theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
At the preview performance I saw, Samuel West’s production of Waste was unbearably DULL and SLOW. It wasn’t just me reflecting the wasteland of my own disillusioned soul. I saw two couples sneak out of the theatre at the interval. I heard comments afterwards on the lines of ‘the actors didn’t seem to really care or be interested in what they were saying’. Most of the actors were not engaging with each other or the audience. OK, not true of Nancy Carroll, vivid and passionate if miscast playing a neurotic, sensation-seeking Flapper, and Phoebe Nicholls’ pent-up bitterness as the faithful sister working for her hero’s salvation (Granville Barker’s New Woman tends to be more like her literary grandmother, the Victorian Saviour of the Hero, than a suffragette) just about carried the final scene – but West’s direction and the respectful reviews in the main newspapers appear to be driven by intellectual snobbery.
That’s why you’ll hear some people praising it. Enduring the tedium and apprehending the play through veils of Westerly obfuscation allows them to congratulate themselves on their own cleverness. It is the New Theatre of the Arcane. It is a reactionary response to the dumbing down of the performing arts on TV and it’s letting down its own cause. Most of us who go to the theatre want to be entertained and moved and stimulated by the lives of others, not bored to death by them.
The author of Waste declared that: “A play is anything that can be made effective upon the stage of a theatre by human agency.” Waste is the least commercially adaptable of Granville Barker’s performed plays and tricky to produce entertainingly with integrity. It is uncompromising, in its length (three hours traffic at the Almeida is too long), its dry debates about cabinet politics, its detachment from the deliberately unsympathetic central characters, its avoidance of sentiment and melodrama despite the plot’s potentially tabloid-friendly abortion and suicide. Without the notoriety of its ban by the Edwardian censor, it might have had even fewer than the three revivals of the last twenty-five years.
When it works, when the huge risks of the play’s intellectual prolixity and dramatic minimalism (both deaths are, of course, off-stage) pay off in a delicate balancing act by all the human agencies involved – and I have fond memories of the 1985 RSC production doing just that – the depth of the audience’s thoughtful reaction is all the more impressive because it has been engaged with artistic honesty and restraint. Granville Barker believed in the superiority of live theatre over the novel as the art form for attacking social problems: “theatre is the quickest and most vivid medium of working things out”.
The salient words, the directorial notes, from a man who knew the craft of theatre inside out and famously advocated a natural and quickly spoken delivery of Shakespeare, are “effective”, “human”, “quickest”, “vivid”. Under the polemical defence of expanding theatrical forms you can detect the basic injunctions of any shrewd actor-director-producer: production values, pace, passion and humour. Good actors transform a lecture into live theatre and make the most pedestrian dialogue fly along. That’s the point. It’s not about making a play hard work for the audience. Whether you like it or not, there’s got to be a quantum of pimping. The play must be kept pure, but you’ve got to make it attractive.
OK, I was very tired when I saw it at the Almeida, but so will a lot of working people and tourists be when they go to the theatre. Except for rare individual performances, the only consistently satisfying artistic aspect of London theatre I’ve seen recently is set design, which, in the tradition of Granville Barker, is allowed to flourish on the Fringe and subsidised theatre, while spoken drama dessicates. Reassuringly, Waste has an impeccably elegant set designed by Peter McKintosh which serves the play rather than holds up the action – superior, in that respect, to the superfluous and unintentionally ludicrous uses to which Alison Chitty’s set was put in Peter Gill’s over-milked production of The Voysey Inheritance at the National a couple of years ago, in which over-enthusiastic street sweepers and what looked like the back of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, either having a quick pee or about to sing ‘On the Street Where you Live’, made distracting appearances.
Directors can pimp too much. Just letting the actors say their lines quicker instead of burdening them with unnaturalistic line-readings would be a start. Voysey is a more conventionally constructed play than Waste and a lot harder to kill. You wonder if Granville Barker would have thought both these ponderous productions embarrassingly old-fashioned.
All this was said better nearly a hundred years ago: “A good play should exhilarate and entertain. It is a silly mistake to think of a good play being serious and solemn….the drama must be alive”. Harley Granville Barker gave his opinion in an interview with the New York Times, in 1915, before the abandonment of splendid Lillah McCarthy for his rich second wife and the acquisition of the hyphen and the retirement from producing and playwriting, apart from an experiment in form too cerebral to be performable, none of which enigmatic behaviour has to mean a negation of everything he had done and said about theatre.
It’s a fashionable meta-story, like the one about the greatest English playwright who after looking into the human soul and writing the most memorable poetry in the language to describe it, gave up the theatre to go and be a property-developer in the provinces while the market was still good. What does it mean for theatre? Nothing, probably.
© Michael Brabazon 2008
Originally published on R&V 09-10-08
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