Monday, June 10, 2013

Celebrities

John Logan's Peter and Alice, designed by Christopher Oram (Photo by Johan Persson)

John Logan’s Peter and Alice, which just concluded a run in London’s West End, spins out of a fact he gleaned from a biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In 1932, Hargreaves was invited to open a centenary celebration of Carroll at the Bumpus Bookshop in London, where she was accompanied by Peter Llewelyn Davies, the model for James Barrie’s Peter Pan. “I wondered what they said to each other,” Logan writes in the epigraph to the published script. What he’s come up to answer his own question is a sort of fantasia – part biography, part imagination; part surrealist, part absurdist. The bookstore back room where Alice (Dame Judi Dench) and Peter (Ben Whishaw) are waiting to be introduced out front flies up to reveal a series of two-dimensional drops (beautifully designed by Christopher Oram) that emulate the famous John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham illustrations for the original stories. Here Peter and Alice interact with their fictional counterparts (Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall) as well as with Carroll (a.k.a. Reverend Charles Dodgson (Nicholas Farrell) and Barrie (Derek Riddell).

More than one dramatic attempt has been made to explore Barrie’s relationship with the five Davies brothers who, he always claimed, he used to create the composite Peter Pan – though naturally history has always focused on Peter Davies, the character’s namesake. The best known is the highly sentimentalized 2004 movie Finding Neverland, though it’s more about Barrie’s unhappy marriage and his platonic love affair with the boys’ widowed mother Sylvia. (It’s an appealing picture, if not a very good one, and Johnny Depp gives a sensational performance as Barrie.) There has been one previous dramatization of Dodgson’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the marvelous 1985 English film Dreamchild, which Dennis Potter wrote and Gavin Millar directed. It’s also set at the time of the Carroll centenary, when the octogenarian Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) travels to New York to deliver the keynote address at a Columbia University event in his honor. Reaching the end of her life, Mrs. Hargreaves finds herself haunted by childhood memories she has long repressed of Dodgson (Ian Holm), whose love for her she sensed without understanding it and whom, she now realizes, she treated cruelly. At the same time she’s troubled by nightmare encounters – Potter and Millar present them in the form of Brechtian hallucinations – with creatures from Alice in Wonderland that administer rude reminders of her impending death. Dreamchild is also about Victorianism, of which Mrs. Hargreaves is a defiant embodiment, juxtaposed touchingly and hilariously with the bustle and informality of Depression-era Manhattan. (Peter Gallagher plays the reporter who becomes her guide through this strange new world.) Dreamchild is truly a neglected gem: it never even shows up on Turner Classic Movies, and it hasn’t been released on DVD.

Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw
Peter and Alice begins with Davies interrogating Hargreaves about her reactions to finding herself an unwitting symbol for eternal childhood. He’s been oppressed by the same situation. He claims that his childhood ended at nine, when his father finally died of the lingering throat cancer that first disfigured him and then made speech almost unbearably painful. And his subsequent misfortunes – his mother died a few years later, also to cancer; he lost one brother to suicide and another in the Great War; he suffered shell-shock from his own battle experiences – have led him to view Peter Pan as a lie he can’t extricate himself from, however hard he tries. But Alice doesn’t feel the same way. Though she carefully distinguishes herself from the little girl in the novels, she insists that Peter must have sought Barrie’s attention, must have “sparkled” for him just as she did so to make Dodgson single her out from her two sisters. Only with prodding from Peter and the figure of her fictional counterpart does she recall (with pity and compassion) two episodes with Dodgson that illuminated his loneliness and misery and his impossible love for her, which he transformed into the benign shape of the books he dedicated to her and the photographs he had her pose for. The gift he wanted to offer her was an unchanging image of her as a child, because, as he warns her in the dark room of his studio, “in the place called Adulthood, there’s precious few golden afternoons.” And she admits that the fantasy has been the solace of her solitary, financially shaky old age, as well as (Logan implies) a life that wasn’t as golden as she likes to portray it, even before she lost two of her three sons to the war.

Logan wants to use this pair, with their unique shared vantage point, to suggest two opposing points of view about the tension between fantasy and reality and to investigate the theme of growing up; he also wants to look at the lives and personalities of these two beloved authors of children’s stories. It’s an ambitious project, and unfortunately he hasn’t developed a dramatic form for it. Peter and Alice is full of resonant ideas but it doesn’t have a dramatic arc or even a protagonist, since all Peter and Alice do in the course of the intermissionless ninety minutes is to voice contrasting perspectives. The writing contains some fine passages, and it’s occasionally affecting: in the sequence that leads to the suicide of Peter’s brother Michael (Stefano Braschi, who also plays Arthur Davies and Alice’s husband Reggie), and especially at the end, when each of the title characters hesitates for a moment at the door to the bookshop’s back room while the fantasy figures tell us how first Alice’s and then Peter’s real-life story ends. Michael Grandage’s production is lovely, with Oram’s sets that evoke the cardboard cut-out look of the Victorian-age stage spectacles that Alice Liddell and her sisters must have attended and that the original production of Peter Pan no doubt exemplified (even though it actually appeared in 1904, early in the Edwardian period).

The real raison d’être of Peter and Alice is the opportunity to watch two superb actors – one a theatrical legend, one still early in his career – together on stage. (Film aficionados will recognize that Dench and Whishaw both appeared in the last – and possibly best – James Bond picture, Skyfall, which Logan co-wrote, though they didn’t have any scenes together.) Dench, a splendid, ebullient Alice, has a moment of true acting magic: when Alice’s conversation with Peter conjures up the figure of Dodgson, she tosses away her cane and we suddenly see, through the physical form of this seventy-eight-year-old actress, the spirit of a ten-year-old child. Whishaw gives a superb performance as the tormented Peter. His most memorable moment is his delivery of Peter’s speech (also the high point of Logan’s prose) about the effects of battle: “Shell-shock they call it, but it wasn’t a shock. It was a numbing. I felt absolutely nothing as my life cracked open and spilled out of my head, started pooling around my feet.” These two performers are so captivating that you almost forget that Logan hasn’t really written a play for them.


Peter Morgan’s The Audience reunites the great Helen Mirren with the role that won her a well-deserved Academy Award, Queen Elizabeth II. Stephen Frears’s The Queen, which Morgan also wrote, captured Elizabeth at a moment of crisis, when the death of Princess Diana and the Royal Family’s cloaked response to it exposed a chasm of which the queen hadn’t previously been aware between the image she was raised to project of the British people (reserved, resilient, unsentimental) and the way their own behavior and wish to see themselves had evolved by the end of the twentieth century (as informal, emotional, with a need to mourn publicly for the loss of a popular icon). What Morgan provided in The Queen was a brilliant commentary on the change in British culture as well as a portrait of a complex monarch who belonged as much to a faded era as the Alice Hargreaves of Dreamchild – but who had no choice but to reassess her role as the public face of England and change the manner in which she presented herself. Morgan used Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the recently elected Prime Minister, as both a guide for Elizabeth’s reluctant self-alteration and a device for conveying the film’s admiration for her: Blair, initially appalled at the Royal Family’s evident chilliness, discovers the limitations of his own skeptical modernist (i.e., anti-royalist) point of view.

Blair is absent from The Audience (though not entirely from the dialogue), which proffers glimpses of the queen’s weekly “private audiences” with her prime ministers over more than half a century of rule, both in the special room in Buckingham Palace earmarked for that purpose and in a similarly selected one in Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish residence. The PMs Morgan puts on stage with Mirren’s Elizabeth are her first, Winston Churchill (Edward Fox); Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn), whose career was wrecked by the Suez Crisis; James Callaghan (David Peart); John Major (Paul Ritter); Margaret Thatcher (Hadyn Gwynne); Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker); David Cameron (Rufus Wright); and – taking up more stage time than any of the others, Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe), who she confesses was her personal favorite. They appear out of order and not always at moments of political turmoil. Major, who preceded Blair in Downing Street, replaces him here as the minister with the unenviable task of informing the queen that her popularity with the British people is on the wane and that the Royal Family is in danger of being voted an unnecessary burden on the economy. (One of his two interviews with her comes at the moment when Charles and Diana have opted to separate.)

Dame Helen Mirren with Paul Ritter as PM John Major (Photo by Johan Persson)
Stephen Daldry’s lush production, still playing in the West End, is built entirely around Mirren, who gives a subtle but masterful display of technique. She’s rarely off stage – in most cases, she’s dressed upstage between scenes (Bob Crowley has designed a stunning series of costumes for her) – and she slips effortlessly in and out of various ages, though the very young Elizabeth is a separate character operating mostly as an emanation of the queen’s consciousness with whom she sometimes interacts. (Three young actresses, Bebe Cave, Maya Gerber and Nell Williams, alternate in this role; I don’t know which one I saw at the Wednesday matinee performance I attended, but she was terrific.) You don’t realize the intricacy of Mirren’s handling of the age shifts until she walks on near the end as today’s Elizabeth – her interview with Cameron takes place shortly after Thatcher’s funeral – and right before you, unexpectedly, is an old, if still undeniably regal, woman.

Initially I was put off by the alteration in Morgan’s depiction of Elizabeth after The Queen. Here she’s more jocular, more receptive to humor (even satiric and at her expense), more openly compassionate, more confidential: she shares with Brown, who is prone to depression, the story of her cousins, who died in a psychiatric ward. At first a fan of the movie like myself may want to reject her conduct in some of these exchanges, but it’s a mistake to use the Elizabeth in The Queen as a reference point, since both it and The Audience are dramatic suggestions, not historic realities, and also, of course, even a queen changes over the course of time. (Her conversation with Brown comes more than a decade after her uncomfortable, often furious ones with Blair in The Queen.) What Morgan does here, revisiting a character in a quite different dramatic form, is very unusual. Clearly he’s still so fascinated by her that he wants to do more work on her, to uncover layers he didn’t, couldn’t, in his screenplay.

Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II
And the non-linear, episodic sequence of scenes felt random to me while I was watching the play – a kind of “best of” approach to the queen’s relationships with all these prime ministers. Only afterwards, when I thought back on it, could I see the structure undergirding it, though not all the interviews are equally well drawn and Callahan’s appearance, as a ghost in her head reminding her that she’s left him out, isn’t much more than a cute gimmick. The first act focuses on Elizabeth’s struggle with submerging her own human impulses to the demands of her role. She champs at the bit when Churchill advises her against taking Prince Philip’s family name, Mountbatten, and when Major urges her to give up her yacht, which holds precious memories for her and which is the only place where she feels at home. (Buckingham Palace she finds particularly cold and unyielding.) The act ends with the young Elizabeth appearing, her head soaked with ink – a gesture of rebellion against a loathed tutor. The queen applauds her rebellion, affirming, “Sometimes one just has to draw the line.” Act two is about the ways in which her human side is able to co-exist with her official position, which is always in support of the policies of whichever PM is in office at the moment. Instinctually liberal, she interrogates Eden’s conduct during Suez, and she manages to hint at the self-serving nature of Thatcher’s refusal to support sanctions against the South African government in the twilight of the era of apartheid. (Thatcher’s son has business interests in South Africa.) The second act is also about her friendship with Wilson, played by McCabe with gentle humor.

It’s possible to criticize Morgan for using Elizabeth as a medium for his own progressive views, especially in the Eden scene, where her quietly voiced objections, on behalf of common decency and traditional English morality, to the covert nature of England’s collusion with Israel seem more crafted than convincing. Morgan satirizes Thatcher, but some political figures naturally resist any other approach (Nixon would be another obvious example), and after that preposterous, apolitical botch The Iron Lady I found the portrayal of Thatcher in The Audience a welcome reality check. The play is occasionally both sharp-witted and very funny, and though its nominal conclusion (Elizabeth’s) – that the monarchy has survived because of the prime ministers – feels tacked on, it has an authentic emotional build, through Elizabeth’s passing allusions to her mortality in the Cameron sequence to her remembrance of the end of her association with Wilson, who had begun to suspect he had entered the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Mirren is more than enough of an excuse for this production, but The Audience isn’t merely a vanity project, for her or for Morgan.

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 ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books:  Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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