Sunday, August 24, 2008

"You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chances"

We attended seven plays while we were in Britain.

The first was the new Michael Frayn play,“Afterlife”, receiving its world premiere at London’s National Theatre. “Afterlife” is a biographical play whose subject is Max Reinhardt, the theater impresario who was one of the founders of The Salzburg Festival.

This was my first performance at The National Theatre. We had taken a guided tour of the entire National Theatre complex last year, but we did not attend any National Theatre performances last year—instead, the four plays we attended in London last year were all in the West End.

I was genuinely looking forward to my first performance at The National Theatre, because Alex and Andrew have always talked so highly about the quality of the performances they have attended at The National, the greatest theater in the English-speaking world.

I was in for a rude awakening.

I hated “Afterlife”. Sitting through “Afterlife” was one of the most tedious afternoons of my life.

It was the play itself that stunk, not the production or the performance. The text was in verse, which surprised us greatly, and it simply did not work. The text was too long, too repetitive, and too clumsy. It also lacked poetry—fatally so. The play was little more than an academic experiment that did not succeed.

The audience was noticeably stultified. I would estimate that more than twenty per cent of the audience departed the theater at the intermission, a good indication of how bad this play truly was.

I know nothing about Max Reinhardt, but apparently being learned about the life and career and philosophy of Reinhardt does not add to one’s enjoyment of the play—Andrew and Andrew’s father, both knowledgeable about Reinhardt, hated the play as much as I did. Andrew’s mother, Andrew’ brother and my sister hated the play, too. At the final curtain, all of us agreed that we should have departed the performance at the interval, which we had very seriously contemplated.

“You pay your money and you take your chances”, as the saying goes—and “Afterlife” was a waste of our time, and a sour way to get our theater-going under way.

It was with great trepidation that we attended Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden” later the same day. “The Chalk Garden” does not enjoy a high reputation, and we were genuinely fearful that we would be required to sit through yet another gruesome few hours in the theater for the second time in one day.

The play itself is unremarkable—an odd mixture of drawing-room comedy, melodrama, mystery and satire that do not, ultimately, add up to very much—but at least Bagnold knew how to write dialogue for the stage, and the play flew by in a flash.

The production was flawless—a marvel, actually—and it was the production that was responsible for carrying the evening. There were two great actresses in the cast—Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton—and we could not take our eyes off either one of these two great artists for the entire evening.

Both were absolutely riveting. With the slightest turn of the head, or the subtlest coloration of a line, Tyzack and Wilton had the audience spellbound if not in rapture. I have never experienced anything quite like it in my life. I was transfixed, and so was my sister. It was the sort of thing one experiences only a few times in one’s life. I will never forget the performances of these two grand ladies.

“The Chalk Garden” went a long way in making up for our disappointment in “Afterlife”.

My sister and I were the only ones in our party who had never before seen the great Margaret Tyzack on stage.

However, only Alex and Andrew had previously seen Penelope Wilton on stage, and Alex and Andrew remarked that Wilton was practically unrecognizable to them in her “Chalk Garden” role. Alex and Andrew had seen Wilton play the lead in “The House Of Bernarda Alba” at The National Theatre in 2005, and Wilton’s 2005 appearance as the haughty if not vicious widowed Spanish matriarch in the Lorca play bore no relationship to her 2008 appearance as a prim British governess dealing with a troubled child on an isolated country estate. The actress was the same in both roles, but the character was a totally different person, and the look and mannerisms and carriage of Wilton made her virtually unrecognizable to Alex and Andrew from one play to the next. That is a great, great tribute to her art.

In addition to Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton, the other “star” we witnessed in action while we were in Britain was Susan Hampshire, who appeared in Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” at Chichester Festival Theatre. Andrew’s parents had seen Hampshire once before, almost thirty years ago in a Tom Stoppard play, but for the rest of us this was our first exposure in person to this fixture of the British stage.

Hampshire was very charming—she could charm Putin out of Georgia, no doubt, if she were put to the task—but she was not quite as impressive as Tyzack or Wilton, probably because the production of “The Circle” was not as fine as the production of “The Chalk Garden”.

The level of ensemble in “The Chalk Garden” was much higher than the level of ensemble in “The Circle”, credit and blame for which must go to the respective directors. The production of “The Chalk Garden” was very tight. The production of “The Circle”, in contrast, was more or less aimless, and it was probably hard for Hampshire to develop a rhythm and to create her special magic amid such lackluster surroundings.

“The Circle” is a very old-fashioned play, slow-moving and very slow to take wing, and it struck me as watered-down George Bernard Shaw, lacking Shaw’s sparkle and tension and argument. “The Circle” is generally considered to be Maugham’s only enduring play, but it nevertheless remains arch and artificial, very much a remnant of its time (1921). We enjoyed the evening, but we were not especially impressed by the play or the production or the performance.

I would like to see Susan Hampshire again, in a better production in a better play. A very beautiful woman, she looked smashing.

We also attended a performance of Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides” at Chichester Festival Theatre. “Taking Sides” is Harwood’s play about Wilhelm Furtwangler. Andrew will write about “Taking Sides”, because he has much more to say about the play than I do.

At Theatre Royal, Plymouth, we attended a performance of “A Disappearing Number”.

“A Disappearing Number” is a “theater piece” more than it is a conventional play. It uses dialogue, music, film, choreographed movement (“dance” is too strong a word) and projections to tell two parallel stories about mathematics, the clash of cultures, and the onset of death. Simon McBurney was credited as author and director, but other persons had a hand in the work’s creation as well.

The themes were neither original nor profound—the fleeting nature of time, the inability ever to know fully another person, the difficult nature of exchanges between the Orient and the Occident—but the work was slightly intriguing. We had no trouble sitting through the performance.

“A Disappearing Number” is not a lengthy work—the performance lasted one hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission—but it is too long by twenty or twenty-five minutes and would benefit from some judicious pruning.

There was something undeniably second-rate about every aspect of the work and the performance. It had the look and feel of a drama department project at a tiny and undistinguished college in remotest upstate New York.

It was presented by an experimental theater troupe, Complicite, and my guess is that all of the company’s work uses more or less the same formula on display in “A Disappearing Number”: a little text, a little music, a little film, a little choreographed movement before the whole tired bag of tricks, predictably, winds itself up and starts all over again.

Nothing was genuinely avant-garde, nothing was particularly striking, nothing was particularly original. Indeed, nothing about the show was fresh in the least. It was all very, very 1970’s.

Andrew’s mother said that much of Complicite’s work in “A Disappearing Number” was reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s “The Rite Of Spring (The Rehearsal)”, a seldom-performed modern-dance work from 1980. She said it was clear that Simon McBurney had studied that particular Paul Taylor work in some detail and had borrowed from it freely (if not outrageously). There was no mention of, or even a tribute to, Paul Taylor in the Complicite program booklet.

At Theatre Royal, Bath, we attended a performance of Alan Bennett’s “Enjoy”, a production of The Peter Hall Company.

“Enjoy” was first produced in 1980, and it is a play very much of its time: the early Thatcher years, a time of great changes in Britain both in the public sector and in the private sector. The play is about the effect of these changes on a middle-aged couple from the North Midlands, a man and woman approaching retirement only to discover that their retirement plans are to be impacted by the Local Council. The play is a comedy, of course, but it is not especially funny and not particularly amusing.

I do not think that Bennett had learned to write a play at the time he created “Enjoy”. (Of course, many people insist that Bennett, twenty-eight years later, still has not learned to write a play.)

The fault may lie with the production, and not with the play—but I suspect not, since Peter Hall was the director. If Peter Hall cannot locate a viable play within such weak material, no one can.

There was a strong whiff of provinciality about every aspect of our theater evening in Bath: the play was provincial, the performance was provincial, and the Bath audience was provincial.

To our amazement if not bewilderment, the Bath audience members carried on all evening like they were in the presence of Laurence Oliver and Peggy Ashcroft, cooing and burbling over the actor and actress playing the middle-aged couple (both of whom have starred in popular sit-coms in Britain) as if great performances were being unveiled before their very eyes. Myself, I thought both players were entirely lame.

Andrew said that he was shocked that Peter Hall had allowed so much hamming from the cast members. Andrew wondered whether the play had toured the provinces too long a time or whether Peter Hall had been away from the production too long a time and needed to be called back in order to whip the play and cast back into shape.

Andrew’s parents said that the performance reminded them of a long-ago performance of a very weak play, whose title they cannot even remember, featuring the way-over-the-hill duo of Mary Martin and Anthony Quayle, who shamelessly mined a very bad text for any possible piece of shtick they could use to generate laughs to give the illusion that something amusing was going on.

All in all, “Enjoy” was rather awful.

The final performance we attended was in Stratford-Upon-Avon, permanent home of The Royal Shakespeare Company. We attended a performance of “The Merchant Of Venice” in the RSC’s home theater.

Andrew and I had seen The Royal Shakespeare Company perform ”King Lear” and “The Seagull” in Minneapolis last October, when The Royal Shakespeare Company enjoyed a two-week residence at The Guthrie Theater. This “Merchant Of Venice” was nowhere near the high standard we had witnessed from the company in “Lear” and “Seagull”.

Despite the fact that this production of “The Merchant Of Venice” had been running in repertory since April, the production was very much of preview quality. The play was clearly both miscast and misdirected—none of the performances worked and nothing about the production worked. The actor and actress playing Shylock and Portia were playing roles far out of their leagues. There was no evidence whatsoever that the director had a clue what he was doing.

It was an utter loss of an evening, an utterly deplorable production of a very great play.

I am, nevertheless, very happy that I had an opportunity to attend an RSC performance in the company’s home venue. This was something I had long wanted to experience, and I am pleased I have done so.

However, I now have no wish to return anytime soon.

Despite the fact that most of the productions we attended in Britain were disappointing in one way or another, my sister was delighted to have had the opportunity to attend seven plays in Britain. It was a completely new experience for her, and she found something to enjoy in every production—except for “Afterlife”, which was so bad that it practically frightened her.

It was all for the best, I believe, that we got “Afterlife” out of the way at the very beginning of our trip.

We all had agreed, long in advance, which plays to attend while we were in Britain. Nevertheless, there is a running joke between Andrew and his father about Andrew “dragging” his mother and father to bad plays.

Prior to each performance, Andrew’s father would always look at Andrew very affectionately, and then he would smile, and say, “Well, let’s see what you’ve got us signed up for THIS time!”

Then, at the conclusion of each performance, Andrew’s father would always look at Andrew again, and smile, and say, “I can’t believe your mother and I let you talk us into coming and seeing THIS!”

Andrew and his father played out this little vaudeville routine before and after each performance, even for the Max Reinhardt and Wilhelm Furtwangler plays, which Andrew’s father would not have missed for all the world, and even for The Royal Shakespeare Company performance in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which Andrew’s father had also very keenly anticipated.

There was one performance, however, after which Andrew’s father had a completely different reaction. At the conclusion of “The Chalk Garden”, Andrew’s father looked at Andrew, and smiled, and said: “I can’t believe it! You actually picked a GOOD one!”


  1. Susan Hampshire is a wonderful actress. I've seen her in a couple of old BBC DVDs.

  2. Hampshire WAS pretty good--and very beautiful--but I don't think she was in the right vehicle for her particular talents.