To The Moon
It was he who discovered that the great national trauma could best be explained and made real through the small stories of small people, and Rocket To The Moon (1938), while not the best-known of his works, is a heartbreaking and exhilarating drama fully realised in this near-perfect National Theatre production.
Odets’ subject is not so much the economic depression - there is a poor character in the play, but also a rich one - as the death of hope, the closing-in of the horizon so that happiness and fulfilment seem as much a fantasy as space travel.
His central character is a modestly successful dentist, married for ten years to a woman who is a bit of a nag but no more, and beginning to sense that this, which isn’t bad but isn’t in any way satisfying, is all there is ever going to be of his life.
He hires a new assistant, a young, foolish, ignorant girl only half-conscious of her sexual power and totally without guile or malice, but filled with life and hope and the totally unrealistic faith that she has a future.
And so of course he falls in love with her, as does his rich father-in-law, and as does the audience, because as much as Odets knows that she’s doomed and that the dentist isn’t even capable of rising to her level of vitality, he knows that there is something wonderful about her.
Is the glass half empty or half full? Is this a dirge for the death of the American Dream, or an assertion that the stupid human spirit will persist in hoping and dreaming in spite of the evidence? I have never before heard the voice of Samuel Beckett so clearly in this play as I do now, for which I thank director Angus Jackson and his impeccable cast.
Joseph Millson as the dentist brings us fully within the emotional journey of a man who takes the dreadful risk of hoping only to realise that he has long since lost the ability to hope, and that it is himself as much as the world outside that will continue to imprison him.
Nicholas Woodeson shows us the energy and also the vulgarity that made the rich man a success, that makes him confident that he will always be a success, and that makes him able to cope with a rare defeat. The character is a monster, but an irresistible one, and Woodeson shows us all his unpolished and unfeigned charm.
But the play lives or dies with the girl, and if we don’t feel her life-affirming energy and fall in love with it ourselves, then everyone else onstage will just look foolish.
Jessica Raine lights up the stage. She doesn’t hide the character’s silliness or even the awareness that she is probably as doomed as the others, but she makes us feel that right here and right now she is life and hope and the indomitable human spirit personified - and, as a result, incredibly sexy. The actress makes us fall in love with her so we understand how the men onstage fall in love with her character.
Keeley Hawes sensitively lets us see that the wife is driven by fear more than nastiness, and that she hates what she is turning into, and Peter Sullivan as the impoverished friend is given a beautiful aria of despair that he delivers with dignified pathos.
The very best of twentieth-century American drama found poetry in solid realism, tragedy in the little lives of little people. This production makes it clear that Clifford Odets ranks with the very best.
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