Sauce For The Goosesteppers

Review of As A Man Grows Younger at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 19 – 23 February 2019

Calling out resurgent fascism is a recurring trope on the left. Some manifestations uniform themselves unambiguously: the National Front, the British National Party and Tommy Robinson among them. Others are opaque and conjectural – ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Universal Credit’, for example.

Howard Colyer’s one-hander, As A Man Grows Younger, is a visceral transport into the life of a writer struggling against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise. Italo Svevo is today best known for his friendship with James Joyce; the setting for this drama is 1920s Trieste where the two writers lived.

Trieste at that time bore the enduring stamp of an Imperial Free City – a cultural and commercial crossroads of plural ethnicities and an international identity. Fin de Siècle artists and thinkers were drawn to this Viennese seaport in an atmosphere far removed from Mussolini’s reactionary populism.

Svevo’s monologue describes the haphazard trajectory that has brought him literary success, and to the brink of psychological collapse. Joyce is invoked to sprinkle stardust and a couple of good gags. The real off-stage interlocutors, however, are Il Duce and the disintegration of a multi-ethnic supra-national state.

David Bromley delivers a kinetically compelling 70 minute, performance, brimful with the contradictions under which his character struggles. He dotes on his wife, but she is an enthusiastic fascist fund raiser. He fears the secret police, but goads the authorities in his work. His greatest success is stopping smoking – so he does it repeatedly.

The contemporary parallels are clear, although the take home is nuanced. Vigilance is vital when reaction pulls on its jackboots, but the gulf between a handful of thugs and the horrors of interwar fascism is mercifully wide. Recognising the difference is a genuine challenge. 

The play’s most resonant line, is the reported nostrum of Svevo’s wife. “When everyone is being foolish, it can be foolish to act sensibly”. That is surely a clarion call to those who might allow reaction to flourish in the benign glare of relativism? Reassuringly, such a thought-provoking performance as this is at least a modest bulwark against that possibility.