Robert Icke. Photo: Camera Press
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Cruel to be kind: the radicalism of Robert Icke

The Almeida's young associate director has a reputation for criticising the rest of the theatre world. But, he says, he's just trying to strip away the “plastic casing” from classic texts such as Hamlet and 1984.

By the time I meet Robert Icke, at the end of a long day of rehearsals for the West End transfer of Hamlet, I, too, feel like a dreaded sight. Biblical early-summer rain has soaked me to the skin and drummed on the windows of the Union Chapel in Islington, north London, breaking the actors’ concentration as they work out how to move the production from the Almeida, a 325-seat theatre, to a venue that holds 796.

I sit on the sofa to dry out, hoping it’s not the one that Andrew Scott plans to hide behind at the Harold Pinter Theatre in central London in a few days' time. The lead actor is here, relaxed and laughing in a blue shirt and yellow Converse; there is none of the whiff of sulphur that hangs about him as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock or his extraordinary, volcanic Hamlet. As stagehands remove masking tape from the floor and the rest of the company say their weekend goodbyes, Robert Icke stands serene. There is something of the Nineties student about him: big, round glasses, black T-shirt and light blue jeans. He wouldn’t look out of place in an early Blur video.

But he’s much too young for that. After all, there are two things that everyone in the theatre world knows about Icke. The first is that he is young – disgustingly young, thrillingly young – the director of seven acclaimed shows since joining the Almeida at just 30. The second is that he thinks a lot of theatre is crap. “Certainly more evenings at the theatre are boring than not boring,” he told the Times in October. He walks out of shows at the interval, he said, “all the time”.

At the Almeida, where he is associate director, he has focused mostly on classic texts, culminating in a Hamlet that has now transferred to the commercial stage. He loves Shakespeare as much as he hates the cult of Shakespeare, all doublets and what he calls “actor voice”. He also hates period dress. “It’s about a weird kind of nostalgia for the past, because, you know, ‘It was safer then and there were no brown people to fuck things up,’” he tells me as we eat in a nearby restaurant. “I find period dress as an aesthetic choice to be like a political choice – lazy and safe.”

Icke is London theatre’s golden boy. The only other director of his generation who inspires anything like as much buzz is Lyndsey Turner, who is so publicity shy that she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Although she won an Olivier Award in 2014 for Chimerica, her 2015 Hamlet – a blowsy epic at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch – had disappointing reviews.

By contrast, Icke can apparently do no wrong. His version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has just opened on Broadway, and his translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart will follow Hamlet to the West End next year. Over Christmas, while the Schiller play was running at the Almeida and Hamlet was in rehearsal, he also directed David Hare’s The Red Barn at the National. Next April, he will stage Oedipus in the Netherlands with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. He watches each production at least once a week, continually refining it.

This success is why critics worry that his click-bait pronouncements will overshadow his talents. “He doesn’t seem to have an edit function when it comes to public speaking,” says David Benedict, the former London critic of Variety. “There are times when he appears to be on some kind of mission, but I’m not sure what the mission is.”

Henry Hitchings of the London Evening Standard agrees. “He’s 30 and everything he’s done has been very successful. He’s already this grand eminence in the British theatre, but that doesn’t mean he’s the finished article.” Kate Maltby, who reviews for the Times, adds: “He is the subject of real hatred and envy by his peers – it’s the response to youthful success.”

Yet his mentor, the Almeida’s artistic director, Rupert Goold, is sanguine. “He has got a reputation for being very controversial. People imagine it must be arrogance,” he tells me. “But he’s really not. He has moments of great doubt. I remember after seeing a rehearsal of Hamlet, I had a few thoughts, and I could sense he felt he had a lot of work to do. He was having his own Hamlet moment.”

Icke sees himself not as a provocateur – theatre’s Damien Hirst – but as a radical, in the old sense of “going back to the root”. Goold says that the pair of them are always talking about the “Dyson factor”. “No one thought to put a big ball in the middle of a Hoover and, oh, look, it’s made the Hoover a million times better,” he says. “So what’s the Dyson factor for George Bernard Shaw, or Schiller? What’s the big round ball that makes it better?”

OK, so what happens if we do to Robert Icke what he tries to do to his texts: strip away the click-bait? What is it that makes so many people swoon over his productions?

Act I: Oresteia

“I hadn’t seen any of his work,” says Hildegard Bechtler, who has designed sets and costumes for four of Icke’s shows. “But straight out of that first conversation, I wanted to collaborate on the Oresteia.”

There was one problem: there was no text to work from. “I didn’t have his version, so I got a bit panicked about it. It was a jump into the dark in every sense for me.” That was because Icke was translating the text himself, creating a family saga around Orestes, who kills his mother to avenge his father.

“When I look back on Rob and his development,” Goold says, “the moment that accelerated his career was when he wanted to adapt the Oresteia himself.” The play was conceived as part of a Greek season at the Almeida in 2015, but it became the standout success.

Until he picked up his Olivier Award for Oresteia – becoming the youngest person ever to win the Best Director prize – Icke was a cult hit rather than a mainstream success. Born in Stockton-on-Tees and educated at a Church of England state school, he decided at the age of 15 to become a director after seeing Kenneth Branagh in Richard III. Returning home, he wrote to the play's director Michael Grandage, who offered him a two-hour personal tutorial. But Icke didn’t enjoy the drama scene at Cambridge, where he studied English at King’s College. He told the university paper Varsity in 2014: “There was a lot of cliquey-ness and I thought the work was rubbish.”

While still at school, he co-founded a youth theatre company in Stockton, and he repeated the exercise at Cambridge with an outfit called the Swan. By 2009, however, he was considering giving up, having been told by the National Theatre that its lower age limit for associate directors was 28.

Then he met Goold, who was the artistic director of the Headlong touring company. Their meeting has been mythologised: one critic tells me a Chinese whispers version in which Icke “went up to [Goold] in a lobby of the theatre after his play and told him it wasn’t very good”.

The real version is less dramatic: they met at a function at the Almeida. Yet there is a kernel of truth to the story. At his interview for the assistant directorship at Headlong, Icke was asked to give a “two-minute takedown” of one of its shows. He chose the phenomenally successful Enron and quickly identified a flaw in the structure that Goold hadn’t seen in two years of working on it.

“When I first met him for the interviews at Headlong, I read his CV,” says the older director now. “I thought, ‘This is the comedy version of an academic CV. The highest A-level in the country! The best degree!’”

Perhaps the apparent ease with which Icke has excelled has left him intolerant of the compromises made by others. He never reads reviews, he tells me, partly because critics get such small spaces in which to dissect a play. “A lot of them, they just aren’t good enough at criticism to be able to spot [a theme] and go, ‘That’s what’s going on.’”

For their part, more than one of the people I spoke to wondered if Icke’s oppositional stance dates back to his 2014 Almeida production of a play called Mr Burns. It was a new work about a post-apocalyptic society that has fashioned a mythology around The Simpsons. The bad half of the sharply divided reviews called it boring, unintelligible and too long. “In the final act, it all got really weird with the actors putting on gold outfits and playing out some sort of Nativity scene,” wrote Tim Walker in the Telegraph. “This bit looked like it was directed not so much by Robert Icke as David Icke.”

But Mr Burns sold well, and the Almeida’s audiences – who were notably younger than the critical establishment – liked it. (A friend of mine who saw it recalled sitting next to a critic who proudly announced that she had never seen The Simpsons.)

“There is a slight generational divide, as much to do with the receptiveness of younger generations to a more European style of theatre as anything,” says Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out, who is close to Icke’s age. “Mr Burns got very polarised reviews. He was quite distraught by some of the reception to that.”

Although Oresteia was more rapturously received, the notices didn’t change Icke’s opinion that much theatre criticism is shallow. “I had a thing in Oresteia which nobody has noticed at all,” he says. “Because the ancient Greeks believed that sneezing meant that the gods had gone into your body in some way, and the sneezing was a sign of the presence of a god, there is a series of strategically placed sneezes in Oresteia.”

Come on, I say. Presumably everybody thought: he’s worked this company too hard and they’ve all caught a cold. He pauses. “I don’t know,” he says. “I never asked them.”

Act II: Mary Stuart

Two women, dressed identically in black trousers, white shirts and black jackets, walk up to the stage. There is silence in the theatre as one drops a coin into a bowl, where it spins and lands. Heads. Tonight, it is Lia Williams’s turn to die and Juliet Stevenson will order her death.

Schiller’s Mary Stuart, first performed in 1800, was even more unpromising as source material for a modern audience than Oresteia. When Icke first asked his two lead actors to read it aloud, the old Victorian translation they had to use lasted five hours. His reworking recognised that this was a rare moment in early-modern history when the fates of two powerful women were intertwined. Each night, one protagonist would be executed and the other would live with the responsibility for making that happen. “As soon as I had the idea of them doing Mary Stuart, I thought, ‘Brilliant, but which way round?’ I read it again and I realised that their interchangeability in the play dramaturgically, and their longing to be the other one, was the way to do it.”

It wasn’t the first production to play with this kind of dualism: for Danny Boyle’s 2011 Frankenstein at the National, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated as the scientist and the monster. But by making the assignment of roles part of the drama, watched by the audience, Icke emphasised the arbitrary nature of fate.

Kate Maltby, who wrote notes for the programme, is ambivalent about this treatment. “I loved it as a piece of theatre. I just hated it as a feminist and a historian,” she tells me. “His vision of the play is of two women who are mirror images of each other. It was sharply executed but it’s part of a long male tradition of seeing women as interchangeable.”

I make a similar point to Icke. The play reminds me of being asked in my late teens, as part of a personality test, whether I identified more with Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. Now, I would probably ask: are those really the only options? “It’s like there are two different sets of characteristics, of which we all have a bit of both,” he says. “The whole question of that play is: is Elizabeth strong enough to kill off Mary, and can a Mary ever kill off an Elizabeth?”

The dramatic structure sets the “doomed, romantic, instinctive” Mary against Elizabeth, “who has thought things through, kept all her personal life out of the tabloids . . . Can [Mary] ever defeat the woman who got to the top? Equally, though, if you’re Elizabeth, are you prepared to take the bit of yourself that is Mary Stuart – sexual, maternal, all those traditionally female qualities, and behead that?”

Or you could put it another way, Icke says, smiling as he acknowledges the cliché: “Can’t a woman have it all?”


Juliet Stevenson (left) and Lia Williams in Icke’s production of Mary Stuart. Photo: Miles Aldridge

In the Almeida’s staging, the climax of the play is an extraordinary, wordless scene. As with Oresteia, Hildegard Bechtler built Icke a revolving stage. After Elizabeth has ordered Mary’s death, the revolve starts, a pop song by Laura Marling plays, and the doomed queen is undressed – by men – down to her shift, ready to be executed. Her triumphant rival, meanwhile, is dressed – by men – in a skeleton version of the cumbersome farthingale and white-lead face paint of the period. “Undressing one and dressing the other had a strong visual impact,” Bechtler says. “One was going to her death and was liberated, but the other was tied down… in an imprisoning garment.”

It was a beautiful scene, showing confidence in the audience at the end of a long (over three hours), dialogue-heavy play. And, to be brutally honest, I was surprised to see a male director so attuned to the meaning-laden potential of female clothing.

I confess my sexism to Icke. “That is very sexist,” he agrees. “I am embarrassed as always to be a man. It’s a terrible club to belong to: they do terrible things, they’re only interested in football and alcohol, two things in which I have zero interest. But if you switched the gender roles in our conversation… that would be profoundly offensive. Not that I’m offended.”

The Almeida announced Mary Stuart when the 2016 Tory leadership race had narrowed to a contest between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Although Icke appreciated the echo, he doesn’t want to do overtly political theatre. “I don’t really need a whole evening for me to tell you what I think about racism,” he says. “I probably think it’s bad, and you probably think it’s bad, and I don’t need a whole evening of your time for that.”

Yet he hopes that someone – not him – writes a great play about Brexit. “There will be a really good show in the campaigns, not in the referendum result, because what you have effectively is two rudderless tribes of people interested in their own advancement.” He thinks it would be like a “non-violent, mainly white West Side Story”.

However, he doubts anyone could write a British version of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic musical about America’s founding fathers. “It has myth and nobility and a kind of moral evangelism,” he says. “Guy Fawkes is the grand moral narrative that I suspect most of the British populace agree with, which is: blow the fuckers up.”

Act III: Hamlet

Over the past few years, a consensus has arisen: Hamlet is the play. It has a plum part for a film or television actor looking to prove himself, the best-known soliloquy in all of Shakespeare and the modern themes of surveillance and selfhood. (You can imagine Hamlet worrying that no one is liking his posts on Instagram.)

Perhaps there’s another reason why Icke was keen to direct it: the production would be a high-profile test of his theory of what radicalism means. He sees staging a Shakespeare play as like restoring an Old Master. You have to scrape away the layers of varnish and try to see what was there at the start. “There’s a kind of plastic casing on the play, which is years of stage history,” he says, “a lot of which is nonsense.” He was excited to work with Andrew Scott, who had never done Shakespeare before, because the actor didn’t have “bad habits you have to chip off”.

The insight he brought to his version of Hamlet was this: “Maybe your key source is crazy.” In other words, the audience should be aware that Gertrude is bad, Claudius is bad, because that’s how Hamlet sees it. “Probably because of star culture, we interpret a lot of the famous, famous plays through the protagonist,” he says. “One thing I really felt about Hamlet was that I’d never seen a production that honoured the other characters.”

That meant adding in scenes from the “bad” quarto, such as one between Horatio and Gertrude before the final duel, which fleshes out the queen’s character. “It’s almost certainly not by Shakespeare and makes Gertrude a less ambiguous character,” Maltby says. “But it really worked, and I got the sense he was trying to give a voice to women as much as possible. Ophelia was on stage a lot more than usual.”

There is a “star culture” around directors, too, obscuring that one of the measures of success, as well as its guarantor, is the strength of your team. Icke has returned again and again to the same actors – Juliet Stevenson, Lia Williams, Angus Wright, Jessica Brown Findlay – and frequent collaborators such as Hildegard Bechtler, who are willing to work on small budgets. “The pay for small spaces like the Almeida, the time you invest, it doesn’t pay,” Bechtler says. “You have to be excited about it.” Sonia Friedman, the über-producer, is another quiet champion, bankrolling his West End transfers.

Goold says that there are a few other people to whom Icke listens: his associate Dan Raggett; his girlfriend; the sound designer Tom Gibbons. This continuity makes it possible, not even a dozen major productions into his career, to identify an Ickean aesthetic – even if, as sceptics say, it occasionally borrows too freely from the Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who will bring an adaptation of the 1976 film Network to the National Theatre in London this autumn.

As well as its attention to female roles, Hamlet bore other hallmarks of the Icke style. There was a heavy underscore and liberal use of modern music – including Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – and Bechtler reused the smoked glass from her minimalist Oresteia set, creating front and back sections of the stage. Depending on the lighting, the glass could be opaque or transparent, allowing for the meaning of a scene to be undercut or bolstered by something happening in the section behind it.

At the start, that second layer of action is Claudius’s and Gertrude’s wedding party. Later, we see Ophelia bathing at the back of the stage (another echo of Oresteia, in which Agamemnon is murdered in a ritual bath) and, because of the distance and the glass, we feel like voyeurs. The glass also allowed the final scene to be re-imagined, with the dead dancing together, bathed in heavenly light, using the same underlying music as for the wedding party.

The theatre blogger Florence Bell has suggested that this borrows from an episode of The Sopranos – one of Icke’s favourite television shows – in which the mafioso anti­hero Tony hovers between life and death. (Icke also appreciates the final instalment of The Sopranos, which ends with Tony turning his head in a restaurant and then a six-second cut to black, because the ambiguous ending neither lets him off for his crimes nor lets you off for enjoying them.)

There are also echoes of the climax of Hamilton, which Icke saw in New York when it was the hottest ticket in town, in which the lead character reconciles himself to death with the lyrics: “I catch a glimpse of the other side… My son is on the other side.” Here, Hamlet is already dead when he acknowledges, “The rest is silence.”

David Benedict experienced that last scene as a revelation. “It was the first time I thought, ‘I’m watching a play about a young man who died.’ It should be obvious but I’d never seen it before.” For Icke, there was another, more banal, reason to finish in this way. “The end of Hamlet is usually a lot of people doing ‘dead body’ acting, and that’s never moving.”

Is this why Icke’s performances seem so fresh? Like all directors, he magpies freely, but unlike the generation above him he’s borrowing from musicals, from computer games – we discuss the indie platformer Braid, which tells one story played forwards and another when reversed – and from mainstream television shows.

For the dumb show that starts the play-within-a-play, he took inspiration from the Pixar movie Up, which recaps the life of one of its main characters, a grumpy old man, at the pace of a flick book. (The other protagonists are an overweight schoolboy and a dog with a collar that gives it a human voice.) This speeded-up movie-in-a-movie shows the whole span of the man’s history with his late wife, through meeting, marriage and the disappointment of infertility, ending with her death.

The compression of life’s highs and lows turns that scene into emotional napalm, I say. It always makes me cry. Icke agrees. “Yeah, no amount of fucking talking dogs was going to help me after that.”

Epilogue

In 1599, his study of the most important year of Shakespeare’s working life, James Shapiro offers some startling figures:

In an England of four million, London and its immediate environs held a population of roughly two hundred thousand. If, on any given day, two plays were staged in playhouses that held as many as two to three thousand spectators each, it’s likely that with theatres even half full, as many as three thousand or so Londoners were attending a play… On average, it’s likely that over a third of London’s adult population saw a play every month.

Icke cites these figures – pretty much word perfect – to explain why he made it a condition of transferring Hamlet to the West End that there would be cheap seats to attract younger audiences. (There are 300 seats at every performance for less than £30.)

After all, Shakespeare saw himself as a popular entertainer and wrote for the groundlings as much as the elite. Icke and Andrew Scott “really believe that 15- and 16-year-old versions of us [should be able to] come from Ireland and Stockton, if [they] wanted to get a train and come and see it”. He argues we should be tougher on subsidised theatres that charge high ticket prices: “It’s not OK if you charge me 65 quid for something I’ve already paid for with my taxes, particularly not if it’s in a big space.”

In the last week of Hamlet’s Almeida run, the theatre offered free tickets to under-25s. “The actors said it was the best shows we ever played, because they didn’t know the story… They laughed in different places, they gasped. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to work at the Almeida than when there were queues of under-16s round the block to see a three-and-a-half-hour Hamlet. I thought, ‘This is what it’s for, this is why we put our taxes into this place.’”


1984, Icke’s adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, is now on Broadway

The unspoken backdrop to our conversation about Shakespeare is the tenure of Emma Rice at the Globe, cut short because the trustees were unhappy with her use of sound and lighting rigs in a theatre that doubles as a museum. Icke must be aware that the Globe is on the other side of the Shakespeare wars from him, although he never mentions names.

I decide it’s time to bring up the Controversy Thing. It might sound shallow, but isn’t he worried that people won’t talk to him at the Olivier Awards? “I hope I’ve never said publicly, ‘That person is terrible.’ It’s about why we do this as an art, so hopefully no one feels it’s personal.” He smiles. “I’m also not a great socialiser, because I’m completely teetotal, so I don’t go to pubs, and a lot of my mates don’t work in theatre.”

Both Goold and Henry Hitchings wonder if Robert Icke’s next step will be to direct a film, or whether he might fancy the artistic directorship of the Young Vic, which has become available this year. “He would hate so many elements of what that job is – thinking about loo rolls and corporate sponsors and what drinks get served at the bar,” Hitchings says. Bechtler hopes that the nature of their collaborations won’t change because of demands on his time. “Rob might change utterly now he’s become so successful, but the amount of talking [that we do] is crucial.”

There is one landmine ahead. A few of the people I spoke to were worried that the transfers never quite manage to capture the intimacy of the Almeida. A proscenium arch and a vast auditorium present a challenge for the focused, intense naturalism of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, for instance. Still, David Benedict pays him the greatest compliment a critic can offer: “While I have doubts about elements of Icke’s work, I’d rather see his failures than some of the kiss-of-death competence of other directors.”

“Hamlet” is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, until 2 September. “Mary Stuart” opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2, on 13 January 2018

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions