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TELEVISION Fabled courts

Camelot CHANNEL 4

The Kennedys BBC2

4 began a new dramatisation of the Arthurian legends, while BBC2 launched a controversial series about the Kennedy presidency. Camelot (11 June) is brought to you by


Michael Hirst, creator of The Tudors, and shares that series’ glossy look, pulchritudinous cast, insistent background music and taste for gratuitous sex. Jamie Campbell Bower plays Arthur as a young man with the looks of a surfer dude and an eye for the ladies. In the opening two episodes, screened back-to- back, we saw him learning of his true parentage as the son of King Uther Pendragon, and heading straight into conflict with Uther’s evil daughter Morgan (Eva Green), who, hav- ing poisoned the king, now wants his throne. Arthur is guided by Merlin, played by

Joseph Fiennes as a schemer with a vision for Arthur as the creator of a strong and peaceful kingdom. He is a long way from the pointy- hatted and bumbling sorcerer we remember from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Camelot might have been good fun but the

plot drags, and the dialogue is risible. “No way!” replies Arthur when Merlin suggests he might try freeing the “swordof the gods”, here embedded in the face of a waterfall. The bringing of The Kennedys (17 June) to our screens, meanwhile, has been a tangled tale. The production was controversial, with leaked drafts of the script heavily criticised by Kennedy admirers for their emphasis on Jack’s philandering and their curious historical lacunae: it is said that the original version found no time for the Cuban missile crisis. It was also called “anti-Catholic” and “anti-Irish”. This week we saw the first two episodes

which flashed backand forth between the eve of the 1969 presidential election and 30 years earlier, when Joseph was the US ambassador to Britain, fiercely isolationist and leaning towards appeasement. The consequent thwart- ing of his own presidential ambitions drives the narrative as he seeks their fulfilment through his sons. The series benefits from excellent performances by Greg Kinnear, who has perfectly captured Jack’s voice and man- nerisms; Barry Pepper as the faithful (in every sense) Bobby; Katie Holmes as a brittle and elegant Jackie; and especially Tom Wilkinson as the patriarch Joe. The criticism of the Kennedys is blunt – we see Joe buying Jack’s seat in Congress by handing out cash to the voters – and the treatment of the family’s Catholic faith rather crude, but this is a compelling, elegant drama that intensifies in future episodes as it moves forward into the presidency. John Morrish

26 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011

y coincidence, two versions of Camelot were on our screens this week. Channel

correspondents were Shelagh Delaney and Andrea Dunbar. Given that Spur of


Talent beyond precocity


he smaller and higher of the Royal Court’s two playing spaces, the Theatre Upstairs is the master of disguise among London’s dramatic venues. It’s unusual now to arrive and find a bank of seats looking down on to the stage. For Fiona Evans’ Scarborough (2008), the auditorium was turned into a seedy seaside hotel room, with the audience sitting on the floor or in armchairs. And ticket-holders for Anya Reiss’ The Acid Test found themselves walking down the corridor of a block of flats, past various closed numbered doors, before going through an open one to find the living room of a London flat, our rows of seating contained within the wallpapered walls and only inches away from the familiar flat-share debris of drying underwear, scattered books and iPods and abandoned mugs and glasses. This is the home of three recent university


graduates on a Friday night in. Blonde, jolly, posh Dana (Vanessa Kirby) works in an unspecified firm where the young boss may fancy her. Short, dark, intense Ruth (Phoebe Fox) is mourning the sudden end that evening of her relationship with her boyfriend. And cool, careful, withheld Jess (Lydia Wilson) triggers the action of the play by returning from a visit to her parents with her dad, Jim (Denis Lawson), in tow. Having just been kicked out by her mum, he has come to stay for a “couple of days” in the flat he helped to fund. The basic situation is familiar enough –

The Liver Birds crossed with The Man Who Came to Dinner – but the special interest of the play is that the writer Anya Reiss is only 19 (she won the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award for its pre - decessor, Spur of the Moment, written when she was only 17) and so is offering theatrical reports from the frontline of being young in a way that is very rare: previous such

the Moment con- cerned the sexual

tension between a young girl and a much older lodger in her house, there’s a slight sense of repetition here as the main business of the piece is the tense cross- generational fascina- tion between Jim and his daughter’s friends as they drink heavily and smoke cigarettes and dope through a long night of crises involv- ing love and work. Even so, the scheme of The Acid Test was

very neat: Ruth and Dana are in search of a father figure, while Jess, who actually has one, feels him as a burden. Reiss is excellent on the mutual incomprehension and embarrass- ment that occurs between parents and children and the literally different language they speak: Jim, from a generation of men who never swore in front of women, is hor- rified by the streams of expletives that pass as friendly conversation for the three young women. Reiss has also clearly studied and learned from Pinter in the way the three women scheme and fight for control of Jim and of the space in the room. Under Simon Godwin’s direction, within a setting so cramped that my long legs accidentally tripped up Lydia Wilson on one of her entrances, the cast was vividly alert to the body language of that battle.

Reiss has a strong gift for sparky dialogue that builds up character and plot without being too obvious about it and also has the more rare dramatic talent (of which Alan Ayckbourn is the current living master) for creating vivid offstage characters: Ruth’s hideously pretentious and manipulative ex- boyfriend is vividly present, through a few anecdotes and details, although he never appears. She is also, unlike some of the gen- eration of writers raised on TV and film, very adept at getting characters on and off stage in a one-set play, creating plausible and plot- advancing reasons for them to leave the flat or the room. Many playwrights would have brought the obvious tensions within the flat and in Jess and Jim’s family to a climax of sex or violence but Reiss, rightly in my view, leaves the areas of greatest darkness ambiguous and hanging. For her third play, she clearly needs to move beyond sub-sexual struggles within a middle- class family but The Acid Test confirms that there is more to her talent than the novelty of precocity. Mark Lawson

The Acid Test, by the 19-year-old Anya Reiss

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