By Howard Brenton
Directed by Howard Davies
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Wednesday 30th July 2008
I found this a bit disappointing, given the good reviews it’s had. The queue for returns was certainly long enough. But even so, I did enjoy a lot of this performance. In fact it was the performances that made it for me – the writing seemed lacklustre at times, while the staging had a few high spots and a greater number of low ones. I was finding the heat difficult today, I must admit, but as I found the opening line funny, I don’t think my state of mind was the problem.
There were four acts, covering major periods of MacMillan’s life. The first took us up to his final wounding in WWI, and introduced us to his mother and the chap who was his best friend, until that friend decided to convert to Catholicism. This section may also have been meant to show us how MacMillan related to the sufferings of the working-class soldiers, but the writing was rather clunky in this area, and we get characters making comments about his attitude rather than letting us see it for ourselves. My main impressions from this section are that he’s a homosexual who never comes out of the closet, and who doesn’t really have any ambition for himself, so his incredibly pushy mother can mould him to suit her wishes. She wants a son who’s a big cheese in the political world, hence her insistence that Harold give up any idea of converting to Catholicism himself as it would make it impossible for him to hold high office.
Jeremy Irons is playing the older MacMillan throughout, but there’s a younger version we get to see a lot of, and in this early part, he’s doing most of the action while the older version dodders about the stage commenting on events. The younger version manages to survive the battle, despite lying in a foxhole for eight hours with no medical attention other than a shot of morphine. He’s psychologically damaged, however, and the exchange between the two MacMillans at this point makes it clear that his younger self is like a ghost haunting him, a conscience who keeps reminding him that he once had great ideals and has failed to achieve anything to justify them. Survivor’s guilt was mentioned in the program notes, and that’s clearly what’s being represented here. From this point on, the younger version wanders around, but doesn’t seem to get much dialogue, which made the character seem a bit redundant to me, and a waste of a good actor. (Having checked the playtext, the character seems to have more to say than I remember, so perhaps lines were cut, or perhaps they just didn’t register with me.)
The second act covered the run up to WWII, and a brief part of MacMillan’s wartime career when he was based in North Africa. While out there he met Eisenhower, and the two men got along well, which would be to MacMillan’s benefit in later years. At this point MacMillan gets the chance to save a young pilot’s life after his plane crashes, and there seemed to be some lessening of his survivor’s guilt, though I wasn’t absolutely sure about this. However, it does seem to be his turning point, when he becomes much tougher and determined to succeed.
Before this, the play covers the plotting that went on in the Conservative party after Chamberlain’s triumphant return from Germany with minimalist stationary supplies, and it was very entertaining. The opening scene shows MacMillan visiting his mother, who is constantly telling him off for his political choices, including becoming MP for a constituency north of Watford. It’s an absolutely hilarious scene, with several very funny lines, impeccably delivered. We also learn about his wife’s affair with another Tory MP, and one whom MacMillan will be involved with closely, as they’re both supporting Churchill in his attempts to retake power. He refuses to divorce his wife, though, as it would be another block to him holding high office. When the inevitable happens, Churchill takes over as leader of the country, and MacMillan finds himself in Africa talking to Eisenhower (see above).
There were warnings about pyrotechnic effects in the production as we went in, but nothing could have prepared us for the actual plane crash. I felt a serious blast of heat in my seat, and I don’t know how they stopped the flames from scorching the ceiling, never mind the actors. It was most impressive. Fortunately they now have the interval to clean everything up.
After the interval, we see the back room shenanigans involved in the Suez crisis. It’s quite good fun seeing the plotting and intrigue, the speculation about what will happen and, more importantly, how the intervention will look to everyone else. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a ludicrous plan, but it does show how the last traces of the Empire attitude lingered after WWII. MacMillan’s also in good form, manoeuvring himself nicely into the top job as Eden nose-dives into oblivion. It’s in this scene that his younger self seems particularly quiet and superfluous.
The final act is a short one, and takes us from MacMillan’s appointment as PM to his retirement. We see him getting to grips with the requirements of the top job, including negotiations with the French and with Eisenhower. MacMillan attempts to get access to America’s nuclear secrets, only to be told fairly bluntly that the Americans think the British have been faking their atomic orgasms. The effect of the new generation of satirists is mentioned, and then the Profumo affair comes along, and it’s Supermac’s turn to leave the political merry-go-round. And with a final reference to Google, he bids us farewell and leaves the stage.
As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the performances more than the writing or staging. The problems with the staging were simple, but first I want to describe the set. It had an angled wall with tall doors to our left. The doors have glass panes, so at first I thought they were windows. To our right, there were three or four rows of storage shelves, filled with official-looking boxes; these were moved about in later scenes to create the setting for the Cabinet Room. Wooden chairs were placed in front of the pillars on either side. It was too gloomy at the start to see what the back wall was like, but it looked like industrial concrete. There was also a huge panel of windows that dropped down towards the front of the stage a couple of times, complemented with two chandeliers, and this usually represented a posh location – the Ritz ballroom perhaps. For the First World War, there were mounds and wire and suchlike to represent the battlefield – these were moved into place behind the panel of windows. A wall with greenery slid on about halfway back on the right, with a bench, and this was the setting for MacMillan’s country home. The plane crash in North Africa had lots of metal barrels standing around to hold the many flames, and for other scenes there were tables and chairs brought on as required.
Although we weren’t sitting that far to the side (about six seats in), I found I could see right through the shelving on our right, into the wings, and so whenever the stage crew were getting ready to move things around, these people who were clearly nothing to do with the performance on stage would come into my line of sight, distracting me for a moment from the play. It happened enough that it affected my enjoyment of the piece, and shows a sad lack of ability on the part of the designer, creating a set with such an annoying tendency to prevent audience members from enjoying the show! The amount of haulage was also a problem at times, and reminded me of Michael Attenborough’s comments about “theatre of burglary”, where the lights go down and people dressed in black come into your home and rearrange the furniture. The burglars were well active today, and obviously so, as this time the lights didn’t go down.
A number of the changes were covered by dances, usually between the acts. These did have the advantage of letting us know which time period we were in, but they went on for so long that the momentum of the performance was lost. Given that the writing was a bit lacking in interest, that’s not a good idea. Other than that, I liked the set and the flexibility it gave, but I wouldn’t willingly see this production again, despite the good performances.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me