Friday, 28 October 2016
by Howard Brenton
The State We're In
Which play links squatters, bailiffs, Che Guevara t-shirts, Cambridge University, constables, Brixton Prison, situationism, bonkbuster novel The Carpetbaggers, graffitti, public lavatories the welfare state, Edward Heath's Tory government, a revolutionary banner with a tendency to sag, John Marston's Jacobean satire The Malcontent, baked beans, the clap, the High Court, Winston Churchill ...
(Takes a breath!) ... The church, investigative current affairs programme World In Action, Chairman Mao, the BBC, calor gas lamps, dustbin men, Hollywood stars Caroll Baker and Steve McQueen, cornflakes, Marmite, Mickey Mouse, the Paymaster General, French writer Jean Genet, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, the Apollo Moon Landing, the Stars and Stripes, the Hammer and Sickle, Benny Hill, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, China, champagne, The House of Lords, the biblical Song of Songs and a London Times obituary?
You may have guessed by the title of this review, it's Howard Brenton's 1973 Royal Court Theatre play Magnificence. This uneven, but complex and fierce play is very much rooted in the student politics, arguments, idealism and violence of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Finborough Theatre production has certainly garnered an impressive cast of theatrical luminaries of that generation to help fund it - Judi Dench, David Edgar, David Hare, Joanna Lumley, Tom Stoppard and Harriet Walter (in case you are the type who wants to complain, the programme/play script acknowlegments studiously avoid the use of Honours' List titles) among others.
A group of squatters during the housing shortage of the 1970s break into an empty derelict house (Phil Lindley's evocative and adaptable peeling-wallpaper set, equally a squat, a Cambridge college and an English garden).
They find themselves under siege from "murder in my heart" Slaughter the freelance bailiff (Chris Porter) acting for an unnamed landlord. An ex British mainland and colonial policeman, he's already been exposed in a TV documentary for a fatal misdemeanour, but is nevertheless backed by a philosophical constable (Tim Faulkner).
The squatters, whose first act is to spray slogans on the walls, are a motley crew, led by libertarian Jed (Joel Gillman) with his pregnant soft-hearted, homemaking girlfriend Mary (Daisy Hughes) in tow.
Plus the more easily swayed, apologetic Will (Will Bliss) with a Uriah Heep turn of phrase, "Doing our 'umble best, Ma'am, to wreck Society", denim-clad Veronica (Eva-Jane Willis) on two weeks' holiday from the BBC and the more quietly-spoken and observant Cliff (Tyson Douglas).
The constable allows the bailiff to raid the premises. In fact, it is the clash between the new (the police constable's concern over the health and safety of a calor gas lamp) with the old (the bailiff's subsequent unregulated private sector violence) which leads directly to Mary losing her baby, Jed's imprisonment and a final path to destruction.
In between the action switches to the rarified environs of Cambridge's ivory tower and a meeting between don Babs (Hayward B Morse) and his smooth talking grey tinted former tutee, lover and now a new breed of managerial MP Alice (Tim Faulkner again).
Magnificence has a rawness, political and literary inclusiveness which are both its strength and weakness. Indeed, Brenton was fresh from writing fringe plays when he was given space at the Royal Court with director Max Stafford-Clark.
The writer using part naturalism, a part Mr Punch stylized Jacobean satiric style grapples with a mosaic of competing issues of some complexity including the archaic leftovers of another age within a new, educated society.
Even the Chief Constable of the local force (force being the operative word) has a Cambridge degree and the Special Branch have tutored the constable in the ins and outs of factional politics and theories.
In 1973 Oxbridge was also still allowed the special privilege of their own top and bowler-hatted police forces (which Cambridge still retains) and a substantial property portfolio. Simultaneously Lord Eccles held the purse strings as Her Majesty's Paymaster General and as Minister for the Arts.
The scene which has lasted the best remains the Cambridge scene, done full justice by Morse and Faulkner, with not only the recognizably Not The 1948 Show or Pythonesque, intellectual playfulness but also ultimately a controlled fury.
Yet the play feels torn inside itself. It has something in common with Seán O'Casey without the dramatic polish but some of the poetry. Finding a dramatic structure for the avalanche of issues becomes problematic and the sudden reappearance, after a considerable absence, at the play's end of Cliff with a final response (harking back to the Royal Court's two scandalous playwrights - John Osborne and Granville Barker) only serves to emphasize the flaws.
Neverthess it still has currency in our twentieth first century. It's a neat irony this Finborough Theatre revival coincides with the hoo ha over Bob Dylan's disruptive silence regarding the Nobel Prize for Literature - Alfred Nobel being the inventor of gelignite which, along with a stylized take on literature, features largely in the play.
Mind you, the current housing crisis and the re-emergence of stories about presidential hopeful Donald Trump's landlord past also make the invalid court eviction notice and harassment of tenants still relevant.
This tragi-comic piece is directed with clarity and pace by Josh Roche benefitting from Joe Price's lighting design signalling the deliberate changes in style.
The title Magnificence with its mixed root meaning of grandeur and pomposity feels accurate for this unwieldy, experimental, hit-and-miss play. At the same time its jabs of sporadic ferocity still hit the spot.
It's an upper range amber light from your agent provocateur reviewer and her own four-wheeled agent of revolution.