Passion Play by Peter Nichols

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BBC Radio 4, 12 January 2008

The play’s premise is relatively straightforward: art dealer James (Nicholas le Prevost), happily married for twenty-five years to Eleanor (Joanna David), embarks on a passionate affair with Kate (Emily Bruni) – a much younger woman. Despite the fact that Eleanor finds out about it, James continues to see Kate while at the same time insisting to his wife that he has given up his lover for good. What renders Passion Play especially intriguing is that Nichols gives two roles for his two main characters.  One of these (James, Eleanor) represents the persona the character chooses to present in public; the other (Jim, Nell) functions as a doppelganger, or alter ego, letting the audience knows what the character is thinking or feeling.  Both parts were played in Guthrie’s production by le Prevost and David.

When Passion Play premiered at the Aldwych Theatre, London in 1981, it was widely interpreted by reviewers as a critique of Thatcherism. Ever since she assumed the office of Prime Minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher sought to create a liberal society, while at the same time insisting that every citizen should acquire the bourgeois values of thrift, prudence, diligence, temperance and self-reliance. If they accomplished this, then they could help to create a stable world on their own, without government interference. Individual responsibility lay at the heart of this philosophy. Nichols shows how this ideology forces James to rein in his passions; to suppress what he really believes in, so as to maintain social cohesion. Eventually the task proves too much for him as he embarks on his affair with Kate. Kate herself was perceived as a sexually active personality, suppressed by what Nichols describes as the kind of “conventional [Thatcherite] values” which forced women to accept the roles of wife and mother. Meanwhile Eleanor dedicates herself to her husband and children, and ends up with nothing as a result. She sacrifices her “youthful and uninhibited” self in her efforts to fulfil her social responsibilities. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that she should choose to end her life by taking an overdose of barbiturates.

Guthrie interpreted Passion Play quite differently, acknowledging the fact that Thatcher has now been consigned to history. The old bourgeois values of prudence and social responsibility no longer seemed significant: all the character sought self-gratification in a world where only the fittest would survive. James and Eleanor appeared incredibly narcissistic – something emphasised in this revival through the technique of overlapping voices. James delivered his lines before Eleanor had finished, and vice versa. Neither of them was prepared to listen to what the other had to say. The introduction of the doppelgangers served to exacerbate this situation: Jim and Nell had no qualms about interrupting James and Eleanor. Kate appeared thoroughly worldly – someone who took advantage of James and Eleanor’s self-centredness. She made James feel young again by fulfilling his sexual fantasies, allowing him to fondle her while wearing no underwear, or wearing lace panties whenever the two of them met at her apartment. At the same time Kate convinced Eleanor that they were firm friends embarking on shopping expeditions to buy even more frilly underwear.

In this revival marriage as an institution seemed nothing more than a series of empty rituals. Neither James nor Eleanor believed that their relationship had any future. Eleanor summed up her feelings in one pithy phrase; both of them were “out to lunch, no one home.” However they lacked the courage – or the self-awareness – to do anything about it. Separation or divorce seemed out of the question – all they could do was to play continual meaningless verbal games. This was starkly underlined in the final scene. In the background, the sound of a choir singing Christmas carols could be heard, as James and Eleanor welcomed their friends with expressions of enforced jollity (“How nice to see you!” “Yes, we’re happy!” Guthrie focused our attention on Jim and Nell, who bitterly disclosed their feelings in a series of asides delivered close to the microphone. Nell claimed that her bags were packed, prior to leaving home, while Jim declared (not for the first time) that his affair was based on pure sex, not love. Such phrases had little or no significance other than to demonstrate how morally bankrupt the two of them were.

From the evidence of this revival, it seems that Nichols’s recent critical neglect should be nothing more than temporary. If other directors create revivals of similar quality as Guthrie’s Passion Play (whether in the theatre, on television or on radio), then surely his reputation will be speedily re-established.