A trip to the theatre


Universe Column for November 26th 2006

by David Alton

West End musicals have been in the headlines.

First there was Sir Tim Rice – who wrote lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita – complaining that no-one was producing decent musicals anymore.

There seemed to be more than an element of calculated bitchiness in the timing of his remarks, coming as they did only days before his old collaborator, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, launched his revamped version of The Sound of Music. Rice seemed to be saying that there is a complete dearth of new talent and new ideas:  nothing cutting edge, only a revisiting of the bland and the comfortably; the safety of Edelweiss and the Von Trapp family.

To add to Lord Lloyd-Webber’s discomfort, out walked his leading man, Simon Shepherd.

Of course, The Sound of Music has always been more than just a collection of memorable tunes. It is a biting social commentary on the all-pervading and corrupting nature of Nazism. It celebrates the determination of one Catholic family to resist the rising tide, to escape contamination. It contrasts true patriotism with tyrannical ideology.

And Rice would be wrong to assume that old favourites can’t be resuscitated to good effect. But he would also be wrong to assume that there isn’t plenty of new talent waiting its moment.

Ironically, while the argument about the dearth of penetrating new musicals was in full swing, the small Pleasance Theatre in Islington has been staging a brilliant new production.

Failed States is written and directed by Andrew Taylor and Desmond O’Connor –  two bright teachers who met as undergraduates at Cambridge University.  O’Connor was Musical director of the university’s Footlights Dramatic Club and is an alumni of Campion School in Essex . Taylor has seen some of his work performed at the Edinburgh Festival and teaches at Notre Dame in Cobham.

Initially, they wanted to inspire young people to think deeply about legal and ethical dilemmas. As they worked on Failed States they realised that it had the potential to reach a much wider audience.

Intensely thought-provoking and beautifully performed, the play is set in London in July 2005, just after the bombings on the London underground. The writers invite us to weigh respect for personal and religious freedom against the constraints imposed in the context of the war on terror.

You would be quite wrong if you imagined that this is a predictable ideological rant, served up with large helpings of fashionable anti-Americanism, and offering a shallow and appeasing view of radical Islam.  It is a deep and sometimes dark, satirical musical, which turns any number of assumptions and prejudices on their heads.

Loosely based on Kafka’s The Trial, you watch a young American – stunningly and movingly portrayed by James Durant – incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison, sometimes known as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.  Joseph is arrested under the new anti-terrorism laws because of a dubious business connection in Saudi Arabia. He is engaged to be married to Anya, a British-Iranian woman, whose uncle was murdered by the Iranian mullahs.  Joseph puzzles over the conundrum that “I’m an American citizen, how can this be happening to me?”

It’s a devastatingly convincing way to remind us that anti-terror laws are undiscriminating and that principles like habeas corpus and all the gains from Magna Carta to modern jurisprudence can easily be forfeit.

As Joseph is systematically bruised and broken – “just say what they want to hear” – many fragments of the secret lives of the players are revealed.

Joseph’s  vulnerability is central but on the periphery we meet the over-powering ego of the human rights lawyer out to make his reputation, the fickleness of Anya’s friends who melt away once the bombs have been detonated, the compromised history of Anya’s father, and the troubled lives of the FBI and MI6 agents whose job it is to defend the State. We meet the cynical civil servant, the troubled  press attaché, and the manipulative Government Minister.

For anyone who has lived in the world of politics these characters are realistic and all too believable.

On the day I went to see Failed States British courts found al-Qaeda terrorist, Dhiren Barot, guilty of planning carnage calculated to lead, in the Judge’s words, to a loss of life on “a colossal and unprecedented scale.” He was given forty years imprisonment for a plan “designed to strike at the very heart of democracy and the security of the state” which would bring “the incalculable loss of blameless life.”

So Taylor and O’Connor are not exploring remote, fringe, issues. The challenge is how to fight the threat without losing the very things we are trying to protect. If we get that wrong then it not only Afghanistan or Iraq which will be the failed states.

As for Sir Tim Rice, he should take the trouble to see this brilliant production and thirty years after he and Andrew Lloyd Weber gave us such memorable shows, perhaps he will agree that Taylor and O’Connor deserve a much wider audience.