With perfect timing, a new play debunks the idea that the Conservative elite no longer think they were born to ruleby Michael Coveney / April 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Posh: the class war is not dead, but festering
In the month of the general election, Laura Wade’s new drama Posh will be dogging the political debate like the hound of the Baskervilles, or at least the hound in the theatre stalls. The play is at the Royal Court in London until 22nd May. It will be an unwelcome reminder for top-ranking Tories David Cameron and George Osborne (not to mention Boris Johnson), of their membership of the exclusive Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, where drinking till you fell over and trashing the place was the minimum requirement—as well as possessing lots of crisp notes to offset the damage.
Wade’s play digs a bit deeper, though. Posh mostly takes place in the private room of a country pub, where ten members of the Riot Club have assembled for dinner. One of them is the Cameron-like character of Alistair Ryle, who “takes one for the team” by shouldering the blame for an appalling ruction that occurs. Ryle, however, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s a Trojan horse in a concerted push towards pre-Thatcherite reactionary Conservatism, with all the nasty bits put back in.
Wade, aged 32, grew up in Sheffield. She’s smart and talented, but not posh. She took a drama degree at Bristol University and graduated through the ranks of the Royal Court’s young writers’ programme. Her partner is the actor Sam West, a noted bird-watcher who has converted her to his hobby.
Posh assumes the class war is not dead but festering, boosted by the phoniness of new Labour, the distant memory of the greed-is-good individualism at the root of our recent financial crisis, and the John Major waffle about “a classless society.” Wade, along with her characters, refuses to be appeased by Cameron’s insistence on his “country boy” background: his talk of catching fish with his grandfather and shooting rabbits with his “dad,” while developing a compassionate social conscience.
A Channel 4 documentary last autumn, When Boris Met Dave, implied that leopards do not change their spots. The Bullingdon is more than a place for young bloods to let off steam. It is a statement of hedonistic, self-regarding class brutality. Founded over 200 years ago and fictionalised in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall as the Bollinger Club, the Bullingdon is still very much in business. Posh appears to have been inspired by a riot in an Oxfordshire pub in 2005, when four club members were arrested and the dining room was damaged beyond repair.
This year’s April Fool story in the Guardian was a mock election poster, in which a sullen, aggressive Gordon Brown challenged Cameron with the words “Step outside, posh boy.” It signals the return of the idea that the old privileged Tory class is stealing a march on the centrist John Major-style party, while disguising the coup in dressed-down photoshoots and the smooth, conciliatory sounds of care and understanding.
Wade gives Alistair Ryle a speech at the end of act one which may seem like a slur on Cameron, but doesn’t misrepresent the kind of posh boys who want an old-style Conservative party and wouldn’t dream of lowering themselves to join the BNP. Ryle is abusing the pub landlord as the sort of fellow who keeps his cheese in the fridge. “And these people think we’re twats,” he rails. “How did they get everywhere, how did they make everything so fucking second-rate? Thinking they’re cultured ’cause they read a big newspaper and eat asparagus and pretend not to be racist. Bursting a vein at the thought that there’s another floor their lift doesn’t go up to, for all their striving… I mean, I am sick, I am sick to fucking death, of poor people.”
Ryle’s chums live in country houses overrun by National Trust visitors. Even Knightsbridge has become intolerable. They want revenge on the whole lot of us. And what happens on stage is a metaphorical Armageddon that goes far beyond the initial quest of “getting château-ed beyond belief” and blo-joed under the table by a prostitute hired for the occasion.
Posh is ugly, hilarious and deeply embarrassing for the prospective Cameron government. British theatre doesn’t have much of a tradition of engaging closely with election campaigns. The exception may be David Hare’s 1993 The Absence of War, which used the defeat of an over-confident Neil Kinnock to consider the political tragedy of a Labour leader duped into thinking that a radical party can fool the electorate by adopting the mannerisms and arguments of its enemies.
Laura Wade’s play might serve as a warning along the same lines to David Cameron. And it also suggests that, come the election after this one, people might welcome the return of conviction politics of whatever persuasion, as long as the arguments are red in tooth and claw and come from the heart.