If the cover of this issue hadn’t gone to Primo (of which more later), it would have been Cloaca. A friend even supplied the punning caption to be used: “Yes, but is it Art?” It’s simply impossible to avoid making the association with Yasmina Reza’s breakthrough play when watching the opening production of Kevin Spacey’s tenure at the helm of The Old Vic. Blokes, friendships, paintings, money – all the points are there for a close mapping. All except the quality.
Maria Goos hasn’t written a bad play, just a poor one. I can’t recall greater unanimity of critics since I took over the editorship here. Even Murderous Instincts had its halfway-defenders (though not enough to stop it closing more than an issue’s duration before we reprint its reviews), but really, everyone – with the exception of the more vigorously damning Charles Spencer – has remarked on Cloaca’s general deficiency, and wondered why Spacey chose it to kick off his directorial stint. I have come across one intriguing suggestion (I wish I could remember where, in order to give due credit: possibly David Lister’s arts column in the Independent) about the play’s selection, namely that the prime mover in this instance wasn’t Spacey but his producer, David Liddiment. Prior to the Old Vic job, Liddiment’s career has been exclusively in television, peaking as director of programmes for the ITV network 1997-2002.
The more one thinks about Cloaca in that light, the more persuasive the theory becomes. It has the kind of shiny middlebrow feel that would appeal to an ITV exec looking for a one-off drama that wouldn’t be too alienating to the channel’s audience. The thing is that The Old Vic’s audience demographic is not the same as ITV’s… and, to judge from accounts of post-press night performances, the Spacey Old Vic’s demographic for Cloaca is different again. Nice idea to get Condé Nast involved as publisher of The Old Vic Magazine – a kind of up-market up-yours to the Really Useful group’s Theatregoer – but as Baz Bamigboye pointed out in the Daily Mail, people bridle at paying three quid for a programme, never mind a fiver, no matter how much “added value” is in there. Or maybe the target audience is precisely that kind of person… which, to me at least, would suggest not a great deal of market research. Multiply the number of seats in The Old Vic by the number of performances in the play’s run… are there over 100,000 such people to be tempted to come and see this show? If not, then make sure you don’t lose too much of your existing audience in pursuit of the new.
Of course, part of the reason for the Liddiment theory’s attractiveness is that we don’t want to lay the blame at Spacey’s door. Much as the British media enjoys knocking people down, what we want even more is for his commitment and belief to pay off, that we may see The Old Vic once again become a consistently viable venue with a strong individual identity. We’ve had enough of its years of hit-and-miss floundering under successive managements and artistic regimes, hopeful though some of them initially looked. And so, for once, we refrain from rushing to judgement on the basis of one play (how very different from the case, earlier this year, of Sam Mendes’ Scamp production company and Fuddy Meers), and even try not to draw too much attention to the minimal, anodyne directorial feel Spacey also gave to the production. Please, we whisper into our pillows like lovestruck teenagers, after so many heartbreaks let this man be The One. Time will tell.
To continue the teen metaphor, our walls are already bedecked with posters
of Nicholas Hytner. The National just keeps riding the crest of that
wave, with this issue featuring two strong openings on successive nights:
the 1995 revised version of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and Antony
Sher in his own adaptation Primo.
I’m with Jane Edwardes as regards Shepard’s plays, and a little more so: not only do I often wonder what they’re actually on about, but I suspect he doesn’t know either (indeed, a quotation from him in the programme to this production also suggests as much), and that there’s actually less to their black absurdity than meets the eye. In this respect, I find him better served by his full-length pieces set in something closer to the “real” world. Buried Child is one such play. I don’t know the original version, so I can’t judge how much it’s benefited from its revision. Nevertheless, it feels as if on this occasion he has a focused idea of what he wants to show, and shows it. It’s also noticeable that all the plays it seems to various reviewers to echo – Beckett’s Endgame, Pinter’s The Homecoming, Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – are each in some ways the offspring of absurdism; and Shepard’s play blends humour and horror, striking the notes of these predecessors along with those of Eugene O’Neill’s and the author’s own particular brands of American Gothic.
It’s an approach that also suits Matthew Warchus as a director. He’s sometimes judged good on external business but less sure on introspection. (I said it myself in Issue 05, about his own production of Endgame.) This play suits him, and he it, because more or less everything – all the family tension, all the torment – is externalised. Even the mystery of the play’s title isn’t a mystery in that respect: we’re told several times, directly, there’s a buried child out the back of Dodge’s family’s house. It’s only the details and the background that are exhumed in the course of the play. Lastly, it’s immensely welcome to see Sam Troughton finally given a role such as Vince where he can deliver what he’s been capable of. This is the performance that establishes him in his own right rather than as the perpetually-promising son-of-David-and-grandson-of-Patrick.
As for Primo, I’m with Benedict Nightingale: “really, this is an evening beyond criticism.” There are those who note Antony Sher’s usual tendency towards bravura acting and contrast it with his restraint here, and those also who feel he wasn’t restrained enough. In each case, the reining-in seems to be attributed to director Richard Wilson. It’s as if Sher the actor were entirely unrelated to the Antony Sher who did the adaptation of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz testimony If This Is A Man. A couple of times, quite early on during the press performance, I thought I just detected a catch in his voice, and I thought I realised what was going on. Fifteen years ago, as a student, I had performed a kind of samizdat production of Spalding Gray’s monologue Swimming To Cambodia, and I remembered that, when reciting Gray’s account of the Khmer Rouge’s programme of slaughter (the line that sticks with me is “If you wore glasses, you were killed”), I had to adopt a matter-of-fact delivery, not to get the words across, but to get them out at all. That’s what I think Sher was doing: the only way to face such enormity is to drop the pretence and just be.
Indeed, Levi’s work is at its core an affirmation of humanity, but not an affirmation in the cosy sense. Humanity can entail undergoing such inconceivable horrors, can entail living with them afterwards… and can also entail perpetrating them. The minds behind the Endlösung were not alien, were not other: they were human, too. We did it. And whatever our relation to those events – even simply watching a theatre adaptation – we have to face both those facts and our humanity.
A couple of personal illustrations from that evening. As usual on press nights, we reviewers were first out of our seats and through the doors, which hadn’t yet been fixed open. We were a trickle, though, several seconds apart, too far apart to comfortably hold the doors open each for the next. But we did. I think we just needed, even on so banal a level, to connect with other individual human beings. Then, walking to the Tube station, I fell in with another critic. He said one sentence, I said one, and we walked on in silence. Again, it was a matter of simple, existential company. I’m aware how risibly precious this looks on the page. In a perverse way, I think that means the production worked: if we could report on it dispassionately, it would have failed. Or we would have.
Existential angst and horror in the face of the absolute: key ingredients of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, if viewed through a Catholic prism of sin and redemption. And almost entirely absent from the musical version at the Almeida. Not the fault of Giles Havergal’s book for the show, which covers the narrative and the psychological ground efficiently. (Nicholas de Jongh upbraids him for supplying a “falsely upbeat finale”, which is in fact taken directly from the 1947 film – screenplay by Terence Rattigan and, er, Graham Greene.) I think it was simply a misguided project. I’m afraid I nearly laughed out loud at the very first bars of John Barry’s score: they were just so archetypally John Barry – twangy, suspenseful minor-key guitar and all. Unfortunately, the rest of the score had no such individuality, nor was it helped by Don Black’s workaday lyrics or the necessity of finding something for a chorus to do onstage (whirling deckchairs around, indeed!).
Almost every reviewer remarks that director Michael Attenborough is the son of Richard Attenborough, who played the murderous cherub Pinkie in John Boulting’s film; no-one, however, dares venture beyond that into what such a lineage might signify. No-one, either, comments that the show is produced in association with Bill Kenwright, who was presumably looking for a West End transfer and will presumably not be committing himself to one after the batch of limp reviews collected here.
Havergal has at the same time been appearing onstage at the Lyric Hammersmith as the father of Don Juan. With the bizarre, crucial exception of James Wilby’s chilly, unappealing Don Juan, it’s a fitting farewell to Neil Bartlett as artistic director. When he took on the job ten years ago, giving the director of the Queer-with-a-capital-Q company Gloria such a building to run seemed audacious both for him and for the Lyric’s board. He has been a success not only for the Lyric, but has integrated into this country’s theatrical mainstream the kind of aesthetic he prefers: at once sumptuous and grimy, sparklingly romantic and midnight-dark, and always defiant in its transgression. His own adaptation of Molière’s bleakest work recapitulates this perspective once more with skill and potency, let down by the aforementioned Wilby-shaped hole at its centre but bolstered by the likes of Paul Ritter as the Don’s manservant Sganarelle. Every time you think Ritter has given the scabrously cynical-comic performance of his career, he tops it.
I regret not being given the opportunity for a conceptual heckle during The Solid Gold Cadillac. Roy Hudd stops the show in order to recite at length the monologue about the rebel Roman gladiator which his hard-bitten character remembers fondly from his school-days and which led him to cherish hopes of a career on the stage. I whispered to my companion, “I will if you will…” Sadly, Hudd never gave us a useful cue on which to leap up and declare, “No! I’m Spartacus!”
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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