Protest Spreads to TheatreDate: 3 November 2011
Last night's prize for cheekiest First Night costume goes to Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard, who rolled into the Trafalgar Studios for the opening of Ben Brown's Three Days in May sporting a large black T-shirt bearing the legend "Vote Attlee."
The play deals with Churchill steeling his war cabinet, and the nation, for the long fight ahead in 1940, supported by Clement Attlee who of course defeated him once the war was safely won in the 1945 General Election.
Fiona's gesture brought the spirit of the age from the steps of St Paul's into the heartland of London's glittering West End, just as Mike Bartlett's new play 13 amazingly pins down exactly the mood of what is going on all over the world at the moment, from the popular uprisings in the Middle East to the riots in Britain in August, Occupy Wall Street in New York and now in the improvised tented village outside our greatest cathedral.
Suddenly, people are genuinely in touch with their own politics and, whatever the outcome, they are setting the agenda in a way the drop-out, roll-up, sit-in flower power generation of the 1960s never quite managed.
The alternative has become an injection to the mainstream, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, saying that the St Paul's protesters must be heeded, and the banks must change their ways.
One of the St Paul's mob was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning as if she was a foregn diplomat, all courtesies and due deference in place. She explained that the campers would stay put until Christmas and implied that the points they are making need to be noted, though the detail on those points remains hazy. Yes, she sounded like a real politician. Next stop, the G20 summit.
Bartlett's 13 posits a future scenario of Britain on the brink of war with Iran over nuclear disarmament, with a lady Tory prime minister, played straight and intelligent by the glorious Geraldine James, joining up dots with US foreign policy as usual, as Trafalgar Square fills with half a million protesters. There's a feeling abroad that "it's all gone wrong" and everyone wakes up with the same nightmares of monsters and catastrophe.
Trystan Gravelle redeems himself after his daft Christopher Marlowe in Anonymous with an effortlessly impassioned performance as the rabble-rouser John, crying in the wilderness, or a London park, on a tipped up plastic bucket. But John is making a real difference, just as the St Paul's protesters are going to make a difference, at least in the tenor of the national debate about poverty and banking. And now the Church of England is going to have to follow their lead.
The second act of 13 draws all the various plot lines into telling focus and lays down some of the best Shavian speechifying heard on our stages in a long while, equal weight and plausibility attaching to the words of the Tory PM, Danny Webb's tremendous (though dying) pragmatic moraliser and to Gravelle's John, an old university friend of the PM, disappointed at her ideological capitulation.
It's impossible to say, as some critics do, that we are living in a golden age of new writing in the theatre. Golden ages, by definition, belong to the past. But my experience of 13 at yesterday's matinee was a rare one; that of the arguments on the street, in Parliament, in Brussels and Cannes over the Eurozone and economic meltdown in Greece, all finding voice on our biggest national stage.
Even the slightly arthritic and disappointing Three Days in May is relevant in this context. The Danny Webb character in 13 would be the first to point out that without Churchill leading us into the war, and guaranteeing our freedom at the cost of countless human lives, there would be no privilege of protest at St Paul's to start with.
But you can't help feeling that the temper of our politics is changing. And if the spirit of Fiona Mountford's T-shirt is anything to go by, this mood of dissent and provocation has already spread to the Critics' Circle. And a jolly good thing, too. Now, I must go up to the attic and find my bandanna and bovver boots... peace and love, man.