The joy of political incorrectitude

Two new London plays delight in slaying PC cows.

Patrick Marmion

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If theatre can be used as any kind of gauge, political correctness is currently getting a pasting.

Whether you take David Mamet’s Edmond, an inferno of testosterone at the National Theatre, or the all-female production of The Taming Of The Shrew at the Globe, political correctness is fighting for its life. While few will mourn the passing of this contemporary puritanism, you don’t necessarily want the ungendered baby thrown out with the bigoted bath-water. In fact, these two plays leave you vaguely nostalgic for the good old days of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM).

There’s plenty to feel ambivalent about in Edward Hall’s ferocious production of Mamet’s brutal drama, which stars a relaunched Kenneth Branagh. The play seems calculated to offend PC sensibilities. It also gives little quarter to any other kind of sensibility as Edmond, its affluent Upper Eastside hero, starts out on a journey of raging self-discovery. On the road to enlightenment he beats to death a black pimp shouting ‘coon’, and disembowels a young waitress with whom he has recently copulated – screaming ‘bitch’ as he goes. And all because he fell out with his wife because she got upset over a broken table lamp.

You’ve got to hand it to Mamet – this is a classically crafted tragedy, showing an honest white man discovering the sordid underbelly of the American Dream. But the issue of the play’s content won’t just go away. The racism and misogyny of the central character goes largely unchallenged. Edmond may spill his own guts psychologically speaking, but Mamet’s settling the score with an anal rape performed upon Edmond by a gigantic black convict, hardly purges our hero of foolish stereotypes.

Still, you cannot deny the extraordinary libidinal thrust of Mamet’s writing, which rubs your face in its vitriolic bile. This is as potent an expression of flailing male impotence as you’re liable to find. Nor is there any point in pussyfooting around if you undertake such a play – which is why Branagh goes at this role as though chopping meat. He is a man possessed, as he effectively builds his own cross and carries it to his own personal Calgary to perform his very own crucifixion.

Branagh doesn’t seek to ameliorate the character or ingratiate himself with inevitably liberal audiences. He simply is, what he shamefully is. And it leaves you worn out watching him.

Sprinting through the play in just 75 minutes, Edward Hall’s hectic production fills the large Olivier theatre by fusing tiny details and spectacular effects. On his picaresque Odyssey Edmond encounters a huge array of cameo characters, each a vividly painted thumbnail sketch: cops, robbers, fortune tellers, pan-handlers, pawn brokers and eventually a world-weary prison chaplain. However, the question that sticks is whether these characters aren’t the very stereotypes that Edmond needs to escape. If so, maybe Mamet’s story is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy that simply chokes on it’s own macho angst.

Whatever the truth about this play, some members of the audience were on their feet and beating their hands together in approval. But approval of what, exactly? Branagh’s unplugged performance or the play’s gorilla vision of masculinity?

Meanwhile, just a little way down the Thames in Shakespeare’s Globe, not even a fully female cast can crack the cast-iron, 400-year-old misogyny of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes comedy, The Taming Of The Shrew. It has all the feminist appeal of a Punch & Judy show, except that it happens to use blank verse instead of a big stick to beat the wife. Mamet’s Edmond would be impressed. The amazing thing is that, as at the National Theatre, a packed house at the Globe love it. They just lap it up, man and woman alike.

But it wasn’t meant to be this way. The idea behind this Taming Of The Shrew was to parody its misogyny and reveal it as a flaccid male fantasy. So Phyllida Lloyd’s company of dames tear into the Elizabethan relic, treating it as a pantomime burlesque of the original, hoping that it will submit to their will and reveal itself in all its archaic absurdity.

But the truth is also that the cast clearly love playing this politically incorrect romp. They simply delight in the bad-lad scenario in which swashbuckling Petruchio rides into Padua to out-shrew the harridan Kate, marry her against her will and lay grubby hands on her substantial dowry.

As Petruchio, Janet McTeer is a jack-the-lad with long wild hair and the screaming, untamed Kate instantly knows she’s met her match. Far from discrediting Petruchio’s boorishness, McTeer is transported by it. She has her male posturing down to a jaunty jiggle of the hip while springing a leak on stage.

Hunter is no less impressive in her violent tantrums as the shrewish Kate, who beats her simpering sister Bianca and smashes a lute across the pate of her music master. ‘A lusty wench’ is Petruchio¹s admiring assessment of this behaviour. It only increases his desire to buck this crazy young filly and break her in like his horse. Make no mistake, McTeer enjoys her subjection of Hunter as much as the baying crowd.

So it seems that inter-sex warfare is as big a crowd-pleaser today as it was 400 years ago – whatever the outcome. But maybe that’s what we go to the theatre for: to see conventions honoured more in the breach of them, than the observance.

Edmond is at the National Theatre until 4 October 2003 and The Taming Of The Shrew is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 28 September 2003.

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