In the St James theatre foyer one could see a prominent middle-aged newspaper critic sitting on a gilded hot pink upholstered repro Louis XVI fauteuil. A sight slightly at odds with the central London theatre’s air of fine things modestly hidden, a place which carries – from highly-polished pomo marble staircase to front-desk indistinguishable from that of a hotel – the discreet charm of the international business class. Around the corner from the palace, a fine place for a play celebrating Englishness with veneers of cosmopolitan liberalism, where foreign otherness is elaborated with all the depth and complexity of an installment in the Bond franchise. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play is some corner of a foreign field – or more accurately convict ship bound for Australasia – that is forever England. Onboard the set-as-literal-as-timbers, a young naval officer is producing a play with an assortment of convicted criminals. The play’s the thing that will rehabilitate these people, not so much deconstructed as plain old constructed: less Pirandello than Midwinter’s Tale; a homily to the transformative powers of a classical British drama.
Which does much to reveal the limits of the creaking form in the foaming ocean of contemporary theatre. It may be plausible to suggest that Liz Morden, a working class woman of plain speech and plain manner, might gain from her encounters with Farquhar the words and diction to counter a judge in a courtroom. But in trailing off several stops short of My Fair Lady and withering all context in favour of gleaming whimsy, what is posed as a transcendent moment of empowerment comes off as a simple-minded elegy to the elocutionary arts. Similarly John Wisehammer the alien Jew has picked up a love of language which he hopes will propel him toward becoming a playwright, we are to believe that a comical verbosity posing as ludic invention will be sufficient to make an artist of him. But so deracinated and lightly-drawn is he, when he asks Liz how to be English, and she replies “think English”, it feels that’s the sort of response he deserves. Such is the brittle quality of interrogation of language, its relation to thought, and the contexts in which this happens; all made overly neat and prim by Wertenbaker’s deceptively heavy touch, crisply ironed by Max Stafford Clark; and as a result appears all flimsy and formless as spinnakers in the breeze.
And so we get a rather limited British naturalism can transcend the “brutality” of the world (it is open to interpretation as to whether this is a Hobbesian vision or one of infantile escapism), it can give articulate outsider men (who nevertheless have taken the time to learn dominant languages) a form of expression, and it can capture something quintessentially English as the play closes on a triumphalist note of a sense of going into battle against an unseen audience: for some reason, here, theatre is warfare by other means. And all of this perhaps points to the political limits of a naturalism that would have its twentieth century strategy an easy populism, leavened by the kind of working class identity that is here tossed around like an enlightenment artist’s play-thing, and the accreted assumptions that the form carries history and nobility as something inherent. And never more than with Wertenbaker’s self-conscious self-laudatory approach does it feel that what was once “natural” now feels so determinedly unnatural; that relies so much on immersing us while eschewing the imaginative techniques of immersion; which leaves collective signification so singularly abandoned; which feels so peculiar-to-the-past as to be bereft of anything to export to a globalised country or city beyond the lobbies of SW1.
In light of which, one can’t help but feel this production is in no need of a review from a digital publication: it would just be formal dissonance. Perhaps something more age-appropriate response, like a critical notice:
ST JAMES THEATRE. On Wednesday Ms TIMBERLAKE WERTENBAKER presented her entertainment Our Country’s Good to a full-house; not strictly historical but admirably dramatic, the players assailed formidable heights of nationalist expression drawn by the exilic playwright’s skillful hand. A venerable newspaper critic was espied sitting on a chair of the French style, in itself a scene of farce worthy of the Court! And where classical British naturalism is under attack from some quarters we might remember, such modish notions are always themselves on the cusp of a mildewed antiquity: as a sovereign art theatre must speak to its own continuity! It must treasure its own cosseted eccentricities into the twilight! Another thousand years for this most obdurate of artforms!