I don’t much believing in using fiction to moralise, to teach a particular lesson, to use the page as a soapbox – in my experience, that often leads to poor storytelling from which the reader or audience instinctively recoil: they know that they’ve been brought to the page or the stage or the screen under false pretences. But here’s the paradox. Good fiction, great storytelling, does have a moral core, and if it doesn’t, the story feels hollow and, once again, we feel cheated.
I’m not sure exactly how this moral core is created. It is no doubt due to a whole number of threads coming together to weave a pattern that, when it’s complete, forms a picture that we recognise. It has to do with authenticity of voice, as in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and also with commitment to a story that, at every turn, grapples with moral complexity rather than moral simplicity, as in the finely tuned, Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernadine Bishop, which I finished reading yesterday. It conveys the wonderfully absurd and unlikely lengths that human beings go to to help one another, as in the brilliant Argo, which I watched with Hugh two nights ago. And it is something that I saw vividly portrayed in Chimerica, the play which Hugh and I went to see in the West End yesterday.
Fiction with a moral core, asks the storyteller to walk around human beings to get a full 360 degree view, not just a sideways glimpse, or a head on portrayal. It allows the reader or audience to see the seams coming undone at the hem of well-dressed businessman, the grey hair on a beautiful dark head, the pinched lips behind a smile and the truth behind the lies we tell each other every day.
Although my first and greatest love is the novel, I realised yesterday how special good drama is. First, the words reach you directly, from the flesh and blood standing in front of you. In books, the author is at a distance, in the past even and in films, what you see on screen is a reproduction, a print rather than an original. But here, as you sit consuming story in a communal way, you have actors speaking to you uniquely in one particular time and space. If you sit close enough, you can hear them breathe, you see a pulse at their throats, a vein on their foreheads. Of course, they will repeat their performances, but no two performances are ever the same – audiences are the not same, the energy in the theatre is never the same from day to day or even afternoon to evening, actors do not feel the same or speak in the same way from moment to moment. Each performance is unique. In a world where everything feels like a recycled image, this gift of presence is special indeed.
When you marry this with a script that is written with imagination and heart (Lucy Kirkwood), and and a director with remarkable vision (Lyndsey Turner) acted by a company (Headlong) founded and inspired by the wonderful Rupert Goold, you get something pretty special,
I don’t often get tearful at the theatre, or give standing ovations, but with this play I had no choice: based on that famous photograph of a man standing in from of a tank in Tiananmen Square (1989), a story about friendship and politics and the way we live now, this was a play to remember, a play with a a real heart. A play that – and perhaps this is where the moral core comes in – leaves you changed for the better.