Mossman on music: American Idiot

The Green Day-inspired musical reviewed.

The new Green Day musical reminds me of the bit in Naked Gun 33 1/3 where they’re reading out the Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. “Fatal Affair: One woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg Disaster”; “Basic Analysis: One woman’s fight against a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1968”. Billie Joe Armstrong’s two-hour stage show is one man’s failure to put his trousers on, set against the backdrop of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

It is churlish to criticise the plot of a Juke Box musical. Queen’s We Will Rock You follows a group of “Bohemians” fighting against “Radio Gaga” (processed music, boy bands) and searching for the elusive “Brighton Rock” (a guitar buried in a cave); Rock Of Ages has developers trying to knock down the club where all the characters hang out, simply to facilitate a segue into Starship’s "We Built This City". In many ways, the worse the link, the more fun that moment of recognition.

But there’s something grim about Green Day’s attempt to turn their Grammy-winning concept album (“a response to the realities of the post 9/11 era”) into a stage musical – not because the subject is too heavy, but because, judging by how fearfully they tiptoe around it on stage, the “promise” of 9/11 has simply been used to put bums on seats.

Of course you don’t want to see people dancing round the Twin Towers (and you don’t). I’m not living in America: perhaps this masterpiece of vaguery worked better there – it managed 421 nights on Broadway, though Armstrong had to start appearing in it himself in order to up the ratings. But two dozen TV screens broadcasting a garbled narrative about all sorts of nasty things like AIDS and earthquakes (and terrorism) while lead character Johnny cries “I’m fed up of afternoons of shit-talking and blah-fucking-blah” is not a poignant rumination on an era, and shouldn’t be billed as one.

In Green Day’s original 2004 album, Johnny was called Jesus of Suburbia. He met a punk freedom fighter and fell in love with a woman (called Whatsername) who represented “mother revolution”. It wasn’t Bertolt Brecht but it meant something – it was impassioned, and ambitious, and bold for a snarky little punk rock band to come out with a song called "Wake Me Up When September Ends".

It’s assumed that the musical-going public are too thick to handle allegory, so rather than those abstract figures we’ve got Johnny, Tunny and Matt. The former becomes a junkie, and when that doesn’t work out he comes home deducing, “She was right, I am an idiot … This is my rage. This is my love. This is my town.” Apart from its visualisation of chronic loserdom in Johnny, the show’s political content is focused on Tunny, who is seduced into war with the baffling libretto “[his] dream turned red, white and blue! But I thought that good guys don't wear red, white, and blue! Nobody seems to agree on anything these days!” The stage is briefly awash with dancing soldiers but no actual war is mentioned, just as no president is mentioned (there’s a truncated clip of George Bush’s “you’re either with us…”) and no real-life, world-changing event.

Stage shows generate regular cash and introduce your back catalogue to a new audience. Billie Joe is not exactly up the dumper – Green Day’s new album ¡Uno! has been met, as the saying goes, with a mixed critical reaction, he’s now 40 and he went into rehab last month following a meltdown on stage in Las Vegas: it’s not hard to guess why someone thought this musical would be a good idea. But Green Day, unlike Queen or Abba, don’t have enough hits to fill a full-length stage show – just three or four; they’d have been better off harnessing their “slacker” thing and going down the Avenue Q or Loserville route, if they really wanted to see their name in lights. And maybe there is a “post-9/11” musical to be written one day – by Stephen Colbert, or David and Amy Sedaris, or Jon Stewart, or maybe all four of them together. Well, maybe.

Green Day’s "American Idiot" is at the Edinburgh Playhouse next week and on a national tour, ending at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in December.

Billie Joe Armstrong on Broadway with the cast of American Idiot. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

BBC
Show Hide image

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.