When Raceweb’s Editor said: “I’m thinking of adding a new literary review and wondered whether you would be prepared to knock me out a thousand words on some highbrow theme? Don’t you live in London? Could you do something on any plays you’ve seen recently?” My immediate response was: “Of course, no problem”. But then I remembered that London’s theatres had all gone dark. Not even in the Second World War did they close but now there was nothing to see, nothing to review, nothing. What could I do? It was clear that I would have to reach back for some memories of past productions. I was readily able to think of any number of scenes of greed, lust, double-dealing, deception and incompetence. But that was just from following domestic politics today. If one threw in a generous sprinkling of abductions, torture and murder in some of the world’s most despotic states one didn’t need to watch any drama at all. Greek tragedy and Shakespeare couldn’t begin to compete with the world’s goings-on today. No, I had to try and find some images from the theatre dealing with other aspects of our lives: the happy; heart-rending; politically irreverent; politically correct.
I could start with Jerusalem – not Israel, not William Blake but Mark Rylance living in a caravan on a site in Wiltshire. Nothing politically correct there, nor in Hangmen which brought to life the considerable job satisfaction derived from ending the lives of serious criminals – some of whom nowadays would probably justify 5 years or little more. And then there was The Woman in Black, so frightening it made people in the audience jump when they had to know it was only acting and no terrible fate actually awaited them – beyond a modest glass of white wine in the interval served at near-room temperature. Stories, true, of failed careers brought to mind The Kid Stays In The Picture about Robert Evans, the film producer. His career went from Olympian heights to the depths of despair, rather like Harvey Weinstein’s but for different reasons, when Hollywood turned its back on him after a number of transgressions involving cocaine.
I began to think about other plays on various aspects of Society Today, some of which have not always featured prominently in my immediate knowledge of things. At a post-show talk not long ago your correspondent, who was probably allowing his thoughts gently to veer towards a glass of something, was suddenly asked by the theatre-person chairing the talk to comment, not on the play we had just watched, but on The Vagina Monologues. The question was not on whether your correspondent had seen TVM but how many times he had seen it. I failed the test. (I still haven’t seen it.) Many modern plays take unusual titles which often bear little relationship to the subject matter (not the case in TVM); they simply want to catch the attention of the potential theatre-goer. Thus My Mum’s a Twat was at least partly wide of the mark – it told of a woman who joined an obscure cult and, in thrall to its leader for whatever reason (only hinted at) gave away her family’s worldly goods. The title and the subject matter were divorced to some degree. One can only hope that this proves to be the case when in due course we go to see Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks. One looks forward to some productions more than others.
There are so many plays that follow the path of how one particular part of society deserves greater understanding, empathy, sympathy or love than they feel they are currently getting. On the other hand, there are those which tell a devastating story on an entirely different subject, like submarines…..submarines? The Young Vic put on a memorable play about the Royal Navy and its willingness to go to the aid of the stricken Russian submarine Kursk. The Russians declined to accept any help, claiming that they were unaware, however improbably, that help was on offer. The president of that country remained steadfastly on holiday. They appeared to be more worried about other countries learning something of their technology if it was worth knowing about than they were in saving lives. The ship’s crew of 118 were consigned to the most terrible grave in pitiless circumstances. The play told that story and pulled no punches.
It was a grim story but, quite apart from such real-life accidents and their dramatic interpretation, the genuinely unexpected can happen in the theatre in a way that it does not in films. Actors freeze on stage, some actors appear for all the world to be drunk while performing (no, really?) but then, sometimes, the action takes place in the auditorium. The Duchess of Malfi produced one such moment. A member of the audience was seen to go into cardiac arrest just as the Duchess’s two brothers were in the act of strangling her to death. The tension was at its height as other audience members clambered over adjacent seats to help save a life…but then the denouement. Up got the afflicted individual, ceasing to snore. He headed for an undignified exit from the Lyttleton Theatre – possibly an early example of what we now know as Social Distancing. The electricity of the performance had served only to send this “spectator” gently into the arms of Morpheus. He was not ill, just bored. Ambulance crew stand down. Boredom also affected a performance of Beauty and the Beast at the Old Vic we saw a few years ago. Intended for children it erred more than slightly on the side of greyness. Seated in an exclusive box on the left-hand side of the stage the attention of one member of the audience clearly began to wander. Leaning out of the box where he had been sitting, at an especially touching point in the Beast’s courting of Beauty, he began, uninvited, to declaim. In a strong Antipodean accent, and with a half-drunk can of lager at hand, he proffered the compelling advice: “Go On Beast, Give Her One”. Various members of the audience deemed this episode to be uncouth but It actually enlivened the whole event no end. Who knows, perhaps he has gone on to make a career of such humour, so spontaneously delivered.
Well Ed, as I now know him, I ask if this is highbrow enough, worthy of an up-market literary review? Possibly not, methinks but what does he expect?