The Gods Weep

A bad play with the courage of its own mad convictions.

The Gods Weep
Hampstead Theatre, London

Literalism is a word that goes well with the qualifier "deadly". In The Gods Weep, Dennis Kelly has taken the cliché of "blood on the carpet", often used journalistically to describe boardroom bust-ups, and made it literal.

For the first half of this play, Catherine and Richard, rival executives of a nameless utilities provider, battle verbally over who will succeed its founder, Colm, played by a gaunt and mad Jeremy Irons. Then, suddenly, we are on a literal battlefield, the two factions turned into soldiers willing to commit any atrocity in return for corporate power. As a metaphor for the viciousness of capitalism, it is literal. But is it deadly?

Actually, no. Although this new play, commissioned and performed by the RSC, lasts nearly three hours - and, I am told, had to be cut down from four - it is never boring. It is outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed (for a while I hoped the warfare would prove to be the product of the sick Colm's fevered hallucinations), politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny, but it is not dull.

It is a bad play, but a bad play with the courage of its own mad convictions. What it is not, sadly, is so bad that it is good. Kelly, who co-wrote the excellent BBC3 sitcom Pulling (and has received good notices for plays such as Love and Money and Orphans), has not proved here incapable of writing some strong speeches. Irons begins the proceedings with a bold, bizarre monologue delivered to Colm's fellow board members about a nightmare he has just had about collecting shells on a beach. There was, in this dream, a blackhead on his belly.

He squeezed it, "and it kept coming, metres and metres of this, thick as your finger". As an image of a man rotting from the inside and contaminating his environment, it is not bad. Later, Colm describes how he destroyed a business rival named Ken for no better reason than he had written something critical about him in a trade paper. When Ken blew his brains out, he thought: "I did that. That was me. Look at me. That was me, look at what I did." It is a momentarily arresting depiction of power abused for its own sake.

Unfortunately, the play's central conceit - that corporate infighting can be compared to a civil war that lays waste to a country, reducing its citizens to peasants living in tents constructed out of foliage - is entirely incredible and, in addition, unrealisable on the stage (despite the able direction of Maria Aberg, who throws her actors across all corners of Naomi Dawson's concrete, tomb-like set). The re-cladding of the corporate suits into army fatigues is particularly daft and, even now, I cannot decide who looked more butch in khaki: jutty Catherine, played by Helen Schlesinger, or Jonathan Slinger's little, gingery Richard.

When I tell you that the story begins with Colm dividing his corporate kingdom between two younger executives, that he is aided by a plain-speaking lieutenant and that he ends up sheltering in the countryside beside his estranged daughter, you will guess why we have the seashore dream at the beginning.

This is an RSC "response" to King Lear, as commissioned by its artistic director, Michael Boyd, who seems as at sea with new writing as he is at home with the Bard himself. Lear does not require a response, being in itself an exhaustive interrogation of parental love, cruelty, megalomania, nihilism and the redemptive power of sympathy. For a reworking of its themes, give me On Golden Pond, any day.

Jeremy Irons is a highly capable actor, but he is neither as magnetic nor as sympathetic as Henry Fonda was in that film. He is better here at the going-mad scenes than when he is required to find his sanity - rejecting capitalism in favour of family. His initial rages and cruelties are impressive; the pathos of his sojourn on the blasted heath, less so. He does, however, in his duets with his illegitimate daughter, Barbara (Joanna Horton doing a sarf London voice), achieve a kind of barmy comedy that is, I am pretty sure, intentional.

There is one screamingly funny sequence in which he returns on set with a squirrel at the end of a stick, only for Barbara to tease out of him the shaming truth that it was already dead when he impaled it. Yet his plans to rustle sheep in the moonlight seem meant to be taken seriously, even romantically.

Although I judge Kelly not guilty of attempting to shoehorn the dramatist's old standby of incest into the piece, he has crammed almost everything else into it: not just meaningful speeches on madness and society, and the photosynthesis of plants, but also Shakespearian devices such as the fake death and unexpected resurrection. "The universe has been here for 15 billion years. We have waited 15 billion years for this moment," Colm says just before the end. Not for this play, we haven't.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

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 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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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