Tim McMullan (Mendoza) & Ralph Fiennes (John Tanner). Photo: Johan Persson/National Theatre
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George Bernard Shaw and David Hare: the political theatre that gets better with age

George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman and David Hare's The Absence of War have an ideology that speaks to today's politics.

Man and Superman
Lyttleton Theatre, London SE1

The Absence of War
Sheffield Crucible and on UK Tour
 

One measure of impact is whether writers bestow an adjective: Shakespearean, Chekhovian, Brechtian or Pinteresque. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a contrary type, is immortalised fittingly by a term that does not quite contain his name. “Shavian” drama, which turns on ideological debate, remains a powerful theatrical “life force” (an important concept for the playwright) three-quarters of a century after his death.

Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, which sets rationalists against the religious, is very much a Shaw thing, and David Hare (who challenges adjectival memorial – Harite? Hairy?) repeatedly sets two viewpoints in passionate opposition, as in his 1993 play about Labour Party politics, The Absence of War. A revival of the Hare at the same time as a new National Theatre production of Shaw’s 1903 drama, Man and Superman, offers an intriguing conjunction of Shavian and neo-Shavian plays.

Man and Superman borrows its title from Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and its plot from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but flips the sexual dynamics so that Shaw’s hero, Jack Tanner, is a nervous and virginal man at the mercy of attempted ensnarement by a woman. Unusually, because it takes almost five hours to perform its four acts, Man and Superman exists in two versions. A three-act anti-romantic comedy featuring Jack and Ann, intermittently done as a West End star vehicle, omits the fantastical “Don Juan in Hell” sequence, in which Jack, kidnapped by brigands on a motoring holiday in Spain, dreams he has become Mozart’s hero and is debating with Satan.

Simon Godwin’s production attempts the entire text, but trims it to a relatively Beckettian three and a half hours and moves it to a sort of modern day, in which there is one mobile phone but a left-wing writer has a uniformed chauffeur. Judiciously cut, the non-romcom scenes are still funny enough but the optional debate in Hades proves unmissable: a soaring forum of ideas about evolution, revolution and religion in which Jack/Juan’s long, linguistically and philosophically twisty arias are answered with wry one-liners from the Devil, tremendously portrayed by Tim McMullan as a slippery, Wildean wit.

Ralph Fiennes, easily and charmingly in command of one of the longest parts in drama, remains vocally clear even at high speed and is also physically thoughtful; when Jack takes off on one of his rhetorical flights, the actor contorts his torso and limbs, making literal the idea of posturing or being a poseur. As Ann, Indira Varma projects a sensuality and intellect that Jack cannot resist. A dramatist at risk of being written off as a windbag is given second wind in a production that makes thinking thrilling.

Hare made his Shavian interests explicit by directing a production of Heartbreak House, Shaw’s 1919 state-of-England play, in the 1990s, a decade when he wrote a trilogy of his own that included The Absence of War (touring until May). It features George Jones, a reformist Labour leader admired for his oratory but doubted on his economics, who loses to a weak Tory leader after being mocked by tabloids and doubted in his own party. The dramatist had spent the 1992 election on Neil Kinnock’s battle-bus.

Hare said in a recent interview that he prefers directors not to update his plays: in Jeremy Herrin’s version, political news flickers on Ceefax and the fictional Labour politicians express fears that their party will never return to government. Jones’s 1990s problems with the media and colleagues are, however, more or less those of Ed Miliband. And Hare’s depiction of a great public speaker who is forced to be careful what he says makes you think of Barack Obama and all the other modern politicians silenced by a digital audience always looking for the wrong end of the stick. Reece Dinsdale’s Jones is sensibly a sort of Everyleader, and subtly shows how the man has become two different people in public and private.

The best scene is the most consciously Shavian: exhausted at the end of a day’s separate campaigning, Jones and the smoothly superior shadow chancellor (Gyuri Sarossy) meet in an aircraft hangar to argue the merits of party discipline and the pursuit of power over ideological rigour. It would make uncomfortable viewing for Miliband, but also for Cameron and Clegg.

Grown free from its presumed Kinnockian roots, The Absence of War proves, after last year’s triumphant revisiting of Skylight, another of Hare’s assertions: his plays usually improve on revival. 

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 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder