(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/8; photo: Harriet Walter as Biddy in Three Birds Alighting on a Field at the Royal Court in 1991. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy)
Our series on forgotten theatre classics continues with Wertenbaker’s stylish dissection of Thatcher-era morality
I recently caught on BBC Four a repeat of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain. In a programme on the 1980s, Marr argued that, whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher, we were all, to some extent, her children. I see his point politically but that overlooks the way British film, TV and, most especially, theatre offered a resistance to Thatcherite values; and few works did this with more wit and style than Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, which premiered at the Royal Court nine months after Thatcher’s abrupt dismissal.
At first, it looked as if Wertenbaker was writing a straightforward satire on the absurdly inflated values of the art market: a Cork Street equivalent of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. We watched, with wry amusement, as Biddy, the trophy wife of a socially ambitious Greek millionaire, was despatched to amass a modern art collection and came up against all the fashion-mongering, insecurity and greed of the London galleries. But when Biddy meets a hermetic, truculent artist, Stephen Ryle, her eyes are opened to the enduring beauty of the British landscape.
Like all good plays, it hits several targets at once. It is partly a feminist work about the self-education of the upper-class, Benenden-reared Biddy. It also reflects Wertenbaker’s lifelong obsession with Greek myth: the reclusive Ryle is a modern equivalent of Philoctetes, abandoned by the Greeks en route for Troy only for it to be found that he was vital to their success. But what gives the play its lasting fascination is the way it nails, without mentioning Thatcher, her whole ethos: above all the belief that the free market is the ultimate test of worth. Behind the play lies a passion for our national landscape and a conviction that there were values that would outlast the money-mad 80s.