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Although the poet Philip Larkin has probably grabbed most of us and thrown us inside this show – Rita Ippolit’s “Almost Instinct Almost True” at the Surgeons Hall – it is actually a portrait of his lover, Monica Jones. Ippolit’s play is skilful, snappy and powerful, and the best thing about it is that it is not necessarily another sour moan about Larkin’s rebarbative politics and his shoddy treatment of women. Instead, we are shown a highly intelligent woman who had, it seems, blissfully neglected her career and effaced her true personality out of devotion to his genius. Sure, Larkin was good, this play concedes, but was he really that good? Was he good enough to merit Jones being expunged from her own story?

Larkin is infuriating for his detractors because whilst he could be startlingly racist and unpleasant, these qualities had seldom made it through into his poetry. There is therefore a disorienting gulf between the artist and the art, which is often manifested in the tendency for political condemnations of Larkin to feel like “dancing about architecture.”

It is futile to explain about the racism to somebody who is haunted by Larkin’s poetry, because it isn’t in the poetry. For one who is appalled by his racism it is a distraction or just buying time to bring up the poetry, for the same reason. Perhaps for the latter crowd (I am firmly in the former), the poetry looks rather like the literary equivalent of consummate plastic surgery. An appearance of passable innocence has been achieved only by editing out various tell-tale wrinkles of truth.   

Jones was hardly Sophia Tolstaya, the wife of another heroic Great Writer who had found herself living in virtual slavery. She wasn’t Sylvia Plath either. Her suffering was altogether subtler but we might continue to feel it keenly. She had lectured in the English literature department at University College, Leicester. She had refused to write or publish her own work, despite “helping” with the creation of one of Larkin’s most characteristic poems, “An Arundel Tomb.”

Julia Munrow whirls her up as a gallopingly brainy and embarrassingly clingy hurricane, a combination that often makes her come across as a terrifying force. Which side of her personality, or which of her slantwise personalities, is ever the most real? Her airy forthrightness frequently collapses, leaving her sobbing. Yet her belief in Larkin’s poetry runs utterly pure. The mess vanishes at once and she looks safe and happy, a child again, when she remembers the poetry.

Teddy Walker plays a lone acolyte, a working-class undergraduate who is mortified and thunderstruck to be taken into her confidence. His character is clearly based on that of John Sutherland, a former student of Jones’ who had published a biography of her last year. It seems as if “Almost Instinct Almost True” is an up-front dramatisation of Sutherland’s book, tipping it neatly into theatre like gin into a tumbler. The play remains roundly well-crafted in itself, nonetheless.

We gain a vivid sense of academia during the halcyon days of its elitism and excellence. It is a truism by now that academia slaughters everybody’s dreams and breaks everybody’s hearts, but this play shows that it has been always squalid. The occasional, anomalous academic might be creative in their souls but the general pattern is to be, like Jones, restless. Her student blocks Larkin out; he is exposed to the poetry but he simply refuses to engage with it. He can see the harm that Larkin’s poetry is doing with his own eyes, without needing to read it. His misfortune is to be stranded too far down the story’s chain of command, with a pragmatic philistinism that is never really an answer to the problem of reading Larkin.            

This is a story about Larkin in which Larkin is off on holiday. In Sark, perhaps. There is just a spectral trace of him on stage, in the chunky, lusciously black-framed glasses that he wore and that Jones wears also. His trademark spectacles perch in her face just as her own word “blazon” – a symbol of fidelity and permanence, applied noncommittally – had rippled in his poem. No, let’s not stop at this – in their poem.