I think there’s a certain amount of complacency in reviewers’ responses to The God Of Hell. Sam Shepard clearly believes passionately in his play’s message: witness his eagerness to have it premièred in time for the 2004 US presidential elections, in the hope of having some tiny degree of influence. On this side of the Atlantic, though, I think it’s we who don’t get it. I wrote here a while ago of the same kind of culture gap in relation to David Mamet’s Romance; in the present case, though, I believe we fail to see exactly how much is at stake, in terms both of state policy and cultural climate-engineering, as regards the depredations of current right-wing Republicanism. It strikes me as significant that the most positive of the play’s reviews reprinted here comes from the green-card-carrying Ruth Leon, who is more naturally plugged in (if that isn’t an unfortunate turn of phrase about a play which involves electrical torture) to its cultural discourse. Quentin Letts’ assumption that it is Shepard who is opposed to traditional American values seems to me to epitomise all that is dangerous about being so smugly mistaken as most of us Brits are on this matter. [Pauses; dismounts from soapbox.]
The fifteen plays I saw during these two weeks have made it the most sustained run of decent theatre I’ve experienced in some time. Of course, you’ve got to have some lemons. I believed that Kevin Elyot would be trying to make Agatha Christie relevant to contemporary audiences, rather than simply giving it an intentional appeal to the irony-and-gore market. In the event, there’s nothing much to And Then There Were None beyond a lot of knowing chuckles and the kind of Steven Pimlott production that places said chuckles in a stylish setting. Who dunnit? Well, the butler is clearly working under a false name: John Ramm is using his standard Raymond Box voice from his National Theatre of Brent appearances. And as for Stephen Dillane’s Macbeth… As I’ve remarked before, one of the things to avoid as a reviewer is patronising – describing a production as “very good, considering [company age/budget/ability/whatever]”, or worse, underestimating an audience’s ability to handle complex material or out-of-the-ordinary modes of presentation. And we jaded hacks are hardly in the best position to second-guess how someone unfamiliar with a classic play will respond to an interpretation such as this: it’s at least the sixteenth Macbeth I’ve seen in my 15 years as a critic, and those are just the ones I have records of. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any Macbeth virgin getting anything like the full richness of the play out of Dillane’s solo version. Like the three-man Jungian Tempest at the Globe this summer, it’s an animated essay on the work, and also a performance showcase, but I really doubt that it counts as a production of the play.
But for the rest of the fortnight, I felt almost spoilt. I’ve little to add to the plaudits for As You Desire Me and Pillars Of The Community. Amazingly, I had not seen Damian Lewis onstage since his Regent’s Park Hamlet in 1994, when I felt that he simply wasn’t measuring up to the task, with a disposition that was altogether too antic. It would be hard to find a greater contrast with the man who plays Ibsen’s protagonist at the National: he still looks youthful (there’s something about red hair that militates against gravitas), but he inhabits the various dilemmas of Karsten Bernick with a wonderful depth and detail, even – especially – during the final act, when Bernick himself does not altogether know what he’s saying or doing.
A different kind of delight with Nell Leyshon’s Comfort Me With Apples, one of those plays set amongst people who know too well what each other are thinking and feeling to need to say it. There’s a satisfaction in… not so much in working to decode the silences, “you know”s and whatnot – it’s not a hermetic text – but in encountering a writer who can arrange the hints and implications, the looks and occasional phrases, just so, so that the full picture emerges without forcing the characters to over-articulate. The traditional middle-of-Act-Two revelations would, in a more journeyman play, take twenty minutes of explicit dialogue; here, Leyshon manages it in perhaps two hundred words all told, but just as distinctly as if all the i’s had been dotted and the t’s crossed.
Peter Quilter’s Glorious! pretty much is. Oh, it’s true that it’s slight: it doesn’t delve into the phenomenon of tuneless diva Florence Foster Jenkins, and even sidesteps the issue Quilter himself has set up of her accompanist’s homosexuality, using it instead simply as a pretext for a series of jokes and meaningful looks. But the jokes are for the most part solid stuff – not ground-breaking, but warm and enjoyable – and William Oxborrow’s meaningful looks in the role are incomparable: it looks as if he has had one eyebrow surgically fixed in a half-raised position, and the surgeon had an artist’s sensibility. Above all, of course, this is the kind of role at which Maureen Lipman excels, and herein lies the kernel of the production which I think has been insufficiently acknowledged. It is said of Madam Jenkins that there was more to her cult following than simple derision – that the combination of her unshakable conviction in her own abilities, together with an indefatigable good nature, transmuted scorn and incredulity into genuine affection. Indeed, this is the story of Quilter’s play, such as it is, as Oxborrow’s character makes precisely that journey. And it seems to me that Quilter, Lipman and director Alan Strachan have caught exactly that mood themselves. The play and production aren’t holding Jenkins up to ridicule, but to the altogether more complex love of the eccentric… a response which is assumed to be the peculiar preserve of the English rather than of Jenkins’ American compatriots.
Another unexpected and extremely pleasant surprise was finding that it is, after all, possible to put the words “restrained” and “Richard E Grant” in the same sentence, or indeed on the same continent. The last time I (or any of us) saw Grant on the London stage, I could happily have throttled him. His performance as Algy in the all-star 1993 Aldwych revival of The Importance Of Being Earnest was the worst kind of japery, like a sixth-former who fancies himself as a bit of a card and is playing up for the enjoyment of his mates in the gallery. As Simon Hench in Otherwise Engaged, he is, I think, excellent, and takes the play in a direction few would have expected (including, perhaps, author Simon Gray).
Alastair Macaulay and Kate Bassett both make comparisons of this play and production with the recent Donmar revival of The Philanthropist. However, where Kate sees an unflattering contrast between Grant’s performance here and Simon Russell Beale’s as Christopher Hampton’s protagonist, I’m more of a mind with Alastair, that the two plays are fundamentally addressing the same kind of English detachment, the only difference being that Hampton’s central figure believes he is interested whereas Gray’s has no such self-delusions. Indeed, I’d go further: I think Grant turns Otherwise Engaged from being an indictment into a far more compassionate kind of admonition. Hench’s outbursts, which some find flawed for being so dispassionate, I felt were almost apologetic; and the final phase of the play reveals not that he has been, as Georgina Brown reckons, “silently enjoying” his wife’s guilt at her affair, but trying to stave off precisely the kind of agony which now descends upon them both. By the slow final blackout, as he begins to weep during the overture on his new recording of Parsifal (though possibly at something else entirely), Grant has for me succeeded in making Hench, to a degree at least, a sympathetic character.
But maybe that’s just me. Similarly with my response to The World’s Biggest Diamond: I’m surprised at the attitude displayed towards it that a brace of top-notch performances – even as brilliant as both Jane Asher and Michael Feast are here, no doubt about it – can excuse what’s really a ghastly play. Gregory Motton, a writer who is unlikely ever to have been known to his intimates as “Uncle Chuckles”, has in his time translated a number of plays by Strindberg, but if this is anything to go by, he finds the Swede rather too frivolous. Much of his script sounds like an introspective sixth-former (though not the same one that Richard E Grant used to be) trying to articulate his feelings as if no-one else had ever felt them, and sounding ridiculous.
Some lines at random: “You like your crimes to be forgotten”, “I’m not the same person”, “It’s very nice that you mock now what you once loved.” It’s almost all like that: striking right to the core of not very much. The interval of 30 years between the events in question and the discussion of them only emphasises that the passage of time has not brought maturity or perspective. That’s partly the point, of course, but it’s realised in a way that is both dreary and painful. However, for me this is another “killing me softly with his song” piece. If my secret heart were ever to write a play of its own, it would be just like this one: sombre, grandiosely self-pitying, juvenilely overwrought. There are plenty of reasons to dislike the play, but it’s because it shows me just what I am and will always be that I downright hate it. I suppose that may be a compliment of sorts.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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