By Sean O'Brien
Live Theatre, Newcastle, in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Review by Peter Lathan (2003)
Newcastle's Live Theatre celebrates its 30th aniversary this year with a co-production with the RSC, part of the national compny's Newcastle season. Live has always had a commitment to new writing, something which RSC artistic director Michael Boyd is also passionate about. It is fitting, therefore, that this first co-production should be a new play, and even more fitting that it should be a verse play. Keepers of the Flame made its first appearance during last year's RSC Newcastle residency, where it received a public reading as part of a New Writing Festival.
The play's central character, poet Richard Jameson (Alan Howard) becomes involved in the British fascist movement in the 1930s, whilst at the same time marrying the rebellious socialist daughter (Jane, played by Caroline Faber) of leading fascist Sir Henry Exton (David Rintoul). Drawn into producing marching songs for the fascist mobs, his poetry dries up and his wife is killed as her beliefs and actions are an embarrassment to her father. Fifty years later, as Thatcher sweeps to power in Britain, he is visited by an academic, Rebecca Stone (also played by Faber), an enthusiast for his poetry, who wants to publish a new edition and write his biography.
The thirties, however, repeat themselves and this time it is Rebecca Stone (the surname anglicised from Stein) who is killed, at the orders of the right-wing Tory MP Judd (also played by Rintoul). Any chance of his rehabilition is expunged and, at the end, Jameson waits for death, accompanied by the "ghost" of Francis Finnegan (Deka Walmsley), Exton's aide-de-camp and the killer of Jane.
Writer Sean O'Brien has a number of plays to his credit, including two others with Live as well as producing the version of Aristophanes' The Birds which premiered at the National last year. He has also written five collections of poems and is Professor of Poetry at the Sheffield Hallam University.
Directed by Live's artistic director Max Roberts, the cast are a mixture of Live and RSC actors. One, Donald McBride, has a foot in both camps, being a Live regular who has also appeared in four RSC productions.
The play's language, although eminently speakable, has a toughness and density which is welcome - if a little demanding - when compared to that of much new writing. Quotation and paraphrase abound, from, inter alia, the Bible, through Langland, Milton, Blake and Clare, to Yeats and Auden, with references to Jameson's own work thrown in for good measure. Set in 1987, flashbacks to the twenties, thirties and forties slide into each other, always in chronological order.
The flashbacks emphasise the cyclic nature of the plot - history is, to a degree, repeating itself - and we see how the "flame" of fascism is passed on from generation to generation, complete with bully boys, a complete disregard for human life and perverted patriotism:
Light me a blaze in the city's heart
To burn all the shadows away.
Pass torch on torch from hand to hand,
Till the dark streets are bright as the day.
Follow me, brothers, into the blaze
And let England be England again.
Like the best work in any medium, Keepers of the Flame makes an immediate impact but continues to reveal its depth long after the final bows are taken and the house lights have come up.