Sunday, 1 April 2012


31/3/12, Tricycle

2 x 2.5 hours of short plays about the nuclear bomb, interspersed with verbatim quotations, to be seen over two nights or (as we did) in an afternoon and an evening. A disappointment after the really excellent Great Game at this address last year, which was in three parts but otherwise followed a similar format.

That was about using history and the resources of the drama to illuminate a pressing, live contemporary political issue. This was about what ought to be an equally pressing contemporary issue but is in fact one that has slipped off the political radar in recent years (though the Iranian attempts to develop a bomb have reversed that lately).

That may have been one explanation for a curiously underpowered feel to the whole exercise. But the principal problem was that too many of these short plays tackled the issue head on, dramatising the arguments around the bomb but not doing enough to turn them into real drama. It was like sitting through an illustrated politics lecture. Worst offender was the second playlet, in which the central section was a discussion between Attlee, Bevan, a field marshal and a scientist (William Penney, who'd flown in a second plane at Nagasaki to observe the effects of the explosion) about whether Britain should begin development of a bomb of her own. Interesting as history: Bevan's "naked into the conference chamber line was there", the field marshal was agin development because it rendered conventional warfare irrelevant, Penney -- I think it was this character in this play -- argued that once the scientific genie is out of the bottle, it's impossible to put it back in. But too literal, too underpowered dramatically to work as theatre.

There were exceptions: the last play of the afternoon, set in Ukraine some time in the early 1990s, was a comedy which took as its starting point all those worries about the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists and imagined how that might happen. Cue two hillbilly brothers who'd got their hands on one of these things and were selling it off piecemeal for scrap; their sexually rapacious mother; and a drunken ex-Red Army doctor who claimed to have a contact (called "Dennis") in the Chechen terrorist fraternity. The missile sat at the back of the stage as the lads took potshots at empty beer cans perched on it. The Ukrainians all spoke with Ulster accents. It was quite funny and quite clever, though it didn't get the laughs it deserved, perhaps because by that stage the audience had lost its enthusiasm.

The second part was better. A full house helped. So did the fact that, while part one was largely a history lesson, part two took a series of contemporary questions and explored them. But mainly the afternoon plays looked at the issue in an imaginatively-satisfying, sideways fashion. An exception was a pretty literal but entertainingly-staged sketch (little more than that, really) involving two senior North Korean generals discussing a US offer of $1.5 billion to "buy out" the North Korean nuclear arms programme, and wondering how the new Supreme Leader would react (and what his father, the Dear Leader, would have done).

One play centred on the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by Israeli agents who attached a bomb to his car in central Tehran and then sped off on a motorbike. In scene one a Mossad agent travelled to a hotel room in Switzerland to meet his sister, also a scientist and married to a Swiss banker, who had been the Iranian's lover and had slipped him a USB stick which (unknown to her) contained a disabling virus which infected the Iranian nuclear programme's computer network. (The siblings had been born Jews in Iran, before emigrating to Israel). In the second scene we see the professor's widow in a Tehran hotel room immediately after the assassination with her brother, a member of the secret police, who reveals her husband's infidelity with a Jew and Israeli citizen and threatens her. A pleasing symmetry which illuminated issues of loyalty (to family, country, religion) and the paranoia which has led both Israel and Iran to seek to develop a bomb.

The highlight of the evening was by David Grieg, in which a newly-elected Prime Minister is urged by an anonymous functionary ("John. From Arrangements") to write the Letter of Last Resort to be opened by a nuclear submarine captain in the event of a devastating and disabling nuclear strike which has destroyed government, civilian life and military command and control in the UK. (How will they know? There will be no Radio 4. The audience liked that notion and so did Grieg, who milked the gag three or four times.) The letter commands the captain to retaliate. Or not. Retaliation is meaningless and probably a war crime: condemning 10 or 20 million civilians to death to no military purpose, purely as an act of revenge. Not to retaliate renders the whole notion of nuclear deterrence and mutually-assured destruction a nonsense. This was as talky as any of the plays, as dramatically inert (in the sense that it consisted of no more than two people sitting in a room) and as literal; yet it worked the best, probably because Grieg is such a witty, subtle writer. (Dr T thought it played too readily to the audiences prejudices, by which I think she meant there were too many easy gags about Radio 4, and I saw what she meant; but then the audience for an event like this is always likely to be stuffed with R4 listeners, and the whole five hours was pandering to its audiences prejudices since no-one not alarmed by nuclear weapons was likely to come.)

I learnt a fair amount; I reacquainted myself with many of the arguments around the Bomb; I gained insight into the motives of those countries beyond the original cold war participants (China, India, Israel, Iran) who've gone to considerable lengths to develop nuclear weapons; I enjoyed some of the doublespeak this area of political, scientific and military endeavour seems to generate. But I could probably have got all of that from a well-written magazine article in a fraction of the time.

M/f when I can get into the front room where I left the programme when we came home last night (currently inaccessible because of a sleeping visitor brought home in the wee small hours by the boy's girlfriend)

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