The Low Road

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It is impossible to miss the unwittingly apt timing of Bruce Norris’ play The Low Road, a self-described ‘fable of free-market economics and cut-throat capitalism’, in the week when the death of Thatcher has led to the re-emergence of debates which have not been this prevalent or strongly waged since the years of her premiership.

The play’s themes of individualism and community, genuine and tokenistic charity, greed, materialism and generosity are as relevant today as they were in eighteenth-century America. At the interval, I was left with the feeling that it made a refreshing change to see a new play dealing with modern issues by distancing them to a historical setting – the opposite of the current fashion to make an unnecessary relocation of a historical play to a contemporary setting with the sole purpose of ramming its ‘relevance’ down the audience’s throats.

Then the second half started… and did just that, with a modern interlude as we witnessed a conference Q and A on the financial crisis. I’ll forgive Norris though as this section was one of the funniest in the play and gave the actors involved an opportunity to milk some hilarious caricatures.

The whole cast was excellent, with a brave performance by Johnny Flynn as the unremittingly unlikable protagonist Jim Trumpett. Thatcher would certainly have approved of the enterprising Jim’s ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps and ensure his prosperity, even if this was at the expense of the surrogate family that had taken him in as a baby (and of almost everyone else that has the misfortune to have any dealings with him). The values of capitalism and the free market may seem unpalatable when put bluntly – and screamed at the bewildered members of the religious colony who have just rescued, fed and clothed him – but they are the values that our society is governed by.

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I’ve read comments criticising the play as a cheap shot against capitalism, yet narrated by Adam Smith the play sets out a scenario that could be seen to advocate it. Predictably it is Jim, with his individualistic outlook and championing of cut-throat capitalism, that prospers – and his descendents are seen to live on and thrive. The poor and the disadvantaged who find their home in the New Light of Zion Colony fail to look out for themselves – preferring to help other unfortunates – and they come to a horrible end.

The play, then, merely brings out the viewer’s own opinions of capitalism. If you believe that profit justifies immorality, and that the poor, weak and idle should be left to fend for themselves, you would see vindication of your beliefs in the play’s outcome. It is the sentiment of the typical Royal Court audience that allows this tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at the creation of the capitalist financial system to be a negative one. It is their sensibilities that condemn Jim for his actions, and sympathise with the kind-hearted yet naive members of the Colony. The audience laughs at the financial leaders in the Q and A, but the humour comes from accurate characterisation and the recognition of the well-worn arguments of the privileged and upwardly mobile. And Norris isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him – or at least to give it a quick nip – with more than one jibe aimed at the funding of the subsidised arts.

Jim’s assertion that ‘’tis and ‘twas heedless on your part to care for one [a heavily disabled community member] who could contribute so little to your livelihood’ is certainly true when applied to the Colony’s rescue of Jim, who repays their kindness with disdain, violence and theft. Yet Jim’s arrogance, pig-headedness and total lack of empathy means that he can’t see the irony of this statement in the light of his own recent predicament. It is perhaps the play’s highlighting of the hypocrisy and double-standards of many of the proponents of a free-market economy, and the cruelty that ensues when this is rolled out to include social policy, that has riled those complaining of the play’s left-leaning attitude. That, or feeling alienated when they disagree with the pretty much unanimous reaction of the audience. Dismissing the play because you dislike its politics is a lazy critique – nobody is apolitical and criticism of capitalism is a perfectly valid stance.

The Royal Court is renowned for its challenging and political new works – if you don’t want a play that challenges the status quo you might be better off seeing something less controversial like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera. Or Legally Blonde, a musical where a well-educated, attractive, mega-rich women uses her father’s money to buy her way on to an elite degree course on a whim, and overcomes the apparently disabling disadvantages of wearing pink and owning a Chihuahua to become a successful lawyer. Attorney Emmett Forrest has worked hard for years to lift himself from his humble origins but it is when he befriends the wealthy Elle and she buys him an expensive suit that he really gets taken seriously. The fact that I take exception to some of the assumptions and implied attitudes of Legally Blonde didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, and similarly The Low Road is more than just its ‘political leanings’ (although as I have already argued, they are implied rather than solidly embedded in the text).

Random left-field ending aside (so random that I can’t really elaborate without it being a spoiler), this is a solid thought-provoking period drama with enduring themes – but it’s also thoroughly entertaining.

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The problem with audience awards…

On The Culture Show this week Mark Kermode tried to redress the glaring omissions in the Oscar nominations by presenting his own personal awards, the Kermodes, which demonstrated the array of outstanding films that the Academy fails to recognise each year. The Academy Awards may favour certain films, but at least with awards like the Oscars or the Baftas you can hope that not only are the voters fairly knowledgeable about films, they’ve also seen quite a few – and hopefully the ones that they are judging.

Audience awards such as the National Television Awards, and last week’s WhatsOnStage.com Awards, throw up a whole new array of problems. I accept that I can’t complain if these forays into viewer democracy come up with the wrong result. Although I think it’s a travesty that Downton Abbey beat both Sherlock and Doctor Who to Most Popular Drama, or that Colin Morgan (who I do think is a good actor) beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith to Most Popular Drama Performance, evidently they are the most popular – at least amongst the demographic that votes for the NTAs. The fact that there are a plethora of awards for programmes that I don’t watch – from daytime TV to soaps – leads me to think that I’m not typical of the average voter. We do need a balance when it comes to awarding recognition; awards voted for by experts are hardly representative of the country’s taste as a whole.

As a regular theatre-goer, I take more of an interest in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards, although again I often disagree with the results – I appreciate that there must be something about Wicked that audiences love, as it’s (to me inexplicably) nearly always ahead of the pack when it comes to audience awards for best musical or West End show. But what annoys me the most about audience awards for theatre is the fact that most voters won’t have seen most of the productions nominated. I go to the theatre more regularly than most, but I’ve seen less than half of the productions nominated. Productions from smaller venues suffer as they struggle to muster enough votes to beat productions that are playing to thousand-strong audiences every night.

Aside from the fact that people haven’t seen most of the productions, the obvious domination of the awards by famous nominees suggests that people really do just vote for what they know. Stephen Fry was excellent in Twelfth Night, and a worthy winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Play, but he didn’t stand so far ahead of his peers that he deserved half of the vote (49.3%) in a strong field. The rest of the nominees’ votes can be marked pretty much according to their fame; from Mark Gatiss (19.7%) to Kyle Soller (5.3%). I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I’m sure Soller would have been an equally worthy winner – and had people known who he was he might have been.

The tendency for audiences to vote for what they know must surely have played a role in deciding the recipient of Best New Musical – how else would Loserville have secured nearly a quarter of the vote, only slightly behind Top Hat and The Bodyguard. And again, I’m sure Sweet Smell of Success and Soho Cinders were hampered by their small venues.

Having said all this, I do think audience awards should have a place alongside traditional awards – and I don’t have any answers on how to solve their problems. They’re inherent to democracy, and replicated in all its forms, right up to Parliamentary elections. This year there was one benefit to the susceptibility of audience to be led by external forces. Presumably thanks to its celluloid reincarnation, Les Mis beat Wicked to win Best West End Show with over a quarter of the vote. But maybe Wicked’s star is just on the wane – it was beaten down into third place by the excellent Matilda the Musical.