Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The New Statesman

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, yestereve, to see a play called The New Statesman: authors, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran; star, Rik Mayall.

There are, I think, two aspects of this play which deserve mention here: one is the picture of politics which the play presents to us; and the other is the extreme crudity and violence of the language and action. Lest I seem to disapprove, let me say at once that neither of these aspects caused the audience the slightest difficulty; au contraire, almost everything in this play was greeted by uproarious laughter.

The playwrights, Marks and Gran are long-time masters of the TV sitcom, and judging by this example they are perfectly at home in the theatre.

Rik Mayall is an extremely familiar face from TV comedy shows of one kind and another. Among these, he did four series of shows with the title The New Statesman; these were written by Marks and Gran, and centred upon a fictional politician called Alan B'stard. It is these shows that are brought up to date in the current stage version. The chief characteristic of B'stard, as his name none too subtly suggests, is that he is totally ruthless.

Mayall is without doubt an accomplished actor. He is also a highly successful stand-up comedian. All in all, I don't think I have ever seen an actor, whether classical or otherwise, dominate the stage in quite the way he does. It is a formidable performance by any standards; whether it is funny is a matter of personal taste, but the vast majority of the audience thought it was very funny indeed.

The play asks us to believe -- and it is really quite easy -- that Alan B'stard is now a key member of Blair's cabinet, a man who pursues wealth, women and power without the slightest concern for morality or the law. And that is really all you need to know.

The printed programme tells us that The New Statesman belongs in the long tradition of political satire. And so it does. But satire changes over the years, and this one is quite different in tone from most of what has preceded it, at least in the twentieth century.

Until well into my adult lifetime, the English stage was subject to censorship, and certainly any form of portrayal of real-life politicians would have been out of the question before about 1970. And when we did begin to get political satire on stage, it was of a gentle nature. John Wells's play Anyone for Denis (about Mrs Thatcher and her husband) was, as I remember it, in the nature of an affectionate lampoon.

The New Statesman is quite different in tone, and I find it difficult to identify the right choice of words to convey its flavour. Brutal hardly covers it, though vicious is wrong. What we have here, you see, is a portrait of British politics, with names named, which suggests that everyone in it is totally corrupt, depraved, driven by self-interest and manic ambition, willing to undertake any betrayal or crime, tell any number of lies, and, along the way, engage in frantic sexual congress with anything that moves or shows signs of being useful.

Judging by the audience's reaction, this is not a picture which caused any distress or incredulity, much less outrage. On the contrary, everything portrayed here was accepted without question as a mirror of the real world -- albeit in exaggerated form. But not all that exaggerated.

And then, of course, we must consider the language and the action via which this portrait was painted. Once again, I remind you that even the mildest swear words were banned until the 1970s; and even then it was some time before anyone said fuck in public. But in The New Statesman, of course, every obscene word you ever heard (or dreamed of) is used repeatedly, and with great emphasis.

This is a play in which our hero, inadvertently, it must be admitted, calls the Queen of England 'a sad, useless old cunt'; cue howls of laughter. And then, when he finds out what he has done, B'stard clutches the back of his trousers to indicate that he may have shat himself.

On another occasion, B'stard receives a parcel containing the head of a woman who has been murdered on his instructions. Then, finding that death has made him 'horny', he proceeds to insert his penis into the mouth of this somewhat charred head. No one rose from their seat and protested.

There is, in the course of this play, no action so revolting that Mayall will not perform it; no form of words so scabrous that he will not utter them. And he performs and speaks with total command of the stage and the audience.

I am, I decided, the wrong age for this kind of play. You need to be young enough -- let's say under 45 -- to have no memory whatever of the way things were. To the young, this kind of totally uninhibited form of language and action is the norm. They see nothing unusual about it at all. But a man of my age can only sit there in stunned disbelief.

I am not the only person who found himself sitting stony-faced while all around him had hysterics. I don't say that the other man and I are right, mind you; because the theatre is all about entertaining the audience, and there is no doubt that this play carries out that function supremely well.

I'm not sure that I can imagine an American version of this. But perhaps I'm just out of touch.

12 comments:

eshop600 said...

I think the main target for this would be kids in their 30'z like me, who have a fond place for rik as he was in the young ones, bottom and also alan bastard in the new statesman.

Great stuff

Anonymous said...

I used to love The Young Ones, but I think I'd probably have a reaction similar to the Bookman's, especially to the bit about the severed head (shades of Salome and John the Baptist?). Ugh! And to think that the previous review I'd read had led me to think the play might be worth seeing ...

But then I'm just a Grumpy Old Bookwoman (aged 561/2)

Andrew O'Hara said...

From the sounds of it, His Grumpiness deserves an award for sitting through a painful evening. In truth, there has always been an audience for fart jokes and penis humor, but it doesn't sound like this was well advertised for what it was. Perhaps they followed it up with some good armpit music. Snarf giggle.

But then I'm just a Senile Old Bookman.

D. C. Warmington said...

It sounds horrible. Thanks for the warning.

Maria said...

It can't be all age. I am under 40 and was quite shocked to even read your description. Had I been there, I'm afraid I would have had to leave. And I'm quite sure that somewhere in America there is something just as...racid in a theatre somewhere.

James Barlow said...

I saw this play at the Theatre Royal Bath last Saturday. The language was certainly riper than one might expect from a typical theatrical performance but comparable to what can be heard in a touring stand-up comedy show.

Setting aside the cursing, simulated sex and necrophilia, the show's main failing for me was that I didn't find it that funny, although my opinion was not shared by the pack of hyenas sitting in the row behind me.

I enjoyed Rik Mayall's ad-libs and occasional corpsing, but the ham-fisted satire was just, well, amateurish.

My recollection of the original "New Statesman" is that, while it was crude, crass, vulgar and infantile - it was also sharp and witty. But maybe that's just because I watched it when I was in my teens.

Antipholus Papps said...

I can't imagine that anything said or done on that stage was more tasteless or disgusting that the actions of our criminal government!

Andrew said...

I grew up in England watching The Young Ones, and am now mid-30's but I have to say this play sounds horrendous.
Looking back, I never truly enjoyed TYO humour - yes, it was funny but there was a sense of going too far, pushing for the cheap gags, a sense that I wasn't the true audience.

Sounds like this is more of the same. Funny in parts, but not sophisticated (or to put it another way, too crude) enough to be good.

Anonymous said...

Rik Mayall was excellent in the TV version! We took our 2 teenagers to see this play with advice that this "contains strong language" but nothing else. Mayall was excellent in the role but we felt a large majority of the humour was cheap - some depraved. I wouldn't recommend this - might suit some people but not everyone in the theatre stayed to the end - some left early.

Trevor Huggins said...

I went to see it last night at Richmond Theatre, sadly without Rik Mayall performing as the star of the show was ill.
Clearly, he would have added a presence which you couldn't expect from a stand-in.
That said, I absolutely hated it (and I'm a TYO fan).
It's not so much that it's crude -- and it's genuinely shocklingly crude at that -- it's just not funny.
Calling the Queen a 'cunt' has great shock value, granted. But is it funny?
Masturbating into the mouth of a woman's charred head that has been blown off by a London car bomb. Again, it's shocking.
But, tell me, is that really funny?
Lots of people in the theatre clearly did.
I have no idea why.
It was as if the scriptwriters realised they couldn't come up with anything genuinely funny, observant or thought-provoking about modern politics -- and decided that 2.5 hours of people shouting 'fuck off you cunt' at eash other would do the job instead.
What a shame.

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gih said...

Seems you are right. I don't like that.