Bridge Theatre, London – in rep until 31 October 2020
After nine months’ exile – my chemotherapy ended slap bang at the start of lockdown – I felt like the Ancient Mariner, good to be back: “O dream of joy! Is this indeed a lighting box I see?/Is this a stage, is this a show? Is this mine own countree?”
Across Steve Tompkin’s elegant theatre seats have been weeded out and an audience scattered into pairs or family groups, with the occasional Billy-no-mates like me in solitary splendour in a single comfortable seat in the emptiness. Leg-room enough for a giraffe. Onstage three pale screens cast a ghostly bluish light on our masked half-human faces. Gallant, risk-taking commercial theatre at least is back, as the sad old NT and South Bank upriver still lie quiet in a blanket of subsidy.
The distancing is not the only limit, of course: for the Bridge a season of one-person shows, minimally set, lies ahead. There are Talking Heads revivals plus Yolanda Mercy, Inua Ellams, Zodwa Nyoni. And Covid-19 must have its say to start with, so off goes the season with Ralph Fiennes directed by Nicholas Hytner and delivering a monologue by David Hare. It’s about Hare catching the disease (early on), suffering 16 days and watching the government’s management with rising fury. Unkind voices have summed it up as “Old bloke gets bad ‘flu, blames Tories.” Which is of course unfair: it’s worse than ‘flu. And, importantly, it was baffling to everybody, because it’s new.
Actually, the most interesting parts of Hare’s beautifully written tale are about that newness, though when he first got it – in mid-March – there had not been as much medical information filtering through as there has been later. We now know the curiosity that many patients can have dangerously low blood-oxygen levels and seem almost okay, not as breathless as you’d expect, though bad damage is being done to their organs in a “cytokine storm”. It’s a reason to have an oximeter as well as a thermometer at home, and spot early when the oxygen drops towards and below 90.
Hare tells how after catching this “piece of bad news wrapped in protein” in the noisome stuffiness of an editing suite – West End cupboards these are, heated by the machinery – he went through a fairly common experience of being hit hard in the second week. At first he was ‘air-hungry” but expecting a restful ‘flu, with old war films on telly (“Noel Coward in white shorts pretending to be a captain”) and thinking, five days in, that he was fit to cook the family supper. His fever soared, his fear and anger grew. At one point he refused to go into hospital because people there caught Covid, though as his GP pointed out, he already had it. His tribute to his wife Nicole is touching: as his temperature fell dangerously from a bad spike she laid on him to warm him. Not, as he dryly observes, a woman prone to observing social-distancing in his supposed isolation.
It is funnier, more likeable than some reports have suggested and well worth the fifty masked minutes. Hare’s politics are no surprise, and there is real perception in his description of Boris Johnson “struggling with his instincts” as a libertarian locking down the nation he had longed to lead, as the virus is “clearly retro-fitted to find out his weaknesses”. He rants about the unpreparedness, the PPE shortages, the failure of early testing, the absurd permission for those Cheltenham Festival days. It seems to him sometimes that the government is deeper in delirium than he is himself. Across the Atlantic there is Trump, enraging him still more.
It’s all true, and refreshing, and beautifully made, and one has to be glad that on day 16 Hare revived .Though he still realized he was unfit for ordinary work quite yet – like running the country, as Boris Johnson did, amid a Cabinet for whom, he observes, the word mediocrity was too flattering. He sorrows for the victims who died. He is uncritically adoring of Merkel and Ardern but does not mention Sweden. Sometimes he fudges the timescale: when talking of his tenth day – March 26th – he rages against the unrepentance of the government over the high death rate in the second week of May. As a point that is reasonable, as storytelling it’s a bit of a cheat.
But it was a barnstorming hour, and Fiennes delivers it perfectly. Power to the Bridge.
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 30 Oct