Sunday, July 21, 2013

Revivalists: Act two

Now Constant Reader, it might seem like I only see revivals at the National Theatre but I have actually gone to other theatres... like, in the actual West End.  All have featured fine performances but the actual productions themselves all felt wanting of real conviction.

Having missed David Hare's THE JUDAS KISS at Hampstead I caught up with it finally at the Duke of Yorks, primarily to see Rupert Everett's lauded performance.

It is 15 years since I climbed the stairs to the Playhouse's peanut gallery to see the original Richard Eyre production which starred a rather out-of-place Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde and a play-stealing turn from Tom Hollander as Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas.  The play had vaguely stayed with me but I honestly didn't expect it to be revived anytime soon.  But now we had Australian director Neil Armfield's production and I was surprised how much I liked the play.

David Hare's play covers two key moments in the life of Oscar Wilde.  In April 1885, his libel case against the Marquis of Queensbury has collapsed leaving the way clear for his arrest for Gross Indecency.  His former lover Robbie Ross tips him off that the police are delaying his arrest, almost wanting him to flee to France but Wilde refuses.  Ross thinks he is staying to appease 'Bosie' his spoilt lover but Wilde stays because to flee would be to betray his life.

The second act takes place two years later in the run-down villa in Naples where the broken Wilde is now living with an unrepentantly petulant Lord Alfred who is shagging his way through the local Italian rough trade and looking to get away.  Again Ross appears to reprimand Wilde and remind him that his wife has threatened to refuse him any access to their sons if he sees 'Bosie' again but again Wilde refuses him.  He cannot live his life by other's demands, no matter the consequences or the obvious ruin that Bosie has led him to.  

Armfield's direction was minimal which may be fine for actors such as Everett and Cal MacAninch (superb at playing the vein-bursting frustration of Robbie Ross) but Freddie Fox as the awful 'Bosie' was left with nothing to do but stamp his foot and rant which got old very quickly.  Compared to Hollander's slyly manipulative portrayal, he was resolutely two-dimensional.

Something which cannot be levelled at Rupert Everett who gave a performance of total star power.  His Wilde, the agent of his own destruction, was played with real charisma - you simply couldn't watch anyone else when he was onstage.  It was the sudden shifts that surprised, the way his resigned and weary façade broke down at the simple generosity of the staff of the Cadogan Hotel where he was hiding.  He really came into his own in the second half as the broken ex-prisoner, shuffling around in his slippers when not huddled in his chair.  His weary, rueful manner giving way to one of total exhaustion, like a character out of Beckett.  After loving his recently published second book of memoir as well as enjoying his performance as Benedict Cumberbatch's brother in the BBC's PARADE'S END, it was great to see Everett triumph on stage too.

Further up St. Martin's Lane another actor was giving life to another revival.  Simon Russell Beale, taking a break from the National Theatre, appeared in the first production of Michael Grandage's season at the Noel Coward theatre PRIVATES ON PARADE.

This was a production I was looking forward to, Russell Beale is always worth seeing and I had only ever seen the film version of Peter Nichols' play which was a bit ho-hum.  Sadly the production promised more than it delivered.

At no time did it betray any need to be on that stage at that time.  Yes it's a play about the stupidity of war but it still didn't seem to chime with what's happening now in any other theatres (of war).  It felt more like Michael Grandage wanted Simon Russell Beale to open his theatre season and offered him a big camp role which is anarchic and outrageous but also provides the humanity and heart of the play.

Simon Russell Beale's audience had followed him over the river and there was plenty to drain their blue rinses: the soldiers' knobs got a good airing during the shower scene as well as a featured cameo appearance of Russell Beale's bum.  It must be odd to know that the big shocked reaction you have just heard from the audience is because you flashed your arse.  There was also more effing and jeffing than was probably heard in the whole Malayan conflict, mostly shouted by John Marquez' Corporal Bonny, who did little to dim the memory of Joe Melia's wonderful performance on screen.

It was all very well-directed and presented in the usual Donmar house-style thanks to the set by Christopher Oram and Neil Austin's excellent lighting and there were fine supporting performances from Davina Perera as Sylvia and Harry Hepple as Lance Corporal Charles Bishop but it somehow it just didn't move me.

There is no denying however that bestriding them all (usually in black stockings) was Simon Russell Beale as Acting Captain Terri Dennis who simply stole everything that wasn't nailed down with a performance that was outrageously funny and touchingly human.  He's some broad.

I also saw the revival of Terence Rattigan's THE WINSLOW BOY at the Old Vic.  Ever since his centenary those Rattigan productions just keep coming, everything it would seem but the Vivien Leigh screen version of THE DEEP BLUE SEA *fume*.

It was good to finally see the play as I had never seen either of the film versions and even managed to miss the 1989 BBC production which co-starred Emma Thompson as the titular boy's sister Catherine. 

Lindsay Posner directed this revival of Rattigan's 1946 hit play which he based on a real case in 1908 of a teenage boy expelled from a naval college after being accused of stealing a five shilling postal order.  Ronnie Winslow returns home in disgrace but his upstanding father Arthur is compelled to seek justice for him but as the Admiralty's ruling is considered an act of Government it can only be brought to trial by a decree from the.. um, Government.

With the family losing their place in 'good' society and Arthur becoming ill with the stress, their last hope rests with leading barrister Sir Robert Morton who is also a member of the opposition.  Winslow's suffragist daughter Catherine is strongly opposed to his involvement thinking he will only use the case to further his political career and because of his opposition to votes for women. 

In a scene which finally jolted Posner's rather tasteful production into life, Morton visits the house and ruthlessly cross-examines Ronnie in front of his appalled family, seeming to destroy the boy's story.  Morton then reveals he only did it to see how the boy might react to a courtroom and agrees to take on he case.

Through a mixture of guile and oratory Morton succeeds in getting the Government to agree to a court hearing which goes ahead with the Winslow home surrounded by newspaper reporters.  On the day of the trial Morton's ruthless cross-examinations force the Admiralty to withdraw it's charges against Ronnie and the family win the case.  But it's a hollow victory as the family is now near bankruptcy, Arthur's health is ruined as is Catherine's engagement to her Guardsman fiancée.

Any play about an individual trying to seek justice against an impossible bureaucracy will always be topical and Rattigan's play holds up well with it's expert construction.  Posner's production however felt safe and timid with several scenes seeming to tread water until the next entrance cue.  Owen asked me before it started what sort of a play it was and I assured him that at some point a scene would start with the maid turning on the study lamps and drawing the curtains.  And sure enough, there was Violet the loyal maid pulling the curtains and lighting the lamps on Peter McKintosh's rather obvious box set which looked like it belonged to a touring company.

Luckily what Posner was blessed with was a fine cast headed by Henry Goodman's benignly comfortable Arthur Winslow  who is broken by the system he has lived his life upholding.  There was good support from Deborah Findlay as Grace Winslow, ill-equipped to deal with the change wrought on her family and life, and also from Nick Hendrix as their oldest son Dickie who is happy enough learning the new dance steps rather than learn anything in Oxbridge - yes it was a silly-ass part but played with great wit.  Catherine was played by Naomi Frederick and a little more personality wouldn't have gone amiss while Charlie Rowe's Ronnie betrayed a lack of stage experience.  A special mention to Jay Villiers as the family solicitor who quietly loved Catherine.

However the stand-out performance was Peter Sullivan as Sir Robert Morton.  The production's synapses were jolted every time he appeared and his witty, self-assured, disdainful Sir Robert also gave the impression of having a heart under all that veneer.  I've seen Peter Sullivan a few times on stage and here he was finally allowed to take control of the play.  I certainly missed him when he was offstage.

There is a tragic postscript to the story of George Archer-Shee whose story was the inspiration for the play.  The case was won in 1910 but his father Martin, worn down by the two year fight for justice died in 1911.  In 1912, after completing his education, young George emigrated to New York to work on Wall Street.

Two years later in 1914 he returned to enlist in the war, and at the age of only 19, became one of the 17, 873 British soldiers reported missing in action after the first battle of Ypres.

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