Privates On Parade, Hamlet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRIVATES ON PARADE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and HAMLET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 21.7.11
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Privates On Parade 4 stars ****
Hamlet 4 stars ****

ARMS AND THE MAN. It’s never an easy subject, but the relationship between war and masculinity has been one of the great themes of drama since earliest times; and now, Pitlochry Festival theatre offers a new production of one of the boldest plays about men and militarism to emerge from 20th century Britain.

First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977, Peter Nichols’s Privates On Parade is a show that often wrong-foots audiences and critics, so thoroughly is it drenched in the style and the aesthetic of light-hearted British concert-party entertainment – rude and silly, camp and comic, sometimes sentimental, and full of song and dance. Yet beneath its often hilariously camp surface, the play seethes with undisguised contempt for the blinkered British officer class, its sexual hypocrisy, its reckless endangering of young men’s lives and health, and its arrogant assumption that the Malay people should have “Christian civilisation” imposed on them at any cost.

Nichols’s play tells the story of a quaint British army outfit called Sadusea (Song And Dance Unit, South-East Asia) which is charged with entertaining the troops in Malaya during the “emergency”, or independence uprising, of the late 1940’s. Many of the men in the unit are homosexuals, seeking a safe refuge from a hostile world; slightly ahead of its time, Nichols’s play suggests clear links between sexual dissent from what was then a rigid social norm, and a wider sympathy with those engaged in struggles against power. There are eight male soldiers in the cast, ranging from the officer in charge – the clueless Major Flack – to the naive raw recruit, Private Steven Flowers, impressively played by Sandy Batchelor; plus lovely leading lady Sylvia, and, crucially, two silent Malay servants called Chen and Lee, who are ignored by everyone, but who turn out, in a fine and accurate political twist, to be the main drivers of the action.

Richard Baron’s Pitlochry production pulls no punches in staging this disturbing and sometimes hard-hitting play, which contains plenty of “bad language” – although less than you would hear in any real army unit – and some sequences of full-frontal nudity; a few Pitlochry patrons, although only a few, left at the interval.

What’s striking, though, is the ease with which the multi-skilled Pitlochry company are able to move between the musical and dramatic dimensions of the show, each one casually picking up an instrument, or breaking into song; and the sheer quality of some of the performances, notably from Chris Vincent as the cross-dressing Captain – a gorgeous Vera Lynn lookalike with a beautiful baritone voice – and from Sam Pay, Fred Broom, Matthew Romain and Alan Steele as other members of the troupe. There are time when the production – and Kate Bonney’s effective concert-stage design – seem a little short of historical context; it’s not difficult to imagine ways in which it could have evoked more clearly the austere postwar Britain from which these men have come, and to which they must return, if they are lucky enough to survive. At its best, though, this is a brave, skilful and beautifully-performed production of an important play about an ill-fated British military campaign, full of resonances for our own time; and it whets our appetites for the autumn, when Nichols’s masterpiece A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg takes the stage at the Citizens’ in Glasgow.

From the Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow, meanwhile, comes a reminder that intelligent and thoughtful men have always struggled to fit the mould of the unquestioning warrior, always ready for battle. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a hero famously balanced on the cusp of tradition and modernity; part conventional son bound to avenge his father’s death by acts of righteous violence, part complex, self-reflecting modern hero, full of psychological nuances, doubts, hesitations, suicidal impulses, and a dark questioning of his own motives, which – by his own account – include lust, cowardice and weakness.

Rained off twice in first four days of its run, and still seeking the measure of what some believe to be the greatest play in the whole dramatic canon, Jennifer Dick’s Bard In The Botanics production nonetheless offers an impressive shoestring account of this mighty drama, staged on a sloping lawn surrounded by storm-tossed trees, and lit during the first half by the last rays of the setting sun, in a natural lighting scheme that seems peculiarly suited to such an immense tragedy. As usual at the Botanics, the acting is a shade variable, with some actors making a better job than others of handling Shakespeare’s magnificent verse, and some lacking the vocal power to compete with the elements.

Where it matters, though, Jennifer Dick’s cast rise powerfully to the occasion. Finlay McLean is a memorably sorrowful Ghost and Player King, Carole Ann Crawford is a passionate and beautifully-spoken matronly Gertrude, and Paul Cunningham a fine, moving Hamlet, whose impressive intelligence and presence compensate for a slight lack of vocal range and flexibility; the trio of Stephen Clyde as polonius, Nicole Cooper as Ophelia, and a fine Tom Duncan, as Laertes, achieve a stronger sense of the tragedy of the Polonius family than I can recall seeing on any stage.

The production lacks the Fortinbras dimension, and therefore a key sense of the political weight of the tragedy; it ends on Horatio’s elegiac “Good night, sweet Prince” speech, not, as Shakespeare indicated, on Fortinbras’s looming final line as he takes over the governance of Denmark, “Go bid the soldiers shoot”. Yet in the contrast between the initially hesitant Hamlet and the furiously vengeful Laertes, the play still poses some powerful questions about models of masculinity, and Hamlet’s right not to be that conventional soldier-prince; and in the fading light of a soft West End evening, it gives this magnificent play its due, bringing some members of the audience to their feet, in a small standing ovation.

Privates On Parade in repertoire at Pitochry Festival Theatre until 14 October; Hamlet at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 30 July.

ENDS ENDS

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