Theatre Review from the August 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
Dreaming by Peter Barnes. Queen's Theatre, London.
A cousin who had seen the play when it was first produced in Manchester earlier in the year recommended Dreaming. You won't be disappointed she said. And we weren't.
In responding to a piece of drama one test of "significance" which works for me is that particular lines and images stay with me for days (and sometimes weeks) afterwards. Often it takes me several days to come to terms with a substantial piece of drama. I need time to try to understand why particular scenes were so powerful; time to digest my emotional reaction; time to reflect about the meaning of the play. Someone once said that great plays—as distinct from merely good plays—are like a series of attractive boxes, arranged inside one another. You open one box and begin to understand its contents only to find it contains another box, and so on. Each box contains a new set of insights; a new set of discoveries.
So at one level, Dreaming is about a group of mercenaries picking their way through a war-torn world; at another it is about a search for something to make life worthwhile; at a third level it is about the meaning of life. The play is as full of ideas as rain showers on an April day. There is more to engage the hearts and minds of the audience that the entire output of all terrestrial and satellite television channels for a month. The play is full of biting comedy, haunting imagery, and great originality. There are strong parallels with Brecht's Mother Courage (see the Socialist Standard, November 1998). But whereas Brecht wants to prevent us identifying with the plight of the characters on stage, Barnes seems to want to make his audience aware of the theatricality of what we are seeing and hearing by switching from bloody drama to vaudeville patter, to ironic satire, to a song-and-dance routine, almost as quickly as it takes to mention these things.
Any play which wants to examine the nature of the choices available to people, and which makes powerful comments about the way in which such choices are denied to most of us because of the nature of the economic and social arrangements which imprison us, is going to interest the socialist. If, in addition, the play is prepared to celebrate friendship and comradely behaviour, to despise the power and significance of money, and to argue that violence and war are the result of social systems which divide mankind, the interest is going to be even greater.
I think that Dreaming is a major new play. It ought to be playing to full houses, but on a Saturday afternoon in late June, having passed the usual scrum of people waiting to fight their way to see Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, we found only 50 people rattling like peas in a pod in the huge expanses of the 1,000-seater Queen's Theatre. It says much for the effectiveness of the dumbing down of popular taste that whereas nearly 10 million people a week could found listening to a BBC radio broadcast of the Brains Trust towards the end of the Second World War, dross and fool's gold should now seemingly captivate most theatre goers in London. And it says much for the splendid company that notwithstanding the imperatives of capitalism—which supposedly ties effort to individual reward—they produced a performance for the small audience which was as heart-stopping as it was memorable. Whilst dreams may at present be the order of the day for a discriminating minority present in the Queen's Theatre, the nightmare that is populist pap remains the lot of most punters in London's theatreland.