5 July 2016
Forget the West End and regional theatre; forget the RSC and National. The UK at the moment is offering the greatest show on earth on its TV news channels and serious radio, 18 hours a day, developing with real style, gusto and endless twists of plot. It is called the Brexit Play. It features major and minor politicians (some of whom are becoming stars, and others who were stars ) who look as if they are about to burn out. Some people, like Tim Farron (who runs the Liberal Democrats —all eight of them that made it into Parliament in the last election) is trying to start a contemporary play to compete, which I call: Regrexit. If he succeeds, we will also see the annoyed 48% of the country's voters (Remain!) trying to reverse the decision of the 52% (Leave!) the EU.
I could write an essay on just how bad it is for the arts, and for entertainment,
too, but you can probably figure it out for yourself; the whole issue has become the world's arts and entertainment itself at the moment.
Recently, TV pundits were comparing Michael Gove to Macbeth, Mrs. Gove to Lady Macbeth (without the laughs), and Boris Johnson to Duncan. Julius Caesar seems to be playing itself out on TV screens as well: with some people appealing to the mobs to crown their Caesar, and others crying to the Brexit voters: “You blocks, you stones, you worse-than-senseless things. Knew you not Pompey?”
Mind you, we are not entirely certain who this Pompey character is at the moment. It sure ain’t Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party opposition leader), with his lean shanks and slippered pantaloons, still at this writing refusing to leave the stage though “Exit pursued by bear” has been in his script for days. He is also being likened to King John, who provoked his nobles and eventually signed Magna Carta against his will (are you listening, Jeremy?). Frankly, it's hard not to feel that Shakespeare is still living at this hour and somehow foresaw it all.
We had John of Gaunt of Richard II on TV today in the person of Baron Heseltine
(the Conservative who unseated Margaret Thatcher), pleading for this England,
“this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-Paradise, this fortress built by Nature for her self”;
and for its prime and moral position in Europe. Daily, as if creating material for new History Plays, or merely echoing them, we have betrayals, and we have evidence of loyalties; we have great shifts of support for one would-be political monarch after another from one moment to the next. And we may just have another female Prime Minister soon, the redoubtable Theresa May (for now, the Conservative Home Secretary), playing, according to her supporters, our very own stable and sane Paulina of The Winter’s Tale.
Of course, the most memorable and powerful speech on behalf of remaining in the EU was made at the 11th hour, and wonderfully, by the actress Sheila Hancock. I do hope it surfaces on the Internet. At the moment, mingy and stingy old ITV is blocking her speech for copyright reasons. Now if only she had said her piece on the BBC! (Which, of course, is under threat from the Conservatives, but that is another story from another place.)
At this moment the beleagured UK is living through what the Chinese call “interesting times”. No one knows what's going to happen tomorrow. It's a political thriller; it's a political farce; it's also a soap opera and high drama, all at once. Europe is clearly seriously pissed off with the UK, and especially David Cameron, who swore over and over that he could win this. “If you are not 100% certain you can risk it, David, do not do it,” they advised. Years ago, Margaret Thatcher was pressurized into holding a referendum by her Eurosceptics but never would; David Cameron believed he knew better. He was told not to have a Referendum; he went ahead, leading the Remain Campaign, and he did not win. And so his little Conservative Party squabble cost him his job and his legacy— and is costing the whole of Europe dearly. We may end up not only with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but also the withdrawal of Scotland and Ireland from the UK. (Shakespeare was no stranger to bad decisions. Poor Brutus thought Cassius was right about how to solve the problem of preserving the Roman republic! And look at the chaos that that provoked!)
These are parlous and chaotic times; and this is (do not think I am exaggerating) the worst Constitutional Crisis in a very long time; some people say since the time of the Civil War and Cromwell. There is also the fear that David Cameron’s ill-considered attempt to bring the UK equivalent of Tea Party Republicans to heel has unleashed xenophobia of a very high order, and also the racism that is escalating daily. Has he put our toes on the first step of the ladder of Fascism? It sounds exaggerated; but people old enough to remember the 1930s are telling me that this is exactly what it felt like when it all began; and that Hitler sounded as plausible and not-so-very-racist as, let us say, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (England’s new Oswald Moseley?). Mind you, Hitler had plans for genocide and territorial expansion. I suspect that the problem with Farage and his fellow bigoted Brexiters is that they have no plans at all! They just don't like immigrants or the EU any more than Henry V liked the French or the Yorkists liked the Lancastrians with whom they fought the Wars of the Roses. Never mind that this is no reason to leave it but a reason to reform it; never mind that you are encouraging a country to betray all its friends and neighbours, remove its influence at a crucial time, and diminish its moral standing in the world.
Don’t believe the propaganda. The EU is democratic; the only laws we are living under promulgated by the EU were all debated and voted for in their Parliament where we have MEPs and agreed to adopt in our Parliament. They are only asking for a fair share of “fees” to belong to their club, and the reason the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world (well, until last week) was precisely because of the growth and development achieved during the past 43 years as a partner of the EU. Basically, as with the crowds being provoked in Julius Caesar, Brexit's rationale was all a lot of demagoguery and downright lies. “Friends, Romans, countrymen: we come to bury the EU, not to praise it!”
There is a mythical £350 million we send to the EU every week that is actually more like £128 million when you consider rebates and so forth. This is our fee for belonging to the EU club; this is our tax. People who are complaining about those who will not pay their fair share of taxes in the UK are also complaining about Britain’s paying its fair share of tax to the EU and choosing to ignore not only the quantifiable benefits but the unquantifiable ones. One example: the UK has a huge lead in and great respect for its scientific research. For every £4 we put into the EU budget, we actually get back £6.5 for projects that also link us to, and are done in co-operation with, other EU countries. All that is about to go. And, for the arts, experimental theatre groups subsidized by the EU; exchanges of artists to work and exhibit their work within EU countries; cross-cultural musical festivals and shows: all that and much, much more is about to go, too.
But why should I bore you with our little troubles when you have an even greater clown to entertain you for months to come in the Presidential race? Perhaps sadly, we have just had our own blonde clown with a comb-over (Boris Johnson) withdraw from the race for Prime Minister. But never fear! He is very ambitious and a talented entertainer. He loves a crowd. You can’t keep such people down. He will probably reappear again in some other role very soon.
Unlike like the Fool in King Lear, who ends up dying for telling the truth, and who disappears halfway through the story.