theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
After reading Evie Rackham’s notice of Never So Good on Rogues & Vagabonds, along with a lot of the press comment in the past fortnight, I’m wondering whether paying your own money to see a show sharpens the critical faculties. For me, Howard Davies’ epic staging unarguably misses its mark, and very few of the superlatives lavished on it would have found their way into any review I’d written; although I would immediately concede that, in sheer production terms, the National has done a flawed play more than proud.
Seeing the play a few days before the official opening, I and my companion (who was, if anything, less impressed than me) had the unusual advantage of forming our own opinions without the distraction of half-remembered quotations from various reviewers. I’d booked early, partly because I find this kind of large-scale political drama – in which both the National and the RSC have an often distinguished history – an engrossing theatrical form, and I thought Howard Brenton’s participation was a guarantee of quality; but also because I knew that the presence of Jeremy Irons as Macmillan made at least the first few weeks of the run a likely sell-out. It transpired that I was wrong in both regards.
The house was only about four-fifths full the night I went, and an initially perky audience gradually became more subdued as the very long evening wore on, a tide of disappointment slowly and perceptibly sweeping in. It was telling that the most moving moment of the 150 minutes was the last, when the impeccably polite protagonist wished us all a very good evening, and turned to go: this won a large sigh, and a better round of applause than I’d been expecting – though not nearly enough for the attempted three curtain calls. Admittedly, there are only around half a dozen cues for an audience reaction in the play, including a prod for us to acknowledge the tenuous resemblance between Suez and the current Iraq adventure; but even those were only acknowledged, rather than embraced, and anything approaching a laugh was very rare.
It is, undeniably, a downbeat, and predominantly disillusioning story. As Enoch Powell (a figure absent in the play) rightly said, all political careers end in failure, and Evie Rackham is right in identifying Macmillan’s ‘it’ as an ambition to strike and seize the crown, which he finds far too late in life. For he is not a figure of the highest rank, an epoch-maker: he is interesting as an incomplete human being, dependent on strong-willed mentors – his ruthless mother, his Catholic tutor, his political patron Churchill. Sadly, two of these are inadequately embodied here (Robert Glenister, giving a recognisable if simplified Boothby, would have made a better Churchill than the uncharismatic, blubbery baby Ian McNeice offers us); and so, I must reluctantly say, is Macmillan himself.
Accomplished actor that he is, Irons holds the stage well, and goes with the grain of the script in making the man the most sympathetic in the galère of selfish characters on display; but both in looks and vocal quality, he was truly born to play Anthony Eden. He does not convince in what is, for him, an ill-fitting role. Despite his mental anxiety, and physical wounds – his wartime travails, including enlightenment about the condition of the Common Man, are thunderously emphasised – Irons has the bearing, from the earliest scenes, of a still youthful man playing old, from his overdone false teeth to his suspiciously even grey hair. (It has to be said that Anna Chancellor, spirited and far too glamorous as the adulterous Dorothy Macmillan, outdoes him in this respect: her only concession to ageing during a supposed 35-year period is to don a ratty wig on her final appearance.) Anthony Calf, meanwhile, makes a game attempt at Eden, capturing his neurotic quality while missing his suavity; and Clive Francis, in an amusing cameo, moulds Eisenhower into a slightly more florid character than the newsreels depict.
Even in near-documentary drama, of course, exact verisimilitude isn’t necessary; what is vital is showing why and how these people and these events matter. Granted, Brenton dutifully visits the staging posts in Macmillan’s life history; but he tails off in the ‘Supermac’ years, with Profumo almost a footnote (despite its being the thing for which the ex-Premier is now most frequently mentioned, along with “The Wind of Change”, “Events, dear boy, events” and, naturally, the eponymous misquote “You’ve never had it so good.”). His plodding dialogue fatally doesn’t animate these turning-points and he instead top-dresses the action with embarrassingly long and lamely staged dance numbers marking the passage of each decade. Worse, he uses the tired old device of having onstage throughout the action a representative of Macmillan’s conscience, his younger self. Pip Carter (so good in the recent NT Present Laughter) utterly fails to justify the character’s increasingly irritating interventions: it is – and this is relevant – a dog of a part.
You might like to make your own mind up. Indeed, the powerful staging of the show has been mentioned so often in critical reaction, it might of itself make you feel you had got your money’s worth in seeing Macmillan’s story staged (I won’t say ‘in dramatic form’ as it isn’t, very). However, if it’s ever revived, a play by Hugh Whitemore called Letter of Resignation, which I saw some years ago with Edward Fox and Clare Higgins (both splendid), gets far closer to the spirit, and I think the reality, of Macmillan the anguished man. In comparison, Never So Good is ever so poor.
Adam Sheldon © 2008
Originally published on R&V 08-04-08
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