By Richard Nelson
Directed by Roger Michell
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Wednesday 28th March 2012
This was a disappointment. From a quick scan of the program, I was aware that the author was writing about a period in the life of Harley Granville Barker when he considered giving up the theatre for good; this play was apparently using that situation to present a discussion of theatre’s pros and cons, but I have to say I wouldn’t have known that from actually watching the piece. If that was the author’s intention then there’s some serious rewriting to be done. I don’t mind the lack of action, and the actors all brought their characters to life really well, it’s just that I wasn’t engaged with them or their situations at any time, although the death of Frank’s wife was a little moving.
Apart from the writing, one difficulty I had was hearing the dialogue when the actors weren’t facing forward. The acting space had been opened up, removing some of the seats to provide a vast cavernous area for both the garden and the refectory scenes. This may well have contributed to the lack of atmosphere, and certainly didn’t help the actors with their delivery. I could hear them perfectly well when they were facing towards me, so the set was presumably the main culprit in the loss of volume.
Mind you, I have to confess to nodding off a bit during the early section of this play. There was so little of interest happening on stage that I just couldn’t stay awake. The energy picked up a bit when Henry arrived, and I was fine after that till the end, although it’s always rash to have an actor say something like ‘I wondered when it was all going to end’ – you and me both, sunshine. Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much; he enjoyed it more than I did, but still felt it lacked sparkle. It didn’t lack coughing, mind you; not the best audience today.
The play was set in America in 1916. There were a number of references to the war, but even so it didn’t seem to impinge too much on these people’s lives. Most of the characters were English, but had lived in America for many years. Barker himself only came to America for the occasional tour, lecturing and the like, and there was also one American student, Charles. The location was a college campus in Williamstown, where Barker was staying with Henry, a professor of English at the college, and his sister Dorothy, the widow of a professor who had apparently kept a mistress on the same campus. Dorothy had been so unpopular that no one had told her of this other woman until the day of her husband’s funeral, and since that day she had worn black all the time to compete with the other ‘widow’ in a game of mourning brinkmanship. Henry was another who had done the lecture circuit until being offered this professorship; now he was being systematically abused by the head of the English department through public ridicule and humiliation, but as he had nowhere else to go he had to put up with it. Dorothy’s cousin, George, was also staying with them; he was happy to eat the free meals and still keep in with the head of English in case there was a chance of snaffling Henry’s position – he wasn’t a nice man.
The guests included Barker himself, Frank who was a Dickens man – did readings from the books – and Beatrice, an ex-actress and lover of young Charles. Her infatuation with him made her blind to everything else, including the vicious treatment meted out to Henry after a performance of Twelfth Night by the student group, Cap and Bells. Barker was livid about it, going into all the details for Dorothy when he arrived back in the darkened refectory. I almost felt he went too far, but she needed to know, as did we. Her sharp comment later to Beatrice, that Henry‘s message was just to get her out of the room, was well deserved, as Beatrice kept going on about how wonderful Charles’s performance had been (he played Feste). I liked Barker’s bitchy comments to Charles which sounded like compliments, as by this time we’d learned that Charles had made a complaint about Henry being drunk during rehearsals in order to become president of the Cap and Bells, a post in the gift of the head of English.
As a study of the bitchiness and political in-fighting within American academic circles, a subject Richard Nelson knows well and has covered before, this was fine, but as a debate on the usefulness or otherwise of theatre, it was seriously lacking. The play ended out in the garden where it began, with the other characters giving Frank a welcome home present in the form of a Mummers’ play. It was short and livelier than the rest of the play, so we finished on a more upbeat note but it did seem to come out of nowhere, despite Barker’s little speech about recognising that theatre could do some good after all.
Although I didn’t enjoy this production much, I would be willing to give the play another chance as long as I don’t have to travel so far to see it. I would be much more interested in seeing the Granville-Barker original, mind you – hopefully some company will stage it again, as we missed the recent production at the Rose.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me