Mike Leigh has revived the play he first directed here at Hampstead Theatre in 1979, two years after the success of Abigail’s Party, during what was probably the height of his artistic powers. Ecstasy is Abigail’s Party en bas, a boozy night in bedsit land in which warm bonhomie ebbs and flows, and vast reservoirs of despair loom silently under the fractional bobbing of lonely lives. Detailed, stark yet heimlich, mundane yet provocative, Ecstasy reflects much of the complexities of Leigh’s artistic vision. And while Leigh’s sensitivity is never in doubt, he has come under critical fire for his prominent place as the cuddly, truthful expositor of class experience. Does he push out more urgent voices, does his shtick still work three decades on?
As a stage director Leigh gives good spectacle. From the original designer Alison Chitty, the set is cramped, narrow strips of floorspace give clambering and tottering accentuation to the vertical slice of rented period-room. Darkness is used to great effect, blackouts that run for just longer than necessary are soundtracked by John Leonard subtly, with the sound of passing traffic, making for a brooding melancholy sense of time, gin and darkness conspiring toward Baudelaire’s “dismal loneliness of your room”. The performances – here, sticking closely to the script – cohere neatly, and that echt and blithe naturalism disguises the sheer work of one of our most consummately skilled artisans.
Jean is a recognisable Leigh type, similar to Sylvia in Bleak Moments, unassuming, shy, dressed in the same beige greys as her drab decor, and written with an unsentimental naturalism designed to tune out expression. Sian Brooke turns in a neatly muted and careworn performance, underplaying to the point of bottoming out. And Jean successfully garners our affection, not because of who she is, a genial unknowable, but because we are continually bounced off her opaqueness into the circumstances of her life – we always see more of the darkness around her than we see of her, and we see ourselves in her like we might in a foxed mirror. As is Leigh’s professed mixture, the rest of the cast are more caricatured. The chatter and lift come from Sinead Matthews playing the pragmatic BFF Dawn, an archetypal Leigh busy-body but with a younger more carefree vibe, more Shirley Valentine without the funny stories than his traditional clucking hens. And where Leigh’s idealisation of womanhood can err on the side of conservatism – celebrations of their domesticity, the only crime of men one of violence – here we get a more nuanced, and naturalistically ordinary portrayal. Dawns bluffness is not her salvation, Jeans shyness is not her gift, suddenly coping takes on a more real, solid guise. Her potential suitor Len, a long streak of Only Fools and Horses, is charmingly boring and placid and played with spare and touching care by Craig Parkinson, while Allen Leech breathes life into the fulsome stereotype of Irishman Mick.
It is telling that Leigh once said of Beckett’s Endgame, one of the few plays he directed without authoring, “I soon realised it was the only one I wanted to direct”. Ecstasy is prismatically adrift. The minutely observed characters flicker together, not always particularly brightly, set deep in cosmic darkness. Their lives are stark. But rather than than being held in torturous abeyance between being and non-being, the impetus is ever humanistically forward, toward connection, toward love and solace, however unfinished and incomplete. The construction and maintenance of common identity here becomes an object of a burnished fascination, and we get the feeling that the effort of being together is ultimately worth it. Leigh’s keen sense of place overlays social class like a light shroud, and the continuous appeals to conviviality between the poor white characters and more comfortable white audience, does well to reposition us after years of flabby aspirationalism.
In the same way that Richard Curtis has become our ambassador of tastefully-lit monuments and floppy upper-middle class dreamworlds, Leigh, with his international renown and stack of Oscar nominations, has become the patron saint of the rest of us. And while he is broadly loved, criticisms of Leigh revolve around whether or not he genuinely gives his characters enough humanity, or does he patronise them? Does he hem them in with soupy working class nostalgia, psychologism, bien-pensant charitableness?
Certainly in Ecstasy none of the characters are likeable, in fact they verge on boring. Throughout Leigh’s work his reluctance to let his characters take over unless they are either sensible, practical women, or domineering men, has always militated against a population of charismatic clever people. We gaze back at his characters with a sense of sorrow, regret. We are touched but less often moved. His keenness to locate the lumpen in the prole in the name of a naturalistic perspective is perhaps his crucial break from the Angry Young Men – one thinks of the telling contrast between Osborne’s Jimmy and the twisted conspiracy theorist in Happy Go Lucky (the bawling travesty of Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet is best forgotten). Political agency always has the ring of pretence and pathology for Leigh. His characters rarely ask for anything better, they are rarely afforded a critical perception. The situation is to be nobly coped-with by women and never transcended – has anyone ever been caught reading a book in a Mike Leigh joint? – and while they are often too deluded to “know their place”, Leigh can conspire to make sure the audience does. But the injunction to “know thy place” also works another way in the slippery art of Leigh. Ecstasy is a masterful evocation of place, and the audience is invited to know it, and recognise it. In its rawness Ecstasy does not suffer so much from that smug desire for middle-brow dramatic perspective – here no one is artfully reduced to type – and is much lighter, cleaner, and truthful for it. We are not presented with a class map, so much as presented with an unremarkable, and unremarked upon, yet familiar world.
Thirty years has passed since the play was written, and while the world has changed, the demonisation of the working classes has been given fresh impetus by the return of a liberal patrician government. The audience tonight may well seeing more of the forgotten class as inequality becomes more difficult to airbrush, and unemployment comes sharply into focus. On the streets perhaps, in humiliating welfare-to-work programmes, on marches, hopefully in a new raft of theatre responding to our contemporary plight. Here Mike Leigh provides no answers, but quietly reaffirms his importance to all of us.