1990s >> 1998 >> no-1125-may-1998

Theatre Review

Three Plays Revisited

Seeing a film or a play after an interval of several years is an interesting, and sometimes a very surprising, experience. We often seek out films and plays which we have enjoyed, only to find, occasionally, the second viewing very disappointing. A film which, first time round, made for a marvellous evening, now seems very ordinary; another which appeared exciting and unusual, has become bland and boring. Of course it isn’t the film which has changed–unless that is we are now seeing it in miniaturised form on television, rather than in its full glory on a cinema screen. Most usually what has changed is that we have changed. We have “moved on”, our perceptions. And what is true of films is frequently even more true of plays. Last night’s revival appears slight and insubstantial, whereas an earlier production had us on the edge of our seats. What then of three new productions of well-loved pieces of theatre?

Joan Littlewood’s production of “Oh What A Lovely War” at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East was, by any standards, an extraordinary theatrical event. Those of us lucky enough to see it are unlikely ever to forget its wit, pathos and savage irony. The experimental company at Stratford, which Ms Littlewood always saw as at the forefront of “people’s theatre”, wanted to do something about the First World War; especially the trench warfare that had extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. But there was a problem: events on the Western Front were so horrendous as to defy being presented in a straightforward way. By basing the show around the songs of the period, and performing it as a typical end-of-pier show so popular both before and after the war, the Stratford company came up with an inspired solution.

I wish I could report that the National Theatre’s touring production (due in Brecon, Telford, Dewsbury and Chester in May, and Richmond, Salisbury and Nottingham in June), was a worthy successor of the great original, but it isn’t. The irony has been largely lost, and pathos and genuine sentiment has become mawkish sentimentality. Fortunately, some moments are so intrinsically powerful as to survive the flaws. But what in the original was a celebration of the bravery and the stupidity, the humour and comradeliness of the working class in the face of cupidity and the arrogance, the conceit and the chilling indifference of their “masters and betters”, is now largely lost.

Much more successful is the revival of David Hare’s Skylight, at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Perhaps the actors don’t quite make the impact of the original London team (see Socialist Standard, May 1996), but this serves only to mark up the quality of the writing and it’s contemporary relevance. Great as distinct from only good plays, are so rich in nuggets as to reveal themselves fully only over several sittings. In this my third visit I noted subtleties that had previously escaped me: perhaps especially on this occasion Hare’s contention that the entrepreneur is also a victim of capitalism. Marx argued that society’s values and standards reflect its economic nature, and here is Tom forever striving for more, impelled by the inevitable imperatives of the market; wanting more and more happiness as well as more and more wealth, and destroying his relationship with his partner in the seeking.

Finally, the Oxford Stage Company is touring widely with Wesker’s Roots. (Guildford, Cheltenham, Oxford and Worthing in May.) This is a play for all seasons, a definitive and unambiguous classic. Beatie and her struggle to find her own voice is both an intensely moving personal story, and also a metaphor for the enlightenment of empowerment of the whole of the working class of which she is a member. Abandoned by her boyfriend and deserted by her family, Beatie thrillingly finds her own voice in the play’s final moments. It seems the most exhilarating ending of any play in the English language. If I had enough money I would want to engage a theatre company and take Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and Wesker’s Roots on tour. Just imagine their impact!


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