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The Assassin cast go in for the kill – 38 years later!

11 July, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Alastair Norcross

I’VE met all sorts of philosophers over the years, some in pubs, some at political meetings, but the oddest seem to pop up in academia, anchored as professors, authors of several books.

Alastair Norcross is one of them.

And the more I spoke to him over the phone at his home in Colorado, America, on Tuesday night, the more convinced I became that he was an engaging force of nature!

He had just flown back from London where I had met him acting his head off in a play by the great Jean-Paul Sartre – thought to be the successor to Voltaire and Victor Hugo – in a one-night performance at St Mark’s Church, Primrose Hill on Friday evening.

By sheer coincidence my wife had bought me Sartre’s early masterpiece, Nausea, as a birthday present around the time as several characters began rehearsing a play by Sartre called The Assassin for the performance at St Mark’s.

The planned show stood out because it would be a replay of the same play with the same actors who had performed in it 38 years ago!

A night of delightful surreal madness beckoned.

The audience of 60 or so had been gathered together by Sara Wheeler, novelist and prolific travel writer, who had produced the play originally in 1981 at Oxford University.

She had simply sent the old cast an email several weeks ago and hoped they would be ready to do it again.

Then they were in their early 20s. Now middle aged, mainly in the professions, one a QC, another Alastair Norcross, had all made their way by train, car and plane to St Mark’s.

They weren’t able to rehearse the play much and relied on texts provided by Sara Wheeler, who lives in Hampstead.

It was the strangest of theatrical evenings.

The church wasn’t designed for such a piece of theatre and words were lost in the nave’s echo chamber – the high voices of women more a casualty than those of the men.

The two main antagonists, the Communist party apparatchik, played by Andrew Law, and his more “pragmatic” opposite party number (Norcross) quietly mastered their last-minute parts.

Norcross’s life is like a political kaleidoscope – his parents were Communist party members for a short while in the 50s in the north, then drawn to the Labour party. He remembers going on demonstrations as a child. His family had been “loud, argumentative and competitive”. Later, he appeared to have calmed down and today lectures on ethics.

As he tells me this, I hear myself wishing there was more ethics today in politics where too often one only meets lies and evasions passed off as acceptable political behaviour!

At the end of the production most of the cast gathered for drinks and food and I overheard Norcross saying he leaned more towards the party apparatchik than his own character.

The apparatchik had subordinated his principles to implement policies. Perhaps, that is why Sara Wheeler believes the play – though dated – is still relevant today. Norcross, who believes it is still relevant as well – said he had been drawn to the former Labour leader Michael Foot. He thought his character – pragmatic, honest – had appealed to him but, in some ways, he was a failure as a leader who had helped Margaret Thatcher to stay in power. Is this being echoed today?

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