RSC Other Place
THERE are political lessons to be learned in this sprawling revival of David Edgar’s revolutionary history, but what lessons they are probably depends on where your politics lie. Apologia for the dying revolution or justification for the slide to the right since – both are here.
The early stages of this play’s three acts provide a trip down memory lane to an age when politics was all about ideology: Marxism, communism, socialism, anti-capitalism all bandied about with pride and hope.
As with so many human endeavours which commence in such unalloyed optimism, the writing is pretty much on the wall from the start. And so it proves here as ideologies crash and people are sent spiralling down with them. Sixties’ sit-ins, seventies’ strikes and eighties’ demos are all brought back for inspection and autopsy. At over three hours it’s a lengthy timeline.
Perhaps the most notable stop in this sequence of ‘worlds we thought we’d forgotten’ is revisiting political theatre itself. Edgar’s play comes from a time when bullish, fist-pumping political ranting had its place. Agitprop was perhaps at its strongest in Thatcher’s Britain since its inception in post-revolution Russia. Sadly its mixture of heavily-worn didacticism and shock-tactic bombast feels as outdated as all the bell-bottoms, Banda machines, Dr Who scarves and brick-sized dictaphones which grace these scenes.
Through this criminally uncut succession of incidents and confrontations – not even the two intervals are spared from the relentless politicking – we witness the gradual dilution of political fervour, the incremental replacement of commitment with compromise, the inevitable ossification of the molten firebrand.
Those playing central characters handle that change nicely as they chart their way through the events of these crucial decades. It’s not a complete surprise when the former revolutionaries gravitate toward the sly appeal of Thatcherism, and it isn’t surprising to see the desperate isolation of the few who still cling to their youthful principles. There are strong performances in this regard throughout a decent, energetic company for whom much of this actually is history.
Clever use of the Other Place’s variable seating means the audience is shifted from interested observer, through divided opposites to conference consensus. The technical elements and design are all good. Nice music from the times too. But to what end?
If the purpose of reviving this hefty beast is to draw a comparison with the politics of today then that comparison has to be one of opposites rather than similarities. The characters here were forged in the politics of hope (however misguided history may have proved those hopes to be). These days we have only the politics of fear, the whole Brexit debate being based on feeding our worst imaginings with nary a positive vision in sight. A case of what was a battle of polished ideologies now being just a battle of polishes.
If the point being made is that ideologies let you down then Tom Stoppard and John le Carre have already covered that, as has Anthony Powell if the point being made is that old revolutionaries end up as cardigan-wearing Tories.
Still, it all makes for an excuse to have some bite-sized chunks of recent history blasted at an audience who, one must on the available evidence assume, already know. They were there.
Maydays runs until October 20. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.