Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Richard Twyman
When Dominic Cummings broke the rules to drive his family to Barnard Castle, little did he know that it would become one of the defining events of the pandemic, a much criticised, much mocked example of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude of government. Playwright Mike Bartlett adds his version of events now with a thinly-veiled audio drama, Phoenix, released as part of the English Touring Theatre’s Signal Fires series.
With a mercy dash to his parents’ home within the last few hours, a key government adviser reflects on the possible consequences of putting his family ahead of duty. Has he made a series of terrible choices in his life that have led to this terrible breach or can his position protect him from a public outcry? A few minutes reflection by the fireside is all the time he has to decide.
Signal Fires is a rapid response series of fireside performances originally intended for live audiences but re-orientated online. Bartlett’s 16-minute contribution may be slight but is full of fascinating reflection on the certainty of government personnel that any course of action they take is an excusable one, even if it has serious negative effects for the majority.
Bartlett’s protagonist is a barely disguised Cummings in what is a comfortable Middle-Class world of designer fire pits, wine drinking and Downton Abbey. As James Graham discovered with Brexit: The Uncivil War, for a dramatist, imaging what goes on inside the head of such a controversial figure is impossible to refuse and Bartlett seizes the opportunity to explore moments of doubt and dissatisfaction, even regret, before casting them aside.
Framed by the dying embers of the fire, Bartlett’s character begins to question his decision to travel with an implied Covid diagnosis which leads him to cast aspersions on a wife and child that may soon end his political career. Reeling back through his memory to a happier time, Bartlett shows how hope begins to dwindle as the fire goes out before roaring back to life as the unnamed man finds a sure way forward.
Yet, Bartlett retains a degree of ambiguity in his presentation of the lead character and never asks the audience to sympathise with him. He is never entirely likeable or hateful, rather an intriguing mass of contradictions as he works through the possible scenarios. There is both resentment and love for his family as well as awareness of the potential fallout which will include fatalities caused by non-compliance; whether he ultimately cares about that is the story’s crunch point.
Phoenix is engagingly read by Bertie Carvel, who builds the tension and pace as the story reaches its conclusion. The descriptive nature of the text helps to create the scene so Carvel’s fairly neutral delivery evokes the key moment of indecision well, not giving too much away to the listener but using the moments of pause to hold our attention as the piece changes direction.
With sound effects by Ben and Max Ringham, who provide a very low rumble at decision points as well as the crackling fireside, not quite a dark night of the soul – especially for a character who may not have one – Phoenix is about turning points and Bartlett dramatises a moment where everything changed while wondering what those who govern really care about.