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.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era