One wonders if author Meredydd Barker was aware of any irony in choosing the title Nye & Jennie for his play about the two Socialist radicals, Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee, rather than Jennie & Nye. It is Jennie who appears on stage first, awaiting the letter that will elevate her to the House of Lords as Baroness Lee of Asheridge after her defeat as Labour MP for Cannock in the 1970 general election. The Lords was a place thought by Bevan to be the ultimate closed shop. Both he and Lee were visionaries whose ideals were only partly realised, his achievement being the NHS, hers (as Britain’s first Minister of the Arts in Harold Wilson’s government) being a leading instigator of the Open University. But Bevan was the greater political figure though no more the agitator than his wife, who was never known as Jennie Bevan or even Mrs Bevan, and who was apt to leave the party rather than withdraw with the other women when the men were about to partake of post-prandial port and cigars. Barker’s play, based on Lee’s autobiographical writings, does not skirt the probability that she sacrificed a lot for his greater ambition. She admitted as much, though not with rancour.
The play is sub-titled A Working Class Tale of Life, Labour and Love. Apart from Bevan’s reference to his time down the pit, his self-education, and his mountain-top wanderings under the Tredegar stars, there’s little reference to the couple’s working-class origins. In fact, not much is is made of Lee’s (she was a Scottish coal-miner’s daughter).
It’s certainly a tale of Labour. The play sweeps straight into the battles fought by the two to achieve their Socialist goals, often and frustratingly against the unwanted obstacles in the Labour Party itself, which Bevan presciently grew to identify as a movement hi-jacked by middle-class intellectuals. They both shouldered the burdens of prejudice from their own clans when he took up with her after she had been having an affair with a Labour MP on the verge of divorcing as a result. These were not working-class ways, at least not the working-class they both knew, and as much in need of reform as the rest of society. But it’s all here, including the coalition years, the post-war Labour election victory, and Bevan’s later confrontations. Perhaps it’s just as well that Lee’s achievements after her husband’s death are celebrated at the start, in his absence.
Whether or not the play is equally a tale of Love is debatable. There are some magical scenes of intimacy – a night out dancing the tango at the Café Royale; brief expressions of tenderness and attachment; Jennie’s implicit sense of impending loss as he is about to succumb to cancer and a swift death in 1960 – but nowhere does he appear ready to give himself to her physically or admit what life would be like without her. These are the tropes of romance and don’t have to be essayed as sentimental. Maybe Bevan was always too brittle with rage, even with his jacket off. He was always, as they say, incandescent with it. One never sees Bevan as a lover, especially in Gareth John Bale’s characterisation, alternately stiff and loudly indignant, and perhaps director Geinor Styles is right to emphasise this, the self-constraint especially. In contrast, Louise Collins’s Jennie is both, electrically alive with sexuality and political passion. Jennie & Nye. It is she who, opting for what was at the time a ‘male’ life unencumbered by housebound domestic responsibilities, actually denied herself in the interests of her husband’s career. But she supported him when he was vilified as a liar and a traitor and the two were spied on by reporters and/or MI5. In the busy lives they were leading in the public arena, such unity must have connoted warmth and affection. They were an indissoluble item.
Gareth John Bale
In around eighty minutes with no intermission, the play takes in a lot of pre- and post-war British history. The couple certainly bickered, especially over Lee’s early membership of the Independent Labour Party, her appointment by Beaverbrook to visit America as his emissary and get that nation to join the second world war, his notorious view that Tories were ‘lower than vermin’, and pre-eminently her disagreement with him over Britain’s nuclear deterrent. This last, recalls Bevan’s famous speech to the Labour Party. He pointed out to delegates who did not want Britain to be a nuclear power – Lee’s position also – that such a policy would mean sending a Foreign Secretary, ‘whoever he might be’ naked into the conference chamber. It’s the play’s crowning example of Lee the uncompromising idealist and Bevan the politician accepting the reality that political outcome was often about compromise. Ironically again, it was this position that led to his political demise. What the play does well, and again when concentrating on one of its two characters, is show how perennially witty and sharp was Bevan the speech maker. In fact, it might be one of the play’s faults or one of its insights to suggest that in the domestic exchanges Bevan often speaks in the style of an orator. Lee put up with a lot, even having to compensate for her husband’s lack of risqué movement in the tango. While she believed that a relationship flourished on what is not said, he may have been wondering why the workers of the world were failing to unite. One of Bevan’s least appreciated qualities was his absence of self-delusion.
The lives of Bevan and Lee and their life together do not immediately suggest themselves as matter for drama. There’s too much going on outside their lives in which they are involved as political animals, and in dramatic terms their arguments and discussions about these often appear to be taking time away from an exploration of them as people with everyday concerns and emotions living together under the same roof, and with a German Jew living in exile upstairs. (Now there’s a drama for you of Pinteresque potential; but it’s almost en passant.) That said, Barker has made his drama out of several political crises, and fashioned it so that one looks on the travails of the principals with no mean amount of shame at one’s own lack of interest and, more importantly, involvement in political questions. These two gave their lives for politics with what this play suggests was genuine selflessness. In that sense, they demand a lot of the actors and the director in the way of interpretation, and Bale, Collins and Styles give it their best shot.
Kitty Callister’s set is spare and unobtrusive; Hristo Takov’s lighting cleverly effective; Maggie Rawlinson’s choreography a nice surprise despite Bevan’s non-Strictly lack of proper engagement tango-wise; composer Jak Poore’s interpolations tantalisingly succinct; and voice coach Emma Stevens-Johnson’s guidance spot on (Bale discourses with Bevanite flamboyance; Collins, one assumes deliberately, with hints of a Scottish accent for Lee that south of the border was no doubt lost in the Westminster babel; a subtle dimension would be for her to lapse into her native tongue when she gets angry, as many people with diluted accents often do). It’s not a perfect drama, as classical drama goes, but it accomplishes a lot in a short time.
The NHS is under threat and next year marks its 70th anniversary. This play gets its reminders in early. But it’s not just about Aneurin Bevan.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and contributor to Arts Scene Wales. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His novel, Slowly Burning, and his latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal, and other publications.
Images Simon Gough