Keepers of the Flame

Imagine if W.H. Auden's political pendulum had swung the other way. What if the darling of the intellectual left had hocked his talent to the fanatical right, and begun composing trite, patriotic marching songs? Sounds impossible? Even Auden himself wasn't sure. When he came to look back on some of his early work, he perceived a young man who was likely to become either a Fascist or suffer a nervous breakdown.

The hero of Sean O'Brien's new play does both. O'Brien invents the highly plausible figure of Richard Jameson, an Auden-generation poet, whose political conscience carried him in the opposite direction to his peers. The true nature of his Faustian pact with a Mephistopholean media magnate emerges in flashback, when an eager young academic arrives with plans to compile a biography.

O'Brien's play, an ambitious joint venture between Live Theatre and the RSC, receives a stunningly lucid production from Max Roberts and features a virtuoso display to savour from Alan Howard as the troubled poet. But the true revelation comes from the writing.

O'Brien harnesses fluent, natural-sounding dialogue to the propulsive energy of the iambic line. Live Theatre has to take some credit for this. But a project as ambitious as this is unlikely to be without flaw. The script is long and tends towards repetition. And there is some violence. But it is never less than theatrical. O'Brien boldly reintroduces a concept all but lost to the modern stage - that raw emotion can be conveyed through highly-figured language. There may be a future for verse drama yet.

Alfred Hickling

The Guardian, 11.11.03.

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