An Essay based upon one viewing of David Halliwell’s 1965 play Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against The Eunuchs presented at Southwark Playhouse on 10th July 2015 amounting, somewhat, to a panegyric of the writing of David Halliwell
After being kicked out of art school, Malcolm Scrawdyke sits in his bedsit chain-smoking and planning how to take over the world, starting with exacting revenge on the teacher who kicked him out. With his three friends he starts the Dynamic Erectionist Party to defeat the eunuchs who run their lives.
Lowry-inspired drawings of city scenes in chalk on the black walls – smoking factories, shadow people, hills in the background – show the vestigial purity of nature, once unsullied by industry and politics. But that natural world is not one in which Malcolm Scrawdyke can exist. He exists to kick against, always to be contra mundum and perpetually unaware of his creeping assimilation into and adoption of the totalitarian structures he detests. He seeks only power, and not power based on ideology but based on his person. In his head, and in the heads of his loyal crony friends, he is god. There are pseudo politics behind his thirst for power, but burst that bubble and he’s just another angry young man.
It’s up to Mal and to us and to his friends to decide whether we read him and the art school head as allegory or simply as what they are: a beleaguered art school headmaster and a bulshy student wanker.
Clive Judd’s direction dances that line between serious and playful, accenting that central tension of whether this is a big game or something more serious: long, gleeful set pieces – acting out their plan to steal a painting from a gallery and to kidnap their headmaster – are full of physicality and humour, and all that imaginative creativity of children playing a game of make believe, complete with the quibbles about who gets to play what role, making up all the rules as they go along.
Malcolm’s three cronies are really on point as they attack these set pieces full tilt: particularly Barney McElholm as Irwin, the passive, fawning stooge, acquiescent and laughing along the way, the Richard Hammond of the group. These are angry young men, but their anger is misplaced. They brim with energy, they hero worship their moody, angry leader but they have not been offered an outside perspective: they only worship him in the confines of the flat, where there is no one to challenge Malcolm’s misguided(?) views. In that space they idealise themselves in their own and in each other’s minds.
Designer Jemima Robinson, clearly touched with genius, has dressed the four characters like the quartet from South Park – thick coats, block colours, particularly Nipple who never lowers the hood of his rusty parka. These four act out almost the same roles: Scrawdyke is Cartman, the self-important, vocal and vulnerable leader. Nipple is Kenny, slightly sidelined and frequently put-upon.
And that’s not the only influence visible in this production; the artist’s studio has more than a touch of the Withnail & I flat but there’s the interesting question of who’s influencing who. There’s the dialectic of this influential text feeding (directly or indirectly) into our culture and then our own cultural keystones (Withnail, South Park, League of Gentlemen, Black Books) being fed into this new production to refresh it after 50 years, to make it alive again. George Harrison produced the film version – as he did the film of Withnail & I. There’s the same grimy, rainy aesthetic, the same assuredness of being young and completely confident of one’s own brilliance, unrecognised as yet by the world at large. There’s the same exploration of male friendships, of hierarchies and dominance, of tapping into the ethos of a decade – the 60s, not so much swinging for Malcolm and for Withnail, but instead inspiring some kind of hope that the radical ideas of a younger generation may finally earn credence in society: that it’s ok to pursue a career as an artist or an actor, that success does not have to be born of assiduity, but can come from indolence and the inherent talent of a visionary.
Fifty years on from its first production, one speech in particular captures the ongoing disgrace of a disenfranchised youth: “the young on street corners feeling deep resentment. They wait and yearn, tired of the old slogans”. But the new slogans they offer are childishly phallic. There are massive nobs on their banners. The conflict that Malcolm sees between ‘erectionists’ and ‘eunuchs’ further entrenches the idea that the political arena is all about masculine cock-fighting, men vying for power against other men, frottage to the point of attrition.
Malcolm’s demagogic ability, Halliwell’s vital writing and ear for rhetoric, the way he captures the nonpareil passion of being young and having just discovered politics and feeling like you’ve solved all the world’s problems, and Daniel Easton’s passionate, growling voice combine to form Malcolm’s charisma and to create this microcosmic movement in his Huddersfield flat.
The audience, granted access to Malcolm’s inner monologues, can see the difference between what he presents to his (three) followers and what he actually thinks about: to the members of the Dynamic Erectionist Party he is scheming, strategic, political, polemical. When he’s thinking to himself it’s anxieties about a girl he likes, or wondering whether he should get out of bed. Malcolm Scrawdyke is a charlatan. A man of weasel word but no action. An armchair revolutionary. An allegory for frustrations against the tired institutions that govern us. Or a silly boy thinking of a way to prank his teacher. The Dynamic Erectionists are pricks, but by god there’s a lot to admire in their passion.
At one point Halliwell was going to call this One Long Wank. And that’s kind of what it is. Self-pleasure. When it’s over? A nap, then time to remember all the realities and practicalities of life. Washing up, buying loo roll, cutting onions. The character of Anne is a harsh reminder of those practicalities – the prick in the balloon that sends you crashing back to earth. One Long Wank is right, because these men – despite all their bluster – haven’t got the balls for a fuck.