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5 March 2017

Inside the Vatican archives, I discover the secret to the Catholic Church’s confidence

My week, from bending Shakespeare’s genders to visiting the Vatican and Labour’s long slide into oblivion.

By Roy Hattersley

The National Theatre’s splendid and spectacular production of Twelfth Night has four bravura performances. Three of them are of characters created by Shakespeare: Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Feste. The fourth – Tamsin Greig as Malvolia – is the cross-gender product of the director’s imagination. This is now a theatrical fashion. In the past year, I have seen it happen to the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the eponymous tyrant in Cymbeline. I missed Glenda Jackson as King Lear. But that was different: Shakespeare’s text remained inviolate and the characters exhibited the attributes that he gave them. Cymbeline was so changed that the Royal Shakespeare Company felt entitled to compare its production with what it crassly called the playwright’s “version” of the play.

I have no objection to women playing men’s parts if the object is to illustrate their virtuosity or to compensate for the shortage of good female roles. Yet I suspect that the reason for changing genders is the belief that Shakespeare needs a modern dimension to
make him more “accessible”. That is patronising nonsense. The under-thirties watching Twelfth Night at the National would have whooped just as loudly for Richard Briers’s Malvolio, who was by turns bombastic and pathetic but unequivocally male.

The idea of “freshening up” Shakespeare is as absurd as it is offensive. “Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale/His infinite variety”. Those lines – here desecrated with gender-swapped pronouns – appear in a play that will, no doubt, soon be produced under the title Antonia and Cleopatra.


Hail to the chief

There is so much to hate, despise and fear about Donald Trump that complaining about his lack of grace seems almost self-indulgent, but I admit that I was profoundly embarrassed by his inauguration. The open coat and knee-length tie were risible. The address – with its limited vocabulary and raucous delivery – confirmed that the president of the United States is a lout.

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Almost 60 years ago, many of us were influenced by another inaugural address. “Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation . . .” We thought that the tired old men who ran the world had been put on notice. John F Kennedy’s Washington was not a second Camelot and the high hopes of the promise to “bear any burden . . . oppose any foe” turned into the tragedy of Vietnam. But for a brief, shining moment, politics seemed a noble calling.

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Cardinal virtues

Had Cardinal Vincent Nichols commissioned a history of the Catholic Church in Britain, it is unlikely that he would have chosen an atheist son of a defrocked priest to be its author. But when I wrote to him to ask for help with my book The Catholics, he offered his unconditional support and I was able to spend days in the Vatican archives. Letters to parish priests and cathedral deans – which began with the words “With the approval of . . .” – received swift attention.

At first, I attributed the cardinal’s kindness to a generosity of spirit and faith in human nature. Now I realise that this was only part of the explanation. Four years spent examining the history of the Catholic Church taught me that Rome’s secret weapon is the certainty of its ultimate victory. Cardinal Nichols’s confidence in the Church, which had withstood five centuries of persecution and prejudice, convinced him that it could survive a brief exposure to popular history.


Leadership material

The discovery that Emily Thornberry is being touted as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor convinced me that Tom Watson was right to warn of the perils of a fresh Labour leadership election. However, Watson must realise that as long as Corbyn is leader, the party cannot win a general election. I am told that half of those in the shadow cabinet believe that defeat is inevitable and see no point in risking the wrath of Momentum with another coup. If Labour had a credible leader, victory – although unlikely – would not be impossible. Even then, the party leadership has a duty to minimise the size of the defeat. The result in 2020 will influence the result in 2025. It is not Peter Mandelson, trying to push Labour back to the mainstream, who is betraying the party. It is the Corbynites who are complicit in its slide into oblivion.

The frustration of those of us who want a change is compounded by the knowledge that there is plenty of leadership material in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A couple of weeks ago, I identified 11 credible candidates – ten on the back benches and one in the shadow cabinet. Now I have increased the total to 12. The new recruit is Stella Creasy, whose explanation on television of why parliament should be given the opportunity to examine the outcome of the Brexit negotiations was lucid, relaxed and authoritative. She also offers the opportunity to fight the election on a compelling slogan: “Straighten things out with Creasy”.


Man’s best friend

Age creeps up on me slowly. I still take Jakie, my white bull terrier, on a walk every morning and evening and we brave the Peak District weather for as long as we did when I first got him from the rescue centre seven years ago. But we only walk a quarter of the distance. And it is increasingly difficult to complete one of the tasks that all responsible dog owners must perform. I can “pick up” easily enough if there is a wall or tree on which to lean, but if he defecates on open ground, to bend double without support is to risk falling flat on my face. I console myself with the thought that better men have faced the same danger. I assume that it was while he was exercising Elizabeth’s dog, Flush, that Robert Browning discovered that a man’s reach must exceed his grasp.

Roy Hattersley’s “The Catholics: the Church and Its People in Britain and Ireland” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again