Interval debate about when exactly Christopher Fry had died was resolved at the end of Tuesday evening's Chichester Minerva revival of The Lady's Not For Burning, probably his greatest play: the nonagenarian author was in the audience to take an ovation. Fry is one of the most prominent examples from the last century of once mighty theatrical figures subsequently all but forgotten in terms of performance; he simply had the misfortune to be relatively composed and middle-aged at a time when the popular prejudice ran in favour of angry and young. But it is also curious, and a little telling, that more than one person I spoke to on the press night had previously acted in productions of the piece and admitted to being able to remember plenty of the lines but little of the plot.
In a mediaeval English village, a young woman is condemned for witchcraft and denies the charge, whilst a (ha!) angry young man accuses himself of being the devil and seeks death, which the authorities in turn deny to him. Over the course of a day and night, matters are resolved concerning each of them and also various members of the mayor's household. At least, that is the story. Fry's real concern in 1948 was finding a legitimate way to write light drama without shirking the horrors of recent decades. His answer was a curious and often dense mixture of English comic understatement and sustained poetical debate with the radiance and discipline of a cathedral window, almost equal parts Shaw and Eliot.
It's an appropriate blend of tones for the professional directorial début of Samuel West, whose keynote as an actor has always been combining playful naturalness with unshowy intelligence. And therein lies the main difference: Fry's intelligence is anything but unshowy. For all the excellence of Alan Cox and Nancy Carroll as the two accused, and of the rest of West's first-rate company (including Benjamin Whitrow, Alison Fiske and Patrick Godfrey) in riding the dynamics of language and action, one is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that every element of the play is deployed towards a greater work, and (for all that the word "God" scarcely if ever appears) an undeniably theistical one. It is this, I think, that has hindered Fry's rehabilitation since his fall from favour; more precisely, our sense that parables work better when not reminding us at every breath that they are parables. For all that this is a fine production of a remarkable play, it continues to feel out of time.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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