JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ALGEBRA OF FREEDOM (7:84 Scotland at the Arches, Glasgow) and ABIGAIL’S PARTY (London Classic Theatre at Perth Theatre) for The Scotsman 14.9.07
The Algebra of Freedom 3 stars ***
Abigail’s Party 4 stars ****
THE PLAY IS CALLED THE ALGEBRA OF FREEDOM, and it’s certainly structured around a powerful equation, with two men standing on either side of it. In the first scene of this latest new play from 7:84 Scotland – written for the company by fast-rising young British playwright, poet and artists Raman Mundair – we meet Jack and Tony, two British policemen who have been involved in a hasty, wrongful killing, akin to the shooting of Jean-Charles De Menezes at Stockwell underground station in 2005. Jack, the older man, has put the whole experience behind him, and is trying to tie up the loose ends by submitting a report that shows the police action in a positive light; but Tony is literally haunted by the incident, coming home every night to find the ghost of the dead man singing, cooking and sashaying around his lonely flat like the shadow of a partner that might have been.
On the other side of the equation, meanwhile, we find Parvez – a young British Asian guy mourning the death of his estranged wife in a violent incident in Palestine – and his friend Waheed, who is trying to involve him in an increasingly violent strain of radical Islamist activity. He too is haunted; the restless spirit of his wife, a young woman of strong Muslim faith, constantly warns him against Waheed’s perversion of Koranic teaching, and teases him back towards her own love of life. Both men are subjected to powerful male pressures to show loyalty towards the group to which they belong. Jack tells Tony that unquestioning loyalty to fellow-officers is a fundamental value of the police force, and taunts him with being gay when he fails to conform. Waheed tells Parvez that his willingness to become involved in violent action against the west is a test of his manhood. And when they finally meet – by chance, when Parvez picks Tony up in the late-night taxi he drives for a living – it’s as if both briefly glimpse in the other a faint hope of forgiveness, or redemption, or new life.
The Algebra of Freedom is a strong, important play, in other words; the problem that the execution of it, both in the text and in Jo Ronan’s production, is often clankingly awkward and inexperienced, as if everyone concerned was trying to get to grips with an art-form that had only just been invented. The text is agonisingly televisual, with handfuls of short two-line scenes separated by long blackouts and pauses; there are a dozen ways of developing a script like this into a flowing, effective piece of theatre, and neither Ronan nor Mundair seems to be aware of any of them. The dialogue veers between stilted exposition and burst of real power; and the acting is variable, although Simon Rivers turns in an impressive performance as Parvez, with decent support from Robert Jack as Tony, Lewis Howden as Jack, and Oliver Micell as the ghost in the apartment. It’s inspiring, though, to see 7:84 Scotland – after two difficult years – throwing itself into such a raw, bold and interesting exploration of one of the mosti mportant subjects in contemporary politics. And if the equation Raman Mundair describes often seems more like an algebra of self-oppression, than of freedom – well, I seem to remember that in maths, it’s the balance that matters; and that it can shift from negative to positive, in an instant.
It’s a measure of the sheer brilliance of Mike Leigh’s famous devised drama Abigail’s Party that even 30 years on from its first performance, it still seems like a harsh and timely indictment of the underlying brutalism of affuent British society; so much so that last weekend, BBC 2 attempted a contemporary update of Leigh’s party-from-hell idea, featuring the magnificent star of the original Abigail’s Party, Alison Steadman. Michael Cabot’s new 30th anniversary production for London Classic Theatre, opening its UK-wide tour in Perth this month, misses nothing in Leigh’s terrifying expose of the looming clash in British society between those who want to preserve and cherish some of the traditions, wisdoms and decencies of the past, and the increasingly empowered new barbarians, led by our hostess-from-hell heroine Beverly, for whom art, politics and morals are all “a load of rubbish”, and nothing much matters except money and the stuff it buys, along with getting pissed, grabbing at cheap sexual thrills, and “havin’ a laugh”.
Cabot’s production burns slowly in the opening scenes, with Paula Jennings’s elegant-looking Beverly taking a while to reveal the savage within; and the company never quite gets to grips with the evolving rhythm and pace of Leigh’s drama, so that both the interval and the end seem to come in arbitrary, unexpected places, rather than achieving their full climactic power. The acting, though, has a real depth and integrity that eventually pays rich dividends, with Pauline Whiitaker in painfully fine form as the gently-spoken middle-class neighbour Sue, Benjamin Warren and Helen Johns acting up a slowly-brewing storm as the ill-matched young couple next door, and Jennings finally revealing the full, lethal depths of Beverly’s boredom and desperation, sexual and otherwise. And in the end, this fine production provokes dark thoughts about the sheer inevitability of the long-term failure of the left in Britain; caught as it was in 1977, and still is, between an old civilisation too tainted with injustice to be defensible, and a new, cash-driven barbarism that only a fool could mistake for democracy, or for any worthwhile form of human freedom.
The Algebra Of Freedom on tour until 6 Ocrtober, including the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 29 September, and The Bongo Club, Edinburgh, 204 October. Abigail’s Party at Perth Theatre until 22 September.
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