Theatre

The life of princes, the actions of people

Ronald Bryden February 26 1979
Theatre

The life of princes, the actions of people

Ronald Bryden February 26 1979

The life of princes, the actions of people

Theatre

The British are themselves again: asking for more in all departments. Proof of their recovery is their gloom about the London stage. While sterling tottered, they clung for consolation to possession of the world’s finest theatre. Now that North Sea oil and Arab petrodollars are flowing in, they have resumed their traditional, grudging conviction that the best is only their due, and none too good. “A poor year theatrically,” they complain, of 12 months that have brought them new plays by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Edward Bond, as well as Peter Brook’s first major Shakespearean production in eight years. Point out that such a crop looks golden to a visitor and they become even more smugly gloomy. Possibly, their sighs imply, but is it good enough for them1! Is it the best of Stoppard, Pinter, Bond and Brook?

Reviews of Stoppard’s new play Night and Day were lukewarm. Where, mourned the critics (forgetting how they deplored their lack of substance at the time), were the extravagant fantasy and intellectual high jinks of Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? (Several weeks ago Night and Day won The Evening Standard award, Britain’s most prestigious, for best play.) In their place is a straightforward debate, still witty but deadly serious and set in an imaginary, crisis-torn African country, on freedom of the press. “I’m all for that,” cries the heroine, played with razor-toothed intelligence by Diana Rigg. “It’s the newspa-

pers I can’t stand.” For once, Stoppard, who likes saying he writes plays so that he can disagree with himself in public, takes a side. Freedom to be awful, the play argues, is inseparable from freedom to be good. Junk journalism, with its tits, trash and trivia, is the price a free society pays for truth. A coarsegrained production, which tries to camouflage the debate with adventure melodrama, can’t conceal the emergence of a new, political Stoppard, who selected as the best book he read last year in a Sunday paper roundup, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Three.

Pinter’s new play Betrayal has also been faintly damned for its straightforwardness. “Pinter for people who don’t like Pinter,” sniff the critics, lamenting the absence of Pinter’s characteristic brainteasing and ambiguity. Briefly and sparely (it runs about 90 minutes), Betrayal traces the course of an adultery backward in time, from its burned-out aftermath to its tipsy first kiss 10 years earlier. There’s little eloquence, poetry and humor. Pinter’s preoccupation, more so than in No Man’s Land, seems sculptural: how much distance he can put between his figures and still keep them related. His lovers, Jerry and Emma, say little to each other. What little they do say conceals their feelings from each other almost as much as what they say to Robert, Emma’s husband, is designed to conceal their feelings from him. Yet in their situation, harmless monosyllables and remarks on the weather set off rever-

berations. Every word betrays something or someone—love or its passing, lover, spouse or friend. With a first-rate cast (Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton, Daniel Massey) charging the space between the words with guilt and loss, the skeletal text ends by seeming Pinter’s richest, most masterly play so far.

Bond’s new play The Woman, bought by Stratford, Ontario, for its North American premiere this summer, is his most ambitious since he reworked Shakespeare’s tragedy into a myth for modern times in Lear. This time he takes on the greatest myth of all, the Trojan War, and rewrites it with startling effect from the point of view of its women. Ismene, wife of the Greek general, gives herself up as hostage to Troy’s widowed queen Hecuba in an attempt to force her husband to call off his army. Instead he sacks the city and bricks up the voice of her intolerable protest in its ruined walls. There’s a less striking coda in which Bond sketches a juster society for contrast and tries to grapple, not wholly successfully, with the problem of how it should deal with enemies. But it’s a work of considerable power, written on a plateau few other living playwrights inhabit. Some of its power is lost in the disastrously cavernous Olivier auditorium of the new National Theatre, but it clearly contains two of the finest roles for women in the modern repertoire, well played by Susan Fleetwood and Yvonne Bryceland. (It will be interesting to see how much it gains from Stratford’s stronger stage and casting.)

The new National’s scale pushes its work in the direction of Soviet monu-

mentalism: its latest production, a revival of John Galsworthy’s Edwardian boardroom drama, Strife, becomes a massive social-realist spectacle dominated by a giant, belching tinplate works. By contrast, the National’s rival, the Royal Shakespeare Company, seems

to be working toward a more human scale for its production, of which Peter Brook’s new Antony and Cleopatra is the most controversial. Scaled-down and intimate, staged in a minimal ring of frosted glass screens, Shakespeare’s royal tragedy is given the same theatrical treatment Brook gave A Midsummer Night ’s Dream eight years ago.

Royalty is no longer a matter of crowns, robes and spectacle. Like the magic in the Dream, it is translated into actors’ skills: nervous command in the case of Glenda Jackson’s crop-haired

Cleopatra; self-confident, informal ease in the tousled, golden Antony of Alan Howard. The result is like a restored Old Master painting. The rich, dark sheen of centuries of varnish gives way to daylight, a startling new wealth of precise, realistic detail and fresh color. Seldom can the legendary lovers have appeared less legendary, more alive. Before stabbing himself, Howard’s Antony runs a finger, wincing, down his sword blade. When Jackson’s Cleopatra takes the asps to her breast, you see

them, tiny and wriggling, in her hand. You may miss the old, glamorous haze and gloom round their figures, but never before has each line of the play come to as sharp-edged a life.

It’s easy for the British to take their stage for granted. They have had subsidized national companies for nearly two decades. From this side of the Atlantic, the harvest they sniff at seems a golden return on the money they have spent on seed.

Ronald Bryden