By Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Roger Michell
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Wednesday 3rd February 2010
Yet another hour and three quarters without an interval! Will we ever see a play of three and a half hours again? Or an interval? This must be playing havoc with the income from refreshments. Still, this time I judged things better and stayed the course.
This production was being staged in the round. In effect, the stage had moved a bit further forward, and seats (up as well as down) had been installed round the back. A glass dome was suspended above the room with a chandelier underneath, there was a fireplace far right with a round mirror over, various chairs and tables round the outside of the room and a whopping great chest in the middle. Hexagonal in shape, it stood about two feet high, its panels carved with geometric shapes. The door to the room was to our left.
Mind you, I wouldn’t have seen much of that in the initial gloom of the performance. The two characters who start the play came on with the lights still up, and got themselves and the set ready – knocking over a chair, getting the body half out of the chest. Then the lights were dimmed so that the play began in firelight, with the two murderers stuffing the body in the chest and then pausing to catch their breath. One of them, Granillo, is a bag of nerves, yelling at his partner in crime, Brandon, when he turns the table lamp on. We then get a well-crafted roundup of the story so far, based on Brandon’s need to get Granillo calmed down before their guests arrive. It was well done, I suppose, although as I couldn’t see their faces in the darkness all that acting was wasted on me. And while I appreciate the need to do that preliminary setup in the light, before starting the play proper, I found it slightly distracting. So not the best of starts from my perspective, but not terrible either. (I remember the opening of the production at Chichester many years ago, with two young men reposed on a window seat in a homo-erotic post-coital languor. A slower, but easier to see beginning.)
The manservant, Sabot, arrives and sets out the food and drink for the guests, who start to arrive soon after. Brandon’s already described them for us, so the fun is in seeing just how right he is. Raglan and Leila are a pair of bright young things with few, if any, brain cells left intact from seeing all those awfully good films called ‘something-something’ in which one film star or another was terribly good. The older man, Sir Johnston Kentyon was a nice character, very kind, and it was sad to see his concern when he heard that his son hadn’t come home. His sister was so painfully shy, and her use of stock answers so totally inappropriate, that we couldn’t help laughing on occasion, although Brandon’s treatment of her was quite chilling at times. Finally, there was Rupert Cadell, a poet of sorts, and someone who appeared to have taught these two young psychopaths at some time. His own strictures about living dangerously are thrown back at him during the final explanation, but whether he expressed them before his service in WWI that cost him his leg, I’m not sure.
Having checked the playtext, Bernie Carvel’s performance as Rupert was on the button according to the description given by the author – a limp, an affected manner, including a strange way of talking, etc. – but while I always admire his talent, I found this portrayal got in the way of my enjoyment. With the strange accent I could only make out about half of his lines, and although I thought I got the gist of some of his speeches, I found when I checked the playtext that I’d got some things completely wrong. For example, when Rupert is pointing out the difficulties in obeying the Ten Commandments, I got the impression that he felt fairly safe about not coveting his neighbour’s ox and ass, given the absence of livestock in the vicinity of his flat. However, according to the text, Rupert was actually saying that even with the absence of livestock etc., he didn’t fancy his chances of obeying that commandment either.
The overall effect was that I didn’t feel as relaxed or involved as I would have liked. I was interested to see the original version of the play – Chichester’s version had been based more on the film – and the characterisations and performances were excellent. However, the play has dated, and with the difficulty in making out Rupert’s dialogue as well, this wasn’t the best experience I’ve had at the Almeida.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me