Peace in Our Time, Union Theatre

Sometime around the early 1960s, it became safe, even fun, to speculate about Britain (and indeed the world) under the cosh of Nazi occupation. This popular counterfactual featured on film in It Happened Here, and in novel form – the likes of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and later, Robert Harris’s (60s set) Fatherland. But it was the erudite wit and father of wartime escapism, Noel Coward, who was first out of the blocks with Peace in Our Time, a play that debuted and closed in 1947, landing for both audiences and critics like a V2 missile at a christening.

Why did contemporary audiences hate it? After all, it’s a rousing story of festering British patriotism and resistance, doing its best to break out while Hitler’s stooges keep a watchful eye on a Petticoat Lane pub full of conquered locals. This is not victory denied but victory deferred; a play that suggests that invasion would have only have galvanised our allies to mount a D-day-like offensive to liberate us when military advances on the continent permitted, aided by shrewd internal defiance from Brits with an unconquerable spirit.

Perhaps the problem was that Coward’s speculative fiction, with the moral quagmire of occupied France as its spur, inevitably had to deal with the certainty of collaboration in some quarters, resignation in others.

Chorley Bannister, pub regular and debonair editor of Forethought, a new periodical, represents a kind of intelligentsia, very much prevalent before the war, suspicious of democracy and the corollary, a mass readership. He has a morally relativist, some might say, sociopathic indifference to the new arrangements. We infer he likes the idea of a society in which the lower orders are kept down by the bastions of high civilisation. Coward, bravely, writes the character as a peer, complete with Coward-like rhetorical flourishes. Dominic McChesney, who occupies the persona completely in Phil Wilmott’s revival, even resembles Coward!

But a 1947 audience must have found the idea of opinion formers and friends to the governing classes as sympathisers, abhorrent. Though it should be noted, this was a perfectly reasonable punt on Coward’s part. How odd that journalists should have reacted to it like an anaphylactic shock.

Likewise, Bobby Paxton, listed in the dramatis personae as “an ambitious young man”, one of many wartime euphemisms, is a spiv who embraces the Germans with indecent haste, seeing the opportunity for social advancement. No amount of faith in what Nazi officer Richter mistakenly identifies as the middle class (the couple who run the pub and half their customers are working class); a confidence that Coward signals throughout the play, in little speeches that vouchsafe the imagined irreverence and moral certainty of the British character; can wash away the foul taste of that opportunism. One can imagine it was that possibility, not the deprivations of occupation, or the notion of being oppressed – as none of the characters are resigned to it, that sealed the original production’s fate.

In 2020, Peace in Our Time has a lot to tell us about post-war British identity. As the recent Brexit debacle played out over a period nearly as long as the war, it was the group that Orwell would describe as the proles – the hope, in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, published a year after Coward’s play was performed, that was blamed for wrecking the nation’s prosperity and arresting its progress as an outward looking country.

In Coward’s play, there’s a sentimental affection for the just managing – embodied in the honourable Shattock family that run the boozer; the moral and spiritual heart of a gutted community. They represent, in the absence of a Blitz to induce Blitz spirit, a form of British resilience, underpinned by confidence in the country’s innate and superior virtues. This is an easy idea to mock, but there’s no questioning the sincerity with which Coward affirmed it, and no denying the contrast with modern cosmopolitan conceptions of the white working class, that see the Shattock’s grandchildren as degenerate and senseless.

Sasha Regan’s production is a fascinating historical curio, then, but also a fine piece of speculative drama, imbued with Coward’s gift for eloquence and waspishness. The inventive staging allows for the plain of action to shift with characters’ perspectives, which is a gift when presented with such a large ensemble, and the delivery is attuned to the verbosity on the page. You go to a Coward play to hear Coward, and he’s in fine voice at the Union Theatre. The morally ambiguous ending is guaranteed to occupy your thoughts long after the stage lights dim.

May Contain Nuts: Nudity on the stage

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Freddie Fox and Tom Colley in The Judas Kiss (Hampstead)

I’ll be blunt. I enjoy the prospect of nudity, male or female I am equal opportunities, a bit too much. I think the warnings that appear on websites or via an usher’s mouth make it feel like it is a very naughty private play that the Lord Chamberlain might burst in on at any minute. Is nudity just a gimmick to get (clothed) bottoms on seats or is it often crucial to the narrative.

The recent cancellation of The Curing Room by David Ian Lee about soviet soldiers captured and stripped naked, a state they remain in throughout the play, got me considering other nudity on stage in London at the moment.  It feels like you cannot look up from your gin and tonic and not see a naked person what with Cleansed (National Theatre) and Mrs Henderson Presents (Noel Coward) currently in the West End. I recently signed up as a “Supporting Artiste” and was asked would I get naked for a part. The answer is no and I think that is the root of my fascination with actors that take on roles which see them naked night after night in relatively small spaces. My immediate reaction to hearing that highly respected actors like Michelle Terry and Emma Williams were getting completely nude was “Why?” when actually I should have asked “Well, why not?” Nudity is crucial to both of their productions yet  it still seems extremely brave.

 

Actors get naked on screen all the time, even a respected actor like Mark Rylance did full front nudity in Intimacy (2001) but on the stage it feels really personal and for some audience members a bit embarrassing “I didn’t know where to look!” I was told in a twitter conversation about the recent The Judas Kiss revival with Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox. It featured the gorgeous and rather well endowed Tom Colley walking around stage, completely nude.  That sounds really indulgent but it felt right for the story of Oscar Wilde, a man ultimately bought down by his quest for sexual pleasure and it came from the pen of David Hare-a playwright not known for adding nudity for no reason.

Richard Eyre’s Little Eyolf recently added a nude scene where there wasn’t one in the text. The majority of the audience would probably have been unaware as it worked so well but I did see it described as “gratuitous” but when there are some very dodgy casting calls, just see @ProResting on twitter for some examples. I think a professional director would not add a nude scene unless it was absolutely necessary. I think theatre audiences expect any nudity to have context, or they are just keen to see their favourite actor naked…