IF RANSOME MET ORWELL
It’s 1939 in Southwold harbour (nicely resonant for me to see this in Southwold itself, on its second night). Arthur Ransome, famed already for his children’s books, is sailing up the coast from Pin Mill to lay up his boat for the war years. HIs wife Evgenia finds a visitor fallen asleep in the cabin: it’s Eric Blair, who under his pen-name George Orwell has published four novels (mixed reception) and non-fiction accounts of being down and out, fighting in Spain and observing the poor of Northern England. He’s been burying his father in the town, and found out who was in the harbour. Soon he will write Animal Farm and become more famous himself.
Orwell wants to meet Ransome, not because of wanting to write ‘as if for children’ nor about fishing (on which they find common ground , with a very English social wariness). It is almost certainly because the older man lived through the Russian revolution in 1917 as a reporter (and maybe a spy, that runs through the whole play) . Better still, his wife Evgenia was Trotsky’s trusted secretary. Orwell, with the pigs of animal farm not yet formed in his mind, is thinking of the Russian revolution and of the new ally Stalin, and is already full of doubt at the outcome of the state socialism which seemed so natural and necessary to his generation. In a nice moment Ransome teaches him fly-tying with bits of bread as bait: our author is canny enough not to quote, but to leave it to us to remember Orwell’s great line – “Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait”. Nice idea that he got the metaphor off old Arthur Ransome…
The meeting is entirely fictional, an invention of the author, Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles ; so are two further meetings in the play, one in the Lake District and one in Orwell’s last illness. All might have taken place, none did: fair enough. Laurie Coldwell, dark and intense, is a perfect Orwell not only in looks but in catching a very credible manner: a nervy intense troubled intelligence, his physical restlessness in contrast to Philip Gill’s relaxed, worldly Ransome . Orwell sees the cataclysm of war and totalitarianism coming (his Coming up for Air is the book he has with him) but Ransome growls “Keep Adolf quiet and stay out of his way”.
What Evgenia thinks we only discover slowly: at first I was doubtful about Sally Ann Burnett’s portrayal, as she seemed plain silly, but as the play goes on her layers of experience and understanding of the Bolshevism she lived through, and the question marks hanging over how she and Ransome got out so smoothly.
There are moments of real credible connection, though as the years go on – we are long post-war by the second half – there are far too many words and not enough real clashes or understandings. Evgenia becomes ever more central, Burnett gradually evoking the long, half-buried emotional reality and political half-belief of her years working for Leon Trotsky (“It was where I was sent”). The most dramatic moment comes when Orwell, having once again crashed in on their peaceful elderly lives, is the one to tell her of Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico.
It’s a great idea, much of it well performed and imagined, but if ever a play needed cutting, especially in the second half (unwisely, as long as the first or longer) this is it. Nor do we really need the appearance of various dream-women (all Bronte Tadman) representing Orwell’s agonized love life in contrast to the uxorious Ransome’s. Though Tadman’s last incarnation, as Sonia Orwell, is beautifully done: crisply ruthless, socially assured.
Other imagined meetings – Frayn’s Copenhagen, Bennett’s spy plays – benefit from brevity: at a tight 90-minutes this would have had twice the power. It may yet have. It was worth seeing, though.
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Touring across the East of England to 31 JULY, final week at Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich