This rehearsed reading of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was held at the Royal Court in memory of its playwright John Arden who passed away in March of this year. I decided to attend as he’s not a writer I’m familiar with and the little reading I about him that I did in advance seemed to suggest that he’s possibly due a Rattigan-like revival. Though now apparently considered a highly significant British playwright, his work hasn’t really been in fashion in recent decades and his was a career marked with frequent clashes with the theatrical establishment which has possibly led to his oeuvre being a little neglected.
The journey of the play Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance itself seems archetypal in this respect. It was received badly by both critics and audiences on its opening in 1959 but is now considered to be his best play and a modern classic. The process of exactly how something like this happens is something I’m very interested in discovering more about, (a short programme note explains the Royal Court themselves published a leaflet for audiences asking ‘What kind of theatre do you want?’ to get to the bottom of the issue) but on the evidence of this play, it is a little hard to see why it was not a success.
Focusing on four Victorian soldiers who have deserted from an imperialist war somewhere overseas in 1879, this is a stridently anti-war piece of theatre. Thoroughly disillusioned with the whole concept of war after witnessing a terrible violent incident in which one of their comrades lost his life, the returnees turn up to a northern coal-mining town with a plan on their minds to seek revenge. It is a tad oblique at times, I overheard someone say Brechtian at the interval, but the writing has a sinuous power that felt remarkably pertinent as a warped sense of duty exacts a brutal toll.
By the end, it was perhaps not so difficult to see why the play has a stronger appeal now. In a world where the role and activities of our armed forces are constantly questioned and scrutinised, and the impact of service on our soldiers much more examined, Arden’s writing seems eerily prescient of what we would now call PTSD, but might have seemed unforgivably daring to contemporary audiences. Peter Gill’s production here maintained a rather elegiac atmosphere though, and not just because of the bare bones of the staging of this reading. Folk music songs interspersed the action to take the show a remove from naturalism – multi-instrumentalist Anna Cooper accompanying with all manner of backing – and it all became rather moving.
And as ever, the efforts of a cast who only came together for the first time on Thursday was superb. Brendan Coyle as the titular Serjeant was stunning in his wearied adherence to the only thing he knew, partnered well by the grizzled Philip Jackson and the younger energy of Robert Lonsdale and James McArdle as the returning soldiers. Sarah Lancashire’s landlady, Kate O’Flynn’s flirty barmaid and John Savident’s mayor also made strong impressions across a large ensemble with no weak links. And long-time friend of Arden’s Tamara Hinchco gave a wonderful speech to introduce the evening, including a foot-in-mouth moment of epically hilarious proportions.