Howard Brenton's new play is what TV calls a docudrama - that is, the partly imagined telling of a true story. In this case it's the life and career of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister 1957-1963.
Nowhere near as colourful as some PMs before and after him, Macmillan did preside over a particularly ambiguous and contradictory period in British history. On the one hand, the economy, society and general feeling were at an all-time high, leading to his famous statement that 'most of our people have never had it so good'.
But those in the know were particularly aware that, post-Suez, post-end-of-Empire, Britain was sinking into the status of a second-class nation, easily bullied by both the USA and Europe and with no clear sense of its role in the future.
We ask two things of a docudrama - that it provide an easy-to-absorb history lesson, and that it give shape and meaning to events by imagining causes, effects and personalities that don't have to be true as long as they are dramatically satisfying. In return, we are willing to sacrifice some drama - the end is probably known in advance, and the structure is almost inevitably uncomplicatedly linear.
And in these terms Brenton's play is a success. There's not a whole lot of news and not much suspense as it moves through Macmillan's life, but Brenton gives us an imagined Macmillan who is believable and sympathetic. History may not have happened for these reasons, but it could have, and imagining that it did helps make sense of history.
Brenton posits two major shaping forces in Macmillan's character and life - a domineering mother who simultaneously set high ambitions for him and repeatedly expressed her doubts that he'd succeed, and the trauma of the First World War, that destroyed his ability to be idealistic or optimistic, turning him into a grey apparatchik rather than a real leader.
Brenton and director Howard Davies stage this character insight imaginatively by having Jeremy Irons as the older Macmillan narrate and observe the first part of his story while Pip Carter plays the younger man. But after the First World War scenes the two actors change places, Irons playing Macmillan thereafter while Carter remains as the ironic and disillusioned ghost of his youthful optimism.
This allows a double view throughout, and very nicely dramatises the sense of the young man's experiences shaping and haunting his older self.
It's not easy playing a grey character, and Jeremy Irons occasionally has difficulty keeping us interested in Macmillan, even in the juicier scenes. Macmillan's wife notoriously carried on a decades-long affair with one of his friends, and Irons makes the man most human and most affecting when he realises that the person he's become simply can't work up too much anger about that.
Anna Chancellor plays the wife who can remain one of his strongest supporters even as she's rushing off to her lover, Ian McNeice has a couple of colourful scenes as an ageing Churchill cleverer than most even in his dotage and Anthony Calf is touching as an out-of-his-depth Anthony Eden.
Not least among the script's accomplishments is that it tells the complicated story of the Suez crisis more clearly and efficiently than I've ever had it explained before, though much of the rest of the background is of necessity a rapid dash through history-lite.
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Review - Never So Good - National 2008