Farewell To The Theatre – March 2012

4/10

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

Waste – October 2008

5/10

By Harley Granville Barker

Directed by Sam West

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 25th October 2008

This was a bit of a waste, as it turned out. The talent was there, but the style of the piece just didn’t allow me to enjoy it as much as I had before, although the similarities with current events were abundantly clear.

To begin with, I forgot to get the remote for my hearing aids out, and so I missed some of the early dialogue which was just too quiet for me to catch. Having said that, even with my aids on full volume I still missed some of the later dialogue, either because the lines weren’t said clearly enough – the intonation or diction were a little sloppy – or because the set design meant that characters were addressing the far wall in order to speak to other characters, and didn’t project enough to fill even that small space. The amount of coughing was also a problem, and several lines were lost under that fusillade.

Even so I heard enough to get the gist of the story, though I didn’t remember the details from the earlier production we saw at the RSC. The opening scenes of each half were by far the best for us, especially the start of the second half, when the politicians gather to protect one of their own. The story concerns an independent MP, Henry Trebell, who has an affair with the wife of an Irish Catholic. When she gets pregnant by him, she decides to have an abortion, and that operation goes tragically wrong, resulting in her death. If the affair becomes public during the inquest, the bill which Trebell has been drafted into the Cabinet to spearhead, will fail. This bill is to disestablish the Church of England, and remove its connection to and influence on the British Parliament. So, lots of contentious issues there, and the play is even stronger because Trebell decides to kill himself once he loses his government appointment. The bill was his real baby; he comes across as a cold and pretty heartless person apart from his love of change, and especially change in this area. It’s not too surprising that the Lord Chamberlain refused to allow the original version onto the stage, and even this revised version had a long wait to appear in public.

The performances were mostly very good, clarity of speech aside, and my only real problem was in the portrayal of the two lovers. Trebell was too cold to be entirely believable as a man with carnal passions, and Amy O’Connell, the supposed lover, was a strange character, strong then weak, cynical then neurotic, so I could never make up my mind what was going on with her. With this weakness at the heart of the play, or rather this lack of a heart to the play, I found only the scenes with the politicians were really interesting, and the rest were tolerable. Hugh Ross as Cyril Horsham, the newly-elected Prime Minister, was excellent, as were all of his Cabinet, and I enjoyed Bruce Alexander as Gilbert Wedgecroft, a doctor who was closely connected to all these powerful people, and who could give us information on the abortion front, not that the word itself was bandied around much.

Finally, the set was an interesting design. There were three locations, and the design allowed for all of them. The opening scene was in a v-shaped drawing-room, with a door to our left, a corner of the room going back to some French windows, and a bookcase to our right. There was a piano and various chairs and sofas. With very little work, the central part of the set was rotated, and the “v” of the corner became another corner pointing outwards, making an “L” shaped office space. The door became a bookcase, the bookcase became a door, there was a desk and chairs, and voila, we are in Trebell’s office. The politicians gathered in a reprise of the first room, though now done up as a library, and then it’s back to the office for the final scenes. Very economical and effective.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Voysey Inheritance – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Harley Granville Barker

Directed by Peter Gill

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st June 2006

Interesting. Steve and I saw a production of this play many years ago, also by the National, but put on in the Cottesloe. Admittedly, I’ve forgotten a lot about that production, but even so, there was a remarkable difference between the two. The previous production was naturally more intimate, seemed to put more emphasis on the scenes in the office, and had more weight to it, less humour. This current production feels more balanced; if anything, the scenes at the family home take precedence, and there’s a much lighter touch throughout. Perhaps it’s simply the difference in the political and social climates then and now, but the play seems very contemporary this time around, very relevant to today’s situations.

I did find the length of time between scenes a little frustrating. Although the elaborate sets created a strong sense of place and time, the pauses to change them over led to a bit of momentum being lost. And why did we need to see a tree at the back of the office building? Nobody went out into the garden or even looked out of a window.

Overall, I suspect I would prefer the earlier production, if I could remember it clearly, but this was a very good effort. Again, we were struck by how fresh some older plays can seem, if they’re well written.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me