On July 20, 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a speech at a Conservative party rally. He told the assembled constituents, “Let us be frank about it—most of our people have never had it so good.” Some 50 years on, many in England may still have it very good (looking at the pound-to-the-dollar exchange rate could make a Yankee weep). But in England for a spring visit to the theaters, and I did not have it good at all. A nasty flu set me sniffling and near delirious as I shambled from comedy to musical to drama, including a play about the redoubtable Macmillan. Yet even in such a weakened condition, there was much to enjoy: Howard Brenton’s Macmillan play, Simon Russell Beale’s grin, playwright Roy Williams fluent dialogue, and the ice creams invariably sold at the interval—all were quite restorative.
The Easter Week theatergoing began at the National with a series of short plays performed largely by and for teenagers. The evening is an outgrowth of NT Connections, a program that commissions famed writers (Alan Ayckbourn, Bryony Lavery, Wole Soyinka) to craft plays for young people. The young people in attendance certainly seemed to enjoy the shows—they remained fairly quiet during the performances, giggling and gossiping about them during the intermissions. The three plays themselves varied in quality, from Roy Williams’s straightforward and affectionate Baby Girl, about a 13-year-old who falls pregnant, to Dennis Kelly’s enjoyably acrid DNA, which concerns group bullying, to Lin Coghlin’s The Miracle, a rather silly piece about a girl who finds herself endowed with wondrous powers. At three hours, the evening ran too long (typically, a performance includes only two of the plays, better for younger attention spans, and for ailing critics, too). But the young actors proved refreshingly unshowy.
Rather showier performances by much older actors were given at the next afternoon’s matinee of Much Ado About Nothing. Much of Nicholas Hytner’s production is merely adequate—blithe, sunlit, far too much use of a revolve. And it features yet another in the long line of spiritless Heros I have longed to slap. But it hosts a pair of saving graces, Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale, as the battling lovers. Wanamaker has great fun with Beatrice’s barbed comments, but Russell Beale does some of his best acting without any lines at all—as in the wonderful scene where he overhears his friends discussing how Beatrice loves him. The bemusement, terror, and eventual delight that play across his face provide a master class in acting for the stage.
Kneehigh Theatre, which recently visited our shores with a production of Rapunzel, could stand to take some notes from Russell Beale, to watch what a skilled actor does when he trusts the lines and the spaces between them. In Brief Encounter, Kneehigh does not seem to trust its source material, the 1946 David Lean film, scripted by Noel Coward. The film concerns a doctor and a housewife who meet on a station platform and almost have an affair. Though the two near lovers obviously feel tremendous passion for one another, in the film they express themselves in only the most reserved and polite terms. As one character says, “We must be sensible. Please help me to be sensible.” Kneehigh declines. They’ve rather ruined this drama of sublimated desire by bringing all the subtext to the fore, using a large cinema screen to show the pair overwhelmed by wind and water, nearly consumed by their ardor. Putting the subtext in full view seems untrue to the spirit of their sources (both the film and Coward’s original play), as does tarting the production up with period songs and advertising jingles. Emma Rice directs the piece with spark and aplomb, but her skill can’t compensate for the wrongheadedness of her adaptation.
A more rewarding brief encounter is with Days of Significance, Williams’s response to Much Ado About Nothing, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Staged at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, a space known for producing politically engaged works, Days’s first act relocates Much Ado to a small English town. During an evening of clubbing, a quartet of drunken lads antagonize and romance their female counterparts. Williams works his revision fluidly and joyfully—at times one forgets it’s an adaptation at all. Still, it comes as a surprise when the second act opens with Benedict and Claudio newly dispatched to Iraq (in the original they’ve just returned from a war). Williams suggests that the events of the first act are indeed a kind of nothing—an exercise in frivolity divorced from real issues or consequences. Yet he also indicates that the emotional relationships formed in the play’s initial scenes have an import and weight.
Though he cuts a very slim figure, Jeremy Irons gives a weighty performance in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National, a play that concerns the career of Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Considering that many of Brenton’s past works have endorsed radical leftist politics, Brenton’s gentle, even respectful treatment of Macmillan comes as a great shock. (During its first half hour, I found that I couldn’t relax at all, convinced I must be missing some sort of send-up or satire.) As Tom Stoppard did with A.E. Houseman in The Invention of Love, Brenton has Macmillan played by two actors, the older Irons and the younger Pip Carter, also excellent. In the earlier scenes, Irons—dapper, equitable, sexless—offers the occasional comment on his younger self’s action, while in the later ones Carter appears as a sort of specter, his youthful body ravaged by war wounds, offering a mordant counterpoint to Macmillan’s successes.
As the play winds on, some of Brenton’s political sympathies do emerge. He draws parallels between the Suez canal and our contemporary conflict, as when one character asks, “Victory is all very well, but what do we do afterwards?” But mostly Brenton contents himself with writing a straightforward, astute biographical play, full of historical figures and bon mots. “In politics,” Macmillan says, “one learns to play the tart.” But Brenton—a heretic with apparently a heart of gold—offers a sweet portrait. I may still reserve a special fondness for the acerbity of some of his earlier works—Epsom Downs, Pravda—but “never so good” well describes Brenton’s latest.