Stirred but not shaken

Terrence Rattigan's vision of 1940s Lincolnshire is transported to London.

Terrence Rattigan went to considerable lengths to ensure the survival of Flare Path: when his WW2 bomber aircraft was hit, its load had to be lightened as a matter of some urgency: all personal effects, girlfriends' portraits, the lot, had to be jettisoned. But he had the presence of mind to rip the hard covers off his manuscript and stuff the pith in his pocket.

Such high drama around the play's genesis is bound to somewhat outweigh any contained within. Trevor Nunn's production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket transports us back to stuffy 1940s Lincolnshire. Forces' sweethearts croon and crackle in the background as the curtain lifts on an unremittingly brown hotel lobby, supposedly hard by an air force base, where pilots gather to spend precious time with their wives between daring bombing raids. A period piece this may be, but with Lincolnshire bombers again in action over Libya, it is now unexpectedly germane.

It's rich in the argot of its time, when people got in a funk, the sorties are "do's" and to die is to have "bought it". This sidelong idiom, which rarely squares up to reality, is a cornerstone to Rattigan's premise of restrained but heroic British resilience in the face of trauma. Its very best exponent is the magnetic north of the whole production, ex-barmaid Doris, played with extraordinary clarity by Sheridan Smith. Her amiable chat, and her squawks of "dears" and "ducks," scarcely paper over the well of feeling for her Polish airman husband.

Smith, whose art is to appear artless, delivers a performance of touching generosity. When Doris's husband is missing, and feared dead, great fat tears slide down her cheeks as her smiles and stoicism are bent to breaking point; her soft remark that "Germans don't treat Poles like prisoners of war" is quietly devastating.

The brown hotel is populated by chirpy caricatures of the lower classes -- a bosomy, pinnied hostess and her callow factotum Percy. (The actors don't, unfortunately, share Smith's ease with the Lincolnshire brogue.) In Rattigan-land, the working classes are pretty hilarious, but not as hilarious as them foreigners! The foreigner in question -- who is actually called Johnny -- is Doris's husband, the Count Skriczevinsky, and his scant acquaintance with the English language ("that was good how I am saying him?") provokes the most hilarity amongst the characters, and audience, alike.

The crux of the play is a love triangle, between fading matinée idol Peter Kyle (a bounderish James Purefoy), glam actress Patricia Graham (Sienna Miller) and her jolly good-egg pilot husband Teddy, played with all the bounce of a friendly Tigger by Harry Hadden-Paton. Patriotic and wifely duties combine to mean that Patricia must renounce her fascinating paramour and cleave to the good egg hubby, but here's where the structural tension sags, since it's impossible to buy into the Purefoy-Miller axis. With no heat, no passion in the affair, its renunciation doesn't seem like such a big deal. Frankly, I'd go for Tigger any day.

This lack of intensity is partly down to Miller's rather ordinary, temperate performance. In her movements onstage one can still see traces of the blocking: she appears to travel along pre-ordained lines. Her lachrymose moments -- and there are a few -- look like a mild kerfuffle; her rangy form seemingly expressing some vague vexation instead of heartbreak. But it's not all Miller's fault. The deep structure of the play itself lists clearly to one side: the character of Peter is pretty unlikeable, and on the night I saw the show, Purefoy drew audible tutting from the crowd at one of his caddish moments. Small wonder we're not drawn into relations between the cad and the cadaverous.

Hard, also, to perform stiff upper lip without being merely stiff; and frankly the most credible love story on the understated Rattigan scene is not amongst the obvious couples at all, but between the pilots and their squadron leader. Their insider jokes, private language and affectionate nicknames ("Prune" and "Gloria") clearly hint at the closeted gay playwright's views on the strength and endurance of feeling between men.

The designers allow themselves one big FX moment when the bombers take off, but for me this son et lumière sits uneasily with the scrupulous naturalism of the beige lobby. Nunn keeps his Flare Path straight and steady rather than incendiary. What emerges is an uncontroversial homily on British sang-froid, comfortably confirming all we think we're good at. We leave stirred, but not shaken.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear