Tag Archives: lord-levy

Gethsemane: feel the fear (SPOILERS)

I went to see Gethsemane by David Hare at the National Theatre last night. Political drama is always hard to get right, and even harder to keep politicos content. Even so, I was particularly disappointed.

The basic plot (spoilers) revolves around the teenage daughter of the Home Secretary being gang raped by a group of men at a party, one of which turns out to be a high profile political sketch writer for a major national newspaper. Alienated from her mother the girl acts up, leading to the threat of expulsion from her prestigious public school. Fearing a scandal, the Labour party machine moves in, utilising a rather unethical fundraiser to essentially bribe the school into suppressing the incident. But this bribe backfires and the story gets into the press anyway. Meanwhile the teenage daughter goes into hiding with her former comprehensive school’s music teacher – who also happens to be an employee of the fundraiser (as well as a former civil servant in the Home Office).

So much for that; the plot is largely immaterial really. Rather, the play is a meditation on the state of politics today. “Gethsemane” is a reference to Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, his momentary loss of faith just before being captured by the Romans and, eventually, crucified (you can understand the bloke’s reluctance). In modern parlance this is known as “feel the fear but do it anyway.” The school teacher in the play, played by Nicola Walker, keeps referring to her decision to quit teaching being her “Gethsemane” – as the play makes plain at the end however, she didn’t really have one: she quit, Jesus didn’t. By contrast, the character who does have a Gethsemane is Tamsin Greig’s Home Secretary.

This is all very clever and literary, but is it really that revealing? The problem with this play is that it is neither allegorical or satirical, but instead wades about in a stodgy middle ground. Stanley Townsend’s engaging and flamboyant fundraiser isn’t Lord Levy, just a character with enough incidental characteristics to make it obvious who he is based on. The result, though entertaining, perhaps lingers too closely near an anti-semitic caricature – this is Levy-as-Fagin. Anthony Calf’s Prime Minister isn’t Tony Blair either, but again has many of the same superficial characteristics. This isn’t an attempt to understand either men, merely an opportunity to traduce both of them. All good fun but… so what?

The problem with having both these two characters so obviously sourced from reality is that the brain inevitably then starts making links with the other, more allegorical characters. The Home Secretary isn’t really Jacqui Smith, but with her corrupt husband she is plainly modeled in part on Tessa Jowell. Adam James’s sketch writer (from the newspaper which has a proprietor locked up for tax evasion) and former medieval historian (the PM at one point echoes Charles Clarke’s infamous contempt for medievalists) is remarkably similar to Quentin Letts; does Letts have a sleazy child rape past we don’t know about (to avoid being sued, I should add: I sincerely doubt it)? And then there is the daughter; clearly echoing Kathryn Blair.

The problem with all this real life intruding into something that Hare describes as “pure fiction” is that it becomes impossible to pretend that this play is a comment in individuals rather than a system. And that point is reinforced by the fact that despite its premiere taking place in 2008, it only deals with Blair-era politics. There is an attempt to wash over this when one of the characters asks “what happens when the money runs out?” but the clear inference is that those bastards were bad and it should all be different now.

The closest the play comes to any sort of insight is the implication that the ex-teacher – who we are to understand is an Everywoman – is essentially as culpable for What Has Gone Wrong as everyone else. She quit. If we don’t keep fighting, of course these bastards will end up in power. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make, but it isn’t really dwelt upon. The audience – for it is us who are the target of this message – is ultimately let off the hook.

For me, the real final denouement of the play is not this, but looking at the back page of the programme. This is where you find the real twist, because here you discover that this play about how nasty corporate interest infects and corrodes politics, is supported (presumably tax free) by J.P. Morgan. You literally could not make this up. We are told that “at J.P. Morgan we believe that the arts have the power to do many things: Inspire; Challenge; Stimulate; Question; Entertain; and Enlighten.” As part of the National Theatre’s “New Views” programme in association with J.P. Morgan, “students will undertake a challenge to change one thing in the world that gives them a sense of injustice. Their work will explore the power of critical, creative and polemical writing to promote change and their endeavours will culminate in a ‘Day of Protest’ to be held at the NT in December 2008.”

Did that Day of Protest pass you by? It did me. Notably, all reference to it has been expunged from the National Theatre’s website. Somehow I doubt it resulted in many windows getting smashed. Ultimately then, this play is as much a creature of the corporate machine as the system it is denouncing. I doubt David Hare had a “Gethsemane” himself.

I wanted insight and all I got was cynicism. If this is theatre doing its best to hold politics to account, it is failing abysmally.

UPDATE: Had an interesting chat with the gf and her mother this evening. She didn’t get the Everywoman thing at all (although she admitted I had a point), so either I’m wrong and the play didn’t have a discernable point at all, or I’m right and the message was too sotto voce.

Is racism Levy’s middle name?

Curious dead horse flogging from Lynne Featherstone yesterday, which I’m rebutting here in a vain attempt to stop yet another conspiracy theory gaining ground:

But there is one point that has struck me as valid – why do we keep on being told Lord Levy’s middle name? It’s Abraham – and so telling us his middle name in a news report emphasises, deliberately or not, that he’s Jewish.

All a bit rum. I’m very loathe to leap to the assumption that people in the BBC and elsewhere in the media are being deliberately anti-Semitic, and I’d like to think that even a charge of inadvertent anti-Semitism can be explained away, but I’m stumped for a decent explanation for the repeated use of “Abraham”.

As I pointed out on her comments, the explanation is pretty mundane. Look up Levy in Dod’s and you’ll find his full name listed as “Michael Abraham Levy”. I suspect it is listed in the same way in Who’s Who. Levy has control over both of these entries. Ruth Turner is certainly not listed in the former, and, given its snootiness regarding ordinary people without titles, lots of money or a high profile media career, presumably not included in the latter.

Journalists, being lazy working to tight deadlines, rely on such sources to quickly find out biographical information about people. In short, if you choose to have yourself listed as “Michael Abraham Levy,” then you are bound to find people call you “Michael Abraham Levy.” If Levy preferred to call himself “Michael Levy,” that would be a different matter, but he doesn’t.

But the most bizarre thing about this claim is that the man is called Levy, which is about as Jewish a name as you can get. If you’re intention is to make him ‘sound’ Jewish, why would you emphasise Abraham, a prophet recognised by the Christian and Islamic traditions? Should we now be restricted to calling him Mike, just to make sure we don’t offend anyone?

Graham’s Law

Inspired by Godwin’s Law, I’ve decided to declare a new principle:

As a political row involving any Jewish actors, no matter how tangentially, grows longer, the probability that someone will claim anti-semitism approaches one.

Apparently, for example, the cash-for-honours investigation is now officially anti-semitism. This would be rather more believable were it not for the fact that many of the people being investigated by the police at the moment were being accused of anti-semitism a couple of years ago (the degree to which references to pigs, even flying ones, is genuinely considered to be anti-semitism was put into perspective for me when, walking through the Jewish dominated Golders Green, I saw headlines screaming the allegation on the cover of the local rag, the, um, Ham and High). You can’t make any criticism of Israel without someone, somewhere, making the same accusation.

One point made in today’s Guardian must not be allowed to go unchallenged:

Journalists don’t refer to ‘Christian businessman’ or ‘Protestant businessman’. They only ever talk about Jewish people in that way.

I suspect that Peter Vardy and Robert Edmiston may quibble with that. Jonathan Freedland claims that ‘flamboyant’ is code for ‘Jew’ – I would suggest it is more likely to be code for ‘former Alvin Stardust record producer’. I’m certainly unaware of Lembit Opik‘s Jewish roots (and again, I suspect that calling Lembit flamboyant has more to do with his tendency to turn up to the opening of a paper bag and predilection for celeb gfs than it has to do with his Estonian roots).

The problem is, labelling every criticism of every Jew as anti-semitism is cheapening the term. These claims are in danger of creating exactly the kind of complacency that the people who are so prone to make them appear to be so worried about.

Personally, I find that people lack perspective when it comes to the cash-for-peerages investigation. While selling peerages is clearly wrong and corrupt, it has gone on for decades and it is no worse than giving someone a peerage for loyalty (there is a permanent coterie of brown-nosers which sniffs around the Lib Dem leadership who have a horrific tendency to find their obsequiousness rewarded with a peerage despite making very little financial contribution). Levy and Blair’s greatest crime appears to have been to get caught; and the focus on Levy appears to have more to do with transference due to his affinity with Blair than anything to do with his background.

But lazy allegations of racism risks leading to a guilty man walking free and the public perception that our political system is incapable of curing itself of corruption. So excuse me if I treat such claims with suspicion.

UPDATE: Darn, it looks like Graham’s law is already taken.