We get to see Arnold Wesker’s first two plays this year. The Kitchen is on the Olivier stage of the National in the Autumn but now the Court has given us the first part of Wesker’s Trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley.
It falls into three parts, 1936, 1946 and 1956, and it traces the rise and fall of a family held together by political convictions from the Cable Street anti-fascist demonstrations, through to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The character who emerges most strongly through the play is Ronnie Kahn, a child in 1936, but a fierce socialist in 1946, but a disillusioned nihilist in 1956. That said, this is an ensemble piece. Wesker is - very unusually - better at writing group scenes than duologues. The opening with its chaos of comings and goings, plans and politics, jokes and hopes, is a wonderfully exuberant way of showing the Cable Street action, politics embedded in the home and a way of living. We see the physical decline of Ronnie’s father, the escapology of his sister, and the persevering optimism of Sarah Kahn. Against that we see Monty’s drift from one side of the battle between capital and labour to the other.
It’s a really beautiful production of a tremendous, generous, big-hearted, ramshackle play. Just like Look Back in Anger, it’s feeling that drives it on. It’s all about the final clash between Ronnie and Sarah and her anguished ‘If you don’t care, you’ll die” which is a mother’s care for her son and an optimist’s care for the world. Samantho Spiro’s beautifully heartfelt and remarkable in her transformation through the evening.
Wesker’s writing is skilful, intuitive, sprawling and joyful. It’s not always good; there’s a lot of clunky insertions of contemporary fact that probably didn’t work then and doesn’t work now. The characters have a tendency to say exactly what they mean, which means you are being handed the whole play on a plate which, if you’re feeling jaded, means it’ll seem a bit boring. But where it’s good, it’s very good: the ensemble first scene, the tracing out of Harry’s physical decline; the final confrontation. The scene with Monty is well done.
What struck me watching it is that he may have deliberately or inadvertently have developed a quite original historiographical dramatic form. The first scene bubbles along buoyantly ending with Harry alone on stage swaying a huge red flag on the stage. My initial feeling is to distrust it - not because of the politics so much as because of the dramaturgy - are we supposed to be swept up in the feeling? In fact we know that Harry’s a bit of a thief and a coward and his socialist fervour is strictly temporary. But it quotes a kind of agitprop dramaturgy which by 1956 will certainly have felt completely outdated. It’s that moment of suspicion that prepares us, I think, for the final scene and the collapse of faith. Just as the play asks what the meaning of all that pre-war socialist optimism was, it also asks how could we have written plays like that?