impasse of the last three years cannot be easily broken. But Woods has also achieved the one thing that seems to elude our polarised nation, in the creation of Diana and Robin and using their fractured marriage as a metaphor for our ailing democratic system he shows us the humanity of both sides, that the possibility of finding common ground may not be as remote as we fear. With incendiary months ahead at Westminster, let’s hope he’s right.

Hansard is at the National Theatre until 25 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Education, Education, Education – Trafalgar Studios

Education, Education, Education - The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Spice Girls are touring, slip dresses and in fashion and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is making the news, you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back 20-years. In fact, the pop culture of the 90s is having a mini renaissance where its influence can be felt across cultural boundaries, not least in The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new play Education, Education, Education that makes its way to Trafalgar Studios after a critically acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.  Specifically, they take us back to one day in 1997, the 2 May to be precise the day everything changed.

The landslide New Labour victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, at the time, felt like a turning point in modern history. 18 years of Conservative rule had been categorically swept away on a tide of optimism, the popularity of a young charismatic leader and promises of Cool Britannia. The future would be fresh, youthful and provide greater opportunities for everyone. “Education, Education, Education” Blair proclaimed would be the new Government’s priority, and after years of underfunding and decline for Britain’s schools, things could only get better.

The Wardrobe Ensemble set their 70-minute play in the full-flush of that hope, the day after the election when anything and everything was possible. This frames the drama, but it’s the daily business of the school that comes immediately under scrutiny. Six teachers and a receptionist face “muck-up day” and presentation assembly, the final day of school for Year 11 pupils about to begin study leave before sitting their GCSEs. Disastrous pranks, disciplinary problems, variable teaching methods, staff rivalries and broken promises all feature in one chaotic day that highlights the gap between ministerial rhetoric and life in the classroom.

The play uses a narrator, a German teaching assistant who arrives at Wordsworth School on that very day, speaking directly to the audience and relaying his impressions both of the Britain he has come to admire and the disordered nature of school life for staff and pupils. On one level Education, Education, Education is a light comedy, full of nostalgia for the music of the decade which plays in the Trafalgar Studios bar and auditorium, as well as peppered throughout the play. But politics lurks beneath the surface and like The History Boys and Labour of Love, this is far from a ringing endorsement of the Blair administration, and in fact builds on Bennett’s technique by looking briefly at the future consequences for particular individuals and the physical school building, insisting that despite D Ream’s promise very little actually got better after all.

For anyone who was there, what hits you first is Ben Grant’s sound design, piped through the building and blasted loudly as you take your seat. M-People, Oasis, Gina G, Celine Dion, the Verve, Suede and Take That as well a series of dance classics are among the songs that will take you right back to your 90s common room or first club night experiences. Before the play starts it quite smartly creates a false idea that somehow the world was better then, simpler and more united. With references to the Spice Girls and the UK’s last Eurovision winner Katrina and the Waves, we are primed to agree with headmaster Mr Mills, 22-years ago we were living in a much better time.

But The Wardrobe Ensemble have far more to say than that and a key debate focuses on the faux surety of British concepts of identity and the extent to which we too readily believe our own myth-making. Again and again in the post-war era we keep tripping over hollow ideas of past national glories, of an Empire, military victories and hundreds of years of history that mark out our national identity. Despite the dictates of Cool Britannia, of musicians and rock-star film directors flocking to New Labour parties by 1997, the writers argue, Britain was no longer as special as we imagine, which, as teaching assistant Tobias (James Newton) drily points out, we need to make some kind of peace with.

This idea plays out at the micro-level through the story of disruptive pupil Emily Greenside (also the name of the actor) whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic when denied a school trip to York with violent consequences. The culmination of this plot leads to one teacher insisting to the assembled group that none of the pupils are special, at least no more special than anyone else, take away the school structure, the ranking within classes and underneath everyone is the same.

At the macro-level, The Wardrobe Ensemble use English teacher Susan Belltop-Doyle’s (Jesse Meadows) lessons in which the pupils enact scenes from Arthurian legend to make points about the inculcation of those damaging national myths. In one of the oddest sections Susan hallucinates King Arthur who comes to tell her that our entire concept of identity is based on a false premise. Its silly and jarring but it skewers the polarising preoccupation with Englishness and sovereignty that led to Brexit, and continues to fuel the right-wing leave parties that feed on these emotional attachments to a largely imagined past.

All of this is subtly – and not so subtly – woven through the show, but directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton use a variety of interesting physical theatre approaches to entertain the crowd. In a highly stylised and fast-moving production, the cast are brought together at key moments to say or enact the same gesture simultaneously. Sometimes furniture is rapidly spun around the stage to form classrooms and other locations in a quick montage of scenes introducing Tobias to the subject’s taught at the school, at other times they use dance and movement to energise the quick-fire nature of the piece as we skim through a not very usual day-in-the-life of a 90s school.

There is a comic-book caper to some of the show’s scenes which whirl through in colourful forms, emphasised by Katharine Williams’ lighting design and the two movable doors of Lucy Sierra’s minimal but creative staging. And Education, Education, Education is a lot of fun, references to Tamagotchis and Titanic fly around a combustible staff room where everyone avoids the P.E. teacher’s pleas for a pub outing, secretly hates the over-enthusiastic headmaster and have ill-advised liaisons after the election victory. At times, it paints in big, broad strokes, with plot and character development considerably simplified creating several unlikely comic contrivances to drive the story in the right direction.

Yet, what we see in the staff room is the history of education played out in microcosm as two streams of thought clash as unresolvedly as they have for a hundred and fifty years. Educationalist Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth-century belief in individuality, learning through play and personalised curricula for each child is manifest in Tom England’s Mr Mills, the enthusiastic headmaster who is always a very physical presence, moving his body in waves and gesticulating wildly to indicate his softer approach and belief that the New Labour victory heralds a new dawn in school funding and individual pupil investment. He clashes with his disciplinarian deputy who equally vehemently believes that, like the Victorian schoolmasters who preceded her, that rules and punishments are the only way to create a valuable member of society.

They are supported by Tom Brennan’s Paul McIntyre whose unchecked but unapologetic personal choices inadvertently create much of the drama as he unreasonably denies Emily her trip to York and fights with Ben Vardy’s gauche P.E. teacher Mr Pashley kept on the periphery of the teaching community and amusingly asked to cover a French lesson. Meadows’s Sue is the archetype of the wafty teacher who loses control but connects with the children, while Greenslade’s version of herself is filled with teenage injustice and emotional responses she cannot control, while nonetheless showing the cycle of denial and punishment that stoke her behaviour.

However light its frame, ultimately this play has serious points to make about the short-termist approaches to education funding used cynically as a political tool to win voters. The cost, The Wardrobe Ensemble argue, are the pupils and pointedly it is them and not the teachers who appear on mass to dance enthusiastically to D Ream’s rallying call in the final moments. Pictures of the actors as they were in the 1990s flash across the back of the stage to make us think about the consequences of these policies. Those children became the actors in front of us, but in their pupil characters their future is yet to be shaped. Education, Education, Education suggests pupils should be sent into the adult world full of hope and possibility, we know now looking back that the optimism of 1997 faded as fast as the funding for schools. Without it and for as long as we refuse to face-up to who we really are as a nation, whether they know it or not, our schoolchildren don’t stand a chance.

Education, Education, Education is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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