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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Mrs. Affleck
Cottesloe Theatre January-April 2009

Samuel Adamson has taken the characters and basic situation of Ibsen's Little Eyolf - a couple torn apart by the death of their child - and moved them to 1950s England. It isn't an improvement.

Indeed, this whole National Theatre production is an object lesson in why lesser dramatists should not attempt to help greater ones, why directors should not take on plays for which they have no evident feel, and why actors seemingly miscast require more help from their director than they evidently got here.

In short, a few isolated moments - and I mean just a few seconds at a time - aside, you simply cannot believe in anything or anyone onstage.

In Adamson's version Alfred and Rita Affleck were clearly doomed from the start. He married her for her money, she is so possessive that she begrudges any love he directs toward their son rather than her, and he is far too close to his half-sister. The death of their crippled son (I'm not giving anything away there) just speeds up a process of disintegration that was inevitable anyway.

And that is one of the dramatic flaws in Adamson's play - that what is supposedly the triggering event of the tragedy really seems almost irrelevant. (Adamson makes this worse by changing a key plot point. In Ibsen the boy is lured away by a mysterious rat-catching crone, symbolically labelling him the evil force in the household. In Mrs. Affleck the ratcatcher has become a teenage hood seemingly and irrelevantly wandered in from some other play, and the boy drowns because he tries to escape his parents' stifling care and go swimming with the other kids.)

But the play has other problems as well. The two central characters never develop beyond a single note each, and the secondary figures - the sister and her suitor - hardly reach that much depth.

The attempts at local colour, including a black mother and son and a gratuitously nasty waitress, ring totally false. And at the eleventh hour the play suddenly forgets what it's about and becomes fascinated for a lengthy scene by the sister's semi-incestuous feelings for Alfred.

Now and then in the second half of the play there are a few seconds when Claire Skinner as Rita or Angus Wright as Alfred capture and convey the utterly horrible depth and madness of total grief. But those are the only moments of reality in the whole evening.

Which makes it time to invoke Berkowitz's Law: When everyone in a cast is bad, and bad in the same ways, the fault is the director's.

A more skilled or sensitive - or empathetic to the material - director than Marianne Elliott might have found ways to paper over the large cracks in Adamson's script and to guide her actors to find a reality in their characters.

But Skinner is shrill throughout and Wright portentous, and they spend the play making speeches at each other and the others, with no suggestion of listening to or inhabiting the same space as anyone else, while the rest of the cast sink into the soap opera stereotypes they've been given.

This isn't because the actors are bad - everyone onstage has done better work elsewhere - but because they have been given bad or inadequate direction.

Perhaps Little Eyolf, probably the least-often done of Ibsen's plays, would prove unplayable today. But this adaptation and production certainly have not improved on it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Mrs. Affleck - National 2009