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Taming of the Shrew

There have been plenty of plays where women have taken the roles usually played by male actors. Legends Sarah Siddons (in the 18th century) and Sarah Bernhardt (in the 19th century) are among the women who’ve played Hamlet. More recently Glenda Jackson was outstanding as King Lear, as was Tamsin Greig as Malvolio. Of course, Shakespeare’s original company of players were entirely men – playing all the female roles. And we now have an all-female company, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen, playing Shakespeare as the tables are turned. In an extraordinary trilogy, Dame Harriet Walter led an all-female cast through Julias Caesar, Henry IV and the Tempest.

We didn’t want to be coy about addressing the gender imbalance.

Harriet Walter on the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy

But the current production of Taming of the Shrew playing at the RSC Stratford is something different. This is not women playing male roles and vice versa. This is the complete reversal of gender in society. The male parts are played by women as women. All the female parts are played by men as men. This is the world turned upside down. It is a matriarchy. Women have the power, wealth and status. Men are subservient and know their place. Interestingly, although the women carry the swords, have the money, take the decisions they are still ‘feminine’. Then men are still recognisably men – albeit one or two camp it up a bit.

Taming of the Shrew
Claire Price in foreground, Joseph Arkley. Image by Ikin Yum.

Taming of the Shrew is not a pleasant play at any time. It legitimises controlling and coercive behaviour. It was only the interest created by this whole society gender reversal which attracted us to see it. Although not enough to travel to Stratford – we chose the live cinema view at the Harbour Lights, Southampton. The play itself was efficiently played and directed. Clair Price, playing Petruchia, and Joseph Arkley, playing Kate (slightly confusingly retaining the female name) were convincing in the lead roles, but the standout performance was Amy Trigg (Biondella), hurtling around the stage in her wheelchair as the slightly manic servant to Lucentia, delivering speeches with machine gun rapidity and dramatic pauses like the jam in the machine gun being fixed.

Taming of the Shrew
Amy Trigg. Image by Ikin Yum

But it was the discussion after the play that was the most interesting. The director, Justin Audibert, said he wanted the play to be the start of a conversation. He got that right.

The four of us, two small-l liberal couples, quickly concluded that this production was profoundly more disturbing than previous, more traditional, versions that we had seen. The main conclusion we reached was that the current society is so patriarchal that even we find gaslighting of men by women more unusual, more disturbing than the other way round. The subservience of women is seen as more natural, more usual than the other way round – even to men AND women who have embraced equality personally and politically all their lives.

This is a truly powerful message and makes this play worth a look. Even if you, like me, dislike the concept of the play in either form.

★★★

The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

Through the Glass Darkly

Through the Glass Darkly

Roger Allam is an actor worth seeing. When it was announced he would be playing the Edwardian patriarch at the centre of a glass manufacturing dynasty in this revival of Githa Sowerby’s ‘Rutherford and Son’ it was definitely added to the bucket list to see.

Written in 1912 and set against her own family background in glass-making, Githa Sowerby was lauded when the play was premiered under the playwright’s name of G.K. Sowerby. When it became clear the author was a woman, the glowing tributes took a more patronising “who would have expected a woman to write this” tone. And in many ways, that is fitting for this play with its clear undercurrents (and overcurrents) of feminism against a backdrop of Edwardian capitalism.

The story is simple enough. The patriarch, John Rutherford, has run a successful glass-makers for a generation or more, but increased competition from improved mechanisation means he has to finds ways of making ends meet. He is consumed by the business and his two sons and daughter become increasingly and desperately marginalised by his authoritarian drive to save the family firm. If only he had put as much energy into saving the family.

One son, Richard, is a vicar and seeks his father’s permission to take up another living with better prospects away from the family home. His second son John, who lives with his wife Mary and baby son in the family home, believes he has invented a new formula which will dramatically cut costs in the glass-making process. And his spinster daughter, Janet, has developed a clandestine relationship with Rutherford’s trusted foreman. A trusted foreman who will help Rutherford steal John’s formula, and is then sacked – his relationship with Janet having been discovered.

None of his children can be allowed to get in the way of the firm. Or the supposed respectability which the family name now has. “My children can’t go back” is his mantra yet he cannot see that each in their way want to go forward. As each family member in turn is cut adrift Mary, the daughter-in-law, ends up alone with Rutherford. And now this quiet voice of reason takes centre stage to play out the transition of power from his family to hers.

This is a powerful play about power and family. Whilst some of the stark examples that Sowerby illustrates may be less familiar to us today, it still resonates as a timeless piece of drama. Set in the main room of the household, the set is initially partially hidden by a curtain of water as a thunderstorm breaks across the city. As the rain ends the whole set slides several metres to the front of the stage, bringing the audience into the house. Part of the drama. The beautifully sung, haunting folk music which preceded the curtain and was again heard at the interval set the mood for the emotions which the excellent cast delivered throughout. Allam was outstanding.

At around 2 hours 35 minutes (including an interval) this play, directed by Polly Findley, rattled along. Set in the northeast, the accents occasionally needed hard listening, but I did wonder if one well-known theatre critic who pompously declared them “impenetrable” would have said the same of Chaucer’s English. This was gritty realism. When first performed it would have been exactly contemporary with its age and a clarion call for change, which is still to be fulfilled completely 100 years on.

This is the first play by Sowerby that I have seen. Although her other works didn’t receive such critical acclaim, it would be interesting to see any of them revived.

★★★★

The Lyttelton, National Theatre until 3 August 2019

I am Spartacus

On 20 May 2019 I released short statement on Twitter:

I won’t support ‘a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party’ nor will I support ‘any candidate against an official Labour candidate’ but I’ve returned my EU election PV and for the first time in 46 years I’ve not voted Labour.

20 May 2019, shortly before EU polling day

I chose that formulation of words with care. I knew many thousands of Labour members would be considering lending their votes to another Party in protest at Labour’s continued ambiguity on Brexit. I wanted to make it clear that voting was a private matter, and that by itself could not be in contravention of the Labour Party rules. Blindingly obvious really. To constrain a person’s vote by offering or refusing some benefit, in this case membership of the Labour Party, is a breach of the Representation of the People Act and subsequent legislation. (Although someone did suggest to me that “membership of the Party isn’t a benefit, it’s just bloody hard work.”)

Apart from the legal wrangle over whether or not demanding a vote in return for membership of a political organisation is or is not illegal, there are there practical problems of evidence and enforcement. Of course, you could introduce some sort of loyalty pledge – I promise to vote Labour at every election in which I am an eligible voter – in which case vote swapping, tactical voting or whatever all go underground. Only exposed when the Labour vote falls below the number of Labour members in an area. Frighteningly, this may soon no longer be a joke.

The only thing one can say with any certainty is whether a person voted at all. Although votes may be inspected by order of the High Court (in exceptional circumstances, usually when investigating electoral fraud) to identify which way an individual voted, the vote itself is, to all intents and purposes, secret. But whether or not each individual cast a vote is open to public inspection and all political parties access this data on a regular basis to inform their election campaign planning. It would be a simple matter to check whether any or all members of a political party had voted. And it could be argued that failing to vote gave support to other parties or candidates.

Now we are at the nub of the issue.

On Tuesday 28 May, Alistair Campbell received an email telling him he had been auto-excluded from the Labour Party for saying (after the polls closed) that he had voted Liberal Democrat in the European Elections.

The accompanying statement form the Labour Party read as follows:

Support for another political party or candidate is incompatible with party membership.

As the sky started to fall in on the Labour Party, the Labour Party Press Team, directed by Seumas Milne, took to the social media airwaves to issue a panicked clarification:

To be absolutely clear, the way Labour Party members vote is a private matter. But publicly declaring or encouraging support for another candidate or party is against the rules and is incompatible with Party membership.

3:06 PM – 28 May 2019

And at that point any residual case the Labour Party had for justifying the auto-exclusion of Alistair Campbell collapsed. If the way a person voted does not, cannot, be in breach of party rules then we come simply to the more normal use of the words in the rule book.

The relevant section of the current rule book says:

A member of the Party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member.

Rule 2.1.4.B – Labour Party Rulebook

Given that the Labour Party has itself now ruled out voting against Labour as a reason for expulsion how has Campbell breached the rule above? And the simple and obvious answer is that he hasn’t. It is not possible to support another candidate (the essential allegation) after the polls have closed.

Let’s briefly contrast this with the case of Andrew Fisher, now a senior political advisor to the Leader of the Opposition. In November 2015 he was suspended following complaints that he had called for support for another candidate. Referencing an article written by Emily Benn, the Labour candidate for Croydon South, Fisher said:

If you live in Croydon South, vote with dignity, vote Class War.

Andrew Fisher

The Leader’s office ensured (without intervening, you understand, because apparently they never do) that Fisher’s offence was considered under the more subjective rule about ‘bringing the Party into disrepute’. This allowed the disciplinary process to be concluded with no case to answer save a smack on the wrist rather than the inevitable expulsion that would have followed otherwise. Mates’ rates in the rule book.

So why has Labour allowed itself to get into this position? One thing is certain. This was not a decision taken by an officer of the Governance and Legal Unit on Bank Holiday Monday. This wasn’t a decision about an unknown party member who had stood against an official Labour candidate at some local election. This was about a prominent member of the Labour Party with a significant public profile. This would have been a decision taken at the highest possible level.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is either vindictive retribution presumably orchestrated by, or with the full knowledge of, Seumas Milne. Or a deliberate distraction from the earlier announcement on the same day by the EHRC of a statutory investigation into allegations of institutional antisemitism within Labour. Or both. Whatever the reason, the decision has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Many heavyweights from the Labour Party have condemned the action. Charles Clarke, Harriet Harman and Lord Falconer QC to name but three.

Lord Falconer QC, former Lord Chancellor, who knows something about how the courts interpret the words before them, said:

The rules do not make expulsion mandatory. Support for another political organisation envisages something more than voting for them and only going public after the polls have closed and making clear it was a one off. If voting was enough the rule would have said so.

Lord Falconer QC

And these are not the usual suspects, plotting to undermine Corbyn but senior figures from past and present whose voice should be listened to with some care. There is a long queue of people from across the Labour family who share their concerns.

Even more worrying is the immediate rise of the #ExpelMeToo and #IamSpartacus hashtags as hundreds, maybe thousands by now, of Party members declared that they too had lent their vote to another party. Excluding Campbell may lead some people, many people, to question whether their vote lent to another party will ever be cast for Labour again.

Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has now also echoed the views of many others, and made clear that Labour has made a grave error. He said it is “spiteful” to expel people from the Labour Party and called for an “amnesty” for members who did not support the party at the European elections.

It is very clear that many thousands of Labour Party members voted for other parties last week. They were disappointed with the position on Brexit that a small number of people on the NEC inserted into our manifesto. They were sending the NEC a message that our position lacked clarity and they were right.

It is spiteful to resort to expulsions when the NEC should be listening to members.

The politics of intolerance holds no future for the Labour Party. A broad church party requires pluralism and tolerance to survive.

There should be an amnesty for members who voted a different way last week. We should be listening to members rather than punishing them.”

Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The Labour Party should admit to a mistake and reinstate Alistair Campbell without delay. The prospect of this ending in the High Court is another example of any chance of Corbyn’s Labour winning the 2022 General Election being frittered away by sheer bloody-minded incompetence by some who populate the Leader’s Office.

#IamSpartacus

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman

As America begins to lift itself out of the Great Depression, William Lowman, Willy, is sucked further into the quagmire of his own personal depression in this classic Arthur Miller play at the Young Vic.

Unable to cope or come to terms with his own mistakes over the years William invests all his hopes and dreams in his sons, Biff in particular, desperate that they become the success that will counterpoise his own perceived failures. As major milestones come and go – his marriage, the birth of his boys, Biff’s success at college football, the house bought and then paid for – more minor molehills become mountains in his path – the fridge breaking down while still on HP, his inability to cultivate his garden.

And central to all is a secret shared by father and son lying like malignant cancer across the family relationships.

This is a play entirely about human relationships. About how a single event can change that relationship and how the audience is left to wait to see what exactly is leading the salesman inexorably to his self-destruction. It is a powerful production with powerful performances from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce (the Wire) as William, Sharon D Clarke (Holby City, Dr Who) his wife, glueing the family together, and Arinzé Kene (The Pass, Our Girl) as Biff all give truly compelling performances. There is a feeling of creeping terror that here is a situation to which there should be a solution. But to which there is not.

The sense of instability, of teetering on the edge, is added to by the time switches from the present day (the Lowmans’ present day) to when the children were thinking about scholarships and their futures some 15 years earlier. Are these real flashbacks or is it just William remembering and misremembering his family’s past. Other characters – Uncle Ben, Willy Lowman’s father – are all in the mind. Or are they?

The unstable nature of the relationships and of Willy’s psyche is exacerbated by the ever-changing set. Floor platforms raise and lower, tables, chairs, windows and doors all rise up and down on wires as the scene changes from living room to kitchen, bedroom to hotel, office to restaurant. And the wires, by accident or design, occasionally seemed to be attached to one family member or another. A puppet unable to influence events for better or worse without the intervention of someone else.

This play runs at over three hours including an interval but it absolutely flew by. It was emotionally draining enough for the audience – well for me at least. I have no idea how the cast can get through it night after night. And on top of that, they have some incredible singing voices too – yes there are a couple of songs properly woven into the drama.

Casting an all black family in Death of a Salesman reflects the time as African Americans were gravitating toward Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. But, inevitably, this production, will be compared to that of the RSC of a few years back with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the lead. For me, this production surpassed even that last great performance. The maelstrom of emotions contained in the play was brought viscerally to life by each and every member of the cast.

This was a five-star performance of a five-star production and the whole theatre standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

★★★★★

The Young Vic until 13 July 2019

We’re going to win the cup….

Watching Accrington Stanley against Derby, I need something to distract me from the fact that it should have been us – Southampton – apart from the tiny point that we let a 2-0 lead slip against the Rams. Twice.

The FA Cup is when everyone falls in love with football. Or should be. I can remember great games I’ve seen live, and great occasions with friends and family around the TV or in the pub. 1968 was the first FA Cup Final televised in colour and the excitement was palpable.

But today, the love is lukewarm. Football attracts the supporters of individual clubs and some general fans of the game, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Of course, the clubs and the national associations can do more to make the whole experience more attractive, but what else can be done to make the game (where top players can be earning as much in a week as their supporters earn in 4 or 5 years) more entertaining. Seeing a highly paid professional athlete fall over pretending that he (this hasn’t infected women’s football to the same degree) has been fouled to win advantage can’t be the pinnacle of entertainment.

VAR is being slowly introduced to ensure more of the important decisions are given correctly. Today I’m looking at just four other things that irritate me which could be changed to make the game more attractive – but without any major alteration to the rules or structure of the game.

Timekeeping

This was brought to a head in a recent game featuring the mighty SaintsFC when a player was injured with just 20 seconds of the added time already being played remaining. The injury stopped play for some three minutes, and the referee promptly added an extra three minutes to the game. This may be within the letter of the law but is clearly not the intention.

Football should adopt external timekeeping as do many other sports. The referee would indicate when the clock should be stopped – injuries, substitutions, goals, and other stoppages which should not be counted as playing time identified by the rules – and started.

The clock would be visible to the crowd, players and coaching staff. And once the allotted time had been reached play would continue until the ball went dead, eliminating any disputes about whether a goal was scored or a penalty conceded before the referee blew the final whistle.

Goal kicks

Another of my pet hates is when a goal kick is taken to a team member on the edge of penalty area who is closed down by the opposition and steps in to play the ball before it has left the area as the rules require. This results in the goal kick being retaken, wasting time and irritating me.

The simple solution would be to make this, playing tha ball before it leaves the penalty area afetr a free kick, an offence punishable by an indirect free-kick to the other team.

Foul throw

There are rules about how to take a throw-in. They are simple. But in every game, literally every game, the ball will be put back in to play by a throw-in which is not within the rules of the game. And very rarely is that offence punished.

No-one cares. Except me.

I’m almost as irritated by unpunished foul throws as I am by the inability of a player to find a team-mate with a legitimate throw-in. And the solution is straightforward.

Referees need to be instructed that the rules relating to throw-ins must be enforced. After a couple of games, people will learn the rules and follow them.

Stopping play for injuries

This one may be a bit more controversial.

Currently, if a player is injured and play is stopped so they may receive treatment, the game resumes when the player has been treated and leaves the pitch to re-enter it from the sideline (with the referee’s permission). There are some variations according to the nature and seriousness of the injury.

But it is evident to anyone watching the game that injuries are often used stop play and gain an advantage (or respite) for one of the teams.

Again football could learn from other sports and allow an injured player to receive treatment on the pitch without stopping play – providing the referee is satisfied this would not be a further danger to the player in question or others.

What would you do?

If I had to pick just one of these it would be timekeeping. But what about you? Do any of these make sense to you?

And what else would you like to see to make the game more entertaining? You can have safe-standing areas, for example – providing old fogies like me can still have safe seating areas.

All in the mind

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.

King Richard II

This prison is sharply defined on stage at the Almeda Theatre where Simon Russell Beale remembers the events which lead him to incarceration, and predicts events which wil lead to his death. The four grey walls which surround him may just be the prison cell, but they also seem like a metaphor for his own brain, his mind in turmoil recalling snatches of conversation, and unconnected episodes which make up his story.

Richard II is an episodic play. Discrete chapters of history; characters introduced and removed without adding much, anything, to the narrative; and major swings in plot-line without any back-story or build up. This new performance, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, builds on that episodic nature and everything that is needed to tell the story, for Richard to remember the story, is on stage throughout. Eight cast playing a dozen or so parts, buckets (literally) of blood and earth, and a single prop – the hollow crown. As Simon Russell Beale calls to mind or imagines a conversation, those characters detach from the group of players huddled at the sidelines waiting like substitutes for the manager’s instructions.

And as the vast sweep of the story unfolds in Richard’s mind, little groups of characters emerge, change, flow across the stage mingling with others as alliances are built and destroyed. As traitors to one cause become protagonists for another.

If you know the play, it may be marginally easier to follow which character is betraying who and why. But that is not necessary and it is not how this play reads. Instead, we have a central character, the King, remembering and imagining a series of events. It almost doesn’t matter how that narrative is constructed. Think of how you remember a significant period of your own life. Highlights come and go; people come and go; different friends and family have slightly different roles each time you remember.

But because we are seeing the story through the eyes of the defeated King there is one significant change to other productions of Richard II that I have seen. Bolingbroke, about to become Henry IV, is portrayed as a weak and hesitant man. A puppet controlled and instructed by the puppet master, Northumberland, who Richard clearly blames for his fall. And, of course, Richard is the victim here and not (as ‘1066 and all that’ would have it) a bad King.

This is a completely new and thought-provoking production with Simon Russell Beale giving another consummate performance as the embattled and then doomed King. Whether you come it with a knowledge of the play traditionally directed, or with no pre-knowledge, this is a thoroughly entertaining and different view of the ebb and flow of English History.

★★★★☆

By the strength of our common endeavour…

…we achieve more than we achieve alone.

If the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) was capable of rational thought it may well come to the same conclusion as those who crafted that phrase of the Labour Party’s statement of principles.

As we often do at Christmas we took a trip to Ham Wall RSPB reserve in Somerset to see one of the biggest starling roosts in the UK. If the conditions are right, up to 2 million birds will give an acrobatic display that will take your breath away before dropping like dark hailstones into the reeds that will form their roost for the night.

Although the numbers hadn’t yet built to their maximum (a mere 500,000 birds) the conditions were perfect. Bright, overcast with little or no breeze. And two peregrine in atrenfance to make the birds dance and swirl to confuse and distrcat the attcakers.

Here, a flock of around 100,000 birds splits in two as the peregrines (can you see them?) consider their options.

By the strength of our common endeavour...

Although the peregrines remained in attendance as the starlings continued to gather in their pre-roost murmuration, they didn’t make any successful attacks on the flock. Given the abundance of food for the peregrines in the area these may well have been simple training flights or flying for the sheer joy of it.

It is clear that birds to flock to escape predators more easily than they would do as a single bird, but the explanation of how birds achieve the extreme flight formations at high speed continues to baffle engineers and scientists. However they do it, the many species of birds which produce such displays not only achieve more together for themselves but also provide an unforgettable spectacle for us. And the starling is the master of the universe.

There will be a starling roost somewhere near you. It may only be a few hundred birds. It may be a few thousand. Go and see it. You won’t regret it or forget it.

By the strength of our common endeavour...
By the strength of our common endeavour...
By the strength of our common endeavour...

A square peg in a square hole

A square peg in a square hole

I’d never heard of square bullets. Or the Finborough Pub Theatre. Or hardly knew, to my shame, Tony Harrison – although I did know some of his work, most notably ‘V’.

So this could have been a recipe for disaster, especially when travelling 70 miles just for this performance. But the reviews were good and we are always on the lookout for something new to tempt us. And it turned out this was a rare treat indeed.

So soon after seeing Copenhagen at Chichester, and Women in Power at the Nuffield City Theatre, this revival of Harrison’s 1992 play “Square Rounds” was a perfect foil to both. Performed by a strong all-women cast playing strong men and strong women, the clash between science for good and science for war (is that never good?) was explored in a history told from the First World War back to the early 18 and mid 19 century and forward to the present day. The poetry blended arguments in the way that the original Puckle Machine Gun rather bizarrely was designed to fire round bullets at Christians and square bullets at Muslim Turks.

The easy poetry of this play blended the arguments as they raged back and forth, which made each monologue and dialogue mesmerisingly gripping. Simple set and costume changes moved the scene from factory floor to laboratory to battlefield and allowed the audience to concentrate on the sublime delivery of the words. Each discrete passage is conjured into being by the revolving magician’s box and her/his top hat, from which chemical elements are produced to show the progression from fertilisers to feed the world to chlorine gas to kill it. As Frtiz Haber, a German Jewish chemist (played by Philippa Quinn) responsible for the chemistry of both life and death, sets out – bullets and bombs are just chemical warfare which uses gas to propel death rather than cause it directly. And at least your corpse can be identified after a gas attack.

Haber is also the ringmaster magician who calls into being the other main characters – including his own wife Clara Immerwahr, passionately played by Gracy Goldman. Clara is another German Jewish chemist and the first woman chemist to be awarded a doctorate in Germany. A pacifist, she argues vehemently with her husband and points out that the anti-semitic Kaiser was unable to develop the gas-mask which would have won the war for Germany because he already had too many Jews working for him. And the gas-mask was being developed by another Jewish scientist.

As we approach Armistice Day, this essentially anti-war play will resonate strongly with many, and will be thought provoking for any who see it.

And the intimate space of the Finborough Pub Theatre was the perfect venue. 50 seats so you can almost touch the actors. You will certainly be touched by the emotion.

This revival only has a few days left to run. Catch it if you can.

★★★★☆

At the Finborough, London, until 29 September.

Eyam - A Plague on All Their Houses

Eyam – A Plague on All Their Houses

The plague was something you you lived with – or died with – in the 17th century. It had been around for 300 years. It could strike anywhere. Without warning. With little remedy.

This new play by Matt Hartley at Shakespeare’s Globe explores what happened to the people of Eyam, a Derbyshire village of some 350 inhabitants, when plague arrives shortly after the new Minister and his wife.

The play is a factual account of the decision of the villagers to stay in Eyam, quarantining the village. 260 villagers died but it is estimated that they saved many thousands more by not spreading the disease throughout the neighbouring towns and villages. And therein lies the strength and weakness of the play. Sufficient facts are known of he people and personalities to ground this telling in the solid history of the events. And there is sufficient unknown to allow a rich development of the moral dilemma and debate leading up to a decision to stay or to flee. The enormity of this single collective decision is a powerful tale. But this central element of the story was given cursory attention. The new minister says no-one should leave until 28 days after the last death from plague. Everyone nods. Moral dilemma sorted.

Many of the characters themselves are well enough drawn. Reverend Mompesson (Sam Crande) and his wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford), the Gravedigger Marshall Howe (Howard Ward), and the unfortunate newly arrived tailor’s assistant George Viccars (Jordan Metcalfe) who brings the plague flea in damp cloth ordered from London are all central to the unfolding tale. Back-stories – invented or based on fact – are given to virtually all in order give life to a dying village. But the chance to develop the collective decision to choose quarantine, to chooses almost certain death was badly missed.

Matt Hartley gave the village a pantomime villain, a landowner trying to intimidate people into selling him land. (It was for a new dress for his wife that Viccars ordered the bolt of plague infested cloth). Our villain did enable some threads to be drawn together, but this was no Alan Rickmanish serpentine bad guy and there may be opportunities to strengthen this character as the season progresses. 

Having said all that this was a well delivered story as far as it went, and the humour sat realistically alongside the pathos.

The final roll-call of the 260 villagers who lost their lives was breathtaking. The play is worth seeing for this alone.

★★★☆☆

Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October 2018

Power to the People - well, at least to the women.

Power to the People – well, at least to the women.

I had the delightful experience of attending the press preview of Women in Power, a new version of an old (very old) play, at the the Nuffield City Theatre in Southampton.

Directed by Blanche McInityre, this is a new interpretation of Aristophanes’ satire on the weakness of government, a Parliament of Women.  Originally performed by men for men, these comic plays were the Spitting Image of the day. Rude, crude, comic and with a political barb with which to prod the incompetent and pompous politicians and celebrities of ancient Athens. Or as one of the many amusing explanatory display boards pointed out – “as we like to call it, modern Athens”.

Co-authored by poets, performers, comics and Labour’s vey own Jess Phillips MP, this collaboration took me back to the days when we were first trying to get local parties to accept women only shortlists for parliamentary and local government selections (and unfortunately still true today, a generation later, in some places). “No women want to put themselves forward” was all too often the mantra of the those happy with the status quo, “if you force us to have AWS, we’ll only get stupid women.” To which my invariable, and rather intolerant, response was, “Well you won’t notice the difference in that case because you’ve got plenty of stupid men.”

This satire could have been brought up to date. It would have been easy to set something similar in the corridors of Westminster today, or the White House or Kremlin, or the amongst the captains of industry around the world. But the original conceit would have been lost, and there were enough references in the language, the costumes and the props to draw parallels with the modern world without over-cooking it into a Trumpian parody.

In one of the more modernised speeches to win the idea of ceding power to woman, the story of the search for a new senior member of staff is recounted. Despite the number of well-qualified and capable women, it is always Colin from accounts who is promoted. But as a result of the vote in the Assembley, women don’t get equality, but absolute power. Over everything.

The six performers brought a tremendous energy to the play which additionally brought together dance, music and song. And they were clearly having great fun at the same time. The story rattles along from women disguising themselves as men to subvert the government and place all power in the hands of women, to the turmoil of creating an egalitarian society where no one can agree whether all, or just some, property is theft.

Like Aristophanes a couple of thousand years ago, today’s authors explore the real issues of governance, power and equality with humour. But this isn’t just gentle satire, although it is that too. It is laugh out loud funny from fake facial hair start to giant penis end (of the play, that is).

And the early rejoinder “fuck off Colin” will live with me for a long time.

★★★★☆

At the Nuffield City Theatre, Southampton until 29 September.

  • Co-authored by Wendy Cope, Jenny Eclair, Suhayla El-Bushra, Natalie Haynes, Shappi Khorsandi, Brona C Titley and Jess Phillips MP.
  • Performed by Lydia Rose Bewley, Elizabeth Boag, Anna Fordham, Lisa Kerr, Alicia McKenzie, and Anne Odeke.