National Theatre: Port
Kate O’Flynn (Racheal), Mike Noble (Billy). Photo by Kevin Cummins.
On my recent visit to the National Theatre, I didn’t go to see “People” the play by Alan Bennett that manages to intertwine pornography and the National Trust into the same script. I didn’t even particularly go to see people generally. However, there is something more interesting about a theatre audience compared to the multitudes one might see at the local multiplex. It’s as though the National Theatre is one large, extended stage and the visitors playing their allotted part simply by crossing the threshold and being themselves.
Sitting in the cafe idly flicking through my newspaper, ahead of the play I had actually gone to see, Simon Stephen’s new production Port, I politely nodded to the geriatric couple that joined my table laden with tea and coffee, scones and pastries. If Mr Kipling were casting for a couple to symbolise sturdy, rural respectability, he couldn’t have gone far wrong with this husband and wife double-act. So it was something of a shock to overhear, in between his sips of Earl Grey, the husband say to his wife “…all that proves is that even a cripple in a wheelchair can get his rocks off if he’s President, the dirty bugger”. Luckily I wasn’t drinking a cup of tea at the time or I would have spluttered it all over the table. It transpired he was referring to Bill Murray’s portrayal of President Roosevelt in the new film Hyde Park on Hudson as opposed to the philandering President of the local golf club. Clearly warming to his theme, he continued with a careful dissection of the sexual peccadilloes and prurience of a number of US Presidents, all whilst his wife obediently nodded her assent. I was hooked. It was as if this little analytical discourse was, albeit indirectly, being carried out for my benefit.
When they left the table, I almost wanted to say “Come back, I want to hear your speculations on the prospective infidelities of the current incumbent of that soiled office of state”. But I didn’t. It would have been undignified.
Returning to silent people watching (I seem to have arrived absurdly early!) this time I fixed on a family in the audience. A perfectly pleasant husband and wife with their two young children. The son aged approximately eleven and looking distinctly uninterested in being at the theatre with his parents and the daughter approximately nine or ten and still wearing her school uniform. I add that detail specifically because reflecting that the play we were about to watch centred on the experiences of a brother and sister, not too dissimilar in age from these two children, it seemed somehow uplifting that some parents do try to introduce their children to the theatre from an early age.
How those parents must have shuddered as the first “f*ck” resounded around the theatre. Then the second. Then the third. And fourth. Whilst children are hardly shielded from expletives these days, I could feel the mother squirming every time yet another “c*nt” or “w*nker” was delivered.
The incessant swearing might even have made Malcolm Tucker turn a shade of scarlet. Yet, it is not gratuitous. The play centres on a dysfunctional family. In the opening scene, we see two children and their mother sitting in a car because their drunk father has locked them out of the flat. It is midnight in Stockport in 1988. We know the mother is going to desert the children and Rachael aged 11, knows it too. Whilst her 6 year old brother sleeps on the back seat we see the precocious nature of this young girl badgering her mother with a Joycean stream of consciousness. Racheal is played by Kate O Flynn and is undoubtedly the star of this surprisingly amusing production which is cleverly interspersed with moments of pathos and despair.
It would be wrong to focus too much on the swearing but it captures the dilemma of this girl who has been forced to mature quickly and take responsibility for her younger brother but is still a child herself. Swearing is traditionally the preserve of adults her swearing demonstrates how she desperately seeks to attain that status along with having her own flat and ambitions to escape out of Stockport. It also serves a defence mechanism in a bleak world.
One of the most impressive aspects of Port, directed by Marianne Elliot, is that O Flynn never leaves the stage once the curtain rises. The entire set, in the slightly too large Lyttleton Theatre, and the play revolves around her and how her life develops, in significant chapters, between 1988 and the much anticipated millennium. Port is described as a “celebration of the human spirit” but it is also a reminder that however hard you try, your surroundings shape you and, however, unconsciously, they will continue to exert that influence in the decisions you make throughout your life. We see Racheal, despite her best endeavours repeating the mistakes of her mother. The finale is somewhat saccharine but it should not detract from a vibrant production that reminds us that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.