Rough and raw
That Good Between Us (Warehouse) There aren't many theatres in London that could take on a play with thirty-two roles, so one must welcome the opening of the 'Warehouse,' the Royal Shakespeare Company's new small auditorium at Earlham Street, Covent Garden. It's actually a converted rehearsal room, and still feels like one, with lots of tramping and banging offstage and lights flashing through the surrounding curtains. No doubt all this will be sorted out in time, but as it happened it positively enriched the atmosphere of the first production, Howard Barker's That Good Between Us, a classic specimen of the rough radical theatre of our time. Rough, in its use of the simplest materials as props (wheeled platforms as boats, inflated plastic bags as the sea), its nudity and violent action, and its tough language, well tuned for cynicism, less so for belief; radical, in its gleeful dismissal of social democracy.
I confess to missing the significance of the title, but the programme quotes Matthew Arnold: 'Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.' and I assume that this is an indictment of social democracy as a kind of desperate limbo between the hell of a disintegrated capitalism and the heaven of a new communal order. At any rate the author offers us an apocalyptic vision of Britain torn apart between striking workers and strikebreaking soldiers while its Labour government slides helplessly into authoritarianism, rounding up dissidents in the media and the universities and struggling to maintain law and order by the use ofruthless and ubiquitous security forces. The plot — and I must say how refreshing I find it to see plays with plots again — tells how McPhee, a 'tartan yob,' is roped into the security forces after he has been caught raping a girl whom he and his mates have dragged from a car (the gangbang is vividly enacted, but it did seem superfluous). He tries to infiltrate a left-wing cell in the Army, but challenged to voice a single Specific complaint against the government he can't think of any; and his political illiteracy is further exposed when he defines 'freedom' as a bellyful of ale on a Saturday night out with the lads followed by some raw sex and a good lie-in on the Sunday. The left-wingers open his eyes to other human possibilities and he becomes a convert to their cause; in fact he goes further and tries to convert his room-mate, Godber. This is a risky step because Godber is also an agent, though for very different reasons: he had volunteered 'for the thrill of it' and also because he hadn't acquired the small estate to which he thought his A-levels entitled him. He joins the Army cell and Promptly betrays them. Later he also betrays McPhee (despite the blood brotherhood between them). ironically, Godber ends up shot for his pains by fellow security men while McPhee escapes and survives. The play's final image is of McPhee — who had been dumped at sea — struggling up the beach and raising himself high with an exuberant shout of '1. . . ' It's a striking and honest ending though, on reflection, the stress on the survival of the one honest and likeable man in a deeply corrupt society seems more romantic than convincing.
Ian McDiarmid is brilliant in the role of McPhee, both as feckless yob and as stammering neophyte, and John Nettles brings a saturnine and intimidating presence to the role of Godber. And there's a creepily persuasive performance by Patrick Stewart as Knatchbull, the security chief whose love for his daughter, a victim of spina bifida, either purifies nor redeems him — in fact It may be corrupting him, for, as someone remarks, 'Home is where the hurt is. . and The creature who ran Auschwitz was a perf.ect family man'. Barbara Leigh-Hunt is Impressive as the Home Secretary, the guilty Social Democrat who thought that her role was to referee the conflict between °PPosing political forces, only to discover that in politics there is no referee — if you're Ifl the ring, you're in the fight. But she can't accept the realities: 'Get the convictions', She says, 'but nothing nightmarish.' ..She crisply puts down Godber when he tries to seduce her, with the result that he g,..°es and seduces her daughter (Judy monahan) instead. Says the daughter, 'It's corrupt to do something just because your Mother wouldn't, but I will.' And she does, While playing tennis, between serves. The sexual episodes appear irrelevant to !lie play's central thesis, but Barker's aPproach is to cast his net wide, and 1 assume the brutish sexuality is to be seen as another" index of social decay. And yet,
it's unsatisfying, becaause we have not been given enough information about the general social breakdown. The idea is plausible enough in the abstract — particularly if you recall the miners' confrontation a couple of years ago. Here it's just too easy. It would be a pity if the modish metaphysical glooms of Beckett and his acolytes were to be replaced by facile political glooms. Howard Barker has faced the alarming possibilities of the future, but he is much more interesting when facing the messy realities of the present.