A liberal nightmare in Sloane Square

Laura Wade’s play Posh is porn for liberals, with its idea that evil toffs are puppeteering politics and the media.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Culture

If posh people didn’t exist it would probably be necessary to invent them. They were long thought to have been rendered extinct by the Cool Britannia revolution and the supposed levelling of the social playing field in the 1990s. Yet they have made an unexpected return as this year’s must-have beating post. And that is exactly what they are in Laura Wade’s new drama, Posh, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, which is at the epicentre of all things posh in London’s Sloane Square.

Posh is the story is of a bunch of upper-class Oxford undergraduates who are members of the Riot Club – an all-male association that convenes for orgiastic dinner parties once a term. They find a venue, arrange a feast and guzzle fine wine by the silver bucket load before nose diving into sachets of cocaine. These evenings of highly organised debauchery may or may not end in flight to a foreign country, but the venue itself is always trashed.

The play’s set-up is designed to raise the hackles of any fair-minded liberal puritan. Even though the Riot Club pays for any damage it causes, its arrogance is inexcusable. But it is the monstrosity of their appetites which shocks the most – especially when compared to the play’s simple, hard-working publican and his daughter who is helping out waitressing. She is a student at Newcastle University and, tellingly, she is marked by the play as the boys’ intellectual equal, as though intellectual inferiority might diminish her dignity.

The references in the play to the contemporary political situation in the UK and the leadership of the Tory Party are obvious – although Wade has played them down in interviews. The Riot Club is clearly modelled on Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club. Membership of this reactionary and exclusive institution, with its fabled taste for bingeing, has moreover become the mark of shame worn by David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.

Actually, Boris Johnson also ‘outed’ David Dimbleby as a former member on the BBC’s Question Time, but that fact is generally swept under the carpet. Who wants to believe the even-handed arbiter of broadcasting could be such a monster? Instead, it seems vital to today’s classless liberal to maintain an operational fantasy of poshness. It is conspiracy theory pure and simple. The idea espoused in Wade’s play is that these people are a secret cabal running the country from the oak-panelled clubs of St James’s Park. Here they secure their ascendancy and look after their own.

The rule of the posh is axiomatic to the play. At no point is the idea of a triumphant ruling class ever questioned. The idea of course is that it should serve as a homily, exhorting the liberal classes to redouble their watch and guard against the covert enemy within. It quickens their instincts and sharpens their resolve. And yet, is this fantasy of secret dominion not also the fantasy of the ruling classes themselves? The truly posh seldom reflect on their own ascendancy, but rather take it for granted that they are set above the herd. This is as much the source of their mystique as it is of their self-delusion.

And yet there is something darker still in this collusion of fantasies between the toff and the egalitarian. It is that both share a passion for what has been popularly dubbed ‘aspiration’. In other words, it is not the supremacy of the toffs that is in question, so much as their wrongful desire to kick down the ladder of equal opportunities from the battlements of their stately homes. Perhaps if we could all get into their private members’ clubs, albeit with the right accents and bank balances, all would be forgiven.

There is therefore a profound ambivalence in Wade’s play about the posh. It is far from clear what is being mocked and what is being enjoyed – what we are expected to tut-tut about and what we are expected to laugh at. Is it an indictment of poshness or a celebration of its errant vitality? The use of rap between scenes performed by the cast as scat is both amusingly populist and elitishly poised. Meanwhile, the group’s culinary and alcoholic ambitions are in sync with mainstream hedonism – it’s just that they prefer vintage Margaux to head-splitting Stella.

The audience is thus cast in an intriguing position, laughing at one character saying he needs a shower after a fencing match because he smells of defeat (‘the other guy’s defeat’), while at the same time disapproving of the young buck’s outrageous pomposity. Mutatis mutandis, it’s tempting to say that Wade’s play smells of taking pleasure in its characters’ victory. She enjoys their company so much, she even takes the trouble to cleanse the action of her approval with one particularly vile character who rants ‘I am sick to death of poor people’.

The same young man who espouses some kind of sub-prime Nietszchean divine right is furious that an escort girl they have hired to give them all a blow job refuses their overtures. Whatever next he wonders, ‘paid holidays for prostitutes?’. In a further transparent attempt to disavow the pleasure that is taken in her characters, Wade ensures this same character is the one who is judged smart enough to progress in the upper echelons of the Tory cabal.

Without question, this is wishful thinking. It allows the audience to delight in the play’s contradictions without ever having to confront them. We love the jokes, but hate the sneer. It could never be admitted for example that we might secretly be in love with these deplorable supremacists, with their cynical plotting against liberal democracy. The Brideshead Revisited-effect enhanced by the presence of a young gay poet is therefore averted with a violent Lord of the Flies-style ending engineered to shock and sober.

The play’s overall strategy, then, is one of scapegoating. The characters are charged with the sins of excess of our own community and its failure to live up to its proclaimed egalitarianism. This process is also known as giving a dog a bad name and hanging it. Interestingly, Anthony Ward’s design of a posh country pub sees the action as almost crouching in a bunker – as though recognising itself to be under fire in the same way as the characters vaunt themselves as a persecuted elite.

But there is a further metaphor lurking in this plot, where a bunch of people first indulge themselves and then wreck the joint where they are convened – before getting caught out and offering to pay for the damage with a credit card. Isn’t that what New Labour did to the UK, in cahoots with the banks? What about Lord Mandelson’s infamous assertion that he is very relaxed about people being filthy rich? Do we need reminding that this unelected puppet master is pulling the strings in what’s left of our current government? And did we all not connive in this process by buying into the credit boom? Now that would have been a radical message for Wade to pursue. Instead she just blames the toffs.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

Posh, by Laura Wade, is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 22 May 2010.

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