The Theatreguide.London Reviews
NATIONAL THEATRE 1999
For the archive we have filed reviews of three National Theatre productions from 1999 on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Money - Battle Royal - Summerfolk
Money Lyttelton Theatre, Autumn-Winter 1999-2000
Edward Bulwer-Lytton's mid-19th century play is a pleasant blend of satiric comedy and fairy tale.
In a world defined by money, or at least the appearance of having money, a poor man is rejected by the woman he loves because she knows poverty would destroy romance. When a sudden plot twist makes him incredibly wealthy, a series of misunderstandings and manipulations keep them from getting together, while his new status gives him - and us - a unique perspective for satiric observation.
In this lavish Royal National Theatre production, directed by John Caird, Simon Russell Beale manoeuvres successfully through a plot that immerses him in melodramatic passion at one moment, only to pull him back to the position of ironic commentator the next.
Victoria Hamilton is perhaps a bit too priggishly virginal as the object of his devotion, though she too has to fight a plot structure that continually brings the couple to the edge of reunion only to invent some new complication or misunderstanding to delay the inevitable.
The central figure's sudden wealth gives the play a lot of opportunity for comedy, in the portraits of the new friends and parasites he quickly develops, and in the alacrity with which they desert him when he appears to have lost it all. Foremost among these is Denis Quilley's not-as-rich-as-he-seems aristocrat who spends the first part of the play patronising Russell Beale's character and the rest of it trying to marry his daughter to him, then trying to stop the marriage, then trying to get it going again . . .
A step further from the centre, Roger Allam almost steals the show as a man determined to be gloomy, dragged back to good cheer against his will by Patricia Hodge's wise and witty widow. Even further out, the characters become open cartoons: a vapid playboy, a devious gambler, hypocritical politicians of every stripe, and the like.
Like the actors, the production itself has to struggle with the text's constantly-shifting styles; and the whole thing goes on a bit too long, as the author finds yet another way to keep the central couple apart. But this is exactly the kind of play a National Theatre is meant to re-explore, and one can't imagine it being done much better.
Roger Allam and Patricia Hodge subsequently won Olivier Awards as Best Supporting Actor and Actress.
Battle Royal Lyttelton Theatre, Winter 1999-2000
George IV and his wife Caroline of Brunswick are two of the most grotesque figures in British history. Both fat, ugly, debauched and vulgar, they hated each other so much that he famously locked her out of Westminster Abbey at his coronation.
They would seem ideal subjects for a black comedy, especially in this era of failed royal marriages, and especially with two performers adept at larger-than-life characters: Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker.
But Nick Stafford's new play misses just about every opportunity for scandal or fun, instead offering a polite, subdued domestic drama of almost insufferably nice people.
Stafford's George and Caroline are at worst small-souled figures unable to live up to the responsibilities of their position. The most the play can accuse the king of is not wanting to marry in the first place and not even trying to make a go of it. She is presented as trying hard to make a go of it before settling contentedly for a separation.
The play inexplicably whitewashes them into near-invisibility. George's famous fall into the fireplace in a drunken stupor on their wedding night becomes a harmless stumble. Her decay into a fat, painted harridan becomes some innocent country dancing and a sincere attempt at reconciliation. Even her notorious banging at the door of the Abbey is changed into a noble sacrifice in the name of peace.
Surely there was something about these two that made them hate each other, and surely there was something to make interesting theatre out of. To write a play about two grotesques and make them seem not only ordinary but dull is almost perverse.
Faced with this, director Howard Davies and the stars try to suggest little people victimised by larger forces. A revolving stage sweeps them about or makes them run through a maze, while both Russell Beale and Wanamaker take frustration and exasperation as their dominant notes.
As George's confidante Lady Jersey, Gemma Jones tries to look arch as often as possible, but the play turns her into a nice person as well, while Suzanne Burden's Mrs. Fitzherbert is written as so domestic that she might as well be knitting.
Seriously overlong at almost three hours, the play has no rhythm. There is hardly any battle to Battle Royal, and not much sense of royalty.
Summerfolk Olivier Theatre, 1999-2000
A stage full of well-off Russians sit around and bemoan the fact that their lives are without meaning. A couple of unhappy wives are tempted to infidelity, a spurned lover tries to kill himself, a famous writer disappoints a fan. It sounds like Chekhov, and indeed Maxim Gorky's play is full of echoes of everything from The Three Sisters and The Sea Gull to Uncle Vanya .
The difference is that Chekhov makes you care, makes you believe that his characters' unhappiness, however banal, is real to them and therefore of importance. With occasional brief exceptions, Summerfolk lacks that quality: you just want to go up there, smack those people around, and tell them to get a life.
That's a shame, because Gorky's subject is a potentially fascinating one -- the first generation of Russia's new middle class in 1905. Children of peasants and workers, they are torn between the feeling that they have a right to the self-indulgence they can now afford and a vague sense of obligation to do something more with their lives.
At the play's centre is Varvara (Jennifer Ehle), unhappy wife of Sergei (Roger Allam), who is pleasant enough but unconsciously vulgar and misogynist in a bloky way. Neighbours and family are all smaller of soul than Varvara feels they should be: her brother Vlass (Raymond Coulthard) plays the clown, while sister-in-law Kaleria (Derbhle Crotty) hides from life in the guise of ethereal poet.
In neighbouring dachas in this summer colony are a drunken and incompetent engineer (Oliver Cotton) whose cynical wife (Victoria Hamilton) is drifting toward infidelity, and the low-comic couple of the overworked doctor (Simon Russell Beale) and his hysterical wife (Beverley Klein). Even the visiting famous writer (Henry Goodman) is a disappointment, a trivial little man with hardly enough energy to play at flirtation.
Everybody is unhappy. Everybody feels irrelevant. Almost everybody grabs at any opportunity to philosophise at length about their unhappiness, much to the annoyance of everybody else, who are impatient for their turns to pontificate. There is something real going on here. Gorky has recognised and captured the disorientation of a generation with no precedents for their experience. And much of the talk is good. You are never bored at Summerfolk, despite its more-than-three-hour length. You just aren't involved.
Some of the problem is that Jennifer Ehle just isn't a strong enough presence to be the play's moral centre. But the role is oddly underwritten, depriving her of the words with which to express her feelings. And even the more eloquent characters seem, in the Chekhov mode, to be at least partially playing at being unhappy.
Only in very brief flashes - as when the funny little doctor and his wife suddenly get randy and, a scene later, suddenly snap at each other; or when the elegant widow played by Patricia Hodge faces her attraction to a younger man - do we believe the moment and respond to human feelings.
That, along with the fine acting all around, is almost enough.
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- Money - National 1999
Review - Battle Royal - National 1999
Review - Summerfolk - National 1999
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