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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Illustrious Corpse
by Brian Clover

Ever seen a black man go white?
--- Sir Huntley Palmer Jones
Be warned: these plays, Animal and The Illustrious Corpse showing on the same evening at the Soho are political. Politics can provide the setting, characters, or motor force of events for a play, as in Julius Caesar or Mother Courage. But Animal and The Illustrious Corpse are different, they are committed. They take sides, they judge, they warn. They will also divide -- if you don't share the writers' viewpoint you may not enjoy them, but you will certainly find them challenging.

Like Kay Adshead, Tariq Ali has his eye on our political G-spot, but he aims to reach it through the funny bone. In his play the British Home Secretary has been murdered and his wife proudly admits to the crime. The author calls his piece a non-mystery play and indeed its main point is made in the first few minutes: Sir Huntley (Trevor Thomas) the one-time radical politician has sold out his principles in hopes of being Britain's first black prime minister. He is "executed" by his radical doctor wife, who claims it is the ethical thing to do. In fact she wants everyone to know she did it. And that really is that. The Illustrious Corpse doesn't move beyond this premise.

But as the murderous spouse Desdemona, Kristin Milward gives a truly virtuoso performance. She has to. On stage throughout the play's 75 minutes, she projects the poise, charm and authority of a twenty first century Shavian heroine, puncturing hypocrisy and spin with an icy wit. She is a woman fully in control of herself, and is very fetching in a slinky silk nightie.

The Illustrious Corpse has Shaw's moral force and remorseless logic but also, unfortunately, his weakness for treating characters as his mouthpiece. Moral murderer Desdemona has a monopoly of the best lines and the best ideas and occupies the moral high ground unchallenged. The other characters are simply the author's foils and what follows is a series of denunciations of Tony Blair's New Labour government. Tariq Ali is a committed and gifted orator and writer of the Left. But what works on the platform and the page looks like hectoring on the stage. Even if you happen to agree with the author's point of view, you may well find his presentation of it tiresome and self-satisfied.

Watching this play is like seeing a demonstrator with a megaphone shouting slogans from a passing Rolls Royce: a lot of style and talent on display, but the message is anything but subtle. Tariq Ali may be happy with this effect: he wants farce to make his ideological points and farce is of necessity the Rolls Royce of drama. Ali invokes Italian dramatist Dario Fo, who used farce to brilliant effect in his Accidental Death of An Anarchist. But Ali is no Fo.

With humour, but lacking pace and significant action The Illustrious Corpse is all tell and no show. There are lines which are just too didactic for comfort. For example, Desdemona says, "Politics isn't abstraction, you know. It's the lives of ordinary people. People used, abused, ignored and abandoned by the politicians they have elected. The scrapheap gets bigger every day. My late husband symbolised the corruptions of power" The viewer may think, "Well yes, but I got this point over an hour ago. What else can you show me?" Political theatre can work, witness Alistair Beaton's recent success with Feelgood. But The Illustrious Corpse like Animal shows that ideas alone do not good drama make.

For a review of Animal go here

The Illustrious Corpse
Written by Tariq Ali
Directed by Iqbal Khan

With: Trevor Thomas, Kristin Milward, Russell Dixon, Beverley Longhurst
Designer: Kate Unwin
Lighting Designer: Miriam Spencer
Sound: Ben Harrison
Running time: Seventy five minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7478 0136
Booking to 27th September 2003
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 10th August 2003 Performance at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street, W1 (Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road or Leicester Square)
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