How do you keep up a performance like David Haig‘s in Alan Bennett‘s The madness of George III night after night? The mere thought of the sheer physical demands sap the sinews. His portrayal of the distraught, bewildered, gibbering motormouth wreck of a mad monarch, suffering terribly in the grips of his delirium, was a tour de force at MK Theatre last week , and one not soon forgotten. He could still give an outing to the talented comic actor he is to good effect in the before and after periods of Bennett’s play, but I find it hard to recall anything comparable to the sense of dismay, desolation and concern that spread through the theatre towards the end of the play’s first act as the malady worsened. The relief that flowed from the respite of George’s agony – and the state’s paralysis – as the plain Lincolnshire doctor worked his remedy in the second half, was palpable. Bennett’s throwing in of a small group reading of King Lear – with George as Lear and directing – as things progressed, was beaitifully done.
As a whole the play was – I have to borrow the word from Michael Billington’s review of the production, which I really shouldn’t have read before writing this, only I think he got it right – too scene-shiftingly choppy. Not helped by a symbolic set – doorways standing for rooms, picture frames for pictures – behind the elaborate court uniforms; it works better in the film, the unseen editor’s hand whisking things smoothly along. Written in 1991, the political nuances have shifted somewhat – the balancing of budgets (Pitt the Younger: tell ’em it’s worse so you can take the credit when things improve!), a prince in waiting. It’s one of my historical blind spots, but the opportunist allying of the radical reformer Fox with the fop in waiting (George IV as was to become) left little old democrat me decidely uncomfortable.
Worth mentioning too, was the fun (and horror) to be had with the uselessness of the court doctors throughout. Apparently the original ’90s production had a modern medical appendix, a twentieth century doc coming on stage to explain what is now thought to be the nature of the illness – porphyria, for what it’s worth – and I don’t really see why it was cut this time around, especially for cheapskates like us who don’t buy overpriced programmes. Nevertheless, a memorable evening.
Obviously this (on the right) is not the edition of Evelyn Waugh‘s novel, A handful of dust (1934), that I read for book group but I’m a sucker for old dust jacket design. The one I read – Penguin Modern Classics (1997) – came complete with copious annotations (annoyingly, most of the time, telling me what I already knew – but I suppose the young might need ’em – and annoyingly not there when I did) and an alternative – for original American publication – ending. Given what I took for granted was his basic reputation for lifelong sycophancy of the upper classes, not to mention his conversion to Catholicism (Brideshead and all that) I was expecting to hate it, was looking forward to hating it, even. What I was not prepared for was the scalpel in his pen, this ruthless clinical examination of the amorality and chilling shallowness of ’30s high society and its hangers-on, laid out for all to see in the action.
These people … the only ones you could warm to were dim, dull and decent dynasty head Tony (though the dim and dull made it frustratingly luke warm) and Milly, the night club hostess who accompanies him for a weekend in Brighton (to set up the grounds for a divorce that his awful wife, Brenda, not he, wanted) who brings her young daughter along for a subsidised day at the seaside. (The whole ritual divorce procedure palaver is beautifully played.) No, normally I can’t live with a fiction where there’s no-one to feel much positive for or care about, but I was riveted by the prose, the style, the economic and yet vivid description, the quality of the dialogue, the wit. I’ll just throw out a select few aperçus:
- there’s Brenda’s brother, in Tunisia, “where he was occupied desecrating some tombs“
- and Dr Messenger, who, “though quite young, was bearded, and Tony knew few young men with beards.“
- at the end of a list of staff supported in the family pile (the upstairs/downstairs crowd) we have “odd little men constantly popping in to wind the clocks and cook the accounts“
- Beaver – the bad guy wimp – arrives somewhere “in a state of high self-approval“
The book is in two halves. First set in England up to the end of the marriage and the tragic death of their son, and then Tony’s attempt at getting away from it all, a disastrous and disturbing – we’re touching Heart of darkness territory here – exploration in search of a lost South American city. The alternative ending is even more depressing than the main one in which he dies. In the alternative he returns, she chickens out and they don’t divorce: “There was deep twilight inside the car.” I suspect I shall be reading more of early Waugh.
Peter Robinson could never be accused of being a premier league prose stylist but he pulls you along well enough, especially with D.I. Banks on hand. His detective is absent from Before the poison (Hodder, 2011) though we’re still deep in the North Yorkshire Moors (and its pubs), albeit with not entirely necessary tourist guide visits to France and South Africa as side dishes. The central mystery at the heart of Before the poison – the guilt or not of a woman hung in 1953 for the alleged murder of her husband in the house the narrator has just moved into (and if not not, why?) – intrigues most of the time, though I have to say my heart sank when the potential revelation of a history of pedophilia raised its head, and the actual denouement felt a bit detached. I wasn’t convinced, to tell the truth, by narrator Chris, wife-grieving rich Hollywood film soundtrack composer (the joke about “the music that nobody listens to” is used more than once) and his remote purchase by email and phone of a remote mansion far too big for a single 60-year-old man – for all his grief – going back to his roots at the onset of winter. (At least he wasn’t an ageing ex-rock god.) Compared to Waugh’s economy there’s too much repetition in his wondering why he’s obsessed with Grace Fox – why not? – and although the divulgence to us of one personal revelation in this regard comes as something of a shock, when you think about it … it’s not that big a deal. My having just experienced the sharpness of Evelyn Waugh’s dialogue probably didn’t help by comparison either.
Chapters are consistently structured, beginning with extracts from an account of Grace’s trial in the Famous trials series of books (you rember, those green Penguins), followed by episodes detailing Chris’s fortunes in settling in, socializing, investigating etc. not forgetting what he ate (do I care?) and what he listened to (this is Peter Robinson, after all); further along, the extracts are drawn from Grace’s harrowing war journal, – she served as a nurse overseas in Singapore and France – which explain her state of mind at the trial, even if one wonders how and when she got a chance to put pencil to paper in those boats. I’m not sure these documents work as well as they should, but the book has the potential to be a great film, with a sure chance of an Oscar for whoever gets to play Grace. There is one unforgivable moment of pure corn involving a cigarette case and, inevitably, a bullet.
Don’t get me wrong, I read it pretty much straight through and it has its moments and its people: the fascinating Grace, of course; her young artist lover, who we meet in his 80s in Paris; the courtship of Chris and the estate agent who sold him the property (GSOH); how it was for families growing up in the vicinity of a prison where executions took place (in our lifetime!); a certain tension as Grace’s story unfolds. I look forward to the next Banks.