It's coming home...

It’s coming home…

…theatre’s coming home.

It’s a long time since I put finger to keyboard about the fantastic theatre we have on offer. The first lockdown largely put a stop to that, and although I’ve probably seen more theatre than I do usually, reviewing a zoom production didn’t seem to have the same pull for me. I may do a note later about some of the excellent productions sent to our living room, and I do hope that some companies continue to use methods other than live performances to put on their shows. Not having to travel hundreds of miles means so much more is accessible to many more people, whether it’s performance art, lectures, or study groups.

Anyhow, that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is when you book to see Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre miles in advance, you don’t take into account the fact that England might be in the half of the draw that ends up with them playing in a semi-final on the same night.

OH NO!!! Oh yes. The up side is that it’s a relatively short performance (one hour 45 minutes), starts at 7.30pm and is played without an interval. Social distancing in the theatre also means it should be relatively easy to get out, and on to the 9.35 back to Southampton while the game is still on. Hopefully that means we should avoid seeing any England supporters cheering or crying and there is an outside chance we can make it home to watch the recorded game without knowing the result.

Our dreams are shattered. The play starts late, and over-runs slightly. That Welsh bugger Sheen did it deliberately, obviously. We miss the 9.35, and have to wait an hour. Amazingly the big screens at Waterloo aren’t showing wall to wall news coverage of the game. We keep our heads down.

Before the 90 minutes is up in the game, a small group of young England supporters come and sit next to us. Once of them is very drunk. None of them are talking about the game. Their England flag is discarded on the floor – we fear the worst. The young drunk is virtually carried off to his train by his mates. It’s odd that the station isn’t filled with supporters travelling home. EXTRA-TIME!!! It must be extra time. OMG!!! Our train is on time but we want to get on away from any supporters as soon as it’s in so we go to stand by the departures board. Please let it be on time.

But then there is a slight shift in the mood on the concourse. A couple of rail staff clap and give others the thumbs-up. I convince myself that their shift is coming to an end, or they’ve just been awarded some bonus overtime. It can only be a half way through extra time, so they can’t be cheering about the score. Our train is in. We jump on into a quiet carriage. If any football supporters jump on hopefully they will go and be noisy somewhere else. There is still a chance we can pull this off and get home without hearing the score.

One bloke gets into the carriage, looking intently at his phone. We hold our breath. We will him onwards.

He goes to the middle of the carriage. The football gods are still with us. Hardly anyone gets on this late train at the stations we will be stopping at. I’m already calculating which route to take from Southampton Central to home to avoid any pubs which might still be full of fans.

It’s nearly time to pull out. But then doors hiss open again. Oh bugger. But it’s OK. Six Asian men with overnight bags. Work colleagues? Boys’ night out? They’re just chatting about stuff. Not football. Then as they get to the middle of the carriage they take their seats. They put their cases in the racks. One of them looks down at the guy with his phone, nods, and to be polite says “Hi, how are you doing?’. Instead of the expected “OK thanks”, “2-1” is the reply and polite “well-dones” from the overnighters.

BUGGER. Anyhow, at least when we do get home we watch the match in calm serenity.

But as I said earlier, this is not what I meant to say.

Under Milk Wood was great. You all know the story. Set in a fictional village of Llareggub (bugger all, reversed) we hear the dreams of its residents – everyday stories of village folk if you wish. A narrator guides you from house to shop, from school to chapel introducing and commenting on the characters as they recount their lost dreams and ambitions in their dreams of today.

Sheen gives a terrific performance in this lightly adapted version which moves the narrative to care home where the residents are the characters of the village. This setting allows the narrative to be a conversation between father, Rverand Jenkins played immaculately by Karl Johnson, and son, Owain Jenkins who Sheen uses to weave Dylan’s poetry throughout the play. The conversation about memories as a furious son tries to force then encourage his father to remember the present is the narrative. The fury subsides into a beautiful, sad, funny remembering of a life gone by that still has impact on today.

Set in the round in a socially distanced theatre at times you have to concentrate to catch every word, but should you miss one the lyrical Welsh voices will carry you through. The play is simply set in a care home by a few sticks of furniture but they are soon wheeled off to allow the main narrative and dreams to unfold on a largely empty village stage. The odd table or other piece of furniture is wheeled on to represent one household or another. One brilliant breakfast table where each tablecloth is in turn pulled away from under the plates and cups to reveal another represents half a dozen families in quick succession. A lazy wheeled bathtub type affair is scooted round the stage as Nogood Boyo’s fishing boat.

But however well-staged this play is it needs the narrator to make it work. And my goodness does Sheen do that. I have no idea how many lines he has, but Hamlet can’t have many more and Sheen delivers them with a rage and with a gentleness in this mesmerising performance.

I may do a list of all the things we’ve seen during lockdowns one to however many it is. It will be a reminder of how the arts can reach the masses.

But in the meantime, it’s coming home. Live theatre is coming home.

The National Theatre, until 24 July 2021 (but at time of writing is sold out for all performances).

You need to be strong to be so weak

Henry VI is not a play I’ve seen often, usually skipping from the previous Henry plays to Richard III without passing go.

But the new production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe was too good a chance to miss, setting Richard III (seen on the same day) in a proper context. In particular, it allowed the sometimes distracting deformities of Richard Crookback to be represented only by the text rather than prosthetics. Richard’s desire to sweep aside all who stand in his path to the throne of England is driven by clarity of evil thought rather than out of revenge for disabilities which never seem to disable his vaunting ambition.

Both plays were set in a time of your own choosing, but the occasional modern musical sting to one murder or another allowed you to see this as contemporary as you might wish. Certainly, Henry, a weak, incompetent leader surrounded by strong, opinionated but divided courtiers, is recognisable from recent history. Is recognisable from virtually any period of history.

The weak King needs to be played with some confidence and assertion to be believed. The tracksuited Jonathan Broadbent is a strong actor for the part and is convincingly unsure about each and every major decision. His French Queen Margaret played by Steffan Donnelly is brutally certain by contrast.

Henry VI combines the second and third part of the traditional three plays – leaving out the French set up with Joan of Arc to concentrate on the English War of the Roses.

The androgenous casting lends further uncertainty to who sides with whom (or for how long), and it only the emerging Richard Duke of York who has a constant sense of direction, at least in his own mind. Sophie Russell is fantastic as Richard – manoeuvring players in the War of Roses is the first play and trampling all before her in the second. It is helpful (and amusing) that many players are swapping red and white football shirts with the names on as allegiances shift between the red and white of Lancaster and York.

By the time Clarence is murdered in the Tower by people wearing T-Shirts proclaiming ‘Murderer 1’ and ‘Murderer 2’ the tone is already well established for a crossover between humour and terror.

Both plays bring on stage much of the mayhem and murder which is merely hinted at in the wings of other productions. John Lightbody, who is himself murdered several times as different characters in Henry VI, stalks the stage in Richard III as Lord High Executioner Richard Ratcliffe; and is given a few more people to despatch than in the original script.

All in all, theses are two plays which concentrate on the important and leave out the unnecessary (the final battle scene in Richard III is probably the shortest ever). They are productions of pace and vigour and great credit must go to the co-directors Ilinca Radulian and Sean Holmes.

This is Shakespeare meets Tarantino. It’s a must see.

Henry VI and Richard III
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London until 26 January 2020

Girl Power

A day out at Stratford-upon-Avon to see a couple of Restoration plays at the Swan RSC Theatre and, surprisingly (to me at least) women were on top in both. Restoration plays are from when theatres were reopened after a 17-year ban by the (right but repulsive) puritans of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell’s son (not a dynasty) Richard couldn’t hack it as Lord Protector, the army effectively said those Cavaliers had a point – Charles II, have this crown and try not to get involved in another civil war, (or to bollocks things up like your dad).

With Charles II restored to the throne in 1660, the Restoration period was underway and lasted for a generation and was roughly the start of a hundred years or so of the Enlightenment – a period noted for reason and logic, as well as liberty and constitutional reform.

When Charles was exiled in Europe he was exposed to a lot of theatre, and became an active patron of the arts on his restoration. Apart from reopening the theatres he also demanded that female characters should be played by women, Most recently people would have been used to seeing women played by male actors, but now they would see gender politics brought to the fore by actresses in a new series of Restoration plays across all the genres.

Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway, was written in 1682, 70 years after Shakspeare’s last play and immediately apparent is how much closer to modern English the language is. This a play we did not know and had not read in advance yet the dialogue was considerably easier to follow than Labour’s Brexit strategy. This is a play of political plotting and betrayal, apparently in part alluding to the recent struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism, between Church and the State. The only honest characters are the two main women – Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, and Aquilina the brothel keeper. And Jodie McNee and Natalie Dew respectively give two of the strongest performances.

Set in a Blade Runneresque dystopian present or near future this tale of Venice in ruins is set on a bleak empty stage, illuminated in occasional neon and memorably, during a prison sequence, in dazzling lasers. This a play of morals, dishonesty and deception. But there are precious few whose morals we would support. As a reformation play, it is probably apt that it is populated by the ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ along with the ‘Right but Repulsive’ as the English civil war opponents were described by 1066 and All That.

The light relief is played out by John Hodgkinson as yet another corrupt Senator with a predilection for sadomasochism at the hands (and whips) of Aquilina.

As a performance, it is too long. Read the synopsis and the major themes are played out in the first few minutes. Unfortunately, it takes another two and a half hours to tell us what we then already know.

The second play of the day was a little more jolly. The Provoked Wife is a comedy of manners written by John Vanburgh in 1697. Again the language is very modern (save for the odd Gadzooks). And so are the themes, albeit by the mores of the 17th century.

Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath) is tired of her tedious, drunken husband (Jonathan Slinger). When she decides to spice up her love life with a younger man, scandal threatens to ruin her. The scandal is fomented by Lady Bountiful and her French lady-in-waiting.

This is no dystopian performance, past or present. Set in the 17th Century it is played in costume. Again, it is overly long but at least it is a comedy and played for laughs. A combination of English farce and Noel Coward comedy, this is a welcome relief from the stark amorality of Venice Preserved.

Once again the women are the lead. They seek to change their lives or to change the lives of others. The men are the objects upon which the women play out their dramas, although the main centres of attention for Lady Brute and her companion seem almost 21st-century new-manish by comparison to Lord Brute. This role reversal is what would have scandalised the contemporary audience – but the age of enlightenment was getting into full swing, and the play’s the thing.

It was certainly interesting and rewarding to see two restoration plays in one day. In Shakespeare country, one is used to the words resonating across the centuries. But these plays didn’t just seem to have relevance for today. They could have almost been written today. Certainly spending some time working out the context in which they were written helps – in some ways, more so than with Shakespeare.

Many of the cast perform in both plays. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that must be on the same day, but all who do seem to switch roles without any accidental crossovers of character.

As always the Swan is a great theatre to see any performance. Close to the action with excellent sightlines. A little too close if the blood is flowing, but there is little of that in either of these. Would I recommend you see either or both of these plays? Yes, if you like Blade Runner and/or farce. Will I want to see them again? No.

And as a final aside, next time you are in Stratford, try a little pre-evening performance dinner at Susie’s Cafe Bar in The Other Place (the third RSC theatre space) just a five-minute stroll along the river. Give yourself time – the service isn’t the quickest – but the food and range of drinks are both very good and good value for money. It is also one of the few restaurants that seem to be able to cope with online bookings for the same day.

Venice Preserved
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

The Provoked Wife
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

Independence Day

There have been many voices, from all sides, calling for an independent complaints and disciplinary procedure for the Labour Party. Superficially this seems an attractive proposal, but it is not straightforward to design or to implement.

And, of course, it doesn’t escort the elephant in the room back to its wildlife reserve.

That means probably the biggest problem is still left unaddressed – alterations to the systems and procedures may be necessary, but that will deal with the symptoms alone.

Labour can have the most efficient and effective procedures for dealing with individual antisemites, yet, whilst the system may be removing antisemites one at a time, the Party is holding open the double doors at the front with a big welcome sign. The Labour Party can introduce an independent system to deal with cases, but the Labour Party cannot abrogate its own duty to police its own borders. That takes political will, political leadership.

Should Labour’s Complaints Procedures be Independent?

My view is that we are a political party. We will get all sorts of complaints. We should deal with them. But I’m afraid that ship has sailed.

Despite the efforts of the staff over the last few years, the complaints procedure has become thoroughly discredited. It is open to political interference – from my point of view hardly surprising in a political party; there is no easy or robust way of dealing with people who clearly do not share Labour values; and conflicting messages from the Leader’s Office (LOTO); the National Executive Committee (NEC); individual members of the NEC; and individual politicians mean our values are muddied and the procedures for upholding them weakened.

It is likely that Labour will be forced to support some form of independent procedure, although there is a rear-guard action from LOTO, most notably at yesterday’s meeting of the Shadow Cabinet, to simply give more powers to the NEC. This, unsurprisingly given the current level of competence in Corbyn’s office, is wrong-headed and will probably lead to more civil action by those challenging disciplinary decisions. As Thomas Quinn of the London School of Economics and Political Science explains (Organisational Reform in The British Labour Party Since 1983. pub 2014.):

The National Constitutional Committee (NCC) was formed after Kinnock’s battle with the ultra-left Militant Tendency in the mid-1980s, sitting for the first time in February 1987. The need for it arose after a legal ruling that the NEC had violated natural justice by acting as prosecutor, judge and jury against party members who were accused of belonging to Militant and who thus faced expulsion from the party.

The NCC was intended to take over the judicial function while the NEC would retain its role as ‘prosecutor’. Despite its title, however, the NCC did not have control over the interpretation of Labour’s constitution, which remained with the NEC. Instead, it would play a narrow role in disciplinary matters, though even then this would relate mainly to individuals.

The NEC retained control over disciplining affiliates and CLPs, which was considered essential for the purpose of party management. 

Thomas Quinn

So, if we are to proceed with an independent system for dealing with complaints, how could that be imagined?

Let’s start from where we are, rather than where some people think we are. The current procedures have grown like Topsy. Custom and practice has added to the complexity. We give an extraordinary amount of time to compiling and prosecuting a single disciplinary case.

Antisemitism has the focus currently, but effectively all disciplinary cases have a political aspect. Bringing the Party into disrepute, unless it’s in respect of a simple criminal activity, is likely to be a decision based on politics. This is actually codified, given that the rulebook refers to “in the opinion of the NEC”.

But if you strip away all that complexity, it’s more straightforward.

  • A Constituency Labour Party (CLP) can prosecute a case for a breach of rule to the NCC. (It can’t, however, determine that a member should be expelled by simple resolution. The recent Hilary Armstrong case was poorly reported in this regard. Any such resolution by the CLP to expel Armstrong would have been ultra vires.)
  • The General Secretary can prosecute a case to the NCC.
  • The NEC can prosecute a case to the NCC.
  • The General Secretary (usually) or the NEC can determine whether there has been a breach of a limited number of rules which require auto-exclusion.
  • Importantly, but rarely if ever used, where there is no dispute about bringing the Party into disrepute, a member could be excluded by the NEC without reference to the NCC.
  • There is no role for the Leader nor for the General Secretary, save for those shown above, but one would expect both to be kept informed of significant or sensitive disciplinary cases.

How is the Current System Working?

It is believed by many Party members, Labour politicians and stakeholders,  and commentators that the system is broken in a number of areas:

  • In respect of antisemitism, it is argued there is a deliberate attempt to present a different definition than is presented by the IHRA definition adopted by the Party.
  • There is factional interference in the disciplinary process at all points within the process.
  • The NCC is no longer an independent judge and jury. The factionalism surrounding the recent elections to the NCC demonstrates this beyond doubt.
  • There is deliberate interference by the Leader’s office in the disciplinary process.

In addition, there are two other areas which don’t help.

  • There is no satisfactory mechanism for reviewing a person’s membership when new information comes to light after their eight-week probationary period.
  • The NCC can’t take into account offences committed prior to membership.

Can we make it better?

We can make it different. There is a danger that, unless proper consideration is given to proposals, we can also make it worse. Rushing to a half-cocked solution may seem like we’re getting somewhere, but we’ll have to do it all again in the months to come.

In the first serious attempt to look for a solution, Tom Watson et al have proposed the following:

The NEC therefore resolves to bring forward rule changes to this year’s conference that:

– automatically excludes a member from the party where there is irrefutable evidence of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia.

– establishes an independent process to deal with disciplinary matters involving all forms of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia. This is also to include the process for overseeing auto exclusion of members and any subsequent member appeals. We will invite the Bar Council, or another appropriate body, to appoint a person wholly independent from the Labour Party to devise the detail of this scheme, consult with Jewish and other communities and report back to the NEC.

Proposal submitted to the Labour Party NEC

This is clearly a good starting point. It at least identifies the problem and sets out a partial route map to an independent process. However, it is problematic in a number of areas, these being the critical ones:

  • There is scarcely time to bring forward fully formed rule changes if there is going to be independent oversight of drawing up the proposals. There should be transparent scrutiny of the proposals and stakeholders consulted. And staff and lawyers with a knowledge of the rule book should have the responsibility for drafting the actual text which may have to stand up in court.
  • I’m afraid that simply Inviting the Bar Council or other body to do it for us may be subject to some ridicule after the Chakrabarti experience.
  • A particularly difficult part of the proposal above is that it separates out some of the disrepute charges to an Independent Body, but not all of them. In my view, it has to be all (or nothing, but as I said earlier that ship has sailed). There seems to be no valid reason for not including all the protected characteristics, which is presumably the starting point. However, there is no mention of age, disability, marital status or pregnancy. Even the Labour Party rules are more comprehensive:
    The NEC and NCC shall take account of any codes of conduct currently in force and shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as conduct prejudicial to the Party:
  • It also introduces the concept of appeals against auto-exclusions.
    No. Just no. Auto-exclusions are for a clear breach of the rule in question: You’re a member of another Party; you signed the nomination papers of a Tory candidate; you are deliberately not paying the correct membership subscription and so on. If there is a dispute, there is recourse to courts. If there is an error – the wrong person identified for exclusion, or some other factual error – then administrative corrections can be made as they have in the past (and as they should be in the Alastair Campbell case).

But what the Watson resolution does helpfully do is to bring front and centre some of the problems. What could be considered by an independent process? And what should still be determined by the General Secretary or the NEC? Is there any role for the NCC? If we end up with an independent process for sexual harassment cases, would this be the same route or different? And so on.

In my view, these are the key assumptions which could make an independent process work.

  • All allegations of bringing the Party into disrepute are dealt with by the independent process.
  • All allegations of breaching auto-exclusion are dealt with, as currently, by the General Secretary (delegated always to the Governance and Legal Unit – GLU).
  • All allegations of other breaches of rule are dealt with by the General Secretary, as currently (delegated always to the GLU). Where such a breach is investigated, and a prima facie case established, GLU may determine a punishment within its competence or refer to the NEC for consideration. Where the NEC believes the punishment available to GLU is insufficient, the case is referred to the NCC for determination.
  • Where a member is alleged to have breached rules, which would require both internal and external routes, then the external independent route would take precedence.
  • If a CLP wishes to bring a charge of disrepute against one of its members, it will be processed through the independent route.
  • All other disputes – selections, meetings, general uncomradely behaviour, etc. – would be dealt with the usual, current, internal routes.

This could be simply stated as any complaints which are outward-facing are dealt with by the independent external body; those which are inward-facing are dealt with through existing procedures.

The key decision points for the external Independent Body would then be something like this:

  • All complaints, including complaints by CLPs, must come in to the Labour Party.
  • Complaints will be sorted into Internal and External by GLU. The external body will be notified of all internal cases to ensure none are incorrectly allocated.
  • The General Secretary will notify appropriate stakeholders of significant or sensitive cases (internal and external). The Independent Body will be copied in to any such notifications for the cases it is handling.
  • The Independent Body will normally commission GLU to undertake any investigations that may be required, including by regional staff or others. The Independent Body will determine the timescales for investigations and case determination. Care would have to be taken that the Independent Body doesn’t become prosecutor as well as judge, but where required it should have the some of the role of an examining magistrate in ensuring that obvious evidence on either side of the argument is not overlooked.
  • A standardized system will be established by the Independent Body so that monitoring of caseload and decisions can be constantly and consistently reviewed to the level of detail for the needs of the different stakeholders.

Even if we are able to flesh out the enormous amount of detail to make this process a possibility, there is are still more big questions to be answered. Among which:

  • Who appoints the Independent Body? (The NEC – but how do you stop factionalism in the selection process?)
  • How much money is going to be invested in the Independent Body? Presumably at least in part by reducing the GLU budget and staffing which no doubt will go down like a bucket of cold sick with staff who are already under pressure.

Where Next?

As a starting point, I think the Watson proposal, now that it apparently has the support of the Equalities Committee, should be amended to say something like this.

The NEC therefore resolves to bring forward rule changes to this year’s conference that:

– clarifies the ability of the NEC under Chapter 2, Clause I.9 to auto-exclude members for an undisputed breach of Chapter 2, Clause I.8;

– clarifies the procedures for all auto-exclusions;

– establishes an independent process to deal with all disciplinary matters under Chapter 2, Clause I.8 including all forms of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia; and

– introduces a sunset clause to allow consequential alterations to the rules between conferences as a result of detailed proposals to be introduced.

It further resolves to establish an implementation working group to consider detailed procedures. This working group:

– will have an Independent Chair appointed by the NEC;

– the Chair will appoint other members of the working group, in consultation with the General Secretary;

– will consult with Labour stakeholders, the Jewish community and other communities; and

– report detailed proposals to the NEC for adoption.

Suggested amendment to the proposal to the NEC

That would give more overarching terms of reference and, critically, the time needed to do it right. We’ve got this wrong for too long. We should take a little longer to put it right.


Extracts from the rulebook 2019

For those interested in the current disciplinary process and powers of the NEC, these are some extracts from the rules. You can download a full copy of the rulebook from the Labour Party.

Powers of the NEC

Chapter 1, Clause VIII.3

to uphold and enforce the constitution, rules and standing orders of the Party and to take any action it deems necessary for such purpose, including disaffiliation, disbanding, suspending or otherwise disciplining any affiliated organisation or Party unit; in furtherance of such duties it shall have the power to suspend or take other administrative action against individual members of the Party subject to the provisions of the disciplinary rules set out in Chapter 6 of these rules.

Powers of the NCC

Chapter 1, Clause IX.2

A. to determine by hearing or otherwise such disciplinary matters as are presented to it by CLPs in accordance with the provisions contained in the disciplinary rules (Chapter 6).

B. to determine by hearing or otherwise such disciplinary matters as are presented to it by the officers of the Party on the instructions of the NEC

Chapter 1, Clause IX.4

The NCC or any panel thereof in hearing and determining charges against an individual shall follow such procedure as it considers appropriate to ensure that the charges are determined without undue delay and in a manner that is fair to both the individual and the Party…

Membership Rules

Chapter 2, Clause I.8

No member of the Party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the Party. The NEC and NCC shall take account of any codes of conduct currently in force and shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as conduct prejudicial to the Party:

these shall include but not be limited to incidents involving racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language, sentiments, stereotypes or actions, sexual harassment, bullying or any form of intimidation towards another person on the basis of a protected characteristic as determined by the NEC, wherever it occurs, as conduct prejudicial to the Party. The disclosure of confidential information relating to the Party or to any other member, unless the disclosure is duly authorised or made pursuant to a legal obligation, shall also be considered conduct prejudicial to the Party.

Chapter 2, Clause I.9

Any dispute as to whether a member is in breach of the provisions of sub-clause 8 shall be determined by the NCC.

Taming of the Shrew

There have been plenty of plays where women have taken the roles usually played by male actors. Legends Sarah Siddons (in the 18th century) and Sarah Bernhardt (in the 19th century) are among the women who’ve played Hamlet. More recently Glenda Jackson was outstanding as King Lear, as was Tamsin Greig as Malvolio. Of course, Shakespeare’s original company of players were entirely men – playing all the female roles. And we now have an all-female company, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen, playing Shakespeare as the tables are turned. In an extraordinary trilogy, Dame Harriet Walter led an all-female cast through Julias Caesar, Henry IV and the Tempest.

We didn’t want to be coy about addressing the gender imbalance.

Harriet Walter on the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy

But the current production of Taming of the Shrew playing at the RSC Stratford is something different. This is not women playing male roles and vice versa. This is the complete reversal of gender in society. The male parts are played by women as women. All the female parts are played by men as men. This is the world turned upside down. It is a matriarchy. Women have the power, wealth and status. Men are subservient and know their place. Interestingly, although the women carry the swords, have the money, take the decisions they are still ‘feminine’. Then men are still recognisably men – albeit one or two camp it up a bit.

Taming of the Shrew
Claire Price in foreground, Joseph Arkley. Image by Ikin Yum.

Taming of the Shrew is not a pleasant play at any time. It legitimises controlling and coercive behaviour. It was only the interest created by this whole society gender reversal which attracted us to see it. Although not enough to travel to Stratford – we chose the live cinema view at the Harbour Lights, Southampton. The play itself was efficiently played and directed. Clair Price, playing Petruchia, and Joseph Arkley, playing Kate (slightly confusingly retaining the female name) were convincing in the lead roles, but the standout performance was Amy Trigg (Biondella), hurtling around the stage in her wheelchair as the slightly manic servant to Lucentia, delivering speeches with machine gun rapidity and dramatic pauses like the jam in the machine gun being fixed.

Taming of the Shrew
Amy Trigg. Image by Ikin Yum

But it was the discussion after the play that was the most interesting. The director, Justin Audibert, said he wanted the play to be the start of a conversation. He got that right.

The four of us, two small-l liberal couples, quickly concluded that this production was profoundly more disturbing than previous, more traditional, versions that we had seen. The main conclusion we reached was that the current society is so patriarchal that even we find gaslighting of men by women more unusual, more disturbing than the other way round. The subservience of women is seen as more natural, more usual than the other way round – even to men AND women who have embraced equality personally and politically all their lives.

This is a truly powerful message and makes this play worth a look. Even if you, like me, dislike the concept of the play in either form.


The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

Through the Glass Darkly

Through the Glass Darkly

Roger Allam is an actor worth seeing. When it was announced he would be playing the Edwardian patriarch at the centre of a glass manufacturing dynasty in this revival of Githa Sowerby’s ‘Rutherford and Son’ it was definitely added to the bucket list to see.

Written in 1912 and set against her own family background in glass-making, Githa Sowerby was lauded when the play was premiered under the playwright’s name of G.K. Sowerby. When it became clear the author was a woman, the glowing tributes took a more patronising “who would have expected a woman to write this” tone. And in many ways, that is fitting for this play with its clear undercurrents (and overcurrents) of feminism against a backdrop of Edwardian capitalism.

The story is simple enough. The patriarch, John Rutherford, has run a successful glass-makers for a generation or more, but increased competition from improved mechanisation means he has to finds ways of making ends meet. He is consumed by the business and his two sons and daughter become increasingly and desperately marginalised by his authoritarian drive to save the family firm. If only he had put as much energy into saving the family.

One son, Richard, is a vicar and seeks his father’s permission to take up another living with better prospects away from the family home. His second son John, who lives with his wife Mary and baby son in the family home, believes he has invented a new formula which will dramatically cut costs in the glass-making process. And his spinster daughter, Janet, has developed a clandestine relationship with Rutherford’s trusted foreman. A trusted foreman who will help Rutherford steal John’s formula, and is then sacked – his relationship with Janet having been discovered.

None of his children can be allowed to get in the way of the firm. Or the supposed respectability which the family name now has. “My children can’t go back” is his mantra yet he cannot see that each in their way want to go forward. As each family member in turn is cut adrift Mary, the daughter-in-law, ends up alone with Rutherford. And now this quiet voice of reason takes centre stage to play out the transition of power from his family to hers.

This is a powerful play about power and family. Whilst some of the stark examples that Sowerby illustrates may be less familiar to us today, it still resonates as a timeless piece of drama. Set in the main room of the household, the set is initially partially hidden by a curtain of water as a thunderstorm breaks across the city. As the rain ends the whole set slides several metres to the front of the stage, bringing the audience into the house. Part of the drama. The beautifully sung, haunting folk music which preceded the curtain and was again heard at the interval set the mood for the emotions which the excellent cast delivered throughout. Allam was outstanding.

At around 2 hours 35 minutes (including an interval) this play, directed by Polly Findley, rattled along. Set in the northeast, the accents occasionally needed hard listening, but I did wonder if one well-known theatre critic who pompously declared them “impenetrable” would have said the same of Chaucer’s English. This was gritty realism. When first performed it would have been exactly contemporary with its age and a clarion call for change, which is still to be fulfilled completely 100 years on.

This is the first play by Sowerby that I have seen. Although her other works didn’t receive such critical acclaim, it would be interesting to see any of them revived.


The Lyttelton, National Theatre until 3 August 2019

I am Spartacus

On 20 May 2019 I released short statement on Twitter:

I won’t support ‘a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party’ nor will I support ‘any candidate against an official Labour candidate’ but I’ve returned my EU election PV and for the first time in 46 years I’ve not voted Labour.

20 May 2019, shortly before EU polling day

I chose that formulation of words with care. I knew many thousands of Labour members would be considering lending their votes to another Party in protest at Labour’s continued ambiguity on Brexit. I wanted to make it clear that voting was a private matter, and that by itself could not be in contravention of the Labour Party rules. Blindingly obvious really. To constrain a person’s vote by offering or refusing some benefit, in this case membership of the Labour Party, is a breach of the Representation of the People Act and subsequent legislation. (Although someone did suggest to me that “membership of the Party isn’t a benefit, it’s just bloody hard work.”)

Apart from the legal wrangle over whether or not demanding a vote in return for membership of a political organisation is or is not illegal, there are there practical problems of evidence and enforcement. Of course, you could introduce some sort of loyalty pledge – I promise to vote Labour at every election in which I am an eligible voter – in which case vote swapping, tactical voting or whatever all go underground. Only exposed when the Labour vote falls below the number of Labour members in an area. Frighteningly, this may soon no longer be a joke.

The only thing one can say with any certainty is whether a person voted at all. Although votes may be inspected by order of the High Court (in exceptional circumstances, usually when investigating electoral fraud) to identify which way an individual voted, the vote itself is, to all intents and purposes, secret. But whether or not each individual cast a vote is open to public inspection and all political parties access this data on a regular basis to inform their election campaign planning. It would be a simple matter to check whether any or all members of a political party had voted. And it could be argued that failing to vote gave support to other parties or candidates.

Now we are at the nub of the issue.

On Tuesday 28 May, Alistair Campbell received an email telling him he had been auto-excluded from the Labour Party for saying (after the polls closed) that he had voted Liberal Democrat in the European Elections.

The accompanying statement form the Labour Party read as follows:

Support for another political party or candidate is incompatible with party membership.

As the sky started to fall in on the Labour Party, the Labour Party Press Team, directed by Seumas Milne, took to the social media airwaves to issue a panicked clarification:

To be absolutely clear, the way Labour Party members vote is a private matter. But publicly declaring or encouraging support for another candidate or party is against the rules and is incompatible with Party membership.

3:06 PM – 28 May 2019

And at that point any residual case the Labour Party had for justifying the auto-exclusion of Alistair Campbell collapsed. If the way a person voted does not, cannot, be in breach of party rules then we come simply to the more normal use of the words in the rule book.

The relevant section of the current rule book says:

A member of the Party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member.

Rule 2.1.4.B – Labour Party Rulebook

Given that the Labour Party has itself now ruled out voting against Labour as a reason for expulsion how has Campbell breached the rule above? And the simple and obvious answer is that he hasn’t. It is not possible to support another candidate (the essential allegation) after the polls have closed.

Let’s briefly contrast this with the case of Andrew Fisher, now a senior political advisor to the Leader of the Opposition. In November 2015 he was suspended following complaints that he had called for support for another candidate. Referencing an article written by Emily Benn, the Labour candidate for Croydon South, Fisher said:

If you live in Croydon South, vote with dignity, vote Class War.

Andrew Fisher

The Leader’s office ensured (without intervening, you understand, because apparently they never do) that Fisher’s offence was considered under the more subjective rule about ‘bringing the Party into disrepute’. This allowed the disciplinary process to be concluded with no case to answer save a smack on the wrist rather than the inevitable expulsion that would have followed otherwise. Mates’ rates in the rule book.

So why has Labour allowed itself to get into this position? One thing is certain. This was not a decision taken by an officer of the Governance and Legal Unit on Bank Holiday Monday. This wasn’t a decision about an unknown party member who had stood against an official Labour candidate at some local election. This was about a prominent member of the Labour Party with a significant public profile. This would have been a decision taken at the highest possible level.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is either vindictive retribution presumably orchestrated by, or with the full knowledge of, Seumas Milne. Or a deliberate distraction from the earlier announcement on the same day by the EHRC of a statutory investigation into allegations of institutional antisemitism within Labour. Or both. Whatever the reason, the decision has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Many heavyweights from the Labour Party have condemned the action. Charles Clarke, Harriet Harman and Lord Falconer QC to name but three.

Lord Falconer QC, former Lord Chancellor, who knows something about how the courts interpret the words before them, said:

The rules do not make expulsion mandatory. Support for another political organisation envisages something more than voting for them and only going public after the polls have closed and making clear it was a one off. If voting was enough the rule would have said so.

Lord Falconer QC

And these are not the usual suspects, plotting to undermine Corbyn but senior figures from past and present whose voice should be listened to with some care. There is a long queue of people from across the Labour family who share their concerns.

Even more worrying is the immediate rise of the #ExpelMeToo and #IamSpartacus hashtags as hundreds, maybe thousands by now, of Party members declared that they too had lent their vote to another party. Excluding Campbell may lead some people, many people, to question whether their vote lent to another party will ever be cast for Labour again.

Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has now also echoed the views of many others, and made clear that Labour has made a grave error. He said it is “spiteful” to expel people from the Labour Party and called for an “amnesty” for members who did not support the party at the European elections.

It is very clear that many thousands of Labour Party members voted for other parties last week. They were disappointed with the position on Brexit that a small number of people on the NEC inserted into our manifesto. They were sending the NEC a message that our position lacked clarity and they were right.

It is spiteful to resort to expulsions when the NEC should be listening to members.

The politics of intolerance holds no future for the Labour Party. A broad church party requires pluralism and tolerance to survive.

There should be an amnesty for members who voted a different way last week. We should be listening to members rather than punishing them.”

Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

The Labour Party should admit to a mistake and reinstate Alistair Campbell without delay. The prospect of this ending in the High Court is another example of any chance of Corbyn’s Labour winning the 2022 General Election being frittered away by sheer bloody-minded incompetence by some who populate the Leader’s Office.


Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman

As America begins to lift itself out of the Great Depression, William Lowman, Willy, is sucked further into the quagmire of his own personal depression in this classic Arthur Miller play at the Young Vic.

Unable to cope or come to terms with his own mistakes over the years William invests all his hopes and dreams in his sons, Biff in particular, desperate that they become the success that will counterpoise his own perceived failures. As major milestones come and go – his marriage, the birth of his boys, Biff’s success at college football, the house bought and then paid for – more minor molehills become mountains in his path – the fridge breaking down while still on HP, his inability to cultivate his garden.

And central to all is a secret shared by father and son lying like malignant cancer across the family relationships.

This is a play entirely about human relationships. About how a single event can change that relationship and how the audience is left to wait to see what exactly is leading the salesman inexorably to his self-destruction. It is a powerful production with powerful performances from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce (the Wire) as William, Sharon D Clarke (Holby City, Dr Who) his wife, glueing the family together, and Arinzé Kene (The Pass, Our Girl) as Biff all give truly compelling performances. There is a feeling of creeping terror that here is a situation to which there should be a solution. But to which there is not.

The sense of instability, of teetering on the edge, is added to by the time switches from the present day (the Lowmans’ present day) to when the children were thinking about scholarships and their futures some 15 years earlier. Are these real flashbacks or is it just William remembering and misremembering his family’s past. Other characters – Uncle Ben, Willy Lowman’s father – are all in the mind. Or are they?

The unstable nature of the relationships and of Willy’s psyche is exacerbated by the ever-changing set. Floor platforms raise and lower, tables, chairs, windows and doors all rise up and down on wires as the scene changes from living room to kitchen, bedroom to hotel, office to restaurant. And the wires, by accident or design, occasionally seemed to be attached to one family member or another. A puppet unable to influence events for better or worse without the intervention of someone else.

This play runs at over three hours including an interval but it absolutely flew by. It was emotionally draining enough for the audience – well for me at least. I have no idea how the cast can get through it night after night. And on top of that, they have some incredible singing voices too – yes there are a couple of songs properly woven into the drama.

Casting an all black family in Death of a Salesman reflects the time as African Americans were gravitating toward Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. But, inevitably, this production, will be compared to that of the RSC of a few years back with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the lead. For me, this production surpassed even that last great performance. The maelstrom of emotions contained in the play was brought viscerally to life by each and every member of the cast.

This was a five-star performance of a five-star production and the whole theatre standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.


The Young Vic until 13 July 2019

We’re going to win the cup….

Watching Accrington Stanley against Derby, I need something to distract me from the fact that it should have been us – Southampton – apart from the tiny point that we let a 2-0 lead slip against the Rams. Twice.

The FA Cup is when everyone falls in love with football. Or should be. I can remember great games I’ve seen live, and great occasions with friends and family around the TV or in the pub. 1968 was the first FA Cup Final televised in colour and the excitement was palpable.

But today, the love is lukewarm. Football attracts the supporters of individual clubs and some general fans of the game, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Of course, the clubs and the national associations can do more to make the whole experience more attractive, but what else can be done to make the game (where top players can be earning as much in a week as their supporters earn in 4 or 5 years) more entertaining. Seeing a highly paid professional athlete fall over pretending that he (this hasn’t infected women’s football to the same degree) has been fouled to win advantage can’t be the pinnacle of entertainment.

VAR is being slowly introduced to ensure more of the important decisions are given correctly. Today I’m looking at just four other things that irritate me which could be changed to make the game more attractive – but without any major alteration to the rules or structure of the game.


This was brought to a head in a recent game featuring the mighty SaintsFC when a player was injured with just 20 seconds of the added time already being played remaining. The injury stopped play for some three minutes, and the referee promptly added an extra three minutes to the game. This may be within the letter of the law but is clearly not the intention.

Football should adopt external timekeeping as do many other sports. The referee would indicate when the clock should be stopped – injuries, substitutions, goals, and other stoppages which should not be counted as playing time identified by the rules – and started.

The clock would be visible to the crowd, players and coaching staff. And once the allotted time had been reached play would continue until the ball went dead, eliminating any disputes about whether a goal was scored or a penalty conceded before the referee blew the final whistle.

Goal kicks

Another of my pet hates is when a goal kick is taken to a team member on the edge of penalty area who is closed down by the opposition and steps in to play the ball before it has left the area as the rules require. This results in the goal kick being retaken, wasting time and irritating me.

The simple solution would be to make this, playing tha ball before it leaves the penalty area afetr a free kick, an offence punishable by an indirect free-kick to the other team.

Foul throw

There are rules about how to take a throw-in. They are simple. But in every game, literally every game, the ball will be put back in to play by a throw-in which is not within the rules of the game. And very rarely is that offence punished.

No-one cares. Except me.

I’m almost as irritated by unpunished foul throws as I am by the inability of a player to find a team-mate with a legitimate throw-in. And the solution is straightforward.

Referees need to be instructed that the rules relating to throw-ins must be enforced. After a couple of games, people will learn the rules and follow them.

Stopping play for injuries

This one may be a bit more controversial.

Currently, if a player is injured and play is stopped so they may receive treatment, the game resumes when the player has been treated and leaves the pitch to re-enter it from the sideline (with the referee’s permission). There are some variations according to the nature and seriousness of the injury.

But it is evident to anyone watching the game that injuries are often used stop play and gain an advantage (or respite) for one of the teams.

Again football could learn from other sports and allow an injured player to receive treatment on the pitch without stopping play – providing the referee is satisfied this would not be a further danger to the player in question or others.

What would you do?

If I had to pick just one of these it would be timekeeping. But what about you? Do any of these make sense to you?

And what else would you like to see to make the game more entertaining? You can have safe-standing areas, for example – providing old fogies like me can still have safe seating areas.