Monday, December 26, 2011

The School for Scandal at the Barbican, Butley in the West End

Ensemble members in various states of dress and undress stride cheekily up and down in a runway-style pre-show before settling down to the text in Deborah Warner’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s unbeatable comedy of manners The School for Scandal at the Barbican. This opening promises fun, but after about ten minutes of the actual play you realize you’ve been led down the garden path. Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler), who presides over the metaphorical school of the title, a crew of self-involved gossips who pick the reputations of London high society like vultures pecking at corpses, makes out with Snake (Gary Sefton) and shares a line of coke with him; that’s about the level of Warner’s invention. The hip-contemporary underwear-dominated costumes supervised by Binnie Bowerman quickly give way to the eighteenth-century outfits you see in most versions of the play, though every now and then someone walks onstage with an anachronistic costume piece, or someone pulls out a cell phone, and the transitions between scenes are flashy strobe-lit video projections that operate as Brechtian interruptions. It makes perfect sense to update the setting of The School for Scandal (originally produced in 1777), but I don’t get the nervous, ADHD shift between the play’s real setting and modern day  though Warner is hardly the first director to try this sort of post-modern theatrical trick.

It’s fair to say that Warner brings absolutely nothing to Sheridan’s play; in fact, she cancels it out. In the big set-piece scenes at Lady Sneerwell’s or at the home of the likable profligate Charles Surface (Leo Bill), whose life is a continuous party, the chaotic staging and the overstated caricatures by actors who seem to be occupying entirely distinct performing spaces are so distracting that you can’t follow the dialogue. A director with common sense would realize that it’s folly to embroider Sheridan’s lines; this is one of the funniest plays in the English language. And Warner doesn’t care about consistency. Why does Maria (Cara Horgan) enter as a petulant adolescent and then suddenly turn into a grounded young woman with no patience for Lady Sneerwell and her companions? (The second of these is the character Sheridan wrote, and when she gets to play it Horgan is one of the few actors on stage who suggests a real human being rather than a preening guest at a Halloween party.) And if we’re going to believe that Sir Peter Teazle (Alan Howard), the older man who curses himself for being foolish enough to take a young bride, and his country-born wife (Katherine Parkinson) cherish real affection for each other – as the second half of the play bears out  then their banter has to betray their fondness for each other from the outset; otherwise the play becomes bifurcated.

Alan Howard & Katherine Parkinson (photo by Tristram Kenton)
Bill brings so much nervous energy to his performance that his lines don’t make sense and you stop listening to him. At the other end of the spectrum, Howard reads his dialogue at a lethargic pace, as if he were commenting on the play. I had no clue what either of them thought he was doing. Parkinson is rather good in the famous screen scene, where she’s compromised by a visit to Charles’s hypocritical brother Joseph (Aidan McArdle), and I liked both John Schrapnel as their uncle Sir Oliver Surface, and John McEnery as Rowley, the play’s chief voices of sanity. But around them Warner’s production is a fiasco that, almost unbelievably, sinks Sheridan’s play into unspeakable dullness. The nadir may be Warner’s over-the-top caricaturing of the money lender Moses (Adam Gillen), whose Jewishness most modern productions wisely airbrush out. You might wonder what the hell she was thinking if you hadn’t reached the conclusion that thought never entered the process at all.

Dominic West & Martin Hutson in Butley
The only reason to haul out Simon Gray’s Butley is to showcase the talents of a witty and inventive actor heading into early middle age: Gray wrote it for the incomparable Alan Bates, who also played it in the 1974 movie, and last summer’s West End revival starred Dominic West, who certainly did the role justice. (The last time it landed on Broadway, Nathan Lane was glaringly miscast in it.) The play isn’t much. Ben Butley is an English professor who’s long since lost any interest in his job or even, it seems, in literature; all he ever quotes are nursery rhymes. His life is a train wreck  he’s a (barely) functional depressed alcoholic who spends most of his time at school avoiding his students; his wife has left him, taking with her a baby daughter he rarely sees; and his ex-boy friend, who was once his student and is now his fellow teacher and office mate, still shares a flat with him while carrying on a love affair with another older man. The play is structured as a series of disasters that effectively punish Ben for the way he’s chosen to conduct his chronically disorganized life: he learns in a single day that his wife Anne has decided to remarry, that his ex-lover Joey has decided to move in with his partner (and out of their office), and that Edna, the spinsterish colleague he’s been making fun of for years, has finally completed and found a publisher for the book she’s been slaving away at for two decades (while Ben hasn’t made a dent in his own promised tome on T.S. Eliot). These piled-on revelations also serve as a wake-up call: at the end Ben closes his door on the provocative young man he’s pillaged from Edna for a tutorial in Eliot  and implicitly for a sexual relationship  because he realizes it’s far too late for him to continue to carry on as he did in the past.

Amanda Drew as Anne Butley
In creating his protagonist Gray owes a big debt to John Osborne. Butley is one of those characters whose childishness and mean-spiritedness and vengefulness are tolerable (if not forgivable) because of his larger-than-life personality and his command of language; like Jimmy Porter, the hero of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, his ranting makes him more alive than anyone else. But Look Back in Anger presents a highly original vision of the culture (the twilight of the British Empire) that gave birth to it, and the characters around Jimmy who are alternately turned on, cowed and repelled by his outbursts are fully formed. Butley mouths a few platitudes about students in the seventies but either it doesn’t have a firm grasp of the times or else it simply has nothing to say about them, and the characters are mere devices to bring Ben to the point of looking at his life for what it has become. The actor playing Joey (here it’s Martin Hutson) has the hardest slog, because the play offers no evidence of what could have compelled him to choose to move back in with Ben, suffer his unending abuse and negotiate his unending neediness after the dissolution of his marriage. The two women, Anne Butley (Amanda Drew) and Edna Shaft (Penny Downie), are given small, discrete scenes that good actresses  Drew and Downie both fit this description  can make something of, but Joey is stuck on stage for almost the entire play, and none of the choices one might imagine the actor making for the character (indecisiveness, masochism, old habit, entrapment) is sustainable for two acts. (In the movie, Richard O’Callaghan played Joey as a pouty priss; Hutson goes for indignant befuddlement.) The other role is Reg, Joey’s new boy friend (Paul McGann), who gets the brunt of Butley’s bad temper and prejudices and can barely stand to be in the same room with him. At least this antipathy gives the actor something to play.

Gray’s portrait of life in a university English department borders on satire but never goes over the line, and since the play is a piece of realism the title character’s outrageousness, which would be perfectly acceptable in, say, Kingsley Amis’s great comic novel about academia, Lucky Jim, in this context strains credibility. The play is a vehicle that can’t stand on its own without a charismatic leading man, but West building an arsenal out of the biting dialogue Gray has written for Butley is an entertaining spectacle.

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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