Theatre Diary

 

Ronald Hayman

 

It used to be said that the German theatre had suffered since the war from having no centre. Berlin, no longer a capital, had split like an amoeba, while the big cities in West Germany were trying to outbid each other for the best actors and directors. How could stylistic coherence be expected? If this line of argument is valid, there should be more stylistic coherence in the English theatre than ever before, now that the National Theatre has had over three years to consolidate its hold on its new building. But it is hard to believe that our theatre has ever been more pluralistic. There may have been no single dominant style in the late fifties and early sixties, but at least there was a strong stream of influence that had its wellspring in the mainly Brechtian ideas promulgated at the Royal Court and had tributaries all over the country, though what was most noticeable was the way actors, directors, attitudes, stylistic ideas, techniques, devices and even colour schemes moved from the Royal Court to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National.

 

Today there is more continuity in the work of the RSC than there is at the National, with its hectic directorial turnover, but there is no centre to our theatre, and no general movement in any definable direction. When good work is done, as it often is, it usually has too little connection with good work in other companies or in the same company at different times. Stylistically, Stuart Burge’s revival of Ravenscroft’s The London cuckolds had no affinity with Max Stafford-Clark’s Joint Stock Theatre Group production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud nine, though both happened to be staged at the Royal Court. Three of the best recent productions at the National Theatre were Peter Wood’s revival of Congreve’s The double dealer, Michael Rudman’s revival of Somerset Maugham’s For services rendered and Harold Pinter’s production of Simon Gray’s new Close of play, but it cannot be said that any coherent artistic policy led to the choice of plays or directors, or to any stylistic affinities between these productions. Peter Brook’s Anthony and Cleopatra is by far the best production I have seen from the RSC for a long time, but in so far as the company has a house style, this had little to do with it. In the West End there is even more heterogeneity and even less sense of purpose than in the subsidized companies, although there are still maverick productions of high quality, such as Tom Stoppard’s Night and day directed by Peter Wood, and Michael Elliott’s Lady from the Sea premièred at the RoyalExchange Theatre in Manchester. Another clear symptom of our theatrical centrelessness is that three of our best directors—Peter Brook, John Dexter and Michael Elliott—have based themselves outside London.

 

It was good to see that the Round House had at last been converted into a theatre-in-the-round, as it should have been from the outset, for the Royal Exchange company’s visit. Laurie Dennett’s set suggested the fjords on the West coast of Norway by surrounding the action with a moat, and the unsteady surface of the water reflected the lighting in shifting patterns on the roof of the auditorium. Unfortunately the lucidity and liquidity of the production showed up the cumbersome solidity of the play. The crucial decisions are all over-prepared and over-explained, and the symbolism is heavy-handed. We are not likely to see a better Ellida than Vanessa Redgrave, who played with generosity and openness, while Graham Crowden gave one of his subtlest performances in the unspectacular role of Dr Wangel, discreetly winning a maximum of sympathy for the man. Terence Stamp made very little of the Stranger, and the casting of the sisters Hilde and Bolette produced an unwanted imbalance, but there were good supporting performances from John Franklyn-Robbins as Arnhold, Christopher Good as Lynstrand and Ronald Herdman as Ballested.

 

There is not much to be said in favour of casting Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra, and it was not only her love scenes with Alan Howard that were less moving than we were entitled to expect, but nearly all their scenes together. There are plays in which an actress’s intelligence can add to her sex-appeal, but Anthony and Cleopatra is not one of them: it should be a mindless charisma that makes the riggish queen so irresistible to priests. Peter Brook’s triumph was to show that the play can live vigorously even with a hole in its heart. The emphasis was on the boyish fighting between the men on the slippery slopes to power, and the scene on Pompey’s ship came brilliantly to life. The sense of honour that makes it impossible for him to accept Menas’s offer could not have seemed more touchingly absurd than when followed by the drunken antics of these roisterers, while the symbiotic relationship between Jonathan Pryce’s boyish Octavius and Majoria Bland’s insecure Octavia was illuminated by his behaviour when among his more virile but less powerful seniors.

 

Peter Brook’s production of Ubu, a light-hearted conflation of Ubu roi with Ubu enchainé, confirmed the impression that successive years of workshop experiment in Paris have led him into fruitful practical explorations of the relationships between children’s play and adult power games. The props had an important role in developing the production’s metaphorical equation between political conflict and competition within the games that a gang of children might play on an abandoned building site. Piled on top of each other two cable drums serve as a throne; rolled along they are a chariot. Bricks stand in for dishes at the Ubus’ dinner party. The audience is involved in the game: a bald head serves Mère Ubu as a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. A great deal of English dialogue was interpolated into the French while engaging anachronisms (like Bruce Myers’ cigar-smoking Hollywood-style Tzar) help to make the play accessible. Possibly it all seems more friendly and innocuous than Jarry intended, but the bloodshed, the cruelty and the horrors are not emasculated: they merely emerge in a different perspective, and the anarchic comedy comes to life, as in no other production I’ve seen.

 

Simon Gray’s Close of play is no less entertaining than his Otherwise engaged, and more interesting in the quality of the experience it deals in: nearly all the characters are verging either on death or on withdrawal from ordinary life, whether into alcoholism, literature or malevolent anti-sociality. The pivotal figure is almost entirely silent—whether from incapacity or apathy we never discover—and the action, aptly, plays itself out around his imposing presence in the armchair he never quite leaves. More even than in most Gray plays, the dialogue dwells on unsavoury subjects. As in so many drawing room dramas, each member of the family is going through one kind of crisis or another, but the general inference is that living is not worth the trouble it causes, and even the doctor, who seems so affable and so good at coping with other people’s anxieties, comes out with the basic Beckettian question: the accursed progenitor is asked why he condemned his unfortunate offspring to life. Having always fought shy of pushing beyond naturalism—or having found no incentive to make technical experiments—Gray now finds himself dealing with experience that asks for less conventional treatment, pushing away from the circumstantial towards the ontological. Pinter has directed so many of his plays and the working relationship between them has become so close that what has rubbed off from Beckett onto Pinter is beginning to rub off onto Gray: the writing sometimes seems to be under the influence of his director’s writing style. In the style of the production there is only one clear-cut departure from naturalism, a moment when the lights are lowered and the words `The door is open’ are intoned again and again, sometimes by several voices in unison, sometimes by individual voices. The moment has been prepared by previous chat about the moment in cremation services before the corpse slides through the flap into the incinerator: we understand that it is the door into death, not into life, that is under discussion, but the stylistic incongruity does not pay off. We just wait for the story to resume. But it will be interesting to see whether Gray’s next play goes any further in this direction.

 

Harold Pinter, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, and Betrayal is his most straightforward play yet, though chronologically it moves straight backwards, starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, each of the nine scenes taking us one step further backwards into the triangular relationship that is just beginning as the play ends. The regressive development would have been more interesting if the date had not been flashed up at the beginning of each scene: we would have found out for ourselves that we were moving backwards, and the complex patterns of betrayal—we learn first that the wife has betrayed the lover by telling the husband, and last that he has initially betrayed her by leaving her alone with his best man when it was obvious that something was starting would have been more intriguing without the signposting. Daniel Massey was ineffectual in the wrong way as the husband. Penelope Wilton, thought not ideally cast as the wife, gave an incisive performance, but only Michael Gambon as the lover seemed able to relax into the right timing.

 

The National Theatre’s revival of For services rendered made all the more impact because so little of Maugham’s work has been seen in London during the ‘seventies. Though he is not altogether devoid of sentimentality, it is remarkable that a 1932 play should contain such a clear-eyed dramatisation of a love affair without love in it, while Peter Jeffrey and Elizabeth Romilly found just the right tone of unhopefulness for the ageing infatuated married man and the bored provincial girl, determined not to waste her chances of enjoying herself. Only an American director would have made tea on the terrace so English, but the only simplifications are in the writing. With his usual flair for casting, Michael Rudman gives the frail story all the depth and subtlety it can adquire from lovingly accurate characterizations. Harold Innocent was excellent as the blinded victim of the war, Ian Hogg highly effective as the vulgar farmer, with Barbara Ferris cast against type as the woman who has lowered herself socially to marry him. Alison Fiske’s hysteria as the spinsterish daughter who, lovingly embarrassed, offers money to a bankrupt, Jean Anderson’s tight-lipped forthrightness as the mother and Leslie Sands’s pompous complacency as the insensitive father added to the unexpected pleasures of the evening.

 

If this production showed how creatively actors can embellish an old-fashioned script, Cloud nine showed how different the results can be when there is deep interpenetration between the work of writer, director and actors. Delightedly involved, the audience signalled its enthusiasm with loud laughter and frequent bursts of applause, not just because the lines and situations were hilariously funny but because it was apparent that barriers were being broken down. The casting of men in women’s parts and women in men’s was appropriate to the theme of the relationship between sexuality and power, while the balance between the two acts was cleverly contrived so that those who played the opposite sex in one played their own in the other. Jim Hooper gave an admirably unexaggerated performance as the wife of an Edwardian empire-builder, and Julie Covington, who played a boy in the first act, was amusing, convincing and moving as an ageing mother in the second.

 

The best feature in John Barton’s production of The Merchant of Venice was Patrick Stewart’s characterization of Shylock as a man with a pathological gap between the nervous geniality on the surface and the festering insecurity at the centre. The second best feature was the camaraderie most spirited when most dependent on wine—between the young lions of mercantile Venice. The worst feature was the Waiting for Gobbo element: son and high-gravel blind father performing slapstick comedy in black Didi-Gogo costumes. John Barton’s Love’s labour’s lost was too slow and too eclectic to be effervescent. Playing the King as a gauche, bespectacled bookworm and the Princess as an intense, bespectacled bluestocking, Richard Griffiths and Carmen Du Sautoy both did well to stop the primarily visual joke from palling, but Michael Pennington seemed totally incapable of the wit that comes so naturally to Berowne, while the real trees on the set failed to make anything of the impact they did when Peter Stein used the same idea in his production of Gorki’s Summerfolk.

 

The worst Shakespearean production I have seen for years was the Prospect Company’s King Lear, which was unmoving and sometimes unintentionally funny. It should be possible to make the play work with no set and no lighting changes, but Toby Robertson’s reductionism was halfhearted and ill-considered. The straw dripping from the balconies at the side made them look like modernistic stables, and some of the lighting effects were reminiscent of bad provincial pantomime, as were some of the costumes. Anthony Quayle’s vocal resources are rather too slender for the oak-like King, although he managed them well during the first half, mustering considerable vituperative power against Goneril and Regan. But he was disappointing in the scenes on the heath, which call not so much for volumes as for vocal energy. What he failed to produce was the momentum, variety, intensity and urgency that the speeches need.

 

There was an intriguing idea behind David Mercer’s Cousin Vladimir: aware of how appalled foreigners are liable to be by English insularity, Mercer tried to use alcoholism as a theatrical metaphor to show how shortsighted and uninvolved we mostly are. But two English actors affecting Slav accents were not enough to put the compulsive drinking into an international perspective, and anyway the alcoholics were far too self-conscious about their self-destructiveness. It was good to see a revival of John Osborne’s Inadmissible evidence with Nicol Williamson almost exactly at the right age for the part he had precociously made his own fourteen years ago at the premiere. The play stands up well as one of our best post-war dramas, but it was a pity that John Osborne, directing it himself, decided to ignore what was probably the most inspired of all his stage directions-the suggestion that perhaps there is no one at the other end of the line during the long telephone conversations in the second act. More than in any of his other monologue-ridden plays, he comes artistically to grips here with the problem of solipsism, but he did not take full advantage of the opportunity of engaging with it as a director.