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Harold Macmillan’s life in politics began after WWI. He was involved in the Suez Crisis, Britain’s first nuclear accident at Windscale, and the Profumo scandal in 1963 which brought about his own downfall as prime minister. His life was surrounded by an incredible roll call of names – Nasser, Eisenhower, Hitler, Chamberlain, and Churchill. Macmillan’s life is the subject of Howard Brenton’s new play, Never So Good, which draws on Macmillan’s own journals to beautifully reveal the paradoxes, paranoia and peccadilloes of each era he lived through. Through some delicately placed lines, it also shows how decades may pass but in politics and international wrangling some things remain constant. Then, as now, China loomed large; that great triumvirate of America, Oil, and Iraq was as topical as ever; and the criticism that ‘victory is all very well, but what matters is having a plan for afterwards’ doesn’t need any elaboration. Macmillan and Churchill might have worn evening dress and discussed crises and party manoeuvring over champagne at the Ritz, but the political machine has altered very little.
Never So Good begins as a straightforward chronicle of Macmillan’s life given by himself as he totters to front-of-stage, lucid and amusing, an aged statesman. Macmillan watches on as the years peel back to his privileged upbringing, his indomitable mother who covered up an indiscretion at Eton involving another boy and had Harold privately tutored, only to end this arrangement when she suspected Harold of picking up his tutor’s Papist tendencies and bought her son a captain’s commission in WWI.
The production’s terrific lighting and sound designs transform the awkward Lyttelton stage into battlefield dugouts at Ginchy. The young and idealistic Macmillan is badly wounded with a bullet through his pelvis. Lying injured, he has his moment of enlightenment, except he does not fully realise this until another near-death experience in Algiers during WWII. With seamless ease, director Howard Davies now moves Jeremy Irons into the main role. He is no longer the narrator, and the young Macmillan, Pip Carter, is the bystander looking on. Never So Good has shifted from an interesting biography to a spellbinding examination of guilt and conscience, motivation and character.
Macmillan begins his search for ‘it’, his destiny, with his ‘id’, his young WWI self, an outspoken critic who challenges and criticises him along the way. The search for ‘it’ continues into WWII where Macmillan is involved in the Algiers air crash. He rescues the pilot, and they have a miraculous escape. It is only now that Macmillan discovers his elusive ‘it’. He eluded death in WWI and has done so again. He has been in the centre of politics but on the sidelines, the ‘it’ he has been seeking is to lead to his being prime minister. He is a very different person from the ‘id’ who baits him, who helps him discover his ‘it’. Macmillan went into WWI a young idealist Etonian with Aeschylus and St Augustine in his kit bag for light reading and emerged at its end in 1918 having learnt humility and equality, and empathy for the common man, not just his fellow toffs. As Macmillan says, he is a different person; his young self died somewhere on the WWI battlefields.
This Algiers scene draws to an end the second act and does so with the most incredible evocation of an airfield explosion. The quiet, unassuming man is made remarkable by his heroic action and by how he again eludes death: this event’s importance in Macmillan’s life is made extraordinary in the production of Never So Good by the excellent light and sound design.
Jeremy Irons’ Macmillan has humour and looks back on his life with neither excuses nor self-pity. This is a wonderful role for Irons, who avoids any hamminess and is excellent in interpreting Brenton’s terrific writing. Irons helps the words along just enough to let them speak for themselves and as such his performance is gracefully accomplished.
Howard Brenton’s script incorporates key political moments, and figures, with amazing agility and depth without the play’s becoming entrenched in long political explanations. Brenton, aided by a fine cast, creates people, not just names. Churchill practices his speeches endlessly in the mirror; Eden is quietly flawed with his dreadful addiction to pills. And when Macmillan’s downfall finally arrives in the shape of the Profumo affair, he is pragmatic, his character as laconic as ever. In Macmillan’s own words, downfalls are caused by events of others’ making. He was right there about his own fate, and once again, what was true then is as true today.
This is a portrait of a man who took the twists and turns of his life with humble acceptance, who perhaps rued his ‘death’ in WWI but then pursued his destiny. Never So Good begins with Macmillan alone on stage, chatting inconsequentially about his teeth. The focus pulls back and swoops through decades of war, austerity, then plenty. It ends as it begins, with old Macmillan, self-deprecating as ever, causing a smile when he suggests his name can be ‘googled’.
Never So Good sneaks up on you. It begins as an interesting interpretation of Macmillan’s memoirs and evolves into an impressive production of theatrical accomplishment in every sense.
Evie Rackham © 2008
Originally published on R&V 30-03-08
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