Ecstasy has had its day

This devised piece of theatre isn't groundbreaking, it's bankable.

Mike Leigh's Ecstasy comes to the West End on a surge of praise and goodwill from critics and punters alike. It's just had a sell-out run in Hampstead, where they trotted down the hill to the Swiss Cottage theatre in their droves to look at all the actors playing the Kilburn poor.

In the face of this unanimity, I'm afraid my own position is less one of ecstasy than of apostasy. I think Ecstasy has had its day. Originally devised in 1979, and performed six months into Thatcher's premiership, it must have crackled with an altogether heretical energy at the time. Set in a Kilburn bedsit (something I feel qualified to talk about), the actors are cooped and cramped in a tiny section of the stage; the crappy 1950s furniture takes equal billing with the actors as chief protagonists. There's poverty, material and linguistic: the characters' chat is inconsequential, redundant, a raid on the inarticulate; no one does the sad carouse as well as Mike Leigh.

A devised show is a strange and wondrous beast. A combination of research and improvisation can mean dialogue that rarely gets beyond the pedestrian, but dialogue is rarely the point. There are also jackpot accidents of timing, the sort of special comedy that can only be spontaneous, and above all a more than compensating sense of physicality -- the performers' rhythms, the way they move, tends to be more important than what they are saying. The director's job is to splice together the best bits, and make a patterning of sorts out of the inchoate.

This is apparently the first time that Leigh has revisited one of his devised pieces (it was originally created with Stephen Rea, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley), and I'm not so sure it was well-advised. Stepping into a devised role is worse than wearing someone else's shoes. The roles are more than bespoke, they are emanations from the original actors.

The current batch do a doughty job at their impersonations: Siân Brooke's gin-soaked petrol pump attendant Jean is a twentysomething trapped in a fiftysomething's body, which she jerks around like a tired marionette; stiffened, ground down, careworn. Ebullient friend Dawn (Sinéad Matthews) gets impressively pissed, sliding away from her object, whether it's the loo or a glass of water, and does spectacular dances. Of her wedding, she remembers only "the toilets in The Old Bell" (my local, during the bedsit years). She speaks with the smoky croak of fags and booze. Craig Parkinson's jilted Len has an unassuming, bespectacled poise and quietude. His kindly, if tautologous, comment on Jean's bedsit is, "it's small, but it's compact".

Kilburn High Road as a wrackline for immigrants -- these characters wash up from the Midlands, mostly, as well as Ireland, in the case of Dawn's husband (who is called, not unexpectedly, Mick) -- is a fecund idea. As is the desperation and emptiness of working lives, perfectly summed by Alison Chitty's set, where the dead flowers on the telly sit next to an empty packet of Roses chocolates.

But for all the cast's virtuoso ventriloquism, there's a certain physical charge, typical of the devised show, which is lacking. It's way too long, and has some structural wrinkles that are in the "good idea at the time" category: Roy, who makes a couple of early appearances as Jean's violent lover, and even more so Val, his hell hath no fury wife, should perhaps have been allowed a merciful death, even in 1979. And did we really need Jean's spelled-out breakdown at the end, when it could have, should have, remained unsaid?

In the programme the artistic director at Hampstead, Edward Hall, cites Ecstasy as an example of what subsidy can achieve by way of the new and the risk-taking, which I think is a little wide of the mark, considering this is now a 32-year-old play, directed by an über-bankable auteur. Given that Hampstead does have a new, devised show -- running from 12 May -- without the imprimatur of Leigh, perhaps such rhetoric is best saved for the genuine, contemporary article.

"Ecstasy" runs at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 until 28 May.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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

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