What is the Matter with the London Stage?

The Left has lost its monopoly, but new political plays like Brenton’s Never So Good still reveal a tin ear for language

Traditionally the theatre has been one of the brightest jewels in Britain’s cultural crown. These days it is noticeably lacklustre. Serious theatre, at least, is a regular disappointment; light West End plays and musicals still give satisfaction to those whose tastes lie that way, but mainstream theatre is often hardly worth the journey or the expensive tickets. For years now, three or four out of every five plays I have seen (excluding Shakespeare productions) have been unimpressive, even poor — particularly among new plays.

Of course there are exceptions. War Horse at the National was mesmerising; the child-like story of a boy in the First World War looking for his conscripted horse on the battlefields of France was the emotional background for an astonishing theatrical experience, created by huge wooden horse puppets manipulated by actors in black. It was surprising, moving and magical — and technically astonishing — in the way only live theatre can be.

But generally it is this extreme theatrical experience — such stuff as dreams are made on — that is now missing in even the most comp­etent productions. It is more often found in opera productions these days. For instance, the late ­Anthony Minghella’s dazzling direction of Madama Butterfly at ENO in 2005 was infinitely more inspired than almost anything I have seen in the spoken theatre for several years.

There is no lack of talented actors, designers, directors and choreo­graphers; in fact there is almost a glut of them. We have several very good theatres and plenty that are good enough. Most successful direct­ors today, like many actors, however intellect­ually conventional and uncritical they often seem, are well educated as well as talented. So the dullness of today’s theatre takes some explaining.

Last month I went to two major (and well-received) plays at the National: Howard Brenton’s new Never So Good and Shaw’s Major Barbara of 1905. There was no lack of talent in either production. Never So Good was directed by Howard Davies, with Jeremy Irons at his very best in a sympathetic portrait of Harold “Supermac” Macmillan; Major Barbara was directed by Nicholas Hytner, with the masterly Simon Russell Beale as ­Andrew Undershaft, the Mephistopholean arms manufacturer who explodes the ideals of his Salvationist daughter.

These names are among the brightest and the best in British theatre. And, sure enough, the direction, the supporting cast, the pace, the body language, the lighting, the design, the pyrotechnics, the music and, in Never So Good, the choreography were all extremely accomplished, often outstanding. It’s also true that there are good lines in both plays, and plenty of quite funny ones too. Both deal with interesting social and political subjects, yet both left me cold and slightly bored.

The problem, both in this case and more generally, must lie in the plays themselves — with the playwrights and with the directors’ choices of them. I have always thought Shaw’s plays overrated and Major Barbara is one of his weakest — didactic, crude, verbose and, above all, intellectually incoherent, which is the kiss of death for an outdated polemic. Curiously enough, Simon Russell Beale said recently that both he and Hytner were “Shaw sceptics”. Unfortunately they were not sceptics enough to drop the idea of doing Major Barbara; I have a nasty suspicion they think it “relevant” to questions of poverty and power today. If so, that may be an echo of the institutionalised Left-liberalism which has for so long dominated English theatre.

That orthodoxy seems to be disappearing, or at least weakening. Not long ago Hytner explained the dominance of Left-leaning drama by the absence of what one might call Right-wing plays. But now Brenton, that firebrand of the Left and scourge of the establishment, has, in Never So Good, written what struck me as a rather Right-wing play, if there can be such a thing. It is certainly much more sympathetic to Macmillan than I would have been, and hugely more understanding of the establishment than Brenton used to be — and he got it on at the National, of all places. And this at a time when another formerly Leftist playwright, David Mamet, has announced that he is defecting to the Right because he is no longer a “brain-dead liberal”.

Never So Good is a better play than Shaw’s; it is more complex, more feeling, more sophisticated, more human and more truly theatrical. It is very much less naive and didactic. However, at times Brenton’s feeling for language is surprisingly weak. He makes Dorothy Macmillan tell her husband in 1939 that he is a “klutz”, a word which Macmillan repeats to himself after becoming prime minister in 1957. It is absolutely incredible that an upper-class Englishwoman should before the war use Yiddish slang that only came into more general use in America, let alone here, in the 1960s. Nor is it likely that Macmillan would have used it; any­one of middle age, with a good ear for his native language, ought to have sensed that unconsciously.

Similarly Brenton has Macmillan saying to Eisenhower in 1957, of Yorkshire pudding and spotted dick, “we call it comfort food”. This is an American expression of a much later date, sometime in the 1970s, which crossed the Atlantic more recently still.

Winston Churchill, that lover of the English language, is made to say of Duff Cooper that “ he must join we happy dissenters”: that grammatical mistake is a schoolboy howler for which Churchill, Macmillan and Cooper would all probably have been beaten. These lapses of the ear matter because this play is trying to recreate an intellectual and emotional climate which is within living memory and which these errors undermine.

It’s also said by some historians that Brenton has been unduly free with both facts and emphases. If so, that matters much less than language, but I suspect it may be part of the same imaginative weakness.

At least one can say that the play’s weaknesses and strengths have nothing to do with the orthodoxy of which Brenton was part. Good playwriting is independent of politics; it has a dimension above any political demarcations and orthodoxies of the day, which is why everyone lays claim to Shakespeare. That demands great talent which is always rare and certainly so today. However, I hope in this column to discover myself wrong, starting with fringe theatre.

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