Seeing Caryl Churchill and Eugene O'Neill plays are never going to be the most laugh-heavy evenings but two recent theatre visits have been made harder by distracting scenic concepts.
Caryl Churchill wrote LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE in 1976 for the Joint Stock Theatre Group where it was performed by six actors. Now here we are, revived at the National with a cast of eighteen with forty-four supernumeraries bulking out the stage.
I can understand why director Lyndsey Turner has wanted to flesh it out - election year, a play about the different protest factions left to flounder after the Civil War, big stage needing an epic play of the people etc. etc. It just doesn't work - and it doesn't work with the scenic concept that has been clamped down over the text like a metal cloche.
The stage is filled with a huge wooden table - raked like a platform stage - at which are seated noblemen eating a candlelit dinner in the first act, puritan scribblers in the second. The characters in Churchill's fragmented scenes clamber up onto the table and play their scenes with admirable commitment but without much interest generated for me as I nodded off a few times in the first act.
The play was arrived at through a research workshop and at times I felt I really ought to paying more attention as each scene felt like a 17th contemporary pamphlet being acted out but it's sheer relentless dourism made it hard to engage with anything - and just as you felt being drawn into a debate, we were treated to a group folk sing-song. Yawn.
Cromwell's New Model Army has won the Civil War but in it's wake troops of dissenters have appeared, all of whom think the time has come for their visions to be fulfilled but all of them had not realised that Cromwell was replacing one tyranny with another and he sounded the death knell for their hopes and ambitions. The Ranters who believe that God is within and wanted sexual and political freedom, The Diggers who wanted all common ground to be given over to the common man, and the more politically-minded Levellers who drew support from unhappy members of the army are all represented.
The second act begins well with Gerrard Winstanley demanding his rights to farm on common land but again Turner's wish for a scenic Big Idea muffs the action by having the supernumeraries break up the large table with spades to disclose a huge allotment underneath. A nice scenic idea but in practice it means that the following scenes are overshadowed by extras pulling up the planks of wood and slowly moving them off the stage, ridiculously distracting and something that should have been quashed during the technical rehearsals.
Performances from Nicholas Gleave, Ashley McGuire, Joe Caffrey and Ann Ogbomo were good, but they would have worked better in a smaller, less distracting production. Bruno Poet's lighting is good, Soutra Gilmour's costumes are down to her usual drab standards and Es Devlin is responsible for the distracting set. I must admit that while watching this first production under Rufus Norris' reign as NT Artistic Director, my heart sank a little - please don't let this be an omen. I am also seeing Lyndsey Turner's HAMLET later this year at the Barbican which is again designed by Devlin. Quakes.
Next was the Young Vic revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 play AH, WILDERNESS! which holds the distinction of being his only comedy. Needless to say an O'Neill comedy is hardly Brian Rix material but it has a gentle charm where the comedy is more character-based than anything that happens within the plot.
Which is just as well as director Natalie Abrahami has thrown out O'Neill's stage directions and set it in and around sand dunes which have taken over a large clapboard house. Oh and she has a character obviously meant to be O'Neill who hangs around the stage, pulling props out of the sand - a table yet! - and intoning in voice-over the stage directions. This drafted-in character also has the last lines, a paraphrasing of a quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which O'Neill inscribed to his wife on his own copy of the play.
So why? Is Abrahami so unsure of the material that a concept has to be imposed on it? To make it more 'relevant' to the Young Vic, a theatre which relishes director-imposed reinventions of texts? When, at the start of the play, the O'Neill character describes in taped voice-over the stage description of the Miller household with it's tasteful but tasteless furnishings, none are to be seen - just banks of sand which the actors gingerly clamber over like so many turn-of-the-century mountain goats.
Richard Miller is 16 and at *that* age, discovering literature for the first time and brooding that all of his life will be stymied by his parent's conventional lifestyle and the lack of intellectual freedom in his world. We've all been there and O'Neill's sensitive handling of the archetypal prickly teenager is charmingly done. He is angered by his mother's blinkered ideas of his advanced reading matter - there is a nice joke when Oscar Wilde is said to have been found guilty of bigamy - but not far beneath the surface he still loves her and his amiable, newspaper-owning father.
He shares the house with his older and younger brothers as well as with a maternal uncle and paternal aunt. Aunt Lily is on her way to becoming an old maid but quietly loves Uncle Sid but his not-so-secret drinking is getting out of hand and will always be a barrier between them - and needless to say, there is also a cheeky Irish maid too.
Richard is also struggling with his feelings for his neighbour Muriel whose father does not approve of him but when he goes out for a 5th of July drink with his older brother, he is seduced by good-time girl Belle. It was around now that I managed to transcend Abrahami's absurd concept and started to just enjoy O'Neill's writing.
The play culminates in a scene between Richard and Muriel, full of wonderfully hesitant writing as they deny then declare their love and this is played against Richard's parents expressing their continued love for each other. See Miss Abrahami? The play is definitely the thing.
The usually-dependable Janie Dee played Essie the mother, but here she noticeably stumbled over a few of her lines, but there were good performances from Martin Marquez as her husband Nat, Susannah Wise as Aunt Lily and Dominic Rowan as the wastrel Uncle Sid (although his drunk acting was a bit over the top). By far the performance of the evening was George Mackay as Richard, usually prickly and intellectually snobbish but played with great guile and he even executed a funny belly-flop into the onscreen lake.
Charles Balfour's lighting was a major plus for the production while Dick Bird's monumental set finally came into it's own when a lake suddenly appeared from nowhere. Ultimately what made me annoyed was that Abrahami's handling of the performers proves she's a worthy director so there really is no need for the unnecessary concept imposed on the play. I am sure if O'Neill had wanted AH, WILDERNESS! to be a dreamy, memory play he would have written it as such.
An odd footnote: AH, WILDERNESS! inspired no less than two musical adaptations - in 1948 Mickey Rooney starred as Richard in the MGM film SUMMER HOLIDAY while in 1959 Jackie Gleason won a Tony award for his role of Uncle Sid in Bob Merrill's TAKE ME ALONG.
An even odder footnote: It was Bob Merrill's second O'Neill-inspired score as in 1957 he had written the music and lyrics to NEW GIRL IN TOWN starring Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter which was based on ANNA CHRISTIE. Go figure.