Tales of the supernatural

The Tempest, Passion Play and The Weir reviewed by Andrew Billen.

The Tempest; Passion Play; The Weir
Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1;
Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2;
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

In his speech at the end of his daughter’s wedding masque – delivered here with great poetry by Roger Allam – Prospero makes literal sense of what every theatregoer fancies. Actors, or at least the characters they inhabit, are spirits who melt into thin air at a play’s end. The lines have particular resonance at the Globe, not least because “the great globe itself” gets a namecheck. They also provide a challenge for this production’s director, Jeremy Herrin: to create magic on the bare boards of the replica Elizabethan stage. Technically it is not possible to create the kind of effects available to, say, Jonathan Kent at the Almeida in 2000, who plonked a swimming pool in the middle of the stage.

There is another curious thing about the Globe. It is a tourist attraction but it delivers Shakespeare at RSC standards, against the elements, which were little short of tempestuous themselves on the night I went. Like Gonzalo, every cagouled groundling would fain die a dry death. The Globe heavily relies on the magic of Shakespeare’s language.

Not all of the production soared. Colin Morgan, whose supernatural provenance is impeccable, having played the BBC’s Merlin, was an unethereal Ariel. James Garnon was far too sleek and pretty to be the monster Caliban, although he worked hard to compensate, early on pulling off an audience member’s see-through mac and eating it. Jessie Buckley was a delightful Miranda, however, looking for once the required 15 years of age, and Sam Cox as the drunk butler Stephano had good moments, including a brief impersonation of David Attenborough: “This is some monster of the isle – with four legs.”

Magical, though, this production was not and that may even have been deliberate. The arrival of the shipwrecked parties was interpreted as a gigantic reality check for Prospero – but his magic was coming to an end anyway. Allam played the duke as an aphasic and failing tyrant, more irritable than terrifying, forgetful of the plots against him, barmily preoccupied with his daughter’s virginity. Like the shivering audience, he demands at the end to be released of his supernatural bonds.

Formally speaking, there are two magical elements in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, a 1981 piece about middle-class, middle-aged adultery revived under David Leveaux’s spare direction. The first is that the parts of the husband and wife are split so that there are sometimes two Jameses and two Eleanors onstage. The second is the religious music of Bach and Handel that pipes up on the excuse that Eleanor is a singer. Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond make a good fist of exploring the pain of Eleanor’s betrayal. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less successful at generating sympathy for the adulterous James, a scruffy picture-restorer with no obvious charms or views beyond a churlish atheism. The real mystery is Kate, played by the barely dressed Annabel Scholey as pure body: what is in it for her, this shagging with old men? Perhaps she, too, needs a double on stage to tell us.

It is the play’s theatrical conceits that do for it. The stage becomes crowded with viewpoints. Not only are they not always clearly differentiated, they trip over one another. Perfectly zingy dialogue is interrupted, as it were, by footnotes. As for the sacred music, its main effect is to make this shabby tale look monumentally irrelevant and also dated – a product of a pre-Aids society in which educated people behaved in a manner these days most often seen on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Tales of the supernatural are the stuff that Conor McPherson’s The Weir are made on. A couple of old soaks and their more successful neighbour Finbar scare each other and the barman with ghost stories. The tales speak to the lonely ghostliness of a depopulated land but they are also treasured, polished to perfection in each retelling, because they are means of connection: to the past and, for the narrators, to one another. Brian Cox, Risteárd Cooper and Ardal O’Hanlon outdo themselves in the excellence of their monologues, so much so that one fears for Dervla Kirwan, playing a newcomer to the community. Will she be able to compete? Yet when her story of personal tragedy comes, it sweeps all away.

Josie Rourke’s revival of this 1997 play reveals it to be a masterpiece, a study of the inadequacy of male company, the insufficiency of consolation and humanity’s determination to get by on what it has. It is funny, wears its sadness lightly and grips from the moment that Cox, as the bachelor Jack, enters the pub and aggressively wipes his boots. For the next 100 minutes, you believe you are in the pub with him and his almost-friends. The Donmar dissolves in favour of Sligo. That is magic.

Jessie Buckley and Roger Allam as Miranda and Prospero in Shakespeare's Globe's current production of The Tempest.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times