It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

Alan Bennett, Allelujah (Br/dge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner)

Bennett has long since passed from tilter at the establishment to national treasure and still produces landmark plays with a political edge. Inevitably this is a late play — like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger — and like many of his works this has a public institution at its heart. It has a large almost ensemble cast and a closing series of monologues but, unlike The Lady in the Van and The Habit of Art it doesn’t really play metadramatic games. Those closing monologues remind me of Death of a Salesman — perhaps it is inevitable that a late play reminds me of lots of things.

At the heart of the play is the geriatric ward at the Bethlehem Hopsital in Yorkshire, which faces closure in favour of a larger hospital a number of miles away. As Colin (Samuel Barnett), a political adviser found with reasons to close the ward, comes to visit his dying father Joe (Jeff Rawle from Drop the Dead Donkey), some of the nurses and doctors have called in a documentary crew to film the geriatric choir that may yet save the place. Unfortunately, as the first act falls, a member of the hospital may well torpedo this plan.

One can’t help but feel that Bennett’s heart is — mostly — in the right place and the last forty years of government policies have jeopardised the success of a great national institution. Further, our paranoia about immigrants — and this play was written before the Windrush scandal broke — means that many of the workers in hospitals may not work for us much longer. But with singing and dancing oldsters we are in a fantasy land — how much is real and how much is what we want to see?

Suddenly I’m reminded of the social realist nostalgia of Terence Davies and the surreal memoir plays of Dennis Potter. The country may be going down the crapper, life may be shit, but at least you can have a sing song. When the geriatrics aren’t singing, their snappy dialogue seems like a dinnerladies reunion thirty years on, although perhaps Victoria Wood had been tuned by Bennett’s dialogue. The positioning of a song right at the end risks undercutting the play’s ending during the applause, as we are transported back to Victory Day and there is singing and dancing in the streets. We leave with a song in our hearts.

Three of the male characters may show where the play almost misfires, despite being an enjoyable and energetic evening. Firstly, the immigrant doctor, Ramesh (Manish Gandhi), whose immigrant status puts his career at state. You can’t help but be angry and this can’t help be political. Is he too angelic for the play’s own good? Meanwhile Colin, Joe’s gay son, is positioned as one of the play’s villains. At the same time, he’s lacking an arc. He arrives wanting the hospital closed and I didn’t get the sense of him learning anything, despite the trauma he goes through. He’s the son of a small town, born in the wrong culture, who managed to escape and he has been alienated and embittered by his experiences. But something is missing. Finally there is Andy (David Moorst), on the contemporary equivalent of the YTS, possibly a younger Colin, possibly a straight man in a small town that is more openminded than Colin gives it credit for. Too often he gets the cheap laugh. He is presented as the dim caretaker, risks performing clichés, unwittingly precipitates the crisis — and then vanishes largely from the narrative. he is not punished, he is not rewarded, he is not resolved, as closing monologues veer rather too much on the preaching, even if you disagree with the sermon.

The drama is dissipated.

There is laughter and there is sadness, but perhaps the game is too rigged.

The Real Laura Barton

Rona Munro, My Name is Laura Barton (Directed by Richard Eyre, Br/dge Theatre)

There was some anxiety from several reviewers that Nightfall didn’t sufficiently fill the thrust stage of The Bridge Theatre. So they follow it up with a one-person monologue, performed by Laura Linney, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Laura Barton. To make that feat more impressive, it is performed without interval, with a set that is little more than a hospital bed, a cabinet and a chair, plus a projection screen.

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If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years

Barney Norris, Nightfall (Director: Laurie Sansom, Br/dge Theatre)

So the incredible success of the in-the-round production of Julius Caesar was evidentially not enough to tempt people into trying a new play in a thrust layout; I was upgraded from Gallery 3 to Gallery 2. Barney Norris is a name I know but I’ve not read his two novels nor seen his earlier plays, which are clearly carving out chamber dramas in the Hampshire/Wiltshire region. There is a rural beauty, if you try hard enough to see it, but aspiration points to Southampton or the Basingstoke of Despond. (The bright lights of London, the Carole King musical and the last train home are also in reach, but you suspect that’s a rip off.)
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Et Tu, Bridge?

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

Memory is a curious thing.

I’d wanted to see Ben Wishaw in Julius Caesar, even though I regarded it as a dull play, but I assumed that by the time I got round to booking the tickets, sat in my parents’ living room with Dad shortly before Christmas, I’d be too late.

And I thought it dull having seen – I thought – a production of it at Leicester Haymarket, directed by John Dexter and starring John Duttine and Tim Pigott-Smith. Digging around online, the Leicester Haymarket production seems to have been in Autumn 1988, after I’d left for college, and had a different cast. There was a touring production with Duttine and Pigott-Smith – might I have seen that at Nottingham – or Hull New Theatre or even (I really think not) at Manchester?

So here we have Wishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Julius Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a regendered Cassius. I do remember seeing Calder in the audience for King John in the much-missed t’Other Place at Stratford – the year after Star Cops.

For the second production at The Bridge, Nicholas Hytner has decided not only to go for an in-the-round format (which I find I prefer) but also a promenade performance (which is a little bit eek). The audiences are chivvied and herded around, as portions of the floor rise and fall to offer platforms and stages. Of course, on one level this is showing off about what this space can do – after the traditional rotating set behind proscenium arch at Young Marx — but it also means that the audience is aware of the rest of the audience even more than the typical in-the-round style. As you enter the auditorium, there are concession stands selling beer, nuts, baseball caps and tshirts, and a band strike up a number of rock anthems until they are joined by a track suited Mark Antony. I’m assuming the theatre staff were in character, so it wasn’t a Brechtian move. This was all clearly too much for some – perhaps after an afternoon at the football, I saw a couple of casualties. And of course, this is a play about the crowd.

It doesn’t really like crowds.
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Caesar is declared to be a tyrant, eating into rights and freedoms of the people of Rome, who must be deposed – but he is much liked by the people and seems to speak their language. Donald Trump seems to be the analogue Hytner has in mind, even down to the red baseball cap tossed into the crowd and the drinking of colas. It’s a while since I read the play, but his tyranny seems to be mostly expressed by our contradictory aversion to popular (or populist?) leaders, rather than what we see him do, although when he finally gets to the senate, he is rejecting various requests for clemency. Cassius is the Iago, whispering in the ear of previously loyal Brutus, but her motives seem to be as much envy that Caesar got all the kudos from the recent battles. Brutus, meanwhile, seems to be acting on the idea that autocracy is bad compared to democracy and assumes a rational transition. Morrisey’s northern Mark Antony is able to assume a plain-speaking, I’m not part of the swamp of Rome, orator at Caesar’s funeral, and swiftly sways the crowd against the conspirators.

The people get what they want and it serves them right.

Civil war descends, and we could as well be in Serbia as Italy, with the wreckage of concrete and barbed wire barricades wheeled onto the stage in yet another pure moments of theatre. I’d forgotten how it ends for Brutus (spoilers!) but I did Antony and Cleopatra for A Level and I knew that Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Lepidus get to be triumvirates, with Octavius rather ambitious for more. Indeed, by the end of Julius Caesar he is clearly on the make.

As Caesar is absent for much of the first half of the play and only a silent presence for the second, and Mark Antony seems a minor role until the conspiracy is about to be hatched, Wishaw’s Brutus walks away with the play. Is it deference that names the play after Caesar rather than Brutus? Of course, the Henry IV plays are rather more about Hal than the king. Wishaw is the softly spoken intellectual, a Faustus without ambition, neglecting his self-harming wife for his books and seemingly caring more for Cassius. (How do those lines play when both characters are male, I wonder?) I think we see him reading Karl Popper and there’s a biography of Saddam Hussein on his desk, so he knows all about the theory of dictators. He just seems less clear as to what to do after you’ve deposed one.

Historically that may also be the point. In 1599 – which seems to be the currently accepted date – there was an elderly Elizabeth I not quite naming a successor yet (and I’ve just been watching the series on Queen Jane/Lady Jane Grey). The kilometerage of Puritans and Catholics might have varied from the average peasant in the field, but a deposed Elizabeth I would not have ended well. And it seems unlikely Shakespeare could have gotten away with a play about assassination being justifiable. Two years later, the Earl of Essex had organised a performance Richard II at the Globe and by some accounts had seen the parallels herself. And if we look to today’s politics, and rulers that we might not approve of – would the alternatives be any better?

The Bridge, of course, is opposite the Tower of London, palace, armoury and prison, and next to that bastion of democracy, London City Hall, where Red Ken and BoJo once held sway.

In the meantime, this production sweeps you along – it is only two hours long, played without interview, and it does (without ever being dull) feel longer. My prejudice against the play seems misplaced.

Marx for Beginners

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, Young Marx (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

ED162A8D-A237-4CCF-B0BF-2FB68E32609CWhen a big developer wants to land a huge estate in a city, they often offer an incentive to planners, such as affordable housing or cultural facilities. Near me someone has offered to build a hospital shell in return for turning the existing site into a housing estate. I don’t know, maybe there were no cynical reasons behind The Bridge, poised between London City Hall and Tower Bridge. Apparently this is the first new commercial theatre to be built in London in eighty years —although I don’t know where that leaves The Globe. Nicholas Hytner is the first artistic director, semi fresh from the NT, and who I think directed the version of The Tempest I saw at the RSC in about 1987.

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