by Sean O'Brien
Old men forget - or write their memoirs. Or both. But in his eighties- along with the 20th century - poet Richard Jameson has a secret, searingly accurate, biographical manuscript he entrusts to a young academic whose rediscovery of his early verse (in the form of three volumes resembling Penguin novels more than books of poetry) wins Jameson's wondering respect.
Between the World Wars young Jameson was a poet because he could not keep from writing poetry. Politically, he was no more than a naive General Strike-breaker, cheerfully manhandling a bus during the nine days of 1926. Attacked by a very middle-class pro-union Jane Exton, he follows her home only to become embroiled with her press-baron dad, a self-aggrandising Fascist leader.
Whether or not he sidles up to Exton's right-wing views to be near Jane, Jameson's involvement soon ties him in with street brutality. One of the less convincing moments shows him absent-mindedly passing Deka Walmsley's extremist thug a match, as if for a cigarette, in fact to set a petrol-doused leftie on fire.
Nobody shows surprise, disillusionment and self-disgust better than Alan Howard, and if it does nothing else, this co-production by Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Live Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (currently in the city for their annual residency) gives a splendid opportunity to see Howard at full throttle.
He may not go for the full octogenarian impression, but as young or older self he's up to his usual tricks, with the face seeming to anticipate thoughts and feelings which need time to be articulated. Or, following an idea, as if the full implication took a moment or two to flood into consciousness after it has been spoken.
As the fascists break into his lyrics, doubtless written in casual carelessness (they aren't real poetry), his eyes narrow, horror and hollowness inhabit the face and there's no need to explain further why Jameson's output came to a halt.
This technically forceful display is matched by the contrast in Caroline Faber's deliberately restricted range as modern academic Rebecca and Jane, the loved, lost woman Jameson brought to destruction by realising political reality too late. Rebecca's the age Jane was when she died, and given the modern rightists who surround the old poet, plus her Jewisness, she may not survive much longer herself.
Sean O'Brien is shakiest on the modern fascists; Margaret Thatcher's shifting rightwards of the Conservatives during the 1980s was held to have damped down the extreme groups, and while the play may be justified in presenting a lone Conservative as secret activist, all the fuss over a forgotten writer's tales of the old days isn't made convincing.
O'Brien writes in vigorous verse, neither self-effacing nor self-proclaiming. The iambics are relished by Howard, always expert at expressing thought through unexpected word groupings and rhythms.
The time whizzes by with the swiftening, sometimes frighteningly violent, story and such fine playing as Howard, Faber plus, particularly, David Rintoul's magnate, made more self-important by his moments of calculated restraint and Deka Walmsley's violence-soaked sidekick.
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