From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 years of humanist intervention

Note: This review is from 2002

Review by Steve Bennett

As comedy titles go, From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 years of humanist intervention has all the pithy appeal of an Open University module.

But what it does tell you - if you weren't already aware of Robert Newman's output since he vanished from TV screens in the mid-Nineties - is that this show is just about as serious as comedy gets.

Indeed, this does sometimes seem more political history lecture that stand-up show. But just as you feel you ought to start making notes, Newman does manage to pull things back round to a joke. Well, most the time.

This is, of course, a fertile time for comedy with a conscience, though it is ironic it takes American military action to throw global capitalism into the spotlight, but Newman sets himself up as a one-man propaganda machine for the anti-war, anti-globalisation message.

His passion for his topic is as obvious as George Bush's motives - and it is that what drives the show through stickier moments when the show threatens to get bogged down in the overwhelming range of its arguments.

Newman has set himself an ambitious task - to pull together a vast range of incidents from the past four centuries (the title's a bit of a misnomer - he 'only' goes back to a 1609 shipwreck that not only sowed the seeds ofcapitalist expansionism, but also inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest) to paint a coherent picture of the parlous state of the world today.

Such a wide-ranging brief requires more obscure references that the Encylopaedia Britannica, and this is probably the only comedy show that really could do with its own bibliography - and sometimes, there's an element of showing off to all this. Newman has a tendancy to throw in obscure information that serves more to impress how well-read he is than advancing his argument. Similarly, he has a love of using a long word when a simpler one would do the job just as well. It's not about dumbing down, but making a complex narrative more accessible.

It's not beyond him, there are plenty of instances when he demonstrates that accessibility is exactly what he can do, compressing whole arguments into penetrating one-liners in a flashes of tight brilliance. He also two decades of stand-up experience under his belt, which has given him an armoury of stage tricks to enliven his arguments. Several times, for instance, he launches into the sort of impressions that started his career - mimicking everyone from Richard Burton to Johnny Rotten and Tony Blair to Officer Dibble. Challenging the world order is obviously a slightly better use of such vocal talents than standing at bus stops pretending to be Michael Parkinson, Dead Ringers please note.

Elsewhere, he conjures up wonderfully silly images, such as imagining Anne Hathaway as a bitter drunk, shouting abuse at tourists' visiting her cottage. It has absolutely nothing to do with the thrust of his argument, admittedly, but does break up the sermon.

Newman does lose his way quite badly in the latter part of the show, just when his argument should be coming together. Instead, he loses his thrust completely, wandering off into irrelevant, and unfunny, anecdotes about benefit gigs he's done, or his arrest while on demos - which sit impotently next to over-long expositions that need to be balanced by some comic relief.

These are distractions to a message that needs to be heard, a message that is in desperate need of some final flourish to pull the whole show together - something stronger than the rapping 'catering tortoise' he has currently chosen to use.

That said, this show is often fascinating - especially in its lesser-known historical notes such as America's investment in Nazi Germany or the Middle Eastern origins of the First World War - occasionally hilarious, and always passionate. Which isn't a bad combination.

Steve Bennett
Leicester Comedy Festival
February 10, 2002

Review date: 1 Jan 2002
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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