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 The TheatreguideLondon Reviews


For the Archive we have filed our reviews of several National Theatre productions from 2001 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

No Man's Land - Playboy of the Western World - Relapse - Remembrance of Things Past - The Walls - The Wonder of Sex

No Man's Land Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2001-02

Harold Pinter's 1975 play is enigmatic even by his standards and, though the author, acting as his own director, has anchored this revival in solid realism, it remains more a fascinating acting exercise and set of character sketches than a coherent whole.

Even the minimal plot is difficult to summarise as we are given several conflicting stories, but this seems the most likely: Hirst, a successful poet (Corin Redgrave in the role originated by Ralph Richardson) has met seedy failed poet Spooner (John Wood in the John Gielgud role) and brought him home for a drink. Hirst quickly drinks himself into oblivion, and is taken to bed by his servants (Danny Dyer and Andy de la Tour), leaving Spooner locked in. The next morning, Hirst greets Spooner by a different name, reminiscing about their youth together, and Spooner eventually joins in. Spooner asks for a job as Hirst's secretary, but Hirst is already too deep into the new day's alcoholic stupor.

Are they old friends play-acting as strangers in Act One? Is Hirst delusional in Act Two, and Spooner just playing along? Is Hirst playing a game with Spooner? Director Pinter does work to eliminate stray ambiguities that playwright Pinter may have put in the text - for example, in the original production the servants were acted menacingly enough to suggest they might be holding Hirst captive, but there is no hint of that here.

So when John Wood's Spooner freezes in mid gesture, straining to keep a noncommittal smile on his face while Redgrave's Hirst rattles on with his memories of having cuckolded his guest decades ago, and then catches his breath and plunges into his share of the reminiscence, it is hard not to read that as "What's going on? Let me think fast - maybe I can use this to my advantage" and conclude that the whole back story is false.

But small clarifications like that still leave us with two men behaving oddly and an adventure that goes not much of anywhere. The play, one must conclude, is just a look at the ultimate emptiness of old age, successful or not. Hirst drinks himself into unconsciousness nightly, while Spooner leads an empty life of menial part-time jobs and tawdry part-time voyeurism.

And it is on that level, of watching two masterful actors creating and sustaining characters based on the bare sketches the author provided, that the play succeeded with the two knights 26 years ago and succeeds today.

Stolid and minimalist, Corin Redgrave gives a performance that very much recalls Richardson's, though in his more alive scenes he resembles Brian Cox in bluff heartiness. Wood is much more a cheeky chappie than Gielgud was, and thus much less pathetic at the end; rather than sensing the tragedy of a last slim chance lost (as in the end of The Caretaker), we can imagine this Spooner going off with a relatively happy smile after the curtain falls.

The play is written in arias, with each of the four characters given the opportunity to speak uninterruptedly for up to ten minutes, and so each actor gets the chance to show off impressively. But watch the listeners as well - like Wood's frozen smile mentioned earlier, their reaction-acting is some of the subtlest and most impressive you're likely to see.

And that, finally, is the basis on which I can recommend this revival. Don't waste energy trying to decide what is true or what the message of the play is. Take it as an opportunity to watch excellent actors in the hands of a sensitive director, capturing isolated snapshots of human behaviour without the luxury (or distraction) of coherent context.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Playboy Of The Western World CottesloeTheatre Spring 2001

The National Theatre's new production of J. M. Synge's classic comedy of Irish village life is the best I've ever encountered, with two beautiful performances at its centre and an emotional reality I've never seen captured so thoroughly before.

Synge's 1907 play tells of a hapless lad who wanders into a remote village, filled with guilt for (he thinks) killing his father, and how the residents treat him like a colossus of epic accomplishment. He blossoms under their adulation and actually becomes the hero they imagine him, wooing and winning the comeliest local lass, until the mundane reality is exposed. The whole is written in a kind of mock-heroic poetic Irish dialect that succeeded in convincing the Irish that they were all instinctive poets and thus (in an ironic parallel to the play's plot) actually contributed significantly to the richness of modern Irish speech.

The first thing you notice, just seconds into the play, is how remarkably natural it all sounds. Director Fiona Buffini has guided her cast to a way of speaking Synge's dialogue so that it simultaneously sounds like real people talking and still retains its heightened poetry. This is an accomplishment equivalent to the best Shakespearean acting, when those who have only encountered the plays in school are convinced the actors must have rewritten Shakespeare into English.

So the play is instantly anchored in a solid reality that makes its central transformation all the more believable, as we see the characters' eloquence growing with the heightened emotions of the plot. This is enhanced by the performances, especially of Patrick O'Kane as the supposed patricide Christy and Derbhle Crotty as Pegeen Mike, the object of his affections.

I once heard an Irish actress explain that Pegeen Mike was the Irish actress's equivalent of Hamlet, that role sitting out there as a challenge, waiting for her to measure herself against it. With Buffini's help, Derbhle Crotty more than meets the challenge with a rich new interpretation of the role.

Pegeen Mike may be a strong woman, but (for the first time in my experience of the play) she doesn't know it. Crotty plays a simple village girl, afraid of the dark, more than willing to settle for her gormless suitor Sean Keogh (nicely underplayed by Paul Hickey, resisting temptation to make him too foolish), until she meets the outsider. He is attractive to her precisely because he is an outsider; she is prepared to believe anything about him just because he has seen more of the world than she has, and she is half in love with him long before her attention inspires him to eloquent wooing.

The joke is that O'Kane's Christy is just as much a simple village boy, and that she is equally exotic to him because this is the furthest he's ever been from home. So we are given the real pleasure of watching a believable couple falling in love without realizing it and being transformed by the experience.

Sorcha Cusack gives strong support with a no-nonsense portrayal of the local widow who sees Christy as an attractive catch for her, but is willing to settle for appropriate payment (a ram, a right of way and a load of dung once a year) for helping the young lovers.

The director's sure hold wavers late in the play, when eloquence gives way to some awkwardly-staged action, and the ending is something of a letdown (as if Hamlet mumbled his way through "To be or not to be"). But for at least 90 per cent of its length, this is a richly comic, warmly human immersion in happy and thoroughly satisfying romance.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Relapse Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2001

This new production by Trevor Nunn and Stephen Rayne of a rarely-produced Restoration comedy is the vehicle for a delightful performance by Alex Jennings. But unfortunately there is little else to recommend about it as it slogs though a lot of drearly lifelessness in its over-three-hour length.

Most late-17th century comedies had the same basic plot: a witty and clever man-about-town won the witty and clever woman-about-town, usually by foiling her parents, her husband, a lusty widow chasing him, or a comic rival. The last was often a fop, a would-be style-setter who went so over the top in dress and behaviour as to be ridiculous.

Vanbrugh's twist was to make the fop, while still comic, actually rather witty and attractive, while the hero was a penniless outsider, thus adding a subtly revolutionary subtext to the fun. The title, by the way, comes from the play's second plot, in which a reformed philandering husband strays again, and the whole is a parody sequel to a play by Colley Cibber about how that philanderer suddenly reformed in the last act. (I once wrote a really dull book about Vanbrugh, so don't mess with me, kid.)

As Lord Foppington (names like that were conventions of the genre: the straying husband is named Loveless, a matchmaker is named Coupler, a country squire is Sir Tunbelly Clumsey, etc.), Alex Jennings uses all his signature skills of combining broad playing with subtle nuances. Even when overdressed and periwigged into a cartoon (Think Elton John in his Mozart outfit), he lets us see that there is a rather witty, if misguided, man in there who is thoroughly enjoying himself.

He and the directors have added a nice touch to underline his character's total self-absorption by having his finish everyone else's sentences for them, so eager is he to get the topic of conversation back to himself. But the guy is bright - he talks rings around his brother, the nominal hero, and you can understand why this fop, in contrast to all his predecessors in the genre, is a social success.

But Lord Foppington has only three or four big scenes in the play, most of which is about his brother's attempts to get the girl or, even more drearily, about the philandering husband plot. And in those sections the play's own limitations, along with some directorial choices, defeat Nunn and Rayne.

The other plot has serious overtones and not much in the way of wit - to cover her affair with the husband, his doxy helps her former lover try to seduce the wronged wife - but it was surely a mistake to play it as moral melodrama rather than comedy. Even the personal charms of such attractive performers as Imogen Stubbs (the wife), Claire Price (the doxy), James Purefoy (the husband) and Adrian Lukis (the wooer) can't bring this half of the play alive, and their scenes just lie there like so many dead fish.

I hate to second-guess directors, but had this plot been played in a more stylized way, as high comedy, the sneaking-around and conspiracies might have had some zing and  some of the nearly-epigrams in the dialogue might have scored.

Meanwhile, even the Foppington plot sags when he's not around. Given an essentially stolid character to play, Raymond Coulthard can't find any comic energy in the romantic hero, and Maxine Peake has to work too hard to drag some laughs out of the untutored country heiress they're after. Edward Petherbridge starts out strongly as the lecherous old matchmaker, but seems to lose interest after his first scene. Similarly, Brian Blessed could play the uncouth-but-heart-of-gold Sir Tunbelly in his sleep, and sometimes seems to be doing that, performing on autopilot with no real verve.

The total of about half an hour that Alex Jennings is onstage is some of the best pure entertainment to be found in London. But I can't honestly say it's worth sitting through the other three hours for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Remembrance Of Things Past Olivier Theatre Winter 2000-01

Marcel Proust's seven-volume novel, in which sounds, tastes and other chance stimuli inspire the narrator's disordered memories of his life and of a whole epoch in French high society, is one of those acknowledged masterpieces that few have actually read. Harold Pinter's 1970 attempt at a screenplay was seen at the time as a marvellous exercise in the impossible and the film was never made. In 1999 director Di Trevis used it as the basis for some student exercises and, with further input by Pinter, the National Theatre has staged it.

Squeezing seven long volumes of stream-of-consciousness fiction into three hours onstage inevitably means a Proust's-Greatest-Hits approach, with whole plot lines cut and others reduced to their bare outlines. The most one can hope for is enough for those who have read the original to fill in the gaps and resonances, while the rest of us get a hint of the novel's content and flavour. And on that level, this staging, while uneven, is more successful than not.

Ideally this review should be written by someone who has read the original, but as they are thin on the ground, you'll have to settle for me. I can report that the first act comes across as something of a jumble, with what seems like dozens of characters - the Duc of This, Madame de That - introduced in such a rush that we can't tell them apart. To capture the novel's stream-of-consciousness structure, Pinter repeatedly gives us brief flashes of memory whose context we only discover later. A shot of one man hitting another comes out of nowhere, and only a half-hour later do we see the whole scene of which it is a part, while a view of some girls doing laundry early in Act One isn't explained until the very end of Act Two. Even the nearest thing the first act has to a plot line - the tortured discovery by Charles Swann (Duncan Bell) that his wife is a lesbian - is rushed through almost too quickly to register.

Things get considerably easier to follow in Act Two, as the pace slows and we get a chance to know some of the characters. At the plot centre is Marcel's love affair with Albertine, and his obsessive suspicion that, like Swann's wife, she has betrayed him with other women. Sebastian Harcombe plays Marcel as a bit of a gormless wimp throughout, though Indira Varma captures and sustains Albertine's ambiguities effectively. We also come to know and enjoy the homosexual duke Meme, played by David Rintoul with country-squire heartiness, and the social-climbing bourgeoise Madame Verdurin (played with subtle vulgarity by Janine Duvitski), who holds elegant dinners and soirees at which her noble guests patronise and ignore her.

But through much of the evening, one can't help feeling that there is more going on beneath the surface than the dramatisation can possibly show. One small example, as explained to me by someone who had read the novel: at one point Marcel's grandmother, with whom he has had a particularly loving relationship, realizes she is dying, and decides to have a photograph taken, so that he will have a memento of her while she was still healthy, instead of just a deathbed memory. He happens upon her while she is dressing up for the photo and, not knowing her motives, ridicules her for vanity. Even I can see that this must be a memory filled with guilt, regret, and a jumble of emotions. But onstage the whole episode takes about 30 seconds, with none of the background or emotional context provided, and so it comes across as a bit of gratuitous cruelty to a harmless old lady.

If you're prepared for that recurring sense that you're getting the form with only a hint of the essence, or if you know the original and can fill in what's missing, this exercise in the impossible can be a fascinating experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Walls Cottesloe Theatre - Spring 2001

There is more comic invention in Colin Teevan's new play at the National Theatre than in half the plays I've seen in the past year, put together. And if the wild abundance sometimes gets a bit jumbled, it is still more fun per minute than you have any right to demand.

The play is set in the home of Mr and Mrs Wall (Michael Culkin and Clare Higgins), a middle class Dublin family, which is to say that it is filled with secrets, regrets, guilts and frustrations, all of which will be exposed in the course of the play. The exposure is assisted by the fact that the fourth wall of their living room has literally disappeared, leaving their private lives visible to passers-by, and the man called in to fix the problem (Toby Jones) is more interested in chatting over a cup of tea.

It's Christmas Eve, and the family is gathering: the resident ne'er-do-well son (Gary Lydon), the successful gone-to-England son (Declan Conlon), his new wife (Monica Dolan), her father (Tony Rohr) and the neighbouring retired priest (Karl Johnson). In an adroit take-off on the conventions of kitchen-sink drama, the obligatory secrets will be told, repressed memories freed, old grievances rekindled, and new lies uncovered, all with an abundance of comic absurdity. And the remaining three walls of the living room will, in turn, mysteriously disappear.

If the symbolism of those walls seems a bit obvious, that's typical of Colin Teevan's method. He has nothing to hide, and wears his inventiveness with a beguiling panache. The plot is built on a series of absurd coincidences that even the characters can't help noticing, and the dialogue constantly calls attention to its own cleverness with a childlike delight that is irresistible. Anyone who can write lines like "The things one remembers, whether one remembers one remembers them or not" is showing off, but who can blame him, especially when they all score?

Teevan has obviously immersed himself in the contemporary dramatic modes he is using as his comic springboard, and one can spot the influences of Ayckbourn (the opening scene, a homage to Absurd Person Singular), Ionesco (the absurd small talk), Albee (buried secrets), Orton (hints of bent sexuality), Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, the English graduate student in your soul will take extra delight in ticking off these echoes and allusions as Teevan openly waves them in your face.

As the middle class matron determined to maintain the fiction that all is normal, Clare Higgins is the comic engine driving the play, counterbalanced by Michael Culkin's happy obliviousness to the evidence that all is not normal. The others, like characters in a French bedroom farce, react to being manipulated by the machinery of the plot with alternating calm and panic.

It's hard to describe comedy. If I haven't been successful, let me just say that it's funny. It's very funny. And if it constantly threatens to fly apart under the centrifugal force of its comic inventiveness, it's still a lot of fun along the way.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Wonder Of Sex Lyttelton Theatre, Winter 2001-02

Two great national cultural institutions meet, creating a major contribution to British theatrical culture.

That's a joke, of course. The National Theatre of Brent is the mock-pretentious name (Americans: think of, say, the Metropolitan Opera House of Teaneck New Jersey) of an occasional fringe company that has been given a guest booking at the Royal National Theatre for their latest comic romp.

The NTB is the brainchild of actor-writer Patrick Barlow, and began two decades ago as street theatre, two guys in Covent Garden getting the crowd of onlookers to help them stage the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Zulu War. With their move into theatres came a recognizable format: - as Desmond Olivier Dingle, pretentious but totally untalented Artistic Director of the NTB, Barlow would attempt to stage some grand project far beyond his abilities, assisted by an even more inept stooge.

The gap between their ambition and abilities was the running joke, though in the best of their shows Barlow could turn the joke back on itself by having their innocence actually accomplish some of what they set out to do.

In the current show Desmond and his particularly hapless assistant Raymond (John Ramm) attempt to explain the title subject through tales of Oedipus, Freud, Salome, Casanova and the like. The joke, as always, is in their ineptness: their idea of costuming is adding a hat or shawl to their street clothes (Donning a sunbonnet to become Lady Chatterley, Barlow actually looks like Maggie Smith playing Lady Bracknell), all their characters sound exactly like themselves, and Desmond has ongoing trouble with their host's computerised stage equipment.

Desmond's self-importance leads him into constant comic stretches beyond his vocabulary or convoluted syntax from which he never recovers, while Raymond is prone to malapropisms, spoonerisms, and an odd difficulty wrapping his tongue around the simplest words. Raymond also gets increasingly rebellious under Desmond's bossiness, especially when he learns that actors at this other National Theatre actually get paid.

The sketches are funny, although, as is sometimes the case with the NTB, one gets the sense of the basic joke being stretched a little thin, and there never is that magical moment when their naivete actually pulls it off.

On the other hand, there is a thoroughly successful sequence in which they return to their street theatre roots and engage the audience ("This section shout this, and this section shout...") in recreating the Russian Revolution. I once saw the legendary Living Theatre do the same thing very seriously and create theatrical magic, but this version is a whole lot funnier.

And if you're wondering what the Russian Revolution has to do with the Wonder of Sex, it grew out of a Rasputin sketch. But the whole show has a Pythonesque quality of abandoning sketches in mid-joke or evolving them into something else.

NTB fans will flock to this new show and love it, though they are likely to leave with the sense that this is not them at their absolute best. Newcomers, if they give themselves over to the basic joke, will have a great time.

Geald Berkowitz

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Review - No Man's Land - National 2001 Review - Playboy of the Western World - National 2001 Review - The Relapse - National 2001 Review - Remembrance of Things Past - National 2000 Review - The Walls - National 2001 Review - Wonder of Sex - National 2001