In and Around London: A Trip to the Theatre

london wikipedia

London sights

It’s been a great middle week of my trip to the UK and Europe. I had an excellent reception for the ecological perspectives from The New Ecology of Leadership in all the places I visited. In Nottingham about 50 people turned out for an early Breakfast Briefing and I spoke for just over an hour before handling questions. Nottingham itself, like so many former industrial towns in England, has been through a bad time, losing many of the industries that had propelled earlier phases of the Industrial Revolution. The textile industry collapsed following WW II and survives only as a small but vibrant fashion design cluster. Today there are only a few large firms around, the best known of which is Boots, the pharmacy retailer. The event itself took place on the new Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham, which stands on the site of the former Raleigh Bicycle Factory, whose bikes with their Sturmey-Archer three-speed gear hubs, were objects of passion when I was a boy of eight growing up in South Africa! Much has changed since then…

The Thursday evening session also saw about 50 people come to the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce session organized by Square Peg International at Macdonald House in Grosvenor Square. Apparently the Canadian Government is planning to sell the building and move into Canada House in Trafalgar Square in the next year or so. Estimated proceeds are about  £500 million. There were people from a wide range of institutions and enterprises and they seemed to enjoy the presentation. As was the case in Nottingham, the highlight was the ecological take on Margaret Thatcher’s time in office and how her monomaniacal focus on breaking the unions and mobilizing the Conservative Party prevented her from building a sense of community that could embrace all Britons. This was the challenge taken on quite successfully by Tony Blair, whose election Thatcher enabled by forcing the Labour Party to abandon its unilateral policy for the nationalization of industry and its unconditional support for the unions. Some observers suggested that the ecological perspective would be really helpful if applied to the European Union and the bureaucracy in Brussels, which is totally stuck in gridlock.

Questions at the end of the sessions ranged from how to apply the perspectives in existing firms, where crisis, either real or simulated, seems so necessary for change, to the comment, “Isn’t it obvious that the world must work this way?” Well of course it is: but even if one believes in this ecological perspective, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern our behavior accordingly. The economics-driven “theories-in-use” by our public and private institutions have assumptions that are diametrically different from those of ecology. There are large, powerful interests who have done very well with the way things are and have no stake in changing anything: there is also the perennial hope that technology will bail us out of the dilemmas we face. Hope, plus the status quo, trumps fear and the changes that it entails. In the past radical changes like this took place only when powered by the conviction that comes from profound religious faith.

Theatre and the Sweet Zone

Winslow Boy

Poster for The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic, May 2013

On Saturday afternoon my aunt and I went to see a matinee performance of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic. I had seen the 1948 movie but had never been to the play. It is brilliantly written and was brilliantly performed – there is so much depth in British acting that even people who one has never heard of before turn out to be hugely competent. As I was watching the play it struck me that that script, stage and actors come together to form an ecological place in space and time, where stories can be told. It is the story of an Edwardian family set in the years just before World War I. We in the audience know that a cataclysm is coming but the actors are only dimly aware of the forces that are building and are oblivious to their destructive potential. This the context against which the drama of the Winslow family is set out. Arthur Winslow (played by Henry Goodman), a retired banker, is celebrating the engagement of his daughter Kate to the son of an army colonel, while trying to persuade his elder son, Dickie, to get serious about his studies at Oxford. Then, unexpectedly, his younger son, Ronnie arrives home, having been expelled from Osborne Naval College for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order. He claims that he is innocent.

What follows is a complex tapestry of stories woven together masterfully by Rattigan. The family’s old conventional narrative of climbing the ladder of promotion and success through hard work and timely liaisons is upended by Arthur’s determination to see his son given a fair trial and proven innocent. The struggle pits reason against intuition, power against truth, institutions against individuals, the important against the urgent and individual ambition against the collective good. In the process everything is sacrificed; Arthur’s health and modest wealth, Dickie’s potential career in the civil service, Kate’s marriage, and the stability of the Winslow family and its quiet middle class life. Meantime, Ronnie, who precipitates the whole dynamic, just like teenagers everywhere, is largely oblivious to what he has started and the turmoil going on all around him. Stories are enabled and developed at many levels. Kate is a suffragette trying to combine the hopes of that movement with middle class aspirations for a successful marriage. There is Sir Robert Morton, the brilliant counsel who takes on the case, who seems to be entirely without emotion. Initially Kate doesn’t trust him and thinks that he is only taking the case for selfish reasons. Over time,however, it becomes clear that she is wrong about him.

The play ends in redemption when the case finally gets its day in court and the Admiralty withdraws the charges and agrees that Ronnie Winslow is innocent. The family is exhausted but vindicated; right has triumphed over might and Arthur Winslow is the hero of the people. We in the audience, who have followed the stories so intently also feel redeemed and are given hope for all our own struggles, where sacrifice is the necessary price of change. As a further twist, on the afternoon we attended, Charlie Rowe, the actor who plays Ronnie Winslow was indisposed and the understudy expertly took his part. At the final curtain call the rest of the cast applauded him – yet one more story had been enabled.

I can’t help pointing out that, as one might expect, that the ecocycle and the concept of the sweet zone is a wonderful framework for the appreciation of plays and dramas of all kinds. The three dimensions of left and right (movement and order, truth and power), up and down (large institutions and individuals, strategic and operational) and front and back (text and context, after and before) plus the fourth dimension of time allow one to map the trajectories of the many different stories. Perhaps some time in the future we will be teaching ecological dynamics to children and students of all ages!



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