REVIEW: Maydays at The Other Place

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Lily Nichol and Mark Quartley as Amanda and Martin. Inset, Richard Cant as Jeremy. Photo: Richard Lakos/RSC

WHERE’S ALL THE POLITICS GONE? Steve Sutherland reviews Maydays at The Other Place, as part of the Making Mischief Festival, on until 20th October

During the past seven days Kanye West has appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a Make America Great Again baseball hat.

Some are outraged that one of America’s most rich and successful black artists should so publicly show his support for President Trump’s patently racist regime while others maintain he’s a publicity maestro, ironically harvesting the fallout from the controversy. In the self same week, Trump has both praised the bravery of a woman who has gone public with an accusation she was sexually assaulted decades ago by his chosen candidate for the Supreme Court and then lamented, in a shamelessly blatant show of couldn’t-care-less chicanery, how guys have it tough these days because every gal they come on to cries foul.

None of this has anything to do with David Edgar’s Maydays at Stratford’s The Other Place, which is partly the pleasure and partly the problem with said production. Originally performed in 1983 as a seething critique of modern politics, the basic hypothesis being that hypocrisy will inevitably rot the core of even the most pure of political beliefs, it has been slightly updated via a couple of references to the aforementioned Trump, presumably in a praiseworthy attempt to suggest that the current world situation hasn’t moved on a jot since the Cold War/Greenham Common/Miners’ Strike etc. It’s a conceit in which Mr Edgar’s right, but so wrong.

Mark Quartley’s Martin Glass is a bit of a Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, an idealist student revolutionary so named because he absorbs and then reflects ever more flimsy leftist views as he travels the inevitable but somewhat clichéd route through middle-old age towards the conservative right. He is mirrored by Jay Taylor’s Pavel Lermontov, a Russian dissident imprisoned by the state then released to the West where he becomes an increasingly disenchanted mouthpiece for the so-called free society. Along the way Richard Cant’s magnificent university professor Jeremy Crowther undergoes his own gradual transformation as he chooses to interpret and then reinterpret the most productive relationship between the individual and the powers that (would) be.

Perhaps more than is dramatically engaging, a large amount of the play is taken up with the relating of dates and key political incidents, and at points it can feel like history is actually being played out in real time or at least that we have stumbled into a long college lecture. There are also two intervals allowing the seating and staging to be reset, and affording the cast an opportunity to maraud through the bar area, arresting the odd dissident — ironic since theatre intervals, as we all know full well, are really just a capitalist excuse to sell more booze and vittles to the punters.

The best bits are the human bits, where the rhetoric gives way to some emotional action, such as when Martin goes home to his mum’s for Christmas to discover his snotty perspective of his childhood is out of kilter with the actual facts. His mother, beautifully played by Gillian Bevan, here delivers the play’s best lines: “There was always the promise of the New Jerusalem. Somewhere. Nowhere…”

So Maydays is a very good, strangely unpolitical play about politics, leaving at least this audience member ultimately unsure as to its aim. Nicely done, wonderfully acted, for all its intentions to contemporary relevance, it feels a bit like a quaint, smartly observed Noel Coward piece, wickedly capturing the mores and mannerisms of a bygone era when words meant something and deeds usually followed, with the occasional outrageous betrayal.

But no one believes words anymore. Actions are merely loaded gestures. And politics are well and truly over, sacrificed on the altar of universal self-interest. Avarice and apathy reign supreme, forever and ever. Amen.