What’s the Big Idea?

RECENTLY we went to review a production of Twelfth Night by the extremely talented students of Arts University Bournemouth. How, asked the director Aileen Gonsalves, do you take such a familiar Shakespeare comedy – arguably the best loved of all – and make it fun and topical for a 2023 audience.

The Big Idea was to frame it as the finale of one of the 21st century’s most popular reality television shows – Strictly Come Dancing. Two of the characters become the 1920s style “hosts” and the various couples are paired off, but with two (Viola and Sebastian) not knowing they are in the game. It was a triumph, funny, clever, accessible, but not pushed to overkill.

There was a “Big Idea” in last year’s Dorset Opera Festival – using the same set, Mozart’s Magic Flute was gloriously re-imagined in an Edwardian-style circus, while Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was located on a convict ship. One idea worked a treat – the other failed, not only because of one very weak leading performance, but because, if you didn’t know the story nor who wrote the original novel, you had no idea what was happening. That was evident at the interval with puzzled audience members asking each other what was going on.

Big Ideas are not uncommon in the theatre. Some work and some don’t. One famous one was the National Theatre production of Richard III, starring Ian McKellen, which set the play in the 1930s with the king as an Oswald Mosley figure. Many critics loved it – I hated it, even as a devoted McKellen fan and despite some individually powerful scenes, because there were too many anachronistic “holes” in the text.

Fortunately Big Ideas in the theatre or opera house do not usually hurt anyone. But when leaders and politicians have “big ideas” they can lead to civil strife, famine, war and catastrophe. Right now, we have a surfeit of these.

Think Trump with his “Make America Great Again” slogan – an egotist-narcissist playing on the unhappiness and hopelessness of so many of his fellow-countrymen. His dystopian presidency ended with the violence and chaos of the Capitol invasion on 6th Januuary 2021.

Think Putin with his delusions of Tsardom – seeking to recreate the myth of Mother Russia and her Empire. A vain and increasingly paranoid tyrant, with his profession of Orthodox faith, he is willing literally to destroy a people, their cities and their culture, in the pursuit of his “vision.”

Just a little further back, but closer to home, there is another narcissist, the Latin-spouting straw-haired philanderer Boris Johnson. With dreams of grandeur, channelling his wartime leader hero, he opted for the self-centred Brexit choice (not his personal idea), apparently not on the basis of what is best for the country but to further his personal ambition.

A few decades back again and we find two of the 20th century’s greatest monsters, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, who were guilty of causing famine, terror and millions of deaths. Mao’s big ideas in the 1950s and 60s were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Estimates of the number of people who died, through starvation, persecution, prison labour and mass executions, range from 40 to 80 million victims.

Stalin’s 1930s policy of collectivism brought famine to Ukraine and other farming regions, including Kazakhstan. Private farms were seized and converted into state-run operations with disastrous consequences. Ukraine was a fertile farming region known as the “breadbasket of the Soviet Union” – it is estimated that nearly four million Ukrainians died in the famine of 1931-32.

And of course, there were the unspeakable horrors of the Nazis, murdering millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and anyone who opposed them. The consequences of the cult of the Fuhrer rank as some of the most horrific in recorded history.

Fortunately we have some good Big Ideas to balance this catalogue of horrors, with examples here in the UK. The National Health Service and the post-war reforms of education and welfare were undoubtedly Good Things, as Sellars and Yeatman put it in their witty take on British history, 1066 and All That. But they are fragile and could be shattered by an ambitious politician with Big Ideas of reform.

The American wit PJ O’Rourke said: “The 20th century was a test-bed for big ideas – fascism, communism, the atomic bomb.” JK Rowling said: “I had an old typewriter and a big idea.” And Oscar Wilde, never short of a good quote, said: “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

Perhaps the answer is to leave Big Ideas to creative people and boycott the weasel words and empty promises of politicians and megalomaniacs.

Fanny Charles