Keepers of the Flame

The published version of Sean O'Brien's new play, which accompanies the production as a programme, is a dense 134 pages in length - and that excludes the footnotes. You may not usually judge the play by its book but on this occasion it is almost inevitable. Not only is the text steeped in literary references - taking for its subject matter the tricky relationship between politics and poetry - but it is an also an extended cerebral, pseudobiographical, epic meta-poem itself.

What better way for O'Brien's home theatre to deal with it but to draw on the verse drama expertise of Newcastle's annual tenant - the RSC ensemble. The long-awaited collaboration yields a first-class performance under Max Robert's seamless direction. Yes, there is a variety of both classical and vernacular voices but the acting style is perfectly coherent and the overall quality uniform.

RSC veteran Alan Howard plays the fictional right-wing poet Richard Jameson, with suitable nuance in various stages of his 80-year life. Meanwhile his female partner Caroline Faber rises to the dual challenge of switching between his tragic wife Jane and his passionate biographer Rebecca at the flick of his tortured imagination.

Equally mesmerising is the menacing charm of the Newcastle-born Deka Walmsley's Mephistophelean Francis Finnegan. So, Faustus as well as Yeats, Auden, Hitler and Thatcher ignite O'Brien's inspiration but despite the flaming fires that underlie this show, one cannot help feeling that the play's sheer length and breadth threatens to put the dampers on.

Duska Radosavljevic

The Stage, 18.12.03.

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