The best bit in Shakespeare? For me, it's not Hamlet, or Rosalind, or the statue scene in The Winter's Tale, or any of the other central things that life would be unendurable without. No, it's a moment in All's Well That Ends Well. Braggart, false friend, poor-man's Falstaff and coward, Parolles is the victim of a trick whereby he's exposed to his fellow soldiers as the leaky-mouthed, treacherous poltroon that he is. So far, so what several other dramatists of the era could have managed. Shakespeare's genius kicks in with how he develops Parolles from that point. Instead of dragging himself offstage into suicidal obscurity, the character bounces back from rock bottom with the great line: "Simply the thing I am shall make me live".
The subtitle of one of the latest books from the prolific and highly estimable A C Grayling is "Living With Philosophy" – a phrase that has comic overtones of "Coping With Chlamydia" or some such self-help tome. "Living With Shame" is one of the many topics on which Shakespeare has piercing insight, and I kept thinking of him while watching Robin Soans's highly entertaining and thought-provoking new verbatim piece, Life After Scandal, premieredin a very satisfying and well-acted production by Anthony Clark at Hampstead.
The lazy-minded prejudice against actors is that they are vain, self-involved "luvvies" who have ears for nothing but the sound of their own braying. Of the best, nothing could be further from the truth. Onstage, the ability to listen convincingly is a key component of the art. The same is true for offstage, for it is there that the deep research is done. Robin Soans is a very good actor and a very good writer (Talking to Terrorists; The Arab-Israeli Cookbook) and it is the power of his ability to listen that underpins both gifts.
He has gained the confidence of, and elicited confidences from, the likes of Jonathan Aitken, Edwina Currie, Neil and Christine Hamilton, Charles and Diana Ingram and Craig Murray for this interview-derived piece about surviving a soiled reputation. Jeffrey Archer is notable for his absence. Did Soans try and fail to get his cooperation? Lest you think I am too big-hearted for my own good, I have to say that the sight of Archer on the jury for that television programme about the workings of the jury system struck me as one of the most sick-making spectacles I have ever seen. But for all off Soans's interviewees, I have sympathy and more after watching this piece.
The tidy-minded man in me feels that there's a confusion of categories in the show; the humble man in me feels that perhaps there's a pattern behind the pattern that I haven't cracked. But at first blush, I can't quite see why the victims of a government propaganda machine (as, arguably, Craig Murray and Robin Cook's widow are) are sharing the stage with Aitken and Edwina Currie. In what sense is the latter a victim of anything but the predicament of being Edwina Currie? I've always had a soft spot for the Hamiltons, and here Caroline Quentin and Michael Mears turn them into an appealing couple whose resourceful resilience is a lesson to us all that panto in Woking is not the worst thing that life can throw at you.
The show rests on the tacit and questionable premise that scandal is a contemporary phenomenon. Not so. What is novel now is how shame can be a good career move in these shameless times. But if the framework feels a bit shaky, the material is often priceless. Philip Bretherton as Jonathan Aitken recalls his experiences in the Clink in the tones of a toff from Wodehouse's Drones' Club. You want to send Aunt Agatha in to visit him.
I could have done without the self-hating paparazzo and the moments when we were nudged too obviously towards what we were supposed to think. But Life After Scandal is in other respects shamefully enjoyable.
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