Rachel-Leah Hosker and Nathaniel Christian in The Winston Machine
Given its title, one might expect devised theatre company Kandinsky’s new play The Winston Machine to excoriate the way World War Two has become so central in the British cultural memory – to the point of obsession. It does do this to some extent, but though it slowly turns to the potential ‘weirdness’ of this nostalgic, overly romanticised fixation on the past, I was struck by how much it has its focus trained on the present day.
After a flashback-fantasy sequence (and as the play goes on, the line between them becomes even more deliberately vague) about a spitfire pilot leaving for war, The Winston Machine plays primarily as satire of contemporary life. We follow the day of Becky (a brilliantly varied performance from Rachel-Leah Hosker), dealing with the difficulties of long-distance communication with a boyfriend she cannot love and the awfulness of office leaving party obligations. The digital world collides with reality in dialogue – ‘ring, ring’ intones Hamish McDougall, playing Becky’s phone and then her boyfriend; the style somewhat brings to mind Katie Mitchell’s recent staging of Rebecca Watson’s little scratch.
Yet the play rarely alights on a single mode of storytelling for long, ever-shifting between the past and present, with impressionistic, dream-like sequences peppered through. It is at its best when communicating through simple, powerful images – which convey several layers of meaning at once. Childhood is potently staged with McDougall and Nathaniel Christian flying paper aeroplanes, both guided by Becky. She works to prevent her boyfriend and the school crush she has recently reconnected with from colliding, neatly spelling out the love triangle that forms the basis of much of the drama. Yet the simulation also reminds us, of course, of the real planes that flew and fell out of the skies – shot down in the Battle of Britain.
At the heart of the drama is a sustained consideration of, in particular, the baby boomer generation’s connection to World War Two. The paper aeroplane motif re-emerges in a scene highly symbolic of the relationship between the ‘boomer’ and ‘greatest’ generations. Andrzej Łukowski writes in his Time Out review that ‘[n]o sacred cow has been butchered more in theatre than the myth of the so-called greatest generation’, and he is right about its thematic recurrence. Yet I found The Winston Machine to be interrogating the exact generational differences more specifically and empathetically than usual. In the scene, Becky’s father makes a paper aeroplane, only for his father (who flew spitfires as an RAF pilot) to trample it in anger. There is little of the intergenerational irreverence (especially from the younger generation) customary in such narratives; the play is interested in examining sometimes far more psychological and structural than simply articulating an ‘ok, boomer’ sentiment.
The word ‘boomer’ has relatively recently gained a particular, sometimes-fraught cultural context. It is as much a metonym for certain behaviours and attitudes as a grouping of those born between 1946 and 1964. Yet The Winston Machine’s intergenerational dramaturgy probes the position of boomers in British history. Born in the shadow of such a large conflict – in its immediate economic peril and residual effects of rationing, for example – it exists for many as a disconcerting childhood memory. Yet instead of something uncanny or fear-inspiring, the war is sometimes considered as a defining identity – with some pride. Part of this overinflated pride, however, stems from a contradictory-seeming sense of inadequacy and shame.
Kandinsky’s production particularly suggests that the cultural affinity for the war as a source of pride, an aesthetic, and a national myth is in large part due to its traumatic legacy, inculcated through the repressed emotions of their parents. Not only is the paper plane trampled – a lightweight approximation of the real thing – when Becky’s dad attempts to hug his father he is pushed away and stabbed repeatedly with the paper aeroplane. This literally harmless act causes a deep psychological wound.
Hamish McDougall is consistently good, playing a range of difficult men – particularly Becky’s boyfriend – pushily demanding they put an offer in on a house – and her father – constantly complaining about Harry and Meghan. Yet as the play advances, he conveys utter desperation – both when claiming World War Two re-enactments as a way to commune with ‘my history’, and quietly begging for love from his parents, being forced to hide his tears from his father. McDougall’s multi-roling culminates in a terrifying turn towards surrealism. He dons a parodic costume and smokes large cigar, playing a local man who dresses up every year as Winston Churchill for the 1940s-themed fête.
The boundaries of conventional drama – which have been strained throughout – collapse entirely at the play’s bravura conclusion. A touching section sees Becky’s schoolfriend Lewis, an aspiring musician, sit down at his piano and tell us the story of how he will score a number one hit off the back of the chords he is improvising right there. Nathaniel Christian shines as he movingly sketches a life is filled with glamour and success, but the bubble bursts and his self-belief soon falters. He revises his expectations down and down – maybe not the penthouse in New York, maybe Glasgow instead, maybe just the number one, or not. Maybe he’ll just keep doing what he’s doing. Would that be so bad? Then suddenly he and Becky find themselves at the 1940s fête – the fête he has refused to take part in. They are being strongarmed into duetting and their protestations simply do not register. Nothing Lewis or Becky say makes any difference. They are utterly trapped. The genre seems uncanny; we are plunged into something almost resembling horror.
The world closes in around them and they are attacked symbolically by the past. Becky and Lewis attempt to fight back by imagining a future, thinking about the things they want to do and achieve. The antidote to toxic nostalgia, Kandinsky suggests, is hope for the future – specifically a vision for a future that captures the imagination better than the grip of the past. Yet that past is overwhelming – its iconography stitched deep in the mind. Just as Lewis’s aspirations became more and more muted, now they are subsumed by the all-conquering victory of a backward-looking sentimentality. The future is eaten up. If the past and future are at war, then future does not seem to be winning.
While the ‘Winston’ of the play’s title generates the most vivid mental and stage imagery, the presence of the word ‘machine’ is perhaps more fascinating – an implicit comment on the propagation (and propagandising) of World War Two as a dominating aesthetic. It seems to suggest that this nostalgia is not only generated by some unfathomable, submerged trauma in the mind, but is mechanically reproduced – particularly in cultural industries. The show’s poster depicts cardboard cut-outs of Churchill, fanning out into the distance in an almost military formation – an unstoppable advance of kitsch symbolism with a dark, imperialist underbelly. The play’s title reminded me of Marvin Carlson’s description of the theatre as a ‘memory machine’ – a space for raising ghosts (and potentially laying them to rest). Perhaps, Kandinsky’s fantastic drama claims, theatre has a key part to play in exorcising the most toxic elements of Britain’s national myth?
The Winston MachineDirected by James Yeatman, Dramaturg and Producer Lauren Mooney, Associate Direction by Segen Yosef, Production Manager Crin Claxton, Design by Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, Music Composed by Zac Gvirtzman, Sound by Kieran Lucas, Stage Manager Grace Hans, Engagement Producer Peter Laycock, Starring Hamish McDougall, Nathaniel Christian, Rachel-Leah Hosker (performer-devisers)
Reviewed 2nd February 2022