AN ERA RECREATED: THE REAL 1968 IN AN UNREAL WORLD
The opening, in a student room correct down to the battered stack of albums, took me aback. Friends, I was there in 1968: in Oxford rooms heavy with illegal smoke, where skinny lads planned groundbreakingly tedious college productions of Coriolanus and lounged around listening to Bob Dylan protesting half a world away. There was often, as here, an ill-matched roommate: a “Northern Chemist” stumping off to the lab muttering “Never knew such a place for encouraging bullshit”.
My God, how it all comes back! Even the crucial plot detail that offstage, the lounging one’s friend Nick risks suspension for nicking books from Blackwell’s on the half-baked Marxexcuse that “Property is Theft”. The only difference is that in 1968 nobody would say aloud like Nick’s posh sister Pippa (Sophia Sivan) “You’re living in the most amazing old buildings and studying the literature of the greatest language there is. You don’t do a stroke of work and all your cooking and washing is done for you. It doesn’t cost you a penny because the taxpayer is footing the bill. It’s a scandal really.”
Yet Alan Franks’ new play is not a satire but a rueful, layered attempt to pick its way through the innocent hypocrisies and shifting values of the time. It’s more Rattigan than Osborne, mindful of how human relationships drive or impede progress. It may seem a tiny world, but its faithfulness asks awkwardly universal questions about gilded intellectual elites and the harsher world elsewhere. The 1968 setting is pivotal, because into the sweet simplicities of the English undergraduates’ lives (they’re blackmailing a senior tutor for plagiarism to save the book-thief’s bacon) strides a Rhodes Scholar from Minnesota. I remember them too, the Clinton generation: older than us, avoiding the draft, their politics forced into sharper focus by the deaths of Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the ascent of Nixon and the fate of contemporaries in Vietnam.
Sally Knyvette directs a cast whose very physicality is evocative: Steffan Donnelly as a wispy boy-child Toby is dreamily planning to emulate a 1953 Brecht production of Gunther Grass which incorporated real strikers (he finds the Cowley pickets unenthusiastic). Chris the Chemist is Dan Van Garrett, more heavyset and bearded: a decent old-school leftie who scornfully points out that the Dylan numbers drifting through the scenes are nicked from folksongs his uncles sing in pubs. And Elliott the American is Michael Swatton: broad-shouldered, a man among pretty children. He knows economics and politics, and recites Bobby Kennedy’s magnificent Kansas speech on the fallacy of mere GDP (worth a look today – http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4110). He mesmerizes Pippa, who despite a benign nature dislikes “causes”. Though Mummy does do hospital visiting, in Godalming.
Franks weaves themes of integrity, emulation, plagiarism, imitation both straight and crooked: wistful respect for ancient texts meets an uneasy need for progress. I would love to see it grow to a fuller length. As for Mayhew the Middle English tutor, Crispian Cartwright is so horribly convincing in the role that for a moment I wondered if Knyvette had done a Brecht-and-the-strikers, captured and incorporated the real thing…
box office 0207 978 7040 to 15 Feb