Springtime for Mosley

Can you really create a musical about the Fascist Blackshirts in Thirties Britain? The award-winning playwright Peter Morris has
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The Independent Culture

Most playwrights would admit to a little fear before unveiling their work to a new audience, but few can have such a spectacular reason for feeling "absolutely terrified" as Peter Morris. It's not a confidence issue - the 30-year-old is twice winner of a playwright-of-the-year award and has just been commissioned by the BBC. It's more that he has written a musical set during a period in modern British history that he believes most Britons prefer to dismiss as deeply embarrassing.

Most playwrights would admit to a little fear before unveiling their work to a new audience, but few can have such a spectacular reason for feeling "absolutely terrified" as Peter Morris. It's not a confidence issue - the 30-year-old is twice winner of a playwright-of-the-year award and has just been commissioned by the BBC. It's more that he has written a musical set during a period in modern British history that he believes most Britons prefer to dismiss as deeply embarrassing.

And not just any musical. A Million Hearts for Mosley, or History to the Defeated imagines a 1930s Britain in which Oswald Mosley is leader of the country, the Blackshirts run amok, the proletariat is starving, and Jews and gays are the victims of a public hate campaign. Virginia Woolf is executed for treason; Winston Churchill is mistakenly assassinated by a young Margaret Thatcher; and TE Lawrence is the subject of a bizarre conspiracy involving William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw.

Stuffed with ragingly homophobic and anti-Semitic characters, and punctuated with scenes from a delirious Diana Mosley's deathbed in Paris in 2002, while Le Pen's National Front marches down the streets, it merrily sets the Mosleys' dream of a Fascist utopia to music lifted from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard - one of the pair's least successful and least liked operas. The "Springtime for Hitler" musical in Mel Brooks's comedy The Producers looks mild by comparison.

Peter Morris is no stranger to upsetting the boat - his award-winning 2002 play The Age of Consent was roundly condemned in the right-wing press for its sympathetic portrait of a teenager clearly modelled on the two boys who murdered James Bulger. "Of course, those who actually came to see the play said that the press coverage gave no true idea of the play's actual content," Morris murmurs. "It's not a profound cynicism on my part that gets me into this trouble," he continues. "It's just that the issues I'm interested in - be it child murder or Fascism - are the ones that tend to inspire a profound, negative moral consensus. But that's the point where theatre gets interesting."

A Million Hearts for Mosley, rehearsed over an 18-month improvisation process with the students of Lamda (Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House came out of the same process), is part of the American-born Morris's fascination with Englishness. He divides his time between America and the UK; frequently it is the many shifting shades of difference between American and English culture that fuel his prodigious creativity. "What interested me in this instance was the differing manifestations of anti-Semitism in the two countries. It's an openly prickly subject in America, and one that seems barely an issue here. Yet I recently heard a report on the BBC World Service on a poll conducted in this country [by the ICM for The Jewish Chronicle] following the appointment of Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party. A fifth said they would prefer not to have a Jewish prime minister. Meanwhile, Philip Roth speaks of Guardian cartoons regarding Israel's foreign policy that wouldn't look out of place in 1930s Germany.

"I'm not talking about an ingrained anti-Semitism, rather that very English habit that almost anything can be laughed off. You get away with a very high level of supposedly ironic anti-Semitism, and with the Mosleys representing this embarrassing episode, the way that embarrassment can work culturally becomes fascinating."

With its brazen mash of high and low culture and, more specifically, its determination to test the English capacity for irony to the limits, A Million Hearts loudly follows in the footsteps trailblazed by Jerry Springer: The Opera. The director, Steven Jameson, proudly describes it as part of the "rebirth of acid, contemporary, hardline, accessible, popularist opera". " A Million Hearts is a very different beast from Springer," he continues, "but it certainly has the same balls and teeth." Laughing, he suggests that it is precisely the kind of thing Raymond Gubbay should have programmed at his ill-fated Savoy Opera season.

Morris - who loosely describes himself as a political playwright - hit upon writing an opera for two reasons. "I always like to set myself a new artistic hurdle for everything I do. The idea of cultivating a distinct author's voice in the tradition of the Royal Court, for example, has no relevance to me." More specifically, he had been fascinated by The Yeomen of the Guard, which he describes as Gilbert and Sullivan's great failure, ever since appearing in a university production. " Yeoman was one of Sullivan's attempts to write a serious opera. For some reason they decided to tap into Tudor England. The music - ripped off from Wagner - has the sort of sonorous banality of an empire at its zenith, but is studded with English folk motifs. The combination struck me as almost incipiently fascist. Most fascist artists are kitsch - and few artists are more kitsch than Gilbert and Sullivan." Gilbert and Sullivan's own preoccupation with Englishness in HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance is commonly regarded as gently satirical but Morris dismisses that. "It's too amiable and self-satisfied for satire. These days, English patriotism and the fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan sit in the national psyche in a way that necessarily entails a certain level of apology."

With A Million Hearts, then, Morris has essentially leapt upon a perverse way of reflecting Britain's tradition of nationalism at a time when arguments about our position in relation to Europe and its inhabitants are top of the political agenda (Mosley, of course, advocated a united Europe). Despite its farcical tone, the play is heavy with the brutality and violence of social and religious intolerance; Morris clearly means his audience to draw parallels between the British Union of Fascists and the BNP. Equally, in suggesting parallels between anti-Semitism and a broader religious intolerance, he has found a way of examining Iraq by refracting resonances of both through a period that currently seems very far away.

"The 1930s overturned notions of right and left on the political map in a way that we still haven't recovered from. There were all these highly articulate writers suddenly confronted with cultural developments that they simply couldn't get their heads round. Compare that with today. The writer Christopher Hitchens, who I have always admired, completely lost me after September 11. He started writing every week about the threat of Islamic fascism, as he called it. Reading him, I felt as confused and muddled as someone may have felt in the 1930s; his use of the word fascism to describe Osama bin Laden was one of the things that made this play crystallize."

Morris is clear that A Million Hearts is not a history lesson, that the political issues inform rather than dominate. What is equally clear is its sheer, almost foolhardy, provocative ambition. "For me, theatre is a social act," says Morris. "And whenever everyone has a ready answer on something, then I always want to go against the grain."

'A Million Hearts for Mosley, or History to the Defeated', MacOwan Theatre, Logan Place, Kensington, London W8 (020-8834 0500) to 2 June

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