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Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Never So Good

Eyewear went to see Never So Good, the new play on at the National Theatre, by Howard Brenton, which details the resisted rise of Harold Macmillan, of "the winds of change" and Profumo fame. It was great entertainment, and smart, thoughtful writing as well, despite the startling pyrotechnics that blasted my eardrums (I grow old).

The British do good history plays - and this one, with elements from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Coward's Cavalcade, and Brecht's - well, anything by Brecht - ends up feeling like good, solid Shaw: witty men and women hold forth on the issues of the day, as each decade is depicted shifting by new pop songs, and the latest dance craze ("dance to the music of time"). Macmillan is movingly portrayed by the great Jeremy Irons, and his youthful "echo" - the suitably Yeatsian double (Macmillan published Yeats, among other poets) by Pip Carter.

Political junkies will love the backroom boys, the deals, the power struggles (from Churchill outmaneuvering Chamberlain, to Eisenhower bullying over Suez). The love story (Macmillan was terminally cuckolded by his ballsy wife) is less convincing. What emerges is how significant Suez was for Britain ("goodbye British Empire") - and how forcefully (threatening to bankrupt England in three days) America turned its former ally into a panting lapdog in 1957. Poets and critics will no doubt note that Larkin's Little-Englander cultural ascendancy begins, in poetic terms, not with the Beatles' first LP, but with the humiliation of Anthony Eden six years before, when the Beats began their San Francisco rise. In many ways, Suez demanded an English poetry that would not kow-tow to American poetics, or diction - yet another reason for The Movement to have outgunned Dorn and Co., whose influence was always resisted in the UK, even as the avant-garde picked up on it.

Ultimately, Brenton portrays a leader, who, when he came to power, was too old, too "moral", too other-century, to fully appreciate it - Supermac quickly giving way to the fuddy-duddy cruelly mocked by Beyond The Fringe. His play documents a moment echoed in our own time: Brown is poised to be eclipsed by younger, more Zeitgeisty men (contrast Macmillan with the virile Kennedy across the pond) - Obama, perhaps, and surely Cameron. Power is portrayed as empty (Macmillan said power was a "dead sea fruit") - but the most desired thing. The men who chase it are therefore somewhat hollow themselves. What to make of the empires and nations built by such dead, nothing personages? What to make of "us", the common people, who dance in the halls shaped by such hollow historians?
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