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.
This new play by David Greig is destined to become a classic. It's only mid-February, but I can confidently predict that it will rank among the best productions of 2010, even before the final gongs for last year are handed out at next month's Olivier awards. I think it's probably the best new play the Royal Shakespeare Company have put on for years. It takes real ambition to take on Shakespeare at his own game by imagining what is in effect a sequel to Macbeth, but Greig meets the challenge head-on with his own 'Scottish play'. I've seen a number of other works by Greig in London and Edinburgh over the last decade or so, including Outlying Islands and the more recent Midsummer, and this one is by far the best. To describe it as a play about war and occupation or to suggest that it is merely a kind of remix of Macbeth would be to sell it short, because Greig creates half a dozen terrific characters, all of whom get the chance to dominate the stage at the Hampstead theatre, which has been remodelled and turned half-sideways to produce a thrusting platform with a stepped pyramid at the back. The theatrical language and the look of the production are Shakespearean, as is the structure and the alternation between 'high' and 'low' characters and the use of comedy to break the tension at tragic moments. But the language is bang up to date and never feels like historical pastiche. Greig picks up the story after the death of Macbeth, here referred to only as 'the tyrant'. An invading English army led by Siward of Northumberland has toppled him and plans with the best of intentions (no rape and pillage permitted) to bring peace to the country. The story departs radically from Shakespeare almost immediately, as the English soldiers capture the tyrant's widow Gruach. Dunsinane castle isn't quite big enough for Gruach, the mother of a teenage boy who is a claimant to the the throne, and Malcolm, installed by the English to displace her. Siward, trying without much success to follow Macduff's complex explanation of Scottish clan rivalries, quickly realises he has bitten off more than he can chew, especially when he begins to succumb to the charms of the queen. But it is not only the Scots who have shifting allegiances; there's an English officer who is venal enough to be corrupted by the queen's promises into spiriting her son to safety. Malcolm also has his own agenda, and it's clear that the aftermath of invasion and occupation is the moment the problems really start. Where have we heard that all before? Greig subtly uses language to suggest the modern parallels with counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, without ever bashing the audience over the head or patronising us. Squaddies and officers find Scotland cold and inhospitable, and ask openly what they are doing in this godforsaken country. They want to go home but can't leave without winning the war. It all sounds familiar, but Greig's writing and his characterisation are so good that the actors are able to relish their parts. As one would expect from the RSC, this is a meticulous ensemble production in which Roxana Silbert expertly manipulates a large cast to maximum effect. Siobhan Redmond, reigning queen of Scottish theatre (at least in my book), is magnificent as Gruach, while Jonny Phillips is excellent as Siward, who goes from high-minded intentions to bloodthirsty cruelty as the play unfolds. At the end of act one he thinks he has pulled off a masterstroke of diplomacy to reconcile the Scottish factions, but is spectacularly betrayed by Gruach, who flees Dunsinane to hoist her own banner of revolt. I have to disagree with Michael Billington's Guardian review, which finds Siward's change unmotivated; I find him totally convincing as he succumbs to the remorseless logic of a brutal occupation. Brian Ferguson as Malcolm, Alex Mann as the venal lord Egham, Ewan Stewart as Macduff and Sam Swann as a young cockney English soldier all make the most of their well-written parts, though it is inevitably Siobhan Redmond in an outsize red wig who steals the show.
Why do I predict this will become a classic and what do I mean by that? Although it needs a large cast, that is also true of Macbeth. I think that like Shakespeare's original, it will stand up to a variety of different treatments. It's an intelligent play about war which will never go out of date as long as armies invade and occupy other countries; and it offers a series of great parts for actors. I have no idea what the RSC plans to do with this play after its four-week run in Hampstead, but I think it deserves a much wider audience. Perhaps the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war could invite the cast to give a special performance in Westminster.
Post-show discussions with the director and the cast can sometimes be a bit of a yawn, but once in a blue moon a theatre audience finds itself involved in something that is more exciting than the play itself. Last Tuesday night at the Barbican theatre I was among an audience of nearly 1200 who found ourselves in an impromptu acting workshop with the legendary Peter Brook after the performance of 11 and 12.It was an encounter that most actors, let alone ordinary theatregoers, would give their eye teeth for. This diminutive figure in a black leather jacket and a shapeless red poloneck sweater avoided the usual question-and-answer session. Instead, he seized the chance to lead us in the kind of exercise he performs with his actors. Interrupting our applause, he asked us to imagine the sound of one hand clapping and to reflect on the meaning of silence. 'What can one say about silence?' he asked, then deftly passed the microphone to musician Toshi Tsuchitori for an explanation that linked prehistoric cave paintings, nose flutes, and the way primitive hunters used silence to stalk their prey. Then he asked us all to point our fingers and arms in the same direction. Like a hypnotist, he had us all on our feet, engaging our bodies and our brains and showing us how an open palm held up could show enough strength to stop a tank. There was a mischievous playfulness in this 84-year-old's determination to demystify the kind of magic spells he weaves backstage. He was clearly having fun, partly at our expense, but I came away with a new understanding of what makes Brook’s approach to theatre so special.
Peter Brook has been directing plays since the mid-1940s; somewhere in my attic is a yellowing programme from my first encounter with his work -- Seneca’s Oedipus at the Old Vic with John Gielgud and Irene Worth in 1968. I managed to see his famous Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1971 and a number of the productions he created after he moved to
Last Tuesday’s event helped me understand a little more what he’s up to. Firstly, his theatre is about storytelling. Secondly, he believes in Escoffier’s kitchen maxim Faites simple (Keep it simple), paring down superfluous detail and subtracting rather than adding. Thirdly, and most importantly, he has a deep respect for the audience, who are more than just passive watchers and listeners. In Brook's concept of theatre, the audience is essential and without it, nothing happens. 'The relationship between the actor and the audience is the only theatre reality,' he once told an interviewer. That idea puts Brook at odds with the tradition of Stanislavski and his followers, such as director Katie Mitchell, who seem to view the audience as at best incidental to their productions. Brook admits he has ‘barely read’ Stanislavski.
Another refreshing thing about this theatrical magician is that he defines himself as a ‘searcher’ rather than a guru laying down a set doctrine to his followers. Brook’s ideas continue to fascinate me, though he is the least didactic and preachy of artists. I was struck by the naked pessimism of what he said to the Barbican audience, which seemed to strike a note of Beckettian gloom: 'Life as such is a poor life that is getting more splintered and negative. There is no reason to be hopeful or optimistic. There is no reason to believe anything we are told.' But the theme of 11 and 12 is actually an optimistic one, based on the human capacity for tolerance and respect of diverse beliefs and views. Brook's latest work seems suffused by a sense of peace and reconciliation which brings to mind Shakespeare's late plays, particularly The Tempest. When I left the Barbican on Tuesday night, I felt I had spent half an hour with Prospero in his cave.
This post appeared on the Guardian website theatre blog on 12 February.
This post appeared on the Guardian website theatre blog on 12 February.
If I had to pick an actress to join me in a shipwreck on the coast of Illyria, Nancy Carroll would be right at the top of my list. I've seen her play a wonderful variety of roles, from a vicar's wife in See How They Run to a 19th century Swedish painter in The Enchantment, as well as in Arcadia, Etherege's The Man of Mode and Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance. She has excelled in all of them and I can't imagine that Gregory Doran had any hesitation about summoning her back to the RSC to play Viola in Twelfth Night, playing until the end of of February at the Duke of York's. I'm an abject admirer of Ms Carroll and hope her babysitting arrangements are watertight, because here she's playing opposite her husband Jo Stone-Fewings as Orsino. Orsino is in my view one of Shakespeare's really tricky male parts. How do you play a swooning obsessive who suddenly abandons Olivia, the object of his affections and pairs up with Cesario/Viola at the end of the play? There has to be some kind of erotic charge between Orsino and Cesario in their moments of intimacy, when the sexual ambiguity of Shakespeare's cross-dressing overcomes them and their mutual attraction becomes obvious. The other factor the actor has to convey is that Orsino is really in love with himself, not with Olivia. Stone-Fewings does this very well, thanks to Doran's inspired decision to site the play in what can best be described as a Byronic version of Illyria. What I enjoy in Doran's approach to Shakespeare is that when he picks a period and a place for his production, he thinks through every small detail and everything fits into place; there's no pick-and-mix approach. He brought off a similar trick eight years ago with an RSC production of All's Well That End's Well with Harriet Walter and Nicholas Le Prevost as Beatrice and Benedict, set in Mussolini's 1930s Sicily. This time around he's switched to the early 19th century when the Balkans were ruled by the Ottomans. Orsino becomes a Byronic hero, lounging around in colourful exotic garb, while Sir Toby Belch smokes a hookah. Cesario and Sebastian, as new arrivals, wear smart Regency boots and breeches and nice green frock-coats, looking like fresh-faced midshipmen in Nelson's navy, while all around them Orientalism runs riot. The mixture works perfectly, with Turkish musicians, a Greek Orthodox priest in black and lots of gorgeous multicoloured designer coats and dressing gowns.
Although Stone-Fewings and Carroll perhaps underplay the ambiguous attraction between Orsino and Cesario, they make a terrific couple. There's also a memorable and very flirty Olivia from Alexandra Gilbreath, though her hop-step-and-jump routine when she finally captures Sebastian suggeststhat she lurches a little too far into broad comedy at the expense of raw emotion. The more times I see this play, the more I look forward most of all to the scenes between Olivia and Cesario. In last year's rather muddled Donmar West End production Victoria Hamilton and Indira Varma turned their dialogues into the highlight of the play, and the same thing happens in this production. Gilbreath and Carroll are a joy to watch, conveying a real intensity of conflicting emotions.
Richard Wilson as Malvolio is the man who is on all the posters, but I wasn't swept away by his interpretation of the role. Even in yellow stockings and cross-gartered, he doesn't quite have the range to allow the audience to forget his most famous creation, the querulous Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave. I preferred Derek Jacobi last year, though for my money the greatest Malvolio ever was the hairnetted Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes' valedictory production at the Donmar in 2002. Wilson is fine, but doesn't bring anything startlingly original to his portrayal. The fact that he is a good twenty years older than the rest of the cast adds an original element to his persecution, which appears not only unpleasant, but also ageist. I felt this could perhaps have been exploited more. I enjoyed Richard McCabe as Sir Toby Belch and James Fleet as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, though they don't quite drive out the memory of Ron Cook and Guy Henry in last year's Donmar production. Miltos Yerolemou seems to lack the right degree of detachment and melancholy as Feste -- one of Shakespeare's most fiendishly difficult parts. He turns Feste into a roguish cheeky chappie who deftly punctures the romantic atmosphere created by his own songs. But he lacks the indefinable meditative quality which Peter Hamilton Dyer brought to the part in the memorable all-male production at Shakespeare's Globe about eight years ago.
Altogether I enjoyed this production very much, not least because Doran delivers some unexpectedly funny moments and handles the technically complex final scene quite brilliantly. The acting is excellent in depth and the casting of Pamela Nomvete as Maria, Tony Jayawardena as Fabian and Prasana Puwanarajah as the priest brings an extra dimension to the play. What I would really like to see the next time I go to see Twelfth Night is Malvolio played by a black actor, surrounded by an all-white cast. Has this ever been done?