Monday, November 21, 2016

Ayckbourn and Osborne: Brit Classics

Nael Nacer, Mahira Kakkar, and Karl Miller in Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company's Bedroom Farce. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The comedies of the ridiculously prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn – eighty plays and counting – have typically proved to be tricky hurdles for American actors. The combination of his brand of banter (which spins, often hilariously, off the banality of middle-class English conversation), the physical demands of his scenarios (which ring inventive changes on typical sex-farce set-ups) and his peculiarly offhand satirical tone (he’s not a cruel playwright but he certainly isn’t warm) make for a challenging combination. Maria Aitken’s production of Ayckbourn’s 1975 Bedroom Farce for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company is performed so delightfully, however, that you can barely see the hoops the eight actors have to jump through to make it work. The title itself is a characteristic Ayckbourn gag: it prepares us for a sex roundelay, when in fact the closest any of the characters comes to infidelity is a harmless, unpremeditated kiss at a party between Trevor (Karl Miller), who’s in the midst of a tiff with his wife Susannah (Katie Paxton), and his ex-girl friend Jan (Mahira Kakkar), who has left her husband Nick (Nael Nacer) at home in bed with an aching back. What the title actually refers to is the set – cleverly designed, in this instance, by Alexander Dodge – which divides the stage into three bedrooms. Stage left is Jan and Nick’s, occupied throughout the play by the unhappily laid-up Nick. Center stage is that of the party givers, Malcolm (Richard Hollis) and Kate (Emma Kaye). The bedroom stage right belongs to Trevor’s parents, Ernest (Malcolm Ingram) and Delia (Patricia Hodges), a homey, conventional couple celebrating their anniversary who, following a disappointing meal at a once-favorite restaurant, retire for a comfy night until their sanctum is unexpectedly invaded by their neurotic daughter-in-law. She doesn’t feel right about going home after she and Trevor have quarreled so extravagantly and vociferously at Malcolm and Kate’s that they managed to drive all the other guests out of the house.

The split stage is the kind of gimmick Ayckbourn is famous for, especially in his seventies plays. (In How the Other Half Loves, for example, two separate households occupy the same stage space, and his masterpiece, The Norman Conquests, is a trilogy of plays that take place in different rooms of a country house at the same time.) The staging premise of Bedroom Farce isn’t one of his most imaginative – it functions more as a pun than as a spur for interesting stage behavior, and there’s no special reason why the scenes at Kate and Malcolm’s should take place in their bedroom. And the action of the play doesn’t amount to much, though Ayckbourn’s main focus is rarely narrative. Still, it’s funny, mostly because the characters are diverting caricatures, and Aitken’s actors have a good time exploring their peccadilloes. Ingram’s Ernest and Hodges’ Delia are similar to the older couple in How the Other Half Loves, Frank and Fiona. He’s a self-satisfied but generally clueless bourgeois, addicted to his creature comforts and easily distracted, while she’s smarter and cannier, though Delia is driven less batty by Ernest’s inattentiveness than Fiona is by Frank’s. Delia, who wears PJs to bed – the costume designer Robert Morgan, whose work here tends to enshrine the distinctiveness of the characters, has given her an uproarious pair of striped jammies – is a variation on an English type, a slave to habit but as cheery and vigorous as a vigilant home guard officer during the Blitz. Hodges stretches her long, elastic face to comment on the ordeals of the couple’s situation, while Ingram plays her hubby as a more misanthropic version of one of the steady-on colonials C. Aubrey Smith used to embody in Hollywood movies of the 1930s.

The effortlessly elegant Mahira Kakkar (who has the loveliest costume), a natural aristocrat, and the talented Huntington stalwart Nael Nacer (Awake and Sing!, Come Back, Little Sheba) are an amusing match of opposites as Nick, who is considerably less interested in the possibility of his wife’s cheating on him with an old beau than in his efforts to get some sleep, and Jan, who has limited empathy for her husband’s loudly trumpeted physical discomfort. As Kate and Malcolm, Richard Hollis and Emma Kaye conjure up another sort of English couple: he’s relentlessly proud of his dubious accomplishments – as a host, as a handyman, and as a lover – while she, optimistic but a trifle weary, struggles to be sufficiently appreciative. The only couple that doesn’t own any of the onstage bedrooms is Trevor and Susannah, though their marital squabbles infect all three of them. These are the toughest parts because they’re the quirkiest ones – Susannah screams in her sleep, Trevor causes everyone endless inconvenience without, apparently, even noticing what a pain in the ass he is. Paxton and Miller’s performances are the least successful of the eight because the parts, funny as they are, don’t completely add up to fully-thought-through comic figures.

The physical comedy transpires in the center and stage-left bedrooms. Nacer handles his part of it – Nick’s efforts to keep himself from straining his injured back while fate appears to have it in for him – with some skill, but the rest of the stage business is rather clumsy. Judging from this production and her staging of Noël Coward’s Private Lives at the Huntington in 2012, I’d say that physical farce isn’t Aitken’s forte. But she does fine work with actors, and she’s figured out the right style and tone for Ayckbourn, which is no mean feat for a director on this side of the Atlantic.

Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. (Photo: Johan Persson)

If you’re conversant with Tony Richardson’s 1960 movie of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, with Laurence Olivier as the mediocre music-hall performer Archie Rice, whose life is a pathetic shambles, then it’s something of a shock to see a revival of the stage version (which Richardson had directed Olivier in at the Royal Court three years earlier). It’s a great play, but it has some dramaturgical problems – quasi-Brechtian music-hall interludes that don’t quite work (you get the feeling Osborne’s heart wasn’t in them), and a patchwork final scene that brings in two new characters you’ve only heard about – that Osborne, working with Nigel Kneale, cleaned up in the screenplay. When the Shaw Festival revived the play in 2009, I thought it was beautifully acted but erred on the side of modesty: it seemed  the director, Jackie Maxwell, might have done more with the music-hall numbers, which are meant to comment on the state of England during the Suez Crisis, at the butt-end of the empire. Now that I’ve seen Rob Ashford’s production, starring Kenneth Branagh and produced by his company at London’s Garrick Theatre – and recently shown worldwide in HD – I realize that Maxwell made the right choice. Ashford makes a fuss over those Brechtian numbers, and they’re too grandiloquent; they overstuff the play. Christopher Oram has lit them stunningly, as if Ashford were staging Cabaret in Bob Fosse style, but that’s not what you want from The Entertainer. Take away the numbers and you have a chamber play tightly focused on Archie and his family: his father Billy (Gawn Grainger), a retired vaudevillian who bemoans the loss of the old England; his second wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi), who puts up with Archie’s philandering but grows unpleasant under the effects of alcohol; his daughter from his first marriage, left-leaning Jean (Sophie McShera), who’s about to call off her engagement; and one of his two sons by Phoebe, Frank (Jonah Hauer-King), who spent six months in prison for refusing to go to war. The other son, Mick, is a POW whose release the family is awaiting anxiously.

The main reason the Brechtian stuff doesn’t come off is that the rest of the play, like Osborne’s earlier, groundbreaking Look Back in Anger, is naturalistic, with magnificent dialogue – no one could write dialogue like Osborne in his prime. Ashford makes the mistake of stylizing the whole play. The actors stand around in tableaux much of the time and often don’t address each other, and the energy is so ramped up that the experience of watching it is exhausting; it’s The Entertainer on amphetamines. By the time intermission rolls around you’re dying for someone to talk in ordinary conversational rhythms. (Archie is always performing, embroidering his lines so they sound like punch lines, but that’s a character choice, not a style choice.) In bits and pieces, Grainger’s performance and especially Scacchi’s are impressive and seem like they might work if they were directed to take them down a few notches. McShera just seems miscast in the Joan Plowright role, and she plays every scene for pretty much the same values – which, if you think of it, is more or less what she did as the kitchen maid Daisy on Downton Abbey, though she made the character so lovable it took several seasons to notice her limitations. Hauer-King barely makes an impression.

It’s no secret that Branagh is obsessed with Olivier: he’s made movies of both Henry V and Hamlet). The idea of his taking on Archie Rice, Olivier’s most famous non-Shakespearean part, sounded promising, even though his last Osborne outing, a 1989 TV adaptation of Look Back in Anger directed by Judi Dench, was disastrous for him: he got all of the qualities that make Jimmy Porter impossible and none of the ones that make him hypnotic. In purely technical terms, his portrait of Archie is brilliant, both verbally and physically, but it’s missing the element that would make it emotionally vivid as well – the anguish of a man who knows that he’s gone sour and that he is, as he says of himself, dead behind the eyes. In the climactic scene where Archie learns that Mick has been killed and he tries to sing a spiritual he once heard performed by a black woman, the actor’s technique is supposed to collapse and leave nothing but scorched feeling. Since technique is all Branagh’s got here, the moment falls cringingly flat; it’s like watching a tightrope walker fall. And though you want to be fair to Branagh, no one who’s seen Olivier in the movie could possibly forget what he did with this scene, so Branagh’s failure with it is all the more painful. I didn’t think much about Olivier when I saw Branagh’s Henry V or his Hamlet, because his interpretations were so different. But Olivier marked Archie the way Brando marked Stanley Kowalski. If you dare to play this character, you’re inviting the comparison.

– 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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