Show Hide image

Review: Love, Love, Love

Andrew Billen is engaged by a monstrous couple born at the right time.

Love, Love, Love

Royal Court, London SW1

Now and again, as the movie tells us, a star is born. I am not quite sure if that happened for Victoria Hamilton last week at the Royal Court. She has won too many awards to count as an overnight success, in any case. But, with her rendition of Sandra, one of the two leads in Mike Bartlett’s anti-love story, Love Love Love, a monster, certainly, was born. Sandra, a brimming receptacle of vanity, selfishness, ruthlessness, self-righteousness and alcohol, is played by Hamilton with a vigour and exaggeration that at first threatens to overwhelm the play but becomes its X-factor. She is almost as enjoyable as Alison Steadman’s Beverly in Abigail’s Party, though Sandra satirises the bourgeoisie, not the lower middle classes. Hamilton/Sandra is not in the same league as Mark Rylance/Brewster or Kevin Spacey/Crookback but she is right at the top of the next division.

So congratulations to her but also to Ben Miles who plays Ken, with whom she spends 40 argumentative years in love. Thanks to Miles’s own vigour, not once do you question why Ken should fall for this monster. Likes attract and Ken – although from the other side of the tracks to Sandra – is monstrous himself. A working-class boy at Oxford, he is greedily aware of the world opening up for him; a point symbolised by his watching, when we join him, Our World, a concert broadcast by satellite to some 400 million. (During it, the Beatles first sang “All You Need is Love”, from whose lyrics the play’s title is taken). The first opportunity to seize is Sandra, the Chelsea girl, and he takes her from under the nose of her boyfriend, his brother Harry. In 1990, in the second act, deep in the plod of parenthood and mortgage, he has an affair and, tit-for-tat, she divorces him. In the third, set in the present day, Ken, now affluent and retired, steals her back from her second husband.

Bartlett’s three eras require some suspension of disbelief from the audience. Make-up and agility – Miles, who in fact is in his mid-forties, does some athletic sofa-jumping as the young Ben – can only help so much. On the other hand, since Bartlett’s subject is the invincibility of the Beatles generation, Ken and Sandra’s retarded ageing is not entirely inappropriate. Better fed, better educated, better cared-for than their parents, today’s 70-year-olds are the freshest faced ever.

As a thesis, the idea that this generation of so-called liberals ushered in decades of me-me-me-ism, broken marriages, materialism and moral chaos is not exactly original. Bartlett sometimes pushes it too far. Sandra’s total lack of interest in her children is pathological, not indicative. Nor has their financial good luck gone unremarked. David Willetts’s 2010 book, The Pinch, examined the phenomenon of a generation made rich by oil, property and technological revolution, whose predisposition to live long and beyond their means will impoverish generations to come.

When at the end, in the present day, their daughter Rose, done in a fine turn by Claire Foy, demands her divorced parents buy her a house, they reply with speeches on the Samuel Smiles theme of self-help. This must present any Daily Mail readers watching with a problem: do they agree with Rose’s spirited attack on her parents (all they stood for was “doing what the fuck they wanted”) or theirs on her (she wants to be rich and famous but “never lifts a fucking finger”). Not that I would guess there were many Mail readers there. The biggest laugh – a roar of agreement more like – was occasioned by Ken’s line in act two: “We live in Reading. Something must have gone wrong.”

The play is what used to be called well-made, although its style – and this may be director James Grieve’s intention – changes from act to act, beginning almost as pastiche of John Osborne, becoming in act two an Edward Albee fight, and ending as tidily and with as much exposition, as Rattigan. There are some loose ends, too, such as how precisely Ken got from suburbia to a country house at the end (although the set and lighting makes it look more like a Mediterranean villa). But the drama is largely satisfying and manages to say something fresh about love. Couples so wrapped up in themselves that they think their love is all they need, are liable to become monsters indeed.


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 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide