Wednesday 6 October 2010

The Scottish Play

I have had mainly bad experiences of Waterstone's "three for two" book offer. I end up with one or even two books I don't really want (Amazon is much better: since they made virtually all deliveries free you can buy paperbacks one at a time). But the offer can occasionally have the effect of making you read something you would not otherwise have looked at. This is the case with the book I am currently reading, Gyles Brandreth's Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime which was a third book hurriedly chosen.

Now I am reluctant to admit enjoying this book. I had thought Johnny Rotten spoke for the nation when, introduced at a party, he told Brandreth "F**k off, f**k-face". Rotten, evidently a man of good taste, must have had in mind the silly jumpers, teddy bear fetishism, breakfast telly lowest common denominator, and assorted trivial self-publicising stunts with which we associate the erstwhile Tory whip.

However, this memoir captures public life over the last 50 years brilliantly with a cast of characters ranging from Lord Longford (surely the only person in history who could hug a stark naked pole-dancer in a seedy club as an act of Christian piety without anybody doubting his motives) to Jeffrey Archer (say no more). Brandreth also hints not for the first time that he has the low-down on the private life of his friend Prince Philip - he's obviously aching to tell all when the old boy (and the Queen I guess) have passed into history. I admit it, it's all good fun. In fairness Brandreth also has a record of assisting prisoners and, on at least one occasion which he describes, people in mental hospitals.

I was interested in Brandreth's account of seeing Nicol Williamson playing Macbeth in Stratford in 1974. Enraged by schoolboys in the audience shuffling and gossiping Williamson hurled a stool across the stage and launched a self-righteous tirade at the offenders.

Well, as a schoolboy I saw this very production and can report that the characters all ludicrously spoke in dainty and "refined" Scottish accents ("Is this a dagger I see before me, Dr Finlay?", "Screw your courage to the sticking place, Miss Jean Brodie" etc). God knows what the director was thinking. Williamson should have realised that his audience had a point to make but maybe his mind was on Helen Mirren (gratuitous picture above) playing Lady M with whom he was then having a fling - we schoolboys might have been more interested if we had known this at the time (certainly the now famous Mirren sexual magnetism failed to draw us - that must have been the accent because it didn't take much at that age). For the record Williamson is a good actor, if notorious for his temper, and I saw him play Lear very movingly many years later in Cardiff.

I too have suffered the curse of the "Scottish Play". I played the lead in an avant-garde production where we recorded the script on a tape-recorder complete with sound-effects then played it back for the performance while miming the action in silhouette using a back-light and translucent sheeting. Sounds good doesn't it? We thought so too and were only disabused when, from the moment the curtain went up, the audience were convulsed with laughter and continued to weep with mirth for the duration. It was never spoken of again.

Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.