A review of 'Keepers of the Flame' at the Live Theatre, Newcastle
There are many parallels between Sean O'Brien's Keepers of the Flame and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and Sean O'Brien does his best to emphasise them, somewhat to the detriment of his own play, since it invites comparison. Keepers of the Flame is an ambitious and intelligent piece, but it is not in the same theatrical league as Dr. Faustus, and whilst Sean O'Brien, a respected poet, writes well - and in blank verse - he never comes close to the instant memorability of Marlowe's mighty lines. He forgets, in places, that his play is not being written to be read, but to engage a theatre audience, and as a result it tends to be too long-winded and undramatic, particularly in the first half, where too much time is spent in setting up the plot rather than proceeding with it, even despite cuts in the printed text. For instance, nineteen lines are spent describing a long-ago journey, and whilst they are very poetic, and Alan Howard undeniably speaks them beautifully, they nevertheless seem to me to be dramatically redundant. However, it is to Mr. O'Brien's eternal credit that, whilst he may not match Marlowe, he has not fallen into the trap of writing what is essentially either a radio or television piece, so many of which bedevil the current theatrical scene.
The play concerns Richard Jameson, an octogenarian right-wing poet who has been suffering from writer's block for the past fifty years. He is approached by an enthusiastic young academic, Rebecca Stone, with a view to producing a new edition of his work, together with a biography. There are, however, very few known facts for a potential biographer to work with. Much of the rest of the play consists of flashback memories by Jameson, which fill the biographical gaps and at the same time fill Rebecca Stone (and the audience) with horror.
At Oxford, Jameson neglected to study Dr. Faustus - at his peril. It is not long before he is heavily embroiled with an extreme British Fascist party led by Sir Henry Exton, who is aided and abetted by his frighteningly chilling henchman, Francis Finnegan, the Mephistophilis of the piece. Jameson sells his soul to the right-wing, although it is never entirely clear what he thinks he is getting in return, apart from a certain amount of cash for writing marching songs instead of poetry. Despite feeling some disillusion, and despite some largely ineffectual undercover informing against Exton's mob, one feels that he must still be extraordinarily blinkered and/or naïve not to realise how extreme the party is and to extricate himself before it is too late to save his soul. In fairness even Exton's left-wing daughter, Jane, later Jameson's wife, also seems misguidedly to imagine that the party is more hot air than real action - once again to her cost.
The second half of the play is more successful, since the politics are shown in action rather than in words. Jameson ceases to be a mere adjunct to the political exploits, and becomes horrifically involved, to the extent of handing Finnegan the matches with which he immolates a petrol-soaked victim. He alas does nothing so decisive to save Jane, murdered not on the command of her father, but on the whim of his vicious new wife, Stella, in cahoots with Finnegan.
All of this is dramatically only too believable, and the parallel with present-day extreme right-wing parties is indeed a troubling one. However, the implied murder of Rebecca Stone by far-right Thatcherite supporters for knowing too much about events that took place fifty years previously stretches the credulity, even given that one or two Royals could have been involved. Indeed, the right-wing still providing a thuggish minder for the elderly Jameson, loose cannon though he may be, seems equally far-fetched, although perhaps in making these comments I am being as naïve and blinkered as Jameson himself.
The play is ably directed by Max Roberts, the Artistic Director of Live Theatre, and the designer, Imogen Cloët, makes the most of the relatively limited resources at her disposal.
Alan Howard, an extremely memorable Marlovian Mephistophilis back in 1970, now plays the Faustian figure of Richard Jameson. It is a very long rôle, and he is onstage for most of the play, commanding the piece throughout. He is the only member of the cast that really handles the verse well, showing not just long experience, but also a natural sensitivity towards its rhythms and its language, which the other actors are incapable of equalling. He imbues the rôle with pain, grief, and occasionally passion. The text just about bears it: Sean O'Brien is an intelligent writer, but not an emotional one. Virtuoso as it is, it is not one of Alan Howard's greatest performances, for no actor can really transcend the material he is working with, and after Shakespeare, Sophocles, and even Marlowe, precious few dramatists could offer him a scope that would justly fulfil his talents. Nevertheless, it is a performance well worth seeing, and one that more than does justice to the text, although, despite all of Alan Howard's considerable skill and experience, Jameson remains a character with whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify, and it may be that this difficulty is why it is not easy to feel involved with the play as a whole, or to warm to it. My main criticism of the performance is that there is not enough differentiation between the older and the younger Jameson. It is possible that this is intentional, the younger Jameson being only a memory of the older one, and as such having more of the older one's qualities than would in fact have been the case. But if this is the intention, then it is not altogether clear.
Alan Howard's casting in the rôle forces a (probably unintended) comparison with Good, a play by C. P. Taylor (to whose memory the Live Theatre is, by a quirk of fate, dedicated) in which Alan Howard gave an award-winning performance as Halder, another character sucked into a Fascist movement, in this case the Nazis. In many ways Good was better theatre, and more involving, for Halder was a character with whom it was only too easy to identify, and one emerged wondering if, in his position, one would ever have acted any differently - a deeply disturbing idea. C. P. Taylor was not a poet, but very much a man of the theatre, something which shows in the dramatic effectiveness of his play. By all accounts, he was also much more willing to rewrite during rehearsals than Sean O'Brien. A lesson to be learnt?
The rest of the cast lend admirable support. Caroline Faber plays both Jane and Rebecca Stone, and nicely differentiates them; David Rintoul shows manic megalomania as Exton; and above all Deka Walmsley makes the blood run cold as the emissary from Hell, Francis Finnegan, who first tempts Jameson away from his poetic muse, and at the end returns to claim his soul. It is a shame, given such a splendid performance, that his final lines, which close the play,
Be saved. But there is immortality.
That ought to keep the flames alive.
need to be given much more depth and ambiguity to avoid the ending sounding weak. I suggest that he takes lessons from Alan Howard.
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