BBC Radio 4, 14 November 2009
First staged at the Royal National Theatre in 1990, The Shape of
the Table was revived to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent
destruction of the Iron Curtain.
Set in an unspecified central European state that bears a strong resemblance to the
old Czechoslovakia, David Edgar's play focuses on the manifold strategies adopted by the existing government to remain in
power, despite the fact that its days are numbered. There has been a political sea-change in the country; no one wants to
accept the despotic word any more, and instead search for a new form of democracy. Writers and polemicists such as Prus (Tim
McInnerny) are the symbols of that new spirit; having spent several years as political prisoners, they are now endowed
with sufficient political clout to be able to make themselves heard.
The core of the play focuses on the negotiations between the government, headed by
the Prime Minister (Jeremy Clyde), supported by unreconstructed communists like Lutz (Henry Goodman) and the pro-demoncracy
forces represented by Prus and long-time rebel Victor Spassov (Michael Elwyn), At the beginning the government does not want
to give an inch; but as the action progresses, they are forced into making more and more concessions to avoid a full-scale
revolution. The negotations are anaylsed in minute detail, with the government forced to reword their documents
in such a way as to save face while giving in to their rivals' demands. Eventually the Prime Minister realizes that there
is no other course of action available for him except resignation; this signals the death of the old order and the onset of
The Shape of the Table makes some sharp points about the negotiating process,
where often it seems more appropriate to find the right wording rather than discuss any major issues in detail. Appearance
is everything; so long as it seems that concessions have been made, then the people can be placated. Politics is a
dirty business, no more so than when it is conducted by officials whose sole instinct inclines toward self-preservation rather
than public duty.
Nonetheless, I had the distinct feeling that there is something quintessentially
English about this play. Although set in Europe, the protagonists are immediately recognizable (the smarmy Prime
Minister, the bluff, no-nonsense Lutz, a lifelong Party member who speaks with a northern accent). One could almost be listening
to a series of negotiations between the government and the trade unions in the early 1970s, particularly when the Prime Minister
gave in to the rebels' demands. Moreover the characters sometimes resemble mouthpieces to express the
dramatist's political views - as a result, some of the scenes appear dramatically lifeless. I do not doubt Edgar's
sincerity; but at times I wished he had written a better play.
Peter Leslie Wild's production was redeemed somewhat by notable peformances. Jeremy
Clyde made a suitably smarmy Prime Minister, who eventually understood the futility of holding on to power. McInnerny's Prus
was equally fixed in his convictions; so much so that we wondered whether he could actually offer a viable alternative to
the Prime Minister's rule, once he had acceeded to power. As Lutz observed, the situation in 1989 was very reminiscent of
1945, when Lutz himself had been a young radical involved in establishing a new regime which also committed itself to democratic
reform. Half-a-century later that innovative spirit had disappeared; the communists were now perceived as reactionary. One
wondered whether the same fate might befall Prus, after he had been in power for a time.