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January 19, 2007

Some Ado About Something: Days of Significance - Roy Williams

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Roy Williams' Days of Significance
directed by Maria Aberg
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
10th - 20th January 2007

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - wonders why the Royal Shakespeare Company bothers putting on contemporary plays.

The RSC has always stated that part of its brief is commissioning new plays and most of its more recent commissions have tried to emphasise their link with the grand heritage. Thus Days is a "response" to Much Ado About Nothing though it is probably fairer to treat it just as a contemporary work. The only overlaps between the two plays are that a) both contain a couple who fancy one another but express their interest through insults and b) it can be a problem if you fall in love with a girl and then find she's a bit of a slaaag (or so they say, anyway). As Ken Minogue recently pointed out in his review of Much Ado it is a) which is much the more interesting in Shakespeare's version because it gives us the wit of Beatrice and Benedict. Two teenagers yelling "Wanker" and "Slapper" at each other is hardly equivalent entertainment.

Days starts outside a club (that's a nightclub for fogeys) in the home counties with a group of squaddies who are leaving for Basra four days later plus an old student friend of theirs and their female associates. There is fighting, vomiting, police-baiting, the shouting of insults and a penis is pulled out. (I never worked out whether it was real or not - it was quite large.) The young men's fear underlies the action and it interplays with their lust -

Last chance of a shag before Iraq.
They are ambivalent about the lust of the women. This is realism, I guess, and it passes the tests of realism. As it happens, since the recent acquisition of my Senior Railcard I have been on trains with squaddies on no fewer than three occasions.
Ah much did I spen' larst noight? Only free 'undred an' sixty fuckin' quid, that's only ah much . . .
is actually something I heard on a Virgin train, but it could have come from the play. On stage, this has something of the feel of an acting class with actors called Claire, Pippa, Tristan and Simon all being oiks. But they do it jolly well.

The squaddies go off to Basra. The boredom, lust and homesickness of their daily life is expressed very well through the video clips they make to send home. They find themselves in a skirmish with insurgents: one is killed and another commits a war crime by shooting some young boys. Back home, those left behind struggle to cope with the consequences of these events. Hannah (Claire-Louise Cordwell) has put her slapper days behind her and gone to college. She now has to relate to her old mates, to the war criminal she once loved, to an older relative (if I've understood it correctly) who is in love with her, to her college friends. She is increasingly articulate -

Why you talkin like that, gel?
- and increasingly the centre of the play. The least real aspect, I thought, was the supposed tension between the squaddies and the lefties and protestors at the college: I pop in and out of universities and I never hear anyone even mention Iraq. Nothing is resolved and it's all over in ninety minutes, which is a relief because there's only so much dialogue along the lines of
We gonna be awight, gel?
that I can handle.

Insofar as the RSC does have a mission to commission new plays it has at least two problems. The simplest is that there is no market for them. I remember David Edgar's The Prisoner's Dilemma in 2001. It was about ethnic conflict and mediation in the former Soviet Union and it was a good deal more sophisticated and substantial than this piece and even than Destiny back in the 1970s which made Edgar's name. But it struggled to raise a respectable audience even in The Other Place, which was tiny. For this production - and those playing with it in repertory - the company has done a rather clever trick by obliterating the stalls entirely and allowing "promenaders" to mingle with the cast. All 14 of them! But it did mean that a theatre with a tiny audience, well under a hundred, felt neither empty nor embarrassing.

The (even) bigger problem is that it is not clear what a contemporary "straight" play is supposed to achieve. This isn't very funny or witty or beautiful. So it must be "serious"? But does it have to "say" anything or raise "important" questions? I never really thought plays could do these things, though perhaps they could in the days of Galsworthy and Shaw and the fantasy continued into the Royal Court and "Play for Today". Drama is about emotion, not concepts. What do we learn here? That the underclass are morons? That war is shit? That we shouldn't have invaded Iraq (I favoured Zimbabwe)? Or, as was explained to me in an officers' mess over forty years ago (I was a TA officer) in crisply intelligent military tones:

Insurgencies, peace-keeping and guerrilla wars must all be avoided. All soldiers can do is to achieve a well defined objective when they have overwhelming firepower. We must take sides and annihilate the enemy where that is an option. Otherwise we should stay at home and play polo.
Theatre, including Shakespeare, treats political ideas in a shallow and exploitative way - sucks them for their drama. If it tries to do anything else it becomes tedious, agitprop. To see these resources devoted to this play is to go into curmudgeonly Johnsonian mode: it is done quite well, but it is quite difficult to justify doing it at all.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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