Finborough Theatre Autumn 2006
James Graham's new play gives human faces to one of the most traumatic events in recent British history, the Suez crisis of 1956.
(Pause for a quick history lesson that oversimplifies complex events. In 1956 Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, which had been built and operated by an Anglo-French company. With no real legal basis for intervening, France and Britain ultimately hit on a secret plan to have Israel feign an invasion of Egypt so they could step in as supposed peacekeepers. The plot failed, and Britain was exposed as hypocritical, colonial and ineffectual.)
Graham actually begins his play during World War Two, to show how that experience shaped the generation of postwar leaders. And what keeps his play from being just an illustrated history lesson (a function it fills quite well, by the way) is his focus on the personal experience of, and cost to, Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Eden was Winston Churchill's choice to succeed him as Tory leader and eventual PM, but the old man wouldn't let go for more than a decade, leaving Eden frustrated not only in personal ambition but in his desire to reinvigorate a party he felt had lost its way.
Eden's experience of the War committed him to peace, and his years as Foreign Secretary gave him unique expertise in steering Britain past the agendas of other countries.
But then came Suez, and the man of peace found himself planning an unjustifiable military invasion, the diplomat found himself plotting to go beyond the Canal to depose the inconvenient Egyptian President Nasser, the Prime Minister finally in charge was being driven by his Cabinet and the compulsive micro-manager saw things flying out of his control.
The playwright, director Gemma Fairlie and Jamie Newall as Eden go along way toward finding a tragic hero in a man that history has relegated to an ignoble footnote, and certainly hold our interest and sympathy throughout.
The villain of the piece (if there is one), as Graham presents it, is the hawkish Harold Macmillan, with honour offered Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd and his junior Anthony Nutting for trying to be voices of restraint and peace.
(By the way, you may have spotted some parallels to the present, with a trumped-up justification for war whose real goal is the removal of a troublesome dictator, and certainly the playwright makes no attempt to hide them.
There's also the underlying motivation of oil, the attempt to use and then bypass the United Nations, the backfiring result of uniting the Arab world against Europe, and even a dodgy dossier. The ironies that we do not learn from history are chilling.)
Jamie Newall rejects the easy roads of playing Eden as either evil or weak, finding a man whose unquestioned strengths were just overtaken by a situation he could not have prepared for.
Daisy Beaumont is both strong and warm as his loyal wife, and the rest of the cast double and redouble roles to fill the stage with characters and action without ever losing clarity and focus.
As is frequently the case, this tiny above-a-pub theatre seems to expand to hold a play larger and better-equipped theatres could have been defeated by.
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Review of Eden's Empire - Finborough Theatre 2006