In Rude Health

Political power and its abuses are the central concerns of three fine new productions: England People Very nice, Burnt by the Sun and King Lear

England People Very Nice, Burnt by the Sun and King Lear all deal with power, powerlessness and the abuse of power. All three are in the broadest sense political plays, although quite without the crude didactics of Shaw or Hare. Although very unequal in achievement, together they show how healthy and serious British theatre is today – ambitious, varied and voraciously imaginative.

England People Very Nice is a fast, energetic romp through the history of immigration in this country. It is set in an asylum seekers’ detention centre, where a cast of multi-racial inmates is staging a play they have devised together. Although this sounds off-puttingly earnest, the detention centre works surprisingly well as a setting for poignant comedy.

Despite the angry reception given to this production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, I thought it sounded promising, partly because it was written by Richard Bean, the author (among much else) of The English Game, a particularly independent and spirited drama about cricket and multiculturalism, and mainly because so many prominent people have said how disgusted they are by England People Very Nice‘s offensive racial stereotypes. It is curious that the bien pensants insist that theatre should be transgressive, yet when it is, they don’t like it. And where the bien pensants are shocked, there might well be good theatre.

Several negative stereotypes do appear, it’s true, such as the pig-ignorant bog-Irish family in which a girl is giving birth to her brother’s child while he imagines that the Pope is the name of a racehorse. However, there are plenty of sentimentally positive stereotypes, too. Besides, what is wrong with stereotypes? When we approve of stereotypes we call them archetypes and drama is full of them, as in King Lear. What’s actually wrong with this play is something different. It is not clear what Bean is trying to achieve and despite a wonderfully rich production and some beautiful singing, the play doesn’t either challenge or move.

Burnt by the Sun, by contrast, is very moving and visually beautiful, despite its underlying brutality. Adapted from a successful Russian film of 1994, it is set in the Soviet Union in 1936, during the Stalinist terror. That is hardly apparent at first: the play opens upon a nest of gentlefolk in a timeless Chekhovian wooden dacha surrounded by predictable birch trees and birdsong and artfully flooded by the light of nostalgia. Lighting directors must have filters actually labelled “nostalgia”. However, it gradually emerges that nothing is what it seems.

The dacha has been confiscated by the state and the twittering gentlefolk, in mourning for what’s gone with the wind of revolution, stay there only at the whim of the powerful working-class Soviet general who has married their beautiful Maroussia. A long-lost lover of hers, a man of her own class, mysteriously reappears and surprising betrayals and revelations hurry upon each other to a terrible ending.

There’s something old-fashioned and conventionally stagey about this production, almost as if it were a Chekhov play that, however touching, might seem rather remote from us. But it isn’t. The Russian government seems now to be trying to rehabilitate Stalin and to suppress evidence against him, as the historian Orlando Figes has just discovered, so this subtle and complex play, despite its period flavour, has all the more resonance. Howard Davies’s production is strikingly coherent and disciplined in every aspect – in its acting, its dazzling set and its movement: there’s a brilliant dance competition between the lover and the general.

Rupert Goold’s Young Vic production of King Lear, by contrast, is at times patchy and undisciplined. It must be a mistake, when Lear is suffering the extremes of abandonment in the storm on the blasted heath, to have the rest of the cast miming and moving all around him without any obvious reason, cluttering the imagination and the stage and diminishing this central scene. Directors should approach the current fashion for mime with caution. When it’s good, it’s very, very good but when it’s bad, it’s embarrassing.

There are a few other ideas that don’t quite work, such as giving Edgar and Edmund plastic toy swords in their final scene, as if they were angry little brothers. However, there are many inspired and bold ideas, which work very well. Giving the highest-born courtiers paper party crowns and Lear’s daughters a microphone, in the scene where they compete to describe their love for him as if they were in a reality TV contest, might sound gimmicky, but it makes sense on many levels. Presenting the maddened king in an afternoon frock with parasol and directing the play for saucy and heartbreaking laughs, as well as extreme violence, is inspired. All in all, this is a Lear production not to miss.

That is largely because Pete Postlethwaite’s performance as Lear is something anyone who loves Shakespeare absolutely must try to see. It is a great, state-of-the-art classic performance and profoundly moving. Postlethwaite’s control over Lear’s fitful changes of mood is astonishing: now wheedling, whining and showing off, now bawdy, now wilfully absurd, now lost in the ravages of senility or reduced to flashes of noble honesty, his is second to none as a portrayal of Lear’s emotional incontinence. There are several other excellent performances and an outstanding one by Forbes Masson as a Scottish Fool. His beautiful singing completes an interpretation that is at times overwhelming. I believe King Lear is the greatest play in the English language and it continues to inspire very great productions.

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