The bloody price of patriotism

The Mob, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
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The Independent Culture

Not for nothing is there a photograph of Clare Short and an article about her pinned up on the noticeboard outside Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre. In a smart piece of programming and a fine, stirring production, Sam Walters has revived The Mob, a long-forgotten anti-war play by John Galsworthy, first produced in early 1914.

This author's current reputation principally rests on the two television adaptations of his novel sequence, The Forsyte Saga. He was, however, also a fertile dramatist who was spoken of, in his day, in the same breath as Shaw and Granville-Barker. Now, as this country questions the ethical premise of the attack on Iraq, The Mob acquires a tingling topical resonance with its Liberal MP hero who - to the disgust of party, family and nation - takes a principled and self-sacrificial stand against an unspecified colonial war on the evening of its declaration.

The proceedings start with a dinner party at the home of the hero, Stephen More (a fervent Kevin Doyle), where an array of crusty Establishment types (the dean of a cathedral; a newspaper editor; a father-in-law who is a bigwig at the War Office) angrily plead with Stephen not to make a speech he plans to give in Parliament that night. He does so, but with disastrous timing, for the conflict has already started and news quickly arrives that the English soldiers have suffered a humiliating setback, with many lives lost.

Galsworthy was not anticipating the First World War. This is an imperialistic invasion of a little country. Indeed, it be argued that The Mob has more relevance today to the US, which is as dominant, and as inclined to muzzle dissent by castigating it as unpatriotic, as England was then.

Stephen appeals to the higher patriotism of a great nation's duty to be a civilised force, and the play intelligently communicates the pressures on him to back down. In one cunningly constructed scene, an indignant deputation from his constituency is brought to the point of conceding the moral cogency of his position. Then a band of bagpiping Highlanders is heard outside, stirring atavistic feelings in these negotiators, who now demand his resignation.

When Stephen returns from a six-week speech-making tour, his wife, who in Susie Trayling's compelling performance is manifestly torn in two, finds herself making marital intimacy conditional upon him giving up his campaign. In an astute development of this, Galsworthy depicts her as being angry and ashamed that she has been reduced to driving a bargain. "If I can't be yours in spirit, I won't be your mistress," she bleakly remonstrates. And throughout, we witness the classic trajectory of deaths being used to justify a war whose instigation was immoral.

In plays, the most satisfyingly complex protagonists tend to be those who act from mixed motives and leave an audience hard put to separate what is admirable in their personalities from what is flawed. There are rudimentary hints here that the idealistic Stephen has too compulsive a constitutional hankering to wear the martyr's shirt, at whatever cost to his nearest and dearest. But these fleeting suggestions are not pursued as far as they might be. Galsworthy is no Ibsen, and it's an uncompromised hero who is baited, stoned and then accidentally murdered by the mob outside one of his public meetings - an action that tragically endorses Stephen's conviction that "if popular opinion is to control the utterances of her politicians, then goodbye to this country".

Though it is sometimes two-dimensional in its characterisation, The Mob is a rewarding revival, reinforcing the Orange Tree's proud record of unearthing worthwhile rarities.

To 4 October (020-8940 3633)

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