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Mark Shenton’s week: Are Trump’s follies becoming Shakespearean tragedy?

Janie Dee, Philip Quast, Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes in Follies. Photo: Perou/NT Graphic Design Studio
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It’s not my place to stray into politics here – I’m only a theatre critic, not a parliamentary correspondent and reviewer like my Daily Mail colleague Quentin Letts – but I am riveted by the real-life dramas being played out in the White House on a daily basis.

At this point, even James Graham couldn’t write it better (though perhaps when the dust settles – and let’s hope it’s not the nuclear variety – playwrights will be able to look back in anger at how this all happened).

Every twist and turn of this bizarre and baffling presidency is being minutely chronicled in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post – two of my most essential subscriptions – and I find myself compulsively checking them for the latest outrages and scandals throughout the day.

Journalism – or “fake news”, as Trump likes to dismiss any outlet that doesn’t agree with his world view or offer him slavish devotion – is holding him to account, and his outraged discomfort is palpable.

I’m also loving how Shakespeare is regularly being invoked. On slate.com, Katy Waldman wrote a few days ago: “It seems clear that Trump has entered the Lear-howling-at-the-storm phase of his presidency”.

She cited last week’s Phoenix rally, “during which he subjected crowds to a 77-minute stream-of-consciousness rant on his own victimisation at the hands of the media and the Charlottesville counter-protesters” and said that it “revealed him at his unhinged worst”.

There was also last week’s lunar eclipse of the sun, which showed something else: “Two days ago, a man lacking the capacity for awe stood on the balcony of the White House to observe a solar eclipse. The aides and staffers around him were wearing glasses, but POTUS could not conceive of radiance stronger than his own. As someone shouted “Don’t look!”, he pitted his sad narcissism against the oratorio of nature. 

“Blow, winds and crack your cheeks,” you could envision him muttering. Trump had no place to hide. He looked up and challenged the sky like the impotent king he was.”

The cult of the first preview

For true theatre fans, there’s nothing quite like the adrenalin rush of the first preview, when the cast meets the audience for the first time.

And you need no special access to get in, either – you just need to take the chance on buying a ticket for the show (knowing that it may suffer technical snafus, or may even be cancelled).

I used to do this a lot in the days before I was a full-time arts journalist. Nowadays, I typically wait for the invitation to arrive for the show’s official opening, which is, of course, the date the creative team aims towards to make sure its show is ready.

But sometimes the old fan in me can’t resist. Last week I went to the first preview of the new production of Follies at the National on a ticket in the circle I bought on the day public booking opened.

When I tweeted I was going, set designer Lez Brotherston (who hasn’t designed this show) rushed to caution me: “Now don’t be cruel and review it on a first preview! Wouldn’t want you to fall into the mad dash to be first trap”. This of course famously happened on the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.

But I responded, “I would never do that! Am here purely as a fan, friend and Sondheimite!”

Not only is it one of my absolute favourite Sondheim’s but I am also a friend and/or fan of many of the cast.

I felt privileged and thrilled to be there. And no, you’re not going to get a review, or even a hint, of what I thought about it now. However, the Tuesday preview audience saw something that no one else will: a Bolero dance was cut between the first and second previews. So we saw a little bit of theatre history, in a show that is full of ghosts and echoes of its own, and will now add to them. 

Cutting back… a bit

As regular readers know, I ended up having an emergency heart procedure two weeks ago. I’ve been extremely gratified by the outpouring of concern and support I’ve received, not just from friends and colleagues but many industry figures, readers and social media followers, too. It’s when the chips are down that you realise that your work *is* valued. And that’s lovely to know, so thank you, everyone.

One of the lessons I’ve learnt is that I’m going to have to cut back a bit. Yes, I wear it as a bit of a badge of pride that I see (and do) a lot. A few weeks ago I managed to schedule 12 shows, which meant I was out all seven nights plus five matinees. Last week I brought it down to eight – which included trips to Kilworth House in Leicestershire, Chichester (to catch Fiddler on the Roof at last) and Manchester (to see Pippin ahead of its opening at Hope Mills tonight (August 29)).

But I’d like to see if a more sensible five or six shows might work instead. Wish me luck scaling back on my addiction!

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