‘Invincible’ highlights the chasm between working-class and middle-class cultures

I’ve just seen ‘Invincible’ by Torben Betts, which I missed in London but which is now touring, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge.

Act One was largely what I expected; a pacy, well-observed comedy of manners. Trendy lefty middle-class couple move from London to the North and invite their new, working-class neighbours round, in a street where every other house is flying a St George’s Cross flag. Predictable misunderstandings ensue, as class and culture collide.

What I did not expect was the descent into darkness in Act Two. No spoilers; but let’s just say, if you believe our armed forces are being misused by politicians in the service of global capitalism rather than defending our country, it’s a bad idea to throw that opinion aggressively into the face of a couple whose soldier son is currently putting his life on the line in Afghanistan.

We were treated to disconcertingly believable performances by all four actors: Elizabeth Boag, Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes and Alastair Whatley. The characters are realistically ambiguous in their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s postman Alan, presented initially as a thick, boring, football fanatic, who ultimately shows far more emotional intelligence than the too-clever-by-half interlopers.

If I have a criticism, it is that the middle-class couple, Emily and Oliver, get little relief from their depiction as sanctimonious spoilt brats, whilst their proletarian counterparts, Alan and Dawn, are fairly uniformly salt-of-the-earth good eggs; but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Although the play begins firmly in Ayckbourn territory, it develops into something much deeper, with important things to say about the yawning abyss between the misnamed ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and the people in the provinces slogging their guts out under austerity. Neither side is wholly right or wrong. Each needs to listen to the other.

This may have been the last play of its genre to have been written and performed pre-referendum. With that new, gaping crack of hostility called Brexit that now divides our country down the middle, its message is even more important.

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‘Invincible’ highlights the chasm between working-class and middle-class cultures

‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste

Yesterday evening we saw a play called ‘This House’ at the Garrick Theatre: a satire, I suppose you could call it, on the activities of the ‘whips’ in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It was harsh a lot, funny a bit, and exposed the cruelty of how Labour, with a tiny majority, were forced to keep bringing the sick and injured into parliament to walk through the division lobbies because the Tories withdrew the pairing system in a cynical ploy to try to vote down the government.

I found that and other aspects of the system a travesty of democracy; and if the language was as foul and the casual violence as commonplace among real MPs, I feel disgusted by the behaviour of our honorable members.

The mostly multi-role performances were all strong and convincing, but there is inevitably a lack of dramatic tension when you already know what actually happened.

Irritatingly, every so often an MP would explain ‘in words of one syllable’ to another MP how some aspect of parliament worked, as if they didn’t know. This was obviously for the benefit of the foreigners who make up so much of West End audiences these days (unsurprisingly when tickets cost £70), but to us Brits at a theatre in our own country, it grates.

Although the play is mostly very pacy, it runs for nearly three hours, and in my opinion would benefit from some judicious cutting. For instance, a laboured metaphor about Big Ben taking a long time to repair doesn’t seem to add anything much, and could go altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a scene depicting John Stonehouse faking his own death by drowning in the sea which is so clever it merited a round of applause, but didn’t get it.

Verdict: well worth seeing if you’re an enthusiast for the inner workings of Westminster politics and like seeing famous names effing and blinding a lot; otherwise there might be better choices on offer in London.

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‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste

The novels of Toti Martinez de Lezea ought to be available in English to reach a wider audience

I’ve just finished reading a terrific historical novel, Los Hijos de Ogaiz (The Children of Ogaiz), spanning nearly a quarter of a century of tumultuous events in 14th-century Navarre, by Toti Martinez de Lezea, who lives in a small town near Bilbao.

Revolts against the French rulers, famine, a genocidal anti-Jewish pogrom, the Black Death and much more are seen through the eyes of two warring families on opposite sides of the ethno-political divide.

I cannot understand why no English translations of her books are available, as I am sure they would attract a big following.

This was my second, after El Verdugo de Dios (God’s Executioner), which deals with mass burnings at the stake of Cathars, condemned as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, through the eyes of a master stonemason forced to flee from Champagne to Navarre after the his family are slaughtered.

But he is forced to confront the ghosts of his past in flesh and blood when the papist monster who ordered their horrendous deaths in the name of Catholic orthodoxy turns up in Navarre years later.

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The novels of Toti Martinez de Lezea ought to be available in English to reach a wider audience

The truth about why Macbeth murdered Duncan is not as dark as in Shakespeare’s play

In June and July 2012, I enjoyed the privilege of playing King Duncan in a production of Macbeth at a north London fringe theatre. I needed to refresh my memory about my character, and remind myself why I was to be murdered at the beginning of Act II.

In Shakespeare’s fictionalised version of events, Macbeth murders Duncan in his sleep while the ‘good king’ is a guest under his roof, to seize power in a gory putsch before it can pass, apparently legitimately, to Duncan’s son Malcolm.

A fortnight after our three-week run ended, I was browsing second-hand books when the title of an old hardback caught my eye.  It was ‘The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland 1371-1603’ by Caroline Bingham; and I couldn’t resist picking it up and looking in the index for the name ‘Macbeth’. I especially wanted to learn more about my old mate, King Duncan.

Well, well: according to this book, the murder of Duncan the First, King of Scots, in the 11th century, was not, in fact, committed solely for personal ambition, as represented by Shakespeare, but was an act of resistance against an attempt by Duncan to overthrow tradition by establishing a dynasty.

“Succession disputes were complicated by the fact the the kings of Scots had inherited the Pictish law of matrilineal succession, which meant that succession went from uncle to nephew or from cousin to cousin rather than from father to son,” writes Bingham. “Duncan may have intended to alter the arrangement to that of succession by primogeniture, in favour of his eldest son, Malcolm.”

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

That fits well with the sudden and unexpected declaration by Duncan in the play, addressing the assembled kinsmen and thanes, that, “We will establish our estate upon our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter the Prince of Cumberland”.  Cumberland was at that time in Scotland, not England, and the naming of Malcolm as its Prince meant his designation as heir to the throne.

For me, this illuminated more clearly Macbeth’s resolve in the play to murder Duncan, and invested that decision with more logic; since it thus because an act not of mere personal ambition and treachery, but one of defending the accepted constitutional arrangements against a virtual coup d’etat by Duncan on his son’s behalf.

In reality, according to Bingham, Macbeth did kill Duncan in order to assert the old rule of succession; but he did so in battle, not in a bedroom; and went on to rule successfully for 17 years before himself being slain by the aforementioned Malcolm, who in 1057 became King Malcolm III.

That scenario would, however, have made for a far less entertaining psychological drama than the fictitious Macbeth’s mental torture before and after the murder in a bedroom of his castle, the involvement of his wife, and all the paranoia and horror that ensues in the play.

In which case, in the interest of art and audience satisfaction, I am delighted to have had the opportunity of being stabbed brutally to death on six evenings a week and twice on Saturdays.

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The truth about why Macbeth murdered Duncan is not as dark as in Shakespeare’s play

The destruction of an iconic mill is sad; but Bradford needs to look to a different future

The face of Bradford was changed overnight in January 2016 by a huge fire which destroyed Drummonds Mill in Lumb Lane.

For that great city’s inhabitants, and those of us with fond memories of living there, the giant mills are the iconic landmarks which distinguish the former wool capital of Britain; but the mills should not be over-romanticised.

On the one hand they created great wealth and prosperity, and the grand though sadly faded city centre owes its existence to the woollen goods they produced.

On the other hand, their working conditions were appalling, and in a classic work of 19th-century investigative journalism, the accommodation around them was described thus: “In the lanes, alleys, and courts lie filth and débris in heaps; the houses are ruinous, dirty, and miserable.” (Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845).

Even in the 1960s, when I spent three years there as a university student, the city centre and inner suburbs were often clouded with pollution from scores of mill chimneys. Looking down from one of the surrounding hills, I remember a view resembling a huge bowl of soup.

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

Thank God, all that is long gone, the beautiful Yorkshire stone buildings have been restored from their blackened appearance to their original lovely honey colour, and the population can breathe again.

Yes, this is a sad day for Bradford; but perhaps not too many tears ought to be shed over the dramatic disappearance of a monument to the exploitation and cruelty of 19th century capitalism.

Last October I visited Bradford University on the 50th anniversary of my ‘freshers’ week’, with about 20 of my former fellow students. We were shown a vivacious institution looking not backwards in nostalgia but forwards in hope and ambition.

I strongly suspect that is where the seeds of the future rebirth of the city lie, rather than in the empty words of Westminster politicians about some mysterious and undefined ‘northern powerhouse’.

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The destruction of an iconic mill is sad; but Bradford needs to look to a different future

‘The New Electric Ballroom’ – A haunting play, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly banal

I went last night to see ‘The New Electric Ballroom’, a play by Enda Walsh, in the studio space at the Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.

It’s about three sisters in a small Irish port, doomed to relive and pass on their emotional and sexual regrets forever.

Some very dense and challenging text, beautifully performed, sometimes left my brain racing unsuccessfully to keep up with the cocktail of longing, pain and unrealisable dreams.

The production was billed as a comedy, but frankly it is far from being a feelgood play, despite some irresistible laughs here and there.

It is, however, a tale which reminds one of how lucky one is not to have lived out the decades we are allowed on this planet in such stultifyingly confined surroundings as these, imposed by what was, at the time of the sisters’ youthful memories, a strictly Roman Catholic and over-moralising society.

Empathetic and convincing performances by Vivien Kerr, Barbara Gardiner, Samantha Powell and James Moore drew us inexorably into the sisters’ memories and pain, the visiting fishmonger’s male vulnerability, and ultimately into the futility of dreaming that their circle of frustration could be broken.

Charles Compton’s sensitive, economical direction gave the actors the space they needed to develop and express difficult characters, framed in a set with just enough furniture and props to locate us in time and place, without cluttering our minds with unnecessary detail.

It can hardly go unnoticed that this is another play about ‘Three Sisters’ – but whereas Chekhov’s lasses look forward in vain to returning to Moscow, these sadder, older maids can only gaze backwards at what might have been.

This morning I sensed that I might find myself thinking back through this haunting, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly and deliberately banal story, for some time to come.

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‘The New Electric Ballroom’ – A haunting play, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly banal

Kids have it much better than we did … or do they? I have happy memories of post-war Britain

I never cease to be amazed by the range of flavours in which you can now buy potato crisps. This really does seem to me to fall squarely into the category of Who-Needs-It?

When I was a kid there was only one flavour of crisps (potato) and you got a little ball of salt in a twisted piece of blue paper inside the packet to sprinkle over them. This sprinkling was a ritualistic pleasure in itself, a prelude to the actual salty, crispy joy of eating them.

But the packaging machines at the factory were obviously fallible, because sometimes you got a packet with no salt, and other times you got a packet with two or more salts.

This uncertainty, however, was not entirely negative, in that it spiced up the crisp-eating with unpredictability, thus making the moment of opening the packet and peering inside to find the salt more exciting; which proves that doubt is a vital ingredient to ultimate enjoyment.

If you KNOW that you’re going to get exactly what you wanted and expected every time, the actual experience, when it arrives, is diminished.

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

In addition, the only drink available from the pub that your parents were inside, that clinking cavern of semi-darkness whose adult mysteries you were not allowed to penetrate, was lemonade; which was lovely. No other options were sought or even dreamed about.

Sitting outside the pub in the fresh air on a summer’s evening with your friends, enjoying crisps, salted or not, and lemonade, while all the grown-ups were inside destroying themselves in a dense fug of cigarette smoke, doing whatever grown-ups did — presumably playing darts, spilling drinks and moaning about the government (pretty much the same as now) was wonderful.

Which goes to show that things don’t necessarily get better for children just because they’ve got more choice, can have whatever they like, and go wherever they want. Come back, 1955, all is forgiven!

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Kids have it much better than we did … or do they? I have happy memories of post-war Britain