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Lenten Entertainment: Britain's Other Stagecraft

T o be or not to be? The same old question faced Hamlet in July 2008 at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Hamlet is a cautious fellow. He’s been chewing things over for more than four hundred years and still seems some way off from a decision.

As a theater critic I have to sit through about three Hamlets a year. The temptation to shout, “Do make up your mind, mate!” becomes ever harder to resist. Yet this particular July evening in 2008, as actor David Tennant grappled with the lead role, one member of the audience watched with rare interest—British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, himself enough of a ditherer that the subdrama became: Procrastinating politician watches indecisive prince.

The company’s actors that evening faced the more pressing tragedy of their radio-powered lighting cues going haywire. The ruddy things worked faultlessly during rehearsals but then conked out unexpectedly. The guards on the ramparts of Elsinore found their electric torches would not work. The entire stage plunged briefly into darkness and Francisco and Bernardo started shouting their opening lines to conceal their panic. Only later did the performers realize that the glitch had been caused by the anti-scramble radio gear carried by the prime minister’s bodyguards: Historic play short-circuited by modern political reality.

There is a line between politics and theater. I tend to cross it at about half past six of an evening, when strolling toward London’s West End from my other job—writing sketches of doings in the Houses of Parliament. By night I seize the metaphorical cane and topper and become a drama darling, filing my review by 11:30 p.m.—in time for the following morning’s final edition. Thanks to the wonders of the printing press and newspaper logistics, it is possible to read over breakfast the critique one has pinged to his editor eight hours earlier. Sometimes I salt my boiled egg with a pinch of guilt. More often I wish I had gone in harder. Cruel reviews make for livelier copy.

That boundary between politics and drama, for me, is found halfway up Whitehall, just after Horseguards, approaching Trafalgar Square. I imagine it under my feet, an invisible thread dividing these two strange realms of public performance. In so many ways they are similar. Pretense is intrinsic to both politics and the stage. Both involve a suspension of disbelief. Both demand makeup, lighting, hyperbolic masks.

And the differences? Dramatists set out to divert and sometimes amuse whereas politicians set out to tax and spend. The playwright will be happy to provoke anger. The politician only does this if seeking to appease another part of the electorate. Actors practice for hours to assume a multiplicity of characters, sometimes heroic. Politicians spend much of the time trying to hide their own personalities, often venal. Actors employ artifice to try to illustrate a universal truth. Politicians regard truth as a dangerous commodity, best suppressed or bent into unintelligible shapes.

Actors, asked why they went into show business, invariably come up with some high-flown guff about art and vocation. Generally, however, they went into acting because they are show-offs who love the attention and crave public approval. The same is the case, surely, with the likes of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and most other leading statesmen you might name. We almost expect it of them. They are playing a role.

 

T his morning, Big Ben’s bongs are striking nine o’clock as my Underground train whooshes into the station and the electric doors slide open with a metal rasp. A recorded announcement blares through the carriage intercom: “Westminster. Alight here for the Houses of Parliament.” The words are spoken in a jagged, computerish timbre, the authentic tone of modern officialdom. Preconfigured. Less than entirely human. The soullessness of that voice only accentuates our powerlessness.

The Westminster parliament, rebuilt by Pugin and Barry after a ruinous 1832 fire, was a palace of political varieties, a statement of national excitement. A gilded, nineteenth-century architectural fantasy, it is as ornate as any of the great Victorian playhouses of Frank Matcham, not all of which were wrecked by developers’ balls in the 1960s. The newcomer, arriving at the Palace of Westminster’s central lobby, may be intimidated by the gargoyles and masonry curlicues, the faux medieval fixings, the vaulted ceilings, but the idea was to create spectacle, ambition, expectation. The Victorian designers put on a show because they hoped their politicians would do likewise. Public life demanded great performances, did it not? Our political stars need to strut and fret their hour upon the stage or we may all be diminished.

Alas, you would not think it from this morning’s parliamentary agenda. First event of the day: a ninety-minute debate titled “Economic impact for East Anglia of dualling the M11.” Just typing those words brings on a yawn. The M11 is a highway leading north from London. This is not a debate in any sense of the word as some Athenian contest of philosophies, the clash of principle and oratory. It is a blunt lobbying job, a demand by pork-barrel drudges for more government money. The government minister in attendance, a sometime fireman called Mike Penning, is an amiable mumbler. I have known him for years and like him—but I would never cast him in a professional drama. His enunciation is not up to the task. He lacks stage presence. All in all, it is not a great start to the day.

The old Westminster Hall is one of the most remarkable buildings in Western civilization, an eleventh-century marvel whose great barn timbers bespeak an era of chivalry and jousts and fluttering pennants. This is where Charles I was tried. This is where William Rufus’s Whitsun feat of 1099 was held, and more recently where Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother lay in state. I remember coming to see the Queen Mother’s coffin in 2002, the bier draped by flags, attended by ramrod-backed guardsmen. It was early evening and the hall was shaded by shafts of dusky light and silent shadows. The place was shrouded in a cathedral silence save for the shuffling of hundreds of feet and the occasional cough. Pure magic, theatrically.

Today’s debate about the M11, held in a small annex off the old hall, is less entrancing. It is a drab room where the air is stale and the sole attendees, apart from the small number of parliamentarians, are a stenographer, an usher, and two members of the public. Other debates scheduled to be held in this small chamber today include “review of ship-to-ship oil as cargo transfer regulations” and “strategic transport around Cambridge.” To bus or not to bus. We are dealing here not with the visceral drama of geopolitics or high-flown ethics. This is legalistic managerialism at its most mundane.

Such piddlingly obscure debates dilute the exclusivity of parliamentary discourse. They exist chiefly to secure honorable members some publicity in their local newspapers—“MP raises town’s sewage woes in Parliament.” Few laws are introduced or changed as a result of these second-rate sessions. It is done simply so that the politicians can claim that they have acted. Parliamentary debate has been allowed to become an instrument of waffle. In this bland, modernized room, where the lighting could have been taken from the foyer of a provincial hotel, the mind wanders, the soul rots. Where is the grandeur of high-minded civic enterprise? Where is the drama?

The language used is plastic. Ennui seeps from every word. We hear of “the relieving of the Barton Mills bottleneck” and “the new traffic lights put in at Elevden for the Center Parcs holiday camp.” Less than a century ago, Britain was an imperial power, the ministers of her Crown able to steer the fortunes of mankind with one sweep of their elegant quills. Today they are reduced to the benefit-cost ratios of providing an extra strip of asphalt on a short strip of suburban road.

Any actor will tell you that the worst thing about working in theater is the unpredictability. One moment you are unemployed (“resting,” as the euphemism goes), the next you have been cast in the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical at the Adelphi and find yourself singing before thousands of expectant theatergoers every week. The same uneven quality is found in political life. One month a politician may be talking about expansion plans for that tedious road to East Anglia, as my friend Mike Penning was obliged to do. The next he may be caught up in an international excapade such as the allied invasion of Iraq. That is what happened in 2003 and it perhaps explains why we, certainly in Britain, lacked the politicians to deal properly with the matter. They were not ready for the big roles. In theatrical parlance, many of them dried.

 

I drag myself away from the Westminster Hall discussion and walk to the far side of Parliament Square—a voyage of some three minutes—where the Iraq Inquiry is being held in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. This public hearing, conducted by a persnickety little townmouse called Sir John Chilcot, is examining the way Tony Blair took Britain into the Iraq War at George W. Bush’s bidding. Today’s witnesses include Hans Blix, former United Nations bloodhound, the man who never did find those weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. Blix, as Sir John takes care to call him, larding his title with scientific respectability, is no matinee idol. His is not a voice to lure beauty from the balcony with love sonnets. If Shakespeare’s Juliet heard old Hans whispering sweet nothings she would send out her nurse to say, “Not today, thank you.” Blinking Blix lacks the thespian projection of Tony Blair, certainly. But then Blix is not a politician. He is a scientist and a public official. Blair was a politician. A performer.

Maybe we should dwell on that distinction for a moment. In 2002 and 2003, Blix stubbornly resisted pressure from President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. Those two show ponies wanted Blix to approve their invasion. He would not. His steadfastness was impressive, yet in the end he was ignored and public opinion paid little attention to the snub because he lacked star quality. Had Blix possessed greater theatricality, had he been more exciting in front of the television cameras, maybe he could have prevented the elected leaders of the United States and Britain from declaring war. But their dramatic powers took the day.

I remember the Commons debate on the eve of war, when Blair addressed the Commons and used every actorly trick in the book to convince the House that the killing should begin. Oh, he was good that day. Well, proficient is perhaps the better word. His goodness may be for later generations to debate.

As performance art, his speech that day was worthy of an Olivier Award. He produced poise and deployed the dramatic pause with aplomb. This guy was the best Portia never cast. You remember Portia in The Merchant of Venice ? She saves the situation with one eloquent speech about mercy. I first saw it performed in 1973 by my school friend Guy Wilkinson when he was ten, his voice fluting, his eyelashes fluttering. Guy was impressive, but Blair that day in the Commons was even better. The vowels quivered. His eye roamed in urgent pleading. And then the accelerating crescendo of his peroration. One of Blair’s Cabinet colleagues, scrawny old Margaret Beckett, was reduced to tears. Granite was bleeding!

Such theatrical gifts are immensely useful to a parliamentarian. Essential, even. Had Blair not won the vote in the Commons that day, he would have been toppled. Like any great actor, he took a risk—and triumphed. But a war lasts longer than a mere evening of high-wire performance art. The fighting in Iraq is not yet finished. The international business that began that day in the Commons in 2003 is only now drawing slowly toward some sort of closure here in this Westminster tribunal seven years later, with Hans Blix talking about his dismay that Blair and Bush were not to be discouraged from their course of action. Real life is more drawn out than drama. Its endings are not necessarily happy or tragic. Just messy.

I suppose the line I cross on my early evening strolls to theaterland is the line between reality and fantasy, between the inconvenient and the idealized. One can influence the other, but they can never be quite the same thing. The politician is ill advised to try to become too much the actor, for that way ruination can lie. The theater director is wise not to think he has too many certain answers for the political world, for that is too simplistic.

There have been days when I have gone from watching the gurning boobies of the House of Commons to reviewing that well-known double act, Pamela Anderson, in pantomime at the Wimbledon Theatre, and have reflected that one is much the same thing as the other. Recently I saw David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime and watched a chamber production of Aspects of Love in Southwark that night. Love conquers everything: it could be the theme song for modern British Conservatism. What a skilled practitioner of lovey-doveyness Cameron is. I wonder what sort of singing voice he has. Lord Lloyd-Webber might yet be able to find use for him as the romantic lead.

During the general election campaign, when senior members of the Conservative Party were accused of being children of privilege, the Royal Court Theatre staged a blatantly political play called Posh . This was hardly subtle. The Royal Court receives a hefty subsidy from the state, and its managers, like so many theater people, lean to the Left. They must be feeling a bit chumpish now that Cameron & Company are in power. The Royal Court’s public grant will do well to survive.

One of the great hits of recent years in the West End has been the musical Billy Elliott , much of which is an emotive protest against Thatcherism. Why don’t our theater practitioners attack the big-state socialism that has done so much damage to our economy in the past fifteen years? Why don’t they satirize political correctness? Thatcherism seems like ancient history. But Billy Elliott has some great tunes. It is sold out most nights. No matter how hoary the politics, a good song can shift tickets.

After the recent general election, as the country awoke to the economic wreckage left by the defeated Gordon Brown, the Royal National Theatre opened a superb revival of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance . The play depicts a new generation realizing that it must end the sybaritic profligacy of recent years. The line dividing theater and politics was hard to discern that night and I left the show ecstatic to have seen something so timely. But such nights of bracing, on-the-button right-wingery are rare. More typical is the National’s new production of Danton’s Death , wherein handsome Toby Stephens plays the vivid hero of the people who is executed by cold, moralizing Robespierre. Like many plays at the National in the past five years, there is a markedly atheistic angle. British public life is in thrall to secularism at present, and the National has helped to fuel that. London theater may not be seen by many, but it has an influence.

 

T ime moves apace and I am running late for the The Prince of Homburg , the Heinrich von Kleist play I am reviewing tonight. I arrive at the Donmar Warehouse (near Covent Garden) with three minutes to spare. The fast walk from Westminster has helped to clear the mind and cross that line from politics to theater. The play examines the struggle between impetuousness and order, between individuality and the state. The prince (played by Charlie Cox, a fashionable young actor) is a swashbuckling general who disobeys his ruler’s orders yet wins the battle. He expects to be garlanded. He is instead court-martialed.

The fringey Donmar attracts a clientele of sleek, thirty-something sophisticates. Under the artistic direction of Michael Grandage, it has become one of the hot theaters in town. Grandage, whose hits have included Red and Mary Stuart , both of which moved to New York, is spoken of as a future director of the National Theatre.

The acting and production values are pretty good—as they are throughout London. We are blessed to have so much watchable theater. This remains a capital city where the stage not only prospers but retains a place in political life. And yet, as I watch The Prince of Homburg I become uncomfortable. They are playing it quite noticeably for laughs and the audience starts to titter, despite the unveiling tragedy. Things are going badly for the prince. He is arrested. He is sentenced. He is now being blindfolded for the firing squad. In the original Kleist play, it all ends harmlessly enough, with the story being shown to be a dream. But the Donmar audience is in for a surprise. The ending in this production has been altered, and the prince is indeed shot dead. Human life has been snuffed out. The good guy has come a cropper.

Order—wicked officialdom—has imposed itself and exacted revenge. Silence. Pause. Applause. The actors come back on stage for their curtain call and we critics make for the exits, crouching, scurrying, hastening home to our laptops to bash out the overnight reviews. As I leave the theater, a light drizzle is starting to fall. London feels damped-down, maybe even chastened. Another confusing day of shuttling between drama and political reality has come to a close.

Quentin Letts is a parliamentary sketchwriter and theater critic for the Daily Mail. His books include Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain and Bog Standard Britain.

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