It is 1963, the year of the Beatles, the Great Train Robbery, the assassination of Kennedy - and the Profumo affair which, in bringing down the Government, not only ended twelve years of Tory rule, but finally nailed down the coffin on Victorian values and hailed the new era. The swinging sixties had arrived.
In Hugh Whitemore s new play, A Letter of Resignation, Edward Fox plays Harold Macmillan with both an uncanny physical and emotional resemblance as a man in decline who believes himself to be the moral guardian of his people. But Macmillan s values of integrity, respect and probity are outdated and have turned him into a redundant figure. He operates in a world removed from reality, where he regards his only crime - believing John Profumo s false statement to the Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler - as “an excess of loyalty and trust.”
Whitemore, whose adaptation of Anthony Powell s Dance to the Music of Time is currently being televised, seems to specialise in the faded glamour of obsolete worlds. Macmillan doesn t so much have conversations with his private secretary Oliver Widdowes (Julian Wadham who reaches new heights of convincing listening) as give after dinner speeches. Anecdotes abound as Macmillan bemoans the loss of the drunken servant, doesn t see “the point of Italy” and remembers a visit to an Angus Steak House as “rather good, although Dorothy found the wine list disappointing.”
But there is a seriousness to Fox s affectionate portrayal of a rambling old man who always seems to miss the point. This is a man who has lived for thirty years with daily evidence of his wife s (Clare Higgins) love for another man. So when Widdowes arrives with Profumo s letter of resignation, adding impetus to the biggest change in society since 1914, Macmillan takes time to assimilate the consequences of the affair - sex is, after all, a forbidden and painful fo him.
Class conflict is neatly personified in grammar school boy turned MI5 operative Ian Ritchie (John Warnaby s) who, with his pale suit, brown suede shoes and obvious discomfort, requires permission for his every move - sitting, standing, eating or leaving the room.
Although this is an overly scripted play, devoid of action and rather static, it s never boring. Under Christopher Morahan s slick direction we enter a world, instantly recognisable in Eileen Diss wood panelled study, that may appal but still fascinates. This - combined with the rounded characterisations of the supporting cast, including Doreen Andrew s loyal housekeeper, and Fox s often pained performance - creates an incredible yearning in the audience for an era which we re actually rather glad has died.
Penny Faith, October 1997