Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Never So Good by Howard Brenton, Lyttelton Theatre, 17-March-2008, Directed by Howard Davies

I wonder if I suffer from some kind of ingrained anti-Roman Catholicism. I can't think of any actual event or specific influence in my background that could cause it but I feel deeply uncomfortable whenever a writer makes a claim that it was an historical figure's open/hidden/latent/repressed/rejected/anti Roman Catholicism that was a prime motivation in that person's life. I'm not saying that this wasn't the case with Harold Macmillan and I don't know where Howard Brenton stands on the matter - he could easily be completely disinterested - it is just a pea under a layer of mattresses and I can't get comfortable. I can understand that there might be historical reasons behind Roman Catholics wanting to 'claim' people for the 'true church' (denial of power and oppression etc.) but I'm not sure it fits in with more our secular times where religion shouldn't be an issue. I've probably made too much of this particular theme in the play anyway.
Although the play was long (not that it felt long) I got the feeling that I wasn't getting enough detail. There was plenty going on and I wouldn't fault the writing or the acting but I always felt that something major had happened off stage and that Macmillan was either sidelined or reacting to the situation even if he had played a major part in the offstage events. It could well have been a deliberate decision by the author, after all it helped show him as a nearly-man for much of his career but I would have liked more of the beginnings and middles of his relationships with his wife, Churchill, Eden and Eisenhower. It also meant that we had to be told what was going on or what had just happened rather than been shown it happening.
I wonder what the reaction to the Suez scene's parallels to the Iraq invasion is going to be from performance to performance. For us it was a laugh of recognition but I could see how easily it could become a groan at the heavy-handedness of the similarities.
The production, probably sensibly, didn't seem to go for imitations of characters, Ian Macniece certainly looked like Churchill (although he never smoked the cigar constantly in his hand - there was a split in the cast as to smoked and who handled but never lit up) but made no attempt to sound like him. Also Jeremy Irons didn't try to do a Macmillan although Pip Carter as his younger self delivered a version of Peter Cook's Beyond the Fringe impersonation of him.
I thought the use of the older and younger selves to comment on one another was effective but I was initially unsure what the younger version thought had died in the older. It also made me wonder about doing the Thatcher play (I don't doubt that Howard Brenton has thought about it himself) because unlike Macmillan there doesn't seem a place in the Iron Lady's life for a youthful voice of doubt or a Bolingbroke, Buckingham or Richmond from whom she would have accepted criticism. If to do a good Thatcher play and not just a left wing rant (they'll be plenty of them in a few years) you have to get into her head then there is only twenty-twenty hindsight to tell her that she was wrong.

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