Posh, Royal Court Theatre, London
Raise a glass to class warfare
Monday 19 April 2010
This reviewer comes with a certain amount of "baggage" to Posh, Laura Wade's clever, incendiary play about an Oxbridge dining club for male toffs.
The club is not unlike the Bullingdon, of which David Cameron, our potential new Prime Minister, George Osborne, and the Mayor of London, were all once members. When young, they liked nothing more, it seems, than to get dolled up in some super-expensive and absurd-looking outfit designed ostentatiously to exclude the non-elect.
I was at Oxford for 12 years in total, first as an undergraduate and then as a lecturer in English. I was at a celebratedly left-wing college, Balliol, but I can't say I was bowled over by surprise when, in my second term, I overheard a loud, braying Wykehamist refer to myself and the other grammar school boy on his staircase as "those lower- middle-class atrocities". So I have experienced the operations of privilege and the blithe, bigoted sense of entitlement of some ancestral oiks at first hand and (the boot now on the other foot) I was once involved in disciplinary decisions after some upper-class revelry that got out of hand.
And yet I find I cannot warm to Posh, which is unveiled now in a thrillingly high-definition and superlatively acted production by Lyndsey Turner. Rather as with Enron, it strikes me as not sufficiently incorporating alternative values to the ones it sets out to excoriate. It runs the risk of being as heartless and narrow-spirited as its specimens. The bulk of the play is set in the private dining room of a rural gastropub where members of Riot Club have gathered for a grande bouffe at which they will be "chateau-ed" and consume a "ten-roast bird", prior to according the landlord the honour of trashing his establishment. They are very big on symbolism, these guys, but don't seem to realise that the ten-roast bird represents the Brechtian idea that it's all a matter of who gets eaten and who gets to eat.
The bird is one fowl short of the full edible farmyard and this is one of the trigger points that will turn Brideshead Revisited into Lord of the Flies. Laura Wade plots her detonations most skilfully and there are some really good class-identifying plot twists. But even these sometimes don't ring quite true. It's a great idea to bring in a glamorous female sex worker (hired to fellate the entire club) who winds up volubly defending her rights. It's the aplomb with which she does so that sounds false. The play homes in on the supposed fury of the upper classes that their country has been seized from them by the proles and then goes on to expose how even their "omerta" splinters when the mayhem precipitates a Darwinian fight for survival. But just as there are little howlers (the main culprit who is being groomed for future stardom by an MP in a posh London club at the end would not have gained admission without a tie) so the play is guilty of its own forms of condescension. I won't reveal the details of the violent conclusion but the plot involves, to my mind, patronising the landlord's non-Oxbridge daughter almost as much as the toffs do.
Posh is calculatedly partial because we never see any of these young men except through the lens of their Riot Club membership. I belong to the club of people who dislike clubs in principle and that includes the club of people who laugh smugly about other people's clubs when watching, say, the plays of Sir David Hare in subsidised theatres. I am almost tempted, as a meaningful prank, to create a situation whereby this paper could truthfully headline an article "Royal Court drives left-wing theatre critic to back Cameron".
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