James Graham's small new drama is exquisite: BBC Four's Unprecedented reviewed

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM


BBC Four

The House of Bernarda Alba

Graeae, via YouTube

First, Do No Harm

Old Vic, via YouTube

Let’s face it. Theatre via the internet is barely theatre. It takes a huge amount of creativity and inventiveness to make anything remotely like a theatrical drama in the digital sphere. The BBC’s Culture in Quarantine team have invited some talented writers and actors to try and crack it.

Unprecedented begins with ‘Viral’, by James Graham, in which three 18-year-old lads enjoy a Zoom chat from their bedrooms. The craftsmanship in this small script is exquisite. The characters are united by a common purpose — creating a globally popular video clip — while each has to grapple with a personal crisis. One has a dying granny, one is coming to terms with his bisexuality, the third has a crush on his mate’s sister. It ends on an unexpected note of shared emotion.

In ‘Penny’, by Charlene James, a homeless Londoner has been given a free double bedroom in a plush hotel. But rather than feeling gratitude, the rescued vagrant rages at the authorities for failing to lay on this cosy arrangement earlier in his life. The twist lies in the identity of the mysterious ‘Penny’, who listens as the tramp rants in five-star luxury.

John Donnelly’s ‘Going Forward’ is about a Zoom call arranged by an insane manageress who wants to sack her entire workforce in a single morning. Each underling is set an impossible target to reach. If any of them raises a peep of protest they’re erased from the screen with a deadly PING. The company owner, suited and neatly coiffed, joins the fun from his stately home. ‘I’m not here,’ is his only utterance, and he watches inscrutably as his powerless staff are demoted, disciplined or dismissed. The piece is formulaic and lacking in subtlety but it’s highly effective as well. Enemies of king-of-the-jungle capitalism will love it.

Graeae has released a version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba starring Kathryn Hunter. The prickly matriarch has just buried her second husband and she orders her daughters to undergo an eight-year period of mourning. The script bubbles with savage lyricism. ‘Acting like a bitch on heat,’ she says of any woman who looks covetously at a man. She orders her girls to expect no sex for the rest of their lives — just sewing. ‘I have 20 chests of linen,’ she thunders. ‘Needle and thread for females. Mule and whip for males. That is the fate for people who suffer.’ One quibble with this enthralling show. Why do it in the round with an empty stage? The play is about a family home that has been turned into a high-security jail by a dictatorial nutcase. Without the physical apparatus of imprisonment the piece is seriously weakened. Anyone familiar with the play can supply the details from memory but newcomers will be baffled. This great drama deserves carpentry.

The Old Vic has released a set of dramatic playlets promoting the NHS. The latest is written by Bernardine Evaristo and directed by Adrian Lester. First, Do No Harm opens with a solitary female figure calmly entering the Old Vic stage. Without provocation or warning, she starts to bawl her head off. ‘No, you cannot shut me up!’ is her first line. ‘I am louder, more powerful, older, wiser and cleverer than all of you put together.’ Clearly she’s had a bad morning.

As she continues, her rage turns to self-pity and she reveals that she stands for the toiling saintliness of the NHS workforce. Confusingly, she addresses herself to two different audiences — politicians and voters — at the same time. She refers to the cabinet as ‘the ruling knights of the nation who want to break me’. And she scolds NHS users who seek help for medical problems of which she disapproves. ‘What have I told you since you were young? Say no to the crystal meth and the horse-tranquiliser.’

She seems inordinately proud of her language skills and her mythological scholarship as she reels off the names of divinities from Asia, Africa, Ireland, Greece and the Holy Land. ‘I am the 21st-century Messiah,’ she intones. ‘I preach the gospel of germ-theory.’ She describes herself as ‘a shape-shifting, many-tentacled philanthropic creature’ who will never die. Her blend of bombast and erudition carries an echo of Peter Cook but even his comic genius might not have coined this gem: ‘I am the Greek goddess, Hygeia, who taught your hands and bodies to be in intimate communion with soap.’

She finishes by calling the audience ‘myopic puppets’ and leaves us with a prickly warning. ‘So be it. You will regret your actions today.’ Which ‘actions’ does she mean? Perhaps the last line was a memo by the writer to herself which accidentally found its way into the script. What a pity to see the marvellous Sharon D. Clarke playing the ranter’s role in this screechy effort. Lockdown makes desperados of us all.

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