I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.
Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.
Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.
Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. The other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.
Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.
Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.