Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 22–23 July, 2008
*** / *** / **

On visits to Bath I am always amused by the sign on the building opposite the Theatre Royal, which anachronistically proclaims it to be the Regency Garage. Steps sideways through, or out of, time are common to all three plays in the first tranche of this year’s Peter Hall Company season there (the theatre, not the garage).

Peter Nichols’ Born In The Gardens is here receiving its first-ever major revival, but it is astounding and a little frightening how many elements our 2008 has in common with the 1979 of the play. Elderly widow Maud (Stephanie Cole) and her son Maurice (Allan Corduner) are clearly not malign racists, but the sort who think it amusing to call local shopkeepers Sabu or Charlie Chan. They worry about rising prices and the trades unions flexing their muscles; other son Hedley, meanwhile, is a Labour MP keen to get into bed with big business and uncaring property developers, and Maurice’s twin sister Queenie wants him to come and live with her in Malibu for a rather too special relationship. What with all these plus-ça-change chimes, it is easier to interpret the play as a state-of-England piece than to give full weight to Nichols’ intended subject, the allure of confinement versus the daunting prospects of freedom.

If Stephen Unwin’s production of the Nichols play builds a bridge between two eras, Hall’s revival of A Doll’s House almost seems to step outside time altogether. Ibsen’s tale of Nora Helmer’s disillusionment with being merely her bank-manager husband Torvald’s plaything and her departure to seek an identity of her own is often seen as a proto-feminist work. For this view to prevail, however, we must be in sympathy with Nora; yet Hall’s production allows none of the major characters to elicit our sympathy. Nora, in Catherine McCormack’s performance (all rapid nods and shakes of the head), seems to act as she does – whether in relation to a fraudulent loan she has taken out or to Torvald’s ban on her nibbling macaroons – out of spoilt arrogance rather than childlike naïveté. Christopher Ravenscroft’s Dr Rank is much less adept than usual at putting a jokey face on his bitterness as he is dying of hereditary syphilis. Even acts of altruism seem to be undertaken out of a selfish appetite for personal gratification. Ibsen’s social indictments normally have a searing power; however, without anyone to care about, such a piece looks impressive but draws no blood.

Oddest of all the company’s offerings is Nicki Frei’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait Of A Lady. Perhaps taking her bearing from one of husband Hall’s directorial landmarks, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, she begins at the end of James’s tale and works backwards; occasionally a scene is set a few days or weeks after the previous one, but more usually months or years before it. Thus, we begin with what could almost be a sequel to A Doll’s House as the same actors, McCormack and Finbar Lynch, portray a couple whose marriage is at the point of collapse, then follow protagonist Isabel back over five years through her wooing by the specious Gilbert Osmond, rejecting several other too-fervent suitors, being manipulated by Niamh Cusack’s smiling Madame Merle and finally arriving in 1870s Europe as a fresh-faced American. It makes no sense whatever. Instead of seeing Isabel’s autonomy and uprightness in accepting the consequences of even her bad decisions, all we see is her growing vivacity as time runs backwards and so we make the opposite inference, that she is a victim of events. I bet nobody at the Regency Garage ever tried to show how powerful an engine was by taking the car on a test-drive in reverse.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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