When I wrote the play 43 years ago, I thought we would now be a more decent, humane and fairer society,” Howard Brenton says of the production of his seminal play, Magnificence for the first time in over 40 years at the Finborough Theatre. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1973, Britain was under the Conservative rule of Edward Heath, in the throes of acute social malaise; poverty, homelessness, rising inequality, unemployment and raging industrial upheaval.
Five young activists break into a disused building and try to make a stand against it all. Fired up by left-wing idealism but short on pragmatism, they discover that the revolution may be a long time coming, and when the protest leads to tragedy, some of them are driven to more violent methods. Brenton is thrilled with this revival but strongly believes the play cannot be transposed to modern Britain despite the similar parallels. He observes that “passions now flow in other directions”. But he cannot help thinking “the mess we are now in began in the 70s”.
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The new setting of the production could not be more apposite as the Finborough Theatre was itself only recently saved from redevelopment that would have jeopardised its future as a haven for new talent which this cast proved to be. Watch out for the strident arguments between the revolution’s vocal ringleaders, Joel Gillman, Will Bliss and Eva Jane-Willis. They squabble over every detail of their struggle, even the tepid inscription on their banner to be hoisted outside their squat. Paranoia also yields some unforgettable quotes of the night as one of them scoops up some mysterious excrement in their new home: “The turd of their discontent,” he rails.
But the most sarcastic barbs of the play which had the audience in fits of laughter is delivered by Tory grandee, Babbs, played by Hayward B. Morse in exchanges with his protege acted by Chris Faulkner on the banks of the Cam, as the dying politician performs his last political act. If you thought Tony Blair heralded the air-brushed, double-speaking, politically correct politician, then think again.
Both epic and intimate, Magnificence takes us from the grubby barracks of the revolutionary struggle, to the heart of centre-right Tory politicking, creating a panoramic vision of Britain at a pivotal moment in history. Many of its themes remain burning issues today – police brutality, drug abuse, shallow politicians and a social housing crisis. But can violence ever be justified for political ends?
The play ends with a bang, literally and metaphorically.
Magnificence, Finborough Theatre, SW10, until 19 November 2016.