John Morrison: Anthony Blair, Captain of School: A Story of School Life by an Old Boy
The classic satire on life at Westminster and the invasion of Iraq. Only the animals are real.
"David? It's Nick Hytner here on the South Bank. How are you coping with the financial crisis?"
"Nice of you to ask, Nick. Not too bad, actually. Like an old leftie, I keep all my money in the post office."
"That's not what I mean. I was wondering if you would like to write something about it. All those hedge funds and trillion dollar bailouts, the collapse of Lehmann Brothers. I've been reading about it in the FT and it's the real stuff of drama."
"You mean write a play about the City? My last effort at the Cottesloe about New Labour didn't set the world on fire, did it? I might be able to do something documentary, You know, go and talk to bankers and write down what they say, then get actors to say it on stage."
"Bringing the bankers to the South Bank? I like the sound of that. And we've done men in suits before -- Stuff Happens filled the Olivier, after all."
"Not the Olivier. Perhaps the Lyttelton this time. Does it matter if it isn't really a play?"
"Don't worry about that. The National has put on fifteen David Hare plays so far, and we're still counting. Our audience will come to see anything with your name on it. You're like Noel Coward."
"It's a deal, Nick. Can you put the money straight into my post office account?"
David Hare is careful to lower audience expectations right at the start. Anthony Calf, the actor playing The Author, marches up to the footlights and tells the audience they're not going to be seeing a real play, just a story. But it's too late to ask for a refund of my £10. A large cast, all male except for three females, stride purposefully in neat diagonals across the stage regurgitating things which their real counterparts have told The Author during his research. Various key words are projected above them in the style of a powerpoint presentation for those who have trouble keeping up with the lecture. The performance lasts for about 95 minutes, though for those who fall asleep halfway, as I did, the ordeal is somewhat shorter. I nodded off during an explanation of collateralised debt obligations. When I woke up Mr Calf was still poised quizzically with his notebook and pencil, asking diffident questions. The play has one or two interesting moments, but it's journalism, not drama. Possibly my long career in journalism explains why I found it less than riveting. David Hare has organised his material quite well and laced it with a few dashes of humour. Some of the sharpest lines come from an unnamed Financial Times journalist presumably based on Gillian Tett, whose training as an anthropologist gave her articles on the big crash a lot more human insight than her colleagues. But as a piece of theatre, it falls well short of Hare's earlier documentary plays The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. The Permanent Way worked well on stage for two reasons; the opening scene had commuters scrambling into a crowded carriage to find a seat, forging an instant bond with the audience; and in Max Stafford-Clark's production there was a spectacular backprojected rail crash. Stuff Happens was also a men-in-suits sort of play with little action, but it at least had some invented dramatic dialogue featuring Tony Blair, George Bush, Colin Powell and others. The Power of Yes features only bankers, traders and journalists and is thus devoid of any characters who might set off an empathetic spark across the footlights. The playwright's portrayal of himself as an interviewer is a device which worked very well for Gregory Burke in Black Watch because it was used only briefly as a framing device, after which the real play took over. But Hare keeps it going all the way through. It's like going out to dinner and finding that the restaurant kitchen is closed and there are only crisps and peanuts. During my moments of wakefulness I fervently wished I was back in the Royal Court watching Lucy Prebble's Enron, which is an object lesson in how to bring obscure financial material to real dramatic life. I think I am probably going short on my holdings of David Hare until further notice. They're not worth what I thought they were worth when I bought them. Perhaps HM Treasury might like to take the shares off me in return for a nominal sum?
I'm going long on Goold futures at the moment; there have been some sharp criticisms from analysts of this company's recent venture into the opera market with Turandot at the ENO; and last year's King Lear at the Liverpool Everyman also caused the share price to dip sharply. But on the evidence of this play the underlying brand is still outpeforming the market. STRONG BUY.
This play by the young (very young) Lucy Prebble has been met with a well-deserved deluge of praise already, and there are signs that Rupert Goold is starting to revise his habit of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at his productions. He's learning to subtract as well as add, and a quick look at the playtext for Enron confirms that the show has been tightened up, losing quite a few lines since it was first performed early this summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It's a co-production between Chichester, the Royal Court and Goold's Headlong Theatre. It's slick, fast, fantastically visual and theatrical in the way it tells the story of the rise and fall of America's most innovative company. Financial engineering isn't really the stuff of drama, but Goold and his designer Anthony Ward unfailingly find the right visual metaphors to tell their story. Showing traders at work in a bear-pit exchange floor is the easy part; but how do you dramatise the accounting wheeze that Enron devised to disguise its losses in opaque dummy companies? The companies become raptors or dinosaurs, prowling around the stage in the half-light greedily munching up debt but eventually threatening their creators. The set has a giant skyscraper at the back of the stage on which is projected a ticker with the Enron stock price. First it climbs inexorably, then falls back as doubts grow about the company's claimed profits. The ensemble become Jedi knights with illuminated swords in a scene about the devastation of California's deregulated electricity market. But the good thing about this play is that the four main characters, while unsympathetic, are all fascinating and well-drawn. Samuel West is terrific as the villainous chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, who begins as a bespectacled nerd but once promoted to the top job displays a chilling ruthlessness. One of his victims is Claudia Roe, played with great pizzazz by one of my favourite actresses, Amanda Drew, whose deep sexy voice should have made her more of a household name by now. As Claudia, she dons a Monroesque giant blond wig and delivers a cracking performance as the ballbreaking female executive who loses out to Skilling in the race for the top job and is later stabbed in the back and sacked, allowing her to sell all her stock before the companny collapses. Tim Pigott-Smith bumbles around to great effect as Enron's genial chairman Ken Lay and Tom Goodman-Hill is Andy Fastow, the obsequious chief financial officer who designed the company's financial trickery but collaborated with prosecutors and got a lighter sentence than Skilling. This is the play that should perhaps have been written about Royal Bank of Scotland, the closest British equivalent to Enron, but I fear the libel laws will make such a venture impossible for any playwright. Enron is fair game as its bosses went to jail, but it's going to be hard to put the disgraced RBS chief Fred Goodwin on stage.
After Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem this is the second smash hit play in a row for the Royal Court; both will be seen by bigger audiences paying higher prices in the West End next year, and I imagine both will be fighting over the same Olivier awards. My instinct would be to go for Jerusalem as best play and Mark Rylance as best actor, while giving the best director and best design and lighting design to Enron.
I used to wonder if it might be possible to issue an ukaz banning diesel and electric trains and making everything run on steam. I abandoned that particular fantasy when I realised a) it wouldn't be very good for the planet and b) I'm unlikely to be appointed dictator any time soon. But I do quite like steam trains, especially in the theatre, where the designer gets a chance to use lighting and sound and smoke to conjure up the illusion of the real thing. Which is a way of saying I enjoyed the design for this play at the Almeida. Judgment Day is by Odon von Horvath, and so to say it's a play about a train crash sounds rather banal. Written in the 1930s, it's a parable about the rise of fascism and the importance of individual moral responsibility. Thomas Hudetz is a stationmaster whose moment of inattention to the signals leads to an express crashing into a goods train and killing 18 people. The only witness to his failure is Anna, the innkeeper's daughter who was kissing him at the crucial moment. Her evidence gets him acquitted of negligence, while his unpopular wife's eyewitness statement is disbelieved. But the truth eventually comes to the surface. It's the kind of earnest social-realist drama which Arthur Miller perfected in such plays as A View From The Bridge, but the difference between von Horvath and Miller is that the former's characters remain resolutely two-dimensional. Joseph Millson as Hudetz doesn't add very much to his thinly written part, and the other actors seem equally unable to get out of second gear. James Macdonald is a director I rate highly (he was responsible for an outstanding revival of Joyce's Exiles at the National about three years ago) but here he is unable to resolve a conflict between the demands of what is really a big ensemble play with vigorous crowd scenes and the narrow confines of the Almeida stage. Miriam Buether's design is excellent, using a narrow platform which allows the passing steam trains to pass between the actors and the audience, and then revolves into a thrust stage for the other scenes. The problem is that the narrow platform doesn't give much space for a cast of 14 plus several non-speaking extras to create the kind of mob psychology and dramatic movement that Trevor Nunn conjures up in Inherit The Wind at the Old Vic. On a bigger stage I think the play might work better, but as a political metaphor the story is rather clunky and tips over into melodrama towards the end. Hudetz is held up as a man who always follows orders, with the implication that this isn't enough; but he's a character who seems to lack any kind of inner conflict or conscience. The link between individual actions and their social consequences which Arthur Miller's plays outline so brilliantly is here somewhat fuzzy. Despite Buether's period design and the lovely puffs of steam from the imaginary engine, the railway disaster itself doesn't have the impact of David Hare's The Permanent Way, in which some very clever back-projection effects were used to recreate a crash on the stage of the Cottesloe. Steam or no steam, director Max Stafford-Clark really made the audience wince on that occasion, but in this play neither the crash nor the characters really come alive.