Casual cruelties

Dennis Kelly's new play is over-ambitious, sure, but it's not as bad as all that.

In last week's issue of the New Statesman (29 March), Andrew Billen reviewed Dennis Kelly's new play The Gods Weep, in which Jeremy Irons plays an ageing businessman dividing the spoils of his corporate kingdom. Billen found the play "outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed, politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny". Here, our theatre blogger Gina Allum offers an alternative view.

Jeremy Irons takes the lead in Dennis Kelly's ambitious but entertaining new play for the RSC, The Gods Weep. He plays Colm, the ruthless head of a greedy corporation, as he decides his succession and divides the business between two repulsive hirelings (while passing over his Frankenstein's monster of a son). The inspiration of King Lear dictates the structure of the play, which not so much hitches a ride on the original as gets dragged, kicking and screaming, in its wake.

In many ways, a boss such as Colm, wielding overweening power, makes for an inspired choice as natural heir to the absolute monarch. And the notion that multinational corporations can have a potentially malign influence on affairs of state is hardly a new one. But a company and a country are manifestly not the same thing, and this is where the Lear template breaks the play's back.

The first act is on safe ground in the boardroom. The cast, decked out in grey tailoring, negotiates the black and chrome of the table and the slabs of anonymous corporate design. A sad tree, choked by gravel, completes the sterile scene. I enjoyed the opening sequence of office politicking: John Stahl's performance as Castile, Colm's right-hand henchman, is more than a passing nod to the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, even if he doesn't quite have Tucker's genius for the well-placed expletive. Jonathan Slinger as Richard has a pudgy, bespectacled softness that belies the monster beneath, and Helen Schlesinger's Catherine is a study in chilly, chain-smoking ambition.

As for what the suits were arguing about, I'm fairly sure that Belize was significant. Something very bad was going down in Belize. Belize, you understand, was Bad News. But no matter as to the detail, for it becomes clear that the real news is unfolding back at the office, where the backstabbing and sniping, in a wildly metamorphic stroke, become literal: seriously, with armies and everything. Catherine and Richard swap one uniform for another and are now generals of two rival military factions, razing all before them. This is just too much to swallow. To lift a line from the play, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Baulk and boggle as we might at this leap from corporate to state, let us at least grant it a certain nightmarish logic. The casual cruelties of "culling" the bottom 15 percent of the workforce now translate to real deaths, and are subject to a grisly inflation. If nothing else, Kelly points out the inherent violence of much "business is war" speak, but it's certainly not enough of an insight to string out for half the play.

I had high hopes -- you see how I was gamely warming to the theme here -- that the air-conditioning grilles of the office scenes would be ripped open by hordes of crawling commandos, or by rampant vegetation reclaiming the space after the apocalypse. Sadly, this never quite happened, although a couple of the vents did get politely broken. Meanwhile, and more interestingly, Colm is left out in the cold; the exiled king in the wasteland. Jeremy Irons has taken up residence under the sad, institutional tree, which now doubles as the blasted heath. Again, the staging slightly disappoints: the gravel proves to be something of a mood killer, as the bucolic scenes are accompanied by a less than bucolic scrunching throughout.

The final act has Colm painstakingly wooing the daughter of a competitor that he had once finished off. The lovely Barbara, played by Joanna Horton, does eventually concede forgiveness, and the changing relationship between them is genuinely touching. There is a certain doe-eyed fragility to Irons that lends itself well to the newly vulnerable Colm, scourged by disaster, purified by nature. Their attempts to eke out the good life from squirrels, acorns and sheep have a wistful absurdity about them, and there are times when Irons looks like a Beckett clown as he struggles to fully participate in hunter-gatherer activities: "I could hold things. One always needs someone to hold things."

Kelly's script is a masterclass in refusing the big moment or the tragic scene, and the cast handles the colloquial redundancies and repetitions of the text well -- including all the marvelously gratuitous swearing -- as the actors splice pathos with bathos: "Inside I cried my lungs out. Outside I carried on eating the lamb." And the range of the play is breathtaking: Lear, with bits of Macbeth thrown in for good measure; profiteering big business; personal redemption; lyrical wonder at the cosmos. Over-reaching, probably. Over-long -- definitely.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit