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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Briers’

The early 1950’s saw a revolution in theatre, well in Paris at least, with the arrival of Beckett and Ionesco (one Irish and one Romanian), challenging the realism that the art form was locked in. This play, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot, were first produced there in 1952. It reached the UK five years later where it ignited a debate amongst theatre folk, triggered by critic Kenneth Tynan and involving the playwright and theatrical luminaries like Orson Wells. Around the same time our own angry young men heralded a new age of realism with their kitchen sink dramas, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This was an important part of the post-war history of theatre. Surprising then that this appears to be only the second major London revival. I saw the first, a 1997 co-production between the Royal Court and Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This proved to be the most unlikely transfer to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. Twenty four years on….

The ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ live on an island. They are preparing to welcome an (invisible) audience to hear the old man’s big speech, though it will be given by the speaker. We learn that London is no more, so we are in some sort of dystopian future. They assemble chairs for the visitors and when they arrive welcome them, making introductions between them. It’s all building up to the big moment, the speech.

Omar Elerian’s translation / adaptation / direction takes a lot of liberties, either with the permission of Ionesco’s estate (Beckett’s would never let him get away with it) or maybe the protected period has lapsed. There’s a backstage audio prologue, the speaker turns up regularly for bits of business and interaction and the speech is replaced by an elongated epilogue, which was the only variation I felt pushed it too far. Otherwise, an obtuse period piece was brought alive for a new audience.

It’s hard to imagine better interpreters than husband and wife team Marcello Magni & Kathryn Hunter whose extraordinary physical theatre and mime skills, as well as the chemistry between them, are used to great effect. Toby Sedgwick provides excellent support in the expanded role of the speaker. Even Cecile Tremolieres & Naomi Kuyok-Cohen’s clever design gets to perform.

It was great to see the play again after a quarter century of theatre-going. The production may travel a long way from Ionesco’s intentions, but it seemed to me to provide a fresh interpretation for an audience seventy years later. London’s longest running play is The Mousetrap, 70 years now. Paris’ longest runner is Ionesco’s earlier absurdist play The Bald Primadonna, 65 years. That somehow defines the differing theatre cultures of the two cities.

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The impact today of 19th century comedies like this depends more on the production and acting than the play (I remember a very mediocre London Assurance in 1989 transferred from Chichester and directed by a very young Sam Mendes). Well, here’s a terrific example of how you can breathe new life into something that’s 170 years old; I doubt it was that funny then!

Nicholas Hytner’s company get every laugh in the play, and a lot more that aren’t in it. Simon Russell Beale has extraordinary range as an actor, and comedy is one of his best hands – he’s the only person I know who can convey a reaction, emotion or opinion with just his eyes and cause a riot merely by striking an outrageously funny pose – and this is one of his best performances. He’s joined here by Fiona Shaw’s larger-than-life Lady Gay Spanker (!), comic genius Richard Briers in a wonderful cameo as her husband and a fine ensemble who appear to be having as much of a ball as the audience.

When Russell Beale and Shaw are struggling to suppress their own laughs (and at times, I wonder how it’s possible to play against SRB without corpsing) it adds rather than detracts from the fun.

Mark Thompson has built a terrific country house which fills the Olivier stage to great effect and created costumes that convey the characters perfectly.

This is an absolute gem and one of the best things to grace the Olivier stage in 30 years

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