First draft - Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Robin Soans hit verbatim gold in 2005 with his edited collection of interviews Talking to Terrorists. It was showing at the Royal Court on 7/7, and what had been relevant drama became urgent, required viewing. Its level-headed compassionate inquiry became a vital corrective to the media hysteria that followed in the aftermath of the bombings. His new play Life After Scandal, perhaps inevitably, lacks any such immediacy and punch.
As the title suggests, the piece looks at the effects on the lives of those who have been vilified in the national press. It is an interesting subject, but the nature of verbatim theatre casts a long shadow over the evening’s proceedings. For a start, the subjects are a self-selecting sample. The piece begins with a barrage of refusals from potential interviewees, all saying that they don’t want to talk on the subject. Others do, of course - at great length in many cases. But what of those who wouldn’t/didn’t? Perhaps as a result of this reticence, or perhaps as a result of Soans’s specific interests, the range here is remarkably narrow - Two disgraced former Tory MPs (three, if you view Edwina Curry as a disgrace), two MP’s wives, four or five hereditary peers, but no Jeffery Archer, and not a single guilty party from a sex-scandal.
At a stroke, the piece stops being so much about Scandal in general and starts looking at the important results of some serious investigative journalism. Granted, elsewhere Lord Brockett pops up, as does Charles “the coughing major” Ingram from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? But then we’ve already seen these people (Lord Brockett, the Hamiltons, etc.) on television innumerable times since their “scandals” broke, rehabilitating themselves as media-friendly figures of celebrity fun eating jungle insect life at the behest of Ant ‘n’ Dec. The subjects here are those who have made a living from their notoriety.
Beyond this, there is the problem that one only has the subjects’ insights to illuminate the subject. Only if they betray themselves, or cast new and unexpected light on the subject, can the play really take off; which, by and large, those interviewed do not. There are exceptions - Robin Cook’s ex-wife gives a chilling insight into the circumstances of her divorce from the late Foreign Secretary - but mostly what we are offered is a lot of self-pity and anger. All quite understandable, but it feels that in order to get the interviewers to talk, Soans threw nothing but underarm balls while offering tea and sympathy. There is a spark when the words of Guardian journalist David Leigh, who broke the Jonathan Aitken story, are intercut with Aitken’s personal attacks on him and vice versa.
Ironically, one ends up making precisely the sort of judgements that the subjects of the play rail against so vociferously. The Hamiltons come out of it fine, as does Edward Lord Montague; Charles Ingram is understandably angry, if unintentionally hilarious; Lord Brockett is bluff, blokey and fine. Edwina Currie and Margaret Cook are both enormously sympathetic characters, although this may have as much to do with Geraldine Fitzgerald’s portrayal of both, which lends humour and gravity in precisely the right measures. Jonathan Aitken fares less well at the hands of his actor; Philip Bretherton often crosses the boundary from portrayal into pastiche. The potential for Aitken’s words to sound pompous, self-deluding and grandiose is gleefully seized - with the odd result that he comes out of it looking and sounding much more like a louche, self-ironising Alan Clark. David Leigh doesn’t do himself many favours either, preferring to remain vitriolic against Aitken and the Hamiltons, where simple indifference would have looked more humane. Craig Murray, despite being by far the most courageous character on stage, at times runs worryingly close to sounding every inch the paranoid mess that the British establishment paint him as.
The play’s arguments and presentations are a little muddled, and come across more like a mass of source material than a finished product. That said, the acting is consistently engaging throughout and, on a moment to moment basis, the play is never less than interesting. Sadly it never manages to go much beyond this to offer new insights into the nature of scandal, other than to suggest that “the establishment” deliberately use it as a weapon of control to uphold the status quo.
This suggestion is rather punctured by the fact that virtually every scandal-struck interviewee is at least very upper-middle class, if not actually aristocracy, while the press are uniformly presented as cockerney oiks en masse and, when interviewed, are clearly from less privileged backgrounds than their targets - giving the overall impression that all scandal reporting is an elaborate form of class war being waged against our rulers by a bunch of ill-bred, uppity proles. Ultimately, however, despite the interesting subject matter and, no doubt, good intentions, Life After Scandal is too polite to make enough noise to hit any big targets.