Thursday, October 27, 2005

Family Affairs

Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years is conventional and disappointing

Part of my high expectations for Mike Leigh’s return to the stage for the first time in 12 years undoubtedly sprung from his exemplary record as a film director, but I’d be deluding myself if I didn’t concede that I’d also fallen victim to the press hype and hyperbole surrounding this production. There has been much speculation and excitement about Leigh’s improvisatory working methods (which have been in place now for many years) and the fact that the work did not even have a title when commissioned by the National Theatre in London. In this case, I’m saddened to report that the weight of considerable expectation has proved to be an overwhelming burden.

‘Two Thousand Years’ delves once again into that familiar Leigh theme, dysfunctional family life, but with far less insight and impact than he managed with his award winning ‘Secrets and Lies’. Danny and Rachel are a middle class, liberal and avowedly secular Jewish family living in Cricklewood, North West London. Danny is a dentist and loves to tell appalling jokes; Rachel is supportive but independently minded. Despite (or perhaps because of) being born on a Kibbutz, Rachel and her family have consigned any religious dimension of their heritage to the scrapheap of irrational beliefs.

They are therefore shocked when their disconnected, vacant and moody son Josh turns to religion. His adoption of Jewish study and ritual is just the first in a series of events which bring simmering tensions in the family to boiling point, and one might expect it to usher in a typically incisive examination of unspoken feelings and passions.

Sadly it doesn’t. Leigh has deliberately elected to set the family’s story against the backdrop of the past year of political life, both globally (terrorism, Israel/Palestine and the war on Iraq are all discussed) and nationally (Rachel’s socialist father is horrified by the convergence of Labour and Tories). Perhaps it’s a product of the somewhat stereotyped nature of the characterisation (Danny and Rachel read The Guardian!), but much of the political discussion felt forced and unconvincing.

There are some very witty moments, such as when the idealistic daughter Tammy answers the question ‘why are we all here?’ with her desire to play her part for good in the world and Danny takes up this theme by stating ‘that’s why I still take NHS work – that’s my attempt to do good’. John Burgess does an excellent job in his role as Rachel’s disgruntled, sardonic and confrontational father. Mostly the humour is, however, very conventional (much of it feels less adventurous than an episode of ‘One Foot In The Grave’), and the descent into farce in the closing 30 minutes following the arrival of Samantha Spiro’s histrionic estranged family member is clumsy and predictable (her character achieves the extraordinary feat of appearing more shallow than Dorian from ‘Birds Of A Feather’). Her unannounced arrival after eleven years of silence would certainly be expected to cause shock and conflict, but the overacted comedy here fails to explain why Josh suddenly appears to resolve many of his personal issues in the final scenes. The implication is that he embraced religion as a means to escape the mundanity of domestic family life – and has now rejected it because he has now been shown the importance of maintaining close familial relationships.

Leigh is usually a master of integrating the personal and political – but the real theme at the heart of ‘Two Thousand Years’ is singularly personal – that of relationships between parents and their children. The political dimension is therefore somewhat fudged. I’m aware of Jewish families who see their religion in cultural rather than spiritual terms – but would any family really be so shocked that their son had taken an interest in his family history, whatever their opinions on faith? Religion seems so significant an element of world politics at the moment that Leigh could, and arguably should, have made more of these issues, rather than simply giving them cursory debate over endless cups of tea (the one residual element from Leigh’s last film project, the excellent ‘Vera Drake’). This is the sort of project described in less enlightened quarters as ‘very politcal’ – but in many ways, the politics of this production are mostly banal. This is a strength in as far as Leigh’s directorial presence is mostly detached and non-judgmental (more evidence against those who accuse Leigh of being ‘patronising’ towards his characters), but it also means that arguments remain fragmentary and undeveloped. At times Leigh just seems to be throwing too many ideas and subjects into what becomes a somewhat cloudy mix. In characterising Josh as withdrawn and uncommunicative, we don’t get a sense of where he draws his palpable anger from and his reasons for embracing religion remain frustratingly elusive. His rebellion and defiance includes a firm refusal to respond to interrogation or justify his actions.

If Leigh remains unconventional in his working methods, this time the result lacks originality. The confrontation at the end feels like a deliberate retread of 'Secrets and Lies' but there are no overwhelming revelations and it seems like a rather obvious device to bring about a somewhat straightforward and contrived resolution. Where there are signs of directorial influence from Leigh - they are not entirely encouraging either. The structure of the play is very bitty, with short, often perfunctory scenes split by snatches of music. Where on screen Leigh is a master of sustained and believable emotions (always heightened by his use of close-up shots), he seems here to be constrained by the limitations of the single location stage play. Whilst 'Two Thousand Years' is intermittently entertaining, it's hard to believe watching it, that Leigh once mastered this very form so thoroughly with 'Abigail's Party'.

The stage set is a pointed and accurate replica of a liberal North London family home, made all the more amusing when Tammy introduces her new Israeli boyfriend. She points at the small collection of books – ‘here is the library, where I received my education’. It’s therefore an even greater pity that the action that takes place within it seems so surprisingly stilted.

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