Monday, 6 July 2009

apologia (w. alexi kaye campbell, d. josie rourke)

Sometimes you just have to lay your cards on the table. I don't rate David Hare. I regret the fact that, seemingly forever, he has been allowed to use the National's main stages as his personal salon. His work seems mediocre and parochial, whilst aspiring to be subtle and politically sophisticated. The dialogue tends to stutter off the page, and the characters are like something created by a committee. And, besides his technical weaknesses as a playwright, something which the scale of his intent allows him to gloss over, it is hard to stomach the way in which he seems to have taken it upon himself to pretend to be a kind of moral compass of society, a society which, the more he claims to represent it, the further he seems to be from it.

Years ago, however, I confess, I saw the film of his play, Wetherby (I think it was), whilst in York. And the film registered. There was a dinner party scene where a stranger, as I remember it, started talking about reclaiming words, and then listed some of them. Words like faith or politics or all that. There was something vaguely Nietzschean about all this, and at the time, as a good 20 year old, I enjoyed my Nietzsche.

All of this springs to mind after seeing Campbell's play. Which also explores middle class mores, in a rural setting, round a dinner table, as did Wetherby. The play details the conflict between a radical art historian and her two sons, who still believe themselves to be suffering from the neglect she showed them as children. The play uses the unities of time, place and action fairly rigourously and to good effect. Campbell's dialogue is witty and he isn't scared to throw surprises into the characterisation, with a blond American christian, a flamboyant elderly gay and a soap star blended into the family mix. It takes a bold dramatic turn in the third scene, where the ensemble approach is thrown away with the scene consisting of a dialogue between the mother and her second, troubled son, who arrives and leaves in the middle of the night. The last act becomes somewhat stagey, as characters enter and exit in order to facilitate a succession of closing moments, not of all which feel strictly necessary, and the conversion of the American christian from ditzy laughing stock to moral touchstone seems a little off kilter. However, these are caveats and all in all, the piece marks out its intention to explore the consequences of our political attitudes or non-attitudes effectively, using the generational divide to explore the differences between a current apoliticised culture and the fabled, more radical sixties.

In other words, Campbell is a writer prepared to take a standpoint on the state of our moral-political consciousness, and with enough skill to convince an audience that his standpoint is worth paying attention to. Which is where the comparison with Hare becomes apposite. Given my stated opinions about Hare, and my enjoyment of Apologia, I'm obviously inclined to say that I hope this doesn't prove to be the Wetherby within Campbell's career. There are points of comparison between the two writers (and god knows we need a new Hare to replace the old one as soon as we can find one), but there does seem, for now, to be one very clear difference. Hare suffers from a chronic tendency to take himself too seriously (a not uncommon occurrence with British writers who achieve success in the world of letters). This leads to a sense of humour bypass, which means the humour he tries to inject is stilted and contrived. In Apologia, in contrast, Campbell clearly relishes his ability to use humour as an effective tool to engage the audience. Whilst the third scene showcases his capacity for gripping drama, the rest of the play is suffused with wit in its dialogue and characterisation. Humour, as a good dramatist knows, works against pretension, and Campbell's use of humour holds out the promise that he won't turn into the next Hare. And that an equally jaundiced critic, 20 years down the line, won't be using him as an example to scare a writer from the next generation who emerges with the rare vision and talent to write engaging politicised theatre.

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