The Chalk Garden / Afterlife / Contractions
Various venues
June, 2008

In his review of The Chalk Garden, Aleks Sierz dares to resist his colleagues’ rush to laud the play’s rediscovery and Enid Bagnold’s idiosyncrasies of tone, continuing instead in the older orthodoxy that writing such as hers was washed away by Look Back In Anger and a good thing too.  I have to say I reluctantly incline more towards Aleks’s view.  I’d like to be able to praise the play – as I can certainly praise Michael Grandage’s production and virtually every performance in it (I think Aleks stints rather in this respect) – but the writing does strike me as really quite effortful, not at all the poised and polished cut gem that some claim.  Not the least awkward aspect is its description as a comedy.  It certainly contains a wealth of (self-consciously) witty lines, but its actual subject matter is markedly sober… without being so  excessively strait-laced as to amount to parody or black comedy.  If Bagnold cared about the events she depicted, she didn’t do them the justice of gravity; if she didn’t, that seems dubious in itself.

(To my mind, the greatest comedy surrounding The Chalk Garden is the aside in Tim Walker’s review, in which he falls into the same trap as Jonathan Miller in deploring the casting of David Tennant as the RSC’s next Hamlet, allegedly simply because he is a hot TV name.  In fact Tennant has a long – for his age – and admired stage career including roles as Romeo and also as Jack Absolute in The Rivals for the RSC in 2000.  This is a case where it is the self-appointed arbiters of high-cultural values who show themselves, in a delicious irony, to be the ignorant and narrow-minded ones.)


It is a cultural shift as a whole that disables Michael Frayn’s Afterlife.  Max Reinhardt, alas, is no longer intrinsically compelling enough for us to persist through a lengthy exploration of his life and psyche, with patterned allusions to and quotations from the mediaeval morality play Everyman.  I was irked to hear the panel on BBC2’s Newsnight Review (now the only mainstream British TV programme prepared to take the arts seriously even for half an hour a week) all thoughtfully praise the concept and deliberation of Frayn’s text – almost like opera, remarked one talking head – without deigning to notice that it simply doesn’t work as drama.  There’s no drive to it.
However, the play did serve as the foundation for my own most unsettling moment of the fortnight… no mean achievement, in a period which also included Anthony Neilson’s dark and disturbing Relocated.  On the Tuesday night I watched Afterlife, with its scenes of David Schofield mingling at theatre director Reinhardt’s parties before being revealed as, firstly, the subsequent Nazi Gauleiter of post-Anschluß Salzburg and, secondly, a surrogate of Death himself; on the Saturday night I went to a party thrown by theatre director Mike Bradwell to find, er, David Schofield mingling among the guests.  Thankfully, neither jackboots nor scythe were produced as the evening progressed.


Sometimes the issue is perspective in a fundamental, literal sense.  Nicholas de Jongh notes in passing in his review of Contractions that the production “performed in a Royal Court rehearsal room gives some audience members a permanent rear view of [Julia] Davis.”  Conversely, others of us had a similarly limited view of the other actor, Anna Madeley, whose character is the one that undergoes the psychological journey in the piece.  To choose a mode of staging where up to a third of the audience can’t actually see this performance seems to me to be a mark either of foolishness or knavery: foolishness if director Lyndsey Turner missed something so basic, knavery if she noticed but carried on with the staging regardless, thus showing contempt for the audience.  It’s a headache arising from quite a basic matter of presentation and layout.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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