Keepers of the Flame

When a play quotes William Empson, one of the most exhilarating knotty poets of the 20th century, for its epigraph, you know that it aims for a particular kind of dense, thoughtful potency; you also suspect that it is unlikely to get there. But Sean O'Brien's Keepers of the Flame does, magnificently. O'Brien's confident and established voice as a poet has now fully meshed with his growing sensibilities as a playwright. I cannot think of a play for some decades that works this well both as verse and as theatre.

It probably helps that he is writing about poetry itself. But rather than being ivory-tower naval-gazing, Keepers grapples with the contest between art and politics in defining a nation's culture. O'Brien's protagonist, Richard Jameson, is a fictional rightwing poet of the 1930s who allows himself to become commandeered by the British fascist movement headed by a Beaverbrook-cum-Mosley figure, Exton.

Art or politics? It is no contest, never mind art or life. Jameson is largely ineffectual and hesitant as an undercover informer on the Blackshirts, likewise in his personal life with Exton's left-leaning daughter. Ultimately, even his verse sinks into oblivion, until the 80-year-old poet is visited by an academic wishing to republish and biographise a man whose literary time has finally come....... in Thatcher's third term. There's a Faustian element, too, with an Irish Mephisto figure repeatedly reminding Jameson of the price of his naïveté by confronting him with gleeful violence. Finnegan is the worst kind of nemesis, a barbarian too articulate to be dismissed as a mere thug.

Alan as Richard Jameson

O'Brien's verse crackles with the dark fire of menacing, pseudo-mystical night rallies. Jameson is the kind of role that Alan Howard can most impressively inhabit, especially the older, self-lacerating Jameson. Caroline Faber, doubling as his wife and the 1980s scholar, rises to meet Howard's challenge fully in the last-act sequence when she is apprised of the full darkness of Jameson's past.

Max Roberts's production, the culmination of a two-year collaboration on the play between the RSC and Newcastle's Live Theatre, fits the piece and the Tyneside venue perfectly. They had better find somewhere to transfer it; O'Brien's play is just too significant to burn only this briefly.

Ian Shuttleworth

Financial Times, 10.11.03.

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