For a critical view of the London theatre the best possible perspective is Beckettian. Beckett’s plays are nothing if not experimental: he sees no point in imitating or repeating what has been done before, whether by someone else or by himself. To demand that nothing in any production should be second-hand would be tantamount to demanding that theatre should consist exclusively of an avant-garde. Even if this were feasible, it would not be desirable, though it would arguably be less undesirable than having a theatre without an avant-garde, which is what we’ve got. Not even lip service is paid, any longer, to the idea of experimental theatre.
The prevailing atmosphere is egalitarian, conformist, sub-Brechtian, inimical to innovation. Not only is there great reluctance to attempt any theatrical statements that could be branded as obscure or ‘elitist,’ there is a general tendency to turn away from art towards Marxist propaganda. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s season at the Arts Theatre in 1963 was genuinely experimental. In neither of its seasons at the Warehouse could a single production be called experimental, while only a small minority could be called non-political.
Of Beckett’s three latest stage plays Not I (1973), That Time, and Footfalls (both 1976), at least the first was an important contribution to European drama, but, unlike Waiting for Godot and Endgame, none of these can have a liberating effect on other playwrights, or even stimulate them to imitation. Nor have we any young writers in England comparable to Handke, Fassbinder, Kroetz or Shepard. Our best directors, Brook and John Dexter, prefer to work out of England. Pinter’s new play Betrayal, is his first since 1975; Stoppard’s most recent full-length play was produced in 1974. John Arden has so far kept the promise he made in 1972, during the row over The Island of the Mighty, when he threatened never to write for the London audience again. At the end of the fifties, when the Royal Court was still young, we could feel that at last there was a man, George Devine, who not only cared passionately about new writing in the theatre but was in a position to do something about it. The existence of the Royal Court did not obviate the need for a National Theatre, but it is disappointing that now we have one, and now that it has had all its three theatres in action for over a year, it is obvious that the indisputable centre of the English theatre is in no sense a centre for innovative writing, as the Royal Court was. The first new play to be produced in the National’s new building was Howard Brenton’s disappointing Weapons of happiness, the second John Osborne’s disastrous Watch it come down. The most interesting new play to have been produced in any of its three new theatres is David Hare’s Plenty. When a Theatre Quarterly interviewer asked David Hare why he and Howard Brenton had ‘come closer’ to ‘official culture’ while John Arden had opted out of it, the implications of his answer were depressing: ‘That’s because I don’t think either Howard or myself were ever technically innovative writers.’
Plenty is nevertheless a considerable achievement, though seriously flawed by its confusing division of focus between the psyche of a neurotic girl and the malaise of the society which is implicitly blamed for her disintegration. As the action pitches backwards and forwards between 1944, when she was working as a British agent in occupied France, and 1962, when she has become certifiably mad, we see her mouldering with discontent in a well-paid advertising job and making rebellious gestures (like stealing food) while working for the 1951 Festival of Britain. With a mixture of righteous indignation and perverse pleasure she ruins her husband’s diplomatic career, while David Hare’s admiration for her honesty seems more wholehearted than his condemnation of her destructiveness. The ambivalence would be less damaging if the play were not constructed around two arguments, neither of which contributes to the other either theatrically or logically, though they are not mutually exclusive. One is that her war-time experience is the source of her subsequent difficulties; the other is that integrity and courage are corroded by the moral turpitude characteristic of post-war Britain. Dramatically, the indictment of our society depends on using Susan as a yardstick, while the progressive abnormality of her behaviour makes her increasingly useless in this function. The best writing is in the subtle development of her madness—the role is one of the best to be offered to an actress since Brecht wrote Mutter Courage—but we need to view her increasing aggressiveness and destructiveness in a normative perspective, and the portrayal of British society is too fragmentary, while the personal relationships are hopelessly one-sided. The husband is too feeble; the friend is too perfunctorily written. As Susan, Kate Nelligan made splendid use of her splendid opportunity, but both Stephen Moore and Julie Covington deserved better opportunities.
Vitiated though Plenty is by the determination to explain private behaviour exclusively in terms of social, political and economic pressures, David Hare seems much more healthily independent-minded than Edward Bond and most of the other playwrights who have been featured in the seasons at the Warehouse. Bond’s The Bundle is another play structured on an argument, but it is only the commonplace argument used by those who try to justify terrorism: that violence is an indispensable preliminary to social change, and that egalitarianism is an end which justifies the revolutionary in using killing as a means. There is the example of Brecht to prove that specious Marxist arguments can flower into good plays, but the example of Brecht has had too much influence on Bond, and it has seldom been more harmful to him than in The Bundle. As in his earlier play about Basho, Narrow Road to the Deep North, he revamps oriental history as political parable, presenting familiar moral problems in an unfamiliar (and therefore alienating) perspective. In Narrow Road, as in Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis, children are used lovelessly as pawns in a power game, while colonials and coolies, priests and pupils are deployed in the manner of the Lehrstücke. In The Bundle the vilification of the unseen landowner and the episodic onstage representation of suffering caused by his capitalistic oppressiveness follow the Brechtian pattern.
The Bundle returns to the same starting point as Narrow Road. We see Basho using his dedication to the contemplative life as an excuse for refusing to adopt a baby that has been abandoned on a river-bank. In Narrow Road the baby grows up into the tyrant Shogo; in The Bundle into the revolutionary Wang. Himself confronted with the same choice of whether to pick up an abandoned baby, Wang flings the bundle into the river. Had he become sentimentally involved in bringing up a child, he would have been deflected from his revolutionary single-mindedness. Once the existing social order has been overturned, wealth will be distributed so equitably that poverty will never again force parents to abandon their children. One baby must sink so that others may swim solvently into the future.
Had the theatrical climate been more conducive to experiment, it is doubtful whether twelve years would have elapsed between the London première of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come, which was the outstanding success of the RSC’s 1963 season at the Arts, and his next full-length play, Ashes (1974). His third, The Sons of Light was staged in 1976 at the University Theatre, Newcastle, in 1977 at The Other Place, Stratford on Avon, and it has now been introduced into the repertoire at the Warehouse. The best elements in Afore Night Come were the edgy energy, the brooding atmosphere, the contrast between the poetic dialogue of one character—not a hero but a scapegoat—and the Black Country dialect spoken by the others, the striking theatrical images, especially at the end, when three fruit-pickers in oil-cloths perform a ritual murder in an infected pear-orchard, while insecticide is sprayed down from a helicopter, thin trails of vapour spilling on to the stage as the plane zooms past. In The Sons of Light tension and atmosphere are both destroyed by the obviousness of the efforts to achieve them, while the language is pathetically overblown. What had seemed like a capacity for original thinking in theatrical terms collapses into conformism. Like most of the other plays in the Warehouse season, the piece makes modishly anti-authoritarian gestures. The oppressive King has subjects torn to pieces, the oppressed workers toil on in subterranean ignorance while a scientist reminiscent of science fiction brainwashes them through a microphone. The only memorable images were created by an actress, Charlotte Cornwell, who made the demented Child Manatond extremely touching, suggesting years of ineffable suffering behind unfocused eyes and emaciated features.
After watching the frustration of the RSC actors gamely approximating to a Japanese style of speech and movement in The Bundle, it was interesting to see the acrobatic Japanese actors of the Tenjosajiki company in Shuji Terayama’s Directions to servants. The title and some of the text were taken from Swift’s satire, but the main inspiration seemed to come from Genet’s Les bonnes. Multiplying the maids into a large cast of servants, male and female, who take it in turns to imitate the master, Tereyama has physicalized and partly mechanized the action. Domination is imposed partly through machines—we see a man submitting to an imperious voice on a tape recorder, lowering his trousers and climbing inside a sadistic machine that beats his bare buttocks.
The ingenuity, the sadism and the offbeat humour are all characteristic of the production. The main cruelty to the audience was in the over-amplification of J.A. Seazer’s music. I sat with my hands over my ears for a lot of the time. The visual assault was almost equally strong, and some of the theatrical imagery was quite unlike anything that had been seen in this country. In one meticulously choreographed sequence the servant playing at being master throws a bone to a succession of servants who play at being dogs. In another, a servant trying to steal food from a cupboard is terrified to find that it is like a puzzle: each panel conceals a face that sings at him accusingly, and he can silence it only by sliding a panel that reveals another singing face.
The influence of Artaud on the company’s work is nowhere more fruitful than in the exploration of the relationship between the human and the mechanical. But as in so much Artaudian theatre, the parts are more impressive than the relationship between them. The intention behind the construction is that the first fifteen sequences should develop a storyline to be demolished by the last four. It is not surprising that the demolition turns out to be more effective than the development.
After waiting so long to see the Tenjosajiki, (which was founded in 1967 and invited to the Frankfurt Experimenta at the beginning of the seventies), London audiences have at last had a chance to form their own opinion of its work; after waiting so long to see Robert Wilson (who did his first New York production in 1969 and had established a considerable European reputation by 1971) we will have to suspend judgment. Most of his work is more visual than verbal. I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating is therefore untypical. Though all the strongest impacts were visual, there was little visual variation, and a great deal of verbiage. We are submitted to a monologue, not once but twice, delivered over an invisible throat microphone by Mr. Wilson himself and then repeated verbatim by Lucinda Childs, who is beautiful but such a bad actress that her performance makes his seem retrospectively good, though at the time it seemed much less striking than the elegance of his appearance and his poses. Nor is it even a good monologue. According to the programme it consists of ‘over one hundred short story fragments.’ The information is of little help in construing it. I was grateful for the piano and clavichord music, which was pleasing, and the television sets, which intermittently relayed shots of penguins during his sequence and ducks during hers.
According to some far-from-negligible German playwrights and critics, Odon von Horváth was a better dramatist than Brecht. But even for these pre-war plays, which have been revived to great acclaim all over the German-speaking theatre, London audiences are being kept waiting for an indecently long time. Despite the 1977 success of Tales from the Vienna woods, Don Juan comes back from the war is only the second of his plays to be staged here. Again Christopher Hampton has provided the National Theatre with a highly speakable translation, but this time direction and casting are less successful. For Horváth’s unheroic non-seducer we need an actor who remains magnetically watchable even in his most passive moments, whether slumping disconsolately over the grave of a dead girl or resisting a lively one by pleading tiredness. As the one man in the cast of thirty-six characters Daniel Massey seemed enviably but not very interestingly relaxed.
The revival of Pinter’s The Homecoming in a production by Kevin Billington at the Garrick Theatre was a thoroughly worthwhile theatrical experience, and it was good to have a chance of reassessing the play through different characterisations. The first half seemed crisper and much funnier than it had in 1965. As Max Timothy West made the most of each line, without over-weighting any of them, while Michael Kitchen (who looked more innocent than Ian Holm as Lenny) proved no less deadly, and Roger Lloyd Pack found unexpected comedy in Joey, without any loss of brutality. The casting of Ruth was less successful. Gemma Jones is unable to bring either her body or her voice as sexily into play as Vivien Merchant did, and this matters more in the second act, when the male ménage regroups itself around the newly arrived woman. But the writing deteriorates in the second act, becoming more arbitrary in the behaviour it imposes on the characters. No director and no actress could make the ending seem inevitable or even plausible.
The revival of Christopher Fry’s 1948 play The lady’s not for burning was neither a worthwhile theatrical experience nor a good basis for reassessing the play, which presents three main problems. Can the verse be made to work theatrically? Can the central personalities be presented convincingly? Can the atmosphere of a medieval witch-hunt be suggested? The Prospect Company’s production fails to come purposefully to grips with any of these problems. The verse is spoken exactly as if it were prose. As Thomas, Derek Jacobi never seemed suicidal or desperate or dangerous; as Jennet, Eileen Atkins seemed to be in no danger either of burning or of provoking the surrounding males to the excited devotion they have to profess. The set (which looked more like a bombed church than a mayor’s home) and the costumes contributed little to the atmosphere. As in the 1972 revival at Chichester, the main pleasure was to be had from the character actors. Robert Eddison was delightfully doleful as the Chaplain, John Savident ripely amusing as Tappercoom, while Michael Dennison and Brenda Bruce turned in robust comic performances as Hebble Tyson and Margaret Devize. But the most interesting question remains unanswered: could an actor like Nicol Williamson or Jonathan Price distil self-destructive bitterness out of the chirpy verse?
Of the new plays Barrie Keeffe’s Frozen Assets extends his championship of the semi-literate semi-criminal. He cannot be accused, as Pinter perhaps can, of treating uneducated speech with critical condescension; on the other hand his language, though nearly always convincing, is seldom more than functional. Snoo Wilson’s The Glad Hand had some good ideas in it, but it was obviously written much too quickly, and the production failed to gather any interesting momentum. Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind is a brilliant blend of Feydeau-like farce and O’Casey-like violence. The final bloodshed is upsetting and disorienting, as it is meant to be, but it doesn’t spoil the accumulated effect of such sequences as the one in which a myopic gunman tries to put his spectacles on outside his hood.