The Burial At Thebes – June 2008

8/10

Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Friday 27th June 2008

This was a very good version of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The language was formal and declamatory for the most part and every word came across clearly. The guard who reported the un-desecration of Polyneices’s body was the only one who spoke in more conversational English and with an accent, differentiating him nicely from the toffs.

The set was very plain. What looked like wooden panels, worn and battered, curved round the back of the acting space, with a central doorway for entrances and exits. There were irregularly shaped holes where there would have been knots in the wood. Centre front was a large bowl, spotlit.

The play opened with two men taking scoops of sand from the bowl, and then backing off to the sides of the stage. Antigone and her sister then tell us what’s been going on. Oedipus their father married his own mother (Greek drama has a way of going to places most other plays avoid) and his children, who are also his half-siblings, are still suffering for his sin against the gods. Their brothers are both dead, one fighting for Thebes and one against. The pro-Theban brother is being given full honours while the other one is being disgraced by not having a funeral rites. Apparently this means he won’t get his heavenly Oyster card and will be doomed (I think that’s the gist). Antigone is all for disobeying the order to leave her brother’s body to decompose naturally, but her sister is too scared to go against Creon’s command. Creon is their mother’s brother and the new king, so what he says goes or else. Antigone isn’t put off – she knows the dangers, but she also knows the duty she has towards a brother and the gods. She’s a tough nut, that one.

Creon appears next, giving an excellent speech designed to win the loyalty of his new subjects. It’s all smarm and charm at this point, but it isn’t long before the paranoid control freak shows through. There’s a bit of concern amongst the gathered bigwigs about the decree against the burial, but Creon soon smoothes that over. However when the guard turns up to tell Creon that someone has carried out the funeral rites for the dead man, he starts to go all Gordon Brown on us (stroppy and authoritarian, that is).  He’s convinced ‘they’ are out to get him, and that some rich people have bribed the guards to turn a blind eye to the funeral rites. He tells the guard to bring him the guilty party or he’ll be strung up instead. Naturally the guard’s a bit miffed by this, and decides to run away.

Now we’re introduced to Haemon, Creon’s son, in song. As the chorus sings of his great abilities and virtues, the character demonstrates these in mime. This is just a short intro – in fact, I don’t think I got his name at this point – and then we’re into Antigone’s arrest by the guard and the hearing before Creon and the chorus. Creon shows little pity – he thinks women should stick to the home, never mind disobeying him or carrying out a funeral service. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it’s his niece he’s condemning to death, though it does disturb the chorus. Mind you, their main concern seems to be that she’s engaged to Haemon, and how will he take it?

Very well, apparently. After Antigone has had her say, insisting that following the gods’ instructions is more important than obeying the whim of a mere king, she’s taken away to be walled up in a cave. Her sister did try to be noble and join her in her final prison but Antigone rebuffs her – if she didn’t do the crime, she doesn’t do the time. Creon keeps changing his mind about the sister – she’s for the chop, then she isn’t, then she is. Anyway, when his son arrives there’s some friendly words of warning from some of the chorus, but Creon’s not listening. At first, his son speaks up for his father in total support, as a good son should in ancient Greece. This gladdens Creon’s heart, but it doesn’t last. Before long Haemon is suggesting very strongly that his dad should reconsider – better to admit a mistake than upset the gods.

Well, Creon’s not having that, so disaster is pretty much assured (as if there was any doubt!). Tiresias, the blind seer, turns up and his advice is so pointed and so clear that even Creon begins to doubt his actions. He sends people to release Antigone and to tidy up what’s left of the corpse, but too late. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, appears just in time to hear the sad news of Haemon’s death. He stabbed himself after hanging Antigone (or she got him to hang her, whatever). If these people hadn’t been so keen to die all might have been well, but then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. Eurydice is ominously quiet and heads off to top herself, and Creon drags on his son’s dead body – Eurydice’s arrives a few minutes later – for the final weeping and wailing. The play ends with the whole group assembled on stage in near darkness, with just the bowl at the front spotlit.

This was absolutely great. The cast worked brilliantly together. Various actors would discard assorted sheets and blankets to emerge as a character, then re-robe to blend back into the chorus. There wasn’t any humour (which is why I tend to be flippant in my notes) but I don’t expect any in a Greek tragedy, and the intensity of emotion was just right for me. The translation was excellent and very understandable, with a good rhythm and tone that seemed perfect for the tragedy style. One of the best things we’ve seen here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Gertrude’s Secret – June 2008

6/10

By Benedick West

Directed by Andrew Loudon

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th June 2008

Tonight we saw Maureen, Terence, Candida, Alexander and Tina in the first half, and Eva, Desmond, Gertrude, Emily and Eric in the second half. This confused me a little, as the program had listed all these characters’ stories, and then said we would get a selection from them, potentially different each night. Not so, as it happens. And I’m not complaining.

There was no set as such. For the first half there were a few chairs and a bench, while the second half was more elaborate with a bed and a sofa.  Each story lasted about ten minutes – in some cases I was glad it wasn’t any longer, while others were much more entertaining. On the whole, we felt the women’s parts were better than the men’s, and I would put this down to the writing rather than the performances.

The first story was told by Maureen. Dressed in a vivid red coat and clutching her handbag, she started telling us about the man in her life, name of Derek (possibly). As she burbled on happily about how wonderful their relationship was, even though she had to make all the running, we gradually realised that this match made in heaven is entirely one sided. She’s a deluded stalker, and even when Derek screams “leave me alone” at her, she doesn’t take the hint. As she said, even the policeman agreed with her that she wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time. She gave us a quick flash of the outfit she was wearing under her coat – Derek was certainly in for a treat if he ever changes his mind (think black lacy underwear). At least she did regret poisoning his cat, which was very funny, even if a bit dark.

Terence sat in a pub, drinking his beer and telling us how proud he was of his son. Again, there’s a shift from light to dark, as we find out that his son is in prison for having knifed some other boys. I found this a bit dreary. It was well enough acted, but the rhythm of speech was very predictable – each section had a gentle piece followed by a bit of bellowing – and it was too soporific for me. I didn’t spot any humour to lighten the load, so I was glad when it finished.

Candida, named after the disease rather than the play, clearly had issues around sex. The recent arrival, and then departure of a foreign au pair led her to express  her dislike for messy sex with a man and speculate on the pleasures of woman on woman action. A few times the actress also showed us the au pair; she stood centre stage and was spotlit with the other lights lowered. This piece was mildly entertaining, though the best joke was probably at the start, when she was rubbing the stem of a highly suggestible plant with a view to pollinating it.

Alexander started his story at the front of the stage, and spotlit so that only head and shoulders were visible. He gave a rant along football supporter lines, then the lights came on and he became himself, dragging a drip round with him, the victim of an attack by that same rabid football hooligan. He was telling us about his experience, and gave us a another couple of glimpses of his attacker during the story. This was another section with little humour, and I found it hard to relate to these stories. There was little depth or insight to them, and without a funny line or two they couldn’t do more than pass the time.

Tina completed the first half. Pushing a pram, and wearing a bright yellow coat with matching accessories, she lets us into her world of cheap housing (condemned, even), poorly paid jobs, and a husband who’s just been sacked and is suffering from depression due to having fallen in the cement mix in a previous job. It’s funnier on the page than the stage. For all her best efforts, Ann Micklethwaite couldn’t rescue this piece. It didn’t seem to know what it was doing, and neither did I. Was it meant to be funny, sad, dark, some combination of these? The dialogue jumped around from place to place and never settled, so I just couldn’t get involved in what was a sad story with comic potential. If that had been it, I might have given the evening a 3/10 rating. Fortunately the second half proved to have a few gems to raise the standard.

To start us off, Eva treated us to a series of sexually confused malapropisms that were good fun. She was a cleaner, from a long line of cleaners, who’d cleaned for the best. As she tidied the bed and sofa, she chatted to us about her friends and so on. There were a number of good jokes, but all I can remember now is “penis colada”, a car called a “vulva”, and how uncomfortable her new “brasserie” was. We really had to pay attention with this one.

Desmond arrived on stage on a mobility buggy. He told us all about his success story, how he’d built up the best printers business in the area, and now sold it for a packet. He used a lot of printer’s jargon, which certainly made the character real, but also helped me keep my distance. His wife had left him, as he couldn’t provide anything but money, but he wasn’t downhearted. He was still full of energy and had plans for the future. He was going to open a sex shop cum strip joint, the first in the area. We were treated to some of the details – no expense spared – and then he was off to get the project started before we could pinch his idea.

Again, this was only mildly entertaining. The actor chose to go for volume jumps during this, talking quietly and conversationally for some parts, then for no apparent reason, shouting a line or two. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that in real life, at least not to such an extreme, so I’ve no idea what was intended.

Gertrude, the lady in the title, was played by Prunella Scales. Clad in dressing gown and slippers, she fretted for a while by the phone, anxious not to miss a call from her daughter. It was Gertrude’s birthday, and despite problems in their relationship, Gertrude was hoping her daughter would call.

Actually, relationship problems were nothing new to Gertrude, as she had a terrible time of it with her husband, what with the drinking, and then the beatings. The use of the past tense suggested she’d been on her own for quite a while, but it turned out she’d given herself a birthday present and stabbed the horrible man. His body was behind the sofa (she’d already made it clear she was house-proud, so she wouldn’t leave a messy body in full view), but she did remove the large carving knife she’d stuck in him, so we could see for ourselves she meant business. This was one of the better sections, and Prunella Scales added plenty of experience to make it very enjoyable.

The next story was definitely darker in tone. A young girl, Emily, appeared lying on the bed in her pyjamas, holding her teddy bear. She was in a hotel in Amsterdam, and her father had left her on her own so he could attend some business meetings. She was scared, and the TV in her room only showed weird stuff that she wasn’t interested in. She did her best to cheer herself up, and told us of a new friend she’d made via the internet. It was another girl just like her, same age, same hair colour and everything. She even lived very close to Emily’s house back in the UK. Emily had told her all about a secret place she goes to in the woods nearby, and she was going to meet her new friend there secretly once she got back. She was ever so excited about it. And she wasn’t going to tell her parents, so there. Oh dear. This was heart-rending stuff, though still in a fairly light vein, despite the subject matter.

The final scene involved Eric, a short-sighted old man wheeling a shopper around with him, and complaining bitterly to a cardboard cut out of a woman, whom he thinks is a shop assistant. I don’t remember any of the jokes now – they were pretty slight at the time – but it did raise one or two good laughs. All in all I enjoyed myself well enough, but I thought there was very little atmosphere in the theatre tonight, with relatively few seats sold, and perhaps these short pieces would do better in a smaller, more intimate space.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

London Assurance – June 2008

7/10

By Dion Boucicault

Directed by Nikolai Foster

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 20th June 2008

We would all have enjoyed this play a lot more with a better audience. One chap fell asleep and was snoring for most of the first half. As he was on his own, and surrounded by empty seats, there was nobody to give him a delicate nudge, and so it continued. The couple next to me took a while to settle down, preferring their own conversation to the offering on stage, and although one of them did turn her mobile phone off, she waited till the play had already started! The rest of the audience was remarkably quiet – although it does take a while to get into gear, the cast were working very hard, and there was more to enjoy in the first half than you would have guessed from the audience’s reactions. All in all not the best reception for what was a very good production of a dated but still entertaining play.

As it’s a touring production, the set was compact. Basically a large circle, there was plenty of room left on the Yvonne Arnaud stage. There were two French windows on either side of the central door, curving round the rear of the circle, and seats and tables were moved around to create the different settings. All very efficient. Backdrops gave us the general locale, and there may have been some other scenery behind the windows.

We’d seen this play before, at Chichester, but I couldn’t remember much until the play got going. Sir Harcourt Courtly has a son whom he believes to be very straight-laced and shy of company, thanks to the many and varied lies told to him by his servant, Cool. In truth, his son is the complete man-about town, staying out till the cows have come home, been milked, had a kip and gone out again. Like his father, he usually sees sunrise before bedtime.

As this is a comedy, there has to be some unusual circumstance to complicate matters. In this case, it’s the extraordinary set up whereby Sir Harcourt will regain the lands he mortgaged to his neighbour provided he marries the neighbour’s daughter, Grace. If Grace doesn’t marry him (and she does have a say in the matter), all the lands will revert to Sir Harcourt’s heir, i.e. his son, Charles. When Grace and Charles take an instant and serious liking to one another, the opportunities for confusion and a happy ending are set up at the same time, for when they meet, he’s pretending to be another man, Augustus Hastings. Although she sees through his imposture very quickly when the time comes for him to reappear as himself, she’s not going to give him an easy time of it. This situation, coupled with Sir Harcourt’s fancy to seduce another, married, lady only days before his wedding to Grace, give us the main comedy of the play. There’s some humour in one of the subplots – a wannabe lawyer who tries to persuade everyone else to sue someone so he can make money. He eavesdrops freely, and comments on the action, which led to some laughs, but although the performance was good, either the production or tonight’s audience let it down.

In fact, all the performances were good. Gerard Murphy gave us a fairly robust Sir Harcourt, and this set off his affectations nicely. Geraldine McNulty played Lady Gay Spanker really well. With a name like that the laughs should come easily anyway, but she went beyond the basics. So despite the difficulties, and my own tendency to nap a bit during the early stages, I enjoyed this performance very much.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Quartermaine’s Terms – June 2008

8/10

By Simon Gray

Directed by Harry Burton

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 19th June 2008

This is a much kinder play than I’m used to seeing from Simon Gray. Although all the characters have their less likeable qualities, there wasn’t so much unpleasantness around as usual. Quartermaine himself was an affable chap, doing his best to please everyone, and spending most of his days in dreamland, even when he was supposed to be teaching. He reminded me of Firs from The Cherry Orchard – he always sat in the same chair in the staff room, and at the end it seemed likely that he would still be sitting there when everyone came back for the next term, even though he’d been fired.

The setting was a school for teaching English language and culture to foreign students. The other teachers included an older spinster who lives with her invalid mother, a woman married to an academic chap who is having an affair with another woman, a husband who is having an affair with his typewriter and whose wife therefore leaves him, taking their son with her, a new man who shows a remarkable affinity for accidents, and an older academic sort who is perfectly capable of talking at great length in learned detail without actually adding anything to the conversation. The proprietors are a male couple, one of whom we never see.

The set was a marvellous depiction of a staff room back in the late fifties/early sixties. The walls were scruffy, the furniture shabby, but there was lots of room. There was no plot as such, just a tour round the different characters and their ups and downs. Husbands and wives split up and got back together again. The spinster apparently bumped off her mother by pushing her down the stairs, to judge by her reactions to a police visit, about another, unrelated matter of some students trying to kill and cook a swan. She then gets religion, only to end up some time later on the fags and booze, looking desperately unhappy. The new boy ends up a permanent member of staff (just as well, as he seems to be the most hard-working of the lot of them), and experiences a brief accident-free period during his engagement, only for normal service to resume once he’s married. The older academic takes over the school when the unseen proprietor dies, and finally someone has the courage to sack the one man who doesn’t really contribute to the school’s purpose. It’s a sad moment, but inevitable.

Although we don’t get much of an explanation of why Quartermaine is the way he is, there are some oblique references to his aunt’s house, and some childhood fear of swan’s wings. We seem to be getting a number of plays and productions at the moment that don’t attempt a psychological explanation of their characters, and it makes a nice change. Steve spotted a number of Chekhovian parallels throughout the play – I’ve no idea if this was intentional on the author’s part or not. Anyway, we enjoyed it very much, and the performances were all excellent, getting a lot of subtle detail across about each character so that I felt I knew them all personally.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Last Train To Nibroc – June 2008

8/10

By Arlene Hutton

Directed by Katie Henry

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th June 2008

The set was same chopped-corner platform as for De Montfort, with a bench on top, and a book sitting on that. Clothes were hanging on a peg to our left, and, as I realised later, to our far right. We sat in the middle of far right front row.

The plot is simple. A man (Raleigh) and a woman (May) meet on a train journey from California to the east coast in December 1940. They develop an unlikely relationship, which continues over the next two scenes, when they finally(!) come to terms with their love for each other. God, the frustration. There were times I wanted to bang their heads together and tell them to get on with it, but the writing was good enough to keep me watching to see what would happen.

They were an unlikely couple because of their different personalities, but these two opposites clearly attracted each other. May was an uptight, prim little madam from a small Kentucky town, with a fantasy, rather than a dream, of being a missionary. Having just spent Christmas with her (ex-)fiancé and discovering that he was no longer interested in helping her realise her fantasy life, she’s naturally feeling unsure of herself, and this combines with a natural caution of strange men to make her rather uncooperative when the young airman sits down beside her on a crowded train.

Raleigh comes across as very brash to begin with, a big lummox type who’s going to have a conversation even if she doesn’t join in. As the scene develops, though, we can start to see other aspects to each of them, and we also learn a lot about their lives. Turns out they’re both from small Kentucky towns, about twenty miles from each other, one of them being Corbin. In fact, Raleigh’s uncle has a farm just opposite her family’s place, so they practically know each other already. He’s been invalided out of the army/air force (they do things differently in the States) as he started to get fits, later confirmed as epilepsy. He’s a bit down about that, but when he found out from the porter on the train that the coffins of two great writers, F Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanial West, were on the train, he’s inspired to go all the way to New York to become a writer himself.

Through this first scene together, he spends most of his time trying to persuade May to either go with him to New York or, if he does go back home instead, to go with him to the Nibroc festival (Corbin spelt backwards). She finally agrees, so there’s hope for her yet. The actors moved the bench around four times during this scene, so everybody got to see them from all four angles. It was nicely judged, as there were some natural pauses in the flow of the dialogue. At the end of the scene, they moved the bench again, and then used the entranceways to get changed, before heading off so they could make a proper entrance for scene two.

This second scene is a couple of years later, from what I could tell. The war is beginning to bite, and the Nibroc festival has had to downsize accordingly. May arrives first, with a small green bag that she’s anxious to dispose of somewhere. Eventually she throws it away, but Raleigh finds it and returns it to her. There has obviously been some problem in their relationship, and several times I thought the scene was going to come to an early end. But they just can’t get each other out of their systems, and a remark or question would set them off again. It was good to see a play which didn’t give the impression of being structured to suit the audience so much as reporting what real people actually do. In that sense it was perhaps less overtly dramatic than most plays, but it kept me involved and caring about these two people.

May has been stepping out with a reverend chap, who’s off to be a missionary (he actually ends up enlisting as an army chaplain), but she’s worried about the amount of money he’s been taking from the church collection. The bag she was so worried about held that night’s takings, which she was presumably going to return to the church, believing that God would provide for the minister. Given her attitude, it’s a blessing she doesn’t go with him. For both of their sakes.

Her judgemental attitude knows no bounds. Raleigh is concerned to find out why she didn’t come to have a meal with his folks, after he’d been for dinner with her family. She tries to avoid the subject, but eventually we find out that it’s because his father had Jake leg, a condition that weakened the joints and caused the sufferer to limp or shuffle, and was caused by drinking adulterated alcohol. Many people, usually the poor, did this during prohibition and the distinctive limp became a social stigma, especially to someone like May.

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s time has been spent far from New York, although he did make it to Detroit in search of work. His epilepsy kept getting in the way though, as he’s susceptible to bright flickering lights, so he’s ended up back on the farm helping his folks. There’s a very moving speech towards the end of this scene where he expresses his feelings about the illness for the first time, explaining how ashamed he’s felt about everything – not being able to fight, not being able to work, letting his parents down, etc. I was nearly in tears, and it obviously affected May as well. However, he then has an actual epileptic fit (very accurately done apparently), and May dashes off to get help while he twitches on the stage. It was a powerful moment.

The final scene has them watching a huge blaze at a lumberyard from the safety of her folks’ back yard (it was an actual event in Corbin). Raleigh has come over for dinner again, so things are obviously better between them, and they each have something to tell the other. Raleigh’s news is that he’s going to New York after all, to fulfil his dream of being an author. He’s already sold some stories, including the one about how May’s younger brother hid himself away in the back of Raleigh’s pickup when he and May were out for a drive, and then ended up being car sick. He’s also got a job with a New York paper. Her announcement takes longer to fully come out.

He’s not long been out of hospital after his epileptic fit. They’d mistakenly put him in a hospital for crazy people, and she wrote to him every week, though she didn’t visit him. She’s surprised to find his skin is fine, and mentions this several times. Finally she explains that she’s been reading up on his condition, and basically offers to take care of him. The only thing is, she misheard him when he named the illness, and she thinks he’s got leprosy! After a good laugh at her misunderstanding (we all joined in), Raleigh focuses back on what’s important to him – that she was willing to spend her life taking care of someone with an incurable disease. He pins her down (not easy – she could give an eel lessons in being slippery) to admitting that they would actually have to live together so she could take care of him, and well, after that it’s not surprising that the marriage question pops up. Despite a final little wriggle, she agrees, and I was so happy for them.

There’s more to this play than this simple storyline suggests, and it was a real heartwarmer. The performances were excellent, as were the accents, and for something written fairly recently it had a great period feel to it. Although it’s set during WWII, the war is part of the background to these two people’s story, not a big issue that the play is attempting to deal with, and for me that’s fine. Lots of people just had to get on with their lives through the war years, and they weren’t constantly locked in philosophical debate about the ‘issues’, so it’s nice to see a play that reflects that for once, as well as being a gentle and detailed observation of human relationships and their quirks. A good choice by this young director, and very good casting.

The post-show discussion was missing Sam Walters for once, but the director and full cast were available. There was much praise for the performances and the play, with points like the accuracy of the epileptic fit and real life events such as the lumberyard fire coming up. Apparently the author had paid a visit during rehearsals, and been totally happy with the choice of actors. We did seem to get sidetracked into a debate about the likelihood of these two characters getting together, but I think it was perfectly reasonable. He wasn’t the sort of man who wanted a drippy wife who would agree with everything he said, and given the sort of life he was planning, it made sense that he would naturally want someone down to earth, and who would keep his feet on the ground, which she would certainly do. She may not have been much of a cook, but growing up on a farm she understood hard work, and by the third scene she’d been made principal of a local high school, so she’s smart too. And underneath her prim manner there’s both a kind heart and a feisty nature, both of which attract him.

For her, I think the attraction is that he doesn’t fall for her dreams, which are usually pretty unrealistic. He’s also not put off by her pickiness, at least not completely, and he opens her up to new ideas, which is challenging and a bit scary, but ultimately exciting. They’re likely to have a prickly but happy relationship, though they’re the sort of couple that will make a lot of people wonder what they see in each other.

There was also some comment about feminism and May’s choice to ‘sacrifice’ her life for Raleigh at the end. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. Given the circumstances of the play, it’s much more likely that May will go to New York with him eventually and get a job there to help support him, so for those to whom only having a career can possibly be fulfilling for a woman, that’s fine then. (Minor rant coming here.) Actually, I find the whole feminism thing utterly distorted now, as it only seems to want women to be ersatz men, rather than allowing women to choose whatever type of life suits them best, and according us the same rights as men. There’s an implied judgement that all ‘feminine’ activities are inferior, which actually encourages the macho culture we’re lumbered with at the moment, provides men with the conditions to thrive competitively, and undermines the very equality the feminists have set out to achieve. Ggrrhh. (Rant over.)

Well, now that that’s out of my system, I can conclude that this was another very successful production, and we’re looking forward to the Vaclav Havel season later this year, as well as the new air conditioning.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

De Profundis – June 2008

6/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Ricahrd Nelson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Monday 16th June 2008

De Profundis is the letter written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas during the former’s spell in prison for loving ‘not wisely but too well’. Corin Redgrave started his performance alone on stage, dressed in scruffy and plain clothes of a modern type, but representing prison drab effectively. He scribbled furiously on his notepad, finishing the letter, before turning back to the start and reading it to us as if he were addressing the dear boy himself.

It was a moving performance, bringing out a lot of humour as well as Wilde’s own awareness of his genius, and both his love for and unhappiness with Bosie, who hasn’t called, hasn’t written, etc. I did find myself nodding a bit during the reading – Oscar does labour some of the points, and if it weren’t for the excellent delivery, he would sound like a petulant old tart at times. But Corin Redgrave’s skill lifts us out of all that.

I was very aware of the circumstances in which the letter was written, the depressing and debilitating nature of the prison regime, especially for someone like Oscar Wilde, and I also learned a great deal about their relationship which I hadn’t known before, especially the monetary cost. It was good to see that Corin was still up to this level of performance, even if his frailty is limiting what he can do physically. The audience was rightly appreciative, and many were standing at the end. Well deserved, and for a very enjoyable performance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rosmersholm – June 2008

8/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Mike Poulton

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 14th June 2008

The set was a drawing room, with scruffy walls in depressing shades of blue, a window to our left, a stained mirror, portraits on the walls, nice formal furniture, and a white tiled stove in an angled recess. There was an attractive bowl of flowers on the table, otherwise it was as austere and gloomy as an Ibsen play. (So the designer’s done a good job, then.)

The second act has the same window and stove, but the rear wall is further forward, the furniture is more relaxed, and there are bookcases and no portraits. This was the private sitting room/study off Rosmer’s bedroom. The final scenes revert back to the first set, and all the action takes place over three days.

Rosmer is one of Ibsen’s naïve, idealistic heroes. His wife committed suicide a year ago, and he is just starting to get involved again in the life of Rosmersholm, the town his family have effectively ruled over for a couple of centuries. He’s been helped by a woman, Rebecca West, who was originally nursing his wife through her illness, and who’s stayed on in order to assist Rosmer to find his true vocation. It appears nothing improper has happened, but the situation leads to rumours, and while Rosmer remains a pillar of the community they’re unlikely to affect him much. However, as he’s not only stopped being a priest but renounced his religious beliefs as well, he finds himself friendless and vulnerable to gossip and suspicion. He’s keen to support the movement for change that was surfacing in Norway at that time, and Rebecca’s support for this has been a key factor in his recovery from his wife’ suicide. Various revelations through the play make past events fairly clear to us, although the possibility of incest in Rebecca’s past is left as a suggestion only, and the final choice of the unconsummated lovers is as downbeat as one might expect from Ibsen.

The other characters are interesting. Rebecca West herself is less likeable than Ibsen’s usual women – Strindberg would have approved. She represents the kind of free-thinking women that must have been coming out of the kitchen closet at that time, but here she’s not necessarily a force for good. It’s interesting that this character has the same name as the famous writer, although the play was written six years before the real person was born.

The doctor, Kroll (very close to troll?), represents the absolutist establishment view. He’s for God, King, country and keeping the peasants in their place. His friendship with Rosmer appears to be based more on the Rosmer family’s status and his friend’s earlier traditional opinions than on any great affection for the man himself. He frequently tells Rosmer how gullible he is, and is only reconciled to him once the revelations make Rosmer ready to doubt his support for change. Malcolm Sinclair gave us a wonderfully detailed performance, with many good lines delivered impeccably.

Ulrik Brendel is Rosmer’s old tutor, currently a down and out but hoping to make it big now that the political tide has turned in his direction. He talks big, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s a fetching performance by Paul Moriarty, and allows us to see how easily Rosmer can be swayed, and how kind and generous he can be as well.

Mortensgaard is the editor of the left-wing paper, and his insights are very entertaining. At first delighted to find that Rosmer has given up the priesthood, he’s quite candid about his disappointment that Rosmer has left the church altogether. He wants people still in the church to come out in support of the new ideas, so that ordinary people will listen to them. Another atheist is no good to him, so he just won’t mention that part. It’s a useful part for showing us how impractical Rosmer’s idealism is. Sitting in his ivory tower, hatching plans with Rebecca to change people’s attitudes, he’s completely unaware of how opinions are influenced and shaped. He had hoped to stay above it all, a pure radiant beacon of light showing others a better way to live, and he’s sidelined so quickly he hardly has a chance to take it all in.

This leaves the maid, Mrs Helseth, a strict but kind Christian woman, prone to believing superstitions, such as the local one about a ghostly white horse presaging death. She shows us the ordinary people who still hold the church and its priests in high esteem; she still calls Rosmer ‘pastor’, though I assume she knows he’s defrocked himself. Her view of events on the fatal footbridge gives us the ending of the play.

I felt this was a very good production of an interesting play. I enjoyed the arguments and the insight into the upheaval that Norway was going through at that time. The program notes identified this play as the crossover point between the external threats in Ibsen’s plays (An Enemy of the People), and the interior conflicts (Doll’s House). I’d agree with that, and that’s part of what made it so interesting for me.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me