|Jeremy Irons in Never So Good|
Review Round-up: Is Brenton’s Play Good Enough?
Date: 27 March 2008
Howard Brenton’s new political drama Never So Good, chronicling the life and times of Harold Macmillan, received its world premiere last night (26 March 2008, previews from 17 March) at the National Theatre (See News, 16 Jan 2008), with Jeremy Irons playing the former Conservative prime minister in Howard Davies’ production, which runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 20 May 2008.
Brenton’s play paints the portrait of a brilliant, witty but complex man, at times comically and, in the end, tragically out of kilter with his times. The Eton-educated idealist, who rushed, with Aeschylus under his arm, to do his duty in the Grenadier Guards, is tormented by the harsh experiences of war and an unhappy marriage. His career in the 1930s is blocked by his loyalty to Winston Churchill, and he nearly loses his life in the Second World War. When at last he becomes prime minister after the Suez crisis, he’s brought down by the Profumo scandal.
Irons is joined in the cast by Ian McNeice as Churchill as well as Anna Carteret, Anna Chancellor, Pip Carter, Robert Glenister and Anthony Calf. The production is designed by Vicki Mortimer.
First night critics marvelled that the notoriously left-wing Brenton – best known for The Romans in Britain, an indictment of Britain’s role in Northern Ireland, which shocked audiences (its scene of male-on-male rape incited Mary Whitehouse to launch a private prosecution) at this same address in 1980 – was capable of penning such a sympathetic portrayal of a Tory politician. But while some applauded his “softening”, others yearned for the playwright’s radical old ways, and none could agree whether the result, though a “valuable history lesson” offering insights into “our role in the world” today, delivered enough dramatically. Irons was praised for his “subtle” performance as were others in the “excellent ensemble cast”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Howard Brenton’s Never So Good – the title invokes Macmillan’s famous phrase, usually taken as an over-smug motto for the era, ‘most of the people in this country have never had it so good’ – is a fascinating chronicle play that is remarkable for its breadth of interest and lack of attitude. That sums up a faint sense of disappointment in Howard Davies’ production that nonetheless implies the very interesting theory that politics is no place for human decency. ‘SuperMac’ as we came ironically to know him after a newspaper cartoon, was the first public figure to be openly lampooned on the contemporary stage, in a sketch in Beyond the Fringe. Jeremy Irons makes much of this moment, otherwise suggesting a character of almost blotting paper inertia … Irons’ Macmillan bares his teeth for the first and last time in the play in his bitter denunciation of the satirist Peter Cook as someone who knew nothing about the realities of life or politics … It does rather highlight the flabbiness of the whole enterprise: so Macmillan was a human being, what else is new? Maybe that’s the point. Political drama comes of age, shock horror. The one palpable dramatic ploy, that of shadowing the older Macmillan with his younger, idealistic self (Pip Carter) is woefully under-exploited.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Some 34 years ago Howard Brenton wrote a savage play attacking the Churchillian legend. Now he has come up with a mellow, sympathetic portrait of one of his Tory successors, Harold Macmillan. While I applaud Brenton's generosity of spirit, I sometimes yearn for the fierce audacity of his earlier days … After a dullish first half which resembles one of those old radio scrapbooks, the play flares into life with Suez. Even if the information is scarcely new, it is fascinating to be reminded of the bungled shabbiness of the Suez adventure … Behind the bio-play structure, Brenton presents Macmillan as a tragic figure under whose insouciance lay an anguished soul. This is the line taken by Jeremy Irons who, with his hangdog appearance, subtly indicates the inviolable sadness that shadowed Macmillan even when he achieved power. Pip Carter as his younger self also supplies a mocking commentary. And there are good cameo performances from Anna Chancellor as the faithless Lady Dorothy, Robert Glenister as her rakishly bisexual lover, Ian McNeice as a pugnacious Churchill, and Anthony Calf as a neurotic pill-popping Eden. Howard Davies' production marshals the dance-punctuated proceedings with cinematic fluency. One gets a valuable history lesson and a plausible portrait of Macmillan; I simply crave a more radically revisionist account of the last great political actor-manager.”
Alice Jones in the Independent – “There must be something in the water. First David Mamet declared himself through with being a ‘brain-dead liberal’ and now Brenton, the one-time self-professed Marxist and celebrated Left-wing satirist, has gone and written an elegiac and profoundly human portrait of the Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan. Ever since Mary Whitehouse tried to ban his Romans in Britain, Brenton has wielded the power to shock … On this occasion his satirical sword remains, surprisingly, in its sheath. From the very first genial line, ‘I always had a lot of trouble with my teeth’, Brenton shows us Macmillan the man … He is, in Brenton's likeable, amusing version, a sympathetic mix of the ridiculous and the tragic. Howard Davies' direction is suitably epic, stylishly rising to the challenge of staging some 40 years of history … As Macmillan, an unrecognisable Jeremy Irons perfectly captures a man who is fatally out of step with his time … In an excellent ensemble cast, Ian McNeice's corpulent Churchill provides nice comic relief while Robert Glenister's Boothby makes a horribly convincing journey from slick rake to bloated old duffer.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “The theatrical agent provocateur has softened. Here he is at the same address, presenting a dramatic biography of Harold Macmillan which … is surprisingly sympathetic to - well, the man who is almost its hero … As played by Jeremy Irons, the grandee-to-be is no opportunist but a shrewd, canny, withdrawn figure who conceals a melancholy and even a despair beneath an urbane exterior, is more the thwarted idealist than the cynic he sometimes seems, can be quietly steely and unaggressively tough, and invariably radiates calm when he’s under fire, which he literally is in the first of Brenton’s four engrossing acts … True, there are clunky moments … True, Brenton doesn’t always solve the problem of conveying necessary facts through believably natural dialogue. True, too, the device of having Carter’s Young Mac hang around the stage in his Army uniform … has outlived its usefulness by the evening’s end. Nevertheless, the play is two or three cuts above the usual theatrical bio … And all along Irons manages genuinely difficult feats. To be self-effacing yet in command. To aim for power without quite wanting it. To yearn for a better world … yet to be at ease in the mess of party politics. To attain success yet see through it and, at times, wish for death. To watch what he suspects is his own moral decline. To be inscrutable. In short, to be Harold Macmillan.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “How weird it is to discover the eternally left-wing playwright Howard Brenton has sketched a sympathetic, spell-binding portrait of Harold Macmillan, that patrician Conservative prime minister. A beguiling, bespectacled Jeremy Irons … concentrates upon conveying what Brenton reveals of Macmillan’s inner life: the guilt about surviving the first war and the man’s neurotic sense of inferiority … Brenton uses this politician’s brilliant career to raise fascinating questions about Britain’s aspirations in the grim first half of the 20th century. He implies that British notions about our world role today, with intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not that different from Macmillan’s half a century ago. Accordingly, I found myself stirred and moved by Never So Good, with its deft and humorous encapsulation of the future premier’s early life … Howard Davies’ expressionistic production works like a dream and, in a sense is one … At Suez, when Anthony Calf’s sick, obsessed Anthony Eden conspires to take the Canal, Macmillan, both a Judas and Brutus, accepts Britain’s role as an invasive imperial power. His subsequent struggle to maintain Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, to cut the paternalistic ties with Africa and join the Common Market, suggests how conflicted Britain has fought to remain a world leader in changed times. Never So Good thrillingly dramatises an unsolved problem about our role in the world.”
- by Terri Paddock