The first new play to appear under Trevor Nunn's directorship of the National Theatre has a dream cast: you consequently spend most of the evening wondering how you could go about airlifting them to safety from this ambitious but embarrassing mess of a play. "Aye, we have indeed fallen from a great height," declares Maeve, the legendary Irish queen (Frances Tomelty). In Frank McGuinness's Mutabilitie, set in 1598, Maeve spearheads a tatterdemalion group of refugee royals roaming the bleak Hibernian forests and plotting revenge against the English Protestant settlers whose chief representative is the poet of The Faerie Queene, and colonial administrator, Edmund Spenser.
The same downward plunge seems to have been taken by McGuinness, who in 1985 gave the world the best Irish anti-war play since Sean O'Casey's Silver Tassie. The artistic intentions of this new piece are wholly laudable. The author, brought up a Catholic, wants to get inside the historically- shaped psyche of both camps, bringing out points of troubling resemblance and equally troubling difference between the two mentalities.
To that end, he shows Patrick Malahide's impressively unravelling Spenser torn between ruefulness and ruthlessness, pity for and patronising prejudice towards the stricken, dispossessed and sometimes massacred natives. Stuck in this outpost with an embittered, terminally homesick wife (intelligently played by Diana Hardcastle), he finds his devotion to the myth and ideology of Elizabeth/Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, beginning to verge on mad desperation. McGuinness even gives a speculative twist to the fact that the Spenser home was burnt to the ground. Here, this is presented as both external reprisal and as the self-inflicted conclusion of the poet's own sense of failure.
There are things that stop any of this having a proper impact, that make it difficult to watch with a straight face. The traverse production is played on a rocky set that resembles the decor of some naff studio TV play of the Sixties. The music is overdone: those sweetly mournful Irish pipes seem more intent on making the play feel less "feel bad" than on conveying cultural identity. And there's a perfectly excruciating attempt to drag Shakespeare (played by Anton Lesser) into all of this. The idea is that, feeling burnt-out by his "pursuit of fire", and a closet Catholic to boot, the Bard has come across to Ireland (cue lots of echoes of Prospero's Island) and is promptly mistaken for the promised redeemer by Aisling O'Sullivan's gloweringly intense Irish poetess, who helps him out in the impromptu creation of one of his more famous sonnets.
The play's conception of genius is breathtakingly shallow and corny, as is its idea of a divided, half-tragic, half-hopeful ending. The latter is provided by Edmund Spenser's little boy, who, in the climactic fire, gets separated from his parents and winds up becoming the healing replacement for the Irish poetess's dead baby. My, how swiftly this tot adapts to changing circumstances. As he greets his new Irish family, you half expect him to say, "And now, pretty please, nice people, teach me Gaelic and all about your fascinating culture." He's a phoney bridge in a deeply disappointing and badly misjudged start to Trevor Nunn's new regime.
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