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Edinburgh 2002


Pleasance Dome

Tony Gilland

A park bench, blue sky, twittering birds, a few fallen leaves and the warm sunshine of a tranquil September in St James's Park, London. Big Ben strikes one.

Heather Smithson, a senior MI5 controller approaching the end of her career, sits on the bench to reflect on her life, world politics and her new dilemma at work - whether to accept the assignment to undermine and ultimately destroy the anti-capitalist movement or be forced by her superiors to retire.

This is the setting for political playwright John McGrath's final play before his death from leukaemia in January of this year. Act 1 was completed prior to September 11 and Act 2 was added afterwards. It's a one-woman show with Heather Smithson played by Elizabeth MacLennan, McGrath's wife and collaborator of more than 40 years.

MacLennan puts in a good performance as the stylish, warm and funny secret agent with an ethical dilemma. Smithson's amusing relationship with her Sloaney daughter-in-law and her warm reflections on her relationship with her husband who died on duty overseas as a secret agent in the 1970s endear her to the audience.

Unfortunately Act 1 soon turns into a diatribe against multinationals, TRIPs ('trade related international property rights' as Smithson explains to the audience), pesticides and the presence of 'nerve poison in our potatoes'.

'It is not just democracy that is threatened' we are told 'but our nervous system and chance of having healthy babies'. But we have heard it all before, in countless articles by the likes of George Monbiot and on the TV and radio in the mouths of a multitude of campaign groups.

It's not that the play does not address issues worthy of debate and reflection - multinationals are not an unalloyed good and democratic life is in a parlous state. But when the alternative offered up is a simplistic world of conspiracy theories and belief that multinationals are poisoning every aspect of our lives, your critical faculties are hardly being engaged.

Act 2, dealing with the war on terror and Islamic fundamentalism, is a little more reflective, but still ends up laying all the problems of the world at the feet of the 'global empire' of multinationals. McGrath takes some fair-enough jibes at the banality of much media reporting and the vacuous and managerial nature of politics today. But the play lacks any deep insight or sense of possibility - it ends with a plea for 'putting intellectual rigour above cosy self deception' but on the whole ends up doing the opposite.

If you want to feel good about feeling despondent about the world then go and see this play. Otherwise, despite the good performance of MacLennan, I'd recommend staying away.


Until August 26: 11.50 (1hr 30mins)


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