In the Critics this week

Ryan Gilbey on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Douglas Hurd on David Hannay, George Saunders interviewed and Kate Mossman discusses Les Misérables.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release, Lincoln. Gilbey praises screenwriter Tony Kushner for his creation of a “fine-grained procedural drama” that is abundant with “unique structural and linguistic strengths”. Spielberg doesn’t go without praise, though, particularly where  the portrayal of slavery is concerned. Gilbey notes that this is a significant improvement on his 1997 brush with the subject in courtroom drama Amistad. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 56-year-old president Abraham Lincoln is “genuinely mesmerising” with interesting comparisons drawn with the younger Lincoln depicted by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Gilbey picks up on the questionably unintentional continuity between the characters, and the “baked-in wisdom and joyfulness” that is clear in both actors’ portrayals. Despite painting an “intimately gruelling” picture of the civil war, Spielberg achieves a kind of “magisterial grandeur” in the film’s cinematography.

In Books: Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN by diplomat David Hannay (“We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away”); Maragret Drabble discusses John Burnside’s collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (“His characters are are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone”); Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart is reviewed by Stuart Maconie (“It is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions”); John Sutherland on Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (“An innovative exercise in this genre”); and Helen Lewis gives her opinion on Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal by Anne H Putnam (“There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach . . . it’s a one-woman-and-her-body-show”).

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders about his latest novel, Tenth of December. Saunders says: “When you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman sings the praises of the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables; Rachel Cooke is unimpressed by the second series of Borgen on BBC4; Antonia Quirke discusses the power of Radio 4’s Open Country; and Leo Hollis talks design at Missorts art project in Bristol.

Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis at the recent premier of film Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution