By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Ian Rickson
Venue: Comedy Theatre
Date: Wednesday 27th April 2011
I haven’t seen this play before, so I don’t know if the problems I experienced were down to the writing, acting or production; possibly a combination of all three. It felt lacklustre and dated, and several of the performances were on the weak side, so not the best afternoon I’ve spent in the theatre.
The set was all distressed wooden walls to start with. There was a very tall window on the left, a door in the back wall also on the left, impossibly tall bookcases to the right of that, and another door at the back of the right wall. A sofa stood middle and left, with a desk and chair to the right of the stage, a stove front right, and there were one or two other bits of furniture around the place. It looked basic but comfortable. For the second act, we moved to a more elaborate drawing room, with panels lowered to section off the sofa area (much posher sofa), and a table with flowers on the right instead of the desk. A good design, but the changes did take a while. The final act was back in the original room, but without the comfortable bits.
The opening scene wasn’t clear to me at first, though the subsequent action explained it a little. A small girl came into the schoolroom with a book and looked around, trying out various places to sit and read, eventually finishing on the sofa. Another two girls crept in, looking over her shoulder, and then they shared the book with her, although she didn’t want them to. Finally a larger group of girls came in, there was a mad scramble to look at the book, leading to a tussle between the original girl and a bigger girl, and the book was torn. The original girl runs out, crying, I think. All of this was wordless. I suspected the book was mildly pornographic – and given their ages and the period of the play, that could mean very mild – and I was left with the impression that the smaller girl was unhappy at the school and not making friends. All of this was correct, of course, but it still didn’t help me get into the play when the opening was so unclear. And it took so long!
The actual opening scene – the first with dialogue – was nearly as bad. The girls came into the room again, only this time they’re as noisy as a bunch of young girls can be. Think St Trinian’s, but noisier. One or two actually seemed to be doing schoolwork of some sort, while others were horsing around, until their teacher, Lily Mortar (Carol Kane), came in and the lesson began to take some sort of shape. Trouble is, the dialogue was delivered so variably, that I couldn’t follow much of this scene. The teacher was no help either; she was clearly meant to be a scatty type, a former actress who was trying to instil some refinement in the girls (like Miss Jean Brodie but without the brains), but the resulting affected accent was almost impossible to make out. It took at least twenty minutes before I started to get a handle on the piece, and it had some ground to make up by then.
Finally, the main action got underway with the late arrival of the original small girl, Mary Tilford (Bryony Hannah), who presents the teacher with a bunch of flowers as part of her excuse for being late – she’d taken a walk outdoors. When the class was over, the other teachers arrive in the room, first Karen Wright (Keira Knightley) and later Martha Dobie (Elizabeth Moss). Karen spots that the flowers which Mary gave to Lily were actually retrieved from the waste bin, and not picked on a walk in the woods as Mary had claimed. This leads to an inquisition, during which Mary’s sociopathic nature comes to the fore. When she’s accused of something by an authority figure, she flatly denies it, then she complains of being persecuted, then she threatens to tell her grandmother (the school’s main benefactor), and finally she fakes a heart attack, collapsing on the floor. The teachers put her in the next room, which is Karen’s bedroom, and ask Dr Joseph Cardin (Tobias Menzies), Karen’s fiancé and Mary’s uncle, to check her out when he arrives a short while later.
In the meantime, Karen and Martha have a conversation about their situation, whereby we learn of their struggle to set the school up, the prospect of financial stability in the near future, the problems caused by Mary and how they would like to get shot of her, their dependence on Mrs Tilford, Mary’s grandmother, Karen’s imminent marriage to Joseph, and the need to sack Lily, Martha’s aunt, as she wasn’t adding to the girls’ education in a healthy way. This leads to a confrontation between Lily and Martha, where some unkind things are said on both sides, including the allegation that Martha is jealous of Karen’s marriage (true), and not for the right reasons (not yet in evidence, m’lud). I thought at the time that they were a bit rash talking so loudly when Mary, the school’s problem child, was in the next room, but then they didn’t have a lot of options if we were going to eavesdrop.
Joseph soon sorts Mary out, health-wise, but she’s still caught up in her desire to be seen as the victim of other people’s persecution, a subject she knows a lot about, as we soon learn when she’s left alone with her school chums. The teachers have decided to split Mary and her two friends up, as she’s a bad influence on them, which only fuels Mary’s persecution complex. She decides to run away to her grandmother’s house, and in order to get some cash, she intimidates one of her friends quite brutally, showing us an even less pleasant side of her personality. She is brought the cash and her coat in mime at the front of the stage during the scene change, which helped to while away the time.
At Mrs Tilford’s town residence, Mary is greeted by Agatha the maid, and about the only person in that household who has their head screwed on straight. She isn’t taken in by Mary’s story of being ill, although she clearly cares for the girl, but it’s the grandmother that Mary has to work on, and she does this with a predatory instinct, feeling her way into an allegation that will make her grandmother carry out the revenge that Mary herself is not capable of, through lack of years rather than lack of malicious intent. Once roused, Mrs Tilford (Ellen Burstyn) acts swiftly, too swiftly for her own good. She tries to call the teachers, presumably to check on their side of the story, but as they’re not available, she decides to call her nephew, Joseph instead. He’s busy – he is a working doctor, after all – and this leaves a worried Mrs Tilford alone with her emotions, clearly not a sensible option for the women in this family. Instead of staying calm, she starts phoning round the other pupils’ parents, and before you know it, the school is defunct.
Long before Joseph comes round to help his aunt, several girls have been removed from the school, and one of them, Rosalie Wells (Amy Dawson), arrives at Mrs Tilford’s house to stay overnight as she can’t travel back home until the next day. Mary gets to work on her immediately, threatening to tell about all about Rosalie’s theft of another girl’s bracelet unless Rosalie backs Mary up in whatever she says. Nasty piece of work, this Mary. Rosalie agrees, and then the girls are taken into another room for milk and cookies, or whatever, and the adults start arriving for the major confrontation of the play.
Naturally, Joseph is appalled at his aunt’s actions, and the teachers, who show up and force their way into the house, are both angry and confused. They have no idea of the cause of this calamity, and when they find out they’re shocked and even more angry. They threaten legal action, while Mrs Tilford stays aloof and self-righteous – what had been a possibility is now downright certainty in her mind. Joseph does his best to instil some sanity into proceedings, but there’s no scope for rational discussion at this point, and finally he has to reject his grandmother and her nonsense totally. Of course, they insist on checking things out with Mary, who sticks to her story, despite clear proof that she couldn’t have heard or seen what she claims to have heard or seen. When it looks like things might go against her, she pulls out her ace in the hole, Rosalie. At first, with Mary behind her and out of her eye line, Rosalie scoffs at the possibility of any wrongdoing between Karen and Martha, but when Mary comes forward and makes it clear she wants Rosalie to back her up, we see an about-turn so fast it must have left friction marks. Rosalie is desperately upset about the whole thing, but the damage is done. Mrs Tilford is a believer again, and the stage is set for somebody’s downfall.
The final scene is back in the schoolroom, stripped down to the bare essentials. Martha and Karen have apparently lost their case for slander, the school is no more, and the two women are in a kind of internal exile, unable and unwilling to venture out to face the hostility of the local community. A succession of visitors allows us to piece their story together, including a local delivery man who brings them food, Joseph, Lily and Mrs Tilford. Lily’s arrival isn’t welcome; she avoided the trial, and so her crucial testimony was missing, leading to the collapse of the teachers’ case. Both women are hostile to her, and I can’t say I blame them. Joseph is more upbeat – he’s arranged for all three of them to move out west and start new lives on a farm. Martha heads off to make them some food, while Karen and Joseph have to face what lies between them. She pushes him to ask her if the allegation was true, and although she tells him it wasn’t, and he appears to accept that, it’s clear their relationship is on rocky ground. Personally, I felt that was more to do with her neurotic personality; she didn’t seem willing to deal with her situation and build a new life for herself, while Joseph seemed to be working hard to make things better for both of them.
With his departure, Karen has decided that it’s all over, and she’s going to be living in that house for the rest of her life, unloved, neglected, and miserable as sin. When Martha comes back in, all spruced up to enjoy a celebratory meal, she soon realises what’s happened, and finally we get the revelation that would come as no surprise to anyone who’d stayed awake this far – Martha feels guilty because she’s realised she did have some ‘forbidden’ feelings for Karen. Despite seeming the more balanced of the two, it’s Martha who heads into the next room to top herself, so when Mrs Tilford turns up, at the death so to speak, it’s too late for forgiveness, on her part or anyone else’s.
The audience reception was much warmer than my own response, and I’m glad they enjoyed it. I found it lacking in real interest; the false allegation drama has been done better (The Crucible), and lesbianism is no longer the unmentionable taboo it was in the 1930s, although to be fair we aren’t exactly overflowing with plays on the subject either. Elizabeth Moss and Ellen Burstyn gave good performances, but I found Keira Knightley a bit weak. I couldn’t get a handle on her character, who seemed to be strong one minute and fragile the next. Tobias Menzies did a good job as the doctor/fiancé, and Bryony Hannah was fine as Mary, but I think the best performance in many ways was Amy Dawson as Rosalie, completely believable as a pre-pubescent swot with deep insecurity. If the delivery of lines had been better from the start, and the opening, silent, scene more accessible, I might have enjoyed this more. As it was, I’m glad I’ve seen the play, but I won’t be champing at the bit to see it again.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me