Writer: David Edgar
Director: Christopher Haydon
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
David Edgar is 70 this year. Simple subtraction shows that he was 20 in 1968, the year known for student unrest and demonstrations across the world. And while Edgar didn’t take part in demonstrations, he was nevertheless beating the socialist drum as chair of the Socialist Society (or “SocSoc”) at Manchester University, campaigning against the expulsion of two students. Since then, Edgar has become a prolific playwright associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Birmingham REP among others, with over 60 plays, often with a political slant, published and performed.
In Trying It On, produced by China Plate Theatre, Edgar looks at some world history and the evolution of socialism since 1968 – did the students and their demonstrations of 1968 achieve anything? – through the lens of his own experiences and evolving beliefs. It takes place in a set of cardboard boxes and filing cabinets full of paper, representing, perhaps, the interior of his own mind and memories. It’s an autobiographical piece, but also includes filmed and taped excerpts from interviews with some of the leading lights of 1968, in which he seeks to discover what happened to the Sergeant Pepper generation as they discuss how they felt then compared with now – and most seemed to have left the radical left behind and joined the Labour Party. Edgar uses the device of imagining a discussion with his young self in which his current beliefs and achievements are challenged by the younger Edgar – has he become a fake firebrand?
This sounds as if it could be a terribly worthy (and wordy) piece. It is undoubtedly wordy, but Edgar soon displays a sharp and self-deprecating wit that injects moments of humour and lightness as the evening progresses. He doesn’t shy away from criticising the path he ultimately took, one that one might describe as utterly middle-class – writing plays about society’s ills – as compared to the aspirations of the young Edgar. Nevertheless, he is able to point to some of the left’s achievements of the last 50 years, in which he may have played a part, against the backdrop of the rise of monetarism, Thatcherism and the far-right. And just as one begins to think this is an exercise in self-congratulation, he is called out and challenged to justify himself. However, even that is artifice – a quick straw poll at the beginning of the evening demonstrates that this is an audience heavily in tune with Edgar’s world-view.
The use of a variety of techniques – projections and recordings, questioning the audience, being challenged by the stage manager – prevents the evening descending into wordy worthiness, but they can’t prevent the feeling that it is a touch overlong, that it is beginning to flag when it is explosively interrupted towards the end and finds a new lease of life. This was an early performance and no doubt Edgar and Director Christopher Haydon will take the opportunity to tighten it further before it continues on tour in the autumn.
Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking evening inviting us to muse with Edgar on the march of world history over the last fifty years and on our own journeys in that time.
Runs Until 13 June 2018 | Image: Arnim Friess