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Thirteenth Night

The Times, 3rd July 1981, Ned Chaillet

Howard Brenton’s new play is probably the first digital Shakespeare, the first ‘Macbeth’ with television jingles for a chorus and assassinations timed by a digital watch. Although there was a solemn reception for the first performance at The Warehouse, it may not be necessary to see it as a tragedy. Mr Brenton subtitles is ‘Dream Play’ and even if it a very serious satire, it is also distinctly comical.

After ‘The Romans in Britain’ he has not exactly abandoned historical precedents for ‘Thirteenth Night’, but instead of casting the play in the mould of the past he has pushed it ahead in time, making it a sort of future fiction. We are past the time when Mr Brenton could be called a promising playwright; his general stage mastery is increasingly obvious and there is a profligate display of it in the new play as he moves from a brief scene of highly accomplished naturalism, showing a group of Labour Party politicians menaced and attacked by thugs, to droll poetic pastiche evoking ‘Julius Caesar’ as well as ‘Macbeth’.

Michael Pennington appears in the centre of Mr Brenton’s stark fantasia as a politician called Jack Beatty, and he holds it together with a magnetism that is political, that evokes Robert Kennedy while he harangues a crowd. The words of that crucial speech are not quite inflammatory enough to do the dirty work that Mr Brenton suggests they do, which is to unleash a mob on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square and to instigate the death of the American Ambassador, but it is not their actual effect that is being measured, rather the effect on the mind of Beatty and the projected effect on the British people.

Beatty’s discovery of his power combines with manipulation from his mistress and urgings from a security chief to transform him into a mixture of Macbeth and Brutus, characters of proved literary respectability. Dispensing with qualms, he personally assassinates the Labour Prime Minister and takes part in an armed coup which raises him to absolute power: from being merely a promising puritanical socialist, he follows the path of Stalin to cruel implementation of his vision.

There is much ingenuity in Mr Brenton’s exploitation of Shakespeare, and it goes beyond his skilful echoing of famous lines. He uses the characters of Shakespeare to find the elements in the British character which could transform an Englishman into a Stalin, and closes in on his creation with an overall with to match his horror.

Throughout the performance, the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company colour the words with literacy and modern meanings. Much credit must go to the serious atmosphere established by Barry Kyle’s production, which resounds with classical distinction and moves with the pace of a thriller.

The comedy is harsh, and the aim of the work is high. While Mr Brenton projects an absolute state of the left, it is clearly not his intention to attack the left politically. His concerns are with democratic participation and justice. The complexities of his structure are such that the witches, disembodied female voices in an underground car park, may be seen to goad Beatty to power for the good of the people and later gloat at his destruction meanwhile sounding like Deep Throat of the Watergate case.

Among the admirable performances, and in addition to Mr Pennington’s domination of the stage, David Waller registers strongly as a Ted Heath of the left while John Bowe makes a compelling Banquo. On the evidence of ‘Thirteenth Night’, Mr Brenton has not let recent events restrain his imagination.

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