Covering five decades of history, from the Great War to the Profumo Affair, Howard Brenton’s new play Never So Good charts the life of former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, giving an intriguing picture of a rapidly changing period of history, seen through the eyes of someone who could never let go of the past. Caroline Bishop was at the first night of Never So Good at the National Theatre.
Macmillan himself takes us through his life story, beginning with the event which was to affect his whole outlook on life – being sent to fight in World War One. Playwright Brenton presents us with two different Macmillans: while the young man, played by Pip Carter, fights in the trenches in France, wounded five times and barely surviving the last bullet, his older self (Jeremy Irons), looks on, narrating his feelings about this early experience to the audience. As the action progresses rapidly through Macmillan’s return from war and entry into political life, the younger self becomes the onlooker, acting as conscience and tormenter to the older version of himself.
In this way we get an insight into Macmillan’s thought processes, as seen by Brenton. Feeling he should have died in the war – and then again when he narrowly escapes a plane crash in North Africa in 1943, spectacularly staged by designer Vicki Mortimer – his conscience almost cruelly pushes him to make the most of his life, having cheated death. Also pressured by his ambitious mother, even after her death, to achieve ‘it’, ie, become Prime Minister, Macmillan carries this weight through his years at the Foreign Office and as Chancellor of the Exchequer until, later in life, he finally achieves office.
Irons plays Macmillan as a quietly intelligent, witty, shrewd man, who does not have the overbearing personality of his great ally Churchill (Ian McNeice), nor the weakness of his predecessor Anthony Eden (Anthony Calf); nor is he brash and uncouth like self-confessed rake Bob Boothy (Robert Glenister), a fellow Tory MP who has a long affair with Macmillan’s wife Dorothy.
Macmillan knew full well that his wife was unfaithful with Boothby for decades; in fact, it may have sparked his nervous breakdown early in their marriage. As explanation for what held the couple together, Brenton offers Macmillan’s ambition to be Prime Minister; it would be a hindrance to divorce. As Dorothy, Anna Chancellor gives us a bold, no-nonsense woman who supports her husband and advises him through his career, confessing that Boothby is “a dark place” she needs to go to, though her husband remains the love of her life. For Macmillan, Catholicism and a past brush with homosexuality may also have played their part in keeping the couple together, as well as, perhaps, love, though it is never spoken of by this emotionally reserved man.
When Macmillan becomes Prime Minister in 1957, still haunted by war, he cannot equate the self-indulgent, carefree days of this era – when politicians are satirised by Beyond The Fringe – with the dark days of his 20s. While at the beginning of the play Macmillan dances with his wife in the style of the day, at the end he is sadly out of place among the mini dress-wearing dancers of the swinging sixties. Macmillan did finally have his day, but perhaps, says Brenton, it came too late.