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Staging a poetic drama by a little known writer (Joanna Laurens won the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award and Time Out Award for Most Outstanding New Talent in 2000 for her first play The Three Birds) in our cynical age is a courageous act on the part of the Almeida. Michael Attenborough has decided to leave the play’s purity intact by relying on the mediation of a dramaturg rather than make any commercial compromises. Poetic drama demands much more of audience and actor than prose. Over-fed with images, hungry for a quick cultural fix, harried by lack of time, as we are, it requires a lot to make us surrender our defences and be receptive to the elevated conceits of a verse play and be tolerant of its occasional absurdities. Joanna Laurens’ writing is so good on the whole, illuminating the commonplace, diverting us with her puns and alliterations, that she largely succeeds in keeping the big balloon of poetry afloat; that’s why the odd extraneous preposition, and clumsy arrangement of words is so jarring. This is where great actors come in, to squeeze the juice out of the lines and cast off the dead matter in such a way that, like magicians, they make sure the audience is only aware of the good stuff. It is altogether much harder to suspend disbelief in verse than in prose.
Opening with a lonely Lear-like father figure on a set with a fiery sky above desert sand, the play is a discussion about unfortunate family planning. This particular family briefly looks united as father welcomes his two sons and their wives from the City to his desert retreat where, we are warned, the water is running out, for a Christmas reunion, but it is quickly revealed to be split. The plot, centred round the sexual and financial drives of the characters, would be the staple of soap opera were it not given poetic dressings. Laurens uses graphic imagery when describing gynaecological details and biological urges; she finds new expressions for unrequited love, and her play has been given two excellent actresses who can make her words fly. In different ways, Indira Varma and Helen McCrory use the poetry as if it was their characters’ habitual mode of expression, without falling into affectation or declamation. Indira Varma as Freya, graceful and exquisite in stylish if overstated black and white, simply lets her lines about love lightly float, without being fey, so we are touched by their lyricism: “I woke and he slept on” and her last triplet are delicately haunting arias of unrewarded tenderness. While the poetry expresses Freya’s idealistic and clinging form of love, it equally conveys the powerful nature of Miranda’s compulsion to get pregnant at all costs. Helen McCrory, fizzing with suppressed energy, uses the poetry to express intense emotional and physical states. She transforms the cliché of a broody woman into a dramatic heroine. She has a magnificently brooding Shakespearean soliloquy in the second half, in which the division between writing and actor is dissolved. One cannot imagine Miranda speaking any other way.
Laurens is conscious of the high ambition of her writing and its challenge to actors: “It is art to fly speech in the air.” The verse works, particularly in soliloquy, only if the actor is good enough to use it as a sharp weapon for splitting open internal debate. Declamation and surface acting will be exposed, and in turn it will expose the play. The central character of Henry, made selfish and manipulative in his need to keep the love of his family, requires an actor of great talent to fully realise the emotional potential. Henry in solitude invites comparison with Shakespearean and Greek tragedy, but in this performance he can’t live up to it. Too often he just sounds bombastic. David Calder is successful at capturing Henry’s changes of mood and the querulousness, his partiality for emotional blackmail, and his delusions of god-like power. He’s effectively objectionable when, in return for a cheque, he asks his son Simon for assurances that he loves him, his father, more than his mother.
The plot attempts to link the characters by five rings of money and love and lies. Henry hypocritically attempts to blackmail Miranda for having had sex for money in the past while using the idea of his wealth as the means of binding his sons to him. Damian Lewis as the most unscrupulous of the two brothers, who are both liars to their wives, lies to his father as well to get money from him. Laurens plays with the idea of impotence, a sort of antic disposition put on by Daniel as an excuse not to sleep with the wife he no longer loves, while Simon has deliberately been operated on, cheating his wife of having a baby. Laurens sees all these actions as the result of the actions of the parents. None of the men are capable of outgrowing their pasts. Daniel admits to being a Peter Pan: perhaps this is the reason that Damian Lewis is a touch whimsical in his characterisation of the verse, in an effort to capture a boyish quality.
Will Keen is allowed welcome moments of comedy as uptight and proper Simon, passionately in love with his unfaithful wife, dithering with a plate of sandwiches in the face of his father’s revelations, a face of misery above a neatly tucked napkin. His approach is to play wryly against the lines. The play’s language is supple enough to be acted in sincere or ironic mode. He is the centrepiece of a scene that dispenses with props, and relies on his actor’s physical skills to achieve an effect. It is fitting in a play built on metaphor that his body, once empty of spirit, is replaced by a suit of pyjamas carried by his weeping father in a pieta reminiscent of Lear howling over Cordelia. This is brave stuff, to invoke the great tragedies, and it deserves to work, though there is insufficient profundity of feeling and power of voice to carry it through. In a bizarre post-theatre twist, I sighted Freya’s black and white spangly dress, bereft of Indira Varma and looking tawdry on a lifeless model, ugly black wig dangling down. For a salutary moment, before I recognised a shop window, I thought the poetic world had entered our own. Costume designer on longer search must go to feed the sacred flame that keeps winged verse from crashing down to jealous earth, or passing the wreck in Upper Street, prosaic critic will not forbear to mock.
The set design by Es Devlin and lighting by Adam Silverman, however, support and colour the play superbly. The hot reds and yellows turn to cool blue, through dull bronze to a starry night sky of pinpricks of light, a romantic and magical backdrop to a play that works harsh and moving realism out of the poetic form. The lyrical passages and haunting refrains of ancient regrets — “lost is the time of love you, love you” — and the arresting descriptions of everyday things, are all parts to be enjoyed, while the lapses in cadence and the much revisited plot of family reunion, imaginary fortunes, incest and betrayal, can be forgiven as the price for listening to rare and rich language and stretching dramatic art in a contemporary application.
As a footnote, it is worth mentioning that while many corporations have cut down their arts patronage in recent years, Coutts is a major sponsor of the arts and is the Almeida’s principal sponsor, supporting the production of Five Gold Rings.
C J Sheridan © 2003
Originally published on R&V 20-12-03
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