Numb and Number

Two new plays lack nothing in ambition but ultimately fail to engage

France History Literature Politics Theatre

Totus mundus agit histrionem: all the world’s a playhouse. Some people think that was the motto of Shakespeare’s original Globe theatre in London. In any case, the new(ish) Globe theatre has taken it up this year.

It does, however, raise a difficult question in this age of mass communication, reality tele­vision, infotainment and information fatigue: if all the world is a playhouse, if everything is a “show-game” (Schauspiel, as Germans say), what need of theatres? If fact beggars fiction and is now so easy to observe in countless ways, why would anyone go to the playhouse?

The standard answer is that the best drama touches and transforms in a way peculiar to theatre, and that – therefore – confronted with great theatre the question simply disappears.

It did not disappear for me, unfortunately, in my recent visits to Liberty at the Globe (until October 4, after which it is on tour until November 15) and to Her Naked Skin, which has just finished a short run at the Olivier. In fact the most moving thing on both occasions was walking at night across the Thames to and from these great theatres, especially from St Paul’s across the wobbly Millennium Bridge to Southwark, where Shakespeare also walked, though not of course on the wobbly bridge. Earth hath not anything all that much more fair to show than that.

Nor can the earth provide anything much better, I imagine, in the way of actors, producers and designers than those now working in London. But something important was missing in both these productions. There was nothing lacking in their ambition: appropriately for the Globe, Liberty is written in iambic pentameter and set in the Terror during the French revolution, while Her Naked Skin is a lesbian prison love story set during the suffragette revolution in Edwardian England. Both aspire to the epic, and both are ­tragical-­comical-­historical, and, even in the case of Liberty, rather pastoral as well. Both are sharply and elegantly written, with some excellent witticisms and jokes.

Needless to say in London these days, the productions were almost faultless; at one extreme the Globe was confidently and traditionally minimal, with a couple of chairs, a trestle table and a few banners, and a disturbing tumbril rolling among the groundlings at the end; at the extremes of contemporary production, the Olivier had the best that Howard Davies and Rob Howell can do, with a dazzling background of rotating wire cages representing Holloway prison.

Lesley Manville – a very great actress – and Jemima Rooper gave inspired performances as the suffragette lovers, the middle-aged socialite and the young factory girl whose hands first meet among the potato peelings in Holloway jail. So did Susan Engel, as a formidable old suffragette spinster; she delivers many of the funniest lines with perfect timing. And if not outstanding, Kirsty Besterman and John Bett are very beguiling as a persecuted actress and a ci?devant aristocrat in Liberty.

However, despite all the ambition and talent lavished upon both these plays, neither succeeded in touching me very much. Admittedly the scene in Her Naked Skin of a young woman prisoner being illegally force-fed by tube was very shocking: it was a kind of rape, which made some of the victims permanently ill and killed several; it reminded me very painfully of the heroic courage of the suffragettes, half-­forgotten now, and the astonishing brutality that men are capable of showing to women, almost without thinking. What failed to engage me, for all its passionate moments, was the central love affair; it drifted, inexplicably, into an unconvincing ending.

As for Liberty, the priggish young idealist at its centre, who turns into a terrifying mass murderer, was both repellent and unconvincing from beginning to end. He meant nothing; the playwright gave him no humanity at all. Nor did I feel for one instant the disorientating terror of those times; somehow the entire play is emotionally numb. And as for offering a better understanding of the French Revolution or of the suffragettes – clearly one of the main ambitions of both plays – one could in both cases learn far more from the programme notes, which are well worth reading.

In Liberty the bold attempt of using blank verse (it’s notoriously hard to write drama in verse; even T.S. Eliot failed) might have been a way of catching the elusive quality peculiar to theatre, and the playwright Glyn Maxwell is a successful poet as well as a dramatist. Yet in this case it seemed to add (or detract) very little. Asked about the function of verse in the play, Maxwell replied in the programme notes: “Verse on stage has nothing to do with lyrical uplift, or the past, or mystery. It’s right here, now. I happen to believe the verse-line – specifically the flexible five-beat line you find in poets like Robert Frost and Edward Thomas – is a truer way of sounding the note of the passing moment than prose is. Verse includes the ending of the breath (in the life as well as in the line), the pressure of silence, the gesture towards memorability?.?.?.”

Some of that may be true, but not of this play. The audience near me was clearly quite unaware that it was in verse; nor did it sound like pentameter, or even verse, to me, though I knew it was supposed to. Although the rhythms and energy of the language were strong, they didn’t seem to me very different from or stronger than good prose, or any more powerful than the language of Her Naked Skin.

What went wrong in both plays was that the writers failed to graft a personal story onto a great historical one. There was no connection that one could feel between the story of the lovers in Her Naked Skin and the dramatic sweep of the suffragette movement, starting with the death of Emily Davison under the King’s horse at the Derby.

There’s no reason, within this drama, why they should be lesbian, particularly, although given the feminist and revolutionary context they could well have been. But their predicament seems to be that the neurotic Lady Celia simply tires of her unsophisticated young lover, with almost no reference to any wider social inspiration or pressure.

In rather the same way with Liberty, there’s a disjunction between the personal and the political. As the hero is little more than a cipher, he cannot lead the audience into the spirit of the times: there’s barely any connection between his inner life and the outer life of the drama, since he doesn’t display one. The minor characters are more interesting, and the spectacle of the actress Rosa alone after the Terror – betrayed and exhausted, with a red thread around her neck to remind her of the man she lost to Madame Guillotine – is a powerful moment. But there aren’t enough of them.

One really can feel more pity and terror about both these subjects from reading books and letters, or from watching documentaries