THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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An enemy of sanity

An Enemy of the People starring Matt Smith extends at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre | West End Theatre.

Enemy of SanityThings are better in my world. The Misses P are back in my life and that was the only real reason (my divorce having gone through with goodwill on both sides) for me to be sad. The ex-Mrs P is remarried and I sincerely wish her and her new husband every joy. 
Last night the Misses P took me to the theatre as my birthday present. The birthday was last month. The actor who played my favourite modern Doctor Who, Matt Smith, is in the final week of an extended run of Ibsen's "Enemy of the People."
Not that Ibsen had much to do with it, beyond the hyper-naturalism of the acting, the Norwegian names of the characters or the fact that no-one cares what happens to any of the miserable Nordic mofos in the dreary plot.
The production was modern, featured some badly-performed Clash and Bowie, and led to a deranged political rant by the leading character to open an audience participation town-hall meeting. 
I was not convinced that the audience participants were genuine but my daughters assured me they were. A gent from Northern Ireland immediately behind me launched into a terrifying speech about filthy privatised water versus the angelically-pure stuff that flowed from our taps when morally-flawless public servants were in charge. His thinking was not even reality-adjacent. It sounded like he'd never met a non-Marxist in his life. And he was by no means the wackiest loon to stand up.
We're in an election year. I sat with my head in my hands, unable to look at the theatre-going madmen engaged in a Highland Games of lunacy; tossing ever greater rhetorical cabers and cheering each other on while pumping clenched fists in the air. 
People like them must find The Guardian far-right. I told myself repeatedly that "nothing is less representative than a West End audience". London's theatre-loving young bourgeoisie could not be less like the British people I keep trying to love. 
I thanked the Misses P for their gift as we parted. I had loved being in their presence, even if the play had driven me first to boredom, then to sleep and finally to despair. I anxiously urged them to remember that they live in a better world than they were born into. That life-expectancy keeps rising, poverty keeps falling and that their lives are well worth living and becoming more so by the day. 
Then I stood waiting for a taxi on the other side of the street as the actors, including Mr Smith of whom I was so recently a fan, came out to sign autographs for adoring theatre-goers who might as well have been Mao's Red Guards for all their attachment to Enlightenment values and a free market economy.
I've never slunk before, but there was no better verb to describe how I went home. What kind of world has such people in it? 

Yes, but why?

The Paine family is together in London this week. We are celebrating two birthdays. Mrs P's was yesterday and Miss P the Younger is having a 21st birthday party at a London club on Saturday night (though she actually shares her birthday with Jesus Christ).

We are a family of theatre goers and we went to see Robert Lindsay (an actor whose work we admire) in Onassis at the Novello on Monday night. Lindsay did not disappoint. He inhabited the role as convincingly as his character (speaking of his sexual prowess) claimed that he "inhabited the house, when other men merely pop in for a visit." Still, it was one of those productions for which the only question is "why?"

Why did Lindsay set himself the task of squeezing something good out of this awful part? Why, for that matter, did Martin Sherman bother to write the play? Either he had no story to tell, or he didn't manage to tell it. The script is a fizzle and phut display of minor theatrical pyrotechnics. The Greek chorus conceit grates after minutes. The fourth wall is not so much broken as never erected. There are some good lines but the only discernible purpose seems to be for Sherman to show us how clever he thinks he is.

At the end of the evening, we have only learned that Robert Lindsay needs a new agent. And as always, when businessmen are portrayed, there's the nagging thought that the playwright's only real "why" is to denigrate all who generate wealth. The Novello Theatre's online pitch says, in the authentically prissy voice of Guardian readers everywhere;

...those with great wealth and political influence live their lives detached from the moral code and realities of ordinary mortals...

Yawn. Try walking through the city centre of my Northern home town on a Saturday night and then tell me of the moral code of ordinary mortals. Onassis was simply one of those mortals with a yacht and the means to pay for better whores. I would not want him to stand as any kind of representative for the business world, but even his epic corruption seems tame compared to that of the "progressive" Kennedy clan. And I didn't need to be reminded of the sad fact that 60s style icon Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was no better than she should be. Men may foolishly conflate beauty and intelligence in women but even we are not daft enough to confuse looks and morality.

The production was clever clever. The actors acted well. The set designer had designed with a right good will. But when you find yourself observing the technical details, it's a sure sign the show's not working. I am afraid that, on Lindsay's 61st birthday (sorry, dear boy), I found myself looking into his eyes as my own forced themselves closed and I nodded off. Save your money, dear readers. He's a good actor, but you knew that and the play's the thing. Except this one isn't.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear

The Misanthrope - Keira Knightley's West End debut - Telegraph.

Well we Paines enjoyed each other's company, and the rapid reviews in the taxi home were fun. "I have never seen a corset sag before", "my that's a clavicle and a half, she'll have his eye out with that", "she needs more pie and less pilates" were good samples of the female Paines' reactions. The play, however, is trash and the performances were strained in the extreme. Ms Knightley needs the 40 optical pounds added by a movie camera to be attractive. Damien Lewis, a fine actor stuck in the shallows, went over the top heroically and must have wished he was facing machine gun fire not an audience squirming with embarrassment.

Overall, the play was poor, trite and tedious. The rhymes were schoolboy stuff and the best laugh came when Alceste observed (if memory serves);

"They will speak praise of a pile of shit, If they've dressed up and paid 50 pounds for it"

Quite. I have been disappointed in a theatre before, but on this occasion I felt I had been mugged.  The piece was difficult in the original, precisely because all the characters are intentionally unsympathetic. In the modern version, they are simply tedious Guardian-reading whingers. We could not wait for it to end.

Don't go. Life is too short.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Mrs P., Miss P. the Younger and I were at the National last night for the revival of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's "play for actors and orchestra" from the 70's. Theatre is now all I miss about living in England. Russia has a superb theatre culture, but my Russian isn't up to accessing it.

The piece is set in a Soviet-era mental hospital where two men with the same name - a genuine headcase accompanied by his own imaginary orchestra and a dissident - share the same cell (or "ward") as the gaoler/psychiatrist would have it. It's a fascinating time to revive this play, which dates from the dying years of the previous Labour administration - just two years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and formed the team with President Reagan, which would bring down the USSR.

It doesn't sound like a fun night out, but it is. The subject matter could not be more serious and Stoppard does not trivialize it, but there are many light moments - mainly provided by the character with the imaginary orchestra - and by the orchestra itself, which never leaves the stage until the end. The humour makes the piece far more effective. One might reflect - as we did - that it would not be possible to write such a piece about repression if it were set in Nazi Germany, rather than in the Soviet Union. This says more about the biggest mistake in the teaching of history in Britain - the portrayal of Nazism as a unique, unrepeatable and specifically-German horror, than it does about Stoppard or the production.

One line chills more in contemporary Britain than it would have done in 1977. Under a government that is consciously trying to shape thought - to redefine what is socially and politically acceptable - one shudders to hear the subverted psychiatrist say to the dissident, "Your opinions are your symptoms"

A luvvie laments

Link: Britons are puritans and philistines, laments Sir Peter Hall - Telegraph.

Comedy_tragedy_masksSeeing Sir Peter's productions in my youth made me the theatre lover I am today. He and Trevor Nunn are national treasures; every bit as much as the great actors of the last generation Hall lauds in the linked article as  "bloody good." It is too much to hope that an arts person who has largely lived on public subsidy should be other than a Labour luvvie, but it is highly encouraging that even he has noticed his favoured party's tendency to subvert all public expenditure to political ends;

"The idea that the Arts Council is a body that should operate at arm's length from the   government has long gone. The Arts Council now belongs to the government."

and its fundamental dishonesty;

"I   am sick of the fact that the political establishment is concerned with soundbites and announcements. The Government has concerned itself with announcing reforms, rather than implementing them. It's all wonderful PR as long as you don't look at what they said three months earlier. It's a hateful climate of spin. It's lies, basically."

If Sir Peter is, as reported, thinking of abstaining at the next election, then Labour should really consider not contesting it at all. I wonder if his political thinking will ever move so far as to consider whether public subsidy of the arts (and not just because of the risk of their being politically subverted) is really a good thing?

When I hear theatrical types asserting that public money is essential to their art, I always remember that their god was a successful theatrical businessman who wrote and staged his plays for money. He was so English a genius (can you imagine this of Goethe?) that he actually retired when he had made enough money to achieve his modest goal of setting himself up in his home town as a local gent. As far as we know, he only set pen to paper again to write his will. He died of a chill after walking home in the rain from meeting his old theatrical mates at the pub. I am sure I would have delighted to be in that company, but am not at all sure I would want to spend an evening with his successors.

If they emulated his lack of pretension and his commercial nous, perhaps modern luvvies might also hope to reach such a wide audience as Shakespeare did, while neither begging for handouts nor compromising artistic standards?