Monday, 26 March 2012


26/5/12, Hampstead

100 minutes, no interval. Smoking alert (justified by the period). Harley Granville-Barker, actor, producer, director, is lecturing in America during World War One. He has been in France to write a book, and clearly doesn't want to go there to fight. His wife, we learn at one point, won't give him a divorce. He has no money. He is weary. "Everything I do," he says at one point, "I'm just waiting for it to be over. I have breakfast and wait for it to be over. I go for a walk and wonder when it will be finished. Its not a great step from there to wondering when the whole thing will be over."

He has pitched up in a small college town in Massachusetts in a boarding house run by an English widow, and a whole bunch of other expat English people: the widow's brother, a professor of English at the college; their cousin, a rather silly-arse schoolteacher, a bore and a lost soul; a man who tours a one man show about Dickens (reciting chapter after chapter of Pickwick or Tale of Two Cities); an ex-actress with three children having a fling with a college student, the president of the college Cap and Bells dramatic society who is playing Feste in a production of Twelfth Night.

At one point Granville Barker dreams of a theatre in which nothing much happens, but we observe the people and get to know them intimately, as people in the same room with whom we form a connection. This kind of play, in other words.

What does happen happens off-stage, and we are told about it in the manner of Greek tragedy. Granville Barker relays the news to the widow that her brother Henry has been publicly humiliated by his monstrous boss who belittles his Twelfth Night and discusses loudly enough for others to overhear false claims that he has been drunk at rehearsals and in lectures; Barker says the boss has a habit of sticking his tongue in his cheek after his most outrageous remarks, and makes a note if he ever directs Richard III to get the king to do the same. The Dickens man receives a telegram telling him his wife in New York has died but hides it from the rest of the household: the widow reveals that she has read the telegram, but even when he knows the others know none of them can find anything to say, in a very British way.

It was old-fashioned in other ways too. The women's roles weren't as strongly written: the widow's task mainly to listen, the ex-actress's to flirt and flutter giddily.

Most of the characters were escaping -- England, their spouses, the war. The Dickensian says they are treating America like some magical Shakespearean forest: a wonderful place to run away too, but in the real world nothing changes.

A very classy cast: Ben Chaplin as Granville Barker, Jemma Redgrave as the widow, Tara Fitzgerald as the ex-actress, Louis Hilyer as the prof, Jason Watkins (very strong) as the Dickens man, who has the best moments. Four scenes, the first and last in the garden; the middle two in the dining room, the design using the full depth of Hampstead's surprisingly large stage. The second scene (when they eat before going off to see the play, the light fades and the candles are lit, a scene which culminates with the telegram) was the strongest; scene three (after the play) necessarily downbeat, dominated as it is by the tale of Henry's humiliation and played in near-darkness; scene four a coda a few weeks later in which an old English mummers' play is briefly performed to the widow and the now-widowed Dickens man... and us.

Written by Richard Nelson, whose work I can't remember having seen before but who (according to A) is an American; directed by Roger Michell.

Dr T said it didn't quite have sufficient heft to live up to its ambition, which was right. There were moments of theatrical magic but they weren't especially magical; there was a case for theatre as a life-enhancing form in a disappointing world but I'm not sure it was made strongly enough. But worth it to see such a strong cast working together so well.

Reviews here. Billington thinks it's Chekhovian; the others concur that, despite the starry casting, it fails to take wing and is never quite the sum of its parts:

I've just discovered that Granville Barker himself wrote a play in 1916 called Farewell to the Theatre, which was done at the Rose in Kingston last year. Reviews here:

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