We went to see The Angry Brigade at Plymouth Theatre Royal last night: Paines Plough‘s production of a new play by James Graham. Set in 1971 the play focuses on a four-person Police unit set-up specifically to hunt down the self-styled Angry Brigade and on four of the eponymous anarchist group holed up in a safe-house.
They play is still with me; images floating in front of my mind’s eye, questions provoked by the piece still buzzing in my brain. Though the play and the production don’t feel to me to be fully realised – more like a piece still groping for its final form – it was thoroughly entertaining – presented and performed with tremendous commitment and attention. Gnawing at the questions the production provokes is perhaps of more import than worrying about whether the piece entirely succeeds in its own terms.
Though the world of the play is 1971 we are encouraged, through the phraseology, to be aware of comparisons with the 2010s from the off. Comparing and contrasting attitudes to protest past and present. So it’s not historiography. It’s urgently now.
It’s very much a play about ideas – and all the better for it. The first half takes place in the operations centre of the newly formed Special Branch. In order to get inside the minds of the elusive anarchists, the four-person squad research and absorb as much as they can of prevailing ‘alternative’ ideology. There’s wit and nuance in the different relationship that the four police officers have with the material – some finding a degree of succour or at least interest, others being repulsed or, at best, nonplussed. So Situationist theory is expounded in a dramatic and developing context as events unfold – a series of bombings and the hunt for the bombers. The outside world, in the shape of suspects and informers, is brought into the microcosm of the operations centre which gives some sense of a larger context. It reaches a veritable climax at the end of the half when half-acknowledged ideological and personal shifts burst out into the open as the squad celebrate finding the suspects.
We spent the interval gleefully recounting what we’d hugely enjoyed – and puzzling over what it was we felt was missing. We looked forward to the momentum from the end of the first half launching us into the second half.
But it didn’t happen like that.
The second half sees the same four actors as four of the Angry Brigade in a particular house. And it becomes largely introspective as they hunker down to evade detection. It seems to seek to provide a personal psychological insight into why these people found themselves in this situation. In particular a young woman whose story becomes the centrepiece in this half is seen to be driven by childhood trauma in a way that I found disappointingly pat. For me, the descent into the personal brought into clear relief what was missing from the equation. And that is an adequate dramatic sense of the prevailing social/political surround in terms, particularly, of youthful protest – which was very different in the late 60s/early 70s to that which now prevails.
The contemporary early 70s rhetoric and prevailing mythology saw youthful protest – and illegal protest at that – as the norm. Students certainly and young people generally should be left-wing, hedonistic and wanting to change the world. There was something wrong with them if they weren’t upsetting the older generations. And this was reflected in popular culture – particularly music. There were any number of radical left-wing splinter group papers on University campuses and sold on street corners. So, importantly, the Angry Brigade were not an isolated phenomenon. They were not odd. They went one step beyond but there was a culture from which they developed organically – almost inevitably.
There was – for me – very little sense of that in the play. And I wonder whether that’s because it was written and directed by people born well after that period. It’s difficult enough for those of us who lived those years to really take in how different the world is. How completely the narrative of those years has been re-written, re-colonised – particularly by New Labour. How ‘hippy’ was a badge of honour and a term of endearment rather than a sneer or a smear. How protest was seen as purposeful rather than an aberration and that changing the world was a duty not a deluded fantasy. How much more difficult for someone brought up within the knowing pragmatist mind-set of the New Labour/Tory project to believe that such things could ever have been. So there was something really rather 2014 about the depiction of 1971. Something rather clean and sober and polite and self-knowing – rather nice – still can’t quite put my finger on it. That matters when you’re trying to understand the present by examining the past. The context is crucial and it may be the context rather than the inherent nature of young people that has changed. Who creates the context is then the important question.
Two other quick thoughts – both prompted by the post-discussion:
The director commented the both he and the writer wanted to create a play about politics – which I applaud. I’m hungry for such plays. It’s why we made the two hour journey to Plymouth and back from Barnstaple. I go out of my way to find plays with a bit of political meat on them to chew. But he then added that of course presenting a play about politics is problematic. And it did look as though that fear had slightly warped the production. Certainly the opening scene was really rather uncomfortable as it sought to sugar-coat some interesting and necessary exposition in rather over-played character comedy. It got us off to a false start which meant the play didn’t settle for another 15 minutes or so. And there continued to be a certain amount of theatrical trickery that simply drew attention to itself rather than illuminating the central concerns of the piece. It felt again a rather 2014 take on politics – coolly ironic and detached rather than the unquestioning passion of the 1970s. It may have been deliberate but if the piece was looking at the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ it got in the way of understanding ‘then’.
The second quick thought springs from the fact that someone at the post-show discussion was a very good friend of one of the Angry Brigade depicted and was clear that – though he very much enjoyed the production – the representation was nothing like the person he had known. This does seem to me to matter in this case because of the ‘excuse’ that is offered (a damaged childhood) for why this particular character ends up as part of a bombing campaign. If you’re going to ‘explain’ the phenomenon of The Angry Brigade in terms of personal psychology rather than the social and political context then you’ve got to be sure of your facts. One way round that is to create a fictional parallel as Howard Brenton did in Magnificence – written just two years after the Angry Brigade bombings but set at far enough of a remove to give him complete dramatic license. Now there is a play I would travel to see.
I really recommend The Angry Brigade. There’s lots to bite on and an invigorating production and high-quality performances to enjoy. I know it’s playing Oxford Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre so catch it if you can.
These thoughts are only half formed. If you’ve something to add – or to challenge – please do so.