Theatre Review from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Kevin Elyot had a huge success four years ago with My Night With Reg (Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards etc, filmed by the BBC, and already 17 productions world-wide). His new play The Day I Stood Still at the National Theatre (Cottlesloe) makes for a marvellous evening. By turns funny, sharp and revealing, it tells of Horace, a bumbling curator at a London museum, for whom life stood still on a never-to-be-forgotten day more than 30 years ago when he fell in love with Jimi. Elyot, together with his peerless cast and director Ian Rickson, catch the mood the swinging 60s with great conviction, and manage Horace’s chance meeting with Jimi’s son 30 years later as a sustained climax which is both elegiac and liberating.
Writing in the programme Elyot discusses the power of theatre—of seeing a live event in an age when our lives are so much dominated by screens. He writes, “There should be a moment, at least a moment, during the course of the play, when an audience thinks, ‘I couldn’t have got that anywhere else’, that the hassle of going to the theatre that night has been worth it.”
There are many such moments in Elyot’s latest play, and even more in Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Royal Court (Theatre Downstairs). On a routinely dull night in rural Ireland the regulars settle to drink their ale in a Sligo snug, only to be disturbed by the arrival of Valerie, an attractive woman from Dublin. Released from the tedium of wasteful chat, they tell a series of unlikely stories full of Irish folklore, and blind unreasonable superstition. But as they strut their stuff and tell their tales they also reveal themselves, and the loneliness and wasteful poverty of their lives. Valerie moved by the alcohol and the revealing openness of her hosts has a rather different tale to tell: a real tale of personal tragedy, such as “to melt a heart of stone”. The effect of Valerie’s story is almost cataclysmic. Pomposity and pretence are replaced by sympathy and concern, and one of the characters—liberated by the honest truth-telling of Valerie and wishing to comfort and sustain—tells us of his own wasteful, unhappy life, and of one never-to-be-forgotten moment when in the pits of utter despair a total stranger offered him an unsolicited kindness.
This is theatre at its most sublime. The atmospheric set, and the superb playing of the cast and imaginative direction, conspire to produce a powerful, poetic and realistic drama. You can smell the turf burning in the stove, see the dust lying thick on untended shelves, hear the wind whistling wildly outside; as before the arrival of Valerie the characters reveal a conversational emptiness in tune with the emptiness of their whole lives. Valerie’s revelation serves both to underscore this emptiness and to offer an alternative which might be reached through honest, open discourse, about matters of real concern, managed in an empathetic manner. Were it that the people who decide what should appear on the screens which “so dominate our lives”, were prepared to offer the same opportunities for drama which is both enlightened and potentially enlightening. But an enlightened population is anathema to those who collectively manage the mass media, even if it can be tolerated in the theatre. The Weir might be seen by 30,000 people in its six-week run at the Royal Court. As against this one episode of crude, dishonest EastEnders, is seen by 15 million people.
Thoughts of enlightenment are also prompted by a new play by Pam Gems, called The Snow Palace (touring widely). Gems has taken a script written by Stanisława Przybyszewska about the French Revolution, and adapted it so that we see some of the major elements in Stanislawa’s play as well as something of her own life. Stanislawa was the illegitimate daughter of an “avant-garde writer, wild man, drinker, reputed Satanist”, who conceived such a passion for Robespierre that she lived alone, writing, almost demonically, her 600-page drama. She died of malnutrition and hypothermia, in an unheated hut partially buried in snow, in 1935.
Pam Gems has fashioned an elegant drama. She is helped by an imaginative set and subtle lighting (which signals a shift of action from Stanislawa’s story to the French Revolution and vice versa) and by a splendid cast. She manages the discussions between Danton and Robespierre with great conviction, contrasting Robespierre’s passionate commitment to “a virtuous life” with Danton’s pleasure-seeking pragmatism.
Socialists will sympathise with many of Robespierre’s sentiments. “A life shaped only by commerce and self-interest,” he says, “leads to bestiality and the rape of children.” But the revolutionaries were undone because, like leaders before and since, they tried to lead people to what they saw as a more desirable future. The essence of the socialist case is that it is only an enlightened working class, conscious of the nature of the world in which we all live, that can transcend vile, unjust capitalism, and build a new world founded on freedom, equality and justice. We have to do it for ourselves.