The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2012
Early in Richard Nelson's new play, set in 1916, some Brits abroad reminisce about the Mummers' Plays they saw as children, the sort in which St. George would slay a dragon or some baddy and then a doctor would appear and make everyone well again so there could be a happy ending.
That image is forced to bear more metaphoric weight than it can when a Mummers' Play is performed by some of Nelson's characters at the end, as a symbol of theatre's power to heal society.
Before then, the bulk of the play is about other things entirely.
Nelson imagines actor/director/playwright Harley Granville-Barker adrift on a third-string lecture tour of American colleges, his path crossing those of a couple of friends also on the lecture circuit. We soon learn that all have reasons other than money for expatriating themselves – one man is hiding from a sick wife, while a woman is sleeping with one of the local undergraduates (and, one assumes, his counterparts at other stops along the route).
But even that is not what the play is about. At this particular New England college the visitors happen upon some ugly and devious faculty politicking that takes up much of Nelson's attention.
In my own former life as an academic I learned the truism that the intensity of internecine battles was inversely proportional to the stakes – the smaller the prize, the nastier the fighting. Here a professor protecting his tiny turf conspires to publicly humiliate and threaten the career of an imagined rival.
Granville-Barker plays no real role in this plot except as a sadly bemused observer – indeed, it would take very little in the way of re-assigning speeches to write him out of the play altogether. But then, offstage and somewhere between the penultimate and final scenes, he decides to return to making theatre because it is socially important, as symbolised by the brief Mummers' Play he and his friends put on.
So what we have here is a play that is primarily about one thing (the campus nastiness) and secondarily about another (the British expats), and then drops them both completely to make a third point entirely. We never learn what happened to the threatened professor, the treachery of a student seems to be forgotten, and a handful of other loose ends are left dangling to allow for the theatre-cures-all ending.
Those hoping for insights into Harley Granville-Barker will be disappointed, those not sharing my knowledge of academic infighting may be puzzled by the intensity of that plot, and those hoping for a play that hangs together are likely to be frustrated.
Ben Chaplin gives Granville-Barker a brooding Byronic quality even when he's not doing anything, and Jemma Redgrave gives some gravitas and presence to a widow also at the periphery of the action.
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