I wish I could make a better job of liking Singer, Peter Flannery's play, which was premiered by the RSC with Antony Sher in the title-role in 1989, and is now powerfully revived for the Oxford Stage Company by Sean Holmes, with Ron Cook as the eponymous hero. Based on (but not confined to) the life of the infamous Fifties slum landlord Peter Rachman, the piece takes its hero from survival at any price in Auschwitz to an England that was also welcoming (and not welcoming) its first sizeable influx of Caribbean immigrants.
In London, the wily operator's various reinventions of himself - as Notting Hill racketeer, fake suicide, born-again soup-kitchen philanthropist and, finally, crusading entrepreneur with whom an admiring Thatcher administration wants to do business - offer a kind of fever chart of ideological shifts in post-war Britain.
As this vivid, gutsy and, when necessary, sensitive revival brings home, the play has many features to which I am particularly partial in stage drama. There's razzle-dazzle in the deployment of its thesis - and though Cook strikes me as too appealing a presence to capture Singer's ruthless drive, he negotiates well those moments when the hero buttonholes the audience in seductive comic showmanship. Often eschewing piety to the point of political incorrectness, this drama delights in causing sharp intakes of breath. And it is eloquently championed by Dominic Dromgoole, the OSC's artistic director, for whose taste I have a keen respect.
And yet, I find myself disliking Singer because it trades too much in stereotypes - a risky, self-defeating business in a play that begins in Auschwitz, for what is genocide but stereotyping taken to murderous extremity? The play does not take that contradiction on board with sufficient profundity. The survivors of the Holocaust are represented in this play by too neatly packaged and differentiated types.
There's Singer, who represses the past with a survivor's willed amnesia, and comes breathtakingly close to copycatting his oppressors. There's his fellow-prisoner and total antithesis, Stefan (a compellingly haunted John Light) who obsessively paints his memories of the camp. And there's their friend, the Communist Manik, whom Singer, to save his own skin in Auschwitz, was prepared to club (and brain-damage) brutally.
The play can't afford to acknowledge that the vast majority of survivors did not fall into such highly coloured categories, just as its cartoon-strip approach involves presenting the English as a bunch of uppish anti-Semites. True, a good many were, but you'd never guess that most had just gone through a courageous patch of staunchly resisting Hitler.
Flannery's play now feels like a period piece. The virulence of its anti-Thatcherism, honourable at the time of the premiere, can now be seen to have led it into some crude equation-making. Thatcherite capitalism involved a systematic disrespect for the past in the heartless quest for tomorrow's buck, so it makes her an ironic soulmate of Singer.
As when I reviewed David Hare's Secret Rapture towards the end of last year, I feel, after watching Singer, reinforced in my belief that one of the most pernicious effects of Margaret Thatcher's reign was to tempt some good artists into sinking to her own levels of nuanced subtlety.
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