Please can you persuade Maxine Peake and Andrew Scott to come together on stage in a naturalistic two hander about a normal couple who have something extraordinary happen to them. Manchester, London or Timbuktu. I don’t care where. Subject TBD. As long as there is bucketloads of emotional pain which has to be worked through whilst stoically carrying on with their daily lives.
There is nothing actually that innovative about this monologue based on Australian writer Julia Leigh’s memoir about her experience of IVF. There is no need for it. A bit of symbolism from an avalanche and a pair of imagined kids. Otherwise it charts the fractured relationship of a film-maker, her overwhelming need to conceive and the grief that follows from the failed treatments. Anna-Louise Sark’s staging, a three sided, clinical, white space which rises slowly through the 90 minute production, a table and chairs that collapse, from designer Marg Horwell, some, occasionally, overly forthright lighting and sound from Lizzie Powell and Stefan Gregory, may give a hint of art-theatre. It doesn’t really add anything though to the performance.
Which is, in the least surprising surprise since we were apprised of the fact that His Holiness is of the Roman persuasion, just brilliant. It isn’t just the fact that Maxine Peake makes the movement of face, hands and body look entirely natural, (even when awkwardly directed to shift stage positions to break up the monologue), or the easy conversational style that projects, on on one, even up to us cheapskates in the gods. It is the fact that whilst remaining entirely Maxine Peake throughout – vowels, grins, wry knowing asides, pauses, reflections, repetitions, pointing, pawing – she becomes the woman whose harrowing story she is telling. This is not, forgive me, and thankfully, a story that I can relate and yet, pretty much throughout, I was there with her.
In anyone else’s hands the slight drawbacks in the adaptation would probably have been laid bare. It is too long, you can, an hour in, practically hear the pages turning, with too much emphasis on the how and what of the journey and not enough on the why, and this is too big a space for any monologue, (and robs the end of much of its theatricality). It does though get into the joyless mechanics and desperate economics of IVF treatment, six rounds in total, and captures the loneliness of the Woman’s quest. As it happens IVF treatment played a small part in Out of Water, the new play by Zoe Cooper, on my next night’s viewing. And this was, by comparison with the other stage work I have seen prompted by this experience, the weak Genesis Inc, a resounding success. And the Fertility Fest at the Barbican, of which this was a centrepiece, deserves everyone’s praise.
To my mind the only actor who can match Maxine Peake when it comes to force of personality and stage charisma is the aforesaid Andrew Scott. As was apparent to anyone lucky enough to see Simon Stephens’s monologue Sea Wall at the Old Vic last year (or in its previous outings);
Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 12th November 2018
The greatest English language play from the second half of the C20? Waiting for Godot? All That Fall? Or maybe Beckett’s Endgame? No, too tricky by half. A Streetcar Named Desire? It just about sneaks in time-wise but too narrow in scope. Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Maybe but O’Neill has one tone, though certainly not one dimension. Staying in the US perhaps yu might say Glengarry Glen Ross or Angels in America? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or perhaps you think us Brits top the Yankees. Stoppard or Pinter. Or, my personal favourite Caryl Churchill. Serious Money, Top Girls, Cloud 9 or The Skriker anyone?
Nah. It is pretty hard not to argue that Arthur Miller comes out on top. So then it is just which play. A View from the Bridge? Perhaps though much depends on performance. The Crucible? Bullet proof and the mighty Billers reckons it is Miller’s best. For me though it might just be Death of a Salesman. Mind you I have only seen it once before this, though I see London is set to have a bite of the cherry next year with a new production at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident, Angels in America, Company) with Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda and Arinze Kene as Biff. I wouldn’t hang about if I were you. This will sell out before it opens I’m sure.
Anyway this production will follow the Manchester Royal Exchange production in seeing Willy through African-American eyes. Adding an extra dimension to the unravelling of his particular American Dream, particularly here with a white wife, making Willy’s and the boys “exclusion” even more pointed. The thing about Death of a Salesman is that you get the big picture satire of the “Dream”, the promise that everyone in America will have the opportunity to achieve riches and success through hard work, application and initiative, but you also get a family tragedy, set across just 48 hours, of near Grecian proportions. All filtered through a formal experiment, as time and event overlap in Willy’s head, which demands attention, but is never intimidating, for the audience. From the very first line Willy utters “it’s all right, I came back” you know what these characters are saying and why they are saying it. If you cannot feel the pain of Willy and those around him then I respectfully suggest you go back to your home planet.
Sarah Churchwell, who is a professor of American Literature at the University of London, has written a very interesting programme note which explains that Willy’s failure to reap the rewards he thinks he deserves, the wealth and the status, the “success”, also points to the perversion of an original “American Dream” which was predicated not just on the trappings of consumerism, but was rooted in a “pursuit of happiness” that hadn’t been degraded by individualistic capitalism. If you “win” all the material trappings are yours. If you “lose” then don’t expect any reciprocal duty of care from the society around you. Blimey. Even if you might not entirely agree with this, the point that Miller’s play, and it’s not so sub-by sub-texts, can hold up under the weight of such interpretation, whilst still putting you through the emotional grinder, is testament to its brilliance.
I’ll spare you, and me, some half-baked amateur analysis. You can do that yourselves. What about this production? Well this was the Tourist’s inaugural visit to the Royal Exchange now that he is a full-time layabout. Mancunians have much to be proud of in their city, but surely the Royal Exchange must rank somewhere near the top. A super space, a sphere plonked inside the Great Hall of the Victorian commodities exchange, refurbished last after the 1996 IRA bomb, with vibrant public spaces and bars/restaurants spaced around the auditorium. Sorry if I sound like a patronising London twat but I was bowled over. Inside is even better. Now I may have benefitted from splashing out on a front row, stalls seat, but this is, by some way the most comfortable perch I have ever viewed from. I am back for the Mother Courage next year, (and the revival of The Skull in Connemara up the road at the Oldham Coliseum). Can’t wait.
Now obviously this being my first visit to the Royal Exchange this means that I have missed AD Sarah Frankcom’s previous hits as director, notably the collaborations with Maxine Peake. The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet, The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Happy Days. For which I can only blamed personal greed for just like Willy I spent too long chasing money and not enough time feeding the brain.
Anyway, holding back the tears of disappointment, at least now I was able to see another Royal Exchange regular, Don Warrington, collaborating with Ms Frankcom. I saw his Lear from Talawa Theatre on the telly, which, unlike many others, did not disappoint, but seeing Mr Warrington in the flesh here was mind-blowing. He is a few years older than Willy who is 63, and I assume that Arthur Miller saw Willy as white not black, but as far as I am concerned Don Warrington was Willy Loman. Maybe I am losing the plot like Willy but this for me was as real as theatre gets. It probably helps that I was front row, in the round, with Leslie Ferguson’s stripped back set presenting no obstructions, but this was electric.
When Mr Warrington was sat in front of me, hunched forward, fingers twitching, the weight of his disappointment weighing down his body, it was as much as I could do to stop myself jumping forward and shouting “don’t do it Willy”. When the inevitable happened at the end I admit to a tear. Maybe Don Warrington is petulant, snappish, irritable and dominating in real life. Maybe he has been crushed by the weight of his own expectations. Maybe he hears things. I doubt it. I reckon he is more like the wry, smooth, relaxed-in-the-paddock police commissioner in Death in Paradise. Either way he is a brilliant actor. Performance of the year so far this year, no question, and there has been some pretty stiff competition. Only wish I had seen him in All My Sons here in 2016.
Mind you Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff runs him pretty close. It has been my pleasure to see Mr Zhangazha’s on a few occasions now, Terror, The Lottery of Love, Human Animals and most, recently, carrying the Public Arts community version of Pericles at the NT, but again this was another step up. That is not to downplay Maureen Beattie’s Linda or Buom Tihngang’s Happy, or the supporting cast, but the scene where Willy and Biff argue is hair on the back of the neck stiff. It felt like Biff, even in his football days, just didn’t want to believe. Another highlight is the first appearance of Trevor A Toussaint’s imposing Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful, but now dead, brother. Don Warrington’s Willy visibly shrinks when he sees him. Or Howard’s (Rupert Hill) agonising embarrassment when Willy begs him, getting ever hoarser, for a desk job. Or Willy’s pathetic excuses when Biff turns up, in flashback at the Boston hotel, to find him with “Miss Francis” (Rina Mahoney). Or the touching devotion that Linda shows in believing the family’s money problems are on the brink of being solved.
The original title of Miller’s play was, famously, The Inside of His Head. Willy’s interior world and the exterior reality are in constant flux. To stage a production with this much clarity, on a copper disc, with no scenery bar a few branches overhead, no rooms, and few props, in a raised circle on which the non-speaking cast rest.and watch, in a theatre in the round, which itself is in a sphere, could hardly have been more apposite. This staging, together with the casting, may make for a less immediate connection than in other, more “traditional” productions but, for me, Death of a Salesman is as much food for the brain as blood for the heart, if you will forgive the mangled metaphors. And it brings home, from this now 70 year old play, that Willy is still right here, right now in many men.
I doubt that there has ever been a more carefully researched, painstakingly assembled or more vividly imagined “history” film than Peterloo. If you like Mike Leigh (I do) you are going to love this. If you like British social, economic and political history (I do) you are going to be very interested in this. If you are concerned about the brutality with which power can crush the legitimate appeals of the ordinary person, (you should be wherever you sit in the system), this is going to stir you. If you understand the power of oratory, (words are what turn ideas into action), then this is going to draw you in. If you like the cast, Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Karl Johnson, Nico Mirallegro, Tim McInnerney, and especially Neil Bell and David Bamber, all stood out for me, but honestly this is a massive assemble of British acting at its best, then you will relish this.
However if you are after a satisfying personal drama, or complex plotting, then you might want to look elsewhere. Which given that this is a film that documents one of the darkest days in British history shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. (Mind you this wasn’t the only massacre of peaceful protestors in the first half of the C19, more followed in the 1830s, notably in Wales). There is a lot of talking, at the meetings called by the various political radicals and reformers in and around Manchester in 1819, between the founders of the Manchester Guardian and the firebrand liberal orator Henry Hunt who was invited to address the rally in St Peter’s Field, within the family of Joseph (the real life John Lees) which is the emotional centre of the film, between the moreorless vicious magistrates who look to Government to break the sedition and between the Home Secretary and the lackeys who do his business. In this way Mike Leigh shows us why the people of Manchester and their leaders sought reform, of representation, of taxation, of the punitive Corn Laws, and why the authorities became so fearful, and were so consumed with the threat that the radicals posed, that they wilfully sanctioned a cavalry charge by volatile yeomanry and troops into the innocent crowd of 100,000 crammed into a square with minimal exits.. It is also what ensures the universal relevance of the film and the events it portrays. The power of rhetoric and the paranoia of the State are constants in the human condition.
This final scene is as awful as you might imagine but Mr Leigh doesn’t overdo the sound and fury and cleverly links the massacre back t the field at Waterloo which opens the film and which gave the events their sobriquet. As so often with Mr Leigh the film is assembled from linked montages though here many of the scenes are splendidly expansive. The interiors especially, of the powerful and the dispossessed, of Parliament, magistrates houses, pubs, meeting houses, parlours, mills, are richly detailed. The moors around Manchester offer a wild, lyrical contrast to urban industry. I think I saw parts of Lincoln standing in for historic Manchester and, of course, Chatham Dockyard, the period film’s spiritual homeland.
This was the time when “entrepreneurial” capital was looking to the State to underpin its privilege at the expense of labour, the very struggle Engels was to highlight three decades later, when, despite apparent reforms, conditions for the working class had only got worse. Peterloo may have fired up the press in London and no doubt fuelled legislative change but, as the film shows, didn’t cause the mill-owners of Manchester to question their consciences.
Any other director, without the freedom that Mr Leigh has secured, (say thanks to all the producer money here, especially Amazon), would have been forced to compromise. There are one or two occasions when, maybe, just maybe, he might had left some of cinematographer Dick Pope’s stunning assemblies on the cutting room floor, but if he had then he wouldn’t be Mike Leigh and we wouldn’t have this film. And he has ben able to spend his handsome budget to create a film of incredible ambition. In addition to Mr Pope, I would also call out the work of costume designer Jacqueline Durran and her team, the set decoration of Charlotte Watts, composer Garry Yershon’s score and finally, and I might contend most importantly, historian Jacqueline Riding.
If you don’t see it at the cinema make sure to see it at home one day. It is “serious” and it is “important”, so clear the mental decks beforehand but it is richly rewarding and, shot through with humour, it is as entertaining as didactic gets.