One of the glories of Paris are its long, broad Boulevards that fan out from the Arc de Triomphe. They allow light to flow through the city. They represent a kind of rational orderliness, in which the disorderliness of cafe-culture and la lèche-vitrinecan flourish. They were built by Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s, on the instruction on Louis-Napoleon and they represent one of the most remarkable, ambitious pieces of urban redevelopment of the Modern era.
They are also instruments of profound conservatism. The idea of those broad lane was to create thoroughfares that could move troops around the city easily to crush dissent and also present too wide a street easily to be barricaded by radicals. Many popular theatres were pulled down to make way for the new Paris - particular only the Boulevard du Temple, known as the ‘Boulevard du Crime’, not because it was especially dangerous place but because of the ghoulish fare offered at its many theatres. In place of theatre was offered shopping as theatre, in the spectacle of Le Bon Marché and the othergrands magasins.
Haussmanisation wasn’t terribly successful at forestalling rebellion, as the Paris Commune of 1871 or indeed les événements of 1968 demonstrate. (Unsettlingly, they perhaps made resisting the German occupation of 1940 more difficult.) The question remains whether these are places that can be radicalised. Last night, jubilant supporters of François Hollande crowded La Place de la Bastille, the cite of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and ever since the radical pole of Paris’s geography against the Imperial stuffiness of the Place de Charles de Gaulle. But these are linked by the Rue de Rivoli, itself the product of Haussmanisation, and the Place de la Bastille is dominated by a monument to July 1930 erected by Louis-Napoleon. Do the socialist crowds reclaim that square as a site of revolution or do they play out the revolution within a frame of conservatism?
This has been playing on my mind for two reasons: one, I’m working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, which are all set in the Second Empire, and capture the feeling, context and effects of Haussmanization. La Curée, which I’m currently reading, is centrally about the financial dealings - scarily similar to the property-dealings that underlay the finance bubble that burst leading to the credit crunch of 2008 - of the Parisian rebuilding programmes. So the question of how far town planning might be a force of enlightenment or of conservatism is pressing on me.
But I’m also thinking about these things because of the Royal Court. Dominic Cooke’s avowed intention, when he took over as artistic director in 2006, was to bring middle class life onto its stages to be examined and scrutinized. And he’s certainly made good on that promise: The City, The Pain and the Itch, That Face, Tusk Tusk, Haunted Child, Jumpy, The Heretic, Tribes, Clybourne Park, and, now, Love Love Love all, in their various ways, consider middle-class life.
And that’s a good thing. Many of these plays have subjected middle class life to unflinching scrutiny in a way that was very uncomfortable for its audience. Middle-class values certainly need to be examined, critiqued, parodied, taken apart, put back together, violated, captured and questioned.
But the author of one of those plays told me during rehearsal, with typical candour, ‘I’m beginning to think I’ve written a boulevard comedy’. The boulevard comedy is an invention of nineteenth-century Paris in creating a kind of comedy for the knowing, man-about-town, the bon vivant, the boulevardier. The boulevard comedy is knowing, cheeky, saucy, sexual but respectable, curvaceous and corseted.
I wonder sometimes if this is what the Royal Court has drifted towards. The Pain and the Itch was not, in my view, a great and lasting play, but it did brilliantly skewer a sense of middle-class entitlement (very refreshing when our middle-class politicians are so quick to denounce working-class entitlement). The City was a riddling, comfortless play about bourgeois fear, within and without the family, filled with unsettling motifs of terrorism and abuse. But sometimes I think the scrutiny can be blunted, by a knowing complicity of audience and stage, and by the corseted neatness of play and production.
Love Love Love follows a family through three generations.We see them in 1967, 1990, and 2011, first as teenagers, then as fortysomethings with kids, and finally as retired divorcees. What Mike Bartlett does brilliantly is puncture the self-congratulation of the sixties generation and ask really awkward questions about how their hippy libertarianism turned into personal selfishness and political Thatcherism. This is the first generation who will be poorer than their parents and, while playwrights like David Edgar in Maydays (1983) have identified the political drift, this is the first time I can remember seeing this analysis played out at the family level and under current conditions. Mike Bartlett also writes some viciously funny dialogue, from the stoner hippychick of the first act, to the neurotic selfish parents of the second, and then capturing, rather upsettlingly, the waster life of the thirtysomething son, living at home, and playing games on his iPhone and doing fuck-all.
But I suspect this play was better when Paines Plough were touring it. On tour, they can’t have had such an elaborate set and such elaborate scene changes. There felt almost something self-congratulatory about the ability to change and the precision of the set-dressing (the electric bar fire in 1967, the stacking stereo units in 1990, the iPad dock in 2011). It created a sense of arch knowingness that, for me, blunted the emotional precision of Bartlett’s writing. Ben Miles and Victoria Hamilton are brilliant actors, tremendous at comedy but with intense emotional depth. But I felt, watching this on Saturday, that the audience was simply enjoying the impersonation of types rather than feeling, in any way, skewered.
I don’t think I blame the play for this; plays can be produced in thousands of ways, radical and complacent. If the play is at fault, it’s perhaps that it unintentionally signals that it’s not entirely serious in its broad-brushstroke capturing of period (people talk about the Beatles and Vietnam, which is really the-sixties-as-seen-from-space) and the first act feels a bit pastiche Pinter/Orton rather than offering original detail. Things get more precise in the second act, but in the third we’re in the realm of that slightly stodgy dramatic device, the family summit, and the debate seems a bit stiff. The sharpest moment is the very end when the two grandparents kiss and cuddle complacently to the strains of the Beatles as the ignored daughter begs them for help. A rougher production would have made this a less comfortable, reassuring experience, would make it harder to compartmentalise, challenge our sympathies. It’s a play asking very difficult questions about radicalism; in a way, because our theatre is still somewhat in awe of the radical moment on 1968, which continues to set its agenda for its politics, power, its engagement, its modes of address and its right to challenge, Love Love Love is asking us really important questions about how we make political theatre now. How can we politicise theatre now and shake off the inheritance of the 1960s, whose methods may no longer reflect the world we live in.
But the play has been produced for the boulevard and I’m pretty confident Mike Bartlett would never describe his play as a boulevard comedy. Are we seeing a resurgence of a theatre of reassurance and comfort at the very time when the values of our society should be held up to scrutiny and question? A timid theatre, whose soft contours will smother all dissent? I’d like to see radicals occupy the boulevards again.