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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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