Monday, July 8, 2013

Other Voices: Passion Play and Strange Interlude

Passion Play, directed by David Leveaux

Peter Nichols’s 1981 Passion Play begins at the conclusion of a social evening at the home of James and Eleanor, a middle-aged couple with grown-up daughters. Both are connected to the arts: James restores paintings and Eleanor is a classical singer and teacher. They have been entertaining Kate, a photographer in her mid-twenties whose partner, Albert, a close friend of James, has recently died. The scenario is complicated – Albert’s relationship with Kate broke up his marriage to Agnes, who remained friends with Eleanor. It becomes more complicated when, in a moment alone (offstage) with Eleanor in the kitchen, Kate confides that she finds James attractive, and Eleanor repeats it to him. At first this is an academic matter for the couple, who discuss it with amusement on Eleanor’s side and an apparent lack of interest on James’s, though since the thought operates on him as a kind of aphrodisiac – he has an immediate desire to make love to his wife – he’s evidently more interested than he allows himself to believe. (Turning James on isn’t Eleanor’s intention; she’s both surprised and a little embarrassed by his sudden unrestrained ardor. When he tries to catch up with her on the stairs, she protests, “James! I’m a grandmother. You’re a grandfather. There’s a place for that kind of thing. It’s called the bedroom.”) And when Kate arranges lunch with him a few days later, ostensibly because she needs his help in pulling together a book of her work, she makes a direct sexual proposition. The immediate result, over coffee at her place, is nothing more serious than a kiss, but his guilt over it – and, clearly, over his impulse to carry it farther – twists him into knots and prompts him to lie to Eleanor about where he’s been.

The restaurant encounter between James and Kate is played simultaneously with a scene between Eleanor and Agnes, who, though she’s started a new life with another man, is holding on to her bitterness over Albert’s betrayal and her loathing of the interloper, half her age, who derailed their marriage. In the current West End revival, David Leveaux has placed the conversation between James and Kate on the stage-right corner of James and Eleanor’s living room, so that Zoë Wanamaker, who plays Eleanor, and Siān Thomas who plays Agnes, both get very close to Owen Teale (James) and Annabel Scholey (Kate); one of them even swings around the table at one point. This ticklish, Alan Ayckbourn-ish visual points up the occasional overlap in the conversations, as when Agnes observes unpleasantly that sluttish Kate clearly dressed provocatively for James’s benefit at Albert’s funeral and Kate admits to James that she did exactly that. (As it happens, there’s another, highly enjoyable revival in the West End at the moment of Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, his first West End hit, so dedicated theatergoers can study the influence on Nichols of Ayckbourn’s finesse at sex farce. Relatively Speaking predated Passion Play by a decade and a half.) Nichols goes out on a different limb, though, when James returns home with another character trailing behind him in the same clothes – Jim (Oliver Cotton), his alter ego. At first Jim is the voice of caution and terror: he tries to steer James away from Kate, he reminds James that he’s in love with his wife and in fact finds her far more attractive, he reminds James of the excuses he’s dreamed up for being late, and after James begins to sleep with Kate, Jim implores him to stop. But James doesn’t want to, and for a while he gets away with murder: Eleanor doesn’t suspect his infidelity and innocently she keeps throwing him in Kate’s path, insisting, for instance, that they attend a private viewing of her gallery show. She doesn’t find out the truth until Agnes rushes over with evidence. And that’s when we meet Nell (Samantha Bond), Eleanor’s alter ego.

Oliver Cotton, Samantha Bond, Zoë Wanamaker, Annabel Scholey and Owen Teale
Peter Nichols is one of a raft of notable playwrights who surfaced in the 1960s, during the British New Wave era. They arrived in the wake of the “angry young man” movement spearheaded by John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, and they wrote screenplays as well as plays. I’m not conversant with most of Nichols’s work; based on Passion Play, I’d have to say that I haven’t been paying enough attention. (Until now the Nichols text I’ve been most familiar with is his beautiful screenplay for John Boorman’s too-little-known debut film, the 1965 Catch Us If You Can, retitled Having a Wild Weekend for its North American release.) Passion Play is a high-stakes sex comedy for adults, and it’s a knockout. The two protagonists are triumphs of sympathetic imagination, so complex, so full of contradictory impulses, that Nichols needed to write two separate characters for each. It’s through Eleanor’s interactions with Nell that we learn about her own one-night stand with Albert and about the platonic affair she carried on for two years with someone else in her choir, which was serious enough that she contemplated leaving James for him. Nichols gets a lot of comic mileage out of the presence of the alter egos (for example, when Kate drops by and Eleanor is friendly to her while Nell drops catty remarks), and Leveaux has a lot of fun with the staging. But as James’s affair with Kate subsides and reignites, and as it affects the marriage in ways that Eleanor, who has tried to remain in control, didn’t anticipate, the original division between the two “real” characters and their alternate voices breaks down. Early in the second act Eleanor addresses Nell on stage, puzzling not only James and Kate but also Jim; in one of the most inventive moments, Eleanor and Nell sing a few bars of Irving Berlin’s “No Strings (Fancy Free)” together. When Eleanor comes downstairs after a nightmare that generates a fight with James, it’s Jim she quarrels with. At James’s insistence, Eleanor, who is becoming more and more unhappy, goes to see a shrink, and it’s Nell we see on the couch. Effectively the play breaks the bounds of expressionism because the characters and the relationships are too immense to be held by those bounds; Nichols requires a more radical style – absurdism – to contain them. Naturally he needs more than one tone as well. Just before the final curtain Nell packs up and leaves while Eleanor remains behind with James (i.e., she stays in the marriage while half of her has already gone out the door); in an allusion to Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Jim kneels in a pose of erotic worship before Kate’s naked body. We’re left on the cusp of tragedy and comedy.

Zoë Wanamaker as Eleanor
So much is going on in this play that it’s impossible to cover it all in a review, but I’d like to mention a couple of amazing scenes. In the second act, Eleanor writes a letter to Kate, thanking her for giving her marriage to James a sexual shot in the arm, but she’s relieved when Kate goes on a trip to Japan and California and the affair disintegrates. When Kate returns, she comes over for dinner and tells Eleanor that her real fear has always been that what happened between James and herself might have damaged the friendship between the two women. She reaches out, grabs Eleanor’s hand and kisses her on the mouth. James is turned on by the thought of having them both in bed together (of course, he’s a man); Eleanor is turned on by the thought of what this additional stimulation might mean for her sex life with James, putting love before sex (of course, she’s a woman). In the event, nothing happens; Kate tells them both that she fell in love with a third older man whom she met on the plane. But, unbeknownst to Eleanor, James and Kate do start sleeping together again. Eleanor suspects that he’s seeing someone, and the therapy sessions he’s arranged for her – even though he also balks at them, because he detests the idea that she’s discussing him with a professional – begin to seem to her like an elaborate cover, a way of explaining away her growing misery in the marriage. (It’s Agnes who plants that idea in her head: Albert foisted her off on a shrink – the same one, in fact.) Ironically, Kate’s the friend to whom Eleanor confides her fears about this new infidelity of her husband’s, in a dressing room at a clothes shop. The secret is out when Kate, uncharacteristically, slips up and refers to a detail she couldn’t know unless she were (still) James’s lover.

At one point Eleanor castigates her husband for wanting to have his cake and eat it too, and his defense is a generational one – that when he was young, girls like Kate were “rationed.” To his mind, Kate is the kind of girl that the young men of his era – he would have come of age a few years after the end of World War II – wanted to create, but sexual liberation arrived too late for them to take advantage of it. The music Nichols stipulates for the play is mostly classical, but there’s a brilliant moment when Eleanor puts Led Zeppelin on the turntable, a sharp reminder to James that they’re from the same generation, that she’s suffered from the same sexual deprivations as he has. The entire cast of Leveaux’s production is excellent, but Wanamaker gives moments like this one, and the scene where Agnes reveals to her that James has been unfaithful, and the scene in the clothing shop with Kate, a devastating emotional urgency. I’ve always admired Wanamaker, but this performance and the one I saw her give in the National Theatre Cherry Orchard two years ago show that she’s truly a great actress.

Anne-Marie Duff and Darren Pettie in Strange Interlude

Another actress whose limited exposure to North American audiences might cause us to underrate her abilities is Anne-Marie Duff. She shows up in the occasional movie (she’s Tolstoy’s daughter in The Last Station) or TV import (she’s the exasperated wife of the mad cleric played by Rufus Sewell in Parade’s End) but the work she does on the English stage puts her in an entirely different category. Two years ago she gave a sensuous and heartbreaking performance as an innocent woman on trial for helping her young lover kill her husband in Terence Rattigan’s final play, Cause Célèbre; currently she dominates the National Theatre revival of Strange Interlude in the marathon role of Nina Leeds, Eugene O’Neill’s attempt to create a female life-force character like the ones in Strindberg and Shaw.

Between his early naturalistic one-acts (the best of which were parts of the S.S. Glencairn cycle he began writing in the teens) and his late realist masterpieces (The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day’s Journey into Night) – that is, in the twenties and thirties – O’Neill experimented broadly and boldly, and Strange Interlude, first produced in 1928, was one of his loonier efforts. Like Passion Play, it’s a play about alter egos. O’Neill was fascinated by the social masks we hide behind and the truths they conceal; he had literalized the idea two years earlier, in The Great God Brown, where the protagonist steals the mask of his dying best friend and finds that it gets him into the bedroom of the dead man’s wife, whom he’s always coveted, because once he puts on the mask she can’t distinguish between them. In Strange Interlude O’Neill adopted another expressionistic device, the verbalized internal monologue. Rather than put separate characters on stage to represent the secret voices of his characters, he wrote two sets of lines for each of them to speak, one to the other people on stage and one to the audience. The play is a Freudian melodrama in nine acts covering a quarter of a century, in which Nina moves from one man to another – from her professor father (Patrick Drury) to her sweetheart, Gordon (who dies in a plane crash before the play begins), whom she never gets over; to her amiable, unloved husband Sam (Jason Watkins) and her doctor lover, Ned (Darren Pettie); to her son – by Ned, though Sam doesn’t know - named for Gordon (Will Scolding), whom she passes on reluctantly to the young woman he falls in love with (Emily Plumtree); and finally to Charlie (Charles Edwards), the desexualized faithful friend who’s been waiting in the wings for her to get over all of them.

The play was taken very seriously at the time, and it won O’Neill his third Pulitzer, but it’s hard to know what the original production (with the legendary Lynn Fontanne as Nina) could have been like. Not as ridiculous, presumably, as the 1932 movie with Norma Shearer (and a young Clark Gable as Gordon), which Groucho Marx parodied hilariously the same year in Horse Feathers. Simon Godwin’s production at the National is trimmed to three and a quarter hours and played at breakneck speed, and it makes no attempt to pretend that when the characters suddenly turn to the audience and declare the thoughts they’re keeping from each other, the effect, at least to a twenty-first-century audience, is anything but humorous. The ensemble – I’d say Edwards is easily the wittiest, but then, he has the funniest lines – play the comedy of these asides and then play through them to arrive at the play’s psychological insights. I didn’t find Strange Interlude moving, exactly, the way a good Long Day’s Journey is or even a sensitive mounting of his only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, but it’s definitely fascinating.

Deborah Warner's Death in Venice

Visually the most astonishing thing I saw in London last month was Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, directed by Deborah Warner at the English National Opera, which was both painterly and cinematic and unfolded with a hypnotic rhythm unlike anything else in my experience. (It also contained the best performance I witnessed, by the magnificent tenor John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach.) Strange Interlude, on the Lyttleton stage, would be my second choice. Soutra Gilmour’s set begins as a series of cottage rooms in realist style, each gliding into view on the revolve, but by the second half the house Nina shares with Sam and their eleven-year-old son has become abstracted, constructivist, a tower protected by a circular barrier. Then it, too, rotates out of sight, to be replaced by a moored yacht from which all the other characters (except for the long-dead professor) watch the offstage Gordon win a sailing race. Gilmour also designed the lovely costumes, and Guy Hoare, the lighting designer, operates as a third gifted collaborator with Gilmour and Godwin. I would have hated to miss this experience. O’Neill was a showman to his marrow, and the National Theatre Strange Interlude – director, actors and designers – seizes on that quality.

– 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 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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