Review – Rough for Theatre II and Endgame, The Old Vic, 29th February 2020

88183326_133168874749334_6195709823078629376_nA double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…

Clov and HammI admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.

Rough for Theatre IIMessrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.

HammAfter the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.

ClovI’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.

Nagg and NellAlan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.

Hamm and ClovOne cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

Theatre Censorship – 23: Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s first full length play, The Birthday Party (1958), was universally disliked by all the major critics except the Sunday Times’ Sir Harold Hobson, who appreciated that the new writer’s style had a power and indeed a terror all of its own. Judging from that initial critical reaction, few would have believed that his career could have developed as successfully as it did. The world of dark confusion in The Birthday Party shares a similar sense of disenchantment to that in Look Back in Anger, and maybe that affected how the critics appraised it. An example of that shared, stifled need for creativity can be seen in Jimmy’s playing his symbolic trumpet although no one listens, whilst Stanley – the lost, terrorised central character in The Birthday Party – has his hidden piano.

For me, a major difference between the two plays is that Osborne’s is essentially extrovert, and Pinter’s is introvert. Whilst Jimmy Porter continually moans and complains about the state he is in, Stanley internalises his problems and merely thinks about them. On the other hand, the daily problems that beset Jimmy are mainly represented as words, which is why he relies so heavily on the newspapers, whereas the threats in Stanley’s existence appear before him in the much more real and immediate physical embodiment of the uninvited guests, Goldberg and McCann. However, these differences are more of tone and style rather than content. Stanley also seems to share some of his predicament with the title character in Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon; so there may be a significant influence on the early Pinter by the early Osborne.

There were just two short passages that the censor insisted on being removed from the script, both on the grounds of blasphemy, during the famous interrogation scene: Stanley’s version of the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon – and McCann’s accusations that Stanley “pierced the holes” and “hammered the nails” in a reference to the Crucifixion. However, what really interests me here is Pinter’s ability to shock or stun without having to resort to – or choose to use – language that alerted the attention of the censor. Many a dramatist writing a few years later would doubtless have phrased the two scenes where Goldberg and McCann terrorise Stanley with words that would have attracted his blue pencil. The suppressed violence – that today we appreciate for its surprising elegance and beauty – would probably have been fully verbalised.

Birthday PartyConsider, for example, the similarity in structure between the interrogation scenes with Goldberg, McCann and Stanley and the scene in Edward Bond’s Saved where a baby is stoned to death (see blog posts 13 to 16). In both cases the writer used bullet-point, one-line conversations to communicate a gradual escalation of terror and violence against a helpless and virtually speechless victim. Of course, the audience reaction to the two plays is different because of context; in Saved, one is shocked because of the defencelessness of the victim, whereas in The Birthday Party the shock is all psychological. If fear of the unknown makes us nervous, that should make the audience of The Birthday Party absolutely terrified as we haven’t a clue why Stanley deserves such treatment. Clearly, Pinter’s characters are in solitary confinement. They scarcely relate to the other people they know; and there is no obvious association between them and the events that concern them. We don’t know their background, but they don’t seem to realise that that they even have a background. They are also physically alone, and displaced; for example, Stanley, Goldberg and McCann are in someone else’s house, in a town where they do not belong. All their shared history is confused and none of them ever agree on anything that has taken place; thus we remain ignorant as to how the present relates to the past; and the future is left to look after itself. Pinter’s isolating and disturbing use of solitude in all these forms was enough to shock his audience without having to write swear words.

Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker

The other major dramatist to break through in the late 1950s was Arnold Wesker. Unlike Pinter, Wesker did cross swords with the censor, but in the long run, he did not find him an overwhelming hurdle. In a fascinating letter he wrote to me dated 15th February 1982, he stated: “I was irritated to have to change “bugger it” into “sod it” and “Jesus Christ!” into (I think) “God Almighty!” It was time consuming to have to make the changes, and it offended my sense of the veracity of verbal exchange. It also offended my sense of common sense. But for me it was much more significant that I was free to recreate what I understood to be the truthfulness of my experience. In other words, no one sought to censor a play with a communist heroine. Freedom to express beliefs were more important to me than requests to delete vulgarisms.”

RootsThe heroine to whom he refers is Beatie Bryant in Roots (1959), the country girl whose love for Ronnie Kahn, the young hero who unites the entire “Wesker Trilogy”, coupled with her close association with selfless hard work and fighting for a minimum wage, make her the representation of the socialist – if not Soviet – dream. The imagery of her political principles and the total sincerity of her feelings elevate her language to a level of crusading excitement. As she herself says: “Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what go on around you, it’s being concerned about people and the world.” Beatie is consistently positive; had she been nothing more than a dreary political commentator, or if she had been offensive to people holding other political beliefs, the censor might have looked for a way to silence her. As I hope to show later on, the censor did sometimes exercise political censorship.

David Zane Mairowitz

David Zane Mairowitz

However, Wesker has hit the nail on the head in identifying the most common cause for, and indeed the essence of, censorship. Words were thought by the Lord Chamberlain to have the potential for far greater damage than ideas. The writer David Zane Mairowitz believes that it was use of language that caused the public outcries against Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts (1977) and Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain (1980), much more than anything to do with sexual promiscuity. In a letter to me dated 2nd February 1982 he stated simply: “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

Here’s a story that shows that the power of words, more than their meaning, was the most important element to the stage censor. In 1957, Roger Blin’s original French production of Samuel Beckett’s Fin de Partie opened at the Royal Court in that year as part of a French exchange programme, to benefit trade agreements between the two countries. The production went ahead without any hitches. Six months later, Beckett’s own English translation, Endgame, was due to open at the same theatre; exactly the same play, simply in a different language. The Lord Chamberlain’s office insisted on a list of small cuts and verbal changes including one which would later become celebrated in theatrical circles: when Hamm attempts to pray and finds that his prayers are not instantly answered, he says (of God) “the bastard! He doesn’t exist!” The censor considered this too insulting to the deity and refused to let it pass.

EndgameAfter another six months of debating, the censor and the Royal Court management finally agreed to compromise with the line: “the swine! He doesn’t exist!” It seemed incidental to the censor that anyone who would be offended by the sentiment of the original line would be likely to be as offended by the amended line. Of course, the change of word eliminated a possible reference to the Immaculate Conception which might have been perceived in “bastard”; an inference absent in the original French, as “salaud” does not have this double meaning. Commentators, especially those in favour of abolishing censorship, took the opportunity to ridicule the Lord Chamberlain’s office by implying that the censor thought all those people who understood French were irredeemably corrupt. Others maintained that a knowledge of French could be used as a personal barrier against corruption. Whatever interpretation was applied to the events, the Lord Chamberlain’s office did not survive the episode with all its dignity intact.

In my next blog post I’ll recap on the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act and take a look at those mischievously naughty shows like Oh! Calcutta!

Review – Happy Days, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Samuel BeckettI nearly met Samuel Beckett once. He was a friend of my university tutor and he came to see some of us for sherry and debate. “It was a shame you didn’t meet him” said my tutor. “It was a shame you didn’t invite me” was my riposte, but only in thought, not words. I chose not to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he also visited for sherry and debate, and I’m pleased I didn’t as the whole set-up was intimately recorded by a visiting TV documentary team who “just happened to be around”, and I would have found that a great invasion of my privacy. I did however meet Kathleen Raine who came round for sherry (no debate I think). It was on the stairs outside his rooms and I had no idea who she was. I didn’t ask her about poetry, scholarship, neoplatinism or even Ring of Bright Water. “Is it still raining?” was all I said.

Happy DaysI digress. About four years ago I thought it was about time Mrs Chrisparkle was exposed to the works of Samuel Beckett so we went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production. It went on a bit perhaps. But I thought it had a lot of merit. All Mrs C said afterwards was “Never take me to another production of Waiting for Godot. Please.” My look must have been one of astonishment as she added: “Don’t make me beg.” So it was with some trepidation that I awaited her response to this new production of Happy Days at Sheffield, with Pauline McLynn as Winnie. It was definitely her name that decided me to book, as I felt it would be perfect casting. What could be more Beckettian than Mrs Doyle? And so it turned out. Her performance is a splendid tour de force and keeps you locked in with interest despite the difficulties that Beckett chucks in your path.

They cleverly constructed a mini proscenium arch stage in the middle of the otherwise free acting space that is the Studio, slightly reminiscent of the kind of thing you might see at a village memorial hall; or actually my old Pelham Puppet Theatre. So you get a very traditional feel but in a modern space. When the curtains open, what you see is completely enclosed on all four sides by a black border frame, which reminded me of those modern digital photo frames, which you can set to play a sequence of snapshots. However, there’s no series of different images here. It’s just a pile of rubble, from which Winnie emerges at the top, visible down to her waist, but with her arms free to gesticulate, a little like one of those awful doll toilet-roll holder things. The rest is arid desert. It’s a very striking image.

Central to the whole play is the character of Winnie. Much has been said about her by countless scholars much more insightful than me. All I can say is that she is irrepressibly optimistic about the minutiae of life, despite living in a hostile environment, buried in a mound of rocks, responding without free choice to external signals, and having limited movement. She is kind, considerate and supportive, and whilst she has her Willie hovering in and out of sight, and her tools for existence in her black bag, she is happy. In the second act, when she is even more buried and with less movement, her outlook is still broadly similar but her eloquence, and maybe her faith, begins to fail.

Pauline McLynnPauline McLynn makes Beckett’s language come alive. If you read the play text it’s extremely difficult to imagine how it can become three dimensional on the stage. But she transforms it. It’s a sparkling, lively performance, with great vocal dexterity, endearingly conveying all aspects of Winnie’s personality. She very much looks the part, and her warmth easily takes us into her confidence. She makes you laugh – a lot. Her timing, which is all important in this play, is impeccable. When Willie finally speaks out loud she says “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Mrs C laughed a little too knowingly at this line, making me think I must sometimes be unwittingly taciturn. Oops.

Peter GowenLurking in the background, sometimes out of sight, sometimes seemingly undressed, is Willie, who ostensibly has more freedom that Winnie in that he is not enclosed by a mound and he can also read the newspaper, even though it’s probably the same headlines everyday. As of course, in real life, it is. Peter Gowen gives good support and can be a menacing as well as supportive presence. When he is scrambling through the rocks at the end of the play, you feel very disconcerted by what he is doing. Is he trying to get the gun? What for? To kill her? To kill himself? It’s a literally painful sequence – the scraping of those rocks and stones looked and sounded very real to me. I’m sure Mr Gowen’s knees, hands and arms must be red raw by the end of the play

The play’s reputation and its place in the modern repertoire are I think fully deserved. But there is a danger that it could become – maybe it already is – a museum piece, as the stage directions are so set in stone (much like Winnie) that there is limited opportunity for future productions to convey anything new about the play – really the only change possible is the new voice of a new actress. Even Winnie’s facial expressions are dictated by Beckett. It may well be that it is a timeless piece and that Beckett got it so right that changes are not necessary. But I do feel, having seen it once, that there is no need ever to see it again.

Jonathan HumphreysNonetheless it is an excellent production, and a great choice for the Crucible’s young resident director Jonathan Humphreys to cut his Sheffield teeth. As for Mrs Chrisparkle, she found it a much more rewarding experience than Waiting for Godot, I’m pleased to say, and has not ruled out furthering her Beckett-like experiences. I think, however, we might have to wait a little longer before she’s ready for “Not I”.

As a postscript, I’m sure that in later life Beckett could have written an eight-minute drama about an old man failing to come to terms with modern technology and its effect on the wider community, based on my effort to use the ticket machine in the car park.