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2021 Round-up with Gordon Parsons

On stage the intriguing Splinter of Ice, eccentricity of Wuthering Heights and a revival of the Living Newspaper tradition absorbed just as much as the graphic novel The Dancing Plague, Ariel Dorfman’s The Compensation Bureau or Mario Vargas Llosa’s Harsh Times

THIS year we all needed cheering up on the theatre front and two shows hit the mark. In their new Avon-side, Stratford, mobile theatre, the RSC’s Comedy of Errors (now a perfect London Christmas treat) was a splendid choice for the company to re-emerge onto a live stage.

Shakespeare’s most chaotically joyous farce, centred on a kaleidoscopic tangle of mistaken identities, was a fine two-fingered gesture to the misery we had all suffered during the past 18 months.

Less likely, perhaps, to lighten spirits, was Wuthering Heights at Bristol Old Vic and bound for The National Theatre. However, this was a production from Emma Rice’s Wise Children Company, successor to the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre.

Characteristically her treatment of Emily Bronte’s unique classic novel succeeds in injecting Rice’s own brand of theatrical eccentric comedy – puppets and all — without compromising, for all but sad literary purists, the integrity of an intense story of destructive passion.

More serious was Ben Brown’s new play, Splinter of Ice, an Original Theatre Company production first shown online and then toured to theatres. Based on an actual 1987 meeting in Moscow between master spy Kim Philby and novelist Graham Greene, two old friends whose lives had been separated through the machinations of world politics, fundamental questions are asked.

How could an establishment figure give up everything for an ideological commitment, and what is the real reason for this surprise visit?

It would be unfair to leave the year’s theatre without the highest commendation for the Royal Court revival of the Living Newspaper tradition, established in New York during the Depression years.

These six, weekly, online editions of news, views and entertainment set in and around the theatre, despite the deceptive ad hockery, were energised by the high professionalism of a large talented cast.

Sitting somewhere between theatre and the literary world, Gareth Brookes’s graphic novel, The Dancing Plague, paid a distant respect to our Covid crisis in its comic strip narration of the medieval choreomania (St Vitus’s Dance) which mysteriously infected hundreds of men, women and children who jigged and whirled uncontrollably to the point of total exhaustion and even death.

Brookes’s sepia images and text capture the demotic humour of the age, along with the corruption of the monastic and feudal, class and gender exploitation. Its message to us all – further plagues may come, but “meanwhile men will do a merry dance with the devil.”

Finally, two voices from Latin America.  Ariel Dorfman’s describes his fascinating novella-cum-parable, The Compensation Bureau, as “love in the time of Apocalypse.” The High Commission that controls the universe needs to do something to deal with that little rock in space, the Earth, whose unruly inhabitants have descended into a plague of self-destructive violence.

One of the Actuaries whose task involves compensating those multi-millions who throughout human history have been deprived of their full lives through physical deprivation or savagery, unfortunately falls in love with one of the victims he seeks to award with a digitally researched afterlife.

A fantasy, yes. But when the Commission decide to call time on this troubled world – a decision Dorfman fears may be at hand – who, with our daily news diet of largely self- inflicted crises, can dismiss this as fanciful self-indulgence?
“I lie with knowledge of the case.” This claim by Peruvian Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa is certainly borne out by his latest novella, Harsh Times, which could be described as documentary fiction.

Within the framework of a political thriller, his account of the CIA’s 1954 prototype coup by which they brought about the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government, in the interests of United Fruit Corporation’s mafia banana barons, and fuelled by US pathological anti-communism, is particularly relevant as there are signs that what has been America’s slave continent is once again challenging its Big Brothers’ waning power.



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