By Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Saturday 2nd August 2008
It was another hot afternoon, I was tired, and we were facing a long journey back to the house after a less enjoyable play than I’d hoped, so at the end of this performance I was ready to give it a 4/10 rating. But, after a good night’s sleep, and remembering the good bits of the play, which did have quite a few laughs after all, I’ve decided 6/10 is fair. But not by much.
The set was epic in scale. Marble steps the full width of the stage swept up from the front of the stage, which was lower than usual, to a brief platform, then continued upwards to the upper level, which at the start was empty. Massive arches were brought forward almost immediately, though, and these seemed to keep coming forever. They moved about a bit, but basically they were in place for most of the play, with windows, doors or just see-through as required. They certainly made the atmosphere very Germanic and imperial.
The play was about Max Reinhardt, a theatre impresario and also a Jew, who stages lavish spectaculars across the world, with casts of hundreds and even thousands, and that’s not counting the musicians! Despite attracting equally huge audiences, he appears to have been a drain on many purses, but still managed to live a life of opulence. He buys a palace in Salzburg, and through his enthusiasm and drive starts a festival there. He himself directs a production of Everyman, a morality play about God asking Death to pick someone, anyone (sounds like a card trick, this does), and bring him to God for judgement. Being a morality play, it’s written in rhyming couplets, and that’s how a lot of this play is written, too. In fact, it starts out in rhyming couplets, as Reinhardt and his friends attempt to persuade the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg to allow Reinhardt to stage the first performance of Everyman in the square in front of the cathedral. To do this, Reinhardt demonstrates the play himself – he knows all the parts – and so we get to see various chunks of the opening scenes.
By magic, the magic of theatre, we’re whisked away to the palace, where Reinhardt has the actors help him perform the banquet scene where Death comes to select Everyman. It seems for a bit as though Reinhardt himself is being chosen by a “real” Death, with his name being called, and no one else being able to hear it, but it finally resolves into part of the play, and they all have a good laugh about it. The Prince Archbishop agrees to the play being staged, and then we’re into rehearsals (Reinhardt takes obsessive-compulsive to new levels) and the performance (the Archbishop is in tears), and then we get to see Reinhardt’s home life, or rather his away-from-home life, as his secretary and mistress exchange comments on his progress across the planet (he sends lots of telegrams).
There’s one entertaining bit when Reinhardt is choreographing his servants to perform perfectly for a party, and they end up all doing a serving dance to music. He’s a total showman, and rather than enjoy his own party, he’s depressed that the guests don’t know how to behave properly. They’re just milling around – rank amateurs! He wants everything in his life to be theatrical, but reality keeps letting him down.
The dance ends the first half, and then we get more of his life and times from the start of the second half. The growth of the Nazi party is shown, and one chap in particular, Friedrich Muller, has taken a complete dislike to Reinhardt. Muller ends up running the local government once the Germans annexe Austria, and decides to live in Reinhardt’s recently re-appropriated palace which now belongs to the German people. He’s a nasty piece of work. Reinhardt manages to get away and spends time in America where he eventually dies, having spent all his money and being almost friendless.
The performances were all excellent, with Roger Allam being in really good form, and getting the maximum out of the lead role. David Burke as the Archbishop was looking frailer than I remember, but still carried his part off well, and I also liked Selina Griffiths as the long-suffering secretary Gusti Adler, and Peter Forbes as Rudolf Kommer, known as Katie, who managed Reinhardt’s financial affairs for many years, but eventually left him to go to New York ahead of the German invasion. He had a lot of the funny lines, as did Selina, and God knows we needed that, especially in the second half.
My main problem with this play was the lack of dramatic structure. Although it seemed to be leaning heavily on the morality play format, that’s not how it really worked out. Reinhardt fell on hard times, yes, but he wasn’t downhearted by them. He wasn’t taken off for judgement by Death – he simply died. Despite setting us up for some parallels between the Everyman story and Reinhardt’s, nothing came of it, at least not to me. Although Michael Frayn is a very intelligent man, he’s also an atheist, and so perhaps the choice of a religious morality play wasn’t the wisest one, as he doesn’t seem to have grasped what it’s about. We need to see the behind-the-scenes judgement or redemption, or there’s no point. It’s no good criticising the equivalent scenes in the Everyman he’s drawing on for inspiration, if he can’t do better himself (see program notes). And since he obviously doesn’t understand what these scenes are about, perhaps it would have been better to have left the whole concept alone.
Having said that, there are a number of good lines in the play, though it’s shorter on ideas than most of Frayn’s work. I liked the desperation of the poor actor who’s trying to get what Reinhardt wants for the opening lines “Draw near, good people all, I pray”. And the comments about Jews being more supportive of the Catholic church than the local Catholics were quite fun. And Reinhardt’s description at the start of how simple the staging of Everyman will be – complete with sound effects cut off at his command – that was good fun too. So there were a number of good bits like these throughout most of the play, but an awful lot of dreary bits as well. Overall, not a success, but not a complete waste of time either.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me