January 21, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Days of Significance (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre
Welcome to 2007! We’re in the final stretch of the Complete Works now, down to the last twelve productions, plus a few repeat viewings. Still a little way to go before I break out the champagne though…..
Yesterday’s production was the fourth of the main response plays, a major new commission by Roy Williams called ‘Days Of Significance’. It was also the final chance both to see the excellent ‘Winter’s Tale’/’Pericles’ ensemble and to experience the Swan in promenade. It wasn’t too crowded today, with plenty of space to walk round and feel like part of the action.
The play is based on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and is split into three parts. ‘Much Noise’ is basically a 45 minute retelling of ‘Much Ado’, with Trish and Ben heading up two gangs of lads and lasses on a big Saturday night out, with the goal of getting as wasted as possible. It was a very bare telling of the story, Williams keeping only those elements which drove forward his own narrative. Ben and Jamie, the Benedick and Claudio characters, were about to leave for Basra in Iraq on their first army tour, and the night was dedicated to giving them a good send off. With them was Dan (Don John), an anti-war student who came into conflict with them over the reasons for the war. The girls meanwhile were out for sex and alcohol, with Trish (Beatrice) the lairiest of the group while Hannah ‘The Slapper’ (Hero) showed herself to have a more sensitive streak, giving money to a drunken man flashing his penis and restraining the other girls somewhat.
The pre-show warnings of adult content and strong language were well deserved. This was the Saturday night clubbing world of working-class early-20s kids, illustrated in on-stage throwings-up, graphic sexual language, bodies rolling in rubbish on a park bench, barely-contained violence and obscenities every other word. It was not a glamorous picture, bringing out the nasty sides of all the characters. Plot was translated, too- the rumours about Hannah were not of infidelity but of thinking Jamie was a wuss, and Trish merely asked Ben to “beat the crap” out of Jamie rather than kill him. Amongst it all, we heard the beginnings of a debate about the second Iraq war, as the youths tried to come to terms with what Ben and Jamie were leaving for.
The reconciliations between the two couples ended the first half of the play, but here Williams kept going. We skipped to Iraq in a scene framed by two video diaries of Ben writing home to Trish, becoming gradually more disillusioned with his life out there, his voice hollowing out as the brutalities of the conflict sunk in. The scene itself was a gory one of Ben, cornered with two other soldiers, one of whom killed himself to allow the others to run. It transpired that the impulsive Ben had shot through children in order to get at insurgents – the first hint of how the youthful exuberance and amoralism of the kids translated to the wider context. The scene ended with he and Sean, another soldier, running off to their deaths.
The final sections of the play, ‘A Parting Of The Ways’, took place in a square in the centre of the audience. Actors stepped into the square when ‘on’, and when ‘off’, stood outside the square looking in. The play became Hannah’s story, as she stayed permanently within the circle debating the war with four other people. This was what the play had been leading up to- a many-sided discussion of war, looking at how the characters we know from Shakespeare might have been affected had it happened to them.
Hannah had gone to college and become involved in anti-war discussion with her student friends, and the scene primarily turned around whether she was going to go to court with Jamie- who was being tried for torturing prisoners in Iraq, albeit under orders. Meanwhile Trish, mourning Ben, attacked her for her views, upset at people criticising the war in which her lover had been killed. Dan, meanwhile, argued the other side with her, condemning all those who had made the war happen, while her stepfather Lenny complicated things emotionally by inadvertently revealing the secret love he’d been nursing for her. The effect was one of a moral and intelligent person being caught in the middle of extreme conflicting views on the events and being forced to make decisions about where she stood, while knowing that the emotional pressure would tear her whatever she decided.
While the stepfather was well-played by Nigel Cooke, this was the aspect I liked least. Not only did it seem very obvious from the start of the play, as Hannah stripped off next to Lenny to wash her top, but it seemed to take away from the point of the play. Yes, it was an added emotional pressure on Hannah in the final scene, but it felt unnecessary, one controversy too many.
Otherwise, this was a thought-provoking and interesting response to ‘Much Ado’, which used the play as a springboard to get to its true subject matter. I’m not entirely sure that Williams was trying to get a political point across. The play felt anti-war, but the biggest anti-war exponent was Dan, by far the slimiest and least likeable character. Rather, this was a play about attitudes, about the pressure put on young people to believe strongly in things without knowing anything about them. Ben and Jamie’s impetuousness and hot tempers led them to committing atrocities in Iraq, but at the same time we couldn’t simpy condemn them- this is what society had made them. The play effectively showed the impact of the war at home, and in many ways seemed to bemoan the lack of traditional values of honour and discipline that, at the very least, helped draw a line between soldiers and monsters.
Possibly the most telling moment of the play was when Lenny, the chip shop owner, told the boys as they joked about going off to war that, with their attitudes, they were little more than “fast food” themselves.
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