Monday, November 21, 2011

Absurdists: A Delicate Balance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead & Betrayal

Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in A Delicate Balance. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Among the wide range of plays in revival in London last summer were three absurdist classics – Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The Albee, an attack on upper-middle-class family life, was the first thing he wrote after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and you can see all the marks of an American playwright struggling to follow a runaway critical and popular success: it’s hyper-conscious and overstated and the last act in particular seems to go on forever. Gerald Gutierriez mounted it in New York in the mid-nineties with a brilliant cast (led by George Grizzard and Rosemary Harris as the aging couple, Agnes and Tobias, and Elaine Stritch as Agnes’s bitchy, alcoholic sister Claire) and had the good sense to treat it as a high comedy, which made it work quite marvelously for two of the three acts – the characters’ maddening articulateness made sense. James Macdonald’s production at the Almeida was a more standard reading, like the droning 1973 Tony Richardson movie version with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick, and unless you’re more of an admirer of Albee’s language than I am it’s rough going.

Penelope Wilton and Tim Pigott-Smith play Agnes and Tobias, who are trying to sail into old age with a minimum of fuss and self-examination but who are saddled with guests they can’t turn away – first Claire (Imelda Staunton), whose relationship with her sister is poisonous; then their daughter Julia (Lucy Cohu), whose third marriage has collapsed; and finally their closest friends, Edna and Harry (Diana Hardcastle and Ian McElhinney), who land on their doorstep at the end of act one with a case of the willies – terror, presumably, of the approach of death – and demand to be taken in. Wilton handles the strenuous vocal and stylistic demands of her role gracefully: she barely breaks a sweat, and her line readings are often nastily funny. Pigott-Smith is less convincing – he’s no more plausible as a Yankee aristocrat than Scofield was, and his big third-act speech about how he feels about his friends’ taking up residence in his home, which Albee attempted to score like an aria, is so technical that it feels pre-programmed. To be fair, Grizzard didn’t make it work either, and I don’t know how an actor is supposed to attack it. But I found Pigott-Smith phony from the outset. Of the supporting cast, McElhinney is the strongest, Cohu weakest. She has a scratchy voice, an undifferentiated entitled quality, and a clumsy theatricality. When her Julia takes up arms against Harry and Edna, whom she sees as intruders (her parents have given them her old room), guarding the drinks cart (a key prop for Albee here, as it is in Virginia Woolf) against their presumptuous (to her) assault on it, Cohu’s display of childish rage is embarrassing.

The only reason I’d looked forward to seeing this Delicate Balance was Imelda Staunton, a sensational actress who managed, in Mike Leigh’s last film, Another Year, to draw a flesh-and-blood portrait of a depressive in perhaps three minutes of screen time. Originally I assumed she’d be playing Agnes; I didn’t realize Wilton was also in the cast. Staunton is a bold performer, and she certainly flings herself into the role of Claire, but she’s miscast; impressive as it is, her range doesn’t include tough-broad roles. It was thrilling to see an actor live whom I’ve admired for so long – since The Singing Detective, close to a quarter-century ago – but I wish it had been in another part and a better play.

Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker as Rosencrantz And Guildenstern

First produced in 1965, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead made Tom Stoppard’s reputation as a wit and a playwright of ideas. Stoppard’s inspiration was to reimagine Hamlet from the point of view of its least developed supporting characters, Hamlet’s school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who betray him by acting as spies for the king and then, through a combination of chance and Hamlet’s cleverness, end up doomed to be executed in England in his place. The fact that Shakespeare didn’t do much with these figures works to Stoppard’s advantage, since he wants to use them as fumbling, bumbling Everymen – clowns adrift on the sea of life with no control over their fates. His models here are (transparently) Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, only instead of conversing about entropy and endurance Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gas on about the terrifying prospect of death. Enamored as he obviously is of Beckett’s style, Stoppard wouldn’t have been likely to borrow his subject matter: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a young man’s play. That was my discovery when I saw Trevor Nunn’s handsome production at the Haymarket, with sets by Simon Higlett, costumes by Fotini Dimou and lighting by Tim Mitchell. (The designers’ contributions are splendid across the board.) When I first encountered the play as an undergraduate, my friends and I were entranced by it, but its existentialist debates now sound like nattering and posturing, as callow as its heroes – though the seventeen college students who accompanied me, it’s only fair to report, were as excited by it as I once was. It now seems to me like an extremely clever dramatic-literary parody of the Woody Allen or Christopher Durang sort padded out with pseudo-philosophizing. If you cut the serious parts you’d end up with a small comic gem like Durang’s The Actor's Nightmare. Even as it stands, however, the play could be performed far better. Nunn has directed the two young actors in the title roles, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, to read every line as if it had quotation marks around it, a choice that grows tiresome after ten minutes and is intolerable for two and a half hours. Barnett and Parker are talented; they were both in the ensemble of the National Theatre production and film version of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. To put it kindly, their hip-ironic performances in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t display them at their best.

Kristin Scott Thomas In Betrayal

In Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal, a woman carries on a seven-year affair with her husband’s best friend. More than halfway through this period the husband figures out what’s going on and confronts his wife. Eventually the romance burns itself out, and a couple of years later the married couple finally split. Only then does the now ex-lover learn that his best friend has known about his betrayal for years. That’s the whole plot, but the play has a gimmick: Pinter tells it backwards, beginning with Jerry and Emma’s meeting in a pub after she and Robert have decided to end their marriage and ending with a party at Emma and Robert’s flat where Jerry, drunk, comes on to her. The reverse chronology isn’t a strict rule – Pinter moves backwards by years, not by scenes, so, for example, after the opening tête-à-tête between Emma and Jerry we get an exchange between the two men at a restaurant in which a frantic Jerry, blindsided by the revelation that his betrayal of Robert has been an open secret, tries to determine the extent of the damage to their friendship. The idea that Pinter cheats on his own structural strategy isn’t a big deal in itself; it’s hard to imagine how the first scene between the two men could work without the scene in the pub to put it in place. But the fact that the playwright has to play against his own rules makes you wonder why he decided to tell the story backwards at all. In the only other plays I can think of that reverse narrative time, Kaufman and Hart’s 1932 Merrily We Roll Along and the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical version, the point is to show us the genesis of the jaded, messed-up characters in the touchingly hopeful innocents they once were. (It sounds like a smart idea but it backfires: we hate them so much by the time they revert to their college-age selves that we can’t sympathize with their youthful idealism.) But in Betrayal the reverse chronology doesn’t seem to have a point. If the story were told in a linear fashion we’d still have enough information for the dramatic irony to work – we’d still know at different points what Robert doesn’t (that his wife is sleeping with his best friend) and Jerry doesn’t (that his best friend knows about it).

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Miles
Though I greatly admire Ben Kingsley’s performance as the husband in the 1983 movie version, I’ve never thought much of the play. But Ian Rickson’s West End revival does something altogether extraordinary with it. Rickson and his actors – Kristin Scott Thomas as Emma, Ben Miles as Robert and Douglas Henshall as Jerry – play it naturalistically, filling Pinter’s trademark pauses with fully motivated emotional discoveries so that they don’t have that stop-and-start, lost-in-space effect that normally makes them absurdist – and, to my mind, awkward and self-conscious, the sound of the playwright’s technique churning away. Pinter is undeniably a master of some kind but I confess I’ve never found his project very interesting because his characters’ subtext, exposed as it is like cracks in concrete, eliminates the mystery of human behavior rather than deepening it; the gaps produced by the exposure come across, to me at least, as theatrical rather than suggestive. In his early one-act plays he showed a genius for making a kind of rough poetry out of the weirdnesses of speech – the banalities and repetitions and disjunctions, especially in the exchanges of working-class characters.

Decades ago I saw an animated movie version of some of those Pinter Revue Sketches, with Donald Pleasence and others supplying the voices, and it was scathingly funny; the water-color brush strokes of the animation and the visual caricaturing set off the dialogue brilliantly, and suddenly it seemed clear that Pinter’s real inspiration all along had been Dickens. But in his full-length plays his scheme often seems to be just to whip up a theatrical strangeness, and when they’re performed in the usual Pinteresque style the language operates as a series of markers drawing our attention to the points he wants to make; it doesn’t feel organic. What Rickson proves in Betrayal is that it is organic – that Pinter didn’t lose his ear for the way people converse. Except for a handful of moments (usually Henshall’s) when the lines seem to peel back to reveal that jagged-glass tone that we usually associate with Pinter, the actors layer their interactions with the same care they would apply to Chekhov. The results are completely engaging and often unexpectedly moving. When Scott Thomas’s Emma sits across the room from Henshall’s Jerry in the flat they’ve rented for their assignations and the empty spaces between their words pile up because their reserve of love has dried up, and when, at an earlier time, she sees him for the first time since she went on vacation with her husband and hesitates before telling him that she’s pregnant (by Robert), the pauses are filled with complicated feelings that we can read clearly on the actress’s face –  just as, in the Royal Court’s marvelous production of Arnold Wesker’s realist play Chicken Soup with Barley, Samantha Spiro takes us through all of her character’s contradictory emotions during a long retard before she confronts her husband with having lifted money from her purse.

I’m not sure how Pinter would have felt about Rickson’s decision to transform Betrayal into a realist piece but it really works. There is, however, one element that leads the production away from realism –  toward expressionism, though, rather than absurdism: as the scene shifts in and out of other settings, the bed that doubles for Emma and Robert’s and Emma and Jerry’s remains onstage, a constant reminder of the center of both relationships and of the source of the betrayal. Rickson’s direction is generally very subtle but that’s one of the two particularly striking staging choices he makes. The other is in the scene where Robert reveals to Emma that he knows she’s been cheating on him. He advances on her menacingly; we already know from his own lips (in the scene between him and Jerry at the restaurant) that he is sometimes violent with his wife, so we expect him to hit her, but instead he grabs hold of the comforter on the bed where she’s sitting and wraps her up in them. The fury with which he does so makes the action feel unmistakably like an attack, but it’s the bedding he manhandles – the symbol of her infidelity. It’s an inspired moment.

Of the three actors, Henshall is the only one who looks as if he might be more comfortable in a conventional mounting of Pinter: he has a less polished style than his fellow actors and a sandpapery vocal affect. He’s very good, though, and his rugby-player looks suggest what Emma might find attractive in him. The astonishingly varied Ben Miles, whom I last saw on stage as a hilarious bumbler in Matthew Warchus’s revival of The Norman Conquests, gets the multivalence in all of Robert’s scenes, in which the character is almost always withholding something. And Scott Thomas gives one of the most intricate and inclusive portraits I’ve ever seen of the peaks and valleys of a woman’s sexual geography. Under Rickson’s direction these actors render Pinter’s love triangle movingly.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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