Dangerous Corner

By J. B. Priestley Directed by Michael Attenborough Presented by Bill Kenwright at the Richmond Theatre on 29 September 2014

All seems well at the Caplan’s independent publishing house until a can of worms is unceremoniously ripped open at Robert and Freda Caplan’s dinner party. A chance remark plunges the guests into a re-examination of the mysterious events surrounding the recent death of young Martin Caplan and skeletons come crashing out of the closet in more ways than one. Life will never be the same again… or will it? Find out in this brand new production of a J. B. Priestley timeless classic.

Dangerous-Corner-Full-CastJ. B. Priestley’s first play opens with a bang and a scream, and the lights go up on a house party listening to the end of a radio play. We’re in almost the same boat as the characters on stage, who’ve missed hearing several key scenes, a state of disinformation that is apt — for this play, and for life in general.

A tremendous production with the full works: great attention to period detail in both the Art Deco set design and costumes. The characters belong to a rarefied social world but Priestley’s dialogue soon collapses the distance between them and us. Although the play begins with the women and men separated (the women, wondering what it is the men are laughing over offstage, agree that men gossip too and anyone uninterested in gossip isn’t interested in humanity), the men soon join the women and the chat turns to the radio play that’s just finished.

Someone suggests that the sleeping dog of the play’s title is the truth, which should have been left alone. Life’s got a lot of dangerous corners, if taken at speed, but what’s a life without risk? Olwen remarks, cryptically:

There’s the truth, and then there’s the truth.

Now, literary types, like priests, don’t have a very good track record when pontificating about the “truth” (see Pinter’s inane comments in Old Times), but Olwen’s nuanced line comes across as highly intriguing in performance. She goes on to describe God’s truth as the real truth, and you don’t have to be a believer to see that an omniscient being would indeed know all there is to know, and be possessed of a comprehensive set of true beliefs. Minds that actually exist, however, are finite, and are only ever in possession of a subset of the facts, half the truth (although half is putting a high ceiling on our knowledge).

Disagreements over something as apparently straightforward as the provenance of a cigarette box soon show each character’s limited perspective on the events of a particular weekend, when Robert’s brother, Martin, shot himself. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide: Martin had stolen a cheque for £500 and could not face the consequences of discovery.

“It’s perfectly simple,” says one character. “It’s not that simple,” says another. How did Olwen know about the musical cigarette box?

Robert loathes silly mysteries and just wants to get to the bottom of what happened on the day on his brother’s suicide. He wants everyone to be truthful. How hard can that be, and surely only good can flow from telling the truth? It’s not long before they’re all up to their necks in the truth, and wishing they could unlearn what they have learned, about each other, and about the past.

Stanton had started out as a junior clerk in the publishing company, but he’s now more than a match for Robert and Gordon. He points out a rather obvious fact:

You don’t think he shot himself for fun?

It seems Martin did plenty of shocking things for fun, but he wasn’t the type to kill himself. There had to be another reason. What was it? Stanton puts it bluntly to Robert:

You see what you’ve started?

The truth about what happened that Saturday is not the only thing to be slowly unpacked. It seems that no one is actually in love with the person they’re married to, but in love with someone else, and even then the feelings are not always requited, or even recognized. [Spoiler alert] After Freda has revealed her own affair with Martin, Gordon reveals that Martin couldn’t stand women, let alone Freda. Olwen (I think) laconically observes:

This is our night for telling the truth.

There’s a fabulous cliffhanger revelation just before the interval, which is picked up immediately afterwards, as Olwen gives her version of events and promises:

I’ll tell the complete truth.


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The Woman in the Moon

By John Lyly Directed by James Wallace Presented by the Dolphin’s Back at the Rose Playhouse on 28 September 2014

This is the first professional run in four centuries of this neglected but extraordinary ‘dream’ play by John Lyly, the first great playwright of Elizabethan theatre. Mixing astrology, myth, magic and farce, Lyly sets his play in Utopia, and boldly rewrites Genesis – here the supreme creator is female, Nature herself. When four shepherds beg for a mate she breathes life into Pandora, the first woman. Jealous of her excellence, the Seven Planets take turns to revenge themselves as she is pursued by the four love-struck men, causing chaos. With lovers chasing though the woods at night in a desire-driven frenzy, while experiencing dizzying emotional transformations at the hands of unseen supernatural forces, it clearly inspired Shakespeare’s own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Woman-in-the-Moon-LylyA fabulous production of an amazing play by an Elizabethan writer I’d just about heard of but knew virtually nothing about. Given my almost total ignorance of Lyly, the familiarity of this piece was a strange experience, explicable perhaps by my long exposure to Shakespeare and other playwrights who followed in the wake of Lyly, and the lucky coincidence of just having seen As You Like It (which famously features a doting shepherd spurned by a disdainful woman). In fact, the director writes:

Shakespeare’s comedies are influenced by Lyly more than by anyone else.

Wallace also writes that his plays seek to “investigate the underlying patterns of our being” — which sounds very much like a fundamental scientific motivation. Indeed, the modularity of the astrological fantasy rocks my evolutionary hobbyhorse: the mind is not a general-purpose cognitive engine (as supposed by some social scientists and cultural theorists) but is an evolved and adapted organ built out of separate psychological mechanisms that have specific roles within human nature. Nature herself is a character in this play, whose creative operation is added to by the planets, personifications of particular dispositions and emotions such as love and jealousy, anger and pride, and so on and so forth. Each mechanism has its own function (jealousy is an adaptive emotion, for example, and not at all pathological), and Lyly’s poetic scheme anticipates our deeper Darwinian understanding. The comedy comes when all these mechanisms are piled up within a single skull to fight it out below a particular consciousness — millions of years of evolutionary development dumped in a lump of brain matter — no wonder we sometimes think we’re fickle or mad or just plain unfathomable.

Lyly’s achievement is all the more magnificent for its irreligiosity (Nature is the creative force, and women are not given second billing). A fabulous cast do him justice, creating a whole range of fantastical and real characters and having great fun in the process. In a puritan’s worldview, “sex comedy” is an oxymoron: sex is sinful and no laughing matter. In Lyly’s (and Darwin’s) worldview, sex is the great life force, and nothing to be miserable about.

This production opens with a young woman lying perfectly still on a circular bed and under a sheet. The only movement at first is a mini orrery doing its gyroscopic jig on a bedside table. Globe lanterns — green, blue, red, orange, yellow — hang in the void of the space beyond, a colour scheme that will match each of the planet’s personified characters. Goldfrapp and Kate Bush provide the mood music.

The character of Sol enters and promises that “all is but a poet’s dream” (thus getting its author off a blasphemous hook). (It’s no surprise that Timothy George is also a voiceover artist: his rich and resonant voice gave this opening speech the authority and poetry it required.)

Nature herself enters, with her handmaids Concord and Discord, and decides to create woman as a mate for man (like man “but of a purer sort”). The male of the species is already represented in the form of four shepherds, each sporting a variety of cable-knit white sweater plus wellies plus shorts plus the vast array of manly virtues (mainly, lusting after women).

Pandora rises, and is in wonder at the world. Nature has endowed her with the ability to understand the difference between good and bad:

Thus I have robbed the planets for thy sake.

(This anticipates our materialist understanding of the origin of the atoms that form our bodies and minds.)

Pandora is a beautiful creation, but as yet not recognizably human. The planets themselves line up to add their distinctive characteristics, beginning with Saturn. He lays “foundations for the ruin of this dame” by implanting the “very passion of the heart.” Jupiter brings ambition and disdain, wielding his golden sceptre phallically as he reclines on the bed (Juno had hoped that Ganymede had weaned her husband from an interest in mortal strumpet).

We see the effects of each planet’s personality as Bella Heesom adjusts Pandora to each new trait. Her disdain towards the shepherds echoes Phoebe’s towards Silvius: despite being scorned, her adorers “stand or fall by her every word.” Her ambition is regal, and, as she exits, she demands of Gunophilus, her servant:Bear up my train!He looks quizzically: how he can perform this service when she’s wearing the shortest of camisoles? He ends up, comically, gingerly, holding the hem with his fingertips and following out his mistress.

Mars makes her “a vixen martialist” and she dashes among the shepherds, wearing a black belt and dealing out blows left, right and centre. Sol endows Pandora with female choice (which drives the Darwinian mechanism of sexual selection), and so begins the bliss of the chosen one (Stesias), the despair of the three rejected suitors, and the intrigue of extra-pair copulation and all the psychological mechanisms and emotions that go with that particular mating strategy.

And then in comes Venus, all in green, to set Pandora “in a dancing vein” (soundtracked by Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La):

What honeyed thoughts are in my brain?

Where are the other three shepherds? Why should she be satisfied with the love of Stesias alone? GBs.

Pandora applies her lipstick:

Must I be tied to him? I’ll be as loose as heaven!

And so she proves, with inevitable consequences. Stesias has no suspicions, until Hermes appears as Mercury the messenger, whispering in his ear that his wife is foul and lascivious and loves other men. He storms about, but is easily reined in by the wily Pandora, who has each of her four lovers running hither and thither across the stage. At one point, to demonstrate her innocence, she swoons before Stesias on being accused of wantonness. Heesom executes this comic action perfectly, giving her character a swift glance behind to check that Gunophilus is there to break her fall. In an aside, she confides that Stesias is “as simple as a sheep.”

She also uses the device of a bloodied napkin to deceive one of the shepherds (which makes a genuine appearance in As You Like It).

The final influencing heavenly body is the moon, Luna, or Cynthia, who makes Pandora slothful and fickle and not a little mad, so that Gunophilus concludes:

Folly is woman’s perfection.


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Clybourne Park

By Bruce Norris Directed by Pauline Armour Presented by Bromley Little Theatre at the Jack Studio Theatre on 27 September 2014

In 1959 in a suburb of Chicago, Russ and Bev are selling their desirable three-bedroomed bungalow at a knock-down price. This enables the first black family to move in, creating a ripple of discontent among the white residents of Clybourne Park. In 2009, the same property is being bought by Lindsey and Steve, an upwardly mobile white couple, whose plans to raze the house and start again is met with a similar response from the local residents’ association.

Although set in Chicago, the themes are particularly pertinent to modern-day Britain as inner city areas  become gentrified and communities undergo irrevocable change.

Hailed as ‘shockingly entertaining’ and ‘appallingly funny’, this devastating satire explores the ever contentious themes of race and property ownership from two time periods and leaves the audience asking whether ‘the issues festering beneath the floorboards are actually the same despite the 50 year time difference.’

clybourne_pkA news flash on the radio mentions Rosa Parks, taking us back to the 1950s, a time period later confirmed by references to the recent Korean War. Boxes are more or less neatly packed and stacked in the living room — Bev and Russ are moving house. The set design perfectly captures this kind of orderly disarray. When the play recommences after the interval, a couple of generations have passed and there’s graffiti on the walls and the very different kind of disorder of a rundown property that’s been squatted.

The disorder of physical objects and buildings pales next to that caused by the tensions of social and personal relationships (race and marriage) and by the simple fact of being alive. Hilary Cordery is excellent as Bev, who begins by creating the impression that she is holding it together in order to get through this day (we all recognize the stress of moving house) — she frets over trivial things, such as what to do with a kitchen gadget she no longer needs. There are soon hints of a character under much bigger pressures, and the script subtly conveys her concerns (which she herself may not even be directly aware of):

It’s nice to know we all have a place…

She’s talking to Francine, the black maid, and she could be referring to a place to live, or a position in society, or even alluding to some broader cosmic meaning to do with our place in the universe.

While Bev is neatly dressed, perhaps inappropriately given they’re moving house, her husband Russ is dressed casually, and slouched in his chair, eating ice cream (“you can’t pack ice cream in a suitcase”). They’ve been (more her than him) trying to get to the bottom of the meaning of “Neapolitan” and their to-and-fro lulls us in thinking this an ordinary domestic scene, except it isn’t quite and we’re suddenly taken aback by her reference to him sitting there wondering about the point of it all. Did we hear right? Is there room in this suburban all-American home for existential doubts?

Jim arrives, a tall man with a lower back problem, and a little nervous at intruding into a situation. He’s also a priest. He fidgets with a ping pong ball, bouncing it on a bat until he drops it. He bends down to pick it up — bad idea — and in agony he slowly raises himself up. All the while Russ is flipping through a magazine, barely paying Jim the slightest attention. Jim’s predicament is comical, and we sympathize while not quite understanding why Russ couldn’t care less. We realize we really don’t understand what’s going on when Russ suggests to Jim:

Go fuck yourself.

Bev, naturally, objects to such “ugly words” and explains how he makes her feel all alone:

He says, “I don’t see the point.”

The arrival of Karl and Betsy (his deaf, heavily pregnant wife) starts to unravel a whole new ugliness, when it’s revealed “what sort of people” have bought the house: “a coloured family.” “Don’t we say negroes?” Bev asks, in some innocence. Could it be possible they’re Mediterranean?

Karl is exasperated that Russ isn’t more bothered:

Who next? The Red Chinese?

There follows an increasingly heated (and extremely well-constructed and acted) debate over just what it means for a black family to move into a white neighourhood: they eat different food, have different modes of worship, and goodness knows what! Jim suggests they all bow their heads, in prayer. Russ is forthright about what he’d like to do:

I’d rather punch you in the face.

The room clears, but not the atmosphere between Russ and Bev. Fragments of their tragedy emerge: they had a son, who fought in the Korean War, and who is now dead. Russ insists:

He confessed!

Bev cannot believe there were women and children involved. Russ is adamant:

He was told to “secure the territory.”

We fill in the missing pieces, and the picture is far from pretty.

We now see Bev in a very different light, as a mother who has lost her son but who cannot come to terms with the full story of what happened. Thoughts turn to the new house, and Russ’s new commute to work. Suddenly, Bev is engulfed in her own existential despair:

What’ll I do?

Russ reassures her that she’ll have her “projects” but this is bleak comfort, and no substitute for either a family or an independent career that most women of her generation simply did not have.

After the interval, time has passed and we’re in the middle of a residents’ meeting in the now dilapidated property. There are lots of subtle parallels with the first half, beginning with another of those trivia questions that are endlessly distracting. (A little implausibly, even though they all have cell phones, no one thinks to settle the debate over what is the capital of Morocco by googling the answer. Perhaps the play just predates the epidemic of smartphones?)

When she finally gets her chance to speak, Lena talks of honouring the connection to the past, the memory of community, and the historical value of the property, not just its value as real estate. The young white couple, Steve and Lindsey, are incredibly politically correct and nod along to these sentiments, yet in the end all they want is to push through their own plans without being hassled by history. Steve is indignant:

Now we’re the evil invaders?

He then tells a very bad joke about a black and a white guy sharing a prison cell, which is topped by Lena, who tells a joke even Kevin baulks at:

Why is a white woman like a tampon? Both are stuck up cunts.

Everyone takes offence (Kathy doesn’t think she’s stuck up), and the meeting degenerates and disperses, leaving the workman, Dan (played by Martin Phillips), to bring in the chest he’s just dug up. Phillips began in the role of Russ, the father who had originally buried the chest. Now he breaks open the lock and finds a letter, which he reads while the ghosts of Kenneth and Bev return for a final, moving scene. Kenneth, writing the letter, is interrupted by his mother, who is tired but upbeat:

Things are about to change.

Things are about to change, but not for the better.

A brilliant play and production.

Cast: Russ/Dan – Martin Phillips; Bev/Kathy – Hilary Cordery; Francine/Lena – Maxine Edwards; Jim/Tom/Kenneth – Matthew Platt; Albert/Kevin – Christopher Nelson; Betsy/Lindsey – Laura Kenward; Karl/Steve – Howie Ripley

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As You Like It

By William Shakespeare Directed by Derek Bond Presented by Peter Huntley Productions and W14 Productions at the Southwark Playhouse on 27 September 2014

Shakespeare’s great comedy comes to Southwark Playhouse this autumn! Rosalind, daughter of a duke banished by his own brother, is forced into exile by her despotic uncle. With only her spectacular wit and her loyal cousin Celia and servant Touchstone to support her, she is forced to disguise herself as a man and enter the Forest of Arden searching for her father. When the love of her life, Orlando, also on the run in the forest, doesn’t recognize her, Rosalind decides to teach him the truth about love.

AYLI-Southwark-PlayhouseWonderful! In some ways, this was an entirely conventional, modern-dress production, with a modest set and no gimmicky interpretation, and yet it had me blubbing at the wonder of theatre at several points. Richard Williams, writing on the same day about why we prefer genius over teamwork, sums up a tension that applies equally well to a theatrical production:

Football is a permanent battle between inspiration and functionality…

(See Jeremy Ménez’s fantastic backheel goal in Parma vs AC Milan Serie A match.) With Shakespeare, there’s plenty of functionality to get right before you can even entertain the ambition of adding something new. There has to be strength in depth (another footballing cliché) in any cast, and this group ticks that box. The actors get the basics right, then bring their own personalities to bear on the characters (Phoebe’s atomies speech, delivered brilliantly by Joanna Hickman, is an example of inspiration all the way down to a so-called minor character).

Oliver greets the wrestler (1.1.66):

Good Monsieur Charles… Aaaarrgghh!

The strong handshake is a simple way of showing the power of Charles (who is anyway about twice the size of the smallest cast member).

Simon Lipkin is a brilliant Touchstone, bearded and well-groomed (the opposite of bird’s-nest hair), dialling down the more tiresome aspects of the clowning role and combining his fooling with little bits of magic (he transforms the seven causes speech — which can be both mystifying and tedious — with a simple trick, each time making an egg appear and then disappear).

He seems to make his entrance early, before realizing it’s not his cue, and so trots back offstage — and so establishes a kind of knowing confederacy not just with Rosalind and Celia but with the audience as well. He can baffle entertainingly, a difficult skill: when Le Beau begins (1.2.84):

There comes an old man and his three sons—

Touchstone repeatedly interrupts him with a brilliant bit of nonsense — “na-ne-na-na-ne-na” — that also seems just what this character would do.As You Like It - William Shakespeare - Southwark Playhouse - 18 September 2014Director - Derek BondDesigner - Emma BaileyLighting Designer - Sally FergusonAdam/Corin - Richard AlbrechtDurke Frederick/Duke Senior/Oliver Martext - Steven CrossleyCel

Sally Scott and Kaisa Hammarlund have great chemistry as Rosalind and Celia, who is naturally the more relaxed of the two in the court of Duke Frederick. Scott brings a melancholy to the role at first, understandable as her father has been banished, which of course is soon swept to one side as she falls head over heels in love with Orlando (Harry Livingstone is entirely convincing as her love object). Celia is giggling and laughing as they exit on 195 after their awks interview with the dumbstruck champion. Rosalind has just informed him (192–93):

Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown
More than your enemies.

It’s a simple image but, for me, it caps a TJ scene.

Things soon take a serious turn, the first act ending with Celia’s words (1.3.133–34):

Now go we in content
To liberty, and not to banishment.

Throughout, there has been a portrait of her father, the duke, on an easel at the back of the stage, reminding us we’re in a country ruled by a despot who must manage a cult of personality by plastering his image everywhere. In a beautifully concise bit of mockery, as they escape the court she draws a Hitler moustache on the portrait.

The blue canopy that has covered the court is pulled back and away from the rear wall to reveal an upright piano and an array of musical instruments pinned to the wall, the kind of (visual) composition you might see in a Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. Snow falls as the trio of Joanna Hickman, Minal Patel and Samuel Townsend sing of “winter and rough weather” (2.5.1–7). Orlando and Adam trudge through the accumulating snow drift one way, and then Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone cross the stage another way, both heading into the Forest of Arden. A change of mood, a change of season, as the singers exit, now playing bird whistles: the white confetti has become a fall of green leaves.As You Like It - William Shakespeare - Southwark Playhouse - 18 September 2014Director - Derek BondDesigner - Emma BaileyLighting Designer - Sally FergusonAdam/Corin - Richard AlbrechtDurke Frederick/Duke Senior/Oliver Martext - Steven CrossleyCel

Corin and Touchstone enter, carrying a five-bar gate, against which Corin leans, one foot up and chewing a stalk, entirely at home in this environment. Touchstone tries to get with the shepherding lifestyle, hoiking one foot up to the top bar and almost choking on a stalk.

Corin wants to know how he likes this shepherd’s life, and so Touchstone tells him, varying the intonation subtly but comically (with a particularly camp emphasis on the single word “tedious”). He mimes clambering over the fence that would be to one side of the gate, and then — to illustrate “the very false gallop of verses” (3.2.86) — rides an imaginary horse towards Rosalind, patting its neck and feeding it an imaginary sugar cube. Now, mime can be one of the very worst things to be endured in a theatre, but this is perfectly judged, and also a perfect intro to another naff end-of-pier schtick (ventriloquism) and the utterly sublime multiple pretence of the Rosalind as Ganymede becoming Rosalind as Ganymede as Rosalind scenes.As You Like It - William Shakespeare - Southwark Playhouse - 18 September 2014Director - Derek BondDesigner - Emma BaileyLighting Designer - Sally FergusonAdam/Corin - Richard AlbrechtDurke Frederick/Duke Senior/Oliver Martext - Steven CrossleyCel

Touchstone seemingly manufactures his Audrey out of a bucket of scraps of cloth, and proceeds to have great fun at her expense. Mime, ventriloquism, puppetry — the only thing lacking in this catalogue of horrors is audience participation (that will come later). This may deny a female actor a role, but it does serve a useful purpose in separating out this coupling from the other three.As You Like It - William Shakespeare - Southwark Playhouse - 18 September 2014Director - Derek BondDesigner - Emma BaileyLighting Designer - Sally FergusonAdam/Corin - Richard AlbrechtDurke Frederick/Duke Senior/Oliver Martext - Steven CrossleyCel

Those have yet to happen, and Rosalind first, in the opposite gender, offers to do exactly the opposite of what she wishes (312–13):

I would cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind, and come every day to my cote and woo me.

A TJ scene.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Sir Oliver Martext enters, or staggers onstage, a drunken priest, with his cardigan buttoned up all wrong.

Joanna Hickman as Phoebe goes all girly to describe her eyes as “the frail’st and softest things” (3.5.12) and she wafts her hands in front of her face to demonstrate the shutting of “their coward gates on atomies” (13). Scornful of Silvius, she changes her tune when she sets eyes on Rosalind, and holds out her skirt in a simpering display when Rosalind sternly refers to “her lineaments” (57).

Celia, for all her love of Rosalind, has something of Phoebe’s attitude, and she does a little vomit when Orlando answers (4.1.102):

For ever and a day.

Rosalind has the upper hand, and is growing into her role as Ganymede the As You Like It - William Shakespeare - Southwark Playhouse - 18 September 2014 Director - Derek Bond Designer - Emma Bailey Lighting Designer - Sally Ferguson Adam/Corin - Richard Albrecht Durke Frederick/Duke Senior/Oliver Martext - Steven Crossley Celinstructor/actor. She takes on a tragic tone, and comes over all emotional for the “Ay, go your ways, go your ways…” speech (129–31), ending up on the floor in a brilliant counterfeit of a lover abandoned by her beloved.

The next time she swoons and ends up on the floor, at the sight of the bloodied napkin brought by Oliver (4.3.157), she is of course swooning for real, though she claims she counterfeits.

Cast: Richard Albrecht, Adam/Corin; Steven Crossley, Duke Frederick/Duke Senior/Sir Oliver Martext; Dominic Gerrard, Oliver/Jaques; Kaisa Hammarlund, Celia; Joanna Hickman, Phoebe; Simon Lipkin, Touchstone; Harry Livingstone, Orlando; Minal Patel, Charles/Amiens; Sally Scott, Rosalind; Sam Townsend, Le Beau/Silvius

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Review of An Ideal Husband

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


An Ideal Husband – Tabard Theatre, London

Secrets from the past and high principles in the present are the combustible ingredients of this classic play by Oscar Wilde. The naked light at large in London society is Laura Cheveley, who knows just how Sir Robert Chiltern acquired his fortune and is determined to use this information to her advantage. All that stands in her way is her own past, and her bad luck in crossing paths once again with Arthur Goring, whose knowledge of brooches and bracelets proves decisive in her downfall. Scattered throughout this enjoyable production is the aphoristic wit and trademark Wildean one-liners we have come to expect from this playwright, but there is also a moral substance at the heart of the play, and a moving final scene. Mabel Chiltern finally gets her man, and the last thing she wants is an ideal husband.

Given the lavishness of the characters’ lifestyles (their houses in Mayfair have morning-rooms and libraries, and servants), any production is bound to rely on the audience’s imagination and willingness to enter a world of wealth and privilege (at one point, the Earl of Caversham comes back from a friendly chat with the prime minister in Downing Street). A modest budget is used to great effect, notably by costume designer, Jessica Miles. The opening scene is the party at Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square. The women wear elegant dresses and the men are in black tie. The wow factor is reserved for the entrance of Laura Cheveley, played with seductive glamour by Jill Rutland. According to Arthur Goring the next morning, Laura is wearing “too much makeup and not quite enough clothes.” Her LBD is, indeed, little, and the “B” could stand for “bustier” (French pronunciation) as well as “black”, creating as it does a striking strapless silhouette.

She is a character who knows exactly how to make an impression, and she doesn’t care that it won’t always be a favourable one. Gertrude Chiltern remembers her as a naughty schoolgirl, and views the grown-up Laura with an unchanged disdain. In so doing she underestimates Laura’s mature intelligence, and also this woman’s power over her own husband, who is, in her eyes, the ideal husband. Both Gertrude and Robert Chiltern will each have to find a way of moving beyond this impossible standard.

Robert Chiltern is played by Doug Cooper, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Bercow, the current Speaker of the House of Commons. Chiltern, for all his faults, is an effective parliamentarian, and his career in politics – as well as his marriage – is at stake should Laura’s secret become public. His rescue arrives in the unlikely form of his good friend, Arthur Goring, who spends more time filing his nails than reading about current affairs. Goring is always immaculately turned out, and the Wilde character who concludes, after looking at himself in the mirror, that “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

There’s little evidence for the director’s claim to have set the production in the modern day. While the dresses are more daring than might have been possible even in fin-de-siècle London, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight (among characters with a crammed social diary), and when Goring asks his servant if there are any messages, he’s handed a pile of letters on a silver tray. This matters little, since David Phipps-Davis does succeed in avoiding “a dusty period piece” and in making room in this small theatre for Oscar Wilde’s brilliance to shine.

(See also An Ideal Husband.)

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Praying that it doesn’t rain

Is It Cowardly To Pray For Rain? was a question frequently asked during the 2005 Ashes series, and the title of a book capturing the exhilaration of following Guardian Unlimited’s over-by-over coverage. In a world turned upside down, there were moments when we looked at the scoreboard to see England beating Australia, and there were moments when we looked heavenwards in the hope of rain ending play.

Rain during an English summer doesn’t usually require supernatural intervention, of course. In this piece, Richard Williams describes the visit of the St Peter’s XI, the first Vatican cricket team to undertake an overseas tour:

Weather permitting, the climax of their visit was due to take place on Friday night at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, with a Twenty20 showdown between the two faiths.

(Incidentally, this illustrates the moral progress imposed on religion by secular humanism: in the past, a showdown between the two faiths was more likely to result in a calamity like the Thirty Years War.)

The Rev Jez Barnes, the vicar of St Stephen’s, East Twickenham, and the Anglicans’ designated captain until injury struck, had said earlier in the week, after taking note of a pessimistic weather forecast:

We’re praying that it doesn’t rain. I’m not sure prayer works like that. But we’ll be praying anyway.

Now, not to take the remarks of a vicar in a friendly sporting contest too theologically seriously, there are still a couple of things worth noting here. According to the Rev Barnes:

  • Prayer works.
  • But he’s not sure how.

There’s not necessarily any epistemic shame in not knowing how something works, but there is obviously a problem claiming that something works when this has not proved. For example, in the first ever clinical trial in 1747 James Lind formally proved that scurvy could be treated and prevented by supplementing the diet with citrus fruit (he proved that this diet worked), though he had no idea of the molecular nature and action of vitamin C (he still had no idea how it worked).

The situation with prayer is very different. Despite thousands of years of data collection, there is still no proof that prayer works. And since prayer doesn’t work, there’s no need to waste any time wondering how it works.

In a (I hope) tongue-in-cheek remark, Gird Gigerenzer (2007:199) writes:

God, I believe, is a satisficer, not a maximizer. He concentrates on the most important issues and ignores the rest.

This might explain why an omnipotent god would ignore pleas for dry meteorological conditions for an amateur sporting event (although if this god is omnipotent, surely he could attend to every prayer?), but when exactly does this god kick in? He didn’t seem very active during the Black Death, when a third of Europe’s population died? Or did he in fact put in a huge shift to reduce the death toll from two thirds (but see above comment on omnipotence)?

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Subjective preferences all the way down?

An otherwise excellent piece by Jerry A. Coyne on why there is no such thing as “true” religion is let down at the very end by his endorsing of ethical subjectivism:

Morality itself is neither objectively true nor false, but at bottom rests on subjective preferences: the “oughts” that come from what we see as the consequences of behaving one way versus another.

The philosopher David Edmonds (2013:13) provides a simple definition of this commonly held view:

Subjectivism maintains that there are no objective moral truths.

Sandra LaFave opens her online essay with a forthright declaration that the misuse of “subjective” and “objective” is responsible for subjectivism in ethics:

Ethical subjectivism is the view that moral judgements are nothing but statements or expressions of personal opinion or feeling and thus that moral judgements cannot be supported or refuted by reason.

She captures very precisely why anyone who is committed to reason must not be tempted into thinking morality boils down to subjective preferences. The surprise is that even someone of Coyne’s calibre (he is one of the world’s foremost defenders of the reasons why evolution is true) can be muddled into such a position.

LaFave argues very persuasively that morality is more than “just feelings”:

What we’ve just shown is that although moral feelings exist in a metaphysically subjective way, there can still be epistemological objectivity about them. Just as doctors can use epistemologically objective scientific methods to investigate metaphysically subjective matters like pain, so we can use epistemologically objective rational methods to investigate metaphysically subjective matters like moral feelings.

Just because the religious confuse doctrine and dogma that is accreted by using epistemologically irrational methods, which they imagine provide them with objective moral truths, doesn’t mean the rest of us should make the same mistake.

LaFave ends:

People do have feelings about moral matters; no question about that. But the fact that people have feelings about morality doesn’t disqualify them from thinking about it too. And once you allow that people can reason about morality, you undermine ethical subjectivism entirely, since as a matter of fact, not all arguments are equivalent, some are better than others, and so some people’ s moral claims are objectively more worthy of belief than others — because they are more reasonable.

If it was all down to preferences, if it was preferences all the way down, what hope for reason?

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Claiming hearts and rear ends

A further twist on John Sweeney’s piece (see also Mocked and ridiculed) is the insight it gives into Christian attitudes towards corporal punishment:

Now the Bible school of which Reid is president is to be sued for assaulting children. Reid has been an enthusiastic supporter of corporal punishment or “paddling” in the past. He has said: “Children are little demons. They have foolishness in their hearts. You have a stick and they have a rear end. I believe in smacking them — a sharp smack on the rear end. But make sure it’s a real shock.”

The court proceedings, due to be issued in the new year, will turn on allegations of assault on two children, then aged seven and nine, who claim they suffered beatings by Peniel members. Their mother told The Observer yesterday: “I am bringing this case not just for my children, but also for the other youngsters still inside this disturbing religious sect.”

Reid, the church and the school all deny any wrong-doing. Taken at face value, this means they deny smacking children. However, if they don’t believe that smacking children is wrong, then they can sincerely claim that they have not done wrong. For more on why they would not be alone among Christians, see Smacking children: a Christian value? For a biblical verse that supports the Christian practice of corporal punishment, see Leviticus 20:9.

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Mocked and ridiculed

David Cameron might not be so keen to assert that Britain is a Christian nation if the kind of Christianity on offer was that practised by the Tory-loving evangelist Bishop Michael Reid of the Peniel Pentecostal Church, who was busy putting the fear of God into his opponents way back in 2000. In this piece,  John Sweeney compiles a list of critics — many of whom are themselves Christians — including the following:

Former church member Caroline Green was a constituent of Pickles at the time she left the sect. She is one of those who will be writing to the Westminster standards ombudsman. She told The Observer: “The bishop is a deeply troubled man who says terrible things about people who have opposed him. He has been excommunicated from another church, runs companies controlling millions of pounds and is very intimidating. How can you ask your MP to help you, if he supports the bishop?”

Reid refers to himself and other evangelists as the “anointed of God”. He was excommunicated for “raillery” — a biblical term for slander — from Liverpool’s Devonshire Road Christian Fellowship in 1969 and his “flesh was committed to Satan”.

Excommunication is obviously a divisive process, which moves unwanted individuals from the in- to the out-group, where they can be more conveniently victimized. Woe betide anyone who’s already in an out-group: if Christians can be at variance with other Christians, then non-Christians are certainly not safe. Reid has denounced Buddhists and Hindus as “foul heathens” and declared that non-Christians are “ignorant [and] on their way to hell.”

An eighth critic of Reid is Helen Hagerty, who is incapacitated by ME:

She travelled to the Peniel church four years ago, having answered a “healing” ad in the ME newsletter. She said: “Soon Reid was mocking and ridiculing a broad spectrum of Christian denominations and practices, and I became increasingly aware that I was watching and listening to the most un-Christlike man I have ever met.”

Some believers are quick to take offence when their cherished beliefs are mocked and ridiculed by non-believers, and while any supporter of free speech cannot condone such sensitivity leading to censorship, at least it’s understandable. What does seem strange to a non-Christian is to see such bitter rivalries within Christianity, supposedly a unifying creed of fellowship:

When the Carters left the church they were shunned by their old friends. Max Carter’s sister remains in the church and no longer speaks to him. Joan Carter said: “It was awful to be shunned and ignored by Christian people you had known for so many years.”

(See also A horrible false rumour.)

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God’s timing is perfect timing

In this interview by Stuart James, born-again Christian Kieran Richardson talks about wanting “to do things for God” after football. He recalls his address to the congregation at Good Word Ministries church, in Langley Moor, County Durham, two years ago:

To be honest with you, I was very nervous. It was basically me giving my testimony, how I got to that position in my life, and a lot of people came out to listen to it. It was a great day, 30 people got saved, they gave their lives to Jesus, which was magnificent. It was a good day for me as well, letting people know my story.

It’s intriguing how easily “salvation” can be achieved, with the “reward” (eternal life in a nice place) the result of what, exactly? Turning up at church and speaking a few words or perhaps simply offering a nod of the head? Becoming a dentist, for example, is presumably a less momentous life event than being “saved” and yet the effort required is a little more obvious.

Christians believe that there’s a lot more going on in the metaphysical background than meets the empirical eye. As well as Jesus being on hand to receive the lives of those 30 people, God was also apparently instrumental in Richardson’s own mate-choice decision:

I’m a firm believer that God’s timing is perfect timing, everything happens for a reason. If I was still in Manchester now I might not have met my wife and had my kids, so I’m very happy.

Richardson is right that everything happens for a reason (at least at the macro level — there may be exceptions at the quantum level), but is unwise to discount chance as one of the reasons why he met his wife and almost certainly mistaken to imagine that all these reasons are represented in a mind, and that this mind is the mind of God.

Seeing reasons everywhere is one thing (and as easy as being “saved”?); discriminating between good and bad reasons quite another (and as difficult as training to be a doctor?). I’m inclined to think that a meeting between a man and a woman that results in marriage amounts to a very poor reason to believe in God.

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