- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

They came, they saw, they had a good time. Sometimes you can sense when the members of a theatre audience are trying just that little bit too hard. Who can blame them? They have paid 40 dollars for a seat in the stalls, they have probably had to endure the irritation of finding a parking space in the litter-strewn streets. And the critics have already assured them that they are about to see something approaching a work of genius.

So they sit in the dark and wait for the magic to happen. In fact, they are too impatient to wait. They begin to chuckle a fraction of a second before the actors reach the end of a sentence; they laugh that little bit too loudly at a mildly amusing turn of phrase. Since they know they are about to see a work that thumbs a nose at religion and everything associated with middle-class good taste (not to mention the U.S. of A.) they are all the more eager to prove that they are good rebels too. Is it any surprise that “Jerry Springer: The Opera” is the hottest ticket in the West End? Of course not. Sometimes a show builds up such critical mass that its real quality becomes absolutely irrelevant.

For those of you who have not been keeping up with the arts pages, the Springer spectacular has just opened at the Royal National Theatre. A lurid, sung-through satire on the murky values of reality television, Stewart Lee’s and Richard Thomas’ production shatters as many taboos as you care to name, revelling in its own insane naughtiness and generally making the real-life Springer show appear as sedate as a quiet afternoon on C-Span. An obese pole-dancer competes for attention with a transsexual, a Ku Klux Klan chorus line, a fetishist and a sundry assortment of what the publicity material cheerfully describes as “trailer trash.”

Springer orchestrates the proceedings with his usual slick charm until he falls victim to an assassin’s bullet. He wakes up in Hell, where he discovers that Satan orders him to stage another show. Faced with the choice of complying or having barbed wire forced into his nether regions, Springer is given the task of forcing God (who, it transpires, was one of the guests in the first half) to apologize for expelling Satan from heaven. Jesus is also present.

The final message — before the big, toe-tapping showstopper declaiming “Nothing is wrong and nothing is right” — is that Springer is a confessional figure who can be seen as the contemporary equivalent of God.

At least I think that was the point it was trying to make. By the time it reached its climax, my senses were dazed. Two and a half hours of repetitive high camp is a lot to take. The staging is polished, as is the baroque pastiche — at least once you get used to the idea of a Handel aria being turned into one long, looping line of F-words. Michael Brandon comes eerily close to catching the mannerisms of the real-life Springer.

The man himself turns up in the program to supply a gleeful endorsement for the show. Which gives you some idea of what is fundamentally wrong with the whole project. For all its juvenile energy, the script is much too eager to wallow in its low-life theme. It is so eager to shock that it forgets what it wants to say.

But, as I say, the show is a hit. You can draw your own conclusions. Just about the only dissenting opinion I have seen came in a newspaper article by playwright Arnold Wesker: “Trash is trash and eternally depressing … I’ve long worried that the theatre has lost audiences because the moment the curtain rises both intellectual and emotional expectations drop. This show, I fear, introduces a new dimension: audiences will feel intimidated to be caught not liking it.”

The other noteworthy event of my week was seeing a shot of The Washington Times front page on the flagship BBC current affairs programme, “Panorama.” I honestly cannot recall the last time the BBC ever acknowledged the paper’s existence, which tells you something about the general tone of its U.S. coverage.

If that was surprising enough, the program — about the irresistible rise of the neoconservatives — managed to be reasonably even-handed. William Kristol, Joshua Muravchik and Eliot Cohen were all given airtime. Grover Norquist spoke for the skeptics. I would not say the program was entirely without bias.

How could it be when it posed questions as nuanced as “Will the superhawks drag us into more wars against THEIR enemies?” On the other hand, the spokesmen for the left — mostly filmed on the street shouting abuse at demonstrations — did not come off so well either.

It goes without saying that the production team did their best to make Richard Perle to look sinister. Constant references to the Mafia hung in the air, the background music turned ominous: the unspoken message was that we were watching Don Perleone going about his sinister business. Michael Ledeen, blazing forth in all directions on talk shows, was clearly set up to be the headstrong Sonny Corleone. The script had David Frum marked down as the young, rosy-cheeked Al Pacino, but Frum clearly disappointed the filmmakers by being much too cheerful and polite to make a decent villain.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.


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