Friday, June 23, 2017

London Revivals, Part II: Rare English Comedies

Eve Best and Anthony Head in Love in Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory. London. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

This piece contains reviews for Love in Idleness in London's West End and The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios.

As a result of the renewal of interest in Terence Rattigan’s plays over the last few years, no London season seems to be without one. So this playwright who lost favor after the “angry young man” playwrights revolutionized English theatre in the fifties and sixties is now very much on the boards again. (Rattigan died in 1977, four decades after French Without Tears had catapulted him to success.) Last fall Kenneth Branagh staged his 1948 Harlequinade; just closing at the Apollo Theatre is Trevor Nunn’s production of Love in Idleness, the third of Rattigan’s wartime plays, originally produced in 1944. Nunn staged the first of them, Flare Path, in 2011.

It’s a graceful production of a high comedy, first performed by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, that doesn’t quite work, though you’re right there with it for most of the ride. The title is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – love-in-idleness is the passion flower Oberon sends Puck for so he can daub its juice on the eyes of one of the Athenian lovers. The heroine is Olivia Brown (Eve Best), a middle-class widow whose affair with a Canadian baronet, Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head, still best known as Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the important man in charge of tank production for the War Office, has lifted her into the aristocracy. They live together happily; he’d divorce his younger wife, Diana (Charlotte Spencer), were it not for his temporary exalted position in the government – and he plans to do so and to marry Olivia as soon as the war is over and he reverts to his old position as head of a company. But in the meantime Olivia’s son Michael (Edward Bluemel), not quite eighteen, returns from four years at a Montreal boarding school with a lot of romantic adolescent notions about the way the world works and more than his share of arrogance and entitlement. Sir John is, in his eyes, the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the English class system; he’s shocked when he discovers that his mother is living off what he assumes are her lover’s ill-gotten gains. He doesn’t credit her happiness with Fletcher – not even when she admits, delicately, that her marriage to his father had gone sour long before his death. Michael tries to put an end to the relationship by contacting Diana, not realizing that she knows all about her husband’s love life and has no objection to it. So his scheme collapses, but his hatred of Sir John is so marked that Olivia, feeling she has to choose one of the two men she loves over the other, moves out of Fletcher’s home anyway and back to the depressing digs she occupied when her husband was alive.

Michael’s assessment of his mother’s lover (based on a combination of youthful imagination and the exaggerations he’s read about him in the left-wing magazines) is presented without evidence and dismissed immediately. Sir John is so broad-minded that he reads the same political and economic analysts Michael does and even agrees with some of their ideas; he has every intention of helping England making the transition into a more equitable post-war world. He’s unfailingly kind to the young man, despite Michael’s snits and insults and his determination to drive a wedge between him and Olivia. This is a high-comedy world, all right. You can see why the British theatre had no more use for plays like this one once the Suez crisis brought a final end to old notions of a British Empire and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger portrayed men like Sir John Fletcher as – at best – sad dinosaurs. (He actually includes one in Look Back in Anger: Colonel Redfern, whose daughter Alison is married to the play’s protagonist, Jimmy Porter.) But high comedies have their serious side, and Olivia’s capitulation to her son’s dislike of the man she loves – which is really based on his childish desire for things to be the way they were, or the way he thought they were, before his father died – infantilizes him while sacrificing her own reasonable desires to his prejudices. She’s like Isabel Amberson Minafer in Orson Welles’ great 1942 movie The Magnificent Ambersons, allowing her son Georgie’s resentment of her suitor Eugene Morgan to suffocate their romance – even though the boy is in love with Eugene’s daughter. Rattigan must have been thinking about Ambersons, because he has Michael fall in love with Sir John’s wife Diana.

But Ambersons is ultimately a tragedy, and Rattigan wants to keep Love in Idleness light, so he has to come up with a device to ensure a happy ending. The problem with the play is that he keeps Olivia in a state of unhappiness for so long that by the time he sets the device in motion (in the second half of the second act) it feels too much like the artifice it is. The other problem is in the production: Bluemel plays Michael as a comic caricature. He’s quite funny, but we need to believe in this self-involved snot-nose if we’re going to buy the plot built around his mother’s sacrifice.

The problem certainly isn’t with Eve Best, whose handling of the high-comic style is masterful. I can’t pay Best a higher compliment than to say that the actress she reminded me of most was Rosemary Harris. When we meet Olivia, she seems frivolous and charmingly muzzy-brained; she can’t even remember the age of her son (whom she hasn’t seen since she sent him away in the early days of the war). It’s only later that we realize that her sense of him as younger than he is the result of her own need to see him that way, and that what seems like superficial socialite behavior masks a conscious escape from the old life that left her with nothing – except, of course, for Michael, whom she treasures. We’re wrong, we learn, to view her as shallow or thoughtless. Anthony Head gives a warm and stylish performance, and Charlotte Spencer brings considerable skill to the comic role of Diana, who is superficial and self-serving. However, Nunn, working in coordination with the fine designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has fashioned this enjoyable revival as a vehicle for Eve Best.

Charlotte Ritchie and Lily Cole in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios, London. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (at Trafalgar Studios) is a high comedy, too, but it was written in 1971, when its author was only twenty-three, and it bears the mark of the modernists who must have thrilled his undergraduate years – Pirandello, Albee, Buñuel. The title goes back farther – it hints at a reversal of the idea at the heart of Molière’s The Misanthrope. The hero of that play, Alceste, insists on telling the absolute truth at all times, but social intercourse, as Molière points out, is predicated on an acceptable level of deception, so though we share Alceste’s discomfort with the hypocrisy around him, his way of pushing back is so extreme that it alienates everyone around him. In The Philanthropist, Philip (Simon Bird), a Cambridge don whose field is philology, is Alceste’s polar opposite: he likes and approves everyone and everything. He’s so positive that when he praises a new play the playwright (John Seaward) immediately assumes he’s being sarcastic. He alienates strangers because he’s incapable of taking a critical stance – and of irony. Among his small circle of friends he’s so unaware of signals and so loath to cause discomfort that he ties himself up in knots. At the conclusion of a dinner party, his fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) offers to stay to help him clean up, but he insists she go home, missing her hints that she wants to sleep with him. When one of the female guests (Lily Cole) makes the same offer but more insistently, he takes her up on it, and they wind up in bed because he’s too polite to say no (even though he’s not attracted to her).

The play never settles completely into comedy, and its absurdist touches are more like creases on its surface. It’s a genuine oddity, though you can see the unmistakable signs of Hampton’s talent even this early on – like his gift for writing dialogue. Simon Callow’s revival exacerbates the tonal problems by playing the second act way too straight, and the acting is uneven. (I couldn’t tell what Cole was playing.) But this is the sort of play you’d never see in revival in the U.S. – like Love in Idleness – and one of the pleasures of attending the theatre in London is the chance to see forgotten plays that are worth a second look.

Part I, which reviewed Angels in America, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Life of Galileo, can be read here.

– 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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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