By George Bernard Shaw (1929).
BBC TV, 19 January 1975.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1970s the BBC had a series called ‘Play of the Month’. One Sunday every month, two hours of prime time viewing on BBC1 (and remember there were only two BBC TV channels in those days) were devoted to a single classic drama. For those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go to the theatre, it must have been their only exposure to Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare. God knows how people would stumble across that kind of education nowadays.
The choice of dramatist in January 1975 (sandwiched between Colditz and the Ten O’Clock News) was less fortunate: GB Shaw. Oh dear. Let’s check in at this point with the greatest English theatre critic of the twentieth century:
In most writers, style is a welcome, an invitation, a letting down of the drawbridge between the artist and the world. Shaw had no time for such ruses. Unlike most of his countrymen, he abominated charm, which he regarded as evidence of chronic temperamental weakness… His puritan, muscular, moor-tramping soul (superbly mirrored in Higgins’s hymn to the intellect in Pygmalion) bred in him a loathing of all things, whether poems or gadgets, that were designed to comfort the human condition without actively trying to improve it. (Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Demolition Expert’, Observer, 22 July 1956).*
The Apple Cart is two hours of pompous prating, relieved only by an amorous episode in the middle where it flashes into half-life. In a future England, the Cabinet arrives en masse at King Magnus’s palace to deliver an ultimatum. Either the King accepts his limitations as a constitutional monarch and ceases meddling in politics or the Prime Minister will go to the country on a monarchy-democracy issue. Ultimately, the King capitulates, but not before he has struck terror into their hearts by threatening to abdicate in order to stand for Parliament in an upcoming Election. Meanwhile, in a farcical twist, the American ambassador seeks audience, bringing the joyous news that the USA has cancelled the Declaration of Independence and, like a prodigal son, decided to return to the Empire. What in 1929 was topically provocative – the Prime Minister foresees an outcome where the ‘real centre of gravity… will shift either west to Washington or east to Moscow’ – remained tangentially so in Cold War Britain, which I suppose explains the BBC’s decision to flog this very dead horse in 1975.
Between all the politicking of Acts One and Two comes an ‘Interlude’, where the King (Nigel Davenport) relaxes in the boudoir of his mistress, Orinthia (Helen Mirren). More talk ensues, only this time the tone is lighter, the banter more flirtatious. Orinthia speaks to him as an equal. She believes she is far above the common herd and entitled by innate rank to displace the Queen (Prunella Scales) as his consort. ‘I am one of Nature’s queens,’ she declares. ‘If you do not [know it], you are not one of Nature’s kings.’ By turns possessive, imperious, haughty, the character is unshakeably convinced of her own ‘greatness’:
Give me a goddess’s work to do; and I will do it. I will even stoop to a queen’s work if you will share the throne with me. But do not pretend that people become great by doing great things. They do great things because they are great, if the great things come along. But they are great just the same when the great things do not come along.
Tradition records that Shaw modelled the character of Orinthia on that of Mrs Patrick Campbell, who had created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (a rather better play than this one). Shaw had passionate, but it seems unconsummated, feelings for the actress, which he later translated into the relationship of King and mistress in The Apple Cart. This may explain why the ‘Orinthia interlude’ crackles when the rest of the play drags. But it also needs an actress as beguiling as Mrs Campbell was in her heyday. (In the original British production of 1929 that role fell to the 41-year-old Edith Evans.)
It must be a pretty difficult part to play. Helen Mirren adopted her ripest RP accents, to make of Orinthia a stagey, self-dramatizing hetaira: a heroine in her own eyes, even as the King deflates her by telling her she belongs to ‘fairyland’. It shouldn’t work, but it did, probably because, under or behind the verbiage, there was a physicality about her performance that none of the other actors were able to bring to their roles. Seeing it that Sunday night in 1975, I was hooked. I still am.
*Cf. Clive James’s advice to the aspiring critic:
Any youngster who wants to get into this business should find a copy of Tynan’s first book, He That Plays the King, and do what I did – sit down and read it aloud paragraph by paragraph. It will soon be seen that his sometimes pedestrian radical opinions were far outstripped by his perceptions, which moved like lightning to energize almost every sentence. (Clive James, North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV, 2006, p215).