…Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…
It takes quite a lot to shake Civilian Theatre from a natural state of relative placidity. However arriving at Southwark Playhouse on a hot Friday evening, after a long day at work, to find out your 20.00 press show will run a shade under 3 hours is enough to test even this reviewer’s equanimity.
Little Malcolm… is being billed as a lost gem. Well, it was certainly lost. It was an early directing adventure for Mike Leigh that crashed and burned in London, before heading to America where it suffered a similar fate. And god only knows what Americans would made of this strange class and gender satire set around an art school in a northern working class town.
Yet it has always had its champions, and was turned into a film starring John Hurt, and produced by George Harrison, which walked off with the Silver Bear at the 1974 Berlin International Film Festival. And then nothing. Malcolm found himself lost in the mists of time until Soggy Arts and Folie a Deux Productions retrieved him and his eunuchs for a 50th anniversary staging.
It gives no pleasure to say that on the basis of this production, Little Malcolm… is less precious gem, and more curate’s egg. David Halliwell has not written a bad play, and parts of it are in fact excellent. He has a rare ear for high prose and often finds a striking harmony when balancing it against the cadences of northern speech patterns. Unfortunately in Little Malcolm… he has taken it upon himself to write three different plays when one would have sufficed. It feels like Halliwell saw this as his only chance to make his mark upon the world, and made sure he included all his ideas at once.
Mike Leigh has suggested he had to cut down 15hr of material for the first staging. Even then he still produced a 6hr cut. Little wonder it bombed. Perhaps we are fortunate to be on the receiving end of only a 3hr version. Of course the naturally difficulty is that across 17hrs characters and plots will be far more entangled and developed, and director Clive Judd has done a marvellous job to retain a relatively cohesive narrative thread (even if I think there is still at least 30min that could be cut).
The story itself concerns Malcolm Scrawdyke, kicked out of art-college and self-appointed ‘Leader of the Party of Dynamic Erection’, and his fantasied struggles against the system and those who seek to betray him. The play – apart from one late moment – is built upon a lack of action. The action of the play is delivered through fantastical recreations within his squat. This parallels a fatal inability to act within Scrawdyke himself. It is hard not to feel that Halliwell sees him as the Hamlet we deserve, even if he is not the Hamlet we would want.
A more refined playwright (it should be remembered that Halliwell was only in his mid-20s when he wrote it) might have linked to its influences with more subtlety, but this actually adds to its charm. Scrawdyke is both Hamlet and tin-pot dictator. There are shades of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the grotesque charisma of the leader, and its parodying of state power. There is also more than a touch of Pinter – The Birthday Party was televised in 1964 – in its drab setting and characters who intermingle naturalistic dialogue with long descriptive passages of heightened language to create an off-kilter realism.
Leaving aside any failings of the play, Scrawdyke remains a wonderfully conceived figure. He is a truly monstrous creation. He is the maddening figure that relies on a surface level intellectualism and being surrounded by natural followers, seducing them with powerful mix of charm and terror. Daniel Easton is exceptional in the role. On-stage for nearly the whole play, and dominating every scene he is in, Easton holds the audience in the palm of his hand with a magnetic performance. Alongside the charismatic leader, he allows glimmers of his inadequacy through. This is demonstrated in the self-awareness he allows himself when left alone, and also in how he engineers the destruction and trial of Nipple, the only one with the intellectual firepower and strength of character to stand up to him.
The whole cast work well, and Scott Arthur (Nipple) has a wonderfully clipped accent that gives everything the aspiring novelist says a sense of grandeur that is steeped in earthy realism. His description of his conquest at the jazz club may sail close to 21st century PC-sensibilities but Arthur brings the imagery a glorious technicolour that illuminates their squalid surroundings.
Halliwell’s identification of the emasculation of northern working class men in the face of growing social trends towards women’s liberation suggests that he was a highly perceptive writer finely tuned to the ambivalence felt by many towards increasingly progressive attitudes. Every man in the play is a fantasist – politically and sexually. Halliwell feels well ahead of his time in articulating these issues from the perspective of men for whom the sexual revolution was something to be both admired and feared.
This sexual inadequacy drives the core action of the play. It is startling, brutal and feral. Genuinely shocking when it happens, it gives the play a whole new dimension and for about 10 minutes I was willing to throw my weight behind Little Malcolm and proclaim it as exceptional. But then the play goes on. And on.
Halliwell is too much in love with his creation to give the play the ending it requires. He tries to justify and explain. He endeavours to bring the audience back on side and to make you believe in one last redemptive act. But he has gone too far and the glib way that Halliwell handles this ending is as unconscionable, ugly and sinister as Scrawdyke himself, and fatally undermines all of the good work that had gone before.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the original 6hr production of Little Malcolm is that the charismatic monomaniacal leader who ultimately destroys himself and those around him was played by its creator, David Halliwell. One wishes that some had lent him some Shelley to read.
Read Matt Trueman’s interview with Mike Leigh for more on the background to ‘Little Malcolm and his struggle against the eunuchs’