Arnold Wesker is the skeleton in the cupboard of British post-war theatre; still going strong and writing in his late 70s, he has been largely ignored for the last 30 years, rather like the more experimental Edward Bond. I was too young to have experienced his initial 1950s heyday, and this revival by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court is the first Wesker play I've ever seen.
As the author of a play about 1930s communists which also used The Internationale as a musical background, I felt a small thrill of recognition as the curtain rose to a chorus of voices singing Arise, you prisoners of starvation. Arnold Wesker's 1958 play is a domestic epic tracing the family life and political times of Sarah Kahn, a Jewish CP member, from the idealism of the struggle against the Mosley Blackshirts in the 1930s to the post-Hungary disillusion of the 1950s, taking in the post-war 1940s on the way.
As a revival, this production at the Royal Court delivers everything the author could possibly have dreamed of in his long years of theatrical exile. Though I saw only the second preview, the performances are breathtaking, particularly the highly versatile Samantha Spiro as Sarah. Designer Ultz creates two terrific hyper-realist interiors, firstly the Kahn's cramped East End attic in 1937 and in acts two and three their more spacious post-war LCC flat. Sarah buzzes around offering cake, sandwiches and more cups of tea than Mrs Doyle in Father Ted; she is the Jewish communist matriarch at the heart of a tightly-knit ethnic and political community, a passionate fighter for the working class. Her husband Harry fails to match her, a lethargic shirker who spirals into a physical decline portrayed with devastating effect by Danny Webb. Gradually the web of tight family and political relationships of which Sarah forms the centre unravels, leaving her on her own.
Full marks to the actors, to Cooke's direction, to Ultz's meticulous design, complete with 1930s milk bottles, and to the Royal Court for reviving a work by a major post-war playwright which it originally turned down. As Michael Billington records in his book on post-1945 British theatre, the Court was pretty lukewarm about this genuinely working class writer and passed the play on to the Belgrade in Coventry. But the key question remains -- is it actually any good?
While Wesker undoubtedly took British theatre into uncharted waters and had a great ear for Jewish working class speech, I think Chicken Soup With Barley was outclassed and outshone by many of the proletarian playwrights who came along later -- notably David Storey. Half a century of leftwing TV drama, much of it political and centred on the working class, has also shown up Wesker's relative clumsiness. While choosing a big canvas spanning two decades, the story of the Kahn family and their friends, neighbours and relatives is too inward-looking to be a real 'state of the nation' play. It doesn't provide much insight into Britain in the 1930s, 1940s or the consumerist 1950s, or into the real story of the working class as a whole, merely into a tiny Marxist-sectarian fragment. Sarah Kahn is a well-drawn character and so is her failure of a husband, but neither of them achieve the symbolic grandeur that Arthur Miller created in Willy Loman and Eddy Carbone, or John Osborne in Archie Rice as representatives of their country and their times. Wesker overloads the play with exposition and long passages of dialogue go past, rather in the style of The Archers, without anything approaching real drama. Plays only come alive when characters are in conflict and when they are torn apart by rival loyalties and agonising decisions. But here the important decisions seem to happen everywhere except on stage; there's a young man who's volunteered to fight in Spain, but we don't see him deciding to go. The Kahns have two children who move out of the nest for different reasons, but the vital moments when they break away aren't shown. At the end of the play Ronnie, disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, returns to a blazing row with his mother, but this is the first real political ding-dong of the play, and it fizzles out inconclusively. There are two parallel narratives here, the family chronicle and the political story, but Wesker doesn't seem to be able to weld them together so that each accentuates the other. Instead, they remain apart.
As well as Arthur Miller and David Storey, I found myself making comparisons with a more recent work about the decline of the working class -- Lee Hall's superb play The Pitmen Painters. This is rich not just in character and political insight, but in the dramatic choices made by the protagonists. Admittedly written with the benefit of several decades of hindsight, this play shows up the comparative weakness of Wesker as a dramatist. If the Royal Court moves on to revive the second and third two plays in Wesker's trilogy, I shall certainly be there to see them, and I'll be happy to revise my opinions if they turn out to be more dramatically effective than this one.