Last Friday  I went to the Royal Court to see Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play Chicken Soup with Barley.  Director Dominic Cooke’s revival comes 51 years after its Royal Court debut and is often described as a ‘landmark’ in British Theatre.  The play follows the disintegration of an East End Jewish Family between the years on 1936 and 1956.  For those of you who know the basics of British history this takes in the rise of fascism, World War Two and the social reforms of Post-War Britain.   If you’re like me, this is a fascinating part of British history and I was excited to see it. I have always loved period pieces, particularly those that were written at the time they are set as they allow you to take a glimpse at particular periods of history through human eyes, not academic of scientific.  My own producing project is an adaptation of a novel first published in 1922 so history is something I definitely bring into my own work.

But for some, older plays which explore very specific historical or sociological time periods, such as Chicken Soup with Barley can seem out-dated and irrelevant when revived years later.  For them the issues at the heart of the shows are less effective now the subject matter is not recent news.  So are people who find these types of plays unfit for revival just being historically ignorant or do they have a point?

I enjoyed it, the acting was spot on so much so that in the first scene I wanted to run on stage and join the characters in their elation as they returned from a march.  My only complaint was that the last scene did drag a little.  However some feel the play is not a show they would have expected from the Royal Court due to its age.  As a theatre that so often premieres exciting new writing I have to admit even I thought it was an unusual choice albeit one I was happy with.  So despite being fans of the Royal Courts programming this play seems to have fallen short of some people’s expectations.  And the reason for this seems to be that the ideals and struggles of the characters are no longer relatable for a modern audience as they are so specific to their time, preventing the play from having as much impact as a revival.

Wesker’s play is a great example of a work that was very current and of its time.  Socialist dreams were fading fast in 1958 and those who had supported communism against fascism in the 1930’s had become disillusioned.   The final act sees the family in their council flat in Hackney and the NHS, Hungarian Revolution and USSR are all hot topics of debate; which at the time the play was written would have created strong opinions in those you mentioned it to.  But 50 years later and the world has changed dramatically.  The NHS may still be an issue but the threat of the USSR has ended and for some in the audience ended before they were even born.  Without knowing a lot about the historical backdrop of the play there is a potential for the some audience members to miss the impact of the story.  For example the angry references to the Hungarian Revolution and staunch communist Sarah’s reluctance to address them have huge symbolic meaning, but will fall a bit flat if you’re not really sure what that was.

So do plays written in the twentieth century about specific twentieth century events still have universal relevance for audiences of today or do they become more specialist historical experiences?  And can you ever recreate the same intended impact they had 50 years ago?  I believe  they can still have a strong impact on modern audiences by giving them the chance to experience the past live in front of them.   The power of hindsight often increases the poignancy of the work.  Wesker knew nothing of the Berlin Wall or the Cuban Missle crisis that was all to come and neither does the character Sarah.  And because of this you can’t help but feel sad for this strong, passionate character who may still have the worst to come.  Plays from the past shouldn’t have to stay there, we can all learn a little from them.  And if that means doing a Wikipedia search the day before, so be it.


Image by Gia S.