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Paul Vallely: Seeing through the glamour of evil

21 July 2017

Paul Vallely reflects on the moral challenge of two contrasting theatrical portrayals of human wickedness


Ambitious failure: Anne-Marie Duff as Mary in Common at the National Theatre

Ambitious failure: Anne-Marie Duff as Mary in Common at the National Theatre

THERE is a glamour to evil, so we are always being told. Fans of the idea point to Paradise Lost, in which Milton’s Satan becomes just too attractive for his own theological good. Yet unalloyed evil, even where it is presented with a roguish charm, can in the end fail to enthral.

These thoughts were prompted by a couple of plays that I saw last week. At the National Theatre, Common had received a bit of a trouncing from the critics, but I was intrigued by the period in which it was set: the time around 1800 when the enclosures of England’s agricultural land were forcing farm labourers to migrate to find work in industrial cities belching filthy pollution. There was plenty there to resonate with our own ecologically degraded, zero-hours era.

Common is, in the end, a failure. But it is a bold and interesting one. Its writer, D. C. Moore, embodies the malign animating spirit of those times in one individual. His “heroine”, Mary, combines the characteristics of liar, thief, con woman, and whore to carve a destructive path through our early industrial landscape. Her language — a mix of cod period vocabulary and crude 21st-century obscenity — seeks to conjure both the poetry of a previous era and the vigorous vulgarity of our own coarsened times.

Mary’s knowing asides to the audience create an ambivalence which is intended to charm us emotionally and then shock our moral judgement. What frustrates that intent is the sheer relentlessness of her wickedness.

Contrast that with The Ferryman, the latest play by Jez Butterworth, who is fast becoming our most exciting contemporary British playwright. What his last play, Jerusalem, did as a state-of-the-nation study of England, The Ferryman does for an Ireland where old tensions are once again surfacing.

The evil here is the ruthless determination of the IRA to make human life take second place to a nationalist abstraction. Set in 1981, the play centres on a family whose uncle went missing a decade earlier, suspected of informing on his fellow Republicans. The subtlety of the play comes from the fact that all the characters, with the exception of a simpleton English farmhand, are Irish nationalists. The debate over the morality of killing takes place within the Republican family rather than between it and its opponents.

The result is that the audience is forced to experience the simplistic attraction of cruel solutions to complex problems. No one doubts the rightness of the nationalist cause; the disagreement is over means not ends. So evil is made to seem sensible, even inevitable, once certain premises have been accepted. The oppression of a minority, the dynamics of feud, and more, drive a logic which explains why evil is so often and easily chosen. We fool ourselves if we do not understand that.

The triumph of the play lies in the celebration of human warmth and tenderness which allows its characters, and the audience, to see through the glamour of evil to our higher calling. The play is an emotional tour de force, but a moral one as well.

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