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September 29, 2004

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - Stephen Sondheim

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
National Theatre, London
Olivier Theatre
July - November 2004

The great thing about A Funny Thing … is its total lack of redeeming social or political content. The deeply serious minds running the National Theatre must have worked hard in search of something that would send the audiences away thinking deep thoughts rather than merely being entertained. Maybe the brothels of ancient Rome stood for cesspit Britain? Or did Pseudolus the crafty slave expose the duplicities of the warmonger Blair? But if they tried, they failed, and the result is a dazzling entertainment, full of terrific dance action, witty filth and lively music.

Sondheim's musical dates from 1964, the very point at which many of the inherited sexual conventions of the West were crumbling. How was it possible, then, to make a farce work with characters so remote from our world as a dominating harridan, a sly lust-crazed old man, a pimp, and a pompous war hero, all of them being energetically manipulated by a resourceful slave yearning (up to a point) for his freedom – Jeeves without the gravitas? The answer is that farce depends on the recognition of conventions, and we enter easily into the conventions of other times, and even other societies, because we are fully aware that however many liberations we enjoy, we shall never liberate ourselves from the grip of some version of respectable morality. The rule of farce is that conventions force us to pretend to be different from what we actually are. Pretending is inescapable, and makes us all ridiculous. Many years ago, an American contributor to That Was The Week That Was remarked: 'Furtiveness is my essence', thus declaring himself a fully paid up member of the world of farce. In this remarkable world, we all identify with the furtive as they pretend to be what they are not, hide lest they be found out, run around desperately trying to fix things to prop up their impostures, and suffer the slings and arrows of a thousand unlikely coincidences.

A Funny Thing … at the National has sets of revolving doors and a couple of levels on which the characters can appear, and they duck in and out of them like people out of the sexual intrigues of Feydeau . It also has a troupe of beautiful female dancers acting out the more outré forms of sexual perversion. The continuous camp suggestiveness that Frankie Howard brought to the performance is hardly missed amid the sheer vitality of this production. The stock from which this material has been cooked derives from Plautus in the second century BC, the point at which the republican virtue of Rome was crumbling. The conventions by which farce operates may be as old as Rome, or as recent as Donald McGill's dirty postcards that Orwell found so revealing. It hardly matters. Farce is the fruit of decadence, and we have all become connoisseurs of it. It is an art form that speaks to our condition no less directly than sermons or tragedies. Maybe I was wrong, and it does have redeeming content!

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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